Thursday, February 13, 2014
TRAVELER OF THE NIGHT
TRAVELER OF THE NIGHT
Keith Snyder breathed heavily as he pulled off the exit ramp of Sunrise Highway, on the verge of another panic attack. It felt as if all the air was being pulled from his lungs.
It was Exit 32 he had drove off and the sign read Braxton, a town Keith had passed a few times on the road before.
Keith was a traveling salesman, and like most traveling salesmen, his car and the road were his two main companions. Traveling salesmen are a dying breed, but Keith is one of the few that keeps the trade alive.
As he drove slowly down the deserted one-lane road, he managed to regulate his breathing and gain the air back in his lungs. But the sensation of overwhelming anxiety still lingered.
As he neared the service station, it dawned on him how badly he needed to take a piss. Keith had been driving five hours since he left the convention in Westlake, only stopping once for gas.
The sudden urge to relieve himself put a momentary pause on his anxiety attack and sent him reeling into the lot of the service station.
The restroom door was on the right side of the station and thankfully didn’t require a key. He dashed inside and didn’t think twice of the rancid condition or smell. The sweet relief was almost on par with sex. But the foul ambience of the facility left much to be desired. The graffiti plastered all over the walls was the least of its flaws. Though at the particular moment, Keith honestly didn’t care if he was pissing in a litter box.
Upon exiting the restroom, his breathing had returned to normal and coffee was the next thing on his mind. He figured he could use a cup for the road. He still had another two hours on the road before he reached Ocean City and he needed something to keep him alert behind the wheel.
But his anxiety flared up again in the store when he saw confrontation brewing between the clerk and a fellow customer. The clerk was an older gentleman, squinty eyed and thin as plywood. The customer was a young man with short blond hair in a black tank top and camouflage pants, who was arguing with the clerk over a forty ounce of King Cobra. A shiny gold medallion jiggled around his neck as he slammed his fist emphatically on the counter. The medallion of Saint Christopher as Keith learned from the engraving.
“I don’t give a fuck about you or your laws,” the young man screamed. “Just take the fucking money and give me the beer.”
“It’s against the law for me to sell you this without proper ID.”
“I fucking left it at home. How many times do I need to tell you that?”
“Then go home, get it, come back here and I’ll sell you the beer.”
“You’re really testing my patience, old man.”
“And you’re really wasting my time, young man. Now beat it before I call the cops.”
The young man balled up his fist, pulled his arm back… and then let it drop to his side. He slapped his palm on the counter once more and stormed off, brushing shoulders with Keith on the way out.
He breathed a heavy sigh of relief as his anxiety gradually dissipated. His tired brown eyes scanned the store for a coffee machine and found none. He approached the counter, the clerk still fuming from his encounter with the young blond man.
“I need forty dollars in pump number three,” Keith told the clerk. “And you got any coffee?”
“We don’t sell coffee,” the clerk said. “But I’ve got a pot brewing in the back. I can pour you a cup for the road. Two dollar service charge of course.”
“That would be fine,” Keith nodded as he pulled two twenties and two singles from his wallet. He looked down at the scuffed up counter and saw the forty of King Cobra. “I’ll take this too.”
The clerk just shook his head at first, the look of disapproval clear even behind those squinty eyes. “You don’t want to do that, mister. That boy is trouble. Comes around here every week trying to buy beer and cigarettes. Never has any ID on him. And the money he has is no good. Probably takes it straight from his mom’s purse while she’s sleeping.”
“I know how to deal with people like that,” Keith assured him.
With some minor hesitation, the clerk charged him for the gas and the beer. Then he pocketed the two extra dollars and poured Keith some coffee in a Styrofoam cup. As he turned to leave, the clerk gave him a look as if to say “good luck.”
The young blond man was leaned up against the side of the station, his hands balled into tight fists. Keith approached with caution and held the forty out for him to accept, almost as if he was presenting it as some sort of peace offering.
His fingers uncurled and he accepted the beer with a look that bared a hint of gratitude. He clenched the cap between his teeth and popped it off with ease. He took a few gulps and offered Keith a swig.
“None for me,” Keith declined. “I’m driving.” He pointed to the beat-up station wagon parked beside pump number three.
“You got a smoke?”
“I don’t smoke neither.”
“You a Mormon or something?”
“Nah, just health conscious I suppose. What’s your name?”
“Tate,” the young man replied. “You?”
