I’m honored to take part in The Chain Story, a series of short stories by various authors, linked through the members of The Wanderers’ Club, spinners of tall tales one and all. Thanks to Michael Stackpole for sponsoring the whole thing, and to Bob Vardeman for bringing me on board. I’m in the company of some pretty outstanding writers here, and I urge you to hit the link above to read the other stories.
Here’s my contribution.
As Wolfman John finished his story, a meek voice arose from what sounded like a tin can tied to a string. “Interesting tale, Mr. The Wolfman.”
The members of the Wanderers’ Club turned to find not a tin can but the mysterious Professor David Fawkes, half-midget and scientist of some note, seated nearby in a too-big leather armchair, looking for all the world like a living ventriloquist’s dummy.
The diminutive scholar swirled the ice in his drink as he continued. “I encountered a coyote or three on a recent adventure of my own… But the yipping beasts were a pleasant diversion from the real reason I was called to New Mexico.”
Professor Fawkes sipped the Manhattan, lubricating his squeaky voice, then settled back in his chair. “I’m sure you fellows are familiar with Sea Monkeys, yes?”
Aaron had been hoping to sit through the entire Leave it to Beaver marathon on TV Land without interruption — at least until he had to leave for work — but by 2 AM his belly was asserting that food was better than the Beaver. He’d already exhausted his supply of snacks, not thinking that the bag of Salsa Verde Doritos should’ve been held in reserve for just such an emergency.
His stomach gurgled aggressively. One of those microwave breakfast sandwiches from Freddy’s All-Nite would go down real smooth, Beaver or no. It was tough to bail on the show when the Beav’s pals were about to dick him by wearing their normal, mom-approved clothes to school instead of the cool monster shirts the fellas had picked up the day before, but Aaron could deny his hunger no longer. He slipped on his shoes, grabbed the car keys and lit out, leaving the TV on so as not to miss a second when he came back. Canned laughter echoed as he shut the door behind him.
Aaron knew he was lucky to have a place like Freddy’s All-Nite, considering the entire population of Charlton, New Mexico was about the size of the cast of Leave it to Beaver. He’d been the local paperboy for almost ten years now, which meant working during the wee hours and sleeping while the sun was up, and Freddy’s had kept him in late-night Cokes and junk food. During that time, Aaron had never seen another human being in the place — besides Freddy, anyway — after 11 PM. He lived in constant fear that the old man would get fed up with it and start closing at midnight.
A peculiar wail emanated from Aaron’s stomach. “Jesus,” he said, patting his burgeoning gut and steering with one finger. Getting chubby at 25. Didn’t change his feelings about that chicken sandwich, though.
The roads were still wet from the most recent rainstorm, which meant another night of wrestling the newspapers into their little plastic sleeves. Aaron hated the things, and was grateful that rain didn’t come to Charlton very often.
Aaron pulled into the parking lot at Freddy’s. As usual, the place was a tomb. Swarms of bugs battered themselves against the lights out front, filling the quiet night with a soft, steady thunking sound.
As he stepped out of the car, Aaron noticed the rack of STP near the front door had been knocked over, bottles of fuel additive strewn across the walk. He paused to clean the mess up. There was a small trail of thick, dark liquid spattered across the pavement, but Aaron couldn’t track down which bottle had sprung the leak and just stuck them all back on the rack.
The new electric eye Freddy had bought set off a chime as Aaron entered the store. The old man was nowhere to be seen. “Hey Freddy, how’s tricks?” Aaron said, a little louder than he meant to.
After a few seconds, Aaron lifted his foot and thrust it back and forth through the beam of the electric eye, setting off the chime a few more times.
“You in the shitter?”
He poked his head around a couple of the aisles, then glanced toward the counter. Both restroom keys still hung from their nails. Heading to the back of the store, Aaron tapped on the storeroom door. “Freddy?”
He put his ear to the door, listening for some sound of the old man. Remembering the upturned STP rack, Aaron quickly walked the length of the store, the electric eye chiming again as he went outside.
Rounding the corner of the building, Aaron felt his stomach do the hokey-pokey.
There was a shitload of blood slung from hell to breakfast back by the restroom doors.
Aaron took a couple steps back, stopped, turned his head to stare at the spilled STP. Only it wasn’t STP.
“Aw, Freddy…” He shuffled towards the mess. Crouching, Aaron rested hands on knees, his eyes fixed on a fat June bug wallowing in a particularly large splatter.
Then the guy came out of nowhere, slamming into Aaron and sending them both tumbling ass-over-teakettle through the smeared blood and into the alley behind the store.
