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  1. The Nightcrawler Movie

Nightcrawlers, fictional characters in video game F.E.A.R. Perseus Mandate. Night Crawler, a game by Rabbit Software. The Night Crawler, nickname of Shoshone, a Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad train. The Nightcrawler, a ring name of wrestler The Boogeyman. Yobai (Japanese, 'Night crawling'), an ancient Japanese custom of young unmarried.

Nightcrawlers
by
Robert R. McCammon
I

'Hard rain coming down,' Cheryl said, and I nodded in agreement.

Through the diner's plate-glass windows, a dense curtain of rainflapped across the Gulf gas pumps and continued across the parkinglot. It hit Big Bob's with a force that made the glass rattle likeuneasy bones. The red neon sign that said BIG BOB'S! DIESEL FUEL!EATS! sat on top of a high steel pole above the diner so the truckerson the interstate could see it. Out in the night, the red-tinted rainthrashed in torrents across my old pickup truck and Cheryl's baby-blueVolkswagen.

'Well,' I said, 'I suppose that storm'll either wash some folks inoff the interstate or we can just about hang it up.' The curtain ofrain parted for an instant, and I could see the treetops whipping backand forth in the woods on the other side of Highway 47. Wind whinedaround the front door like an animal trying to claw its way in. Iglanced at the electric clock on the wall behind the counter. Twentyminutes before nine. We usually closed up at ten, but tonight—withtornado warnings in the weather forecast—I was tempted to turn thelock a little early. 'Tell you what,' I said. 'If we're empty at nine,we skedaddle. 'Kay?'

'No argument here,' she said. She watched the storm for a momentlonger, then continued putting newly-washed coffee cups, saucers andplates away on the stainless steel shelves.

Lightning flared from west to east like the strike of a burningbullwhip. The diner's lights flickered, then came back to normal. Ashudder of thunder seemed to come right up through my shoes. LateMarch is the beginning of tornado season in south Alabama, and we'vehad some whoppers spin past here in the last few years. I knew thatAlma was at home, and she understood to get into the root cellarright quick if she spotted a twister, like that one we saw in '82dancing through the woods about two miles from our farm.

'You got any Love-Ins planned this weekend, hippie?' I asked Cheryl,mostly to get my mind off the storm and to rib her, too.

She was in her late-thirties, but I swear that when she grinned shecould've passed for a kid. 'Wouldn't you like to know,redneck?' she answered; she replied the same way to all my digs ather. Cheryl Lovesong—and I know that couldn't have been herreal name—was a mighty able waitress, and she had hands that were nostrangers to hard work. But I didn't care that she wore her longsilvery-blond hair in Indian braids with hippie headbands, or came towork in tie-dyed overalls. She was the best waitress who'd ever workedfor me, and she got along with everybody just fine—even us rednecks.That's what I am, and proud of it: I drink Rebel Yell whiskeystraight, and my favorite songs are about good women gone bad andtrains on the long track to nowhere. I keep my wife happy, I've raisedmy two boys to pray to God and to salute the flag, and if anybodydon't like it he can go a few rounds with Big Bob Clayton.

Cheryl would come right out and tell you she used to live in SanFrancisco in the late 'sixties, and that she went to Love-Ins andpeace marches and all that stuff. When I reminded her it was nineteeneighty-four and Ronnie Reagan was president, she'd look at me like Iwas walking cow-flop. I always figured she'd start thinking straightwhen all that hippie-dust blew out of her head.

Alma said my tail was going to get burnt if I ever took a shine toCheryl, but I'm a fifty-five-year-old redneck who stopped sowing hiswild seed when he met the woman he married, more than thirty yearsago.

Lightning crisscrossed the turbulent sky, followed by a boom ofthunder. Cheryl said, 'Wow! Look at that light-show!'

'Light-show, my ass,' I muttered. The diner was as solid as the GoodBook, so I wasn't too worried about the storm. But on a wild nightlike this, stuck out in the countryside like Big Bob's was, you had afeeling of being a long way off from civilization—though Mobile wasonly twenty-seven miles south. On a wild night like this, you had afeeling that anything could happen, as quick as a streak of lightningout of the darkness. I picked up a copy of the MobilePress-Register that the last customer—a trucker on his way toTexas—had left on the counter a half-hour before, and I startedplowing through the news, most of it bad: those A-rab countries werestill squabbling like Hatfields and McCoys in white robes; two men hadrobbed a Quik-Mart in Mobile and had been killed by the police in ashootout; cops were investigating a massacre at a motel near DaytonaBeach; an infant had been stolen from a maternity ward in Birmingham.The only good things on the front page were stories that said theeconomy was up and that Reagan swore we'd show the Commies who wasboss in El Salvador and Lebanon.

The diner shook under a blast of thunder, and I looked up from thepaper as a pair of headlights emerged from the rain into myparking-lot.


II


The headlights were attached to an Alabama State Trooper car.

'Half alive, hold the onion, extra brown the buns.' Cheryl was alreadywriting on her pad in expectation of the order. I pushed the paperaside and went to the fridge for the hamburger meat.

