John dies at the end, p.1
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       John Dies at the End, p.1

           David Wong
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John Dies at the End


  This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

  THOMAS DUNNE BOOKS.

  An imprint of St. Martin’s Press.

  JOHN DIES AT THE END. Copyright © 2009 by David Wong. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

  www.thomasdunnebooks.com

  www.stmartins.com

  Book design by Rich Arnold

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Wong, David, 1975–

  John dies at the end / David Wong. — 1st ed.

  p. cm.

  ISBN 978-0-312-55513-9

  1. Friends—Fiction. I. Title.

  PS3623.O5975J64 2009

  813'.6—dc22

  2009016944

  First Edition: October 2009

  10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

  For my wife, who has been so tolerant and wonderful through

  all of this that I think she might be a product of my imagination.

  Also, my best friend, Mack Leighty, who gave birth to the “John”

  mentioned in the title, and who years ago convinced me to get

  into writing as a hobby instead of alcoholism.

  Mack, I’ll never forget that when things got really tough in my life,

  you stepped up and killed those dudes for me.

  Prologue

  SOLVING THE FOLLOWING riddle will reveal the awful secret behind the universe, assuming you do not go utterly mad in the attempt. If you already happen to know the awful secret behind the universe, feel free to skip ahead.

  Let’s say you have an ax. Just a cheap one, from Home Depot. On one bitter winter day, you use said ax to behead a man. Don’t worry, the man was already dead. Or maybe you should worry, because you’re the one who shot him.

  He had been a big, twitchy guy with veiny skin stretched over swollen biceps, a tattoo of a swastika on his tongue. Teeth filed into razor-sharp fangs—you know the type. And you’re chopping off his head because, even with eight bullet holes in him, you’re pretty sure he’s about to spring back to his feet and eat the look of terror right off your face.

  On the follow-through of the last swing, though, the handle of the ax snaps in a spray of splinters. You now have a broken ax. So, after a long night of looking for a place to dump the man and his head, you take a trip into town with your ax. You go to the hardware store, explaining away the dark reddish stains on the broken handle as barbecue sauce. You walk out with a brand-new handle for your ax.

  The repaired ax sits undisturbed in your garage until the spring when, on one rainy morning, you find in your kitchen a creature that appears to be a foot-long slug with a bulging egg sac on its tail. Its jaws bite one of your forks in half with what seems like very little effort. You grab your trusty ax and chop the thing into several pieces. On the last blow, however, the ax strikes a metal leg of the overturned kitchen table and chips out a notch right in the middle of the blade.

  Of course, a chipped head means yet another trip to the hardware store. They sell you a brand-new head for your ax. As soon as you get home, you meet the reanimated body of the guy you beheaded earlier. He’s also got a new head, stitched on with what looks like plastic weed-trimmer line, and it’s wearing that unique expression of “you’re the man who killed me last winter” resentment that one so rarely encounters in everyday life.

  You brandish your ax. The guy takes a long look at the weapon with his squishy, rotting eyes and in a gargly voice he screams, “That’s the same ax that beheaded me!”

  IS HE RIGHT?

  I WAS PONDERING that riddle as I reclined on my porch at 3:00 A.M., a chilled breeze numbing my cheeks and earlobes and flicking tickly hairs across my forehead. I had my feet up on the railing, leaning back in one of those cheap plastic lawn chairs, the kind that blow out onto the lawn during every thunderstorm. It would have been a good occasion to smoke a pipe had I owned one and had I been forty years older. It was one of those rare moments of mental peace I get these days, the kind you don’t appreciate until they’re ov—

  My cell phone screeched, the sound like a sonic bee sting. I dug the slim little phone from my jacket pocket, glanced at the number and felt a sickening little twinge of fear. I disconnected the call without answering.

