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"Promised Land"

by Wayne Faust

© 2009 by Wayne Faust
All rights reserved

 

 

    "Just how long is Nebraska and why am I talking to myself?"

    Nebraska, endless Nebraska. No turns. No hills. No towns. Bleizi hadn't taken a break since gassing up in Denver. Now it was the dog hours and he had to take a leak but the last exit seemed like hours ago. The highway mumbled beneath his tires like voices in the basement.

    How much farther until Iowa? He had given up trying to follow his progress on the map, the one that said ‘One inch equals 12,000 miles.’ And the subcompact car he had rented could barely do the speed limit. Getting good gas mileage had seemed like a good idea at the time, but not any more.

    He never thought he'd miss the traffic in Los Angeles. It had gotten way too crowded for him in California - way too dangerous. He'd done some checking around and decided on Iowa. That would be the Promised Land. But first he had to make it through Nebraska.

    Bleizi whacked himself in the head a couple of times. That usually kept him awake, but not now. The road began to get fuzzy and dreamlike ahead of him. Not good.

    He cracked open the window. He didn't want to fall asleep and drive off the road. Not that it would matter much. You could drive off the road anywhere in Nebraska and not hit anything - except maybe a cow. Or some corn.

    The night air smelled like fertilizer. That figured. He wrinkled his nose and rolled the window up again. He glanced in the rear-view mirror. Blackness - just like what he saw when he looked to either side - just like what lay beyond the range of his headlights.

    This was the worst time of night when you were trying to get someplace - midnight long gone and morning a lifetime away. Most everyone else was in a motel. But not Bleizi.

    He punched on the radio. The choice of stations had dwindled down to just about zilch. Around 1 a.m. he had listened to a station out of Minneapolis. Some guy was talking about nuking Canada because they had socialized medicine - sure proof that the whole country was infiltrated by aliens. At least that had kept him awake for a while.

    Now he hoped for a station out of Des Moines, so he could listen to some warm, human, Iowa voices. Voices filled with life - fresh, uncorrupted human voices. He was close enough to Iowa now, wasn't he? Instead, all he could get was an early morning farm show. After listening to static and soybean futures for a few minutes he hit the dashboard with his palm and punched off the radio in disgust.

    This was getting ridiculous. If there wasn’t an exit soon he would have to stop along the highway and take a leak.

    That’s when he saw something in front of him at the side of the road, just at the edge of his headlights. It grew in size as he got closer. It was a hitchhiker. Bleizi blinked. A hitcher? At this time of night? In Nebraska?

    It was a man dressed in a ragged, flannel, hayseed shirt - thumb thrust in the air. There was a momentary image of an unshaven face, a baseball hat pulled low over the eyes, frayed blue jeans. Then Bleizi was past.

    "Nice try, pal,” he muttered under his breath. “You looked a little chubby. Walking’s good for you."

    After a few miles, Bleizi had second thoughts. "Maybe I shoulda picked ‘im up. He could have kept me company for a while. And then I could have…"

    Too dangerous. Just need to get to Iowa.

    Bleizi felt thirsty. He looked down at the passenger seat and grabbed his travel mug. He took a long drink of the warm liquid and looked back toward the road.

    Another figure stood there in his headlights, maybe 100 yards ahead. Same flannel shirt. Same blue jeans. Same baseball hat. Bleizi dropped his coffee cup. The hitcher gestured with his thumb.

    Bleizi rubbernecked as the car went by. What was this? A whole family trying to get out of Nebraska at the same time? Not that he blamed them.

    Bleizi reached down and gathered the travel mug from the floor beneath his legs. His stomach rumbled.

    He wished for an all-night diner and a nice, juicy, hamburger, done rare. He thought again that he should have stopped for the hitcher. He could have…

    Too dangerous.

    And then there was another one. Another hitcher. Just like the other two. Amazed, Bleizi momentarily eased off the accelerator to get a better look. Same flannel shirt. Same ragged jeans. Same bent over posture.

    This one had his baseball hat a little higher on his head. His eyes glowed red in the headlights. And then he smiled with long, jagged teeth.

    Bleizi hit the gas and the car lurched. As he sped past, Bleizi saw the hitcher lean impossibly forward, dragging his knuckles. One of his arms shot out as the car went by. Bleizi heard a screeching sound, as if the side of his car had been scraped with an iron nail.

    He gripped the steering wheel and shook his head. That couldn’t have happened. He looked in his rearview mirror. Nothing there.

