I knew something was wrong well before I saw the folks from Niland sweep through like a living storm. Over the years, you get accustomed to the way things are, the quiet, boring moments of everyday life. You live as long as Etta or me, and you come to see those moments stretch on for days and weeks and months at a time, until that’s all life is. Not to say boring is bad. Boring is a lot like contentment, and after enough years they get to the point where you can’t tell one from the other. That’s not a complaint, mind you. It’s just a fact, and it’s one that makes it easy to tell when a fly lands in the ointment.
All this is a way of saying I knew things were going to get real terrible real fast as soon as I heard that motorcycle come running up. The shouting that followed sealed the deal. I froze, coffee pot under the sink, and listened. Even over a distance, I heard panic in that young buck’s voice. Whether or not there was real trouble coming, he believed everybody was in danger. That was good enough for me.
When I turned to face my wife, I could tell Etta’s thoughts were right in line with mine. She’d frozen at the table, watching me over the top of one of her mystery books. The paperback filled her hand, a dark, backlit figure peeking out from between her spread fingers.
I set the pot in the sink, shut off the water, and moved to the window to see what I could see. Etta and I live a ways back from where they were hosting their car show, so I couldn’t see much. I did spot some people walking in the same direction, a couple of them jogging, so I knew something had their attention. From my point of view, that just affirmed that something less than spectacular was happening. I was still watching them when I noticed the dust cloud on the horizon.
“Can you see anything?” Etta asked. I jumped, because her voice was right at my ear. Almost seventy, and she could still slink around like a cat when she wanted. I couldn’t help but smile, just for a second. Then, my eyes turned toward the horizon and the dust that was rising like smoke.
“There’s something happening out there.”
“James Murphy, it’s as though you’re a seer.”
“Not like I can see anything from here.”
She gave my shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “I know, honey. Let a lady have her fun.”
I gave her a look over my shoulder then. Followed it with a grin. “If your fun didn’t usually come at my expense—”
“That’s enough dirty talk out of you.”
What happened next took a while, partly because it took a bit for that dust cloud and the folks who were kicking it up to reach us, and partly because Etta and I decided to spend a few minutes playing a particularly fun game of grab-ass. I’m not sure how long it took, but I heard that motorcycle start back up, and pretty soon I heard a lot more engines join in. By that time, all the shouting had started, and it just kept getting louder and louder. Their party had been in full swing for a day, so I knew I wasn’t just hearing the sounds of their shindig. Whoever was making so much noise was scared, and it was the kind of scared that sweeps through a place like wildfire. Just hearing it, my arms got prickly with gooseflesh.
When the people started running, that only confirmed what I’d suspected, not that I suspected all of Niland had gone mad. I just knew something was terribly wrong and people were in danger. As the first wave of those trying to escape rushed past, I felt Etta’s fingers lace mine.
“We need to do something,” she told me.
“So what do we do?” she asked.
“What we can.” I only had half an idea, and I’ll admit it was a pretty terrible one. Lifting the seat cushions that surrounded our kitchen table, I rifled through the storage compartments underneath until I found my old axe handle. Over the years, I’ve seen folks who pack anything from those little self-defense key chains to guns that will blow a fist-sized hole in a man, but none of those ever felt as safe and secure—as well and truly satisfying—as a solid piece of hickory in your callused fists.
“Hope you don’t mind company,” I told Etta.
She replied with a little shrug and a bit of a grin. “I can always get that coffee started.”
“Might not be a bad idea. Hey, woman.”
I tapped a finger against my cheek, right at the corner of my lips. “What’s a man got to do to get a little right here?”
She leaned in, and I felt her lips against my skin, a feeling I’ve never grown tired of and doubt I ever will. “He’s got to be careful, James.”
“Guess I’ll be careful, then.” I shot her a little wink, and then I opened the door to our trailer and stepped into the desert. So early, and it was already getting hot, not that I paused to take in the weather. There were people running every which direction, all of them looking for some kind of escape. In retrospect, asking them to slow down to explain things for the man with the axe handle in his hand was probably foolish, but I did it anyway.
“What’s happening? What’s wrong?” Everybody just kept running, and I spent a second feeling like a damned idiot. Then, some of the folks from Niland sprinted into view, and everything made a bit more sense without making any sense at all.
