We've got an exclusive look at the first 20 pages of Zombieland and Deadpool co-writer Rhett Reese's horror novel Anxiety. Flop sweat shut-ins, meet your new hero.
Josh Redding, 26, is afflicted by severe, debilitating panic attacks. Once an accomplished student with a sharp wit and a bright future, Josh has retreated from the world into a motel room in the small desert town of Joy, Arizona. There, he awaits his turn to die. And someone wants to give him his wish.
I had just turned twenty-six when I met the Bad Guy.
The Bad Guy. It still seems like his most appropriate name. Our first encounter was something out of Hollywood - that familiar movie moment where the villain makes his entrance. In this case, there was no black Stetson or orchestral swell. But it was the Bad Guy's entrance, all the same.
Evil concentrate. That was the guy I met. Everything wrong in the world was a diluted version of this man.
He first approached me on a morning in early June, a hot day even for summer in Joy. I had walked from my motel, the Vagabond, to the newspaper dispenser across the street. I was bent over the dispenser, reaching into my pocket for change, when something made me stop. I raised my head, pathetically, in retrospect, like a gazelle catching wind of a lion. And there was the Bad Guy, ambling toward me down the sidewalk.
The man was enormous, tall and obese. He had thin hair, cut into a bowl on his forehead. He wore a t-shirt and shorts and carried a simple wooden cane.
The Bad Guy walked with a hitch and a limp, his right foot angled further than his left. Despite the cane, there was a spring in his step - that ironic grace possessed by the grossly overweight.
My reaction was typical of me; I got scared. The man was coming my way, to where he'd probably brush past me, to where if he wanted to, he could reach out and touch me. That was out of the question, and I could feel a familiar impulse. You can't stay, do what you have to, but get out of here. It's not too late. Go.
But that meant crossing his path, which was even more unthinkable than standing still.
The man got closer. His face was fish-belly white. Two sacs nearly concealed his eyes, which were red. His teeth were tiny. Like baby teeth, I thought.
At last he went by. His stench was unbelievable, like sweat, and peanut butter breath, and infection. He half-strolled, half-danced away down the sidewalk.
The Bad Guy was already ten or fifteen feet past when it occurred to me how important it was to keep control. I'd do what I'd come to do; I'd buy a paper. My fingers were already pinching a quarter and putting it in the slot.
Then the man stopped. My first instinct was to pull open the dispenser, grab a paper, and run. But the second quarter was still in my pocket. And the first was still in the dispenser. I hesitated, and he turned around.
I was going to ignore him and keep after the newspaper, but I thought I could take a peek before he turned all the way. I was wrong; he was already looking at me. My other quarter was lost in the folds of my pocket, and I fumbled for it. God, I'm losing control.
"Morning," the Bad Guy said.
The quarter was still missing.
"You," he said, "by the newspapers."
I did a doubletake, as though I'd just heard. "Me?"
"Yeah, you. What are you doing?"
The quarter materialized. "Nothing," I said. "Buying a newspaper." I slipped the coin into the slot and prayed the conversation would end, because I knew it could only get worse.
"I have a present for you," he said.
"I'm sorry?" I said.
"I have a present for you."
"No thanks," I said. I pulled out a U.S.A. Today, tucked it under my arm, and smiled. He just stood there, wheezing softly, sizing me up. Then he closed his eyes. When he reopened them, the civility had drained from his expression.
"Wipe that smile off your face," he said.
I wanted to run, but there was some sort of gravitational pull going on. This man was the big body, and I was the little one, caught in his orbit.
"Listen," he said. "You're going to find the balls to visit mile marker two-hundred-fourteen at noon tomorrow. Two-fourteen, and then three hundred paces off the road. Can you remember that?"
"What are you talking about?" I said.
"Shut the fuck up. Marker two-fourteen, three hundred paces, noon. You be there for your present, Josh."
"I can't. I have to..." Josh?
He called me by my name.
The Bad Guy pirouetted. "You think you're scared now," he said, "try me." Then he continued his walk-jive down the sidewalk.
He just called me by my name. I'd never laid eyes on this man. The thought of him saying Josh, of us being somehow intimate, was more than I could stomach.
I didn't move until the Bad Guy was finally out of sight, and then it was quickly back to the safety of my motel room. The way the man had said 'try me,' there would be no getting over it. It would stay with me forever, or until I did try him, or at least up to the time I visited that mile marker. Two-fourteen, three hundred paces, noon. Two-fourteen, three hundred paces, noon. I realized I was reciting the information. I closed my motel room door and crawled into bed, sweating, tingly.
