I’m sneaking into Tanger’s office building. As I pass by a mirror on the wall, I see my reflection, staring back at me with the face of Nosferatu. I touch my face and feel the now-familiar numbness of a callus-mask, but the reflection is still unpleasantly realistic. I turn my eyes away from my own masked image and move on.
The office is dim and silent. The guard’s desk outside of the office waiting room is unmanned, but a concerning dark stain pools out from behind it, spreading slowly into the carpet. I don’t go look to see the source. I don’t want to know.
Inside the waiting room, the receptionist’s desk is also empty, but every one of the other chairs contains a man or woman in identical suits, staring blankly ahead. As I enter, their eyes all swivel to lock on to me. Their faces gradually twist into angry disdain, and their bodies tense as they slowly rise from their seats, still staring at me.
“Monster!” the cry goes up. One starts it, but soon they’re all chanting it. “Monster, monster! Kill the monster!”
“I’m not here for you!” I shout. My terrifying vampiric visage sneers, giving the lie to my words. “I’m here for Tanger!”
“Stop the monster. Kill the monster!” they rumble, advancing. As they come closer, I can make out their faces, and I’m startled to see that I recognize them. There are the two men who were here earlier, apparently still waiting for their appointment, but no longer content to simply scowl at me. There’s the receptionist, here after all, whose face twisted with disgust when she learned who I was and who hung up on me. Sergeant Conroy is next to her, looking as furious as when I last saw him at the precinct. Backing him up are the man from the black car who tried to shoot me, and Carl, who tried to run me over with a bulldozer.
And behind them, more people, impossible people. There’s Vince, barely recognizable dressed up in the suit, his hair burned off and his face blackened by flames. Regina stands with him, electricity crackling from her at each step, apparently causing her great agony. And two thickly bearded men, one middle-aged and one young, shuffle along as well. I recognize them only from photos I found online — Aaron Lovell and Jonathan Caraway, the two men who were twisted into mindless ape-things and who I killed.
All of them advance on me in a tightening knot, and I back up until I run into the receptionist’s desk. I jump on top and shout again, “Tanger! I’m here to stop this!” and this time the door to Tanger’s office opens.
Tanger stands there, grinning at me from the far side of the small mob of people. His suit is identical to everyone else’s, but appears to have been tailored to fit him specifically. “Come on then, Dan,” he says. “Come and stop me.”
The mob is clawing zombie-like at my feet now, grasping for my ankles to pull me to the floor. “Call them off! I don’t want to hurt anyone else.”
“Don’t you?” says Tanger, still grinning. “Then you have a difficult choice.”
A motion behind Tanger catches my eye. Deep within his office I see a man shrouded in shadow, sitting at a sewing machine. He sees me looking and I catch the glint of his smile.
“Don’t mind me,” he says. “I just make the suits.”
Hands grab my ankles and yank hard, and I’m falling off the desk to crash to the ground.
I jerk awake to find myself lying on Brian’s couch, my heart pounding. It takes a minute of focused breathing and intentional stillness to calm myself back down. The air smells of bacon and eggs, which helps. It’s hard to be panicked when your body is instead telling you that it’s time to be hungry.
I check my cellphone for the time — almost 11 AM — and see I have several texts from Brian. It reads:
Left for bfast with R
made you some food
we couldnt eat it with things growing off your face behind us
I put your creepy mask in a bag. Do not leave it in my house
I hadn’t really thought about what it must look like while the masks are growing. I’d think it would be pretty cool, but apparently I would be wrong. Or Brian’s got a weak stomach; either way. Though as an EMT, he’d probably have to have a pretty strong stomach. So I suppose watching the masks grow must be pretty grotesque after all.
Speaking of stomachs, mine is screaming at me to head for the kitchen, but I make a stop by the bathroom first. There Brian has laid out a hand mirror and a pair of trauma shears, as I’d asked him to. Working carefully, I cut off first the gloves I’ve grown in the last few hours, then the mask. I make the cuts as small as possible, but even so, they’re a little bit ragged. Still, the cuts on the gloves will be covered up by a shirt, and the one on the back of the mask is mostly hidden by the hair. It’s nothing we can’t fix well enough with superglue, anyway.
