Copyright St Rooster Books/Tim Murr 2017
The rain had not brought relief from the heat, but instead made the night more uncomfortable. His clothes clung to his skin and it was impossible to sit still in the booth of the Waffle House. The restaurant sat just off I-40 in Newport TN and he’d been stopping in all hours of the night for weeks. He’d order meager meals and sip endless cups of coffee. Waiting for the end of the world.
Sometimes, he’d go into one of the rest stops between there and the North Carolina border-just to sit in one of the bathroom stalls and make himself vulnerable. He’d stay until his legs fell asleep and then get up to drive more. He haunted that stretch of I-40, seen by thousands of travelers, spoken to by few. He’d park his car at gas stations and truck stops and just stare through the windshield for hours.
He used to be called Johnny MacReady, but that was back when he had a life, a home, a wife. These days, he had a car and a bunch of cash, and all the time in the world. His sensible and affordable sedan that he’d picked out with his wife was dirty and worn out. The backseat littered with clothes and pictures. Evidence that he once existed in the traditional ways of everyday humans.
A few times a week, just before dawn, he’d take an exit that had the remnants of a long closed truck stop at the base of the hill. The vast parking lot was cracked and weedy and garbage strewn. The building was squat and dark under the skeleton of the sign. The windows were cracked or broken with several ‘no trespassing’ signs posted. He’d park by the road where the car had once broke down and let the sun come upon him from over the mountains.
This spot was the last place his wife had been alive. This was as far as the car had made it. Another mile and she would have been at a functioning gas station that was open twenty-four hours a day. Her fate, though, was to coast to a stop at this derelict truck stop at three in the morning. Cell phone reception was spotty at best and she had made no contact with anyone. The police found the car the next day, key in the ignition, purse on the passenger seat untouched, door open, and a little blood on the steering wheel. The man that used to be Johnny was called to come see the vehicle as a search was began. She was gone though and would never be found.
Her name had been Cassandra and she had been flesh and blood-kindness and warmth-funny and resourceful. Now she was a faded black and white photo on a bulletin board under the words ‘Have You Seen This Woman?’ She was in good company there, with Margaret Simmons, Iris Wayne, Sonja Johnson, Victoria Woods, Suzanne Nichols, Wanda Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Eaton, and a few others that had been taken from the board or covered up by the other posts. The posts went back years with no pattern in the timing, but had in common this stretch of I-40.
The man that used to be Johnny had, on occasion, seen a couple of other men, waiting and watching with that far off look that he had himself. He knew they each had known one of the women from those posters. He knew they were lonely, hurt, and haunted like him, but they all kept their distance and would eventually disappear into the dawns and not be seen again.
Before he took to the road, he had haunted his own home, leaving the phone off the hook and not answering the door. Sympathetic eyes and hugs were never going to bring her back. He searched the Internet while waiting for the cops to tell him nothing of substance, that’s when he found out about the other women. No one had officially connected the women’s disappearances, but the pattern was there, stretching back to at least 1989. They were spread too far apart, but they all bore a striking resemblance to one another. All the women who’d gone missing could practically be sisters. One anonymous widow pointed out that man behind all the disappearances has a clear type and is patient enough to wait for the right woman to come along under the right circumstances. He’s not sloppy or impulsive and bodies never turn up. The closest thing to a clue that was ever found was the sighting of a red pick up truck seen near one of the victim’s cars, but that was back in 1994.
The man that used to be Johnny didn’t particularly watch for red pick up trucks- that would be too easy. Instead, he watched for eyes. He knew there’d be a certain type. He didn’t know what type, but felt sure he would recognize it when he saw them.
The rain had been bad. Flash flood warnings were in effect for the greater Newport area. Thunder rolled and lightning flashed and visibility was poor. The big yellow Waffle House sign had glowed like a beacon of hope from the intestate and he’d parked the car as close to the door as possible. The place was nearly empty, just a few weary travelers waiting out the thunderstorm. The waitress was friendly, but distant in a pleasing way. She recognized the man, as he’d been in that very booth many times. She never pried into his life, because she found such a thing inappropriate.
He’d scanned the room upon entering and found no one out of place or of interest. There had been one blind spot though, a booth. He could tell it was occupied by a woman on her own, but she was obscured by a beefy, bald man in a dress shirt and tie who sat with a shorter, but no less beefy, bald man in a short sleeved button up shirt and a clip-on tie. The two of them dominated the room with their loud and gruff talk about territory, zone meetings, growth, and all the inept salesmen under their weary watch. They were unpleasant and rude and when they finally went to get back on the road, despite the ongoing down pour, there was a collective sigh of relief.
Once they were gone, the man had a clear view of the woman and his heart began to race. She had a pretty face, with round cheeks, and a bright smile. She had dark blonde hair, nice curves, and dressed comfortably in a t-shirt, knee length skirt and tennis shoes. She looked slightly too old to be a college student, she had no ring on her finger, and she was a dead ringer for Cassandra. No jewelry, no visible tattoos, little make up. She was engrossed in a book, absently picking from a plate of French fries. Occasionally she’d look out the window and check her phone. He figured she must be waiting for the storm to pass, but was in no hurry. A night owl, probably, as she didn’t look tired like the rest of the people here. He thought about how Cassandra would curl up with a book, how she would have an unwavering smile when she was really deep into it.
He, the man who used to be called Johnny, knew that he, the man who stole women from this stretch of I-40, would choose her. So he finished a fourth cup of coffee, paid, and ran to his car. He backed to far end of the parking lot near the entrance and sank down to give the appearance of sleeping if anyone were to look in on him.
The rain continued for another hour. There were little ponds across the parking lot and the drainage ditch running down the hill had become wild rapids. Every time lightning would strike the sky would become purple behind the black silhouette of the mountains.
After the rain had slacked to a drizzle, the woman got up and paid. He scanned the parking lot, but nothing moved. The cars were empty. He guessed which car was hers-the dark blue, sensible and affordable sedan. The alarm chirped on that very car as she came out the door, walking toward it. He wondered if it would happen here, or if he’d have to follow her for a while. She’d probably be safe in Knoxville or in North Carolina, depending on which way she was going. Her plates said Cook County, so she wasn’t likely local.
Her car was just off to the left of the building’s front corner. She walked casually and confidently, looking around for safety’s sake, but not afraid. Then something shifted in the darkness behind her as she went around the front of her car. He put his hand on the handle and got ready.
A round man with a bulbous head sunk into his shoulders crept out of the shadows. His arms were up and Johnny could see he had long spindly fingers. He walked with a strange gait that was almost a waddle. His face was obscured by darkness.
He slipped out of car, leaving the door open and quickly circled around them in a wide arc, staying out of eyesight. His heart was in throat as the man grabbed the woman from behind and started to pull her back to the shadows, but the man who used to be Johnny was already on top of him. He threw his arms around the man’s neck and yanked him back hard enough to throw all three of them off balance. The woman, who’d been unable to scream because of the hand over her mouth, broke free and bounced off the side of her car and sprawled out on the ground.
“Get inside! Call the police!”
She scrambled to her feet and ran headlong towards the door, falling once.
The man struggled under not-Johnny, trying to throw him off, but years of rage coursed through his body now as he wrenched the man’s neck, jerking him back and forth and finally slamming him on to the hood of that sensible and affordable sedan.
He let go of the neck and started raining fists down on the man’s head and back. The man tried to cover himself and crawl away, but not-Johnny began kicking him wildly and stomping on those weird, skinny, long legs, that didn’t look strong enough to hold up the fat torso.
The man was making pained, rasping noises between shrieks of pain. Not-Johnny took a step back and caught his breath, circling the man intending to kick him in the head. As he brought his right foot back for the blow, the man turned his head up to not-Johnny’s face and hissed.
The man once called Johnny went pale as the contents of his stomach rushed into his throat and the back of his mouth. The man had two massive black eyes that reflected the yellow sign behind not-Johnny’s head, but he had two more smaller black eyes on each cheek, and still two more medium sized ones in his forehead. Worst of all though, was the mouth; a wide vertical slit, and in the light, not-Johnny could see a spiral of razor like teeth down the pulsing, red cavern of his throat.
The man leapt to his feet with uncanny agility and bolted across the parking lot in a wild, serpentine path-his legs wide apart, moving in a half skip, half waddle-arms out-stretched, fingers wiggling manically.
He got his nerve back and chased the man. The man looked back with nothing in his eyes, just eternal voids. He was looking into the soul of his attacker, his pursuer, but that man was looking at the tractor-trailer that had just come down the off ramp. Not-Johnny came to a skidding stop as the man ran right into the path of the truck and exploded across the grill.
The truck came to a skidding stop in the middle of the road and it wasn’t long before sirens could be heard, screaming through the now still night.
|Murphy called me the punk rock Gandalf|