Always the Feet
"That one?" Billy asked, pointing through the windshield at the 20-something guy with a mullet walking up the steps to the bar.
"Naw, man. You wanna get disowned? That's Jimmy."
Billy was my brother, and I loved him, but damn he could be thick as clay mud sometimes. "Jimmy Ladner, dumbass. He's our second cousin."
I took a swig from the bottle of Beam.
"Mama or Daddy's side?"
"A'ight, then. Pass ‘at bottle. How 'bout him?"
I handed him the bottle, and told him, "Naw. I think that's Nate Carlisle. Ain't he a deputy now?"
"So look at his hip. Got his pistol under there."
"I thought cops wasn't allowed to take their guns in bars off-duty."
"Well then, maybe he'll think twice about shootin' your dumb ass," I told him, taking the bottle back. I was starting to feel pretty good, getting past the point where robbing somebody sounded like a great idea and closer to where I didn't give a shit. The pretty girls walking into the bar were making me wanna be in there and not out here in the parking lot, sitting in Billy's truck, picking out targets. I took another pull.
Billy, he'd been laid off from the plant after he pissed hot the second time. He was as stupid with money as he was with everything else, and he needed the cash more than me. I was just along for a lark. Billy had a higher tolerance, too, so he wasn't feeling the liquor as much as me, neither.
"What about him?"
Hell, maybe he was drunk. "We lookin' at the same dude? That boy must be 6'5, 250."
"There's two of us. We could take him.”
"Maybe we could, and maybe we couldn't, but that boy's built like a brick shithouse. Even if we got him in the end, how many teeth and ribs is it worth to you just to prove how big your dick is?"
"Shit," Billy mumbled under his breath.
A few minutes went by while we passed the fifth Billy'd stole back and forth. A nap was starting to sound like a good idea when a beat up old Plymouth Voyager pulled up and a old man got out. Little fella couldn't have been more than 5'6. Looked like a strong wind would blow him right into the ditch, too. He was white as a ghost.
We watched him climb the steps to Drifter's porch and walk in under the blue and red Bud Light neon.
"Suppose you're gonna tell me why not him, now?"
"Hmm." To tell the truth, my tongue was starting to feel heavy. "Just one thing. You see a man like ‘at, drivin' a minivan with no kids 'n no family in it? That right there's a man ain't got nothin' to lose."
"Jesus, Francis. You're nothin' but a goddam pussy. You just came to drink my fuckin' liquor. You wasn't ever goin' to rob nobody."
I sobered up a little at the name. "What the fuck did you just call me?"
Billy got quiet. He knew he'd crossed a line.
"Sorry, Frank. I just...I need the money, you know? Jenny’s mama said she’s gonna tell her daddy if I don’t pay her back the abortion money by Wednesday. That sumbitch has more guns than Ted Nugent. You know I didn't mean nothin' by it."
"Damn right you're sorry. Watch your mouth ‘fore I put a fist in it. If you want the old man, take him. Look at that piece of shit he's drivin'. Prolly ain't got no money anyhow."
"Maybe he's one a'them, whatchacallits, hermits or somethin', like he's got a bunch o’ cash stashed under his mattress or somethin'."
"Maybe I'm the Pope," I said, and closed my eyes.
NEXT thing I knew, Billy was shaking me awake.
"Frank, you gotta see this shit. You ain't gonna believe it."
For a second I didn't know where the hell I was, but then I saw the clock on Billy's dashboard. The little blue numbers was so fuzzy I couldn't read 'em.
Billy shook my arm again. He was pointing out the windshield at the door to the bar. I rubbed my eyes, 'cuz he was right. I didn't believe what I was seeing. The old man was coming out of Drifter’s. That wasn't the weird part. Where it got strange was the girl holding his arm.
"Ain't that Heather from Applebee's? The one at the bar you're always flirtin' with?"
"Jesus. That is her. Damn."
She looked better than I'd ever seen her. Skirt just about up to her butt, shirt about down to her navel, seemed like. Long brown hair, and her face all done up. She was staring at the old man like she'd just married him. That's what they looked like. Newlyweds walking down the aisle.
Billy said something, but I was too busy staring to catch it.
"Think maybe he's her grampa?"
But I didn't think no such thing. I thought that old man had just picked up the hottest girl in Dickson at Drifter's bar and they were going home together. The little smile on the old bastard's face said I was right.
I spotted the bottle sitting on the center console and chugged what was left. It was more than it looked like and I damn near choked, but I kept it down. I'd been trying to hook up with that girl since high school, well, at least since she was in high school, and now this.
Billy started the engine and followed the van out of the gravel lot. I guessed he wasn't following my advice, but at that point I was too shit-faced to care. We hit 48 going north. I stayed with him almost all the way to Charlotte, but then the booze really started to hit me.
I remember the van turning down a dirt road going into the woods. Billy made the smart play, driving past, then turning around and heading down the road with his lights off. I remember the road being not much more'n a trail.
