9

Paul Tyler gripped hard at the wheel of his dad’s Toyota Celica, trying to get control of himself. God, he was pissed. He took a deep breath as the car barreled through the night. He reached over and turned the radio to the local rock station, letting the power chords of Def Leppard pound from the speakers in the rear. A bright moon floated in the clear sky above. The dense forest hurtled by to either side of the car.

After a long silence Meg Penny finally spoke. “I’m really sorry about my father. I’ve never seen him like that!” Clearly she was just as embarrassed as Paul about what had happened, and just as eager as he to get this date back on track.

Paul nodded, then exhaled slowly. “That’s okay. Just a misunderstanding. I’ve made better first impressions, that’s for sure!”

“Well, no harm done, I guess,” she said, loosening up a bit and leaning back to enjoy the night air rushing through the open window.

“Wrong!” said Paul. “Scott Jesky’s gonna die!”

Meg chuckled.

“You like the idea of the imminent death of a football player, Miss Rah Rah Rah?”

“No. The humor of it all is just starting to sink in. The look on Daddy’s face! The look on your face! Priceless, just priceless.”

Paul sighed and began to untense, allowing himself to smile. “Yeah. I guess maybe it was pretty funny. To think, your father, Mr. Straight, selling condoms! And thinking… whew, talk about being hoist by his own petard! Still, Scott is going to pay!”

Meg changed the subject. “So tell me about this restaurant that you’re taking me to. You know, I had to pass on Mom’s meatloaf tonight. This better be good.”

Paul laughed. “Oh, yeah. My parents and I go to this place a lot. It’s over in Clendal Pass. Called the Overlook. They get a lot of the resort business, and also passersby on the highway looking for a nice place to eat. They say the chef actually met Julia Child once.”

Meg laughed.

“No, the food isn’t bad, and the view is nice, and there’re candles, and Dad knows the owner, so we can maybe get a glass of champagne or something. I thought it would be a nice quiet place—I dunno, to just talk. It’s not very quiet back at school, and there’s always class to go to, or practice or other distractions. It’s just that… well, I’ve always felt that maybe you and I… well, maybe we had a lot to talk about.”

“Oh? What makes you say that, Paul?”

Paul took in a deep breath. “Well, I read a lot. I’m a good reader and a quick reader, so I can put away a book in a day or two, and I’ve been reading since I was about four years old. And every day, Meg, every day, I see a different book under your arm. So, anyway, now I’ve got these whole different worlds my head travels in, worlds I really can’t talk about to other people. And I thought maybe you had worlds, too, and maybe we could share those worlds.”

Meg was quiet for a moment. “Paul, that’s a wonderful thought. Yes, I do like to read. And these days, you don’t get too many people who enjoy immersing themselves in books. But is that the only reason you asked me out?”

“Heck, no!” blurted Paul. “I think you’re the sexiest, most wonderful girl in school!” He was immediately embarrassed and he was glad of the darkness, because he knew he was blushing.

Meg laughed. “Whew. For a moment my faith in the male of the species was being shattered.”

“No. But it’s true about the books, it’s not just a line, Meg.”

She patted him on the knee. “I know. Just teasing you, Paul.”

A nice glow filled him, and he took a moment to look over at her, outlined in the glow from the headlights. Nice silhouette. Along with her perfume and the sense of warmth near him, Paul realized that his heart was pumping with excitement again.

“Paul, watch out!” she cried. “There’s a man running across the road!”

Paul swiveled his gaze back immediately. A figure was jumping out of the shadows to the side of the road up ahead and was headed straight for them!

Paul slammed on the breaks and swerved, honking the horn to warn the guy. The man angled, but instead of moving away, he ran straight into the path of the car. All this happened in just a split second, so Paul wasn’t able to do anything else.

Then the brakes locked.

Bang! The front of the Toyota connected with the man, barely clipping him. The man bounced off the car and curled up on the ground to the side.

Paul brought the car to a halt.

“It’s not your fault, Paul,” said Meg. “I saw it, he ran right into you.”

“We’ve got to help him.”

They jumped out of the car.

The man lay in the middle of the road, holding himself and moaning. Just as Paul was approaching him, he saw a another figure rush from the woods onto the road, puffing. In the still-lit headlights he was able to make out that the figure was that of Brian Flagg.

