She sits back after a moment, stroking the dog’s neck, and rolls her head to look at the truck. It sits silently in the twilight about a hundred feet away: quiet as a tomb, with no sign of a driver. She experiences a wave of nausea—which sends her hurrying toward the restrooms—as the sound of the choppers rushes closer.
She collapses over the toilet, vomiting repeatedly, as the helicopters thunder overhead. The pounding of the rotors diminishes as she spits and wipes her mouth. At last she reaches up with trembling fingers and flushes the bowl, and the water swirls down, gurgling. She slowly catches her breath. The crickets drone and Frodo barks. She sits on the floor with her back against the cold cinderblocks—notices a shoe covered in green plastic just outside the stall.
She looks up. An eye is visible between the doorjamb and the wall. It blinks as she shrieks and suddenly disappears.
The fog is very thick now. Beth tums and walks back to her car, gets in. Frodo whimpers and whines. Beth pets him, comforts him. She glances at the rail car in front of her: the door with the graffiti on it is now open. She can see clean through the boxcar to the blazing white lights on the other side. She sits back, not sure what to make of this, and looks out her side window.
A masked figure clothed in surgery green is right outside the glass, peering in. It reaches through the partially open window and grabs her by the hair. Beth shrieks. Frodo goes berserk, snapping and barking. The figure wrestles with Beth violently; it is trying to inject her with something—a syringe full of yellow fluid. Suddenly another figure is at the passenger-side window, reaching through the gap, groping for the door handle. Frodo attacks its arm savagely, bloodying it, and it quickly withdraws. Beth puts the car into reverse, starts backing up—collides with the vehicle behind her. The tires of her car spin wildly; they are hopelessly pinned. There is a crash as the passenger-side window is smashed out. Another figure reaches in, zapping Frodo with a taser, debilitating him. The commotion distracts Beth just long enough so that the figure with the syringe is able to inject her. She grunts and moans in pain.
Now that the smoke had cleared, she saw that the bulge had burst open, and was hollow. Reams of tree sap dribbled from its fracture. She stared at it as piano music tiptoed up the hall—Maggie's radio, no doubt—resonating eerily amidst the sterile walls. Thinking she heard the ghost-voice of Karen Carpenter—what were recordings if not the voices of ghosts?—she noticed something different about the willow tree. Something other than the weird bulge, now split open.
It was an odd configuration of branches, some thick as a person’s arms, others thick as legs. Had those been there before? She was pretty sure they hadn’t. She noticed there were unusual masses of vegetation growing from them; in addition to strands of weeping willow leaves, there were flowers, ferns, lilies, mushroom stools—she knew they hadn’t been there. Taken together, the branches almost formed a human shape—with shaggy shoulders and a mane of green hair—in profile. But since when did trees grow—
Suddenly the shape turned its face to her, opening its eyes, and Tika shrieked.
A reluctant assassin, a strange lake dweller, a pathological friend, a sea serpent, a dog creature--all will meet their fate in the game between the hunter and the hunted.
"Take the fatal shot," said Horseshoe. He must have laid down his rifle because I remember him helping to steady my own. "Easy now, you'll own this forever—" I stared the thing in the eye and squeezed the trigger.
It threw back its head, rising up. It gasped for breath, spitting more blood. It barked at the sky. Then it fell, head thumping against the deck. Its serpentine neck slumped. The rest of its blood spread over the boards and rolled around our boots and flowed between the planks.
I was the first to step forward, looking down at the thing through drifting smoke.
Its remaining eye seemed to look right back. I got down on my knees to look closer. The thing exhaled, causing the breathing holes at the top of its head, behind its eyes, to bubble. I waited for it to inhale, staring into its eye—I could see myself there as well as the others, could see the sky and the scattered clouds. The whole world seemed contained in that moist little ball. Then the eye rolled around white—it shrunk, drying, and the thing's neck constricted. And it died.