When the door opened, a windblown spray of rain swept in and stunglike buckshot. 'Howdy, folks!' Dennis Wells peeled off his grayrainslicker and hung it on the rack next to the door. Over his Smokeythe Bear trooper hat was a protective plastic covering, beaded withraindrops. He took off his hat, exposing the thinning blond hair onhis pale scalp, as he approached the counter and sat on his usualstool, right next to the cash-register. 'Cup of black coffee and arare--' Cheryl was already sliding the coffee in front of him, and theburger sizzled on the griddle. 'Ya'll are on the ball tonight!' Dennissaid; he said the same thing when he came in, which was almost everynight. Funny the kind of habits you fall into, without realizingit.

'Kinda wild out there, ain't it?' I asked as I flipped the burger over.

'Lordy, yes! Wind just about flipped my car over three, four milesdown the interstate. Thought I was gonna be eatin' a little pavementtonight.' Dennis was a husky young man in his early thirties, withthick blond brows over deep-set, light brown eyes. He had a wife andthree kids, and he was fast to flash a wallet-full of their pictures.'Don't reckon I'll be chasin' any speeders tonight, but there'llprobably be a load of accidents. Cheryl, you sure look pretty thisevenin'.'

'Still the same old me.' Cheryl never wore a speck of makeup, thoughone day she'd come to work with glitter on her cheeks. She had a placea few miles away, and I guessed she was farming that funny weed upthere. 'Any trucks moving?'

'Seen a few, but not many. Truckers ain't fools. Gonna get worsebefore it gets better, the radio says.' He sipped at his coffee andgrimaced. 'Lordy, that's strong enough to jump out of the cup anddance a jig, darlin'!'

I fixed the burger the way Dennis liked it, put it on a platter withsome fries and served it. 'Bobby, how's the wife treatin' you?' heasked.

'No complaints.'

'Good to hear. I'll tell you, a fine woman is worth her weight ingold. Hey, Cheryl! How'd you like a handsome young man for ahusband?'

Cheryl smiled, knowing what was coming. 'The man I'm looking forhasn't been made yet.'

'Yeah, but you ain't met Cecil yet, either! He asks me aboutyou every time I see him, and I keep tellin' him I'm doin' every thingI can to get you two together.' Cecil was Dennis's brother-in-law andowned a Chevy dealership in Bay Minette. Dennis had been ribbing Cherylabout going on a date with Cecil for the past four months. 'You'd likehim,' Dennis promised. 'He's got a lot of my qualities.'

'Well, that's different. In that case, I'm certain I don't wantto meet him.'

Dennis winced. 'Oh, you're a cruel woman! That's what smokin' bananapeels does to you—turns you mean. Anybody readin' this rag?' Hereached over for the newspaper.

'Waitin' here just for you,' I said. Thunder rumbled, closer to thediner. The lights flickered briefly once...then again before theyreturned to normal. Cheryl busied herself by fixing a fresh pot ofcoffee, and I watched the rain whipping against the windows. When thelightning flashed, I could see the trees swaying so hard they lookedabout to snap.

Dennis read and ate his hamburger. 'Boy,' he said after a few minutes,'the world's in some shape, huh? Those A-rab pig-stickers are itchin'for war. Mobile metro boys had a little gunplay last night. Good forthem.' He paused and frowned, then tapped the paper with one thickfinger. 'This I can't figure.'

'What's that?'

'Thing in Florida couple of nights ago. Six people killed at the PinesHaven Motor Inn, near Daytona Beach. Motel was set off in the woods.Only a couple of cinderblock houses in the area, and nobody heard anygunshots. Says here one old man saw what he thought was a bright whitestar falling over the motel, and that was it. Funny, huh?'

'A UFO,' Cheryl offered. 'Maybe he saw a UFO.'

'Yeah, and I'm a little green man from Mars,' Dennis scoffed. 'I'mserious. This is weird. The motel was so blown full of holes it lookedlike a war had been going on. Everybody was dead—evena dog and a canary that belonged to the manager. The cars out in frontof the rooms were blasted to pieces. The sound of one of themexplodin' was what woke up the people in those houses, I reckon.' Heskimmed the story again. 'Two bodies were out in the parkin' lot, onewas holed up in a bathroom, one had crawled under a bed, and two haddragged every piece of furniture in the room over to block the door.Didn't seem to help 'em any, though.'

I grunted. 'Guess not.'

'No motive, no witnesses. You better believe those Florida cops areshakin' the bushes for some kind of dangerous maniac—or maybe morethan one, it says here.' He shoved the paper away and patted theservice revolver holstered at his hip. 'If I ever got hold of him—orthem—he'd find out not to mess with a 'Bama trooper.' He glancedquickly over at Cheryl and smiled mischievously. 'Probably some crazyhippie who'd been smokin' his tennis shoes.'

'Don't knock it,' she said sweetly, 'until you've tried it.' Shelooked past him, out the window into the storm. 'Car's pullin' in,Bobby.'

Headlights glared briefly off the wet windows. It was a station-wagonwith wood-grained panels on the sides; it veered around the gas pumpsand parked next to Dennis's trooper car. On the front bumper was apersonalized license plate that said: Ray & Lindy . Theheadlights died, and all the doors opened at once. Out of the wagoncame a whole family: a man and a woman, a little girl and boy abouteight or nine. Dennis got up and opened the diner door as they hurriedinside from the rain.