Rolling to a stop in a puddle of grease-slicked rainwater, the two men came up in a gory tangle. Terrified, Aaron flailed wildly with both fists, trying to fend off his attacker. The guy yelped as a blow connected with his nose.
“Asshole!” he shrieked, blood gushing from his nostril. “Lemme go!”
Aaron continued to sling fists with abandon as the guy struggled to disentangle himself. Wrestling a leg free, he awkwardly kicked Aaron in the chest and scrambled away.
“They’re gonna get us!” Blood was coursing from the man’s nose, dribbling onto his already-stained shirt.
Aaron sat up in the puddle, finally recognizing the man. “Lucas? What the hell — wait!”
Lucas had made his feet and was sprinting blindly down the alley. “Screw you!” he yelled back.
Further down the alley, a rectangle of pale light spilled out through a gap between two buildings, silhouetting Lucas as he fled. Aaron jumped to his feet, wincing at a sharp pain in his knee, and took off after him. Lucas Douthat was the only customer on Aaron’s route who always gave him a Christmas bonus, and he figured he’d better smooth over that bloody nose.
As Lucas ran into the strip of light, the creatures took him down.
Aaron skidded to a halt, panting, eyes wide with shock.
The things — dozens of them, each one no more than eight inches tall — moved as a unit, like a school of fish, flooding out from between the two buildings and swarming over Lucas’s thrashing body. He shrieked as he disappeared beneath the frenzied horde.
Aaron stared, useless, as the things darted in and out of the throng, tearing at the man. The creatures moved so fast he couldn’t get a clear look at them. Even the two standing at the edge of the swarm, heads swiveling like prairie dogs standing guard, seemed almost to vibrate with barely-contained energy.
As suddenly as they had appeared, the creatures began scurrying away, headed back between the buildings. As the swarm dissipated, Aaron could see Lucas’s shredded remains, one claw-like hand uplifted, flesh torn from the fingers. The last creature — one of the guards — darted in and snapped up a treat in its tiny jaws. The thing ran off, a length of intestine trailing behind it.
Aaron stood in silence for a long moment. When he released the breath he’d been holding, the sound made him jump.
“Holy shit,” he muttered.
He took a step forward, then froze.
One of the things had flitted back into the alley and was staring at him, its tiny head cocking at a dozen different angles, like a dog on Dexedrine.
Aaron held his breath again, felt in his pocket for his car keys.
Another creature darted in to stand next to the first, their heads moving in unison.
Aaron turned tail and ran like hell.
Instantly, the two creatures took off after him, the entire swarm spilling around the corner behind them as if caught in their jet stream.
Feet pounding the damp pavement, Aaron tugged his car keys from his pocket. Fumbled them. The keyring clattered to the ground at his feet, caught the toe of his shoe and went skidding across the asphalt to wind up in a puddle of blood.
Without slowing down, Aaron scooped up the keys and hauled ass to his car. He flung the door open and jumped in just as the swarm began pouring out of the alley, skittering towards him.
He jammed the key into the ignition and slammed the car into reverse as the engine caught. The car laid rubber, obscuring the creatures in a cloud of smoke.
Aaron wiped a bloody hand on his pants and gripped the steering wheel as the car bounced over the curb and into the street. Dropping it into drive, Aaron peeled out again. He watched in the rear view mirror as the goddamn things poured into the street, ran through a confused circle, then scurried off to disappear amongst the buildings again.
So now what? Aaron’s gaze flicked from the road ahead to the bloodstains on his shirt. He was practically wheezing, sucking air like an old man climbing stairs. There wasn’t even a police station in Charlton — nearest cop was sixty miles down the highway, in Estancia. And what cop would believe Aaron’s story, anyway? A bunch of quivering little monsters with lots of teeth ate a guy while he watched? He suddenly felt like Steve McQueen in The Blob.
He needed somebody to back him up.
Aaron spun the wheel, whipping his car into a left turn. He was impressed that the old beater had performed so well under pressure; the car had a tendency to choke and die when asked to accelerate away from a fast-food drive-through window.
Another left took him onto Howard road, where his friend Noel lived. There were no curbs out here; Aaron rolled the car to a stop in Noel’s muddy front yard and jumped out. Tromping to the door, Aaron banged with one hand and rang the bell with the other. After a short barrage of this noise, a light came on in the bedroom and Noel’s angry, narrow face appeared through the parted curtains. Aaron very faintly heard the words What the fuck? and the curtains closed once again.
A few seconds later Noel opened the door, still in the act of zipping his pants. “Man, you’d better not be wakin’ me up to help with your fuckin’ paper route,” he grumbled, voice thick with sleep.
