Gravel crunched under Ford’s boots as he walked along the road’s sunken shoulder. Marshall idly kicked a pebble off the asphalt as he kept pace with his younger brother. It took two of Marshall’s strides to keep pace with Ford. The brothers had the same brown hair and brown eyes but over a foot in height separated them.
Marshall squinted in the sunshine as he scratched his chin in thought. He had to keep the game going or Ford would win again.
“All right, I got one.” Amused with himself and sure he had a stumper, Marshall kicked an island of sand that had gathered on the asphalt, scattering it to the wind. “‘The good guys always win…even in the 80’s.’”
He glanced over and up at Ford, checking his face for any sign of recollection.
“Hmm,” Ford puzzled.
Marshall smiled. “Need a hint?”
“You want the year, lead actor or story concept?”
“You think you got me, huh?”
The smile fell from Marshall’s face.
“Don’t bring it unless you’re ready for it to be brought-en!”
“Damn it. Go ahead,” Marshall sighed, defeated. “Give it to me.”
“ ’82, Barry Bostwick, Mega-f’en-force, bitch! Ugh!” Ford stopped and stooped into a Mr. Universe pectoral flex.
“Damn,” Marshall cursed as he walked past. “Your turn.”
In two long strides Ford caught up with him. “All right,” he said cheerily, “you wanna pull from the stumper stack? I’ll give ya one.” Donning a British accent, Ford emphatically said, “‘If I were creating the world I wouldn’t mess about with butterflies and daffodils. I would have started with lasers, eight o’clock, Day One!’”
Marshall laughed. “You’re really going for the gonads aren’t ya? Well, for your info, I got this one, needle-dick. ’81, David Warner, Time Bandits! Now, which one of the Time Bandits midgets was in Star…”
“I didn’t even finish!”
“I know, but you wouldn’t pick someone harder like David Rappaport, who was Rinaldo in The Bride. Or Mike Edmonds and Tiny Ross, who were in Flash Gordon. Or Ian…”
“How’s my shoes look, butt nugget?” Marshall chided. Ford’s words were cut off in a garble as Marshall leapt up and grabbed his neck in a headlock. Marshall tightened his grip as his feet touched down, doubling Ford over.
“‘Check out the big brain on Brad!’ Who said that one, huh?” Laughing, Marshall playfully spun Ford in a widening circle, keeping him off balance. Ford chuckled and attempted to catch Marshall behind the knees. “You know, if I didn’t know any better I would say that a noogie might be coming your way,” Marshall chided.
“No!” Ford gurgled.
Ford struggled to get loose, but there was no way; Marshall had him locked.
Twirling asphalt grain was suddenly replaced by blue sky and white billowy clouds when Ford caught Marshall’s left knee and pulled the leg out from under him. The two crashed to the ground, laughing. As soon as Ford released his brother’s leg, implying an end to hostilities, Marshall rapidly rubbed his knuckles on Ford’s scalp.
“No!” Ford shrieked, struggling against his brother.
Marshall jumped to his feet and ran down the road, laughing, with Ford in hot pursuit. “‘Oh yeah!’” he shouted gravelly over his shoulder, channeling his inner Kool-Aid Man. “Who said that, smart-ass?”
Fear and excitement fueled his acceleration when the solid thumping of Ford’s footfalls came up quickly from behind. “Oh shit,” Marshall squeaked. A few seconds were all that separated him from what would be either an atomic wedgie or a near-fatal wet willy.
Marshall risked a peek over his shoulder and saw Ford slow and stop with three heavy footfalls. It was then that Marshall noticed the smell.
He skidded to a halt, arms flailing forward, trying to maintain his balance.
“Christ! What the hell is that?”
“It’s that car.” Ford motioned to a black sedan, the first car they’d seen in two days, parked neatly on the shoulder of the deserted back-country highway. A breeze picked up, wafting the sickly smell in their faces.
“Whew! What a stink!” Marshall coughed, waving his hand in front of his nose.
“C’mon. Let’s go check it out.” Ford smiled devilishly.
“Hell no! Man, ain’t a damn thing in that car we need.”
“No, nothing in the car. I just want the car.”
“Aren’t you tired of walking? I am. I say we kick whoever’s in there out, and drive our happy asses for a while.”
Marshall stood in stunned silence, blinking in disbelief. “Fuck that noise! I’m staying right here.”
“It might not be that bad,” Ford said cheerily as he strode up to Marshall. “Maybe they’re all mummy-like in there, and all’s we gotta do is drag ‘em out, air that bitch out for a bit and BAM! We got a ride!”
“You go right on ahead and do that,” Marshall said sarcastically with a dismissive wave, “I’m staying here. Besides, I don’t think ‘dead fucker’ comes out of upholstery all that easy.”
The condensation clinging to the inside of the windows obscured their view into the car. A ghostly shadow in the driver’s seat seemed to move slightly, its silhouette so thin that the neck appeared to be only a few inches wide. Were it not for the stench, one might think the driver had pulled over to take a nap.
They stood fifteen feet behind the black sedan when the wind shifted, blowing the offensive stink away and giving the brothers a brief respite. “Thank God for that.” Ford said as he walked toward the car. He looked back at Marshall with a giddy smile. “Another minute and I was sure I’d lose it.”
Marshall glared at him. “I serious, man. If I suffer through this for nothing, I’m gonna kick you square in the nuts.”
Marshall’s displeasure ramped up a couple notches when the wind shifted again, basting him in a hot breeze weighed down by the oily reek of rotting flesh.
Ford wretched so hard his knees buckled. He caught himself, bracing his hands on his knees, grimacing at the horrible odor. He slapped his hand over his mouth and nose and wretched again.
