What Chad Stapleton really wished he could say was, "I don't want to talk about it anymore."
Those were the exact words.
He was bone-tired of hearing his fiancée, Jessica, express dismay over his travel plans. He knew it was only because she loved him; because she wanted him to be safe. He appreciated that. But the way she kept going on about the subject was really starting to grate on his nerves.
Maybe it was that she had said anything in the first place.
Chad almost felt demeaned by her concerns. All he wanted to do was make the drive from Palm Beach back to Savannah overnight, alone. There. That was it.
People made these kinds of drives all the time, didn't they?
But here was Jessica Ricci, his twenty-four-year-old fiancé, standing over him while he packed his suitcase, acting as if he might not be up to the challenge of a stupid seven hour or so drive in the darkness.
That was what riled Chad, much as he hated to admit it.
Out of the corner of his eye he watched her; watched Jessica with her long dark hair, brown eyes, and splendid olive complexion, and wondered: How can someone so beautiful be so irritating sometimes?
But that's the answer, really.
She's beautiful so she can afford to be irritating.
"I just don't think it's a good idea," Jessica said for the umpteenth time.
"I'll be fine," Chad assured her for probably the same number of times, though his tone had sharpened a bit on each occasion.
"Hey, Jessica," he imagined himself saying as he continued to fold and set clothes in his open suitcase, "thanks for caring but—in case you haven't noticed—I'm a grown man. I'm a grown man, okay? I'm reasonably fit, I'm alert, I'm capable, and I'm level headed. I'm not little Red Riding Hood skipping through the forest on her way to Grandmother's house. I think that I've got enough sense and enough skill to handle whatever comes my way. So thanks a lot but shut up. Please?"
A good response, he thought, but not exactly in the best interest of their relationship.
"Can't you just leave tomorrow?" Jessica went on. Already their time together had been abbreviated. Jessica had come down on Saturday; Chad, only Tuesday. Today was Friday.
"It's not like I want to go back early," Chad said, "but this is really important."
"Yeah, Chad, you're right. Being back to make a presentation to a big client is a lot more important than hanging out with your fiancé."
And once again he had the perfect comeback he would never make: "Okay, Jess, I'll just let my career go down the toilet so you'll be happy with me. No money coming in to speak of, so it might be difficult for me to keep you in the life you're accustomed to. But then again, maybe we can just move in with your parents down here in Palm Beach. What do you think? Sound like a plan?"
And once again the answer he actually made: "That came out wrong. I'm sorry."
Nice fake sincerity there, partner.
"I know what you meant, Chad. You're trying to build a career," Jessica said. "I understand that."
Thanks, babe. I'm glad you recognize I actually want to achieve something in life.
"It's not about building a career," he answered. "It's about building a life—a life for us. So we can afford to buy a big waterfront mansion like the one your parents have."
"I like our little house in Savannah better."
Good for you—but here's the difference between us. In your life you've been able to compare the two. My old man works for the phone company and my mom works in the county tax office, so I'm afraid I haven't had the chance to experience life on the other side of the tracks. I'd like to know what it's like to be rich, if you don't mind, before you make the decision for us to live humbly.
"I didn't say we had to buy a place like this one. I just want to be able to afford one."
"And to do that you have to drive all the way back to Savannah in the middle of the night?" she countered.
"I told you, Jess. They moved up the date. I have to be ready."
"Okay, well, at least take a nap before you go."
"There's no time. We're supposed to go out with your Mom and Dad in half an hour."
"Even if it's just fifteen minutes, that's a start. I don't want you to fall asleep at the wheel."
"I'm not going to fall asleep at the wheel."
"I'm serious, Chad. You have no idea how quickly it can overcome you."
"I'll take some Red Bulls with me."
"And don't stop your car either, unless it's to get gas. There are all kinds of crazy people out there."
"Carjackers and robbers and escaped mental patients…"
"I love you." He kissed her quickly on the cheek as he zipped up his suitcase.
"I love you too," she said. "And don't forget about people who intentionally bump into you from behind to cause an accident to cause an accident, and then, when you pull over, they—"
Seated now at their table at Ta-boo Restaurant on Worth Avenue, they made a handsome quartet: father Paul Ricci, mother Dana Ricci, daughter Jessica Ricci, and, merely along for the ride, Jessica's hapless fiancé Chad Stapleton, a man who apparently couldn't be trusted to drive up Interstate-95 after sunset. Even with two years of courting Jessica, and their engagement four months prior, Chad still felt ill at ease around Mr. and Mrs. Ricci. After earning a fortune as an investment banker in New York, Mr. Ricci had retired a few years early to Palm Beach, where the family had long maintained a vacation home. Nowadays, he and his wife spent the summers here in Florida and the winters at their apartment in New York. They were a patrician family. While Mr. Ricci had come from humble beginnings, he had been a multimillionaire for years now, financially secure well before Jessica and her two sisters were born. Chad's background in southeast Georgia was different. He had met Jessica at a club in Savannah while he was a student at Georgia Southern University and she was attending the Savannah College of Art and Design. He was an ambitious young Accounting major; Jessica's vocation was sculpting. But they were both serious about their work, and serious about their goals. That, Chad believed, was why they'd clicked. Both wanted as much out of life as they could possibly get.
