Illuminated only by the wavering glare of a flashlight or the low beams of a parked car, these creatures of the night marched inexorably forward, empowered by one purpose and one purpose only - to seek out initiates for their unholy grail - junk, junk and more junk.
A few minutes earlier, my wife, Martha, and I had arrived at the Twin HicWay Drive-In Flea Market. It was 6:15 a.m., much too early and way too cold. This foggy Sunday in late September didn't offer the most ideal weather conditions, but Martha and I had some old odds and ends we needed to get rid of, and we thought we could make a little money in the process.
But everything felt strange from the start, almost illusionary, as if we'd parted a hidden veil between worlds to enter some place slightly off-kilter from our own space and time.
With both of our cars filled to the roof with boxes of old memories, we pulled in and stopped at the ticket booth to pay the required vendor fee. The man taking the money looked stiff and pale. He smiled mysteriously as he gave us our change with fingertips cold as ice. Was that madness glittering in those dark, puffy eyes? Images from a thousand horror novels and slasher movies fast-forwarded through my mind. Besides the little sleep I had had the night before, the dark, foggy atmosphere was definitely conducive to weird imaginings.
And, inexplicably, I was feeling just that - weird. I shivered as Martha and I drove into the darkened outdoor theater. In the full moon's hallucinatory light, the drive-in screen reminded me of an ancient megalithic monument awaiting sacrifice amid primitive rites. The speakers, perched raven-like atop their support poles, became row upon row of grave markers. Out of the corners of my eyes I kept glimpsing spots of luminescence glowing through the mist,like the reflection of wild animal eyes. But when I looked, there was nothing but layers of shadows flickering ominously. Get a grip, I thought. It's just...raccoons. Yeah, that's it - raccoons...
We found a couple of parking spaces and as we got out of our cars, a woman suddenly popped up out of the darkness, scaring the bejesus out of us. A skulking, ragged scarecrow of a figure, she seemed a lone sentinel, a Guardian of the Drive-In Gates. Her fearful eyes darted back and forth like a cornered rat's. "Be careful," she said, conspiratorially, as we caught our breath. "They'll know this is your first time and they'll be on you like vultures. Oh, I see you have some books..." She handed me 50 cents from her grimy, clawclike hand and rushed off into the gloom. The old, loose hardback she had practically snatched from me was clutched tightly to her breast like a talisman, some magical protection against whatever dangers wandered the night here.
Martha glanced at me and laughed nervously. Her blue eyes blinked an anxious look. "How did she know we've never been here before?" she asked. "And what was that all about anyway? Who are 'they'?" I shrugged innocently, but a sudden chill crawled up my spine. I pulled my jacket closer around me as if to ward off an evil omen. They. The ubiquitous They, famous in the secret and arcane everywhere. What were They doing here?
We discovered the answer to that fearful question in the next couple of minutes. Even before we could unload our cars, a pack of walking dead clones fell upon us - the regulars; those who sold their dusty wares and tacky ephemera every Sunday; a subccult of Flea Marketeers. Ant-like, they swarmed over our site, pawing through our junk boxes,even ransacking our unloaded trunks. At first surprised and a little outraged, we soon felt helpless to stop the onslaught.
"Ah, look," I said, to no one in particular. "We haven't even priced a lot of this stuff yet."
"Any tools?" an elderly gentleman asked, as he and everyone else ignored my meager protest. His face was a zombie's, an expressionless slab of dough as he pressed it close to mine. The flashlight he held at his waist shone upward and cast bizarre,dancing shadows across his pasty features.
"Yes," I answered, "But..."
"How much for this ceiling fan?" a woman abruptly interrupted. Here eyes glittered with a feral gleam in the reflection of my car's headlights. A faint aura of menace surrounded her and the silent man who accompanied her. The elderly gentleman shrugged and hobbled off, somehow deferring to an unwritten flea market pecking order.
"Ah," I answered tentatively, suddenly ill at ease. "The fan? It's never been out of the box. Brand new. Fifty dollars."
"What?" The woman pointed an accusing, bony finger at me. "I'd pay that much at the store for a new one. What do you think you're doing here?"
I suddenly felt strange, unreal as if my body was being manipulated like a marionette, as if some kind of...spell was being cast. The air became thick and foul; I couldn't breathe...
"Twenty...uh, ten dollars," Martha said, as she rushed to my side. She grasped my hand tightly as the woman and her male friend loomed over us. I snapped out of my trance but a small worm of fear began to work its way through my brain.
A toothless grin spread over the woman's leathery face. "Deal," she cackled as a ten-spot fluttered into my hand. And then, with furtive looks over their shoulders, she and her mute comrade disappeared with the fan into the dark.
"Thanks, Toots," I said, realizing I had been holding my breath. "That was pretty strange. I guess I shouldn't have watched that old monster movie last night, huh?" We both forced a laugh and tried to get organized. But the persistent hordes of rummaging sleepwalkers kept up their relentless assault. Like vampires, they hungered for booty before the sun came up to thwart their devilish plans.
But what were those plans? Why would a flea market vendor buy so much from another vendor? Of course. I shook my head as I realized how naive we were. They were going to resell the junk they bought from us at two to three times what they paid for it. Simple and commonplace enough, but what sort of power would those objects then hold over those who bought them? The insidious fiends. There was more going on here than just a simple bartering for merchandise.
