Continued from: Earworm: Part 58 — The Meeting
Joel watched the streetlights wander past the car’s window. Guard surfed through radio stations, swatches of bass beats and guitar riffs blinking by with stuttering speed. Joel tried not to glance at his friend behind the steering wheel, remembering a dream where Guard was a twisted mess of metal and flesh. But he stole a glance anyway, finding Guard alive and well, gripping the steering wheel as he always did—one hand draped over it, the other scanning through radio stations. Hope sat in Guard’s backseat, silent, the streetlights swimming in her eyes. Guard glanced in the rearview mirror to watch her, then he looked over at Joel. “Nothing good on the radio,” Guard chuckled in a heavy, murmuring voice. “You wanna have a go at being deejay, Joel?”
“Nah,” Joel said, still watching the lights flash by the window.
“How about you, Hope?” Guard said. He looked into the rearview mirror. “You hear anything you want to listen to?”
“No,” Hope said. Her voice floated from the backseat, sounding like a medium channeling a dead relative.
It’s all real, Joel. That’s what she had said to him. Standing in the parking lot of the library, she looking up at Joel with eyes that were dreamy, unattached, lost. And when Joel saw that odd—yes, that’s the best word for it, odd—look in Hope’s eyes, his spine froze. They weren’t the eyes of the girl he was dating. It was like looking into the eyes of a corpse… or a lunatic.
The car pulled to the curb in front of Hope’s house. “Here we are,” Guard said.
“Thank you, Guard,” that ghostly, beyond the grave voice said from the backseat. The car’s back door slammed shut and Hope started up her walkway.
“Woe, wait, Hope, hey.” Joel leapt from the passenger seat and jogged after her.
She turned on him like a pet that had gone bad. “What?”
“What do you mean, what? Are you okay?”
“Joel, you don’t care,” she said, turning to continue up her walk.
Joel darted in front of her. “What are you talking about? Of course I care.”
“Joel, you don’t even believe me.” She spoke in a soft, yet bitter voice, her eyes still distant, but somehow, those distant eyes focused on Joel with a very direct glare. The malevolent look of… a lunatic.
“It’s not that I don’t… Look, it’s not you that I don’t believe…”
“No, Joel, it is me,” Hope said, pushing past him.
“Hey, wait,” Joel said, grabbing her arm and turning her to face him in a rather melodramatic, film-noir way. Her glare focused on him, freezing his spine again. His eyes faltered to the ground. “What do you want me to say?”
“That you believe what I told you.”
“It’s just that… I need more… I need some sort of… explanation.”
“Maybe he drugged us. Maybe it’s some kind of hallucinogen. Whatever it is, I know it’s him causing the dreams,” she said.
Joel cringed. Her eyes searing him.
“He just told me so,” she said.
“He actually said, Gee, Hope, by the way, I’m causing you to have bad dreams?”
“No, but he implied it.”
“I told you what he said.”
“Yeah, that he thought you were making fun of him.”
“See, you’re only telling part of the story.”
“That’s what you told me he said.”
“No,” she shouted. “He told me details I’ve never told anyone, not even you.”
Joel looked around Hope’s yard. He wanted to believe her, he really did. He wanted to believe anything, other than the possibility that his girlfriend was mentally unraveling. “It’s just a little… hard to swallow,” he said.
“That’s because you’re refusing to chew the facts.”
“No, it’s because I prefer a diet of reality,” Joel said. He winced, feeling as if he’d just slapped her across the face.
Hope stormed up the walkway.
“Hope…” Joel called, but he didn’t follow her. After all, he just basically accused her of being insane. He supposed they’d have to choose to disagree: Hope thinking her pot was fine, Joel thinking it cracked. More like shattered into itty-bitty pieces. Joel watched her enter the house and shut the door. He was tempted to go and humor her, tell her that he did believe her. After all, maybe it was just a passing delusion. But delusions don’t generally pass. Joel moped back to Guard’s car.
Guard still darted through the stations on the car’s radio. He looked over at Joel. “What was that all about?” he said. Joel shrugged, shaking his head. Guard pulled the car away from Hope’s yard. They passed a very large man walking a very small Boston Terrier. “Kinda funny looking,” Guard said, “you know, huge guy, such a… little…” His voice trailed off. He went back to flicking through the stations. After a few minutes of silence, he ventured to ask, “So… what happened? Did that William kid say something bad to Hope?”
“Only time I’ve seen Hope that upset was when… what was that little shit’s name? Harry something?”
“Harry Hamilton,” Joel said.
“Yeah, that Harry kid said something bad about her father.”
“Yeah,” Joel said, staring out the window.
“So, what, did William say something bad about her father?”
“Nah, man, William just moved here, he wouldn’t know anything about her father,” Joel said. But something clicked in him, a paradoxical stream of thought. Hope seems to think William knows her father.
Guard tapped on the steering wheel, keeping time with the butchered songs he flashed through. Now and then, he flicked glances in Joel’s direction. Joel broke the silence, saying, “Hey, do you remember when we were little, and we thought there was a monster in the marsh behind our neighborhood?”
