|Posted by bubbagrey on June 28, 2015 at 1:50 PM||comments (0)|
By Franklin Klavon
As published in Schlock Webzine
Bud Woodlouse drove west half the night along Route-28 through northern Michigan. He sipped cold coffee, the shadows of evergreens in the periphery of the headlights, his left eye fixed on the yellow stripes in the middle of the road. Rain angled from the sky, and the tires hissed on the pavement. He came upon a small burg, slowed the pickup truck, then mechanically turned right and followed an arrow into a cluster of aged buildings to where a sign advertised lodging.
He entered the front lobby of a large hotel. The lights were dim, the paisley carpet threadbare. A bell sat on the counter. He tapped the button once, dingggg, and the note faded into silence. A chair squeaked. "Come on back here," a gravely voice called out through an open door behind the counter.
Bud went to the lighted room to find a bushy-bearded old man sitting behind a desk cleaning a dismantled shotgun. The old man gazed into the barrel, then swiped the bore with a cleaning rod. The hardware lay spread out on newspaper on the desk, and a switchblade glinted on a King James Bible. The old man examined the barrel again, pointing toward a bare overhead light bulb, laid it on the desk and pulled an unlit cigar from his mouth. "Need a room?"
"Yes, sir," said Bud.
"How many nights?"
"Take a seat. I'm on my tea break." He sneezed, then excused himself.
Bud sat across from the desk, a duffel bag between his legs, removed his eyeglasses and wiped off raindrops with a handkerchief. He wore a camouflage hunting coat.
"Going deer hunting, I see." The old timer stroked his beard. "Where you headed?"
"Ottawa National Forest."
"Any deer out that way?"
"Not many," Bud's voice trailed off. "But it's not important." He folded his eyeglasses and stuck them in his shirt pocket.
Bud glowered at the stranger.
"Huh?" the old man snapped.
"If you must know, I've lost my job, I'm losing my wife, and tomorrow I'm walking into the forest and never coming back."
The old timer sat back abruptly. "Damn, that don't sound good."
"Let me tell you just how good my day went." Bud twisted his mustache. "I've worked at the sawmill in whitefish bay for sixteen years. The new foreman came in this morning, climbed all over me for no goddamn reason and tried telling me how to do my job. Then he rammed a book of procedures down my throat. I told him to go back in his warm office and play grab-ass with his secretary."
"What'd he say?"
"He fired me." Bud gazed at a mounted deer head on the back wall. The thick antlers had yellowed, and the hide appeared mangy. "I don't know where to find a new job. I've worked there since high school. Half the town is out on the streets, and we just bought a new house." He took a deep breath. "So I came home and told Kelly Lane. Then her and I had it out. And I told her I was going hunting. You know, to take a break and get a new angle. But once I get in those trees, I've already decided, I'm going to keep walking until I can't find my way home."
A radiator clanked in the corner.
The grey haired old man pushed his chair back. "Tea?"
Bud shrugged. "Why not?"
The old timer emptied a red mug with pencils and blew out the dust. He went to a hotplate on the window ledge, poured steaming water from a kettle into two mugs, steeped two teabags, and handed the red mug across the desk. "Drink that and try to see the bigger picture."
"Thanks." Bud blew on the tea. It smelled like ginger, but had a violet color, almost black. He sipped it, contemplated, then said, "and guess what, Kelly Lane's ex-husband is the new foreman——I want to kill that sumbitch."
"Let that go." The old man folded the switchblade and put it in his pocket. "You're thinking like a demon."
"True." Bud looked at the oily rainbow in his cup. "However it's too late to turn a new leaf. On account of you're looking at a dead man. So take a good look."
They drank their tea in silence, rain pounding the dark night. A clock ticked outside the door. The lobby smelled like dust——the office, like gun oil. "Let me tell you something," the old man said after a long pause. "My wife walked out on me one day and took off with some bum she knew as a girl. And that was after we'd been married twenty years! After that, I almost jumped off Mackinac bridge. I'll show her, I thought." He dunked his tea bag in the smoky water. "You need to be a man and stick it out like the rest of us." Then he said, mostly to himself, "pride sows seeds of annihilation." That was the last thing Bud remembered.
The next morning, an explosion, or rather a continuous droning, as loud as a stick of dynamite, startled Bud from sleep, and he woke up in a cot, confused as to his whereabouts. Five other men were in the same room, quickly rising. They pulled on their trousers, buttoned their shirts, frantically tied their shoes, and hurried out the door into a hallway bustling with people. A mad rush of men and women scampered down stairways, into the lobby, out the front doors.
