On a foggy San Francisco morning, Ethan James pulled on a pair of jeans, shaved, and tossed a clementine into his mouth. Whistling, he bounded down the steps of his freshly renovated Victorian in Dolores Park, remotely opened the garage and eased into the leather seat of his new Tesla Roadster. He purred out of his driveway, smug in the knowledge that he’d beat the traffic and get to Palo Alto in plenty of time for a 7.00 a.m. meeting with investors. Night had begun to dissipate in a haze of pre-dawn colors, but the streets were still dark.
Just before he accelerated onto the 101, a figure lurched off the curb into the road. Cursing, Ethan braked and swerved. A hulking shadow limped over and gestured for him to open his window.
Ethan stabbed the window switch. “Jesus,” he said, “what the fuck. I could have killed you.” Never mind that, he’d have done the world a favor, but the creep could have totaled the car.
A gaunt face and thin hands gleamed, pale and cracked as old paint, under thick layers of clothing that accounted for the man’s bulk: the folds of a green hoodie rolling over the collar of a red sweater, a torn gray parka, and not one but two tweedy coats, the kind you might pick up at Goodwill for…however much you picked things up at Goodwill for.
“Spare some change?” the man said, voice thin as metal, breath tinged with the aftertaste of nights warmed by alcohol and cardboard.
Ethan stared at him. If he had a weapon, he’d go all American Psycho on the oxygen thief. He’d stick an ice pick in one of those rheumy eyes or ram it up a nostril, maybe grind it slowly into an ear, like some deep cleaning Q-tip. It would be an environmentally friendly thing to do.
Ethan drummed itchy fingers on the steering wheel. “Seriously? This is about change?”
Ethan considered his response. He thought about all the things he was tired of. Bums. Welfare leeches. Hipsters. Road hogs. PETA. Mostly, he was tired of hiding his ugly heart, of not being able to share how he hated, really hated all the things people got precious and militant about. He was exhausted from the labyrinthine peeceeness he had to navigate, pretending to champion the downtrodden, the dispossessed, the disturbed and disrupted, the diseased, disenfranchised, every goddamned dis of which there was no shortage, that plagued the planet.
He waved his hand in front of his nose. “Dude, you smell like a slaughterhouse.”
The man lowered his eyes and bobbed his head in agreement.
Ethan shook his head and leaned forward to close the window. “I gotta tell you, in case you didn’t know…you’re everything that’s wrong with this city.” As the glass slid silently upwards, he added, amiably enough, “Get a job, get a life, get a shower. Get out of my way.”
The man shuffled back towards the sidewalk, and Ethan left him standing in the Tesla’s noticeably absent exhaust fumes.
The car drove like an orgasm, and Ethan opened her up on an oddly deserted highway. It took him all of twenty seconds to forget about the homeless and their nuisance factor. He turned his thoughts to the meeting, thumping his palms on the steering wheel and bobbing his head to his fastidiously assembled playlist.
Ten miles into his commute, someone stepped in front of the car. Ethan slammed on brakes, and time slowed, his playlist sounding warped as old vinyl. Whipped into the dizzying whirl of a maniacal waltz, the Tesla flew across the empty road, hit an embankment and somersaulted into a deep gully, where it lay on its roof, wheels spinning like it wanted to pretend nothing had happened.
Ethan thought he’d broken his neck. Squeezed into an odd shape by twisted metal, he cried out when he tried to move his shoulder. For seconds he sat there panting, incredulous. Choking on unexpected tears, he leaned over with his good hand to unlatch his seatbelt and fumble for his phone, gasping as his shoulder reacted to the movement. He managed to open the door and with a series of whimpers and shrieks, claw his way onto the grass. He staggered up, the momentum sending blinding slivers of agony from his shoulder into a useless arm. Then he vomited the clementine onto a stretch of gravel by the side of the road. Straightening, he coughed, wiped his mouth, and peered at his phone.
No reception. He couldn’t even make an emergency call. Trembling, he checked again. Perhaps he’d hit his head, or should he be looking for a tunnel with a light? Ethan squinted ahead and thought he saw a dark figure move into the trees behind the embankment. Limping forward, he called out, “Hello, hu…llo…oh! Little help here? Did you just…are you the guy who…?”
He got no response.
Nothing looked familiar. The wide lanes of the US-101 had narrowed into a road of packed clay through a stretch of woods. Angry now, Ethan set off down the path after the shadow.
When the sole of his boot sloughed off like burnt skin, he decided to sue everyone who’d pissed him off in the last 12 hours. His boots were supposed to live longer than he was. He wasn’t supposed to miss a critical meeting in favor of crawling around in the dirt, wondering whether he was alive or dead, and he hadn’t planned on taking a scenic walk in a place that wasn’t on a map. The 101 shouldn’t have been deserted at that hour of the morning and his goddamned phone was not supposed to die.