Etta and I, we’ve lived out at Slab City for about six years now, stretching what little retirement savings we have as far as it will go. While we don’t know the names of most folks in Niland, either one of us can recognize just about all of them. The first around the corner was Paul, a postal clerk who kept Niland in stamps. He was spackled in blood and chasing a woman who’d kicked off her shoes a ways back. I saw the murder in his eyes, and I knew Etta and I were gonna be keeping folks safe from a bunch of other folks who’d up and gone crazy. How it happened, I didn’t know. Can’t say I cared much, either. Sometimes, you just have to wade in and get to work.
The woman—a redhead in a skirt that looked like it barely gave her legs room to move—came tearing at me. Maybe she could tell I wasn’t crazy, or maybe she’d gone loopy with fear and was just running at any shape she could see. She all but careened into me, though. I grabbed hold of her arm and shook it, pointed toward the open trailer door with the axe handle. “Get in. My wife will keep you safe.”
She nodded and then ran. I cocked back the handle before she was out of my peripheral vision. Paul came running like a train jumping a track, his arms flapping like he’d forgot they were there.
I stepped forward and swung like a minor league prospect. The handle cut the air with a whistle, and it rang out when it smacked the clerk square in the forehead. Paul hit the ground hard and started scrambling, so I whacked him again across the back of the skull. That settled him.
I lifted my head, raising the handle over my shoulder, and waited for another attack. Already, my shoulder burned. When somebody came screaming by, I looked for the fear in their eyes, and then I sent them to the trailer. Some of them saw Etta waving from the doorway and ran for shelter. Others just ran. Can’t say I blame either for their decision. About the time I knocked the third citizen of Niland senseless, I wanted to get running, too. You can’t always do that, though. Sometimes you gotta stick it out and do the ugly work because it’s the right thing, because folks need you.
If I’d ran, I probably would have missed the fella on his motorcycle. With all the engine noise tearing through Slab City, I’d forgotten about the sound of that motorcycle riding up, the frightened voice that had followed. I didn’t even think about a motorcycle again until I saw the rider rip through The Slabs like a demon on fire. He zigged and zagged through the trailers like he was either having the time of his life or looking for something. I guessed it was the latter, because I didn’t want to think the man was simply an idiot.
As I cracked a young woman who’d served me toast a time or two hard enough to send her crashing to the ground, I deduced he had to be looking for somebody and not something. Can’t really say what led me to that conclusion, but it made sense to my brain. Backpedalling toward my home, I kept an eye on the man as he cut through the trailers again, his rear tire kicking up a plume of dust that looked like it could choke an elephant. He disappeared from view, turning left around the closest trailer, where Ray Keever likes to spend his days drinking his weight in beer, and then I heard a sudden, heavy impact, and the bike’s engine died.
I waited a second, listening and hoping I’d hear the engine rumble back to life. When it didn’t come, I peered over my shoulder to see Etta looking back at me. Her expression spoke a silent plea, but I saw the understanding in her eyes, too. You don’t love somebody a lifetime without knowing them inside and out. I gave her a nod I hoped was reassuring, and then I turned and jogged toward where I’d heard the engine die.
Rounding Ray’s trailer, I saw the motorcycle right away. It had fallen on its side, pinning its rider. He was shoving at the vehicle, struggling to get it off him and failing miserably. Maybe he knew how lucky he was. I’ve seen what happens when a motorbike lands on you and doesn’t die, saw a man disemboweled by the transmission, once. Poor bastard screamed and screamed while the gears just tore out his insides. This guy didn’t have to worry about that, but he did have more than a quarter ton of metal in his lap and a lot of crazed Niland residents running all around the area.
A teenage girl dove on him before I could get there. The rider fought her off with his arms, and I swear I saw her try to bite him through his jacket, her head wriggling back and forth like a dog with an old sock. I came up behind her and hooked the axe handle around her throat, wrestled her off the man. Once I had her clear of the bike, I planted a boot in her rear and kicked her away. She wheeled, spitting and snarling, and my next swing spun her like a top before she dropped to the dirt, a fan of blood and spit a couple of feet further out.
“Thanks,” the rider said. Then he groaned as he tried to shove himself out from under the bike again.
“Here.” I dropped my weapon and straddled him, crouching low. With my crotch in his face, I felt like a damn fool, but then I grabbed hold of the bike and pistoned upward, and he was free in a second.
“Thanks again,” he said as he dusted off his ass. “I owe you big.”
“Don’t even mention it. Now, come on. We’re sitting ducks.”
His hand clamped around my forearm, leather riding gloves dry against my skin. There was a strength there I hadn’t expected. It felt desperate, somehow. “I need to find Stella,” he said. “I came halfway across the country.”
