The rain turned violent suddenly, madly splattering the metal skin of the Chevy station wagon like a mindless swarm of silver insects. Nancy Thompson carefully pumped the brakes then quickly rubbed a clear circle in the cloudy film coating the windshield. She clutched the wheel with both hands and anxiously squinted through the tiny porthole for the taillights that had been her guide only a few moments earlier. They had vanished, swallowed by the swirling downpour.
An icy finger of alarm tapped at her spine as she stiffly maneuvered the Chevy toward the center of the road and looked for the white dividing lines. They jumped at her like weaving snakes through flapping sheets of rain, and for a moment everything within her locked up under the grip of utter panic. She shook it off, loosened her hold on the wheel, and peeked at the dashboard clock.
Her heart dropped. Home was at least an hour away - more if this angry storm persisted. She braved a glance at her daughter Rachel, asleep at her side, but resisted an urge to reach over and stroke her hair. Both hands were needed on the wheel.
Lightning flashed and thunder shook the night, and the rain intensified to a furious torrent that overpowered the wipers, now laboring clumsily across the windshield like damaged ships leaking oil and grime. She fumbled with the light switch, but neither high nor low beams could pierce the deluge. A thought - Dear God! I’ll end up killing us both - swept across her mind as she hastily scrubbed again at the windshield and scanned the roadside for a spot broad enough for the car. But the shoulders were narrow and bordered with steep drainage ditches, and the fear of sliding from the road to become hopelessly mired in one drove her on. Her hope for safety shifted to the gas station where Route 34 joined the interstate.
Traveling faster than good sense would allow, Hiram Gandy sluiced northward on Route 34. His Ford pickup held the road well, and if he pressed the ancient truck he could make it back to Bluemont before the A-QUAINTANCE LOUNGE closed. After spending the evening with John Chadwick, he could use a few beers.
Death soaked the air in the bedroom and Hiram nearly gagged upon seeing John. A big, robust man when healthy, he had turned shadow-thin and yellowed, as though something horrid and hungry was devouring him from within. Whatever it was would soon have John in his grave, and Hiram wasn’t expecting that. Mary Lee’s letter had simply said that her brother had taken sick and that he wanted to see him. Taken sick, hell, Hiram thought, the man is knocking on eternity’s door.
Four years earlier Hiram and John had retired from the lumber mill in Marietta on the same day, then had spent the better part of a week visiting every bar in the county. Had a hell of a time and nearly convinced each other that the good life was just beginning. Thereafter, they hooked up now and again to fish and drink beer, but when John’s sister lost her husband to a stroke, John left Bluemont for her small farm near Pinn’s Gap and tried to make a go of the place. Things didn’t work out though. The soil was bleached dry. Couldn’t grow dirt in it, John had said in his only letter.
That’s the last Hiram heard about John until Mary Lee’s letter.
Hiram took a chair by the bed and breathed through his mouth to keep the stench out of his gut. John’s eyes sparked with a glint of recognition when he opened them, but his mouth only quivered when he tried to speak. So Hiram simply took his hand and remained at his side until John drifted into a troubled sleep.
It seemed the thing to do. The two of them went back a long way.
When he left, Mary Lee thanked him then cried. He expected that from her, but it nonetheless made him uneasy. After an awkward nod, he hurried off, hunching his shoulders against a rain that seemed to be falling thicker by the second.
The radio died at the start of a Marty Robbins’ ballad. Hiram pounded the dashboard with his fist and Robbins blared back to life. Hiram joined in… “Don’t worry ’bout me.”
A gust of wind rocked the pickup and sent the tail end sliding. The trees lining the road lunged into the headlights like swaying matadors dodging a charging bull. Hiram squeezed the wheel and eased the truck toward the middle of the road. His foot hung above the brake pedal then lightly pumped it. The old Ford slowed, the wheel steadied in his grip. But sweat glistened his brow and his heart thumped wildly. His hands were clammy, his eyes burned, and a shadowy sense of alarm stirred the hair on the back of his neck.
Drink was needed. But to get it, he’d have to hurry. After countless miles on this ancient strip of concrete, Route 34 was as familiar as the back of his hand. I can handle it, he told himself. He thought briefly of John Chadwick, who couldn’t handle anything anymore, then steadily lowered his foot on the accelerator.
“Jesus! Where is that damned gas station?” Nancy Thompson squinted through the windshield. She arched her back and winced as fatigue bit sharply into her shoulders and arms.