I came to when Billy said, "Shit!" and hit the brakes.
I was drunk as hell by then, but I remember the van parked in the middle of the road about a hundred feet in front of us. Past that there was a rusty-ass old trailer. I couldn’t help but laugh.
I knew what I meant to say, but what I said was, “Fuggin’ trailer. Tol’ ya he ain’ gonno money.”
“Fuck you, Francis.”
That caught my attention, but I was too hammered to do anything about it. Hell, my head was so heavy I couldn’t get it off the window. "Gon’ ki’ yer ass tomorrow."
Billy opened the truck door. At least he’d had the good sense to unscrew the bulb in the dome light. Or maybe it was just broke. I don’t remember for sure.
“Don’ hur ‘er.”
I tried really hard. “Don’t. Hurt. Her.”
“I ain’t gonna fuck witcher girlfriend, long as she don’t get in the way.” He pulled my camo hunting mask down over his face and pushed the door to.
“Ber not,” I said. “‘N don’ call me Frannis.” Then he was gone. So was everything else.
I WOKE up pissed off at the world. It wasn’t full daylight in the clearing yet but the light was already like somebody stabbing me in the eyes. Somebody was beating a gong in my head and my clothes felt like some hobo had slept in them and then put them back on me. At first I didn’t even know where I was. Then I managed to pry my eyelids open enough to see the van. And the trailer. Then I knew. More or less. But where the fuck was my dumbass brother?
I got the door open and rolled my ass over until my feet touched the ground. I stood up, or tried to, but my legs was asleep and I went face down in the dirt. I thought about laying there a minute, maybe going back to sleep. In the end it was hunger got me up. I could have ate a whole pig about then. I pushed myself up and sat back against the truck, wincing as the pins and needles set in on my legs.
While I was sitting there I sized up the trailer. Turned out it wasn’t where the old man lived, after all. Place was burned out, just a shell. I could see black where the flames licked up tops of the windows, and the rest was either rusted or faded, that old metal paneling they used when trailers was still trailers and not “mobile homes.” Before they started trying to make them look like wood.
I got to my feet. If Billy wasn’t in the trailer, and he wasn’t in the truck, then where was he? I figured on my hand, and if the old man had picked up Heather when Drifter’s closed at three, and it took us a whole other hour to get out here, then Billy had to have been gone a good three hours. It shouldn’t have took more than five minutes to get what he wanted from the old geezer. I reckoned I’d have to kill somebody, they done something to my brother. Or kill my brother, he done something to Heather. All I could think was they was laid up somewhere, and I swore if Billy’d put a hand on that girl before I got to, he was losing a testicle.
I decided to check out the van. I saw it had an Ottawa tag on it. What the hell was an old fart from Canada doing in Middle Tennessee, anyway? Regular Yankees are bad enough. But Canadians are fucking socialists. Everybody knows that. I tried to look in the back windows, but they were real dark tinted. I moved up to the driver’s side. That window was tinted, too, but I could make out what looked like a purse in between the seats.
I looked around. Wasn’t nobody or nothing moving. I wasn’t no rookie, so I used my shirttail and tried the door. It was unlocked. I looked around and fished a napkin outta the floorboard. Using that, I picked the purse up by the strap. I was pretty sure it was Heather’s, thinking I’d seen her carrying it coming out of the bar with the old dude. The zipper was open, so I pulled the sides apart and seen a wallet down in there. I pulled it out with the napkin and it fell open on the seat. There was Heather, or at least her picture. Prettiest damn license I’d ever seen. Looked like one of them Glamour Shots. But where the hell was she? I seen three or four hundred dollars in cash in there, Heather’s tip money. But I didn’t take it. At least not right then.
I thought about having to look for them in the woods and thought fuck this. Billy’d made his bed, and he could lie in it. And Heather wasn't my girlfriend. I was driving back to Dickson. Billy drug me out here, he could find his own way back. Course there wasn’t no keys in the truck. He was dumb, but he wasn’t that dumb. I looked everywhere for a spare, even got on the ground and checked for one of them magnet holders under the bumper. Nothing. I checked the van, too. No luck there, neither. I found Heather’s smart phone in her purse, but the battery was dead. Looked like I was stuck trying to find Billy, after all.
I went back to the truck and looked for a weapon, just in case things had somehow gone tits up for Billy. No gun, no knife. Best I could do was the tire tool outta the bed. My next best choice was a screwdriver. I had my little pocketknife, but that was a last resort. I still didn’t know which way to start. I looked back down the trail we come in on. Nothing there at all. Couldn’t see the road, and it didn’t make no sense for them to go that way, anyways.
I walked around the back of the trailer and hit paydirt. There was Billy’s big-ass boot tracks in the mud. They went to a trail that went uphill into the woods. I swore, if I found him, this was the last time we went anywhere together. I thought I might just beat his ass and take the keys, but I knew Mama would have my butt if I did that.
