Lyle Richards knew with absolute certainty that his best friend hated him.
No other explanation would have made sense. Why would Tom Calloway, a fully grown man, invite Lyle, another fully-grown man, to head to a tiny, shit-filled lake in the middle of nowhere for the first fishing trip in their 25-year friendship? Neither of them had ever shown a particular appreciation for fishing, nor a particular aptitude — not that Tom would admit that.
“The trick is all about a soft cast,” Tom was saying, demonstrating by holding his Shakespeare fishing pole to the side and pantomiming his cast with an absurd gentleness. He looked like a man rolling craps, not a man fishing for crappie.
If Tom had actually cast that way, Lyle thought, his line would go about two feet in front of the boat. Instead, following a few practice casts, Tom swung his pole violently across his body, sending his line a good 20 feet. The boat shook wildly with the sudden movement, then steadied.
“And once the line’s out there, you’ve got to think like a fish. Think like a big fish. No sudden movements. Slowly reel it in, tease them with it. That’s what Grandpa always said, and I’ll be damned if it isn’t true.”
For the duration of their six-hour car ride to the lake, Tom had told stories about his grandfather while gradually adopting a poor attempt at a Southern drawl. Lyle could appreciate that — Tom’s grandfather had died about six months earlier, and Lyle thought that the accent was a sort of coping mechanism.
But Tom had also stopped to grab a pack of cigarettes and a trucker hat with “GON FISHUN’” written in massive blue letters. Lyle couldn’t forgive that. Fortunately, the hat had only lasted about a minute; when Tom had overzealously cranked the onboard motor, his souvenir had flown into the water.
“The old man always told me to stay steady,” Tom said. “Don’t overreact. Let the fish come to you.”
“No offense, Tom, but that’s fishing 101,” Lyle said, slapping a mosquito on his arm. “And you haven’t caught anything yet, either.”
Tom grinned, but Lyle could see his friend’s sunburnt face flushing a little redder with frustration.
“But I’m not the one complaining about it,” Tom said. He took a big swig from his can of Milwaukee’s Best, trying his best to avoid grimacing from the taste.
Lyle sighed and looked past Tom towards the rotting dock where they’d launched themselves into an afternoon of sweaty misery.
“I just don’t know why we’re out here, is all. We’ve never been fishing. We’re not good at it. And when — if we catch a fish, neither of us has any idea what to do with it.”
“Well, I’ve been fishing before, plenty of times,” Tom said, his frustration growing. “And I can clean a fish, good and proper. And if you’d just fucking relax a little bit, you’d know why I brought you out here.”
“Oh, shit, is this like that scene in Godfather II?”
“Keep it up, and maybe, Fredo.” Tom laughed, then reached for the pack of Marlboro Reds in his jean pocket. He hadn’t smoked prior to this trip, either, but Lyle wasn’t going to start a second argument.
“The point of fishing is that there’s no point,” Tom continued. “No pace. You just exist. Tell dirty jokes, think about life. Breathe some air.”
“I’m just saying, we could have done that without spending $500 on a ratty-ass cottage out in the middle of bumfuck Missouri.”
Tom’s line suddenly straightened out, and he bolted upright in excitement, shooting Lyle an I-told-you-so smirk. Then the line went slack.
“No sudden movements,” Lyle said, reaching into their cooler for another lukewarm beer. “And, just my opinion, you might need a softer cast.”
As they docked their boat, Lyle tried his best to avoid poking his friend’s bruised ego. At a certain point, though, that was impossible. When two people have known each other for decades, they become involuntary acupuncturists; they know where the nerves are buried, and under the right conditions, they can’t help but poke.
“Well, fuck you if you can’t enjoy a nice day on the lake,” Tom said, pulling their little boat onto shore. His boots (which Lyle noticed were brand-new and likely purchased at REI in the days before this trip) were deep in the mud, and they made a shlock-krrrp sound with every movement.
“I’m sorry, I really am,” Lyle said. “It’s just funny, is all. We tried, we failed. We have enough shitty beer for an unshitty weekend, I just don’t want to spend every minute burning alive while waiting for this lake to grow fish.”
That was the wrong thing to say, but Lyle knew that on some level. Tom took pride in everything he did, even when he had no idea what he was doing. More importantly, he was stubborn, and if there was any chance of talking him into a weekend of drinking on the cottage’s moldering couch, it was gone in an instant.
“It’s the fucking bait, is what it is,” he said. “There wasn’t a single good nightcrawler in that box I got from the gas station. Styrofoam probably stops them from growing like they should. And this new stinkbait — they don’t make it like they used to. I should have trusted my instincts and picked up some chicken livers.”
“Wait, like, the livers of a chicken? Why would you spend part of a perfectly good chicken to try to catch a shitty fish?”
Tom ignored the comment.