Holding his arm and locking his jaw against the pain, Ethan moved deeper into the woods. Morning mist became an insistent drizzle that turned into pelting sheets of water, muddying the path. He could scarcely see. The top of his boot flapped away from the inner sole, and cursing, he limped over to an old oak. Leaning his back against the trunk, he stooped to yank the lace out of soggy eyelets and used it instead to wrap the leather upper around his foot. He struggled with the use of only one arm, and by the time he managed to tie a knot with his teeth, he’d begun to sob. He rested for a while–the tree felt warm against his back, and a thick canopy of foliage fractured the rainfall.
After a few minutes, Ethan stumbled on in his makeshift footwear, wide-eyed and leery, through dirt pools and piles of drifting compost, without any sense of direction. He clutched his injured arm to try and prevent it from moving.
He tried not to think about food. Bacon, crisped and crackling, piled high beside two over easy eggs, maybe some buttery button mushrooms, hash browns and baked beans, even a slice of tomato grilled in a blanket of ground pepper and coarse garlic salt. The images caught him off guard. Amy liked her breakfast that way, with a side of pancakes under a sliding glob of butter. Or she gorged on toast, slathered in marmalade that left an aftertaste of sweet limes on her tongue. Her appetites disgusted Ethan. She had no manners, either at the table or in bed. One of those scenarios he could do without; the other he couldn’t get enough of.
He tried not to think about Amy. Amy with her small, peppermint scented feet and high arches in calfskin boots, hair all wild caramel streaks and strawberry blonde, mouth plush as a marshmallow.
The rain stopped, and Ethan heard a strange sound that he struggled to identify. Puzzled, cold and wet, he drew in a deep breath as the dizzying smell of gourmet food assailed him. It couldn’t be, but it was–the scent and sizzle of a fat fillet mignon on a fire. He thought he might faint. His head reeled with the swirling image of crusty, gold roast potatoes and baby asparagus, slim and long as reeds, crunchy and rolling in shredded parmesan or toasted pine nuts. A mewling sound escaped his unhappy lips.
Like a hunting hound, Ethan raised his head and sniffed, then followed his nose over a slight hill that overlooked a stream. Moving against the water, now and again he tested the air for traces of the scent that was leading him.
He almost fell into the river when he looked down and spotted thick red veins staining the water, spreading quickly. That’s when the stench hit him, the stink of blood, and flesh, and fear that had rotted and would never dissipate. The reek intensified as the trees thinned and the road broadened.
Lurching away from the blood river, Ethan found himself in a meadow carpeted by wildflowers. At the far end he saw a street lined on both sides with quaint, multi-colored buildings.
On the outskirts of the pretty town, a discrete sign read,
Ethan had never heard of such a place. Shivering and almost delirious, he staggered toward the first store in the row. A bell tinkled as the glass door swung inwards.
An old man stood behind the counter, gray hair drawn into a ponytail at the base of his skull, skin stretched taut over brittle bones. Rows of foot-long meat hung off hooks behind him in various stages of drying. He looked up and chuckled. “I see you made it.”
Ethan stopped staring at the hanging strips and leaned on the counter. “Look, I need help. Can I use your landline? My car crashed and I think my arm’s broken.”
“That arm ain’t broke,” the man said. “It’s the shoulder. Dislocated. I can tell; joint hurts worse than gout, don’t it?” He smiled.
Ethan glared at him. “How do you know?”
“Doesn’t take a genius. You need someone to pop that arm.” He moved from behind the counter and came towards Ethan, who backed into a fridge.
The man walked past him and locked the door.
“What are you doing?” Ethan said. “You can’t do that. I need to get to a doctor.”
“Why have you locked the door? What is this place?”
“I’m closing for lunch. Come on back and I’ll heat you up some soup.”
“I don’t want any soup. I need to get to a hospital. What is that smell? Is there a slaughterhouse nearby?”
“You one of them college professors?”
“No.” Ethan made for the door. “Open it. I want to leave. You’ve no right to lock me in. I will visit a shitstorm on this place that’ll put the whole town out of business.”
“You one of them Facenook tweeter dandies?”
Ethan hurled himself at the door, heedless of the screeching pain in his shoulder. Again and again he threw his weight behind a desperate attempt to break the glass and escape.
The man watched him impassively.
Ethan looked for something he could use to smash his way out. He swept the chocolates off a wire stand and tried that, then a chair he found behind the counter, then a bottle of pineapple juice. He was clumsy, using only one arm, and all his missiles bounced off the glass. The juice bottle shattered but made no impression on the shop front.
“You gonna write me a check for the damage?”
“You stupid sonofabitch. I swear, I’ll…”
The man hushed him. “Now now, calm down, get a hold of yourself. The phone’s in here.” He opened a wooden door at the back of the store and gestured for Ethan to precede him into a dark hallway.
Ethan’s vision warped worse than his playlist. He shook his head violently to clear it, but it didn’t help. The last thing he remembered was the old man looming above him, peering down out of a face cracked and pale as old paint.