By Dennis Detwiller, © 2011
He sits in a green jumpsuit, looking wasted and thin and gray like cardboard. He has a cigarette unlit in his right hand, which is pulled up to his face, scratching his temple with his thumb. He scratches too long. His eyes are lost behind a spray of white-flecked curly brown hair, so I can’t see them. I can’t see him. What’s left of him, at least.
I remember when we were last together. He was standing on top of the boat, a pistol in his hand, screaming and trying to do the right thing. It was like an action movie. But that was a long time ago; two years, maybe? Now it’s a drama, a psychological drama, maybe by Von Trier. Depressing.
This isn’t a movie.
He was the leader, and he pulled me out of the black so many times it isn’t even funny. There were so many times, so many places where I would have just been another statistic, another crossed-out line in the ledger of the group, where I would be nothing but a lump of rotting meat if not for him.
There was this time when I fell, in the woods, in the dark, and the world dropped in on me, pressing in a way which felt like an end. I had been with the others, but now I was alone. It was instant and primal. I was lost in the woods at night and something was hunting me. I collapsed on the ground with my hands in the frozen pine needles, wheezing out a plume of steam, eyes wide. I turned until I was on all fours like a crab, terrified.
Something was coming.
My view was a gap between thin, tall tress with a spray of ferns between them, and a wall of black beyond that. Then the blackness moved. Something like liquid shadow wrapped around a tree trunk and gave it a casual tug, popping it in half like someone snapping a popsicle stick. It sounded like a celery stick amplified a million times and transmitted through the ground until it resonated in my teeth.
I sat still, breath caught in my throat, unable to move.
Then he was there, grabbing me by the jacket, yanking me up so hard it ripped and sprayed feathers everywhere, pulling me away from the shadow just as it let loose a burbling, glottal chunk of consonants, like an instrument formed by human vocal chords exploring its range. Near the end of the gibberish it said:
“. . . thegatethegateithungersatthegatesubmit . . .”
Finally, my feet found their rhythm as I ran away from it, and he followed, and it followed us. I turned once and saw him, face set in determination, and beyond him, out of focus and waving in crazed arcs with my pace, a fan of shadow with eyes and teeth like butcher knives set in mouths that split the darkness vertically.
“Don’t look back, don’t look back,” he hissed between clenched teeth at a dead run. I turned and kept running. There were only two places in the world that night: it, and anywhere else.
He was always who I tried to act like, even when he wasn’t on an op. He was my role model. He brought me into the group and made me who I am today. He taught me to never look back, no matter what you might hear from the darkness.
He’s been committed a long time now.
At some point, sometime, he forgot what he taught me: that no matter what you hear, you never look back.
“Jude,” he says, and looks up. His eyes are still alive, and he smiles, showing teeth as they clench and bend the end of the cigarette.
“Boss,” I say. I try to smile.
“That bad, huh?”
You lie to the civs and those not in the know. You don’t lie to the group.
“Yeah, pretty bad,” I say, and I notice my hands are shaking.
“What’s the call?”
“They sent me to talk to you about that.”
“Talk,” he says, and seems relieved.
What if I told you there was something beyond this world? If I said, hey, guess what, dude, we’re a blip in a cosmic ocean, and that ocean is rough, and we’re just a tiny bubble of stability soon to be snuffed out, eaten alive by the chaos? What if I said that physics was the conglomeration of a trillion different accidents, two transparent nonsense images shown over one another which seem to form a pattern? That the pattern is fading? That everything we hold as absolute is an accident that will be rectified by entropy, forever? What if I told you, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I could prove this? That I could show you the entropy? That it could speak to you and tell you its secrets?
Yeah. Well, I took it that way too.
When he finally came clean on the group to me—that they had no mandate from the government, that it was illegal; that we were all that was left, a ragtag group of less than one hundred trying to shut the dark doors before the nightmares crawled out—I cut him, and the group, off.
For two months he gave me my freedom. I went to work at the Bureau, ate my takeout in front of a TV in an empty apartment on an air mattress, and forgot about our little operation, at least for a few minutes at a time, here and there.
Then, one day he turned up at my door with a case of Heineken. I let him back into my life. He made it feel like I had a choice.
“We don’t do it because we can win,” he said. “We do it because it’s right, and no one else can.”
He emptied his beer and looked at me. “Listen, Jude, I can’t do this alone.” And I saw the fear in his eyes, despite the smile. He was terrified.
I shook his hand and said I was in.
When he lifts his hands to pull his hair back, his sleeves drop and I can see the bandages; vertical ones. The cuts were deep and made with purpose. He knew what he was doing. They caught him in time, before he bled out and found whatever peace he could.
“When I go to sleep, I can still hear it. It talks to me, Jude. When it gets too quiet, I can hear it.”
“I know. I hear it, too.”
He looks up at me and smiles, and looks relieved, and grabs my hand and holds it and laughs. The laugh is the sound of exhaustion.
“I thought I was alone. I thought it was just me. I thought it was my mind.”
“No, it was all of us. Every one of us,” I lie. I do this for a lot of reasons. It’s very hard.
“Oh thank God, thank God.”
I don’t mention we are the only two left. It seems redundant somehow.
“What do you think happens? When you’re gone?” he says suddenly. I look at him, at his earnestness, his dark-ringed eyes under the shadow of his hair.
“When you’re gone, you’re gone,” I say.
“That’s good . . . good,” he says, and begins to cry. I pull out the case file.
“It manifested again last Thursday, four miles north of here. This is Anthony Garen and his wife Jennifer. They died there. It dragged them off into the woods and stripped them of their meat and left them for the animals.”
I put the photos down on the table. In them, a skeleton covered in gristle and picked clean like roadkill lies in a field of leaves.
“A-Cell thinks it’s linked to the symbol on your hand.”
“It is,” he says, sounding empty. “I did it, it’s me.”
“How do you want to do this?” I ask, finally, the words hitching in my throat. I stand up and push the chair away so we can face each other. The room feels very small.
He hits me and is on top of me before I can even react. I’m on the ground, and his hands are snaking up my body, finding my throat, smashing into my face so hard something in my mouth comes loose and is swallowed in a rush of blood before I can believe it.
He slams my head down once, and it hits the linoleum and the sounds feel far away. I just give in. There are worse ways to go. Worse people to die for. There’s blood and my face feels numb and full of liquid and my ears are singing.
Then suddenly, he’s off me.
I stagger to my feet and find my rig and unholster my gun. He stands four feet back from me, hands down, wheezing with effort. He does not move.
“‘FBI agent shoots violent mental patient;’ do it,” he says, and he looks almost happy. He’s shaking. “You look like hell; no one is going to question the story.
“We can’t let me fuck this up again. Make sure.” He taps his forehead. “In the head, here.
“Do it, Jude, it’s what I want.
“You owe me, Jude.”
My finger finds the trigger. The sights find their target.
Just before the flash, I wonder if I will hear the voices when he’s gone.