Project time remaining: 70:52:49
During the not-so-halcyon days of his youth, Heck had always been fascinated by abandoned places: decaying buildings, schools, hospitals and houses with no families, no patients, no students, no people. Just dust motes and silence and shadows behind locked doors and boarded-up windows, the buildings themselves choked with weeds, caked with rot, condemned, old and forgotten. He’d spent month after month at the library in a microfiche-reading frenzy, studying the history of these buildings and tracing the lives of the people who had occupied them: When they were born, when they lived, what they did, when they died.
People were much more interesting after they’re gone, he’d thought. Not so much when they’re still there.
Heck explored all of these places, walking down dark, dead and lonely hallways without a flashlight. He didn’t need one. Heck had what his ophthalmologist called a tapetum lucidum, an extra layer of tissue behind his retina that can somehow bounce extra light back to said retina, thus increasing the amount of light received by the eye’s photoreceptors. Or something. Heck had been seven months old at the time and had been far too busy drooling and cooing and trying not to shit on the exam table to really comprehend the technicalities of it all.
What all this means is that Hector has nightvision. He can see in the dark. Most vertebrates, cows and dogs and the like, have the extra layer of tissue that allows for this ability, but no humans. Except him. His mother, fearing media exposure of her son’s sort-of-awesome genetic abnormality, packed up their things and left their dingy one-roomapartmentfor a similarly dingy one-room apartment three states over. She never took him to the eye doctor again.
This sort of thing has its uses, especially in creepy, dark, unfamiliar places like the one Hector is currently standing in. He’d trailed the guy he was following to an office park and watched from the bushes as the mark removed his sunglasses and entered one of the buildings through sliding gunmetal-gray doors. The signage outside claimed that it housed the offices of Miskato Semiconductor Corp. Heck’s aversion to technology was almost a phobia, and that aversion extended to words that sounded even remotely technical. (His MP3 player — a generic gray thing, thick and bulky, containing roughly two terabytes of random music — is the only exception. He finds that having a soundtrack tends to jack up the adrenal high he gets from following his marks. It also helps him blend into crowds.) It was enough to almost make him cancel the Follow entirely, but Box Elder, by Pavement, had just started playing through his headphones, and Hector found that song so jaunty and upbeat that he figured hey, what the hell, let’s roll. He waited thirty nervous seconds and slipped inside.
And hey! The entrance lobby actually looks pretty friendly at first glance: nice plush leather couches, glass tables, the walls and ceiling painted with soothing shades of blues. Each corner of the room holds a little cluster of potted plants that, despite Hector not having a master’s degree in botany or plant health, whatever, look like they’re doing pretty much okay. Overall, it’s just a really, really welcoming little entrance area and it appears that there is nary a conductor in sight, semi or otherwise.
The doors snap shut behind him, leaving him in darkness. Which, of course, is fine by him.
He scans the room. Box Elder continues to be jaunty and upbeat, and Hector is kind of bobbing his head to the music. Good times! Sure, the mark is nowhere to be found, but maybe there’s some coffee somewhere. Or some donuts. He’d find some snacks, poke around a little bit and depart.
Following is trickier than it looks: you need to have really, really sharp observational skills. You’ve got to stay on the lookout for cops, for suspicious passersby, for shortcuts in case the mark gets too far away and you need to make up for lost time. So, to Heck’s credit, he ends up spotting the corpse pretty quickly, just as the happy sounds of Box Elder give way to the much more menacing guitars of Maybe, Maybe.
He removes his headphones with shaking hands.
This has never happened before, and the anomaly throws him. He sucks in his breath through his teeth. A primal fight-or-flight response kicks in: His fists and teeth are both clenched and he can feel his body trembling. His eyes are darting this way, that way, but there’s still no one in the room…except there’s something on the ground, a rectangular, glossy black something, possibly a phone. His mark’s phone. He’s still here.
“Hello? Anyone here?” Pause. “I saw you walk in. You dropped your phone.” Still nothing. “If you killed this guy, you probably shouldn’t try to charge me or attack me or whatever. I can probably kick your ass. You know, big time.” He’s going for an intimidating tone, but the end result is more squeaky than scary. “So.”
He hears a shuffling. The guy must have moved: a blue sneaker is poking out from behind the guard’s workstation. “Nice shoes. Converse?”
This startles the guy into speaking. “How the hell can you see my sneaker?” A beat. “Yes, they’re Converses.”
Heck doesn’t reply to the guy’s question — he doesn’t usually reveal the nightvision thing to strangers, as it tends to freak people out — and instead starts scanning the walls for a light switch. He doesn’t find one, but he does find a raised square touchpad thing with beveled edges on one wall. He lays a palm on it: after a second or two, the room starts glowing with artificial white light.
The guy crawls out from behind the desk and blinks his eyes shut hard, as if in pain. Fishes around in one pocket, retrieves his sunglasses and plants them on his face. He looks at Heck, sizes him up. “I saw you at the Swan. Toward the back.”
