Night of the Living Old
THERE WAS ONLY ONE road running through Pinion Hills and that was Route 138. A few unpaved trails branched off from the highway, extending far into the desert and toward the mountains. Small businesses were placed sporadically along old 138, the majority of them video stores, and several up them boarded up. The Pinion Hills Gas Depot, whose fiftieth anniversary had come and passed without celebration, stood on the edge of town. It was the only building in Pinion Hills where tourists ever stopped, keeping its founder and current owner pleased. A white sign leaned against the pumps, declaring the price of unleaded as $1.19. The toothless attendant thought that he was taking advantage of desperate travelers, unaware of the higher prices that had become the norm. It was summer, the slow season for the station as the majority of travelers were trying to avoid the hot desert completely.
Zeke was sitting in his chair outside of the station that July morning, looking down old 138 as a brown station wagon approached. Car probably headed toward Vegas. Too caught up with thoughts of sin and gambling to fill up on gas here. To Zeke�s surprise, however, the wagon flashed its right blinker, indicating the drivers intention of entering the depot�s driveway. Better not be asking for directions. The car pulled up next to the pumps, and a short middle aged woman emerged.
"What can I do for you this morning sweetheart?" the man asked.
The woman swallowed hard when she heard the word "sweetheart". Was this hick really worth getting upset about? The mention of sexism would probably excite him. Probably better off just asking for gas and getting out of here.
"Just some gas, thanks," Marcy said, walking away from the car, stretching out her legs from the long ride.
Zeke walked to the front of the car and examined the hood. He scratched his head, wiped his brow, and trudged to the rear of the vehicle. He ran his withered, three fingered hand all over the trunk and below the fender. Where in God�s name is the tank on this contraption?
"Check the left side, grandpa," a voice suggested from within the Chevy. The passenger side door opened and the source of the voice stepped out. Steve grimaced as he came out of the car, the desert sun pounding its rays into his pale skin. His white tee shirt, displaying the message "You�re brown, and I�m proud of you", clung to his sweaty chest.
"Is it usually this fucking miserable here?" the youth said to the old man before scouting out the depot, in search of something to drink.
Zeke watched Steve march off toward his home and office. Never in his life had seen anything like this boy. His long, black, greasy hair came down beyond his ears, past his shoulders, and stopped in the middle of his back. A long, dark trench coat hung over the puzzling tee with the cryptic message. Steve seemed completely oblivious to the fact that it was currently dragging along the desert floor.
Steve walked up to a tall coke machine that was leaning next to the station�s door. He looked all over the front panel, searching for the coin slot. His eyes finally came to rest on it and the small price label above it. Five cents a bottle. Five cents? A bottle?
"I wouldn�t go wasting my money there, son," Zeke said as he pumped the gas into the brown Chevy. "I haven�t had a bottle in that machine for about thirty years now. That cokey coler just stopped delivering one day. Shame really. Used to make a pretty penny off the old girl. That reminds me of Irma, god bless her. She used to drink that stuff nearly all day long. Kept her up into the night, it did. Which wasn�t all that bad a thing." The old man winked at Steve, his eyelid coming down to close tightly over his cloudy right eye.
"I think that�s all I want to hear about your soda drinking history, thanks," Steve said as he walked back toward the car. "I think it would be best for you just to finish up the gas before you remember something else about Irma."
"You know, kid, back in my day we had respect for our elders. Might do you a little good to learn some." Zeke was getting noticeably angry now.
"Luckily I don�t live in a time where people are respected just because they�re old. In the world I live in, people have to earn respect. However, perhaps in this pile of crap you call home the rules are a little different." Steve was staring Zeke directly into his eyes. There was no sense backing down from this old man.
"You�re right boy. You�re on my property now, and here the rules are a little different." Zeke fumbled with his belt, got it undone, and raised it in front of the boy. "You better play by my rules, son, or you�re going to find yourself in sad shape."