I didn’t have to go far to get a clue where he might be. I topped that first rise and looked down on another clearing, only this one didn’t have no trailer in it. More like a mansion. It looked like one of them civil war plantations, but didn’t look like nobody had lived there since then, neither. There was vines growing all over it, and the yard was all weeds and high grass. What I could see of the house itself looked like it hadn't had a fresh coat of paint since before I was born. All the windows was boarded up, and even the boards was gray and looking like they would crumble to sawdust if a bird flew too close. Thinking about birds made me realize for the first time how quiet it was out there. I listened, and couldn’t make out no animals, not even bugs, which is damn strange out in the woods. The only sound was me walking through that tall grass.
My first thought was that the house was abandoned. My second thought was this was a hell of a place for a meth house. And that would go a long way to explaining why Billy hadn’t come back, if he’d come down here and got hooked up. Or if they’d shot his stupid ass, which wouldn’t break my heart but would put me in big trouble with Mama.
I stepped up on the porch, and the old boards creaked something fierce. I figured if they hadn’t known I was there before, they did now. As long as they didn’t think I was a cop, maybe they wouldn’t just shoot me through the door. I wouldn’t say I was ever exactly afraid of dying, but I wasn’t too pumped about getting fed to some meth cook’s hogs. So I reached up and knocked on the door, hoping they would at least hear me out.
Nobody answered. I knocked again, louder. Nothing. Then I heard a thump from somewhere inside. That set my heart to racing. It’s one thing to knock on the door of a creepy old house and nobody answers. It’s a whole other thing to knock on the door, nobody answer, and still get the idea that somebody’s inside.
I knocked again, and this time hollered, “Hello?” I waited a good ten seconds and didn’t hear nothing. So I knocked and yelled out, “Anybody home? I’m just looking for my brother.” I ain’t gonna lie and tell you my voice didn’t sound a little bit higher than I wanted it to. What I didn’t say was, “who came out here to rob your grandpa.” Wouldn’t have mattered, either way. There still wasn’t no answer. And maybe I was being silly, I told myself. Place that old, could have all kinds of varmints inside. Coons, possums, you name it. That thump could have been anything.
To hell with it, I said. I was gonna open that door. If Billy wasn’t in there, I would walk my happy ass home knowing I’d tried. Still, my heart was beating like a scared rabbit’s. Out in the country like that, you don’t just go barging into folk’s houses if you want to leave with the same number of holes you come with. I raised that tire iron, ready to dent somebody’s skull if they came out that door. The knob turned and the door swung open. I was so ready to bash somebody’s face there for a second I saw one in front of me, but as I went to swing I realized it was just a shadow. I pushed the door open a little ways, but couldn’t see nothing, it was so dark inside.
“Hello?” I hollered out again. My voice echoed, but nobody answered me back. “Anybody home? I’m just looking for my brother! Tall fella, not too bright?” Still nothing, so I stepped on over the threshold, quiet as I could. My eyes adjusted, and I could see there was some light inside, after all, and I thought I’d stepped into another world. Despite the way the house looked from outside, everything inside was spotless. I had expected it to be falling apart, but instead there was wood from floor to ceiling, and every bit of it as shiny as if it had been polished that morning. Gas lamps were burning on antique tables, and the glass and metal on those lamps was also spotless and bright. There was a stairwell off to the right, covered in what looked liked an expensive rug. Now my heart was really hammering. Either somebody lived here and they were gone, or they were in here waiting on me. Either way, getting the hell out sounded like the smart play. But without the keys, how far was I gonna get? They probably had the keys to at least two vehicles. They’d probably let me get halfway back to the main road and then run me down. I figured in here at least I could put up a fight.
Then I noticed something else on the stairs. About halfway up, there was a little piece of fabric. Heather’s shirt from the night before. So she had been there. Probably still was. I called out again, but of course nobody called back. So I started up the stairs, trying to be quiet. I reckoned if anybody was home they knew I was in the house, but that didn’t mean they had to know exactly where I was. At the top of the stairs I found her skirt. I felt a little sick, thinking Heather had come in here with that old man and got naked. There was a hallway off to either side, but on the right there was a bra, just outside a open door, so I went that way.
The room was a bathroom, and it was some kind of fancy, with those little black and white tiles and a big old claw foot tub. There was a door off to the right, past the john, and outside I could see something on the floor. It was dark in the bathroom, but I could see enough to know it was Heather’s thong. I shut and locked the hall door behind me, so nobody could sneak up while I wasn’t looking. I didn’t want to see that old man, but I admit I was kinda giddy thinking I might “accidentally” see Heather naked. I eased the door open, and I whispered, “Heather?” But there wasn’t nobody in the bed. It looked like it had been fresh made that morning. Damn.
