Authors: Richard Laymon
Tags: #Fiction - Horror
She bounded onto the other curb. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw the cart woman stop beside a trash container and lean into it.
She was breathing fast and her heart was pounding.
Some of them, like that old woman, hardly seemed human at all. More like…creatures from another planet or something. Lurking in the dark, babbling nonsense, ready to
you if you let your guard down.
Shouldn’t let them spook me, she told herself. They’re just people.
She spotted another one. Even though he was on the opposite side of the street, she felt a chill squirm up her back. He stood straight and motionless, his back to the dimly lighted display window of a thrift shop, his arms at his sides. He wore a dark coat that covered him to the knees. His legs below the edge of the coat were bare and pale. So was his hairless head. And he seemed to be
That’s ridiculous, she told herself. I can’t even see his eyes.
Just dark holes.
But she could feel his fierce gaze, and it made her shiver. She imagined him suddenly swooping across the street, grabbing her, and carrying her away to some secret foul place.
Man, she thought. I’m sure spooked tonight.
She walked a little farther, and turned her head to keep an eye on him.
So damn many of them.
The town seemed
No wonder the kids are causing trouble. They’re scared. So they band together and go after some of these spooks. Who can blame them?
If this place is crawling with bums, she thought, what about the beach?
Maybe she ought to take Dave’s advice and check into a motel.
But it might be all right over there. If the kids had been hitting the boardwalk and beach, maybe the bums had scattered. Maybe that’s why so many were over here—driven from their lairs, refugees from the danger zone.
At the corner, Robin waited while a lone car approached from the right. It had a rack of lights on top. A police car. It slowed down.
She looked back. The bum was there, halfway down the block, standing rigid, staring at her.
But no longer in front of the thrift shop.
The patrol car stopped.
“Like to speak to you,” a man’s voice called from the driver’s window.
She stepped off the curb and walked to the middle of the street. She bent over slightly and peered into the car. There were two uniformed policemen inside. They didn’t look much older than Robin. They both had mustaches. The one in the passenger seat had a cardboard cup in his hand. He took a sip from it.
But cops. Cops could mean trouble.
Dave had been nice, though.
“Officers?” Robin said.
“It’s late to be wandering the streets,” the driver said.
“I just got out of the movies.”
“You see the Bond?” asked the other cop. “Bitchin’ flick, huh?”
“The guy’s no Sean Connery,” Robin said.
“Yeah, but who is?”
“Where are you heading?” the driver asked.
“Not a great idea.”
“I know. I’ve been warned about the troubles. You know a policeman named Dave?”
“Carson? Sure. He told you about the trolling?”
“Climb in, we’ll give you a lift.”
“Thanks.” Though her heart was slamming, she opened the back door, tossed her backpack onto the seat, and climbed in. She rested the banjo case across her lap and pulled the door shut.
They seemed nice enough, but who could tell? In the car with them, she was at their mercy. But you don’t argue with cops, you do as they say. That was a lesson she’d learned early, and never ignored.
At least they were taking her away from that creep.
The car turned the corner.
“I really appreciate it,” she said. “All those bums were making me pretty nervous.”
“Most of them are too spaced-out to give you any real trouble,” the driver said.
The other cop twisted around and looked at her. “It’s the kids you’ve gotta worry about,” he said.
“I’ve had bums attack me a few times,” she told him.
“You been on the road a lot?”
“A couple of years.”
“No way to live,” he said.
“It suits me fine. I figure I’ve got a whole life ahead for settling down.”
“Some bastard doesn’t snuff it out for you.”
“You a runaway?” asked the driver.
“I’m over eighteen, so I guess it doesn’t matter, does it?”
“Your folks know where you are?”
“My father’s dead. My mother’s too busy to care.”
“Shame,” the other cop said.
“So you’re what?” he asked. “A street musician?”
“A boardwalk banjo picker. This week.”
“You’re planning to stick around a week?” the driver asked.
“It’s nice out at the beach. I don’t know. Depends.”
