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Chapter Thirteen

Archie stumbled away from the house and around the corner where his moped was parked. He had trouble starting the machine in his panic. From the window above him he could hear McCloud's voice:

"Goddamn it! Open that door! I'm gonna break it down!"

There was a crashing sound. Archie started to peddle and twisted the gas. The engine turned over a couple of times and died. He peddled harder, cursing the little moped. At last the engine screamed to life. From the window above there was the sound of breaking glass.

"They're in the bedroom!" Archie yelled over his shoulder. "Don't go in there!"

A dime late and a dollar short, McCloud's head popped out of the bathroom window upstairs, pushing glass out along with it. The mortician grabbed desperately at the window frame but he was pulled quickly back inside. There was a muffled series of blows from inside the house. Steam drifted wispily on the wind.

With all his heart, Archie hated to be leaving McCloud in there. Yet he realized the only real hope was if he went for help. He turned out of the mortuary driveway and onto the darkened highway. The moped headlight was a pinprick in the night. Archie sat hunched forward on the bike, ducking his head to cut the wind. In the distance, so far away, lay the twinkling lights of town.

There was a sputtering from the tiny two-stroke engine. Archie peddled hard. The headlight began to dim and, sickeningly, the moped continued to lose power. Desperately he tried to egg the scooter on. For a moment, again, it seemed to respond. Then it quit for good, and Archie coasted to a stop on the shoulder of the road.

He lay the bike down and felt for the connection to the sparkplug and anything else he could think of, but it was just too dark, and he was no mechanic anyhow.

In the distance, from the direction of the mortuary, a car approached. Its headlights grew rapidly. Archie stepped to the middle of the highway, waving his arms desperately.

The car gave no sign of slowing, and Archie moved off onto the shoulder. The car shot by, conceding his presence by moving slightly off to one side.

Archie moved back to the bike. A second pair of headlights approached, but slower this time. He could hear the car's engine running at a high pitch, as if it couldn't get out of first gear. And then there was another sound; a clattering and a banging sound.

The lights appeared to be moving back and forth across the road. As the car neared, Archie began to make out something familiar about it, and as it passed him, totally revved out in low gear, he realized it was Franklin's pickup truck, with the air hose clattering along behind it like a dangling participle.

The truck pulled up short a few hundred feet down the road. Archie stood there, transfixed.

"Franklin…" he half-whispered to himself, "is that you?" The truck sat there, at a dead standstill. Archie started to back away, and then, as though it all made perfect sense to him now and he wanted no part of it, he turned and ran into the thick brush next to the road.

He made his way onto some kind of cow path that led still farther off the road. In time, he paused and looked back. The truck was moving again. It turned off the highway and nursed its way into the field in his direction. Its headlights shown like the eyes of some predatory animal that hasn't eaten in a while.

Archie moved off the cowpath. The brush began to give him difficulty. It was thickening, and full of brambles like the teeth of angry faeries. They caught at his clothes and scratched his skin. Archie made forward progress, but it was slow, and painful, and more like swimming than running.

Franklin's truck grew closer. Archie turned and looked again. There was a whirring and a whining from the truck, as though it were stuck in mud. Again and again the engine revved, trying to rock the old vehicle loose.

Mosquitoes discovered Archie. They hovered around him in a dark humming cloud. He swatted at his arms and his face, but it did little good.

At last the truck broke free. But—surprise—it backed off towards the highway. Archie soon lost sight of it behind a little swale, but he heard the squeal of its tires make contact with the pavement, and then it accelerated down the highway, never shifting out of first gear.

Archie caught a glimpse of its tail lights before they disappeared, and then he swam out of the brush. His scooter lay on the side of the road where he left it and he picked it up, walking it towards town.

Half a mile farther along, after cresting a small rise, Archie could see the lights of Miller's Filling Station. It was past closing, but somebody's emergency lights—yellow—were blinking on and off. Archie dropped the moped and started running.

There was a telephone truck parked in front of the station. Inside the phone booth he could see a man working. He could hear the radio in the truck crackling and occasionally there was the voice of a dispatcher.

