Early One Morning in October, 1997
James Outlaw

The waitress slid a steaming bowl of grits across the counter toward me
followed by a chipped plate partially covered by a crusty waffle.

"Thanks" I said quietly as she walked away. I looked at the puddle of melted
butter in the center of the grits and resisted the urge to vomit. It had
been a couple of days since I had eaten anything and I needed something. I
scooped up a bit of the sticky mess from the bowl with a spoon and took a
bite. The grits burned the roof of my mouth for an instant. They tasted just
like grits should- bland. sticky. watery. It was a bit like eating a slurry
of sand, dirt, and butter. I swallowed a few more bites then took a long
drink from a plastic glass of Coke the waitress had brought me earlier. I
did not like the bitter aftertaste of coffee and satisfied my caffeine
addiction with cold carbonated beverages. As I sat the glass back down, I
noticed a roach moving across the counter toward my plate.

"Damn" I muttered under my breath.

I reached for a napkin from the shiny dispenser on the counter in front of
me and swept the roach off the counter onto the floor. He scrambled away
before I could slam my foot down on him. I looked for the waitress but she
was at the other end of the counter talking on the telephone.

"I told him to get his lazy ass out of my house before I called the law on
him" I heard her say. "I ain't having nothing to do with that bastard no
more. I'll pick up the child support money at his momma's house."

I glanced around to see if anyone besides me had seen the bug. There was a
man sitting two chairs down from me at the counter. His belly hung over his
belt and he wore cowboy boots. He was too busy drinking from a bottomless
cup of coffee and reading the sports page to notice anything. A couple of
guys in dark blue sweatshirts sat behind me in a booth. One of them was tall
and thin with long stringy hair and a baseball cap. The other was a little
shorter and had his hair cut close. He sported a gold ring in his ear lobe.
There were a few other people spread around the diner, but none seemed to
have noticed my visitor.

"Ah, hell. Just forget about it." I said to myself.

I turned back around and finished off the grits. I slid the empty bowl to
the side and started on the waffle. It was still warm from the grill and I
poured a generous amount of syrup over it. The handle on the pitcher of
syrup was sticky and I licked my fingers to try to get the mess off them. It
worked well enough and I proceeded to eat.

I was able to finish about half of the waffle before my stomach refused to
hold anything else. I pushed the plate away and waved toward the waitress to
get her attention. She glanced in my direction then cupped her hand over the
end of the telephone.

"Whatcha need," she called to me.

"Just the check, please" I replied.

"Hang on a second" she said into the phone. She placed the phone down on the
counter and walked to me, digging through the pocket on the front of her
blue apron.

One of the straps was torn and was held up with a safety pin. I also noticed
a couple of cigarette burns down near the hem. "Here ya go. I'll take care
of that whenever you are ready." she said as she slid the bill across the
counter to me. "You want me to put that in a to-go box for you?" she said
pointing to the remainder of the waffle.

"No thanks.... here, keep the change". I said as I handed her a five dollar
bill.

"All right, thanks" she said as she took the money and walked back towards
the cash register.

"You come back real soon, ok?"

As I stood to leave, I caught my reflection in the greasy mirror behind the
counter.

"Man you look awful" I said to myself. My face was pallid, almost corpse
like. My eyes were red from lack of sleep and there were dark, purplish
smudges under each one. I turned to leave the restaurant. A couple of the
other patrons glanced my way as I walked to the door digging through my
pockets to find my keys.

The diner had a fair number of customers given the fact that it was nearly
3:00 in the morning. Four semis were parked in the truck lot and five or six
cars were out front, not including my little Ford. I glanced around the lot,
it was well lit but you could never be too sure- especially in this
neighborhood. I found my keys and walked swiftly to my truck.

I unlocked the door quickly and climbed inside. I locked the door and
started the ignition. The truck started right up. It had been an excellent
vehicle, only 4 years old. I had bought it after graduating from college. I
took my first "real" paycheck and used almost all of it for the
down-payment. I did not really consider myself to be a 'truck' man but I had
just wanted something different. I put in gear and navigated out of the
parking lot onto the street. I drove down to the nearest intersection and
stopped as the light changed from amber to red. I switched on my turn signal
and waited for the light to change.

When it did I made a right turn onto Lamar Avenue and proceeded to the
interstate. The city had been repaving the street for months and it was like
driving through a plowed field. My truck rocked and shook as I sped down the
street. I drove mechanically, not noticing the occasional car that I passed.
When I reached the interstate, I sped down the ramp and headed east on the
south leg of I-240 back towards home.