Horseshoe slapped my back, massaged my neck. "How's it feel, little buddy?"
But I didn't know what I felt. I could only stare at the eye, now empty.
They were the kind of musical notes men and woman once swayed to—even worshiped to—or so Jasper had told him, ground from an instrument called an “organ”—which had once been common, or so he’d said, but had vanished from the face of the world. So, too, were there cymbals, which echoed throughout the crew compartment of the War Wagon like tinsel—if tinsel could be said to have a sound—and mingled with the steely whispers of their muskets and tanks and other gear as the truck rocked and their harnesses held them fast.
“When a maaan loves a woman,” sang a hearty and soulful voice both inside and outside the compartment, and Jeremiah knew they were close, else the driver wouldn’t have cued the music, and when he scanned the other Witch Doctors, strapped in six to a bench in the wagon’s cramped confines, he knew that they knew it too. What was more, he knew that, however fearsome they looked in their black jumpsuits and white flame-retardant vests, their goggled respirators, their buckled hats—they were frightened, too.
But then the wagon ground to a halt and there was no time to be feel anything, much less fear, as Jeremiah unbuckled and piled out with the others. And yet, as he paused momentarily to take in the building—a ramshackle six-story brownstone which looked as though it had been built before the Betrayal, much less the Pogrom—a strange thing happened. He thought he heard a voice; not from without but entirely from within—a woman’s voice, a witch’s voice. And it said to him, as faintly as the cymbals at the start of the music, Why have you come for us, Witch-Doctor? And he found himself scanning the illuminated windows of the brownstone as if someone had perhaps shouted to him (rather than reaching directly into his mind), and saw behind one of the uppermost panes a figure so small and motionless that he might have thought it a piece of furniture, a lamp, perhaps, had it not slid to one side and vanished.
Naaygi found them waiting for her—as she somehow knew they would be—as the cage doors opened, their forward-facing eyes glinting the same hue as the lights in the sky and their dark, storm-colored bodies held absolutely still (even as another animal joined them and brought their number to four). She even knew somehow what they were; that they were a breed of carnosaur the “evolved” humans had called nanotyrannosaurs, the “Pygmy Tyrants,” and that one of them, the one with the brand upon its tail, the leader, even had a name—Napoleon, for he had been bounced forward and back in time via another alien species well before the Flashback and still bore the scars of his sojourn among the humans. She didn’t know how she knew these things, no more than she knew just where, within herself, Naaygi ended—and they, the lights in the sky, began. She just did; just as she knew that the Nano-Ts represented a queer offshoot of the dinosaur population that was altogether fleeter and deadlier and cannier than anything that had come before it.
And thus she bowed to them, her avengers, her killers—their killers, the lights in the sky—the rain running in rivulets down her body as she dropped to her knees and touched her forehead to the pavement, a pavement which ran red with blood and was strewn with the dismembered, disemboweled corpses of at least fifty men and women.
And then she whispered to them in a language older than words, Follow me.
Lightning flashed above them, and thunder cracked. It was a sharp, ragged sound—like the crunch of a busting tree trunk. The man flinched, and Napoleon turned to face him. The two of them stared at each other through the rain and the steel mesh.
“So, we meet again,” the man joked. He expected the sound of his voice would set the animal off.
But nothing happened.
The man swallowed.
“I know you can see me,” he said at last, and found he had to holler just to pierce the storm’s din. “I know you can see me—because I can see you!”
The Nano-T didn’t move.
The man laughed brusquely, and shook his head. “What’s the matter—forget about last night?”
Rain pounded on metal and roared down the gutter. The T remained still.
Why wasn’t it attacking? Was it wary of the shock prod? Was it sick? He readied his thumb over the prod’s switch. There was only one way to find out …
The Nano-T dipped its head to the ground suddenly, sniffing the mud, and the man hesitated. He withdrew the prod and shuffled forward, peering through the mesh …
It wasn’t mud the animal was sniffing. It was its own—
Something wet and foul hit the fence, splattering, and the man jerked away. The T’s narrow muzzle darted between the bars—and slammed to a stop. Its teeth gnashed; the fence shook. Its eyes stared out at him from its wide head, their golden coronas close to the mesh.
