I hold it up – the picture, developing before my eyes – hold it angled to avoid the glare of the bare bulb, hangin just over my shoulder. The image resolves around my own shadow, stretching across the splintered floorboard, angling up toward the heap of hides. There’s more of them, pinned spreadeagle to the walls. Nine in all, a whole squad.
Good haul, for a couple week’s work.
These polaroids, let me tell you; they changed everything. I been using em since their stripper days, when you had to peel em apart, sticky, a mess. But they been perfected a long time and I’m too old a dog to learn a new trick.
So I keep shellin out for the film – yeah they still make it – and buyin up old cameras. I cannibalized two decks – an i-Type and ye olde 600 – to get this frankenflasher, and its origins show.
The colors are funny, acourse. They’re not real. Tend toward the silver – lot of blue in that blood, as I compare it to the scene before me.
But how that picture turns out is how it’s going to be. Your memory will leach away, go bone white. Everything that’s left is gonna be in that picture, so love it. Learn it.
It’s all that’s left you, in the end.
Ok, while the polaroid’s developin: I’m wayback, sittin in this coffeehouse – this diner, rather – in, I’m thinkin, 1972? I been well onto the phenomenon for a couple years, by then. Bagged one or two of the fuckers myself, or thought I had. I mean, I’d been curious about it, studying on it since Chicago, ’68 – that clusterfuck.
But really? I wondered even still, was it real?
Anyways, back in the diner I’m not yet 25 years old, just a pup, and I’m not thinking of any of this, but only whether I can get my eggs the way I like em. The waitress comes up. In those days, they all wore uniforms. I dunno, do they still do that, places? She steps up on my left, all mustard yellow dress and orange apron, tired smile, coffeepot steamin. She pours me some, comes back for my order. I looker in the eye, startin up with: Eggs; sunny and runny. Bacon, cracklin…
She looks down, writin. I also look down, checkin the menu for options on toast or whatever. Glance back up and her eyes’ve gone round, softly starin at me with just an awful recognition.
She knows me, and I know what’s got into her.
It happens that fast.
I go for the sawdoff, lyin in my bag on the seat beside me. Her right hand comes down like a claw, pinning my right to the table. She’s reached across me so I pop her elbow with the heel of my left. It crunches. She should be screamin bloody hell, but she pivots, other hand going for my eyes, nails out. I doggit left, throwing myself from the booth, doubled over, scrambling.
She has my bag, then, fumbling with it, one-handed. I pull the peashooter out my boot, turn, stand tall and put two in her, like that. Doesn’t even slower down – and that’s the last time I pack a small caliber, ever.
Things slide into slomo as she yanks the sawdoff out the bag by its polished pistolgrip. I spent the summer whittlin that thing down from the rifle stock, polishing it. It’s gonna be a shame to lose it.
The whole restaurant turns to look at us, mouths open. She wheels that blunderbuss in my direction, clumsy – it goes off on her, part way: a single barrel. One hell of a kick. The plate glass window, one booth from where I’m standin, turns to shrapnel in the everlovin ka-pow! of a shotgun blast heard indoors, at close range.
She’s held onto it somehow, and she’s blinkin, checkin out the mechanism.
There’s another cartridge in there but before she finds the other trigger (side-by-side’s my style) I’m gone already. Squeal of tires, flinching, thinkin the back of my head comes off next, rear pickup window blowin right through me. But it doesn’t happen.
I curse myself for a fool: all my tactical errors. The whole scenario runs through my mind, compulsively, for years to come. I revisit that diner in my dreams.
They’ll call it a robbery gone wrong – say she saw the sawdoff and made me for a miscreant, acted bravely, saved everyone. And I don’t hardly blame the papers. I’d be half convinced of it myself, had’n I seen those starin eyes.
But that woman – whatever stepped in there, knowin me and not much else, knowin whatever a waitress knows in Shinsplints, Nebraska – will live, will go on.
I’ll keep the clippins, check up on the old girl. People will say it’s changed her; bein shot will do that. She’ll drop her husband, kids and all. And I will hesitate just too late; she’ll vanish before I get back around to her, to finish it.
As far as I know she’s out there, still. Or it is —ridin her, spurs stuck in good, growed over. Women live longer, right? A little older than I’d been at the time – maybe 30? And I’m an old man now. I doubt I could place her, to see her face today, but I know she’ll know me, she crosses my path. Prolly smell me comin.
But would I take her – you’re axin – old, decrepit? Would I snatch her back from the jaws of the thing consumed her, ate her all up and kept on, in her tracks?
You betcha. I owe her that much. It’s because of her, because of that one, I went on the lam. Moment changed my life: those eyes, that claw – a deathgrip. I mighta wondered, before that – was I doin right? The question had dogged me a bit. I was neck deep already, what if…
But after that one, I knowed.