Driving on I-240 during the day is a nightmare... cars weaving in and out of
traffic, changing lanes without signaling, tailgaters, the ever-present
accidents and the idiots who slow down to look... ghouls hoping for a
glimpse of blood or a dead body... nosey people just looking for something
to talk about at work the next day. Night driving is much more pleasant. For
the most part, I was the only east-bound vehicle on the road. An occasional
semi would pass- despite the fact that my speedometer was right on 70. Night
driving gave me a little more time to think. I relished the relative silence
of the night and the anonymity that darkness provides.

There are times when I wish I could just lock myself up in my apartment and
sleep for days. Just hide away from the world. I was tired of the
never-ending projects at work, the constant barrage of criticism from
management, the thoughtlessness of the people I worked with- everything. I
used to love being an environmental engineer. I had the same noble, naive
expectations that everyone has after graduation. I would take a job at a top
firm and accomplish things that would make a difference in people’s lives. I
would help bring clean water to third world countries, I would design
remediation systems that would clean up contaminated soil and turn
brownfields into playgrounds. I had a whole list of things.

Although, engineers are licensed professionals just like medical doctors,
lawyers, and pharmacists, they rarely receive the respect and notoriety from
society given to other professionals. Instead, engineers, especially Civil
and Environmental Engineers are often used as tools or weapons by industry.
I had become a tool. Instead of designing systems to purify water, I was
designing systems to allow industrial dischargers to meet the 'minimum
requirements' of the law. Why did I stay? Well, basically, because the
bottom had fallen out of the environmental engineering market and at the
time, I was lucky to have been employed in a job that even remotely suited
my qualifications. Fortunately, I had seen that the marketplace was
beginning to disappear and I had seeked readmittance to The University of
Memphis to pursue a second Masters Degree- essentially to retrain myself in
another field so that I could move out of my current dead-end job and onto
something with more opportunities.

As I sped down the highway towards home, I noticed a slight movement in my
peripheral vision. I glanced to my right and saw a gaunt, shadowy figure in
the passenger seat, , its raspy breath clouded the window and a portion of
the windshield. I stopped breathing for an instant and slammed on the
breaks. The truck skidded to the edge of the highway and I felt my body
being flung forward. I shook my head and turned to face the specter who was
accompanying me home. There, of course, was no one sitting in the seat. I
rubbed my eyes with the palms of my hands and blinked several times to clear
them. I thought that I'd had enough caffeine at the restaurant to fight off
sleep until I made it home, but apparently it was not enough.

I released the brakes on the truck and pulled back onto the highway. I was
only about 8 miles from my exit which was only about a mile from my
apartment. I could make it home with no problem. I sped up to about 70 and
headed on towards home.

After a few seconds, I felt a pair of cold, bony hands touch each side of my
head. Thin fingers massaged my temples, gradually increasing their pressure
until it felt like they would break through my skull. My arms and legs began
to grow numb, as if every last bit of energy was being sucked completely out
of every cell in my body. My hands still gripped the steering wheel and I
did not have the energy to release my hold. My head fell forward against the
steering wheel. For an instant, I stared down at the floorboard then, not
realizing it, I surrendered to sleep.

I awoke to find myself sitting in my truck. I looked up and realized that I
was no longer on the interstate but in a large field surrounded by a dark
forest. A sickly, grayish grass covered the contours of the field and swayed
in the wind. The sky was dark with thick clouds. Because of the cloud cover
I could not really tell if was morning or afternoon. There was definitely
enough light to know if that it was not after dark.

I reached for the ignition to try and start the vehicle. As I turned the
key, it broke off in my hand. I lifted it up and stared at it blankly. I
opened the door of the truck and slid outside. The wind was icy and sliced
through my clothes like a million tiny knives. I slammed the truck door
behind me. It closed with a hollow thud then crumbled into a pile of reddish
dust. A few seconds later, the whole vehicle shook violently against the
wind then completely disintegrated. The wind scoured the dust off through
the colorless grass.

I pulled my jacket close around me and shoved my hands into the pockets,
dumbfounded.

Looking around in all directions, I could tell that the field was actually a
plain that was bounded on three sides by a thick forest. The fourth boundary
seemed to be miles away and I could not tell what actually lay in that
direction. The wind seemed to shift as I looked around, shifting so that it
was always blowing directly into my face. I squinted my eyes as they began
to water and lowered my head. One edge of the forest appeared to be roughly
a half mile away and I began walking in that direction, the ever-present
wind shifting to howl at me head-on.

The faster I walked, the harder the wind seemed to blow. After about 15
minutes of walking, a gale-force gust sent me sprawling. I quickly scrambled
to my feet. As I stood, I felt a stinging sensation in my hands and I looked
down to find them bleeding from several small gashes. The blades of grass in
the field had cut through my skin like it was tissue paper.

