It wasn’t a frequent habit, but James started this day by sneaking a splash or two of vodka — as colorless as cyanide — into his coffee.
His mother had always said that drinking before noon made one an alcoholic, but privately he could never agree with the idea that a minute hand could so neatly divide an individual between sickness and health, sinner and saint.
It was his girlfriend who had asked him to drive — Mary, la Mer, his Mar. This year, they were going about one hundred miles south and slightly east, away from the sea and toward the desert to spend Christmas Eve with her family.
It was the first time he’d be spending an entire evening with her extended family. To be honest, James was never even that thrilled about spending the holiday with his own family, but he was going to be a dutiful boyfriend.
And apparently a driver.
Loading the car with presents was an easy blur, but when he climbed behind the wheel, he felt the seat tingle. He was able to hide it in the stop-and-start traffic heading through downtown toward the freeway, but that changed about fifteen minutes into the drive.
As the car passed the big buildings, he watched the shadows slither into each other, claustrophobia-close, as if anticipating some enormous beast about to stalk through the heart of the city.
There was a flash of light that obscured his vision. He felt lightheaded and chilled, his body momentarily drained of heat.
Then it was over, as sharply as it came on him. His gut felt slightly dislodged and his head was pulsing, but he figured these were discomforting residual effects.
Mary, fiddling with her phone, hadn’t seemed to have noticed.
It was probably a combination of lack of sleep, free-floating holiday anxiety and, admittedly, the vodka couldn’t have helped.
“I’m sorry sweetheart, but I don’t feel so good,” he announced.
Mary looked at him. “You don’t feel well?” she asked softly.
“I don’t know. I didn’t sleep that great. I’m sorry. Can you take the wheel in a bit?”
“Do you want to stop now?”
“Let’s get closer to the freeway first.”
They spent four hours on the freeway — it should have been two, but they started late and the tangle of holiday traffic was unavoidable at any hour — so it was midafternoon by the time they got to her parents’ home.
By then James felt up to driving, so he piloted, guided by her short, gentle directions, the remaining miles to their destination.
It was a ranch-style building, squat and broad, unpretentious on a large piece of land that was marked off by a chain-link fence, delineated from the suburbs in one direction and the first snarls of prairie in the other.
The house itself, all sunburnt yellows and afternoon grays, seemed unsure of which side of that border it belonged to and blended uneasily into both landscapes.
They parked at a makeshift curb, set in dirt and crumbling into concrete dust, gathered their pile of token presents, and made their way across the empty street to the house.
The place really did hum with the holiday. James could hear music, indistinct but palpable, and the senseless chatter of guests. Mary opened the gate, his arms loaded with bags and boxes, guided him toward the door, rang the bell, and was rewarded half a minute later by her mother, a woman who matched the house perfectly.
“Maria!” she exclaimed, embracing her child and leading her in, leaving James on the doorstep. He peeked around the presents and followed them through the threshold. Her father, a compact but sturdy man with prematurely gray and receded hair, observed him.
“Hello sir,” James said.
“Hello James,” her father said, grinning but making no move to help.
After a moment, James laughed lightly. “Where can I put these down?”
Throughout the afternoon, James followed Mary around the house, attaining independence for a little while to chat with one of her brothers about his future. This brother was studying marine biology at a coastal college, already lining up internships.
James, who had not had an internship in years, did not have much to contribute. After a few minutes, Mary found him and plucked him from the jaws of the conversation.
She led him through the house, conversing with a growing number of friends and relatives, while he carried a bottle of beer, which he held close to his chest like a prop, feeling it go from refrigerator chilled to room temperature while the afternoon darkened into desert night.
As the evening went on, it became clear to James that no one ever left this party, and the friends and extended family were growing by leaps and bounds.
The building too appeared to be growing, with new hallways and side rooms bursting like fresh limbs from the nucleus of the house.
At least, that was the only way James could explain the increased crush of revelers. James and Mary passed the kitchen and he paused to grab a new beer. When he turned around, Mary had vanished, replaced by a group of people talking amongst themselves.
He started to ask them where she had gone, but they burst out laughing before he could open his mouth.
There is a difference between being lost in a crowd at a large, informal social gathering, like a theme park or a shopping mall, and being lost in a crowd that is all focused on something that you are not.
James learned this very quickly, trying to spot his Mar in a sea of unfamiliar and disorientingly similar faces. The temperature in the house went up, and the volume of the music did not go down.
After a few minutes, he gave up trying to find Mary and simply looked for an empty seat. He finally spotted one — a big chair shoved right up against a wall, and made his way to it, chuckling under his breath as he sat down.
His forehead was sprinkled with sweat, and he placed his beer bottle against it, feeling the condensation on his skin.
He tried to take in the scene. If nothing else, he could wait here. The chair was comfortable enough. It was wood, as heavy and black as bad dreams, and it looked old and hand-carved.
James saw that there was a matching chair beside him, identical in every way except its occupant: an old man with skin as thin and delicate as the chair was solid. The hair on his head and face was also thin but long, with all the grace of wild grass.
James made no sound, but the old man looked up. His cheeks were sunken, and his eyes were blue and far too clear.
“I didn’t see you come in,” he said at last.
“I wasn’t aware you were watching,” James said.
The old man shrugged. “It is better to watch. I learned that a long time ago.”
