|Beef Stew from Anna Lou
Author: James Hampton PM
This Halloween you're invited to dine at Murl's Famous Country Buffet, a place where folks gather to enjoy good food, friendly service, and a warm, down-home atmosphere as the world around them comes to a screaming end. Step right in and let our charming hostess, Anna Lou, find you a seat. We hope you enjoy your meal. It's probably your last.Rated: Fiction M - English - Horror/Sci-Fi - Chapters: 12 - Words: 9,638 - Reviews: 25 - Favs: 6 - Follows: 6 - Updated: 10-14-12 - Published: 09-24-12 - Status: Complete - id: 3060752
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
On the way to the grocery store Crystal thought about Arlene and Donny. And suddenly it occurred to her: Why don't I just swing by their place?
She trusted Shane to call Donny eventually—he was good about doing the things he said he would do, she had to admit—but she also expected him to wait awhile, maybe as long as a half-hour, before trying. If things were okay with Arlene and Donny, then fine. But if there was trouble…well, half-an-hour might be too late.
Crystal figured she had watched too many reality-based television crime shows. It seemed as if every time Shane was home late from work she had the crazy fear that he had been car-jacked or something. That wasn't healthy, was it?
Then again: how many future victims of violent crime, or loved ones of victims, had watched those sorts of programs, or heard reports on the news about people murdered or brutalized, and thought, That's terrible, but it'll never happen to me or anybody I know.
So Crystal made up her mind. The neighborhood in which Arlene and Donny lived wasn't exactly on her route, but it was close enough to not add too much extra time to her trip. She wouldn't stop to visit, just drive past, and see if one or both of their cars were in the driveway. If either Donny's or Arlene's car was missing, she would just assume they had gone someplace together without informing her of their plans last night.
The nerve of those people, Crystal thought, smiling to herself. How dare they not keep me informed of every detail of their personal lives…
Anna Lou was still on the doorstep, but only barely: she had advanced several times toward Shane, and he, without realizing it, had retreated from her, back into the house. On one level she merely confused him; but on another, deeper level, she frightened him. What was she capable of? And what did she mean when she said Crystal was about to go away? Was she privy to some secret intelligence cable stating that Crystal was going to run off? Had Anna Lou gotten the idea in her clearly addled mind that Crystal was about to leave him for somebody else, and sensed an opportunity to grab Shane on the rebound? And what did that have to do with—as she'd just said—"everybody else?" Where were they all going?
She's not right, Shane thought, studying her warily.
"It's already started," crowed Anna Lou. "You can't see it yet, but you will. Pretty soon this whole town's gonna be screaming. But I've saved you, Shane. I've saved you from all that, and I—"
Shane held up his hand. "Stop, stop. You're not making any sense. I don't know what you're saying to me."
"What I'm saying," Anna Lou began, "is that I've made it so what happens to them won't happen to you."
"So what won't happen to me?"
"So you won't change!" she burbled, as if the answer ought to have been obvious. "Wasn't that sweet of me? It's all come together so perfectly. I'd lost hope until last night, when you walked in. After so long, Shane, for you to just show up like that, out of nowhere—why, it was as if you had fallen out of the clouds. And that's when I knew what I had to do."
"You're talking crazy. I still don't understand."
"I'll bet you had an angry little tummy last night." Anna Lou reached out and patted his stomach; Shane jumped back at her touch. "Did you think I had poisoned you, maybe?"
"I didn't, though. I would never have done something like that. No, you got sick because I gave you the antidote—and it was doing its job, counteracting all the bad stuff. Don't you remember that little bowl of beef stew? That's where the antidote was, baby: in the beef stew I brought out just for you."
"What are you talking about, Anna Lou?" Shane's throat was dry now. "'Bad stuff'—what does that mean? Are you telling me our food was poisoned?"
"I had to," Anna Lou responded. "They made me."
Shane's mind was racing. Crystal seemed okay, but what if there was some delayed reaction? What if she was out there driving when suddenly whatever toxin Anna Lou had introduced into their bodies had its effect? And then two more names popped into his mind:
Crystal hadn't been able to reach either one of them…
No, Shane thought. Oh, no.
At that moment he swore he would never, ever, again make fun of the Doodlebops.
Just, please, let them be okay.