Her mind shifted gears, to Rachel and this latest visit with Anna Rink at the nursing home in Bluemont, then to chiding herself for allowing the two of them to spend so much time to themselves. Rachel’s great grandmother or not, I must be mad, she thought, remembering that years ago Anna had told her the same ridiculous tales she was now telling Rachel. Silly, senseless stories about gypsies, magic potions, and a mystical glass ball that were simply fables like Mother Goose or the Tooth Fairy. They were clever fiction and nothing more, and she had never been entranced by them as Rachel was. Rachel, Nancy feared, was beginning to believe Anna’s nonsense.
But that was only part of her concern. Anna was different with Rachel. More intense … more fervent…more something beyond words that frightened Nancy. Resolved that she had to curb Anna’s growing influence over Rachel, she had delayed their trip home to explain over dinner in the TOWNE CAFÉ that Anna’s stories were just harmless yarns she had learned from the gypsy woman who raised her. Rachel smiled often and mechanically, but said nothing, and her cold apathy convinced Nancy that she had to confront Anna alone and insist that she stop telling Rachel these asinine stories. If Anna refused, Rachel’s visits to the nursing home would stop.
A dull yellow glow appeared, bouncing like a blurred fishing bob through the rain. Nancy’s eyes widened. “The gas station!” She glanced quickly toward Rachel, still content with her dreams against the door. The glow brightened and began revolving. Nancy watched the word stenciled across the center clear: SHELL.
“Thank God,” she whispered.
Roger Stolp dumped the last of the trash into a large plastic bag. He was bored, and had four more hours to endure before his shift ended. The rain promised a long, dull night. He slid into his raincoat and dragged the bag out into the downpour, pausing by the soda machine to pull the hood over his head. The rain had become a driving torrent, worse than any he could remember. Grabbing his raincoat at his throat, he forced himself from beneath the canopy and hastily tossed the trash bag into the huge open mouth of the dumpster opposite the rest rooms.
Back beneath the canopy, he shook the water off and looked at the yellow sign spinning slowly through snapping sheets of rain. He was considering turning the sign off when he saw headlights approaching from the north. He stared wide-eyed at them, thinking it incredible that anyone would be bold or stupid enough to be driving in weather like this.
Nancy Thompson saw the SHELL sign gleaming like a welcoming sun. She saw the inviting canopy over the gas pumps and its patch of safety amidst the clouds of rain. If she saw the approaching truck, she never acknowledged it. She swung the station wagon toward the SHELL station and through the glare of the approaching pickup’s headlights.
Hiram Gandy saw the approaching headlights turn across his path. His foot found the brake while his hands jerked at the steering wheel and his mouth fell silently open. His voice stuck in his throat; Marty Robbins sang on alone. Hiram yanked the wheel hard left, then right, and the pickup slid past the station wagon and into the ditch bordering the road.
Nancy saw the pickup hurtling toward her and in a single panic-filled moment slammed her foot to the brake and her hands to her face. The brakes grabbed vainly at the slick tarmac and the Chevy wagon twirled like a pinwheel before crashing in an explosion of buckling metal and bursting glass into the huge sturdy pole that held the sign aloft. The sign shuddered, tottered like a ball on a juggler’s nose, then fell to detonate upon the Chevy’s roof in a furious fusillade of hissing gas and fragmenting plastic.
Inside, Nancy slumped across the steering wheel, her eyes wide open and her neck at an odd angle. Rachel now lay in the back seat, blood from her ruptured organs already on its lethal voyage to the cavity of her chest.
Hiram Gandy lay unconscious, splayed like a rag doll in his truck which was tail-up in the muddy bank of the ditch. Through a shattered window Marty Robbins wailed into the night… Don’t worry ’bout me.
Roger Stolp, eyes frozen open, mouth looped in a horrified circle, stood statue-still beneath the canopy. It took a while for his joints to loosen and his brain to begin working. When they did, he took a clumsy step toward the wreckage beneath the sign before spinning on his heels and dashing inside for the phone.
A few miles to the north, in a nursing home in Bluemont, Anna Rink stared into a softball-sized glass ball sitting on the small table by her bed. She saw Nancy’s Chevy careen across the rain-slickened road and collide with the steel pole. She saw the pickup swerve from Nancy’s path to impale itself in the ditch. And she saw and recognized the man behind the wheel.
The interior of the ball shimmered with a dazzling light that divided into two swirling tendrils that slowly congealed into the blood-coated faces of her granddaughter and great granddaughter. Horror stabbed savagely into her, forcing her upright in her bed. Her eyes turned wild and furious and glowed like lava-filled craters. Something left sleeping long ago in the depths of her suddenly awakened and pounded angrily against the thin walls of her chest.
The unspeakable malevolence, so long controlled…so long contained, demanded release.