“Tomorrow, we’re gonna find a local bait shop. No more horseshit bait. And we’re going to head out earlier, too.”
At about 4:00 a.m., they were in Tom’s Subaru. Lyle was rubbing his eyes and trying to glean whatever energy he could from the stale coffee they’d made in the cabin.
“What store is going to be open this goddamn early?” he said.
“A bait shop, dumbass.” Tom had packed his worn Yankees cap, which — while not especially stylish — was a huge improvement from the GON FISHUN’ cap, in Lyle’s opinion.
After a 10-minute drive up the road, Lyle pointed out an old gas station with a “BAIT” sign hanging in the window.
“Gas stations have awful bait,” Tom said.
“For Chrissakes, Tom, you’re not going to find a store that only sells bait,” Lyle retorted. “And think about the time. Didn’t you want to hit the lake early? If we’re driving an hour each way to find something —”
“Fine, fine. I’m already pulling in.”
Lyle felt relieved. He’d promised himself that he wouldn’t push Tom’s buttons today, but that had proved difficult when his friend had woken him up at the ass-crack of dawn. He wasn’t sure he could have lasted a longer car ride without killing him. Plus, Lyle had to take a piss.
The inside of the gas station was impossibly cluttered with everything from homemade crafts to the standard Bic lighters and displays of pep-pills that you’d find at just about any roadstop in central Missouri. A large man sat behind the counter watching a small TV set.
Large doesn’t do him justice, Lyle thought. That guy is a behemoth.
The man was easily six feet tall and must have weighed more than 200 pounds, but he wasn’t obese. He clearly hadn’t shaved recently, and his oily brown hair was tucked under a trucker cap. He was nursing a can of Coke and only looked up briefly at his new customers, giving them a slight nod before turning back to the TV.
“’Scuse me, sir,” Tom said, his faux-accent in full swing. “Was wonderin’ if you had any suggestions for fishing ‘round here. My friend and I, we were out all day yesterday and only got a bite or two. Now, I was tellin’ Lyle here that the bait was the problem, because my grampa —”
“What were ye usin?’” The cashier’s voice sounded tired, but a little amused.
“We had worms for most of the day,” Lyle said. “Just worms.”
“Nightcrawlers,” Tom corrected. “And some stinkbait. Corporate bullshit stinkbait.”
The cashier laughed and leaned back in his uneven office chair.
“Yeah, stinkbait ain’t much good in this lake, cor’prate or otherwise. Worms, though — nightcrawlers — they shoulda caught ye somethin.’” He studied the men in front of him, looking them over with slight indifference. “The problem’s probably with yer cast.”
“But maybe not,” the stranger continued. “Maybe you’re jus’ leavin’ the worm out too long.”
He took a swig of his Coca-Cola, a single drop escaping down the side of his lip. He wiped it off and continued. “See, mos’ fish don’t like dead worms. There’s exceptions, a’course. Yer catfish will eat jus’ about anything if they get the scent of it. Bottom feeders are like that. But in this lake, the sports fish, yer bass and shad and what-not, they ain’t an easy date. They wan’ somethin’ that moves. An’ the problem with worms is that they ain’t swimmers.”
That made sense to Lyle. Tom, however, was growing indignant.
“Listen, man, I’ve been fishing for most of my life,” he said, dropping his new accent. “That’s…kind of an oversimplification. A dead worm can catch a live fish. And I wouldn’t even use nightcrawlers for bass, they — “
“Sure, it’s a bit simple, but I’m tellin’ you what works.” Another swig of the soda. “What works in this lake, anyway. I ain’t fished where you fished, but if I did, I might ask you for advice. I jus’ fish here. Yer here, you’re askin’ me, and I’m tryin’ to tell you.”
His tone was patient. Lyle was relieved that the man didn’t seem offended. Hopefully, Tom wouldn’t keep pressing his bullshit fishing advice on the locals.
“What do you recommend?” Lyle asked quickly before his friend had a chance to talk.
“I jus’ told ye. Worms, nightcrawlers, whatever ya want to call ‘em. But if yer lookin’ for a quick catch, well, I got some here that’s a little more special than whatever ya brought from the city.”
He turned to a small cooler behind him and removed a small styrofoam container, then opened it and held it out to Lyle. They were certainly worms — nightcrawlers — but they were huge.
“Holy shit,” Lyle said. “Those are enormous worms.”
“Yeah, but they’re just normal worms, nothin’ special. Give ‘em good soil, they get bigger than you’d think.” The cashier grinned. “Grab one.”
Lyle did so, half-expecting the worms to turn on him and burrow into his skin. They didn’t — they were, as far as he could tell, normal worms — but he was surprised to notice that they didn’t feel…slimy.
“What the hell?” Lyle said. “They’re…coated, or something.”
