"Dammit," Cathy Mulligan muttered as the temperature gauge passed into the red zone, and clouds of steam billowed from beneath the hood. An old farmhouse loomed ahead, and the engine sputtered just long enough for her to pull off the road into the dirt driveway. "Double damn," she said, as she turned off the ignition amid plumes of vapors. This had to be the Ritter house, which meant she'd missed the turnoff.
"Don't run pass the turnoff, miss," the scarecrowish farmer had warned, with his straw hat sitting cockeyed on his head and a long grass filament flapping in his mouth. "If'n you do, you'll see the Ritter farmhouse on your right, and you'll want to about-face pronto. Don't want to meet up with Big Spike if'n you don't hafta."
Triple damn. Her cell phone needed charging. She'd have to ask to use the phone. She'd never get that account now. Miles out of the way because of that stupid detour, and now she was lost.
She regarded the farmhouse doubtfully, with its dilapidated clapboard siding, peeling, weathered gray paint and rickety, wraparound front porch. Two old ladies sat in rocking chairs near the front door, apparently oblivious to their unexpected visitor.
She pulled the hood release lever. Maybe it just ran out of coolant. She got out of the car, walked around to the front and raised the hood, as the steam roiled away. She knew not to twist off the radiator cap - yet - but then she noticed the cut and splintered hoses. Oh Lord! Was it sabotage? Whatever, she couldn't fix it. She was stranded until she could get help.
She trudged up the driveway to the house when the old ladies finally noticed her.
"Hallooo? Trouble there, miss?" the plump one asked.
She stopped at the porch steps. "Radiator hose is split, and the coolant all leaked out and boiled away," she explained.
"We're having some cool lemonade dear," the skinny one said. "Come on up and set a spell."
"No, no, I mean the coolant for my car," Cathy said. "I got lost at the detour, and now I'm going to be late for this important meeting, and--"
"Lordy, Lord," the plump one said. "Slow down. You'll get yourself all in a tizzy. Come get out of the sun and we'll see what we can do."
She felt ridiculous, losing her composure in front of these old ladies, who smiled at each other, as if they shared a secret. She treaded carefully up the steps, but they were surprisingly firm.
The old ladies stood up, placing their frosty glasses of lemonade on the table next to the pitcher.
"I'm Agnes," the plump one said. "And this is my sister Gladys."
"I'm Cathy. Cathy Mulligan. Pleased to meet you."
"I'll get another glass," said Gladys.
"Sit right down here," Agnes said, patting a chair.
"Oh thank you," Cathy said, "but I'm running late, and I wonder if I could use your phone, to call for help, and tell the people I'm meeting with that I've been detained. You see, my cell phone needs charging."
"Won't work from here, dear," Agnes said. "Those cell phone things. Can't get a signal for miles around."
"Your house phone?"
"Service been turned off. Gladys forgot to pay the bill last month. Didn't you Gladys?"
"What's that?" Gladys said, opening the screen door, carrying a glass with ice cubes clinking loudly in her unsteady hand. She set it down on the table.
"I said you forgot the phone bill, dear. This pretty young lady has got herself in a real pickle. She needs to use the phone."
"Oh my," Gladys said, as she poured a glass of lemonade and pushed it toward Cathy.
Jesus, Cathy thought. This is ridiculous. At this rate, it will be next week before anyone makes a move. "How far is the next service station?" she asked, antsy now. She took a sip of her drink. It was good, tangy, refreshing.
"Spike'll fix you right up, don't worry," Agnes said.
"Spike?" Cathy asked. Had she heard the name before?
"He's our handyman," Gladys chimed in. "He can fix pretty near anything."
Ah, Cathy thought. Finally getting somewhere. "So, um, how do we get in touch with him?"
"Oh, he comes by most regular-like," Agnes said. "Not to worry about that."
"Aya," Gladys echoed.
They rocked gently in their chairs, in the wake of a cool breeze.
"Ummmmm. Nice," Gladys said.
"Ummmmm. Yes," Agnes agreed.
