Read a sample from AMERICAN ELSEWHERE by Robert Jackson Bennett
Even though it is a fairly cool night, Norris is sweating abundantly. The sweat leaks out of his temples and the top of his skull and runs down his cheeks to pool around his collarbones. He feels little trickles weaving down his arms to soak into the elbows and wrists of his shirt. The entire car now has a saline reek, like a locker room.
Norris is sitting in the driver’s seat with the car running, and for the past twenty minutes he’s been debating whether leaving the car running was a good idea or not. He’s made several mental charts of pros and cons and probabilities, and overall he thinks it was a good idea: the odds that someone will notice the sound of a car idling on this neighborhood lane, and check it out and sense something suspicious, feel fairly low; whereas the odds of him fumbling with the ignition or the clutch if he needs to start the car quickly seem very, very high right now. He is so convinced of his own impending clumsiness that he hasn’t even dared to take his hands off the steering wheel. He is gripping it so hard and his palms are so sweaty that he doesn’t know if he could remove them if he tried. Suction, he thinks. I’m stuck here forever, no matter who notices what.
He’s not sure why he’s so worried about being noticed. No one lives in the neighboring houses. Though it is not posted anywhere—in any visual manner, that is—this part of town is not open to the public. There is only one resident on this street.
Norris leans forward in his seat to reexamine the house. He is parked right before its front walk. Behind the car is a small, neat gravel driveway that breaks off from the paved road and curves down the slope to a massive garage. The house itself is very, very big, but its size is mostly hidden behind the Englemann spruces; one can make out only hints of pristine white wooden siding, sprawling lantana, perfectly draped windows, and clean red-brick walls. And there, at the end of the front walk, is a modest, inviting front door with a coat of bright red paint and a cheery bronze handle.
It is a flawless house, really, a dream house. It is a dream house not only in the sense that anyone would dream of living there; rather, it is so perfect that a house like this could exist only in a dream.
Norris checks his watch. It has been four minutes by now. The wind runs through the pines, and the sound of thousands of whispering needles makes him shiver. Otherwise, it is quiet. But it is always quiet near homes like this, and it is always ill-advised to venture out at night in Wink. Everyone knows that. Things could happen.
He sits up: there are noises coming from the garage. Voices. He grips the steering wheel a little harder.
Two dark figures in ski masks emerge from the garage dragging something bulky between them. Norris stares at them in dismay as they begin making their way up to the car. When they finally get close enough, he rolls down the passenger-side window and whispers, “What happened? Where’s Mitchell?”
“Shut up!” one of them says.
“Where is he? Did you leave him in there?”
“Will you shut up and open the trunk?”
Norris starts to, but he is distracted by what they are carrying. It appears to be a short man wearing a blue sweater and khakis, but his hands and feet are tightly bound, and a burlap sack has been pulled down over his face. Yet despite all this the man is speaking very, very quickly, almost chanting: “. . . Cannot succeed, will not succeed, such a vain hope that I personally cannot imagine, do you understand, I cannot imagine it. You do not have the authorities, the privileges, and without those this is but sand brushing over my neck, do you understand, no more than reeds dancing in violent waters . . .”
“Open the fucking trunk already!” says one of the men.
Norris, startled, reaches over and pulls the trunk lever. The trunk pops open and the two drag the hooded man back, stuff him in, and slam it shut. Then they scramble back around and jump in the backseat.
“Where’s Mitchell?” asks Norris again. “What happened to him?”
“Fucking drive!” shouts one of the men.
Norris glances at the house again. There is movement in all the windows now—could those be dark figures pacing back and forth in the halls? Pale faces peeping out the windows? And some of the front lights are on, ones Norris could have sworn were dark just a second ago. He tears his eyes away, puts the car in first, and guns it.
They rip through the neighborhood lanes until they reach the main roads. The two men remove their ski masks. Zimmerman is older and bald with a graying beard, his cheeks bulging with the promise of pendulous jowls in later life. Out of the three of them he’s by far the most experienced in this kind of thing, so it’s extra unnerving to see how obviously terrified he is. The other, Dee, is an athletic young man with blond, perfectly parted hair, the sort of hair found only in Boy Scout advertisements. Dee either doesn’t understand what’s going on or is so dazed by everything that he can hardly shut his mouth.
“Jesus,” says Zimmerman. “Jesus. Jesus fucking Christ.”
“What happened?” asks Norris again. “Where’s Mitchell? Is he all right?”
“No. No, Mitchell isn’t all right.”
