He's driven this way five times already, watching the same banks and donut shops and car washes fly past in a never-ending reel. Got the front windows open, taking in the night air. And then he sees her—sitting on the curb, cradling her head in her arms, going boo hoo. Hodgepodge of girl and woman: miniskirt; halter top, no bra; friendship bracelet on wrist; hair pulled back with cherry scrunchy; Hello Kitty stick-on tattoo on her left shoulder, mushy from the heat.
"Hello." He cruises to a stop. "I'm lost and I need to get to the Interstate."
She raises her head and looks at him: middle-aged weirdo in a Cadillac. Tom Cruise shades; charcoal suit; porkpie hat; looks about 40, like her dad. Probably smokes; a hint of ash about him.
"I'll give you directions." When he shakes his head, she says: "It's simple. Even a moron could do it."
"I'm afraid I'm not a moron," he tells her. "The last three people I asked gave me directions and I ended up getting more lost. So it would be easier if you just got into the car and showed me."
She snorts: "Are you for real?" She'd be stupid to get in, she surely would.
"I can drop you off wherever you want." He stretches the sides of his mouth upwards, taking care not to show too many teeth; a smile, that's what they call it.
"All right." She shrugs and gets in. "You can take me home. The Interstate is, like, two blocks from my house."
He keeps the eagerness out of his voice: "Sounds good."
"Just so you know: my father is a cop. If you touch me he'll beat your head in."
"My name is Bob." He shakes his head. "And I'm not a child molester."
"Okay, then." She lets the "child" thing go. Pulls a pack of Camels from her purse. Got a nasty scrape, on her elbow. "Want a ciggy?"
"No thanks." His hand goes to his pocket, and a dagger of fear jabs her belly, but all he takes out is a lighter. Snap of fingers; whiff of ozone and brimstone; bright tongue of fire. He holds it out.
"Cool." She lights up; takes a hack. "No offense, but what is it with old guys, anyway? I mean, I had this old guy hitting on me yesterday, in the mall. I was, like, 'Go away, old man.' What is it with them?"
"Maybe he's horny." Bob says, which makes her snort and drop the cigarette between her feet.
"Oh, jeez." She stamps it out. "I'm sorry. It'll leave a mark."
"That's okay. It's just a rental." He glances up at the moon; time's a-wasting. "Which way do I go?"
She settles onto the seat. "Go down Maple Street."
Bob taps the steering wheel with his fingers: "I don't know any Maple Street."
"Drive that way." She points. "We'll stay on this road for a few minutes and then we'll make a turn. It's not far."
"All right." He pulls the car into the street and she wonders where he's really taking her: a park, a rat-infested warehouse, a trailer park for inbred hillbillies, all the possibilities. She's seen it all, and more, on TV; all those middle-aged weirdos, doing terrible things to those poor lost girls.
"Oh, boy. I think I'm wasted." She closes her eyes and lies back on the seat. Her stomach knots, with that all-too-familiar feeling: dread, and excitement. "I bet one of those guys put something in my drink. That's what I get, going to a jock party alone. Eileen usually comes with me, but she's got something going with her boyfriend tonight. Dork city, you ask me."
"I went to this party, see, and it was all guys." She wonders if he's looking at her, if he can hear her voice trembling. "No girls, just a bunch of jocks sitting around drinking beer. I should have left right then: it's not smart, being the only girl at a party. But I stayed, even when they put on the porno."
She cracks open an eye. He's staring at the dashboard, the buttons and dials, like he's never seen anything like it before.
"It got ugly. There was an ugly feeling in the room. You could almost touch it. They were looking at me, and leering. One of the guys said something about going downstairs, to the basement. So I said I needed to use the bathroom. I locked myself in and wouldn't come out. They laughed and banged at the door. 'Come out come out come out' they yelled. So I climbed out the window. I scraped my elbow. I ran. I heard them laughing when I ran away."
He's not sure what he's supposed to say to that, so he settles on: "I see."
"Mister, I want to go home." Her voice breaks: "Will you take me home?"
"All right." He nods. And then: "Sure."
"You will?" She sounds surprised. "When you drove up I figured you were a middle-aged weirdo who'll take me to some cement factory where you'll rape me and kill me and then cut me into little pieces. But I got in because I just don't care anymore. You know?"
"Sorry to disappoint you." He clears his throat. "Are we still on course for the Interstate?"
"Turn right at the next traffic light."
"You mean the red-yellow-green blinking thing?" He's driven past a bunch of them, wondering why the other cars honk so.
"Yeah, that's right." She rolls her eyes. "Boy, you're clueless. Where are you from, anyway?"
"You are psycho." She laughs. "I knew it."
"Really?" He takes off the Tom Cruise shades, and she sees the eyes of a goat—bright amber; rectangular pupils, dilating in the dusky evening.
"Jesus Christ." She huddles against the seat. Clamps her hand over her mouth.
"They screwed up." Bob sighs; puts the shades back on. "Of course they screwed up; they always do. It's a running joke. But it's not so bad. At least they didn't give me a butterfly's proboscis, or crab mandibles."
She doesn't answer; she's thinking about throwing herself out of the car. She pictures herself hitting the pavement, bones shattering, bouncing and rolling to the sidewalk. Her eyes water up and she sees her grave, tastefully decorated with white lilies; her friends and family, dressed in black; the bawling and weeping, all the tears they'd shed, just for her.
