(The following story is true. Only the details have been changed because the real story wasn’t interesting enough.)
I really should have brought a book. Of course, now that I think about it, you should always have a book with you. Even a small volume about nineteenth-century Indonesian politics, written in Arabic is better than nothing. A book can save your life.
On the day when I realized this life-truth I was at the garage, getting my car looked at. It had been making a strange sound whenever I pushed on the gas pedal really hard, sort of like a bird being thrown against a wall: thump-squawk, thump-squawk. I tend to be a bit of an automotive hypochondriac but still I thought it best to get it checked out. They had magazines and a TV there. I won’t need a book, I thought.
The first hour was okay. I watched some inane political chatter on a news channel and read a fascinating article about the spread of the Andorran zap-beetle in a copy of National Geographic. Finally, they drove my car in and a few minutes later, I was called in for the obligatory here’s-what’s-wrong-and-how-much-you-owe consultation.
“We found the problem,” the mechanic said gravely. He had a compassionate look and a bedside manner that rivaled the best oncologists.
Please God, not the transmission, I pleaded silently. “What is it?” I asked aloud.
“There was a loose wire,” he said, holding his thumb and finger three inches apart. “We’ll have to tighten it up for you. Here, I wrote up an estimate.”
I looked at the paper he proffered and for a moment, my mind fogged over, unable to comprehend that the dizzying columns of numbers were supposed to represent money.
“Can I just tighten it up myself?” I asked, helplessly. I might as well have asked a doctor if I could do my own appendectomy and I got a similar patronizing smile.
“No, it takes a very specialized screwdriver. They’re pretty expensive.”
I looked down the estimate sheet again. $3526.43 for labor, $2450.01 for parts, $7209 total. Something didn’t seem right. “Why are there parts listed here?”
The mechanic glanced over at the sheet. “Oh, we didn’t have the special screwdriver either. I have a guy running out to buy it now.”
“Well, can I keep it when you’re done?”
He looked affronted. “No.”
“Oh. Well, alright then.” I tried to look business-like as I scanned the paper again and then signed my name at the bottom. “So when will it be ready?”
“About an hour, maybe three.”
“That sounds great. Thank you so much,” I said, wondering vaguely why I was being so obsequious.
I decided to go for a walk. It was a beautiful day and suddenly it seemed like the only logical thing to do. The sun was shining brightly and the clouds were drifting lazily across the sky like anesthetized marshmallows. I crossed the road and followed a dirt road that wound back into the forest. After a couple hundred feet, the trees ended in a sea of high, yellowing grass. As I moved into it, I began to see the rusted, derelict shapes of abandoned machinery rising through the stems of brown vegetation. It was like stumbling into the hidden graveyard of elephantine John Deere creations.
The grass was over eight feet tall and I couldn’t see anything around me, so I decided to climb up on a rusty oil tank to get my bearings. I was just admiring the view when I heard a screeching, rending sound and the tank I was standing on collapsed. Before I could even think about catching myself, I had hit the bottom with a resounding clang and a sharp pain in both my feet.
The tank was completely dark except for the ragged hole I had punched in the top of it. I was just trying to think what to do when I heard a most terrifying voice coming from the darkness. It was raspy and a little squeaky, but what made it mind-bogglingly frightening was the fact that it wasn’t mine.
“Who are you?” the voice said and I almost jumped clear out of the hole again.
“Mother of mercy!” I shrieked, most embarrassingly. “You scared the daylights out of me! Okay, okay.” I put my hand on my chest and tried to calm my breathing. The voice had been quite close to me. “Don’t do that again. You don’t know how much of a fright you just gave me!”
There was a measured pause, like someone waiting patiently. “Are you done?” the voice said finally.
“Yeah, I’m done,” I said. “Just give a person some warning before you sneak up on them.”
“What do you want, me to bang a drum or something?” the voice replied sarcastically. “Say something like, ‘Excuse me, I’m about to speak? Commencing speaking in T minus 5, 4, 3—’”
“Who are you?” I interrupted.
“You can call me Pick,” the voice, evidently named Pick, replied. “Even though it’s dark in here for you, I can still see you fine. Pick sees you quite well. I happen to live here, you know. You might not care, but you just landed on my house. I was just coming home from work. Ten seconds later and I’d be jelly right now. Luckily I was fumbling for my keys.”
There was an expectant silence. “I’m glad I didn’t kill you,” I said at last, though I was having trouble mustering enthusiasm. “I actually didn’t mean to come down here at all, so I guess I’ll just be going now.”
“Ha! That’s what you think,” Pick said. “Actually I was also just bringing three thousand of my friends over for a party. They’re here as well.”
