Updated: Mar 24, 2020
The first thing I did after she took off was check my car to see if I might have left some spare change somewhere. I figured I could probably dig enough coins out of the floorboards to get me a bite to eat before hot-wiring the vehicle. I was only a little surprised to see my phone, wallet, and keys sitting on the passenger seat waiting for me.
My head was spinning and I desperately needed something in my stomach, even if it was only gas station food. I did a quick run up and down the aisles, collecting whatever foodstuffs didn’t look like they’d make me throw up--a bag of trail mix, some chips, a stick of jerky, and a Gatorade--and brought them to the counter where the cashier, Jack, was typing something up on a laptop.
I knocked the counter to get his attention, and he looked up from what he was doing with a smile and said, “Found your wallet, huh?”
I dropped the stuff in front of him and answered, “Go figure.”
He rang it all up and I paid, then he went back to his computer. I didn’t feel like waiting any longer, so I opened the chips right there, and then had a small heart attack when hundreds of tiny spiders poured out of the opening in the bag. They were tiny, black, and crawling over one another in every direction. I dropped it to the ground and started stomping them all underneath my boot.
“What the holy fuck?!” I yelled at the cashier.
He looked back at me with a raised eyebrow and asked, “What?”
“Did you not see that? There was-”
Right then I lost all ability to speak. There was something in the store with us. Something impossible.
Another spider was crawling up the wall behind the cash register. Only this one wasn’t tiny. This one was at least the size of a rottweiler, with shiny black legs as thick as walking sticks and a pulsating black abdomen. I could see the reflection of the fluorescent lights on its bulging wet black eyes, and I could make out clear as day the thick needle-like hairs covering its body. It crawled all the way up the wall, then turned upside down on the ceiling and started towards me.
I grabbed the spot on my side where my gun should have been, and fell backwards into a display of pork rinds, landing on my ass. My voice finally came back to me and I screamed, “What is that fucking thing?!”
Jack clearly hadn’t seen it yet. “What?”
It was crawling, slowly but steadily, on the ceiling overhead. I waited quietly for it to move past me, never looking away, and only after it had crawled all the way to the other side of the store I whispered, “Do you see that?”
Jack followed my eyes up to the ceiling, then looked back at me and said, “What, is it a giant spider?”
“Yes! What the fuck?!”
The spider stayed at a constant speed and crawled back down the wall on the other side of the store near the coolers, but I lost sight of it behind the rows of groceries. I jumped to my feet and took a few steps to the side, trying to find where the thing had gone to, but it wasn’t there anymore.
I looked back at Jack, who was not reacting to this situation the way I would have expected. Or really, at all.
“What do you mean, ‘No’?” I whisper screamed.
He sighed deeply and yelled out, “Marlborough! Come here for a second.”
“Who are you talking to?”
He stretched casually and closed his laptop, then looked me in the eyes and said, “It’s the pain meds they gave me. I had to stop taking them because they were making me see spiders.”
“I know, right? Weirdest side effect ever, but apparently it’s a thing. Brand specific hallucinations. Spiders everywhere. On my clothes, in the shower, in my toothpaste. I decided that the pain wasn’t as bad as spiders in my cereal.”
“Wait, you drugged me?”
The door to the storage closet opened and the clerk from earlier, the one that had painted my nails, came out drinking a beer.
“You rang?” he asked.
The cashier answered, “Did you give this guy my old pain meds?”
“Oh most definitely,” he answered, “I ground up like four and put them in his water bottle.”
My heartbeat was finally starting to come back down to normal, the adrenaline spike slowly being replaced by pure, undiluted rage. I tried to hold it together and asked as calmly as I possibly could, “Why would you do that?”
He smiled, shrugged, and said, “Just trying to help.”
I rubbed my eyes and took a deep breath. If he had been a little closer, I probably would have slugged him. Thankfully I managed to keep my cool.
This is so fucked.
“Hey, man, are you alright?” asked the cashier.
“What part of this looks ‘alright’ to you?” I replied.
“Yeah, I figured as much. You’re Vanessa’s uncle, right?”
“That’s right. You knew her?”