Steve spit in Zeke�s face. The saliva trailed down the man�s forehead. The man clenched his teeth tightly together. Steve began to worry. What was this man going to do? Where was his mom? Was Lily still asleep in the back seat? These thoughts came to an abrupt end as Zeke�s belt, the first thing the old man bought when he returned from the war, came down across Steve�s shoulder. The boy reacted instinctively. This wasn�t the first time had been threatened physically, however on this occasion there was no reason to endure the abuse.
Steve lashed out for the man�s wrist and caught it. He squeezed down on the frail hand, causing Zeke to loosen his grip on the belt and drop it to the dusty ground. Steve threw his arm back and let his fist fly forward. The first punch hit the eighty year old man in the chin, causing irreparable damage to his jaw. The next one hit Zeke in his cloudy right eye, causing it lose what little vision it had. Zeke�s body wavered but Steve�s grip on his wrist stabalized the war veteran�s balance. The third and final hit landed on the man�s nose, shattering the bone and causing torrents of blood to flood out the nostrels. Zeke�s body fell straight to the ground, his bones splintering from the pressure of the impact. With his last bit of strength, Zeke lifted himself up slightly off the ground; his right hand clutched at his chest. He moaned in agony and cursed at the boy with the words he had picked up in his days in the marines. Within seconds, the man�s arm folded under him, his body dropped to the dust. He remained silent and still.
Marcy walked around the corner of the station and into Steve�s view. She was adjusting her pants, undoubtedly returning from a stop in the bathroom. From the smile on her face it was clear she had not yet seen the body. Steve�s mother drew closer and walked around to the driver�s side of the car. Her eyes focused on the fallen man in front of her, and her mouth opened to speak. Before any words could come out, however, a sound from behind them made both Steve and Marcy turn their heads.
A blue pickup truck was kicking up dust about a hundred yards down the road and rapidly advancing. Steve and his mother stared at each other in silence and fear as the truck pulled into the driveway of the Pinion Hills Gas Depot. Two brothers, the "Milo boys" as they were known around town, stepped out of the cab of the dirty blue monster. Ike was in his early sixties, short, fat, and right at home in the desert. His fifty-something little brother, Jeb, was tall and silent. He had not spoken since he was in elementary school. His prominent Mongoloid features had made him the center of a tremendous amount of traumatic abuse. Of course, Steve and Marcy did not know or care about these details. What they did care about was the fact that both men were carrying enormous shotguns and walking toward them.
"Hi there!" Ike said. "Don�t be worried about these here guns. Just buying a little ammunition from Zeke for our huntin� trip tomorrow." Jeb nodded his head in agreement. "Wait a second," Ike murmured. "What�s that?"
Steve tried to move in front of the old man�s dead body but Jeb pushed him aside. The big man kneeled next to Zeke and rested his hand on the man�s head, stroking his thin gray hair.
"He was pumping our gas," Steve stammered. "All of a sudden he just fell. Maybe it was the sun or a heart attack or something. I don�t really know."
Jeb pushed Zeke slowly on to his back. The dead man�s white shirt was now covered with a thick layer of brown dust and dirt. His face was almost unrecognizable. His eyes and nose were still bleeding profusely, a mixture of blood and dirt trickled down his face.
"This man didn�t die of no natural causes," Ike stated. "No sir. You killed him. I noticed the blood on your hands when I first came out of the truck. Reminded me of the time I delivered Jeb. Just eleven years old I was. My mother expected me to do everything after Pa died. I mean everything too. Might explain why ol� Jeb here is the way he is today." Ike grinned. Steve shuddered. "Yup, messiest job I ever did see. Delivered a few more babies after that. Became something of a midwife around town you might say. Steadiest hands in all of Pinion Hills the women would declare. For a long time I was the only person anyone ever trusted with the deliverin� of their newborns. `Spose it was a mixture of my experience and the fact I only a charged seventy five cents a birthin�."
Steve looked over at Jeb. The big man was smiling, and listening closely to Ike�s story. His shotgun was being held straight out in front of him. Sensing his opportunity, Steve threw his hands down on the gun. The force knocked the weapon out of Jeb�s hands, allowing Steve to quickly scoop it up.
"All right, I�m telling the stories now!" Steve shouted, pointing the gun at Jeb. "Hurry up Jeb, go stand next to your brother."