"Hey!" Archie yelled, running hard along the shoulder. The phone guy didn't hear him. He collected his tools and threw them in the truck, then walked around behind it and picked up his orange traffic cones.

"Hey!" Archie yelled, sprinting, "for crying out loud, stop!" but it was like a bad connection and the phone man didn't hear him. The truck pulled onto the highway and away. Archie couldn't catch his breath.

He slowed to a fast walk. He reached the phone booth and took the receiver off the hook. Incredibly, there was a good strong dial tone. He dialed 911. Even more incredibly, he got a recorded message: "all our circuits are busy—"

"Arrrgh!" Archie dug in his pockets.

"I've gotta have money. I've gotta have money," he muttered. He pulled out a handful of lint, a matchbook, and a couple of crumpled dollar bills.

"Damn!"

He checked his jacket. Nothing. He crossed over to the station and tried the front door. Locked. He could see the cash register in plain view through the window.

After briefly considering smashing the window, he went around to the side of the station. The door to the men's room was locked, but the women's room opened easily. His breathing was harsh and magnified in the tiled cubicle. He tried the light switch. Nothing. The washbowl and toilet gleamed vaguely in the dim light through the open door. It was creepy and it smelled.

Next to the sink there was a large Kotex dispenser. He smashed at the coin return, felt for some change. Nothing. In desperation, high and hard like Bruce Lee in the final reel, he kicked at the box. Higher than his head. Harder than a football. To his surprise, the coin box broke open and spilled a silver stream of coins on the floor. He felt around in the damp darkness for what he needed.

Suddenly there was the sound of a car outside. For a brief moment the small frosted glass window was lit by headlights; then it went dark again. Archie waited quietly. Listening. The sound receded. He left the women's room, clutching his life-saving coins. After checking carefully in both directions, he ran over to the phone booth. He could see the car's taillights going down the road. He tried to slot a coin but it didn't fit. He examined it carefully under the dull fluorescent light of the phone booth: a slug! He threw it on the ground and fished through his handful of coins.

Something caught his attention: there was a hint of movement in the shadows behind the station. And, now that he listened, he thought he could hear, very dim, the sound of a radio. He stepped out of the booth and headed across the service area. Cautiously he peered around the corner.

It was something like a diorama in a museum, underlit the way those things sometimes are. Franklin's truck sat there in the neon shadows. Half-seated behind the wheel, with one foot on the pavement and one foot inside the truck, was Roger Davis. Or what was left of Roger Davis. Roger Davis's body. The Roger Davis zombie. He…it…stared vacantly down at his feet, as though it…he…was very tired. He held his head forward, the way you do when you know that the very next thing you're going to do is puke your guts out. But part of his guts were already out, so it was…weird. You could say ironic.

Farther into the shadows, on the curb, sat Palumbo. He was still fascinated with his cassette player, which had begun to run down. It made a low-pitched warbling sound. Palumbo, whom death had certainly not made any smarter, just plain couldn't figure it out. He shook it and banged it and all the cassette player did was slow down some more.

In the grass, on the other side of the truck, Joanie Snowland…Joanie's body—whatever!— was bent over, kneeling. She had her head in her hands (not literally) as though she were crying. Roberta Eliot stood behind her, repeatedly reaching for Joanie's shoulder as if to comfort her, but missing, over and over, like she had a gear loose.

Taken all together, there was something strangely life-like about the four of them. Like the tape recorder, they seemed merely to have run out of juice.

Archie watched in perverse fascination. Strangely, he felt no fear, and suddenly there didn't seem to be any big hurry. It was some kind of Zen moment to tell you the truth. You could write a book about it.

Suddenly, however, Archie became aware of another presence. There were a couple of bumps from the truck, and it seemed to rock a bit on its old springs. A head appeared in the window: McCloud, bloody, but still alive. He moaned weakly. The dead kids were just too shot down to care about their victim. Their hostage. McCloud managed to get the door open, and slowly, painfully, he crawled from the truck. He crawled across the service area, leaving a foamy swath of red as he did so, an old soldier who just wouldn't say die. Archie was swept with emotion.

