This is gonna be kind of a squirrelly story, I'm just saying that up front. I mean, it's not gonna be satisfying, wrapped up in a bow. It's gonna be about mistakes made and chances missed. Love, ambition, and the kind of curiosity that kills more than just cats. I guess it's what you might call a cautionary tale, a warning even, but I'm telling you, up front, that what it is is a squirrelly story.
This story, "this squirrelly story," I mean, starts before me. Picture the smiling face of Jack Warren. Jack's in his late thirties, but enthusiastic like a teenager. Smart as they come and right now fried beyond most people's ability to comprehend fried. Colors are talking to him. Smells are singing. More to the point, God is explaining to Jack Warren the mystery of it all. And Jack is smiling, which might lead you to believe that God's explanations are rewarding, fulfilling, joyful. From what I've seen, you would be wrong in this belief.
Okay, so this picture you're seeing - a man on the far end of young, stoned out of his mind and clearly having a breakthrough vision - this is Jack Warren at work.
Jack, "Doctor Warren" to the students and much of the faculty at the University of New Mexico where this little trip is playing out, is a neurochemist. And today, Jack Warren's own "neuro" is his lab.
Here are some facts that I didn't know until much later.
DMT is a very strong, short-lived psychedelic found not only in many plants, but also in trace amounts in the human body, where its natural function is still undetermined. Several speculative and yet untested hypotheses suggest that it is this DMT produced in the human brain that is involved in certain psychological and neurological conditions, such as schizophrenia. . Some researchers believe that DMT plays a role in mediating the visual effects of natural dreaming, and also near-death experiences, religious visions and other mystical states. The drug is incredibly strong, and often produces terrifying as well as revelatory "trips."
In university tests in the 1990s, many subjects reported visions that were disturbingly and inexplicably similar. They reported contact with a tall, dark being, somewhat insectoid or reptilian in nature, but more humanoid than not. These encounters consistently took place in a dreary, factory-like environment, where drone beings slaved away at impossibly large machines. Researchers could offer no explanation for these shared visions, except to suggest that perhaps DMT offered a doorway into some other dimension - a dimension where these beings were real.
Like I said, these are some facts that I knew nothing about until later.
Jack Warren was obsessed with psychedelics. Had been since he'd first seen the mushroom-addled drawings of the Christophe Brothers as a child. He had suspected, intuited a truth to these visions that none of his research over the years had done anything to disabuse him of. Whether it was Ram Das and Carlos Castaneda or Gasper Noe's film, Enter the Void; all seemed to speak to him of doorways into other worlds, worlds that, Warren believed, were truer than this one.
Certain fringy aspects of string theory gave a sort of validity to his notions, and, even in a shattered economy, there are government entitlements that must be distributed. Jack Warren was a smart and charming man and he could write one hell of a grant proposal. Six weeks after his encounter with God and the talking colors, Jack was awarded the first government-funded research into DMT since the 60s, when Timothy Leary's big mouth and bad attitude, along with a couple of kind of childish Beatle songs, had gotten LSD and all other psychedelics reclassified as Schedule 1 drugs, right up there with heroin.
Another thing I didn't know about for a long time. Where that government money had come from. I'm not sure if Jack knew that either. If he did, or even if he suspected, it wouldn't have mattered. Jack Warren was looking for physical proof of the existence of, specifically, the eleventh dimension suggested by Juan Maldacena's famous gravity gauge theory correspondence (Dude, I don't have a clue; I'm just quoting from the online draft of the grant proposal. Find the University of New Mexico web site. Biology department. Neuroscience. Grant Proposals. There it is, "Proposal for Research into a Neurochemical Proof of Multi-dimensionality.")
This is how the grant thing works. Dr. Warren writes up this paper, quoting things like Maldacena's famous theory. He says that he believes that DMT neutralizes certain chemicals in our brains that are there to keep us from seeing into this eleventh dimension. (He doesn't mention much about the other nine, the ones in between our world and the DMT world, just tells us that, as we all apparently know, they're very small and mostly folded in on themselves. OK. Got it. Little folding dimensions.) The initial hypothesis of his research is simply that - that there exists an eleventh dimension that we cannot see. That DMT can neutralize the chemicals that prevent us from "seeing," and that if enough people were to see the same thing, it would suggest an objective reality to their visions. A proof that what they were seeing was, at least potentially, real. What he proposed to do was to "take the blinders off," by which he meant, get some volunteers and fuck them up seriously with drugs.
As you may have guessed, we're getting close to my entrance on the stage. Some things you ought to know about me. I'm thirty, but I'm the new thirty, which is to say I'm seventeen in my head. As Bono, the prime megalomaniac of my parents' generation once said, "I still haven't found what I'm looking for." Damn, the guy got paid for that shit. Take off the dark glasses, chump, then maybe you'll find it. I was in a band once, dropped out of college to be a rock star, so yeah, I harbor a little resentment at guys who made it to the promised land on nothing, but that's another, even more squirrelly story, for another time.
All right, so the salient facts: College dropout. No focus, starting to think I might want to do something more with my life than playing Halo and reading on 4chan about guys trolling Jesse Slaughter. But, yeah, I still haven't found, etc. and so I work at whatever jobs I can, because hi-speed internet's not free and even Ramen costs money. For example, just before you came in, I was working phone sales, selling refurbished toner cartridges. I'm working in a boiler room, looks like an Escher painting… nothing but rows of desks and chairs. Maybe thirty people here, all on the phone. Our boss, affectionately known to us all as "the dick from hell," sat facing us at a bigger desk in a more comfortable chair with a giant blackboard behind him. Everyone's name on the board. Someone raises his hand. He's made a sale. The boss gets up, puts a check by his name. Welcome to Kafkaland, right?
My seat was about halfway back, a tiny voice amid this symphony of selling. I would get a supply guy for some small business on the phone, tell him, "You're paying what for your cartridges... thirteen, fourteen dollars? I'm looking to let you have these fully refurbished, factory guaranteed cartridges for five. That's a nine dollar savings per cartridge times five hundred printers, and that's a weekend in the Bahamas for you and your wife." I would read this from one of a set of four cards. We were supposed to go from card to card, so that we wouldn't sound rehearsed, but genuine. Genius. Actors Studio shit, right?
"This is a quality product. Here at Brandt and Haas we personally inspect every cartridge. Our ink is American made, right here in Albuquerque, where American workers refurbish the cartridges as well. There is no reason for you to pay the overhead, the shipping, all those add-ons that some multinational conglomerate stationary company wants to pass on to you. You want to pay air freight from India, God bless you, but what I'm saying to you is..."
I looked across the room, saw Ellen, one of my co-workers. Late fifties, filing her nails while she talked, reading off the same crib cards. The dick from hell had gotten up from his chair and was coming down the aisle.
I was answering questions now. "That's right, an eleven dollar savings per cartridge." "Yes, total guarantee." Answering questions and looking at all these bored people going nowhere. I looked out at the bright blue sky past the dirty grey window. At the file going across Ellen's nails. At the DFH walking up the aisle like he mattered. And that's where I lost it. Right there.
"May I tell you something?" I asked the guy on the phone. "You said your name was Jack. May I tell you something, Jack? These cartridges are crap. That's right. Crap. Two, three weeks of constant use, they'll leak all over your printers. The guarantee I mentioned; it covers the cartridge. Your printer is ruined, that's your problem. Go to Staples. You'll get new cartridges for a dollar-fifty less and you'll have no worries."
When I hung up, my boss was standing by my desk. "You don't need to be here," he said. "I've got guys backed up, dying for the desk and the chair."
"The Desk and the Chair." If I still had a band, that would be the title song from our new album.