Jesus, Cathy thought. How could she inject a sense of urgency into the situation? But what could they do about it? She was stuck out in the middle of nowhere until this Spike arrived. "Any idea when he might--" Oh my God. They looked as if they'd dozed off, eyes closed, completely relaxed, heads bobbing. Now what? But what difference did it make?
Then a sudden clatter and sputter from a badly tuned engine shattered the peaceful, rustic atmosphere, sending Cathy jumping from her chair as a coughing, vintage pickup truck lumbered and rattled up the driveway.
The two old ladies snapped to.
"Big Spike," Agnes said.
"Just in time for dinner," Gladys said. "We'd better get busy. I imagine you'll be staying?" she asked Cathy.
The truck rumbled and backfired past Cathy's disabled vehicle and screeched to a stop. Seconds later, a towering, mountain of a man stepped out with an awkward shuffle. Cathy gasped at the sight of him. He was at least six and a half feet tall, but stooped over, with a pronounced hunchback. He wore blue denim overalls, a lumberjack's plaid shirt, brown boots and a straw hat. He staggered toward the porch carrying a jug labeled "XXX," and Cathy winced when she observed his huge head, his coarse facial features and his shrunken, closed left eye, in sharp contrast to his swollen right eye with its red pupil fixed to the side near his temple. His thick arms and legs were too short for his massive girth, and his hands and feet too large. Cathy pictured a giant-sized Charles Laughton playing "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."
With a pugnacious grunt, the behemoth heaved his great torso upwards, and swung the jug toward his mouth, taking three slobbering gulps from it, then wiping his mouth with the back of his arm.
"Oh oh oh," Agnes said to Gladys. "He's started early again."
"Oh Lordy, Lord," Gladys said.
Then, with a swagger and a stagger, he marched toward the front steps. "Evenin' ladies," he growled in a deep, bass voice. "What's fer dinner? Say who's the pretty lass?"
Cathy let out her breath in astonishment. Oh God. Her hopes for asking for a ride into town were dashed. Not now. Oh no. She wouldn't trust this hulk, even if he wasn't intoxicated, which he was, in spades. He gave her the creeps. No way would she ride with him.
"This is Big Spike," Agnes said to Cathy. "And this here is Cathy, who is in distress because her car broke down," she said to Spike.
"Pleased to make your acquaintance Miss," Spike said, removing his hat from his bald, scaly head.
"Pleased to meet you," Cathy said. She could smell the booze and rank body odor from six feet away, and she groaned inwardly. How could he fix her car in this shape? Well, it was worth a try. "Could you take a look at my car?" she asked timidly, glancing at the three of them in turn.
"Why sure he could," Agnes said. "Then come into the kitchen, Cathy, and help us with supper."
"It's this way," Cathy said to Big Spike, setting the pace so she wouldn't have to walk next to him. "See under the hood?" She waited for him to stake out a position so she could stand as far away as possible.
Spike leaned into the engine compartment. "Uh huh," he grunted. "Sure looks busted up in there, miss."
"Can you fix it?" she asked, wrinkling her nose. God, that swollen, bloodshot eye. She couldn't tell who or what he was looking at. It made her shiver.
"Nope," he said.
Damn. She knew it. He was much too drunk. "Tomorrow morning, then?" Could he function even then?
"Yep. Spike'll fix 'er up in the mornin'."
She sighed, resigned to this disaster. Things could be worse. "Should we loosen the cap now?" she asked.
But Spike was already lurching back to the house.
"This is the guest room, dear," Agnes said, pointing out the bedroom, sparsely furnished with a cot under the window, a rocking chair, small bookcase, closet door and round, threadbare rug. It didn't matter. She'd survived the agony of the last two hours. Spike had been so drunk and boorish, but it was more than that. There was something sinister about him. She felt his gaze on her all the time, even though his eye pointed elsewhere. Like the evil eye. Thank God he'd passed out in a chair after dinner.