As I tried to set up our collapsible table and put those wild ideas out of my head, a shadow behind me moved. A man leaned in close, his breath sweet-smelling, like fruit just on the verge of turning overripe. "Well," he said, "I only have a dollar but I see a few things I'd like. How about if you give me this for 50 cents? And then I can take this other for a dime. And so on until I have a buck's worth. What do you say? Hmmm?"
His squinty eyes bored into mine as I was reminded of a giant ferret. I knew he was lying about the money but I felt my will slipping away. I was powerless in his hypnotic grasp. "Okay," I answered, weakly. "Fine." It was a losing battle. Martha and I huddled within our jackets as the nocturnal scavengers made quick work of several small items. Though we were a few dollars richer, the eldritch swarm left us dazed in their shuffling wake as they all suddenly disappeared, vanishing back to their own sites like bats flitting to their roosts. As the sun began to rise over the concession stand, Martha and I were already exhausted,cold and afraid, and we hadn't even begun.
"New here, huh?" a last straggler asked. He was a normal-looking teenager, wearing floppy pants and a backwards baseball cap. He held a bag already digesting some of our ex-wares in one hand as he absently fingered a couple of pogs in the other. "You'll get the hang of it," he said with a shrill giggle, his head jerking like a bird's. "We all did."
Suddenly, the landscape shifted. I stared through different eyes; I felt and heard with different senses as I entered what could only be described as an alternative plane of existence. The boy still stood in front of us but his body had become ghostly, translucent. Behind him (or was it around him?) another figure stood - clawed, horned, with glowing red eyes and a sneering, slavering slit of a mouth. And then, as if they were puffs of smoke in the wind, the boy,along with his alter-ego of an apparition, were gone.
As I gaped at the empty spot where the boy had been standing, I realized a Pact had been made here. I could feel the horrible reality of it like an icicle down my back; a Final Bargain bartered in blood or old Barbie dolls between the Flea Marketeers and another entity - some secret, enigmatic Lord of the Fleas who presided over and commanded these dark minions who, in turn, brought their booty to their ruler as tribute. I shivered at the thought of an underground brotherhood that only appeared at drive-ins, schoolyards, parking lots, football fields, any such place where a flea market could hold court; a shadow society living invisibly next to our own. What did they want from us? How did they live? Did they have their own laws and customs? What if that boy helped recruit new members? Helped seduce and brainwash...
"Come on, Babe," Martha said, as she shook my arm. "We're letting our imaginations get the better of us."
I blinked. "Uh, yeah. You're...you're right. Say, I wonder if the concession stand's open yet."
We shook ourselves back into action and hurriedly set up our table and unpacked our boxes before the first wave of the general public roared in. Like an old friend, the sun warmed us and we began to feel a little more comfortable. The strangeness and danger melted with the dark. Everyone around us seemed normal - just people selling stuff at a drive-in. What were we thinking of? Lord of the Fleas? Oh, brother.
Still, as we left that day with over a hundred dollars in our pockets, I felt the probing of dozens of eyes burning in my back, the whisper of serpent voices in my head.
"Come back next week," they hissed, as the nape of my neck started to tingle. "We'll be waiting for you."
I was afraid to turn around, afraid I'd see a demonic, Lovecraftian coven of ghouls and bloodsuckers reaching out for my soul, or at least my old collection of baseball cards. As we mercifully pulled onto the main road, we floored our accelerators and didn't look back.
"A hundred and some bucks," Martha said later, at home. Three hours had passed since we had left the Twin Hi-Way and neither of us had said a word about our experience there. Only unrelated, boring chitcchat passed our trembling lips. What were we afraid of? Now, a thoughtful look creased my wife's lovely, red-headed brow. "You know, maybe we can go back again," she said, softly. I stared at her, startled. A strange kind of light shone in her eyes - intense, anticipatory. "To the flea market. I mean, if we get there just a little earlier..."
"What? You don't mean - "
Martha stood up, gesturing wildly. "Yes! We could buy stuff before the doors open and sell it again for profit! Just like They did!"
I felt my heart catch in my throat. I stood up, backing away. "No, Martha - "
"And maybe get to know Them! To...fit in. To be a part of it all."
As she reached out for me, eyes wild, it seemed I saw the talons extend from her fingers, the shimmer of another's dark, winged shape superimposed on her body like some ghostly, satanic mirage. I tried to scream but it was too late.
For both of us.
You see, my last thoughts weren't of horror and disgust. No, as if waking at last from a deep sleep, I could see everything clearly now. A slow understanding had sprouted inside me. Martha was right.
But why wait until next week? Wasn't there a flea market tomorrow at the local VFW? Yes! As we both giggled like school children and swung each other around the room in a mad, delirious dance, I wondered...how much could I get for my old Monkees albums? That denim jacket from the seventies? Wait! My accordion...and...and
Larry Ivkovich possesses a Bachelor's in Fine Arts degree with
emphasis in printmaking, but works as a computer
programmer-analyst at a small West Virginia hospital. He's been a
science fiction and fantasy fan since he was a kid, and has been
writing as a hobby and creative outlet for about 15 years.