And they were. A strange translucent substance seemed to cover each worm.
“It’s somethin’ my brother an’ I cooked up, you could say. Keeps them worms wrigglin’ for a little longer, an’ keeps the fish lookin’ at ‘em. And not fer nothin’, the fish seem to enjoy the taste a good deal more. Does have a smell to it, ‘least when it’s cookin, and I s’pose it draws the fish out.”
“Is it…what, like a synthetic?”
“Naw, this is natural as it comes,” he said, smiling and exposing a row of crooked teeth. “S’pose you might call it organic. Whatever ya call it, it works. I guarantee you that.”
Tom scoffed, but the man kept smiling.
“I’m sure they’re great worms,” Tom said, turning and heading towards the back of the store, “but I prefer chicken livers. It’s what my grandpa used, and there ain’t no better bait for big fish.”
Lyle winced. Tom’s hokey redneck accent was creeping back, undoubtedly due to this interaction with an actual redneck.
“Back there in the fridge,” the big man said, extending a fat finger to point where Tom was already headed. “Livers should do ya fine. Jus’ tryin’ to give you boys some options.” The last word seemed exaggerated, as if the man was trying it out for the first time. He looked back at Lyle. “An’ how ‘bout you?”
“I’ll take the fuckin’ worms, obviously,” Lyle said, and the store owner’s enormous body shook with laughter.
The gas station hadn’t had a public bathroom, so at 5:00 a.m., Lyle was pissing off the side of the boat, doing his best to stay balanced as Tom violently threw his line into the lake.
“Give me a second, man.”
“Hey, we’re burning daylight.” Tom was already reeling in his cast.
“I thought fishing didn’t have a pace?”
“Well…no, it doesn’t. But it has a rhythm, and a time.”
Lyle rolled his eyes, zipped his pants, and sat down. He picked up the little styrofoam container and looked down at his bait. The worms wriggled energetically in the thick black soil. Lyle picked one and pressed it against his hook.
The sharp metal pierced the worm, but there was no blood — or, rather, there was blood, but it was contained entirely within the strange synthetic coating. A black spot spread out from the place of the puncture, but Lyle didn’t see any on either side of the hook.
“What the fuck is this stuff?” he asked, not expecting an answer from Tom or anyone else. “They’d make a million dollars if they weren’t selling it out of a gas station.”
“Yeah, that’s if it works,” Tom said. “I don’t see any fish on your side of the boat.”
Lyle held his tongue. He finished baiting his hook and cast his line.
It was about 20 minutes before the first bite — underwhelming for “miracle bait,” Lyle thought, but a big improvement from their previous day’s efforts. He pulled in a small bluegill; the hook had cut through its cheek and half the worm was dangling out of its mouth.
“Hey, Tom, what’s this thing?” Lyle asked, holding his catch in front of his friend. “It has…fins? Is that what you call them? And scales? I think it’s…is this a fish?”
“Barely,” Tom scoffed. “Nice size for a bluegill, but anyone can catch bluegill.”
Except you, apparently, Lyle thought, but he held his tongue. He pulled out the hook, released the fish, and set to re-cast.
“Aren’t you going to put new bait on the hook?” Tom asked.
“Actually…no,” Lyle said. “It looks pretty much intact. It’s still moving.”
The worm seemed fine, though the black blood had spread further under the surface of the gummy coating. That was surprising enough — Lyle had assumed that the stuff would rinse off in the water — but the worm’s vigorous movements were unsettling.
How long can worms live without breathing? Lyle thought as he cast his line into the deep, muddy water.
The second catch of the day came soon after the first. Lyle pulled in a pan-sized bass, which had swallowed his hook; he cut the line, put the fish in his cooler, and made a mental note to look for the hook when cleaning it. His third cast brought in a foot-long catfish.
Tom wasn’t entirely unsuccessful — he was bringing in bluegill and sunfish — but by noon, Lyle had filled their cooler, and the friends were forced back to their cottage.
“You were right, Tom,” Lyle said. “Fishing’s not so bad. Especially when you’re done halfway through the day.”
He was gloating slightly, but holding back as much as he could.
“Yeah, well, you had some great luck,” Tom said. Lyle could tell that his friend was also holding back. “Maybe we could head out later, and you could let me try those worms.”
“I would, but I’m almost out,” Lyle said. “Every other fish was swallowing the bait.”
“That means you’re not reeling them in fast enough.”
“Yeah, probably,” Lyle said, but he wasn’t so sure.
“Well, I might run out and get another container, then,” Tom said casually, but with a note of impatience. “While you clean your catch, I mean.”
“Fuck, Tom, I don’t know how to clean a fish!”
“You catch it, you clean it,” Tom said. “That’s the rule. Look up some YouTube videos. It’s not difficult.”