Maybe I’ll just hit the road tomorrow, she thought. Put some distance between me and this damned army of bums.
“You’ve gotta watch out for those trollers,” said the one who was watching her.
“If I run into them, I’ll play them a ditty and warm their hearts.”
“Little fucks haven’t
hearts,” the driver said. Then he added, “Pardon the language. Not that I’ve got any use for the indigents, but…”
“They make good doorstops,” the other said.
“They have a right to be left in peace.”
“Yeah, there’s no excuse…” He suddenly turned to the front. Robin realized that something must’ve come over the radio. It had been crackling, sputtering nasal tinny words while the men talked. “Fourteen,” the passenger cop said. “We’re on it.”
The car swerved to the curb.
“Sorry, we’ve gotta leave you off.”
Robin threw open the door. “Thanks for the ride,” she said, grabbing her pack and scurrying out.
She threw the door shut. The rack on the roof blazed with flashing lights and the car sped away.
On the corner nearby was Traveler’s Haven, a motel with a blue neon vacancy sign, a few cars parked in front of its numbered doors. Across the street stood a mini-market that was open and looked busy. A car was leaving its lot. A man entered the store. Half a dozen teenagers were clustered around a pickup truck at the edge of the parking area, sitting on its hood and bumper, standing in front of it, smoking and laughing and drinking from cardboard cups while music blared from the pickup’s radio.
Robin wondered why they were out at this hour.
She wondered if they were trollers.
But she didn’t feel afraid.
The part of town she’d left behind had been empty and silent, a cemetery haunted by the shuffling lost. Here the streets were bright and noisy. Places were open. There were real people. Cars were passing.
She stepped around the corner. Ahead, only two blocks away, stood the dim archway entrance of Funland. Moonlight glowed on the face of the clown.
She walked toward it, passing motels that lined both sides of the street, all-night diners, bars, liquor stores with people coming and going.
When she saw a whiskered bum sitting on the sidewalk with his back to the wall of a closed souvenir shop, she felt no fear. He lowered his bag-wrapped bottle as she approached. “Spare a quarter for a cuppa coffee?”
She dug a dollar bill out of her jeans and gave it to him, but withdrew her hand quickly, fearing his touch.
“G’bless you,” he mumbled.
Robin hurried away.
What was that for? she wondered. A payoff to ease the guilt of fleeing the others, of fearing them, of letting herself toy with the idea that they were aliens on the hunt?
She looked back. He was still sitting against the wall. In the distance, the kids were still gathered at the pickup truck. The music of its radio was faint.
She crossed a street and walked alongside the Funland parking lot. Its ticket booths were closed. A few cars remained on the asphalt field. One had a flat rear tire. She wondered if the others were victims of dead batteries. Or had people abandoned them for other reasons? Or
The windows of a Chevy near the sidewalk were fogged. She looked away quickly, afraid that someone might suddenly rise and press his face to the glass and peer out at her.
Maybe I should go back, she thought. Check into one of those motels. Just for tonight.
That’d be chicken.
I can take care of myself.
She strode across the street, across the walkway, and up the concrete stairs. The moonlit face of the clown greeted her with a smile.
Earlier that night, Jeremy was still at home, sprawled on his bed.
He reached out and lifted his pillow off the alarm clock. Twenty till one. The alarm was set to go off in five minutes. He fingered the stem in, shutting it off.
He hadn’t slept at all. He’d tossed and turned, his mind whirling with memories of Cowboy and the boardwalk and the beach and Tanya, with curiosity and hope about tonight, with fantasies about Tanya that made him yearn and ache. He’d trembled. He’d sweated. He’d rolled and squirmed so much that, a few times, his pajamas had become twisted around him, binding him tightly, seams digging into his armpits and crotch. After a while he’d taken them off. But being naked had pitched him into a worse frenzy of excitement, so he’d put them on again.
Two hours had never been so long or so delicious.
At last the waiting was over.
