8

On the way into town he’d been lucky and snagged a ride in Clint Ziglar’s pickup truck. But despite a great deal of thumb wagging, no one had stopped to pick up Brian Flagg on his way back to Elkins Grove. Finally he had to walk the whole way along Route 9, and then another mile until he reached the dry riverbed, lugging ole Moss’s ratchet set in his pocket. He should have brought a flashlight, too, he thought, as he approached the familiar skeletal stump of the bridge he’d tried to use as a ramp. The sun was long gone, and night had clamped down tight on the countryside.

There was a full moon, however, and from it enough light to see what he was doing. There were just a few adjustments that he had to make on the bike, and he’d worked on that machine so much, he could probably fix it in the dark, just by touch!

In the distance a dog howled. From closer came the hoot of an owl. A cool, dry breeze was blowing down from the mountains, swaying and rattling tree branches in the forest nearby and pushing the smell of pine and dead leaves into Flagg’s face.

And the smell of something else.

Brian Flagg paused by the ruined bridge and took another sniff of that air. Yes, there was something else… a burning smell. He surveyed the tops of the trees and, yes, there was a trace of smoke, coming up from just about the area where the Can Man lived. The old man must be having a barbecue, thought Flagg, or burning refuse or something.

Nonetheless the smell made him feel slightly uneasy. As he looked at the wavering smoke against the night sky, the hairs at the nape of his neck lifted a bit and he shivered. The mountain countryside could spook a guy once in a while. Injun ghost dances, some people called the sensation. Flagg just shrugged it off and went down into the gully to deal with his bike.

It was still there, of course. There was no danger of anyone wanting the thing. Brian had paid a whole twenty-five dollars for it, almost as soon as it got dumped in the city junkyard. Back then it looked hopeless, rusty and delapidated, but the frame had been good still, and the tires were almost new. Otherwise it was a mess, but Brian Flagg had a talent for spotting potential in old stuff. Now the bike meant a lot to him because he’d saved it; it was almost like he’d made the whole thing.

He hauled the bike up, pushing it up the gully slope at any angle, so the wheels could get some purchase. It was a struggle, and when he finally pushed it up over the rim, he was puffing heavily. When he had his breath back, he wheeled the thing to some flat ground near a stand of trees. Here, he not only had optimum use of the moonlight—he also knew the damned bike wouldn’t roll away from him. He put the kickstand down, crouched, and opened up Moss’s ratchet set. Straining to see in the dim light, he began to work.

Suddenly he heard a soft rustling sound. Flagg tensed, looking around. It had been an odd noise. He listened a moment longer. Hearing nothing more, he went back to work, ignoring how greasy his hands were getting.

More rustling. This time, however, it was closer. It seemed to come from the trees to his left.

A twig snapped, and Brian paused, holding his breath as he listened. He heard nothing more.

Flagg slipped the ratchet into his back pocket and flipped the ratchet box closed. Then he flicked on the motorcycle’s headlight and panned it across the base of the trees and the surrounding field.

Nothing.

Damn, this was creepy, although nothing to get upset about, of course. The night was always full of odd sounds, and this valley could do weird things with sound, thought Flagg as he clicked the light off. That sound could be coming from—

He turned around and found himself staring into horror.

Wild shrunken eyes… An open mouth, silently screaming… Crazed tangle of hair…

Flagg gasped and stepped back. It was the Can Man, and he looked as if he’d just been through a meat grinder!

Abruptly the scream broke loose, wretched and hoarse, from the Can Man’s mouth. He brought up his arms into the moonlight and Brian could see that one held a rusty hand ax and the other…

The other hand was wrapped in something weird and smooth, something reddish with speckles and sparkles. Flagg didn’t get a good look because the Can Man turned and held the hand out. He took the hand ax and made an erratic swing at his own arm. The ax blade glanced off the forearm, doing not much harm. But, God, was the guy nuts? He was trying to cut off his own hand!

Another scream ripped from the Can Man’s lips and he pulled the ax back again for another try.

God, he had to stop the loon! thought Flagg, racing up and catching the ax. With several hard yanks he managed to wrestle it out of the old man’s grip. He hurled it away into the brush, where the guy couldn’t get at it again.

The Can Man screeched again, shuddering with agony. As Brian spun him around, he could see the guy’s eyes actually rolling with the pain. It was that thing on his hand… What the hell was it?

“Hey, old guy! Be still, I’m tryin’ to help you!” he cried, surprised at the scrawny man’s strength.

Flagg managed to raise the arm up into the moonlight to where he could get a good look at it. Boy, the old lunatic had done some damage with the ax. The forearm was shattered, mangled. And on the hand…

Oh, Jesus, what was that?

The old man’s hand was cocooned with a thick, oozing mass. Translucent, it looked like a jellyfish wrapped tightly and stubbornly, with a strange glitter to it, an odd pulsing. But inside… Flagg felt his stomach churn. This translucent gunk was colored a queasy pink. And through the pink showed what was left of the Can Man’s hand: skeleton, with just a shred of muscle, a faint wrapping of vein.

Even as Flagg stared down, transfixed with revulsion and horror, the mass moved sluglike up to the new slash the man had inflicted with the ax, staunching the blood and clogging the dent.

There was a faint sucking sound.

The Can Man howled.

Flagg, distracted, no longer had a good grip on the old man, so he was able to break free. Off balance, stunned with what he had seen, Flagg staggered back as the Can Man charged off back into the woods, screaming like a madman.

Flagg recovered. He had to help the poor guy. He’d never seen such dreadful suffering!

“Wait!” he cried. “You need help!”

The Can Man just kept going, so Flagg chased after him, the image of the horror on that man’s arm still vivid in his mind.

As he entered the woods, he could hear the Can Man blundering about in the undergrowth up ahead like a blind, maddened bull.

“Wait!” he cried again, as he caught sight of the man in the moonlight, clutching his hand to his chest, whimpering and moaning with shock and horror.

Adrenaline-pumped moments passed as Flagg ran through the woods, getting closer. Up ahead he could see the ribbon of Route 9, snaking toward Morgan City. The Can Man was making toward the road, but he seemed to have no particular destination. He was just running, wildly, as though running would stop the pain he was clearly experiencing.

Flagg just hoped that…

He heard the motor first, and then he saw the lights, moving along the road at a good clip.

“Oh, shit!” he said. “Old Man!” he screamed. “Watch out—!”

But the Can Man did not hear him, did not heed the words. He loped out into the road.

Brakes screeched, like a banshee’s call of doom.

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