All of them had gotten pretty well soaked between the station wagonand the diner, and they wore the dazed expressions of people who'dbeen on the road a long time. The man wore glasses and had curly grayhair, the woman was slim and dark-haired and pretty. The kids weresleepy-eyed. All of them were well-dressed, the man in a yellowsweater with one of those alligators on the chest. They had vacationtans, and I figured they were tourists heading north from the beachafter spring break.

'Come on in and take a seat,' I said.

'Thank you,' the man said. They squeezed into one of the booths nearthe windows. 'We saw your sign from the interstate.'

'Bad night to be on the highway,' Dennis told them. 'Tornado warningsare out all over the place.'

'We heard it on the radio,' the woman—Lindy, if the license wasright—said. 'We're on our way to Birmingham, and we thought we coulddrive right through the storm. We should've stopped at that HolidayInn we passed about fifteen miles ago.'

'That would've been smart,' Dennis agreed. 'No sense in pushin' yourluck.' He returned to his stool.

The new arrivals ordered hamburgers, fries and Cokes. Cheryl and Iwent to work. Lightning made the diner's lights flicker again, andthe sound of thunder caused the kids to jump. When the food was readyand Cheryl served them, Dennis said, 'Tell you what. You folks finishyour dinners and I'll escort you back to the Holiday Inn. Then you canhead out in the morning. How about that?'

'Fine,' Ray said gratefully. 'I don't think we could've gotten verymuch further, anyway.' He turned his attention to his food.

'Well,' Cheryl said quietly, standing beside me, 'I don't guess we gethome early, do we?'

'I guess not. Sorry.'

She shrugged. 'Goes with the job, right? Anyway, I can think of worseplaces to be stuck.'

I figured that Alma might be worried about me, so I went over to thepayphone to call her I dropped a quarter in—and the dial tonesounded like a cat being stepped on. I hung up and tried again. Thecat-scream continued. 'Damn!' I muttered. 'Lines must be screwedup.'

'Ought to get yourself a place closer to town, Bobby,' Dennis said.'Never could figure out why you wanted a joint in the sticks. At leastyou'd get better phone service and good lights if you were nearer toMo—'

He was interrupted by the sound of wet and shrieking brakes, and heswivelled around on his stool.

I looked up as a car hurtled into the parking lot, the tires swerving,throwing up plumes of water. For a few seconds I thought it was goingto keep coming, right through the window into the diner—but then thebrakes caught and the car almost grazed the side of my pickup as itjerked to a stop. In the neon's red glow I could tell it was a beatupold Ford Fairlane, either gray or a dingy beige. Steam was rising offthe crumpled hood. The headlights stayed on for perhaps a minutebefore they winked off. A figure got out of the car and walkedslowly—with a limp—toward the diner.

We watched the figure approach. Dennis'ss body looked like a coiledspring, ready to be triggered. 'We got us a live one, Bobby boy,' hesaid.


III


The door opened, and in a stinging gust of wind and raina man who looked like walking death stepped into my diner.

He was so wet he might well have been driving with his windows down.He was a skinny guy, maybe weighed all of a hundred and twentypounds, even soaking wet. His unruly dark hair was plastered to hishead, and he had gone a week or more without a shave. In his gaunt,pallid face his eyes were startlingly blue; his gaze flicked aroundthe diner, lingered for a few seconds on Dennis. Then he limped ondown to the far end of the counter and took a seat. He wiped the rainout of his eyes as Cheryl took a menu to him.

Dennis stared at the man. When he spoke, his voice bristled withauthority. 'Hey, fella.' The man didn't look up from the menu. 'Hey,I'm talkin' to you.'

The man pushed the menu away and pulled a damp packet of Kools out ofthe breast pocket of his patched Army fatigue jacket. 'I can hearyou,' he said; his voice was deep and husky, and didn't go with hisless-than-robust physical appearance.

'Drivin' kinda fast in this weather, don't you think?'

The man flicked a cigarette lighter a few times before he got a flame,then he lit one of his smokes and inhaled deeply. 'Yeah,' he replied.'I was. Sorry. I saw the sign, and I was in a hurry to get here. Miss?I'd just like a cup of coffee, please. Hot and real strong,okay?'

Cheryl nodded and turned away from him, almost bumping into me as Istrolled down behind the counter to check him out.

'That kind of hurry'll get you killed,' Dennis cautioned.

'Right. Sorry.' He shivered and pushed the tangled hair back from hisforehead with one hand. Up close, I could see deep cracks around hismouth and the corners of his eyes and I figured him to be in his latethirties or early forties. His wrists were as thin as a woman's; helooked like he hadn't eaten a good meal for more than a month. Hestared at his hands through bloodshot eyes. Probably on drugs, Ithought. The fella gave me the creeps. Then he looked at me with thoseeyes—so pale blue they were almost white—and I felt like I'dbeen nailed to the floor. 'Something wrong?' he asked—not rudely, justcuriously.

'Nope.' I shook my head. Cheryl gave him his coffee and then went overto give Ray and Lindy their check. The man didn't use either cream orsugar. The coffee was steaming, but he drank half of it down likemother's milk. 'That's good,' he said. 'Keep me awake, won't it?'

'More than likely.' Over the breast pocket of his jacket was the faintoutline of the name that had been sewn there once. I think it wasPrice, but I could've been wrong.

'That's what I want. To stay awake, as long as I can.' He finished thecoffee. 'Can I have another cup, please?'

