"There's a moon out too-night!" he screamed, spinning the tarnished volume knob to the right. The single speaker buried in the centre of the dash didn't do much for the volume as much as it did for the distortion but he didn't particularly notice. The old radio in the '72 Ford pickup had never sounded all that good to begin with and a few decades later was starting to sound like it was separated from his ears by two and a half feet of mud and water. He didn't care because he was drunker 'n shit, sauced to the almighty gills, lookin' at the world through whiskey-coloured shot glasses, and he was happier than a whore's pocketbook on navy payday. He was drunk, he was behind the wheel, it was Friday and who gave a shit?
He sliced the big steering wheel back and forth as he motored down the road, big V8 whuffing, faster than he would've driven sober, faster than he should've been driving on a sunny afternoon, downright stupid on a night such as this, fog creeping in a little, autumn leaves blowing across the blacktop, one wheezy, asthmatic headlight poking ahead of the truck, yellow and flickering, driving more by moonlight than headlight.
"There's a girl by my side, woo-woo-woo-woo..." he shouted, punching the roof of the old battered truck, provoking a fair scattering of dust to rain down on his head. He didn't notice any dust, what dust, he had thirteen shots of whiskey at Earl's behind him, he was slipping his feet from the gas to the brakes and back again, slicing that steering wheel with a rough correspondence to the snaking road ahead, he had eighteen hundred dollars in his pocket, that useless tit of a tenant had finally paid him the rent he was due and damn it, it was Friday night!
"There's a glow in my heart, woo-woo-woo-woo..." he crooned along with that old Capri's song barely crackling through the crappy old radio and the even crappier old speaker, damn it was such a fine tune, then he was toeing the brake pedal of his reliable old truck, more rust than rust-coloured, held together with a bit of paint, a lot of body filler and wood screws, and then he was wheeling the old Ford suddenly into Marcel's gas bar, just off highway 35, an old meandering two-lane that could take a fellow about as far north as he wanted to go, providing he had the time and the shit-load of gas money it would take you to do so. Squeezing off two toots of the horn, sounding more like a gut-shot goose than a once-noble pickup, he bucked to a stop just past the last pump on the island.
"Marcel!" he yelled at the top of his lungs. "I gotta move the fucking truck back a bit you old French prick!" He heaved the lever back down a notch to reverse, the truck hesitating, then slowly slipping back a few trembling feet as the old 351 Cleveland V8 hitched and farted, he found his place in front of the nozzle, kifed her back up into park and killed the motor.
He screeched the rusty, bent door out with the palm of his hand, the hinges protesting. His faded boots hit the pavement, and he slowly extricated himself from the old pickup, holding the small of his back while scraping a hand across his chin with the other.
"Forgot to shave for my audience with the queen," he said with a cackle and again, "Marcel! I'm gonna pump me some gas you French prick!" Pause. No answer yet. Shit, Marcel would normally answer right back and tell him to go ahead and pump the gas and he was gonna charge him double if he didn't hurry up and didn't he know he was about to close up?
"Here she comes!" he yelled as he grabbed the old nozzle off Marcel's archaic upright gas pump, flipped the lever to "ON", stuck it into the tank without removing the gas cap, mostly because he had lost the gas cap two days ago and couldn't for the life of him remember where he had put it but also because he was so goddamn drunk at this point he didn't quite remember that in order to fill a gas tank you first had to open it. He squeezed the pump handle with one dry old-man hand while using the other to shift the crotch of his pants into a more comfortable position. He listed to one side, spit on the blacktop, slowly regained his equilibrium and looked back at the pump.
The numbers weren't moving.
"Numbers ain't moving," he croaked. "Marcel!" he yelled again. "Turn the fucking power on you goddamned good-for-nothing French prick!" He looped a half-arsed right hook at the pump but his knuckles only glanced off the side harmlessly. Sometimes he forgot he had recently become an old man, why just forty years ago he had been quite young and now here he was, halfway to feeble, a sorry sight in his shitty old truck, couldn't even hit a goddamn gas pump when it needed a good fist mcknuckle sandwich to get it going. He stopped, squinted at the numbers and then back at the nozzle half protruding from the black hole in the side of the truck which, until quite recently, had been cozily protected by that metal gas cap.
