Quake, p.10
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       Quake, p.10
 

           Richard Laymon

  'Maybe the quake released some kind of a nerve gas into the air,' Pete said, his mouth tilted by a crooked smile. 'It makes everybody go insane.'

  Barbara found herself smiling. 'Right,' she said.

  'I've read books about stuff like that.'

  'Horror novels.' It wasn't a question.

  'Well, yeah. It almost makes sense, though.'

  Heather studied Pete. 'Could there really be a gas or something that makes people crazy?’

  'I doubt it,' he said. 'Are you sure?'

  'How could there be a gas like that?' Barbara asked her.

  'Look at me and Pete. We haven't gone bonkers yet.'

  'It's the quake,' Pete said. 'That's all. It shook everyone up too much.'

  'Is that supposed to be a pun?'

  'Everyone's scared.'

  Barbara nodded. 'Everyone's scared and wants to get home and be safe.'

  'Not me,' Heather said.

  'Sure you do,' Pete told her.

  'Oh yeah? How would you like going home if you didn't have any mother?'

  'You've got a father, don't you?'

  'Oh, sure.'

  'He's probably at work,' Barbara said. 'Mine is. Though bet he's trying awfully hard to get home right now.' If he's okay.

  'I don't know where my father is,' Heather said. 'And don't care.' They walked a little farther before she added, 'Hope a roof fell on him.'

  Pete frowned. 'You can't mean that.'

  She didn't answer.

  But Barbara saw the look in her eyes. 'I think she means it.'

  ***

  'Uh-oh.'

  'What?' Clint asked.

  'That's our house,' Em said. She stretched out her arm through the gap between the seatbacks, pointing. 'The one with that pickup in the driveway.'

  'It looks all right,' Clint said. In fact, none of the homes along this quiet, dead-end street appeared to have been demolished by the quake. The only damage he'd noticed since turning the corner were a few broken windows and minor cracks in some of the stucco walls. 'Looks like your whole neighborhood got off pretty easy.'

  'Yeah,' Em said.

  Clint swung to the curb in front of her house.

  'Bye-bye, Emerald,' Mary said. 'It's been a treat.'

  'Yeah,' Em said again, still staring through the windshield.

  'What's wrong?' Clint asked.

  'It's that pickup. It shouldn't be there.'

  Mary sighed. 'I thought we were supposed to be in a hurry, Clint.'

  'That's where our Cherokee goes,' Em said. 'When Mom's home, she leaves it right there in the driveway. We use the garage for storing stuff, you know? So Mom isn't home. And that pickup's got no business sitting in our driveway.'

  'Have you seen it before?' Clint asked.

  'I don't think so.'

  The front door of her house opened. Out stepped a man. His eyebrows were black thickets. His jaw was shaped like a brick. Though much of his upper body was hidden box, Clint saw that he wore a grimy white T-shirt. His thick and hairy. The trousers that sagged around his hips in a few places, where they used to be green. Just them, Clint thought he could smell garbage.

  'One of your mother's boyfriends?' Mary asked.

  Em didn't answer.

  A woman followed the man out of the house.

  She, too, carried a box.

  Her gray-streaked hair, parted in the middle, drooped straight down the sides of her face. With each step, her cheeks wobbled. Though Clint guessed he must be forty feet from the woman, he could see her bristly mustache. A cigarette hung from a corner of her mouth, its smoke crawling up her cheek and into her eye so she had to squint. The sleeves were missing from her old, plaid shirt. Her arms were thick and white and floppy. So were her legs. Her short skirt left them bare from mid-thigh all the way down to the tops of her red cowgirl boots.

  'And guess that's Mom herself,' Mary said.

  'Oh boy,' Em muttered.

  The man carried his box down from the stoop and lumbered along the walkway toward the pickup back.

  'Do you know them?' Clint asked.

  'I sure don't.' Em threw open the back door and leaped out. 'Hey! Put that stuff down!' She ran onto her lawn. She ran at the pair.

  'Jesus,' Clint muttered.

  'Is she nuts?'

  Not totally, Clint thought. Because she'd stopped on the lawn at least ten feet away from them. They turned and stared at her. The man looked confused, the woman annoyed. So far, neither of them had glanced toward the car.

