Things are never quite what they appear in Pocketville.
"I TOLD YOU LEAVE!" Another wave of force sent me staggering backward into the kitchen. Much more of that and someone would be scraping pieces of my skull off the walls. I had just enough composure left to get out of the way when a heavily muscled tendril of Lee's flesh slammed the door shut behind me.
When this mess was over, Adam and I were going to have a long talk about his idea of "medical assistance." Fifteen years ago, I wouldn't have hesitated to punch as many holes in that thing in the next room, and I would have cost Anne her life in the process. Then again, fifteen years ago things like the monster that Lee had become didn't exist, and I still used the name Tekcop.
With one more look at the door, I turned to leave through the back. I had to trust that Lee, no matter what he looked like, would be true to his word. Besides, Xidorn was waiting for me.
Kokura street dead-ended into a wall so covered in grime that you could barely tell it was brick wall and not the sheer side of a dirt mound. Old, grungy warehouses were stacked wall-to-wall for nearly a mile down the road before you could find a cross street or door into one of the buildings. One way in, one way out, and a convenient dumpster to hide behind. A perfect setup for an ambush. I knew it coming in and still Xidorn caught me off guard.
"I should haul you downtown for dragging me out here!" he said as I stared down the barrel of his shiny new 12 gauge.
"Are you going to shoot me, arrest me, or shall we get on with this? I'm quite certain that you consider your time at least as valuable a commodity as I do my own," I stated. His barrel didn't budge.
"I haven't decided yet," he smirked. "You know there are stories about this place floating around the station? There isn't a single patrolman in the whole department willing to come out here. What kind of crap are you trying to pull?"
"If you must know, we're going to visit family."
"Like that freaky girl who pretzeled my last gun?"
"I doubt that Paige will be there. She works for Edward, and we're going to see my mother."
"What do you need me for?"
"The neighbors get a little rowdy when company comes over. Besides, don't you want catch the guy who's been carving people's faces off, correct? Ruth knows things."
He just looked at me with his finger uncomfortably close to the shotgun's trigger. The barrel was mere inches from my forehead, close enough that even a bean bag round would turn my face inside out. Paige could have dodged it, made another pretzel—or maybe she would have turned this one into a collar to leave a more permanent reminder. Me, I'm as slow as they come, and propping up a bar wasn't exactly athletic activity.
"Let's get this over with," he said, lowering the shotgun.
"Good. What kind of shells did you bring?"
"Double ought buck and slugs."
"Good enough." I said double-checking my .45. "Now, where's that door?"
The surroundings were almost identical to how I remembered them from my last visit. A new layer of dirt here and there, a little darker, but essentially the same. Except for the wall. There should have been a door wide enough for a car to drive through. Instead, there was only dirt and more dirt, as though someone had cut into a hill and left the exposed earth uncovered.
"This isn't right." I looked in the dumpster and found the remnants of an old broom handle, broken off about half way. One touch to the wall and the wood started smoking and sizzling like bacon before dripping to the ground as a greyish ooze.
Xidorn took several quick steps back and cursed. "What the hell is that stuff?"
"I don't know. It wasn't here the last time I came through." How much should I tell Xidorn? Being a Pocketville native, he couldn't know what we were looking at and wouldn't believe me if I told him. The end of Kokura street was the beginning of the Wastes—a massive open wound that wouldn't heal.
"Whatever it is, this stuff is quite dangerous," I said.
"Yeah? You're a master of understatement."
"I'm going to clear a way through. Be ready to run." I backed off a couple of paces and pulled out one of Anne's matches.
"Are you losing it? That's not going ..."
Searing flames splashed into the wall, sending out billowing clouds of sulphurous smoke and a deafening shriek. The sound flowed into me carrying with it a molten essence of anguish that reverberated through every fiber of my being. It wasn't the intensity, its piercing nature, or any other purely physical quality of the sound. It spoke to something more basic, more fundamental, and primal than limited human senses. I could feel fiery chords from a thousand different voices flowing through me, trying to consume my body and leave nothing behind.
Xidorn fell over and clapped his hands over his ears. I held onto the match, fighting to stay focused. Six seconds. Anne's matches burned for exactly six seconds. If I dropped it now, the match would go wild, spewing its torrent around randomly, and that would be that. Six seconds, that's all.