Aaron pushed past his friend, leaving muddy footprints as he entered the house. “I need to use your phone — and you’ve gotta help me.”
“You wake me up at two-thirty to teach you how to use a phone?” Noel’s crusty eyes followed the trail of mud as it extended down the hall and into the kitchen. “Look at that shit, man…” He shuffled off after Aaron, shaking his head in annoyance.
In the kitchen, Aaron had pulled Noel’s phone book from a drawer and was flipping pages. “What’s the number for the cops?”
“I dunno, 911,” Noel said, dropping his bony butt into a chair. “What’s goin’ on?”
Aaron stabbed the three digits and waited. “Lucas Douthat got killed by — hell, by some kinda freaky things. And I think they got Freddy, too.”
“You’re all bloody,” Noel mentioned, finally noticing Aaron’s filthy shirt.
An operator picked up and Aaron talked fast, hoping to avoid too many questions. “I’m over in Charlton. Somebody’s been killed outside Freddy’s All-Nite. No, it was animals. Coyotes or something — a whole pack of ‘em.” He looked over at Noel, who was staring at him like he was a lunatic. About what he expected. “Yeah, I’ll wait there for you. Thanks.” Aaron cradled the receiver.
“Coyotes?” Noel asked.
Aaron shook his head. “I need you to come with me.”
“Aw, man,” Noel said.
Aaron’s buttcheeks nibbled the seat cushion as he guided his car into Freddy’s parking lot once again. There was no sign of the little creatures, but who knew where the bastards might be hiding?
“What are these things again?” Noel mumbled through a yawn.
“I told you I don’t know — I didn’t get a clear look at them. They’re like a bunch of piranhas or something.”
“But they walk.”
“No, they run like striped-assed apes.”
The car came to a stop in the same parking space it had occupied earlier. Noel reached for his door handle. Aaron frantically grabbed his arm.
“Wait.” Staring out the window, Aaron unbuckled his seat belt, then turned to face Noel. “All right. Try to keep quiet — and stay with me. Don’t go wanderin’ off by yourself, okay?”
Noel rubbed a meaty nugget of sleep from his eye and flicked it onto the dashboard. Aaron’s lip curled. “Sorry,” Noel said.
“Did you hear me?”
Satisfied, Aaron lifted his door handle and slowly pushed the door open. The hinges howled like a wildcat in heat. “Shitfire,” Aaron hissed.
Noel had better luck with his door. It swung open with only the slightest squeak and he leaned out, peering around. Confident there were no strolling piranhas lurking nearby, he stepped out.
The two men met in front of the car, backs to each other, mindful of the darkness around them. “Let’s get a flashlight,” Aaron said. “I don’t wanna run into those things in the dark.”
Aaron and Noel entered the store. The chime went off. Both men leapt skyward. They came down gasping, looking at each other in embarrassment. Recovering, Aaron found the aisle he wanted and selected a cheap flashlight, then went to the counter and grabbed batteries.
“I don’t know where Freddy is, but Lucas is out in the alley.” Aaron unscrewed the flashlight cap and dropped the batteries in. He flicked the light on, played it around.
“So why do we have to go look at him?” Glancing around furtively, Noel snatched a Kit Kat bar. “I don’t wanna see some chewed-up dead guy.”
“Just play along, willya? Let’s go.” Aaron started for the door, setting off the chime again.
“Jesus!” Noel yelped. “Why the hell did Freddy install that damn thing?”
Aaron held the door for Noel. “He’s got that thing with his bowels. Kids’d hang around outside till they saw him go in the can, then run in and steal candy bars.”
Noel bit into his pilfered Kit Kat and followed Aaron around the corner of the building. His eyes widened when he saw the blood smeared across the pavement. “Man, you weren’t kidding.”
Cautiously, Aaron led Noel to the building next door to Freddy’s, where he flattened against the wall and poked his head out into the alley. Lucas’s ravaged corpse still lay in the fragment of light not far away.
Aaron gestured for Noel to follow and they stepped into the alley, quietly moving towards the body. As they passed the dumpster shared by Freddy’s and the business next door, Noel poked his head over the rim, looking for anything dive-worthy.
“Oh shit,” he whispered. Noel pointed into the dumpster. “I think this might be Freddy.”
Aaron hesitantly approached the dumpster and looked in. A pair of empty eyesockets stared back at him. It looked like Freddy’s wispy gray hair, but the face had been eaten away, bits of muscle and stringy flesh dangling from the blood-smeared bone. A crappy set of absurdly-white dentures were wedged into the jaws. Those were definitely Freddy’s.
