The traveling vampire sh.., p.11
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       The Traveling Vampire Show, p.11
 

           Richard Laymon

  When I walked through the door, she looked at me from behind the front desk. The corners of her lips curled upward. “Dwight,” she said.

  “Hello, Dolly.”

  One of her thin, black eyebrows climbed her forehead to show how much she didn’t appreciate any hint of a reference to the Broadway musical.

  “Russell,” she said and gave him a curt nod.

  “Good afternoon, Miss Desmond.”

  She eyed both of us as we approached her. Mostly, she eyed our bare chests. Even though the office was air-conditioned, heat was suddenly rushing to my skin. “Let me guess,” she said. “You’ve come to report the theft of your shirts.”

  Rusty laughed politely. It sounded very fake. On purpose, I’m sure.

  “We’ve been mowing lawns,” I explained. Not quite a lie. I had been mowing the lawn, Rusty participating as an observer. “Is Dad here?”

  “I’m afraid not,” she said, obviously pleased by her announcement. “What seems to be the trouble?”

  “I just need to talk with Dad about something.”

  “Would it be police business?”

  “Sort of,” I said.

  She tipped her head to one side and fluttered her eyelashes at me in some sort of mockery of flirtation. “Perhaps you would like to share it with me?”

  “It’s sort of personal,” I said.

  “In trouble again, are we?” She glanced from me to Rusty, then back to me. “What is it this time?”

  “Nothing,” I said. “We didn’t do anything. I just need to talk to Dad for a minute.”

  “No can do,” she said, oh so chipper.

  “Do you know where he is?”

  “Out on a call.” Grinning, she batted her eyelashes some more. “I’m not at liberty to divulge his exact whereabouts. Police business. You understand.”

  Rusty nudged my arm and whispered, “Let’s just go.”

  “You can radio him, can’t you?” I said.

  “No can do.”

  “Come on, Dolly. Please. This is important.”

  Her eyes narrowed. “This does have to do with your shirts, doesn’t it.” She spoke it as a fact, not a question.

  “No,” I said. Though, in a way, our shirts were involved.

  She leaned forward, folded her arms on the desktop and slid her tongue across her lips. “Tell me.”

  “No can do,” I said.

  Off to my side, Rusty snorted.

  Dolly stiffened and her eyes flared. “Are you smart-mouthing me, young man?”

  “No,” I said.

  “I don’t like a smart-mouth.”

  “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…”

  “Your father will hear about this.”

  I blushed. Again.

  She noticed and seemed pleased. “He’ll hear alllll about how you and your pal Russell came barging in here half-naked and got smart with me.”

  “Let’s get out of here,” Rusty said.

  “Speaking of pals,” Dolly said, “where’s Frances? Why isn’t she here? She’s always with you two.” Dolly leaned further over the desk top and stretched her long neck forward like a curious turtle. “Has something happened to her?”

  Mouth hanging open, I shook my head.

  “She hasn’t lost her shirt, has she?”

  “No.”

  “Why isn’t she with you?”

  While I tried to think of a good lie, Rusty kept silent.

  “What’ve you two done to her?” Dolly demanded.

  “Nothing! She’s fine. Are you out of your mind?”

  “Out of my mind?” she screeched.

  Oh shit, I thought. Now I’ve done it.

  “Frances is fine!” I blurted.

  “OUT OF MY MIND???”

  “I didn’t mean it!”

  “He didn’t mean it!” Rusty echoed.

  “WHERE’S MY GUN???”

  I yelled, “FUCK!!!”

  Dolly cried out, “WHAT DID YOU SAY?”

  By then, we were racing for the door, Rusty in the lead.

  “WHAT DID YOU SAY, DWIGHT THOMPSON? WAS THAT THE F WORD YOU SAID? YOUR FATHER IS GOING TO…”

  The door shut behind me, cutting off the rest of her words.

  We ran around the corner before we slowed down. Rusty was out of breath and laughing at the same time.

  “It’s not funny,” I said.

  “The hell…”

  “If she tells Dad what I said…”

  “You’re fucked.”

