The lonely one, p.1
The Lonely One, p.1Richard Laymon
Pearson Learning Group
FASTBACK® HORROR BOOKS
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Cover photographer: Ted Williams
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Doreen gripped the pole, slipped a foot into the stirrup, and swung herself onto the saddle of the brightly painted merry-go-round horse. Waiting for the ride to start, she watched others climb onto horses: parents with small children, young men with their dates, older couples. Of all those she saw, none was alone.
Only Doreen was alone. With a sigh, she rested her forehead against the cool metal bar and shut her eyes. Her throat felt tight.
Then the cheery music began. She raised her head as the carousel started turning slowly. Her horse eased up and down. The speed picked up. The carousel whirled. Her horse rose and fell and rose.
Doreen turned her head. Riding next to her on a horse in the outer row was a young man. He smiled at her. She smiled back, just to be polite, and quickly looked away.
"Makes you feel like a kid again, doesn't it?" he asked.
She didn't answer. She clutched the pole more tightly. It felt slick in her sweaty hands.
"Do you come here often?"
She stared straight ahead. Why was he talking to her? Why couldn't he mind his own business?
"Am I bothering you?" he asked.
"I'm sorry," he said. "It's just that you look kind of lonely and sad. I hate to see someone lonely and sad on a carousel. You're supposed to be happy when you ride one of these."
As he spoke, Doreen's chin started to tremble. She turned to the man. "I didn't mean to be rude," she told him.
"How about a smile?"
She tried to smile.
The man gazed at her face, and nodded. "Not bad. With a little practice, I think you'll get it perfect. How about another?" Doreen smiled again. While her horse was down, his was up. He kept staring at her. Beyond him, the room was a spinning blur. ''What's your name?" he asked.
"I'm Ron. Am I still bothering you?"
"Not so much," she said. He seemed nice. She didn't want to hurt his feelings by telling him the truth.
He grinned. His blue eyes glinted. He looked no older than twenty, and he was very handsome. His sandy hair swayed softly around his head with the motion of the ride. His white shirt was open at the throat. The chain of a necklace, gold against his tan, hung down into his shirt.
"Did you come to the pier alone?" he asked.
"What's a young lady as beautiful as you doing without a date on a Saturday night?"
"I like to keep to myself," she said, and hoped he would catch the hint.
"You didn't look as if you liked it very much," he said. "This is my first time at the pier. How about keeping me company?"
"No thank you," she said.
"Oh, come on. It isn't much fun alone. I promise I'll behave."
"It's not that," she said.
"What is it, then?"
"Nothing." She shook her head and turned away. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Ron staring at her.
"I'll buy you cotton candy," he said.
"No thank you."
"I'll win you a stuffed animal."
She looked back at him. "I'm sorry," she said. "Just forget about me, okay? You'll live longer."
The carousel slowed and then stopped. Doreen climbed down from her horse. Without a glance at Ron, she stepped off the platform. She walked quickly to the exit gate, but her escape was blocked by a family with three small children.
"You can't get away that easily," Ron said, coming up beside her.
"Please, just go away," Doreen said.
"What did you mean back there? I'll live longer?"
He stayed close to Doreen as she hurried from the building. Outside, the lights of the Santa Monica pier were shrouded in fog. They looked dim and fuzzy, as if they were wrapped in cotton. Doreen shivered in the chilly night air. She rubbed her arms.
"What did you mean?" Ron asked again.
She turned to him. He was frowning. "I just wanted to scare you off," she said.
"Because you seem like a nice guy and I don't want anything bad to happen to you."
"Why should something bad happen?"
"It always does. Why do you think I'm alone? I don't like being alone. I hate it. But I'm bad news. I'm a walking curse."
"Don't be silly."
Ron took hold of her hand. She jerked it from his grip. "There's nothing silly about it," she said. "It's happened over and over. Every time I start to like someone, he ends up dead."
Ron's eyebrows lowered. "You're joking."
"I wish I were."
"How many times has it happened?"
"More often than I want to think about. I've tried to warn guys off, just like I've warned you. But it doesn't do any good. They either don't believe me, or they seem to think it won't happen to them. But it always does."
"They really die?"
He shook his head. He looked as if he didn't believe her. "What kills them?"
"Come on, Doreen, don't blame yourself. It can't be anything other than a bunch of coincidences that your friends keep dying. It's not because you happen to like them. That's crazy."
"How can you say that?" she asked. "You don't know anything about it."
"I'm not blind. I can see that you're lonely and miserable."