“Well, what happened?”
There is a long silence. Then Dee says, “He fell.”
“He what? He fell? Fell into what?”
The two are quiet again. Zimmerman says, “There was a room. And . . . it just seemed to keep going. And Mitchell fell in.”
“And when he fell,” says Dee, “he just didn’t stop . . . he just kept falling into the room . . .”
“What do you mean?” asks Norris.
“What makes you think we understand what we saw in there?” asks Zimmerman angrily.
Norris turns back to the road, abashed. He points the car north toward the dark mesa that hangs over the town. Sometimes there is a thud or a shout from the trunk behind them. They all try to ignore it.
“He knew we were coming,” says Dee.
“Shut up,” says Zimmerman.
“That’s why he’d prepared those rooms for us,” says Dee. “He
knew. Bolan said it’d be a surprise. How could he have known?” “Shut up!”
“Why?” asks Dee.
“Because I’m willing to bet that that thing in the trunk can hear us!”
“So what if this doesn’t go right? What if he gets away? You just gave him one name. What more do you want to give him?”
There is a heavy silence. Norris asks, “How about some music?”
“Good idea,” says Zimmerman.
Norris hits the tuner. Immediately Buddy Holly begins crooning “That’ll Be The Day” from the car’s blown-out speakers, and they all fall silent.
As they climb the mountain road they leave the town behind. The grid of streetlights shrinks until it is a spiderweb beaded with morning dew, stretched across the feet of the mesa. The town sits in the center of a dark fan of vegetation running down the mountain slopes, fed by the little river that winds through the center of the city. It is the only dependable source of water for miles around the mesa, a rarity in this part of New Mexico.
A painted sign swims up out of the darkness ahead, marking the northern border of the town. It has a row of white lights at the bottom, making it glow in the night. It shows a smiling man and woman sitting on a picnic blanket. They are a wholesome, white-bread sort, he square-jawed and squinty, she pale and delicate with cherry-red lips. They are looking out on a marvelous vista of crimson mesas at sunset, and at the top of one mesa is a very small bronze-colored antenna, one that would obviously be much larger if you were close. The clouds in the pink skies seem to swirl around the antenna, and there is something beyond the antenna and the clouds, something the man and the woman are meant to be looking at, but the two rightmost panels of the sign have been torn off, leaving raw wood exposed where there should be some inspiring vision. Yet some vandal has tried to complete the picture with a bit of chalk, though what the vandal has drawn is difficult to determine: it is an outline of a figure standing on the mountains, or where the mountains would be, a giant, titan-size body that would fill up the sky. The figure is generally human but somewhat deformed: its back is too hunched, and its arms are too ill-defined, though that may be an indication of the limits of the artist.
At the bottom of the sign is a line of white words: YOU ARE NOW LEAVING WINk—but why?
Why indeed, wonders Norris. How he wishes it were not so.
Up in the high mountains the air is unusually thin. It makes the night sky seem very blue and the stars appear very, very close. To Norris they seem closer tonight than normal, and the peak ahead seems unusually tall as well. The road unfurls from its top and comes bouncing down the hills like a silver ribbon. Blue lightning plays in the clouds around other peaks in the distance. Norris shifts uncomfortably. It feels as if the farther they get from town, with its hard little grid of streets and its yellow phosphorous lights, the more unreal the world becomes.
There is a burst of static from the radio, and “That’ll Be The Day” twists until the music is gone and there is only a tinny voice madly chanting: “This is futile, futile. You nudge at boundaries of which you are only half-aware, trade in influences you are blind to. Stop this and let me go and I will forgive you, all will be forgiven, and it will be as if this never happened, never happened . . .”
“Fucking Christ!” says Zimmerman. “He’s gotten into the fucking radio!”
“Turn it off!” cries Dee.
Norris slaps the tuner again and the chanting stops. They drive on in quiet for a bit.
“God,” says Dee. “Have either of you ever done anything like this before?”
“I didn’t know it could be done,” says Norris.
“Let’s just keep our heads,” says Zimmerman. “We’ve gotten this far. If we follow through, we’ll all be taken care of.”
“Except for Mitchell,” says Dee.
“We’ll all be fine,” says Zimmerman sternly.
“Why is this our job, anyways?” asks Dee. “This isn’t our concern. This is B—”—he rethinks his word choice—“this is the boss’s concern.” “It’s our concern too,” says Zimmerman.
“What if he said no? What if he told them no, he wasn’t going to have anyone do it?”
