Kevin L. O'Brien
It is a curious biological event, but whenever someone enrolls at a university, metabolic changes occur within every cell, creating a nutritional need for pizza and beer. Fortunately, most students revert to a normal biochemistry upon graduation, but some never fully recover.
Pizza is big business in Delasalle, Illinois, as it would be in any college town. There are over two dozen parlors alone, and virtually every restaurant offers pizza in some form on its menu. Yet by far the most popular store is Checker's Pizza. It is a small shop, without a parlor; instead it bases its entire business on delivery. While other establishments makes deliveries as an optional service, at an extra charge, Checker's makes it a way of life, at no extra charge. The owner, Michele Horne, believes that what students want most is dependable delivery right to their door. So, she makes it standard policy to guarantee 25 minute delivery to any spot within the Delasalle or Tamarack city limits, or that order is free.
I joined Checker's as a driver after losing my teaching assistantship because of poor performance. I was studying biochemistry at Keekishwa University and I had depended on the stipend to support myself. Summer was not Checker's best season. With no dormitory students on campus, and relying solely on the permanent residents of Delasalle and Tamarack for business, Michele could afford to hire only a total of five drivers and work only three a night. Business was usually brisk until 10:00 P.M., but afterwards one driver was always sent home and the other two filled the empty time between deliveries as best as they could.
I remember that particular Wednesday vividly. It had been Checker's busiest night so far that summer, but as usual, orders dropped off after ten. In fact, business became so slow that by eleven Michele sent the other driver home, leaving me to deliver any orders that might come in. None did, and by midnight Michele had exhausted all ideas to keep me busy. So, while she caught up on her paperwork, I simply waited for a telephone to ring.
Typically for central Illinois in high summer, the evening was warm and humid, though not unbearably so. Yet the interior of the store was intolerable. Michele had turned off three of the four ovens located at the rear of the shop, but the heat from the one was stifling. I stood in the open doorway, seeking relief through any small breeze. Outside, beyond the semicircle of light from the entrance, the night was absolutely black. Far across the street, I could see the tiny glow of lights above an apartment front; nothing filled the emptiness between. Even the street was deserted of both cars and pedestrians. The parking lot lights had been turned off a few minutes earlier as the other stores prepared to close. I turned around and took a few steps inside, just enough to peer into the office. Michele sat at the desk, a fan blowing her loose blond hair about her oval face. Her long fingers worked the desktop calculator effortlessly as she totaled the day's receipts. Michele was a pretty woman, let's make no mistake about that, but she was taller than I was, with virtually no figure. Besides, her husband could have been the inspiration for Bad Leroy Brown.
She paused and looked up at me, her green eyes slightly magnified by her wire-rim glasses.
"I was just wondering if you wanted me to start cleaning up," I asked.
One corner of her thin mouth turned upward a little. "What time is it?"
I looked over my shoulder and up at the clock over the door. It was one of those pre-digital models, with white numbers printed on black plastic cards attached to a rolodex-style spool. I watched as the minutes spool flipped from eleven to twelve.
She frowned when I told her. I had a good idea of what she was thinking. Ordinarily she preferred to stay open as late as possible, which on a summer weeknight meant three in the morning. Some of the other drivers complained that this was pure greed, but I suspected that, as popular as Checker's was, it was an expensive enterprise to run. She needed these extra hours simply to break even during the summer, despite the expense of keeping a driver that late. She was probably comparing her accumulating loss against possible profit if a late night rush developed.
"Let's wait and see what happens till one. If we don't get any orders, I'll shut down the phones and you can get started."
I nodded and turned to step back into the doorway -- and almost collided with a figure standing right behind me. I didn't hear him come in, which was unusual. I was generally alert enough to know when a customer had entered the store, even while talking to someone else.
"I'm sorry ...," I began out of reflex, then I took a closer look.
That night had been too warm to allow a pedestrian to comfortably wear anything other than a pair of shorts and a T-shirt. The person before me, however, was bundled up as if it was winter. Aside from a pair of rather baggy trousers, he was covered from neck to knees by a thick coat. A wide-brimmed hat was pulled low over his head, and a meter-long muffler wrapped around his face hid everything beneath the nose. Only two, deep-set, and very disturbing, bloodshot eyes were visible. His posture was stooped and bent, as if he were extremely old or crippled. And he stank of mold and loam, and animal musk.