"Marcel!" he yelled again. No answer. "MARCEL! TURN ON THE PUMP, MAN!"
"Shit," he muttered to himself. "Can't count on the French for nothing." He knew Marcel wasn't actually French, that his last name was Ryerson, and that he first name was actually Sean, but Marcel was what they called him because of that ridiculous moustache and it sure was better than calling him Sean. Kind of a fucking name was Sean anyways? Come to think of it, what kind of name was Marcel? Who was called Marcel other than faggots and that French guy who never talked?
"Marcel! I'm coming back there and if you're asleep then screw you, I ain't paying for no gas tonight!"
He yanked the nozzle out of the tank and began to shuffle towards the glass window of the gas bar, and the little screened-in room where Marcel kept his cash register and smokes and condoms and playing cards and chocolate bars and chips and propane tanks and any other shit some idiot tourist might have forgotten on his way to the provincial park. Goddamn tourists seemed so useless, always going off camping without the supplies they needed but Marcel or Sean or whatever the fuck his name was made some good cake off their innocence, and that was OK. Shit, he'd sell them regular old garden-variety short worms out of the icebox in little white Styrofoam containers and label them night crawlers. Idiot tourists didn't know any better. He charged twice as much too, and serve 'em right, the dumb ass city types. He didn't consider Marcel to be a close friend but he was closer to him than most and certainly more so than those stupid city-folk type, the camping tourists, driving up here with their sixty thousand dollar SUVs or CUVs or BFTs or whatever you called them these days. The big trucks with room for eight and three canoes on the roof and young wives with fake tits behind the wheel.
He stopped short of the swinging screen door. The light was on inside and he had assumed Marcel had to be around. But for the first time he could remember, the gas bar was open for business but Marcel (or Sean or Brandon or whatever his name was) was nowhere to be seen. He normally hovered so close to all his merchandise during open hours, then locked it all up out back when closing. Seemed kinda weird, if you asked him.
"Seems kinda weird, if you ask me," he said. He squinted up. The fluorescents were on, not as bright as they once were, freshly installed back in 1995 for a fair price, and Bill had helped set that one up thank you, now their underside coated in grease and dead flies, throwing a dim flood of light halfway across the parking lot. The big lighted sign announcing Gas And Go was still on, or Billy wouldn't have pulled in, but would've driven right on by, cursing his luck the entire time it took to get back to his house sixteen clicks up the road hoping he wouldn't come up dry before reaching his patchwork gravel driveway. The inside of the office and store and night crawler depot was lit up all normal, which was just right for this time of the night on Friday, but there was no one around. And outside those narrow cones of light, at the edge of the parking lot and beyond, complete darkness. As dark as dark gets up here, heading up north outside the big towns, no ambient light to distract the deep Ontario darkness from going about its business of covering everything up like a thick black blanket, revealing nothing underneath. Even the stars weren't helping much tonight. Luckily Bill had a nice harvest moon to navigate by or his crappy one-lighted pickup would've led him straight off the road and into the woods for an unpleasant rubber-side-up detour. He had had a couple of fender benders over the years but they mostly had been the fault of other people, if you really thought about it. Like that time he had hit a tree just north of here, just seemed to sort of slip his eyes closed for a minute and just glanced his fender off a little pine tree, just a little sapling which just sort of knocked his old arse back into his lane and then, just as nice as you please, without really slowing down, he had continued on his way. He had been drunk, the tree knocker had saved him from going right into the forest proper, but he was sure it had been someone else's fault, when you thought about it. Hadn't a car come screaming around the corner just before that? He couldn't really remember, he had been quite drunk he thought, but surely he didn't just pass out behind the wheel. He wasn't that kind of drunk. Wasn't that feeble either. Not yet, anyways.
Now what had he been planning to do? Oh yeah, Marcel. Where the hell was he?
"Marcel?" he said loudly, his voice going up at the end. "It's Billy, eh? Where the hell are ya'?"