So quite literally, I'm on the street. Central Street, to be exact. I stop at Satellite for an espresso. Pick up a copy of the Alibi. I'm gonna see if any of my friends, former bandmates or old girlfriends are playing anywhere. I've got time. And there's this ad, on the page after the club ads and before the massage parlors, where they usually are looking for people who want to try a new way to kick meth, or have longer lasting erections or end their chronic back pain, and it says "Make a difference. Once in a Lifetime opportunity. Volunteers needed. Cutting edge research. Expenses. Nominal fee." Couldn't be that much more nominal than what I was making talking people into ruining their printers. I called.
The woman who answered the phone told me, efficiently, that her name was Amanda. She thanked me for my call and asked if I would be available in an hour to meet with Dr. Warren. "For a once in a lifetime opportunity to make a difference, absolutely," I said. She didn't laugh, which should have told me something.
Dr. Warren was the kind of professor the students think is cool. Long hair, jeans and a Ramones T-shirt. A Magritte, "ce n'est pas une pipe" poster on the wall behind his desk.
Amanda turned out to be a grad student who was working with him on the project. When you play in a band you tend to put good-looking women into two categories. Ones who like you because you play in a band and ones who think you'll just try to fuck them cause you play in a band. But there is a third category: Women whose path you will never cross because you play in a band. That was Amanda. A different species. Driven, focused, serious. Rock and roll meant nothing to her. She'd been a grown up since middle-school.
Jack, one of the first things he said to me was ,"Call me Jack," asked the questions while Amanda took notes. How old was I, did I have a steady job, how much education had I had. Jack was familiar with my last band, "the Artificial Negros." He'd seen us when we opened for Ozma at the Launchpad three years ago, before they got the Weezer tour. Amanda looked bored. Definitely that third category.
The questions got more serious after that. "Did you take a lot of drugs in your rock and roll days?"
"The usual assortment."
"Do you take anything now?"
"Can't afford to."
"Was your drug use strictly recreational, or did you ever use drugs in a more spiritual sense?"
"Do you mean for a better orgasm, or to see God?"
Amanda sighed audibly at that one. I looked at her. "This is a serious experiment," she said. "Dr. Warren is a serious man."
"I don't know about you, but I take my orgasms seriously."
Yeah, we were off to a good start, me and this third category girl. I turned back to Jack. "I don't believe in God," I said. "I've had too many pets die."
"What about the devil?" Jack asked me.
"Him, maybe. He's sure a lot easier to believe in."
They asked me a lot of other questions, food allergies, health history, me and my family. I couldn't tell them much about my biological dad other than that he left when I was two and I hoped, for my mom's sake, that he had all sorts of medical problems that had caused and were causing him a great deal of pain. Then the topic came back to drugs. Had I ever experimented with psychedelic drugs.
"Mushrooms once, they year I was in college. I threw up a lot." Other than that, my experience with psychedelics began and ended with Gunter Abernathy. He was a kid in my high school, a year ahead of me. He got heavily into Acid. It was not pretty. Opened the door to some sort of schizo, bi-polar melt down. "It let the voices into my head," he told me, "and they never left." OK, none for me, thanks.
"That shit is like staring at the Medusa," I said to Jack. "Unless you're Perseus, you're prepared, it'll turn you to stone."
Jack said that he was planning on starting the experiments next week. "I have to tell you," he said, "that you will be taking several doses of a potent, short-lived psychedelic drug called DMT. You will be carefully monitored and supervised. I have taken the drug myself under similar clinical circumstances and I can assure you that your chances of being turned to stone are minimal. Still, if you have reservations, now would be the time to call it a day."
But I had called it a day when I walked away from the desk and the chair. I needed something, shot in the arm, kick in the teeth, it didn't matter. And there was a payment involved, and a man without a job and two months behind in his rent… you hear people these days saying "in this economy," quite a lot, but a man without a job and two months behind in his rent in any economy is, as Mudhoney used to say, flat out fucked.
"I would love to participate in your experiment," I said.
Jack smiled and shook my hand and said that if I would sign the wavers that Amanda would be printing out, he would be delighted to have me work with him on his project.
We started a week later. It was January. Snow on the mountains. See-your-breath cold in the city. I'd had a depressing week. You want to talk about Medussas that will turn you to stone, let's talk about daytime TV. There are still soap operas on, did you know that? Then three days in, my mom calls. My stepfather's got prostate cancer; their insurance won't cover the robot surgery, what should they do? Like I have an answer for that. But my mother was crying and she said that Jimmy, my stepfather, was freaking out and I said that I was about to start a job in the medical industry, and I would see what I could find out for her about the other options. Then I went back to numbing my brain with As the World Turns.
Amanda had called and explained that our first day was simply going to be prep. I would meet the other volunteers and we'd see the lab where we would be given our doses. I asked if there would be one of those light shows like in the sixties and if Phish would be playing and of course, she didn't laugh.
I got to the University and parked and then nearly got hit by a car speeding across the parking lot. It had rained the night before and there were puddles and I got sprayed as well as frightened and I was all set to pitch a little fit, but the car had parked by then and this girl in her late twenties was getting out and she was yelling at me that I was a bonehead who should get his head out of his phone when he was walking across a parking lot (I was, I swear to you, answering a text from my mom) and that she would stay and yell at me some more but she was late for a research project.
"Dr. Jack?" I asked.
She looked at me for the first time. "The drug thing?"
"Shit," she said. "I got you all muddy. I'm really sorry, I'm just totally nervous about this and I thought I was late and my friend, Meghann, was supposed to babysit, but her kid got sick and she didn't want to leave her, so I had to leave Sarah with my neighbor, who I swear to you, watches nothing but that show on animal planet where they go after people who abuse animals, which is some pretty grizzly stuff for a ten year old to watch but at least the bad people are always punished for what they do wrong, right?"
"It's OK," I said. "I'm muddy most days."
"No, I'm really sorry," she said. "What do you know about this DMT shit anyway?"
"I looked it up on line. It's strong. It doesn't last long. Jimi Hendrix said it was the only drug he wouldn't take again."
I noticed that she was carrying a sketchpad. "Were we supposed to bring supplies?" I asked.
"I draw," she said. "Helps me stay focused."
Her name was Sheila. We went inside together.
The others were gathered in the conference room. Jack and Amanda and our fellow volunteers. All sitting in chairs in a circle, like some sort of encounter group. Let me give you thumbnails on them. There was an African American guy named Darryl. You could tell right away he was driven. Kind of guy, pulled himself out of the 'hood, did investments or real estate or some such. You got the feeling it had all gone south on him. His fancy suit looked a little worn, his fancy shoes needed a shine, his perfect hair needed a trim. All this coming from me, a guy who owns nothing but t-shirts and tennis shoes and gets his hair cut maybe once every six months at the barber college downtown. Sitting next to him was a guy in his late thirties, Norman. He was a high school jock gone to seed. You saw him, you knew that in a heartbeat. Knew all you needed to know. Guy had been a prick when it was all going good for him and getting old and fat and realizing that his life had been over since the twelfth grade hadn't made him any nicer.
The next guy was Burton. Maybe my age, kind of a blend-in-with-the-furniture look to him. Didn't say much, but seemed comfortable, and a little superior, as if he knew all the ropes. Come to find out, he did know most of them. Burton was a professional tester. He'd done three to four clinical trials a year for big pharma since he was twenty. In fact, the quantities of experimental anti-depressants, sleeping pills and allergy meds that had passed though him disqualified him now for most research now, but Jack had felt that a wide variety of experience would only broaden the sample for his particular experiment.
Some of us, for example, had had a certain amount of experience with drugs. Others might have smoked a little pot once. Darryl's drug experience was limited to a Ritalin/Concerta cocktail he'd used to ace tests in business school.
