Read Terminal Island Online

Authors: Walter Greatshell

Tags: #Comics & Graphic Novels, #Horror, #Fiction

Terminal Island (4 page)

BOOK: Terminal Island
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Not that he’s bitter—he has a wife and daughter who love him; a good job as a private security consultant—Henry knows he’s a lucky man. How many guys would love to erase their horrible war memories, and destroy themselves trying to do it with alcohol or drugs? How many of his fellow Marines got shipped home in boxes, or lost major body parts? As for The Accident, he could easily have been killed or crippled for life, a vegetable; it is nothing short of a miracle that he survived with only some memory loss. Yes, he is lucky—damn lucky.

So why is he so nervous about being back on this island? The ridiculous thing is there is no real basis for his fear—just flashes of weird shit he might have dreamed or invented…and that whole school incident. Kid stuff. Fuck it. Time to put it to rest.

Chapter Four

FANTASY ISLAND

T
his is a filthy place.

There are two kinds of filth: There is filth on the outside and then there is filth on the inside. Filth on the outside is good, honest filth. A place that is filthy on the outside can be the cleanest place of all, because it hides nothing—that’s the kind of place I’m most comfortable. Sarajevo springs to mind, during the war. Baghdad, Beirut, Mogadishu. Give me a place where I can buy a modified Kalashnikov for less than fifty dollars and carry it through the town square in broad daylight, where I can sling it over my chair in a café while I’m having a drink. Where the bodies are left to rot in the street.

Filth on the inside is more troublesome. It takes so many forms and uses pretty scenery as camouflage—as defense. No one can believe it exists, not in such a nice place, and they don’t like someone like me stirring it up. So not only have I got the filth to deal with, I’ve got these guardians of the filth, the so-called “innocent bystanders,” gawking at me like a bunch of sour-pussed old biddies in church. Sometimes they become casualties.

That would be you, Mr. Fancy-Ass Concierge, unless you can tell me how somebody got in my room last night.

You ever wake up somewhere and don’t remember where you are? For me, it comes from living out of a suitcase too long—every hotel room starts to look the same. Doesn’t matter where I go—Jakarta, Kigali, Los Angeles—one hotel runs into another, so that after awhile you begin to think the whole world is one big lousy Continental Breakfast—all stale rolls and bad coffee.

Until the night you wake up next to a werewolf.

It’s not like I’m a stranger to spooky shit—in fact I was born into it. Trust me, I come from a whole family of death-worshipping freaks, so you can hardly blame me for being like I am. How do you think you’d have turned out if both your parents were brutally murdered by their own kin—and your grandparents too? Don’t worry, I’m not gonna start sobbing or anything; I’m over it. Killing each other is practically a tradition in my family, so as far as I’m concerned they deserved what they got. As do most of us. Some a bit more than others…which is where I come in.

You might say I’m here on family business. But I suppose you know that, right? I didn’t exactly come here for the scenic attractions; as you may imagine, I’m not really a fun-in-the-sun type. I’m more of a night person—which is why it’s usually very hard to catch me snoozing on the job.

My only excuse for last night is that I was drugged. I’m thinking it was the room service I ordered—probably the coffee, because you can hide anything in crappy coffee, and I drink a lot of crappy coffee. Whatever, it comes down to your responsibility, Sam—the buck stops with you, buddy, you’re the go-to guy for this joint, so you’re the man who is going to tell me why I woke up tied to my bed with a fright-masked psycho bitch next to me. That’s bitch in the literal sense; I’m no sexist. But seriously, what the hell was that all about? I mean, no one puts out the DO NOT DISTURB sign expecting to be disturbed, especially by some kind of fucked-up female laughing hyena; it’ll mess with your faith in the basic tenets of Western Civilization.

Here’s the kicker: “Welcome home, Peter,” she screeches in my ear. “Long time no see.”

Peter
, she sez. You get that? There aren’t too many people alive on this Earth who know me by that name, and I prefer it that way. So while I was trying to guess how I’m acquainted with Miss Nude She-Wolf, I notice that there’s another person in the room, a really big dude sitting in an armchair at the foot of the bed. I couldn’t lift my head long enough to get a good look at him, but he’s a real piece of work, a tattooed Goliath with the face of a wild boar. No bullshit, I’m talking tusks and all. I’m not a skinny guy, but this pig-faced motherfucker made me feel malnourished.