Panicked, Bud got to his feet, relieved to discover that he was still clothed and wearing his shoes, searched for his duffel bag to no avail, then entered the stream of pushing strangers, terrified of being trampled. Footsteps pounded down the open staircase. On the ground floor, he detoured to the far end of the lobby, found the office deserted, the shotgun still dismantled. He looked around and discovered the old timer huddled behind the front desk, clutching the Bible, a terrified expression on his face. The old man stared up at Bud, placing a forefinger to his trembling lips.
Outside, the earsplitting sirens induced confusion, the horns mounted atop brown cargo trucks parked in the street. The front lawn was beat down into the mud, and a squad of soldiers in blue uniforms with billed caps and billy clubs funneled the horde into a thick meandering line leading around the south side of the hotel and angling across a yard into an expansive, flat roof, concrete building, one story tall.
Bud weaved his way toward the north parking lot, glimpsed his truck, but was unable to break free of the mob. The exits of the hotel still flowed with people. The line pushed forward, the captives marching like they were walking on graves. Bud watched the blank expressions of the soldiers out of the corner of his eyes. A blue coat wielding his club smacked Bud's shoulder as the line paused at turnstiles. Bud straightened and stood at attention. Crows flocked in a tall sycamore in the yard. The sirens abated as he entered the concrete enclosure.
Inside, the lights glared. To the right and in back, long service counters hugged the walls, booths scattered in the center of the far-reaching room. The crowd stood in lines, talking loud, hollering, and arguing with the attendants and tellers. Bud turned to a fat lady beside him in the amorphous crowd. "What's this all about?"
"Excuse me," she said, pushing past him, avoiding his eyes, "I need to get in line for station eleven.
He searched for an exit, found none, then grabbed the arm of a hustling man. "Can you tell me how to get out of here?"
"If you've lost your itinerary, go to the help desk." The man pointed across the busy room to where lines had formed at the help counter behind a velvet rope barrier.
Bud zigzagged his way toward the velvet ropes, glancing back at the squad of soldiers posted at the entrance. They shouted orders with bull horns and monitored the influx of people. He bumped into a stooped old woman, her head covered with a bonnet. "Watch it, buster," she blurted out, jabbing her elbow into his side.
At the far wall, Bud entered a corridor segregated from the main room. He found the shortest line to the help counter, then stood behind a man with a bald spot at the top of his head. The attendant at the counter fidgeted with papers, smiling, giving instructions, looking over the top of his reading glasses. Minutes passed as the line moved forward. A tall boy with freckles took his place behind Bud. "Why are all these people here?" asked Bud.
The lad looked around quizzically. "People? What people?"
Are you blind? thought Bud. He nodded to the busy room. "These people!"
"Look, mister, I'm not supposed to talk to you."
A scowling soldier stood at the first stanchion of the velvet ropes. Bud stepped out of line, intending to explain how he'd gotten mixed up with the crowd, thought better of it, then noticed a door at the far end of the help counter. He followed the ropes to where the barrier ended, checked to make sure nobody was watching, then stepped through the door.
He found himself in a vacant, round chamber. The door closed tight behind him, with no handle on the inside to escape, and the clamor of the main hall became silent. The room smelled sterile, and the floor had a circular pattern of black mosaic tiles. He took seven steps to the center, turned to his left and was startled to see two men and two women in white lab coats seated in an elevated observation deck imbedded in the wall.
The director, an older gentleman, slid open a sliding glass window. "State your business, sir," he spoke down to Bud, the room tinged with an echo.
"I apologize for intruding," Bud addressed the four scientists, "but there must be a mistake. I don't belong here, and I'd like to be on my way."
Another lost soul, thought the director. "Are you a raindrop?"
"A raindrop?" Bud replied, looking upward.
"A raindrop in a river," explained the director. He leaned toward the young woman sitting next to him. "Like most, he pretends selfhood."
She laughed reflexively. He's cute, she thought of Bud, and he's looking at my cleavage. Her lab coat was unbuttoned revealing a hint of her red brassiere.
The younger man picked up a clipboard and said to Bud, "you are case fourteen. Don't forget your case number." He put the clipboard aside, then said, "case fourteen, why are you wearing that wool coat?"
Bud suddenly realized he was sweating profusely. "It's my deer hunting coat." He unbuttoned the garment and took it off, but the right sleeve, damp with perspiration, clung to his arm and pulled inside out. He doubled the coat over to extract the sleeve, and a handful of roofing nails fell out of the pocket onto the mosaic floor. It sounded like popcorn kernels dropping in a glass bowl.
The four scientists warily stared. "Do you shoot deer with a nail gun?" asked the woman to Bud's left. "That's not very nice." She had her hair up in a rainbow scarf. "Are you a demon?" Case fourteen is malignant, she thought. "You must be a demon."
Bud remembered the old woman with the bonnet in the main room. Soon you'll be bent over like the hag, he thought of his tormentor. "I shoot deer with an arrow," he replied indignantly, kneeling down to gather up the nails. "I wore this coat last Christmas eve to help my father roof his garage."