  'What've you got in those boxes?' Em demanded.

  'Buzz off,' the woman said.

  'Put them down!' Em snapped. 'Right this instant!' She planted her fists on her hips.

  A grin slowly stretched the man's heavy lips. He turned his head to the woman. 'Let's take her, Lou.' She guffawed.

  They both twitched at the noise of the car horn.

  Once he had their attention, Clint climbed out. The man's eyes grew wide. The woman's narrowed.' You don't scare me none,' she said.

  He stepped around the front of the car. 'I'm not here to scare you, ma'am.'

  'Let's get outa here, Lou.'

  The man hurried toward his pickup. Lou didn't budge.

  'Put down the box, mister,' Clint said.

  The man set it down on the grass, then waved his open hands at Clint and sidestepped away. 'I don't want no trouble.

  We're goin'. Come on, Lou.'

  She ignored him.

  Clint walked toward her.

  She spat out her cigarette. Em did a quick prance to dodge it.

  'Put down the box, ma'am, and leave.'

  She put down the box. Then she stepped out from it. Leaning forward, she grinned at Clint. Her crooked were brown. 'Come 'n'get it.'

  Off to the side, a door clanked shut. An engine rattled and wheezed. 'Less go, Lou!'

  'Hold yer water!' she called.

  'Why don't you just go away?' Em said to her.

  Lou wiggled her fingers at Clint. 'Less tangle. You 'n' me.'

  'I don't want to fight with…'

  Lou lurched at Em. Her flabby arm swung out. Her fist struck Em like a hammer just beneath the throat. Em flew backward off her feet. Lou grinned at Clint. 'How y'like that?'

  He'd only known Em for a little while. But he liked her a lot. He took a step toward Lou. When she threw the punch at his jaw, he blocked it. His other hand chopped. He heard her collar bone break. Then all he heard was her squealing. She was down on her knees, walking on her knees, waddling and squealing as Clint towed her by her greasy hair to the driveway.

  He opened the passenger door for her.

  Squealing and whimpering, she climbed up and fell into the passenger seat.

  'Whad y'do to-uhr?'

  'Get out of here. Both of you.'

  The red cowgirl boot on Lou's right foot was still hanging outside when Clint started to swing the door shut. He stopped. 'Pull in your foot, Lou.'

  When the boot was in, he slammed the door.

  He glanced into the bed of the pickup. A dozen or so boxes were scattered about. They looked as if they'd been thrown in. Some lay on their sides. Clint didn't see any that weren't empty.

  Must've been their first trip out with stuff.

  The pickup sped backward to the end of the driveway, swerved out into the street, and sped off.

  Em was already on her feet. 'Boy, you really destroyed her!'

  'Are you okay?' Clint asked.

  'Sure.' She rubbed her chest through the T-shirt. 'Not that it didn't hurt, but I'm okay.'

  He looked into the box that the man had carried from the house. 'Looks like he cleaned out your mother's bar.'

  Em bent down over the other box. 'Food here. Mostly stuff from the freezer.' She lifted it. 'Will you bring in that one?'

  'You bet.' Clint picked it up. 'Watch when you go in,' he warned. I'm assuming there were just the two of them, but you never know.'

  As he followed Em toward the stoop, Mary called from the car, 'Where are you
going?''I'll be right back.'

  'You're not going in, are you?'

  'Just for a minute or two. I've got to make sure it's safe.'

  'Oh, fine. Just fine. Wait for me.'

  He didn't wait, but he left the front door open after stepping into the house.

  Em stood in the middle of the living room, the box in her arms. She turned around slowly, surveying the mess, making a face. 'I guess it could be worse, huh?'

  'A lot. If it doesn't get any worse than this, you're in great shape.'

  'I don't know about that.' She wrinkled her nose. 'Those two were in here. Yuck.'

  'I doubt they were responsible for…'

  Mary hurried in. 'Everything all fight?’

  'Too soon to know,' Clint said.

  'Who were those awful people?'

  'Looters. They seemed to be after food and booze.'

  'They sure looked like they needed it,' Mary said, and tried to smile. 'You really handled them well, Clint.'

  She's trying to make amends, he thought. He told her, 'Thanks.'

  Em started toward the dining room.