How the hell did he know my name? I hadn't pulled the sheet over my head before I was certain of one thing. I would be visiting mile marker two-fourteen.
I was born nervous, and with years of practice, managed to parlay it into real anxiety. But I didn't panic under pressure until I was twenty-one. After three and a half years of knuckle-cracking and hand-wringing, I had graduated early, with honors, from Harvard. My last academic hurdle was to be the May edition of the Graduate Record Examination.
The G.R.E. was similar to the S.A.T., nothing that should have been a problem considering my past success on standardized tests. These tests weren't easy, but they'd always seemed harder for everyone else.
The day was bright, and I was ready. I was trying for perfect scores, and the practice tests made me think I could get them. That was before I panicked.
I sat down amidst testtakers, pencils, wristwatches, and little rows of bubbles. A colorless proctor droned through the preliminaries, and we began. A math section first. Then vocabulary. Then, an analytical section.
And along came a set of questions about hatboxes. Each of these hatboxes had a label on it and some hats inside. The label either corresponded to the hats or didn't. I was supposed to decide one way or the other, or switch the labels, or move the hats. I couldn't. And this cognitive fashion show was about to become the catalyst to my downfall.
I sat there staring at the hatbox questions. Fear consumed my composure like a flame. I refocused on the first problem, picturing the boxes, the labels, the hats. The flame of fear grew a little. What if I can't figure these out?
No. I would figure them out. I would because I always did. I would because I had to.
But what if I can't? The fire of anxiety leapt to my ears. By trying to blow it out, and failing, I'd actually fanned the flame; it had fed on my failure to extinguish it.
I looked up from the page. No. You can do this. I read the first question once more, from start to finish, word for word. But by the end, I realized I hadn't been reading at all. I'd been thinking about what would happen if I couldn't read.
The fear exploded. My heart seemed to be in my head. My face stung. The words on the page had become odd drawings, lines and curves. I looked to the proctor, half-expecting him to reach under his desk and hurl me a life ring. He just sat there.
The few times I've managed to retell this story, my friends have been sympathetic and reassuring: 'I know, I know. I've taken tests. I know what that's like.' And I say, no, you don't; that fear you're talking about, heh-heh, I know what that's like, too. This was different - like one of those monstrous rogue forces that come along every few years, just to remind you what's what - a nine foot wave at the beach when you're accustomed to the playful nudge of a friend, a car crash when you're used to tug-of-war with the dog.
Panic. Brutal, slamming panic, more intense than any emotion I'd ever felt. Oh God, I have to get out of here. Please, no more. Please. It would get me. I'd fail the test. I'd call my mother and try to tell her, and I'd cry. She'd reassure me everything was alright, maybe graduate school wasn't such a good idea.
As long as the fear pounded, it was impossible to concentrate. I had to fight the urge to run from the room.
Eventually, the anxiety left me, but it was too late. The rest of the questions went unanswered. I slunk from the room into a world that was both unreal and real - unreal because I refused to believe it was happening, real because it was. In the car I broke down. Josh Redding unable to take a test was like a comedian unable to tell a joke, or a golfer unable to swing a club. It wasn't just what I was best at, it was who I was.
I did call my Mom, I did cry, and I didn't apply to graduate school.
They say you always remember the first time. But the worst was yet to come, because that first panic attack came before I asked myself a simple question:
What if it happens again?
Summer dusks in Joy, Arizona are a little bit of heaven. Joy is a town of seven thousand a few miles east of the California-Arizona border. It is hot, barren, and cratered, one part sun and one part moon. The days are sweltering. At dusk, the heat still rises from the desert, but it becomes a good heat - a lazy sunbeam, warm chocolate-chip cookie heat. That heat was one of my few pleasures.
But not tonight. It took me an hour to convince myself to leave my room. I shuffled across the parking lot to my car and climbed behind the wheel. Then I drove out to mile marker two-fourteen. I went for the same reason I liked to pre-trace my route before a date or visit a classroom before the first lecture; I wanted to be ready. Noon the next day would be tough enough without wondering if I'd make it on time, or if I'd know where I was once I got there.
Mile marker two-fourteen was actually off the freeway, on a secluded dirt access road. I missed it the first time by, which made me glad I'd decided on a test run. The second pass brought me right to the marker, a rusty stake poking out of the crust of the shoulder. The sky was still light enough to illuminate the numbers without my headlights. I killed the motor, opened the door, and walked to the shoulder. Three hundred paces. I started walking off the distance into the desert, my shoes spitting up rooster tails of dust.