  “It’s not funny,” I repeated, and looked around to make sure nobody was within earshot. We were walking along Central, the main street through Grandville’s business district. Though a few cars were going by and I could see a couple of people in the distance, the area was pretty much dead. Just by the deadness, I knew without looking at a clock that the time must be about two o‘clock. That’s how the town is between two and three o’clock on just about every weekday afternoon.

  It was a strange time of day. You could go into the hardware store, the restaurants, the Woolworths, the barber shop, the pharmacy, or just about any other business establishment in the downtown area and you’d be lucky to find another living soul—except for those who worked there.

  Since nobody was around, we didn’t need to worry about being overheard.

  I didn’t care much for the quiet, though. It gave me an uneasy feeling. If you’re in a forest and nobody’s around, all the better. A forest is supposed to be quiet and peaceful. Not a town, though. A town is meant to be bustling with people. When it’s almost deserted, it feels wrong. At least to me.

  It made matters worse, the day being so gray and hot.

  It especially made matters worse that Slim was missing.

  Just in case I might happen to forget for one minute to worry about her, I couldn’t turn my eyes, anywhere without seeing posters for the Traveling Vampire Show. They were tacked to utility poles, taped to store windows and doors, and several littered the sidewalk and street. I even saw one in a curbside trash basket.

  “Somebody was sure busy putting up posters,” I muttered.

  “You should’ve been here this morning. They were everywhere.”

  “They’re almost everywhere now.”

  Rusty shook his head. “Half of ’em aren’t even here anymore.” He patted his seat pocket. “I got mine. And we’ve got tickets! I can’t believe it.”

  I gave him a look.

  “Cheer up, buddy.”

  “I’ll cheer up when we find Slim. If my dad hasn’t killed me by then for saying fuck to Dolly.”

  “You know what?” Rusty said. “I bet Dolly won’t even tell on you. She can’t. She threatened us with a gun.”

  “She didn’t really…”

  “She went, ‘Where’s my gun?’ After that’s when you yelled fuck.”

  We were walking past the recessed entryway of a toy store just then. The doors stood wide open, but I glanced in and didn’t see anyone.

  “Stop saying that, okay?”

  “What, fuck?”

  “Come on, Rusty, quit it. We’re in enough trouble already.”

  “Dolly won’t tell.”

  “Everybody tells in this town.”

  Not everybody, I reminded myself. There’s Lee. She was probably the only adult I knew who didn’t take delight in snitching on people.

  “Know why I keep saying fuck?” Rusty asked.

  “Cut it out.”

  “Because I’m so fucking hungry.”

  I was awfully hungry, myself. Here it was, somewhere past two o’clock in the afternoon, and I’d eaten nothing all day except for a bowl of Raisin Bran at about nine.

  “Okay,” I said. “You stop talking dirty and we’ll get something to eat.”

  “Deal.”

  “Central Cafe?”

  “Great,” Rusty said. “How much money you got?”

  “Seven or eight bucks.”

  “Can I borrow some off you? Just enough for a cheese-burger and fries. And a chocol
ate shake.”

  “Sure.”

  “I’ll pay you back.”

  He almost never paid me back for anything, but I said, “Fine.”

  As we walked along, Rusty moaned softly. He said, “I love Flora’s cheeseburgers.”

  “They’re pretty decent,” I admitted.

  “Decent? They’re fabulous. How about the way she butters up those buns and grills ’em so they crunch?”

  I was on the verge of drooling when we arrived at the Central Cafe. Looking through the windows, I saw nobody at any of the booths or tables, though one guy was sitting at the counter. Behind the counter stood Flora.

  Taped to one of the windows was a poster for the Traveling Vampire Show.

  “Oh, shit,” Rusty said.

  He pointed to a sign on the restaurant’s door.

  NO SHIRT. NO SHOES. NO SERVICE.

  “Oh, well,” I said.

  He said, “Fuck!”

  I said, “Shhh.”

  “When did they put this up?”

  “It’s probably always been here.”

  “I don’t think so. Why don’t we give it a try, anyway?”

  “Not me. Let’s just go someplace else.”

  “Chicken.”

  Not in the mood to argue, I walked away from the door and Rusty. He hurried after me.