  'Hold it,' he said. 'Let me go first.' As he walked past her, he asked, 'Are you pretty sure your mother's gone?'

  'Oh, yeah. The Jeep isn't in the driveway. She's probably out shopping. She only goes shopping just about every day.' Em followed Clint into the dining room. 'Personally, don't think Mom much cares for staying home. She's always looking for an excuse to go out for an excursion.' They entered the kitchen. 'She's probably at a mall. suppose those malls are pretty sturdy, don't you imagine so?'

  'Probably,' Clint said. 'She's just lucky she wasn't here.'

  'Yeah. That's for sure.'

  They set the boxes onto the kitchen table.

  Mary, entering after them, stepped over some debris of broken dishes and swung the refrigerator door shut. 'We really should get going,' she said.

  'You don't need to rush off,' Em said. 'Maybe you'd like a drink?' She lifted a bottle of Jim Beam out of the box. 'Name your poison.'

  'We really don't have time,' Mary said. Though she was speaking to Em, her eyes were fixed on Clint. 'The longer we stay here, the more trouble we'll…'

  'I'll give the place a quick once-over,' Clint said. 'Then we'll go.'

  He left them in the kitchen and began to explore the rest of the house. The walls and ceilings appeared to be intact. He saw no significant damage. In the bathroom, the medicine cabinet door stood open. Toothbrushes, tubes of paste and creams, plastic bottles of pills and fluids were heaped in the sink, scattered about the floor. Maybe the looters had done it. More likely, however, it was the work of the quake. In the mother's bedroom, a full length mirror on the closet door was cracked. Bureau drawers stood open, and one had dropped to the floor. The floor was an obstacle course of things that had been cast down from walls, shelves, the tops of the bureau and nightstands. After checking under the mother's bed and inside the closet to make sure Em didn't have any hiding visitors, he went down the hall to the other bedroom. Obviously, Em's room. A poster on the wall showed Bart Simpson riding a skateboard. Em's swivel chair had rolled away from her desk and stopped near the head of her bed. Two desk drawers were on the floor. All of her bureau drawers were open, but none had dropped. Clint saw the jumble of books and dolls piled along the base of her built-in shelves. Like his own daughter, Em had a collection of Barbie dolls, a couple of Kens, and even Barbie's '57 Chevy. The big, plastic car must've been hurled off its shelf and hit the carpet bumper-first, throwing out rear end was propped up high against an upright. Barbie was in front of the Chevy, stiff, gazing at the ceiling. As Clint crouched over Barbie, he heard footsteps. picked up the doll. As he stood, Em came into the room. She looked around, moaning and shaking her head.

  'What a dump.'

  'There's not much that didn't end up on the floor,'

  He set Barbie on a shelf. 'I haven't spotted any damage to the house, though. And haven't found stowaways so far.'

  'Are you sure you've looked everywhere?'

  'Not quite done yet.' He opened the closet door.

  Em, herself, checked under the bed. Standing, she brushed off her hands. 'Actually, just came in to grab a clean shirt.' She stepped over to her bureau, pushed the top drawer shut, then searched through a stack of T-shirts in the second drawer. She took a faded blue one from the bottom. 'No point wearing a good one on a day like this,' she said. 'I'll be with Mary in the kitchen,' she said, and hurried away.

  Clint spent a few more minutes checking through the house for intruders, then returned to the kitchen. Em was facing the sink, bare to the waist, while Mary stroked her below the left shoulder with a wet cloth. In front of Em, water hissed from the faucet.

  'Glad to know there's water pressure,' Clint said.

  Mary scowled at him. 'Hey. Get out of here. Can't you see she isn't dressed?'

  'That's all right,' Em said. 'Just stay, all right? It's no big deal.'

  'You shouldn't be…'

  'Nothing shows, for heaven's sake. See?' She turned slightly, and Clint saw that she was pressing the blue T-shirt against her chest. The pink one was draped over the front edge of the sink. 'We're cleaning my wound,' she explained. 'You want to see it?'

  Nodding, Clint stepped closer. Mary moved aside. The girl's back was white except for a few freckles and a very raw, red scrape where the brick had struck her. Most of the skin on her shoulder blade was ruddy and striped with fine, bright rows of scratches.

  'Looks like it hurts,' Clint said.

