Fiends ssc, p.15
‘How come you’re not on the main highway? What are you doing out here?’
‘Well…’ She laughed nervously. ‘What I’m intending to do is not… well, not exactly legal.’
‘I’m going to steal cacti.’
‘What!’ He laughed. ‘Wow! You mean you’re out to lift some cactuses?’
‘That’s what I mean.’
‘Well, I sure hope you don’t get caught!’
The woman forced a smile. ‘There is a fine.’
‘A sizable fine.’
‘Well, I’d be glad to give you a hand.’
‘I’ve only got one shovel.’
‘Yeah. I saw it when I stowed my bag. I was wondering what you had a shovel for.’ He looked at her, laughing, and felt good that this woman with all her class was going to steal a few plants from the desert. ‘I’ve seen a lot of things, you understand. But never a cactus-napper.’ He laughed at his joke.
She didn’t. ‘You’ve seen one now,’ she said.
They remained silent for a while. The young man thought about this classy woman driving down a lonely road in the desert just to swipe cactus, and every now and then he chuckled about it. He wondered why anybody would want such a thing in the first place. Why take the desert home with you? He wanted nothing more than to get away from this desolate place, and for the life of him he couldn’t understand a person wanting to take part of it home. He concluded that the woman must be crazy.
‘Would you care for some lunch?’ the crazy woman asked. She still sounded nervous.
‘Sure, I guess so.’
‘There should be a paper bag on the floor behind you. It has a couple of sandwiches in it, and some beer. Do you like beer?’
‘Are you kidding?’ He reached over the back of the seat and picked up the bag. The sandwiches smelled good. ‘Why don’t you pull off the road up there?’ he suggested. ‘We can go over by those rocks and have a picnic.’
‘That sounds like a fine idea.’ She stopped on a wide shoulder.
‘Better take us a bit farther back. We don’t wanta park this close to the road. Not if you want me to help you heist some cactus when we get done with lunch.’
She glanced at him uneasily, then smiled. ‘Okay, fine. We’ll do just that.’
The car bumped forward, weaving around large balls of cactus, crashing through undergrowth. It finally stopped behind a cluster of rocks.
‘Do you think they can still see us from the road?’ the woman asked. Her voice was shaking.
‘I don’t think so.’
When they opened the doors, heat blasted in on them. They got out, the young man carrying the bag of sandwiches and beer. He sat down on a large rock. The woman sat beside him.
‘I hope you like the sandwiches. They’re corned beef with Swiss cheese.’
‘Sounds good.’ He handed one of them to her and opened the beer. The cans were only cool, but he decided that cool beer was better than no beer at all. As he picked at the cellophane covering his sandwich, he asked, ‘Where’s your husband?’
‘What do you mean?’
He smiled. It had really put her on the spot. ‘Well, I just happened to see that you aren’t wearing a ring, you understand what I mean?’
She looked down at the band of pale skin on her third finger. ‘We’re separated.’
‘Oh? How come?’
‘I found out that he’d been cheating on me.’
‘On you? No kidding! He must have been crazy.’
‘Not crazy. He just enjoyed hurting people. But I’ll tell you something. Cheating on me was the worst mistake he ever made.’ They ate in silence for a while, the young man occasionally shaking his head with disbelief. Finally, his head stopped shaking. He decided that maybe he’d cheat too on a grown woman who gets her kicks stealing cactus. Good looks aren’t everything. Who wants to live with a crazy woman? He drank off his beer. The last of it was warm and made him shiver.
He went to the car and took the shovel from the floor in the back. ‘You want to come along? Pick out the ones you want and I’ll dig them up for you.’
He watched her wad up the cellophane and stuff it, along with the empty beer cans, into the paper bag. She put the bag in the car, smiling at him and saying, ‘Every litter bit hurts.’
They left the car behind. They walked side by side, the woman glancing about, sometimes crouching to inspect a likely cactus.
‘You must think I’m rather strange,’ she confided, ‘picking up a hitchhiker like I did. I hope you don’t think… well, it was criminal of that man to leave you out in the middle of nowhere. But I’m glad I picked you up. For some reason, I feel I can talk to you.’
‘That’s nice. I like to listen. What about this one?’ he asked, pointing at a huge prickly cactus.
‘Too big. What I want is something smaller.’
‘This one ought to fit in the trunk.’
‘I’d rather have a few smaller ones,’ she insisted. ‘Besides, there’s a kind in the Saguaro National Monument that I want to get. It’ll probably be pretty big. I want to save the trunk for that one.’
‘Anything you say.’
They walked fardier. Soon, the car was out of sight. The sun felt like a hot, heavy band pressing down on the young man’s head and back.
‘How about this one?’ he asked, pointing. ‘It’s pretty little.’
‘Yes. This one is just about perfect.’
The woman knelt beside it. Her shirt was dark blue against her perspiring back, and a slight breeze rustled her hair.
This will be a good way to remember her, the young man thought as he crashed the shovel down on her head.
He buried her beside the cactus.