Paul knew Flagg, although more by reputation than anything else. They weren’t enemies, but neither were they friends. Brian Flagg was simply the school’s primo hood, with a juvie record, yet—a bit of an outcast. So it was natural that Paul should think that this poor old guy on the pavement here was running away from him.

“Flagg! Jesus Christ, what did you do to him?”

Flagg knelt down beside the old man. He turned to find that the person who had addressed him was Paul Tyler. “Hey. I’m not the one who bounced him off my car, pal.”

“Right,” said Paul, approaching cautiously. “But you chased him into the road!”

“Stop it, both of you!” Meg protested, striding out between them. “Can’t you see this man needs help?”

Paul knelt down to the side of the old man and helped Brian Flagg to sit the guy up.

“Careful,” said Flagg. “He’s got some kind of corrosive shit on his hand.”

“Hey, I’ve seen this fellow!” said Paul, when the grizzled head swung into some light. “This is the Can Man. He—”

His words were stopped by the sight of the man’s hand as it came into the light as well. It was dim, so he couldn’t see the hand clearly, but there seemed to be some kind of slime all over it. Slime and blood, with a hint of bone!

“Oh, God,” said Meg, seeing it too.

“What the hell is that?”

“Don’t look too close or you’ll lose your cookies,” said Flagg. “I don’t know what it is, but old Can Man needs a doctor.”

“We’re not far from the clinic!” Meg said, pointing toward the town.

“Yeah, that’s where we’ll go, then,” said Paul as they helped the guy toward the Toyota. The man smelled of sweat and blood and bad stuff that Paul couldn’t identify. Halfway to the car the old man started shivering and trembling, as though from fever. “Take it easy, mister. We’re gonna get you some help, okay?”

A moan bubbled from the man’s lips. “From the sky… ! Fell from the sky.” His voice was like sandpaper on sandpaper.

“What? What’s he saying?”

“He’s in shock!” Meg said.

Paul remembered the special class he’d had a couple years ago in CPR and related emergency procedures. You needed to keep victims of shock warm, didn’t you? Yeah. “There’s a blanket in the back of the car.”

Meg pulled open the door, reached in, grabbed the blue wool blanket, and gave it to Paul. Flagg helped him wrap the Can Man up, and then they eased him carefully into the backseat. Meg assumed her position in the passenger seat, and Paul was about to run around to the driver’s side when he noticed that Brian Flagg hadn’t moved from the side of the car.

“C’mon, get in!”

“What for?” Flagg asked.

“There’s going to be a lot of explaining to do to the doctors, and you’re part of it. Now, you gonna get in or do I make you get in?”

Reassuming his tough-guy role, Flagg pretended he was dusting some dirt from Paul’s shoulder. “What’s wrong, Tyler? Worried about a little insurance claim on Daddy’s car? Maybe I will come along, just to make sure you don’t lay the whole thing off on me.”

Meg stuck her head out the window. “Are you two done? Will you hurry? We’ve got an emergency here!”

Paul circled around and got in the driver’s seat. When he slammed the door, he saw that Brian had pushed Meg over and was sitting beside her, closing the door behind him.

“Hey, Flagg! Get in the back,” Paul demanded.

“What?” he said. “Hell, I ain’t sitting in the backseat with that thing on the Can Man’s hand!”

Flagg stretched out and draped his hand over the back of Meg’s seat. He smiled at Paul. “Whenever you’re ready, pal.”

Gritting his teeth, Paul turned the engine over, stuck the car in gear, and got going.

He drove fast and he drove well, as Meg guided and Brian explained how he’d just been fixing his bike when he’d bumped into the Can Man, totally out of his mind.

“He was trying to hack his hand off with this hand ax. You shoulda seen it!” he said.

Meg shuddered. “I’m really glad I didn’t.”

“Yeah, so I tried to stop him, but I when I got a gander at the stuff on his hand, well, that kind of took the wind outta my sails. So then, he just took off, with me chasin’ him. All in all I guess it turned out for the best. You guys might not have stopped if he hadn’t run right in front of you.”

“I just hope that the doctors at the clinic can help him,” said Meg, looking back at the old man in the backseat.

