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Authors: Peter Clines

Ex-Purgatory: A Novel (8 page)

BOOK: Ex-Purgatory: A Novel
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She sighed. “One last question.”

“If you’re quick.”

“Are you strong in your dreams? Really, really strong?”

He thought of the impossible physics when he fought the monsters. How their bones crumbled beneath his fists. How he’d yanked the demon into the air. “Yeah,” he said. “How’d you know?”

“Because that’s who you are.”


had two plastic wheels on the bottom. Over the years one of the wheels had been worn away by too many trips down the stairwell and over curbs. It was closer to an oval now. Almost a rectangle.

George dragged the trash barrel across the parking lot and some more of the oval wheel crumbled away. The plumbers had dumped all the old tiles and soggy plaster in the trash room rather than carrying the material down to the dumpster like they were supposed to. If he had to guess, the barrel weighed over three hundred pounds. Maybe over four.

He paused to let a group of students go past. They were chattering away and barely acknowledged him as they rushed between classes. He started to pull again and one last kid walked by, cracking his gum.

George heaved. The trash barrel scraped across the pavement. By the time he got it to the dumpster he was pretty sure he’d worn the other wheel flat, too. He tossed both lids open and stopped for a breather while he figured out what to do next.

He knew he should just call Jarvis and tell him to send Mark over for an assist. He should’ve called ten minutes ago, but the thought of listening to Mark ramble on about the life he was supposed to have seemed especially grating at the moment.

If he could get the barrel off the ground, even just a little,
George was pretty sure he could work the top of it up onto the edge of the dumpster. Then he could just push it forward and tilt it until the whole thing tipped. It was the same move he’d used with the couch last week.

The couch that had been so much lighter than he’d expected.

Madelyn’s lunchtime stories flashed through his mind. That he was strong. It was nonsense, but right now he wouldn’t mind if it were true. Unfortunately, he knew the barrel weighed a lot more than the couch.

He gave the top edge of the trash bin a nudge. It bent away from his finger. The weight had settled to the bottom of the container, but the top was still just plastic. He could feel the barrel resist as his hand slid down and pushed.

He shook the thoughts from his head and tightened his lifting belt. The Velcro flaps rustled into place over his abs. He got behind the barrel, bent his knees, and pushed at the top with his left hand. It tipped forward just enough for him to slip his fingers underneath it. He tightened his fingers, braced his arms, and heaved up with his knees.

The trash barrel jumped two feet into the air.

George fell back for a moment, convinced his grip had slipped, then lunged back in to grab the barrel. It crashed down on the ground. It was so bottom heavy there was no chance of it tipping.

A last few passing students glanced over at the noise of the impact. It had been loud. Over five hundred pounds loud, easy.

George straightened up. The
of newly broken tile echoed inside the bin. A faint haze of dust circled the top. He gave it another prod with his hand.

Are you strong in your dreams? Really, really strong?

Most of the students were gone now. Class schedules weren’t exact, but there were periods of high and low foot traffic on campus. At the moment, there was no one nearby to watch him try something dumb.

He bent down again. With one move, without thinking about it, he scooped up the bin. It came away from the ground and fell into his arms. It weighed nothing.

He held it by the mouth and the bottom. He tipped the whole thing forward and shook it out. A wave of trash poured out into the dumpster. Soggy papers, wet plaster, ceramic tiles. It all crashed down inside the metal container.

George dropped the plastic bin and looked at his hands. His gaze traveled up his arms. There weren’t any bulging muscles or swollen veins. His shirt didn’t feel tight. His limbs didn’t look any bulkier or more powerful than they ever did in the bathroom mirror.

He looked at the old tiles and plaster chunks piled up in the dumpster. There was also a bunch of old pizza boxes, a dozen or so plastic trash bags, and what looked like some shelving with twisted brackets. The dumpster wasn’t full, but it’d need to be emptied in a day or two at the most.

Still no one nearby. He stepped to the side of the dumpster and put his hands on the big sleeve the trash trucks slid their forklifts into. They used them to flip the dumpsters up and over the cab. He slid his fingers under the sleeve and lifted.

