“Hard rain coming down,” Cheryl said, and I nodded in agreement.
Through the diner’s plate-glass windows, a dense curtain of rain flapped across the Gulf gas pumps and continued across the parking lot. It hit Big Bob’s with a force that made the glass rattle like uneasy bones. The red neon sign that said BIG BOB’S! DIESEL FUEL! EATS! sat on top of a high steel pole above the diner so the truckers on the interstate could see it. Out in the night, the red-tinted rain thrashed in torrents across my old pickup truck and Cheryl’s baby-blue Volkswagen.
“Well,” I said, “I suppose that storm’ll either wash some folks in off the interstate or we can just about hang it up.” The curtain of rain parted for an instant, and I could see the treetops whipping back and forth in the woods on the other side of Highway 47. Wind whined around the front door like an animal trying to claw its way in. I glanced at the electric clock on the wall behind the counter. Twenty minutes before nine. We usually closed up at ten, but tonight—with tornado warnings in the weather forecast—I was tempted to turn the lock a little early. “Tell you what,” I said. “If we’re empty at nine, we skedaddle. ’Kay?”
“No argument here,” she said. She watched the storm for a moment longer, then continued putting newly washed coffee cups, saucers, and plates away on the stainless-steel shelves.
Lightning flared from west to east like the strike of a burning bullwhip. The diner’s lights flickered, then came back to normal. A shudder of thunder seemed to come right up through my shoes. Late March is the beginning of tornado season in south Alabama, and we’ve had some whoppers spin past here in the last few years. I knew that Alma was at home, and she understood to get into the root cellar right quick if she spotted a twister, like that one we saw in ’82 dancing through the woods about two miles from our farm.
“You got any love-ins planned this weekend, hippie?” I asked Cheryl, mostly to get my mind off the storm and to rib her too.
She was in her late thirties, but I swear that when she grinned she could’ve passed for a kid. “Wouldn’t you like to know, redneck?” she answered; she replied the same way to all my digs at her. Cheryl Lovesong—and I know that couldn’t have been her real name—was a mighty able waitress, and she had hands that were no strangers to hard work. But I didn’t care that she wore her long silvery-blond hair in Indian braids with hippie headbands, or came to work in tie-dyed overalls. She was the best waitress who’d ever worked for me, and she got along with everybody just fine—even us rednecks. That’s what I am, and proud of it: I drink Rebel Yell whiskey straight, and my favorite songs are about good women gone bad and trains on the long track to nowhere. I keep my wife happy. I’ve raised my two boys to pray to God and to salute the flag, and if anybody don’t like it he can go a few rounds with Big Bob Clayton.
Cheryl would come right out and tell you she used to live in San Francisco in the late sixties, and that she went to love-ins and peace marches and all that stuff. When I reminded her it was 1984 and Ronnie Reagan was president, she’d look at me like I was walking cow-flop. I always figured she’d start thinking straight when all that hippie-dust blew out of her head.
Alma said my tail was going to get burnt if I ever took a shine to Cheryl, but I’m a fifty-five-year-old redneck who stopped sowing his wild seed when he met the woman he married, more than thirty years ago.
Lightning crisscrossed the turbulent sky, followed by a boom of thunder. Cheryl said, “Wow! Look at that light show!”
“Light show, my ass,” I muttered. The diner was as solid as the Good Book, so I wasn’t too worried about the storm. But on a wild night like this, stuck out in the countryside like Big Bob’s was, you had a feeling of being a long way off from civilization—though Mobile was only twenty-seven miles south. On a wild night like this, you had a feeling that anything could happen, as quick as a streak of lightning out of the darkness. I picked up a copy of the Mobile Press-Register that the last customer—a trucker on his way to Texas—had left on the counter a half-hour before, and I started plowing through the news, most of it bad: those A-rab countries were still squabbling like Hatfields and McCoys in white robes; two men had robbed a Qwik-Mart in Mobile and been killed by the police in a shoot-out; cops were investigating a massacre at a motel near Daytona Beach; an infant had been stolen from a maternity ward in Birmingham. The only good things on the front page were stories that said the economy was up and that Reagan swore we’d show the Commies who was boss in El Salvador and Lebanon.
The diner shook under a blast of thunder, and I looked up from the paper as a pair of headlights emerged from the rain into my parking lot.
The headlights were attached to an Alabama state-trooper car.
“Half-alive, hold the onion, extra brown the buns.” Cheryl was already writing on her pad in expectation of the order. I pushed the paper aside and went to the fridge for the hamburger meat.
When the door opened, a windblown spray of rain swept in and stung like buckshot. “Howdy, folks!” Dennis Wells peeled off his gray rain slicker and hung it on the rack next to the door. Over his Smokey the Bear trooper hat was a protective plastic covering, beaded with raindrops. He took off his hat, exposing the thinning blond hair on his pale scalp, as he approached the counter and sat on his usual stool, right next to the cash register. “Cup of black coffee and a rare—” Cheryl was already sliding the coffee in front of him, and the burger sizzled on the griddle. “Ya’ll are on the ball tonight!” Dennis said; he said the same thing when he came in, which was almost every night. Funny the kind of habits you fall into, without realizing it.