Redrawing the Vampire
But vampires, whatever they may be, they’re not the same as these things – what they’re up to – the things I’m talkin about. They step in, crabwise, and while they’re along for the ride, they know everything they need to know. What they don’t know is anything else: Who they are, where they come from, I suppose these questions mean as little to them as it means to ask me how I show up in the mirror. I just open my eyes and there I am.
Even what they want may be impossible to say except – they want to stay. They wanna keep on running the guy they’ve stumbled onto, stepped into, become. They wanna alter their course just enough to turn their tangents toward linear time. Want to change lanes and learn to drive. And how long has this been going on?
So far, forever. Put that on yer tombstone and ya got somethin.
Dogs have been known to pick up on the change: the jangle of strings, the disconnect. The puppeteering going on beneath the surface – if they’ve ever seen the original, that is. Ever sniffed the hand operatin under its own steam.
Otherwise – well, a dog can get used to any kind of a man. I seen these things with dogs of their own, and – big or small – all of em was mean.
The upstream fish are shittin in our water, and we shit in the water of those further downstream. But the sidewinder walks in on all this at an angle. I think they know so little cause they, like, literally don’t have the past, where they come from. They don’t have no future neither, and this, our timestream, gives em that. But they develop a past, pretty quick. They foresee some kinda future and they run with it. They don’t want nothing to take that away.
Livin is sweet to those who never tasted it. But it’s not like they don’t exist, two seconds before.
I think of em like crystals: If you’d been born a crystal, your mind mighta been, like, configured as a single thought. Electrons travel through a crystal, or they can. But the paths they got to follow, there’s not a lot of different ones.
My older brother, when I was quite small, got hold somewhere of a little worn-out pamphlet called Construction and Operation of a Simple Homemade Radio Receiving Outfit – put out by the government in the 1920s, I imagine. Following along its faded instructions, he built himself a crystal set. Picked up high-power stations from all the way to Chicago, cloudy nights.
He’d clamp these cold, metal headphones to my skull and twitch a wire along the coil till baseball popped up, big as life. Lemme listen to the game, carried on the W.I.N.D. – AM 560. No battery, in that device, nothin.
I reckon the energy of the broadcast somehow got drawn into that crystal, passed through it. Gave some kinda shape to whatever’s going on in a crystal just sittin there. And out comes this magic voice: Down in the ninth, it’s not lookin good for the ol’ Cubbies. Like magic to a Sooner boy, comin up.
And that must be something like what it’s like to be them. Out wherever you could say they come from, outside what we’d call time.
And yeah, I recon they got some kinda plans. Dunno what those could be, except to push through more and more. Maybe it’s a slowmo invasion, or supposed to be. Maybe I’m keepin something like that at bay, jessayin.
The notion does not please me. I got no one to take over when I go, when one of the bastards finally gets me. It might be pretty hard to recruit people to a path like mine: kids today.
Lately these things come in little waves, three or four showin up over a long weekend, that kinda thing. And lately I been pilin up their skins. Yeah, I take their hides. Its not like I can do nothin with em – I’m not makin people suits over here.
But they come in, wearing a person suit, like. Wearin a person like a suit. And I can’t think they prefer havin that peeled off. They surely do not. So I peel em. And some of em put up a hell of a fight.
Disposing of the rest is… problematic. But there I got this advantage – that the whole world is so chock full of books and movies about “serial killers” – it’s the only entertainment people have, seems. And they got 101 Ways to Dispose of a Corpse in them stories. I just pick and I choose. I’ve fed em to hogs, dissolved em in acid – that gets expensive, lemme tell ya! And you gotta cart around the chemicals.
Lately, out here in the desert, it’s a shallow trench, or pilin up rocks in an arroyo – and that works jes fine.
I come out here full time, once they started lookin for me. Drawin em out, where I can see em comin. The great empty Sonoran sucks em in from Monterrey, Tucson, Pheonix, Las Vegas, L.A., San Diego, Tijuana. Even over the water, from Baja.
I cross the border easily, sometimes without knowing I done it. Whole hell of a lot of nothing out here to tell ya you’re in one territory or the other. No dotted line in the dirt and the stars wheel overhead just the same.
And there! I hear something, outside. I pull the chain, the bulb goes out. My boots on the boards are loud in the darkness, the door creeks. And, standing on the crumbling concrete loading dock, under an awning faded down to nothing, I watch em wheel, the stars.
My eyes are still adjusting as the Milky Way resolves like a splash of acid. Out here on the edge of nothin, there’s so many stars you can’t actually see em all. The hub of night turns and they rise: silent, ugly. Myriad microscopic pits in the smooth of the sky.
