[If you missed it, read the previous chapter, which takes place in a terribly boring gas station.]
And now he was gone.
Across the street I saw a dull grey Toyota Corolla, dented and dusty, parked behind the Circle K where Frog’s army green Jeep should have been. The car belonged to Amanda, a heavyset middle-aged pickle of a woman who’s only redeeming feature as far as I could tell was that she hadn’t fired Frog yet.
Meanwhile on my side of the street the guy manning the counter for what was euphemistically referred to as the closing shift (I say euphemistically, because obviously, we never actually closed) was named Steve.
I didn’t know Steve that well. He was a burly redneck that often wore shirts that said things like, “You don’t hunt? Then what’s the point in talking to you?” And since I didn’t hunt I assumed there was no point in talking to him.
But tonight he seemed chattier than usual. “You heard about the goings on down at City Hall?” he asked.
“They say they don’t have any suspects yet. But you can bet your bottom dollar it was them Mooslems.”
Now at this point I could have pointed out that as far as I knew there wasn’t a “Mooslem” within a hundred miles of where we were standing, and that it was really doubtful terrorists of any religion had started targeting random buildings in two-bit towns in the Panhandle of Florida, but I’ve learned that these kinds of arguments only lead to trouble. So instead I employed a tactic I’d learned from old man whose grass I used to mow. I nodded and said, “You know, you just might be right.”
“Oh, by the way there was some guy here looking for you.”
That got my attention. “Really. Who?”
“Didn’t give his name. But he was wearing a suit.”
“You mean like a coat and tie, kinda suit?”
“Well I sure don’t mean a spacesuit. Struck me as kinda creepy. Like maybe he was from the FBI or something.”
“What did you tell him?”
“Well like I said, I didn’t much like the vibe I was getting from the guy, so I told him I wasn’t sure when you’d be back and he went away.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“No problem. You’re not in any sort of trouble are you?”
“Not that I know of,” I said.
“Maybe try to keep it that way, yeah?”
Frank turned to leave, but just then a question popped into my head from outa nowhere. “This suit the guy was wearing. What color was it?”
“Black,” Frank answered without hesitation, and then he was gone.
Of course black isn’t a terribly uncommon color for a suit. Plenty of guys wear them. Well, not guys from around here. This neck of the woods you’re lucky to see a shirt with no holes in it.
All the same it got me to thinking about Frog and his conspiracy theories. And the thought that kept bouncing around inside my head was this: you should have been there. You should have helped him.
I started to get that guilty gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach, and I knew there was only one way to make it go away. That night I bought four of those giant beef and bean burritos from the cooler and heated them up in the microwave in the back of the gas station. I didn’t think about the calories, about how I was consuming more nutrients in a single meal than some people in the world would get in an entire week. Instead I wallowed in my guilt and self-pity. Later I would look at myself in the mirror and hate what I saw, hate the man who hadn’t been strong enough to resist the urge to eat and eat and eat until he couldn’t feel anything but the perfect bliss of a stomach full to bursting. But right now, I just didn’t care. Frog was gone. And it was my fault.
I suppose there might be some confusion on this point. Why should I feel so responsible for what had happened Frog? Well, like I said before, I owed him. But more than that, I had been there when everything had started to spiral out of control, I had been by his side every step of the way. That night when he almost went crazy with the baseball bat had been the start, but there was more to the story. Because the next night when I was working my shift at The Other Place, the phone started to ring. I was in the fridge restocking the soft drinks when I heard it, and I almost didn’t answer. I knew it was Frog. No one else ever called up here this late at night. And I knew that if I picked up the phone I’d be talking for at least half an hour, and I had work that had to get done. But then I thought about the night before, and I realized that Frog might really need someone to talk to, to help him get through this maze of paranoia he’d created for himself. So I put down the crate of Diet Cherry Doctor Pepper and went to answer the phone.
“Hello Frog,” I said.
“Are you crazy?” Frog said. “Why are you using my real name?”
“Last time I checked, Frog wasn’t actually your name,” I said.
“Regardless. It isn’t safe.”
“What’s going on Frog?” I asked not bothering to hide my impatience.
“We can’t talk about it over the phone.”
