Authors: Brian Martinez
She checks the time: four minutes to go.
The indicator for two missed calls blinks on and off at the top of her phone’s screen. She doesn’t bother checking it, she knows who called and she doesn’t have time for that conversation at the moment. Instead, she slips the phone back into her bag and pulls her coat closed, hiding her body from the wind’s bite. If she hears his voice now, not just his voice but anyone familiar, she might lose her nerve.
Mary looks across the parking lot, lit by one lonely lamp-post, a green-hued beacon in the dark. As dead leaves blow across the pavement they make odd scraping sounds, their gnarled corners dragging and hopping along in random intervals. She thinks of The Self, of the way it borrows and steals organics from anyone and anything unfortunate enough to come close. A plagiarist of the body. The only thing to feel fortunate about is that it didn't appear in a desert or a jungle, some place more dangerous than the suburbs, where things eat and destroy for a living, where they sting and claw and drag victims down until they drown on water or their own blood. Then again, in a place like that, at least you would see it coming.
Mary looks to her car, along the side of the building where the employees are told to park. Her fingers brush the key in her pocket and she gets a flash of panic, a sudden urge to get behind the wheel, stick the key in the ignition and drive, get far away from here, leave everything behind and never come back, run away from The Self and its hungers, run from this town and its creeps both alive and otherwise.
She thinks of Kevin, at home with that thing, waiting for her to come back to him. Those missed calls mean he's alive. They also mean he's worried about her, checking on her.
Something like guilt makes her let go of the key.
An over-polished red pickup truck turns left into the lot and drives up to the curb. It skids to a stop directly in front of her, and Peter Johnson leans out the driver's-side window. "Got your message."
She looks around the darkened patch of blacktop, makes sure they're alone. "What message would that be?"
He reaches into his pocket and pulls out the slip of paper stained with her handwriting. "Eight-thirty. Parking lot," he reads. "So here were are, in the parking lot." He checks the digital clock in his dashboard. "And would you look at that- eight-thirty on the dot."
"I have eight thirty-two."
"Then your watch is fast."
She holds up her arm, pulls her coat sleeve down to show her naked wrist. She fakes a flirting smile.
"Okay smart-ass, you getting in or what?"
"Does that line work on all the ladies?"
"Just the ones that slip notes into my pocket."
"Well in that case." She walks to the front of the red truck with her heart booming against her ribs, through the piercing headlights and around to the side where he’s leaned over to open the door. As she climbs up into the truck, she thinks how this must be the only situation in which Peter Johnson opens a door for a woman.
Immediately there’s the smell of leather polish. He's one of those, she notes. Obsessed with keeping his car immaculate but probably lives in a dirty hole.
"The heat feels good," she says.
"Heat always does."
She rubs her palms on her knees, trying to warm both. He watches her with watery eyes, watches her hands work over her legs, watches the place where her coat opens. "So," she says, looking him in the eye, "are you planning to sit here all night looking at me?"
"Can you blame me?”
She laughs a little too loud. “I’ve never done this before.”
“That’s not a problem, little lady.” He fingers the gear shifter. “Just say the word and we'll go wherever your little heart wants.”
She swallows hard, a picture of The Self in her mind. “I was thinking my place.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
He chuckles and scans the lot like he’s looking for someone to share the joke with. “With your house? I don’t know, your husband could be a small problem.” He reads her face. “What’s the matter, you thought I didn’t know you’re married? The ring was the first thing I saw. Though I see you’re not wearing it now.”
“I hope that’s not a problem.”
“For some guys it would be. Some guys see a wedding band, they see a red light. Not me- I see yellow.”
“You have an interesting philosophy on life.”
“It’s done me right so far, just like my policy on no houses.”
“My husband’s away on business. He'll be gone for a week.”
“Famous last words.”
He slams the truck into drive and pulls away from the curb, not bothering to tell Mary to put her seat-belt on, not really caring either way. At this moment getting into a car accident bad enough to be ejected through the windshield would be an improvement on her situation.
They pull out of the lot and onto the street, driving in silence through the night, dark trees slipping by, between them the occasional pair of glowing eyes. "So where should I go? Plenty of private spots in this town. There's the cornfield behind the church, or the supermarket that shut down over on Weebly, or the...you okay?"
"Fine," she lies.
"Hope you're not having second thoughts."
"No, I'm just not going to some abandoned building. I'm better than that."
"Bet you are. Alright, tell you what- we can go to my place, but you got to wait in the car while I take care of a few things."
"I'd much rather go to my place."
"And I'd much rather not, so it seems we have a problem." They pass three teens walking along the side of the road, two girls and one boy, drinking from paper bags that definitely don't hide soda bottles, and Mary wishes for that back- the innocence, the rebellion, the excitement- remembering the good times of those years ago and how much they weren't filled with shape-shifting creatures and sexual perverts. "What's at your house that's so important, anyway?"
She thinks for a moment. “I have some…toys, if you know what I mean.”
Peter Johnson laughs. “That’s pretty hot, I gotta admit, but I don’t play with that stuff. Now if-”
“I have a whole room. You should see my set-up. I really want you to see it, we could spend all night there.” At this point willing to say anything that might intrigue him.
“You are a wild one, aren’t you? I’m surprised you haven’t jumped me already.”
She rolls her eyes out the window and says, “I can barely wait.”
“In that case…” He turns down a side street with only a few lights blocked by the overgrowth of unkempt trees.
“What are you doing?”