My walk was quick until I reached a forest of jumping chollas. The jumping cholla is the most beautiful (and wicked) Sonoran cactus. It comes in chest-high thatches of maize-yellow fists. The fists look harmless, but are actually featherlight clusters of inch-long thorns, with microscopic teeth to prevent their being removed from whatever they might pierce. The fists themselves are attached so brittlely to the cactus that they like to 'jump' onto anything that brushes by. I once knew a guy who tried to swipe a cholla fist off his sweater; it took the doctors four hours to cut eighteen separate thorns out of his hand.
I slowed down and kept clear of the chollas as best I could, maintaining a semi-straight line off the road. Finally, just before three hundred paces, I reached a large clearing in the cacti. This was where I'd be reunited with the Bad Guy, where he'd give me my 'present.' I took it in until I was satisfied, and then turned around and walked back the way I came. The night was still wonderfully warm. When I reached the car, I stopped to kick dust from my shoes.
On my drive back through Joy, I approached a familiar building. It was an old aluminum structure, shaped like a Monopoly hotel, and home to Smith's Firearms - a shop that had always both attracted and repelled me. The name Smith's made me wonder what had happened to Wesson - whether he'd screwed his partner, or maybe his partner's wife, and then taken a bullet for it. I parked out front, entered the store, and headed for a counter marked simply, ridiculously, 'Guns.'
There was a teenager behind the counter, pale and acne-stricken. He didn't look qualified to hold a weapon, let alone advise someone how to use one. That was before I asked him about his pistols. He launched into an eager beaver speech, full of grisly words like 'single-action' and 'double-action,' 'semi-automatic,' and 'stopping power.'
Buying a gun wasn't easy. Everything I knew about them I'd learned from the movies, and that kind of familiarity is dangerous. Firearms weren't meant to be trivialized.
Guns are big and heavy. The ghostly teenager showed me a .357 Magnum and a .45 Sig-Sauer. They were nothing like the toys of my youth - a lot more substantial.
We settled on a 9 millimeter, semi-automatic, double-action Beretta. It was the pistol the U.S. Army used, and I somehow trusted Uncle Sam. For a half an hour, the teenager showed me the ins and outs of the pistol. He sold me the gun, a cleaning kit, and a box of hollow-tipped ammunition, the kind with stopping power. He patiently described how the bullets would flatten and spread upon impact, tearing grapefruit sized holes in their targets. Stopping power, indeed.
I took my pistol to the car with the delicacy of a woman just handed her first newborn. I laid it on the front seat, and on the way back to the motel, pretended it was my friend, someone who'd lend me his courage when mine failed.
I locked the motel door behind me and put the chain up. I sat on my bed and opened the box of ammunition. The bullets slid into the clip fat and easy, just like the teenager said. I put the clip into the pistol and clicked on the safety. I rested the gun on the Bible in my nightstand. Here was my protector. Or so I hoped.
Soon, at a very inopportune moment, I'd discover the truth: A gun is only as dangerous as the person who uses it.
Panic hit me a second time, this time at a job interview in my home town of Tucson, a month after the G.R.E. I was sitting in the lobby of an executive's office, waiting to be called in, when the thought slithered up:
What if it happens again?
Just by thinking these words, I made it happen. The fear swelled. I tried to stop it, but it instantly grew. Here we go. It kept growing and growing.
I panicked again. My mind shrieked, Get out, run, run. I sat still, begging the pain to go away. A few feet away, a receptionist stapled some papers in complete ignorance. The door to the office opened, and I found myself shaking hands with the executive. I would make it. But as I turned to enter the office, I realized no. I was in trouble.
"Could you excuse me?" I said. "I'm not feeling too good."
The executive nodded. "Of course."
I hurried out the door, and the fear subsided a little. I found the hall bathroom and ducked inside. A mirror on the wall revealed me not as the tormented headcase I expected, but my usual competent self. No one knows. You can go right back in there and interview. But it was impossible to collect myself. The thought of the office terrified me. Going back there would be no less a feat than jumping from a plane.
I did what I could. I slumped back into the lobby and pretended to be sick, promising the receptionist I'd "reschedule." Of course, I'd never manage to do it; the fear was too strong. It was like a greedy homesteader, settling the territories of my life and making them its own. Now I couldn't go to graduate school, or maybe even get a job. I couldn't cross fear's property lines.