Divested of my latest growths, I finally heed my hunger and go in search of food. After a brief search, I find the source of the delicious smell. There’s a plate of potatoes, scrambled eggs and bacon stashed in the oven to keep warm. It’s a sizable pile of food, but I dig in like I haven’t eaten in days.
By the time I finish, I’m stuffed. Ordinarily after a meal like that, I would go rest on the couch and not do anything for the next couple of hours, then later feel badly about my life choices. Today, however, I have a totally different plan — I intend to go rest on the couch and not do anything for the next couple of hours, but I will then feel good about my life choices. It’s a bold new technique, made possible by nanomachinery!
First, though, I have a short phone call to make. I hit redial on my phone, and a woman’s voice answers, “Tanger Construction, how may I direct your call?”
“This is Dan Everton. Tell Tanger that he’s going to want to be looking out his window to the east in, oh, a little under an hour. Maybe a little more. Should be quite a sight to see, anyway, and I’d hate for him to have to catch it on the news later.”
I hang up before she can say anything. I don’t think they can trace cell phone calls to a location, but if they can, shorter phone calls are better. Unless the movies have been totally lying to me about how call-tracing works, of course. Which is a distinct possibility, now that I think about it.
As an afterthought, I pry open the back of my phone and pop out the battery. I know they can’t track the phone if the battery isn’t in it. At least, I’m pretty sure that’s true. Honestly, when we get into spy stuff like this, I’m basically making it all up based on James Bond and things I read on the internet.
Lethargic though I am, I’m not tired enough to sleep, so I simply lie down on the couch and focus on my breathing, holding an image in my mind of the suit I need to grow. I feel my skin start prickling almost immediately. As with my other powers, the more I’ve used this one, the faster and more effective it’s become. I wonder if that’s because as I practice, I get better with the nuances? Or whether the nanos ramp up as they’re used more, becoming more efficient?
I’m losing focus. Calm breath in, hold, calm breath out, hold. Feel the air moving. Participate in the moment. Empty my mind. Be present.
Some time later, I hear a key in the lock and I open my eyes to see Brian and Regina entering the apartment. Brian visibly jumps as he comes in, then collects himself.
“Man, it is super weird to walk in to see a total stranger sitting on my couch. I mean, usually it’s just me here anyway, you know? So it’s already weird to have someone here, and then you don’t even look like anyone I know. Hey, you are Dan, right?”
I laugh. “Chill, dude. It’s me. You’re a little bit nervous about this, huh?”
“It’s not topping my list of greatest excitements, no. You’re banking a lot on things going right.”
“Me? Man, nothing goes right for me unless I make it go right. If I’ve learned nothing else from all of this, I’ve learned that. I’m in the driver’s seat here,” I tell him.
“Yeah, but I’m in the passenger’s seat, and I’m not a hundred percent sure you’re good to drive,” says Brian. “And I’ve seen how that ends up plenty of times.”
“If you’ve got a better plan, hit me with it.”
He hesitates. “No. No, your plan’s good. I just — it’s a lot of risk, you know?”
“I know,” I say solemnly. “And I really appreciate that you’re willing to take it for me.”
There’s a pause where all three of us just look at each other.
“So,” Regina says. “Nothing going on until nightfall, right? What do we do for the next several hours?”
“I’ve gotta call Tanger one more time to keep him riled up, but other than that, whatever you want,” I say.
“I’ve got cards,” says Brian. “Pinochle?”
“Dude, what are you, 80? Do you have a stick and hoop we can roll, too?”
“You don’t have to play if you don’t want to, Rubbermaid,” says Brian. “I’m open to other suggestions — IF they’re not just blatant mockery.”
I close my mouth, having been about to suggest Canasta. We settle on hearts, which at least all of us already know the rules to, although after an hour or so of that Brian does get out the pinochle deck and teach us that game, as well. Reluctantly, I have to admit that it’s actually a lot of fun, and it’s a good distraction from what’s coming up.
Eventually, though, we’ve played all the card games we can stand. I’ve called Tanger to taunt him with more imaginary threats, we’ve eaten dinner, and we’re all pretending to watch a movie while we each take turns checking the sky or our phones to see if it’s late enough yet. The credits roll on the movie at almost 8:30 PM, and Brian looks over at me.
“Time, you think?” he asks.
“Time,” I agree. “Suit up! Let’s go break some stuff.”