Still, the world from which Jessica came was not his world. Chad's hometown was small, rural. For him, Palm Beach felt like another country, but documentation here wasn't a matter of a passport or visa; it was money. Chad didn't have it, at least not on the scale he needed to comfortably navigate this town...which meant that Jessica's parents picked up the tab just about everywhere they went together. Tonight was no exception. Chad didn't like it, but what could he do? Go into debt trying to roll with the big boys?
But that was minimal, not to mention familiar, discomfort; he had learned to live with it. No, what made tonight miserable was the way Jessica's parents were squarely on her side regarding Chad's travel plans. No surprise they would go along with her; but a surprise indeed they would badger him nearly as much about his decision.
Do they really care? Chad wondered.
In the back of his mind he had always suspected that he was not the man Paul and Dana had envisioned for their daughter: this tall, sandy-haired, fair-skinned Southerner who, try as he might, could never quite get the twang out of his voice. They would have preferred, he thought, someone more like the Riccis themselves...sleek, urbane, and sophisticated. Instead they'd ended up with Clem Kadiddlehopper.
Oh, well. You can't win 'em all, right? Relax, Mr. and Mrs. Ricci. You've got two more daughters off at college right now. Maybe they'll choose better than the first one did.
"So you're actually driving all the way back to Savannah tonight?" Dana asked.
"Yes, I am." Chad tried not to sound curt.
"That doesn't seem like such a good idea to me," Paul chimed in.
Thank you for your input, Paul. Thanks a heap.
"Me, either," Jessica said, "but that's what he's doing."
"Guys, trust me," Chad said, trying not to get mad, failing, but at least keeping his emotions under control. "I'll be fine. I've driven a lot farther than that at night."
"Well, if you say so," Dana said, "but don't stop your car, unless it's to get gas."
"I already told him, Mom."
"I really appreciate y'all's concern," Chad told them. "But I just don't think it's going to be that bad."
"It's up to you, Chad," said Paul. "And if this is what you feel you have to do…"
"I'm really not worried," Chad responded. "I think it's going to be a pretty uneventful trip, to be honest."
Chad didn't like the way things ended that evening. The dinner wound up well enough. Things only started to fall apart when, after making his farewells to Paul and Dana, he said goodbye to Jessica in the driveway of the Ricci home on Gulfstream Road. When she started crying.
I feel like such an asshole, Chad thought as he held her.
She wasn't sobbing or anything; she was just teary-eyed, anxious. And it hurt him to see Jessica in distress, especially when he was the cause of that distress.
I was wrong to resent her for trying to talk me out of it. She loves me. She doesn't want anything to happen to me. It's love, plain and simple.
But he had made his choice. He was leaving tonight and that was it.
"Come on, Jessica," he said, rubbing her back. "Don't be like this."
"I just don't like to see you leave."
"It won't even be twenty-four hours that we're apart," he reminded her. "I'll leave tonight, and when you get to Savannah tomorrow, I'll already be there to welcome you."
"I guess we're lucky we came in different cars."
"I'm sorry, Jess. Do you forgive me?"
"I love you."
"I love you," she whispered, kissing him. "Please be careful."
Now Chad was on the open road, and feeling a little better. Jessica had asked him to call her when he got home, no matter what time that ended up being, and he had agreed. He still hated himself for upsetting her, but she had seemed all right when he left; maybe she was starting to understand. Anyway, things were going to be fine when they reunited in Savannah. He would be absolutely wonderful to her. All the damage would be repaired. He would make sure of it.
Chad enjoyed the occasional long, solitary drive, especially when he made it at night. If he wanted to drop the window and be bathed in a rush of cold air, no one could argue with him. If he wanted to play the radio or a CD, no one was there to tell him to turn down the volume, or criticize his song selection. If he wanted to talk to himself, whether rehearsing a presentation or giving answers to questions not yet asked but fully expected, then he could do it and not look like he was crazy to the other occupants of the car. Chad was hardly a loner, but he recognized the value in being alone once in awhile: alone with the night and a well-running vehicle and the marvelous companionship of one's own thoughts.
This is good, he thought as he headed onto Interstate-95. This is really good.
Okay, this really sucks.
About six hours into his trip, Chad's discomfort had become unbearable. He had entertained the idea that he'd be able to hold off using the bathroom until he got to Savannah. He now realized this was a foolhardy notion. He didn't mind using a public restroom. It was using a public restroom at night with no one else around that bothered him—or maybe the possibility that someone else might be around, but up to no good.
Nevertheless, right now Chad wasn't feeling so hot. He had experienced a pang of hunger on his way up the Florida coast, and swung into a fast-food drive through for a Coke and a cheeseburger, to consume while he drove. It was not a heavy meal, and he hadn't expected it to affect him so quickly. But there was no doubt about it: he officially had to go to the bathroom. His bladder was throwing a real tantrum. He felt no pressure on his gut yet, which would spare him from having to alight on a toilet seat of dubious cleanliness, but he was mildly queasy and that was just adding to his misery.
But Chad knew this route well, having traveled it many times. He knew its gas stations, its restaurants, its exits. He also knew its Welcome Centers, and breathed a shallow sigh of relief when the headlamps of his Toyota Corolla revealed a modest little sign advising weary travelers of such a Center ahead.
In a few minutes—yes, just a few short minutes—he'd be feeling much better.
Chad had stopped at this Welcome Center several times over the years. It was friendly, clean, spacious...just the sort of building in which a State would want to welcome tourists and travelers. The nucleus of the establishment was a large glass-walled lobby, locked and empty now, full of brochures touting Georgia's many attractions. On either side of the lobby were restrooms: men's on the south side, women's on the north side. These restrooms remained unlocked all night. Chad didn't know who he had to thank for that decision, but clearly it was an individual of tremendous empathy.