“Three thousand,” I said slowly, desperately trying to make my brain catch up and accept my current reality.
“Oh we’re here alright,” another voice off to my right said. “We just didn’t have anything to say before.” A swelling murmur rose and fell around me in the distressingly accurate way three thousand voices might sound.
There was another pause. “So . . .” I said after a moment, not sure why I felt compelled to keep the conversation going.
“So we’re going to kill you,” Pick snapped. “We’re all armed and now we’re very mad. See?” I felt a stabbing pain in my forearm, as if I’d been struck with a Lilliputian branding iron.
“Ouch!” I cried. “Quit it! That really hurts, you know.”
“Now you will die,” Pick said quietly. “Any last words?”
“I should have brought a book,” I mumbled bitterly.
To my extreme astonishment, a howl of fear and anger erupted in the darkness all around me. I looked around me, realized it was futile and then looked back to where Pick’s voice had come from. I held out my hands in a what-did-I-say gesture.
“You have uttered the accursed words,” Pick said and he sounded scared. “You have said the words from hell!”
“No I didn’t!” I protested. “All I said was—”
“Don’t say it! Don’t say it!” Pick screamed and the other voices all murmured in agreement. “How can you not know about the evilest, most diabolical words in the whole world?”
I thought for a moment. “I don’t know what to tell you. I just haven’t come across them before.”
“Really?” Pick’s whole demeanor changed instantly. “Oh, well in that case, let’s all sit down and I’ll tell you about it before we kill you. Come on, sit down. You’ve already demolished the house; crushing the wreckage to powder won’t make a lot of difference now.”
I sat down gingerly and heard a shuffling sound that I could only imagine came from three thousand tiny little people sitting cross-legged on the bottom of the oil drum around me.
“Long, long ago, there was a man named . . . well, actually I don’t remember his name, so let’s call him Jimmy,” Pick said from the darkness beside me. “So Jimmy is a plumber, right, but he doesn’t make a lot of money. One day he’s working and the devil comes to visit him. He offers Jimmy all the riches and power in the world, for free. Jimmy accepts the offer gladly.
“‘All you have to do is come to my office tonight and at midnight I’ll give you everything you could ever want.’ He gave Jimmy directions to his office and then left.
“Late that night, Jimmy followed the devil’s directions and went to a cave deep in the forest. He found the secret door and descended the seemingly endless staircase until he came to a small room. It was square with a few chairs and another door at one end. On it was a note that said, ‘Wait until midnight.’”
There was a clock on the wall that said 11:59, so Jimmy knew he was just in time. He sat and waited for a while but no one appeared. The clock still said 11:59. He started to look around the room to keep himself occupied. There was a coffee pot, but it was empty. A vending machine had cold drinks, but it only took drachmas. A TV on the far wall showed static and there was no remote. Jimmy picked up the only magazine there and found that it was all about mammograms and menopause.
“After a while more, he looked at the clock and saw it was still 11:59. Upon closer inspection, he saw that the hands were welded in place. He turned to leave but saw that the door had been slowly closing and was almost shut. The last words that were heard before the door slammed forever, the words that haunt our dreams, the words from hell: ‘ashudda bradda buk.’”
Pick fell silent. Suddenly I realized something. “Hey, you just said it yourself. I thought it was really bad.”
“I was just telling a story,” Pick said, a distinct note of defensiveness coming into his voice. “It’s not bad if you’re just repeating it. Anyway, now that you know the grievous evil you’ve committed, we’ll kill you for squashing my house. Come on, on your feet.”
“I should have brought a book,” I said, in a flat, experimental sort of way. Sure enough, there was a wave of screams and moans from all around. “I should have brought a book,” I said a little louder. I said it again and again until the whole oil drum was echoing with a cacophony of fear and outrage. Then with a sudden lurch, I leapt up and clawed my way out of the hole. It was a tricky maneuver, considering all the jagged, rusty sheet metal that was pointing down at me around the hole, but I dodged it all and escaped.
As soon as I was clear of the oil tank, I leapt off into space, hitting the ground running. From behind me, I could hear the buzz of small, angry things as Pick and three thousand of his closest friends followed me in hot pursuit. I weaved and dodged through the grass. They were getting closer.
I broke out the grass and sprinted down the dirt track, playing suicidal dodge-car as I crossed the road to the garage.
“Is the car ready yet?” I asked the man behind the counter, as I arrived sweating and panting.
“Oh, the Sonata? No, we haven’t touched it yet so it’ll still be a while. Hey, why don’t you take a walk? It’s a beautiful day out there.”
I really, really should have brought a book.