  'It stings, is all. It's not so bad.'

  'Did you land on it when that gal knocked you down?'

  She let out a soft laugh. 'Yeah. Now that didn't feel terribly swift, must say.'

  'You can put on your shirt now,' Mary said.

  'Does it need a bandage?' Em asked.

  'The air'll do it good.’

  'Won't it stick to my shirt?'

  'Here.' Clint sidestepped, pulled a square of paper towel off a roll suspended under the cupboard, and pressed it gently against Em's scrape to blot up the moisture. When he took his hand away, the paper adhered to her. It showed lines of pinpoint red dots. He took it away, tore off another square and folded it into a pad. 'Just leave this one against it loose under your shirt for a while,' he said.

  He smoothed it against her, then turned away while she pulled the blue T-shirt over her head. 'Okay.' faced her. The T-shirt was printed with a dead cat, legs up, and the legend, ONLY EAT ROADKILL AT J.R.' MOAB, UTAH.

  'I guess it's time for us to get going,' Clint said.

  'And then some,' Mary added.

  'Will you be all right here by yourself?.'

  Shrugging, Em made a face that almost brought a smile Clint. Her expression - lips curling, eyebrows writhing, showed a fine mix of deep thought, worry, revulsion and horror.

  'What if somebody else comes along?'

  'Your mother will probably be home soon,' Mary said.

  'Yeah, but what if she isn't? Don't know where she went. Maybe she can't get back.'

  'Is there a gun in the house?' Clint asked.

  'Mom allow a gun in the house? Don't think so. The world's biggest pacifist?'

  'Is there a neighbor you can stay with?' Clint asked.

  Em shook her head. 'I don't know. don't know anybody around here.'

  'You don't know your neighbors?' Mary asked he sounded like an accusation.

  'I don't know mine either,' Clint admitted. 'Just a few, them here and there. It was worth a shot.'

  'I know everyone in my building,' Mary said.

  'So do I,' Em said. 'Me and Mom.'

  'What do you want to do?' Clint asked.

  Her eyebrows climbed her forehead. 'Could go with you?'

  'With us?'

  'I really don't want to stay here. Those people might back. Anybody might come. mean, I'd be all alone. Maybe for hours. Or maybe even all day. Mom might show up till tomorrow or something.'

  She might never show up, Clint thought
. She's probably fine.

  'And especially wouldn't like to be here alone after it gets dark,' Em said. 'With no lights? And with no gun? And with no way to get any help?'

  'The phone's dead,' Mary added. 'We checked.'

  'Anyway,' Em went on, 'the point is that I'd much rather stick with you two, if you know what mean.'

  'No way,' Mary said. To Clint, she said, 'We're really losing a lot of time here.'

  'I know, know.'

  'I'll leave a note for Mom so she won't worry about me.'

  'Em, we're going all the way to West L.A.’

  'And Santa Monica,' Mary said.

  Em kept her eyes on Clint. 'That's okay. I'd sure rather go there than stay by myself.'

  'We might not be able to get you back here tonight.'

  'I don't want to be here. Not unless Mom gets home.'

  'The whole idea's ridiculous,' Mary said. 'Her mother might walk through the door two minutes after we're gone.'

  Clint nodded. 'She might.'

  'You could wait here till she comes,' Em suggested.

  'I've gotta get home to my family. And have to leave now.'

  'Is it okay?' Em asked him.

  'No,' Mary said.

  Em didn't even glance at her. 'What would you do if was your daughter?' she asked.

  He didn't need to think about it. 'Come on along. But you have to leave that note.'

  Mary sighed and shook her head.

  Em found a pad and pen beside the telephone. Clint watched over her shoulder as she wrote, 'Mom, fine but some sleezoids broke into the house. can't stay. I've gone with Clint Banner. He lives at…'

  Clint gave his address and telephone number.

  'What else should say?' Em asked.

  'Tell her you'll stay with my family. I'll bring you home as soon as conditions permit.'

  When the note was finished, she stepped into the room. She folded the note in half and stood it upright table there.

  'Are we ready?' Mary asked.

  'Do we have a minute for me to use the john?' Em asked.

  'We should probably all go,' Clint said. 'It might be a long and johnless day.'

  Em laughed, then headed for the toilet.

 
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