My first thought was that he was a robber, trying to hide both his appearance and a weapon, but he simply stood in the doorway, staring at me, with both hands thrust into the coat pockets. I didn't like the look of him (at least, I assumed it was a "him"). Even so, he made no threatening move, so I couldn't just dismiss him without a reason.
Overcoming what I thought was simply my natural paranoia, I asked if I could help him. His only response was to pull his left hand from the pocket and extend it towards me. That hand was tannin-brown, with black, stringy hair, and long, pointed nails encrusted with some dark matter. In his grasp was a torn piece of newspaper.
Taking the scrap I saw that it was an advertisement from our store offering a special price for two large pizzas. It was contemporary, but was soiled with food, and other, stains, as if it had been taken from a garbage can.
"I take it you want to place an order." I may have sounded surprised, but he nodded, calm and smooth.
"I'll be just a moment," I said as I stepped behind the front counter and retrieved the order book from underneath. I spent a few minutes filling out the preliminaries, such as the time, date, and my name.
"Let's see now. You want two of our large pizzas -- "
A vigorous head shaking interrupted me. He took a few steps closer and pointed at the ad. Looking more closely I saw an "x" followed by the number twelve written below the word two.
"You want twelve orders?" He nodded his head. "But that's twenty-four pizzas."
He nodded again, patiently.
I shook my head in disbelief, but recorded the number. "They come with cheese. Would you like any other toppings?"
He stared hard at me for a few seconds, then spoke a single word in a high-pitched, squeaky, meeping voice.
If there had been a full moon that night ... but I didn't believe in werewolves.
"Um, we have five different kinds of meat ..."
I let my voice trail off when he only stared. As I jotted down the details, he placed another piece of torn newsprint on the countertop. This was only a portion of an ad, but it had an address printed on it and a name, scrawled in a very illegible script, beneath it.
"Elmwood and Charles," I mumbled as I added it to the order. "Is that in Tamarack?"
He nodded once. I should have guessed.
The name was more difficult, but I pronounced it "Caldwell" and was rewarded with another nod.
"Ah, I don't suppose you have a telephone, do you?"
He gave no answer. Briefly, I felt like a fool.
That left only drinks. He nodded vigorously when I suggested that he add beer to the order, and he indicated the number of bottles by pointing to the number of pizzas.
"Ok, because of the size of this order, we can't guarantee 25 minute delivery. We will, however, get there as fast as we can. Also, I'll have to ask that you pay in advance."
He was way ahead of me. As I spoke he dug into one pocket and tossed me a single coin, about the size of a silver dollar. Surprised, I tried to catch it against my shirt, but I missed and had to scramble for it as it rolled under the counter. For a brief moment I thought I saw the man's feet, but I must have seen his shoes instead. No person could have feet like that.
When I finally caught the coin I discovered that it was encrusted with filth and dirt. I stood up, ready to explain that this wouldn't be acceptable, but the man was gone. As silently as he had arrived, he had left, leaving me dumbfounded.
"Do we have an order?"
Looking over at the office, I spotted Michele looking at me. I signaled for her to come out and waited until she came over before answering.
"We do, though you were close enough to hear."
"I heard you ask for payment," she replied testily, "but I didn't hear if you were paid." She then glanced at the order form.
"Twenty-four pizzas?" Though higher in pitch, she reproduced my original reaction perfectly. "Did he pay?"
I held up the coin. "If you can call this payment."
Michele took it to examine. "What is this?"
"I would suppose a dollar, assuming, of course, it's not a foreign coin."
She scowled in disappointment. A large order like this one could save a bad night, if it was legitimate. Unfortunately, it now seemed this one probably wasn't.
"Well, if it's any consolation, at least we didn't waste our time and money making a bunch of pizzas we couldn't sell."
I was trying to cheer her up, but from the look she gave me I wasn't successful.
Then she examined her fingers. They were gray from the filth on the coin. When she scrutinized the now clean surface more closely, a confused look crossed her face.
"I thought dollars were made out of silver."
"I beg your pardon?"
She handed the coin back to me. What I saw left me speechless. Instead, I began to frantically clean the coin with my shirt.
