Join the Club
By Nicole Willson
Too dark. Throat burns. Can’t breathe. Want to scream. Can’t —
An overhead light clicks on, so bright after the darkness that my eyes sting and I have to squeeze them shut. When I open them, I’m in a room I don’t recognize, with three women I’ve never met. We’re sitting around a kitchen table covered with a red and white checkered cloth. The walls are light, sunny, and yellow. It’s pleasant and cheery in here, and it scares the hell out of me.
When I try to think of how I might have ended up in this room with these women, there’s nothing but fog.
“Another one?” says a dark-haired woman on my left.
“I don’t think I’m supposed to be here,” I tell them.
An Asian woman across from me shakes her head. “Yeah? Join the club.”
The woman to my right is older than the others. She’s got light brown hair with strands of grey shot through it and a soft chin. I’ve seen her recently. Damned if I remember where, though.
“Do I know you?” I ask.
“Not personally,” she says. “We’re all here because of Grant Garnett.”
Grant Garnett. It takes a second or two as I roll the name around in my mind, and then Grant Garnett emerges from the fog. Little weaselly looking guy. Stringy black hair. Heavy glasses. Twitchy. Stares at the floor a lot when I talk to him.
“That’s my neighbor,” I say.
This news makes the older woman look down and shake her head. And something about the way she does this makes another image emerge from the fog: An elderly couple clinging to each other in a front yard, microphones shoved at them from every which way. Pat Christopher’s parents. Their sad, numb faces were all over the news websites. A headline attaches itself to the images in my head: HOOK RIVER KILLER CLAIMS THIRD VICTIM.
Pat Christopher was an editor at a law journal.
Pat Christopher was active in her church.
Pat Christopher is dead.
Pat Christopher is sitting next to me.
“But you’re …” I don’t know how to finish that sentence. If I’m here with her, then. Then what?
No, I can’t finish that sentence.
The brunette gets up. “It’s showtime, ladies.”
And then we’re huddled in a cluttered, dim bedroom that looks dark blue in the lack of light. There’s a model tyrannosaurus on a messy desk and a Darth Vader poster over a small bed, but a very adult Grant is curled up on his side on that little bed and whimpering.
“What is this?” I ask the women.
“Daddy’s home?” The older woman answers me with a question directed to the brunette, who’s glaring at Grant with her arms folded over her chest.
“Hell yes. He fucking hates this one.”
Pounding on the door shakes the walls and the inhuman screaming from the other side chills my blood. In between the bangs, there’s a sound like claws being raked down the wood. Why would they bring me here? I don’t want to see this.
Grant’s body twitches and jerks with every bang and scratch and now more about him comes back to me. He’d engage me in awkward conversations if we met in the hallway, and I talked to him mostly because I didn’t want to seem rude.
The screams are becoming words. “I’ll make you wish you were never born.” Bang. “Worthless little fucker.” Crash. The model dinosaur topples over and smashes on the floor. Grant curls up more tightly into himself.
Late one night someone knocked on my apartment door and when I answered, Grant stood there, flushed and breathing hard.
“Sandra, is your wifi working?”
A hand clamps down on my wrist, not gently. “Don’t drift.”
“Watch him.” The brunette squeezes my wrist hard enough to grind the bones. “Or else he’ll get away.”
Get away where?
I stare at Grant, who’s sobbing with his arms over his head. “Daddy. Please stop.”
The door crashes open and all I can see in the dim hallway light is the outline of a bald head and an obese, heavily scaled body lurching forward with a roar that becomes a human yell. Grant screams. I want to scream too.
Something else is coming out of the fog.
“Can I see if my phone works in here? The reception in my place sucks and I need to send a text to my boss. I could get fired if I don’t.”
And I let Grant in.
And then the bed and Grant and the monster all vanish and we’re on a beach so bright that the sunlight hurts my eyes.