About that point I realized I needed to piss something fierce. You ever had that happen, where you realize you’ve been having to go for half an hour but right then and there, all of a sudden you’re gonna go in your drawers you don’t go right that instant? I figured, since I was already in the bathroom, why the hell not? The toilet was in the shadows, but I could make out the porcelain oval good enough. I set my tire iron on top of the tank and whipped it out. It was dark enough I couldn’t make out anything but the top of the ring, but when the first drops hit I knew something wasn’t right. I could tell I wasn’t hitting water. Instead it sounded like it was bouncing off of something solid, and not just the side of the can. It was just about that time the smell hit me. Now if you never been around a lot of blood at one time, say cleaning a hog or a deer, then you might not know what it smells like. It's a metallic smell. Daddy said that's from all the iron in the blood. That’s what that bathroom smelled like.
I switched hands, and pulled out the little flashlight I always keep in my pocket. I know what you're thinking, but I ain’t no Boy Scout. Let's see you go through some chick's purse or the center console of a car in the dark without one. Just as likely to come out with Motrin as Oxy’s, or a fucking Zune instead of an iPod. How the hell you gonna pawn a fucking Zune, genius? I clicked it on, expecting to see a mound of old toilet paper. What I saw was white all right, but it wasn't no toilet paper. My heart jumped up in my throat and my stomach heaved. It must have been 12 hours since I ate but I was sure I was fixing to puke my guts up anyway. That white was bones. Or pieces of bones. There might have been some whole ones in there. There was some little ones looked like finger bones, maybe. But the rest was all tore up, busted and powdery like they been run through some kind of grinder. And there was blood too. Not saying the can was full of blood instead of water, but there was plenty of it in there. Looked like little bits of meat sticking to some of the bones, too.
I saw all that in a second. I stepped back in a hurry, pee going all over the place as I went. The back of my knees hit the side of the bathtub, and I fell back, dropping my light on the way down. That's when something grabbed me. It wrapped me up in leathery wings and started to crush me, cutting off my air and dragging me down into the tub. I fought back, and it only took me a couple of seconds to realize that what had me was the shower curtain. I found a hole and got myself up outta the tub, but my nerves was shot by that point. So it didn't help a bit when I turned around and saw that under the curtain the tub was full o' the same mess of bones and blood as the toilet.
That was the last straw. My gorge came up faster than I could get a hand to my mouth and I bent over and sprayed whatever I had left in my stomach all over the floor. The spatter got on my boots, and while I was standing there with my hands on my knees I realized I still had Mr. Winky out and that I'd pissed all over myself when I fell in the tub. I zipped up in a hurry, disgusted in spite of everything at my hands getting wet with my own pee. I wiped them on the back of my jeans and almost puked again when I felt something tacky back there. I put them up where I could see them and sure enough, they were sticky with dark red goo. I really started to lose it then. I leaned over and threw up again, but this time there wasn’t nothing to it but yellowy stomach juice. I reached up and wiped my hands on the paneling, but that only left red streaks on the wall and didn't really do nothing to get my hands clean. I caught myself whining like a damn puppy.
I’d had enough. I forgot my flashlight and headed for the door, but I came up short when I heard a board creak out in the hall. I grabbed my tire tool and tiptoed back into the bedroom, backing my way across the thick rug, eyes on the hall door, when I stepped on something soft. I looked down, and realized I’d stepped on one of Heather's high heels from the night before. They was sitting right there at the foot of the bed. Except I saw that wasn't quite right. Heather's feet was still in them, but her legs was gone from the ankles up. There was a little white spot of bone in the middle, surrounded by red flesh, just a shade brighter than her toenail polish.
I wish I could say I handled it like a man. But my knees went out, and I think I half fainted because I don't remember how I wound up sitting on my ass, just that's where I was when I came to, still staring at those pretty red toenails and wondering what happened to their owner. I reckon I was in shock. It took it a minute to dawn on me that I needed to get the hell out of there, Billy or no Billy.
I went to the closed bedroom door and listened. I didn't hear nothing in the hallway. I knew that didn't mean nobody was out there, but I also knew somebody would sooner or later come back to that bedroom to get rid of them feet. I cracked the door open quiet as a mouse, scared I was gonna walk out and some dude with a machete was gonna be waiting for me. I felt like I just got out of jail when there wasn't nobody there.
I tiptoed down the hall, stopping to look behind me every couple feet. My nerves was so jacked I probably could have broke the record in the hundred if somebody'd jumped out right then. They didn't, but when I got to the top of the stairs my breath caught in my throat when I seen a shadow move downstairs. It looked like a person. I tried to tell myself it was my imagination, but then I seen Heather's clothes wasn't on the stairs no more. I was a sitting duck, in the open like that on the landing, so I went on down the hall in the other direction from what I come. A few doors down, the hall branched off to the right, towards the back of the house. I hadn't never been in a house big enough to have two sets of stairs, but this one looked plenty big to me, so I thought maybe I could save my ass without having to meet whatever psycho done that to Heather. Part of me wanted to kill the son of a bitch, but the rest of me was scared enough to actually consider going to the cops.
