Stephen King's apocalyptic vision of a world blasted by plague and tangled in an elemental struggle between good and evil remains as riveting and eerily plausible as when it was first ...(more)
Almost deliberately, the Chevrolet finished its 360-degree turn, hitting the island again, broadside this time. The rear end popped up on the island and knocked the regular gas pump asprawl. And there the Chevy came to rest, trailing its rusty exhaust pipe behind it. It had destroyed all three of the gas pumps on that island nearest the highway. The motor continued to run choppily for a few seconds and then quit. The silence was so loud it was alarming.
"Holy moly," Tommy Wannamaker said breathlessly. "Will she blow, Hap?"
"If it was gonna, it already woulda," Hap said, getting up. His shoulder bumped the map case, scattering Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona every whichway. Hap felt a cautious sort of jubilation. His pumps were insured, and the insurance was paid up. Mary had harped on the insurance ahead of everything.
"Guy must have been pretty drunk," Norm said.
"I seen his taillights," Tommy said, his voice high with excitement. "They never flashed once. Holy moly! If he'd a been doing sixty we'd all be dead now."
They hurried out of the office, Hap first and Stu bringing up the rear. Hap, Tommy, and Norm reached the car together. They could smell gas and hear the slow, clocklike tick of the Chevy's cooling engine. Hap opened the driver's side door and the man behind the wheel spilled out like an old laundry sack.
"God-damn," Norm Bruett shouted, almost screamed. He turned away, clutched his ample belly, and was sick. It wasn't the man who had fallen out (Hap had caught him neatly before he could thump to the pavement) but the smell that was issuing from the car, a sick stench compounded of blood, fecal matter, vomit, and human decay. It was a ghastly rich sick-dead smell.
A moment later Hap turned away, dragging the driver by the armpits. Tommy hastily grabbed the dragging feet and he and Hap carried him into the office. In the glow of the overhead fluorescents their faces were cheesy-looking and revolted. Hap had forgotten about his insurance money.
The others looked into the car and then Hank turned away, one hand over his mouth, little finger sticking off like a man who has just raised his wineglass to make a toast. He trotted to the north end of the station's lot and let his supper come up.
Vic and Stu looked into the car for some time, looked at each other, and then looked back in. On the passenger side was a young woman, her shift dress hiked up high on her thighs. Leaning against her was a boy or girl, about three years old. They were both dead. Their necks had swelled up like inner tubes and the flesh there was a purple-black color, like a bruise. The flesh was puffed up under their eyes, too. They looked, Vic later said, like those baseball players who put lampblack under their eyes to cut the glare. Their eyes bulged sightlessly. The woman was holding the child's hand. Thick mucus had run from their noses and was now clotted there. Flies buzzed around them, lighting in the mucus, crawling in and out of their open mouths. Stu had been in the war, but he had never seen anything so terribly pitiful as this. His eyes were constantly drawn back to those linked hands.
He and Vic backed away together and looked blankly at each other. Then they turned to the station. They could see Hap, jawing frantically into the pay phone. Norm was walking toward the station behind them, throwing glances at the wreck over his shoulder. The Chevy's driver's side door stood sadly open. There was a pair of baby shoes dangling from the rear-view mirror.
Hank was standing by the door, rubbing his mouth with a dirty handkerchief. "Jesus, Stu," he said unhappily, and Stu nodded.
Hap hung up the phone. The Chevy's driver was lying on the floor. "Ambulance will be here in ten minutes. Do you figure they're--?" He jerked his thumb at the Chevy.
"They're dead, okay." Vic nodded. His lined face was yellow-pale, and he was sprinkling tobacco all over the floor as he tried to make one of his shitty-smelling cigarettes. "They're the two deadest people I've ever seen." He looked at Stu and Stu nodded, putting his hands in his pockets. He had the butterflies.
The man on the floor moaned thickly in his throat and they all looked down at him. After a moment, when it became obvious that the man was speaking or trying very hard to speak, Hap knelt beside him. It was, after all, his station.
Whatever had been wrong with the woman and child in the car was also wrong with this man. His nose was running freely, and his respiration had a peculiar undersea sound, a churning from somewhere in his chest. The flesh beneath his eyes was puffing, not black yet, but a bruised purple. His neck looked too thick, and the flesh had pushed up in a column to give him two extra chins. He was running a high fever; being close to him was like squatting on the edge of an open barbecue pit where good coals have been laid.
"The dog," he muttered. "Did you put him out?"
"Mister," Hap said, shaking him gently. "I called the ambulance. You're going to be all right."