With so little traffic on the Interstate at the moment, it only followed that the Welcome Center would be deserted. Veering onto the side road that led off the Interstate into the Welcome Center's parking lot, Chad saw a single vehicle at the rear of the building: a late model Dodge Truck. It had been parked in a place where it would have been invisible from the Interstate, and that suggested to Chad someone might have meant to leave it there overnight.
What if it's some axe murderer who's pulled up to lie in wait for unsuspecting victims?
Chad shook his head at the idea. More than likely, his hunch was correct: a staff member had been picked up from work and left his or her vehicle there overnight, but made sure to put it someplace discreet.
Everything looks all right, he thought, swinging into the parking place closest to the men's restroom. Nobody in sight, as expected, but that's actually a good thing. I'll go in the restroom, take care of business, and be fine for the rest of the drive. Terrific.
He had been listening to a Classic Rock station for the last fifteen minutes. Right now it was playing "Turn to Stone" by ELO, a song Chad really liked even though it was older than he was; but he shut off the car in the middle of it. He wasn't about to sit idle until it was over, not tonight, not here. He grabbed his phone and stuck it in his pocket. Then he got out and, after locking the doors with the key fob, headed at a brisk pace for the restroom.
Chad was at the door, then through the door, then into the restroom: a realm of ghastly fluorescent light and chemical odors. He stepped up to the urinal, unzipped, and—relief!
Only it took awhile and Chad didn't like that. Yes, he was getting to the end. Yes, his bladder was starting to relax. Yes, the sooner it was empty, the sooner he could get out of there. But Chad was ashamed of his anxiety. Really, what did he have to be afraid of?
He was just about done now. Five, four, three, two, and—
Chad zipped up and went over to the sink to wash his hands. He had actually considered leaving without washing his hands. Who was to know? Maybe there was a camera in here and tomorrow a security guy would see him using the bathroom and not washing his hands afterward. Well, so what if they did? What would they do, turn him over to the hygiene police, put his picture in the paper? But Chad decided to wash his hands anyway. Best to be cleanly, he thought; to do the right thing, no matter how small.
The faucet was one of those motion sensor jobs. He stuck his hands under it and out came the water.
Okay, Chad. We're washing, we're washing…
Nobody said he had to do a good job, though. Rinsing off his hands, wiping them on his pants, Chad stepped back from the sink.
The faucet stopped.
Then: a shuffling, from elsewhere in the restroom. Chad looked to his right, to his left, behind him.
Then: a cough, followed by the creaking of hinges; the hinges of a bathroom stall as it opened. The second one down, Chad observed. Someone was in here with him. Someone had been in here all the time.
Then: a man coming out of that stall. Chad hadn't heard a toilet flush or anything. What had he been doing in there?
The fellow was, to put it kindly, rather plain: nearly bald except for some sparse, stringy brown hair on the sides and back of his head. He had a youthful face, reddish-cheeked and smooth-skinned, though Chad guessed he was somewhere in his mid-to-late forties. Although he wasn't exactly smiling, there was a pleasant aspect to his demeanor. It didn't take long for Chad to figure out that it radiated from his eyes: two glittering sapphires...striking, even stark, amid the man's otherwise lackluster features. He wore a tattered denim jacket, plaid shirt, and brown corduroy pants.
"Hello," the guy said. His voice was high-pitched and crisp.
"Hey," Chad replied, barely audible, as he turned to leave.
"I need some help hanging a picture at my house," his new acquaintance said. He provided this information with strange buoyancy, as if he were happy just to be alive and able to say such a thing.
Chad stopped. "What?"
"I need some help hanging a picture at my house," the man repeated. "Do you think you could give me a hand?"
"I'm sorry, but I've got to go." Chad started for the door again.
"Don't worry. I'll reward you," the man called after him. "I bought us some ice cream. It's melting in the car."
"I'm in a hurry." Chad slung the restroom door open, stepped outside.
"It won't take long," the man assured him, and his voice was suddenly way too close.
He's following me! He's right behind me!
Chad glanced back and saw that a span of no more than five feet now separated them. Yes, indeed...right behind.
"I just need some help hanging a picture at my house."
"Leave me alone," Chad snapped as he made his way down the sidewalk, with the other fellow still on his heels. "Seriously." He picked up his pace.
I shouldn't have turned my back on him.
"Wait!" The man was matching his quickened pace step for step. "I just need some help."
"Get away from me," Chad ordered.
"But I bought us some ice cream!" the man shouted—not angrily; rather as if to be heard across a great distance—and Chad jumped at this new heightened pitch, but he kept up his walk-run; kept it up as his car got closer; as he reached into his pocket for his keys, to press the "Unlock" tab on the key fob; kept it up as his hand closed around those keys, pulled them out of his pocket, and the car getting closer still, the handle of the driver's side door almost in reach...
Open the door, get in, shut the door in this asshole's face, drive off and never look back. Yeah, that's the ticket.
What happened next was astounding. It was astounding and so unexpected that Chad, at first, had no idea what had been done to him.
He got tackled. He got tackled as if he were on a football field. The man went for Chad's legs and brought him down hard on the pavement of the parking lot. All he had time for was a shocked, "What—!" Then he hit the asphalt face-first, scraping his chin, his elbows, ripping a hole in his blue jeans over the left knee. The wind rushed out of his body.
