5

In the mountains, the light at dusk has a curious, otherworldly quality. It seems to bend around the slopes, filling valleys with soft shadows. It is a beautiful time of day, and tonight the sunset was especially beautiful.

The Can Man, however, didn’t give a damn about sunsets—not tonight or any night. He was too busy. He had his job to attend to, and a workingman didn’t have time to stare at the mountains and watch the sun go down.

It had been a good haul today, the Can Man thought as he picked through the batch in his canvas sack. There was a Budweiser can, a Miller draft can, and a Coors can—in fact, the very one that punk kid had tossed before he’d made the kamikaze motorcycle run into the gully. What was the guy’s name? the Can Man wondered, as he sorted the various brands. Oh, yeah, Flagg. Brian Flagg. Guy that came pokin’ around all the time when he was younger, trying to make conversation. Probably trying to learn the can trade, trying to dip into the Can Man’s business.

Well, the punk wouldn’t steal any of his tricks of the trade; not from Jimmy Nick, the Can Man.

Tricks like the one he was about to perform. The Can Man lifted his cracked work boot. Strapped to the bottom of the boot was the ancient rusty iron skillet the Can Man had imported from a junkyard in Denver when he came out here. In the waning twilight he studiously inspected the arrangement of the cans, making sure they were lined up just so.

He aimed, then pushed down hard.

Whomp! metal against metal, the skillet mashed down on the perfectly arranged cans, flattening them.

The Can Man moved his foot and checked his handiwork. Yep, just right. Now on the old low stump, instead of three cans, there were three flat circles. They were easier to carry this way, and the boys down at the recycler center liked them this way. They liked them so much, in fact, that they gave the Can Man an extra quarter a pound! No, his skillet secret was one he wouldn’t share with anyone. After all, there were only so many cans to go around in Morgan City, and the Can Man had dibs on them all.

He chuckled as he stared down at the flattened cans. “Good un!” he said, then he looked over at Nixon, his dog. “You gotta do this right, Tricky Dickie, or they won’t pay you that extra quarter!”

Nixon looked at him with sad eyes; then he yawned and scratched.

“Huh? Dickie, don’t talk back like that to me! I fed you some good ground groundhogs today, your favorite! So don’t sass the old Can Man!” He picked up the three circles of aluminum and tossed them into a large wire basket near the ramshackle porch of his shack. Then he picked out three more from his sack and situated them on the stump in preparation for his skillet maneuver.

“Let’s talk philosophy this evening, boy. You tell me, Nixon. How many angels can dance on the head of a beer can?”

Whomp! Three more flattened cans. He was developing into a regular machine.

In the twenty-five years since he’d first appeared in Morgan City, Jimmy Nick, aka the Can Man, had become something of a local institution. And in all those years he hadn’t really changed. Today, just as then, he was a grizzled old codger with gray hair, a stubbly beard on a wrinkled face atop a wiry frame. The truth also was that the only rights he had to this land and this shack were squatter’s rights. No one bothered him, however; he was harmless, and besides, he took care of some of Morgan City’s litter problem.

“Takes a special aptitude, doin’ what we do, having your own business,” the Can Man told Nixon as he threw more flattened cans into their storage bin. “Like I always tell you, boy. Our motto is, Can do!”

The Can Man was putting out the next three cans to be flattened when it happened.

The first hint that something was up came from Nixon. The dog let out an odd sort of whiny growl, then jumped up suddenly, his hair sticking up on end.

Startled, the Can Man knocked over one of the cans. He turned to look over at Nixon, who was now growling at the sky!

Following the dog’s gaze, he looked up into the twilight, but couldn’t see anything.

Then he realized that it was a sound that Nixon was reacting to—the sound of a low whine that was rapidly rising higher and higher in pitch. And it was getting louder too.

He turned to the west, toward the sound, and then he saw the light, a soft glow when he first noticed it, but getting brighter and brighter! And the whine kept growing, too, turning now into a roar.

Cripes! It’s a flaming chariot! thought the Can Man. Coming down to get him!

The roar grew deafening as the fireball hurled closer. The Can Man fell to the ground, covering his face and his ears as the fiery thing raced by like an ignited freight train.

And then it landed, exploding in one huge, scorching blast. Even from a distance the Can Man could feel the heat flowing over him like a river. When the noise subsided, he became aware again of Nixon, barking crazily. Then the dog tore off toward the woods where the thing had crashed.

Holy shit, I’ve gotta see what that thing is, thought the Can Man, stumbling as he got up, at first forgetting about the skillet still tied to his foot. He wobbled about, his heart hammering in his chest, finally getting the thing off, and then running after the dog, taking time only to grab the hand ax leaning against the shed—just in case.

