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Authors: Bentley Little

Dispatch (32 page)

BOOK: Dispatch
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"Look," he whispered conspiratorially, and opened his jacket. The interior pockets, as well as the waistband of his pants, were lined with letters. At least a dozen of them. "They're from yesterday and this morning. I didn't mail them," he said.

I looked at Shamus and I could not have been prouder of him if he had been my own brother. Against all odds, against reason and his very nature, he had made his way through the complex and ambiguous wilderness of letter writing, and on his own had come to the same realization that I'd had to be hit over the head with in order to recognize.

"They're bad," he said. "They're wrong. I can't let them go out."

I nodded. "I know."

"But if I leave them or throw them away or ... do anything else with them, I'll get in trouble. I'll be punished." He looked at me imploringly. "Won't I?"

"I think so, yes," I told him.

He was shaking. "I don't know why I did this. It was stupid. I should have left well enough alone—"

"No!" I told him, and strode forward, taking him by the shoulders. "You did the right thing. It's what all of us should be doing." I met his eyes. "You know why I'm here today? You know why I'm watching this piece-of-shit movie that I'm not even paying any attention to? Because I knew I shouldn't be writing any more letters, and I needed an excuse."

His expression lightened. "Really?"

"I'm not writing any tomorrow, either, but I don't know what I'm going to do to hide it."

"Can you?" Shamus asked.

"Hide it?"

"No. Not write." He motioned toward the letters in his jacket and waistband. "That was my plan, too. I wasn't going to write. But I couldn't help myself. So I decided to just write whatever I wanted and then not mail it. Kill two birds with one stone."

"I think that's a good idea," I said.

"Yeah, but look where it leaves me. What should I do now?" he asked.

"I don't know," I admitted. "Why don't we go to Stan's, see if he has any ideas?"

"Sure, if you think that's best."

"They may have someone watching us," I told Shamus. "Both of us. We'll leave here separately, then go back to our seats. It won't do to leave while the movie's still playing. Too suspicious. I'll leave at the beginning of the credits, go back to my office and push papers for the rest of the day, catch up on my reading. You wait until the end of the credits, then figure out a way to stall nonsuspiciously for the afternoon, then go out to your car at your normal time. Whoever's in the parking lot first will wait for the other one. Then we'll both drive to Stan's. We won't say a word to him or anyone else until we're safely at his house."

"You think that'll work?"

I shook my head. "I don't know."
That afternoon was the longest I'd ever spent. I kept waiting for my door to be flung open, for that bureaucrat to burst in with his two guards and for them to take me back to that empty office. Or to the one next to that, the one the screams had come from. But the minutes crept by and then the hours. Our plan
did
work, and shortly after five we found ourselves in Stan's driveway, waiting while he drove in.

He parked on the street and walked up to us. "To what do I owe the honor?"

His attitude changed when he saw the looks on our faces, and his own expression sobered quickly. "What's wrong? What's happened?" He met my eyes. "Do we need to talk inside?"

"I think it would be best," I said.

There's something to be said for paranoia. Stan had rigged up a walk-in closet as a "safe room." Styrofoam from packing boxes lined the walls to muffle sound, and in front of that were sewn bedspreads meant to shut out any hidden cameras or prying eyes. The ceiling, too, was covered with blankets, as was the floor, and once we were inside, he flipped on a portable battery-powered camping light, then sealed up the edges of the door with duct tape before putting up another blanket in front. It was like being inside a cloth cocoon.

"Wow," Shamus said, and allowed himself his first smile of the day. "I guess you knew we were coming, huh?"

"It helps to be prepared."

I explained what had happened. I told my story first, describing the messages made with lemon juice that Virginia and Ernest had sent on my anniversary letters, and Shamus' eyes widened. He hadn't heard this part before. Then I told Stan Shamus' predicament, and he opened his coat to reveal the letters. There were even more now. He'd had a busy afternoon.

"I have a fireplace," Stan said. "We'll burn them in there."

"That's fine for now," Shamus said. "But what about tomorrow? And the next day? And the next? I can't come over here every day to burn my letters. They'll notice that. Even if I find some other way to get rid of them, they'll figure it out eventually. What can I do?"