On the drive home, my terror gave way to overwhelming feelings of desperation. I'd hoped the first anxiety attack was an isolated incident, but now my hopes were dashed. The panic was a part of me, not my environment. And if it could happen in my element - the worlds of test-taking and interviews - it could happen anywhere.
It could happen anywhere.
This thought was the beginning of the end. It led me inevitably (almost absurdly) from upper crust successes in the hallowed halls of Harvard to a motel room in Joy, Arizona, where I would take up among junkies and bums and wait my turn to die.
All said and done, this downward spiral took four years.
I woke up eight hours before noon and couldn't get back to sleep. Night was always difficult; darkness allowed me irrational thoughts that would never withstand the scrutiny of daylight. At four o'clock in the morning, I was alone with the cool of my sheets and the shame of my thoughts.
Who was this man I met? How did he know my name? Had he searched me out? And why me? Why had he insisted I follow his orders?
Worst of all, what would he do to me if I didn't go? I'd thought about leaving town, but I couldn't. He would know where to look. He would find me. And he would make me pay. My mind's eye imagined all sorts of creative torture (In the dark above my bed, I actually pictured the Bad Guy holding a cheese grater and a blowtorch.).
I wormed out of bed at ten o'clock, with little sleep to show for my eleven hours. I creaked into the bathroom and turned on the lights - fluorescent bulbs - bright and cruel. I was as pale as china. The four day half-beard on my face was uneven, like someone had gluesticked my cheeks and tossed on iron filings. I was gaunt, going on skeletal, a drinking-straw version of the former me.
I showered for a long while, forgetting in the middle whether or not I'd shampooed. I lathered up again just to be sure and stood in the water until my fingers pruned. Today was a big day. I hated big days.
I dried off and dressed in my usual sweat pants and t-shirt. Then I left the room for the newspaper dispenser. The memory of the day before struck me so hard I had to turn back. Another perfectly good routine, destroyed by fear. Its loss barely registered.
I left for breakfast, something I'd skipped the day before because of the Bad Guy. I ate at Denny's as usual, two eggs over medium, dry toast, ice water. Four dollars, fifteen cents, plus a tip for the mottled waitress in the peach apron. I'd come to Denny's nearly every day for a year, and this woman still pretended she didn't recognize me; as though by secret agreement, we kept treating each other as strangers. She always led with, 'Welcome to Denny's. May I take your order?', and I never once asked for 'the usual.'
I finished breakfast in a rush. What if something went wrong and I missed the noon deadline? Would that be breaking the Bad Guy's rules? Would I have tried him?
It was eleven twenty. I hurried back to the room and got out my gun, then almost walked out the door with it in my hand. I searched for a place to hide the Beretta, first deciding on the front of my sweat pants, then realizing I might shoot myself in an inappropriate place. I settled on a hooded sweatshirt, the kind with the kangaroo pocket in the belly. The pocket hid the gun fine.
Opening my car door was like checking a roast in the oven; the heat belched out in a wave. I climbed in and turned on the air conditioning. The flow came out warm. The steering wheel burned; I drove out of town like I was tapping a drumbeat.
Eleven forty-five. I turned off the freeway and onto the access road. The mile markers climbed in number, measuring my fear on an imaginary scale. Two-eleven, two-twelve, two-thirteen...
At last, two-fourteen. Next to the marker were two sights that hadn't been there the night before: an old Honda Accord with a George Bush bumper sticker, and a kid's motocross bicycle, red and black. I couldn't make sense of the car and the bike knowing what I knew about the Bad Guy.
I parked and hiked into the desert, sweating like a glass of ice water at poolside. Eleven fifty-five. The path I'd taken the night before had been used by at least one other person. There were no longer individual footprints, but a general scuffing.
I walked through the field of jumping chollas again, careful to keep my distance from the thorns. As I got closer to three hundred paces, fear sounded its silent whistle. I walked with smaller, cringing steps, like I was approaching the edge of a cliff.
Twelve o'clock. I peeked into the clearing.
There was a sound, strange at first, but then unmistakable. It was someone vomiting.
I followed this retching with my eyes. It sounded so contagious, and led me to a sight so horrifying, I nearly threw up myself.
I went down.
With every panic attack, I sank further and further into a state of neuroticism. There was nothing I couldn't find a reason to fear.
On a plane leaving for San Francisco, I convinced myself there was a bomb in the cargo bin.
Driving to Old Tucson in a rainstorm, I knew I was going to die in a flash flood.