“Peter,” he sez to me, he sez, “you’ve changed.”

I was still doped up, so for a second I wondered if I was hallucinating the whole sick scenario. “Buddy, you mutht have the wrong room,” I said, slurring a little like Mike Tyson. “The cothtume party ith down the hall.”

“Listen to me carefully, Peter,” sez the pig-man. “We know why you’re here, and we want to help you.”

The she-wolf nuzzles my ear and coos, “We’ve been expecting you.”

I’m not gonna tell you what they did to me next, but suffice to say it was nonconsensual. At some point I passed out, only to wake up this morning as if it never happened. But I know it did, and furthermore I think
you
know it did. So what I need from you right now is everything you know about this—and I mean everything. Because if I find out later that you were lying to me about any little detail, no matter how small and insignificant,
we will have a problem. My method of attacking problems is with a pair of pliers, like these here. Let me give you a small demonstration of exactly what I mean.

Say ahhhhh.

* * *

“Mom! Lookit that!”

“I know.”

“Lookit
that
!”

“I know, I know.”


Look
it that!”

“I know.”

When Henry and his mother first saw the Avalon waterfront, the whole place seemed exotic, magical. It was everything he ever dreamed of in one place: a carnival midway surrounded by aquarium-clear waters—an
island
, so close to L.A. and yet a million miles away.

There was no ugliness here; no dirt, no crazy people, no bums, no crime, no smog. There were no cars, no traffic that he could see, just light trams and golf carts whizzing around like toys. Their taxi from the seaplane terminal was such a vehicle. Still dazzled by the flight, Henry and his mother rode into town as if on a magic carpet.

The first thing he wanted to do was go out on the pier, but they were burdened with several shabby bags and suitcases, everything they owned, and had to find a place to stay. It was worrisome at first: the tram driver made several stops, dropping the more elegant passengers at fancy hotels that Henry and his mother could never afford.

The whole waterfront was buzzing with people like those, fashionable socialites reeking of money and cocoa butter—the kind of people Henry had envied and resented all his life, whose icy or amused stares he had long since learned to ignore. He knew how they saw him and his frumpy, foreign mom: as hardship cases, potential sources of mischief. Aliens. The implicit message was loud and clear:
Move
along
.

That was okay; Henry wasn’t paying attention to them—not when there were pinball arcades to look at, pizza places and cotton-candy and corndog stands, oddball curio shops, ice cream parlors and a big corner confectioner’s store with the most amazing mechanical taffy-pull in the window.

This last was better than a magic show. As they passed in the tram, Henry ogled the hypnotic over-and-under convolutions of glossy pink saltwater taffy with the primal amazement of a Hottentot in Times Square.

“Mom, can I have some taffy?”

“Later, sweetie.”

As if reading their minds, the driver dropped them off last, at the backstreet hulk of the Formosa Hotel. The sight of it took a great load off Henry’s mind—this was more their speed. It was the story of his life: if you wait long enough, stuff takes care of itself.

As they carried their bags up the entrance steps, Henry felt a warm drop of liquid hit his scalp. Afraid he had been pooped on by a pigeon, he glanced up at the hotel’s rickety balconies.

There was someone up there, looking down at him over the top railing, and for a second Henry squinted blankly at what appeared to be the long black face of a dog…a grotesque dog’s head on the chalky-white body of a woman. She looked naked. It was such a bizarre sight that at first he simply couldn’t believe it:
A joke? What?

Uncomprehending, Henry touched the wetness on his scalp. His fingers came back bloody.

“Mom…?” he said. But she was already inside the lobby.

When he looked back up, the thing was gone.

* * *

Henry is yanked back to the present by a bleating car alarm. The golf carts weren’t enough, apparently; now there are also full-size cars and trucks vying for space in the alleyways.

“You should have seen it before,” he says, shaking his head as he looks down from their third-floor balcony at an idling supermarket delivery van, the smell of its diesel wafting up in the evening breeze. “It was so quiet and idyllic, just those little electric wheels putzing around. I can’t believe they started letting cars in.”

