This week, Mulholland Books published Michael Marshall’s supernatural suspense novel, We Are Here. If you’ve been keeping up with Michael’s interviews, you’ll note he talks a lot about how this novel is about friendship, even as we’ve talked about how We Are Here features shadowy figures who may or may not be watching your every move. Curious about how the two intersect? Then read the beguiling scene that opens the book:
He drove. There were times when he stopped for gas or to empty his bladder or buy cups of poor coffee out of machines, selecting isolated and windswept gas stations where no one was doing anything except filling up and staring vacantly at their cold hand on the pump as they waited,
wanting to be back in their warm car and on the road to wherever it was they had to be. Nobody was looking or watching or caring about anyone who might happen to be doing the same thing. Nobody saw anything except another guy in bulky clothing getting into a big car and pulling
back out onto the highway.
Sometimes it was raining. Sometimes there was sleet. Sometimes merely the wind coming across the great flatness. He did not listen to the radio. He did not consult a map. He didn’t know where he was going and so he did not care where he was.
He just drove.
He had barely slept beyond nodding out for short stretches in the driver’s seat, the car stashed behind abandoned farmhouses or in the parking lots of small-town businesses that would not open for several hours after he was back on the road. Other than bags of potato chips or dusty gas station trail mix, he hadn’t eaten since he left what used to be his home. He already knew he wasn’t going back there. He was light-headed with hunger but he could not eat. He was exhausted but he could not sleep. He was a single thought in a mind no longer capable of maintaining order. A thought needs somewhere to go, but flight does not provide a destination. Flight merely shrieks that you have to be somewhere other than where you are.
He had to stop. He had to keep going, too, but first he had to stop.
A little after four o’clock on the third day he passed a sign for a motel farther up the road. As is common practice in parts of the country where you can drive mile after mile without seeing anything of consequence, the business had given travelers plenty of warning to think about it and check their watches and decide yes, maybe it was time to call it a day. He had driven past several such signs without registering them. This one looked like it had been there forty years or more, from when drives cross-country were everybody’s best hope of a vacation. It showed a basic-looking mom-and-pop motel with a foreign-sounding name. It was still thirty miles ahead at that point.
He shook his head and looked back at the road, but he already knew he was going to stop. He’d said no to a lot of things in his life, especially in the last month.
He’d gone ahead and done them anyway.
Half an hour later he pulled up outside a single-story L‑shaped building down a short road off the highway. There were no cars outside the guest rooms, but a dim light showed in the office. When he went in, an old man came from the room out back. The old man looked him up and down and saw the kind of person who arrives alone at out‑of‑the-way motels in the back end of nowhere; he had never been a curious person and had stopped giving a shit about anything at all when his wife died three years before. The man paid him in cash for one night and got a key in return. A metal key, not one of those credit card swipers found everywhere else these days. A real key, one that opened a particular door and no other. The man looked at it, becalmed, trying to remember if he’d locked the door to his house when he left. He wasn’t sure. It was too late to do anything about it. He asked the owner for the nearest place to get something to eat. The old man pointed up the road. The driver took a handful of matchbooks from the counter and went back out and got in his car.
Fifteen miles away he found a small store attached to a two-pump gas station that had nothing he wanted to eat but did sell things he could drink and smoke. He drove back to the motel and parked in front of Number 9. The rest of the lot remained empty. It was full dark now.
In the room he found a frigid rectangular space with two double beds and an ancient television. He locked and bolted the door. He shoved the closest bed over until it blocked entry. Years ago the bed had been retrofitted with a vibrating function—no longer working—and was extremely heavy. It took him ten minutes and used up the last of his strength. He turned the rusty heater on. It made a lot of noise but gradually started to make inroads on the cold.
In the meantime he lay on the other bed. He did not take off his coat. He stared up at the ceiling. He opened the bottle he’d bought. He smoked cigarette after cigarette as he drank, lighting them with matches from matchbooks. His face was wet.
He wept with exhaustion. He wept because his head hurt. He wept with the self-disgust that permeated every cell of his body, like the imaginary mites that plague habitual users of crystal meth, nerve misfirings that feel so much like burrowing insects that sufferers will scratch and scratch and scratch at them until their arms and faces are a mass of bloody scabs, writing their affliction for all to see.
His affliction was not thus written, however. His was a text only he could read, for now. He still appeared normal. To anyone else he would have looked like a chubby man in his early thirties, lying on a motel bed, very drunk now, sniveling by himself.
In his mind, however, he wept. There was majesty to it. A hero, lost and alone.
Sometime later he started from a dream that had not been a dream. He’d been getting a lot of these since he left home, waking possessed by shadows he wished were dreams but that he knew very well to be memory. The wall in the back of his head was breaking down, wearing out like something rubbed with sweaty fingers too hard for too long. His mind wasn’t trying to mediate through dramatization any longer. It was feeding up the things it had seen through his eyes or felt through his fingertips. His mind was thinking about what had happened even when he was not.
He didn’t lie to himself. He knew he wasn’t innocent, and could never be again. He knew what he’d done. He wouldn’t have done it alone, maybe, but that didn’t mean it hadn’t been done. By him.