"We'll bring you an extra blanket. You can use the bathroom first. We get up early on the farm, you know. Five-thirty, as the sun rises. Oh, and here's the key to the room. Might want to lock it, just in case."
Just in case? But she said, "Fine. Thanks very much. I really appreciate it. I don't know what I would have done without you."
"Well, good night dear. See you in the morning."
"Good night, Agnes."
She hefted the key after Agnes left the room. That was her way of warning her that Big Spike might come barging into the wrong bedroom when he aroused from his stupor. She shuddered at the thought.
When she returned from the bathroom she put the key in the lock, turned it, and heard a satisfying thunk as the bolt shot into the socket. She went over to the cot to raise the window, thinking the small room would get stuffy, but it was stuck fast with paint. "Oomph," she said, trying again. It wouldn't budge.
She went back to the door before getting undressed for the night, and gave it a tug. Secure enough. She gave it a hard yank, just for good measure, and the door popped open, her momentum propelling her backwards. "Jesus," she said. She found some of the wood had been ripped away from the lock socket, so the bolt would slide out, if pulled vigorously. She pushed the bolt back, closed the door and relocked it, tugged it. Secure enough, if Big Spike accidentally brushed against it while lumbering down the hall to the bathroom.
Still, how had it broken in the first place? Somebody must have forced it. Oh stop, she told herself.
Something woke her up. The chill? They hadn't brought her the extra blanket. No, voices. She could hear voices. She checked her watch that she'd worn to bed: one in the morning. She cocked her head. Yes, voices, one of them rumbling, one high pitched. At first she couldn't make out any of the words. Then . . .
"No Big Spike, not tonight. I'm too tired." Gladys?
Growls and grumbling.
High pitched giggles. "No, Big Spike. I was sleeping." More tittering.
"At least close the door. Someone will hear us."
What the hell was going on? Big Spike had gone into Gladys's bedroom? At this hour? Whatever for? Then she heard moans, and muffled screeches, amidst a steady squeaking, like jouncing bedsprings, until it dawned on her what was going on in that bedroom. "Oh my God, they're--" But she couldn't say it aloud. She gagged as she pictured the huge ugly drunken hunchback straddling the skinny old lady. Or maybe they were reversed, so her ribs wouldn't crack. Ugh.
Stillness returned to the house ten minutes later. What a story she had to tell when she returned to the home office day after tomorrow. She felt her muscles relaxing as the tension drained away, and soon she began dozing off, a few seconds at a time, until she fell sound asleep . . .
Bang! Cathy woke with a start. A door had slammed, and now she heard footsteps, scraping on the floorboards, in a curious rhythmic cadence, like the advancing mummy in one of those ghastly Lon Chaney movies--
A knock on a door close by. Agnes's bedroom? Voices, indistinct. A creaking sound, like a door with rusted hinges pried open. Grunts and growls.
"No, no Big Spike" Agnes said. "Not tonight. I'm too tired. Please."
More grunts, and that sliding, foot dragging sound. The bedsprings again. Giggles. "At least shut the door. Oof! You're too heavy."
Footsteps. The door slammed shut. More footsteps.
Not again, Cathy thought. She grabbed her pillow and placed it on top of her head, pressing it against her ears. But she couldn't blot out the cries of two people in the throes of passion. Good God. This was ridiculous.
"Oh, Big Spike," Agnes said. And then all was silent. Cathy began to relax, and again fatigue had its way with her, as she fell into slumber.
Slam! She was jolted awake. She heard those scraping footsteps, pausing briefly at her door. A grunt. She thought her heart would leap out of her throat. And then the footsteps receded, down the hallway. A door opened and closed. What was he doing? She tried to remember the layout of the house, but she just couldn't picture it. Maybe he'd gone out to the back porch, where he was sleeping? Yes, that had to be it. Thank God.
And then the footsteps sounded again. Coming this way? Yes. Oh no. Closer and closer, until they stopped right outside her door. She could hear his heavy wheezing now. Please, she pleaded silently. Please go away.