    He drove on, not wanting to look too hard at the edge of his high beams. He’d had enough of hitchers.

    He passed a green mile-marker. Then another. Then another. Way too many mile-markers in Nebraska.

    He squeezed his knees together. He was either going to have to pee in his cup or stop at the side of the road. He really didn't want to stop the car. What he really wanted was an exit. But there weren’t any.

    Finally he had to stop. He eased up on the gas and let the car slow itself down. He pulled onto the shoulder and heard the whine of the engine descend to idle. He opened the driver's side door and heard a soft dinging, telling him he had left the keys in the ignition. Of course he had. He would only be a minute. A very short minute.

    The car purred softly as it idled. Bleizi walked around behind the car and onto the gravel that sloped away to a ditch at the side of the road. He opened his fly and gazed warily into the night as he took a leak, smelling fertilizer, new corn, and…something else. It was cloudy overhead and he couldn’t see the moon that he knew was up there.

    He zipped up and turned around. That’s when he noticed something on the passenger side door of his car. Scratches in the silver paint.

    Bleizi heard a howl in the distance. Then another. Then a third. Hair grew on the back of his neck. He hustled back into his car and locked the door with his elbow - hard. He eased back onto the road, eyes wide.

    No more danger of falling asleep at the wheel now.

    How far was Iowa? How long until sunrise? He felt like he was on a ship, lost at sea with water all around and no place to dock.

    Almost instantly, another hitcher appeared ahead of him on the road, before he could even get the car moving very fast. It was the same as the others. This one’s hat was tipped way high on his head, showing off his face. Red eyes. Drooling, vicious-fanged mouth. Lots of facial hair. Curly, black hair protruding from his collar. Thumb thrust high. No. Not thumb.

    Claw.

    Bleizi gaped and his foot slipped off the accelerator. That turned out to be a big mistake. It allowed the hitcher to fall in beside him on the road. Bleizi could see him through the side window as he loped along gorilla style next to the car.

    Bleizi floored it. He looked in his rear-view mirror and saw another hairy, loping figure in the red glow of his tail lights. It was running hard, keeping up with him. To his left he saw three more in the median.

    Bleizi suddenly knew who they were and what they were doing. He felt like a sheep that had wandered away from the herd.

    He stared straight ahead and nearly pushed his right foot through the floor, trying to get all he could out of the underpowered engine. It let out a high-pitched whine as it struggled to accelerate, finally passing forty, fifty, and then sixty miles per hour. Bleizi knew they couldn’t keep up now. He glanced left and right, and then in the rear-view mirror. There was only darkness.

    He gasped with relief. His body was shaking and his hands were claws on the steering wheel. Red-tinged road stripes raced away behind him, now at seventy miles per hour.

    He took a deep, hot breath and the windshield fogged. He rolled his window halfway down. He smelled that odor again; the one he had smelled when he had stopped to take a leak, a rich, heavy, animal smell.

    Something reached into the window from the roof of the car. Claws bit into his neck. He screamed and pulled his head away, turning the steering wheel as he did so. The car swerved and tires squealed. Scratching noises came from the roof, along with muttered, growling curses. Bleizi saw an arm clad in tattered flannel, with dark, curly hair protruding from the holes, reaching in through the window and digging its claws into the upholstery above the visor. Bleizi turned the wheel again sharply. There were more sputtered curses from the roof. He hit the brakes. The claws let go and the arm retracted. Something flew over his windshield, bouncing on the hood and landing in the road ahead. Bleizi ran over it with a hard thud, the car bouncing once and landing violently on the other side.

    The car swerved like a drunk for a few more yards until Bleizi got it under control. He goosed the car back up to seventy miles per hour, and then eighty. Even though the car protested, he managed to get it all the way up to ninety. All he could see in the mirror now was dark road and his own sweaty face. He kept his foot on the gas, although several times it slipped off because he was shaking so badly. He gritted his teeth. He wasn't planning to slow down for a long, long time, at least until Iowa. But in the back of his mind he wondered if he should have stopped and checked to see what it was that he had hit. But he was pretty sure he already knew.

    Something appeared in the mirror from way back behind him. A red, pinpoint dot, like the light from one of those pen lasers that everyone carries around these days. And then it grew larger. Soon it looked like a single, red eye. Whatever it was, it was gaining on him.