“Kinda wild out there, ain’t it?” I asked as I flipped the burger over.
“Lordy, yes! Wind just about flipped my car over three, four miles down the interstate. Thought I was gonna be eatin’ a little pavement tonight.” Dennis was a husky young man in his early thirties, with thick blond brows over deep-set light brown eyes. He had a wife and three kids, and he was fast to flash a walletful of their pictures. “Don’t reckon I’ll be chasin’ any speeders tonight, but there’ll probably be a load of accidents. Cheryl, you sure look pretty this evenin’.”
“Still the same old me.” Cheryl never wore a speck of makeup, though one day she’d come to work with glitter on her cheeks. She had a place a few miles away, and I guessed she was farming that funny weed up there. “Any trucks moving?”
“Seen a few, but not many. Truckers ain’t fools. Gonna get worse before it gets better, the radio says.” He sipped at his coffee and grimaced. “Lordy, that’s strong enough to jump out of the cup and dance a jig, darlin’!”
I fixed the burger the way Dennis liked it, put it on a platter with some fries, and served it. “Bobby, how’s the wife treatin’ you?” he asked.
“Good to hear. I’ll tell you, a fine woman is worth her weight in gold. Hey, Cheryl! How’d you like a handsome young man for a husband?”
Cheryl smiled, knowing what was coming. “The man I’m looking for hasn’t been made yet.”
“Yeah, but you ain’t met Cecil yet, either! He asks me about you every time I see him, and I keep tellin’ him I’m doin’ everything I can to get you two together.” Cecil was Dennis’ brother-in-law and owned a Chevy dealership in Bay Minette. Dennis had been ribbing Cheryl about going on a date with Cecil for the past four months. “You’d like him,” Dennis promised. “He’s got a lot of my qualities.”
“Well, that’s different. In that case, I’m certain I don’t want to meet him.”
Dennis winced. “Oh, you’re a cruel woman! That’s what smokin’ banana peels does to you—turns you mean. Anybody readin’ this rag?” He reached over for the newspaper.
“Waitin’ here just for you,” I said. Thunder rumbled, closer to the diner. The lights flickered briefly once … then again before they returned to normal. Cheryl busied herself by fixing a fresh pot of coffee, and I watched the rain whipping against the windows. When the lightning flashed, I could see the trees swaying so hard they looked about to snap.
Dennis read and ate his hamburger. “Boy,” he said after a few minutes, “the world’s in some shape, huh? Those A-rab pig-stickers are itchin’ for war. Mobile metro boys had a little gunplay last night. Good for them.” He paused and frowned, then tapped the paper with one thick finger. “This I can’t figure.”
“Thing in Florida couple of nights ago. Six people killed at the Pines Haven Motor Inn, near Daytona Beach. Motel was set off in the woods. Only a couple of cinder-block houses in the area, and nobody heard any gunshots. Says here one old man saw what he thought was a bright white star falling over the motel, and that was it. Funny, huh?”
“A UFO,” Cheryl offered. “Maybe he saw a UFO.”
“Yeah, and I’m a little green man from Mars,” Dennis scoffed. “I’m serious. This is weird. The motel was so blown full of holes it looked like a war had been going on. Everybody was dead—even a dog and a canary that belonged to the manager. The cars out in front of the rooms were blasted to pieces. The sound of one of them explodin’ was what woke up the people in those houses, I reckon.” He skimmed the story again. “Two bodies were out in the parkin’ lot, one was holed up in a bathroom, one had crawled under a bed, and two had dragged every piece of furniture in the room over to block the door. Didn’t seem to help ’em any, though.”
I grunted. “Guess not.”
“No motive, no witnesses. You better believe those Florida cops are shakin’ the bushes for some kind of dangerous maniac—or maybe more than one, it says here.” He shoved the paper away and patted the service revolver holstered at his hip. “If I ever got hold of him—or them—he’d find out not to mess with a ’Bama trooper.” He glanced quickly over at Cheryl and smiled mischievously. “Probably some crazy hippie who’d been smokin’ his tennis shoes.”
“Don’t knock it,” she said sweetly, “until you’ve tried it.” She looked past him, out the window into the storm. “Car’s pullin’ in, Bobby.”
Headlights glared briefly off the wet windows. It was a station wagon with wood-grained panels on the sides; it veered around the gas pumps and parked next to Dennis’ trooper car. On the front bumper was a personalized license plate that said: Ray & Lindy. The headlights died, and all the doors opened at once. Out of the wagon came a whole family: a man and woman, a little girl and boy about eight or nine. Dennis got up and opened the diner door as they hurried inside from the rain.
All of them had gotten pretty well soaked between the station wagon and the diner, and they wore the dazed expressions of people who’d been on the road a long time. The man wore glasses and had curly gray hair, the woman was slim and dark-haired and pretty. The kids were sleepy-eyed. All of them were well-dressed, the man in a yellow sweater with one of those alligators on the chest. They had vacation tans, and I figured they were tourists heading north from the beach after spring break.
“Come on in and take a seat,” I said.
“Thank you,” the man said. They squeezed into one of the booths near the windows. “We saw your sign from the interstate.”