He knocked on the door, and Cathy shot up as if she'd been jerked from her bed by sheer fright. She put her legs over the side, ready to spring into action. But what could she do? The window was stuck fast. The door wouldn't hold Spike back if he forced his way in. And then she understood this had happened before. That's how the lock got broken. Oh my God. Was he, was he, going to, to, have his way with her? This was monstrous. It couldn't be happening.
But why else was he out there, knocking on her door? For what other purpose could it be? It was clear that he had an insatiable appetite for . . .
Scrabble, scrabble. Mutter, mutter. Grunt. Scratch.
He really wanted in. He wasn't going away. She sat on the cot, paralyzed with terror, and then she saw the closet door, visible in the moonlight shining through the window behind her. She'd hide in there. Hang onto the doorknob for dear life. Maybe he was still drunk enough to be fooled, to think she might have left the room. He'd wander aimlessly outside searching for her, finally get too tired and pass out somewhere. It was all she could do.
There was a bang at the door, then the sound of the doorknob turning, a grunt, but the door held. She sprang off the bed, grabbed her suitcase and dashed to the closet, pulled the door open, got inside, and shut it. She held the doorknob with all her might, then released the pressure, realizing that her strength would quickly ebb, and that she should conserve it until she needed it. She took her hands away and felt around the cramped enclosure for a weapon or brace to hold the door, but there was nothing, not even a coat hanger inside. And then she thought of that hideous, damaged eye. Is that how it happened? Someone had already punctured it, that's why there were no coat hangers? Ridiculous, she thought. How many times would a young, attractive female motorist become stranded at the farmhouse? But then she remembered that scarecrow warning her about Big Spike. What else could he have meant? And who had cut the radiator hoses, and when? But it didn't matter now. She was trapped, whether it was premeditated or opportunistic.
She put her hands back on the doorknob, and muttered a prayer. How could this be happening? What could she do?
Bam! Bam! Bam! Then a muffled, growling voice. What was he saying? She couldn't understand him. Why didn't the two old ladies do something? Maybe they didn't hear him, half deaf and dead to the world from . . . their recent, strenuous activity? Should she scream for help? No! Her best bet was that he'd think her gone if he burst through the door, that he was too drunk to consider the closet.
Another bang on the door, and the sound of splintering wood. What was he doing? All was still for a moment, and then came a thunderous boom and a howl of rage, followed by a cacophonous wham-bam!, as the door was evidently forced open and bashed against the wall, amidst another angry bellow.
Cathy screamed. She couldn't help it. But she managed to cut it off before Spike's ferocious outcry abated. She sank to the floor, pushed her feet against both sides of the closet door, reached up and held onto the handle with all her might. "Oh dear God," she whispered.
An eerie silence ensued. Cathy couldn't hear a thing but her heart drumming in her ears, and her raucous, terrified breathing. And then there was a final resounding thud, like a three hundred pound sack of potatoes dropping ten feet to the floor. Cathy counted off the seconds, to a full minute, before she dared to take another breath.
She tried to picture what had happened after the door burst open, and that giant hunchback lurched into the room. Was he standing there now, bewildered in his drunken stupor, wondering what had become of her? What was that final thud? Had he dropped some heavy object on the floor? What was he doing?
And then she heard an angry, grinding noise, like a swarm of bees, waxing and waning, punctuated by snorts and grunts, until it finally struck her. He'd passed out! He was snoring! That's what that thud was. He'd collapsed on the floor.
Now what? She loosened her grip on the doorknob so her hands wouldn't cramp. She checked the time on her watch: two thirty in the morning. What time did they rise? Five-thirty? She'd have to hold out until then. What if he woke up? Should she try to escape now? Run outside and hide somewhere until dawn? She'd need to get dressed, take a blanket off the bed. Too risky. She might wake him, stumbling around in the dark. What if he had fallen by the door? She might trip over him.
No, dammit, she was stuck here. and she just had to pray that he remained unconscious, until sunrise, when Agnes and Gladys got up. Surely by then he'd be sober and free of his drink-induced sexual aggressions.