Stan patted his shoulder. "We'll think of something. For now, let's just get rid of these." He started to pull down the blanket over the door. "Don't talk about it while we're doing it. Just keep the conversation light. After we've burned them all, we'll come back in here and talk. Okay?"

"Okay," Shamus and I agreed.

Stan pulled off the tape, opened the closet.

The house was dark. It was only late afternoon, still an hour or two away from dusk; there was no way the sun could have gone down that fast. We'd been in the "safe room" for five to seven minutes, tops.

I looked through the window. It was foggy outside, the way it had been on the day I was hired. And the fog was thick, close. I could not see the driveway, could not see our cars. I didn't like that. I glanced back at Shamus. He was shaking, his face nearly as white as the fog.

Stan said nothing, walked out of the bedroom toward the living room and the fireplace and, with a silent movement of his hand, motioned that we were to follow.

There was pounding on the front door. Not knocking.
Pounding.
A deep, spooky, echoing sound that reverberated through the house. I thought of
Night of the Living Dead
and those zombies trying to break into the old farm where the heroes had hidden, the way the zombies had just kept coming, an endless army of them, seemingly unstoppable.

I glanced out an open window, looked out at the fog. Behind it was blankness, that same cold absence I had sensed upon seeing it for the first time exactly a year ago today. But
in
it were figures. Shapes and shadows. Dark forms that almost coalesced into recognizable creatures before moving back, fading away. I wanted to close the window but was afraid to get near it, was afraid to mention it.

Stan was kneeling before the fireplace, turning on the gas. He took a long match from a nearby box and with trembling hands lit it. The fake logs in the fireplace burst into flame. "Here," he said, motioning for the letters.

The pounding grew louder.

Then stopped.

Shamus was fumbling for the letters in his waistband. "Hurry!" he said—

—and was immediately sucked out the window.

It happened so fast that I didn't see it occur and had no idea how he had been taken. I couldn't tell if something had reached in and grabbed him or if he had simply been vacuumed out of the room. I could see him outside, though, and he was screaming.

"H-h-h-e-e-e-1-l-l-l-p-p-p-p!" Shamus yelled, stretching out the word as far as his lungs could carry it. We watched him being sucked into the fog, the whiteness closing around him like a folding blanket as he was pulled backward by invisible force. After that came one short terrible cry.

And then silence.

None of his letters had fallen out of his hand; all of the envelopes had been taken with him. Stan and I looked at one another, waiting for the other shoe to drop, waiting for our turn, but instead the fog outside lessened, lightened, and in a matter of moments was gone, that horrifying whiteness replaced once again by the placid normality of Stan's street. It was like watching time-lapse photography, and as close as we were to it, as tactile and three-dimensional as it was, it still seemed fake. I moved closer to the window, peering outside. I could see my car and Stan's out in front of the house.

Shamus' was gone.

Every trace of him had been erased.

The fire was still blazing in the fireplace, and Stan turned it off, shutting the gas valve. His hand was shaking more than ever, and his face was blanched, lips dry and pale. Neither of us spoke for several minutes. We stood there, waiting, just in case something was coming back for one of us. When it became clear that we were safe, that we were not to suffer Shamus' fate, we each took deep breaths and fell onto opposing chairs.

"Where do you think he is?" I asked. My voice came out higher and far weaker than I'd intended.

"I don't know," Stan admitted. "I have no idea. My mind's a complete blank."

"Mine, too."

We looked at one another.

"What now?" he asked finally.

I could not help glancing at the window through which Shamus had been pulled. "You have any ideas?"

Stan thought for a moment. "We go back to work tomorrow, and we do our jobs," he said grimly. "We shut up and write."
 

Distance brought courage, and the next morning I decided to risk everything and go up to talk to Virginia. But when I pressed the elevator button for the tenth floor, it remained unlit and the elevator did not move. I pressed all of the buttons but the only one that worked was the one for the fourth floor, mine.

They were on to me.

They were going to keep me in line.