I pulled a handkerchief from my pants pocket and began to wipe the blood
away. As I was doing so, another gust of wind came along and knocked me
over. I fell directly on my left elbow which sent a shock wave of pain
through my body that rattled my teeth and knocked the air from my lungs. I
rolled on the ground gasping and gripping my elbow. My face brushed against
a clump of the grass and I felt it slice into my cheek. I managed to get to
my feet again to start walking. The wind seemed to have subsided a bit and I
took advantage of the lull and began to run as fast as I could towards the
forest.

I made it to the edge of the field after a few minutes of running. I stopped
abruptly and stood there for a few seconds to catch my breath. As I stood
there panting, I took a closer look at the trees. The majority of them
appeared to be some species of oak, but not one that I had ever seen before.
Their bark was nearly black and extremely rough not unlike a relief map of
the Grand Canyon or some other deeply furrowed landscape. The leaves were a
very dark green and rather long, resembling stunted palm fronds. Many of the
trees that I could see were more than four feet in diameter and too tall for
me to estimate. Scattered on the ground beneath them was some sort of nut,
not unlike an acorn, but much larger- about the size of a small orange.

Suddenly, I heard some rustling sounds coming from inside the woods, not too
far from where I was standing. I walked cautiously towards the nearest tree
and looked deeper into the forest. At first, there was nothing, just the
rustling sound. Then I saw it. About 60 feet from where I stood was a
peculiar looking little creature.

I hid myself behind the trunk of one of the massive trees. Peeking around
the trunk, I could see the little person quietly collecting the nuts that
had fallen onto the ground. He worked quickly and silently, scurrying among
the leaves like a field mouse. He carried a basket slung over his shoulder
and wore some sort of a ragged tunic. The basket looked as if it had been
woven from the same grass that had tormented me just a few minutes ago.

Perhaps the most startling thing was the creature's face. His features were
generally human in appearance but the translucency of his skin gave him a
rather alien look. His eyes were dark brown and seemed too large for his
head. Conversely, his head seemed too large for his frail body to support.

I watched him finish filling his basket and move off into the forest. I gave
him a few minutes to get ahead of me and then took off after him. I tried to
move as silently as possible so as to not startle the creature. I could see
him off in the distance and could occasionally hear the rustling of his feet
moving through the leaves. He appeared not to have noticed me, or, if he had
known I was following him, did not consider me a threat. I think I had
followed him for the better part of an hour and our journey had taken us
deep into the forest. Just ahead of the creature, I could see a small
clearing. Perhaps this is where he lived.

He went into the clearing. I crept a little closer and again hid behind one
of the trees. I watched him as he used a branch to brush away some dirt and
leaves, uncovering a small doorway made from roughly-hewn lumber. He raised
the hatch and dumped his basket of nuts into the hole.

Suddenly, he stopped and stood motionless. After a few seconds he dropped
the door and ran madly towards a box near the edge of the clearing. The box
appeared to be made of cardboard and looked big enough to hold a small
television or a large microwave oven. The little creature scrambled under it
as if his life depended on it.

Just a few seconds later, I realized what had frightened him. I could hear
the calling of a bird of prey off in the distance. Its cries were getting
louder as it moved in the direction of the clearing. Soon I saw it swoop
down towards the creature's little box. The bird's wingspan was almost 10
feet. It had thick, scaly legs and long black claws. It's feathers were
thick and black but its head was completely bare. It had the appearance of
being a mutation of a cross between an eagle and a buzzard. It circled back
up in the sky and again swooped down towards the box, trying to knock it
over and force the creature out into the open. I could hear the little
creature screaming inside the box, not unlike the sounds of a terrified
infant.

On the third pass, the creature successfully knocked the box over, exposing
the cowering little creature inside, like the juicy gray innards of a fresh
oyster. The bird soared high into the air one last time and came speeding
back down, it's claws opened and closed snatching its prey up from the
ground. The little creature screamed with pain and terror as the bird's
talons dug into his skin. The bird landed a few yards away, pinning the
little man to the ground and preparing to start plucking bits and pieces of
flesh from the tiny bones.

Without realizing it, I had grabbed a limb from the ground beside my foot
and ran out into the clearing, screaming at the top of my lungs. The bird
suddenly turned away from the creature and came flying at me. I gripped the
limb with both hands and swung it at the flying beast. I missed its gristly
head and body, grazing those horrible feet instead. The bird circled around
and came at me again. I planted my feet firmly on the ground and raised the
limb to swing again. When the bird was close enough, I swung.

This time my aim was true and I hit the thing squarely on the head. It
dropped out of the air like a boulder and tumbled around the ground in an
epileptic frenzy. A gristly cloud of dust mixed with blood and feathers rose
up into the air.