What happened? What happened?
"Now you just hold your horses," the man said as Chad struggled under his weight. "All I asked for was a little help hanging a picture in my house. What's the big deal?"
Chad, overcoming the initial stun of the impact, felt his strength returning—and with that strength came a new feeling: anger, building fast.
"I even bought us some ice cream!" the man cried. "It's melting in the car!"
"Get off me!" Chad grunted, and bucked hard, unsteadying his attacker. Chad lunged forward, forcing the other man backwards.
"Whoa," cried his assailant, landing on his back. Yet there was a grin on his face even when he hit the ground, as if this were some kind of good-natured wrestling match.
That grin made Chad angry. Straddling the man now, Chad unleashed a flurry of hard blows across his face. Then, spent, he got to his feet.
Fuck you, Ice Cream Man.
Ice Cream Man…
Chad would think of him by this name for the rest of the night. Part of him wanted to stay, to fight, but he'd had enough. He just needed to get away from this freak; from this maniac now slowly getting to his feet, and, bizarrely, still smiling. "That wasn't very nice," the Ice Cream Man said, wiping blood from his nose. He sniffed and chuckled at the same time. Call it a chiffle, maybe.
"Stay away from me," Chad yelled at him. He unlocked the Corolla and got in, cranked up the car. He flipped the Ice Cream Man off, threw the transmission into reverse and backed up; then he put the car in Drive and roared out of the parking lot. For a brief moment he saw the Ice Cream Man in his rearview mirror, turning on the sidewalk; turning as if to run away or to...
To run to that Dodge truck.
Chad blinked, took a deep breath. His heart was still racing. The grazes on his face, his elbows, and his left knee still stung.
The truck is his.
Chad's hands gripped the steering wheel of the Corolla. He was upset by the experience. There was no other way to say it. He was upset, unsettled, frightened.
Calm down, man. Just calm down.
Chad slammed the accelerator; the Corolla soared onto the Interstate. Chad took the middle lane.
I'm okay. I'm fine. Everything's fine.
He was up to seventy miles per hour.
Did he see my car? Did he run to his truck to get in and try to follow me? Or did he decide to run off, thinking I would call the police on him?
Chad was doing eighty miles per hour now.
What if he's following me?
Chad looked in his rearview mirror and saw lights far back in the distance. He couldn't tell the sort of vehicle to which the lights belonged; it could have been anything.
That's crazy. He's just some nutcase who either had too much to drink or forgot to take his medication or whatever, but he's not going to follow you. Your second guess was the right one. He's run off because he thinks you'll call the police on him.
Chad's heartbeat was coming down. His breathing had become normal again; his hands had loosened, at least some, on the steering wheel.
And that's what you should do, Chad. You should call the police on him.
Chad swallowed hard. His throat was parched.
Yeah, but then what? Suppose they want me to stop somewhere and talk with them? What's the procedure for something like this? I've got to get home, man. I'll be late. And what will they think about me, anyway? What if they think I'm some weirdo who cruises rest stops at night? What if Jessica thinks that? I mean, she should know better, but...
They need to know. The police need to know that there's someone potentially dangerous out there. I would want someone else to report him, if it had been that person instead of me. Wouldn't I? Not just for my sake, but for the people I love. So I need to do this.
Chad took his cell phone out of his pocket.
Or, rather, he took out its mangled corpse.
Just one glance and Chad knew that it had been for nothing: his long inner dialogue about the merits of calling versus not-calling the police in regard to his altercation at the Welcome Center. He wasn't calling anybody on this phone, not with it nearly broken in two.
"Shit." The phone had been a casualty, no doubt, of that very altercation. Chad threw it onto the passenger seat. "Shit!"
Okay, so I'll call them when I get home.
He looked again in his rear view mirror, saw headlamps far back in the distance.
What if that's him?
What if he's really following me?
Up ahead lay an exit: gateway to a town of about five thousand or so people, a humble municipality tucked into Georgia's coastline with a small waterfront, a couple stoplights, a few historical attractions...
...And a police station perhaps a mile over the bridge leading into the city.
Chad's uncle owned a fishing lodge near this town, and Chad had visited it frequently over the years. From time to time he had joined his uncle and aunt on excursions into the town. He didn't know its layout well, but he knew it well enough.
There'll be someone on duty. I can let them know what's happened. I can show them the scrapes I got fighting with that dude. I can warn them and then they can tell the State Patrol, and maybe after I tell them how important it is I get back home, they'll let me go after an hour or so. I hate this idea. I want to go to my house. But will I sleep if I think this maniac has followed me? And Jessica...what about Jessica? What if he finds our house and goes to it while Jessica is there, alone? I have to talk to the police. I have to report this.
Constantly glancing in his rear view mirror, Chad exited the Interstate, heading for the town with the waterfront and the two stoplights and the handful of historical attractions; glancing back, then to the road ahead, back, ahead, and all that time the distant headlamps still there, still there...
Only then they weren't.
Chad was on the exit ramp, his Corolla cruising gently onto a narrow, older state highway. He slowed down a bit, still looking back, ahead, back, ahead, to see if a particular Dodge truck appeared in the mirror.
But nothing was there, nothing but darkness.
Chad sped up again.
What a night, man. What a night.
Jessica's advice to stay in Palm Beach until morning was looking better all the time.
