IT'S NOT THE HEAT
Kevin R. Doyle
The old girl barely made it, and as his beat up conveyance coasted the last few yards, making it to the bend in the circled driveway, Brian swore to himself that, one way or another, before he left this rinky-dink little village he'd secure new transportation for himself, no matter what he had to do or who he had to hurt.
Upon shifting into park and turning off the ignition, a huge belch of black smoke erupted from the rusted-out tailpipe, at nearly the same moment that what little breeze there was shifted just enough to wash the stench over him.
Brian didn't even have the strength to curse, instead he just set his shoulders, walked the few feet of the graveled drive and up onto the white porch.
Even those few feet almost drained him all over again. Brian had traveled quite a bit during his life, being to both coasts and practically every corner of the country. But nowhere, as far as he could remember (and he surely would have) had he encountered such wilting, energy-sapping heat as he had here in western Texas.
For the last two days, the temperature had never dipped below ninety, even in the dead of night. And that, combined with practically no wind and the Fiero's air conditioner, which probably hadn't worked in the last ten years, had left Brian feeling as if an eight-year girl could lay him out with one punch.
He looked the place over before entering. The white, two-story former mansion definitely looked old. But according to the fishermen he'd talked to down the coast, it was the only place to stay for about forty miles in any direction.
From the black chain swing at the edge of the porch to the large, stained-glass windows in the front door, it was hard to gauge the place. The door looked freshly stained, but the paint along the window trim was flaking off. He had the feeling that the inside of the place would be either quaintly luxurious or run-down fleabag.
But whichever, it really didn't matter. Brian knew that he really should keep moving, should get as far away from Dallas as he possibly could. But between the weather and the condition of that second-rate castoff he'd been driving, he simply did not have what it took to keep going. If only for a day or so, he needed to find a place to hole up.
Using the back of his hand to wipe sweat from his forehead, he opened the door and entered the small hotel's lobby.
“Hello, there.” A small, shriveled-up little man sat perched behind the counter. He was sitting pulled so far up to the counter that, for an instant, the effect was of nothing more than a neck and head talking, but Brian was so worn out that he barely noticed.
“Hi,” he replied.
“Need a room?” the little man asked.
“If I can afford it.” Brian wiped his brow again. “But probably not for more than a day or two. Tell me, is it always this hot around here this time of year?”
“Most years,” the oldster said. “Don't feel too bad, even sets us locals on edge sometimes. But you got to keep it in perspective, you know. After all, when you get right down to it it's not the heat, it's the . . .”
“Yeah, yeah,” the last thing Brian felt like hearing was the tired old cliche. “So how much for a room for the night?”
The innkeeper quoted a price that, while more than Brian had wanted to hear, lay marginally within his means.
“So one night?”
“At least that,” Brian said, “maybe another day or two, depending on how I feel.”
The dried-up, walnuty face actually creased into something resembling a grin. “Good to hear. We don't get nearly enough visitors around here.”
“I wonder why,” Brian mumbled, reaching up again to futilely wipe his forehead.
As the old man gave him a key and directions how to get to his room, Brian asked if there were some place in town to grab a bite to eat.
“Lucy's is about the best and closest,” the clerk said. “You may have passed it on your way in. Just go two blocks to the east and hang a right, can't miss it. That is, if you like Mexican food?”
Brian grinned, trying for a jovial, happy-wanderer expression which he probably didn't pull off.
“After two weeks of eating convenience store and truck stop food, anything normal sounds good. By the way,” he looked around pointedly at the almost antique furnishings of the lobby, “there is a shower in my room, right?”
“Of course,” the old man said, his silly smile still plastered on his face, “what do you think we are– savages?”
Maybe not savages exactly, but five minutes into his room Brian realized he should have been more specific in his question. The room did have a shower (only, no bathtub to go along with it) and two people could have fit in, if they had both been under ninety pounds.
To its credit, the contraption did provide hot water, for about three minutes, which considering that Brian found it almost impossible to turn around in the thing, was long enough to rid himself, at least partially, of the accumulated grim and grit of weeks of traveling on the road.
But after he'd dried himself with a surprisingly thick and luxurious towel and stretched himself out on the bed he received the next surprise of his stay.
Only then did he realize that the hotel, or at least his room, had no air conditioning.
“Dammit,” he muttered to the empty room, “is it possible to sink any lower?”