    "Not again,” gasped Bleizi. His foot was all the way down to the floor but the object in the mirror was still gaining on him. It was getting brighter, blinking now. No, not blinking.

    Flashing.

    Bleizi suddenly let his breath out. A flashing red light. It didn't take a genius to know what that was, even in Nebraska. He never thought he'd feel relief seeing a cop in his rear-view mirror, but that's what he felt. Sweet, blessed relief. Sure, the cop would pull him over. Sure, he had been speeding. Sure, he'd just run somebody over, or some thing. They might haul his ass off to jail. So what? He'd been there before. He knew how to get out of jail. And he would get something to eat before he left.

    The red light was right behind him now so he eased his car to the side of the road. He rolled down his window and watched in his side mirror as the cop car stopped behind him. A searchlight switched on and white light flooded his car. Bleizi waited.

    The cop was silhouetted against the searing, white searchlight as he approached. Too late, Bleizi noticed that the cop didn’t look like a garden-variety police officer. He was more bent over than usual. His knuckles were nearly dragging on the ground. If Bleizi had to put it into words, he would have said that the cop was loping toward him. But Bleizi was too busy trying to roll up the window.

    The cop reached in and caught Bleizi by the neck. With his other hand he punched out the window glass. He pulled Bleizi out of the car without opening the door. Bleizi was glad he hadn’t been wearing his seat belt, or he might have been torn in half. He felt himself being thrown face first onto the road like a rag doll. He tried to concentrate. He had to concentrate. He probably only had a few seconds before his throat would be ripped open. He closed his eyes tightly. He felt hair growing on his hands, his face, his neck. He felt claws forming at the ends of his fingers. His teeth grew and spittle formed on his lips.

    The cop lifted him up by the back of his neck and spun him around. By now the change had taken place. Bleizi let out a loud, guttural snarl, the loudest he could manage. He bared his fangs.

    The cop let go, eyes wide with surprise. He had not expected this, of course. No one ever did, even in Los Angeles.

    Bleizi took a few steps back, growling and pawing the air. He looked around and saw more shapes gathering just outside the beam of light. They shuffled and sniffed the night air. They sounded very hungry.

    Well, he was hungry too.

    "Leave me be," said Bleizi, his voice raspy.

    "There’s a whole pack of us here," answered the cop. "We can take you."

    "I'll take a lot of you with me," answered Bleizi with a snarl.

    The cop backed up, never taking his red eyes off Bleizi. He whispered to a few of the others. He crept forward again.

    "What are you doing here?” he said. “This is our territory."

    "I'm just passing through, on my way to Iowa."

    "Iowa? Why Iowa?"

    "I heard there aren't many of us there. Easy pickings."

    "Where do you come from?"

    "California."

    The cop pondered this for a second. "I hear there are lots of us out there."

    "Yes. Too many. Thousands."

    "You must have starved."

    "Nearly."

    "We don't want you here. We're crowded too.”

    "I don't want to stay. As I said, I'm on my way to Iowa. Just passing through."

    The cop stared, long and hard. His red eyes were laser beams, poring into Bleizi. He put his head back and let out a long, bone-rattling howl. Then he stood up as straight and proud as his bent over back would allow. “Get out of here,” he rasped.

    Bleizi turned and fumbled with the car door. He wasn't used to doing this with claws. He got one claw under the handle and opened the door. He eased into the driver's seat, glancing over his shoulder as he did so. At any second he expected them to pounce. That's what they would do in California.

    He jammed the idling car into gear and pulled out onto the highway, struggling to keep his clawed foot on the accelerator. He told himself not to go too fast. You never want to show fear because fear makes them hungry.

    Much too slowly, the flashing lights of the cop car faded into the distance behind him. Ahead of him, the sky began to lighten. Bleizi felt himself begin to change back. His claws retracted and his teeth shrunk back to normal, human size. His respiration went from furious pants to slow, even breaths. The thick, brown hair on his face and neck sunk back into his pores.

    They would probably leave him be now. That was amazing enough in itself; he guessed things were a little friendlier in Nebraska. What was really amazing was that he had run into them here in the first place.

    Who would have figured there would be so many in a backwater like this?

    All he wanted now was some peace and quiet, a place away from the crowd. A place where you could find your own way, rustle up your own food without having to fight for every morsel. Iowa would be that place. It had to be.

    He picked up his travel mug and took a long, slow drink of warm blood, as he continued east toward the Promised Land.

 

END
 

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