“Then he’d be in the hot spot, and not us,” says Norris.
“Oh, and you think they don’t know who works for him? Wouldn’t that make us a concern, too? And wouldn’t you say we all know a little too much?”
There’s a moment of silence. “I don’t know much,” says Dee sullenly.
“They wouldn’t take that risk. We’re all in this together. They tell the boss what to do, and he tells us. And we do it. Even if there are”— he glances out the window at the dark landscape below—“casualties.”
“How do we even know it will work?” asks Norris.
Zimmerman reaches below his seat and picks up a small wooden box. It has been sealed shut with several pieces of tape, both horizontally and vertically, and tied with heavy string. It is clear that whoever prepared the box intended it never be opened unless absolutely necessary.
“It’ll work,” says Zimmerman, but his voice shakes and grows hoarse.
The car keeps climbing, weaving along the little road that dances atop the peaks. Soon the road begins to run parallel to the river in the valley below, and they finally converge where the water tumbles from a rocky outcropping on the cliff side, a discharge of recent rains. The fan of vegetation comes to a point there; above that the soil is too rocky for anything except the hardiest pines.
“There,” says Zimmerman. He points to the foot of the waterfall. Norris pulls over to the shoulder and turns the flashers on. “Damn it, Norris, don’t turn those on!” says Zimmerman.
“Sorry,” says Norris, and turns them back off.
All three of them get out of the car and gather around the trunk. They exchange a glance, and open it.
“. . . Nothing possible for you to do, nothing conceivable, so I cannot understand what you are planning. Can a fish fight the sky? Can a worm battle the ocean? What can you even dream of accomplishing?”
“He doesn’t shut up,” says Zimmerman. “Come on.” Norris reaches in and heaves their cargo up by the shoulders, and Dee takes his bound feet. Zimmerman turns on a flashlight and leads the way, holding the wooden box in a gloved hand. They carry their captive to where the road ends and begin to navigate down the rocky slope to the waterfall.
The falls lie just beyond an old chain-link fence that staggers across the hills. A rusty tin sign hangs from one post by a corner. Its words are barely legible, though what can be read is printed in a chipper, space-age font that went out of style decades ago: PROPERTY OF COBURN NATIONAL LABORATORY AND OBSERVATORY—NO TRESPASSING! The three men ignore it, and crouch as they carry their ranting burden through one of the gaping holes in the fence.
Norris looks up. This far from the city lights the stars seem even closer than before. It makes him uncomfortable, or perhaps it is the ionized taste that seems to hover in the air around the top of the mesa. It is a Wrong place. Not the Wrongest, God knows that’s so, but still deeply Wrong.
Dee eyes the surrounding cedars and ponderosa pines nervously. “I don’t see it,” he says over the babbling of the hooded man.
“Don’t worry about that,” says Zimmerman. “It’ll come when it’s called. Just set him down beside the falls.”
They do so, gently laying their captive down on the rock. Zimmer- man nods at them to back away, and he reaches out and pulls off the burlap sack.
A kindly, plump face looks up at them from underneath a messy mop of gray hair. His eyes are green and crinkled at the edges, and his cheekbones have a happy red tint. It is the face of a bureaucrat, an English teacher, a counselor, a man used to the shuffling and filing of papers. Yet there is a hardness to his eyes that unnerves Norris, as if there is something swimming in their depths that does not belong there.
“There is nothing you can do to me,” the man says. “It is not allowed. I cannot understand what you are attempting, but it is useless.”
“Get back a little bit,” says Zimmerman to his two companions. “Now.” Dee and Norris take a few steps back, still watching.
“Have you gone mad?” asks their captive. “Is that it? Guns and knives and ropes are mere ephemera here, chaff on the wind. Why would you disturb our waters? Why would you deny yourself peace?”
“Shut up,” says Zimmerman. He kneels, takes out a small penknife, and begins to cut at the tape and the string on the small wooden box.
“Have you not heard a word I said?” asks their captive. “Can you not listen to me for one moment? Do you not even understand what it is you do?”
The box is now open. Zimmerman stares at its contents, swallows, and places the penknife aside. “Understanding isn’t my job,” he says hoarsely. Then he picks up the box with both gloved hands, moving gingerly so as not to disturb what is within, and brings it over to where their captive lies.
“You cannot kill me,” says the bound man. “You cannot touch me. You cannot even harm me.”
Zimmerman licks his lips and swallows again. “You’re right,” he says. “We can’t.” And he tips the contents of the box over onto the bound man.