We had to go around the room, one of those stand up and introduce ourselves, say why we'd volunteered things. No one was very forthcoming. They all said that they were interested in helping what seemed to them to be a worthwhile endeavor. "Worthwhile?" None of us had a clue what we were supposed to accomplish. We were all bored and broke and in Sheila's case, trying to feed a kid.
They get to me, I stand up and say, "Hi, I'm Charlie. I'm an alcoholic." It got a laugh from everyone but Amanda, who just clearly hated me. With Amanda, you got the feeling she was there because she thought volunteering to admin Jack's experiment, and if he were interested to fuck him senseless while they reviewed the data, might help her ace. You got that feeling, but it turned out you were all wrong.
Sheila, BTW, laughed the hardest at my AA joke. Points. When the introductions were over, Jack took us to see the lab.
The place was awesome. The tech provided by a decent research grant - Avatar time. In fact, looking back, the tech was really state-of-the-art. Really expensive. Jack had some serious money behind him.
We were given our first dose the following Monday. We were told never to discuss our experiences with any of the other volunteers. It would invalidate the research.
Sheila had been fucked for a sitter again, and she brought her daughter, Sarah, who was home from school with a cold, with her. Jack let the kid sit in his office and play games on his computer. Darryl was an asshole about it, saying bringing a sick kid in was going to give us all the flu and if she couldn't get her shit together, they should get another volunteer and cut her loose. It's important to start a life-changing, quasi-religious experiment with as much tension and bad vibes as possible. Puts your head in the right place.
The first trip was miraculous for all of us. Profound. Mind-expanding. I would describe it for you but, like the man said a half a century ago, either you're on the bus or…
Afterwards, we're all in the recovery room - the same room where we sat in the circle and introduced ourselves. Amanda's there to make sure we don't talk too much to each other, which, as I said, Jack was worried would affect the results. But we're all too fried and glassy-eyed anyway and the most any of us can muster is a stoner "wow."
Burton, old soul that he was, offered to loan us all his Grateful Dead bootlegs and his mono pressing of Sgt. Pepper's.
Then Jack came in. He was beaming. "Great work, everybody." Like we'd done anything but lie there. But his excitement was contagious. Made us feel important, like were part of something major. Hey, we going to reorder the way people saw the world. Our work here would go down in scientific history with the work of Einstein. This day, January 9th, would be marked by future historians as a turning point in the history of consciousness.
Go home from that to a package of ramen and six messages from your mother about her possibly dying husband. Kind of takes the wind out.
That was kind of it for me. Watched a CSI rerun and ate the ramen and passed out. That DMT was "polio shit," as the second worst drummer I ever knew used to say about Arkansas weed.
Two days later, when I got to the U, Sheila was waiting for me in the parking lot. "Can I ask you something?"
What she wanted to know, if anything weird had happened to me since the first dose.
"We're not supposed to talk about that," I said, but I was smiling and she said, "right," and then she told me that, the night after the test, she was tucking Sarah in and she had this sense, something going wrong. "It was like in a dream where you know that if you turn around, there'll be something bad behind you, only in this case, what I knew would be behind me was, this is going to sound really messed up, a void, like a gaping hole into the heart of nowhere."
"The Heart of Nowhere." I've got two song titles now. I'm gonna have to start another band. Do they have nightclubs in hell? I wouldn't be surprised.
"Anyway," Sheila said, "I'm not someone, likes head trips. So I made myself turn around, and I was back.'
"In the place we went to today."
"It's called a flashback. It happens with psychedelics."
"Yeah, I know, I've had them. Sarah's dad liked to do an acid/crystal combo. Before I knew what a dick he was, I, you know, tried it a couple of times."
"The fact that he liked an acid/crystal combo wasn't your first clue that he was a dick?"
"The girl he brought home for a three-way the second time I tried the combo was the give-away. Anyway, this was no flashback. This was a full-tilt, state-of-the-art revis. I was back."
"What did you do?"
"Stood and stared. But Sarah wasn't asleep and after I don't know how long, I heard her calling me. I got to tell you, it was harder to turn back to look at her. I was that sure it was gonna be movie shit, you know; I turn around and it's not my daughter, it's demon spawn, spitting flies, come to drag me to hell."
"But you turned around?"
"The tats and the bad attitude may belie it, but I'm a really good mom. The kind that gets super strength and lifts the car off their kid."
"'Belie.' I've never heard someone say that before."
"I'm a pageant. Stick around."
That week, we did two more low-dose experiments. The experiences were, quite simply, beautiful. If Sheila had any recurring sense of something more, something darker, she didn't say. We would all gather in the common room after we'd downloaded our experiences to Jack and Amanda. We would exchange knowing smiles. We'd seen the face of God. Just a glimpse, but enough. We knew, and there was no way anyone who hadn't been there would ever understand. So we smiled. Even Darryl. Jack was taking the drug as well, separately, on days when we weren't in the lab. He had argued that, both because he had used the drug on himself first and because the experience had to be understood first-hand, he would need to be a participant. Unorthodox, but the people writing the checks didn't seem to mind, and in fact, it did make talking to him after each experience a lot easier and more coherent than it would otherwise have been.
It was a good time to have something like the experiment to focus on, because some very weird shit had started to happen around Albuquerque. Now, my hometown is a grim little place. It's a pointless little city. Too hot, too cold, too much fake adobe. The military/industrial thing (our state's main employer) makes for a sort of bland sinister that is both creepy and dull. Basically, you either work for the Man or you don't work. The Native American thing is tragic; the Hispanic deal not much better, and the white people are ass-holes. If there's anyone else there, I haven't noticed. Lot of strip malls and tattoo parlors. People are poor and people are bored. Crime, drugs, more crime. You live here, you don't think about it. Bad shit is just the day to day. But weird shit is still weird shit and, as I said, some very weird was going down around town. Someone sold a lot of bad pot, like dusted bad, and a boatload of high school kids went crazy and cut the crap out of each other with broken bottles. I mean really cut the crap out of. It was very ugly. Two kids died, two more were blinded, and one guy lost his, how do I say this nicely, his reason for living. In totally unrelated incidents, five women tried to kill their babies. Two succeeded. Four small planes crashed. Several buses ran off the road for no apparent reason.
We were in the common room after our third experiment. Norman had the TV on. Norman always had the TV on. Probably slept with the remote in his hand. There was a follow-up story on the dusted high school kids. "Jack," I said. "Are you sure some of your stash didn't leak into the local water supply?"
"Douchebag," Norman said. "The kid who got his dick cut off was the cousin of a friend of mine. You think this is all a joke?"
"Not at all," I said. "And I'm sorry, Norman, if I've offended you. Please don't kill me."
He flipped me off. Sheila, who had not been able to find a sitter again, was sitting with Sarah, who was coloring.
"Hey, ass-hole," she said to Norman. "There's a kid here."
"Your fault for bringing her," said Darryl.
"Blow it out your ass, cum-wad," Sarah said without looking up from her comic book. Her mother's little girl.
"Is one of the side-effects here irritability?" Burton asked. "I did a run for Lilly once about four years ago on a new mood enhancer. For two days you were ridiculously pleasant. Nothing could ruffle you. 'Hey your brother came by and stole all your stuff.' 'That's nice, hope he likes it.' 'And he killed your dog while he was there.' 'Oh, well.' Perfect. But the third day, the crash, you'd rip someone's head off if they coughed too loud."
"Irritability," Jack said. "No. Myself, I find I'm just becoming impatient with everyday reality. With a world where someone doses high school kids with PCP and mothers try to kill their own children. And no, Charlie, our drugs are not leaking into the water supply, although it might be a good thing if they were."
