by Robert R. McCammon
Well, I knew it was the end of the world for sure when I walked into my den and found William Shakespeare sittin' in my Barcalounger.
At least I think it was him. Anyways, it was one of them fellas wore starched collars and a velvet suit and said a lot of "thees" and "thous" like they used to do every year at the high school senior play down the road. I called Vera in. I said, "Vera, come in here and take a look at this right quick!" and she came runnin'. Of course, we'd seen ghosts before, just like everybody else in the world had by then, but Will Shakespeare sittin' in your den watchin' Cross-Wits on the TV is a damn peculiar sight.
Every so often he'd speak, as if he were tryin' to answer the Cross-Wits questions. Then he'd rest his head back, and I saw him close his eyes and heard him say, "Woe is me," clear as a church bell. By then Ben Junior had come in, and he pressed in between his momma and me, and we all three watched the ghost tryin' to talk to the man on TV. Ol' Will was the same as the other spirits: He wasn't all there. Oh, you could make him out all right, and even see the color of his hair and skin and suit, but he was kinda smoky too, and you could see the chair right through him. He reached out toward the lamp beside him, but his hand was misty and couldn't touch it. "Woe is me," he said again, and then he looked at us standin' in the doorway. His eyes were sad. They were the eyes of a man who was lost on a long trip and couldn't find the right road again.
Vera said, "Would you like me to change the channel?" She was always mannerly to house guests. Even uninvited ones. Ol' Will started to fade away then, bit by bit. Didn't surprise us none, 'cause we'd seen the others do it too. In another minute just his face was left, floatin' in the air like a pale moon. Then nothin' but his eyes. They blinked a couple of times, then those were gone too. But we all knew ol' Will hadn't vanished for good, and he hadn't gone too far away neither. He was like all the other ones roamin' around the haunted world. Hell of a mess, that's for sure.
Wasn't too long before Ben Junior said, "Dad?" and he motioned me and his momma over to the big picture window in the front room, the one that has such a pretty view over the meadow. It was October, and the world was turnin' deep red and purple. The sky was that greenish-gray it gets just before it happens. Vera said a while back that the sky reminds her of a lizard's skin, and I guess that about hits the nail on the head. Ben Junior pointed, and he said in a quiet voice, "There's another one."
Vera and I looked, and of course we saw it. Have to be blind as a bat in a Bundt cake not to see one of those things, once they get started.
The tornadoes are always that peculiar lizard-skin color. One of 'em whipped right across Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., the other day. I saw it on the five o'clock news. Anyway, there was a tornado whippin' and whirlin' down the hillside into our meadow not two hundred yards away. Things started poppin' and creakin' in our house like the whole place was fixin' to come unjointed. A light bulb blew out and right after that the power went. "Lord," Vera whispered, standin' beside me in the lizard-green light. "Lord have mercy."
You could see 'em in the tornado, goin' around and around and tumblin' over each other from the bottom of the cone to the top of the spout. How many were there it was hard to say. Hundreds, I reckon. Some of 'em were smoky, but others looked just as solid as you and me. The tornado was spittin' 'em out hither and yonder, and they were fallin' to earth like autumn leaves. They drifted into the treetops and onto the grass, and they fell over the fence and onto the road that leads to Concordia. Some of 'em were tattered to pieces, like old rags caught in the blades of a lawn mower, but others stood up and staggered around like Saturday night drunks. The tornado took a turn away from our house and marched up the hillside again toward the south, spittin' out ghosts with every whirl, and then Vera reached out and pulled the curtains shut, and we all stood in the twilight listenin' to the trees moan as the tornado went on.
"Well," I said, because there wasn't much else to say. Deep subject, I know. Cold, too. Vera walked over to the wall switch and flicked it up and down with a vengeance, but the power wasn't goin' to come back on for quite a while. "There goes a hot dinner," she said, and she sounded like she was about to cry. I put my hand on her shoulder, and then she kinda folded up against me and hung on. Ben Junior sneaked a peek through the curtain, but what he saw he didn't care for, because he let the curtain drop back real quick.
Someone—somethin'—called from outside. "Mary?" It was a man's voice, and it was terribly lonely. "Mary? Are you in there?"
I started to go to the door, but Vera held me tight. We both knew I had to go. I pulled away from her, and I went to the door and opened it.
On our front porch stood a frail-lookin' man with dark hair slicked back and parted in the middle. He wore a dark suit—black or brown, I couldn't really tell. His face was pale and kinda yellow, like spoiled milk. He took a step back when he saw me, and he was wearin' old high-top shoes. He was shiverin', and he looked around himself. If he saw all the others staggerin' about in the meadow, nothin' registered on his face but pure puzzlement. Then he looked at me again, and when his mouth opened, his voice was like the chilly wind. You felt it more than heard it. "Mary? Is Mary waiting for me?"