Something very small and white and oval comes tumbling out. At first it looks like an egg, but as it rolls across the man’s chest and comes to a stop before his face it becomes clear that it is not. Its surface is rough like sandpaper, and it has two large, hollow eyes, a short, snarling snout with two sharp incisors, and many smaller, more delicate teeth behind those. It is a tiny rodent skull, lacking its jawbone, and this gives it the queer impression of being frozen mid-scream.
The bound man stares at the tiny skull on his chest. For the first time his serene confidence breaks: he blinks, confused, and looks up at his captors. “W-what is this?” he asks weakly. “What have you done?” Zimmerman does not answer. He turns and says, “Come on! Now!” Then all three of them sprint over the rocky slopes to the chain-link fence, arms pinwheeling when they misstep.
“What have you done to me?” calls the bound man after them, but he gets no answer.
When they reach the fence they pull open one of the holes and help each other through. “Is that it?” asks Norris. “Is it done?”
Before Zimmerman can answer a yellow light flares to life in the trees beside the waterfall. The three men look back, and each is forced to squint even though the source of the light remains hidden. The light seems to shiver strangely, as if the beam is interrupted by many dancing moths, and the way the light filters through the glade gives it the look of a leaning rib cage.
In between two of the tallest pines is what looks like a man, standing erect, hands stiff at its sides. Norris cannot remember its being there before; it is as if this newcomer has appeared out of nowhere, and with its appearance there is a new scent to the air, an odor of shit and rotting straw and putrefaction. Norris’s eyes water at the barest whiff of it. The figure stares down at the bound man, but its head appears strange: sprouting from the top of its skull are two long, thin ears, or possibly horns. It does not move or speak; it does not seem to even breathe. It simply stands there, watching the bound man from the edge of the pines, and due to the bright light from behind it is impossible to discern anything more.
“Oh my God,” whispers Dee. “Is that it?”
Zimmerman turns away. “Don’t look at it!” he says. “Come on, run!”
As they climb back up to the road the voice of the bound man cuts through the sound of the waterfall: “What? N-no! No, not you! I didn’t do anything to you! I never did anything to you, I didn’t!”
“Jesus,” says Norris. He moves to look back.
“Don’t!” says Zimmerman. “Don’t attract its attention! Just get up to the car!”
When they vault over the highway barrier the shouts from the waterfall turn into screams. The light in the trees begins to shudder, as if more and more moths are coming to flit around its source. From this height the three men could look down and see what is happening there at the foot of the waterfall, but they keep their eyes averted, staring into the starlit asphalt or the lightning in the clouds.
They climb into the car and sit in silence as the screams persist. They are screams of unspeakable agony, yet they do not seem to end. The driver hits the tuner on the radio again. It’s Buddy Holly again, but this time he’s singing “Love Is Strange.”
“Must be playing a marathon or something,” says Dee softly.
Norris clears his throat and says, “Yeah.” He turns the volume up until the song overpowers the shrieks from the valley below.
Dee is right: it is a marathon, and next comes “Valley of Tears,” and after that is “I’m Changing All Those Changes.” The screams continue while the men listen to the radio, swallowing and sweating and sometimes clasping their heads. The scent of sweaty terror in the car intensifies.
Then the unearthly light beside the road dies. The men look at each other. Norris turns the radio down, and they find the screams have stopped.
As the last of that septic yellow light drains out of the pines, dozens more lights appear farther up the mesa. They are common office lights, the lights of many structures standing on the mesa. It’s as if they all share a common power source that’s just been turned back on.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” says Zimmerman. “He was right. The lab’s up and running again.”
There is a moment of shocked silence as the three men stare at the lights on the mesa. “Should we call Bolan?” asks Norris.
Zimmerman takes out a cell phone, then rethinks. “Let’s get the body first,” he says.
“Is it safe?” asks Dee.
“It’ll be done by now,” says Zimmerman, but he does not sound totally sure.
At first they do not move. Then Zimmerman opens his car door.
After a moment of reluctance, the other two follow suit. They walk to the side of the road and stare down at the waterfall, which is now dark. There is no sign of anything unusual having transpired on the rocks. There is only the spatter of the waterfall, the hiss of the pines, and the pinkish light of the moon.
Finally they climb back over the barrier and begin the awkward journey down. As they descend, Norris takes one last glance up at the lights on the top of the mesa. “I wonder who it’s bringing here,” he says softly.
There is an angry shush from Zimmerman, as if the trees them- selves could hear, and the men continue into the darkness in silence.