But wait a minute. You handled it, didn't you? And not only did you handle it, but you handled it in style. Yeah, you got jumped. But you turned that shit around fast, didn't you? Those were some good punches you threw. A man's punches—so quit your bellyaching.
The Corolla was eating up the miles pretty good, and Chad had not noticed a speed limit sign yet. Most likely he'd missed it. He was pretty sure he was speeding, but hey, he'd be glad to see a police officer right now. Let the Ice Cream Man pull up and ask an Officer of the Law for some help hanging a picture in his house.
Be sure to tell the Officer that you bought some ice cream too, and that it's melting in the car.
In the rear view mirror, two dim points of light emerged. But Chad failed to notice.
Seems like the bridge is a couple of miles up the road...
The points of light were growing larger.
Which means the police station is maybe, what, three miles?
Boy, there ain't nothin' on this road. Either side, all I see are pine trees. But I'm pretty sure there are some little stores and things up ahead, before the bridge. Pretty sure.
Chad felt a mild irritation in the corners of his eyes. The kind of irritation that came from—
—Light now, monstrous white light, rising up behind him, streaming in through the rear window. Chad looked up at his rearview mirror and was near-blinded by the radiance. It was as if the moon itself, in bright and eerie splendor, now pursued him.
But it wasn't the moon. It was a Dodge truck. A Dodge truck with engine roaring, cylinders firing, beast of metal and rage shot-through with oil, gasoline, computer signals and electricity; predator of coiled power coming fast, chasing him, bearing down for the kill...
I don't believe it.
The Corolla lurched forward as the Dodge barreled into it from behind; for a split second the steering wheel broke free of Chad's hands, dipped and jerked, before he got control of it again.
Second impact; again, briefly, the Corolla could not be controlled. Chad's muscles screamed as he tried to steer.
No no no no no no
Suddenly the Dodge rocketed out from behind Chad, came along his vehicle on the driver's side.
No please no don't
The Dodge threw its bulk against the Corolla, and this time Chad could do nothing. Perhaps the force was too great. Perhaps his reflexes were not quick enough to correct. It didn't matter; the road duel was over, if it had ever really begun, and Chad and his Corolla were the losers. The car seemed to take flight as it bounded onto the shoulder of the road and then bounced down into a grassy depression between asphalt and timber forest.
The Corolla crashed into the wire fence running along the edge of the timber barren. So too did Chad's head slam into the steering wheel; specifically the lower portion over his forehead. He was plunged into the heart of an infant galaxy, his vision overwhelmed by billions of incandescent stars.
Then, all at once, the stars went out.
Sight. Hearing. Feeling.
Chad's systems were coming back online, fast.
What happened to me? What's going on?
He straightened up in the driver's seat.
I've been in a wreck. How did this happen?
Then, like a flood, it all came back to him: I'm being chased. Someone's after me.
He needs some help hanging a picture in his house.
He bought us some ice cream.
It's melting in the car!
Chad drew breath, ignored the pain in his head, behind his eyes. He didn't know how long he had been unconscious, but he believed, he hoped, it had just been a few seconds.
I've got to get out of here.
The car was not going anywhere. Though still in a daze, Chad understood that much. The car had rolled over the fence and its front driver's side tire was now suspended in the air; perhaps the vehicle was sitting atop some great hump of earth, or its axles were clogged with wire. Regardless, when he tried to back up the still-running vehicle, it groaned but did not move.
And he was out there, very close, probably turning his truck around on the highway, coming back this way...
The Ice Cream Man
Chad opened the door, stumbled out, fell. He was dizzy and nauseous and the ache in his head, especially across the bridge of his nose, was unbearable.
The I-Scream Man
Chad got to his feet.
Run, you stupid bastard, run.
But run where?
He saw light being thrown on the trees in front of him; heard the roar of an engine in his ears. He looked back and saw the Dodge truck. The truck was moving slowly down the road.
He's looking for me.
Now the truck sped up.
He sees me.
The woods, Chad decided, would be his refuge. The truck couldn't follow him in there. He would take to the woods, using the treeline for cover, until he got to something that looked like civilization. He raced into the underbrush.
I can't see anything.
It's so thick.
A root tripped him. Chad slammed onto his stomach. His poor head, already wracked with pain, took a second hit from the hard black forest floor. He howled. He couldn't stop himself.
He heard the Dodge shut off, then a door open, slam shut.
Then there was a long pause. Chad did not check his watch, but it had to be at least a few minutes. Somewhere in there he heard a car door open, and then, a moment afterward, shut again.
Was it the door of the truck?
Chad got on all fours, started to crawl deeper into the underbrush.
"I hear you," the Ice Cream Man called out, but not from far away. Not far enough, anyhow.
Chad froze. He pressed his body out flat on the forest floor.
He's followed me into the woods. He left his truck and followed me into the woods.
"Yeah, I hear you all right. You're not very stealthy, you know. All that crashing around and stuff makes you easy to follow."
Chad realized he was panting with exhaustion and fear. He tried to lower the sound and rate of his breathing.
Shallow breaths. Stay calm, stay calm...
He heard faint rustling as the Ice Cream Man carefully made his way deeper into the forest.
If I don't move, there won't be anything for him to hear.
"I don't know what your problem is," the Ice Cream Man said. "All I asked for was some help hanging a picture in my house."
Where is he? How far away?
"I even bought us some ice cream!"
If I get up, will he see me?
"It's melting in the car!"
Maybe he's as blind as I am. It's black as can be in here. He doesn't have a flashlight, or he'd be using it. So to find me he has to go by sound. And to be able to tell where he is, I have to go by sound. We're equal, aren't we?
Slowly, Chad got on all fours.
The Ice Cream Man, for the moment, seemed to have nothing more to say. But the rustling had diminished.
How long will this go on? Can I wait him out all night?
Maybe, but all night was a long time. Yes, Chad was wide awake right now. But he had also thought himself wide awake five years ago, when he was a college freshman driving back to school early on a Monday morning, at least until he fall asleep at the wheel on Interstate 16. It was only for a second or two, but he nearly ran off the road, and what if there had been other vehicles in close proximity? To this day he was amazed how quickly the drowsiness had come over him.
So, yes, Jessica I know how fast it can happen. All too well.
Now, granted, he'd not had a lunatic ranting about a hanging picture in his house or melting ice cream to spur him on back then. But to hang on for hours and not feel some effects of exhaustion? Unlikely. And if he dozed off, or even became less aware, the Ice Cream Man might stumble upon him.
And that would be bad.
That would be very, very bad.
Could the Ice Cream Man succumb to fatigue as well? Possibly; but this guy had his craziness to fuel him. Chad suspected the Ice Cream Man's energy reserves were vast.
I did it to myself, didn't I?
Forget the Ice Cream Man. He might be crazy, but I'll bet he's got enough sense to keep that craziness under wraps in broad daylight, or when there are lots of people around. People like him, they hunt after dark. They choose victims who are alone, unaware. A rest stop in the middle of the night was a perfect place for him. He could just lie in wait, a fox ready to pounce on the first plump little rabbit that came in range. And who was that plump rabbit? Me, that's who.
I could handle it. That's what I told everybody. Back off, the kid's got it under control. I can look after myself. I can manage.
And now, here I am.
I don't think I'm going to survive this.
It's amazing. This could be it. This could be the end. Chad Stapleton, Promising Young Man, hunted down and cut into pieces by lunatic killer after stopping to take a piss at a Rest Stop. How did this happen?
Wrong place at the wrong time.
"You back here, pal?" The Ice Cream Man's voice was loud, and not because he'd raised it. His voice was loud because he had gotten closer.
Chad's heart was somersaulting inside his chest. A dry coldness rose in his throat.
He's almost on top of me.
He had moved so softly and yet with such speed.
I'm not a match for this asshole in here. He knows how to move without being heard. Why wouldn't he? If he stalks people regularly, and I'm pretty sure I'm not the first, why wouldn't he?
"I know what you're doing, babe," the Ice Cream Man whistled. "You're trying to be real still so I don't hear you. Because you think if you just stay where you're at, and don't move at all, then I won't be able to find you. And that I'll just give up."
Yeah, that's about the gist of it.
"But you're wrong. I'll never give up. I'll never stop. I'll keep looking and looking until I find you. Do you hear me?"
Before, when we grappled, I got the better of him. I'm stronger than this guy. Maybe I can do it again. Maybe I can put him down where he doesn't get back up again.
"I said do you hear me? Chad?"
He knows my name.
"Let's see who we've got here. Yes, a Mr. Chad Stapleton of Savannah, Georgia. Thanks for leaving your registration in the glove compartment where I could get to it...and your insurance card too."
I left all that stuff behind, Chad thought, despairing. I left all of it right there, where he could get to it. I was so woozy, so distracted, so scared, I just ran and left it behind.
"Want to know what else I've got?" The Ice Cream Man's voice was receding. Chad dared to hope that he was heading in a different direction. Maybe he didn't have as good a bead on Chad's location as he'd wanted the young man to believe. Maybe. Maybe.
"I've got a gun. Yes, sir, I've got a gun."
He's lying. He's got to be.
"I didn't think I'd need it back there at the Welcome Center, so I left it out in the truck."
Why does he have to be lying?
"I figured if I just asked you to help me out, you'd do it. But you're turning out to be more trouble than I expected, Mr. Chad Stapleton of Savannah, Georgia. So now it looks like I'm going to have to make some trouble for you. See how this works?"
Chad drew a deep breath, softly as he could.
"I'll bet you think I'm just pulling your leg. Well, here. Listen for yourself."
A gunshot, into the night air, like a crack of thunder.
Without thinking, Chad bolted. He scurried through the brambles almost bent over, his face lashed by thorny vines and palmetto fronds, not caring how much noise he made now, just knowing that he had to get away. And behind the sound of his thrashing into the forest, more thrashing, that of a madman in pursuit...
"Chad!" the Ice Cream Man bellowed. "Chad, you come back here!"
But the Ice Cream Man did not shoot again. Perhaps he had fired erroneously, thinking Chad was someplace he was not; or perhaps he had just fired into the air, to frighten the young man.
Crazy or not, Chad did not think the Ice Cream Man would waste his ammunition.
That shot was meant to get him moving, and it had. Even as he scuttled through the darkness, he realized he had done exactly what the Ice Cream wanted him to do:
Start moving so the Ice Cream Man could give chase.
Chad's route was taking him parallel to the road. The cover of the trees and the underbrush were protecting him. So too, for once, was the omnipresence of night. The Ice Cream Man could only rely on sound to follow him.
Got to move, got to move.
And up ahead he saw light. He saw light through the trees, dim but growing stronger. What was the source of that light?
Another car, maybe?
No. No, better than a car. Civilization.
"I just need a little help, Chad!" he heard the Ice Cream Man shout, but his voice was growing fainter. As if...
