“Are you Mack?” He could hear the fear in his voice, figured this man could too.
Hated himself for it.
The older man leaned in toward the screen to get a better look at the stranger on his porch.
“What can I do for you?”
“Are you Mack?”
He edged closer, the older man coming into sharper focus, the sour sweetness of red wine on his breath.
“Do you know me?” he asked.
Now the fear was fermenting into rage.
“Do. You. Know. Me. Did you do this to me?”
The old man said, “I’ve never seen you before in my life.”
“Is that right?” His hands were balling involuntarily into fists. “Is there another Mack in this town?”
“Not that I’m aware of.” Mack pushed open the screen door, ventured a step out onto the porch. “Buddy, you don’t look so hot.”
“I don’t feel so hot.”
“What happened to you?”
“You tell me, Mack.”
A woman’s voice called out from somewhere in the house, “Honey? Everything OK?”
“Yes, Jane, all’s well!” Mack stared at him. “Why don’t you let me take you to the hospital? You’re injured. You need—”
“I’m not going anywhere with you.”
“Then why are you at my house?” A gruff edge had entered Mack’s voice. “I just offered to help you. You don’t want that, fine, but...”
Mack was still talking, but his words had begun to dissolve, drowned out by a noise building in the pit of his stomach like the roar of a freight train barreling toward him. The black holes were multiplying, the world beginning to spin. He simply wasn’t going to be able to stay on his feet another five seconds if his head didn’t explode first.
He looked up at Mack, the man’s mouth still moving, that freight train closing in with a vengeance of noise, its rhythm in lockstep with the brutal pounding in his head, and he couldn’t take his eyes off Mack’s mouth, the old man’s teeth—his synapses sparking, trying to connect, and the noise, God, the noise, and the throbbing—
He didn’t feel his knees give out.
Didn’t even register the backward stumble.
One second he was on the porch.
The next, the grass.
Flat on his back and his head reeling from a hard slam against the ground.
Mack hovering above him now, staring down at him, bent over with his hands on his knees and his words hopelessly lost to the train that was screaming through his head.
He was going to lose consciousness—he could feel it coming, seconds away—and he wanted it, wanted the pain to stop, but...
They were right there.
It made no sense, but there was something about Mack’s mouth. His teeth. He couldn’t stop looking at them, and he didn’t know why, but it was all there.
Answers to everything.
And it occurred to him—stop fighting it.
Stop wanting it so badly.
Just let it come.
The teeth theteeth theteeththeteeththeteethteethteethteeth...
They aren’t teeth.
They’re a bright and shiny grille with the letters
M A C K
stamped across the front.
Stallings, the man beside him in the front passenger seat doesn’t see what’s coming.
In the three-hour ride north out of Boise, it’s become apparent that Stallings adores the sound of his own voice, and he’s doing what he’s been doing the entire time—talking. He stopped listening an hour ago, when he discovered he could tune out completely as long as he interjected an “I hadn’t thought of it that way” or “Hmm, interesting” every five minutes or so.
He’s turned to make just such a token contribution to the conversation when he reads the word MACK several feet away on the other side of Stallings’s window.
Hasn’t even begun to react—he’s barely read the word—when the window beside Stallings’s head bursts in a shower of glass pebbles.
The air bag explodes out of the steering column but it’s a millisecond late, just missing his head, which slams into the window with enough force to punch through.
The right side of the Lincoln Town Car implodes in an apocalypse of breaking glass and bending metal, and Stallings’s head takes a direct hit from the truck’s grille.
He can feel the heat from the truck’s engine as it tears into the car.
The sudden reek of gasoline and brake fluid.
Blood is everywhere—running down the inside of the fractured windshield, splattered across the dash, in his eyes, still erupting out of what’s left of Stallings.
The Town Car is sliding crosswise through an intersection, being pushed by the truck toward the side of that brownstone with the phone booth near the alley, when he loses consciousness.
A woman was smiling down at him. At least, he thought those were a mouthful of pretty teeth, although his blurred, double vision made it difficult to say for sure. She leaned in a little closer, her two heads merging and her features crystallizing enough for him to see she was beautiful. Her short-sleeved uniform was white with buttons all the way down the front to where the skirt stopped just above her knees.
She kept repeating his name.
“Mr. Burke? Mr. Burke, can you hear me? Mr. Burke?”
The headache was gone.
He took a slow, careful breath until the pain in his ribs cut him off.
He must have winced, because the nurse said, “Are you still experiencing discomfort in your left side?”
“Discomfort.” He groaned through a laugh. “Yes, I’m experiencing discomfort. You could certainly call it that.”
“I can get something a little stronger for the pain if you’d like.”
“I think I can manage.”
“All right, but don’t you be a martyr, Mr. Burke. Anything I can do to make you more comfortable, just name it. I’m your girl. My name’s Pam, by the way.”
“Thank you, Pam. I think I remember you from the last time I was here. I’d never forget that classic nurse’s uniform. I didn’t even know they still made those.”
She laughed. “Well, I’m glad to hear your memory’s coming back. That’s very good. Dr. Miter will be in shortly to see you. Would you mind if I took a blood pressure reading?”