There was no problem in finding the thing. It had burned a path straight through the tops of the trees! Thank God it had been raining this week some, thought the Can Man, or the whole forest would burn up in a snap! Instead, the flames were just dancing on the tops of the trees, flickering out.

The Can Man followed the trail of destruction, noting how some trees had been snapped in half. He could still hear Nixon barking up ahead.

“Wait up! Wait up, you mangy mutt!” he cried, stumbling through the thick growth. Suddenly he stopped, startled by what he saw ahead of him.

A crater!

The thing burning down from the sky had smacked into the forest with such force that it had made a huge hole, splashing earth aside as if it were mud! Nixon was barking away at the edge of the crater, but he didn’t go down into it. The Can Man eased his way closer and stroked the dog comfortingly. “Hey, pal. What we got here, then, eh?”

The Can Man peered up over the edge, a bright light bathing his battered features, filling the darkening air with an eerie glow.

“Whoa-ee!” he said, staring down into the crater.

Blue and green flames danced along the crater’s rim, but they were slowly dying out as brackish smoke funneled up into the night sky. The fumes had the smell of burnt sulphur mixed with charred wood and scorched earth; it made the Can Man’s eyes tear up. He watched awhile, waiting for the flames to flicker down. Then he picked up his ax handle, and, brandishing it before him, approached closer.

“You stay here, Nixon,” he ordered. “No telling what this is. But I suspect it’s one of them there meteorites, and near as I recall meterorites, they’re made from metal. Who knows, we might have ourselves a fortune here! Mebbe we can buy ourselves a can factory.”

The dog growled.

“Okay, okay. A canned-dog-food factory, how’s that?”

Through the diminishing haze he could make out a charred, red-hot sphere protruding from the earth. A sphere with a crack down the middle!

“Mebbe we got us some goodies inside, Nixon. Now, stay back, boy, stay! I’m goin’ to check this baby out.”

The heat remained fierce, but moment by moment it slacked off. The Can Man was impatient. He wanted to see if this was indeed going to be the big find of his life.

He stepped down farther, feet crunching the burnt earth. He squinted down at the object through watery eyes.

Then he saw it. Inside the sphere something pulsed.

It was more than light, more than flames. It was the shimmer of something fluid, like the glimmer of a reflection at the bottom of a well… It stirred and turned… undulating… slithering. A soft hissing sound filled the air.

Nixon, too, was transfixed, his bark silenced. With a faint whimper he scurried away, spooked.

“Good idea, pal,” said the Can Man. “But me, I’m the curious type. Gotta see what this is. Whatcha think? Molten gold? Platinum? Worth lots more than aluminum, I should think.”

To one side of the crater there was a fallen branch, stripped of its leaves. The Can Man picked it up and began to poke at the thing below him.

He aimed the end of the stick into the glowing, cracked hulk at the bottom of the crater. He stuck it in as far as he could safely reach, to where a kind of volcanic soup boiled within the object. The stick slid into the fluid; what he sensed at the end of his probe was a thick, curiously viscous substance, like tapioca pudding when it’s still hot.

It didn’t look much like metal, thought the Can Man. I wonder what the hell it…

There was a tug on the stick.

It was a gentle tug, like the nibble of a trout at the end of a fishing line, but it was a definite tug nonetheless.

Creepy, thought the Can Man. Well, he could let this thing cool awhile, then check it out. He had a weird feeling here, and maybe it would be wise to just leave well enough alone for the time being. He’d come back later to check this number out.

He pulled the stick from the smoking object. There was something on the end of the stick, he noticed immediately. Something that looked grossly like a giant glob of phlegm, a mass about the size of his fist. Its transparent surface steamed and sparkled in the glow from the object and from the traces of fire that still flickered on the periphery of the crater.

The Can Man tilted the stick more, giving it a little shake.

The funny-looking stuff didn’t fall off. Instead it clung, as if it was glued on or something.

“Well, I’ll be!” said the Can Man. “This is just the damnedest thing! Nixon! C’mere and have a gander at this!”

He stepped back up the side of the crater, waving the stick back and forth with greater force. Then he checked the wad again. It was still there. It seemed to flex now, drawing into itself.

Hey, what a discovery, thought the old man, stepping back. Fascinating! He stared in wonder at the complexities of this globule at the end of the stick. It seemed to sparkle with a kind of iridescence that dazzled the old man’s eyes. For a moment he stood transfixed.

Incredibly quickly the stuff streamed up along the stick. Like a cobra striking it hit the old man’s hand, folding about it like a sheath.

The old man screamed, but there was no one to hear him. He let go of the stick, but it was too late. The blob of stuff was now attached to him, fully wrapped around his hand, all the way up to the wrist.

The Can Man stared down at the thing in horror.

His hand started to tingle, to itch…

And then it felt as if it were on fire.

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