  The world was silent again, save for the faint applause of trees rustling in the wind and crumbly dead leaves scraping lightly down the pavement. That, and the scuffle of a mentally challenged dog trying to climb onto the chair next to me. After two attempts to mount the thing, Molly managed to send the chair clattering onto its side. She stared at the toppled chair for several seconds and then started barking at it.

  The phone again. Molly growled at the chair. I closed my eyes, said an angry five-word prayer and answered the call.

  “Hello?”

  “Dave? This is John. Your pimp says bring the heroin shipment tonight, or he’ll be forced to stick you. Meet him where we buried the Korean whore. The one without the goatee.”

  That was code. It meant “Come to my place as soon as you can, it’s important.” Code, you know, in case the phone was bugged.

  “John, it’s three in the—”

  “Oh, and don’t forget, tomorrow is the day we kill the president.”

  Click.

  He was gone. That last part was code for, “Stop and pick me up some cigarettes on the way.”

  Actually, the phone probably was bugged, but I was confident the people doing it could just as easily do some kind of remote intercept of our brain waves if they wanted, so it was moot. Two minutes and one very long sigh later, I was humming through the night in my truck, waiting for the heater to blow warm air and trying not to think of Frank Campo. I clicked on the radio, hoping to keep the fear at bay via distraction. I got a local right-wing talk radio program.

  “I’m here to tell ya, immigration, it’s like rats on a ship. America is the ship and allllll these rats are comin’ on board, y’all. And you know what happens when a ship gets too many rats on board? It sinks. That’s what.”

  I wondered if a ship had ever really sunk that way. I wondered what was giving my truck that rotten-egg smell. I wondered if the gun was still under the driver’s seat. I wondered. Was there something moving back there, in the darkness? I glanced in my rearview mirror. No, a trick of the shadows. I thought of Frank Campo.

  Frank was an attorney, heading home from the office one evening in his black Lexus. The car’s wax job gleaming in the night like a shell of black ice, Frank feeling weightless and invincible behind the greenish glow of his dashboard lights.

  He senses a tingling on his legs. He flips on the dome light.

  Spiders.

  Thousands of them.

  Each the size of a hand.

  They’re spilling over his knees, pushing up inside his pant legs. The things look like they’re bred for war, jagged black bodies with yellow stripes, long spiny legs like needle points.

  He freaks, cranks the wheel, flips down an embankment.

  After they pried him out of the wreckage and after he stopped ranting, the cops assured him there wasn’t a sign of even one spider inside the car.

  If it had ended there, you could write it off as a bad night, a trick of the eyes, one of Scrooge’s bad potatoes. But it didn’t end there. Frank kept seeing things—awful things—and over the months all the king’s doctors and all the king’s pills couldn’t make Frank’s waking nightmares go away.

  And yet, other than that, the guy was fine. Lucid. As sane as a sunset. He’d write a brilliant legal brief on Wednesday, and on Thursday he’d swear he
saw tentacles writhing under the judge’s robes.

  So? Who do you go to in a situation like that?

  I pulled up to John’s building, felt the old dread coming back, churning like a sour stomach. The brisk wind chased me to the door, carrying a faint sulfur smell blown from a plant outside town that brewed drain cleaner. That and the pair of hills in the distance gave the impression of living downwind from a sleeping, farty giant.

  John opened the door to his third-floor apartment and immediately gestured toward a very cute and very frightened-looking woman on his sofa. “Dave, this is Shelly. She needs our help.”

  Our help.

  That dread, like a punch in the stomach. You see, people like Frank Campo, and this girl, they never came for “our help” when they needed a carburetor rebuilt.

  We had a specialty.

  Shelly was probably nineteen, with powder-blue eyes and the kind of crystal clear pale skin that gave her a china doll look, chestnut curls bundled behind her head in a ponytail. She wore a long, flowing skirt that her fingers kept messing with, an outfit that only emphasized how small she was. She had the kind of self-conscious, pleading helplessness some guys go crazy for. Girl in distress. Makes you want to rescue her, take her home, curl up with her, tell her everything is gonna be okay.