It’s just past midnight when the moon crawls over the rim of the world, rollin – half bloated and full of blood as a tick. I hop off the dock, to the tarmac – a move I still accomplish with some grace. My knees and hips are good. It’s my shoulder that gets me. Aches.
Scorpion, black against the low white rock that marks the edge of the lot, backs off at my approach, crawls under the stone.
I’ve had a night’s work already – guy up from Jalisco, a real Tapatío as once was, I reckon. But nothin says there’s not another, slinkin round. So I sit there a minute, listening, smoking. I roll my own, usually, but this poor bastard had four packs of Delicados Ovalados stashed about his person. And yeah, I plunder their corpses – they been subsidizing my operation for years. Mor’n seven hundred dollars, last few days, US and Pesos combined.
In heaven, Scorpius glares down at me from her place in the south. If her little bastard creeps out from under this rock while I’m sittin here, I’ma crush the fucker with my heel, an she knows it. Her one big eye – Antares an I’m not mistaken – glows red with hate.
I light another from the coal of the first, thinkin, Where did the bastard come by these things? I thought Chesterfields took over the brand. Guy knew what he liked, I reckon. And he got what he didn’t.
I feel for these folks, I do. Whatever happens to em when they get overwrote, it’s not what any of em wanted. I’m sure of that.
Coyotes start makin a fuss over the moon. Tellin each other all about it, out on the great cold waste. I get up, dust the seat of my pants, and ease on down the road toward the old highway, shotgun over my arm, like. The low, flat-roofed shed – old Mobil station from before my time; winged steed, headless – gets lost in the dark behind.
I’m restless as one a them coyotes tonight. Listenin to em has the hair risin on the back of my neck. I keep a bright eye out in the pitch, the road a gray ghost my boots tell me is soft, still, from the sun.
No Sunrise, but Nogales
Something – a shadow, upright – detaches itself from among the saguaros, moves between em, just at the edge of my eye.
When I look, nothin there. Look away, off to one side. Old sailor’s trick: star you’re lookin at is dim, wavers, till you’re not sure you’re seein it. Star just out from the center of your retina is bright, steady.
Nothin. But I’m not ready to call it yet. I crush a perfectly good Delicado with the toe of my boot, do a slow reversal, backing into the brush beside the highway and squat there. I can’t hold this position forever but I won’t need to. I just want to erase my silhouette for a minute – man-against-sky. Draw myself as part of the lay of the land. See if anyone come lookin, where’d I go?
It’s not like these things show up armed, prepared. Sometimes they do, when they latch on to some fella packin. But they’re not big planners, these creatures – or anyway, not the ones fresh from the sidereal. Not used to thinking in those terms. Not used to dealing out steps, how to get here-to-there.
And it’s been all fresh ones, just in from the outside, come for me so far. Oh, I had run-ins with the old hands, those who’ve had time to learn time, to make some excuse for who they are. Presentable faces, almost humanbeins. Really, you’d almost never know.
But none lately. They got wily. They don’t come around here no more. It’s the newbs show up lookin, outa tha gate.
I slide two shells into my ol Stoeger Coach – beautiful 12 gauge, oiled by moonlight. They tick in there almost silent. I’m not doin nothin else for a minute but keepin my eyes and ears open wide.
Mind goes blank.
And there it is, moving away. Figure of a man. Woman. Somethin headed out into the nothin. It’s days of it, from here, on foot: the nothin.
Then the cacti come between us again and I’m still waiting. I don’t like to see it moving away. I spread my attention thin, all directions. If there’s yet another out here, maybe waitin to see if I follow the first, well that’s the kinda thing I wanna know.
And now my mind is sharp, senses focused, but my thoughts do drift and I’m back in Chicago, for just a moment.
God what a mess.
Stuck, I was, in the Back of the Yards.
You never will read what went down there, the night after the big event – or I, at least, have seen no accounting of it. But at the time I crouched, hiding, in the herky-jerky shadow cast by the flame that leapt and writhed in that sedan.
I wore, that night, the uniform of a peace officer, somewhat soiled. My gun in my hand. Tinglin, all over. Something came up the street, behind me.
First came a pig, snorting and sniffin about, searching the ground like a good-size bulldog on a leash, a hank of clothesline, which dipped behind…
And come up Officer Dunn Stuart, shirtless but jackbooted, with the pale blue “crash” helmet and – instead of his loaded oak baton – a hatchet swung in his free hand.
His other, wrapped with clothesline to the elbow – as if, from time to time, the pig might try to yank free, strain against the leash, tear off into darkness after…
They seemed a regular hunting pair, that much clear – though Dunn appeared, very faintly, to be whistling between his teeth, an off key Hail to the Chief.
As strange a sight as they made, a cold wave of relief washed over me as I stepped out to greet my fellow officer in the street, by that uncertain light.