The minutes dragged by. She sat facing the door to the closet, her back resting against the rear wall, her legs spread with her feet just touching the jambs. The snoring continued, sometimes louder, sometimes softer, and sometimes interrupted by a few grunts, and as the adrenaline drained from her veins, Cathy grew sleepy, dozed off for a few seconds at a time. Four o'clock came. Only halfway home to dawn, and she was so tired, so exhausted from that terrifying ordeal, that she knew she couldn't remain vigilant for much longer . . .
Voices. Cathy woke suddenly, confused for a moment in the total darkness of the closet. Then she remembered the horror of it all. She checked her watch: dawn. Thank god. Only where was everyone? Where was Big Spike?
"Wake up you big lummox!" Agnes.
"Look what you did to the door!" Gladys.
"What are you doing lying there like that?" Agnes.
Sounds of Spike waking up, grunting, growling, getting to his feet. "I dunno," he said in his deep voice. "I guess I jest fell asleep, carrying that blanket in for miss Cathy."
"Get up and clean yourself up," Agnes said. "You smell like a brewery. No breakfast until then."
"The very idea," Gladys said.
"And now where is our guest?"
Cathy stood up, brushed herself off, and opened the closet door to face Agnes and Gladys. She picked up her suitcase. Big Spike was gone. "Er, I was just getting my suitcase out so I could get dressed," she said. Lame. Would they wonder why the closet door had been shut?
They did not. "Of course, dear. Well, you can use the bathroom as soon as Big Spike . . . " She paused to grimace. "Is finished. He was supposed to bring you that extra blanket there lying on the floor. What a klutz."
Jesus, Cathy thought. All some kind of horrible drunken comedy of errors. He never intended to, to, to . . . after all. He was just trying to deliver that blanket.
Now she had to see about her car. She stepped out of the bathroom and walked down the hallway to the living room, when Gladys and Agnes filed in through the front door. Where was Big Spike? "Big Spike," she asked. "Is he fixing--"
"Oh, he had to leave early, couldn't even stay for breakfast. He'll be in a sour mood later if he comes over for supper," Gladys said cheerily. "Hungover like the dickens."
Oh God no! Now what would she do? How could he have run off like that? They promised. Now she was stuck here all day, until he came back. If he came back. And she wasn't sure she wanted him to. She couldn't stand another night around him, even if he was sober. How did she know he didn't harbor secret passions? How could she be sure that he hadn't meant to, to . . . ? She got bad vibes from him, no matter what Agnes and Gladys said. How could they just stand there, smiling at her? Didn't they understand?
"But, but my car . . . ," Cathy stammered at last.
"Your car's all ready," Agnes said.
"What?" said Cathy, astonished. "What? Who fixed it?"
"Spike. The handyman. We told you he could fix anything. Come on."
She followed them out to the front porch, where a young man stood smiling.
"This here's Spike," Gladys said.
"Howdy, Miss. Got her all patched up. Whyn't we start her up, get the coolant circulating, and you'll be all set."
Cathy was dumbfounded. Who was this man?
"Breakfast first, dear?" Agnes asked.
"Oh, no," Cathy said, thinking quickly. "I've got an early appointment with a client. I'll be fine."
A minute later, after saying goodbye, she followed the young man to her car.
"I don't understand," she said. "I thought that other man was Spike, that he was the handyman, and--"
Young Spike stopped and laughed. "Oh God, no. That's Big Spike. He's my uncle. I'm Just Spike, but they call me Spike for short. No, I'm the handyman." His eyes twinkled as he spoke. She could see that he was enjoying this.
"So then Big Spike is, is . . . "
"Well, besides a hell-raiser, he's the serviceman."
"Yes, he services--" and then he caught himself, and he blushed bright crimson. "Let's just get your car started, and then you can be on your way."
x x x
Russell, Russell, Russell. Just can’t resist your stories, fellah. Another cool tale from Mr. Krauss graces our pages this year. I like it. How about you? Tell me . . . and Russ . . .on our BBS. - GM