Lyle was mentally prepared for an afternoon of drinking cold beer and sitting on a musty coach. Instead, he’d be ripping apart fish guts with a dull fillet knife. Still, he couldn’t argue with the logic — not if he wanted to avoid a fight — and he was surprised to feel a sense of pride in his catch.
“Alright, fine,” he said. “But grab an extra container of worms for me. And more beer. Anything but Milwaukee’s Best.”
After Tom left, Lyle studied several YouTube videos, then cut into the side of a decent-sized bass. He wished he’d started with a smaller fish, as he wasted a good portion of the meat to his inartful hacking. By the third fish, he’d refined his technique. His fillets were looking like — well, fillets, and he was moving from fish to fish with decent speed.
He might have worked faster if he hadn’t noticed the worms.
Some of them were thoroughly chewed, or masticated in whatever way fish masticate things. In those cases, Lyle simply had to either pick out the hooks or discard all of the fish innards, the latter of which proved to be the easier option.
But three of the fish (or had it been four?) had not had time to ruin the worms; they’d swallowed them whole, undoubtedly hoping to move on to their next meal as quick as possible.
He’d come across the first of them when cleaning his third fish of the day. He’d thought it was a parasite, at first, because as he was pulling the guts from the carcass, he’d felt something wriggling.
Tom walked in the door with an obnoxious smile plastered to his face. His arms were full; in addition to the bait (what looked to be the store’s entire supply), he’d purchased a new rod, a tacklebox, and — worst of all — a new GON FISHUN’ hat.
“Christ,” Lyle said. “Do they make those fucking things everywhere, or just in parts of the country where people don’t have full sets of teeth?”
“Bite your tongue,” Tom retorted. “This is redneck culture, for better or worse, and as long as I’m down here, I’m embracing it.”
“I noticed.” Lyle rubbed his neck, noticing in the process that he’d been badly sunburnt that morning. “Hey, I don’t know about these worms, by the way.”
“What are you talking about?” Tom exclaimed. “You were pulling them in this morning. You worried that I’ll steal your luck if we’re using the same bait?”
“No, I couldn’t give a shit less if you murdered every fish in the state.” Lyle held up one of the worms he’d taken from the morning’s catch. “Look at this. The thing’s still alive. I mean, it’s seen better days, clearly, but it’s alive.”
Tom studied the worm in awe. He was silent for a few seconds, which Lyle saw as a welcome change.
“Holy shit,” Tom said finally. “Holy…holy shit.” He reached out and grabbed the worm, holding it carefully between two fingers. “Lyle, do you remember what you said? Earlier, in the boat?”
“That I finally realized I loved you, and I was ready to leave my wife to make you my everything?”
“After that,” Tom said, shooting a grin. “You said that hillbilly could make a million dollars if he knew what he had.”
“Sure,” Lyle said. “Well, they could.”
“Yes,” Tom said slowly. “They could. Or we could.”
“I’m not following.”
“Look, whatever this stuff is, they’re wasting it. If it can keep a worm alive underwater — or in a fish — could it work, you know, on people? Could it, I don’t know, kill cancer?”
Lyle laughed. “That’s where you go? Cure cancer? It’s bait, Tom, it isn’t exactly stem cell therapy.”
“Why not?” Tom responded, his voice growing louder. “Why couldn’t it…look, I’m not a doctor — ”
“I couldn’t tell from your hat.”
“I’m not a doctor,” Tom continued. “But I know that if something can keep organic life alive in these conditions, it could have serious value.”
“Wait, you sure you’re not a doctor?”
“Okay, fine, be a dick about it.” Tom threw the worm in the sink and started washing his hands. “You know I’m right. And you know that I paid $50 for something that could make both of us rich.”
And another $75 for gear that makes you look like a total dick, Lyle thought, but this time he held his tongue. He couldn’t deny it — he’d been thinking the same thing since he’d dug the wriggling worm out of the fish’s lime-green entrails. That fish had been dead for hours. The worm was still wriggling in the sink.
“So what’s your plan?” Lyle said after a few seconds of silence. “We take these back to…a laboratory? I don’t know any laboratories that specialize in worms, but that’s why Google exists.”
“Naw, fuck that,” Tom said. “We’re going back to the bait shop.”
They didn’t go back right away. They argued first, then drank, then argued some more. Then they drank some more. It was a cycle they’d perfected over decades of friendship, the same back-and-forth they’d used when arguing about the ownership of a Lou Brock rookie card in 4th grade (at the time, they were drinking Cherry Cokes, but the loop was otherwise identical).
And as with all the other times they’d ran through the cycle, the outcome was predetermined. 9-year-old Lyle had known from the start that Tom would end up with the Lou Brock card — despite the fact that he’d loaned Tom the money for the card pack, with the express agreement that Lyle could pick any card he wanted — and 35-year-old Lyle knew that he’d end up sulking in the passenger seat as Tom drove them to the bait shop.
“We pay them,” Lyle said. “We come up with a fair number, write them a check, and get the recipe. Or formula, or whatever it is. But we’re not going to fuck these people over.”
“I would never dream of it,” Tom said, offended. “You act like you don’t know me.”
“Oh, I know you,” Lyle said. “And I know you want to bullshit them. I know you, Tom, and I’m telling you, if this stuff is as valuable as you think it is — “
“As valuable as we know it is.”
“Fine. If it’s that valuable, this isn’t the time to try to play hardball.”
Tom laughed and took a swig of Budweiser.
“This is exactly the time to play hardball,” he said. “But I won’t play too hard, I promise.”
Lyle remembered the baseball cards and sunk deep into his seat.
The bait shop was closed. Predictable, since they’d argued and drank for hours, taking a brief break to eat some poorly butchered fish — by the time they’d left the cottage, it was about 9:00.
The drive seemed to take much longer than it had in the early hours of the morning. When the bait shop’s haggard facade crept into view, Lyle felt a mixture of anxiety and relief. Tom, on the other hand, was smiling broadly.
His smile dimmed when he saw the black-and-red “CLOSED” sign on the store’s door. They walked up anyway — Lyle knew that Tom would never head back unless he’d personally checked that the store was completely vacant.
“We can try again tomorrow,” Lyle said. He thought he’d be able to talk Tom out of the endeavor by then, or at least he hoped so. He was realizing that he’d have trouble explaining the situation to a rational person, and he was growing more uncomfortable by the second. Something about the cashier’s demeanor had given him deep reservations, even before he’d started casually dispensing advice and otherworldly bait.
But while the storefront was certainly closed, a dim yellow light shone in the back of the shop. Tom took that as an invitation.
“Hey!” he shouted, banging on the door, “Anyone home? Or…not home, but here?”
Lyle felt his hands start to twitch. They always twitched when he felt nervous — one of the many reasons he’d had trouble dating in college. Tom, on the other hand, was always able to bluster his way through any discomfort he felt. If he feels anything at all, Lyle thought.
“My business partner and I, we have a proposition for you,” Tom continued. “Y’all home? I mean, here?”
The light in the shop dimmed — someone was passing in front of it. Lyle’s heart sank. A minute or so later, the store’s lock made a solid shunk sound,, then the door opened.
This wasn’t the massive man they’d seen earlier; this man was bigger. His greasy blonde hair sat under a white-and-blue trucker’s cap, which was much too small for his gargantuan head. If Lyle had to guess (and if he didn’t have to guess, he ventured one anyway), the man was seven feet tall. A wide scar ran from his right eye to his lip, which curled into a sneer as he observed his visitors.
“’Chu want?” the man said, leaving his mouth hanging open as if he’d only close it when he received a response.
“Nothing, we were just leaving,” Lyle blurted out, and Tom elbowed him sharply.
“We’re here with a proposition.”
“The fuck is that?”
“A business opportunity,” Tom said quickly. “We — well, we want to buy your bait.”
“Store’s open in the mornin.’ Buy yer bait then.”
After he’d finished speaking, the big man’s mouth hung open. Lyle wondered whether the guy was a few lures short of a full tackle box.
“No, we’re not trying to buy — not just the bait,” Tom said. “We’re trying to get the recipe. We can make a lot of money together, if you’ll —”
“It ain’t for sale,” the big man said, and there was a note of finality in his booming voice. This time, he clenched his jaw.
“Well, now, everything’s for sale,” Tom said. “And sir, we’re not taking ‘no’ for an answer. We used those worms all day, and there’s big money here. Big money. Thousands of dollars, even.”
Thousands? Lyle thought. Pretty sure we were talking about millions on the way over.
But the big man grinned and rubbed his chin. He let out a laugh and opened the door wide.
“Fine, then,” he concluded. “S’pose everything does have its price. Come on t’the back.”
Tom shot Lyle a look. See? I told you I’m a businessman, it seemed to say. Lyle looked away quickly and reluctantly followed the big man into the store.
“No hardball,” Lyle whispered to his friend.
“Not much,” Tom responded with a grin. “I promise.”
There was a small door behind the counter. Lyle hadn’t seen it earlier, possibly because it didn’t have a handle. It seemed like someone — not a carpenter, certainly — had simply sawed through the drywall, removed some studs, and made a new door out of whatever scrap they had laying around. The sides of the doorway were ragged and unfinished, with at least three rusty nails jutting out at odd angles.
The big man bent down to get through the uneven door frame, deftly maneuvering his enormous body around the nails. On the other side, the two out-of-towners found themselves a surprisingly spacious garage. Tools, grease, and empty bags of potato chips covered the floor, and a sickly sweet smell invaded Lyle’s nostrils. Something was burning.