Then, after two more trials, Jack upped the dose.
That first higher dose trip was definitely not all peace, love and flowers. I remember rushing towards darkness, and a little part of me, a detached part, wondering if I was only seeing darkness because Sheila had mentioned the void. I was being drawn in, and it was bleak, I mean fill-you-with-a-sense-of-meaninglessness bleak. I had a glimpse, far up ahead, of some sort of huge structure. Made me think "factory" and "hive" and again, there was that awful feeling of sorrow and hopelessness.
Then I was back, in the lab. Before I even knew where I was, someone was screaming. Sheila, on the station next to mine. She was sitting up, staring straight ahead, still wherever she'd gone and screaming at the top of her lungs.
Around the lab, the others were in similarly bad states. Burton was convulsing like an epileptic. Darryl was sitting up, covered in sweat. Norman was still under, but as Amanda approached him, he sat up, ripped his IVs from his arm and began running in circles around the room, knocking tables and equipment over as he ran. He must have circled the room at least half a dozen times before he finally came to a stop in front of Jack.
"You get him," he said, his eyes wide but his voice level, "You get him the fuck out of my head!"
Someone had stolen my battery and I'd taken a bus to the U that day, and Sheila asked me if I wanted a ride home. I said the bus was fine, but she said that if it was all the same to me, she really didn't want to be alone.
So we're on I-25, headed for my apartment. Sarah's in the back seat and we've got radio Disney on for her. We hit this dark patch of highway. All the lights on this part of the highway were out. It's pure dark but for our headlights. Sheila and I haven't been talking anyway; we're both too zoned from the day, but now, we get that kind of quiet that has some fear in it. The radio is playing one of those boy bands that sounds like they grew up on Green Day and Fountains of Wayne. There's like a low-end static on the radio that's clearly not a part of the power-pop. I try to adjust it, but then for a moment, it doesn't seem like static at all. It sounds like thousands of voices, all talking at once, and vocodered down to a very deep bass. I look at Sheila. She's heard it too. One of us would have said something, in the "what the fuck" range, but then we're hit with the lights of a car coming up behind us. As it moves to pass us, Sarah says, "mommy," in a voice that tells you you better look over at the car that's passing us. So we do.
The lights are on in the car, and it's full of people. It's an old Chevy, holds seven. They all turn to look at us. And they're wearing these masks, so that they have no eyes. Just nostrils and red, angry slits for mouths. Only here's the thing. They're passing us, it's dark, but I swear to you, these are not masks. It's their fucking faces.
Sarah said, "mommy?" again in that terrified, uncertain voice, just as the car swerved right in front of us and Sheila had to slam on her brakes. She screeched us to a stop on the shoulder and we sat there, watching the taillights of that Chevy disappear while the Green Day wannabes sang about some girl named Kala.
We didn't say much for the rest of the drive.
I live in South Valley and once you're off the interstate and onto Rio Bravo, there are a couple of dodgy patches at night of you're walking, but mostly it's just quiet. None of us wanted to drive through the shadowy part of the road, and once or twice, there was a car behind us, and we all tensed up a bit. Finally, Sarah asked, "Who were those people?"
"I don't know, honey," Sheila said.
"Because they were kind of creepy."
Sheila and I looked at each other on that one. "'Kinda?'" she asked Sarah. Then we all started to laugh, and that helped a bit.
Then Sarah said, "Can Charlie just come home with us, mom? He can sleep in my room and I'll sleep with you."
Sheila looked at me. "I wouldn't mind," she said.
They lived back in the other direction, in Alte Monte, but it was a short drive at night with no traffic. We were passing an alley near Commanche South Park and I saw something. On the wall of an old warehouse, someone has written, "He's coming."
Why I noticed this. Because this morning I passed that building on the bus and there were some convicts there, white-washing away those exact same words. "He's coming." Now, the words are back, and it looks as if they've bled right through the morning's whitewash.
And standing in the shadows of the warehouse there's a guy. Looks like an old hippie. Like Gerry Garcia brought back from the dead. And why I noticed him, because he was sitting next to me that morning on the bus.
I kept all this to myself. I figured Sheila and Sarah have enough on their plate.
Three days later, we did one more session at the higher dose. It did not go well. Not for any of us. I got into the building this time. The factory I told you about. It was a soul-number. Awful. An enormous machine and endless rows of people in grey clothes, working to keep the machine going. Kind of nineteenth century, I mean that it was mechanical in a sort of old-fashioned way. Not steam-punk or anything like that. More like some Marxist vision of the soulless factory as drawn by Goya.
It was very dark in this place, even with a glow of some sort coming from the machine. No one looked up or turned from their work as I walked through. There was a sense of fear to them, as if they would be in some sort of trouble if they stopped in their work or turned. A thing about DMT visions; they're all-encompassing. That little part of you that stays sober when you're drunk; the part going, "wow, I am really fucked up here;" that part is gone. You simply are in this other place.
So I'm walking through this factory or whatever it is. It's endless, and it's as if the entire building simply is the machine, like I'm in the heart of something. Oh, shit. Sheila said it, didn't she? "The Heart of Nowhere." Christ on a crutch, as my uncle Louie used to say.
Down one corridor, up another, with a sense of the endlessness above me and below me too. Floors and floors of this shit; the grey serving the machine. And there's a low rumble the whole time, like the sound we heard in Sheila's car under the boy band, only more present. The rumble, I think, of the machine itself.
And then, fuck me if the sound doesn't stop, and every one of the grey people stops their work, and they all turn. And, I bet you saw this coming, they are those people from the car, the mouths without eyes. And they all raise their arms, stick out their fingers and point at me, and they let out a wail. It's a sound like nothing you ever heard. Sorrow, accusation, mourning. "What have you done? What have you done?" Scares the shit out of me and I turn to run, to get my ass out of there. And that's when I see him.
He's tall; I mean he's toweringly tall, like eight, nine feet. He seems to be dressed in darkness. I know that might not help a lot as a description, but it's the only thing I can say. "Night was his cloak" or some old-timey shit. That's what it was like. No doubt, the fear that I'd felt in the place, it was all of him. He was, quite simply, the embodiment of bad. Unlike the others, he had eyes. Black eyes, but with a fire of hate in them. Putrid, like some wound continuing to fester after the body it was a part of had died. H.P. Lovecraft shit? Sorry, but that's what I saw.
And then I was back in the lab. Someone was screaming and slowly, I realized that it was me. I had been the last to come back. The others were all there, staring at me, sympathetic, except for Norman who gave me his patented "look at the little faggot," smirk. But that was all right. I could see in his eyes that he was just as scared shitless as I was.
It was when we were all in the common room later that things got really weird. I'm on the couch, staring at the wall, my mind gone blank and I'm gonna let it stay that way for as long as possible. Norman's got the TV on, but he's pacing around, swearing to himself. "Fuck this shit," kind of stuff. Sheila's drawing in her sketch book. Darryl and Burton are playing gin.
"What the fuck!" Norman says, loud and freaked out and we all turn to see what's going on.
He's stopped, standing above Sheila. Her sketchpad is open and he's looking down at her drawing. "Where'd you get that?" he says, like she's stolen something from him.
"What do you mean?"
"That picture. Where'd you get that?"
"I drew it.'
"I fucking know you drew it, bitch, I'm standing right here. What I'm asking, where'd you get the idea to draw it?"
Sheila looked vulnerable for a moment. Not scared of Norman; she ate jerks like him for breakfast, but of having to admit to what she was about to admit.
"I saw him," she said. "When I went into the building."
OK. Chills up the spine time. For all of us. We all came over to look at her picture, and of course, there he was. The tall man, draped in darkness. The festering eyes, the sense of "bad," of evil. Sheila had nailed it.
