Ted was still talking, but the whole of my attention was now focused on the thing lurking in the shadows across the street. From our position inside the diner, it looked like little more than a black, blurry, featureless mass. So featureless, in fact, that if I'd pointed it out to anyone else they might not have seen anything at all. Yet an unmistakable sensation of being watched -- no, more than that, of being stalked -- was putting down stakes in the pit of my stomach, and I found myself in the grip of the inescapable knowing that whatever it was, it wasn’t human. And the only thing separating us from it was a twenty-foot-wide strip of asphalt and a single pane of glass.
I blinked once. Then again. Hoping it would disappear. Feeling myself pressed deeper into my seat by the weight of a growing dread. When I tore my eyes away from it and looked at Ted, words were tumbling from his mouth, completely oblivious to what I was seeing. I decided not to tell him. The last thing I needed now was for Ted to retreat inside himself again.
“It was the strangest, most vivid dream I’ve ever had,” he was saying. “Nothing really happened. It was just a bad feeling. A horrible feeling. I was drowning under a black wave. I heard a loud noise, and when I sat up in bed, it was like I couldn’t breathe. That’s when I saw . . . it.”
He spat the word with a mouthful of disgust. I couldn’t blame him. What Ted had seen was an abomination -- the buckling under of one of the principal pillars of reality. People didn’t spontaneously reproduce like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And people who died in their sleep didn’t get out of bed, step over their bodies, and go about their night like nothing happened. What Ted had seen and experienced could not be explained. He had every right to recoil in revulsion.
My eyes darted back across the street. Still there. My heart fluttered against my shirt.
The plate of fries arrived, and we picked at them like a couple of nervous customers planning a robbery. Which was probably why the waitress was eyeballing us with such intensity, urging us with everything but her words to finish up and get the hell out.
I waited, eyes glued to the shape in the shadows, biding our time until it dawned on me that the longer we sat still, the closer we drifted to an inevitable conclusion I wanted no part of.
“We can’t stay here,” I said. “We have to do something.”
I waved for the bill. The thing outside moved again. My eyes snapped back to it. It was gone.
I stared into the empty space left by its absence, certain there had been something there, but the longer my eyes adjusted, the more uncertain I grew.
When the bill came, I put a wad of cash on the table and stood slowly, keeping my eyes fixed on the curtain of darkness surrounding the streetlight’s glow.
“What are you looking at?” Ted asked, and I responded almost too quickly: “Nothing.”
I didn’t dare breathe a word of what I’d seen. Although he was showing signs of returning to normal, Ted was still in such a fragile state that I felt I had to try to insulate him from the deepening severity of the situation. He’d have done the same for me. At least I hoped he would. Sometimes, it’s better to be kept in the dark -- and the stubborn part of me that insisted on following Ted home to verify his story swore that if I was ever in the dark on something like this again, I’d try my damnedest to stay there.
“Should we check on the body?” Ted said. His voice was uncertain and shaky, laced with the hope that I’d tell him it wasn’t necessary.
“No,” I said.
I didn’t want to go back behind Bucktooth’s unless it was absolutely necessary, and right now I felt an urgent impulse to put distance between us and whatever it was that was undoubtedly still watching us from the shadows.
We hoofed it back the way we’d come, this time just the two of us, no longer cutting through back yards and fields to make up time but walking the long, straight road that cut a line from one end of town to the other.
About a quarter mile from the diner, we passed through the glow of a brightly-lit used car lot. Being in the light made me feel exposed, and I wanted to hurry past it, but when I shot a glimpse at Ted, my feet stopped moving.
Deep, dark, disturbing circles had formed under his eyes. He was breathing heavily from his mouth, and his lips looked painfully swollen. He had all the beat-up, haggard aura of a guy who’d just gone ten rounds with disaster. And although the light that illuminated us painted everything in bug-guts yellow, there was a pallor about him that plain scared me.
“You don’t look so good,” I said. “How do you feel?”
Ted shrugged almost nonchalantly. “For a dead guy, I think I feel okay.”
I told him not to joke and pressed my open palm against his forehead. Not that I could have told if he was running hot or cold. It just seemed like the thing to do. Before I could determine if he was dead or alive, Ted jerked away from me, feigning disgust. I thought it was a good sign that he still had it in him to joke, and I would have revised my opinion about dead people having no sense of humor, but the way he looked was alarming.
“I’m serious,” I said, “you look . . .”
I managed to stop my mouth before uttering the word that hung between us like an uncollected dirty sheet on a clothesline: dead.
What we really needed was a doctor; someone to give Ted a once-over; someone to quell what was fast becoming our shared worry and give assurance that the guy I was tooling around town with in the middle of the night was not, in fact, deceased. But the nearest hospital was twenty-five miles away in the next town over, and without a car, we’d never make it -- not before whatever it was that seemed to be draining the life from Ted had done its worst.