“I can,” says Ruby, spreading peanut-butter on a cracker for Moxie. “It’s the way of the world, honey.”

“Yeah, but what is this place selling if not ambiance? You’d think they’d be more protective of the bottom line, if nothing else.”

“Does it look like they’re hurting for business? This is still Southern California—nobody expects to escape traffic. It’s part of the lifestyle.”

“I guess,” he says wistfully. “Too bad, though. It was nice.”

“I bet.” She jostles him. “Cheer up, gramps—this is fun!”

“No, you’re right. I’m glad we came. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. And thank
you
—I appreciate you giving me a little more time to shoot establishing material before we look up your mother. If we’re going to do this right I have to build everything toward that ultimate confrontation.”

“You make it sound like a death match.”

“Well, it’s the crux of the whole story. But without a decent buildup there’s no payoff—it’s all about creating dynamic tension.”

“I’m all caught up on tension, thanks. That’s why I’m taking a breather first, so I don’t explode all over her. I figure I haven’t seen her in years; what’s a couple more days? I’m not really doing it for the sake of good TV.”

“No, I know. Honey, I hope you don’t think I’m being callous or anything. Just tell me and I’ll put the camera away right now, seriously. Your well-being is much more important to me than getting a MacArthur Genius Grant.”

“Very funny. No, that’s okay. I told you it doesn’t bother me as long as you’re just documenting reality, not creating it.”

“Absolutely. Look, we both need a chance to decompress; we’ve barely had two seconds to ourselves since the baby was born. This is first and foremost a vacation. All I’m really doing is making a home movie so that Moxie will have a record of meeting her grandma. It might be the only time she ever does, right?”

“That’s what we’re here to find out.”

Being in Avalon has dredged up a lot of things that Henry blocked out about his childhood. He has spent many years stewing about the past, about his mother’s failures and his own. Blaming her. Escaping the hurt by escaping her, physically moving halfway across the country to get away. Joining the Marines. But being back here is opening a strange trove of memory, like finding a box of forgotten pictures in the attic. Pictures that tell a slightly different story than you thought. Not because the story is different, but because you are.

That realization of how much he has changed comes as a little bit of a shock. Henry wasn’t aware of it happening—it has been so incremental that it caught him off-guard. Yet why should it be surprising? He is middle-aged, a husband and father, a war veteran, hardly the same person at all as the little boy who lived through all this—that was someone else entirely. It’s hard for him to believe that these things he has agonized over for so many years—and by which he has largely defined himself—are suddenly not so significant, mostly the product of his own overheated imagination. Catalina is not the island he remembers; neither magical nor terrifying. It’s just a place like any other.

Wandering the town after Moxie’s nap, Henry snags again and again on the disconnect between past and present:

First there is the traffic. Then all the old people—there seem to be tours of geriatric condo buyers everywhere he looks. Was Catalina always such a magnet for the leisure set, or is he only sensitive to it because at forty-five he’s fast on his way to becoming one of them himself? That’s a scary thought, but the presence of Ruby on his arm reminds him that he’s not dead yet.

The taffy-pull is gone—how many times had he stared longingly at that thing? Then the greasy-spoon where his mother worked for a short time, now a trendy clothing and gift shop. The pocket Safeway is now a Vons. A lot of little things, but they add up to a far different reality than the one he remembers.

With Moxie dozing in her stroller, Henry and Ruby go into one of the souvenir shops and browse through the exact same relics that Henry was always fascinated by as a kid: Lucite-encased seahorses, gold-plated buffalo chips, whimsical shellfish art; the dead husks of sea creatures made into google-eyed kitsch. Some things never change. The walls are covered with framed newspaper accounts of island history—visitations by catastrophes and celebrities.

A reedy voice pipes up behind them, “Shovelnose guitarfish.”

“What’s that?” Henry says, turning around.

A bright-eyed old man with translucent pink ears is standing at his elbow. “That’s a shovelnose guitarfish you’re looking at. Interesting species of ray, closely related to the sawfish. They dry it on a frame and string it and it becomes a ukulele. Sounds pretty good, too! Try playing it.”

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