When I had finished, I held up the coin for her to see. The polished yellow metal glinted a dull green in the fluorescent lights. Her eyes grew wide, filling her lenses, as she recognized it.
"It's gold, isn't it?" she said in a very quiet voice Her voice cracked on the second word.
"It's more than that," I said, my own voice just above a whisper. "It's an 1850 Double Eagle, and in excellent condition. They weigh a full ounce and contain almost 90% gold. Based on the metal alone, at today's prices, a coin like this would be worth maybe $450. But that's not the half of it. To a collector it's worth almost $3000."
"How can you be sure?"
"I used to be one."
Michele said nothing then for the longest time. She just stared at the coin. Yet even when she finally could speak, she didn't take her eyes from it. "Do you think he knew what he gave us?"
"I don't know, but no matter how you look at it, he certainly paid for his order." It was a lame statement, I know, but what else could be said at a time like that?
It took us nearly 45 minutes to make all the pizzas. We packed them into insulated boxes to keep them warm, six pizza cartons to a "hot" box. Afterwards, I went next door to a liquor store. (We had an agreement with the proprietor to buy beer at a little more than his wholesale price. In this way, Michele didn't need to have a liquor license.) While we worked, I described the man's manner and appearance. Michele informed me that no customer like him had ever visited the store before, but she seemed to recognize the name Caldwell. She was certain he had ordered from her at least once. She just couldn't recall the details.
Since I couldn't handle four hot boxes, plus four six-bottle cartons of beer, all by myself, Michele decided to close up the shop and come with me. We loaded my Dodge four-by-four, then checked a map of Tamarack to see where we were going. The only place where Elmwood and Charles intersected was at the east end of Greenwood Cemetery. There were houses along both streets, but the man had not given me a house address, which made Michele very suspicious. Yet, he had paid, so we were obligated to deliver him his order. Even so, Michele decided not to take any chances.
The drive to Tamarack was quiet enough and took only ten minutes. A major state road runs north and west between the village and Delasalle, allowing quick and easy access to the nearby interstate highway. Just west of the road before one reaches the village proper is a suburban area, with its inexpensive single family homes, parks, and schools. On the east side is the "wealthy quarter", with its beautiful mansions that could rival the best of any on the East Coast. Beyond it stretching north and further east is Maria's Lament, an area of marsh set aside as a nature preserve.
Once into the incorporated town itself, however, things change dramatically. Tamarack is not a prosperous town. Though the sister city of Delasalle, it has never been as successful as its sibling. It is nowhere near as decayed and squalid as Seth's Landing to the south, or even as tired and rundown as Stonefort to the north, but it is nonetheless decadent and decrepit. A visitor once described Tamarack as a has-been whore, passed her prime, but still trying to recapture the golden days of her youth with a thick veneer of cheap makeup, all the while deluding herself that there really was any gold to recapture.
The central, western, and northern quarters of the village are not too bad, since they cater to students who either cannot afford to live in Delasalle or want to experience an impoverished Bohemian atmosphere, but the eastern section that borders on the marsh is by far the worst part of town. The structures there are all extremely old: none are younger than 150 years and some even date back to the arrival of the first settlers, in the middle nineteenth century. Yet they are in varying states of decay and disrepair, even those still occupied. Their residents are little better. They are a proud, resourceful, and arrogant people who, by virtue of their direct descent from the founding families, considered themselves superior to the "outlander tribes," the villagers who are their neighbors to the west. They keep to themselves, tending their gardens and tiny plots of land, trading with each other for their meager needs, even preferring to marry within their own families. Many take daily journeys into the marsh to hunt or gather firewood, and more than a few actually live there. In turn, they are avoided by the villagers, who tell strange stories about these "marsh folk," which tend to discourage idle curiosity. This suits the marsh folk just fine, who would prefer never to see an unfamiliar face.