"You're right." Her voice cracked, and she struggled not to cry. "I am lonely. I am miserable. I live alone. I work alone. I eat alone. I haven't gone on a date in years. I don't know anyone. I don't even remember the last time I really talked to another person. Just store clerks, people who call on the phone trying to sell things, but no one else. That's it."
"That's no way to live," Ron said in a gentle voice.
"I know! But I just can't stand it the other way. Put yourself in my place. What if, every time you met a girl, she got hit by a car or drowned or something?" Doreen could no longer hold back her tears. As she wept, Ron gently held her in his arms. "Go away," she sobbed. "Please. While you still can."
"I'll take my chances," he said.
Doreen finally stopped crying. She stepped back, wiped away the tears with her sleeve, and sniffed. "Okay," she said, looking into Ron's eyes. "But I warned you."
"Hey, sooner or later your streak of bad luck has to change. Maybe this is the night."
"I hope so," she muttered.
"Come on, let's have some fun." He put his arm around her, and led her down the pier. They wandered past souvenir shops, a fish market, and a few eating places. "How about some cotton candy?" he
"I'm not hungry. You go ahead, though."
"Don't you want anything? Fried clams? Potato chips? A hot dog? A cold drink?"
"Nothing, really," she said.
Holding her hand, Ron stepped up to the window. He bought a cotton candy. It was pink and fluffy. He raised it toward Doreen's mouth. Lips tight together, she turned her head away. "Go on, take a bite. What's a night at the pier without cotton candy?"
"No thank you," she said in a firm voice.
Ron shrugged. He bit into it, and ripped away a fuzzy patch. "Mmm, melts in your mouth." Smiling, he squeezed Doreen's hand. "Are you a health food nut?"
"I don't eat junk food."
"I do." He laughed and took another bite. A feathery wisp stuck to the tip of his nose. He brushed it away. "Junk food may be bad for the body, but it does the soul a world of good."
He led her across the walkway. They sat on a bench near the railing. As Ron ate, Doreen looked down at the ocean. It was black. The surf made streamers of white near the beach. She saw no one in the water, but a few people were wandering along the shore. A small fire glowed in the distance.
"Want to go down there?" Ron asked. "It looks romantic."
"It's dangerous," Doreen said.
"I didn't mean we should swim."
"All kinds of bums and weirdos hang out under the pier. It's very dark. They hide behind the pilings and sometimes sneak out to grab people who get too close."
She looked at him.
"You're not kidding. Well then, we'll stay up here where it's safe. No point in tempting fate." He tore off a final glob of cotton candy and tossed the paper cone into a trash can. "What next?" he asked.
"You said you would win me a stuffed animal."
"I shall give it my all." He took her hand and stood. "If my aim's off, I'll buy you one at a gift shop."
"There's no need for that," Doreen told him as they headed for the row of game booths.
The walls of the stands were lined with stuffed dogs, bears, and cats of many sizes, all in bright shades of pink, yellow, and red. People in front were trying their luck. Some threw darts at balloons. Some hurled softballs at pyramids of dirty gray pins shaped like milk bottles. Others, armed with Tommyguns, fired BB's at paper targets printed with stars. Barkers dressed in aprons called out as Ron and Doreen walked by.
"Win the little lady a prize!"
"Everyone wins! Nobody loses!"
"Step right up! Three tries for half a buck!"
"Ah," Ron said. "There's my game." He led Doreen to a booth with three basketball hoops.
"Yessir," called a young man behind the railing. "Try your hand at the basketball toss. Three balls for half a buck. Sink one and you win. The more you sink, the better your prize."
Ron gave the man two quarters.
The barker handed him a ball, and winked at Doreen. "Give him a kiss for good luck."
Ron looked at her, smiling. She leaned forward and kissed him quickly on the cheek. "Good luck," she said.
He bounced the basketball twice. Taking a deep breath, he stared at the basket. He held the ball lightly just below his chin. Then he shot.
As the ball soared from his hands, Doreen whirled away and ran.
She raced down the pier, dodging people in her way, and didn't look back until she reached the stairs down to the beach. There she grabbed the railing and spun around. Her eyes searched the crowd for a moment. She didn't see Ron.
She dashed to the bottom of the stairs. Her shoes sank into the sand. She stopped and bent over, gasping for breath.
With any luck, she had lost Ron. But she couldn't be too careful. If she stayed in the open, he might spot her.