On a cruise in the Gulf of Mexico, I was sure I'd somehow fall overboard.
I started panicking during normal, everyday events. I was on the phone telling a story to a friend when I wondered, What if I get so scared I forget the story? My thoughts banged into one another. Just like that, I forgot. So I stopped telling stories.
I was in the middle of a tennis match when it occurred to me, What if I get so scared I forget how to keep score? I started panicking, and all the loves and deuces became meaningless. I barely kept playing, using my partner and opponents to guide me. Then I quit tennis.
And so on.
It got so I had my own template for panic - a routine. First, my imagination would whisper a creative ‘what if' (What if I get so scared I can't parallel park? ). Then I would either pooh-pooh the idea (That's ridiculous.), or start to panic (Oh my God, I can't.). Usually it was the former. Sometimes it was the latter.
I never could parallel park.
Fear continued seizing my prized lands, forcing me onto smaller and smaller Reservations. Those Reservations were thankless places without storytelling, tennis, or parallel parking.
My life became claustrophobic. I rented a lunch-box single apartment in Tucson and lived off my trust fund, convincing my mother her only son was going to be a great novelist. I wrote during the day and tried to keep a social schedule at night. Soon, my schedule thinned out, demonstrated by the 'events' that started to make my datebook: February ninth, eight p.m. - 'Eat dinner.' May second, nine thirty p.m. - 'Ask landlord about Jehova's Witness.' September eighteenth, seven p.m. - 'Jeopardy/Wheel.'
In this stunted environment, the novels I wrote were out-of-touch vanity pieces. I was a showoff, not a storyteller, said the rejection letters from the publishing houses, and I couldn't communicate emotion. The truth was, I was too depressed and afraid to write about being depressed and afraid.
Time passed quietly, tiptoeing behind my back. I lost myself in the present; weekends were the same as weekdays, vacations the same as work. I became a recluse, lost most of my friends, never made a cent.
But I got by.
There was a girl about my age standing in the center of the clearing, throwing up. The way she did it, something looked wrong; she didn't seem ashamed. At the edge of the clearing, about thirty feet away, was a man lying face-first in a thatch of jumping cholla cacti. My present.
The chollas were clustered close together as if part of the same plant. The thatch reached five feet up and ten feet across, a tangled nest of fisted branches. The center was caved in where the man was lying. His fall had broken some of the branches, but he still hung at least three feet off the ground.
I was too disgusted to be scared and too curious to keep from getting closer.
The man was naked, but only in a sense; he was wearing a suit of cholla fists. They stuck to him everywhere, like ornaments on an over-decorated Christmas tree. Some of the thorns only pricked the surface of his skin, but others impaled him up to their bases. I realized the thorns each carried a portion of his weight; they literally held him up.
The man hadn't bled the way you might expect, in trickles or rivers. Instead, he was spackled with blood drops, thousands of them. I hoped he'd been killed first, and then dropped into the cactus while his blood was still warm.
I was wrong. He'd been alive. I knew because his arms were pointed out beneath him into the cacti.
He tried to break his fall.
So many thorns. They pierced the man's earlobes, lips, tongue. His eyes were pinned in a permanent squint, punctured through the lids. His skin was stretched taut in places and bunched into folds in others.
For a terrifying moment, I wondered if the man might still be alive. I pictured him suddenly moving, whimpering, begging for help. I saw myself telling him he was going to be alright.
But he had to have been dead for a while. I wondered what had finally killed him. Bleeding? Exposure? Cardiac arrest? Any self-respecting fatal injury ended up in cardiac arrest. I was interrupted by a voice.
"God." It was the girl.
I took my eyes off the man.
"What are you doing here?" the girl said. She was beautiful. Blond of hair but not of character. Thin. Like a swan. Bookish. Too much to ask. Scarier than shit. "Hello?" she said.
"Someone told me to come," I said. I got the urge to get away from the dead man, or at least cut him down, but I didn't want to be the one.
"A big guy?" she said. "Tall, fat?"
I nodded. "M-my name's Josh."
"Christina," she said. I shook her hand and felt incredibly stupid doing it. "What did he tell you?" she asked.
"He said he had a present for me. And he called me by my name."
"Me too," she said. "I never saw him before in my life."
"I was in the parking lot after work," Christina said. "He stopped me by my car. Said, Christina, you have to do something for me. Someone needs your help. He said to trust him, not to ask why. Something about him told me to come. Something..."
"...scary?" I said.
"Serious," she said.
"Serious, sure," I said, looking at the dead man.