“Bad night to be on the highway,” Dennis told them. “Tornado warnings are out all over the place.”
“We heard it on the radio,” the woman—Lindy, if the license was right—said. “We’re on our way to Birmingham, and we thought we could drive right through the storm. We should’ve stopped at that Holiday Inn we passed about fifteen miles ago.”
“That would’ve been smart,” Dennis agreed. “No sense in pushin’ your luck.” He returned to his stool.
The new arrivals ordered hamburgers, fries, and Cokes. Cheryl and I went to work. Lightning made the diner’s lights flicker again, and the sound of thunder caused the kids to jump. When the food was ready and Cheryl served them, Dennis said, “Tell you what. You folks finish your dinners and I’ll escort you back to the Holiday Inn. Then you can head out in the morning. How about that?”
“Fine,” Ray said gratefully. “I don’t think we could’ve gotten very much further, anyway.” He turned his attention to his food.
“Well,” Cheryl said quietly, standing beside me, “I don’t guess we get home early, do we?”
“I guess not. Sorry.”
She shrugged. “Goes with the job, right? Anyway, I can think of worse places to be stuck.”
I figured that Alma might be worried about me, so I went over to the pay phone to call her. I dropped a quarter in—and the dial tone sounded like a cat being stepped on. I hung up and tried again. The cat scream continued. “Damn!” I muttered. “Lines must be screwed up.”
“Ought to get yourself a place closer to town, Bobby,” Dennis said. “Never could figure out why you wanted a joint in the sticks. At least you’d get better phone service and good lights if you were nearer to Mo—”
He was interrupted by the sound of wet and shrieking brakes, and he swiveled around on his stool.
I looked up as a car hurtled into the parking lot, the tires swerving, throwing up plumes of water. For a few seconds I thought it was going to keep coming, right through the window into the diner—but then the brakes caught and the car almost grazed the side of my pickup as it jerked to a stop. In the neon’s red glow I could tell it was a beat-up old Ford Fairlane, either gray or a dingy beige. Steam was rising off the crumpled hood. The headlights stayed on for perhaps a minute before they winked off. A figure got out of the car and walked slowly—with a limp—toward the diner.
We watched the figure approach. Dennis’ body looked like a coiled spring ready to be triggered. “We got us a live one, Bobby boy,” he said.
The door opened, and in a stinging gust of wind and rain a man who looked like walking death stepped into my diner.
He was so wet he might well have been driving with his windows down. He was a skinny guy, maybe weighed all of a hundred and twenty pounds, even soaking wet. His unruly dark hair was plastered to his head, and he had gone a week or more without a shave. In his gaunt, pallid face his eyes were startlingly blue; his gaze flicked around the diner, lingered for a few seconds on Dennis. Then he limped on down to the far end of the counter and took a seat. He wiped the rain out of his eyes as Cheryl took a menu to him.
Dennis stared at the man. When he spoke, his voice bristled with authority. “Hey, fella.” The man didn’t look up from the menu. “Hey, I’m talkin’ to you.”
The man pushed the menu away and pulled a damp packet of Kools out of the breast pocket of his patched Army fatigue jacket. “I can hear you,” he said; his voice was deep and husky, and didn’t go with his less-than-robust physical appearance.
“Drivin’ kinda fast in this weather, don’t you think?”
The man flicked a cigarette lighter a few times before he got a flame, then lit one of his smokes and inhaled deeply. “Yeah,” he replied. “I was. Sorry. I saw the sign, and I was in a hurry to get here. Miss? I’d just like a cup of coffee, please. Hot and real strong, okay?”
Cheryl nodded and turned away from him, almost bumping into me as I strolled down behind the counter to check him out.
“That kind of hurry’ll get you killed,” Dennis cautioned.
“Right. Sorry.” He shivered and pushed the tangled hair back from his forehead with one hand. Up close, I could see deep cracks around his mouth and the corners of his eyes and I figured him to be in his late thirties or early forties. His wrists were as thin as a woman’s; he looked like he hadn’t eaten a good meal for more than a month. He stared at his hands through bloodshot eyes. Probably on drugs, I thought. The fella gave me the creeps. Then he looked at me with those eyes—so pale blue they were almost white—and I felt like I’d been nailed to the floor. “Something wrong?” he asked—not rudely, just curiously.
“Nope.” I shook my head. Cheryl gave him his coffee and then went over to give Ray and Lindy their check.
The man didn’t use either cream or sugar. The coffee was steaming, but he drank half of it down like mother’s milk. “That’s good,” he said. “Keep me awake, won’t it?”
“More than likely.” Over the breast pocket of his jacket was the faint outline of the name that had been sewn there once. I think it was Price, but I could’ve been wrong.
“That’s what I want. To stay awake as long as I can.” He finished the coffee. “Can I have another cup, please?”
I poured it for him. He drank that one down just as fast,” then rubbed his eyes wearily.
“Been on the road a long time, huh?”
Price nodded. “Day and night. I don’t know which is more tired, my mind or my butt.” He lifted his gaze to me again. “Have you got anything else to drink? How about beer?”
“No, sorry. Couldn’t get a liquor license.”