Greenwood Cemetery lies at the border of the eastern and central quarters of Tamarack, but the intersection of Elmwood and Charles lies well inside the marsh quarter, and there is no other way of getting to it except through the quarter itself. It took us a half an hour to negotiate the twisting streets, which were badly in need of repair. The houses were all dark. In the beams of my headlights they were skull white, with windows black like huge, empty sockets. It was as if they had been rotted by the acidic soil of this drained bog-land. Occasionally we saw shadows scuttling away from our lights. Like the homes, they were tattered and ancient, crippled in appearance, but swift in their movements. I wondered if the soil could do to people what it did to the buildings. Or maybe it wasn't the soil. Here, at night, it was easy to believe the stories told by the villagers, that the marsh was filled with a necrosis that saturated soil and atmosphere, putrefying both the homes and their occupants until they bore only the slightest resemblance to the modern town.
At last we spotted the gates of the cemetery ahead. They stood open, though their quantity of rust suggested that they had not been used in over a hundred years. Beyond them, the graveyard was choked with a thick mist. My headlights bounced off the cloud, making it look like a solid, whitewashed wall; we couldn't even see the nearest headstones. Pulling off to the side of the road, I parked, but left the motor idling. I then turned the headlights off so that we could look for our customer, and blackness descended, as if a blanket had been thrown over the jeep.
After a moment, our eyes adjusted to the change, though little more than the gate and the nearer houses were visible. Unfortunately, there was no one around to greet us and neither Michele nor I wanted to get out and start knocking on doors. Yet we also were not willing to leave immediately. So we simply sat there, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Suddenly, a light appeared deep inside the graveyard, piercing the inky blackness like a laser beam, and it began to slowly swing back and forth. Michele motioned me to go on and we drove through the gate. I left the headlights off, relying on the parking lights to see our way. As a result, my range of vision was extremely limited and I was forced to drive at a snail's pace. The tiny gravel road twisted around blocks of monuments and tombstones like the corridors of a labyrinth. We could have become lost if the swinging light hadn't been there. The mist and the weak, yellow lights combined to create a sickly phosphorescent corposant that gave every object the appearance of bleached bones. Occasionally, I thought I saw a shadow move across a glowing gravestone, but it was probably an interposing marker otherwise hidden from my lights. Even so, the thought of being stranded here until dawn scared me witless.
As I negotiated our way towards the light, Michele produced a taser and inserted two electrode blocks. I had heard of these security devices, but had never seen one before. They consist of a powerful flashlight mounted in a housing equipped with two electrode darts. The darts could be fired into a target, and while they cause little physical harm, they are attached by wires to the housing. Upon impact, the taser would discharge a current strong enough to knock a person unconscious. I said nothing. Though it was Michele's policy to forbid a driver to carry weapons or protective devices, for their own safety, she had every right to disregard it if she felt it was necessary.
We continued driving for at least a mile before we came to a crypt set on a low hill, surrounded by a circular drive. The mist had thinned somewhat by now, making it possible to use the headlights again, but they still bathed the structure in a pale white aura. Our customer stood in the shadows of the building's entrance, silhouetted by a kerosene lantern sitting on the ground behind him. He gestured for us to approach, but I couldn't take the jeep any closer. So we stopped, I switched off the motor, and we each took a hot box from the back. Michele kept her taser ready at her side as we ascended the hill.
We came to within six feet, then stopped, and set the boxes down. Michele peered intently at the man, trying to discern his features, but that was impossible in the gloom. "Mr. Caldwell?" she asked hesitantly.
He nodded, then gestured again for us to approach.
Michele ignored it. "There's something we have to settle first. That coin you gave us was made of gold. Your order only comes to about half of its metallic worth. If you want the remainder, I can get it for you in a few days. All I need is an address to send it to."
This time the man ignored her. He gestured again, more curtly.
"I don't think he wants his change," I hazarded a guess. "Either that, or he doesn't want to give us an address."
"I can't just keep the money."
"Why not? Maybe it's suppose to be our tip. In any event, I think we should just give him his order and get the hell out of here." I looked around us with some trepidation. "This place is giving me the creeps. I keep getting the feeling we're being watched. Besides, so far he's been a good customer, if eccentric. I don't think we should keep him waiting any longer."
I was about to step forward when Michele caught my arm. She held it so tightly she cut off the circulation. The muscle remained sore through all the next day. Her hand trembled, though, and it felt ice cold.
"That's it!" she hissed in my ear. "I remember now. It was two years ago. A student named Mike Caldwell ordered pizza from us every weekend, occasionally several for a party. Then he abruptly stopped, for no apparent reason. Only later did I learn that he had dropped out of sight. Though the police assumed he had simply run off, they never did find him, alive or dead."