The match went out, and silence fell like a thunderclap. A faint echo of pain radiated from my knee, and I realized I had fallen, smashing it into the asphalt. Xidorn looked shaken but was regaining his composure quickly. Whatever the cost, the match had done its job and opened a hole through the wall. A hole that had started closing the instant the match went out.
"Run!" I coughed. My throat was dry and raw. Had I been screaming? I shook my head, climbed to my feet, and stumbled forward. "Sheridan, run!"
He was looking down Kokura street, back the way we had come. He looked at me, then at the wall, and bolted through the rapidly closing opening. Three steps and I was on the other side just in time for the wall to snap closed behind me.
The landscape was as barren and foreboding as always: dark clouds threatening rain that never came, sandy, ashen earth, and the occasional eternally-smoking stump of a tree. You could see the remnants of roads and the crumbling remains of concrete slabs that had once been rows of neat houses. A wound in the world that wouldn't heal covered by a festering scab.
Behind us was the steel door I had expected to see on the other side of the wall. It was a bit dusty but otherwise in pristine condition. The wall itself was little more than a fifteen foot by thirty foot section of crumbling brick at the edge of a large concrete slab. It had once been part of an old warehouse. Thanks to dear old Dad, it served as a gateway between the Wastes and Pocketville.
"Are you alright—" Xidorn's right hook caught me completely unguarded and off-balance. My head left a bloody dent in the powdery concrete. I decided it would be better to stay down when he buried the barrel of his shotgun in my cheek.
"You have exactly one chance to tell me where the hell we are and what the fuck those things were!"
"Sheridan, I have no idea what—"
"Don't give me that! Where'd you get that flamethrower? There's no way you've got the permits ..."
"I don't have a flame thrower. If you'd just let me explain—"
"You lying bastard!" His kicked my ribs, keeping the shotgun solidly against my face.
"I'm telling you the truth ..."
Something growled and we both froze. I couldn't see anything, but the mixed smells of freshly butchered meat and electric ozone were unmistakable. The locals had found us.
"Sheridan, listen very carefully. A headshot is the—"
"Shut up!" he hissed back. "Don't move."
He backed away without making a sound. From where I was on the ground, I couldn't see Xidorn nor the thing hunting us, and I didn't dare. My left arm was under me and had just enough freedom that I might have been able to reach my pistol. It was loaded with Anne's untested new rounds, and I had no idea how safe they would be at close range.
Gravel crunched to my left, out of sight, entirely too close, and at the wrong angle for a quick pistol shot. More crunching gravel and the smell got stronger. Where was Xidorn? I could feel the creature's breath on the nape of my neck. Its breath smelled even worse than the rest of it.
"Hey, big guy!"
It pulled away and turned toward the sound. I rolled over, ready to fire, just as the creature's head exploded, splattering green blood, bits of blubbery flesh, and bone all over. A mournful roar escaped its ragged stump of a neck, but the creature remained standing. Xidorn racked his shotgun and took aim for a second shot. I scrambled to my feet and ran to the opposite end of the wall.
"Why is it still standing?" I asked. Sheridan's shot had blown its head apart, there was no way it could still be alive. I took aim from behind the wall and cursed. A second and then a third neck arched over to look at the oozing stump of the first. Its translucent skin was drawn taught over a roughly spherical mass of writhing human forms. Hands, arms, legs, faces locked in silent screams tried to push their way through that rubbery skin only to be pulled away by grasping hands from deeper inside. Thick, bulbous protrusions filled with twisting intertwined limbs formed its legs and twitching columns of melded flesh formed the necks.
All we could do was watch. New flesh flowed from the freshly decapitated neck. An arm here, a face there, exuding from the gaping wound in a fluid stream of flesh. They twisted and stretched, like half-melted wax sculptures being stirred together in a glass tube. Three heads forced their way out of the ragged end, smashing into each other, seeming to weld together at the cheeks. Eyes, noses, and mouths flowed through each other and merged together until only a single, indistinct face was all that was left. Pitch black eyes filled with hungry malice and a toothless mouth opening into seething darkness.
All three looked directly at me and roared in rage.
I hope you've enjoyed this short foray into the strange world that Zachary inhabits. If you have, please be certain to vote for The Erasable Man and, better yet, take a few moments to provide a more material example of your appreciation by clicking on the "Support Author" button. I'm sure the Hidden will count such an expression of gratitude against the favor your debt to him for providing this little exposition to read.