I poured it for him. He drank that one down just as fast, then herubbed his eyes wearily.

'Been on the road a long time, huh?'

Price nodded. 'Day and night. I don't know which is more tired, mymind or my butt.' He lifted his gaze to me again. 'Have you gotanything else to drink? How about beer?'

'No, sorry. Couldn't get a liquor license.'

He sighed. 'Just as well. It might make me sleepy. But I sure could gofor a beer right now. One sip, to clean my mouth out.'

He picked up his coffee cup, and I smiled and started to turnaway.

But then he wasn't holding a cup. He was holding a Budweiser can, andfor an instant I could smell the tang of a newly-popped beer.

The mirage was only there for maybe two seconds. I blinked, and Pricewas holding a cup again. 'Just as well,' he said, and put it down.

I glanced over at Cheryl, then at Dennis. Neither one was payingattention. Damn! I thought. I'm too young to be either losin' myeyesight or my senses! 'Uh...' I said, or some other stupid noise.

'One more cup?' Price asked. 'Then I'd better hit the road again.'

My hand was shaking as I picked it up, but if Price noticed, he didn'tsay anything.

'Want anything to eat?' Cheryl asked him. 'How about a bowl of beefstew?'

He shook his head. 'No, thanks. The sooner I get back on the road, thebetter it'll be.'

Suddenly Dennis swivelled toward him, giving him a cold stare thatonly cops and drill sergeants can muster. 'Back on the road?'He snorted. 'Fella, you ever been in a tornado before? I'm gonnaescort those nice people to the Holiday Inn about fifteen miles back.If you're smart, that's where you'll spend the night, too. No usetryin' to—'

'No.' Price's voice was rock-steady. 'I'll be spending thenight behind the wheel.'

Dennis's eyes narrowed. 'How come you're in such a hurry? Not runnin'from anybody, are you?'

'Nightcrawlers,' Cheryl said.

Price turned toward her like he'd been slapped across the face, and Isaw what might've been a spark of fear in his eyes.

Cheryl motioned toward the lighter Price had laid on the counter,beside the pack of Kools. It was a beat-up silver Zippo, and inscribedacross it was Nightcrawlers with the symbol of two crossedrifles beneath it. 'Sorry,' she said. 'I just noticed that, and Iwondered what it was.'

Price put the lighter away. 'I was in 'Nam,' he told her. 'Everybodyin my unit got one.'

'Hey.' There was suddenly new respect in Dennis voice. 'You avet?'

Price paused so long I didn't think he was going to answer. In thequiet, I heard the little girl tell her mother that the fries were'ucky.' Price said, 'Yes.'

'How about that! Hey, I wanted to go myself, but I got a high numberand things were windin' down about that time, anyway. Did you see anyaction?'

A faint, bitter smile passed over Price's mouth. 'Too much.'

'What? Infantry? Marines? Rangers?'

Price picked up his third cup of coffee, swallowed some and put itdown. He closed his eyes for a few seconds, and when they opened theywere vacant and fixed on nothing. 'Nightcrawlers,' he said quietly.'Special unit. Deployed to recon Charlie positions in questionablevillages.' He said it like he was reciting from a manual. 'We did alot of crawling through rice paddies and jungles in the dark.'

'Bet you laid a few of them Vietcong out, didn't you?' Dennis got upand came over to sit a few places away from the man. 'Man, I wasbehind you guys all the way. I wanted you to stay in there and fightit out!'

Price was silent. Thunder echoed over the diner. The lights weakenedfor a few seconds; when they came back on, they seemed to have lostsome of their wattage. The place was dimmer than before. Price's headslowly turned toward Dennis, with the inexorable motion of a machine.I was thankful I didn't have to take the full force of Price's deadblue eyes, and I saw Dennis wince. 'I should've stayed,' hesaid. 'I should be there right now, buried in the mud of a rice paddywith the eight other men in my patrol.'

'Oh,' Dennis blinked. 'Sorry. I didn't mean to—',

'I came home,' Price continued calmly, 'by stepping on the bodies ofmy friends. Do you want to know what that's like, Mr. Trooper?'

'The war's over,' I told him. 'No need to bring it back.'

Price smiled grimly, but his gaze remained fixed on Dennis. 'Some sayit's over. I say it came back with the men who were there. Like me.Especially like me.' Price paused. The wind howled around thedoor, and the lightning illuminated for an instant the thrashing woodsacross the highway. 'The mud was up to our knees, Mr. Trooper,' hesaid. 'We were moving across a rice paddy in the dark, being realcareful not to step on the bamboo stakes we figured were plantedthere. Then the first shots started: pop pop pop—likefirecrackers going off. One of the Nightcrawlers fired off a flare,and we saw the Cong ringing us. We'd walked right into hell, Mr.Trooper. Somebody shouted, 'Charlie's in the light!' and we startedfiring, trying to punch a hole through them. But they were everywhere.As soon as one went down, three more took his place. Grenadeswere going off, and more flares, and people were screaming as they gothit. I took a bullet in the thigh and another through the hand. I lostmy rifle, and somebody fell on top of me with half his headmissing.'