Raising her voice, she addressed the man. "You are Mike Caldwell, aren't you!"
He shook his head, but stepped backwards apprehensively and stumbled over the lantern, extinguishing it. He fell against the door of the crypt as he tried to regain his balance. Seizing the opportunity Michele raised the taser and switched on the flashlight.
Caldwell threw up his arms to cover his face, but he wasn't fast enough. In those three seconds what I saw was indelibly etched in my memory. His features were canine, though of a breed found only in nightmares. The hat sat high on his head, revealing a broad, squat muzzle like a boxer. The coat was open, allowing us to see his humanoid chest and belly, the skin of which was dark brown, with patches of mold and lichens clinging where hair should be. From the waist down, however, the legs were bestial, with backward knees and huge, thickly padded feet with only two short, clawed toes. Their resemblance to cloven hooves was too close to miss.
Instinctively, Michele fired. The electrodes hit Caldwell in the chest and the battery discharged its current, but his only reaction was a surprised gasp. He lowered his arms and pulled the darts from his rubbery hide, then looked us straight in our collective eyes as he derisively tossed them aside. In the cone of light that surrounded his head, his own human-like eyes glowed like hot coals. His lips pulled back from his snout in a leer, revealing great ivory lupine teeth. Saliva flowed from his clenched jaws. Slowly, he stood to his full height, then looked down at us and chuckled.
At that moment, whatever spell that held us insensate broke. Michele and I screamed in unison and she threw the taser at Caldwell. The latter caught it easily and crushed it with the same hand. Neither of us cared, for we were running for the jeep in blind panic. I seem to remember tripping over each other and rolling down the hill, but I cannot be sure. Behind us, Caldwell loudly gibbered some word, which was answered from every corner of the cemetery.
Upon reaching the jeep, we threw ourselves inside, locked the doors, and rolled up the windows. I tried to start the motor. Naturally, in my panic I inserted the door key. As I pulled it out and fumbled for the other, we were quickly surrounded. Screeching fiends pounded on the jeep with their fists and rocked it back and forth as if they were trying to overturn us. They quickly broke the windows with lengths of pipe and reached in to grab us. A tombstone sailed through the front windshield, showering us with glass granules. And when I finally had the right key, a hand reached in and tore it from my grasp before I could insert it into the ignition.
At that moment we were helpless, totally at their mercy. Yet, astonishingly, they calmed down and let us go. They gathered around closer, putting their faces right up to the smashed window frames, peering in at us expectantly. They were all like Caldwell, down to the leer, but they did not molest us further. Instead, they seemed to be waiting for something. Michele and I glanced at each other (I must have been as pale as she was), but neither of us had a clue as to what they wanted. Then two of them stepped away from my window, only to be replaced by Caldwell. He looked around inside, quickly spotting the last two hot boxes and the cartons of beer in the back seat. He carefully sniffed the air, then favored us with a glare.
"I believe you still have part of my order." His breath was abominable, but I recognized the voice from the store.
Apparently, so did Michele, because she fainted dead away. For my part, I managed to stay conscious as I blurted out, "Take it, take it!"
Caldwell nodded to his "friends", who removed everything, except us. They broke open the hot boxes and one of them pulled out a carton, presenting the pizza to Caldwell. He removed a piece and consumed it in one gulp, smacking his lips. A moment later he nodded, then turned towards us. "Good. Very good. I am pleased."
With that, his companions erupted into a frenzy, and with much vocalization each grabbed a carton and a bottle before disappearing into the darkness. Caldwell waited for them to leave, taking the opportunity to strip off the coat and hat. He then presented me with my keys. I accepted them mindlessly. "You have done well," he complimented. "And Ms. Horne is correct. I am, or rather was, Mike Caldwell. While I was still human, I was a regular customer, but when my transformation began I felt obliged to join my true people in their cemetery warrens. Thus I was unable to continue to give her my business. However, I did miss Checker's pizza and after awhile the craving became too strong. So, before I lost all ability to act 'human', I decided to treat myself and my friends one last time." He grinned savagely. "It is a tasty change from our usual fare."