He eased out of bed. He arranged his two pillows lengthwise and covered them with the blanket so that his mother would at least see more than an empty bed if she should wake up and glance in, maybe on her way to the bathroom.
He took off his damp pajamas, balled them up, and stuffed them in with the pillows.
Shivering, he sank to his knees. He reached beneath the bed and pulled out the roll of clothing he’d prepared for tonight’s adventure. Cowboy had instructed him to wear something dark, warned him that it would be “colder than a wet butt in a blizzard,” and suggested that he bring a knife along just in case of trouble.
The comment about the knife had prompted Jeremy to ask, “What’ll we be doing, anyway?”
“Just having a hoot. But that time of night, you never know. You wanta be ready for anything.”
It was pretty clear that the kids were up to no good. You didn’t sneak out of your house and meet at Funland at one
just to stand around and talk. He’d wanted to ask more, but feared that Cowboy might think he was worried. Besides, it didn’t really matter what they’d be doing. He wanted to be with them.
One of them.
Whatever it was, he planned to join in.
Jeremy slipped into his underwear and dark blue corduroy pants. He patted the front pocket to make sure his keys and knife were still there. He put on his shirt and tucked it in. He put on his blue windbreaker. He carried his socks and sneakers.
At the bedroom door he peered down the dark hallway toward his mother’s room.
In the other house, when he’d crept out at night sometimes to wander the neighborhood and look in windows, he’d had to sneak right past her door. In this house, her bedroom was at the end of the hall. A much better arrangement.
Jeremy made his way slowly to the front of the house. He slipped the guard chain off the door. It rattled a little, but not much. The door opened without a sound because he’d oiled the hinges before supper while his mother was taking a bath.
This house had a screened-in porch, another thing that made it better than the last house. His bicycle stood in a corner, ready to go. At the old place, he’d had to keep it in the garage, so he’d never bothered to use it on his prowls.
Leaning against the door frame, he put on his socks and shoes. Then he lifted his bike, carried it to the screen door, pushed open the door with his back, and hurried down the three porch stairs to the walkway.
The neighborhood was lighted by streetlamps and the moon. Deep patches of darkness hung under the trees. A few of the nearby homes had porch lights on, but most of the windows were dark. He saw no one.
The wind felt chilly on his face and hands. It had a wet fresh smell that made him uneasy with its hints of lonely distances. A feeling of gloom began to smother his excitement, and for just a moment he wished he were still in bed.
I’ll be with the kids pretty soon, he told himself. It’ll be great.
Shivering, he set his bicycle in the street, pushed it along with one foot on a pedal until it was gliding fast, then swung himself onto the seat. As he coasted down the lane, he checked his wristwatch. Ten till one.
Soon Jeremy found himself on Ocean Front Drive, pedaling alongside Funland. He spotted a wino sprawled between bushes in front of the wall, but farther up, near the entrance, there was nobody.
Maybe I’m the first one here, he thought.
Or maybe they’re gathered on the boardwalk, out of sight.
He glided to the bicycle rack, hopped down, slid his bike between the bars, and chained it there. He walked toward the archway. He trotted up the stairs. Standing beneath the face of the clown, he scanned the darkness ahead. He saw the ticket booth and the boardwalk beyond it, but nobody was there.
He checked his wristwatch. Two minutes after one.
He strode forward into the shadowed tunnel of the entryway, past the ticket booth, past the salt-water-taffy shop on his right and the souvenir shop on his left. Standing in the middle of the boardwalk, he looked from side to side. He had a clear view of Funland from one end to the other—except where shadows tore out patches of blackness—and he saw no one.
Where are they?
Not here, that’s for sure. Unless they’re hiding, planning to sneak up and scare me.
Jeremy waited. Nobody appeared.
What if it’s a trick? he thought. Suppose they never planned to show up, and this was just a rotten trick to stick it to the wimp?
He leaned back against the main ticket booth. Off in the distance, a sea gull squealed. Combers, pale in the moonlight, tumbled onto the beach. He felt cold and small and alone.