copyright 2003 by Brandon Cope
The rising sun broke over the horizon ahead of Samuel Drake as he sped down the interstate. He had already travelled over three hundred miles during the cold and silent night; with the ascension of the sun he knew his journey would gain a respite, but no end. He frequently glanced in his rear-view mirror, as if he expected something to appear just behind him, lurking just over the dark horizon, but there was nothing except miles of desolate highway, with barren desert to both sides. The greys and browns and reds bled together to form an amorphous landscape without beginning or end.
Abruptly, a small town came into view. The first building of a handful to his right appeared to be a gas station, though it was unclear as to whether or not the store, with generous amounts of chipped paint and several boards missing, was closed or open. However, his car's dropping fuel gauge gave him little choice in the matter.
His silver Porsche threw a large cloud of dirt in the cool, dry air as he pulled off the paved highway and next to the ancient fuel pumps. It took several seconds for the cloud to settle; when it did, a toothless and ill-shaven old man stood next to his car, wearing grease-stained coveralls that had been patched too many times.
"Are you open?" asked Drake, rolling down his window," Do you have any gas?"
"Yeah, but I don't take checks or none of them credit cards."
"That's fine, I have cash. Fill up the tank."
The old man nodded and he moved around to remove the gas cap. Drake got out to stretch his stiff legs and looked around. There were about a half-dozen buildings in various states of disrepair scattered a few yards from either side of the highway. One looked like a store or cafe; the rest were, or at least once were, homes.
Drake turned to the old man,"Is the cafe open?"
The old man nodded and continued to fill the tank, spitting tobacco juice onto the dry ground every few seconds. The indistinct sounds of an old country and western song filtered out of a radio inside the gas station.
Drake reached back into his car and carefully pulled out a battered tan briefcase, then crossed the highway and entered the cafe. It had the look of an old general store; perhaps not surprisingly, most of its merchandise appeared to date back several years. Part of the structure had been converted to a small cafe, probably in the late '50s from its style and the dusty antique jukebox in the corner.Though the door had been unlocked, no one appeared to be around.
"Is anyone here?" he asked loudly.
There was some movement behind the counter and a young woman stood up, a small, perky brunette who seemed very ill-placed in such a dead town.
"Sorry, I didn't hear you come in. Not many people stop by these days. What can I do for you?"
"Some coffee, if you have any made. Black, plenty of sugar. I've been driving for quite a while."
"Sure, no problem," she said, going to the end of the nearly barren counter.
He sat down on one of the white metal stools in front of the bar, placing the briefcase nearby at his feet and glancing at his watch nervously. Six forty. Outside, the last vestiges of the cold night were retreating before the ascending sun. He knew he shouldn't have stopped; the transition from night to day was unfinished. But he was tired, so very tired.
The woman suddenly reappeared before him, snapping him from his thoughts as she set the steaming coffee down before him.
"So, where are you heading?"
"Tucson," he answered flatly.
He made no effort to offer any more information, and began to sip his coffee. Deciding she wasn't going to get any conversation from him, the woman went back to her work.
Drake glanced down at the battered briefcase. It was ironic that such an ordinary container could hold such extraordinary contents. It seemed like centuries had passed since he had first opened the case and gazed upon the objects. He knew he would never want to change that incident, even after they came. Even after they caught him, as he knew they eventually would. He knew too much, had seen too much, and destruction was their nature. And he had struck at them first.
He finished his coffee quickly and left a couple of tattered dollars on the counter. Drake returned to his car, where the old man was standing next to his left rear tire.
"Is something wrong?" asked Drake.
"Yeah, ya got a flat. Pull it over to the garage and I'll put yer spare on. The portable hydraulic jack I got ain't too portable at my age."
Drake grumbled, covering his anxiety over the delay. He looked back down the empty highway and saw nothing, which did not comfort him; they had always appeared from nothing. A dull silence and stillness stretched over the town, though he faintly hoped it was always like that here.
Drake backed the car into the open garage door while the attendant wheeled out a large, rusty hydraulic jack that was probably old even when he bought it. The old man set the jack as Drake took the spare out of the trunk and leaned it against the car. A few minutes later the spare was on and the old man rolled the flat over to Drake, who continued to look down the highway expectantly, briefcase firmly in hand.
"Looks like you ran over somethin' pullin' inta town," he said, pointing to an object sticking out of the tire; a long, thin onyx talon.
Drake's legs almost gave out as a chill of the deepest and darkest cold ran through him.
"God no, not here," he mumbled to himself, pitching the briefcase into the passenger's seat. Then he turned to the old man, grabbing him by his grimy coveralls, lifting him off his heels.
"Get out of town," he said in a low and even voice, "Get everyone out of town. They're here."
"Eh? What're ya talkin' about?"
"The ... the ... I don't know what they are, but they've followed me here. I thought I'd had enough of a lead from dusk yesterday, but I didn't, and they're here. It doesn't matter that they want me, they'll kill everyone."
The old man took a step back, "Uh, mister, maybe ya been out on the road a bit too long. I got a good soft couch for ya to lie down on."
Realizing his warnings were futile, Drake jumped in his car and started the engine.
"Hey, ya owe me thirty bucks for the gas and tire!"
Drake ignored him as he raced onto the highway and away from the small town, throwing gravel and dirt behind him. He had not gone far when, looking in his rear view mirror, he saw a vast black swarm of something sweep over the town. A few moments later explosions rocked the highway as the buildings began erupting into flame.
Within an hour, state troopers sifted though the remains of the town. A trucker had come upon the inferno and contacted the police. The troopers were surprised to find two survivors of the devastation, the owners of the gas station and the cafe.
"What the hell happened here?" asked one of the troopers," Looks worse'n Desert Storm."
"This man drove in from the west and stopped to get gas," said an old man, pointing down the road," He was driving a new silver Porsche; I don't remember the license number, but it was out of state. He asked if the cafe was open, and I said yes. He came back a few minutes later and went berserk over a flat tire he had. I replaced the tire, but he began screaming something about 'thieves and traitors,' pulled a shotgun out of his car and began firing at everything. When he ran out of shells, he jumped in his car and left. A few seconds later the explosions began."
The trooper turned to the woman, "What did he do at the cafe?"
"Nothing, he didn't come in. He came to the front door, then turned and walked behind the building. After he went back across the street, about five or six minutes later, I went out back to throw some things away. I saw that he had left his briefcase. When I began to cross the highway to return it to him, he started yelling and shooting. I took cover, but just after he left buildings began to explode."
Another trooper had been examining the shiny black briefcase she had handed him, and its contents.
"Looks likes demolition gear."
"We'll catch this guy," said the first trooper, "It looks like the same one who went berserk in small towns in California and Nevada over the past few nights, starting with the killing of a bunch of New Age cultists near San Diego. It's lucky that he mentioned to you he was headed to Salt Lake City. Nuts like this tend to talk too much."
"Hey, I found something pretty weird," yelled a third officer, jogging across the debris-covered highway, carefully holding an object in his hand, "I found it over near the garage. It looks like some sort of talon or something."
"You are mistaken," said the old man calmly, not looking at the object, "It is simply a nail covered with black paint that was deformed by fire."
The trooper looked at it for a few more seconds, "Yeah, I guess you're right. It musta just been the light."
The young woman and old man just nodded and smiled faintly, waiting for the sun to again retreat below the horizon.