He sighed. “Just as well. It might make me sleepy. But I sure could go for a beer right now. One sip, to clean my mouth out.”
He picked up his coffee cup, and I smiled and started to turn away.
But then he wasn’t holding a cup. He was holding a Budweiser can, and for an instant I could smell the tang of a newly popped beer.
The mirage was there for only maybe two seconds. I blinked, and Price was holding a cup again. “Just as well,” he said, and put it down.
I glanced over at Cheryl, then at Dennis. Neither one was paying attention. Damn! I thought. I’m too young to be losin’ either my eyesight or my senses! “Uh …” I said, or some other stupid noise.
“One more cup?” Price asked. “Then I’d better hit the road again.”
My hand was shaking as I picked it up, but if Price noticed, he didn’t say anything.
“Want anything to eat?” Cheryl asked him. “How about a bowl of beef stew?”
He shook his head. “No, thanks. The sooner I get back on the road, the better it’ll be.”
Suddenly Dennis swiveled toward him, giving him a cold stare that only cops and drill sergeants can muster. “Back on the road?” He snorted. “Fella, you ever been in a tornado before? I’m gonna escort those nice people to the Holiday Inn about fifteen miles back. If you’re smart, that’s where you’ll spend the night too. No use in tryin’ to—”
“No.” Price’s voice was rock-steady. “I’ll be spending the night behind the wheel.”
Dennis’ eyes narrowed. “How come you’re in such a hurry? Not runnin’ from anybody, are you?”
“Nightcrawlers,” Cheryl said.
Price turned toward her like he’d been slapped across the face, and I saw what might’ve been a spark of fear in his eyes.
Cheryl motioned toward the lighter Price had laid on the counter, beside the pack of Kools. It was a beat-up silver Zippo, and inscribed across it was NIGHTCRAWLERS with the symbol of two crossed rifles beneath it. “Sorry,” she said. “I just noticed that, and I wondered what it was.”
Price put the lighter away. “I was in ’Nam,” he told her. “Everybody in my unit got one.”
“Hey.” There was suddenly new respect in Dennis’ voice. “You a vet?”
Price paused so long I didn’t think he was going to answer. In the quiet, I heard the little girl tell her mother that the fries were “ucky.” Price said, “Yes.”
“How about that! Hey, I wanted to go myself, but I got a high number and things were windin’ down about that time anyway. Did you see any action?”
A faint, bitter smile passed over Price’s mouth. “Too much.”
“What? Infantry? Marines? Rangers?”
Price picked up his third cup of coffee, swallowed some, and put it down. He closed his eyes for a few seconds, and when they opened they were vacant and fixed on nothing. “Nightcrawlers,” he said quietly. “Special unit. Deployed to recon Charlie positions in questionable villages.” He said it like he was reciting from a manual. “We did a lot of crawling through rice paddies and jungles in the dark.”
“Bet you laid a few of them Vietcong out, didn’t you?” Dennis got up and came over to sit a few places away from the man. “Man, I was behind you guys all the way. I wanted you to stay in there and fight it out!”
Price was silent. Thunder echoed over the diner. The lights weakened for a few seconds; when they came back on, they seemed to have lost some of their wattage. The place was dimmer than before. Price’s head slowly turned toward Dennis, with the inexorable motion of a machine. I was thankful I didn’t have to take the full force of Price’s dead blue eyes, and I saw Dennis wince. “I should’ve stayed,” he said. “I should be there right now, buried in the mud of a rice paddy with the eight other men in my patrol.”
“Oh.” Dennis blinked. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to—”
“I came home,” Price continued calmly, “by stepping on the bodies of my friends. Do you want to know what that’s like, Mr. Trooper?”
“The war’s over,” I told him. “No need to bring it back.” Price smiled grimly, but his gaze remained fixed on Dennis. “Some say it’s over. I say it came back with the men who were there. Like me. Especially like me.” Price paused. The wind howled around the door, and the lightning illuminated for an instant the thrashing woods across the highway. “The mud was up to our knees, Mr. Trooper,” he said. “We were moving across a rice paddy in the dark, being real careful not to step on the bamboo stakes we figured were planted there. Then the first shots started: pop pop pop—like firecrackers going off. One of the Nightcrawlers fired off a flare, and we saw the Cong ringing us. We’d walked right into hell, Mr. Trooper. Somebody shouted, ‘Charlie’s in the light!’ and we started firing, trying to punch a hole through them. But they were everywhere. As soon as one went down, three more took his place. Grenades were going off, and more flares, and people were screaming as they got hit. I took a bullet in the thigh and another through the hand. I lost my rifle, and somebody fell on top of me with half his head missing.”
“Uh … listen,” I said. “You don’t have to—”
“I want to, friend.” He glanced quickly at me, then back to Dennis. I think I cringed when his gaze pierced me. “I want to tell it all. They were fighting and screaming and dying all around me, and I felt the bullets tug at my clothes as they passed through. I know I was screaming too, but what was coming out of my mouth sounded bestial. I ran. The only way I could save my own life was to step on their bodies and drive them down into the mud. I heard some of them choke and blubber as I put my boot on their faces. I knew all those guys like brothers … but at that moment they were only pieces of meat. I ran. A gunship chopper came over the paddy and laid down some fire, and that’s how I got out. Alone.” He bent his face closer toward the other man’s. “And you’d better believe I’m in that rice paddy in ’Nam every time I close my eyes. You’d better believe the men I left back there don’t rest easy. So you keep your opinions about ’Nam and being ‘behind you guys’ to yourself, Mr. Trooper. I don’t want to hear that bullshit. Got it?”