Aaron turned away, all the junk he’d eaten during Leave it to Beaver rising in his gorge. “He must’ve crawled in there trying to get away from ‘em,” he choked.
Noel stared at the Kit Kat bar in his trembling hand. Reverently, he dropped it into the dumpster, returning it to its rightful owner.
Not far away, a dog launched into a fit of ferocious barking.
“That’s Jasper’s dog,” Aaron said. He took off running down the alley. Noel dithered for a second, then followed.
As they raced past Lucas’s corpse, the dog’s barking was cut short by a yelp of pain. Aaron shot Noel a look and quickened his pace.
An eight-foot wooden fence surrounded Jasper’s Gravel Yard. It had originally been a six-footer, but Riley, Jasper’s guard dog, had a habit of jumping it whenever anyone walked by. The dog would then follow them all over town — as long as the petting kept up, anyway — leaving the yard unprotected.
Reaching the fence, Aaron skidded to a halt. Noel came up beside him. They could hear soft, wet sounds on the other side — and something else. Something scuttling around, moving fast.
Aaron handed Noel the flashlight and jumped up to grab the top of the fence, straining to keep any noise to a minimum. He carefully poked his head over the fence and peered into the gravel yard.
“Jesus Christ,” he whispered. “Get up here.”
Noel clicked the flashlight off and stuck it in his pocket. Jumping, he hoisted himself alongside Aaron. As his eyes cleared the top of the fence, he suddenly wanted very badly to go home. “I gotta piss,” he muttered, unblinking.
Jasper’s dog, a brawny retriever, was in the process of being hollowed out and stripped to the bone. The creatures swarmed over the fallen dog, tiny jaws rabidly nipping out juicy chunks of meat. As before, two of the things stood guard, heads cocking and swiveling in all directions.
Aaron stared in bewilderment at the pale-skinned creatures. While they still moved too fast for him to make out any real detail, he was close enough this time to see the fleshy quills that sprouted from their backs, running from between their bulging black eyes to the tips of their thick, plated tails. Thin antennae — like those of a cockroach — whiplashed above their heads. Aaron thought he could see some sort of filament surrounding their mouths, filtering each bit of the dog as they greedily devoured it.
“What do you think they are?” Noel whispered.
Aaron tensed at the sound of Noel’s voice, ready to beat feet, but the creatures didn’t seem to have heard — or weren’t interested. “We’ve been gettin’ a lot of rain,” he said quietly. “That doesn’t happen much around here. I heard about these little crab things, their eggs can sit in the dirt for like, a hundred years, then when it rains, they hatch out. Kinda like Sea Monkeys.”
“Except they don’t drive cars,” Noel pointed out.
“Sea Monkeys don’t drive cars.”
“I saw an ad in a comic book where they were drivin’ a little convertible.”
“Man, that’s just for the rubes,” Aaron said. “Sea Monkeys are some kind of shrimp — they don’t do shit.”
Noel was about to argue the point when he slipped, his foot banging loudly against the fence.
Their pellet-like eyes locking on Aaron and Noel, the two creatures on guard instantly sent up the alarm, chittering horribly.
“Run like hell,” Aaron said, dropping to the ground.
Noel clung to the fence, staring stupidly as the things swept from the dog’s corpse and scurried towards him. His nose bounced off the fence as Aaron yanked him to the ground.
“I said run!“
Aaron and Noel high-tailed it down the alley. The creatures thudded into the fence like ham-sized hailstones, scuffling against the barrier as they attempted to clamber up and out. Some of them began gnawing at the wood.
This time, Aaron held his keys in a white-knuckled grip as he pulled them from his pocket.
“They’re out, they’re out!” Noel screeched, gawking over his shoulder.
Aaron glanced back. Sure as hell, the things were pouring through a hole at the base of the fence and running after them.
Then his foot sank into something gooey and he did a face-plant in the pavement, flinging his keys away as he hit. Moving too fast to avoid it, Noel drove a foot into Aaron’s crotch, launching himself over his pal and coming down hard.
Wincing at the agonizing pain centered in his groin, Aaron rolled onto his ass and sat up. One of his shoes was buttered with thick gore. He’d tripped over Lucas’s corpse.
“For cryin’ out loud,” Aaron griped.
The creatures were about twenty yards away and moving fast, ready to dive into the sumptuous feast laid before them.
Aaron let out an exasperated sigh. If he just hadn’t eaten those fucking Doritos.
Noel propped himself up on hands and knees and screamed girlishly. Whipping towards his friend, Aaron noticed the flashlight tucked into Noel’s pocket.
Aaron looked back at the creatures, imagining them licking their freakish little chops. As Noel scrambled to his feet, Aaron tackled him, yanking the flashlight from his pocket.