My mind jumped to the two-office medical clinic downtown, the place I’d stumbled into six months before when a mislaid footstep and a drink too many had left me with a gash on my forehead. One of the doctors there had sewn me up and sent me home with a bottle of painkillers. I figured the place kept business hours, but sometimes it was open on weekends, and even though the likelihood that someone would be there at this time of night was slim, I figured if we could get there, the next logical step would make itself evident. Beyond looking Ted over, I was hoping a doctor could give us some idea of what was going on.
Best case scenario, although highly unlikely, we could even tell the doctor about Dead Ted, whose body lay in wait of discovery behind Bucktooth’s. And if it was discovered before then? All it would take for anyone to piece things together would be to talk to Slim or anyone else who’d been inside Bucktooth’s that night. They’d learn the two of us had left together. Dead Ted would tell them the rest: that I had murdered him myself and left him behind the dumpster. It was at that moment that I resolved to not let Ted out of my sight until this thing was over. He would be the walking (stumbling), talking (mumbling) evidence I’d need to prove I wasn’t a killer. What the hell had I gotten myself into?
I started to walk again, and Ted shambled after me like a zombie in slow-motion pursuit. A walk that should have taken us fifteen minutes took forty-five. I kept having to fall back and push Ted into motion. One time, he simply stopped and stared down as if he were catching a catnap on his feet. By the time we finally made it to the center of town with all three of its snoozing intersections and half-dozen rolled-up shops, he was barely conscious. The whole of downtown was engulfed in darkness, save for a solitary light burning in the second-story window of the medical clinic.
“Holy hell,” I said, “I think we’re in luck.”
Expecting to find it locked, I pushed against the glass door. It swung open. The postage stamp-sized lobby was pitch black except for a faint glow coming from the computer monitor behind the admissions desk.
“Hello?” I called out. “I got a real sick guy. Is there anyone here?”
I moved us farther inside. We moved to the short flight of steps leading up from the lobby to the examination rooms. I had just enough time to wonder how really sick people were supposed to make it up those stairs without the help of an elevator when Ted collapsed against me.
“Hang on,” I said, and for the second time that night, I picked him up. “We’re almost there.”
I carried him up the dark stairway. Halfway up, I saw the rectangular outline of a closed door. Light spilled from underneath it, dousing the floor with just enough illumination to guide me.
I pushed the door open. Standing in the center of the waiting room, staring at us expectantly, was a man in a white lab coat. He looked like he’d been waiting for us.
“Are you a doctor?” I asked him.
“Yes,” he said, and although the sound of that word should have come as sweet relief considering how far we’d come, there was something peculiar about the doctor’s manner. Something disquieting. With his slicked-back hair and sharp, bony features, he looked more like one of Hitler’s “final solution” doctors than a GP. But of course, beggars and choosers and all that stuff.
I set Ted down to stand on his own two feet, and he managed to keep himself upright for a few seconds before wheeling in a semi-circle and almost toppling over.
The doctor snapped his fingers sharply and pointed to the examination table. I managed to get Ted up onto it. As soon as he was up, he crumbled backward into a lying position.
“What’s wrong with him?” the doctor said, and it occurred to me that I hadn’t thought things out this far.
“He’s . . . sick,” I said, wondering how much I should say.
The doctor looked at me like I was a grade-A jerk and leaned over Ted, pressing his hands against his forehead, lifting his eyelids and staring into his pupils like he was looking through a telescope lens.
It was at this point that I noticed the man's lack of any medical instruments -- no stethoscope, or even that handheld light they use to look into your eyes and throat -- and immediately wished I’d have bit the bullet and called for an ambulance to take us to the hospital. For all I knew, this guy was either drunk off his ass or, even worse, not a real doctor at all. I opened my mouth to say something, but he cut me off.
“Has he taken any drugs?” he asked.
“No,” I replied. “We had a few beers. He was fine at first . . .”
The doctor, or whoever he was, was lifting Ted’s shirt and pinching at the flesh around his underarms. I’m no doctor, but I like to think I can spot a crackpot or a phony pretty fast. He didn’t look like he was checking Ted’s health. He looked like he was sizing him up for dinner.
Ted’s eyes, meanwhile, were rolling around in their sockets, and red patches had begun to form on his cheeks below blackened, saggy bags. It occurred to me how horribly sick he’d become in such a short amount of time. Before, at Sara’s, he’d looked wrung out. Now Ted looked like he was at death’s door and about to gain entry.
“Can’t you give him something?” I said, practically pleading.
The doctor spun around and marched to the door, feet moving with unmistakable purpose. “I have just the thing,” he said and disappeared into the dark hall.
He returned within seconds, standing in the threshold, holding something in his hands. It was a phone. A cordless office phone. He held it out to Ted. Then, directing his words at me, he said, “There’s someone on the phone who’d like to speak with him.”