As he drove down the road, he thought about her. She had been a nice woman with obvious class. Crazy, but nice. Her husband must’ve been a nut to cheat on a good-looking woman like her, unless of course it was because of her craziness.
He thought it nice that she had told him so much about herself. It felt good to be trusted with secrets.
He wondered how far she would have driven him. Not far enough. It was much better having the car to himself. That way he didn’t have to worry. And the 836 he found in her purse was a welcome bonus. He’d been afraid, for a moment, that he might find nothing but credit cards. All around, she had been a good find. He felt very lucky.
At least until the car began to move sluggishly. He pulled off the road and got out, ‘Oh, no,’ he muttered, seeing the flat rear tire. He leaned back against the side of the car and groaned. The sun beat on his face. He closed his eyes and shook his head, disgusted by the situation and thinking how awful it would be, working on the tire for fifteen minutes under that hot sun.
Then he heard, in the distance, the faint sound of a motor. Opening his eyes, he squinted down the road. A car was approaching. For a moment, he considered thumbing a ride. But that, he decided, would be stupid now that he had a car of his own. He closed his eyes again to wait for the car to pass.
But it didn’t pass. It stopped.
He opened his eyes and gasped.
‘Afternoon,’ the stranger called out.
‘Howdy, Officer,’ he said, his heart thudding.
‘You got a spare?’
‘I think so.’
‘What do you mean, you think so? You either have a spare or you don’t.’
‘What I meant was, I’m not sure if it’s any good. It’s been a while since I’ve had any use for it, you understand?’
‘Of course I understand. Guess I’ll stick around till we find out.
This is rough country. A person can die out here. If the spare’s no good, I’ll radio for a tow.’
‘Okay, thanks.’ He opened the door and took the keys from the ignition.
Everything’s okay, he told himself. No reason in the world for this cop to suspect anything.
‘Did you go off the road b
‘No, why?’ Even as he asked, he fumbled the keys. They fell to the ground. The other man picked them up.
‘Flats around here, they’re usually caused by cactus spines. They’re murder.’
He followed the officer to the rear of the car.
The octagonal key didn’t fit the trunk.
‘Don’t know why those dopes in Detroit don’t just make one key that’ll fit the door and trunk both.’
‘I don’t know,’ the young man said, matching the other’s tone of disgust and feeling even more confident.
The round key fit. The trunk popped open.
The officer threw a tarp onto the ground and then leveled his pistol at the young man, who was staring at the body of a middle-aged man who obviously had class.
The Palace Theater screened a different horror classic every Saturday at midnight. Allan Hunter hadn’t missed one in over a year. Tonight, he’d watched the original Nosferatu with Max Schreck.
Though he owned a car, he’d always made the two-mile journey from his apartment to the Palace afoot. The trip to the theater was enjoyable, but it was the return trip that he craved. He knew there were dangers. A more sensible man would drive to and from the movies rather than risk a mugging, or worse. But if he drove, safe and insulated inside his car, he knew he would miss the thrill.
For Allan relished the mysteries of the night.
Apartment windows enticed him. If dark, who slept within? Or who didn’t sleep, but lay awake or made love or stood at the black windows, peering out, perhaps watching him wander by? If still aglow in the deep hours of the night, who was about inside, doing what?
The shops and stores along the way, locked and deserted, intrigued him. If their fronts were barricaded by iron gates, all the better. The accordion gates tantalized Allan. They whispered of the owner’s fear. He often stopped and peered through them, wondering what needed such protection through the night.
Each time a car swept past Allan on the quiet streets, he tried to glimpse who was in it and he wondered, going where? People heading home after work, after a late film or party? A lover on his way to a rendezvous? A wife fleeing her brutal husband? A maniac on the prowl for his next victim? Often when a car went by, he imagined that its brake lights might suddenly flash on, that it might swing to the curb in front of him, that its door might fly open and someone call to him - or leap out and rush him. Just thinking about that gave Allan goosebumps.
And so did thinking about what might lurk in the dark spaces along his route: recessed entryways and those narrow gaps he encountered where two buildings didn’t quite join - and alleys. Such places gave him a delicious tingle. He always quickened his pace to get past them. Often he couldn’t force himself to glance in, appalled by the possibilities of what he might find. Derelicts, or worse.
There were derelicts abroad. Some slept in entryways, or on bus-stop benches. Some, curled in shadows, glared at him as he hurried by. Others shambled along the sidewalks or down the streets, clutching secret prizes. Or trudged behind rattling supermarket carts piled high with bizarre shapes. Allan found no magic, no excitement, in contemplating such wrecks. They scared him, disgusted him. They hardly seemed human at all.
They were the worst thing about walking home after the midnight movies.
Whenever possible, he crossed the street or even backtracked to avoid confronting one. But sometimes he was caught by surprise and had no choice but to endure the stench, the maniacal jibbering, the whiny plea for money.
With such mad, vile creatures lurking in the night, it was little wonder that Allan rarely encountered normal people during his treks home from the movies.