Lucy's may have served Mexican food, but you couldn't hardly tell it by the flavor. It didn't help any that the waitress, an over forty redhead, seemed headed straight towards dumpiness.
Brian tried, it having been so long since he'd had a regular meal, but the stale tortillas, watery-pink sauce and hard, black strips of meat nauseated him on sight. He pushed around the mess with his fork, occasionally taking a small bite, and wondered just what the hell he was doing in this dump.
“Don't feel much like eating, huh?”
He looked up to see the waitress standing at the table.
“Nothing personal,” he said, “just don't have the appetite I thought I did.”
“Yeah,” she said, brushing back a damp lock of hair, “we get that a lot actually, especially during the season. Kinda sucks, you know? After all, it's not the heat, it's the . . .”
“Sure,” Brian said as he pushed back from the table and stood up. He plucked a bundle of bills out of his jeans pocket and counted out more than enough to cover the bill.
“Thanks anyway,” he said as he dropped the money on the table. Without another word he turned and headed out the front of the cafe. As he opened the door, though, some instinct made him briefly turn and look back.
He caught the waitress, who hadn't yet picked the money off the table, giving him an odd, almost anticipatory look.
But when she saw him notice her, she turned her back and began cleaning up the table.
Shrugging, Brian headed on out the door. No big deal. So the bitch was a little loony. Hell, who wouldn't be living in a dumpy town like this.
A nap seemed the perfect way to waste away the afternoon. one thing Brian knew for sure by the time he got back to the hotel – he wasn't about to amble around this place during the heat of the day.
He nearly popped a shoulder out of joint cracking open one of the two windows in his room, and no matter how he struggled he couldn't raise the other even an inch.
He stood at the window, sweat cascading off his bare shoulders, and cursed worse than he had in some time.
But it really probably didn't matter because from the one window he had managed to open came barely a wisp of air.
“Not the heat,” he hissed, “for damned sure not the heat. Just the . .. aw, screw it.”
Following the only possible plan in mind, he headed back for another quick, this time cool, shower. Maybe between that and lying motionless on the bed he could get some type of relief.
Amazingly, nearly four hours later Brian rolled over and woke up. Fluttering his eyes open, he found it almost impossible to believe that he had managed to sleep in this condition.
He hoisted himself up and sat on the side of the bed while waiting to completely wake up.
Probably the stress, more than anything, he thought. Days, actually a few weeks now, on the run, wondering at any moment if the next corner he turned would show cops just waiting for him, just aching to take him in.
Or maybe not. Considering how things had gone down on that last job, the one over in Dallas, they'd probably find some friggin' excuse to open up on him without saying a word.
Yeah, he'd barely gotten out of the city in one piece, and then it had been a goddamned harrowing trek of jumping from one backwater to another, wending his way deeper and deeper into the state, until now here he was in God-only-knew-wheresville.
So yeah, no wonder that he'd finally zonked all the way out.
But now, fully rested, he became even more aware of the fact that he hadn't had any real food in longer than he could remember. In ten seconds flat he'd climbed into some clothing and headed down the stairs.
Dammit, somewhere in this town had to be some place to get food of some kind. A freakin' convenience store, if nothing else.
The old man still perched behind the registration desk down in the lobby. The old boy must be the owner and sole worker.
“Evenin' “ he chirped at Brian. “How's it goin'?”
“Fine, just fine,” Brian mumbled back at him. “I just got up from a nap.”
“Yep, sleepin's the best thing to do in this kind of weather. Pretty obvious where the Mexicans got the idea for their siestas from.”
Brian thought of explaining to the old boy that the siesta concept came originally from Spain, but at the moment he was too damned disgusted with his situation to give much of a damn. He walked on past the counter and opened the front door, only to be smacked instantly by the oppressive, clinging atmosphere outside.
“Son of a bitch! What is it,” he turned back to the old guy, “an hour after sundown or so? And it's still this bad outside?”
“Yep.” The chirp quavered just a bit now, as if the oldster was struggling to remain chipper.
“Pretty much feels like that constantly. Actually, I wouldn't suggest you go walking around town much.”
“Yeah,” Brian turned back to look at him, “why not?”
The old man squirmed a bit.
“No real reason. Just that, it's the weekend you know, and lots of people come into town to have a good time.”
Come into town? Brian thought. From where?
“So how does that affect me?” he asked.
“Well, it's just. Lots of folks on edge lately, willing to snap at the slightest thing. And you can't really blame the temperature, you know. After all, the real problem is the darned . . .”