The man fumed; it had flung its shit at him! He hit the LADDER DOORS plunger and the PADDOCK plunger simultaneously.
Steel pulleys whirred, and iron doors slammed into the mud. Napoleon pulled back from the mesh, bleeding. He looked at the closed gates, owlish eyes blinking, and brushed at his lacerated snout with a fore-claw.
The man closed the control box and jabbed him in the hip with the prod. The Nano-T jumped, squealing, and banged its head on a crossbeam. Hot orange sparks rained down in the mud. The man laughed, his mouth hung wide, and struck the animal again.
Napoleon howled at the sky.
We’d walked about two miles when Tucker jogged to catch up with us.
“Twenty dollars says I can get back here before you do,” he said, trying to catch his breath.
“That’s fine,” said Danny. “Fish and game will have your info.”
“And that means your old man’s van down by the river as well as your mamma’s single-wide,” said Billy.
I was laughing when I noticed a handful of deer stepping onto the road ahead of us—which were quickly joined by others until they spanned nearly the entire width of the pavement. It’s funny because I don’t remember feeling scared, only curious. It was comical, frankly, like something from a Far Side cartoon.
“If you’re going to shoot an elephant, Mr. Schneider, you better be prepared to finish the job,” I joked, but no one got it, only gazed off down the road at the line of deer.
“Okay, that is damn weird,” said Danny, and seemed to grip his rifle tighter. “Anybody else think that’s weird?”
“That’s definitely weird,” said Billy.
Tucker raised his rifle slowly.
“What are you doing?” snapped Danny.
“Chill out, Pussy Galore,” he said. He squinted through his telescope. “Just doing a little reconnaissance.” He tracked his barrel back and forth slowly. “Yeah … they’ve got the white eyes, just like the others.” He paused and held steady. “And the red markings. I don’t know, looks almost like a—”
There was a crack! as he squeezed his trigger, and I looked up in time to see blood jet from the back of one of the bucks’ heads. Then the life ran from its legs and it collapsed, right there in the middle of the road, as the others scattered and disappeared back into the tree line.
No one said anything for several moments.
“Boo,” said Tucker suddenly, spinning on Danny, and to his smug satisfaction the younger man jumped.
Tucker just laughed and slapped his gun barrel against his palm. “Everyone relax. I’ve cleared the threat—”
“Right now,” hissed Danny, throwing down his gun and darting at him.
He shook his head, dismissing the issue. "I've no company, preferring instead the art of soliloquy and monologue. Joyung there is my only companion. We travel from town to town, up and down the banks of the River Dire, he making his music and I pacing the planks of whatever makeshift stage the sale of my baubles allows me to commission. When the performance is done, I send Joyung into the crowd with my hat, which, as you can see, has ample space for coins."
His dark eyes dropped to where my hand rested on Rosethorn’s pommel. Only the flowery hilt was exposed, the rest of the weapon remained hidden within the folds of my cloak. His eyes flashed and then he shrugged as if in disinterest.
"Ah, but how rude it is to talk only of one's self when in the company of a stranger as fascinating as you, boatman. You must tell me what it is that brings you to our Tinsel Forest, and without even your scythe to defend yourself."
"You know me to be a ferryman," I said, pushing the circlet up and over my forehead. "How?"
"Why, by taking one look at you, that’s how! You've no mask, that much is true, nor have you a scythe, as I’ve said … you’ve the cloak, all right, but that can be purchased at even the lowliest of costume shops; I’ve one just like it in my wagon here, in fact. No, this is something in the face itself. It’s an aura." He paused, appraising me coldly. "You’ve the heart of a ferryman."
After a moment I replied, "I knew a woman once who said the very opposite."
