Wincing, he managed to lift his head from the ground. Sharp pain lanced through his left side, and he twisted with a breathless cry, clutching at his shoulder. Though he was cold, almost deathly so, beneath his hand he felt raw warmth. He glanced down and saw his shoulder ripped open with a gory, gaping wound.
“Oh, God,” he gasped, bleeding profusely, the dark stain of blood smeared down the length of his torso, standing out momentarily in stark and gruesome contrast to his ashen skin before being washed away by the rain. He shoved his hand over the wound as firmly as he could manage and staggered to his feet. Stumbling dizzily, he looked around, bewildered, trying to get his bearings.
I went to get something out of Sam’s car, he remembered dimly. I was going to propose to her when I went back inside. There was someone out here in the alley…a man, waiting.
He remembered the man’s face vaguely and his name—Nemamiah—the sound of his voice: Now to send this meat sack of yours and that misbegotten demon back where you both belong.
He was still outside the bar, but Sam’s car was gone and so were any signs of his clothes. Everything around him was dark and empty and silent, save for the pelting cadence of rainfall against the pavement, the heavy patter as it struck the top of the nearby Dumpster.
He stole her car, Jason thought, shambling toward the back door of the tavern. That son of a bitch stabbed me, stole my clothes, then took Sam’s car.
He’d left the back door unlocked when he’d ducked outside and it opened easily for him now, and he stumbled across the threshold and into the dark corridor beyond. The bar had been closed when he’d left, but his staff had still been there cleaning up. There had been lights on overhead and a discernible din as they’d moved furniture, swept floors and washed dishes. But now there was silence, eerie and heavy. He pawed blindly in the blackness for the light switch, but when he flipped it up and down, nothing happened.
“Hey,” he called out hoarsely, leaning heavily against the wall. How long had he been lying in the alley? There was no way to know, no way to gauge how much blood he’d lost. He felt light-headed and weak and used the wall as much to support as guide him as he limped forward. “Hey, anyone there?”
Surely to God someone would have come looking for me, he thought. They would have seen me.
“Sam?” he called, his voice strained. “Eddie? Somebody, please, I…I need…”
He reached the end of the hallway, his eyes somewhat adjusted to the gloom, and his voice abruptly faded into stunned, surprised silence.
The bar was empty. Not just of patrons or staff, not just closed for the night—it was literally empty, stripped to the bare walls of furniture and furnishings. The tables, chairs and bar stools were all gone. The booths and benches were missing and the pool tables and cue racks had all disappeared without a trace. The shelves behind the bar were empty and cobwebs draped in dimly lit diaphanous strands where rows of Maker’s Mark, Grey Goose, Captain Morgan and Bloodhorse bourbon had once stood. The overhead racks, where phalanxes of beer steins and pint glasses had once been stored, were conspicuously vacant. The enormous diamond-dust mirror was missing too. More than a hundred years old and original to the building, it was, as Jason’s father had liked to say, “worth more than the entire place and everything in it, all put together.” The wall it had once graced was now dark and bare. Dust blanketed the floor, thick enough in places so that as he limped across the room in stupefied, bewildered shock, he left a trail of footprints clumsily behind him.
“What the…?” he whispered aloud. He turned to the far end of the room where what was surely no more than an hour ago, he and Samantha had been sitting together in a corner booth.
“A regular pair of turtledoves,” Eddie the bartender had teased them good-naturedly from across the room as he’d towel-dried beer mugs. Sam had laughed as Jason had smiled at him, affectionately flipping him the bird.
What happened? he thought, his confusion shifting rapidly to anxiety and out-and-out fear. Where did everything—and everyone—go? What happened to me out there?
You’re unmarked, Nemamiah had told him. It hadn’t made any sense. Nothing made sense to Jason all of a sudden. He stumbled about in a clumsy, bewildered semicircle, staring at the vacant shell of what had, only earlier that night, been his bar.
When he heard a dog growling, a low and menacing sound, guttural and close at hand, he froze, his eyes flying wide. He heard a quick scrabbling of claws against the dusty wooden floors and saw a blur of movement darting out of the shadows to his left. He threw up his arms just as a large dog, heavy and shaggy coated, leaped at him, sinking its teeth just above his elbow and sending him crashing to the floor.
“Barton,” a woman cried, but the dog, unfazed, snarled around its greedy mouthful of Jason’s arm and began to shake its head, furiously embedding its teeth all the more deeply. Jason tried to cover his head, to use his arms as a shield to protect his face, and drew his knees up to guard his vulnerable groin.
“Barton, get off him. Let go!” Jason felt the dog’s jaws slacken, then slip away as the woman hauled it backward by the collar. It began to bark now, a thick, ferocious sound as it strained against her grasp, struggling to reach him again.
“This is private property,” the woman cried. “You get out of here right now, mister, I mean it. Or I’ll sic my dog on you again!”
Her voice was shrill, warbling with fright, but still he recognized it. Jason lowered his hands hesitantly, squinting against a bright flashlight beam aimed directly at his face. “Sam?”
Oh, thank God, he thought, shuddering with sudden, indescribable relief. Maybe I’m not going crazy after all.
“Sam…it…it’s me,” he said, holding out his hand, trying vainly to block the glare.
He heard a clunk! as the flashlight clattered to the ground, leaving him blinking against little dancing pinpoints of residual glow. The beam now cut a diagonal across the floor, as if deliberately following his footsteps in the dust, illuminating his path from the corridor.
“Jason?” Sam said, her voice tremulous and barely audible over the insistent, incessant barking.
Where did that dog come from? he wondered dazedly.
“Oh my God,” Sam said, and when she leaned over and picked up the flashlight, her hand was shaking. Her entire body was shaking, as a matter of fact, and the light bobbed and bounced off the floor, the wall, off Jason and the ceiling. “It’s not possible,” she said over and over again, nearly a moan. “It…oh my God, it can’t be…it’s not possible!”
When he moved, sitting up, pain stabbed through his shoulder, and he grimaced, clutching the bloody wound in his chest. Now blood streamed from his forearm too, the deep incisions where the dog’s teeth had hit their marks.
She sounds like she’s seen a ghost, he thought, and when the flashlight beam swept momentarily across her face, he could see that her dark eyes were enormous and round, her mouth ajar, her skin ashen as if with shock.
“Sam?” he whispered, frightened now, because she looked frightened to see him, terrified in fact, something he had no accounting for. None whatsoever.
“It’s not possible,” she whimpered again, shaking her head. “Oh…oh, my God, you…Jason, you’re dead!”