There was two doors open in that hallway. One was at the far end, and I figured that one for the back stairs, if there was some. There was another one on the left. I was afraid of somebody being in there, so I backed up to it, like cops in the movies, only instead of a gun I only had a damn tire tool. I stuck my head around where I could see a little of the room, then a little more, until I was pretty sure wasn’t nobody in there. It was bright enough, but instead of oil lamps it was lit up by what must have been a hundred candles. It looked big enough to be the master bedroom, but there wasn’t no bed. Instead there was a big black chair. More like a throne, I reckon. It was made out of some kind of black rock, so dark if it hadn’t been for them jewels set in the armrests and at the top it would’ve looked like a chair-shaped hole. I was thinking, What the fuck? I’d seen some meth heads do some tripped-out shit, but this bunch was seriously fucked up.
I had to wipe my sweaty hands on my jeans, the front this time, scared my main weapon would just go squirting out of my hand if I tried to use it. I was still trying to keep quiet, but I couldn’t get out fast enough. The door at the end of the hall was the stairs. They was dark, but I could see dim light at the bottom. I made my way down, careful not to make too much noise, and scared I could miss a step and fall, ‘cause they was real steep. I reckoned these were the slave stairs back in the day, so they wasn’t too worried about the health of the people using them.
The door at the bottom opened up on another room, one that was big and dark. There were more gas lamps around the side of the room, but the middle was full of shadows. On the walls along the sides I could see them wooden voodoo masks hung up over the lamps. The light made them look like some kind of evil spirits. They didn't do nothing to make me feel better. My heart was hammering and the hairs was standing up on my neck. At the far end of the room, maybe a good 50 or 60 feet away, there was a fireplace with logs burning in it. And not one of those little gas logs like they put in houses nowadays. This was like the ones you see in old houses, big enough for a grown man to walk around in. Or at least a big kid. It didn’t strike me until then how chilly it was in the house, in spite of it being July and probably already 85 outside.
There was two chairs in front of the fire, the fancy high-backed leather kind, but not as big as that stone one I seen upstairs. I could see what looked like the top of somebody's head just sticking up over the back of the chair on the left. There was a slurping sound coming from it. My asshole was clinched tighter than a preacher’s purse strings, but I thought I knowed that lopsided crew cut.
"Billy?" I tried in a loud whisper. The person in the chair didn't act like he heard me. I inched that way. I was being as quiet as I could, but my boots echoed on the wood floor, and every time they did I cringed and looked behind me. As I got closer, I could see his arm moving up and down.
"Billy?" Still nothing. I got right up to the chair and sure enough, it was my brother. He had a bowl held up in front of him with his left hand, and his right was spooning whatever was in the bowl up to his mouth. His eyes were staring straight ahead at what was left of the fire.
I hunkered down in front of him. He looked right through me but said, "Hi, Frank," just like we was meeting up at the bar.
"Billy, what the fuck are you doin'?"
"Well I can see that, dumbass."
"It's mushroom soup," he said, matter-of-fact.
He has to be high as a fucking kite, I told myself. "And just why the fuck are you sittin' here in this weird-ass old house eatin' mushroom soup for breakfast?"
"Flavorin'," he said.
I was stumped. I didn’t know what to make of that. Billy, he just kept on staring through me. "You seen 'at buck?" he said, and flicked his eyes up. "He's a big 'un."
I turned around to see what he was talking about. I couldn't say I'd been feeling good ever since I seen the old man come out of the bar with Heather, and in fact I'd admit I'd been scared shitless most of the morning, but it wasn’t until that moment that shit really got sideways. The buck Billy was talking about was a head mounted over the fireplace, but it didn't look like no deer I ever saw.
It was big, first off. Bigger than a elk, maybe as big as a moose head. It had a rack as big as an elk's, but the antlers tapered off to sharp points. The ends looked funny, and when I stepped closer I seen that was because the points on the horns was barbed. When I got right up to it I could see the eyes, too. Normal deer have great big brown eyes, like a cow's. This one's eyes were smaller, and yellow with horizontal pupils like a goat's eyes. I also seen the mouth was open just a bit. Inside there was a double row of sharp teeth. Now I’d seen people dick around with stuffed critters before, like making a rabbit into a jackalope, but I could see that them horns wasn't glued on. The teeth looked real, too. Before I was scared of some crazy meth cooks with good decorating skills. Now my legs got all shaky, and I had a different kind of scared, like when I was a kid and my daddy told me Papaw’s house was haunted, and then made me sleep all alone in the attic.
"Billy, we need to get the fuck out of here. Right now."
"Nonsense, my friend, have a seat," come a booming voice from somewhere behind me. "Take a load off, as your people say."