  “I really wanted one of those cheeseburgers,” he said.

  “Me, too. But we lost our shirts in a good cause.”

  “If I’d known we were gonna end up starving…”

  “You’ll live,” I said.

  He groaned. “We should’ve had those sandwiches back at your house when we had the chance.”

  “Well, we didn’t.”

  “We can go back.”

  “Your place is closer,” I said.

  He contorted his face to let me know what a lousy idea it was.

  I decided not to let him off the hook.

  “Why don’t we go there and get something to eat? You can ask your mom about having supper at my place tonight, and maybe I can borrow one of your shirts.”

  He sighed. Then he said, “Yeah, okay.”

  “A clean one, preferably.”

  A smile broke out. “Up yours,” he said.

  Chapter Seventeen

  When Rusty’s house came into sight, so did a crowd of parked cars.

  “Oh,” Rusty said.

  “What?”

  He looked at me and bared his teeth. “Mom’s day to host her bridge club.”

  “Oh.”

  “Forgot all about it.” Looking pained, he said, “There’ll be like a dozen ladies in the living room.”

  I nodded.

  My mother also belonged to a bridge club, though not the same one as Rusty’s mom. I’d been in our house when she hosted her group. The air was so thick with cigarette smoke you wondered how they could see their cards…or breathe. And the noise! I had no problem with the clinking of glasses and coffee cups that sounded as if you were in a crowded restaurant. The constant chatter wasn’t so bad, either. What I couldn’t stand were the outcries of surprise and delight that kept blasting through the house: ear-splitting whoops and squeals and cackles and shrieks.

  “We can’t go in,” Rusty said.

  “What about the back door? We could sneak into the kitchen.”

  Rusty scowled. “I don’t know,” he muttered. “Mom’ll be running in and out…and no telling who else.” He shook his head. “We’d get caught. Then Mom would have to introduce us to everyone.”

  I grimaced.

  Our mothers always introduced us to company. It’s a horrible, embarrassing experience even when you’re fully dressed. I sure didn’t want to be paraded shirtless in front of all Mrs. Baxter’s lady friends.

  It would be even more humiliating for Rusty, since his physique was nothing to brag about.

  “But I’ve gotta get some food in me,” he said.

  He frowned down at the sidewalk as if pondering his options. Then he said, “We might as well try and sneak into the kitchen. We can grab something to eat and then haul ass.”

  “What about shirts?”

  “Forget it. How’m I supposed to get to my room?”

  I gave him a look.

  “It’s not my fault,” he said.

  “I know.”

  “But at least we can grab some food.”

  In case we were being watched from the living room, we kept our eyes away from Rusty’s house until we were past it. On the other side of the driveway, we ducked behind the parked station wagon and made our way to the garage. Then we went around the garage to the back yard and crept up the stairs to the kitchen door.

  Rusty bent forward. Hands cupped to the screen, he peered in. Then he eased open the door.

  I followed him into the kitchen. Nobody was there except for us. Both doors to the rest of the house were shut—probably to keep the bridge club ladies from noticing the kitchen’s clutter.

  The doors kept out most of the smoke, but not the noise. Mrs. Baxter’s group sounded exactly like my mother’s—like a gang of merry female lunatics.

  The kitchen counters were littered with dirty glasses, cups, plates and silverware. By the look of things, Mrs. Baxter had served cherry pie a la mode to her friends. On the table in front of us were two pie tins, empty except for crumbs of crust and spilled red filling.

  Rusty ran a fingertip across the bottom of a pie tin, came up with a gob of filling and stuck it in his mouth.

  I didn’t bother.

  Hunched over, head swiveling as he glanced from door to door, Rusty tiptoed around the table and made his way to the refrigerator. He pulled it open. I stepped up beside him. The chilly breath of the refrigerator drifted against my skin. It felt great.

  With both of us standing close to the open refrigerator, Rusty found a pack of Oscar Meyer wieners. He pulled out a hot dog, stuck it into his mouth like a somewhat droopy orange cigar, then offered the package to me. I slipped out a wiener and poked it into my mouth.