“I’m sorry you got here when you did, because we don’t have time to search for a missing person.”
“You don’t understand. I—”
An angry shriek chopped down his words, and I wheeled to find a pair of Niland men bearing down on us. They ran with clumsy abandon, their hands outstretched. The rider crouched beside his bike and started ripping open one of his saddle bags, and I stepped forward to meet those charging us.
I should have learned by that point. Maybe the folks from Niland had gone crazy, and maybe that made them reckless and sloppy, but it didn’t slow them down a bit. When I swung the axe handle, I felt confident. I just knew the two men who were stumbling as much as running would go down without a problem. The first of them did, the hickory cracking against their forehead with a sound like a Louisville Slugger knocking a fastball into the upper deck. My shot knocked him flat, and I knew he wasn’t about to get back up, but then his partner hit me hard and took me to the ground.
I’m not nearly as fast as I used to be, but I can be fast enough when needed. I managed to jam that axe handle under my attacker’s chin, and I pushed with every ounce of strength I could find in these old bones. The man hissed and screeched, and I saw all his remaining teeth right alongside the dark pockets where others had gone missing. I saw the orange and yellow hate in his eyes, burning like a fever. When I tried to shove him away, he wouldn’t budge. His fingernails raked at my bare forearms. I grit my teeth against the pain and wished I had a jacket like the rider’s, something that could double as armor. My fault for rushing out in a T-shirt and sweatpants, I suppose.
My attacker disappeared when a leather boot arced out of nowhere and crashed into his temple. The feeling of freedom and safety left me gasping as I rolled onto all fours and climbed to my feet again. Heart hammering, I tried to force myself calm as I stood there, hands on my knees, and watched the biker shove a screwdriver deep into my attacker’s eye. The Niland man’s body went rigid and then limp.
The biker collapsed onto one knee, wincing. He turned to me, a stunned expression like a beacon on his face as he wiped off the screwdriver in the dirt. “Holy....”
I shook my head. “I’m not sure that’s right, but I appreciate it anyway.”
“Hell if I know. I may be local, but this isn’t exactly a weekend ritual. Now, come on. I’m getting inside, and you’d be smart to follow.”
Slowly, he tried to climb to his feet, making it halfway before screaming and falling to the ground. He clutched at his knee as he hissed pain between his teeth.
“The crash?” I asked.
“Think so. Son of a bitch!”
I watched as he stood on one leg. When he tried to put weight on his knee, his face contorted with pain. He kept hopping in place as more of Niland’s population rounded the nearest trailers and charged. I did my best to block, taking out a pair with violent swings. A third got past me and tackled the rider to the ground, knocking another scream out of him. I moved as quickly as I could, but by the time I reached them he already had that screwdriver through the bastard’s temple and was shrugging him aside. He held out a hand, and I took it, helped him to one foot before stepping under his arm.
“I need to find Stella,” he told me.
“You need to get off that damn knee before more folks try to rip us to shreds. Prove to me you can walk in a bit, and we’ll see about finding your girl.”
A pained groan brushed past my ear. His hand tightened around mine and then relaxed. “Okay. Sounds like you got a deal. Tyson, by the way.”
“Thanks for saving my bacon, James. How about we get moving?”
“Music to my tired ears. Now, keep your eyes peeled and tell me if we got anybody on our tail.”
I won’t lie. Helping that rider from his bike to the trailer was just about the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Maybe splitting upwards of six skulls with an axe handle tuckered me a bit, but that kid felt like a sack of lead weights draped over my shoulders. By the time we’d left his bike a dozen yards in the past, I felt every day of my seventy-one years. They burned in every joint and ached in every bone. Muscles I’d thought long disappeared jumped up and let me know they were less than happy with my sudden deviation from a life of leisure. I silently promised them tea and salve and maybe a beer later, but I could tell none of them believed me.
My heart throbbed behind my sternum, and my breathing went shallow and cold. I can’t say all of it was because of the kid, either. I thought of war zones, of the frightened shouts and terrified cries, of the people who run back and forth with no real destination, just locomotion fueled by panic. Sure, I didn’t hear machine gun fire or see tracers slash through the air, but the rest of the scene was pretty authentic. I even saw wounded and dead strewn across the desert floor, limbs torn off as though landmines had done it. Thing is, I knew it wasn’t some explosive that had taken those limbs. Those dragging themselves over the ground, trailing shredded legs behind them, looked pissed off instead of terrified. When I thought about the fingernails on my arms and the woman trying to bite through the biker’s jacket, I wished it had been explosives.
