When Sugar Tank first negotiated a business deal with the Rest Well, it wasn’t this nasty. Not that it was ever the classiest joint on the block, but definitely not the rathole it eventually became. The hotel room reeked of bleach and dried vomit.
“So, you were saying something about your wife?”
“Ex-wife,” he said, putting strong emphasis on the prefix. “Fifteen years of matrimony, only to be traded in for a Beaker.”
Sara unhooked one garter and slowly rolled the red stocking down her leg. “A Beaker? I can’t believe any woman would want to hook up with one of those eggheads, especially with a hot piece like you waiting at home.” She walked over and sat next to him on the bed. Sara placed one of his hands on her semi-exposed thigh. Her smooth, white skin starkly contrasted his calloused, rough fingers. He turned his head away, trying to hide a sheepish grin. Sara stood back up and perched her leg beside him. She continued unrolling the stocking, adding a bit of burlesque showmanship with the slow sway of her narrow hips.
“This is kinda new to me,” he said.
Sara believed him.
“Don’t overthink it. We’re gonna have a good time. Just relax.”
He gave a weak laugh and shifted uneasily on the faded plaid comforter.
Keep him talking, Sara thought. It had been a slow night, and this was no time to lose money on something stupid like cold feet.
“I’m not against science–like medicine and stuff–but those Beakers mess with shit they shouldn’t,” Sara unhooked the second set of garters. “I’m not the smartest girl on the block, but it don’t take a genius to know that messing with genes and shit is…well, unnatural.”
He remained quiet, his face still turned away. Sara realized she might’ve dug herself into a hole, touching on hot topics bound to get folks riled up.
“Not that they haven’t done some good,” she pulled her shirt over her head, exposing a black bra with red trim, a size too small to make her B-cups look like a suspicious C. “They cured some cancers, and bald guys probably like having hair. The Clap is gone, of course.”
Fuck. Why would I talk about VD with my john?
Sara tucked her long blonde bangs behind her ear and straddled his lap, slowly pushing her panty-clad pelvis up against the bulge in his jeans.
“Shit, listen to me ramble. I might be a little nervous too.” She gently placed a finger on his chin and turned his face toward hers. “Good thing we’re not here to talk.”
He was still sporting the stupid grin, but his gaze was now fixated on his tucked-in green polo, framed by a worn leather jacket. Probably fake.
“I don’t mean to be rude, but how much money are we talking?”
Sara closed her eyes. Had they not even discussed terms yet? What the hell was wrong with her tonight? The conversation at the bar had flowed so smoothly. Usual shit: The old Brando film playing at the Fox. Fallout surges. Stories about all the Stage One kids she’d grown up with. Despite their somewhat cruel undertone, anecdotes about one-eyed children and Butchie Berwick-who could run 30 mph, but only backwards-never failed to get laughs. And this john was no exception. They laughed, commiserated, and generally hit it off. This kinda stuff happens, but never to a degree to where it was no longer a job.
This was really an off night.
Sara stood and grabbed the cigarettes out of her purse. “Fifty if you just want a toss,” she said, lighting up. “Anything extra we can negotiate.”
“Yes,” Sara said, exhaling a thin stream of smoke against the chipped vanity mirror. In the reflection, the john was staring very intently at her now. His eyes were shifting colors, running the gamut between their original blue and neon yellow. His grin had taken a more nefarious tone. When Sugar Tank was still making her appointments, he could pick these guys out on instinct alone.
Sara’s eyes darted to her purse. Less than arm’s length away, she estimated.
The john was now standing.
“Let’s not make this…difficult,” he said.
Sara grabbed the revolver from her handbag and spun around. He looked at the gun with mild interest and took a step forward.
“Stop,” she said. “Just fucking stop.”
“You’re gonna sit back down on that nasty bed, and I’m gonna walk out of here.” Sara said. “We’re gonna move on with our lives.”
“I’m sorry, but that’s not the play.”
“Do as I say or I will plug you.” Sara waved the gun for emphasis. She was a bit surprised by her own confidence. “No shit.”
“Let’s not make this difficult,” he said again, his smile widening. He stepped forward, reaching for her.
Sara fired three times. The first two slugs hit the john squarely in the chest, and the third caught him in the gut as he sprawled to the floor. He lay on the ratted brown carpet, one hand holding his stomach and the other flailing as if desperately looking for a dropped quarter. His head bobbed frantically and his eyes rolled back. The blood seeping from his abdomen was bright red and impossibly thick, oozing onto the floor like a seedless jam. One of the bullets eased out of the stomach wound and plopped unceremoniously onto the floor.