"Know who he was?" she said, meaning the corpse. The man was about thirty-five, clean-shaven, skinny - a complete stranger.
"It's the worst," she said. "I can't believe..." She threw up again. She didn't apologize or make up an excuse. She just did it, only to quickly recover again.
"We'll find out how he got here," she said, as believable in her own way as the Bad Guy.
"Is that your car?" I said. She nodded. I remembered the bumper sticker. A Republican. "And your bike?" I said.
"The one by the car."
"I didn't see any bike."
I wondered whether the bike could be the Bad Guy's. Heh. No. He was way, way too heavy. "I wonder whose bike?" I said, trying to focus on the only benign detail among all the rest. It was no use. "What do you think we should do?" I said, pretending I had my own ideas. Of course, I didn't. Christina looked like she could tell.
"I'm going to call the police," she said. She turned and headed for the edge of the clearing. "Stay here."
Christina had walked about ten steps - a blur of perfect motion - jeans, blouse, and hair - before she was interrupted.
"Don't," a voice said. Instantly, I thought it was the Bad Guy's, recreated from what I remembered of it. Actually, it was much younger and higher.
A small boy stepped out from behind a cholla at the edge of the clearing. He was about ten or eleven, pale and brown-haired. He wore shorts and a long-sleeved t-shirt.
"You can't call the police," he said.
For an instant, it occurred to me how ridiculously strange things had gotten, and how quickly. Nothing made any sense, to the point of absurdity, but there I was.
"Where'd you come from?" Christina said to the boy. "Have you been watching us?"
"Do you know what happened here?"
The boy shook his head. "I got here after you," he said. "I followed you, and then Josh came."
"You know each other?" Christina said. I blinked.
"I heard him say his name," the boy said. "And you're Christina."
"Who are you?" Christina said.
"Like the bar."
"And why can't we call the police?"
"'Cause he said so."
"Who said so?"
"The big guy." Bad Guy, I thought, but kept quiet.
"What exactly did he say?"
"To come out here. Then to wait; he'd tell me what to do."
"What about the police?"
"He said whatever you do, don't let anyone call them. Or someone will die."
"Did he say who?"
The boy shook his head again. "But he promised," he said.
I could imagine how he'd promised, red eyes dancing, tongue tapping on baby teeth. My fears - usually so unrealistic - had been right; he was the Bad Guy. He'd murdered a man more brutally than even I could conceive and called the three of us out to appreciate it. Now he was threatening to kill someone else. What if it's you? He knows your name. Where you live.
"Let's get out of here," I said. "In case he comes back."
"I don't think he'd come back," Christina said.
She was probably right, but I was getting scared. "Let's go somewhere we know he isn't."
"And do what?"
"Talk this over," I said. "Figure out what the hell is going on." I remembered Heath. "Heck," I said. "Heck is going on."
"Hell sounds better," Heath said.
Christina smiled and turned toward the road.
"Under the circumstances," she said, "I'm with Heath."
The reason I clung to reality as long as I did was my mother. My father abandoned her two months before I was born, and she raised me on her own - overprotective and anxiety-stricken, but doting and well-intentioned. My father was a wiry, cerebral type with the common sense of a cow in a barn fire. He experienced the sixties before they became the sixties, sacrificing himself on an altar of L.S.D. My mother blamed the drug for his leaving her, said it 'played tricks' on him, 'scrambled his head - like an egg.' My guess is, his head had been scrambled long before, or at least his yolk had run into his white.
My mother had a nervous breakdown when my father left, and I was born five weeks premature, Mom's 'reluctant little gem.' I restored Mom's mental health right away; she thought I was such an intelligent, adorable baby.
Over the next twenty years, my mother gagged me with affection. I returned the favor by reaching countless boast-worthy milestones. I read my first words at age two, learned long division at seven, wrote a twenty-two page short story at eight. That wasn't all. Early acceptance at Harvard, four point average, Summa Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa, even first in my graduating class, although I didn't tell my Mom, because I'd chickened out of giving the speech. I achieved everything I did without looking the part of the nerd - not too skinny, nice cheekbones.
All my accomplishments made my mother overlook the rest of me: my paralyzing phobias of water and women, my knuckle-cracking, my deathly fear of public speaking. She ignored all these foibles, insisting I was perfect.
Perfect was hard to live up to, but my mother had little else to keep her going. She lived alone in Tucson, neurotic and friendless. I was her lifeline, and me knowing this made her my lifeline. As much as I wanted to cave in, I knew it would destroy her.