'Uh...listen,' I said. 'You don't have to—'

'I want to, friend.' He glanced quickly at me, then back toDennis. I think I cringed when his gaze pierced me. 'I want to tell itall. They were fighting and screaming and dying all around me, and Ifelt the bullets tug at my clothes as they passed through. I know Iwas screaming, too, but what was coming out of my mouth soundedbestial. I ran. The only way I could save my own life was to step ontheir bodies and drive them down into the mud. I heard some of themchoke and blubber as I put my boot on their faces. I knew all thoseguys like brothers...but at that moment they were only pieces ofmeat. I ran. A gunship chopper came over the paddy and laid down somefire, and that's how I got out. Alone.' He bent his face closer towardthe other man's. 'And you'd better believe I'm in that rice paddy in'Nam every time I close my eyes. You'd better believe the men I leftback there don't rest easy. So you keep your opinions about 'Nam andbeing 'behind you guys' to yourself, Mr. Trooper. I don't want to hearthat bullshit. Got it?'

Dennis sat very still. He wasn't used to being talked to like that,not even from a 'Nam vet, and I saw the shadow of anger pass over hisface.

Price's hands were trembling as he brought a little bottle out of hisjeans pocket. He shook two blue-and-orange capsules out onto thecounter, took them both with a swallow of coffee and then recapped thebottle and put it away. The flesh of his face looked almost ashen inthe dim light.

'I know you boys had a rough time,' Dennis said, 'but that's no callto show disrespect to the law.'

'The law,' Price repeated. 'Yeah. Right. Bullshit.'

'There are women and children present,' I reminded him. 'Watch yourlanguage.'

Price rose from his seat. He looked like a skeleton with justa little extra skin on the bones. 'Mister, I haven't slept for morethan thirty-six hours. My nerves are shot. I don't mean to causetrouble, but when some fool says he understands, I feel likekicking his teeth down his throat—because no one who wasn't therecan pretend to understand.' He glanced at Ray, Lindy, and the kids.'Sorry, folks. Don't mean to disturb you. Friend, how much do I owe?'He started digging for his wallet.

Dennis slid slowly from his seat and stood with his hands on his hips.'Hold it.' He used his trooper's voice again. 'If you think I'mlettin' you walk out of here high on pills and needin' sleep, you'recrazy. I don't want to be scrapin' you off the highway.'

Price paid him no attention. He took a couple of dollars from hiswallet and put them on the counter. I didn't touch them. 'Those pillswill help keep me awake,' Price said finally. 'Once I get on the road,I'll be fine.'

'Fella, I wouldn't let you go if it was high noon and not a cloud inthe sky. I sure as hell don't want to clean up after the accidentyou're gonna have. Now why don't you come along to the Holiday Innand—'

Price laughed grimly. 'Mister Trooper, the last place you want mestaying is at a motel.' He cocked his head to one side. 'I was in amotel in Florida a couple of nights ago, and I think I left my room alittle untidy. Step aside and let me pass.'

'A motel in Florida?' Dennis nervously licked his lower lip. 'Whatthe hell you talkin' about?'

'Nightmares and reality, Mr. Trooper. The point where they cross. Acouple of nights ago, they crossed at a motel. I wasn't going to letmyself sleep. I was just going to rest for a little while, but Ididn't know they'd come so fast.' A mocking smile played at theedges of his mouth, but his eyes were tortured. 'You don't want mestaying at that Holiday Inn, Mr. Trooper. You really don't. Now stepaside.'

I saw Dennis's hand settle on the butt of his revolver. His fingersunsnapped the fold of leather that secured the gun in the holster. Istared at him numbly. My God, I thought. What's goin' on? My heart hadstarted pounding so hard I was sure everybody could hear it. Ray andLindy were watching, and Cheryl was backing away behind thecounter.

Price and Dennis faced each other for a moment, as the rain whippedagainst the windows and thunder boomed like shell-fire. Then Pricesighed, as if resigning himself to something. He said, 'I think I wanta T-bone steak. Extra-rare. How 'bout it?' He looked at me.

'A steak?' My voice was shaking. 'We don't have any T-bone—'

Price's gaze shifted to the counter right in front of me. I heard asizzle. The aroma of cooking meat drifted up to me.

'Oh...wow,' Cheryl whispered.

A large T-bone steak lay on the countertop, pink and oozing blood. Youcould've fanned a menu in my face and I would've keeled over. Wisps ofsmoke were rising from the steak.

The steak began to fade, until it was only an outline on the counter.The lines of oozing blood vanished. After the mirage was gone, I couldstill smell the meat—and that's how I knew I wasn't crazy.

Dennis's mouth hung open. Ray had stood up from the booth to look, andhis wife's face was the color of spoiled milk. The whole world seemedto be balanced on a point of silence—until the wail of the windjarred me back to my senses.

'I'm getting good at it,' Price said softly. 'I'm getting very, verygood. Didn't start happening to me until about a year ago. I've foundfour other 'Nam vets who can do the same thing. What's in your headcomes true—as simple as that. Of course, the images only last for afew seconds—as long as I'm awake. I mean, I've found out that thoseother men were drenched by a chemical spray we call Howdy Doody—becauseit made you stiffen up and jerk like you were hanging onstrings. I got hit with it near Khe Sahn. That shit almost suffocatedme. It fell like black tar, and it burned the land down to a pavedparking lot.' He stared at Dennis. 'You don't want me around here, Mr.Trooper. Not with the body count I've still got in myhead.'

'You... were at... that motel, near Daytona Beach?'