"I bought us some ice cream!"
As if he was falling behind.
"It's melting in the car!"
And the thought that he was outrunning his tormentor gave Chad a special burst of energy. He straightened now, no longer scuttling, and while he stumbled several times, he managed to keep on his feet. A strange giddiness overtook him. Are you tiring out, you old bastard? Are you tiring out?
Then: open grass. Then: pavement, a parking lot, a big wide parking lot, and a gas station that, to Chad's addled brain, looked like something out of a fairytale. It was bright and glowing, multi-columned (Pump 1, Pump 2, Pump 3, and so on...), a little castle of light shining in the darkness.
Chad raced for the glass door, flung it open.
Behind the counter was a gentleman somewhere in his late sixties, white-haired with a pot belly massive enough for him to rest his hands atop, and a toothpick rolling in his mouth. Chad's entry had given him quite a start, and with good reason, for Chad Stapleton by now was a sight to behold. The palmettos, vines, and understory of the forest had not been kind to him: his face was cut and weeping blood in a dozen places. So too were his elbows and his left knee. He was covered with sweat; his lips and chin were lacquered with saliva; the odor of exertion wafted from his pores. "Sir," Chad pleaded. "You've got to help me. We've got to lock the doors." He turned and looked down. There was a keyhole in the door. He swung his gaze back at the cashier. "Quick, where's the key? We've got to lock this place up and call the police.
The cashier looked at Chad with half-wonderment, half-disgust. "Are you high or something?"
"Please! He's coming! He'll be here any minute!"
"What are you talking about?"
"He's coming! He's crazy!"
"The Ice Cream Man!" Even as he spoke these words, Chad wished he could retrieve them. The Ice Cream Man. He knew just how absurd he sounded, and tried to recover. "That's not his name, he just—"
"The Ice Cream Man?" The cashier glowered at him. "Boy, get out of here."
"No, please listen to me."
"Get out, or I'll call the police."
"Yeah! That's right! Call the police!"
Then the door opened and Chad saw him, barreling in, eyes glittering as before, not smiling but somehow pleasant, satisfied, in his demeanor. He was lifting his weapon, sleek and gleaming, maybe a .357 Magnum, even as he came through the entrance. Lifting it to take aim, but not at Chad.
Rather, at the man behind the counter.
"No," Chad began to say.
The cashier started to duck but the Ice Cream Man fired first, hitting the cashier somewhere, possibly his chest. Chad couldn't tell. He fell back behind the counter and could no longer be seen.
Chad lunged for the Ice Cream Man, seeking to stop him from firing again, whether on the cashier who he hoped was still alive or on Chad himself, but the Ice Cream Man brought his elbow up hard under the young man's chin. "Get away," he growled as Chad staggered back, and then struck a glancing blow to the boy's head with his handgun. But any impact with such a heavy object would have a profound effect, and this time Chad didn't stagger. He dropped, pitching over a potato chip bag display on his way down.
"You just won't cooperate," the Ice Cream scolded him. "What's the matter with you?"
Chad's right leg flew out, clipping the Ice Cream Man in the opposite shin. He buckled, and then Chad burst to his feet and lurched for the Ice Cream Man's gun, but the impact of his body against that of the Ice Cream Man caused the weapon to fly from the killer's hand. It bounced onto the counter and clattered onto the floor alongside the body of the cashier.
Now it was just the two of them. No problem, Chad would overpower him again. Or so he thought. But this time it was different. As they struggled, the Ice Cream Man brought his knee up between Chad's legs, sending a blast of electric pain that Chad felt travel all the way from his testicles to his belly to the topmost hair on his head. Winded, he left himself open for a powerful blow to the stomach, and then an uppercut that sent him reeling. He slammed onto his back.
The Ice Cream Man looked down at him, grinning. Then he reached inside his jacket. "Hey, Chad," he said. "Guess what else I've got."
He pulled out a slim, short knife.
As Chad scrambled to his feet, the Ice Cream Man bounded forward, knife radiant in the fluorescent lights of the gas station convenience store, but Chad was able to catch him by the wrist, bend it away from him. Again now, a brief struggle, but this time Chad did better. He was the larger of the two combatants, and used his superior weight to shove the Ice Cream Man backward, into shelves bearing all variety of candy bars. As Chad had done to the potato chip display, so the Ice Cream Man did to the one holding sweet confections, only his fall was much more spectacular. It seemed to destroy half the store, though in fact the shelves remained intact and upright; the only difference was that there were more candy bars than potato chip bags to spill across the floor. Chad did not see where the knife went, if it had been propelled from the Ice Cream Man's hand or not. So, as far as weapons were concerned, that left:
It went behind the counter.
Can I get to the gun?
But the Ice Cream Man was on his feet again, and he tackled Chad now, drove him back out through the door from which he had just entered, into the parking lot, onto the pavement. Chad's head struck the concrete, his limbs splayed, and, for a moment, the blinding, delirious stars came out again.
For several moments afterward, he knew nothing.
Then the Ice Cream Man was upon him. Chad felt the man's knee sink into his chest, followed by the knife at his throat...the knife the Ice Cream Man had no doubt reclaimed while Chad lay senseless on the pavement.
"Well," the Ice Cream snarled, head silhouetted against the lights of the gas station, "I hope all that was worth it."
"Why?" Chad gasped. "Why me?"