“Yeah! I mean, who’s gonna take care of Morgan City’s can problem if the Can Man kicks the bucket?” said Flagg.

The Aubrey Daniels Medical Clinic was a flat long brick building just outside of Morgan City on a fairly isolated stretch of road. An ambulance sat in the driveway, beside a parking lot empty except for two cars. Paul drove right up to the front of the building and, with the help of Brian Flagg, hustled the Can Man—still wrapped in the blanket, his eyes blank and glassy—into the glaring strip lighting and linoleum of the emergency room.

The place was deserted except for the night nurse, who sat at her station absorbed in some paperwork and hardly noticed the new arrivals.

Paul left the other two to keep the Can Man upright and went to the desk, trying to get the nurse’s attention.

“Excuse me,” he said.

“One moment,” she said. She wore black glasses around a pinched face and her hair was tied into a bun above the matronly bulges in a starched white uniform. She was working intently on some kind of report, scribbling onto a yellow manila folder. Paul impatiently tapped on the counter, then looked back behind him.

A strand of drool was rolling from the Can Man’s mouth onto the blanket.

“Now, how may I help you?” the nurse asked, putting the folder away and finally deigning to look at Paul.

Paul pointed back at the blanketed old man. “This guy needs a doctor right away.”

“He’s got something on his hand,” said Meg. “Some kind of acid or something.”

The nurse didn’t even look at the man. “Does he have Blue Cross?”

“I don’t think so,” Meg said, clearly flustered at the question.

“Medical insurance of any kind?”

“I don’t believe this shit,” said Flagg, muttering under his breath.

“Ma’am, this is the Can Man. He probably checks this place out once in a while, picking up discarded cans. He does a service to you guys. And he needs help!” Paul said.

For the first time the nurse looked directly at the man. She wrinkled her nose at the smell, as the Can Man trembled beneath the blanket, swaying on weak legs. She pressed a buzzer.

“The doctor on duty is busy with another patient right now,” she explained.

Almost immediately a bulky male orderly with a crew cut answered her call. She turned to him. “Willie, would you put this gentleman in number three, please?”

Willie nodded and took the Can Man from Meg and Flagg’s grasp and steered him to a rolling gurney. He picked the guy up and laid him down on the gurney, as if he were a sack of cotton. The Can Man began to whimper fearfully, his feverish eyes focusing on Brian Flagg.

“Take it easy, old dude,” said Flagg softly. “These guys are gonna fix you right up.”

Paul watched as the old man turned and looked up at Flagg, a glimmer of intelligence and hope in his eye. He quieted down. Paul looked over to Meg, who was studying Flagg, clearly as surprised as Paul at the compassion he displayed.

As the orderly wheeled the gurney away, the nurse handed Paul a clipboard holding several blank forms. “You’ll have to fill these out,” she said. Then she went back to her own business inside the station.

“You think he’ll be okay?” Meg asked, looking at the door still swinging from the recent exit.

“He could lose that hand,” Paul said. “It’s up to them now.”

Brian Flagg, though, seemed to shrug off his concern like a dirty T-shirt. “You guys can stick around if you want to. I’m outta here.” He headed for the door.

Meg shot him a look of disappointment, and Paul thought quickly. What next? They could leave now, sure, but all they’d be thinking about was that groaning old guy with the gunk on his hand. It would ruin their whole evening. This way, if they stayed—well, they wouldn’t be eating cordon bleu and sipping underage wine—but they’d be together, and they’d still be able to talk, to get to know each other.

“Do you mind if we stay for a while, to just make sure?” Paul asked.

Meg smiled sweetly, looking very beautiful. “I was about to ask you the same thing, Paul.”

“Let me see if they’ve got a Coke machine nearby.”

“Diet orange if they’ve got it, okay? I’ll be sitting over in the waiting area.”

“Right.” He stopped, then turned back to her. “You know, for a really lucky day for me, my luck swerves around, doesn’t it?”

“Lucky, Paul?”

“Yeah. I mean, you saying you’d go out with me. Wonderful luck!”

She smiled again, sexily. “Nothing to do with luck there, Paul Tyler. If you hadn’t worked up the courage to ask me out in a week or two, I would have had to ask you!”

He went off to look for the soda machine, his heart much lighter.

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