So she rushed under the pier. She made her way into the darkness, hurrying past pilings the size of telephone poles. She saw no one. The only sound was the rush of the surf washing against pilings and the shore off to her side. She crouched behind one of the thick posts, and stared out at the beach.
From her hiding place, she could see the foot of the stairs. She watched, but nobody came down.
Even if Ron searches the beach, Doreen thought, he'll never look for me in here.
He'll give up.
She caught her breath as a man stepped off the bottom stair. But this man wore shorts, not jeans like Ron. A woman followed him. They turned away, and trudged through the sand toward the parking lot.
Hands clutched her shoulders, yanked her away from the post, and flung her backwards. She tumbled onto the sand. A man stood over her. A big man with wild hair and a thick beard. Before Doreen could move, he kicked her in the side. He bent down and grabbed her wrists. He pulled, dragging her deeper into the darkness.
"Mine," he growled.
Doreen jerked a hand free. She twisted over, knees digging into the sand as she tried to get up. The man let go of her other hand. He gripped her hair and tugged, flinging her sideways. She smashed against a piling and fell flat on her face.
"Hey!" someone shouted.
The man quickly turned around. Doreen lifted her face from the sand. She saw a dim shape racing toward them, darting past the black posts.
The man roared. Hunching over, he pulled a big knife from a sheath at his side.
The shape kept coming through the darkness.
The bearded man waved his knife. "I'm gonna cut you up!" he yelled.
Doreen pushed herself to her hands and knees.
"Run!" called the rushing shape.
It was Ron's voice.
"Get back!" she shouted. "He's got a knife! He'll kill you!"
As Ron dashed closer, Doreen sprang at the man. She grabbed his leg and bit him just above the knee.
He cried out. Doreen felt a hot streak across her back, and knew that he had slashed her with his knife. She sank her teeth more deeply into his leg.
Then Ron crashed into the man. They fell sprawling onto the sand. Getting to her knees, Doreen wiped blood from her lips.
Ron had both of the man's hands pinned down. Then the hand with the knife jerked free. The blade swept through the darkness toward Ron's back. Doreen threw herself forward. She caught the wrist in mid-air and yanked it toward her. She pressed the hand down on the sand and held it there as Ron's fists pounded the man's face.
Then the blows stopped. "He's out," Ron said.
Doreen pulled the knife from the limp fingers and threw it far into the darkness.
They stood up. The man lay there without moving except for the slow rise and fall of his chest.
"Are you hurt badly?" Ron asked.
He turned her around to look at her back. "Strange," he said. "I thought for sure you were cut."
"I guess he just missed me."
"You'll need a new jacket."
"Are you all right?" she asked.
"Fine. We were both pretty lucky."
She turned to face him. "Thanks for coming to the rescue."
He put his hands on her shoulders and stared into her eyes. "Why did you run away from me?"
"I was afraid for you."
"I told you that your luck would change. And this proves it." Ron nodded toward the man on the ground. "He should have killed me, right? But he didn't. See? There's no curse on you. You don't have to be alone, not anymore."
"You're wrong. You don't understand. As long as you're with me, you're in terrible danger."
"You still think that?"
"I know it. Go away, Ron. Please. If you stay with me any longer, something awful will happen. It's already starting! I can feel it! Go! Now!"
"Doreen," he pleaded.
She twisted away from him and started to run, but he caught hold of her arm. "No!" she cried out. "Let go!"
He pulled her close to him.
"Ron! I'm . . ."
"It's all right," he said.
"I warned you!" She leaped at him, one hand grabbing his throat while the
"No!" Ron gasped. He staggered backwards, pounding Doreen's arms.
She clung to him. She didn't want it to be this way, but she had no choice. She never had a choice. If only he had listened to her!
Ron slammed against a post.
Doreen, her mouth wide open, pressed closer to his bare throat. Then she saw what hung from the chain around his neck.
She lurched away from Ron.
He whirled and raced through the darkness, dodging the black posts, and running toward the stairs.
Doreen dropped to her knees. She covered her face with both hands, and wept.
She was alone. She would always be alone. It had to be that way.
Ron should have listened. But he had been right about one thing---her luck had changed. This one time, at least, a man had been a friend to her and had survived. She was grateful for that.
The hunger still raged, but Ron was safe.
Wiping the tears from her eyes, she stood up. She turned around. The man who had attacked her, who had slashed her back with a knife that could never harm her, lay a few yards away. He was still out cold.
Doreen licked her lips, remembering the taste of his blood.
She went to him.
Richard Laymon, The Lonely One
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