Jeb shuffled his feet slowly. His eyes had widened and were staring at the two barrels pointed at him. His upper lip quivered slightly.
"Now, retard!" Steve ordered.
"Now look, young man," Ike began. "I don�t know why you did what you did to old Zeke here, but I know I don�t like it none at all. Now you�re threatening me and my brother. We didn�t do nothing to you. I will tell you something, though. Something that may help you out. Back before the war I knew a man named Lewis. Some called him Lew, but I knew him as Lewis. Anyhow, he worked at the general store, which is a video store now, but back then it was a general store. Actually, we didn�t call it the general store. We called it the trading post. See, back then you called your shopping �trading�. �I am a gonna go down to Main Street to do some trading� you�d say. Of course, you weren�t really trading, you were just buying, but we called it trading. Anyhoo, Lewis owned the general store and everyday he�d go to work and bring his dog. Maggie, the dog�s name was. Big, fat, stupid beagle. `Bout as stupid as Jeb here, I�d say. Dog didn�t know his own asshole from a hole in the ground, was the joke at the time. Anyway, the dog isn�t important. What is important, is that Lewis owned the general store."
"Stop," Steve whispered.
Ike didn�t miss a beat. "You know where the tire shop is today? Well I was standing right about the spot of that building when I seen Lewis come out of the general store. He was a ranting and a raving and a carrying on like I don�t know exactly what. He was a telling stories about his past, real quick like. Not giving a body a time to put a word in. Just telling `em, not caring whether or not the person wanted to hear what he had to say."
"Stop," Steve said, this time audibly. He could hear his mom start crying behind him.
"Anyhow, he kept talking this crazy talk for about a week or so before one of us decided to get worried about it. It was getting to be a real pain to buy anything from him `cuz he�d always start telling you some story about the war, or what the dog did when she was a puppy or what not. We was wondering what was causing it and hoping it didn�t ever happen to us so we called in the pharmacist. What was his name?"
Ike paused and scratched his head. The heat of the desert sun was causing beads of sweat to fall down his red face. Marcy stood behind Steve in disbelief as this strange person told his seemingly pointless tale.
"Oh yah, Herbert P. Longwater. He had a son, Johnson, that later took over. Boy went to a college back east he did. Cost him about 10,000 dollars I remember him saying. Anyhow, Herbert tried to figure out just exactly what in the world was going on with ol� Lewis. Herb decided it couldn�t be the vapors or poor man�s elbow or the itchy pancreas, but it was something. He couldn�t figure it out. The only medication Lewis ever took were these pills the pharmacist gave him to help him with his memory. But of course that couldn�t have been the cause `cuz me and about every other person in this town had been taking the same thing, and have continued to take it until this day. After the pharmacist died, his son took over and he --"
Ike had spoken his final word. Steve�s finger pulled hard against the trigger of the gun. Marcy, who had been watching and listening in silence, let out a scream as Ike�s chest blew open. Jeb, meanwhile, was wasting no time. His legs were quickly carrying him down 138, away from the station. Steve pointed the gun at the fleeing man and pulled the trigger again. Nothing happened. Jeb and Ike really were in need of ammunition.
Marcy was in shock. She gasped for air and tried to think of what to say. Nothing had been making sense from the moment she left the bathroom. Steve guided her into the passenger seat of the Chevy in silence. He could not think of any quick way of explaining what had been happening. There was one person who did know what to say.
"Why is Steve driving?" the eight year old Lillian asked. She was small, blonde, and surprising intelligent for her age. She did very well in school academically, it was the social aspect that gave her problems.
"Don�t worry Lillian," Steve responded calmly. "Just going to get grandma. We�re going to get her out of this town."
The answer pleased Lillian and she felt no reason to ask anything more. She had slept through the entire gas station ordeal, and thus was oblivious to the danger her family was in.
Steve started the car and drove down 138 toward his grandmother�s house. His mind was filled with a thousand questions and worries. Could she be saved? Would this terrible drug wear off? Was the pill making these people mean as well as long-winded?