He took a chance and leaned out toward McCloud, who had no idea where he was going, who only just wanted to get away, anywhere.

"Come on, Mr. McCloud!" Archie whispered. "You can make it!"

McCloud spotted him. He held out a bloodied arm in supplication. "Help!" he croaked.

Joanie must've heard him. She turned suddenly around, like an electrified Barbie. She tottered over and grabbed the old man by the feet.

"Help!" McCloud cried. "Dammit, let go!"

Roger and Palumbo looked over simultaneously. Like toys suddenly wound up, they shook themselves into percussive action. They descended on poor McCloud like Pinocchio's evil cousins. McCloud moaned weakly as the zombies dragged him away. Archie suddenly realized: Wait! Zombies! Unh, they eat your brains, right?! Is that what these guys want now? A midnight freaking snack?

Archie retreated to some bushes in front of the station.

Palumbo picked McCloud up like a tackling dummy, one big arm around his waist. All four of the dead…the undead…the kids…the zombies reached the front door of the station. Rog swiped clumsily at the heavy plate glass of the front door. It shattered thickly and they all squeezed through the door without opening it. McCloud got hung up on some jagged broken glass remaining in the door frame, but Palumbo pulled him viciously inside.

It was like the four of them were radio-controlled by some sadist a long distance away. Their movements were halting, but they got the job done. McCloud appeared to have lost consciousness.

Weak fluorescent lights came on inside. The big windows of the service bay were oily, but Archie was able to see what happened. McCloud lay flat on the floor, face-up near the hydraulic rack. He might have been dead by now.

Rog rummaged around in the corner of the poorly lit garage. He found something he liked: the power ratchet. He pulled the trigger and it went off with a shriek, sending a spasm through Rog's body, like a violent jerk of rigor mortis. Rog pulled the trigger again and again. Zzrrrp! Zzrrrp! He was clearly fascinated by the tool.

Palumbo had found a new toy too, the oil gun, which he unwound from its retraction device in the ceiling. Palumbo pulled his trigger and a viscous stream of motor oil shot out. It shot all over the Snap-on tool chest, and it shot all over Rog and it shot all over the far wall and it dripped slowly onto the floor.

Rog turned towards Palumbo and took a shot of 20W50 right in the face. It ran down the front of his white shirt. He watched Palumbo in fascination, with a crooked grin on what was left of his face.

Joanie was bent over McCloud, tugging on his arm as if she were trying to get him to sit up. Palumbo lurched up behind her and worked the nozzle up under her skirt. Joanie looked back towards Palumbo with a weird curiosity, and she rolled her pelvis back and forth a few times as Palumbo maneuvered the nozzle around. Black globs of oil ran down her legs and onto her shoes, but she didn't seem to mind.

McCloud started to come to. He groaned loudly, as if recovering from an historic hangover. Archie was riveted to his spot.

"Gee-zus!" he said to himself. It was incredible. In the distance he heard a car. Archie ran from the bushes to the road and waved his hands. He moved towards the speeding vehicle, waving frantically. The driver passed him, hit his brakes, turned on two wheels and swerved into the station.

"All right!" Archie yelled.

The car pulled right up to the pumps. It didn't take Archie long to collect himself: he recognized Lyle Dwyer's rusted-out Plymouth coupe. Dwyer the Perve Himself leaned heavily on the horn, then shouldered the heavy old door open.

He was drunk as a skunk at his bachelor party. Archie thought twice about asking him for help. Dwyer was jumping dangerously up and down on the bell hose.

"Hey hey hey hey hey!" Dwyer yelled in the direction of the station. "'Boudt a liddle fricking service here!"


Next: Vengeance is theirs, sayeth the undead teens

Forward

fill 'er up and check the oil
hell hounds on my trail
are you on drugs or just having one of those days?
Freeman and me and the rest of the world

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