Price closed his eyes. A vein had begun beating at his right temple,royal blue against the pallor of his flesh. 'Oh Jesus,' he whispered.'I fell asleep, and I couldn't wake myself up. I was having thenightmare. The same one. I was locked in it, and I was trying toscream myself awake.' He shuddered, and two tears ran slowly down hischeeks. 'Oh.' he said, and flinched as if rememberingsomething horrible. 'They... they were coming through the door when Iwoke up. Tearing the door right off its hinges. I woke up... just asone of them was pointing his rifle at me. And I saw his face. I sawhis muddy, misshapen face.' His eyes suddenly jerked open. 'I didn'tknow they'd come so fast.'

'Who?' I asked him. 'Who came so fast?'

'The Nightcrawlers,' Price said, his face void of expression,masklike. 'Dear God... maybe if I'd stayed asleep a second more. But Iran again, and I left those people dead in that motel.'

'You're gonna come with me.' Dennis started pulling his gun from theholster. Price's head snapped toward him. 'I don't know what kindafool game you're—'

He stopped, staring at the gun he held.

It wasn't a gun anymore. It was an oozing mass of hot rubber. Denniscried out and slung the thing from his hand. The molten mess hit thefloor with a pulpy splat.

'I'm leaving now.' Price's voice was calm. 'Thank you for the coffee.'He walked past Dennis, toward the door.

Dennis grasped a bottle of ketchup from the counter. Cheryl cried out,'Don't!' but it was too late. Dennis was already swinging thebottle. It hit the back of Price's skull and burst open, spewingketchup everywhere. Price staggered forward, his knees buckling. Whenhe went down, his skull hit the floor with a noise like a watermelonbeing dropped. His body began jerking involuntarily.

'Got him!' Dennis shouted triumphantly. 'Got that crazy bastard,didn't I?'

Lindy was holding the little girl in her arms. The boy craned hisneck to see. Ray said nervously, 'You didn't kill him, did you?'

'He's not dead,' I told him. I looked over at the gun; it was solidagain. Dennis scooped it up and aimed it at Price, whose bodycontinued to jerk. Just like Howdy Doody, I thought. Then Pricestopped moving. 'He's dead!' Cheryl's voice was near frantic. 'Oh God,you killed him, Dennis!'

Dennis prodded the body with the toe of his boot, then bent down.'Naw. His eyes are movin' back and forth behind the lids.' Dennistouched his wrist to check the pulse, then abruptly pulled his ownhand away. 'Jesus Christ! He's as cold as a meat-locker!' He tookPrice's pulse and whistled. 'Goin' like a racehorse at the Derby.'

I touched the place on the counter where the mirage-steak had been.My fingers came away slightly greasy, and I could smell the cookedmeat on them. At that instant, Price twitched. Dennis scuttled awayfrom him like a crab. Price made a gasping, choking noise.

'What'd he say?' Cheryl asked. 'He said something!'

'No he didn't.' Dennis stuck him in the ribs with his pistol. 'Comeon. Get up.'

'Get him out of here,' I said. 'I don't want him—'

Cheryl shushed me. 'Listen. Can you hear that?'

I heard only the roar and crash of the storm.

'Don't you hear it?' she asked me. Her eyes were getting scaredand glassy.

'Yes!' Ray said. 'Yes! Listen!'

Then I did hear something, over the noise of the keening wind. It wasa distant chuk-chuk-chuk, steadily growing louder and closer.The wind covered the noise for a minute, then it came back:CHUK-CHUK-CHUK, almost overhead.

'It's a helicopter!' Ray peered through the window. 'Somebody's got ahelicopter out there!'

'Ain't nobody can fly a chopper in a storm!' Dennis told him. Thenoise of the rotors swelled and faded, swelled and faded...andstopped.

On the floor, Price shivered and began to contort into a fetalposition. His mouth opened, his face twisted in what appeared to beagony.

Thunder spoke. A red fireball rose up from the woods across the roadand hung lazily in the sky for a few seconds before it descendedtoward the diner. As it fell, the fireball exploded soundlessly into awhite, glaring eye of light that almost blinded me.

Price said something in a garbled, panicked voice. His eyes weretightly closed, and he had squeezed up with his arms around hisknees.

Dennis rose to his feet; he squinted as the eye of light fell towardthe parking lot and winked out in a puddle of water. Another fireballfloated up from the woods, and again blossomed into painful glare.

Dennis turned toward me. 'I heard him.' His voice was raspy. 'He said,'Charlie's in the light.'

As the second flare fell to the ground and illuminated theparking lot, I thought I saw figures crossing the road. They walkedstiff-legged, in an eerie cadence. The flare went out.

'Wake him up,' I heard myself whisper. 'Dennis... dear God... wakehim up.'


IV

Dennis stared stupidly at me, and I started to jump across the counterto get to Price myself.

A gout of flame leaped in the parking lot. Sparks marched across theconcrete. I shouted, 'Get down!' and twisted around to push Cherylback behind the shelter of the counter.

'What the hell—' Dennis said.

He didn't finish. There was a metallic thumping of bullets hitting thegas pumps and the cars. I knew if that gas blew we were all dead. Mytruck shuddered with the impact of slugs, and I saw the whole thingexplode as I ducked behind the counter. Then the windows blew inwardwith a Godawful crash, and the diner was full of flying glass,swirling wind and sheets of rain. I heard Lindy scream, and both thekids were crying and I think I was shouting something myself.