"You may keep the change," he concluded, "and I intend to recommend you to my acquaintances." He then picked up the last carton and a couple of bottles, and perched himself on a tombstone to enjoy his repast.
I couldn't believe it! We were still alive. It almost didn't seem fair. Weren't they suppose to kill us? Then I realized what I was thinking. I started up the engine and floored the gas peddle. By some miracle I retraced my way around all those headstones without hitting one, and soon we were through the gate and on our way out of town. The last I had seen of Caldwell, he was guzzling beer, his head thrown back as if he was baying at the moon.
I didn't slow down until we were on the highway back to Delasalle. Michele woke up soon afterwards. We didn't say anything at first; she didn't even ask what happened. I guess she was as grateful as I was just to be alive. As we entered Delasalle, however, we made a pact never to tell anyone about the events of that evening.
But I could see that something bothered her and that she couldn't get it off her mind.
"What's the matter?"
She frowned as she tried to put it into words. "It's just that, Caldwell was a human being the last time I knew him. What could have changed him into one of those . . . things?"
"I have a possible answer, but you're not going to like it."
"I know I won't like it," she lied impatiently. "Spill it."
I took a deep breath before explaining. "Do you happen to know anything about Caldwell?"
"Only what I read in the newspapers two years ago. He was a student at Keekishwa University, but he lived in his family's home in Tamarack, in the marsh quarter, near the cemetery. I can remember drivers complaining about making deliveries there, especially at night, because the property bordered one of the more desolate areas of the graveyard."
"Is the rest of the family still there?"
"I don't believe so. The newspapers reported that he lived alone, but they didn't say what happened to the others. Is that important?"
I nodded. "What I think we have is a family that has had dealings with those things in the cemetery, probably for a long time. Their fortune might even be based on the gold and jewelry the things acquired from the graves they opened."
"Graves?! You mean those things are ghouls?"
"I didn't want to mention that myself, but Caldwell hinted as much to me before he let us go."
Michele shuddered violently. "But what does that have to do with Caldwell?"
"My guess is that the association became so close that, ah, interbreeding occurred." Michele threw me a shocked expression.
I nodded. "Caldwell may have been a result of that. He would look human until some point after puberty, when he would begin to transform into ... his present state."
"Never mind!" she cut me off. After a moment, she added, "You were right, I didn't like it." She then fell silent for the remainder of our trip home. Whatever she was thinking, she kept it to herself, but even in the darkness, I could see the blood draining from her face.
When we finally arrived back at the store, we both breathed a heavy sigh of relief. We had survived, and Michele had a windfall that could pay for the entire week. We were ready to clean the store and head for our respective homes. We barely made it across the parking lot, however, when we felt a tremor beneath our feet. It lasted only for a moment, but we froze, a common thought of "Not again!" running through our heads. Then another one came, then another, and another. They increased in frequency and each grew stronger than the one before; it was as if something huge was coming towards us.
Suddenly, the whole front of the store exploded. Concrete, cinder blocks, and dry wall flew into the air, only to rain down around us in a torrent of chunks and rubble. A steel beam longer than a car fell on top of my jeep, crushing it to the floorboards. We ducked and covered our heads, praying we wouldn't be next.
When the last bit of debris had finally dropped to the ground, we hesitantly looked up. Standing where the store had been was a gigantic creature, nearly four stories tall. It had a massive, bulbous, furry body supported by three short, massive legs that ended in cloven hooves. Four gigantic tentacles sprouted from the top of the body and waved in the air like angry snakes reared to strike. A countless number of smaller tentacles writhed among them. The body sported four huge drooling mouths that gibbered insanely in some language other then English. The whole monstrosity was inky black; if it hadn't been for the full moon we never would have been able to see it.
We stood rooted in place, our minds so numb with horrific terror we couldn't move. Then the mouths began to speak words we could understand. Each mouth had a different voice, but all were stentorian, and they spoke in some alien harmony, like an off-key barbershop quartet.
"I would like to place an order," the voices boomed. One of the four great tentacles then extended itself and dropped an uncut diamond as big as a bowling ball at our feet.
When we didn't respond right away, it added, "Your service came highly recommended, and I understand you deliver."
Created: October 28, 2006; Updated: October 29, 2006