The investigator asked me questions into the evening, trying to dismantle my story. He leaned in over the table between us. We were almost friends. Friendship is all about time.
It was supposed to be a simple bank robbery, I said again.
Sunlight smothered the city. People convened, they shopped, they walked and ran. It was normal. Vehicles cruised past with music blaring, impatient. This was before the pandemic. Children played, fountains splashed.
It was the perfect morning to rob a bank.
My partner and I walked in waving pistols and shouting for everyone to get on the ground. We both wore masks, back before it was common.
A woman screamed, then another. The three customers in the place raised their arms above their heads. They were all senior citizens. Four workers stood frozen behind the counter, all of them like spooked deer, watching me.
It should have been an easy job.
My partner hopped the counter and grabbed the bank manager by his hair, pulling hard.
Open the vault, he said, and bullied the man downstairs to the vault. I cursed and waved the gun around and shouted for everyone to shut up and lay flat. They complied.
This will be over soon, I said, pacing, spacing out my words.
Think of your families.
No one gets hurt.
It was the only time of week the bank had no armed guard on site. Still, we had to assume an alarm was tripped. Every job you do, that’s the understanding. Two minutes and the cops are there.
I waved the gun aggressively but it wasn’t necessary.
A guy tried to enter the bank entrance but saw me with the mask and gun and ran back out the door, stumbling.
I clicked off seconds in my head. Pop music played from speakers somewhere. I should have already heard a shout of some kind from my partner downstairs.
I counted five cameras in the room.
Two of the customers had walking canes lying next to them. The place smelled of wet carpet and bleach, as if the floors had been cleaned overnight. I breathed deeply from my abdomen, forcing air upward and out through the mask.
My partner took too long downstairs and I activated Plan B. You have to plan for contingencies. You can’t overthink. You’ve got to act quickly.
All right! I shouted through the mask. Everybody out! Everybody out now!
The employees and customers rose to their feet slow and uncertain, confused, afraid. But people move when you point a gun at them.
Out! I shouted, cursing. Move it! Out! Out!
I waved the pistol and shouted until they were gone, then I flipped the deadbolt on the entrance door and sprinted downstairs to uneven concrete beneath my feet and old brick to each side of a long hallway. A single bulb hung from a string, swinging softly. I heard no music — no sound at all.
Hurry up! I shouted into the darkness. What’s taking so long?
My voice echoed. I waved my gun like a fool and stepped beneath the bulb further into the shadows.
Hello? I said.
Hello, said a man nearby.
The bulb above flashed and burned out. I stood in complete darkness.
Hello? I said again.
I put the gun up and staggered, one palm on the brick wall at my side. Silence and darkness overwhelmed the hall. The damp air thickened and I moved through it gasping with arms out before me, each step a step into oblivion.
How is this happening? I thought.
I stopped walking, feeling the pulse race beneath my skin. My head floated off my shoulders — a balloon in the void. I kneeled to the ground to keep from losing balance and falling over. I blinked but couldn’t tell if my eyes were open.
I stood and stepped slowly to feel with my palms out but met another wall. My breaths quickened, drumming from me. I counted them: thirty, thirty-one, thirty-two, thirty-three. I heard breathing nearby.
Hello? I said.
I reached to my right, disoriented.
Hello? I said again, whispering, eyes wide. The pistol trembled in my hand.
The wall to my left met a right angle of brick in front of me. I reached out and touched brick to the right of, then behind me.
I shouted and fired a round into the ground and saw in a flash of light that I was surrounded by brick, entombed. The bullet ricocheted into my left calf and I cried out, slinking to the ground with my back against the brick.
I cursed, shouting into the tiny space. My echo stretched to an impossible distance. I reached up to feel brick just above my head. Sweat poured from my face.
How long until I suffocated? Am I hallucinating?
The bulb sparked back to life, swinging above my head. I blinked at the brilliance of it. The familiar brick wall appeared before me with shadowed hallway disappearing away to my right and my left. I pushed myself up onto one leg, gasping painfully.
Hello? I said, my voice absorbing echoless into the air. I shouted again and heard nothing, deafened. The ground beneath vibrated.
What’s happening to me? I thought.
I began limping down the dark hall. I didn’t know from which direction I’d come. It didn’t matter — I had to get out. The cops were probably upstairs looking for me. I took 20 paces from the bulb that became 30 paces as I staggered deeper into the shadows. I stopped and turned around, walking back to the swinging bulb, a small wavering point of light in the absence. I hobbled past it another 80 paces before stopping again. It was pointless. The hallway stretched infinitely into shadow in both directions.
Hello? I shouted, my voice ricocheting like a bullet and repeating into the distance.
I shouldn’t have taken this job, I muttered to myself, cursing. I should have trusted my instincts. I knew it was bad.
I realized I still had my mask on and I pulled it off. Suddenly I could breathe easier. I heard a scream through the brick, as if from a nearby room. It was a man.
He actually wasn’t my partner at all. He was just a guy on a bank job. I didn’t know him.
He screamed again and I shouted his name.
HELP! he shouted. HELP ME!
I heard a crack, then silence. He stopped screaming. It sounded like the crack of a club or baseball bat smashing into bone.
I muttered to myself, trembling.
Another crack echoed through the brick and another and another and another until there were no bones left to crack. Then I only heard the precise rhythm of blunt instrument smashing into inert cadaver, blasting and blasting but also increasing tempo, crushing and echoing in the hall, building feverishly to satisfy some alien murderousness.
Wow, said the investigator. Descriptive.