Whoever it was had a funny accent, one I never heard before, and all of a sudden I found myself sitting in the chair across from Billy. A man came around the other side of Billy's chair. I thought he must be the old man's son - he looked just like him, but had black hair and was a good two or three inches taller. He was dressed in a full tuxedo. He looked a little prissy, honestly, and I thought I should get up and take a swing at him, but my legs wouldn’t work. He had some weird effect on me, because the more I sat there, the more it seemed like everything was gonna be okay, after all.
"And surely you won't be needing that," he said, and faster than I could see he was standing beside me. He plucked that tire iron outta my fist like a duck snatching a june bug. Then he was gone, back by Billy's chair, and my weapon was nowhere to be seen. There was a sinking in my gut at that, but it was like I was sitting off somewhere else, watching myself be scared.
"I was wondering when your brother would join us, William," he said. Now Billy hated being called William almost as much as I hate being called Francis. And he had the advantage of that not even being his real name. It said "Billy" right on his birth certificate. But when this guy called him that he didn't even bat an eye.
Like he could read my mind, he said, "How do you like the soup, William?"
Billy made an "mmm" sound and kept slurping it up.
"Hey, mister, me and Billy, we’re sorry about trespassin’ and all. What do you say we take off, no harm done, and we won't never even tell nobody we was even out here?" I asked him. I tried again to get up to make my point, but my legs might as well have not even been there. I knew that wasn’t right, neither, but my head was just floating away, like we had just smoked a whole bag of weed.
"Trespassing? Nonsense, my friend," he said again. "You and William are my guests. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Mr. Cherno, and this is my little home away from home. And I would be a terrible host if I did not get you some soup."
He waved his hand to my right. I looked over and saw a steaming bowl on a little table what wasn't there a minute before. My hands were working all by their selves, and I reached over and picked up the bowl. It felt warm and comforting in my hands, and I could feel the last of my nerves slipping away.
“Have a bite,” he said, and I lifted the spoon to my mouth. It was delicious. It didn’t taste like nothing I’d ever had before. I had another, then another, relaxing more and more with every bite. Part of me said I shouldn’t be eating this, but it was like that part was hollering from down in a well somewheres.
About that time Billy lifted his bowl to his lips and slurped down the last drop.
“Very well done, William. You may stand up now.” Billy stood straight up from his chair. Billy didn’t ever do nothing anybody told him to, but this seemed alright to both of us just then. Then Billy said the last words I ever heard him speak.
He looked weird at that fella and said, “Mister, are you a vampire?” He didn’t sound nervous, just curious. That blank look on his face never changed, not even when the man busted out laughing. Mr. Cherno laughed deep and long, like he was about to bust a gut, like Billy done told the funniest damn joke he ever heard. But there was something weird behind that laugh, kinda like that bass rumble you hear from that shit those little wannabe gangsters are always blasting outta their cars. A chill went up my spine, in spite of how relaxed I’d got to feeling. When he finally got control of himself, he wiped at his eyes, but I hadn’t seen no tears there.
“Oh, William, silly boy. Vampires are legends concocted by simpletons to scare their feeble-minded children. Before vampires, before werewolves, before even Humbaba, I was. I ground the bones of Australopithecus. I feasted on Pharaoh’s slaves. In moments of gluttonous excess, whole colonies I devoured in the New World. But no, William, there is no such thing as vampires."
Then the man looked him in the eyes and said, “Disrobe.”
I was feeling two different things at once. Part of me thought this seemed like a perfectly fine request, and didn’t want nothing but to keep eating that soup. It was also trying to figure out what Australians and Pharaohs had to do with vampires. The other part thought it was downright weird. Billy raised his eyebrows at the man, and that other part of me thought for sure he was going to fight it. Fight him, especially since Billy would usually punch a man in the mouth for that sort of talk. But that part of me had forgot how stupid Billy was.
“Ah, I understand,” said the man. “Take your clothes off, William.”
I spooned more soup into my mouth as Billy said, "Oh," and took off his shirt, then kicked off his boots and dropped his jeans, pulling his Fruit of the Looms and socks off with them. He was standing there naked as a jaybird. That’s fucked up, I thought. But this soup is fucking amazing.
Then the man leaned in and sniffed Billy, like a dog. “Hmm. William, go relieve yourself.” Billy looked confused, so the man pointed at some kind of bin over by the wall in the dark and said, “That will do.”
Billy padded away in his bare feet and raised the lid on the bin. I could hear the water trickling as the man turned to me and shrugged and rolled his eyes, like we was sharing a joke, like saying, “What are we gonna do with him?”
Finally Billy come back and the man said, “Now let us see if the seasoning took.” There was a loud POP as I saw the right side of his jaw working. I could see the skin stretching there, where that side had come unhinged. Then the left side popped, and his cheeks started drawing downward. When it looked like his mouth was open as wide as a mouth could go, it just kept on going. His chin sagged toward the floor, his teeth six inches apart, then a foot, then two, and it kept on dropping. It was impossible, but his mouth-hole was growing wider at the same time, and his teeth were getting longer, and pointy, until they looked like a great white's teeth. I swear that maw was a good five feet across and three feet high. I could see other things in there, too, sharp white what looked like more teeth, just sticking out of the back of his throat. His mouth looked like two bulldozer blades, if dozer blades had sharp teeth.