  She had a white bandage on her temple.

  John stepped into the corner of his tiny apartment that served as the kitchen and smoothly returned to place a cup of coffee in her hands. I struggled to keep my eyes from rolling; John’s almost therapist-like professionalism was ridiculous in a room dominated by a huge plasma-screen TV with four video game systems wired to it. John had his hair pulled back into a neat job-interview ponytail and was wearing a button-up shirt. He could look like a grown-up from time to time.

  I was about to warn the girl about John’s coffee, which tasted like a cup of battery acid someone had pissed in and then cursed at for several hours, but John turned to her and in a lawyerly voice said, “Shelly, tell us your story.”

  She raised timid eyes to me. “It’s my boyfriend. He . . . he won’t leave me alone. He’s been harassing me for about a week. My parents are gone, on vacation and I’m . . . I’m terrified to go home.”

  She shook her head, apparently out of words. She sipped the coffee, then grimaced as if it had bit her.

  “Miss—”

  “Morris,” she said, barely audible.

  “Ms. Morris, I strongly recommend a women’s shelter. They can help you get a restraining order, keep you safe, whatever. There are three in this city, and I’ll be happy to make the call—”

  “He—my boyfriend, I mean—he’s been dead for two months.”

  John cast a little gleeful glance my way, as if to say, “See how I deliver for you, Dave?” I hated that look. She went on.

  “I—I didn’t know where else to go. I heard, you know, through a friend of mine that you handle, um, unusual problems.” She nudged aside a stack of DVD cases on an end table and sat the mug down, glancing at it distrustfully as if to remind herself not to accidentally drink from it again, lest it betray her anew. She turned back to me.

  “They say you’re the best.”

  I didn’t inform her that whoever called us “the best” had pretty low standards. I guess we were the best in town at this, but who would you brag to about that? It’s not like this shit has its own section of the phone book.

  I walked over to a cushioned chair and scooped out its contents (four worn guitar magazines, a sketch pad, and a leather-bound King James Version of the Holy Bible). As I tried to settle in, a leg broke off and the whole chair slumped over at a thirty-degree angle. I leaned over nonchalantly, trying to look like that’s exactly what I had expected to happen.

  “Okay. When he comes, you can see him?”

  “Yes. I can hear him, too. And he, uh . . .”

  She brushed the bandage on the side of her skull. I looked at her in bewilderment. Was she serious?

  “He hits you?”

  “Yes.”

  “With his fist?”

  “Yes.”

  John looked up from his coffee indignantly. “Man, what a dick!”

  I did roll my eyes this time and glared at John once they stopped. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a ghost, but I’m guessing that if you did, the thing didn’t run over and punch you in the face. I’m guessing that’s never happened to any of your friends, either.

  “When it first happened,” Shelly said, “I thought I was going crazy. Up until now, I’ve never bel—”

  “Believed in ghosts,” I finished. “Right.” That line was obligatory, everybody wanting to come off as the credible skeptic. “Look, Miss, I don’t want to—”

  “I told her we would look into it tonight,” John said, heading me off before I accidentally introduced some rational thought into this thing. “He’s haunting her house, out in [town name removed for privacy]. I thought you and I could head over there, get out of the city for a night, show this bastard what’s what.”

  I felt a burst of irritation, mostly because John knew the story was bullshit. But then it suddenly clicked in my mind that, yes, John knew, and he had called me because he was trying to set me up with this girl. Button-cute, dead boyfriend, chance to be her hero. As usual, I didn’t know whether to thank him or punch him in the balls.

  Sixteen different objections rose up in my mind at once and somehow they all canceled each other out. Maybe if there had been an odd number. . . .

  WE HEADED OUT, in my Bronco. We had told Shelly not to drive herself, in case she had a concussion, but the reality was that, whether or not her story was true, we still had vivid memories of Mr. Campo and his unusually spidery car. You see, Frank found out the hard way that the dark things lurking in the night don’t haunt old houses or abandoned ships. They haunt minds.