By the time the trailer entered my vision, my legs wanted to give up. I groaned with each step, praying the last stretch would be an easy one. Instead, a woman came screeching out of nowhere to attack us. I saw a gaping wound on her neck, blood running over her shoulder. She gave no sign that she noticed it, though. I slipped out from under Tyson’s weight and cocked the hickory. If the woman thought the axe handle was any kind of threat, she didn’t show it. She neither hesitated nor changed her course, just kept coming straight at me like a psychopath with a bleeding problem. I felt a little guilty, but I still swung my weapon as hard as my tired limbs would allow.
The impact vibrated all through me, and I almost dropped to my knees as the woman staggered back and then charged again. I just didn’t have enough strength left to finish her with a single blow. Another whack sent her to one knee, and I brought the axe handle down with an overhand swing as she tried to climb to her feet again. She sprawled in the dirt, and Tyson took the hickory from my hand.
“I got it,” he said. The sound of him cracking open her skull proved both sickening and a relief. He turned, the axe handle still resting against her ruined head, and gave me a little grin before he dropped to his knees and coughed up what had to be his last two meals. “Jesus Christ, this has to stop.” With one hand, he wiped his mouth clean. I helped him to his feet.
Tyson stared down at the woman. The grim expression on his face sucked the light out of the day.
“What is it?” I asked. A cauldron of unease boiled in my guts.
“I don’t think she’s from town.”
I looked and saw he was right. What remained of the woman’s hairdo featured the immaculate swoops and curls of the retro darlings I’d seen walking around the day before. Her dress was straight out of the pin-up girl catalog. No way had she come from Niland. “I think you’re right. So?”
Groaning, he shifted his weight from one foot to the other. The fingers of one hand combed through his sweat-soaked hair. “I don’t like it. I got chased out of town by these apeshit psychos, but they were folks from the town. See, I don’t know what drove them apeshit, but it was only them. Okay, so maybe she went into town for breakfast or something and got caught up in it, but what if she didn’t?”
I watched him. The gears in my brain clicked away, and I didn’t like the ideas that kept popping up. What if their madness was somehow contagious? I hadn’t considered the idea, because it didn’t make any kind of sense. Then again, what made sense about all of Niland going insane at the same time? A shell of cold surrounded me, and I didn’t move until Tyson nudged my shoulder.
“Where’s some shelter? We’re sitting ducks, right now.”
“Right. This way.” I started to loop his arm over my shoulder again, but he waved me off. He kept a good pace beside me, though his limp was pretty severe. Without his weight on me, I felt a little quicker and very thankful.
I led him to the trailer, and Etta jerked open the door before I could even think about rapping my knuckles on it. She helped Tyson inside, and I climbed up after him. Only when she shut the door, locked it, and moved a few of our heavier items in front of it did I feel safe.
I collapsed on the bench seat that surrounds our kitchen table and breathed deep. Looking around, I saw we were the only three people in the trailer.
“What happened to the others? The ones I sent?”
Etta shook her head and then gave me a resigned shrug. “They didn’t stay. They…I guess they wanted to get out, not stay put. I tried to talk them out of it, but they ran off.”
“People freak out and want to move,” Tyson said. “I can’t blame them.”
“This is Tyson,” I said, waving. “He’s handy to have around.”
“Even with a bum wheel?”
Etta gave him the smallest of grins. “You brought my James back to me, so that means yes.”
“Glad to be of assistance, but James here is the one who saved my ass. Sorry about the language.”
“Don’t worry about it. If ever a situation called for some good cuss words, this is it.” She crossed the trailer and leaned down to kiss my forehead. I turned up to face her and gave her a kiss of my own. Her lips were sweet and soft, a little dry.
“So what’s next?” Tyson asked. “We sit tight, hope for the best, and see if this place clears out?”
Etta looked to me, like I had some sort of expertise in the matter. “I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe that’s the best plan right now. I’m certainly not in a rush to head back outside.”
“Do you have a car?”
“Wish so. Sold ours about a year back. Been having the groceries brought in by a fella in town ever since. He might be out there eating on somebody, for all I know.”
“Damn,” Tyson said. He looked out the window at the scene playing out all around us. “Guess sitting tight is the best way to go, after all.”
“Maybe.” Watching through the window, I wondered if the folks from Niland would clear out, maybe go back to town and give us a chance to escape. It didn’t seem likely, but I clung to the possibility like a life raft. Sooner or later, we’d need to get out of Slab City. I needed to get out.
My arms itched like crazy.
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