Then the man, the thing, turned its whole head sideways. Those big-ass jaws closed on my brother with a snap sounded like a pine limb in a tornado. It stepped back, and my brother was gone from the middle of his thighs up. What was left of his legs bent backward at the knee and fell over on the floor. This whole time, I was steady shoving soup in my mouth, like that was the only thing that made sense to do. Something inside screamed that was your brother, but it was like a cricket chirping in a cave.
Then it started to chew. It sounded like somebody put rocks in a blender. That racket was joined by a sloshing sound, and then its throat started working, swallowing in great big loud gulps. I could see Mr. Cherno's stomach working (I reckon it was the spell I was under, but that was how I thought of him at the moment), growing bigger, all while that crazy mouth was getting smaller. The rumbling changed to a low grinding noise, with occasional snaps that must have been Billy’s bones breaking.
“Hmm.” It sounded like somebody having a thought around a mouthful of steak.
“Stop,” he told me, still sounding like he was talking with his mouth full. I froze with my spoon in the air. All of a sudden Mr. Cherno, with his mouth still about as big as a good-size watermelon, was holding a pepper shaker and shook out a little in my bowl. His other hand, now with long black claws at the end, had a little spice bottle, full of some red powder what smelled like cayenne, and sprinkled some of that in too.
“That was tasty, but it lacked something. Try a bit of that,” it said, and I dug back in. The soup was more delicious than ever. That little voice had stopped altogether by then.
About then Mr. Cherno started making this low gurgling noise. He turned and walked off to the other side of the room, where I saw him raise the lid on that box Billy'd pissed in. He was making hurk sounds like a dog about to throw up. But when he let loose it sounded human, like somebody who’d tried that old trick with the whole jug of milk. I was glad I was far enough away I couldn’t smell it. Instead of that liquid splatter you get when normal humans puke there was a sound like dominoes rattling down a coal chute.
Around the third or fourth time I heard it retch I thought, Holy shit, that thing just ate my brother! The spell was broke, maybe because he was distracted, and now my heart was hammering fit to bust. I set the bowl down on the little table as quiet as I could, and got up to run. If I hadn't'a looked a Billy's piles of clothes I might've bolted and I'd probably been dead. I saw Billy's keyring on his belt and grabbed it. Then I ran for the door I guessed led back toward the front hall. I made it maybe halfway when I heard a rushing sound and I was grabbed, spun, and slammed against the wall. The thing lifted me off the floor with one hand around my throat. I was looking down at what might have been the grandson of the old man from the night before, practically a teenager. But I knew it was all the same thing. The new, younger version had blood running down his chin with little white flecks of bone stuck in it, and his belly was huge, hanging down over his belt. I struggled, kicking at it and trying to break its grip, feeling like a mouse in a trap, but he didn't even notice.
Cherno sighed at me. “Don’t go running out on my hospitality, friend,” he said. “See, the calming and the soup, they make for better flavor. I can still eat without it, but all the fear and adrenaline make the meat so much gamier.” Then he grabbed my crotch with his free hand.
He was smiling at me. “I suppose removing the testicles might help. You hunt, don’t you? That’s what you do when you kill a deer, right? Isn’t it, Francis?” And with that the right side of his jaw popped loose again, while the hand on my nuts tightened and started to twist.
He was choking off my air, and I was about to crap my pants I was so scared, but I still got pissed. I managed to say, “Don’t...call...me...FRANCIS!" There was one of them oil lamps on a table right beside me. It was my last chance, so I grabbed it and swung it around like I was throwing a right hook. It connected with his left temple just as the jawbone was unhinging on that side. The lamp exploded, and its face was covered with burning oil. It let go, both my throat and my nads, and I dropped to the floor. Cherno screamed. It sounded like a cross between the Predator and Godzilla in them old Japanese movies. I wanted to run, but I also wanted to make that bastard pay for what he done to Billy. I pulled my pocketknife out and went after him. I slashed back and forth across that face, cutting furrows in those stretched-out cheeks. I also got him in the chest, tearing that tux to ribbons. I could see fresh gouges opening up, but there wasn’t no blood. Instead, some kind of thick black liquid oozed from the wounds, like it was bleeding crude oil.
My adrenaline was still going, but now I was feeling strong instead of scared. I had him on his heels, and I thought I could kill him. I reared back and slammed the knife into the left side of his chest, all the way to the hilt. He staggered, but he didn’t fall down. By now the flames had gone out and the right side of his face was a charred black mess. While I watched my spirit sunk to the bottom of my boots. The black spots started flaking off, and the raw pink flesh under them started to smooth out into skin again. He reached up and pulled the knife out, and that subwoofer laugh was coming out of his mouth again.