“A little. She was a decent worker, always showed up on time, never stole anything. I was bummed out when she disappeared. I sorta hate to ask, but do you know what happened to her?”
Maybe it was just the drugs, but I was having trouble getting a read on this guy. Was he for real?
“I’m planning on figuring that out. I take it you don’t buy the story about her joining a cult?”
I caught the quickest microexpression when I said ‘cult.’ He looked at the other worker for just a moment, then back at me and said, “No. I don’t think she joined the cult.”
There was something else going on here. I asked him directly, “What exactly do you think happened?”
“I don’t know.”
The other worker piped in with, “Maybe a demon got her.”
The cashier looked at him and said, “What, like in Twin Peaks?”
“That show has been out for twenty years. Either you’re going to watch it or you’re not!”
This was pointless. These two were using each other for deflection, and if I were going to find out what either of them knew, I’d need to separate them. The only question is, how?
Right then, the cashier leaned back to grab his crutches off the wall and said, “Marlborough, take over for me. I’m going to lunch.”
“Okie dokie,” said Jerry. Or Marlborough. Or whatever the hell his name actually was. He struck me as the kind of guy that would find somebody else’s name tag and wear it just because.
“Hey,” I said after the cashier had stood up, “How about I take you to lunch?”
He looked at me for an awkward couple seconds and asked, “Why would you do that?”
“I want to ask you some questions.”
“About Vanessa? I really didn’t know her that well.”
“About this town. I’ll pay for lunch. What do you say?”
He mulled the offer over for a few more silent seconds, then nodded and said, “Ok.”
I checked my phone during the drive just to see what time it was (12:05 PM), then I tossed it out the window. (Even if they hadn’t bugged it, there was no way in hell I could ever trust it again.) We went to a small diner in town called Marilyn’s, where we both ordered the same thing: a cheeseburger and fries. I took black coffee and he drank a root beer.
I let him eat before I got to the questions. It didn’t take me long to devour my entire meal. Thankfully, there were no spiders. Whatever Marlborough had put in my drink had worn off completely, and the pain in my leg was back in full force, but it was hard to complain while sitting across from this guy. At least I still had all of my limbs. From what I could see, he was a below-the-knee amputee. The way he worked his crutches made it clear that this was a recent development. I decided to keep my complaints to myself.
After he’d finished his burger, I tried to ease into the questions, and learned as much as he would let me know. This guy was private, and all I could get out of him were the basics. His name was Jack. He was much younger than me. Worked at the gas station pretty much since high school, and he liked to mind his own business.
I finally got around to asking about his injury, not expecting much of an answer. But surprisingly, he opened up like it was no big deal.
“I got a complex fracture a while ago and broke my leg in two places. Not so surprisingly, this town doesn’t have the best medical facilities. There were some complications, I caught a strain of antibiotic resistant acinetobacter and long story short-” He imitated a chainsaw noise and gestured like he were cutting off his own leg, then he took a sip of root beer.
“What do you know about this cult?” I watched his face for any kind of tell, but this time, if there were any reactions he was keeping a lid on them.
“Not much. A dozen or so attractive millennials joined up with a charismatic personality. He recruited them from all over using the internet, promised enlightenment and orgies; didn’t end so well.”
“I heard. Spencer Middleton part of that cult?”
Jack visibly shuddered at the mention of Middleton.
“No,” he answered, “but it certainly wraps the whole story up nice and neat, doesn’t it?”
“You think Spencer is innocent?”
Jack laughed and shook his head. “No, he’s very much the opposite of innocent. I’m just saying he isn’t exactly a team player.”
Outside the window, I saw the cruiser swing into the parking lot.
Shit. Running out of time.
“Look,” I finally said, “Some weird stuff happened to me today when I was out in those woods. Things I can’t exactly explain. And I’d like nothing more than to fall asleep for a couple weeks and recharge, but I can’t right now. I think there’s something wrong with this town. And I think Vanessa got caught up in it. And I think that maybe, just maybe, you know what’s going on.”
“Why would you think that?”
“The deputy that’s about to come busting in here. She seems awfully protective of you.”