The researchers laughed nervously. The man with the clipboard jotted a few notes, then said to Bud, "excuse us a minute, fourteen." They all slid their windows closed.
Bud could see the scientists discussing his case through the glass barrier. He remembered the howl of the sirens and the commotion in the main room. At least it's quiet in here, he thought. Then he saw a lone roofing nail on the floor. He reached down to put it in his pocket, but more nails spilled. He sat at the axis of the mosaic pattern and collected the nails. The concentric tiles seemed to rotate like he was spiraling down a vortex.
Behind the glass wall, the scientists deliberated. The director talked about last night's hockey game. The one with exposed breasts applied lipstick, looking at her reflection in the window. The woman with the rainbow scarf glanced at her watch, disappointed that it was still twenty minutes until her coffee break. And the young man with the clip board stared at the bosoms in the red brassiere.
Bud, sitting cross-legged at the hub of the tiles, suddenly remembered his business, then stood abruptly and glanced around the room for an exit. He found a door behind him, which he had failed to notice earlier, curved as it was and well blended with the wall. He put on his coat and turned toward the door, planning to leave, but the glass windows slid open and the woman with the rainbow scarf said, "case fourteen, do you require an updated itinerary or is your destination clear?"
"I just want out," said Bud, gesturing toward the curved door. "Can I exit here?"
"By all means," said the director.
Then the girl with the lace brassiere and matching lipstick called out to Bud in a tiny voice, "there is nobody here, fourteen. There is nobody."
Bud took seven steps to the door, pulled the brass handle, then entered a narrow, dimly lit corridor that curved to the left. He followed the passage through another door, reentering the main room, where minutes before the booths and counters bustled with noisy people. Only now, all was quiet, everything looked fake, and the crowd stood motionless like toys.
He looked to his left beyond the multitude of frozen people toward the help desk behind the velvet ropes. The lines were static. He stepped further into the stillness and turned, backing into a dummy. Startled, he jumped. It was the old woman with the bonnet, stooped over but stiff as wood.
He felt a sudden compulsion to punch her in the nose, reconsidered, then ran to the exit he'd just came through. He twisted the oblong door knob, but it spun around freely, and the bolt failed to unlatch. It was sticky as pine sap, and his fingers adhered as he pulled his hand free. At the front entrance, Bud found the glass doors locked, the soldiers rigid. Outside, the prongs of the turnstiles looked like the blunt tentacles of giant insects.
Bud ran across the main room, knocking over wood people with the clatter of ball bats on a parking lot. He entered the aisle between the velvet ropes and the long help counter, then stopped at a mannequin of the tall lad with freckles. He pushed it to the floor. Its left arm splintered at the elbow. A distant voice emanated from the sound holes in its back. "There's nobody here," said the doll. "There's nobody here."
Wide-eyed, Bud staggered back. He sprinted alongside the ropes, flung the door open, and entered the circular room. The scientist with red lipstick lay at the bull's eye of the mosaic tiles. She had transformed into a mannequin with long lashes and blinking doll eyes. Her torn open blouse revealed skin-painted breasts. Bud kicked her head across the room. "Everybody's gone home!" she squealed, her face wobbling along the floor. In the observation deck, the three other scientists sat frozen.
Back in the main room, all was dark except for the glow of translucent panels at the base of the roof and daylight streaming in through the entrance doors. Bud went to the entryway, grabbed a billy club from the belt of a wooden soldier, and futilely beat the heavy glass panes. He hurled the club end over end into the assemblage of dolls. "If there's nobody here, than who am I?" he shouted, his voice echoing through the abandoned chamber. "Or what am I?" he muttered. But he heard no reply, and the dolls stood motionless, their poses locked in time, the ghost of animation having fled.
In the shadows, thick layers of dust had accumulated on the service desks and sills of the booths. Sheets of yellowed paper scattered on the floor and counters crumbled in Bud's hands as he tried to discern the typed print. Arms and legs had broken off dolls, their necks rotted and heads downcast. Many had fallen over. Bud could see nests of sticks in the rafters by the dim light and animal dung on the floor.
He came upon the doll of a young woman in a silk nightshirt. Her left hand had broken off at the wrist. Bud kissed her pouty lips, cupping her breasts, half expecting her to reanimate. But her kiss tasted like stone, and he recoiled, startled. Her brown eyes gazed into nothingness.
He ran to the velvet ropes, unhooked a latch, then took off full speed with a stanchion toward the entrance doors, ramming the tempered glass. A spider web of cracks propagated at the point of the lance. Again he rammed it, the stanchion breaking through. He kicked a hole, broke out the granular chunks with his elbow, and crawled outside.