"Mary's not here," I told him.
"Mary?" he asked again. "Is she waiting for me?"
"No," I said. "Not here."
He stopped speakin', but his mouth stayed open. His eyes looked wet, like those of a dog that had just gotten kicked in the ribs. "I don't think you know anybody here," I told him, because he seemed to be waitin' for somethin' else. And then his mouth closed, and he turned away from my door and started across the meadow in his high-topped shoes. "Mary?" I heard him call. "Mary?" He started fadin' away as he passed a Roman soldier sittin' sprawled in the grass, and he was almost gone when a little boy in knickers ran right through him. The man who was searchin' for Mary faded away like a Polaroid left in the noonday sun too long, but the Roman soldier stayed where he was, and the little boy ran into the woods. There were maybe forty or fifty others out in the meadow, wanderin' around like strangers at a weird garden party. Or a Halloween party, it bein' October and all. Out on the edge of the meadow there was what looked like somebody from Revolutionary times, a skinny man wearin' a powdered wig and a three-cornered hat. Near him was a cowboy in a yellow duster. Over there on the other side was a black-haired woman in a long blue gown that trailed on the grass, and not far from her stood a man in a suit, lookin' around as if he was waitin' for the next bus. The blue mist of ghosts trailed from the trees like cobwebs and drifted over the meadow in an ankle-deep haze. Ghosts were all in the woods, and you hear 'em babblin' and calling' in a bedlam of accents and languages. "Dan!" I heard one American-speakin' woman—ghost, I mean—shout from over on the edge of the woods. "Damn it, Dan, where's my robe?" she hollered, as she walked buck naked across the grass. Not walked, actually. Kinda wobbled is more like it. The wind hit her and tattered her to pieces so we didn't have to look at her big, old flabby butt anymore. Ben Junior was peekin' out beside me, and I shoved him back inside and shut the door.
Vera and I just stared at each other, there in the gloom, as the ghosts hollered and chattered outside. We heard an Indian war-whoopin', and somebody screamin' that she'd lost her cat, and somebody else raisin' a ruckus in what sounded like Greek to me. They were all searchin' for their own world, the one they used to be part of. But of course they couldn't get back there. They couldn't find anybody or anythin' that was familiar, because this wasn't their world anymore. It was our world. And that's the hell of it. See?
I remember what Burt Truman said. I remember, because it seemed so right. Burt looked at me, his eyes huge behind those bottle-bottom glasses he wears, and he said, "You know why this is happenin', Ben? Well, I'll tell you my opinion. You take the air and the water nowadays. Both so polluted you can't take a safe breath or a decent sip. And what happened on them beaches last summer, all that garbage and crap washin' up 'cause the ocean can't take no more. He lifted up his glasses and scratched his nose. "Seems to me Heaven—or Hell—can't take no more either. And all the dead folks are gettin' cast back up on shore. Whatever that place is that kept the dead, it's full to overflowin'. The dead folks are washin' back up into our world, and that's God's truth or I ain't sittin' here in Clyde's barbershop."
"Bullshit," Clyde said as he clipped Burt's side burns. Clyde has a voice like a steam shovel with stripped gears. "Damn ghosts are comin' through the ozone hole. That's what they said on Dan Rather yesterday."
"God's shut with us," Phil Laney offered. He's a deacon at the Baptist church, and he was gloomin'-and-doomin' long before all this started. "Only way for us to fix this is to get down on our knees and pray like we've never prayed before. I mean, serious prayin'. We've got to get right with God before this thing'll be fixed."
"Hell, this thing's done broke to pieces," Luke McGuire said. Ol' Luke's a big fella, stands about six foot three and wears raggedy overalls, but he's got the best farmland in south Alabama. "Just like a machine," he said as he rolled himself another cigarette. "You bust a cylinder on your tractor, ain't prayin' that gets it fixed. You bend a blade on a tiller, you don't get on your knees and kiss the ground until it's straight again. Hell, no. The world's a machine. Thing's done broke to pieces, and the repair shop's shut down."
This was the sort of conversation that could fill most of a Saturday afternoon and evenin' and still leave you goin' in circles. But I mostly thought of what Burt said, about the dead overflowin' and washin' back up into our world. The tornadoes brought 'em back, of course, but I knew what he meant. Heaven and Hell were like busted pipes, and the ghosts were spillin' out.