Instantly the little bastard – was this Pigasus himself? Goddammit, Mister President! – went for my ankle. Without my own boots I’da been hamstrung by the fuckin porkchop. I kicked my free heel at him and the clothesline came up tight against the back of my calf. Cartwheeling my arms to keep upright, I look up and here comes Dunn, easily my height with 30 pounds more draped across his chest and shoulders, sweat streaked – his hatchet-hand high and eyes, I’d swear, goin clockwise and counter.
I mighta cried out. The axe fell. It went through my left shoulder like butter – the clavicle – catching finally just off the joint. A better butcher would have sheered that arm clean off. Service revolver in that hand – I’m right handed but left-eyed and you can’t argue withit – went skittering on the pavement, into the gutter.
What I felt: I’d been struck, something solid, like a table leg. Then hooked, caught up, stuck on something – as he tried to yank the hatchet out of me and start over.
His face this close to mine. Eyes buggin.
And then, talk about your miracles, he stopped. The whole thing stopped. He didn’t look surprised or crazy, or anything at all for a second.
Let go the hatchet handle, left it in me and turned and walked away, just quit. I fell flat on my ass, freeing myself of the clothesline. The pig started to dart away, got caught at the end of his rope.
Dunn looked like he didn’t know how he’d got tangled up innit. He made a twirling motion with his arm and wrist till the rope slid off. Then he vanished up the street, my eyesight goin. Never did know what happened to that pig.
And later I didn’t know how to tell it. But I found out Dunn, he just never showed up to work again, and I felt someone otta know.
No one wanted to.
The yippies, I was told, never made it so far south with their Vietcong flags, not nearly so close to Daley’s Folly. Those Polacks back o’ tha yards certainly never tore em apart. There had been no shotgun blasts, taken at close range, no overturned sedan. No gasoline fires, no burnin yippie chick fleein down the road, like ta been napalmed.
Dunn got hisself writ-off as AWOL, but I heard his wife received his pension. That seemed right, and problem solved. I was told to shut up about it.
Only much later I understood what had happened. Not what had put Dunn over the edge – he’d always been psychotic, a real “bad apple”, and the events of that night musta punched his buttons good. That much, believe it or not, bein a cop, I understood.
But what had called him off, carried him off, spirited him away? A mystery, something I couldn’t feature. Mad Dunn had me – for me it was over. But then something ended for him, instead – sparing me.
And there’s maybe all kinds of possibilities, yeah? But I whittled em down in my mind, like.
It took me a long time to recover, I had plenty of time to shuck it out. They say I was in a fever for five days, raving. But what I did was the hard work of dreamin. I dreamed my way to my discovery. To the inside scoop that explained it all. And I know now that this Dunn was the first I ever saw taken, and in the moment of his taking.
I’ve learned a lot about these things, since. Might say I’ve grown wise to their ways. And one of the secret keys is: they like em young, but not too young. They like the prime of life. You meet an old one, it’s experienced. This time it happened to be Dunn.
But it coulda been me.
I get up to follow.
No Place; Special
What happened here? Where is this place and who is it has lead me? I can see all about me – or feel like I can – better than I should do. Some unexplainable light, seeping through from somewhere.
Loose gravel is kicked away and I turn, shotgun at my shoulder.
Into this circle steps a man, like me: Lean, leathered, old. A dull serape across his shoulders, lowbrimmed hat – but both hands showin. I almost lower the barrel, he seems so familiar.
But then he tilts his head back and I see the eyes. Whatever this is before me, however long it has stalked this earth, it’s eternity that spills out of, through, those eyes. Long cunning, long continued assimilation, long planning are in em, but nothing human.
It starts to speak:
“Tonight,” it says, and I unleash a single barrel of buckshot hell.
The kick hits me in the shoulder like the blow of that remembered hatchet – I’m still left-eyed, that don’t change – but half this gentleman’s head is taken off in the most satisfying manner. He folds down nicely into a packet of worn-out clothes and thin, old man.
And another sound, or just the feeling of sound turns me round. There are two more. Middle-aged lady, somebody’s abuela – should be home, making tortillas for the morning. Somewhat younger dude in a tie and brand-new down jacket, suit pants tucked into lace-up boots – dust-stained, but just outatha box. I have a cartridge left but they are too far apart for a single blast. Slowly, at the tips of my fingers, two more shells come out my vest pocket.
Another runs up. She carries something waist high, raises it. The shells go spillin as I spin towards her. A flash blinds me and I hear the motor – the click and dragging-forth of a fresh little polaroid. I recognize my very own frankenflash – know it by its scars. Taken, this very night, while I got lured away.
This is the signal to attack. I hear the running footsteps of three, four more, coming up behind.
I pull the other trigger.
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