"A woman, eh? She must have feared you very much."
“Jesus, Corbin, your window!” shrieked Charlotte—too late—as one of the beasts’ heads darted deep into the cab and began thrashing about violently. The Jeep careened against the shelves as Red lost control, first to the left, then to the right, causing groceries to cascade down the windshield and to roll off the hood, as Charlotte slid the pistol from her holster and opened fire on the velociraptor, which bucked and leapt, banging its head against the ceiling, before reversing itself back through the window and falling away.
Corbin cranked up his window and looked at her over his shoulder as Red regained control, and said, albeit begrudgingly, “Thank you.”
But Charlotte was no longer looking at his face; instead she had focused on his shoulder—which had been laid open by the raptor’s flashing teeth and now bled profusely over his policeman’s uniform and down the side of his seat, causing Red to reach behind himself awkwardly and fish around for something even as he accelerated for the front doors of the supermarket.
“There’s a First-Aid kit behind my seat,” he said, and Charlotte quickly joined in the search even as Red added, “It’s right here,” and took his eyes off the wheel just long enough for Corbin to shout, “Red!”
He’d scarcely had time to refocus on the wheel before he noticed a lithe figure awash in the headlights, a figure shorter than the average person and swathed in what appeared to be animal hides, holding a spear, who turned its head to face them and regarded them briefly as its—her—eyes flashed with terror and the Jeeps push bar collided with her body.
When she awakened, there was a fly buzzing about her Jell-O and the ice-cream had melted. The storm was still on, but seemed farther away — so much so that she could hear the solemn ticking of the wall-clock. And something more: a squeaking sound, like the protests of a wheelchair too long neglected. It was coming from outside her room. It was coming up the hall.
She looked at the doorway.
Sure enough, an old woman in a wheelchair muscled her way past, skinny, ashen elbows working. It was a comical sight, frankly. Slow down, you old bag, Tika wanted to call out — and almost did. Then the squeaking stopped, abruptly, and the old woman backed slowly into view again. She looked at Tika.
The younger woman looked back. Between them, up on the wall, the old IBM clock ticked.
The resemblance was uncanny. Both women had long hair, though the younger’s was blonde and flowing, like lemon molasses, and the older’s was thin, platinum, flyaway. Both were skinny. Both had blue eyes, fine features, were gaunt as castaways, and —
Suddenly, the crone was rolling, charging, Buchenwald elbows pumping rust-spotted wheels, a hand like a dead tree branch reaching out, groping, flailing, batting away Tika’s I.V., tumbling her saline bottle which shattered against the blood-red tiles …
It was a moment that would stretch indefinitely until they lay naked and depleted in the over-cab bedroom of his fifth-wheeler, which was parked in the diner’s back lot, at which time she whispered, even while edging toward sleep, “Your ring. It glowed as we danced, did you know that?”
His body stiffened immediately. “It what?”
“Your hard-to-explain ring,” she said, and giggled a little. “It—it lit up. Where on earth did you get that thing? I’ve never seen anything like—”
He sat up with a start, everything about him seeming suddenly electrified, suddenly rigid. “What color was it?”
She tittered hesitantly. “And that matters because …?”
He grabbed her by the throat—not particularly hard, but enough to hurt. “What color was it?”
Her mind reeled. Hasn’t it always been just a matter of when? “Green. It was green. You’re—you’re hurting me.”
He released her suddenly and looked out the window. “Green … by the gods. What shade?” He looked at her abruptly. “What shade, Sarah?”
She began to inch away from him slowly. “Just —just green. Dark green, I think. It—it only did it for—”
And then she was scrambling—disentangling herself from the sheets, tumbling dangerously down the thickly-carpeted stairs, climbing to her bare feet.
A gunshot rang out as she reached for the door and wood chips exploded from the cabinets above her. “Open that door and we die—do you understand?”
She looked to see him crouched at the top of the stairs, pistol in hand. “The best we can hope for now is to remain still … and pray they don’t find us. Now step away from the door—do it!”
