by S.D. Hintz
"Lowry? Did you hear somebody
sneaking around the halls last night? Sometime around dawn?"
"If I did, I sure as hell
don't remember." Lowry Spaller ran his fingers through the last strands of his off-white hair as they passed a parked, weather-beaten
school bus with a row of broken windows.
"Well, damned if my eyes failed
me," Jebsom Bodner said. He furrowed his brow at the bus. "There was a little kid shining lights in the hallway.”
Lowry raised his bushy brows.
He wondered if his friend had finally gone senile. "I could ask Gretta if you want. She’s a goddamn insomniac, you know.
Although, she’s deaf in one ear. She wouldn’t hear a twelve gauge go off over the Late Show.”
"If I think of it when we
get back, I'll head on up and ask her." Jebsom rubbed the impending sleep from his eyes, puffed his cigar, and then dropped
the butt down a sewer grate. "Right about now I need my coffee."
"Crowley's Corner it is,"
Lowry replied as they approached the candy-striped diner.
"Those two blocks seem to
stretch a mile more everyday," Jebsom said as they entered through the cobwebbed, glass double doors. "I don't know how much
longer my old legs can take it."
"Starbucks is only a block."
Lowry followed Jebsom past the warped “Please Seat Yourself” sign. “Sooner or later you need to leave those
frigging Depends at home. There’s a whole new world out there. Cappuccinos, lattes, a helluva lot more colorful than
a cup of darkness.”
"I told you, I’m too
old for teenage hangouts. Go on without me if you’re so hip. Go get a nose ring and an iPod while you’re at it.”
“Maybe I will, smartass.
One of us needs to use those shriveled up balls.”
Jebsom and Lowry sat at their
usual table by the bay window that overlooked a potholed Main Street. Crowley's Corner had the look of a truck stop. The floors
were faded black-and-white, checker tiles. The ceiling was rusted, corrugated steel with flickering, fluorescent light bulbs
webbed with lifelike spiders. The paneled walls were a yellowed collage of newspaper clippings, “Man Walks on Moon”
and the like. At the far end of the diner was a long, blood red counter lined with silver swivel stools that were long overdue
for a dose of WD-40. Surprisingly, it was empty, though one could picture barrel-chested men in plaid and suspenders bent
over the counter as they inhaled soups and sandwiches.
Jebsom crossed his arms and
leaned back in his chair. Lowry buried his face in a menu. Kelly, their usual witty waitress, was nowhere in sight. Jebsom
turned and gazed out the window beyond the black cat decals. Japanese cars passed by, blared horns, and screeched tires en
route to the American Dream. Oftentimes, Jebsom felt as if the world strung him along like a tangled yo-yo. Nothing was American
anymore. His Cuban cigars were made in China. Companies across the board catered to teenagers. Everything had become overwhelming.
He was surprised he could still order his coffee black, free of Irish Cream or French Vanilla.
"So, what do you say, Jeb?”
Lowry shut his menu and set it on the table. “Do I order toast and hope it’s toasted or do I order hash browns
and hope they’re brown? It’s always a frigging toss-up.”
"Have what you had yesterday,”
Jebsom said. “I want my coffee. Where’s that woman at?”
“Maybe her old man kicked
the shit out of her again.” Lowry flashed a toothless grin. “Ah, if only to be young and senseless.”
“What was that, you
bag of bones?” Kelly tapped her pencil on her notepad as she hovered over Lowry. Her white bunny ears swayed in her
blond hair. “I hope you’re hungry, cause the special today is Lowry’s Shit Sandwich.”
replied. “I’ll have one of those and a side order of ass browns.”
“Keep talking shit and
that’s what you’re gonna get.”
tucked the notepad into her greasy apron. “No sandwich?”
“It’s the special,”
Lowry said, “cause it’s for me. Ain’t that right, sugar?”
“If you two weren’t
walking corpses, I’d have Big Bertha wait on you. You’re lucky you tip well.”
“Just enough to keep
that meter running.” Kelly picked up the menus and walked away with a grin. “We’re made for each other,
Jeb. She’s young, I’m stupid. She’s blond, I was blond once. We’re like cream and coffee.”
“If you don’t
mind,” Jebsom replied, “I’ll keep my coffee black. I’m too old for excitement.”
Jebsom turned at the tug on
his sleeve. His jaw dropped as if he had been slugged in his swagbelly. A child dressed in a black cowl stood beside the table.
It was faceless, a complexion of blackness. It raised its small arm, extended a crooked finger, and then giggled.
“Jeb?” Lowry said.
“You ever notice how we’re the only old farts that eat here? Why the hell do they all hang out at the Legion anyways?”
Jeb looked over his shoulder.
He fell out of his chair. He clutched his chest, bug-eyed. Lowry jumped up from his seat. Jeb was plastered to the floor like
trampled chewing gum. A veering school bus crashed through the bay window. Jeb cried out as the monstrous vehicle plowed through
their table and roared over him.
“Jeb! Jeb! Snap out
of it, you crazy bastard!”
Jeb blinked. Lowry clutched
him by the shirt collar. Jeb glanced about his surroundings. The table was upright and the window was unbroken. The faceless
child in the costume had disappeared amongst the small crowd of customers that crouched near his head.
stammered. He slowly sat up and shook his head. He took a deep breath as the tightness subsided in his chest. “I’ll
take that cup of coffee now.”
* * * *
Jeb apologized to Lowry for
his antics and told him for the hundredth time that he did not need to see a doctor. After all, he was a grown man and had
suffered worse in his youth. He convinced himself that it was merely a mild chest pain attributed to his recent upgrade to
He turned his back on Lowry
and entered the apartment building. He still could not shake the strange images from his head. Was he on the verge of senility?
His seventy-four-year-old brain had probably reached maximum capacity; the Generation X changes pushed him to mental overload.
But what did the visions mean? The child in the cowl, the school bus, the red light. Was there any significance to them? Were
there any parallels? He guessed he was on death’s doorstep. Maybe his fate was vehicular homicide.
Jeb rubbed his bloodshot eyes.
The coffee had failed to energize him for the first time in a long while. He crossed the cracked linoleum and ascended the
stairs. He thought of last night’s disturbance. It was possible Gretta had heard the ruckus. She lived in 227, right
next door to Dan Garrett. Then again, maybe it made more sense to ask Dan himself, since the strange, red light shone from
beneath his door. He barely knew the guy, though. He knew he worked two full-time jobs. In the evenings, he was a custodian.
In the mornings, he was a…school bus driver.
Jeb paused on the second floor
landing. The vision at the diner blinded him. He rubbed his eyes hard and stared down the shadowy hall. Apartment 228 was
straight ahead. He had to ask Dan. Something in the back of his mind told him that Dan would have the answers.
The floorboards creaked beneath
Jeb’s feet as he passed his own door. He recalled the kid in the black cowl, the faceless kid. It had disappeared in
the red light, right about where he walked now. He glanced at Gretta’s door. It was decorated with a linen ghost, the
faceless kind with the hollow eye slits. He immediately disregarded the thought of disturbing her. It was Dan that he needed
to speak to.
He stopped at the threshold
of apartment 228. He held his breath and listened. All was silent. He knocked three times. There was a loud thud within, then
a clattering of metal.
“Dan? It’s Jeb.
Jeb Bodner from 226.”
The deadbolt clacked and the
chain rattled. The door shrieked open. Dan Garrett stared up at Jeb. He was a short, middle-aged man with a monster truck
tire midsection. His straggly, pepper hair was tousled and sweat dripped from his dimpled forehead to his bushy, black goatee.
He was teary-eyed and clutched the doorframe as if he might lose his balance at any moment.
“Everything okay, Dan?
You don’t look so good.”
Dan’s hands slipped
from the frame and flopped at his sides. He stared down at the threshold and shook his head. He looked up as the tears mingled
with the trickling sweat.
“They didn’t make
it today,” he said. His monotone voice cracked on the last word. He shuffled his feet, then stepped back. “Maybe
it’s summer vacation…or Labor Day.”
Dan,” Jeb replied as worry wriggled up his spine.
Even though he rarely saw
his neighbor, the man never looked this bad. He never seemed so eccentric, so guilty. He sounded as if he was making excuses.
“Dispatch keeps callin’,
Jeb. They know I ain’t checked in. They know…Kimmy and Christa ain’t in class. I couldn’t help myself,
Jeb. I just couldn’t.”
“What did you do?”
Jeb was beside himself. He read between the lines. His neighbor had done something horrible, something he regretted. “What’s
going on here, Dan?”
Jeb shoved Dan aside and charged
into his apartment. The curtains were knotted shut and cast the living room in a dusty darkness. A pair of pink backpacks
were strewn across the trash-littered floor. Jeb’s gaze roved to the corner of the room. He stepped over the backpacks.
Two young girls squirmed in ladder-backs. Their hands and feet were bound with rope. Both were in costume. The left girl wore
a black cowl and the right a pirate outfit. The girl in the cowl had a black nylon stocking stretched over her face.
“Jesus Christ, Dan.
What the hell have you done?”
Jeb turned, but his neighbor
was gone. The front door was shut tight…and locked.
A red glint caught the corner
of his eye. He whirled. A light blinked on near the front door. Dan held a broken stop arm blade. It had a faded stop sign
on the end that was a jagged crescent with a cracked reflector. Jeb backpedaled. Dan swung the stop arm, missed Jeb by a good
foot, and then stumbled head over heels.The kids, Jeb thought. I have to get them out of here!He turned and crossed the living
room. He heard a clang behind him and glanced over his shoulder. The red light blinded him. The stop arm slammed against his
head. He collapsed to the floor.
“Dispatch keeps callin’,”
Dan sputtered. “Soon they’ll be knockin’. I can’t have you tattletalin’.” He dropped the
stop arm on the kitchen table. “I couldn’t help myself. I couldn’t help myself, damn you!”
Jeb clung to consciousness.
Blood trickled near his crow’s feet. He pushed himself up to his hands and knees. He looked up. His heart stammered.
A crowd of children clad in black cowls stood before him. Black nylons distorted their faces and silver exacto knives glinted
in their hands.
let me bring ‘em here, Jeb,” Dan said. “But look at ‘em! How could I resist? They’re fascinating!
Old flesh freshens the youth, you know? I knew you’d come. You see one, you want to see the rest. Well, here they are.
Straight out of the basement classroom.”
“What the hell is this,
Dan?” Jeb clutched his chest. It felt as if his ribcage was crushing his heart. “Goddamn it! Call an ambulance!
Call an ambulance, damn you!”
“We’ll take the
Dan nodded. The throng of
children tilted their heads back. The nylons dissolved like an antacid and their hoods fell onto their shoulders. Jeb’s
jaw dropped through the floor. His last look on life before his heart collapsed was a cold-blooded collage: black skulls with
clumps of flesh dangling from sockets, exacto knifes plunging down, and Death towering over His children, arms outstretched
for the welcoming of a lost soul.