“What the fuck, man?” Noel shrieked.
“I thought of something Sea Monkeys do,” Aaron said. He sat up again, aimed the flashlight towards the creatures. Flicked it on.
And illuminated the swarm, to no effect — other than that he could now see very clearly what was about to dine on his guts.
“I just wanna thank you for waking my ass up so I could be a part of this,” Noel said.
Aaron swung the flashlight beam away from the creatures, putting a circle of light on the wall. Making a sudden right turn, the creatures darted toward the light — and away from Aaron and Noel.
Playing the light across the pavement, Aaron led the swarm of flesh-eaters on a winding chase back and forth in the alley. The things had seemingly forgotten their prey, intent only on capturing that dot of light.
Noel watched the creatures zip about, his mouth hanging open.
“Who do we know has a basement?” Aaron asked.
Twenty minutes later, Aaron and Noel were walking up the drive to Phil Gomez’s place with a shitload of nasty critters in tow. The things hadn’t veered from their stubborn pursuit of the flashlight beam during the entire walk to Phil’s.
As they reached the front door, Aaron played the light around in the field, keeping the creatures occupied while Noel knocked.
It took Phil a few minutes to answer. He was righteously pissed. “What the hell is this all about?” he wheezed, brushing his thickly-pomaded hair out of its sleepy ‘do.
“Take a look,” Aaron said, gesturing towards the flashlight beam.
Phil squinted. “What’re those, squirrels?”
Noel started to speak, but Aaron cut him off. “Yeah. We need to store ‘em in your basement.”
“What the hell for?”
“They’re, uh — they’re rabid. Bit some folks. Gotta keep ‘em penned up until Animal Control can get here.”
“Shit,” Phil said.
He backed into the house, allowing Aaron and Noel to enter. While Noel ran to open the basement door, Aaron led the creatures inside. Phil bent to stare at the things as they skittered past his feet.
“Don’t get too close,” Aaron cautioned.
“Those ain’t squirrels,” Phil said.
“Radioactive,” Aaron explained.
Phil hissed through his teeth, getting it.
Aaron moved into the kitchen and stepped aside. The things obediently followed the flashlight beam through the basement door and down the stairs. When the last one passed, Noel slammed the door shut and threw the bolt.
With the hypnotic effect of the light gone, the creatures instantly went berserk, slamming into the door and banging around the basement like a truckload of civet cats with a hose turned on them.
“I suggest we nail some cookie sheets or somethin’ over the door so they can’t chew through,” Aaron said, listening to the gnawing sounds emanating from below.
A week later, Aaron sat on the taped-together swivel stool at Freddy’s All-Nite, his feet propped up on the counter and the portable TV tuned to a rerun of Jenny Jones. In an effort to help out Freddy’s widow, Aaron had taken over the graveyard shift at the All-Nite, relinquishing his paperboy duties. The new paperboy wasn’t as regular a customer at the store as Aaron had been; most nights Aaron’s only customer was himself. Gave him lots of time to snack and watch the tube.
He looked up from the TV as the electric eye chimed. Noel strode towards the counter, dripping wet and feeling the gentle buzz of a few after-work beers.
“D’you hear about Phil?” he asked, grabbing a Kit Kat and tearing the wrapper open.
“Aw shit,” Aaron said, worried. So far, nobody’d been able to figure out what the creatures were or where they came from — or whether there were more.
“No, no, nothin’ bad — he’s still got all those damn scientists over at his place doin’ their research thing on the little bastards. But he’s stirrin’ up trouble.”
“He won’t let ‘em take the things away — says they’re in his basement, they belong to him. He wants to open some kinda monster museum, put ‘em on display and charge admission. Thinks he’s gonna put Charlton on the map.”
Aaron considered it for a second. “Damn, if I’d thought of that, I’da put the things in my own basement.”
“You don’t have a basement,” Noel said, starting for the door.
“You gotta pay for that,” Aaron said, indicating the candy bar.
Noel grinned and walked out, setting off the chime again.
Aaron stared after his friend for a long moment, gazing out into the rainy night. Probably wouldn’t be another customer the whole shift.
Abruptly, he left the counter, threw a chicken sandwich into the microwave and went to the door, where he began the process of lowering the electric eye to radioactive-squirrel level.
“They Don’t Drive Cars” is included (minus the intro by the mysterious Professor Fawkes) in my collection of short stories, Tales of Misery and Imagination. The book is available in various formats via the links below.
You also might dig my new novel, Squirrel Eyes (a story of lust, movies and more):
Or my collection of trashy movie reviews, Unsafe On Any Screen: