“$20.12,” he said, and it sounded normal.
It sounded like he was just this normal guy at a normal gas station totaling up a normal amount with gas and cigarettes and a diet Pepsi. His lips were thick and dark, outlined in black in that way dark skin is, paling in the center. His lashes were long and his eyes were aggressively brown, like they had something to prove. Lizard-y. Reptilian. He almost seemed to glow under the yellow light. Behind him there were condoms, cigarettes, lotto tickets, all the accouterments of a regular gas station and a regular guy, just off the boat, putting himself through school or sending money back to his parents.
But I just couldn’t let that pass. I looked at him and I saw blood on his lips, his nose twisted violently to one side. His eyes were wide in surprise, his hands up, and my fist met his bones again, nothing left to really give, the counter cutting into my hip as I lunged across, punching him down, down, down until he was on the dirty tile floor. $20.12 and I had that in my wallet. I had that amount exactly, actually. $20.12 is what it always was. Always what I paid—down to the penny—after I’d filled my tank to the first $15, then cigarettes and diet Pepsi and tax and it was $20.12 every time.
All over again and again and again. Night tech support, talking to people about their computer problems. Nothing is ever solved, nothing is ever fixed. You build a better mousetrap and they build a bigger idiot.
And hateful. Angry with life, the world, with tech support. All their lives they move on in place, feeling smart, ahead of the game until this computer shows up and they don’t know what they’re doing. Their whole existence is called into question. Their cocks are too small, their hair too blond, and every insult slung at them, every failed grade on every test comes screaming back through the phone to some poor slob who just wants to make enough to pay for his diet soda and cigarettes.
$20.12 and it’s always the same amount. Always the same drive. Always the same people in the cubes next to me lodging the same complaints, the same conspiracies. Lewd rumors of who’s sleeping with whom to get to the top, who is next to be manager. I can never quite bring myself to care. Getting ahead, falling behind. It’s all the same on a Friday night when you pay your $20.12 to get yourself home and fixed in front of the television.
I leave the crisp twenty, a shiny dime, and two bright pennies on the counter. The guy’s moaning on the filthy floor. He’s pressed the silent alarm button. I can tell by the guilty look on his bloody face. I lean over the counter and he flinches, trying to bring his arms up as if that would protect him.
“Sorry.” I leave.
There’s something exciting about the unknown, the watching my rear-view mirror, watching for lights, listening for sirens. It’s 8:14 p.m. Two minutes ago I was punching a gas station attendant in the mouth. It all has a symmetry that I can’t quite put my finger on. I feel exhilaration, a tightening in my stomach. Things are happening; I can feel it.
There are sirens all around me, but no one is following me. There’s a house on fire. I can see it from the freeway as I motor south. The explosion lights up the darkening sky. It feels like revolution, like we were snakes caught behind a glass cage watching as mice and men roamed freely while we were helpless to strike. Now we’ve slithered out of our cages, into the world, and we strike whatever comes near. It’s a revelation.
I still feel the gas station attendant’s blood on my knuckles and I lick it off, tasting the copper and flow and life. I am alive.
It’s cool out, as cool as it can be in Texas in December. I should just use the button to open the windows of my Prius. That’s what’s expected, what we’re meant to do, but I punch, punch, punch until my knuckles swell and I feel bones crack. Next to me, a man in a Mustang is waving his gun. He sees my plight, or maybe he just wants me dead. Either way, he shoots out my window and howls with glee as he pumps the gas and his tires screech, carrying him off into the night.
Glass shatters, raining on my arm and back. I’ve ducked so he’s missed, but I don’t feel angry or afraid. It’s as it should be. How it’s meant to be. I howl after him, feeling the air on my face as I push my stupid fucking electric hybrid as hard as I can, trying to catch up with the muscle car. It’s pointless, but it feels right. This is where I’m going; this is where we all should go.
I-45 has turned into the Autobahn, everyone herding to the seawall as if it’s the end of the world. There are helicopters, their blades whipping the air in brutal staccato. Billy Bob in the jacked up truck next to me has a shotgun. His girl’s driving; her face is bloody, and his fists are red. He leans from his car and takes aim at one of the copters. It shines its searchlight on us, sees the gun too late for it to evade the shot.
The helicopter bursts into flames, crashing down on the racers behind us. There’s cars, trucks, Hummers—everything crashing, winding, screeching. It’s war and we don’t know why. I turn on the radio, not sure what I expect to hear from NPR. Perhaps a reporter giving a placid account of suburban vivisections. I’m chewing through the skin of my broken hand to get to the bone when I lock on to the FM signal.
“Chaos on the city streets of America this twentieth of December, two-thousand twelve. Twenty-twelve of twenty-twelve. Bodies are piling up on the streets from seemingly spontaneous acts of violence.” Another voice, a radio interview from the street, “They’re animals. People are dropping their human forms, becoming lizards, drinking blood. They are here! Repent!”
Hands are wrong. They don’t fit. They’re not right. This one is injured, so it goes first.
Fresh bones are hard and slick, difficult to get your teeth around. I keep chewing and chewing, spitting fingers away, relishing the fresh taste of my own skin, the warmth of my blood milking itself onto my face. I feel aware, alive, and I’m driving, I’m going. It’s instinctive, a compulsion to drive past Clear Lake towards the coast. I can feel them there, feel them all like squirming worms wriggling through, breaking out. NASA to the moon and beyond, and I can feel them setting it up, a rocket into the sky. Alpha Draconis.
I’m drawn to the ocean; it’s calling to me. Even if the Gulf of Mexico is technically an ocean, mostly it’s an oil slick. But just the whiff of sea air makes me feel heady, high. Or maybe it’s the taste of blood. I’m flying down I-45 through the new wreckage of cars that couldn’t navigate the palm tree esplanades, gas stations black from explosions, restaurants and houses looted. I see the wreckage of the Mustang that passed me. The bawdy man is now just a charred corpse laying over the mutilated hood. Everything’s a red and black gooey mess but for his teeth. His gold and white teeth are glittering in the street lamp; his burned rictus looks like he’s smiling.
It’s harder to breathe and I feel something itching at my throat, something horrible and perfect at the same time. I scratch and scratch, flesh coming away in my nails, driving blind, not steering, just my foot on the pedal as my Prius skids towards the seawall. Wrecks and death all around, but I cannot breathe anymore. I cannot see. There is some seal over my eyes—a second eyelid making everything fuzzy, drowsy like an injection of Demerol.
I’m pulling my hair off. The closer I get to the ocean, the less I need the burden. I can feel the slick scales beneath, I can feel my true self, my lizard being, like I’m waking up from a bad dream of living in an ant hive. All around me there’s screaming and burning. I feel each impact with other cars, curbs, plants, the wet sound of colliding with people. I don’t know which direction I’m going in, all I know is that if I don’t make it to the ocean soon, I’m going to die.
For a heady moment I feel free, my stomach drops and then there’s a hard impact. Through my slime-covered eyes I can see the seawall looming. My car is lodged in the sand. I have to crawl a few more yards to make it to the water. My hand is webbed. It doesn’t work. I can’t open the door, but I can slither out over the broken window and I thank that anonymous dead Mustang man yet again for setting me free.
Then I’m rolling, swimming, sliding towards the surf. Returning to the source, coming back, reclaiming the water. All around me there are others slithering into the glittering black. The Gulf oozes with reptilian blood. I imagine it’s filling up with us, with reptilian, amphibian men, beings called and returning. I’m in the water, but I’m stuck. Caught on the end of a line. Useless toes snagged on a wire and I can’t get away. I see them out there, their glittering tails flicking each other playfully, happily. They’re jumping and swirling through the water, but I’m gasping for air, searching for breath, trying to make it home.
I think about beached whales, about jellyfish rotting on the shore. I think of the Montauk Monster and the deep reaches of the sea where things grow and men never see. I think of that man in the gas station, think of his lips bright red with blood, at the look of surprise on his face. I think of 2012, of living underwater, and home.