The lights had gone out, and the only illumination was the reflectionof red neon off the concrete and the glow of the fluorescents over thegas pumps. Bullets whacked into the wall, and crockery shattered as ifit had been hit with a hammer. Napkins and sugar packets were flyingeverywhere.

Cheryl was holding onto me as if her fingers were nails sunk to mybones. Her eyes were wide and dazed, and she kept trying to speak. Hermouth was working, but nothing came out.

There was another explosion as one of the other cars blew. The wholeplace shook, and I almost puked with fear.

Another hail of bullets hit the wall. They were tracers, and theyjumped and ricocheted like white-hot cigarette butts. One of them sangoff the edge of a shelf and fell to the floor about three feet awayfrom me. The glowing slug began to fade, like the beer can and themirage-steak. I put my hand out to find it, but all I felt wassplinters of glass and crockery. A phantom bullet, I thought. Realenough to cause damage and death—and then gone.

You don't want me around here, Mr. Trooper, Price had warned.Not with the body count I've got in my head.

The firing stopped. I got free of Cheryl and said, 'You stay righthere.' Then I looked up over the counter and saw my truck and thestation-wagon on fire, the flames being whipped by the wind. Rainslapped me across the face as it swept in where the windowglass usedto be. I saw Price lying still huddled on the floor, with pieces ofglass all around him. His hands were clawing the air, and in theflickering red neon his face was contorted, his eyes still closed. Thepool of ketchup around his head made him look like his skull had beensplit open. He was peering into Hell, and I averted my eyes before Ilost my own mind.

Ray and Lindy and the two children had huddled under the table oftheir booth. The woman was sobbing brokenly. I looked at Dennis, lyinga few feet from Price: he was sprawled on his face, and there werefour holes punched through his back. It was not ketchup that ran inrivulets around Dennis's body. His right arm was outflung, and thefingers twitched around the gun he gripped.

Another flare sailed up from the woods like a Fourth-of-Julysparkler.

When the light brightened, I saw them: at least five figures, maybemore. They were crouched over, coming across the parking lot—butslowly, the speed of nightmares. Their clothes flapped and hung aroundthem, and the flare's light glanced off their helmets. They werecarrying weapons—rifles, I guessed. I couldn't see their faces, andthat was for the best.

On the floor, Price moaned. I heard him say 'light... in thelight...'

The flare hung right over the diner. And then I knew what was goingon. We were in the light. We were all caught in Price'snightmare, and the Nightcrawlers that Price had left in the mud werefighting the battle again—the same way it had been fought at thePines Haven Motor Inn. The Nightcrawlers had come back to life,powered by Price's guilt and whatever that Howdy Doody shit had doneto him.

And we were in the light, where Charlie had been out in that ricepaddy.

There was a noise like castanets clicking. Dots of fire arced throughthe broken windows and thudded into the counter. The stools squealedas they were hit and spun. The cash register rang and the drawerpopped open, and then the entire register blew apart and bills andcoins scattered. I ducked my head, but a wasp of fire—I don't knowwhat, a bit of metal or glass maybe—sliced my left cheek open from earto upper lip. I fell to the floor behind the counter with bloodrunning down my face.

A blast shook the rest of the cups, saucers, plates and glasses offthe shelves. The whole roof buckled inward, throwing loose ceilingtiles, light fixtures and pieces of metal framework.

We were all going to die. I knew it, right then. Those things weregoing to destroy us. But I thought of the pistol in Dennis's hand, andof Price lying near the door. If we were caught in Price's nightmareand the blow from the ketchup bottle had broken something in hisskull, then the only way to stop his dream was to kill him.

I'm no hero. I was about to piss in my pants, but I knew I was theonly one who could move. I jumped up and scrambled over the counter,falling beside Dennis and wrenching at that pistol. Even in death,Dennis had a strong grip. Another blast came, along the wall to myright. The heat of it scorched me, and the shockwave skidded me acrossthe floor through glass and rain and blood.

But I had that pistol in my hand.

I heard Ray shout, 'Look out!'

In the doorway, silhouetted by flames, was a skeletal thing wearingmuddy green rags. It wore a dented-in helmet and carried a corroded,slime-covered rifle. Its face was gaunt and shadowy, the featureshidden behind a scum of rice-paddy muck. It began to lift the rifle tofire at me—slowly, slowly...

I got the safety off the pistol and fired twice, without aiming. Aspark leapt off the helmet as one of the bullets was deflected, butthe figure staggered backward and into the conflagration of thestation-wagon, where it seemed to melt into ooze before itvanished.

More tracers were coming in. Cheryl's Volkswagen shuddered, the tiresblowing out almost in unison. The state trooper car was alreadybullet-riddled and sitting on flats.

Another Nightcrawler, this one without a helmet and with slimecovering the skull where the hair had been, rose up beyond the windowand fired its rifle. I heard the bullet whine past my ear, and as Itook aim I saw its bony finger tightening on the trigger again.

A skillet flew over my head and hit the thing's shoulder, spoiling itsaim. For an instant the skillet stuck in the Nightcrawler's body, asif the figure itself was made out of mud. I fired once...twice...andsaw pieces of matter fly from the thing's chest. What might've been amouth opened in a soundless scream, and the thing slithered out ofsight.