Old Billy leaned to the side again, spat a foul-looking glob of green hork onto the dark pavement and looked to the left of the store. He started to move around the left side because he wanted to see if Marcel might be in the back office, more of a little grease-stained, paper-strewn hole than an office proper and he took a few steps and that's when he saw something on the ground. Something he recognized.
Suddenly Billy didn't feel so good. His good solid drunken buzz was starting to fade.
"Shit," said Billy, and he wasn't sure why he wasn't feeling as good as he was just a few minutes ago, when he came wheeling in here hoping to catch Marcel asleep or maybe even pulling his goalie. He didn't really want to see what was on the ground in front of him, half in and half out of that creepy florescent glow from above. Something just didn't feel so hot any more.
"Shit," said Billy again, and took a shuffling step forward. Was that a shoe? What was a shoe doing in the parking lot behind Marcel's little office? Why wasn't Marcel here? He sure hoped that wasn't Marcel's shoe on the ground because then he'd have to start thinking that maybe Marcel had had himself a good old fashioned heart attack and he'd maybe crawled around the parking lot looking for his car and old Billy was going to find the body and he didn't want to do that, no sir.
A few more steps had him close enough to see that yes, it was a shoe, and yes it looked like the kind of steel-toed shoe that Marcel wore every day at the gas bar and there was something else on it.
There was blood on it. Blood on Marcel's shoe. And no one was around, and the lights were trying to hold back the darkness but seemed to be doing a right bad job of it, and old Billy suddenly felt a little worse and he also realized that he was alone out here and why on earth would Marcel have left a bloody shoe in his parking lot?
As he got closer he saw something else too, something on the other side of it, a suggestion of a colour maybe, almost like a little scuff or drag mark, the kind you left when you bagged a nice deer and after you gutted it and hung it to bleed out and then dragged it to the truck, and it would leave a sort of sketchy trail of blood behind. The red smear of blood led from the shoe towards the far corner of the parking lot, out beyond the feeble circle of light cast by the overheads and Billy didn't want to go out there to investigate, no, he didn't think that would be a good idea.
He straightened up a little more and realized he was breathing too hard, too warm, too heavy.
"Easy Billy, just take it easy here. You don't wanna have a coronary yourself now," he murmured shakily. His breath was chuffing out of him now, raspy and hot and he realized just how goddamned scared he was. He was far from anyone out here and it was dark and it was cold and he knew now for certain that something terrible had happened and he didn't think it was a robbery or something like that. He knew something had happened to Marcel and his mind was starting to get a little squirrelly and jangly and it was hard to think right and something smelled real bad. He stood there for a while and while he tried to control his imagination he couldn't, because it was dark and cold and there was his friend's blood on the ground in front of him and no one was around and the image that started to come to him was too horrible to contemplate, Marcel alone out here tonight and something coming out of the woods across the parking lot, who knew what, but something big and something fast, something that grabbed him so hard it yanked him out of his fucking shoes hard enough to draw blood and then it dragged him away, away from the light, away from everything, into the woods.
Just like a movie.
That smell was getting stronger too, kind of a sharp stink, and it was all a little too much for him. He wanted to get the hell out of there.
Terror was creeping under his skin now, and his guts felt as if they just maybe wanted to spill out of his ass or come up through his throat and he told himself to stay calm, to breathe easy, but his breath was coming too strong now, too loud and he told himself once again to calm down.