"You're fucking with me, right?" Norman was saying. "This is some stupid head game. Like you're working for the doc. I tell him my vision, he slips it to you, you draw it, just to see how that fucks me up…"
"You saw him too?" Burton asked.
"I'm the one who did see him, dipshit. Are you in on this fuckfest too?"
"I saw him in the factory," Burton said, plain and simple. "That's all I'm saying."
"I saw him too," Darryl said.
"'Factory'?" Sheila asked.
I looked at her. I could see that she'd done other drawings as well. "Can we see the rest of your drawings," I asked.
She spread them out on the floor. It was all there. The endless machine. The grey people working, afraid. The last drawing showed them all turned to face us, accusatory fingers pointed, mouths open in that horrible scream.
Jack was really excited by the implications of our shared vision. "This isn't the first time this has happened," he said, and this is where we found out about the experiment in the 1990s. That's when Norman hit him. Upside the head. Knocked him to the floor. "Anything else you forgot to mention, fuckweed?"
Jack picked himself up. I saw his eyes go cold as he looked at Norman. Sheila saw it too. Just a moment where these eyes reminded us of the other eyes we'd seen.
"There was certain information I couldn't give you without prejudicing the experiment," Jack said. "What I'm going to want to do next is a higher dose session. In light of the extreme nature of these tests, I think I can get the University to double your participation fee. I'm going to ask that it be made retroactive to the beginning of the experiment."
We all liked the sound of that. "What do you hope will happen?" Burton asked.
"I'm not sure," Jack said, "But if you really are going to the same place, that might be the first step in proving that that place exists. "
As I said, we all liked the sound of more money, but there was more to it than that. Sheila and I talked about it on the way home. We'd gotten this glimpse, and now we kind of wanted to see more. Acid guys used to talk about that, but they talked about it in terms of cosmic enlightenment, the door that closed just as you were about to see the answer on the other side. We were talking about it in terms of seeing all the way to the bottom of the pit.
I'd spent the last three nights at Sheila's. It was an on the couch situation, but we were both feeling a vibe. Sooner or later, it was gonna be there for us, just maybe not when we were all scared shitless, although frankly, I can't think of a better way to fight the darkness than with a little love, but Sarah was scared too and being scared meant sleeping with her mom, and that kind of love fights the darkness too.
So that night, we pull up in front of her place. It's a dark, shadowy walk to the door of her building, and I'm starting to notice that sort of thing. We're at Sheila's door, she's fumbling for her keys and a hand comes down on my shoulder. So help me God, from out of the darkness. A hand. That thing they say. My heart in my throat. That's for real. Like a billiard ball.
It was the old hippie, the guy who was next to me on the bus, then lurking in the shadows that night. "Don't go in again," he said. "You're gonna let him in."
Sheila had gotten her friend, Meghann, to babysit that day and right on cue, she opened the apartment door. "I thought I heard you guys out here," she said. She looked at the three of us, me, Sheila, this weird old guy with his hand on my shoulder.
"Everything all right?"
The old guy lets go of me and slips back into the shadows. We just watch him go. "Right as rain," Sheila says. "Good as gold."
The big trip was a balls-out terror fest. Jack had decided that he would go in with us, and so the only one monitoring was Amanda. They had doses of valium and an antipsychotic called risperidone to pull us back, although for the most part, the DMT wore off so quickly, that, intense as the experience was, it was over before the responder drugs could take effect. All the same, Amanda assured us that she was ready if we look like we needed to be bailed out.
OK, lets do it. The doses are administered. Twice what we took last time.
Here's the kicker. These trips, apparently, are one long continuum. We came in to this dimension right where we'd left it. The drug kicks in and I'm standing, facing Mr. Bleak. His head is down. I've got the sense of his rotting eyes. He's about to look up at me. He does. He starts towards me. I'm rooted to the spot. Like in a really, really bad dream.
And what happens is, he walks right through me. I mean, I'm enveloped in darkness as he passes around me, through me, gone.
I'm alone, in the heart of the machine, the belly of the beast. Around me, the workers are all gone too. Nothing there, just the abandoned machine. Footsteps. I turn and see Sheila, running for me. In a moment, we're in each other's arms. We look around. The others are all coming to join us. We stand there, alone in this place. Far, far off in the distance, we hear something that sounds like children crying.
Amanda took our statements and then, one by one, we went into the rec room.
Amanda explained that we had apparently had a shared vision. We had all seen the same thing and that she and Dr. Warren felt that it was time for a group discussion. We put the chairs in a circle like we'd done on that first day, and we started to go around the room and recount our experiences. Jack, a "volunteer" on this round, joined us. I'm not just saying this with hindsight, the dude was acting weird. That cold, dark look I'd seen in his eyes when he looked at Norman? It was back. He sat in his chair, not looking at anyone, tracing the floor with his eyes like someone studying a map.
Burton was midway through his description of the machine. "And those people, if you can call them that, mouths, no eyes, working, pointless…" There were tears in his eyes. We were all looking at him. All of us but Jack.
We heard the dull thud and crack. Burton stopped talking and looked up and we all turned.
Jack, Dr. Warren, was slamming his head against the far wall of the rec room. I mean, slamming it. The crack we'd heard had been his skull. The wall was a smear of blood and brain. He took a few steps back, slammed his head again. And again. And again. By the time I got to him, there was very little left of his head. I grabbed him to stop him but he threw me away, strong like the say a guy on PCP would be.
"Somebody help me here!" I shouted. Sheila and Burton were coming over. I noticed Amanda, watching, taking mental notes, not moving. I turned back to Jack and tackled him, and Burton grabbed his legs. We held onto him like that, but honestly, he was already dead. His body was still going through the motions though, twitching and trying desperately for one more slam.
It took the police about two hours to get all of our statements. Amanda spoke to the detective in charge privately for a few minutes. After they were gone, Jack's body taken away, all of that, we were left sitting there, none of us looking at the drying blood and brain on the wall. Norman turned the TV on and Darryl shut it off. Norman glared at him but didn't do anything about it. Instead, he said, "OK, what do we do now?"
"Dude," Sheila said. "I don't know shit about how the funding here works, but I think the "people-all-have-a-common-bad-trip, then-they-start-killing-themselves" moment is probably where they pull the plug."
"I'm afraid Sheila is right," Amanda said. "The University will cut you your last checks and send them to you. I want to thank you all for your participation. Naturally, if you have any questions, or experience any… repercussions… don't hesitate to call."
"That's fucking it?" Norman said. "I get the idea to go head banging like the doc, I'm supposed to call you?"
"Dr. Warren was under a great deal of stress. And he'd taken several megadoses, unbeknownst to me. I only became aware of that when I was going through his records with the police. But yes, if you begin to experience anything strange, physically or emotionally, please call."
"How about if I'm just lonely?" Norman asked her. Her look was stone cold.
So we said our goodbyes. I went back to Sheila's. I spent another night on her couch, but we didn't say much. In the morning, I went out for Starbucks and when I came back, she was up, sitting at the table. "I think," she said, "I'd like to kind of get back to my life. Not think about all this for a while." I knew what she meant. We were just going to remind each other of the big machine and the tall man and Dr. Jack Warren, beating himself to death against the rec room wall.
I spent the next week looking for a job, looking for another desk and another chair and dealing with my mom and her husband. He had decided not to have surgery at all. "I talked to some guys, said their dicks didn't work no more without they had to put these little suppositories, you know, up the shaft. So I talk to the doc and he says we can try what they call "watchful waiting." Means they test me every month, see if the cancer's spreading, and in the meantime, I got, you know, my package in tact."
Putting aside the part where I now have a visual of this guy's "package in tact," which lead me right to another visual of him and my mother in the act, what he said here was kind of profound. Watchful waiting. You know death is coming. It's in your body. You could put if off for a while, but at a price. You chose the hard on. You chose life. God bless him, I think I would have had the tumor taken out and gone with the suppositories.
Around town, the shitstorm of weird was continuing, in ways that couldn't help but make you think of Dr. Jack. Kids killed in a car crash after they turned their car around on I-40 and drove into oncoming traffic. A fire in a nursing home started by two of the patients. A pilot flying his Cessna into a gas station out by Bosque Farms.
I was getting nowhere on the job front. When your last two references are a job you tanked and a medical experiment gone awry, you hear "in this economy" a lot. I was thinking about putting the band back together and I was also thinking about working at Lotaburger. I was also seeing things.
Yup. In the shadows. Like I'd be walking home from the bus and I'd have to pass a dark alley. Evening, you know and there were pools of darkness, and, I swear to you, the darkness was moving. There was something in there. Something bad, it goes without saying. And one night, I'd gone out to see my old bass player's new band, see if maybe he wanted to quit and give our deal another shot. The club was dead. Everyone staying home because they're afraid if they go out, their best friend might go crazy and bite their nose off or some such, and nobody much felt like talking about starting up on something new. I'm walking home, kind of late. I'm alone on Coal, and this bus is coming up. I turn, thinking maybe I'll take it the rest of the way home. It's got that eerie glow a bus can have a night. Little pool of moving neon in the darkness. It's not slowing down and I move to the curb to get out of its way and as it passes, I see the passengers, looking out the window at me. The bus is nearly empty, but the guys who are on it. You got it. The grey dudes. The Mouths.
Also, a couple of times, I'd seen that old hippie, the guy that was on the bus with me and lurking, yeah, "lurking" in the shadows. He was creepy, but he was real, and next to the living darkness and the eyeless guys, he was small change.
The same night that I saw that bus, Sheila called me. What she said was, "Charlie, Sarah and I kind of miss having you over." It kind of surprised me how happy I was to hear that.
"Guess I've been missing you too," I said.
She'd been temping at some government insurance company downtown. Like everyone else, tracking the weird shit on the computers at work. And it was creeping her, the way it all seemed kind of like Jack killing himself. Third day, she had to stay late. It was dark by the time she left. And she told me, there was something waiting for her in every shadow. Freaked her so badly, she started carrying a flashlight with her everywhere she went.
"But that's not why I called you," she said. "Sarah, honey, could you show Charlie the drawings you did last night before I got home.'
Sarah went and got her sketchbook from her room. It was just like her mom's. She opened it up for me, but I already knew what I was going to see. And there he was. The tall man, standing in an arched doorway that looked just like the ones here in the apartment. "He came to see me in my room last night," she said. "But when I turned on the light to see him better, he was gone."
Later, after Sarah had gone to sleep with all the lights in her room on, Sheila and I were on the couch. The TV was on to another bad story, guy in Santa Fe, landscape painter, locked himself into his studio and set the place on fire, killing six people who were in other studios in the building.. "I bet," I said, "he didn't like what he'd started painting."
"It's spreading," Sheila said. "It's not just in Albuquerque now." We sat on that for a while, then she said, "You don't have to sleep on the couch any more if you don't want to." Every cloud, right?
We made love with the lights on, something we probably would have done anyway. It was beautiful. A shout against the darkness, a rage against the machine.
The next morning, we're awakened by a pounding on the door. Sarah's already up, watching cartoons and she answers it. It's Burton and Norman, and when I come out of the bedroom with Sheila, we get a nasty leer from Norman when he sees that it's me.
"Saves me the trouble of having to go find you," he says.
What it turns out is Burton and Norman are both having what they call "flashbacks" and what I would say are the exact same things that Sheila and I are having. Glimpses into that eleventh dimension we all went to visit, more than likely. But, them being more grounded, how-to-profit-from-the-coming-apocalypse kind of guys, what they want to do is sue the University. They've reached out to Darryl already; he's the man with the business background and financial straits desperate enough to go along with them. They're meeting tonight at the bar in the Hotel Albuquerque. Do we want to join them; get in on the fun.
I told Norman I really wasn't interested in anything like that. "I think we all have a feeling that this might not be over and I don't think the kind of hostility that comes with a law-suit is going to help us if we get to a place where we need to share information."
"Looks to me like you and mommy here are sharing more than that."
"OK, ass-hole," I say. "Let me put it to you in a way you might understand. For me, the real benefit of the experiment being shut down; I don't ever have to see you again."
Norman turned to Sheila then. "You gonna let him throw me out? It's your place."
"The sooner you're gone, the happier I am," she said brightly.
"Look," Burton said. "You're right. This isn't over. Something really bad is happening here. Norman and I figure if we come down on them, they don't want to look responsible, they'll pay us quick to go away. And that's all we really want to do. Get enough money so we can get the hell out of here."
"And go where?" I asked. "This might be one of those times when you've got to fight, cause you've got nowhere to run."
"Damn," that was cool," Sheila said after they'd gone. "that 'you've got to fight' thing. You sounded like Rambo."
"Honestly, I just don't like Norman.'
"Well you sounded really bad-ass. So what exactly are we gonna do? Do you know what's going on here?"
"I think I know who we can ask."
His name was Eddie, the old hippie, and he wasn't hard to find. Basically, he was still following me and all I had to do was turn around. What I did, first I made sure that Sheila and Sarah were all right. We went out to a home depot, bought a generator and racks of lights and basically floodlit her apartment. She told the neighbors that Vince Gilligan had seen Sarah at the market and thought she might be perfect for a recurring part as Saul's illegitimate daughter that he learns about for the first time towards the end of Season Four. They were going to do some screen tests and to make Sarah more comfortable they were going to do them at the apartment. There'd be a lot of lights on. Jeez, she could have come up with a simpler excuse, although Saul's illegitimate kid, I don't know, could work, and Sheila said that everyone in her building had parties where they all watched "breaking Bad."
Then I leave, get on the bus back to my apartment. He's waiting in the shadows by my stop. I start to walk. He starts to walk, and then, as I said, al I had to do was turn around.
"Kind of time we met," I said. Not up there with my Rambo moment, but serviceable. Sometimes it's better to be honest than clever and all that.
"You may be the only one," he said to me without hesitating, "who can stop him now. "
We went back to his place.
As I said, his name was Eddie, Eddie Chandler. He had been a lot of things in his life besides an old hippie. A professor of psychiatric studies at Princeton, and then at Berkeley, where he'd become anti-war activist before he left for Central America and then West Africa, dedicating his life from that point on to, as he put it, "doing all the good he could do."
"I tell you all this history," he said, "so that you can understand that it's by way of atonement."
In 1969, as a professor of psychiatry at Berkeley, he had been involved in some of the last research on DMT to be done before the drug was reclassified and the funding dried up.
"Our experiments went terribly wrong, much like your own. People lost their minds. People died. The whole generation went sour."
"You're blaming your DMT experiments for the death of the counter-culture? What about Manson? What about greed and human nature? What about how bad an album Abbey Road was?"
"I'm only saying what you already know. Some sleeping dogs had better lie."
We were at his apartment now. A small, littered studio. There were posters on the walls. Bosche. Dali. William Blake's Great Red Dragon, a couple of Bruegels and some Mexican day of the dead stuff. And there were books, magazines, papers everywhere. Real old school detritus. He sorted anxiously though newspaper clippings, magazine articles, drafts of thesis papers. "We weren't the first to make that mistake. Not by a long shot."