Marshall’s eyes watered at the noxious odor. Its penetrating stink was unbelievably thick. He could taste it in the back of his throat. As smell-laden saliva slid past the point of no return, he reflexively swallowed and immediately gagged.
Wiping the tears from his eyes and fighting back the urge to vomit, Marshall looked up to see Ford standing beside the car, reaching for the driver’s door handle.
Ford hung his head and retched, then spat onto the ground, making a sour face.
“Hey, leave it,” Marshall shouted. “There’s no fucking way we’re driving that!”
“No way man!” Ford laughed. “No damn way! I’ve come,” he gagged the “come” out with a guttural heaving that left him leaning over with his hands on his knees again. “I’ve come too far to stop now. I’ve gotta see…” Ford covered his mouth with the back of his hand as a new, richer stench found its way onto his tongue. “I gotta see this asshole.”
“Goddamnit. It’s fuckin’ pointless, Ford! Leave it!”
Ford curled his fingers under the door handle and dropped into a wide stance. Marshall knew immediately what Ford was going to do. Like knocking down a wasp nest and running for cover from its angry inhabitants, Ford was going to yank the door open and run.
“Leave it man!”
“Aw, Jesus.” Marshall drew his .22 pistol and took aim at the sedan.
Ford pulled the door handle and managed to take a step toward freedom before he realized that the door was still shut. Wincing at the smell, Ford reached again, grabbed the handle and yanked harder. As the door swung open, he sprinted to the opposite side of the road, across from the driver’s door, fending off a barrage of flies and the smell of rot.
“You ok?” Marshall shouted.
Hands on his knees, Ford waved off Marshall’s concerns as he squinted and grimaced against the putrid stink issuing through the open door.
Ford ducked his head, swatting at something that landed on his neck as sloppy brown liquid sloshed out of the car and onto the road.
“Zed?” Marshall shouted, watching Ford’s face for confirmation.
Ford straightened up, craning his neck for a better view into the car. Suddenly he pointed at the car and heaved hard, his body buckling under the tremendous force with which it wanted to throw up. He staggered back a few steps into the grass and spun around.
Looking back to the car, Marshall heard the splatter of Ford’s vomit striking the ground a second before more brown goop sloshed out of the driver’s seat, adding to the vile pool forming on the road. He rushed forward, putting himself between Ford and the creature.
Like a spider crawling from its burrow, withered black fingers wrapped around the edges of the doorway. Four fingers clung to the metal frame beside the windshield; the other four clutched midway down the door frame beside the driver’s seat. A hint of bone poked through the shriveled fingertips.
A leg swung out from the car, spilling more gelatinous brown goop—now tinged with streaks of black and green—to the asphalt as its penny-loafered foot flopped to the ground. The shoe made a wet, gurgling fart as fluid squished over the top and down the sides of the leather. Death-black flesh hung loosely at the dead man’s ankle.
The monstrosity tried to stand but fell backward into the seat. Marshall watched as what looked like gloves fell to the ground, slapping wetly as they landed in the expanding pool beneath the driver’s door. Like horrible rubber novelty items, the blackened finger-socks of flesh jiggled when they struck the ground.
Marshall felt the bile rising in his throat.
His mind could take no more. His stomach could take no more.
Marshall stepped back and took aim at the thing as it tried to sit up. The smell issuing from the car burned his nose; it was an acrid, pungent stink that made his eyes water. Bile pressed urgently at the back of his throat.
The zed in the driver’s seat floundered to pull itself upright. The skeletal fingers of one hand, clad in brownish-red muscle, clutched the steering wheel while the other grasped the driver’s seat headrest.
The luxury sedan’s leather interior was caked with maggots, flies and mold. The driver, rotting in the insufferable and stagnant heat, had provided a smorgasbord of nutrients for fungi, bacteria and insects capable of climbing in though the air-conditioning vents. Small patches of black and grey fluff clung to the zed’s clothing and the car’s interior. The driver’s polo shirt was a gray and green tie-dye of putrid body fluids and decay. The fabric, made translucent from the rendered fats of purification, clung to the corpse’s skin. The ribs and sternum showed through; languid flesh had allowed the cloth to sink into the interstitial spaces between the ribs.
It shook as it pulled itself forward, its decay-weakened muscles straining under the weight. Like a rubber Halloween mask, the thin flesh of its face dangled wetly from its head. The eyelids and nostrils hung well below their intended spaces, revealing slick, blackening muscle through the empty holes. Marshall could see the zed’s soaked and stained shirt through the gaping hole where the mouth should have been.
Marshall put two rounds into the head of the melting thing behind the wheel then threw up.
He kicked the door shut, holstered his .22 and walked over to Ford’s hunched figure. Pebbles scraped the road as he walked, held fast to his lug soles by remnants of vomit and putrescence.
“Yeah. Did you see that one? Its face?” Ford wiped away tears produced by forceful heaves.
“You want me to kick you in the balls now or later?”
Ford chuckled hoarsely, pulled his canteen from his belt, rinsed his mouth and spat onto the gravel at his feet.
“Hungry?” Marshall slapped Ford heartily on the back, hoping to extract a little revenge by making him throw up again.
Still fighting the oily smell clinging to the back of his throat, Ford paled at the thought of food and gagged.
“‘How about a nice, greeeeasy pork sandwich served in a dirty ashtray?’” Marshall said with a sadistic lilt, sporting a smug grin.
Ford belched, then spit out what came up. “Chet aka Bill ‘Game over man’ Paxton, Weird Science, ’85. Douche nozzle.”