By this point, I was too tired and confused to do anything but acquiesce. I took the phone and held it up to Ted’s ear. The voice I heard coming from the other end was unmistakable. It was Ted’s mother.
She was shouting with enough volume for all three of us to hear, but it was Ted who was doing all of the suffering for it -- grimacing in pain with every shrill exclamation and deafening declaration. His mother wanted him home immediately. And if he didn’t get home immediately, he wasn’t going to have a home to come home to. Or words to that effect.
While Ted nodded and muttered his uh-huhs and yeah-Mommas into the receiver, the doctor sidled up beside me, so uncomfortably close that I could feel his breath on my cheek and smell the rank odor of dry sweat.
“Ted’s in a very perilous condition,” he said, whispering into my ear. “Right now, it is of utmost urgency that we get him the help he needs. You two have been friends for a very long time. Don’t let Ted down now. What the two of us -- you and I -- must do right now is ensure Ted gets home to his mother. She’s the woman who birthed him and the only person in the world who can save him now. And that’s what you want, isn’t it? To save your friend?”
He was clearly trying to convince me, to hypnotize me into going along, but his lips smacked when he spoke, and his tongue clicked against his teeth, and I might have shuddered violently if the events of the past few hours hadn’t somehow inoculated me against the weird, the baffling, and the all-out disgusting.
I shook my head and tried to pull away. He must have sensed he wasn’t convincing me because he pushed in even closer, his face grave, and spoke four words that told me I'd better pay attention to him: “The body is gone.”
My face must have gone pale instantly, because before I could utter a sound, he spoke again, still whispering, as if attempting to keep the details from poor old Ted, who was busy being berated by a very worried and very insistent mother.
“Your friend, Slim,” the doctor said, emphasizing the word friend with just the right amount of irony. “The one who barkeeps at that lovely establishment you frequent. He found the body.”
My heart didn’t exactly sink, but rather glided downward, traveling the distance from my chest to my stomach in the space of seconds. How could we have been so stupid? How could I have been so stupid?
When my thoughts raced back to the figure I’d seen lurking outside the diner, I felt like kicking myself. How could I have assumed that what I saw was anything other than a suspicious bystander, or maybe even Slim himself? Someone who'd seen us leave a body-sized package behind the bar and called the cops. I tipped my head, ears straining expectantly for the call of approaching sirens.
“There will be no police,” the doctor declared, reading my thoughts. Or maybe he was just good at reading body language. If I had a mirror, I probably could have held it up to my face and seen the evidence of all that had gone on this evening written clearly across my forehead. The doctor’s face contorted strangely in what I could only assume was the unpracticed imitation of a smile. Then he said, “We . . . interceded.”
“We?” I asked, but I knew no answer would be forthcoming. All I got in reply was a slow, dismissive blink from the man before me . . . a man I knew for sure was no doctor.
Then he said, “Mother knows best,” and repeated himself as if I’d somehow been able to miss it. “Mother knows best. You boys interrupted something that was taking place, and now it’s time to let the process resume. Ted is not dead. He is very much alive. But I can’t tell you the extent of the spiritual and psychological damage he may suffer if he isn’t brought home to his mother at once.”
At that moment, something in me wilted. Possibly it was the stress of running all night from an unavoidable fate; or perhaps it was the running around itself . . . god knew, this was the most exercise I’d had in a single day in years, and I suspected that only my obligation to my best friend had kept me going when all I’d really wanted to do was go home and sleep for fourteen hours straight.
I turned back to Ted, who now had the phone pulled away from his ear and was holding it out to me. “Momma wants to talk to you,” he said.
Pressing the phone against my ear, I uttered a barely audible “Hello” and listened as Mrs. Nelson’s suddenly calm, soothing voice gnawed into the final straw of my resistance: “It’s time to bring Ted home now,” she said. “He’s been through enough. You are a great friend to him and always have been, but he’s sick and he needs his mother. I can help him.”
I started to speak -- to protest, to ask her what the hell was going on -- but she cut me off abruptly. When she did, her voice took on a startling timbre, and the words she spoke sounded more like a growl than a command: “Bring him home. Now.”
A gasp erupted from my throat before I could contain it, and as soon as it did, I knew I’d shown my hand. I was terrified, and she knew it. The doctor knew it. Ted knew it. And now that I knew it, the final wall of my resolve crumbled. All that I could do now, aside from holding myself and Ted up long enough to get him home, was comply.
“Okay,” I said.
When I went to hand the phone back to the doctor, he was gone. Just then a voice, unheard by my ears but distinctly sensed and understood somewhere deep within me, spoke the words: The Devil sends his regards.
A chill coursed through me, an icy finger that raked upward from the small of my back to the base of my spine. Where had I heard those words before? In a song, or a dream, or a thought not yet crystallized? I didn’t know. All I knew was that I had to take Ted home. There was nothing else to do.
To be continued next week . . .