He showed me a French newspaper from the 1950s. Fifteen dead in a laboratory in Switzerland. Some regional stories of arson and murder from the town near the laboratory. He showed me a report he'd gotten from a military tribunal about some German war research giving DMT to prisoners and the disastrous results, a wholesale slaughter attributed a the time to an overzealous officer misinterpreting high-command.
"Take it all the way back to the Native populations who used it in their rituals. The Caras tribe, for example. DMT was the psychoactive ingredient in a cactus they began using in their rituals just before Cortez came. Was it small pox that destroyed ninety-two percent of them, or something else? Does that question even matter?"
"What are you trying to say? That the use of this stuff makes bad things happen?"
Eddie unrolled a poster-sized reproduction of what looked like a cliff painting. "Last recorded glyphs of an unknown southwest Anasazi tribe. Anthropologists have tried to attribute it to every know people who lived in this area. No matches, not for style, for date, for materials used in the painting. We know it's very old. Predates the first identifiable Anasazi art by about three hundred years. My own theory. Not a single one of them survived."
By now, he had unrolled the huge print. You know who it was a painting of. Our boy, old tall, dark and gruesome. But here's the thing. The pictograph showed him standing in front of a huge opening, a door if you will. And behind him, as if charging into our world from the darkness, a demon horde of eyeless warriors with gaping mouths. "Behold, I stand at the door and knock," indeed.
"He makes the bad things happen. The use of DMT just lets him in."
And, meanwhile, a lot of bad things were happening.
Basically, Norman was coming apart at the seams. Maybe he was just a crazy, mean fuck. Maybe the DMT had triggered some serotonin misfire. Maybe he was possessed by the tall man. Maybe, as Eddie said, it really didn't matter.
Burton had arranged for the two of them to meet with Darryl, get some advice on their legal situation with respect to suing the University for the state of our heads. The argument being that Jack had known a lot more than he'd told us when we signed our waivers. The meeting was set for the Starbucks on Rio Grande in west Old Town. By the time that Norman got there, he had it in his head that Burton and Darryl were setting him up. He had that in his head and he had his Remington AR-10 semi-automatic rifle in the passenger seat of his truck. Took it with him into the Starbucks. Burton and Darryl already sitting there, which confirmed his suspicions. He shot them both in the head, turned and shot both the girls behind the counter, shot a guy reading the paper and an older woman who was putting honey in a cup of tea. Then he left the Starbucks and drove over to Amanda's. He had also gotten it into his head that Amanda and I were working with Burton and Darryl to cut him out on the lawsuit; that was why I'd been such a dick to him earlier. He'd seen the look Burton gave me, Goddamn it, and no one was going to fuck him over.
About the only thing that went right in all of this was that my mother's husband also lost his mind around this time. He decided to do the surgery himself with a steak knife. My mother found him in the bathroom bleeding out. He had just enough strength left to take a swing at her with the knife.
The hospital called me just as Eddie was showing me the petro glyph. I don't have a car. I call Sheila. She shuts all the bright lights off, packs up Sarah, tells the neighbors that if Vince asks, there was a family emergency and she comes to get me. She's probably turning onto Lomas right about the same time Norman's turning off, headed for her place.
I promise Eddie that, as soon as I can make sure my mom is all right, I'll be back and he can tell us how to save the world. "You opened the door, fruitcake, it's up to you to close it."
"You're gonna tell me how, right?"
"As soon as I figure it out."
"Did he call you 'fruitcake'?" Sheila asked as we started for the hospital.
"He has a long history," I said.
That history was about to come to an end. Eddie went back inside his apartment. He was looking for the answer to that question. "How to close the door," when the door closed on him. I picture it going down like this. He's in that little room, visions of every hell man has ever pictured all around him. He's coming close, comparing texts, images. His life's work. Something's moving in the shadows but he doesn't see it, or maybe he knows it's there and now it's a race. Find the answer before the darkness finds him.
He's staring at the glyph. There's something here. Something he's missing. Behind him, the demons in every painting on the wall are starting to move. The shadows are alive. Something is moaning in them. Now, he sees it. Gets it. A smile, brief, but satisfied. He can die happy.
And die he does. A few moments later. The police report said that his body was torn into a dozen pieces, "as if by some ferocious and cruel beast." That's the language. In a police report. Not, "person or persons unknown," but "some cruel and ferocious beast."
My mother was stable; in fact she was happy, which is one of the lovely side effects of Demerol. The police asked me a few questions about her husband and I explained that he was despondent over his cancer and impending impotence and death. The detectives who questioned me seemed exhausted. This was not the first bad call of their night.
Not their first bad call and not our last. It was late when we left the hospital and our plan was to go back to Eddie's, then back to Sheila's. Turn on the lights and go to sleep. We got in the elevator to take us to the parking structure where Sheila had left her car.
The, nearly empty, very big, very dark parking structure. It was on all our minds as we rode the elevator in silence. Finally it stopped. The doors didn't open for what seemed like a very long time. And when they opened, we were face to face with one of the screaming Mouths. He stood there, eyeless with that huge mouth open and screaming. Sarah screamed too.
Past the Mouth, I could see Sheila's car. "Come on," I said.
I picked Sarah up and pushed past the guy. He was insubstantial. All I felt was cold… but it was the cold of death. It stopped me. I couldn't move. From somewhere far away, I heard Sheila calling my name, but there was nothing I could do. My arms gave out. I dropped Sarah and she ran to her mother who was over by her car now. I saw this all as if through a veil, as if I were back in that other dimension, on the other side, looking out at a world I was no longer a part of.
I could feel myself fading, leaving. I saw Sheila hurry Sarah into the car, get in herself, and start it. She backed the car in a patch-laying arc and then pulled up towards me. Later she told me that I looked "hazy." Like I was wrapped in a grey spider web, Sarah said. Sheila opened the passenger door and shouted for me to get in.
That's when the first one landed on the roof of her car. Another Mouth. Then two more on the trunk. Another on the hood. Another on the roof. They may have been insubstantial to walk through but they made very real dents. Sheila slammed the passenger door just before one of them oozed into the car.
Then there was another deep wail and the Mouths all turned towards the rear of the lot, towards the ramp that descended to the next floor. Coming up out of the darkness was something tall and dark.
"Go," I said weakly. "Get Sarah out of here."
Sheila, God bless her, hesitated for just a moment. And in that moment, we were bathed in a heavenly light.
It covered us, radiating, angels come to our rescue. And as it shown into the darkness, the figure coming up from below receded, the Mouths were gone from Sheila's car, and I felt as if I could move again.
"Hurry up! Get in the truck," the angel yelled. I looked up into a bright halo of light. Beyond it, I could see a Ford pick-up and a woman standing on the running board . Amanda, Jack's assistant from the lab. She looked like fucking Ripley. Tank top, bandolier, automatic rifle. She was standing, reaching up to control the direction of the spotlight she had mounted on the roof.
I ran over to Sheila, helped her and Sarah out of the car and got them over to Amanda who stood guard, the spotlight fighting off the darkness and anything that might be lurking in it.
Amanda pealed us out of there. We were on the street, on I-25, heading out of town before any of us could really speak. Then Amanda said, "We've been arguing about you for days now. I wanted to bring you in last week."
Amanda introduced herself. Lieutenant Colonel Tufts.
All that state-of-the-art equipment. On a University budget. We should have known. This was a military project. "We've been doing this black ops psychic shit since the cold war," She told us. "My specialty is the practical uses of multi-dimensionality. Imagine there's a door that opens into one of these dimensions.
"Not hard for us to imagine," I pointed out.
"Right. Well it was our hope that we could use this door, either literally, as an invasion tool, or, in a more likely scenario, as a surveillance tool. But it got a little out of hand."
"You think?" Sheila asked.