“Right, whatever.” Brian turned and strode out the door.
The weather felt oppressive as hell, and he hadn't walked more than ten yards before his clothes began sticking to his skin. The only good thing about the climate in this dump was that nobody would expect anyone with half a brain to pick this place as a hideout. So for at least a few days he should be safe.
Three men swaggered down the street, one of them almost bumping into Brian before lurching away. Looking down the street, in the direction from which they'd come, he saw a bar, complete with blinking neon light, at the end of the block.
Maybe it would be a bit cooler inside there. If not, at least there'd be some cold stuff to drink. Using his forearm to wipe clear his face, he headed on.
Of course it was a country-western place. What else could it be in a shitkicker town like this? But as Brian stood just inside the door, letting his eyes adjust to the gloom, he realized that he'd entered an establishment unlike any he'd ever seen before.
For one thing, there was no music playing. For another, few women to be seen, and most of them looked as bored and listless as they possibly could.
But the thing that really stood out, once he could see clearly, was that no one seemed to be having even a moderately good time. True, they lived in a Godforsaken hole, with probably hardly enough money to spit at, and they no doubt had the crummiest of crummy jobs, which they'd probably just finished working at all day out in the heat.
Even so, surely at least a few of them should be laughing, or arguing about sports, or at least cursing someone out. Instead they all sat at their tables, hunched silently over half-empty mugs of beer and stared around at each other.
Until, that is, Brian entered, at which point they all turned to look him over.
Like a scene out of an old Western movie, he sidled up to the bar and ordered a beer.
The bartender, a scrawny youth wearing a white, long-sleeved shirt buttoned all the way up, handed him a bottle and, without even bothering to take money for it, started to turn away.
“Hey wait,” Brian called out.
The kid stopped, seemed to hesitate, then turned back to him.
“I just wondered,” Brian took a short drink before looking around the place again. All the good old boys, some of them wearing honest-to-God cowboy hats, with several of the others looking like they'd just come off the farm, patched overalls and all, now stared at him..
No, not staring, these dudes were flat-out glaring, as if they had some kind of personal bitch against him.
“Wondered what?” The barkeep's scratchy voice brought Brian back around.
“Is it always this dead in here?” he asked, unreasonably irritated when he realized he'd unknowingly pitched his voice lower. “All these guys look dead to the world, and like they want to jump down somebody's throat.”
“Aww, you can't blame ‘em,” the young bartender replied. “We've had a longer than usual spell around here recently.”
“Dry spell, you mean?” Brian grimaced as he tasted his beer. Even in the bottle it tasted sour and flat.
“Somethin' like that. Can't hardly blame the guys for being jittery. After all, what really gets you isn't the heat, it's the freakin'. . .”
“Right, right. Screw this.”
Brian plopped a few bills down on the bar and headed out.
He gritted his teeth, so hard he feared they'd snap off, as he walked past a few of the tables. Some kind of faint, animalistic odor emanated from the patrons he passed by, as if their manual labor in the Texas sun had beaten out some of their humanity.
But damned if he'd show these rubes any sort of fear. He'd killed more men in the last few years than he'd ever imagined he could, and no way was he going to go all quivery and quavery in front of a pack of numbskull rednecks.
The whole enterprise had turned out pointless anyhow, because the interior of the bar wasn't any cooler than the outside.
Stepping out the door, Brian paused and considered just how small this hickville really was. To his right, about three blocks away, stood his hotel with in between nothing but a lot of rundown houses and a few boarded-up brick business fronts.
To his left lay what probably, about eighty years ago, had passed for the town's main street. A few blocks of storefronts and a couple of really antique looking buildings. And now, about eight o'clock on a summer night, what should have looked like a ghost town had activity. Lots of activity.
An easy count would have put it at about eighty people milling around in those few blocks. At first, Brian thought they were attending some sort of open-air concert, or small-town carnival or rummage sale. But he could find no traces of such activity.
Instead, all he saw were all ages and shapes of people, men, women, and kids, young and old, skinny/scrawny and fat/porky and everything in between. Roaming up and down the street, wandering in and out of buildings, and nearly all of them, even from a distance, looking . . .
Jittery. The night was clear enough for Brian to see their shoulders hunching and jerking, their heads twitching back and forth. A few of them almost stumbled as they walked, even with nothing in front of them to block their way.
“What the . . .” he mumbled to himself.