He took a big gulp of air and held it and that's when he heard breathing still and it wasn't his, and it was loud and raspy and it was coming from the woods just in front of him, where the blood trail led and Billy lost his cool a little at that point, sort of turning to run but stumbling at the same time and he went down hard on the pavement and let out a little cry, like he was a goddamn kid again but he found his feet quickly and as he scrambled for the truck he heard something else behind him, closer now, a kind of clicking sound on the pavement and he knew immediately what it was, he knew clearly, it was claws, goddammit, claws on the pavement and the breathing behind him was louder and wetter and he was sprinting the last few steps and then he was in the truck and thank God he had left the keys in the ignition and it actually started on the first crank and that 351 Cleveland V8 barked right up and in the same moment he mashed the lever down into drive, went right past it, lodged it in low and pasted the gas pedal. His tires squawked as the big four-barrel carb yawned wide open and sucked in as much gas and cold air as it could and he punched his way out of the station and as he drove out of the light he saw something, tires howling now, just a blur of movement behind him, but it was moving towards him from the right rear of the truck, and now the truck was sliding a little under all that torque going to rear wheels and old Billy had to fight it, his face stretched taut with fear, feed in a little more steering angle against the slide and at that angle he could see that it was moving fast and it was big and it wasn't moving like something he could place, it didn't fit it into anything he could describe and then it was well behind him as he punched the shifter up into second, the tires chirping again as the truck straightened out and now he was tearing up #35, away from the station and back towards his house and he realized his pants were soaked and his knees hurt from when he had fallen and his cheeks were wet with tears. His heart thudded too loud in his chest and he didn't like the way he was feeling now, there was a sort of weight on his chest, a sort of tension across the top of his ribs and it was getting hard to breathe but he kept driving, faster now, punching the shifter up into third, away from whatever the hell it was he had just seen. He wanted to go home. He wanted to go the hospital, he wanted to go to sleep but he felt terribly scared, more scared then ever, maybe even worse than Korea and how could anything be worse than that?
He shook and coughed and spat inside the truck, not caring as he splattered the brown dashboard with his hot saliva, his legs trembling, he let off a little on the accelerator and brought the truck back into a speed range more suitable for this stretch of road, so little light coming from his one weak, shitty old headlight, not even a halogen bulb, not from a '72 pickup, no sir, just enough to get an idea of what was directly in front of his truck and not much else but that big yellow moon was helping, it was giving a little extra light to drive by but it wasn't helping his state of mind none because he couldn't stop shaking and he was wondering what the hell he had just seen, God, what came out of the forest there and what the hell happened to Marcel and should he call the cops now? What would he tell them? The world's biggest fucking bear grabbed my friend and then decided to start on me next? He didn't even know himself what just happened and his chest felt so tight and he realized he was groaning now and was sure he had pissed his pants and his mouth was dry and --
Something darted across the road.
He couldn't see what it had been, his headlight so feeble but --
Something else flashed across the road in front of his truck, barely missing it.
Then several more shapes darted out of the forest from the left, crossed the road in front of him, and flashed into the forest on the right. Deer? Why so many? Where were they running to?
Again, he let off on the gas a little more, now he could see a little better as he was leaning forward, again more shapes ran right across the road in front of him, shit he could barely make them out in the dim light, they were deer, his mind piecing it together now, they were moving so fast, graceful arcs of brown and white, almost floating across the road, barely touching the pavement, more like liquid than solid, just a flash of movement, gossamer legs and they were across. Now two more, now three in a small group, then a buck, six pointer at least, a doe and two smaller deer, shit a whole family, and they were across the road and he thought of old newsreel footage he had seen before he shipped out to Korea in '51 with the Royal Canadians, and the image that flashed through his mind were of columns of refugees, whole families of terrified folks running away from the fighting, running away because something was chasing them.
Now more deer flashed in front of his truck, sprinting like spooked civilians under fire, or like brown liquid squirted from a kinked hose, moving so quickly and then he saw what was chasing the deer.
A group of two more deer and then right behind them, slicing through the night but without grace, with speed and strength but not fluid like the deer, more like a shambling lurch was something much bigger, much stronger and in the tenth of a second it was framed in his headlight, in that split second its eyes flashed in his direction, with the help of the moonlight old Billy, survivor of a forgotten war, survivor of fifty reconnaissance missions behind the lines in a frozen battlefield of dead china men, survivor of fifty bottles of Crown Royal, survivor of fifty dust ups in bars and taverns and army bases, old Billy saw something that almost made him go mad.
He slammed on the brakes, felt the truck grind to a halt in a sluicing, wet slurp of burnt rubber and he cried a little as he stopped there in the middle of the highway and he felt his heart burst in his chest.