Dennis sat very still. He wasn’t used to being talked to like that, not even from a ’Nam vet, and I saw the shadow of anger pass over his face.
Price’s hands were trembling as he brought a little bottle out of his jeans pocket. He shook two blue-and-orange capsules out onto the counter, took them both with a swallow of coffee, and then recapped the bottle and put it away. The flesh of his face looked almost ashen in the dim light.
“I know you boys had a rough time,” Dennis said, “but that’s no call to show disrespect to the law.”
“The law,” Price repeated. “Yeah. Right. Bullshit.”
“There are women and children present,” I reminded him. “Watch your language.”
Price rose from his seat. He looked like a skeleton with just a little extra skin on the bones. “Mister, I haven’t slept for more than thirty-six hours. My nerves are shot. I don’t mean to cause trouble, but when some fool says he understands, I feel like kicking his teeth down his throat—because no one who wasn’t there can pretend to understand.” He glanced at Ray, Lindy, and the kids. “Sorry, folks. Don’t mean to disturb you. Friend, how much do I owe?” He started digging for his wallet.
Dennis slid slowly from his seat and stood with his hands on his hips. “Hold it.” He used his trooper’s voice again. “If you think I’m lettin’ you walk out of here high on pills and needin’ sleep, you’re crazy. I don’t want to be scrapin’ you off the highway.”
Price paid him no attention. He took a couple of dollars from his wallet and put them on the counter. I didn’t touch them. “Those pills will help keep me awake,” Price said. “Once I get on the road, I’ll be fine.”
“Fella, I wouldn’t let you go if it was high noon and not a cloud in the sky. I sure as hell don’t want to clean up after the accident you’re gonna have. Now, why don’t you come along to the Holiday Inn and—”
Price laughed grimly. “Mr. Trooper, the last place you want me staying is at a motel.” He cocked his head to one side. “I was in a motel in Florida a couple of nights ago, and I think I left my room a little untidy. Step aside and let me pass.”
“A motel in Florida?” Dennis nervously licked his lower lip. “What the hell you talkin’ about?”
“Nightmares and reality, Mr. Trooper. The point where they cross. A couple of nights ago, they crossed at a motel. I wasn’t going to let myself sleep. I was just going to rest for a little while, but I didn’t know they’d come so fast.” A mocking smile played at the edges of his mouth, but his eyes were tortured. “You don’t want me staying at that Holiday Inn, Mr. Trooper. You really don’t. Now, step aside.”
I saw Dennis’ hand settle on the butt of his revolver. His fingers unsnapped the fold of leather that secured the gun in the holster. I stared at him numbly. My God, I thought. What’s goin’ on? My heart had started pounding so hard I was sure everybody could hear it. Ray and Lindy were watching, and Cheryl was backing away behind the counter.
Price and Dennis faced each other for a moment, as the rain whipped against the windows and thunder boomed like shellfire. Then Price sighed, as if resigning himself to something. He said, “I think I want a T-bone steak. Extra rare. How ’bout it?” He looked at me.
“A steak?” My voice was shaking. “We don’t have any T-bone—”
Price’s gaze shifted to the counter right in front of me. I heard a sizzle. The aroma of cooking meat drifted up to me.
“Oh … wow,” Cheryl whispered.
A large T-bone steak lay on the countertop, pink and oozing blood. You could’ve fanned a menu in my face and I would’ve keeled over. Wisps of smoke were rising from the steak.
The steak began to fade, until it was only an outline on the counter. The lines of oozing blood vanished. After the mirage was gone, I could still smell the meat—and that’s how I knew I wasn’t crazy.
Dennis’ mouth hung open. Ray had stood up from the booth to look, and his wife’s face was the color of spoiled milk. The whole world seemed to be balanced on a point of silence—until the wail of the wind jarred me back to my senses.
“I’m getting good at it,” Price said softly. “I’m getting very, very good. Didn’t start happening to me until about a year ago. I’ve found four other ’Nam vets who can do the same thing. What’s in your head comes true—as simple as that. Of course, the images only last for a few seconds—as long as I’m awake, I mean. I’ve found out that those other men were drenched by a chemical spray we called Howdy Doody—because it made you stiffen up and jerk like you were hanging on strings. I got hit with it near Khe Sahn. That shit almost suffocated me. It felt like black tar, and it burned the land down to a paved parking lot.” He stared at Dennis. “You don’t want me around here, Mr. Trooper. Not with the body count I’ve still got in my head.”
“You … were at … that motel, near Daytona Beach?”
Price closed his eyes. A vein had begun beating at his right temple, royal blue against the pallor of his flesh. “Oh, Jesus,” he whispered. “I fell asleep, and I couldn’t wake myself up. I was having the nightmare. The same one. I was locked in it, and I was trying to scream myself awake.” He shuddered, and two tears ran slowly down his cheeks. “Oh,” he said, and flinched as if remembering something horrible. “They … they were coming through the door when I woke up. Tearing the door right off its hinges. I woke up … just as one of them was pointing his rifle at me. And I saw his face. I saw his muddy, misshapen face.” His eyes suddenly jerked open. “I didn’t know they’d come so fast.”
“Who?” I asked him. “Who came so fast?”
“The Nightcrawlers,” Price said, his face devoid of expression, masklike. “Dear God … maybe if I’d stayed asleep a second more. But I ran again, and I left those people dead in that motel.”
“You’re gonna come with me.” Dennis started pulling his gun from the holster. Price’s head snapped toward him. “I don’t know what kinda fool game you’re—”
He stopped, staring at the gun he held.
It wasn’t a gun anymore. It was an oozing mass of hot rubber. Dennis cried out and slung the thing from his hand. The molten mess hit the floor with a pulpy splat.
“I’m leaving now.” Price’s voice was calm. “Thank you for the coffee.” He walked past Dennis, toward the door.
Dennis grasped a bottle of ketchup from the counter. Cheryl cried out, “Don’t!” but it was too late. Dennis was already swinging the bottle. It hit the back of Price’s skull and burst open, spewing ketchup everywhere. Price staggered forward, his knees buckling. When he went down, his skull hit the floor with a noise like a watermelon being dropped. His body began jerking involuntarily.
“Got him!” Dennis shouted triumphantly. “Got that crazy bastard, didn’t I?”
Lindy was holding the little girl in her arms. The boy craned his neck to see. Ray said nervously, “You didn’t kill him, did you?”
“He’s not dead,” I told him. I looked over at the gun; it was solid again. Dennis scooped it up and aimed it at Price, whose body continued to jerk. Just like Howdy Doody, I thought. Then Price stopped moving.
“He’s dead!” Cheryl’s voice was near-frantic. “Oh God, you killed him, Dennis!”
Dennis prodded the body with the toe of his boot, then bent down. “Naw. His eyes are movin’ back and forth behind the lids.” Dennis touched his wrist to check the pulse, then abruptly pulled his own hand away. “Jesus Christ! He’s as cold as a meat locker!” He took Price’s pulse and whistled. “Goin’ like a racehorse at the Derby.”
I touched the place on the counter where the mirage steak had been. My fingers came away slightly greasy, and I could smell the cooked meat on them. At that instant Price twitched. Dennis scuttled away from him like a crab. Price made a gasping, choking noise.
“What’d he say?” Cheryl asked. “He said something!”
“No he didn’t.” Dennis stuck him in the ribs with his pistol. “Come on. Get up.”
“Get him out of here,” I said. “I don’t want him—”
Cheryl shushed me. “Listen. Can you hear that?”
I heard only the roar and crash of the storm.
“Don’t you hear it?” she asked me. Her eyes were getting scared and glassy.
“Yes!” Ray said. “Yes! Listen!”
Then I did hear something, over the noise of the keening wind. It was a distant chuk-chuk-chuk, steadily growing louder and closer. The wind covered the noise for a minute, then it came back: CHUK-CHUK-CHUK, almost overhead.
“It’s a helicopter!” Ray peered through the window. “Somebody’s got a helicopter out there!”
“Ain’t nobody can fly a chopper in a storm!” Dennis told him. The noise of rotors swelled and faded, swelled and faded … and stopped.
On the floor, Price shivered and began to contort into a fetal position. His mouth opened; his face twisted in what appeared to be agony.
Thunder spoke. A red fireball rose up from the woods across the road and hung lazily in the sky for a few seconds before it descended toward the diner. As it fell, the fireball exploded soundlessly into a white, glaring eye of light that almost blinded me.
Price said something in a garbled, panicked voice. His eyes were tightly closed, and he had squeezed up with his arms around his knees.
Dennis rose to his feet; he squinted as the eye of light fell toward the parking lot and winked out in a puddle of water. Another fireball floated up from the woods, and again blossomed into painful glare.
Dennis turned toward me. “I heard him.” His voice was raspy. “He said . . . ‘Charlie’s in the light.’”
As the second flare fell to the ground and illuminated the parking lot, I thought I saw figures crossing the road. They walked stiff-legged, in an eerie cadence. The flare went out.
“Wake him up,” I heard myself whisper. “Dennis … dear God … wake him up.”
Dennis stared stupidly at me, and I started to jump across the counter to get to Price myself.
A gout of flame leapt in the parking lot. Sparks marched across the concrete. I shouted, “Get down!” and twisted around to push Cheryl back behind the shelter of the counter.
“What the hell—” Dennis said.
He didn’t finish. There was the metallic thumping of bullets hitting the gas pumps and the cars. I knew if that gas blew we were all dead. My truck shuddered with the impact of slugs, and I saw the whole thing explode as I ducked behind the counter. Then the windows blew inward with a god-awful crash, and the diner was full of flying glass, swirling wind, and sheets of rain. I heard Lindy scream, and both the kids were crying, and I think I was shouting something myself.