The other man had suggested things, but he had done them. That was how it had always been.
He’d waited and watched down alleys and outside bars and in the late-night parking lots of the town he’d called home. He’d made the muscles in his face perform movements that looked like smiles. He’d selected forms of words that sounded helpful and charming. The other man planned the sentences, but it was he who’d spoken them aloud. The other had researched what would work best, but he’d been the one who slipped the ground‑up pill into the wine he’d made available, offered casually, as if it was no big deal, and oh, what a coincidence—it just happens to be your favorite kind.
The other man invented the games he and his guest had played until she suddenly got scared, despite how drunk and confused she had become. Who had then raised his hand for the first blow? Impossible to tell. It didn’t matter, when so many others had followed.
All he’d ever done was follow, but he’d wound up at the destination anyhow, and of course it’s true that when you submit to someone’s will then it’s you who gives them power. You follow from in front. You can follow a long way like that. You can follow too far.
You can follow all the way to hell.
He rubbed his eyes against the last shards of the memory and sat up to see the other man was sitting in the armchair. He looked smart and trim and presentable as always. He looked strong. He was holding one of the motel matchbooks, turning it over in his fingers.
“I don’t want to do it again,” the man on the bed said.
“You do,” the other man said. “You just don’t like that you do. That’s why you’ve got me. We’re a team.”
“Not anymore. You’re not my friend.”
“Why don’t you have another drink? It’ll make you feel better.”
Despite himself, the man on the bed groped blearily for the vodka and raised it to his lips. He’d almost always done what the other man said. He saw two necks to the bottle. The alcohol had caught up with him while he dozed, and he was far drunker than he’d realized. Might as well keep drinking, then.
“You left a trail,” the other man said. “Deliberately?”
“Of course not.” He wasn’t sure if this was true.
“They’ll be turning the house upside down tomorrow, or by the next day at the latest.”
“I cleaned up.”
“They’ll find something. Then they’ll come looking. Eventually they’ll find you. Wherever you run.” The man’s face turned cold. “You fucked up, Edward. Again. Always. Always with the fucking up.”
The man on the bed felt dreadful fear and vertiginous guilt mingled with relief. If he was caught then he could not do it again. He would not find himself returning to the same Chinese restaurant night after night, hoping for a glimpse of one of the other customers, a young single woman who worked in the bank across the street and sometimes came to grab a cheap bite at the end of the workday, though with infuriating unpredictability. He would not gradually come to know where she lived—alone—and where she went to the gym, where and when she shopped for groceries, or that her basket always included at least one bottle of wine.
The man on the bed shrugged, trying to feel glad that something like this could not happen again, though he knew every single moment of it had held a terrible excitement and that there could be other such women in other towns, if he chose to keep driving down this road. “They catch me, they catch you.”
“I know that,” the man in the chair said. He opened the matchbook. With effort he managed to get one of the matches out. After a couple of pulls along the strip, he got it lit.
The man on the bed noticed, too late, that he’d piled all the other matchbooks on the bedspread of the bed that now blocked the door. The bedspread was old, not to code, flammable. Very flammable, it turned out.
“I’m not going to jail,” the other man said as he stood up from the chair. “I’d rather die right here.”
He dropped the burning matchbook on the pile.
It didn’t happen fast. The man on the bed, whose name was Edward Lake, had a little time to escape. He was far too drunk now to move the heavy bed from the door, however. He was too drunk to understand that the dead tone from the phone by the bed was because the other man had unplugged it while Edward crashed out.
By the time he got around to trying, he could not get past the flames to the window. He was too scared, and the truth is that the only real and meaningful thing Edward had done in his entire life was kill a woman, and there’s no good way forward from that. So it’s also possible that, deep inside, he did actually just want to die.
As his former friend burned alive, the other man watched from the parking lot. He knew the moment when Edward died, and was surprised and awestruck by what happened next.
The death of the girl back home had felt powerful. But this . . . this was completely other. This was something else.
He felt altered, very different indeed, and knew in that moment that he was finished with following, even if by the end he and Edward had been traveling side by side and hand in hand.
People who walk alone travel faster. It was time for new horizons and bigger goals.
Everything would be better now.
To mark the occasion, he glanced up at the motel sign—lit by flames as the remaining rooms of the structure caught alight and the owner choked to death in his bed—and renamed himself. Then he turned from the blaze and walked away up the road into the darkness, savoring with every step the solid feel of the earth beneath his feet.
Even with the immense degree of will at his disposal, it was a long and very tiring walk. The dawn found him sitting exhausted by the side of the road. A passing salesman, who’d risen early after a bad night’s sleep and was running early and of a kindly disposition, stopped and gave the man a ride. The man realized what it meant to have been seen by a stranger, and he got in the back of the car with a faint smile on his face.
After fifty miles the salesman glanced in the rearview mirror to see that his passenger had fallen asleep. In this rare moment of defenselessness, the man looked pale and worn through.
But this all happened five years ago.
He is much stronger now.