The pale morning gusted with warm wind. He peeked out from behind a concrete barrier at the forsaken town. Why have I survived this diabolic ordeal? Flat tires had crumbled beneath the cargo trucks in the street, the sirens now silent. Across the yard, curtains fluttered in the smashed-out windows of the high-rise hotel. The sycamore had fallen over, the trunk hollow. The lawn had turned to field. A factory with a caved-in roof stood desolate across the street.
Everything's aged a hundred years, thought Bud. He looked at his reflection in the entrance doors to make sure he wasn't an old man. He wasn't. Is this hell? I shouldn't have killed my boss with the nail gun.
Bud waited in hiding, watching the hotel and trucks, glancing back at the shattered door. The interior of the concrete building emanated a rank smell. Hours passed. Convinced the area was deserted, he trotted across the high grass toward the north lot, where he'd parked his pickup. But as he crossed near the street, he could hear pounding and faint noise coming from inside the brown trucks.
Bud stopped and listened, then approached the nearest truck. It sounded like people trapped in the cargo hold. He circled and looked in the driver side window, standing on the fuel tank step. A dead rat lay on the seat, and hornets hovered in the cab. He went around to where he could hear scratching inside, hesitated with his hand on the lever, then unlatched the back door.
It swung open forcefully and banged against the side of the truck. A chimpanzee stuck his head out and looked around. Bud ran a short distance into the yard and hunkered down in the high grass. Hidden, he watched hundreds of chimps pile out in green military fatigues, hooting and grunting, baring their teeth.
The whole troop congregated in the yard, standing upright, grooming each other, lighting cigarettes, and drumming on the side of the truck. Bud stayed low, afraid to alert the chimps of his presence. I've been left behind in monkey hell. It was a noisy rabble. Within minutes the troop had spread out toward the hotel entrance, opening the backs of the other trucks, releasing more chimps, and blocking Bud's path to the north lot.
A squad of chimps crossed the high grass. Huu-huu-huu-huu. They detected Bud. Wraa-wraa! Then surrounded him, brandishing spears, waving sticks and clapping their hands to alert the others. Bud bolted from cover as a spear drilled him in the gut. He doubled over, plucked out the weapon, then fled west between the hotel and the concrete enclosure. Blood covered his hands and belly. The chimps came after him, waddling upright, blowing and screaming.
The field climbed and dipped, fraught with thickets of prickers and thorn trees. Bud stepped in an animal burrow and stumbled. A dismembered mannequin of Kelly Lane lay in the dirt. Her arms and legs had been tossed in all directions, her head twisted to the back. He gasped and climbed to his feet, then followed a beaten path into a leafy woods. Why did I killed her? I loved her. Out of breath, he stopped to listen. A crimson blood trail speckled the ground. He could hear busting limbs and the approach of the chimps.
He went deeper into the woods, the ground scattered with boulders and sticks like skeletons in a battle field. The land became flat and muddy and came to a point as he stopped in a clearing at the bend of a roaring river. On the other side, a rolling field of golden wheat rippled in the wind. To Bud's right, a picnic table, shaded by the limbs of a sprawling oak, sat on a grassy knoll. As he approached the table, he could see a body dangling from a rope on a limb. It was a mannequin of the old timer with the bushy beard. You need to be a man and stick it out like the rest of us. He'd jumped off the picnic table, and his eyes had been pecked out by birds.
Bud searched for an escape, but thick swamp bordered both sides of the peninsula. He thought about climbing a tree, but immediately dismissed the notion. The current bubbled around a granite outcrop jutting from the white water, and moss clung to boulders on the shore. Trees leaned over the river on the far side, but the water looked too deep to ford. He stood on the bank, clenching the handful of nails in his pocket, the points pricking his fingers.
The cries of the great apes busting through the brush came closer. Bud shed the hunting coat in a crumpled pile on the shore as a squad of chimps came into the clearing, panting. They spread out, signaling each other with hand claps, waving their arms. More apes arrived in the flanks, silent, their lips pressed together, almost grinning. They dropped down on all fours, spattering mud, then charged fast as dogs.
Bud looked at the golden wheat and watched his body wade into the rushing water. The river bottom sloped rocky and steep, and the icy flow rose to his chest. He leaned forward into the current and pushed off toward the far shore, paddling and kicking, grabbing at the overhanging branches, while swept downriver. He grasped a limb and got yanked like a fish as the tree bowed and dragged him to the soggy beach. Clawing at submerged roots, he pulled himself free.
A falcon glided above the tree tops, and the apes barked on the water's edge. Bud climbed over weedy boulders up the opposite bank and into the wheat. The apes, unable to swim, threw stones across the river. It was mid afternoon, and the sun shined like a yellow dot in the cloudless sky.
He walked through the endless grain, his throat seared, dragon flies darting above the tassels. Why am I here? his mind raced. The wind stung his eyes. The earth crumbled beneath his feet. He staggered, then trampled a bed of stalks and lay down to die. Am I a demon?