  Shelly was in the passenger seat, hugging herself, looking blankly out the windshield. She said, “So, do you guys, like, do this a lot?”

  “Off and on,” said John. “Been doing it for a few years.”

  “How does somebody get into this?”

  “There was an incident,” he said. “A series of incidents, I guess. A dead guy, another dead guy. Some drugs. It’s kind of a long story. Now we can see things. Sometimes. I have a dead cat that follows me around, wondering why I never feed it. Oh, and I had one hamburger that started mooing when I ate it.” He glanced at me. “You remember that?”

  I grunted, said nothing.

  It wasn’t mooing, John. It was screaming.

  Shelly didn’t look like she was listening anymore.

  “I call it Dante’s Syndrome,”

  John said. I had never heard him call it any such thing. “Meaning, I think Dave and I gained the ability to peer into Hell. Only it turns out Hell is right here, it’s all through us and around us and in us like the microbes that swarm through your lungs and guts and veins. Hey, look! An owl!”

  We all looked. It was an owl, all right.

  “Anyway,” I broke in, “we just did a couple of favors for people, eventually word got around.”

  I felt like that was enough background and I wanted to stop John before he got to the part where he says he kept eating that screaming hamburger, down to the last bite.

  I left the truck running as I jumped out at my place for supplies. I bypassed the house for the weatherworn toolshed in the backyard, opened the padlocked door and swept over the dark shelves with my flashlight:

  A Winnie the Pooh toy with dried blood around its eyes;

  A stuffed and mounted badgerconda (a cross between a badger and an anaconda);

  A large Mason jar filled with cloudy formaldehyde, where inside floated a six-inch clump of cockroaches arranged roughly in the shape of a human hand.

  I grabbed a medieval-style torch John had stolen from the wall of a theme restaurant. I picked up a clear squeeze bottle filled with a thick green liquid that immediately turned bloodred as soon as I touched it. I reconsidered, sat it back on
the shelf and grabbed my vintage 1987 ghetto blaster instead.

  I went into the house and called to Molly. I opened a small plastic tub in the kitchen cabinet filled with little pink, rubbery chunks, like erasers. I put a handful in my pocket and rushed back out the door, the dog following on my heels.

  Shelly lived in a simple two-story farmhouse, black shutters on white siding. It sat on an island of turf in a sea of harvest-flattened cornfields. We walked past a mailbox shaped like a cow and saw a hand-painted sign on the front door that read THE MORRISON’S—ESTABLISHED 1962. John and I had a long debate at the door about whether or not that apostrophe belonged there.

  I know, I know. If I had a brain, I would have walked away right then.

  John stepped up, pushed open the front door and ducked aside. I dug in my pocket and pulled out one of the pink chunks. They were steak-shaped dog treats, complete with little brown grill lines. I realized at that moment that no dog would know what those grill lines were and that they were purely for my benefit.

  “Molly!”

  I shook the treat in front of her and then tossed it through the door. The dog ran in after it.

  We waited for the sound of, say, dog flesh splattering across a wall, but heard only the padding of Molly’s paws. Eventually she came back to the door, grinning stupidly. We decided it was safe to go in.

  Shelly opened her mouth as if to express some kind of disapproval, but apparently decided against it. We stepped into the dark living room. Shelly moved to flip on a light, but I stopped her with a hand motion.

  Instead, John hefted the torch and touched his lighter to it. A foot-tall flame erupted from the head and we slowly crept through the house by its flickering light. I noticed John had brought along a thermos of his coffee, this “favor” already qualifying as an all-nighter. I admit, the horrific burning sensation really did keep you awake.

  I asked, “Where do you see him, mostly?”

  Shelly’s fingers started twisting at her skirt again. “The basement. And once I saw him in the bathroom. His hand, it, uh, came up through the toilet while I—”

 

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