After a few minutes the frenzy stopped. I walked over to the carcass to
examine it more closely. Its ebony feathers were filthy with dust and matted
with blood. Its head lolled at an unnatural angle and its beak was crushed.
It stared back at me with a glassy, lifeless yellow eye. I dropped the limb
and stood back from the dead bird. I realized I was breathing heavily and my
heart was pounding against my ribs. I turned around to look at the little
man. He had managed to scramble back inside his box and had opened a small
opening in the side to look out at me. I could see it's oversized eyes
staring out at me with amazement.

I walked closer to the box, slowly. My heart was still racing and my
breathing was heavy and I tried to calm myself. I noticed one corner raise
and the timid little creature crawl out. He scrambled around behind the box
and peeked over the top at me. This was the first time that I had been able
to get a close up look at him and it completely startled me. He was bleeding
from several deep wounds inflicted by the bird's claws.

His eyes began to change from almost black to the hazel color of polished
pecan hulls. His hair lightened several shades and the bone structure in his
face began to change. His skin lost its translucency and took on a less
appalling appearance. It was then that I realized I was staring at an almost
mirror image of myself. The creature stepped back from the box and closed
it's eyes. It began to breathe heavily and seemed to be struggling against
some invisible restraints. After a few seconds, it started to grimace and
its face turned from a pale flesh color to blood red then to a darker,
almost violet shade. It let out a bone chilling scream, a scream louder than
anything I had ever heard in my life. At the climax of the scream, its tiny
body exploded with a blinding flash of light.

I turned away from the light, covering my eyes to protect them from the
flash. I could also hear the unmistakable sound of glass shattering and even
felt a few shards tear into my face and hands. The brightness subsided and I
opened one eye to find myself slumped against the steering wheel of my
truck. The airbag had deployed when I had hit the abutment of the overpass
at Whitten Road and I-40, keeping my ribs and sternum from being shattered
and my neck from being snapped as my body plunged itself against the
steering wheel. Because of the slope of the abutment, the truck had rolled
completely over and come to a stop crossways on the highway. The windshield
was shattered and I had a large gash in my forehead. My right eye was glued
shut with blood but my left one was wide open. I do not know how long I sat
there before someone came.

My head was turned so that I could see out of the driver's side window. I
watched as an ambulance and three Highway Patrol cars pulled up. The
paramedics scrambled out of the ambulance and came running towards me,
dragging a gurney and other equipment behind them. I must have been in
terrible shape but I could feel nothing.

The door of the truck opened and I watched as one of the paramedics reached
in and slipped a neck brace onto me. He was talking to his companion and but
I could not understand what they were saying. After a few minutes, they
pulled my body from the wreckage and placed me onto the gurney. I still felt
nothing. My body seemed suspended in space, high on a natural
endorphin-induced trip. The last thing I remember is closing the eye that
was still not crusted shut with blood and once again surrendered to sleep's
promise of escape.

A few weeks later, I stood leaning against a pair of crutches looking at the
remains of my truck. The front end was almost completely flat. An eye
witness claimed that I was going about 80 miles an hour when I appeared to
loose control of the vehicle, swerving from lane to lane. After a few
minutes, I crashed headlong into the abutment of the Whitten Road overpass.
The doctors and the state troopers said that I was lucky to have survived. I
was in the hospital for a couple of weeks. I had broken my right leg and
arm, suffered a concussion, and had some internal injuries along with a
couple of cracked ribs. I would also sport a vertical scar from my hairline
down through my right eyebrow. Luckily I did not lose my eye. Due to the
severity of the break in my leg, I would have a permanent limp.

But I was alive. Or at least mostly alive. Somehow I felt something inside
me had died. I felt older.

After looking at the wreckage for a few more minutes, I turned and hobbled
back to the office of the salvage company. The owner was waiting inside for
me. I handed him the keys to the truck and signed over the title- as if they
would be of any use now.

I said "Thanks" and went on outside.

Outside the office Owen was waiting to take me home. He opened the rear door
of the sedan and I slid the crutches inside. He opened the passenger door
and came back to help me inside. Once I was settled, Owen got in, stared up
the car and pulled out of the parking lot. I looked back at the salvage yard
but I could not see the truck.

I could not get over the feeling I had lost something or had left something
behind in the twisted metal behind the office. I had an overwhelming urge to
go back and sort through the wreckage bit by bit until I found it. Owen
noticed me staring out the window and said, "What's the matter?"

I turned back around and looked at him, "Nothing, really. I just thought I
left something."

"You want to go back and look around some more?" Owen said.

I glanced back and paused for a few seconds, then turned and looked straight
ahead "No," I replied. "Whatever it was... it's probably gone now, anyway."

 

Copyright (c) 1999 James Outlaw
Published on the World Wide Web by "www.storymania.com"