I was beat and I knew it. I cussed and ran. I hit the front hall at a sprint, but now I felt like I was running in mud. I was about halfway to the front door when it slammed shut. I’d seen that movie before, though. I knew if I stopped and turned the knob it wouldn’t open, and I’d get ate. So I dropped my shoulder like ol’ Emmitt Smith and plowed right into it. The door come clean off its hinges and I went end over end, rolling off the porch and down the front steps. Cherno behind me screamed again, so loud that whole damn house shook.
He might not have been a vampire, but I guess he didn’t like sunlight just the same, because he didn’t follow me out of the house. He was still yelling, somewhere back in the shadows. Yelling and laughing.
“I will come for you, Francis! I will find you!”
Now that I was out of the house, in the sunshine, I felt hopeful again. I thought maybe I could shut that son of a bitch down, once and for all. I went around the back side of the house, looking for anything I could use. There was a shed with a padlock on the door, but one size twelve kick and that sucker just splintered around the latch. Inside there was some little metal drums. I picked one up, opened the lid and sniffed. Kerosene, not gasoline, but it would do. I dumped every drop in them cans on and around that old house, thinking it would go up like a box of matches. I wasn’t disappointed. I watched it long enough I was sure it was going to burn to the ground, then high-tailed it out of there. I stopped at the minivan to grab the cash out of Heather’s purse. Hey, she wasn’t gonna need it.
I DROVE Billy's truck back to Dickson. Now that all the juice was gone, my whole body felt weak and quivery, like I had the flu or something. I kept seeing that thing eat my baby brother, and I kept waiting to wake up. When I still hadn't woke up by the time I got to the house, I knew it wasn't no dream. I made up my mind to tell Mama the truth, and if she didn't believe me I reckoned I'd just have to figure something else out. Mama wasn't home. I didn't want to be in the house by myself, so I took a shower and traded Billy's truck for mine. Drifter's was the first place with alcohol I come to, and I figured that would do. I don't know how many Jack and Cokes I had, but it was enough to stop shaking. The wall clock read all zeros when I left. Crazy old marine what runs the place keeps all the clocks on military time. At least it was over.
It wasn't over. When I got home the front door wasn't just torn off the hinges. The frame was tore clear out of the wall. Mama's feet was still in her slippers in the kitchen. On the wall over the table, in blood, it said "FRANCIS" in three-foot-high letters. I turned around, sure that thing was going to be standing right behind me, that giant mouth drooling on the linoleum. But I was alone.
Mama's purse was on the table, so I grabbed the money out of her pocketbook and ran. I'd like to say I got in her little Honda thinking it would get better mileage, but really it was probably just the first car I come to. I passed Drifter's on my way out of town, and there was all the cops and ambulances in Dickson out front. I could see pieces of people on the porch, and it looked like all the windows was shattered. Fucker was hunting me. I put the pedal down and headed for I40 West.
That first night and day I drove all the way to Ft. Worth, where I got a cheap motel room when I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I stole a tag off an old Lincoln, because of course by then the cops was looking for me and Billy. Thought we'd done that to Mama, and maybe had disappeared Heather, too. How they thought we could have done that shit at Drifter's I got no clue, but we was wanted for questioning in seven murders out there. I fell asleep looking at my dead brother’s face on CNN.
I must of woke up 20 times that first night, expecting Mr. Cherno to be there. But he wasn't. I've run ever since, sometimes sleeping in the car in parks, sometimes no-tell motels. But he was gaining.
See, two weeks after I stayed there, somebody was slaughtered in that same room where I spent the night in Ft. Worth. Then it was only a week after I slept in the car in a public park in Denver when a homeless man's boots was found, feet still in them. Now, no matter which way I travel, somebody shows up dead, never more than two days behind me. Of course they blame it all on me and Billy. The feet are a sure sign, they say. Our calling card. Sometimes there’s other parts, but always the feet. They have no idea where the rest of the body goes. The only question now is if the cops will get me first. Might be safer, in a cell. Except I don't think even cinderblock walls will keep that thing out.
I've tried, so help me. I trashed the shit out of a room in Idaho Falls, thinking it would take a few days for them to put it right. Maybe it'd be empty, and Cherno'd pass on by. Instead he ate somebody that got drunk and passed out in a pool chair. I tried to travel at night and sleep during the day in empty houses with For Sale signs in the yards, but he'd show up a night or two after I left and eat one of the neighbors. So I gave up. I went back to motel rooms, and I sit up with the lights on, just waiting for him to come. But instead he's just playing with me, letting me know no matter where I go, he's gonna find me. And everywhere I go, I send somebody to die.
So if you're reading this, and it's after dark, you need to get the fuck out. Right now. Unless one Francis "Frank" Miller has been arrested or found dead, I might still be running, and it might still be following me. So just go ask the manager for a room on the other end of the building. Better yet, just cut your losses and find a whole new motel. Just leave this letter for the next guy.