So I became a gifted phony. My false happiness fooled my last few friends, my landlord, even my mother. It was frightening how easily I could hide my fear. I was like a duck, calm on top of the water, feet churning like crazy underneath. It made me wonder how many other people were suffering. I began watching everyone I met, imagining their worst secrets, searching for clues to their desperation. The gas station attendant was probably a pedophile, the grocery clerk a manic depressive. The mailman was about to go on a post office shooting spree. I could picture his chalky fingers gripping an assault rifle, squeezing bullets into his coworkers, sending envelopes flying. Literal air mail. These thoughts actually perked me up. The worse the lives of my neighbors, the better I felt.
To the day she died, my mother had no idea of my mental state. Mom was killed by a cerebral aneurysm, a fancy word for a broken blood vessel in the brain. The cleaning woman found her lying on a sofa in front of the T.V. on a Tuesday morning. The coroner narrowed her time of death to between six and eleven o'clock the previous Sunday night. That meant she passed away watching some Sunday night thriller. The show probably frightened her to death.
My mother's dying devastated me. When I found out, I threw a tantrum, crying, hurling things, rolling into a ball. Mom was a wonderful woman, full of goodness in spite of her shortcomings. She deserved better than my father and I gave her. I could have been at her side that Sunday night. Instead, I was holed up in my apartment, freaked out by the world and everything in it.
When Mom died, my umbilical cord was cut all over again. I was turned upside down, spanked on the ass, and sent bawling into a cold new world. I didn't have anyone to rely on, or even answer to. I could be timid and reclusive, and no one would mind but me.
The funeral was over in no time, and I withdrew from the world. I took only a few calls from acquaintances and creditors. After a while, I stopped taking those.
Then I came across an article about Joy, Arizona. It was a two page feature in the Sunday newspaper. What was supposed to be a gritty exposé read to me like a real estate brochure. Apparently, Joy was a home to outcasts like myself. A bunch of ten-dollar-a-night motels sat on its fringes, catering to a permanent clientele of society's dropouts. The town lay almost equidistant from Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas, and it had become a sort of refugee camp to the three cities. If you succumbed to schizophrenia in Scottsdale, enslaved yourself to heroin in Hollywood, or gambled away your savings in Sin City, there was a place for you in Joy.
The paper's reporter had spent two weeks among the residents of a Joy motel called the Carpetbagger. He might as well have pried up a rock and looked underneath. The people included a welfare family of nine, a drunk perched in a forest of Captain Morgan bottles, and a Xanax-popping Vietnam vet who slept in his bathtub.
Alone in my apartment in Tucson, I was more excited by the story than repulsed by it. The Joy in the newspaper was a nirvana of low expectations. I could live there in peace among non-judgmental peers. These were my people.
So I decided. I had the money, the resumé, the lack of pride. I would move to Joy.
We left the body where it was for the time being. The Bad Guy's warning about the police had scared us out of calling them until we'd had a chance to talk it over. Christina needed to go to two meetings at work, so she, Heath, and I didn't see each other until six o'clock that night. I spent the afternoon slouched in my motel room, wondering how my situation had gotten so much worse. God, I wanted that other life, the one where I didn't happen to meet the Bad Guy. It was a place I liked to visit in my mind - rosy and glowing, lit through gauze - a Bingo card of possibilities.
The three of us met on the southern border of town at the Joy Public Library, where Christina was the head librarian. The building was modest, but quaint - as blithely efficient as Christina. I worried aloud that the Bad Guy might think to look for us there, but Christina thought whatever his plans were, if we let him drive us out of our routine, he had us. Personally, I wasn't worried about being driven out of my routine. I was worried about ending up face first in a cactus.
Christina worked in an office behind the front desk with a big window so she could keep her eye on the stacks. There were children's finger-paintings on the wall behind her desk. The desk itself was bare except for a dog-eared copy of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and a worn hardback of P.J. O'Rourke's All the Trouble in the World. There was a bookshelf against the wall crammed with books, and a styrofoam cooler on the floor. Heath and I sat down on two folding chairs. Christina opened the cooler and offered us each a York Peppermint Patty. There were at least fifty of them inside - barely enough, I found out, to last Christina a week. Heath took one, but I said no thanks. Christina tore open two for herself.
We spent the first few minutes talking about our backgrounds. I kept my own story short, describing myself as a wandering novelist, and mentioning where I was from and where I was living. Then I bobbed my head, indicating I was done.