All this thought had taken place within a few snaps of a finger, and even as Brian processed everything he saw, the people on the sidewalks, and some even wandering down the middle of the street, turned and looked his way.
Feeling the hair on his nape stand up, Brian swivelled in the direction of the hotel. As he did so, he saw the bar's door in his peripheral vision. The door only had one window, rather high up, about six inches across. As Brian turned, he noticed three or four faces mashed together looking out.
He had spent nearly half of his life on the run from the law, and in that time he'd developed a set of instincts when it came to danger. Those instincts were suddenly screaming bloody murder at him and, almost feeling like some desperate victim in a cheap zombie flick, he began walking rapidly, but not quite running, towards the hotel.
He managed to make the three blocks without giving in to the urge to look back. When he got to the porch, he broke into a trot and made it up the steps in nothing flat. The light in the lobby was still on, and through the screen door he could see the doddery old manager behind his desk.
As he gripped the handle to open the screen door, he realized just how nuts he must look. And a lot of little things fell into place to vindicate that feeling.
So a lot of people were out on the town? So what? If the hotel didn't have air conditioning, it stood to reason that quite a few of the homes in a poverty-level dump like this didn't have it as well, which made it only natural that a large portion of the citizens would be milling around outside on a night like this.
The faces looking out at him from the bar, the spooky attitudes of the patrons when he'd been inside. Well, hell. He was a stranger here after all. Of course they were going to check him out.
And it was to be expected that, on such a hot, clammy night like this, people would be walking and acting weirdly. After all, Brian himself felt practically ready to rip someone's head off.
However, just as he'd begun to calm himself down, he heard a weird, mottled noise behind him. Turning to look back, he felt once again as if he'd been plopped down in some old, cheap-o drive-in movie.
A group of twenty or so of the townies were heading down the street, the front of the old hotel clearly their destination. Jittering and jerking as much, if not more so, than earlier, the crowd emitted a low, grumbling noise.
Brian opened the screen door and bolted inside.
He didn't even bother to glance at the proprietor as he slammed the door shut and threw the old-fashioned locks.
“Better call the state cops, old man. Or local ones if you've got ‘em. There's a weird crowd heading our way. I don't know what's up but . . “ he said all this as he headed towards the stairs. His suitcase upstairs contained a couple of automatics and a blade, and damned if he was going to sit still while any shit went down around him.
However, he'd only made it halfway to the stairs when the old man called out behind him.
“Young man!” the voice was sharp, peremptory, and contained enough steel to, at least momentarily, halt Brian in his tracks.
Glancing over his shoulder at the front desk, he realized that the evening had not yet reached its nuttiness quotient.
The old guy came skittering from behind the desk, a shiny Louisville slugger in his hand. For an instant, Brian approved, thinking it kind of cool to know that the geezer wasn't a completely helpless old dude.
But then, as the old boy headed straight for him, Brian began to change his opinions.
He backed up against the stairs, hands held out in front of him to ward off any sudden blows. The hotel manager had the bat up and positioned, read to let fly at any minute.
“What the . . .” Brian got only that far before the aluminum Slugger began arcing his way. He flinched, ducking his head instinctively, but it was wasted motion.
The old boy hadn't been aiming for his head.
The silvery haft of the bat exploded into Brian's left knee, pulverizing it and sending shards of pain racing up his body.
He collapsed, and as he fell his eyes angled towards the door. Through the frosted glass panes, he saw townspeople bobbing and angling, pushing en masse to get in.
“Tried to tell you, son, but you didn't want to listen,” the oldster hefted the bat for another blow, then changed his mind and tossed it aside.
“What - - who - - “ Despite all the violence in his life, Brian couldn't help the tears flowing out of him.
“Wrong place, wrong time, son. Everyone in town's on edge. It's been far too long since there's been a stranger here. Like I tried to tell you earlier.
“It's not the heat, it's the hunger.”
At that moment the front doors flew open, and the mob, slavering, screaming, and ravenous, flooded in.
A life-long Midwesterner, Kevin R. Doyle has spent the last fourteen years teaching at both the high-school and community college level. Currently, he teaches English and public speaking at a small high school in central Missouri and works as an adjunct instructor of composition for Moberly Area Community College. He is about to begin his ninth year living in Columbia, Missouri, and at the moment hopes to never leave. He's been writing short stories of horror and suspense for years and has had material published in various small-press magazines, both print and online. His most recent work has appeared in Daikaijuzine and Dark Fire. He also has material coming out later this year in Tales of the Talisman.