This self interrogation came to a sudden halt as Steve heard the noise. It was a low and distant hum, almost inaudible, coming from up the road. Steve rolled down the window and stuck his head out, straining his ears to make out the source of the noise. As the boy drove on the noise became clearer, and Steve realized what it was.
"What is that, Steve?" Lillian asked, gaining interest. "It sounds like..."
"A crowd," Steve said, finishing for his sister. "A mob of eighty year old zombies to be exact. All wanting to avenge the death of their beloved gas station attendant."
Lillian was perplexed. What in the world was he talking about? Boys are so weird. Her confusion was only momentary. As the brown Chevy came into town, the crowd became visible. It was just as Steve said. A giant swarm of old people came toward the car, each one speaking. Each one telling an irritating story. Jeb stood in front of the massive obnoxious army, laughing, and holding a giant Winchester rifle in his hand. Steve swerved, trying to avoid the inevitable hail of bullets that would be entering the car�s windshield. Unfortunately for Steve, Jeb had different plans. The car�s tires were quickly flattened by the lumps of lead lodged inside of them, forcing the teen to stop the car.
"What�s going on, mom?!" Lillian screamed. Marcy was beyond words. No amount of therapy would ever get her to answer that question.
"Get out of the car, both of you!" Steve ordered, opening his door and stepping out.
The entire mob lurched forward, coming toward the Westmoreland family. Steve could hear bits of what the people were saying. He made out one male voice shout, "I remember the time that old Zeke was sick and..." Steve screamed. The whole town really was taking this memory pill. The boy took his sister by the hand and began running down the highway away from the town. He looked back over his shoulder and realized his mother was not coming with them. In fact, she was going toward the crowd.
"Mom, what are you doing?" Steve yelled to her.
"I see grandma!" she screamed back.
Steve released his grip from Lillian�s hand and sprinted back toward the car. He knew the time he had to save his mom was very limited. When he reached the car he threw open the driver�s door and felt under the seat. His hand touched metal and the boy sighed in relief. The gun kept under the cushion for emergencies was still there, unused. The boy turned his attention back toward the crowd and spotted his mom among the other people.
"Don�t mom! It�s not really grandma! It�s not the woman you remember!" Steve warned. His words fell on deaf ears. Suddenly the crowd became silent, he could hear only the dialogue between his mother and grandmother.
"I remember the time your father built a radio out of chicken coop wire and a couple of rusty nails. He was the first man that ever built an electric radio in the western hemisphere. Might call him a hero, you might. Speaking of heroes, I made you some of the Tang you like. Here Marcy, drink it like a good girl. That�s my Marcy."
Steve screamed, but it was too late. His mom had begun drinking it. He knew what his grandma had done. She had put that damn pill into the glass of Tang. God, this had been one crappy day. He walked slowly over to his mom to face the inevitable.
"Hi Stevie boy!" Marcy said as her son approached. "I was just thinking of that time when you were five and you wet your bed. Remember that, honey? When you wet the bed? And then you came to me and felt really guilty about it and wanted to..." Her eyes suddenly closed tightly and then reopened. Her expression had changed. "Kill me, Steve," she whispered.
"I can�t mom!" he said, tears flowing from his eyes.
"Kill me!" she demanded. A smile spread across her face. "Anyway, you were so cute when you did a big poopie in your pants and wanted to show it to me and I remember that I..."
Steve shot his mother in the face. She fell lifelessly to the ground. The mob began to speak again, making Steve scream in terror as he heard 500 endless stories simultaneously. He ran toward his sister, shooting behind him without looking. When he reached the sobbing girl he scooped her up with one arm and ran toward the nearest building. He could sense the mob was making slow but steady progress behind them. Within seconds the door to the unmarked building was opened and Steve and Lillian entered. They closed the door quickly and locked it. They both sighed in relief and turned around to see where exactly they were. Lillian fainted instantly. Steve�s mouth dropped. There were just as many old people inside the building as there were outside. He looked at the plaque hanging on the wall across from him and read it in disbelief: "Herbet Longwater Memorial Convalescent Home".
Steve began to cry as the crowd moved in.
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