The lights had gone out, and the only illumination was the reflection of red neon off the concrete and the glow of the fluorescents over the gas pumps. Bullets whacked into the wall, and crockery shattered as if it had been hit with a hammer. Napkins and sugar packets were flying everywhere.
Cheryl was holding on to me as if her fingers were nails sunk to my bones. Her eyes were wide and dazed, and she kept trying to speak. Her mouth was working, but nothing came out.
There was another explosion as one of the other cars blew. The whole place shook, and I almost puked with fear.
Another hail of bullets hit the wall. They were tracers, and they jumped and ricocheted like white-hot cigarette butts. One of them sang off the edge of a shelf and fell to the floor about three feet away from me. The glowing slug began to fade, like the beer can and the mirage steak. I put my hand out to find it, but all I felt was splinters of glass and crockery. A phantom bullet, I thought. Real enough to cause damage and death—and then gone.
You don’t want me around here, Mr. Trooper, Price had warned. Not with the body count I’ve got in my head.
The firing stopped. I got free of Cheryl and said, “You stay right here.” Then I looked up over the counter and saw my truck and the station wagon on fire, the flames being whipped by the wind. Rain slapped me across the face as it swept in where the window glass used to be. I saw Price lying still huddled on the floor, with pieces of glass all around him. His hands were clawing the air, and in the flickering red neon his face was contorted, his eyes still closed. The pool of ketchup around his head made him look like his skull had been split open. He was peering into hell, and I averted my eyes before I lost my own mind.
Ray and Lindy and the two children had huddled under the table of their booth. The woman was sobbing brokenly. I looked at Dennis, lying a few feet from Price: he was sprawled on his face, and there were four holes punched through his back. It was not ketchup that ran in rivulets around Dennis’ body. His right arm was outflung, and the fingers twitched around the gun he gripped.
Another flare sailed up from the woods like a Fourth of July sparkler.
When the light brightened, I saw them: at least five figures, maybe more. They were crouched over, coming across the parking lot—but slowly, the speed of nightmares. Their clothes flapped and hung around them, and the flare’s light glanced off their helmets. They were carrying weapons—rifles, I guessed. I couldn’t see their faces, and that was for the best.
On the floor, Price moaned. I heard him say “light … in the light …”
The flare hung right over the diner. And then I knew what was going on. We were in the light. We were all caught in Price’s nightmare, and the Nightcrawlers that Price had left in the mud were fighting the battle again—the same way it had been fought at the Pines Haven Motor Inn. The Nightcrawlers had come back to life, powered by Price’s guilt and whatever that Howdy Doody shit had done to him.
And we were in the light, where Charlie had been out in that rice paddy.
There was a noise like castanets clicking. Dots of fire arced through the broken windows and thudded into the counter. The stools squealed as they were hit and spun. The cash register rang and the drawer popped open, and then the entire register blew apart and bills and coins scattered. I ducked my head, but a wasp of fire—I don’t, know what, a bit of metal or glass maybe—sliced my left cheek open from ear to upper lip. I fell to the floor behind the counter with blood running down my face.
A blast shook the rest of the cups, saucers, plates, and glasses off the shelves. The whole roof buckled inward, throwing loose ceiling tiles, light fixtures, and pieces of metal framework.
We were all going to die. I knew it, right then. Those things were going to destroy us. But I thought of the pistol in Dennis’ hand, and of Price lying near the door. If we were caught in Price’s nightmare and the blow from the ketchup bottle had broken something in his skull, then the only way to stop his dream was to kill him.
I’m no hero. I was about to piss in my pants, but I knew I was the only one who could move. I jumped up and scrambled over the counter, falling beside Dennis and wrenching at that pistol. Even in death, Dennis had a strong grip. Another blast came, along the wall to my right. The heat of it scorched me, and the shock wave skidded me across the floor through glass and rain and blood.
But I had that pistol in my hand.
I heard Ray shout, “Look out!”
In the doorway, silhouetted by flames, was a skeletal thing wearing muddy green rags. It wore a dented-in helmet and carried a corroded, slime-covered rifle. Its face was gaunt and shadowy, the features hidden behind a scum of rice-paddy muck. It began to lift the rifle to fire at me—slowly, slowly …
I got the safety off the pistol and fired twice, without aiming. A spark leapt off the helmet as one of the bullets was deflected, but the figure staggered backward and into the conflagration of the station wagon, where it seemed to melt into ooze before it vanished.
More tracers were coming in. Cheryl’s Volkswagen shuddered, the tires blowing out almost in unison. The state-trooper car was already bullet-riddled and sitting on flats.
Another Nightcrawler, this one without a helmet and with slime covering the skull where the hair had been, rose up beyond the window and fired its rifle. I heard the bullet whine past my ear, and as I took aim I saw its bony finger tightening on the trigger again.
A skillet flew over my head and hit the thing’s shoulder, spoiling its aim. For an instant the skillet stuck in the Nightcrawler’s body, as if the figure itself was made out of mud. I fired once … twice … and saw pieces of matter fly from the thing’s chest. What might’ve been a mouth opened in a soundless scream, and the thing slithered out of sight.
I looked around. Cheryl was standing behind the counter, weaving on her feet, her face white with shock. “Get down!” I shouted, and she ducked for cover.