Heck is both impressed and a little alarmed that his mark had recognized him. “Yeah. I followed you.” A pregnant pause. The guy looks at him kind of funny. Heck’s never actually been caught following anyone before, so he’s sort of at a loss as to how to proceed. “No real reason. Just a thing that I do.”
His mark now looks like he’s slowly coming to the realization that he’s standing in the room with a deranged bear, maybe a protege of Charles Manson or something. “That’s fine. Listen, yeah, I’m going to leave. You cool with dealing with the corpse?” He starts for the door. “Sort of weary of corpses.”
Heck looks at him, puzzled. “Are you an undertaker or something?”
Still walking: “No. I’m not an undertaker. My retarded idiot friend ran over a little kid ten years ago and I got to sit there with her as she died. So, yeah, I’ve seen way too many dead bodies in my lifetime, thanks. I’m pretty much done with dead bodies. Bye.” He keeps going.
“Where was your friend?” Heck asks the guy’s retreating back. No response. “Retarded is offensive, by the way,” he sidebars. “The appropriate term is mentally handicapped. And he probably shouldn’t have been driving. If he was, you know, retarded. Mentally handicapped or whatever.”
The guy stops, but doesn’t turn around. “He wasn’t retarded when he was driving the car. He became retarded later.” A beat. “Not that it’s any of your business, seeing as how you’re a creepy stalker and whatnot. And guess what? I really don’t give a shit if it’s offensive. The guy’s a retard. He’s also an asshole. After he killed the girl, he just ran away. To McDonald’s. For some goddamn chicken nugg–”
The guy stops midsentence. “But why…” Heck begins. The guys shushes him. “Shut up. Listen.”
Heck listens. “Yeah.” He hears it. It sounds like something is scrabbling in the walls. “Rats?”
Thud. “That’s not a rat.” Their eyes follow the sound to one of the walls. Another thud. Louder this time. Hairline cracks are appearing in the wall now. “Oh, Christ. Time to go.” The guy starts for the door, Heck behind him.
Too late. The wall explodes outward, spraying the two of them with chunks of blue drywall. Something runs out. Heck can barely get a glimpse of it — it’s too fast. But it looks humanoid, child-sized. Naked. Its arms end in…points. Sharp points. Teeth. A pink mouth with lots and lots of teeth. It’s scampering around the room, a blur that Heck can’t track.
“Oh my Chriiiiist,” the guy says. The thing is charging the mark. He throws his hands up…but the thing runs right past him and latches, instead, onto Heck’s face.
Heck screams, tries to bat the thing off. Its claws rake his face, his eyes. He falls backward, the pain blistering and white-hot, like someone had taken a cheese grater to his brain. Heck, flailing about, manages to blindly latch one hand onto the back of the thing’s scalp. It feels like he’s grabbing a rubber Halloween mask coated with vegetable oil, maybe — and yanks. The thing detaches and Heck cracks its head against the floor twice, three times, many many more times until it stops moving.
As Heck lay on the ground, a memory comes to him. It was the last time he’d ever explored one of his abandoned places. He’d been thirteen.
The thing about abandoned places: They’re really not as exciting as they sound. Most of them had already been cleared out by looters, but a few things — usually aged appliances, stoves and sinks and the like — were still there, quietly rusting away. This one house had a refrigerator in the attic, for some reason. It was the only thing in there. Something about its pitted, pockmarked surface scared Heck, filled him with a dread so palpable that he could almost feel it wafting off his body like fever heat. But he needed to see inside.
He creaked the lid open. An animal skull, a cat or fox or something, greeted him. Hi there! it said, its mouth a frozen, smiling rictus. Nothing else. Kids probably put it there, Heck realized. What Heck didn’t realize, though, was that four boys from his middle school had followed him there. Heck recognized one of them, redheaded and freckled and sneering, as the recipient of Heck’s foot to his testicles and Heck’s knee to his face after an ill-advised attempt to steal Hector’s backpack that day. He apparently held a grudge, Heck deduced, shortly before a group ass-beating commenced. A steel-toed boot brought first stars, then darkness. He awoke in a cramped place, unable to move. His friend, the skull, sat on a shelf next to him, still smiling. Heck’s face was plastered against the inside of the refrigerator door. All he could see was white.
An hour later, one of the boys, a kid with glasses and freckles, returned and unlatched the refrigerator door out of guilt. Hector burst out, wheezing, sobbing, and ran. He ended up at a Seven-Eleven. He hid there, behind the store, for hours. Heck really started avoiding people after that.
Now, as he lay on his back, it’s like he’s back in that refrigerator. He sees nothing at all, his vision whitewashed. His hearing still works — he knows this because he can hear his mark’s footsteps retreating further and further away. “Sorry!” he hears the guy say.
Heck — thirteen years old, once again — lets out a single, choked sob.