The end of the dumpster rose into the air with a squeal of stressed metal. The wheels went one-two-three feet in the air. Half a ton of steel and trash, easy. Hell, the dumpster alone weighed over five hundred pounds. Even considering two of the wheels still sat on the ground, he had to be lifting five or six times his own weight.

And it barely took any effort at all. He was aware of the weight, but it felt like nothing. He could’ve been lifting a bag of groceries.

George set the dumpster down. He didn’t want to make any noise. Any more noise, at least.

The life he was supposed to have

He reached down and grabbed the underside of the steel bin with one hand. The rusty bottom flaked away beneath his fingertips. He felt something small and slick skitter away from the tip of his pinky. His other hand grabbed the edge of the dumpster’s wide mouth. The pose put his head almost against the forklift sleeve.

“Just like picking up the trash bin,” he whispered. He took in a deep breath. His fingers tensed.

A car horn blared out three quick beeps. He fell against the dumpster. Its side echoed with the

One of the department trucks sat in the walkway a few yards behind him. It was covered with dust. The front tires were flat, and it made the whole vehicle lean forward. Behind the wheel was the body of a man. Its skin was gray with a few freckles of black. Its eyes were dull pearls. The body was dusty, too. A cobweb stretched from the brim of its department cap to its nose, then down to its collar.

The dead man’s head rolled to the side to look at him. Withered fingers reached up to paw at the steering wheel and the half-open side window. One arm pushed through the opening and it stretched out, trying to reach George. Its teeth snapped together, as if the dead thing thought it could bite him from twenty feet away.

George spun away and stumbled back against the dumpster. It made another loud
. He looked back at the dead thing.

Mark popped open the door of the truck. “Hey,” he called out. “What the heck are you doing?”

George looked at the dumpster and at the empty trash bin, then back at his coworker. He straightened up and looked in the dumpster. The garbage was all still more or less centered. None of it looked tilted or piled up as if someone had just lifted one end of the dumpster three feet in the air.

He felt very stupid and sleep deprived. Mostly stupid. The girl’s stories had gotten into his head.

“Think I strained something,” he said. “Trying to stretch my shoulder.”

“Want me to pop your back?”

“No, that’s okay.”

“I’m really good at it. Seriously.”

George shook his head. He shot another look at the truck. It was clean and shining. Both front tires were fine.

Mark walked over to him. He made fists and put his knuckles under his chin. “Put your arms like this,” he said.

George held up a hand. “I’m okay. Thanks.”

“Just trying to help, man.” He gestured at the plastic trash bin. “Didya hurt yourself trying to flip it?”

“Yeah. It was full of tiles and crap the plumbers had dumped in it.”

“Lazy bastards. Why didn’t you just call for some help?”

“Ahhh, you know. I didn’t want you calling me a lazy bastard.”

Mark snorted out a laugh. “C’mon, get that thing put away. We’ve got to get one of the courts pretty in the gym for tonight.” He gestured across the street.

George grabbed the trash bin. Both its wheels were worn flat now. It lurched along as he dragged it. “What’s tonight?”

“I don’t know.” Mark shrugged. “Something that isn’t football. Get a move on.”


somewhere in Hollywood, east of Highland but north of Sunset. They’d parked Nick’s car in a lot and gone on foot for two blocks. The line stretched halfway down the sidewalk, but Nick guided them past it. The doorman smiled at him and shook his hand. George was pretty sure money was exchanged in a subtle, professional way. The velvet rope lifted away and George followed Nick into the club, along with three women he was pretty sure were just old enough to be inside. Years on campus had given him a good eye for ages.

The club was loud and dim with flashes of colored light. There was more open space than he’d expected, but it was still far from empty. Nick guided them through the crowd to the bar and exchanged a few quick gestures with the bartender. A moment later she handed them two drinks and they were seated at a side booth that fell beneath the blast of the speakers.

“Why don’t you ever just want to go out to a bar?” George half shouted to his friend.

Nick gestured behind them. The spinning lights flashed off his sunglasses. “They’ve got a bar.” He pulled the tiny straw from his Seven & Seven, tossed it on the table, and took a deep drink.

“They’ve got a cover charge.”