He puts the truck into park, pulls up on the emergency break and takes off his seat-belt. “Getting this party started.”
“Uh uh. Not here.”
“Here, there, anywhere.” He leans forward to kiss her but she shrinks back in her seat, makes herself small.
“I said not here.”
“And what, because you’re the woman you get to make the rules?” He presses the red button on her seat-belt, letting it rewind with a snap. He pushes the hair off her shoulders so he can get a better look at her neck.
“I said no,” she shouts. The sound echoes in the small space. Johnson recoils back into his seat, a dejected look on his sweaty face. The porch light of a nearby house turns on- a concerned neighbor, disturbed from their television.
“Don’t forget you started this,” he growls. “You came onto me. You put the note in my pocket. And this is it now? This is how you’re treating me?”
“No.” Mary's eyes are wide. Scared. She pulls a scalpel from her coat pocket. “This is.”
Peter Johnson’s hands grip the wheel so tightly his fingernails are white. He glances down at the blade held an inch from his gut, and he thinks about making a move- knocking it out of the woman's hand, overpowering her, pulling her out of the truck and kicking the high holy shit out of her.
"Don't think about it," Mary says. She moves the scalpel in closer until it's pressed against his side.
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Good, then keep driving, the turn's coming up."
"I know where you live. It's the house on the edge of town all the kids are scared of."
"I'm telling everyone about this, you know, the cops, your boss, everyone. You're going to jail until you're old and gray, and the second you set foot outside I'm gonna shoot you in the head.”
"What did you mean about the house?"
"I wondered how they kept reselling it, but now I get it- there’s no shortage of idiots." He turns right onto Blackstone Drive, just two minutes from the house.
"What do they say about it?"
"Fucked if I know, I don't pay attention to that crap. All I know is no one lives there more than a few months, and then like clockwork some new sucker moves in all starry-faced and puppy-eyed and we all pretend like 'Oh, yeah, welcome to the neighborhood,' like we're ever gonna see them again."
"Alright shut up, we're here. Park close." She points to the top of the driveway. He turns in and pulls all the way up to the house, puts the truck in park and waits. Mary pushes the scalpel toward him. "I don't want trouble from you."
“You’re going about it the wrong way.” In the front window the curtains move and Kevin's face peers out at them. "Away on business, I see. You gonna tell me what this is about?"
"Stay there." She holds the blade up to his neck and climbs between the seats, making sure not to cut him as she awkwardly maneuvers into the back. "Okay, open your door slowly." As he unlocks and pushes it open, she fumbles for her own handle and opens her door without looking away from him. She jumps out and quickly moves around to aim the scalpel at him. "Get out-"
“Let me guess- slowly?” She nods, her eyes filled with fear. He swings out of the driver’s seat and jumps down, his movements exaggerated and sarcastic, not taking her seriously, this tiny woman with her tiny blade, clearly panicked, clearly married to a man who won’t do his own dirty work. He slams the door shut behind him and allows her to march him toward the front door.
Halfway there, he stops and turns.
“Keep moving,” she orders.
He gives it some serious thought, making a show of it. Finally he shakes his head and simply says, “No.”
“What do you mean no?”
“I don’t think you have the balls to use that pig-sticker. Not that it matters. I mean, maybe if you’d tied my hands or something, but as it is I could run across that field and there’s no chance you’d catch up.” He sees the color fall from her face and adds, “You’re not very good at this, are you?”
Mary looks at the tiny scalpel in her tiny hand, feeling exposed, foolish. “My husband has a gun,” she tries, but he only laughs at her.
“Why didn’t he give it to you? Have him come out here and show me. In fact, tell you what- if your husband can get out here and produce a gun, a real gun, I swear on my dead mother I’ll go inside that house with you, no struggle, no yelling, not even a word. What do you say to that?”
She glances at the living room window. The moment she lets her guard down, he rushes at her. He grabs her small wrist and crushes it in his thick paw while the other goes to her neck. She yelps. The scalpel falls to the grass.
“Now sit down.” He yanks her by the neck and pulls her to the ground. Before she's rolled to a stop the door is already open, Kevin in the doorway. He tries to run out and help her but he's pulled back violently at the ankle. He crashes to the floor on his belly.
“Leave her alone,” he screams.
Peter Johnson kneels down on Mary and pins her to the grass with his full weight, his knees and hands holding her down. “Why don't you use your gun,” he asks Kevin. “Seems to me like a good time to use it.”
Mary squirms under him, screaming to be let go, but he only pushes down harder. Kevin struggles to crawl toward them by grabbing the doorway, digging in, pulling himself forward, his face red as he fights the barbed chains wrapped around his leg-flesh.
Peter Johnson watches him in amusement.
“You got him chained up? Hot damn, you really are some kind of freaks. Now I’m actually a little curious to see what you got inside that house.”
Mary stops squirming. “I could still show you.” The breath tight in her chest.
“I bet you could, but just because I’m horny as a dog in heat doesn’t mean I’m dumb as one. Now if-“
His voice cuts out. His eyes wide, the words catch in his throat like fish in a trawling net.
The scalpel’s black handle juts up from his pant leg, the blade buried up to the hilt in his thigh. A dark stain blossoms outward as he looks back at Mary, incredulous. “You little-“
She cracks him across the nose with her balled-up fist. He falls off her and down to the ground. She wastes no time flipping over to crawl away from him, her hands and knees slipping in the wet grass. Fingers claw the dirt the way Kevin’s claw the wood of the door frame.
“Let me help her,” Kevin pleads.