Seized with rage, Shane grabbed Anna Lou's arms. "What have you done to us?" he demanded. "Tell me now!"
"I've killed the town, Shane." Anna Lou was half-laughing, half-weeping. "I've killed this whole mean, stupid town. They forced me to do it, but I'm glad they did. I hate this place. I hate all the people who live here—everyone but you, Shane."
"How are you going to like me when I break your fucking arms?"
"You won't do it," Anna Lou insisted, even as she buckled from the pressure he was exerting on her. "You won't hurt me. You can't."
And she was right, damn her. As much as Shane wanted to hurt Anna Lou McElroy, he couldn't do it. Besides, the law was there to decide punishment, not him. She had to be turned over to the law.
"Get in here," Shane ordered, jerking the wretched girl across the threshold. "We're calling the cops."
"We can run away together," Anna Lou babbled as he dragged her into the living room, "you and me and the baby. We can go someplace far away, maybe some tropical island, where they'll never find us, where we'll be safe forever. We can eat coconuts and mangoes and—"
"Quiet." Shane pushed her onto the sofa, then grabbed his phone, dialed 9-1-1.
Crystal noticed, but didn't really give much thought to, the absence of traffic today—particularly as she got closer to Donny and Arlene's house. It was late on a Saturday morning. Where was everybody hiding?
Oh, well, no big deal. She turned into Donny's and Arlene's neighborhood, found their street. Crystal felt a bit ridiculous. But she also knew this was the sort of thing she would have wanted someone to do for her if, one day, she mysteriously went off the air.
Shane was not getting an answer. He'd always figured that, if the local 9-1-1 dispatcher was temporarily overwhelmed, his call would be re-routed to another center close by. But was that one now overwhelmed too? Just how many people had this crazy woman poisoned?
But then Shane answered his own question: Lots of people, because lots of people were eating at Murl's last night. So there you go.
"The antidote's in my blood, Shane," a calmer Anna Lou said from the sofa. She held up her right index finger, down the tip of which ran a ragged incision. "Just a few drops—that's all it took to save you."
Shane, the phone still to his ear, gasped in disgust, "You put your blood in the…?"
"Yes, and all I ask in return—"
"You're not asking me for shit, Anna Lou," Shane snapped, incredulous that she had used her own blood to transmit the antidote to him—some sick fantasy, he felt sure, she just wanted him to believe. But he was disinclined to argue with someone so clearly untethered from reality. He had a more important question. "Tell me exactly what was poisoned last night. Was it all the food, or just—?"
"The tea, sweet and un-sweet," Anna Lou said quietly, looking down at her lap, "not that it matters now."
"What did you use? What was the kind of poison?"
"I don't know what it was, exactly. They just gave it to me and told me to put it in."
Anna Lou didn't look at him. "You won't believe me until you see them for yourself."
Never mind, Shane thought. His immediate goal was to get someone, anyone, on the line. Then they could start the interrogation in earnest.
He tried to remember their individual beverages last night. He'd had sweet tea; Crystal, lemonade. Donny, come to think of it, had ordered lemonade too. But Arlene—what did she have to drink?
Unsweetened tea, he recalled suddenly, and shuddered.
Perhaps Arlene was in the emergency room now, and Donny was with her. That could explain why Crystal couldn't reach them. Yes, that had to be it.
Anna Lou then said, "You're wasting time, Shane."
"You can't save them. It's too late. But we can still save my baby: Tim, my little baby boy." Her voice was pleading now. "I need you to help me, Shane. I'm begging you. I know you hate me right now—but please think of my son. He's not even a year old. He can still survive. Please help me save him."
"I don't care about you or your baby, Anna Lou," Shane growled, his despair and anger mounting as he waited for someone to answer his call. "All I—" But he did not finish the sentence. His frustrations got the better of him, and it was all he could do not to hurl the phone across the room, or at Anna Lou. "Where is everybody?" he cried, desperate.
"They're gone," Anna Lou answered from the couch, "or going..."
Shane was about to reply when he heard, emanating from the still-open front door, a faint, high-pitched whine. An odd sound—somehow unearthly…
"What's that?" he whispered, setting down his phone, looking to the door.
"That's them," Anna Lou said. "It's the sound they make—"
Shane glanced back at her.
"—when they're about to attack."