She stared at him for several breaths, her heart hammering in her chest, wondering if he would really shoot—if he was really that crazy.
“Dark green, by the gods. Thazgul ...”
Yes, she could see now that he was. Could see it just as clear as day. Could see that he’d always been crazy and had always looked it: she’d just been too stupid to see—too needy, too agreeable. Hasn’t it always been just a matter of when?
That’s when I really noticed it, the fact that the landscape immediately around the car had changed; that it had—reverted, somehow. I can only describe what I saw, which was that none of the vehicles at the light could have been newer than a ’66, and that the light itself looked decidedly retro, decidedly quaint, at least compared to the one only a block away. More, the storefronts alongside had changed, so that a Kinney Shoe Store now stood where a Taco Bell had just been, and a Woolworth had replaced an Indy Food Mart. Likewise, the pedestrians had changed—yoga pants giving way to miniskirts, athletic shoes giving way to go-go boots and winklepickers, short hair giving way to long. And it was as I observed these things that I noticed something else—the Stingray’s reflection in the Woolworth’s front windows, or rather, the reflection of something which was not the Stingray but which stood—hovered—in its place: a long, translucent, green-black thing, like an enormous wine decanter, only laid on its side, which glowed slightly from within its bulbous body and seemed to warp the very air around it, to bend it, to curl it like burnt paper.
One wind is for a Jewish father, who calls up an unspeakable evil to avenge his son. Another is for an intersex hero caught up in a battle between men and women. Still another is for an astronaut thrown into black hole, where he sees the Face of God. Yet one more is for the hooded men who prowl the Kentucky night ...
Jonesing for a drive-in theater and a hotrod El Camino?
It’s the dawn of the 1970s and everything is changing. The war in Vietnam is winding down. So is the Apollo Space Program. The tiny northwestern city of Spokane is about to host a World’s Fair. But the Watergate Hearings and the re-entry of Skylab and the eruption of Mount Saint Helens are coming…as are killer bees and Ronald Reagan.
Enter ‘The Kid,’ a panic-prone, hyper-imaginative boy whose life changes drastically when his father brings home an astronaut-white El Camino. As the car’s deep-seated rumbling becomes a catalyst for the Kid’s curiosity, his ailing, over-protective mother finds herself fending off questions she doesn’t want to answer. But her attempt to redirect him on his birthday only arms him with the tool he needs to penetrate deeper—a pair of novelty X-Ray Specs—and as the Camino muscles them through a decade of economic and cultural turmoil, the Kid comes to believe he can see through metal, clothing, skin—to the center of the universe itself, where he imagines something monstrous growing, spreading, reaching across time and space to threaten his very world.
Using the iconography of 20th century trash Americana—drive-in monster movies, cancelled TV shows, vintage comic books—Spitzer has written an unconventional memoir which recalls J.M. Coetzee’s Boyhood and Youth. More than a literal character, ‘The Kid’ is both the child and the adult. By eschewing the technique of traditional autobiography, Spitzer creates a spherical narrative in which the past lives on in an eternal present while retrospection penetrates the edges. X-Ray Rider is not so much a memoir as it is a retro prequel to a postmodern life—a cinematized “reboot” of what Stephen King calls the “fogged out landscape” of youth.
Want to go for a ride?
He looked up at his apartment window after he’d gotten out of his truck, he didn’t know why, and saw Sadie sitting in the sill, staring down at him, it seemed. Hey, you little psychopath, he thought, as the snow fluttered down and clung to his face. Have you been a good girl?
He was relieved to find, a few minutes later, that she had: for nothing appeared amiss either in the kitchen or the living room. The bedroom, too, seemed in perfectly good order—although Sadie was no longer at the window, which did beg the question: Where on earth was she, exactly? He began calling out her name as he moved toward the bathroom, and was surprised by how little his voice sounded, how nervous.