Nervous, anxious, practically looking over my shoulder every step of the way, I went to my office. I didn't want to write, knew I shouldn't write, but composing a letter was the only thing that could calm me down, and at that instant I desperately needed something to relax me before my blood vessels burst.

I wrote a letter to country artist Robert Earl Keen, telling him that I liked his new album but still thought
A Bigger Piece of Sky
was his best work. I wrote a nasty letter to the rock group Rush, telling them to pack it in and hang it up, that it was over.

Music again.

Once more, I thought that if I limited my focus to music, I couldn't do any harm.

I just hoped I was right.

The morning flew by. Twelve letters about various rock bands and singer-songwriters lay in perfect order within stacked envelopes to the side of my PC. I felt calm, cool and collected. It was as though I'd been meditating or medicated. The anxiety had abated. Deep down, nothing had changed. Shamus was still gone, I was sure I was still under surveillance, and I desperately needed to talk to Virginia and her friends, but I could handle it now. I no longer felt overwhelmed and under siege.

In the lunchroom, everyone was subdued, and I understood without being told that Stan had gone around and explained to everyone what had happened. I was grateful to him. Having to relive last night might have shattered my newfound equilibrium, and I wanted to maintain this detachment for as long as possible. If I could just narcotize myself for the rest of my life, that would be fine with me.

We didn't speak of it. We didn't speak of anything important. For all intents and purposes, we could have been temp employees working for an ordinary corporation and exchanging impersonal pleasantries on a mandated break. We were afraid to speak openly, and I realized with glum resignation that we had lost, that the Ultimate had won. Not only had he lured us here, made us his drones; he had now managed to quash and quell the only attempt at dissent within the ranks. We stared at each other across the tables, noting but not mentioning the missing seat where Shamus would have been.

Maybe Virginia and her fellow authors would have better luck than we had, I tried to tell myself.

Who the fuck was I kidding? If they'd really wanted out, if they'd been able to find a
way
out, they would have left long ago. They were as trapped as the rest of us.

I dreamed that night of the tent in the desert, the circus tent, only this time it was empty. Its canvas flaps opened, beckoning me, but inside were only mirrors, hundreds of them placed upright all around me in a circle, and I stood there stupidly staring at myself. I walked back out the way I had come, and it segued into another dream I'd had years ago and almost forgotten, where skeletons sat at an assembly line pasting stamps on envelopes that passed by on a conveyor belt. Instead of the desert, the mail factory was where I found myself, and though the skeletons all appeared identical at first, upon looking closer, I saw that one appeared to be Shamus.

I awoke the next morning looking for an anonymous letter that described my nightmare. I was praying for one of those mysterious messages just to prove to myself that I was still relevant, that the Ultimate still worried enough about me to scare me, to try and keep me in line.

But there was nothing.

I showered and shaved, ate my breakfast and went to work.

Where the witch was waiting for me.

I was late and nearly everyone else had already arrived, but as luck would have it, Stan was late, too, and as we walked together toward the entrance of the building, we saw the witch. She was standing next to the corner of the building, and she looked just as she had all those years ago. There was nothing ghostly or ephemeral about her—she was as solid and real as I was—and I poked Stan in the ribs, my heart thumping crazily in my chest. "It's her," I said, unable to catch my breath. "It's the witch."

He seemed more curious than frightened, and he walked over to the corner of the building. I followed close behind, more scared than I was willing to admit.

Stan just came right out and said it: "Why are you here?"

"Don't write," she said, glancing around as though afraid of being overheard.

"You can do better than that," Stan said derisively, and his attitude gave me strength.

"Why were you at my house?" I demanded. My voice was too high, and I cleared my throat. "Why are you bothering me?"

Again the furtive glance. "1 worked here, too. I was one, too. But I escaped. I got out." She fixed me with a cold, hard stare. "Until you sent me back."

"You're—"
Dead
, I was about to say, but then I realized that I'd read that in a newspaper article. More than anyone else, I should have known how the news could be manipulated. Maybe she
hadn't
died. Maybe she'd been turned over to the company.

BOOK: Dispatch
13.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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