“Because ‘they’ might be listening?” I actually did air-quotes with my fingers in spite of the fact that Frog couldn’t see it.
“You never know.”
“So come up here and tell me in person.”
“Have you seen…you know, him?”
Him, in case you hadn’t guessed, was Karl, though Frog had gotten into the annoying habit of calling him Zombie Karl recently. “Karl hasn’t been around all night,” I said. I think I should point out that even if this wasn’t true I still would have said it.
“I’ll be there in five,” Frog said, and hung up the phone. (Note that he didn’t say goodbye. Frog apparently learned how to talk on the phone from watching television dramas, something I’ve always envied him. I can’t get out of a two minute phone conversation without spending another a whole third minute wrapping it up.)
It was actually closer to ten minutes before I saw Frog, and when I did he was walking up the sidewalk instead of driving his car. “I parked down the street a ways,” he explained when he came in. “Thought it would be less suspicious.”
“Good plan,” I remarked, but Frog didn’t seem to catch on to the sarcasm.
“I’ve got some new information about what’s going on.”
“There’s nothing going on,” I argued, “Unless you want to count your harassment of a harmless old bum-”
“He has a house,” Frog interjected.
“WHATEVER. Point being, you looked at Karl cockeyed one day and decided he had been possessed. This does not a conspiracy make.”
“He’s not the only one,” Frog said.
“Great, fantastic. How can you tell?”
“Its something in the eyes. At least with Karl it is. I haven’t seen the others yet.”
“If you haven’t seen them, then how do you know that they’re there?” I asked.
“I got an email.” He pulled a folded piece of paper out of his pocket and handed it to me. I opened it up and saw a the words “The infection is spreading, but not everyone can see it. You have to stop them. We think they’re trying a power grab, possibly someone on the city council. Do not reply to this email as the account will be erased after this message is sent. Find out what you can and we will be in contact shortly.
-The Sons of the Damned” was printed in green streaked ink. (Apparently Frog’s color ink cartridge was going out.)
“Frog,” I pointed out, “The email address this came from is listed as firstname.lastname@example.org.”
“Obviously a throwaway,” Frog said. “Someone like this won’t want their activities being traced back to them.”
“Someone like this,” I said, feeling exasperated, “is pulling your chain.”
“What if it’s true?”
“And you know that why? Because you’ve lived a life where things like this can’t happen right? You’ve lived a life where reality is reality, and the fantastic can only happen in fiction. Aliens taking over human bodies? You’ve seen it before. Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Fiction. You think you know how the world works. But don’t you understand? The kinds of things they feed to us as fiction don’t have to be. You’ve only been conditioned to think a certain way, years of social programming forcing your brain to believe that some things are possible and others aren’t. That some things belong to the realm of the sane, and everything that doesn’t fall in line with that is just…crazy.”
There was something powerful in his eyes then, a kind of passion mingled with sadness. I want you to understand that I didn’t buy into any of it, not for a minute, but in that moment I saw how real all this was to Frog, how completely he believed it, and how desperately he needed someone to side with him. So I said, “Fine. What do you have in mind?”
And sitting alone behind the counter of an three-in-the-morning-empty gas station looking back I wonder if that wasn’t my first mistake. I wonder if I hadn’t played along with him if things might have turned out better. I could have squelched the idea, nipped it in the bud, and maybe things could still be the same.
But I couldn’t let myself do that. Because I owed Frog, owed him big-time. He’d been there for me when I needed him most, and I thought I was doing the right thing. If I had known what that adventure would lead to I would have done things differently. Maybe it would have made a difference, maybe not.
My shift finally ended and I drove home on roads barely visible against the pink of the predawn sky.
I got home and stumbled to bed. My stomach growled and grumbled at me, but for once I ignored the gnawing sensation of hunger. I tossed and turned for the better part of an hour trying to get to sleep. At some point I must have drifted off, because the next thing I knew I was being awakened by a brilliant light. For a moment it was impossible to tell what it was. Then my eyes began to adjust and I saw that the aluminum foil I cover my windows with to keep out the daylight had been torn away. And there, silhouetted in the harsh and unfamiliar light of day, was a man with a gun in his hand.
[The adventure continues in Chapter 5! In which a pair of rusty pruning shears is encountered.]