"Clock went red," the man on the floor grunted, and then began to cough, racking chainlike explosions that sent heavy mucus spraying from his mouth in long and ropy splatters. Hap leaned backward, grimacing desperately.
"Better roll him over," Vic said. "He's goan choke on it."
But before they could, the coughing tapered off into bellowsed, uneven breathing again. His eyes blinked slowly and he looked at the men gathered above him.
"Where's ... this?"
"Arnette," Hap said. "Bill Hapscomb's Texaco. You crashed out some of my pumps." And then, hastily, he added: "That's okay. They was insured."
The man on the floor tried to sit up and was unable. He had to settle for putting a hand on Hap's arm.
"My wife ... my little girl ..."
"They're fine," Hap said, grinning a foolish dog grin.
"Seems like I'm awful sick," the man said. Breath came in and out of him in a thick, soft roar. "They were sick, too. Since we got up two days ago. Salt Lake City ..." His eyes flickered slowly closed. "Sick ... guess we didn't move quick enough after all ..."
Far off but getting closer, they could hear the whoop of the Arnette Volunteer Ambulance.
"Man," Tommy Wannamaker said. "Oh man."
The sick man's eyes fluttered open again, and now they were filled with an intense, sharp concern. He struggled again to sit up. Sweat ran down his face. He grabbed Hap.
"Are Sally and Baby LaVon all right?" he demanded. Spittle flew from his lips and Hap could feel the man's burning heat radiating outward. The man was sick, half crazy, he stank. Hap was reminded of the smell an old dog blanket gets sometimes.
"They're all right," he insisted, a little frantically. "You just ... lay down and take it easy, okay?"
The man lay back down. His breathing was rougher now. Hap and Hank helped roll him over on his side, and his respiration seemed to ease a trifle. "I felt pretty good until last night," he said. "Coughing, but all right. Woke up with it in the night. Didn't get away quick enough. Is Baby LaVon okay?"
The last trailed off into something none of them could make out. The ambulance siren warbled closer and closer. Stu went over to the window to watch for it. The others remained in a circle around the man on the floor.
"What's he got, Vic, any idea?" Hap asked.
Vic shook his head. "Dunno."
"Might have been something they ate," Norm Bruett said. "That car's got a California plate. They was probably eatin at a lot of roadside stands, you know. Maybe they got a poison hamburger. It happens."
The ambulance pulled in and skirted the wrecked Chevy to stop between it and the station door. The red light on top made crazy sweeping circles. It was full dark now.
"Gimme your hand and I'll pull you up outta there!" the man on the floor cried suddenly, and then was silent.
"Food poisoning," Vic said. "Yeah, that could be. I hope so, because-- "
"Because what?" Hank asked.
"Because otherwise it might be something catching." Vic looked at them with troubled eyes. "I seen cholera back in 1958, down near Nogales, and it looked something like this."
Three men came in, wheeling a stretcher. "Hap," one of them said. "You're lucky you didn't get your scraggy ass blown to kingdom come. This guy, huh?"
They broke apart to let them through--Billy Verecker, Monty Sullivan, Carlos Ortega, men they all knew.
"There's two folks in that car," Hap said, drawing Monty aside. "Woman and a little girl. Both dead."
"Holy crow! You sure?"
"Yeah. This guy, he don't know. You going to take him to Braintree? "
"I guess." Monty looked at him, bewildered. "What do I do with the two in the car? I don't know how to handle this, Hap."
"Stu can call the State Patrol. You mind if I ride in with you?"
They got the man onto the stretcher, and while they ran him out, Hap went over to Stu. "I'm gonna ride into Braintree with that guy. Would you call the State Patrol?"
"And Mary, too. Call and tell her what happened."
Hap trotted out to the ambulance and climbed in. Billy Verecker shut the doors behind him and then called the other two. They had been staring into the wrecked Chevy with dread fascination.
A few moments later the ambulance pulled out, siren warbling, red domelight pulsing blood-shadows across the gas station's tarmac. Stu went to the phone and put a quarter in.
The man from the Chevy died twenty miles from the hospital. He drew one final bubbling gasp, let it out, hitched in a smaller one, and just quit.
Hap got the man's wallet out of his hip pocket and looked at it. There were seventeen dollars in cash. A California driver's license identified him as Charles D. Campion. There was an army card, and pictures of his wife and daughter encased in plastic. Hap didn't want to look at the pictures.
He stuffed the wallet back into the dead man's pocket and told Carlos to turn off the siren. It was ten after nine.
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