James considered this, but before he had a comment, the old man sucked in a great, preparatory breath.
“Many years ago,” he began, “perhaps when I was as old as you, I was traveling by bus from El Paso, I think, to Los Angeles. It was a long time ago, and it was a long ride, but I remember some things quite well. Everything was gold then. The light was gold, and the station was gold.”
James nodded and sank into his chair.
“The last stop I remember was Tucson, where people got off and people got on. Other men like me. There was a pretty young woman with a yellow hat.” He smiled at this. “Children. I remember children. And there was a man who was dressed in expensive clothes, like the boss of a big ranch.
“I fell asleep somewhere on the way to Phoenix. I must have. When I woke up, I did not know what time it was or where exactly the bus was, but we must have been on the way to Indio. It was quite night, and the moon was fat and purple, like a stain. There were no more children on the bus. Or the woman with the yellow hat.
“There was still the rancher and another man, someone who I hadn’t seen before. Maybe he got on the bus in Phoenix. Or maybe he had always been there and I hadn’t seen him. I couldn’t say then and I can’t say now.
“Outside the window, I couldn’t tell where I was. The land was desert, all desert. It was night, but everything was the color of twilight. The cactus was twilight. The dust was twilight. Everything.
“I did what you do when you wake up. I tried to stretch without moving.” Here, the old man spat a laugh, as prickly as the cactus in his desert. “To sleep on a bus. I thought I knew what it meant to feel stiff.
“Without moving my head, I looked at the man I had not seen before.”
“What did he look like?” James interrupted. The old man considered.
“He dressed like someone from a Hollywood movie. Rolled up white shirt and denim pants. But the clothes didn’t fit him right. Like he was shaped wrong inside them.”
James nodded slowly.
“I looked at him,” the old man said after a pause, “without looking. My eyes were almost closed. People on a bus, late at night, they don’t like to be bothered sometimes. You can’t always tell who wants to talk and who doesn’t.
“This man, he didn’t look like he wanted to talk. He was staring at the other man, the rancher. They were not moving, like me. But I saw they wanted to kill each other.”
Suddenly, there was a rush and a roar from where James assumed was the kitchen, followed by the smell of burning grease. The old man paid it no attention, and James was forced to lean in to hear his words.
“How did you know they wanted to kill each other?”
“Their eyes,” the old man answered. He made a motion with his hand, like he was trying to pull an invisible force off his face. “They were staring like they could kill with their eyes.”
“What did you do?”
“Nothing. I did not want to get between them. And I could not get to the bus driver without crossing them. The driver was at the front of the bus, down a few steps and behind a kind of cage. I could not even see him. But I stopped thinking about the driver when the men started to growl.”
“At first, when I heard the sound, I thought it was the bus. Like something grinding down below, rising to the top. Men do not make a sound like that. I did not think they could. But as the sound became louder, I knew it had to be these men. They started to claw at their clothes, like insects plagued their skin. One man began to tear at his shirt, but before he could get it off, his body burst through his clothes.
“I did not feel like I could move, but very slowly, I turned my head to look at the window. I wanted to see if I could escape. The bus was moving fast now, very fast. And the window was solid. I could not open it. I could not break it. Even if I could, what would I do? If I escaped the bus, I did not know where I was. I would be in the desert, lost and alone. It was impossible.
“Very slowly, I turned back. I pretended to be asleep. It did not matter. What I saw then, I could not move at all. I could not believe it, and cannot believe it now. These men were turning into wolves.”
The old man was no longer looking at James — he could not say when the old man had shifted his gaze — but instead was looking into the crowd. His eyes softened, and his jaw quivered with a terrible delicacy.
“No,” he continued. “They were not wolves. They were something worse than wolves.”
James’s mouth felt dry. The warmth of the room took on an uncomfortable weight.
He licked his lips, feeling their chapped and jagged surface.
“What did you do?”
The old man sighed and dropped his shoulders.
“What could I do? There was nothing to do. I did not know what the creatures wanted. Were they going to fight each other? If they were, would the winner be satisfied, or would he turn on me? Would the creatures decide I was easier prey? Did they know I was awake?
“There was no way off the bus. It rolled along, faster and faster. I didn’t know how the driver couldn’t hear these men. Maybe he wasn’t there. More and more they changed. Teeth and fangs. Skin and fur. Clothes in shreds on the floor of the bus. Claws and talons. As slowly as I could, I pushed myself back into my seat, trying to disappear. I could not. I don’t make a sound. I don’t breathe. I wait for these men, these things. I wait. I wait.”
The old man stopped and smiled. He actually smiled. James saw his teeth — yellow and lined like discarded newspaper, all present and too solid.
“James!” He sat straight up. This was not the old man’s voice but Mary’s.
She had found him. James rose and saw her emerging from the crowd and walking toward him. Her dark eyes were wide and wet. When she was close enough that she no longer had to shout, she simply said, “I can’t believe you would do that to me.”
Despite the heat of the room, an icy tingle descended James’s body and froze him in place.
“Do what?” he said at last.
She ignored this. “Come on,” she said quickly. “We’re going home.”
“But what did I do? What did I do?”
Her only answer was to turn and cut her way back into the crowd.
James started after her, but he paused long enough to look back at the old man. He was no longer smiling. Instead, he had slumped back into the chair, eyes barely open, another piece of furniture, separate and ignored by the crowd.