Near the center of the garage, Lyle saw the cashier from earlier sitting in an old lawn chair. Another old TV was blasting infomercials. When they walked into the room, the man stood, but he looked neither annoyed nor surprised.
“Well, if it ain’t the fishermen,” he laughed. “I thought you boys would be back again. Thought it wouldn’t be ‘til tomorrow, though.”
“We’re leaving tomorrow,” Lyle lied. “We just…we wanted to ask about that bait.”
“Oh, ‘course you do,” he said. “Well, you can ask away. ‘fore you do, though, I can save us a bit of time: It ain’t for sale.”
“Why not?” Tom asked.
Lyle tried to shoot a look at Tom that would say well, we’ve got our answer, let’s get the fuck out of here, but the sentiment didn’t get across.
“You know what else was a family recipe?” Tom asked. “Ragu. The pasta sauce that’s worth millions of dollars per year. White-Out, invented by one of the Beastie Boys’ mothers, worth hundreds of thousands.”
Beach boys, Lyle silently corrected. No, wait, Monkees. Or Captain and Tenille? I can never remember.
“S’pose they make plenty of money sellin’ horseshit to idiots,” the cashier said, “but this ain’t that. This stuff ain’t horseshit, and we ain’t tryin’ to make it into horseshit anytime soon. And if you boys are leavin’ town, god bless ya, but you ain’t leavin’ with this.”
“Well, thought we’d check anyway,” Lyle said. “Have a nice —”
“$20,000 cash, right now,” Tom said. “Well, not cash — you’d have to take a check. But we can go to the bank tomorrow, and —”
“Hey, Teddy, these boys listen worse than you,” the cashier said. The big man, whose name was apparently Teddy, let out a bellowing laugh. The cashier turned down the TV — Lyle offhandedly noticed that it was a black-and-white set, which he hadn’t seen in at least a decade — and turned his full attention to his guests.
“Listen, son, it ain’t about the money. Hell, it ain’t even about two fuckin’ city boys coming in and telling me my business, though I don’t like that much, if I’m honest. But the money definitely ain’t it. You don’t even know what yer askin’ for.”
“Then tell me,” Tom said. His voice sounded almost petulant. “Tell me what we’re dealing with here.” He looked over at Lyle, then straightened his shoulders. “Or…we could just take it, even if we’re ‘city boys’ to you.”
“Tom,” Lyle said, but his old friend was on a roll. Tom didn’t even acknowledge Lyle’s feeble protest as he continued.
“My friend Lyle here has friends in Big Pharma. They have labs — big labs, where they can take one of those worms in my truck and run it through all types of tests. I expect they’d figure out how that…stuff keeps them alive, and I expect they’d figure it out in no time, flat. Hell, they might even make it better. We could have done it that way, but I’m an honorable man. I figured, if a man invents something — something really special — well, he’s entitled to some payment for it.”
The cashier looked at Tom with seething disinterest. Seconds passed, the now-faint sound of the infomercial reverberating through the garage while Lyle wondered whether either of the enormous men in front of him had seen Deliverance.
“Well, you do drive a hard bargain,” the cashier said finally. He spit into his palm and held it out to Tom. “$50,000, though. It don’t all have to be tomorrow, but I expect you to be a man of yer word, Mr. Honorable Man.”
“$40,000,” Tom said.
“$40,000,” the cashier agreed. Tom spit into his own palm with perverse appreciation for the gesture, then shook.
“Name’s Bobby Sogoth,” the cashier said.
“Tom Rivers. You won’t regret this, Mr. Sogoth.”
“No,” Bobby responded coolly, “I s’pose I won’t.”
He didn’t let go of Tom’s hand.
Lyle saw the tire iron before Tom did, but neither of them saw it for very long. Teddy must have had it ready, and while the big man wasn’t especially fast, he was strong enough that it didn’t matter much. He crushed it into the side of Tom’s temple first, then whipped it into Lyle’s face as Tom slunk to the ground.
Tom was unconscious immediately, but Lyle wasn’t so lucky. He fell to the ground, then looked up as Teddy cocked his arm back for a second time.
“Alive!” Bobby shouted. “Alive, ya big fuck!”
And then came the second blow.
When a person gets knocked out in the movies, the person is aware and capable of asking questions (usually directed towards a conniving villain) within a few seconds. That was not Lyle’s experience.
He came back to consciousness quickly, but he had a solid minute of pure confusion before he realized where he was. Massive head injuries will do that to a person, and that period of confusion isn’t fun. Panic shot through him as every nerve in his body kicked on at once, and his eyes darted wildly around the room. He was unable to think or focus, and each shallow breath seemed to bring him further into the abyss.