“Well, Keith, you feel like giving me a lift?”
“Just up the road a bit.”
He assessed the kid was no threat, just a fellow weary traveler of the night. Though it wasn’t quite night yet. But the sun was fading fast below the horizon and it was growing darker with each fleeting minute.
“Sure,” Keith said and led them both to the car. He fueled up and they were on the road, Keith sipping his coffee and Tate quaffing his beer.
Keith had cranked the heat up, and when he did, caught Tate staring at the hair on his knuckles. Keith never married, but several of his girlfriends had compared him to a gorilla in the past.
Curls of dark chest hair poked out from the neck of his sweater. He was a tad self-conscious about it and was glad Tate didn’t draw more attention to it.
“You don’t look like a local,” Tate observed. “What brings you out here?”
“I’m a traveling salesman. Bateman Pharmaceuticals.”
“Cool… got any good dope?” Keith chuckled instead of answering, but Tate seemed to realize he was chuckling out of apprehension. He was starting to think maybe the squinty eyed clerk that vaguely reminded him of Popeye was right. Maybe this kid was trouble after all.
Night was creeping up on them fast, and this thought frightened him more than what this young man might be thinking. Keith kept track of the days on his calendar and knew what that night was going to bring.
A full moon. Keith was the superstitious type, and superstition only added to his levels of anxiety. He saw full moons as a bad omen, but to a man like Keith everything was a bad omen in the right context.
“You didn’t answer my question,” Tate said firmly, finishing his beer and tossing it out the window he had rolled down. “Got any good dope?”
“Just a few sample kits and pamphlets.”
“Where?” Tate asked, his hand sliding inside his coat.
Keith nodded with his head back towards the trunk of the station wagon. Tate drew his hand from his coat and Keith felt the cold barrel of the gun press against his cheek. “Pull this piece of shit over.”
Keith steered off to the shoulder and tapped the brakes. The station wagon came to a dead stop and Keith carefully turned the car off the dropped the key into one of the empty cup holders. Then he rested his hands on the steering wheel, not wanting to accidently make any sudden movements that would set this kid off.
Don’t give him a reason to use that gun, Keith thought. Just give him what he wants and he’ll be gone.
“Take whatever you want. Money’s in my wallet. Pharmaceutical cases are in the trunk, along with my luggage. Help yourself to whatever you please, just don’t hurt me.”
His anxiety was off the charts now. Keith was breathing rapidly, all the air pumping out from his lungs. White spots floated in his line of vision, and it felt like someone was putting all their weight on his chest and throat. He was suffocating from the inside.
The sky darkened and the moon started to show through dark banks of clouds. Keith’s whole body twitched involuntarily in his seat and Tate cocked the hammer of the gun.
“Don’t make another sudden move like that or I’ll unload this gun in your face.” He tried to sound tough, but his voice was cracking a bit. The kid was an amateur, but he still had the gun and Keith did not.
As night fell, the moon shined bright. A full moon. The hunter’s moon.
His face shifted and swelled, pushing outwards and taking the form of a hideous wet snout. His flesh pulsed and bubbled as his body swelled to twice his size of a normal man. The hair of his chest, arms, and knuckles increased, continuing to sprout until his entire body was enveloped in a shroud of fur. His yellow eyes glowed as bright as the moon itself. Tate fired three deafening shots, but the beast persisted. As its snout closed in on Tate’s face, all the screaming blond kid could see were two rows of jagged white fangs.
By the time Keith pulled into Ocean City, Tate was gone. All that remained of him was the shiny Saint Christopher medallion that gleamed in the sunlight as it hung from Keith’s rearview mirror. His sweater and slacks were torn and tattered, barely clinging to his body.
He had a vague recollection of stopping for gas and picking up a lone hitchhiker, but that was all he could remember other than waking up on the side of the road in Braxton.
His wallet and pharmaceutical cases were still in attendance. And the medallion was just sitting on the front seat, the passenger door ajar. As he leaned over to close the door and see if the car would start, he tasted something bitter and metallic clinging to the back of his throat. It tasted like blood.
And this fact would haunt him on the two hour ride that morning from Braxton to Ocean City.
Despite the events that transpired that previous evening, nothing would change for Keith. He’d return home, be back on the road in a few days. The memory of his transformation and the events that ensued would remain a mystery.
And his anxiety would continue to dominate him… at least until the next full moon.