“Let’s not…make this…difficult,” he said, his voice now a reedy hiss. Sara watched as the john’s hands changed color, rapidly going from Caucasian pink to a putrid green. His tongue lengthened and forked, and his teeth followed suit.
A Stage Two.
Looks like I might get fucked after all.
Sara ignored the crazed laugh bubbling behind her lips as she darted around the writhing john transforming on the dirty hotel floor. She burst outside, the thick, frigid air of Old Detroit immediately delivering a harsh greeting to her half-naked body. She ran across the dark parking lot, almost oblivious to the rocks and gravel cutting her bare feet. The bar was close. Sara just had to get there. Sugar Tank was at the bar. She just had to reach Sugar Tank.
Against her better judgment, Sara stole a quick glance over her shoulder.
What was left of the john stood in the doorway. His hunched frame now twice its original size. The slope from where the back of the skull met the shoulders was gone, replaced with a strip of scaly muscle. From that distance, Sara couldn’t make out much detail. And she honestly didn’t want to. But she could see the eyes. Yellow and soulless. They almost seemed to sparkle.
Sara reached the bar entrance just as the creature let out a howl. It would chase her now. She ran inside, the cold air now replaced with an impenetrable cloud of cigarette smoke, spilled beer, and sweat. People shook their asses on the dance floor to generic music with a throbbing beat. Many turned when she came in, but few were impressed with the half-naked, frantic hooker. Just another Thursday.
She reached the bar, gasping for breath. Turnip was filling a pretzel basket, her face scrunched in its usual scowl. Sara opened her mouth to ask about Sugar Tank but the barmaid beat her to it: “Sugar’s in the bathroom. Been there most of the night. I don’t think he’s doing too good. Sly won’t check on him. He’s scared like everybody else. You should go in there, girl.”
A woman screamed as the creature burst through the door. The monster returned the shriek, and with the flash of a gnarled claw removed half of her face. Her date pulled a gun from his lavender sport coat and unloaded at point blank range. The john went for his throat.
Sara could hear Sugar Tank’s voice, even though he hadn’t spoken in years: You gotta break the neck, baby. Gotta sever the spinal cord completely.
The creature was coming for her now, nonchalantly knocking hysterical patrons and waitresses out of its way. Sara raised the revolver and fired, even though she knew better. The gun blazed, expelling useless bullets. The john grabbed her by the jaw, its claws digging deeply into her cheeks.
“Let’s not make this…difficult,” it whispered. Then she was airborne.
Sara’s head stopped her fall, hitting flush with the top of the jukebox. She tumbled into an awkward somersault and slid down the side, the sound of bad disco providing the soundtrack as she descended into darkness.
Sugar Tank met her below. They were at Buster’s. Must’ve been a few years back.
He sat at the bar beside her, holding a strawberry shake with two straws. Sara watched as the short order cook grilled sausage links and furiously scrambled eggs. A mound of hash browns and onions sizzled in the far corner. She smiled and took a long sip from her straw. The shake was cold and fairly disgusting. Nevertheless, Sara appreciated the increasingly rare gesture of affection.
Sugar Tank barely fit on the stool. He looked like an albino grizzly bear sitting on a toothpick.
“I shoulda got some of them potatoes,” he said. “Them potatoes look…look…them potatoes look good.”
He was still talking. This wasn’t today’s Sugar Tank. Buster’s had just reopened. It was one of only three restaurants that reopened so soon after the Last Wave. Must’ve been around ’71.
“You feelin’ okay?”
“I haven’t been okay since I was in diapers, girl.” Sugar replied. “Don’t waste my time with those stupid-ass questions.”
Sara closed her eyes and took another sip, “I know, Sugar,” she said quietly.
“You didn’t deserve that.” He sat quietly for a moment; lost in thought.
“It’s not so slow anymore,” he finally continued. “I woke up this morning and couldn’t feel my fingers. The fog in my head…it’s…it’s getting worse. Whatever grip I had, I’m losing it.”
“Everything works out. It always does,” Sara lied. “We’re gonna figure this out. You and me.”