The Ice Cream Man shook his head. "Hey, guy. Why not you?" he asked. "I mean, seriously, why not you? Was there somebody else out there you would have rather put through all this? I mean, sure, there are lots of people who deserve a night like the one you've had a whole lot more than you do. But what difference does that make? There are lots of really nice people who deserve to live out their lives without getting hurt, without losing people they love, without getting murdered. But it's not about deserving, pal. It's about destiny. It's about fate. Do you wish you could have held off using the bathroom until you got all the way home? I'll bet you do. Or maybe left at a different time? Who knows? If you'd waited another hour, or left an hour earlier, it would have made all the difference. There are a million things you could have done to alter your course tonight, so that none of this ever happened, but you didn't do any of them because there was no way you could have known. And now you're upset. Now you have all this pity for yourself. You're bewildered that such a terrible thing could happen to wonderful, innocent little you. Well, that's too bad, Mr. Chad Stapleton. Shit happens. You think you're the first person I ever asked for help hanging a picture in my house? You're wrong. There have been others, plenty of others. And they all said the same thing you did. 'No.' 'Get lost.' Which is fine. They had the right to tell me no. But guess what? They had to take the consequences. Just like you will."
The blade sank into the flesh of Chad's throat.
"Don't," Chad whispered, "please."
"It's a shame, really," the Ice Cream Man said as prepared to make the killing motion. "I bought us some ice cream, you know." He grinned. "It's melting in the car!"
Movement. From behind.
Chad did not know what it was, but The Ice Cream Man knew. He tried to pivot but it was too late. The bullet that struck his chest came from his own gun: the gun now held in the bloody hand of the gas station cashier, who in great pain and with great effort had staggered into the doorway and wedged enough of his body in the door to hold it open for a clear shot. The Ice Cream was propelled off of Chad, landed flat on his back...and did not move thereafter.
His eyes settled half-open.
His mouth widened as if to speak, but no sound came.
Chad picked himself up, still keeping a wary eye on the Ice Cream Man's body, and went to the cashier, who had slid down to the threshold of the door after firing. With one hand he still held the gun; the other he used to cover a wound to his shoulder. He was trembling badly. "I guess you weren't high after all," he said as Chad helped him back inside.
Dawn was breaking at the Shell Station.
Chad Stapleton sat calm on the shore of the cement island that housed Pumps 1 and 2. He had done a lot of watching in the last few hours. He had watched the gas station cashier, who in fact was the owner, be carried off in an ambulance. He had watched the Ice Cream Man's body be photographed, zipped up, taken away. He felt a strange sense of detachment, as if he had been watching himself as well; watching and listening to Chad Stapleton as he told his story, impressed by his composure, but knowing that as many times as he gave that story, he would never be able to say all he wanted to say.
The first Officer on the scene was a young man whose last name was Hendrix and Chad had liked him instantly. More policemen had arrived afterward, but Hendrix was the one who had talked to him the longest. The difference in their ages was not great, and maybe that gave them a better rapport. Regardless, when Hendrix asked Chad to tell him what happened, the words all spilled out. Hendrix just let him speak, seldom interrupting, never trying to take control of the conversation. Maybe he was trained to do that, or maybe it was just how he was as a person. Chad didn't know, but he appreciated the kind treatment he got. He looked up and saw Officer Hendrix was headed his way again.
"You need to call anybody?" the young policeman asked.
"My girlfriend," Chad answered. "But since I don't have my phone anymore..."
"Use mine." Hendrix handed him his cellular phone.
"Yep." He started to walk off.
Hendrix stopped, looked back.
Chad asked him, "Do y'all know who he was yet?"
"No, but we should pretty soon."
"He just said he needed some help hanging a picture in his house," Chad told him, just as he had earlier. "That was it. Over and over again. Well, except for the ice cream thing."
Hendrix nodded. "Right. But look, there's no telling what was going on inside that guy's head. Lot of crazy people out there." He smiled. "Take it easy on my minutes, okay?"
"Sure," Chad said. "Thanks again."
Officer Hendrix went on, to confer with another policeman. Chad dialed Jessica's number.
One ring. Two rings. Three rings. Four rings.
At last Jessica answered. "Hello?"
"Hey," Chad said.
"Chad! What happened? I've been so worried. I called and called but—"
"Yeah, I know. My phone had a little accident."
"Well, you still should have found a way to call me sooner," she stormed. "Whose phone is this, anyway? I normally don't answer if the name is blocked."
Chad tittered. He couldn't help it. He'd never been so happy to be scolded in his life.
Not that Jessica understood his reaction. "What? You think it's funny, the way you had me so worried?"
"No, I don't think it's funny," Chad told her quickly. "It's just that I've had kind of a busy night." He laughed out loud this time; he couldn't help it. He laughed even as tears of relief or joy or both formed in his eyes. "I really didn't have a chance to call." He laughed again, feeling ridiculous.
"You don't sound right, Chad. What happened?"
Why not tell her?
He said, "Okay, well, late last night I stopped to use the restroom at a Welcome Center. And it just so happened there was this maniac killer hiding out there. And he attacked me. And then he chased me." Chad paused for a moment, trying to keep his composure, resumed: "He shot someone right in front of me, and I'm all cut up right now. You're going to be shocked when you see me." His voice started to quaver, but he got control of it, and then his tone became fierce. "But I'm alive, Jessica. I don't know how it is that I'm alive. Maybe I don't even deserve to be. But I'm alive, you hear me? Alive and kicking."
"Very funny, Chad," she said. "So what really happened?"