When his mind finally cleared, he immediately wished he could go back into the confusion. Bobby sat in front of him in the same old lawn chair. He thought he heard a hissing sound, but the burning smell was stronger than ever, a rancidness that filled his senses as he gasped for air.
He blinked his eyes. They were still in the garage, he knew that, but they weren’t where they’d been seconds ago. Or hours ago — Lyle was unsure.
Bobby was moving his hands, demonstrating something. Teddy stood to the side, his massive arms crossed.
“…so when you can’t buy it, you can’t buy it,” Bobby was saying.
Both of the big men laughed.
“Oh, you probably got racked up too good to listen to any of that,” Bobby said. “Apologies, friend, but I ain’t gonna run through it again. I was sayin’ it more for me than for you, I ‘spose. But I’ll give you the overview.”
“Cliff’s Notes, the overview, whatever you want to call it,” Bobby said. “Well, here it is: This here’s my brother Teddy, since you were too rude to ask him his name yerself, and we’re not too happy with you or your friend right now.”
Lyle tasted blood and realized he couldn’t see from his right eye. The pain was slowly settling in.
“Yeah,” Lyle replied, “I kind of gathered that.”
Bobby let out another chortling laugh.
“Funny guy, I like that,” he said. “Much better than bein’ an ‘honorable man’ like yer friend.”
The details of that evening were slowly coming back to Lyle, and he tried to sit up in his — chair? He was sitting in a lawn chair — at the mention of Tom.
“Where is…he? Where’s Tom?”
“He’s still alive, if that’s what you’re asking. Has to be, in fact.”
Bobby looked up at his brother and grinned.
“Say, Teddy, maybe we ought to show him what their money’s good for.”
“What it’s good for,” Teddy repeated.
“Please,” Lyle said, “I don’t…I don’t care about any of it. I doubt Tom even has the money. He sells fucking lawnmowers and drives a Japanese truck. This is all just…he promised he wasn’t gonna…disrespect—”
“Disrespect?” Bobby screamed. “Oh, you want to talk about respect? Well, I’ll tell you what I disrespect, and I bet it’s not what you think.”
He rose off the chair and walked towards Lyle, locking his eyes on his prisoner. Behind him, Teddy seemed almost nervous. Lyle suddenly realized that he’d been tied to his chair, a perfectly unsurprising revelation.
“It ain’t that yer from the city. It ain’t that yer pissin’ yer pants in my garage. And it ain’t that you wouldn’t know how to catch a fish if it jumped into yer fuckin’ boat.”
Bobby put his face right up to Lyle’s. The man’s breath was stale and raw.
“What I hate is that yer friend talks to me like I’m a fuckin’ hillbilly.”
And suddenly, Lyle laughed. He couldn’t stop laughing.
“What else…what else are you?” he said between laughs. “Look at you…look at all this.” He tried to gesture around the garage with his head. “If you’re not hillbillies, what are you? Rednecks?”
Bobby didn’t seem enraged by the laughter. If anything, he seemed to loosen up.
“Well, you are a comedian,” he said. “And I really do like that.” He slapped his prisoner hard across the face, bringing a bright flash of light to Lyle’s limited vision.
Bobby laughed before continuing.
“No, me and my brother here aren’t hillbillies. We’re too friendly for that. You see a hillbilly, and it’s too late for ya — they jus’ wanna be alone. And rednecks, well, they just drive their trucks around and listen to shitty music. Can’t stand rednecks.”
“Can’t stand ‘em,” Teddy said.
“We might look like rednecks or hillbillies, but that ain’t what we are.” He leaned back in his chair.
“We’re Sogorths. That’s what we are. It ain’t just a family name, it’s a way of life. And you’re not a Sogorth. That’s why you’re never gonna understand what makes this bait so special.”
“But we can sure try to show you. With some help from your friend there.”
Teddy reached out and spun the lawn chair around with frightening ease. Then, Lyle was screaming. His head was aching harder by the second, but he couldn’t stop. It was an automatic reaction — truly automatic, because Lyle felt more confused than terrified for the first few seconds.
He was looking at a hot tub — or some grotesque facsimile of a hot tub, made with stainless steel and filled with boiling black liquid. A propane heating element was underneath; that explained the hissing sound.
Tom was in the tub, propped against the side, his skin red and bubbling and torn. He seemed to be melting. No, he was melting, his flesh dripping like a candle, dropping off his face and chest and into the liquid. One of his arms was missing, but there was no bloody stump, just a putty-like mass of skin and fat.
That was why Lyle screamed, but it wasn’t what kept him screaming. Somehow, the grotesque monster in the tub was still alive.
Tom opened and closed his mouth dumbly, a look of shock and panic in his eyes. He moved his arms — what was left of them — in an attempt to climb out, but his formless mass slipped against the sides and fell into the water. When he rose his arms again, more flesh was missing. More had melted into the blackness.
