A burst of laughter sounded from behind the chocolate brown wall of the men’s room’s single stall, which stood just to right of Reed’s urinal. Suddenly the salted fries aroma was again replaced by the stench of bleach and urinal cakes. Reed gagged and placed a steadying hand against the exterior stall wall. He gave up attempting to zip his fly (whatever, it’s not like anybody’s going to notice a balding, pudgy forty-something on a grueling family road trip and say ‘hmm, I think I’ll check out his package’) and used his free hand to flush the urinal.
“Whoooosh!” the voice in the stall echoed playfully.
Reed squared his shoulders. He swallowed against his urge to retch and summoned his authoritative voice, the one that used to work on Chase before Rita had managed to strip away any sense of instinctual respect the boy might have had for his father.
“I said, ‘who’s there?’”
Laughter again, then: “Nobody, dude. Nooobodyyyy.” The last syllable came out in a snake-like hiss. It didn’t bounce off the restroom tile so much as it crawled, like the rotten black fingers of a reanimated corpse clawing its way out of chilly October earth. It slithered into Reed’s ear, all the way down the canal, and stabbed at his limbic system with bony ragged fingernails.
Next came the thick clunk of the stall door’s lock bolt sliding out of its keeper, followed closely by the creak and groan of door hinges in sore need of a good dousing of WD-40. Finally, a series of slaps beat a leisurely measure against the restroom’s ceramic tile floor. It was the sound of a man walking in cowboy boots, perhaps. Or maybe a pair of wingtips.
Thefootsteps came to a halt some distance behind him. The last mellow strains of “Ship of Fools” from the speakers in the ceiling faded away and were replaced by the grating, obnoxious sound of sinusy shallow breathing.
Damn his fly, his hunger, his newly emptied bladder, and the accusatory sign on the wall reminding him to use good hygiene and thoroughly wash his hands. Suddenly all Reed Reese wanted to do was run.
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