The stuttering started the week before, just after he lost most of the sensation in his legs. He was the only Stage Three she had known. They couldn’t control the effects of the radiation treatment like a Stage Two, and they couldn’t just ignore the minor defects suffered by Stage Ones. A Stage Three just got bigger. And angrier. It always progressed the same way. Inevitably, they fell hopelessly into the red.
Unstoppable. Uncontrollable. Eventually carted off to Mackinac Island like immortal lepers.
She began rubbing his back. It was cold. Sugar looked surprised when he turned around and realized she was touching him.
The cook placed two plates between them: one with a grayish omelet, and the second with an over-sized waffle and hash browns. Sara picked up her plate and scooped the majority of her potatoes onto his. Sugar Tank smiled. He lost control of his facial features just a couple months later.
“We could go. Just pick up and disappear,” she said. “They said there’s nothing past Ohio, but what the hell do they know? We could find something more.”
“Running won’t fix shit,” Sugar said though a mouthful of hash browns. “The grass is never greener. It’s just as rotten anywhere else.”
Sara watched out the window. She contemplated the red sky and desolate streets. She turned her attention back to the strawberry shake. Sugar smiled.
“Is that any good?”
“Yeah, it’s good,” she lied again. “You know how much I love strawberries.”
The big man laughed, “Shit, you know there ain’t one goddamn…goddamn…” He squinted, shaking his head as if looking for a jumpstart. “There ain’t one goddamn strawberry in that shake.”
Sara awoke to an empty bar, more nondescript music, and the creature’s hot breath on her face. Its eyes stared into hers: large, yellow, unblinking. She opened her mouth to scream, but had lost the function of her jaw. Probably broken, definitely torn. The beast’s thick red tongue lolled out of its smooth, reptilian mouth.
Over its shoulder, Sara saw Sugar Tank shamble out of the bathroom. This wasn’t the man she shared a shake with back in the day. The current version was slack-jawed, his enormous face emotionless, and his eyes stared off into infinity. The puce suit she dressed him in that morning was tattered and stained; his bulging body opposed all fabric, and his lack of motor skills essentially made him a massive toddler.
The creature glanced back. Somehow, these types could always sense one another.
The beast turned and cleared the dance floor in three strides. It pounced, digging its teeth into the big man’s neck. Sugar Tank grunted in disgust, backhanding the monster across the room, knocking over a set of stacked chairs and the busboy’s dish wagon. Undeterred, the creature sprung to its feet and charged again. Sugar turned his head lazily towards his approaching adversary. When it leapt, he caught the john mid-flight by the throat. It squealed and thrashed, trying to break Sugar’s grip. His massive hand encircled the creature’s neck almost entirely. The monster hissed, kicked, and lashed; desperately reaching for an eye or an artery. Sugar blinked. He placed his other hand on the monster’s forehead. Like opening a stubborn mason jar, he twisted and snapped the creature’s neck. The squealing and thrashing stopped instantly. Sugar dropped the body to the floor; its head held tenuously by scaly skin and tendons.
Turnip ran out from behind the bar. She gingerly helped Sara to her feet. Despite wobbly knees, Sara was able to remain vertical. “You gotta get him outta here,” Turnip said. “I don’t need to tell you what the cops will do.”
Once again Sara found herself in the parking lot, the biting wind nipping her semi-naked body but mercifully numbing her ragged face. The cab pulled up and Turnip gave the driver a 50 spot and specific instructions. Sara eased Sugar Tank into the back and slowly slipped in beside him. Turnip appeared at the door.
“He’s gonna take you somewhere safe.” She said.
Before Sara could reply, Turnip shut the door and the cab took off.
They rode in silence, the driver forgoing unnecessary conversation. Sugar Tank continued staring forward, perhaps looking for something that may have never been there to begin with.
Sara’s head throbbed and her cheek felt like it was on fire. She gently rolled over onto her back, laying her head in Sugar Tank’s lap. He didn’t react. His legs were cold, as if blood hadn’t circulated through them in years. She picked up one of his limp, heavy hands, and placed it on top of her forehead. Sara ran his cold fingers through her hair. Sugar continued looking ahead.
As they rode, Sara watched the devastated skyline of Old Detroit pass by: decapitated skyscrapers, thick black clouds, and the scorching red glow of the approaching dawn. She wondered if there was something more.
Author Joe Bannerman’s anthology IT FOLLOWS is available for about 5 bucks in hardcopy and 99 cents on Kindle.
Fangoria calls it: “…a must-read for all fright fans.”
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