“Christ, Teddy, will you turn him the fuck around and slap the shit out of him? I like a good scream as much as the next fella, but either this guy’s a fuckin’ cas-tra-to or he’s had enough.”
Teddy turned Lyle around and the thud of his backhand ended Lyle’s wailing.
Lyle could manage no more. Both of the big men laughed.
“Yeah, us,” Bobby said. “Sogorths. Don’t forget it. Y’all were ready to pay big money for the secret sauce — now you know what it is! Still want to run to the bank? Get us a cash-year’s check?”
Lyle strained to think clearly, and said the only thing that came to mind. “It’s…fat…human…fat?”
Bobby cocked his head. He looked strangely disappointed.
“Shit, Lyle, I’m startin’ to think you don’t actually know any big-city scientists. No, it ain’t just the fat. It’s the everything. We tried with just the fat, we tried with just the bones, hell, we tried a batch with just peckers and titties.”
He reached under his chair and grabbed a Coke from a dirty cooler. He took a long drink, relishing the soda — or relishing Tom’s confusion. Probably both.
“It’s everything, that’s what it is. Our old grandpa figured it out years ago when he was…well, hell, there’s no use beatin’ around the bush, he was quite the killer in his day. He was just tryin’ to keep his house clean — and spend a little less time diggin’ holes — and he figured out a way to do it real easy. Found a way to keep ‘em alive, for a bit anyway, as he did it. And as it turns out, it makes damn good bait, too.”
Another sip of the drink.
“When Gramps died, we kept on with the family recipe, but it weren’t easy. We figured out that it wouldn’t work with just any body — heh, any person’s body — that won’t do it, ya see. We tried makin’ it out of any ol’ fool that came up here. It kept them worms alive, sure, but the fish din’t like it.”
“Swam away,” Teddy said.
“Din’t seem to last as long, neither. I don’t understand it myself. Don’t pretend to. Only seems to work with certain types o’folk, the type that come down here lookin’ to cause trouble. Folks that have a bit of violence in ‘em. Folks like yer friend here. And the longer they sit in there, the more they feel it, the better the batch.”
Lyle knew he wouldn’t like the answer, but he had to ask.
“What are you going to do to me?”
“You?” Bobby laughed. “Well, we’re gonna let you go. I don’t think you’d make good bait. But ya gotta promise to be a good boy an’ never say a word to anyone, not even yer own momma.”
“Yes, of course,” Lyle exclaimed, waves of relief colliding with the adrenaline surging through his body. “I would never…I don’t even know what I’d say…”
But the brothers were cackling and slapping each other on the back, and Lyle’s relief turned back to dread.
“Naw, naw, I wish that were the case, I really do,” Bobby said. “But you disrespected me in my establishment here, an’ my brother, an’ we got a bit of our grampa in us, if you catch what I’m sayin’.”
“And not just the parts o’him we ate,” Teddy said, and they cackled again as Bobby raised the hammer and swung it hard and quick at Lyle’s head.
This time, the blackness didn’t disappear when Lyle opened his eyes. Not at first, anyway. The confusion was just as bad as before, but something in him was fighting; something knew that he needed to regain his wits as quickly as possible, and that if he didn’t, things would be worse.
But his eyes were open, and soon after, his brain was moving, restoring connections, remembering the horrific events of the night.
He tried to kick. He couldn’t feel the ground under him, but his right leg wouldn’t move — his left leg, though, seemed to float in the air, moving back and forth freely.
Am I dead? Or dreaming? Or…
He tried to move his arms, but they were tied to his chest with thick rope. He tried to take a deep breath, but the air wouldn’t come. His lungs howled in agony, begging him to try again, but his second attempt was no more fruitful than the first.
A light suddenly shone through the blackness, blinding Lyle for a moment. It seemed to reflect off…something in front of him, something —
Oh, God. Oh, Jesus, God, no.
The light was high above Lyle’s head, aimed directly at him. Dark shapes shot past it, unclear and indistinguishable in the surrounding blackness.
He was underwater.
The light was coming from a small boat, and the weight on his foot — unmovable and rigid — was tying him to the bed of the lake.
And he suddenly realized why he couldn’t breathe. Why he’d never be able to breathe again.
Lyle kicked and kicked, his one leg flailing wildly. He twisted his torso, straining against the ropes. He tried to scream, which only brought more wracking pain to his tortured lungs. He tried to blink, but couldn’t. The stuff — the same stuff he’d marveled at hours earlier in the kitchen of a mildewy cabin — wouldn’t let him.
Soon, the fish came. At first, his jerking scared them away, but gradually they recognized the movements as the panicked motion of a particularly large and particularly delicious worm at the end of a particularly big hook.
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