Most of those he saw were in the midst of rushing to or from their parked cars. Occasionally, he spotted someone walking a dog. Once in a great while, a pair of joggers. Never a jogger out by himself, always with a companion. Sometimes a lone man hurrying along. Almost never a woman.
No woman in her right mind, he thought, would wander about the city alone at this hour.
When the woman came into sight as he walked home after Nosferatu, he thought she must be mad - or wildly reckless. Even though she was a block away, he could see she was no derelict. Her stride was too steady as she approached the corner. Her hair, silvery in the streetlight, looked trim and well groomed. She wore a pale blouse, shorts that reached almost to her knees, white socks and dark shoes.
Certainly not a derelict.
A prostitute? Allan had never encountered any prostitutes in this neighborhood. And wouldn’t a streetwalker be dressed in something exotic or scanty?
This woman looked more like a co-ed who’d wandered too far from campus. Or like one of the young teachers at the high school where he taught - Shelly Gates or Maureen O’Toole, for instance. Or like some of the women he liked to watch when he made his weekly trips to the supermarket. Casually dressed, trim and neat and clean.
Allan realized that he had stopped walking.
How strange to see someone like her roaming about at this hour!
She had come to a halt at the street corner, her head turned away. She seemed to be checking for traffic, preparing to cross the intersection.
But then she turned around.
She had no face. Allan’s heart slammed.
What’s wrong with her!
She walked briskly toward him.
He glanced at the street, tempted to race across and escape. But when he looked at the stranger again, she was closer. Close enough for him to see the shimmer of fabric that draped her face. Silver, glossy. It hung from her forehead, slotted with holes for her eyes and mouth, and fluttered below her chin.
Allan heard himself moan. Chills chased up his back. His scalp prickled.
He leaped off the sidewalk and sprinted for the other side of the street.
What if she comes after me?
He sprang over the curb, dodged a parking meter, and looked back.
She had stopped. Her head was turned his way.
She’s watching me. Oh God, she’s watching me. But at least she’s staying put.
Allan swung his eyes to the sidewalk and hurried for the corner. He didn’t want to see her again, but in his mind she was crossing the street, pursuing him. He had to look again.
Checking over his shoulder, he saw her still standing motionless, still watching him.
At the corner, he rushed to the left. A few strides, and the wall of a Wells Fargo bank sheltered him from the stranger’s view. He slowed and caught his breath.
‘Christ,’ he muttered.
He’d walked the night streets countless times, seen his share of weird derelicts, watched hundreds of horror films, read scores of fright books.
But he’d never been spooked like this.
Spooked? Scared nearly widess.
By a piece of silver cloth no bigger than a hanky.
As he walked along, he began to feel ashamed of himself. What a coward, running like that. The woman had looked perfectly normal except for the mask. And the mask itself had been nothing hideous. A simple square of fabric. Possibly silk. Nothing to inspire panic.
She’s gotta be a nut case, going around like that.
Nothing wrong with running away from a lunatic.
But what if she’s sane? What if she only wears the mask because her face is disfigured? She walks at night when there’s almost nobody around to see her, and wears her mask just in case. In case someone like me comes along. So her face won’t gross me out.
And I ran away as if she were a monster.
What an awful life she must live. And I came along and made it worse.
Allan considered turning around, going back and searching for her. But he didn’t have the nerve.
He couldn’t get the woman out of his mind. He thought about her constantly: that night as he lay in bed; Sunday as he corrected papers, labored on
The more he thought of her, the more certain he grew that she wasn’t crazy. She was a sensitive young woman cursed with a hideous face. She led a solitary, lonely life, willing to venture from her home only in the dead of night, and then with her face concealed.
He could imagine the anguish she must’ve felt when he fled from her.
If only he had held his ground. Smiled as she approached. Said, ‘Good evening.’ It was too late for that, however. The most he would ever be able to do was apologize for adding to her misery.
To do that, he would need to find her again.
But he’d spotted her some time after 1 a.m. That’s when he would need to go looking. If he tried it on a school night, he’d be wasted the next day. He had to wait for the weekend.
At last, Friday arrived. Allan awoke feeling nervous and excited. Tonight, he would go out searching for her.
What would he say if he found her? How would she react? She might hate him for running away. How could you do that, you bastard! I’m a human being, not a freak!
Or she might indeed, after all, turn out to be utterly mad.
‘Is something bothering you?’ Shelly asked him during lunch. ‘Me? No.’
‘Are you sure? You’ve been acting strange all week.’
Shelly glanced at Maureen. ‘You’ve noticed it, haven’t you?’ Maureen, who rarely spoke, studied her sandwich and shook her head. ‘He seems fine to me.’
‘It might help to talk about it,’ Shelly told him. ‘You aren’t sick, are you?’
‘I feel fine.’
‘If it’s too personal…’
‘Leave him alone,’ Maureen said. ‘He doesn’t want to talk about it.’
‘You have noticed!’
Maureen shrugged. Her eyes met Allan’s. ‘You don’t have to say anything. It’s none of our business.’
‘Of course it’s our business. We’re his buddies. Right, Allan?’
Fiends SSC by Richard Laymon / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes