Friday, October 24, 2008

Halloween project 3

(As promised, here is part 3. It's a bit rough. I had a harder time getting to the end. Blogger also isn't cooperating on format. What else is new? But I'm still completely digging the project. At some point, I may expand this some. Some of the characters of these little stories are starting to introduce themselves. I can see them much clearer. Anyway, enough of the chatter. Thanks for reading.)

part 3: The tale of Fry Cook Bob -scene 1

It's the same dream every night now...

Fry Cook Bob is running for his life. Down the hill and through the woods, tripping and stumbling like the fat oaf he is, Bob needs to get to the road. He needs to get help. The green branches scourge his skin. He feels the pain and the overwhelming dread of what's behind him, what's chasing him off the side of a mountain.

He's slow and fat from too many hamburgers, too many foot-long hotdogs with extra chili and onions. They don't call him Fry Cook Bob for nothing. Stupid old man. Can’t run fast enough. Can't run far enough. Can't run long enough.

He breaks through the trees and sees the road. There's a woman standing on the white line, cradling a baby in her arms. She looks so sad, like she wants to forgive him, but she just can't.

This is the dream that will be with him for the rest of his life.

The dreams started a couple of weeks after Jimmy Creevy, the owner of the Tastee Freeze and Bob's employer, snapped his neck on the basement stairs. After, the hamburger stand fell into the hands of Jimmy's wife, Nan, and her mother-in-law, Nadine. Nan and Nadine were great gals, great pals, but they were grieving over a husband and a son. It was a wonder the store was even open. Then their luck turned sour. Don Cooper, at Cooper’s Farms, their beef supplier for years, decided to raise his rates.

"Everything is going up," he said. "I can't be giving it away."

Nobody believed it. It was nothing but greed. He thought he could take advantage of two women. Nadine, who seldom had a bad word for anybody, told Cooper he could go take his hamburger and go to hell.

"We're going to have to get it somewhere," Bob told Nan.

"Well, of course. I know that," she said.

So, they went through Jimmy's notebook full of phone numbers; the same book his father had used. In a pinch, there had to be back-up suppliers. Such shortfalls were known to happen even in the best of times, which these weren't. In the book, they found Frank Pulaski.

"Frank?" Bob asked Nadine. "He any kin to Tom, the preacher? The one over at Holy Assembly?"

Early last summer, the preacher at Holy Assembly of the Believer, a snake handling church, had been bitten after a tent revival and taken ill. It was a terrible scandal. Pulaski quit and nobody had seen him since. It was a small town mystery.

"Now Bob,” Nadine asked, “how would I know something like that? I'm a Methodist."

Bob shrugged. He wasn’t much of regular churchgoer himself. He was just curious.

They phoned Frank. After introductions and explanations, Frank said yes, he and James Creevy did some business back fifteen years or so. There was some kind of falling out, though Pulaski was at a loss to explain why. Nadine didn't seem to care. Pulaski owned a small farm on the other side of the county, but was still closer than Cooper's Farm. He raised cattle and he was pleased to do business. Don Cooper's loss was his gain.

"Ask him if he's any relation to Tom," Bob whispered.

Nadine covered the mouthpiece and told him she would do no such thing.

"You send me up an agreement and a schedule," he said. "And you can take a look at my animals, if you like."

"I'll have somebody up tomorrow morning." She looked at Bob. "Well, I guess it's up to you."

"Me?" He asked.

Nadine rolled her eyes.

"You were the one who wanted to know about whether he was kin to Tom Pulaski," she said. "You can ask yourself. All I need you to do is look around. If something looks funny, just come on back. I trust you."

"Nadine," he said. "I don't have a car."

"You can borrow Jimmy’s truck," she said.

Jimmy’s truck was an old heap Nadine’s stepson kept parked out back of the store. He’d spent his free time, and there wasn't much, tinkering with. It was less reliable than a politician and twice as ugly. Even the upholstery was coming apart. Jimmy kept a ratty blanket over the seat to hide the bare stuffing. Bob couldn't remember the last time Jimmy had started it up.

"Nadine, I don't have a driver's license."

As a paroled convict, Bob was forbidden from leaving the state without all kinds of permission. Getting a license just seemed like a waste of time.

She handed him the keys.

"I won't tell if you won't."

The next morning, on his way to the Pulaski farm, the truck, predictably, stalled out. After piddling with the engine for over an hour, and trying out half the tools in the toolbox under the seat, it miraculously returned to life. He had no idea what he did. It seemed to just make up its mind to go, not that it helped. On his way across the county, he got lost and spent another hour and a half looking for the wrong mailbox on the wrong road. By the time he got to the farm, it was afternoon. Nobody was home. There wasn't so much as a stray cat sleeping on the porch.

"Well, now what?"

Bob parked the truck in the road, between the small, one story house and the barn fifty feet away. The edge of a fenced field was further up the mountain. He didn’t see any cattle. Well, there was the barn. He figured he could at least take a look at the cows and get an idea of what he had. If they looked okay, he could just leave the agreement on the porch.

He strolled over to the barn. Nothing was locked down so he slid the bar from the latch and eased the door open. The last thing he wanted to do was have to go chase after cows.

What he saw stopped his breath. In the center of the room, a young, bruised and very pregnant woman squatted on the floor. She was collared, like a dog, and chained to a post. She hid behind bound hands and cowered from the light behind him. There was a gag in her mouth. She looked up at him fearfully, helplessly, expecting the worst.

"Hey, Miss,” he said. “Wait a second. I'm." He looked away, stunned by what was before him. He'd seen some ugly things in his time. He'd done some ugly things, but he'd never laid eyes on anything like this. He shook his head, then asked, "Can I help you?"

She seemed doubtful, distrustful, but didn't run when he approached. There was nowhere to go. The chain only gave her a few feet in any direction.

Fry Cook Bob's fingers were thick, scarred and awkward. He'd burned them a thousand times by now, could barely feel the tips, but he made them nimble. He pulled and tugged and freed the girl's mouth.

She coughed then spat. Under the dirt, he guessed she might be eighteen, maybe not even that.

"Who are you?" He asked. "What are you doing here?"

Horror and agony welled up in her eyes, but no tears. There were none left by now. She opened her mouth wide and pointed. She only had her teeth --most of them, anyway.

"Who did this?"

The answer was behind him, in the modest house with green curtains. He was a fool for asking.

"Hang on a second. Let me get something to cut you loose."

In the toolbox, he found an old box cutter. The blade was rusted, but it was sharp enough to free her hands. The collar took more effort, but it came loose.

She grunted, pointed at herself then drew the name "Kathy" on the ground. She pointed at the house across the way, started to write something, then scratched it out. There wasn't enough dirt to explain.

"We're getting out of here now," he said.

He picked her up into his arms. Except for the swollen belly, she was all skin and bones; barely weighed anything at all. He carried out of the barn and pushed the door closed behind him. She didn't need to look in there ever again. He put her in the truck then gave her the blanket from over the cracked and split vinyl seat. She wouldn't complain about the smell. He climbed behind the wheel on the other side, but the engine remained silent.

Angry and panicked, she kicked the floor and hammered the dash with her grubby, raw palms. He didn’t try to calm her. Bob took a deep breath, then tried again, but the engine was dead. The young woman slumped in the seat, hopeless. He put his hand out to her and touched her shoulder to calm her, to soothe her. It was going to be alright. They were not sunk. This was going to turn out fine.

"He's got a phone. We'll call for help."

Kathy looked at him and managed a grotesque smile that for the sake of pity, he managed to return.

"Come on," he said.

She looked at the house then shook her head: no thanks. She’d already seen it and didn’t want to go back.

"Kathy," he said. "It’s easier for me to protect you, if you’re where I am."

This was a fact: Pulaski might come back. There wasn’t any choice.

"We're just going to use the phone,” he told her. “And look for a gun."

The front door wasn't even locked. With the nearest neighbor a couple of miles away, it wasn't really necessary. Burglary gets harder the farther away from people you get and the homeowners tend to keep guns. This was what Bob was counting on. They crept in softly while a grandfather clock tapped out the seconds, counting them one after the other. The whole place was very clean, but staged like a department store window. The furniture looked new. The pictures on the wall were Sunday School prints of handsome, smiling Jesus working miracles and talking to children. In this place, it was a mocking perversion.

He didn't see a phone, but there had to be one somewhere. Nadine called here just yesterday. He looked around, while Kathy stood motionless, afraid to go further than just inside the door. The phone was in the bedroom, sitting on the nightstand next to the bd. Beside of it, there was a framed picture of two men. Bob had never laid eyes on Frank Pulaski before, wouldn't even know his voice, but he recognized the other man. It was Tom Pulaski, the former preacher at Holy Assembly.

He picked up the receiver and dialed the Tastee Freeze. Nadine picked up on the fourth ring.

"Nadine," he said. "This is Bob. I'm up at the Pulaski place." Nadine started to talk, to complain. He was late for work, but he cut her off. "Call the sheriff. Get him over here as fast you can. Something bad is going on up here."

"Bob, what are you talking about?"

He thought about how she'd just lost her son. He couldn't bring himself to tell her.

"Please," he said. "Just call him. Get him up here now."

He hung up. There wasn't time to talk. Frank would be back. He wouldn't stay gone forever. Bob needed to find a gun.

It should have been easy. This far out, everybody kept at least a rifle. He checked through every closet, even looked under the bed, but didn't find anything. He pulled open dresser drawers, yanked out neatly folded clothes and old photographs. The closest thing he came to finding a weapon was a shoebox full of arrowheads and an old knife with a long iron blade and a bone handle.

"They're on their way," he called out. Nadine wouldn't let him down.

He took the knife; just in case.

He helped Kathy back into the truck, then tried the ignition again. Not a damned thing. He popped the hood. Maybe he'd get lucky again, but then standing out by the bumper, he heard the slow rumble of tires grinding gravel. The owners of the farm had come home. He had to stall them until the sheriff got here.

He looked over at Kathy then handed her the knife. He took a flat head screwdriver from the tool box, shoved it in between his belly and jeans, threw his shirt over it. He stepped out of the truck.

"Stay down," he told her. “Keep the blanket over you and don’t move.”

Frank Pulaski was a small, balding man in boots and stained overalls. He had big meaty hands used to hard work. His face was tanned and creased like old leather. The preacher stepped out from the other side of the truck. No one in the county had seen the man in over a year. Dressed now all in black, Tom Pulaski looked as if he’d aged thirty years. He was wiry thin, but not frail. His pale sheen was as if the sun’s rays refused to touch him. Frank’s mouth was a thick, dull line. Tom’s smile was broad and leering. He held out his hand, a greeting Bob was loathe to meet.

“Hello preacher, ” he said. “My name is Bob. I’m Nadine’s hired man.”

Tom Pulaski enjoyed the recognition.

“Have you been waiting long?” He asked.

“No,” Bob said. “No, not at all. I was late. The truck.” He pointed to the old heap behind him. “It’s on loan and not particularly reliable.”

Tom nodded. Of course. Frank simply stared.

“Have you had a chance to look around?” Tom asked.

Bob shook his head.

“No, I just got here and my engine died on me.”

The preacher walked over to the truck.

"Bad luck, that," he said. "If you need, Frank can give you a ride back into town. After he shows you the cows."

“Mr. Pulaski, can I be honest with you?”

Tom chuckled, amused.

“By all means.”

“Nadine.” He shrugged. “She’s a good lady, but with the troubles with Jimmy…”

“Ah, yes,” the preacher said thoughtfully. “It was a terrible tragedy. So young.”

“I think I’ve seen as much as I need to.” He retrieved the simple agreement from his back pocket, handed it over to Frank. It was all laid out. “You can look at it when you want, bring it with you after you drop off our first order.”

“Oh, no,” Tom said. “It’s a matter of faith –good faith. You have faith that my cousin can deliver what he says. It’s very admirable. We must return that trust. Frank, go fetch some of your cows.”

Frank shrugged then started off toward the field.

“While he brings you his stock,” the preacher said. “Can I show you something else?” He looked up in the sky, seemingly for inspiration. “I'll show you where we process everything. We do everything out back, in the cellar, but it's very clean."

These were very dangerous men. He knew that, but he was a good head taller than the preacher and easily a hundred pounds heavier. Frank was just an old farmer, but he plodded slow and stiffly. Bob wasn't a young man by any stretch of the imagination, but he could handle himself. He could do that even before he did fourteen years in Moundsville.

"I'd like to see that," he told him. "Cleanliness is next to Godliness. That's what they say, right?"

"Yes," the preacher beamed. "That's exactly what they say."

Anything to keep them from the house. Anything to keep them from the truck and from Kathy. Anything to keep them busy and waiting until the police arrived. If the crazy pastor tried anything, he'd stick him with the screwdriver.

He followed Tom around back. He led him down the steps, then pushed the door and ushered him in.

“Watch your step.”

Light streamed in from narrow, green glass windows, casting a murky glow. Weird symbols were painted on the panes, meaningless to him, but they inked bizarre shadows on the debris-strewn floor. The whole place smelled of rot and sickness.

Bob coughed from the stench and reached for the screwdriver.

“What have you got down here?”

“Just what the girl didn’t show you.” Tom said. "You forgot to put the bar back on the barn door."

Tom next to him, but waited. He wanted him to see this. It was a underground compost heap, a nest of broken furniture and garbage. Illuminated by the filtered light, covered in corruption and dirt, a pile of puzzling shapes he did not recognize. Among them, something small stared back through the hollow sockets of doll-sized skulls.

"Oh, Jesus," he whispered.

Something under the trash moved. He saw its sleek, iridescent flesh slither under the rags. Its painted scales flashed in the swamp light. He heard its belly scrape against the dirt and rustle amidst the refuse, then watched in terrible awe as the thing lifted its head to look at him.

"Behold, the wisdom of the serpent," Pulaski said.

Bob could not turn away. The great snake looked into him. It gazed, not like a hungry animal, but with inhuman contempt. Tom gripped the screwdriver and slipped it out.

“There, there,” Tom said and clapped a cold hand on Bob’s shoulder. “Don’t struggle. There is so much more to show you.”

The snake edged toward him, glaring, but the preacher’s grip held him firm. Bob could not move away. He swung at the preacher and felt the sharp point sink into flesh, but the man only laughed.

With a cold hiss, the snake raised up, bared its long fangs and plunged into Bob's shoulder. It was over quick, but the pain was exquisite. Oily, black poison oozed from the wound, taking with it all of his resistance. His fingers loosened. The screwdriver clanked to the cement floor. The room teetered and Bob fell to meet it.

He woke up a day later in Nadine’s house. The sheriff’s deputies, she said, found him lying drunk and passed out in Frank Pulaski’s yard. To celebrate the new business deal, Frank had cracked open a bottle of his best homebrew. There was nothing wrong with the spirit, Frank said. He’d had a glass himself, but Bob had shown no restraint. He’d swallowed half a bottle and gone crazy.

“You shouldn’t have been drinking,” Nadine told him. “You nearly scared me with that call. I didn’t know what to think.”

He was just drunk so the deputies brought him to Nadine. Nadine felt responsible for sending him up on the errand in the first place. She remembered Bob had tried to talk her out of it. She should have known better so she agreed to keep him until he sobered up.

“What about the girl?” Bob asked and winced. His head and neck hurt something fierce.

Nadine said there hadn’t been a girl. It had just been the two of them, unless he thought old Frank was a girl.

Bob could barely remember anything. The whole day seemed a blur, like a strange and frightening dream that clung to him.

Mr. Pulaski was very understanding about the whole thing. A small farmer had to take whatever business he could get.

“Lucky for us,” she said. “He’s got mouths to feed.”

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