"My theory piggy-backs off of Dr. Warren's idea. We've been aware of his research for some time now. I got myself transferred into his unit as a grad student."
"So this was your idea?' Sheila said.
"Finding a practical application for Dr. Warren's theories, yes."
"How much of the history of all this are you familiar with?" I asked. I was thinking about what I'd seen at Eddie's.
"I studied with Dr. Chandler. Had to go to Cameroon to find him. Spent a year building a hospital, just to work with him."
"OK, then," Sarah said. "You must know who he is, then?"
"Who who is, honey?"
"The tall man. The one made out of darkness. "
Amanda was quiet for a moment, as if deciding how much to tell to a child. "Sooner or later, everybody sees him, right?" She said, finally. "In every culture. Grim Reaper - Angel of death. Jack thought he was an energy field, manifesting from one of the other dimensions confirmed by string theory."
"That makes it clear." Sheila's sarcasm was palpable.
"He's an engine of chaos. A force that doesn't belong in this world. It's the second law of thermodynamics. He's entropy made flesh. The tendency of all things towards disorder."
"Eddie said we could fix it," I said then.
"You may be able to, yes."
"We're gonna reverse the second law of thermodynamics."
"We're sure as shit going to try," Amanda said, smiling reassuringly at Sarah. Between her attitude and the fact that she'd just saved us, I was almost starting to like her.
"Where are we going?" Sheila asked.
"Los Alamos. We have a lab set up there. A bit more elaborate than Jack's."
"What are we going to do in a lab?" Here's a word I've never used before. Trepedatiously. That's how Sheila asked that question. With trepidation.
"We're gonna go back in and shut that door."
"How do you know we can?"
"Eddie. Dr. Chandler."
"He's going to be there."
"I'm afraid he's dead. He sent me this text just before it happened. He showed you the petro glyph?"
I nodded. Then I read from her phone. "Been looking at this picture wrong all these years. Not coming out, going back in. Following something back. He was…" That was as far as Eddie had gotten,
Sheila said, "The worst three experiences of my entire life, and this includes having a boyfriend who watched Survivor, were the last three times I took DMT. I am not going back again. No, no way. Fry your own brains."
Sarah had started to cry. Sheila wrapped her arms around her, and she looked angrily at Amanda. "This is on you," she said. "You people let this happen. Made this happen. It's on you. You fix it."
We had reached the Santo Domingo pueblo exit. Amanda took the truck off the interstate. In the days before the I-25, this had been a flourishing little town. Motel, movie theater, couple of restaurants and a pawn shop. All things tend to chaos, as that second law tells is. Now the movie theater was boarded up and the restaurants were closed and empty. There was a truck stop and across the street, there was a McDonalds' and a gas station and a seven-eleven. Up the road, there was a Purina factory. You can imagine how many times the McDonald's/"people chow" joke had gotten told in that truck stop.
Amanda pulled us into the parking lot of a truck stop. She stopped the truck and turned to look at Sheila. "I'm going to speak plainly," she said. "Your daughter has a right to hear this too. I believe that our experiments with Dr. Warren have torn a hole between our world and the world of this "tall man" you talked about. I believe that very bad things have come through that hole. I believe that the world as we know it will cease to exist very shortly unless the three of us go back through that hole and take all of this with us. So either you go, or we all die. You want to go back to Albuquerque and wait around for your tall guy and his friends to come for you pull you into the shadows, because come for you they will, the Greyhound stops here in a couple of hours."
Sheila thought about that for maybe two seconds, and then the sky began to scream. It was a howl like nothing I'd ever heard. It was so intense that a couple of people on their way into the truck stop dropped to the ground, clutching their ears.
A wind whipped up now, hurricane fierce. Off across the plain, there seemed to be something coming. We sat in the truck in the little island of neon light and we could see it coming. It was as if an invisible giant of some sort, yeah, that's right, you heard me, an invisible giant, were coming across the high desert, trampling, crushing, tearing up everything in its path. I know, right?
The silo of the Purina factory was caved in. the gas station was uprooted. Cars were knocked to either side of the road. On the interstate, People were abandoning their vehicles, running.
The sides of buildings were torn away.
The interstate overpass was crushed. You could see people hanging there. People falling. People dying. And one thing was clear -- whatever this was, it was coming straight for us.
We had to move. Now. I got everyone out of the truck, pushing, shouting "go, go go!" We dove for shelter behind an overturned car just as a heavy, invisible "foot" came down, crushing Amanda's truck to a pancake.
"Come on," I shouted and we raced up the street between the rows of cars, towards a huge storage Quonset that belonged to Purina. Where they kept the Big Macs, I guess.
Then a big rig was thrown into the air. It came crashing down and started rolling, end over end, towards us.
We got across the street just ahead of the truck.
It slammed through a plate glass window of the truck stop. We could see people diving for cover.
We stood there, looking out at a town under siege. The siege of an invisible hand. People were slammed into walls, into cars, into buildings! People were actually picked up and tossed aside as this thing came for us.
The marquee of the old theater came crashing down in front of us. Took out a guy trying to get to his car.
Huge sections of the street itself were uprooted, sending more cars and trucks flying through the air.
Buildings were literally torn apart.
And then all the lights went out.
That, OK, I'll say it again, invisible giant, had literally pulled the plug, ripped every single power line out. We saw the lights go. Dinner, McDonalds', Gas station… then the street lights and the neon parking lot lights. It got very dark. Very, very dark.
Sarah clung tight to her mom. Amanda looked out on it all with a certain resignation. She'd seen this coming. Out there in the dark, we could sense them, sense him and his army.
Then Amanda turned to me, nodded to an old Corolla that still seemed to be in one piece. The driver's door was open and the keys were in the ignition. The guy had bailed in a hurry. He hadn't made it. He was lying, crushed under some rubble, a few feet away.
"You think you can get them to Los Alamos?"
"What about you?"
"We've all got debts to pay," she said. And then she turned on her flashlight, pulled her rifle into firing position, and walked out into the middle of the street. It's an image that'll stay with me forever.
Amanda walking out into the middle of the dark street, a gunslinger. She gets to the middle of the street, shouts, "all right, you bastard. Here I am," and turns the light off.
And then, they came for her. You could see the darkness, roiling, closing in. There were bursts of light as she fired into that darkness, hopeless, but she wanted to go down fighting. The bursts would throw off a little light, and you'd see strobing hints of shapes, coming in, ripping at her, tearing. We heard screams, we caught glimpses.
But we had to go. She was dying here to buy us time. We got into the Corolla and I rolled us out of here. We heard one last burst of gunfire and then a gut-piercing scream. Sarah, looking out the back window said she saw Amanda's fist raised for a moment, and her middle finger held high.
So now we're here at Los Alamos. Amanda was right; the lab is really something. Made Jack's set up look like a kid's chemistry set. We've been prepped and they're going to start in just a few minutes. The hardest thing in all of this was watching Sheila say goodbye to Sarah. Jesus, how do you do that? Kiss your kid goodbye and go off to war. Sheila's the toughest person I've ever known, all respect to you, Amanda, you're a close second. We're going in. Don't know what we'll find, what we'll do. I believe that we really might be the last hope of making this right, and I guess it was our own shit that got us in this mess to begin with, so that's only fair. Here's the thing, I know I said up front that this was going to be a squirrelly story, but it's a story that's not without hope. This time, we're going in for a reason that's about more than ourselves. Maybe that makes us Perseus and maybe we won't turn to stone. Sheila and I, we care about each other now, and that's got to count for something. I'm going to reach out now and take her hand and when they shoot that shit into our IVs I hope it takes us to wherever we're going together cause like the man said in that song a long time ago, "Ain't nobody likes to be alone."