He stood and paced behind his metal chair, then around the table. His shoes clicked on the concrete. I watched him and glanced at the two-way mirror. I counted two cameras in the room.
He had no hair on his head. No eyebrows, no facial hair. He stopped pacing next to me and leaned into my ear and whispered, cursing: Liar.
My next decision is difficult to explain. I was afraid and not thinking clearly.
I just wanted it to be over, to be done, and I didn’t care how.
I took off running on my one good leg down the hall past the dangling light with the pistol in hand and I continued lurching forward, fearless of falling into the depths or smashing face-first into a wall in the darkness growing suddenly cold with my breath pluming crystallized before me, my arms pumping, good leg pumping, heart pumping. The hallway widened though I couldn’t see it to confirm. I felt that I’d entered a giant space but still indoors, sheltered from the sky. The grade increased and I struggled uphill, slipping on sand yet stable enough to hold my churning leg.
A faded line of horizontal light appeared over the summit and I climbed to it, struggling through deeper sand. The moonlight swelled and cleared with each upward step until it appeared in full, the glowing face of an ancient friend. I marched up with lightning snapping overhead, powering my way upward toward a sense of remoteness, alienness, as if in a sea, surrounded by water.
I reached the summit with my chest heaving and stood atop a giant dune beneath the pregnant moon with lightning attacking dangerously near —on a sand dune in an ocean of sand dunes.
Clouds like dirty snow sprinted overhead as if in time lapse. White veins lit up the alien landscape and I gazed over the endless rolling hills of sand with hot wind whipping my hair and clothes, a conqueror atop his endless spoil, absorbing the immensity and perilousness of his journey for the first time.
Lies, lies, lies, lies, lies, said the bald investigator.
A sand crab rose to the ivory surface near me.
Black and slick in the moonlight it dashed toward me and I kicked it tumbling into the wind.
Dark imperfections began spreading across the sand in the distance and I smelled them on the breeze, acrid and menacing.
Soon all the desert was alive with them, each distant crest and valley rolling outward like waves began to flower in black and the ground below bubbled porous and chaotic with the crabs climbing up from the depths, surrounding me, shrieking with snapping mandibles when I confirmed with my eyes that they weren’t crabs, they were larger and faster, more aggressive. They weren’t anything I’d seen before.
Quickly they struck and seized my ankles, biting and clawing with hot pain like liquid up my spine. The monsters dug into the meat of my thighs and continued up to my torso, slashing at my clothes and skin, overtaking my arms as I tried to slap and peel them away. There were too many of them and I struggled against the sensation of falling. I shouted pleadingly at the moon, stone-faced and indifferent to my cries.
The creatures climbed to my neck and pierced the skin, bounding onto my face with tentacles searching and I tasted them as they pulled me down into the sand with their poison coursing my brain.
Soon my lower half melted beneath the sand and I screamed with sand filling my mouth and eyes.
Then the world disappeared.
The investigator paced the interrogation room with arms folded, nodding, a smile on his face.
I don’t know how much time elapsed. I woke atop a pile of sand in the middle of a blacktop intersection in the Chicago neighborhood where I grew up.
It was a moonless night and the whole place was empty of people. Orange streetlamps lit the sidewalks and I eased myself down from the sand pile to dust myself off. My bad leg had healed and both were good again.
I looked up to the façade of my childhood apartment building. My old bedroom window on the third floor was the only window lit.
In the light I recognized the silhouette of a figure, unmistakable and familiar. I shivered in a way I hadn’t since I was a kid.
Dreamlike I wavered toward the building feeling sand in every part of me, inside me.
Across the empty street I navigated the familiar brick, concrete and asphalt panorama of my youth and entered the building past the broken elevator to the stairs as if routine, as if blindfolded and half-conscious up the threadbare staircase to apartment 303.
My hand floated to the door. Slowly it creaked open, alighting the small cluttered landing area and bookshelf. I heard my mother’s voice — she sang while cooking and I smelled the emotional aroma of her inventions there in the third-floor hallway of our project housing complex. I pressed the door and it was no longer my childhood apartment door but the vault door in the basement of Community Street Bank in Philadelphia, a summer morning in the year 2020.
The bank manager lay dead in his cheap shirt, shot twice through the chest.
You’re late, said my partner, a duffel slung over his shoulder and his pistol trained on me.
I’m sorry, he said, meeting my eyes.
We both had masks on.
He pulled the trigger but his pistol jammed. He ran past me up the stairs to the bank lobby and I looked around, incredulous and panicked. The sound of pop music melted down the stairs like syrup. I saw the dead manager on the vault floor and scuff marks on the tile around him. The gun was molten steel in my hand.
I finally shook myself awake and ran upstairs just in time —
I paused and looked at the investigator.
Just in time to meet your … people. The cops swarmed in.
The other guy wasn’t my partner. Just a guy on a bank job.
He must have got away.
The investigator sighed and nodded his head.
So here we are, he said.
He scratched his chin and looked meaningfully into the two-way mirror. He smiled.
Here we are, I said.
He sighed and sat in the chair opposite me and leaned over the table, glaring at me. He smiled.
I did not smile but watched as his grin widened. His face melted up and back and his cheeks somehow made room for the hideous growing discolored teeth. His eyes bulged and his lips squeaked like plastic as they stretched, his mouth a giant lightless cavity from which a sand monster spilled onto the steel table, its insect legs flailing in the air before it righted itself and stood, watching me.
The investigator licked his lips like a salamander and winked one mad balloon eye at me. He leaned back in his chair and looked up to the fluorescent lights laughing, laughing.