“Dammit! Who drifted?” The Asian woman glares at me, and another name pops out of the fog. Leanne Sato. She’s the first one they found strangled by the Hook River. A medical student. Volunteered at animal rescues when she had spare time.
“She’s new at this. Lighten up, Lee. He’s over there now.” Pat takes off running towards a distant figure. She’s much heavier than the rest of us and older too, but she runs across that wet sand as easily and gracefully as a doe bounding through the woods. We hurry behind her and I feel light and fast.
“What happened just now?” I ask Leanne.
“If we don’t focus on him, he’ll shift his dream. And if we can’t find him in the new dream, he’ll be safe for the night.”
The dream? Safe for the night? Her answers make me even more confused.
“Can he see us?” I ask.
“Only if you want him to,” Leanne says.
Grant’s on his knees by the water’s edge, his hands over his mouth, rocking himself back and forth, back and forth. Pat’s looming over him with her hands on her hips, staring down at the swollen bluish-white thing that’s washed up on the wet sand in front of them.
“We think his mother drowned herself,” the brunette says. “He sees this a lot.” And again, a name comes to me almost as soon as she speaks.
“Gina Valente.” A retired schoolteacher and his grandson found what was left of her floating in the Hook River. She left behind a husband and a new baby.
“Shut up,” Gina replies. “Watch him.”
And then the slimy rotting thing on the shore pulls itself up to a sitting position, slowly and jerkily like its muscles don’t work right anymore. It’s so swollen all over that I can’t tell quite where the bloated body ends and the head begins. A gray tongue protrudes from a bluish black hole that must have been a mouth.
“I should have drowned you when you were born,” the thing says to Grant in a slithery hiss.
“Momma. No.” Grant’s rocking himself and moaning.
I let him in my apartment. He smelled like sweat. He pulled out his phone and I walked away to turn the TV down and —
We’re not on the beach anymore. The sign on the wall says we’re in a Starbucks and I can hear the espresso machines grinding and steaming, but the lettering on the sign is all wrong and there are racks of sweaters and soup cans next to the mugs.
Gina sighs. “She did it again. Another drift.”
“Sorry. I can’t help it.” Whatever it is we’re doing here, I’m bad at it.
“It gets easier, hon. And he messed up — he won’t be hard to find in this one. He likes looking for girls here,” Pat says.
And she’s right. Grant is huddled over by a table near all the milk jugs and the sugar. I can see his pale, watery eyes scanning the room. Those eyes are so huge they look like they’re going to break through his glasses.
Three cops, all women, storm in the front door. Their heads swivel around the coffee shop, and one of them spots him and pulls out a gun. “Grant Garnett? Freeze!”
Instead he jumps up and runs for the back exit. He’s heading right for me.
And the next thing I do just comes to me. I step between Grant and the door. Look at me, Grant, I think. And he stops so suddenly that he nearly pitches forward into my body. His face goes gray.
Tears sting my eyes. “What did I ever do to you?”
My back was to him and then his arms were around my neck, squeezing, crushing my windpipe and god it hurt and I tried to shake him off I really did but somehow he held on. “What the fuck?” I wanted to say, but I couldn’t get the breath to say it and I couldn’t I couldn’t I couldn’t —
He’s sweating all over now as he takes me in.
“Sandra? I …”
“Who found me, Grant? Did you get me all the way to the river without anyone seeing?”
This is the longest time he’s ever held eye contact with me. It’s like he can’t look away. My voice cracks now. “Is someone with my mom? Is she OK?”
And then a shrill beep sounds through the store, making me clap my hands to my ears. It’s an alarm clock. Everything in the shop is disappearing. Grant lets out one last whimper and then starts to fade.
“That’s it. It’s morning.” Pat gives me a sad smile and takes my hand.
“But — ”
“Tomorrow night, sweetie.” The beeps continue and Pat’s fading and the store is fading and when I look at my arm it’s fading into light too and the last thing I think is, Tomorrow night.