“Yeah… yeah,” Guard said with building excitement. Joel was unsure if his friend was reveling in the sense of nostalgia, or to the end of the stifling silence. “In that huge drainpipe.”
“And remember how we planned an expedition to kill it?”
“Yeah. We were gonna sell the body to the Smithsonian.”
“We figured we’d make millions,” Joel said.
“Hell yeah,” Guard said. “We were gonna take the money and build a killer tree fort with a television and an elevator…”
“Don’t forget the Ferrari go-carts.”
“And we were gonna tell our parents to kiss-off, now that we were putting the food on the table, and then they’d have to follow our rules.”
“No, Guard, I think that was just part of your plan,” Joel said, looking over at his friend.
Guard laughed. The sound rang musically through the tension in the air.
“We were gonna go into business killing monsters,” Joel said.
“Yeah, something like…” Guard reflected a moment, “Monster Patrol… or…”
“Creature Exterminators,” Guard repeated, laughing and hitting the top of the steering wheel with his palm.
“Remember when I climbed into the pipe with the flame thrower?”
“Yeah… yeah. A lighter and my sister’s hairspray,” Guard said. “We tied a rope around your waist, and I was supposed to pull you out if anything went wrong.”
“I remember crawling into the darkness, my eyes adjusting to the dark just in time to see that thing staring me eye to eye. I mean, I obviously didn’t see eyes, but I swore I could feel it staring at me. I thought I heard it groan, and I panicked.”
Guard bobbed his head, laughing, “Yeah, man, you screamed like a little chick.”
Joel smiled, stealing a glance at his friend, “I don’t know about like a little chick.”
“No,” Guard informed him, “It was quite girly-like.”
Joel shook his head, looking down and chuckling, “I was eight, all right?” He looked out the windshield again. “I’ll never forget how hard my heart pounded, and how my breath hitched like I was gasping, and how my screams… my very manly screams,” Joel grinned at Guard, “In fact, I think they could be called manly hollers.”
“No. They were screams. Little. Girly. Screams.”
“Anyway,” Joel continued, looking out the windshield at the passing night, “I remember those screams echoing through the pipe, and you tugged on the rope with all your strength… in fact, I don’t think my intestines have ever been the same.”
“I was scared, man. I thought you were hurt. I mean, those girly screams sounded pretty real. I thought a stray dog or something was eating you.”
“And then,” Joel said, “I flicked the lighter and sprayed the can and… Foosh.”
“Yeah, foosh is right,” Guard laughed.
“And in an orange fireball, I see this huge, twisted tree branch.”
“Yeah, you lit that thing up pretty good.”
“Aqua-net, there is no substitute.”
Guard snorted approval.
There was a brief silence before Joel said, “Ever wonder what would have happened if it was real?”
“What? The monster?”
Guard laughed. “That stupid hairspray would’ve just singed the thing’s eyebrows. And then the tree fort would’ve all been mine.”
“No. I’m serious.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, what if it had been a real monster?”
“What, you mean like an actual animal? Like a dog or something?”
“No. I mean a real monster, like something no one would ever believe existed.”
“Like the Loch Ness Monster or something?”
“Something like that.”
“What would I have done?”
“I’d have laughed my ass off over you being stupid enough to crawl in there with it,” Guard said.
Joel sighed and shook his head.
Guard said, “I don’t think I get what you’re getting at.”
“What I’m getting at is that we were certain it was a monster. What makes us certain that monsters don’t exist now? Why don’t we believe in that stuff anymore?”
“Because we don’t.”
“Yeah, but what made us believe then?”
“We’re just older now.”
“What if I told you now: Guard, there’s a monster in that drain pipe, let’s get it?”
“I’d say give me some o’ that shit you been smokin.”
“I am too,” Guard said. “I don’t get what you’re talking about.”
“I’m talking about how stuff back when we were little seemed so possible, and now… what is it now that makes that stuff so impossible?”
“We’re just older, man. We know it would be a branch. I don’t believe in Santa Claus anymore either.”
“Well, I’m glad you believed enough back then to hold the rope,” Joel said.
“Hey, man, I knew it was a branch. I knew there was no such thing as monsters. When you started screaming, I thought it was a dog, or rats, or a dead body or something—that’s why I started pulling so hard. I just thought it was fun doing all that stuff, and talking about the money, that’s why I played along—the key word is played—I thought we were playing.”
Joel shrugged. He supposed that he knew it was a branch, and that they were playing. But in the heat of the moment, for a second—imagining its yellow, reptilian eyes staring—he actually believed it was some horrific creature. And now he tried to recall that moment. He tried to summon the same deep-down, childish part of him to convince himself that William Knight was causing Hope’s—and even Joel’s own—bad dreams. But that deep-down, childish part didn’t answer. “If you knew it was a branch,” Joel said, “why’d you bother to hold the rope?”
Guard shrugged, “Someone had to.”
Continued in: Earworm: Part 60 — Need for Remedy
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