He felt a wave of apprehension as he entered the bathroom, he wasn’t sure why, but was pleased to find it normal in every respect—there wasn’t even any discernible cat box odor. He laughed a little at his own paranoia. What had he expected? ‘REDRUM’ scrawled across the mirror in cat shit?
That’s when she sees the Shape again. Sees it through the shattered passenger window—silhouetted against a flash of lightning, approaching over the desert hills, maneuvering impossibly.
"No …" she whimpers, as Frodo barks and howls.
Then a horn sounds and she faces forward—in time to avoid a head-on collision by mere seconds.
By the time she skids to a stop on the shoulder of the road, a man is running up to her, apologetic, out of breath, asking if she is okay. She gets out, shrieking and gesturing with her arms, completely hysterical.
"Did you see it? Did you see it?"
He catches her wrists in his hands and holds them—an overly intimate gesture she could be offended by, but isn’t.
"I saw a jet," he says, staring into her eyes, continuing to hold her hands. "A jet—they’re everywhere out here today. They must be doing maneuvers or something. It’s okay, all right? You’re okay."
She begins to calm down at last, however slightly. There’s something about him, something about his mild eyes and soft but firm hands, his shock of dark hair, his soothing voice. She senses something and looks up, sees a fighter jet flying right over the top of them—low enough that she can make out the rivets in its fuselage. It is there and gone before its sharp-edged whine even cuts the air.
"See?" he says, releasing her hands. "Just a jet."
And then he was sliding down, down, leveling off briefly, then down again, and he couldn’t help but notice that the people he had planned to rule were fleeing now, and that the Nano-T had broken off its engagement with the tiger long enough to snap at them and give chase, and that in its absence the great feline had turned its mighty head to face the bottom of the slide and opened its maw, which was mottled pink and black, and that he was helpless to do anything but continue sliding toward it—until his kicking feet and legs were trapped between its terrible, curved fangs and its central incisors bit mercilessly into his abdomen (which crunched and splattered and was ripped in two as his bowels exploded outward and his heart and lungs and spleen steamed on contact with the air) and blood erupted from his mouth only to gurgle back inside and choke him. And then the darkness engulfed him completely and he felt himself slithering between its throat muscles and down its gullet—into the burning blackness of its stomach, where he saw by a brief and inexplicable light the dead face of the man the cat had eaten earlier in the day, and knew at last that he walked the earth no more.
She didn’t respond right away but only continued to stroke Ank, who’s stony texture seemed to fascinate her endlessly. At length she said, “Okay,” and turned one of its dials, and the room was immediately filled with the slightly raspy voice of a woman, who continued, “… if you’re heading our way through Shadow Canyon, following that beautiful river, perhaps, be advised there’s a pair of allosaurs operating in that area we call Lenny and Squiggy, and stay alert. And while we’d prefer you didn’t kill them if in fact you are armed, we wouldn’t recommend you get too friendly with them either. Once again this is Radio Free Montana, nestled just south of Paradise at Barley’s Hot Springs Resort, where we’ve got power, lights, food, and about three-hundred survivors who’d love nothing more than to meet you. But be advised as always: if you’re a marauder or a carpetbagger, you won’t like what we’ve prepared for you. So take a little advice from Bella Ray and don’t even try it. And on that it’s another round of AC/DC … for those struggling to get here even now, we salute you!”
They were coming now, all of them, for Red could hear their excited breathing and rapid footfalls and the gnashing of their teeth—even as the power failed at last and everyone sighted their weapons. Again he looked at the new arrivals, finding it difficult to see them through the halos of their lights, thinking he saw a black man in what looked like a convenience store tunic as well as a man and a woman standing close together and a big woman brandishing what looked like a rocket launcher. So, too, was Lonny there, just as calm and disciplined as could be, as well as an older man wearing what appeared to be coveralls. “Easy, brother,” said the man in the tunic, his voice as resonant and confident and reassuring as any Red had ever heard. “We got your back.”