The door opened and O’Brien scanned the place, spotting us immediately. Jack still had his back to her. He said, “You’re not wrong. Weird things happen here. But you’re looking in the wrong place. Vanessa wasn’t part of the cultists. They died way before she went missing.”
“How do you know the cultists are dead? I thought they were only missing.”
“That’s enough questions for now, Nail Polish,” said O’Brien as she put a hand on Jack’s shoulder. “You good, Crutches?” she asked him.
“Peachie,” he answered.
If there had been any doubt, that had taken it away. There was something going on with Jack and O’Brien. Maybe she was just protecting him. Maybe they were working together. Maybe they were hooking up. I didn’t know, and it was damned near impossible to get a look inside his head. But the one thing I took away from that interaction was this: I believed him. He knew more about the cult than he was letting on. And Vanessa wasn’t a part of it.
So that put me close to square one. I had a meeting with “Roger” in seven hours and time to burn. The sobering fact that I had killed a man that morning in self defense was burning in the back of my mind, and I knew that when the time came I would have to deal with that. But this was not that time. This was the time to play through the pain. There would be a chance for a nervous breakdown later, after I found Vanessa. Or her killer.
Jamie looked pretty shocked to see me. I didn’t feel like explaining everything, so I just asked him to put on two pots of boiling water and to find me some rubbing alcohol, floss, and a sewing kit. He’s a good kid, and I hate to keep traumatizing him, but I couldn’t go to the hospital, just in case.
Once the pots were boiling, I dropped the sewing needle into one and my car keys into the other. I knew better than most people how easy it is to bug anything these days. Even my wallet was going to stay in the console of my car until I could get back home and order new credit cards. It was going to be nothing but cash from here out. My nephew didn’t question it for a second when I told him I was going to be driving Vanessa’s Honda for the rest of the time I was in town. I couldn’t afford the very likely possibility that my car had been bugged.
He didn’t ask too many questions, and I didn’t volunteer too many answers. The furthest we got was “Why are your nails red?”
“I have no idea.”
I strung some floss through the needle and bent it into a hook shape. This was going to hurt if I did it right, and hurt even worse if I did it wrong. At that moment I wondered if it might actually be worth the spiders to keep from feeling the pain I was about to feel.
I ripped off the duct-tape cast, layer at a time, all the way down to the base. Then I peeled back the final layer to see the grisly X-shaped wound on my leg. Just when I think nothing can surprise me anymore, I’m proven wrong.
Son of a bitch.
Somehow, someone had beaten me to the punch. The wound was very neatly stitched up, almost professionally. The work was so clean it wouldn’t leave but minimal scarring. Next to it, under a dried layer of blood, I could make out shaky handwriting where somebody had drawn on my leg with a black marker “Jerry was here.”
I set the needle on the table and asked Jamie if he had any old antibiotics in the house.
“I’m going to need all of them.”
It’s amazing the difference a shower and clean clothes can make. I popped a handful of painkillers--the over the counter type--and took apart one of Donnie’s old speakers to get to the magnet. I’m not saying I think Marlborough stitched a tracker or a listening device inside of my leg wound, because that would be crazy. I’m just saying I ran a few passes of the extra strong magnet over the stitches. Just to be safe.
Next, I went into Vanessa’s room and stood for a silent moment, taking it in and trying to find a balance between respecting her privacy and tearing the place apart for clues. There was still plenty of time before my meeting, but right then I was kicking myself for all the time I’d wasted by getting shit faced when there were still answers out there to be found. I did a quick mental recap to see where I stood.
Facts. This town has a weird secret. Someone powerful enough to make a flipped truck and three bodies disappear in the span of a couple hours was screwing with me. Someone knew how to imitate my brother, lure me into a bizarre trap in the woods, but why?
The sheriff’s department was only pretending to look into Vanessa’s disappearance. The cult was just a cover story. Was Vanessa even involved in any of this? I was swimming through questions without any answers when I heard Jamie say, “Hey, Uncle Eric?”
I snapped out of my daze and turned to see Jamie standing in the doorway.
“You have a visitor.”