Heath was next, looking content I hadn't revealed too much. He said his last name was Schmidt. He was eleven years old, lived with his mother in an apartment downtown, and was out on summer vacation. Listening to him say it, I could have sworn he was twice his age. Then he, too, shut up.
"Great," Christina said.
"We could say more," I said.
"Maybe it's better we don't know," she said. Then she told us about herself. Her last name was Battle. She was twenty-five. She grew up in Phoenix, where she studied English at Grand Canyon College and Library Sciences at Arizona State. Then she accepted the best head librarian position she could find, which happened to be in Joy. She'd lived in town fifteen months (to my thirteen). I apologized for not having visited the library yet. Christina said it was alright, she wouldn't have remembered me anyway. This shut me up again.
Christina stopped talking long enough to finish her second Peppermint Patty. Heath kicked his scuffed high tops at the air. I shrunk a little in my chair.
"Now what?" I said.
"I don't know," Christina said. "We should probably..." She paused, like she was preparing herself for a reaction.
"What?" I said.
"Call the police."
Heath got upset. "The man said..."
"I know what he said," Christina said.
"But you weren't there," he said. "You didn't hear him. Someone will die."
"Not if the police do their job," I interrupted. "They're trained for things like this."
"He said, someone will die," Heath insisted.
"Of course he's going to say that," I said. "He wants to scare us. It doesn't change the fact, you get in a situation like this, you call the police. That's what you do. That's what people do."
I looked to Christina for support, but she was already thinking her way around the next problem.
"What'll we tell them?" Christina said.
"Who this guy is," I said. "How he told us about the body, how we found it."
"But we don't know who he is," Heath said.
"We tell them everything we know," I said. "We take them out to the body. We describe the guy, they draw a composite. They look for clues. I don't know..."
Christina frowned. "There'll be cops everywhere. Out at the scene, in the papers, putting up wanted signs."
"So?" I said.
"So he'll know."
"You don't think he'll carry out his threat?"
"Maybe," I said, "but he already killed someone. He doesn't need incentive from us."
"I think we should wait," Heath said. "He'll be back."
I turned to Christina. "Let's not all lose our minds at once..." The next look the two of us shared was the one I was searching for - the one that said, after all, we are adults.
"Heath," Christina said. "Josh is right. This is beyond us. If we tell the police..."
"What if they screw up?" Heath said.
"They're used to this kind of thing," Christina said. "They'll have procedures." I nodded - outwardly trying to reassure Heath, inwardly trying to reassure myself.
Heath didn't press the issue. "Whatever," he said.
"Then it's decided," I said. "I'll call nine-one-one. From my place. Then I'll meet you out there."
"You could do it from here," Christina said.
I shook my head. "I need to pick something up." My gun. I left it at the motel.
"It'll be dark soon," Heath said. "Hurry."
I followed Christina and Heath out. Now that the two of them had a little time alone, they could work out who was boss. In the meantime, my real boss would find its way into the kangaroo pocket of my sweatshirt. I was starting to feel flimsy without the Beretta.
I walked across the parking lot and got into my car. Heath insisted on being the one to lift his bike into the trunk of Christina's Honda. Then they rode off.
I drove to the motel mechanically, getting ready to call nine-one-one. Christina and Heath should have known better than to trust their new friend with such an important job. In this case, though, I couldn't call the police soon enough. Until I called, we were still on our own: a human goose bump, dressed like an aerobicizing scarecrow, relying on a gun he'd never shot. A librarian, way too self-assured, secretly enjoying this, I was sure. A cynical child, as malleable as a lamppost.
As scared as I was of everyday life, I knew the Bad Guy was something much worse. Being afraid of him wasn't abnormal, it was appropriate. The Bad Guy wasn't just warped, he was accomplished. He knew more than he should have. He had credibility.
A few hours had already passed, and so far, we'd followed the Bad Guy's rules. He told us not to call the police because he didn't want them interfering. Otherwise, why tell us at all? He was planning something. Was the man in the cactus important? Was he the Bad Guy's catch? Or was he bait?
I started to picture things: me standing in the clearing of cacti, the Bad Guy emerging from the darkness behind me, one fat finger wagging as if to say, 'uh-uh-uh,' me flailing, screaming, opening my mouth to discover a cholla fist embedded in my throat.
The speedometer had somehow risen past eighty, and its finger wagged slightly to shame me. I almost smiled. If I were looking for the police, at this rate, I might save myself the call.
You can read the rest of Anxiety at Amazon.