I looked around. Cheryl was standing behind the counter, weaving onher feet, her face white with shock. 'Get down!' I shouted, and sheducked for cover.

I crawled to Price, shook him hard. His eyes would not open.

'Wake up!' I begged him. 'Wake up, damn you!' And thenI pressed the barrel of the pistol against Price's head. Dear God,I didn't want to kill anybody, but I knew I was going to haveto blow the Nightcrawlers right out of his brain. I hesitated—toolong.

Something smashed into my left collarbone. I heard the bone snap likea broomstick being broken. The force of the shot slid me back againstthe counter and jammed me between two bullet-pocked stools. I lostthe gun, and there was a roaring in my head that deafened me.

I don't know how long I was out. My left arm felt like dead meat. Allthe cars in the lot were burning, and there was a hole in the diner'sroof that a tractor-trailer truck could've dropped through. Rain wassweeping into my face, and when I wiped my eyes clear I saw them,standing over Price.

There were eight of them. The two I thought I'd killed were back. Theytrailed weeds, and their boots and ragged clothes were covered withmud. They stood in silence, staring down at their living comrade.

I was too tired to scream. I couldn't even whimper. I justwatched.

Price's hands lifted into the air. He reached for the Nightcrawlers,and then his eyes opened. His pupils were dead white, surrounded byscarlet.

'End it,' he whispered. 'End it...'

One of the Nightcrawlers aimed its rifle and fired. Price jerked.Another Nightcrawler fired, and then they were all firing,point-blank, into Price's body. Price thrashed and clutched at hishead, but there was no blood; the phantom bullets weren't hittinghim.

The Nightcrawlers began to ripple and fade. I saw the flames of theburning cars through their bodies. The figures became transparent,floating in vague outlines. Price had awakened too fast at the PinesHaven Motor Inn, I realized; if he had remained asleep, the creaturesof his nightmares would've ended it there, at that Florida motel. Theywere killing him in front of me—or he was allowing them to end it,and I think that's what he must've wanted for a long, long time.

He shuddered, his mouth releasing a half-moan, half-sigh.

It sounded almost like relief.

I saw his face. His eyes were closed, and I think he must've foundpeace at last.

V


A trucker hauling lumber from Mobile to Birmingham saw the burningcars. I don't even remember what he looked like.

Ray was cut up by glass, but his wife and the kids were okay.Physically, I mean. Mentally, I couldn't say.

Cheryl went into the hospital for awhile. I got a postcard from herwith the Golden Gate Bridge on the front. She promised she'd write andlet me know how she was doing, but I doubt if I'll ever hear from her.She was the best waitress I ever had, and I wish her luck.

The police asked me a thousand questions, and I told the story thesame way every time. I found out later that no bullets or shrapnelwere ever dug out of the walls or the cars or Dennis's body—just likein the case of that motel massacre. There was no bullet in me, thoughmy collarbone was snapped clean in two.

Price had died of a massive brain hemorrhage. It looked, the policetold me, as if it had exploded in his skull.

I closed the diner. Farm life is fine. Alma understands, and we don'ttalk about it.

But I never showed the police what I found, and I don't know exactlywhy not.

I picked up Price's wallet in the mess. Behind a picture or a smilingyoung woman holding a baby there was a folded piece of paper. On thatpaper were the names of four men.

Beside one name, Price had written DANGEROUS.

I've found four other 'Nam vets who can do the same thing,Price had said.

I sit up at night a lot, thinking about that and looking at thosenames. Those men had gotten a dose of that Howdy Doody shit in aforeign place they hadn't wanted to be, fighting a war that turned outto be one of those crossroads of nightmare and reality. I've changedmy mind about 'Nam, because I understand now that the worst of thefighting is still going on, in the battlefields of memory.

A Yankee who called himself Tompkins came to my house one May morningand flashed me an ID that said he worked for a veterans' association.He was very soft-spoken and polite, but he had deep-set eyes that werealmost black, and he never blinked. He asked me all about Price,seemed real interested In picking my brain of every detail. I told himthe police had the story, and I couldn't add any more to it. Then Iturned the tables and asked him about Howdy Doody. He smiled in apuzzled kind of way and said he'd never heard of any chemicaldefoliant called that. No such thing, he said. Like I said, he wasvery polite.

But I know the shape of a gun tucked into a shoulder-holster. Tompkinswas wearing one, under his seersucker coat. I never could find anyveterans' association that knew anything about him, either.

Maybe I should give that list of names to the police. Maybe I will. Ormaybe I'll try to find those four men myself, and try to make senseout of what's being hidden.

I don't think Price was evil. No. He was just scared, and who canblame a man for running from his own nightmares? I like to believethat, in the end, Price had the courage to face the Nightcrawlers, andin committing suicide he saved our lives.

The newspapers, of course, never got the real story. They called Pricea 'Nam vet who'd gone crazy, killed six people in a Florida motel andthen killed a state trooper in a shootout at Big Bob's diner and gasstop.

But I know where Price is buried. They sell little American flags atthe five-and-dime in Mobile. I'm alive, and I can spare thechange.

And then I've got to find out how much courage I have.


Copyright © 1984, Robert R. McCammon. Reprintedhere by permission of the author.

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