“Which you didn’t pay.”

“Yeah, because you bribed the doorman.”

Nick waved him off with a smile. “There’s better girls here,” he said. He tilted his head at two women dancing with each other. “You wouldn’t see that at a bar.”

George shook his head. The crowd on the dance floor parted and across the room George caught a glimpse of white eyes and messy hair. He straightened up, but the dancers swayed and shifted and hid the sight from him.

“Truth is, I shouldn’t be here,” said Nick. “I’ve got to do a phone meeting in the morning. And I think the owner here doesn’t like me. I helped set up a party here for one of our dumb-fuck clients and it didn’t end well.” He had another mouthful of whiskey and soda. “So what’s gnawing at you?”

“What do you mean?”

“You suck at hiding your feelings, George. You always have. Something’s been bugging you all night. Ever since I picked you up.”

He shrugged and sipped his own drink. “Weird stuff.”

“Weird kinky or weird strange?”

“Not weird kinky,” George said. “I’ve just felt really … off, lately.”



“Good. Get me sick and I’ll beat the crap out of you. So what is it?”

George shifted on his side of the table. A new song started and a few people in the crowd cheered. He raised his voice. “Have you ever had one of those dreams that were just … real? One of those ones that’s so real, when you woke up it took you a while to figure out if it had happened or not?”

“This is about a dream?”

“Answer the question.”

Nick settled one arm on the table. He was good at leaning in and not making it look awkward. “Once or twice, I guess. I remember once when I was a kid I dreamed my dog was dead and I freaked out in the morning when I couldn’t find him.”

“Where was he?”

“My brother took him for a walk.”

“What about one of the ones that are fresh and solid in your mind when you wake up, but then a couple minutes later they’re gone. Wiped clean. There’s just a … a dream-shaped hole in your memories.”

“Yeah, okay, sure.”

George took a sip of his drink. “I’ve been feeling like that for a few days. Maybe a few weeks. I’m not sure.”

“Feeling like what?”

He tapped the side of his glass. “Like I’ve forgotten something. I pretty much always feel like there’s something I should remember and I can’t. Something right there that I just can’t see, y’know?”

“You’re acting weird because you forgot a couple of dreams?”

“No.” George shook his head. “It’s not dreams, it’s life. I feel like this when I’m awake. I’ve got this constant, nagging feeling I’ve just forgotten something.”

“Like a dream?”

Over Nick’s shoulder, a gap opened at the bar. There was a woman there with stringy blond hair. It looked like she hadn’t washed it in months. In fact, it looked like there were things tangled in it. One of the thin straps of her top had slid off her shoulder, and that side sagged dangerously low. She didn’t seem to notice or care. Her skin looked pale against the dark top.

Her head swung in a slow arc that made him think she’d been drugged. Her eyes were blank, pink circles in the club’s red lights. Her mouth opened and closed like a fish gasping for air. George was sure if the music hadn’t been so loud he would’ve heard her teeth hitting each other from here.

Then the bartender stepped forward to set some drinks on the bar and blocked the woman from view. When the gap opened again, the woman had turned around. Then a couple of guys filled the gap and she vanished.

Nick held out his hand and snapped his fingers. “Hey.” He glanced over his shoulder, scanned the bar, and looked back at George. “Someone over there I should know about?”

“I don’t think so,” he said. “I just … I thought I saw someone I recognized.”

“A girl?”


“From campus.”

“No.” He wasn’t sure where he knew the woman from, but he was pretty sure it wasn’t work. He shook it off.

“So you’re just in some kind of … what, existential funk?”

“Maybe? I don’t know.”

“We so need to get you laid.” Nick gestured at the two women dancing with each other. “Two of them, two of us, what do you say?”

“What about the publicist? Nina?”

“Nita. I was thinking of blowing her off and inviting that gymnast we saw in the parking lot the other day.”

“I don’t know if you’re pathetic or … something else.”

“I’m good with something else.” He settled back into his side of the booth. His sunglasses reflected the dance floor, and for a moment the spinning lights gave the lenses a mechanical look, like a camera iris.

BOOK: Ex-Purgatory: A Novel
7.21Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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