I crawled to Price, shook him hard. His eyes would not open. “Wake up!” I begged him. “Wake up, damn you!” And then I pressed the barrel of the pistol against Price’s head. Dear God, I didn’t want to kill anybody, but I knew I was going to have to blow the Nightcrawlers right out of his brain. I hesitated—too long.
Something smashed into my left collarbone. I heard the bone snap like a broomstick being broken. The force of the shot slid me back against the counter and jammed me between two bullet-pocked stools. I lost the gun, and there was a roaring in my head that deafened me.
I don’t know how long I was out. My left arm felt like dead meat. All the cars in the lot were burning, and there was a hole in the diner’s roof that a tractor-trailer truck could’ve dropped through. Rain was sweeping into my face, and when I wiped my eyes clear I saw them, standing over Price.
There were eight of them. The two I thought I’d killed were back. They trailed weeds, and their boots and ragged clothes were covered with mud. They stood in silence, staring down at their living comrade.
I was too tired to scream. I couldn’t even whimper. I just watched.
Price’s hands lifted into the air. He reached for the Nightcrawlers, and then his eyes opened. His pupils were dead white, surrounded by scarlet.
“End it,” he whispered. “End it …”
One of the Nightcrawlers aimed its rifle and fired. Price jerked. Another Nightcrawler fired, and then they were all firing point-blank into Price’s body. Price thrashed and clutched at his head, but there was no blood; the phantom bullets weren’t hitting him.
The Nightcrawlers began to ripple and fade. I saw the flames of the burning cars through their bodies. The figures became transparent, floating in vague outlines. Price had awakened too fast at the Pines Haven Motor Inn, I realized; if he had remained asleep, the creatures of his nightmares would’ve ended it there, at that Florida motel. They were killing him in front of me—or he was allowing them to end it, and I think that’s what he must’ve wanted for a long, long time.
He shuddered, his mouth releasing a half-moan, half-sigh.
It sounded almost like relief.
The Nightcrawlers vanished. Price didn’t move anymore.
I saw his face. His eyes were closed, and I think he must’ve found peace at last.
A trucker hauling lumber from Mobile to Birmingham saw the burning cars. I don’t even remember what he looked like.
Ray was cut up by glass, but his wife and the kids were okay. Physically, I mean. Mentally, I couldn’t say.
Cheryl went into the hospital for a while. I got a postcard from her with the Golden Gate Bridge on the front. She promised she’d write and let me know how she was doing, but I doubt if I’ll ever hear from her. She was the best waitress I ever had, and I wish her luck.
The police asked me a thousand questions, and I told the story the same way every time. I found out later that no bullets or shrapnel were ever dug out of the walls or the cars or Dennis’ body—just like in the case of that motel massacre. There was no bullet in me, though my collarbone was snapped clean in two.
Price had died of a massive brain hemorrhage. It looked, the police told me, as if it had exploded in his skull.
I closed the diner. Farm life is fine. Alma understands, and we don’t talk about it.
But I never showed the police what I found, and I don’t know exactly why not.
I picked up Price’s wallet in the mess. Behind a picture of a smiling young woman holding a baby there was a folded piece of paper. On that paper were the names of four men.
Beside one name, Price had written “Dangerous.”
I’ve found four other ’Nam vets who can do the same thing, Price had said.
I sit up at night a lot, thinking about that and looking at those names. Those men had gotten a dose of that Howdy Doody shit in a foreign place they hadn’t wanted to be, fighting a war that turned out to be one of those crossroads of nightmare and reality. I’ve changed my mind about ’Nam because I understand now that the worst of the fighting is still going on, in the battlefields of memory.
A Yankee who called himself Tompkins came to my house one May morning and flashed me an ID that said he worked for a veterans’ association. He was very soft-spoken and polite, but he had deep-set eyes that were almost black, and he never blinked. He asked me all about Price, seemed real interested in picking my brain of every detail. I told him the police had the story, and I couldn’t add any more to it. Then I turned the tables and asked him about Howdy Doody. He smiled in a puzzled kind of way and said he’d never heard of any chemical defoliant called that. No such thing, he said. Like I say, he was very polite.
But I know the shape of a gun tucked into a shoulder holster. Tompkins was wearing one under his seersucker coat. I never could find any veterans’ association that knew anything about him, either.
Maybe I should give that list of names to the police. Maybe I will. Or maybe I’ll try to find those four men myself, and try to make some sense out of what’s being hidden.
I don’t think Price was evil. No. He was just scared, and who can blame a man for running from his own nightmares? I like to believe that, in the end, Price had the courage to face the Nightcrawlers, and in committing suicide he saved our lives.
The newspapers, of course, never got the real story. They called Price a ’Nam vet who’d gone crazy, killed six people in a Florida motel, and then killed a state trooper in a shoot-out at Big Bob’s diner and gas stop.
But I know where Price is buried. They sell little American flags at the five-and-dime in Mobile. I’m alive, and I can spare the change.
And then I’ve got to find out how much courage I have.
© 1984 by The McCammon Corporation.
Originally published in Masques,
edited by J.N. Williamson.
Reprinted by permission of the author.