They drive past a 7-11 and she notices a group of her friends, clustered together, doing nothing the way young people are so good at. She thinks about popping out the window like a jack-in-the-box, screaming and waving her arms so they can see her, being kidnapped by the middle-aged weirdo from Hell. A thought hits her, then. She peers at the top of his head, trying not to be too obvious about it, her checking him out. No way to tell, with the hat.
"Excuse me." She's just got to ask. "Do you have horns?"
"No." He shakes his head. "Horns have a certain appeal to the more flamboyant among us, but I've never liked them. Do the job, go home. That's my philosophy."
"Why are you here?" It's a good question; yes, it is.
"The usual. My client signed a standard contract. When his dot-com went bust he tried to renege." He shrugs. "Of course he did. They all try to renege. So they sent me."
"Why do you need to get to the Interstate?"
"To get home." She's a chatty one, all right. "One of the entrances to Hell is in Cleveland, below Lake Erie. The biggest entrance is New Jersey, of course, but that's a bit of a ride."
She points at the dashboard: "You've got GPS, you know."
"I've got no idea how to use that thing. The last time I walked this world, it was buggies and Model Ts."
"What about your client?" She's getting into the conversation; this guy isn't like her dad at all. He's interesting. "The guy who tried to renege?"
"He's in the trunk. What's left of him, anyway. Do you want to see?"
"No thanks." She shivers. "Stop at the corner. I'm that house. Right there."
"Here we are." He pulls the car up to the curb. And then: "Could you direct me to the Interstate, please?"
"Do you mind if we talk a little longer?" She snuffles, like a hungry horse. "I don't have anyone to talk to."
She puts her head in her hands and starts to bawl. Bob rolls his eyes. He doesn't have time for this; no, he doesn't. But he has no choice. When you are a creature of absolute violence your options are limited. If he rips off her head he still won't know how to get to the Interstate. And he can't tell her what they'll do to him, if he's not back by dawn; never show weakness. So he lets her cry.
"Sorry." She wipes at her eyes. "It's just—like—I don't know what's wrong with me."
"You have an Ouroboros in your belly," he tells her. "A black worm from Hades. It feeds on your bile and misery."
She looks at her belly button, uneasy: "You've got to be kidding me."
"No. It's the cause of every single stupid thing you've ever done, basically." He decides to change the subject: "Could you direct me to the Interstate, please?"
She points: "Keep driving that way. Turn left at the next red-yellow-green blinking thing. The Interstate's right there. Just go up the ramp."
"Thank you." A surge of relief; he's home free. "Do you want me to remove the Ouroboros? If you want, I can take it out."
She looks at him, wary: "Will that kill me?"
"No. You'll feel better."
"Will it hurt?"
"Yes." He shrugs. "Just a little bit."
"I'm afraid of pain. I know girls who—you know—they cut their arms. Some of them burn themselves with a lighter. I can't do that, because I'm a coward."
"As you wish." She's a talker, this one. Bob remembers when humans were a tribe of monkeys, in Africa. They called them Cheepers, back then; the way they chattered away amongst themselves, hooting and whistling and scolding.
"No, wait." She shakes her head. "Why? Why would you do that for me?"
"You gave me directions to the Interstate." Why is she making such a big deal about it? "And it's not a hard thing for me to do. Like swatting a fly, maybe."
"What should I do?"
"Open your mouth." He regards her dental fillings. "A bit wider, please."
This is a bad idea, she thinks, and parts her jaws further.
"Good enough." Bob thrusts his hand into her mouth and she jerks against the seat, spit and gurgle trickling down her neck, her cheeks puffing out like an amorous bullfrog as Bob's hand creeps into her throat, his fingers sliding down her gullet, towards the lower regions. She can feel the knob of his elbow, pressed against her teeth, and then he stops. His shoulder stiffens. He pulls his hand out of her mouth.
A black worm the size of a water snake is curled around his fist. It writhes and spits, the spikes protruding from its underbelly digging into Bob's skin. Its eyes are red-rimmed, and strangely human; a sound like a wailing baby comes from its mouth. Bob grips the worm's neck with his other hand, squeezes, and the head flies onto the street.
"Done." He unwinds the still jerking body, and tosses it out the window.
Her mouth snaps shut. She takes a gasping breath: huh uh huh. Then—"That was inside me?"
"Yes. You were born with it."
She sticks her head out the window and retches. Bob turns to the dashboard and fiddles with the dials. When he pushes a button the radio blares to life, and he starts against the seat. Smiles; so that's how it works.
"Sorry." She wipes her mouth. "I threw up all over your door."
"That's all right. It's only a rental."
She hugs herself: "Will it come back?"
"No." Bob shakes his head. "It's dead."
"Listen—I need to go." Panic's whiskers brush against her cheek. She fumbles with the door handle; when it doesn't open she pulls at it with both hands. Beats her fists against it.
Bob: "You need to press the button."
"Oh." She presses the button, pulls the handle and the door pops opens. She gives out a hysterical giggle. "Whoops."
"Don't worry about it." He picks up her purse, hands it over. "It took me an hour to figure it out." One hour: sitting in the car, pulling at the handle, the precious minutes winding away, thinking about how they'll flay him and raise his hide up a pole, like a flag, over the plains of Gehenna.
She gets out of the car; slams the door. When she turns, he's back to playing with the dials; she hears a radio preacher, screeching about Jesus. She clears her throat: "Thank you."
He lifts a hand, waves. She runs to her porch. The light is on, because her mother always leaves it on. The door is unlocked. She enters her house, turns. The car is gone. She can see the orange-red tail lights fading, fading into the distance. A fat gray cat rubs against her leg. It meows.
Her mother yells: Close the door.