  Rusty, Slim and I often ate cold hot dogs—but only when no adults were around. Put a mother into the picture, and a wiener has to be heated and slipped onto a bun. Like it’s the law. Only problem is, the bun is usually dry. To make the bunned hot dog edible, you need to slather it with mustard or ketchup (and Rusty always needed pickle relish, a disgusting concoction), which killed the taste of the wiener.

  I chowed down my cold dog and accepted Rusty’s offer to have another.

  While we held them in our mouths, Rusty put the package away and pulled out a big brick of Velveeta cheese.

  “Mmm?” he asked.

  Nodding, I affirmed. “Mmm.”

  We turned away from the refrigerator, I eased its door shut, and we headed across the kitchen. Rusty took a cheese slicer out of a drawer. At a clear place on the counter, he set down the Velveeta and peeled back its shiny silver wrapper. With the taut wire of the slicer, he cut off an inch-thick slab.

  He handed it to me. As I sank my teeth into it, he started to cut off another slab.

  One of the doors behind us swooshed open.

  We both jumped.

  Through the swinging door stepped Bitsy.

  The actual name of Rusty’s fourteen-year-old sister was Elizabeth. Her nickname used to be Betsy. Like everyone else in Rusty’s family, however, she was on the husky side. So Rusty started calling her Bitsy. She liked it, but her parents didn’t. They seemed to think it drew attention to her size, and not in a flattering way.

  When the door swung open, I figured we’d had it.

  Rusty gasped and whirled around like a burglar caught in the act.

  Seeing that the intruder was only Bitsy, though, he rolled his eyes upward. I smiled at her, my tight lips hiding my mouthful of yellow cheese goo and my right hand holding a wiener.

  “Hi, guys,” she said. She looked glad to see us.

  Especially glad to see me. She was always glad to see me. She was smitten with me, and had been for years. Maybe because
I was such a handsome fellow. Or maybe because I always treated her like a regular person and never teased her and often stuck up for her when Rusty started giving her crap.

  As the door swung shut behind her, Bitsy blushed and smiled into my eyes, then checked out my bare torso, then met my eyes again and said, “Hi, Dwight.”

  I nodded, swallowed some Velveeta and said, “Hi, Bitsy. How you doing?”

  “Oh, fine, thank you.” As if suddenly worried about her own appearance, she patted her hair and glanced down at herself. Her hair, as usual, resembled a shaggy brown football helmet but without the face guard or chin strap. She was wearing an old T-shirt and cut-off blue jeans—the same sort of outfit Slim normally wore, except Bitsy was barefoot. Plus, her T-shirt was more ragged than Slim’s and she wasn’t wearing a bikini top underneath it. She could’ve used one. Or a bra. Especially since her T-shirt was so thin you could pretty much see through it.

  “Hey, Bits,” Rusty said. “Wanta do us a favor?”

  “Like what?”

  “Get us some shirts.”

  She frowned slightly at him. “What for?”

  “To wear, stupid.”

  I gave him a look. One thing that always puzzles me; people smarting off when they’re asking for someone’s help. It seems not only rude but incredibly dumb.

  Trying to sound extra-nice to make up for Rusty, I said, “Our shirts got ruined over at Janks Field.”

  Bitsy’s eyes widened. “You were at Janks Field?” She glanced at Rusty. “You’re not supposed to go there.”

  “Thanks, Dwight. Now she’s gonna tell on me.”

  To Bitsy, I said, “You won’t tell on him, will you?”

  “If you don’t want me to.”

  “Thanks.”

  “You’re welcome.”

  “Anyway, our shirts got ruined when we were there.” Seeing the concern in her eyes, I explained, “A dog attacked us.”

  “Oh, no!”

  “We’re all right, but our shirts got wrecked. We’ve been running around without them all day and we’re getting pretty sunburned.”

  “You’ve got a good tan,” she told me, blushing.

  “Thanks. But anyway, we just want to borrow a couple of shirts so we don’t get burnt any more than we already are when we go back out.”

  “What sort of shirts do you want?” she asked.

  “Anything,” I said.

  “Just go in my closet and grab us a couple, okay?”

 
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