And right about then, as Luke and Phil were arguin' hammer and tongs, a knight in tarnished armor walked past the window of Clyde Butler's barbershop. Walked right out in the street, he did, and Mrs. Beacham in her green Oldsmobile swerved the wheel and crashed into the front of Sammy Kane's Stag Shop for Men. Clothes dummies flew all over the place, broken arms and legs lyin' on the pavement. That knight just kept on goin', fine as you please, and he took a few more rusty steps before he vanished into the unknown. But he didn't go far. We all knew that. He couldn't go far, see. He was still stuck in the haunted world, like all the other dead folks.
After all that commotion had died down, Luke McGuire picked his teeth with a splintered match and brought up the question: "How come the ghosts are wearin' clothes?"
Not all of 'em were, of course, but most of 'em did. We thought about that for a little while, and then Luke went on in that thick drawl of his that always makes me think of mud simmerin' in the bottom of a ditch. "Clothes," he said. "Ghosts of people are one thing. But are they wearin' ghosts of clothes?"
We drifted into talkin' about what ghosts were, and that was a tangled thicket. Then Clyde brought up the next skull knocker. "Thank God they're ghosts, that's all I can say." He brushed hairs off Burt's shoulders. "Not solid, I mean." He glanced around at everybody, to see if we'd gotten the point. We hadn't. "You can drive cars through ghosts. You can put your hand through 'em. They don't need food or water, and they can't touch you neither. Take that fella in armor just walked past here. Think you'd like to feel him slap you upside the head? I looked out my window this mornin' and saw the woods full of damn ghosts, blowin' in the breeze like old newspapers. One of 'em had a long black beard and carried a sword 'bout as big as ol' Luke. Think you'd like to get stabbed a few times with somethin' like that?"
"Wasn't a real sword," Luke observed sagely. "Was a ghost of a sword."
"Yeah, and thank God for that," Clyde steam-shoveled on. "What do you think would happen if everybody who ever died in the whole world came back?"
"We might find out," I said. "Seems like that's happenin' right now." I knew, like we all did, that this thing was happenin' not just in Concordia, Alabama, but in Georgia and North Carolina and New York and Illinois and Wyoming and California and everywhere else under the sun. Ghosts were roamin' the streets of London and Paris, and stompin' through Red Square. Even the Australians were seein' ghosts, so when I say haunted world that's exactly what I mean.
"Thank God, they're ghosts and not real," Clyde said, as he finished up on Burt. "There you go." He handed Burt a mirror. "Slicker'n owl shit."
Luke switched on the barbershop's TV to catch the midday news. There was a report from Washington, D.C. It showed somethin' that looked like Thomas Jefferson, sittin' on the steps of the Capitol and cryin' his eyes out.
It hit me then, as I was standin' in the gloom starin' at Vera and the ghosts were catterwaulin' outside. The power was out. How were we gonna see the TV show tonight? They'd been advertisin' it for a week. Tonight Tom Edison was supposed to be a guest on the Johnny Carson show. I'm talkin' about the Tom Edison who invented the light bulb, the genuine article. Seems Edison—his spirit, I mean—had been talked into appearin' on TV. Tonight was the night. Shirley MacLaine was supposed to be a guest too, but she wasn't even dead yet, so what did she know? Anyway, the power was off!
I went to the phone and called Clyde. "They got the juice back on over here," Clyde said, speakin' from eight miles away. The phone was hissin' with static, but I could hear him good enough. "I just got a call from Phil, too," Clyde told me. "His TV's out. I reckon mine is at home too. You want to watch that show, come on over to the barbershop tonight. Hell, I'll get us some beers and we'll have a time of it."
I said that was a fine idea. Ben Junior was tuggin' at my sleeve, and Vera was starin' out the window again. I hung up the phone and walked over to see what had been roused up this time.
More Roman soldiers were out in the meadow. I guess they were Roman, but I'm not sure. There were about a hundred of 'em, and they had shields and swords. Ghost shields and swords, I mean. And there were about a hundred or so Chinese-lookin' fellas too, half-naked and with long braids in their hair. Well, the Romans and the Chinese had taken to fightin'. Maybe they were tryin' to finish up an old battle, or maybe all they knew was fightin' and that was their job. The Romans were swingin' their ghost swords, and the Chinese were kickin' with their ghost legs, and nothin' but mist was bein' hit. From out of the woods swarmed other ghosts: cowboys, musketeers, guys with bowl-shaped haircuts and long robes, women in lacy dresses, and black Africans with animal-skin shields and spears like in that English movie Ben Junior and me watched one Saturday. All the ghosts swirled around each other like they were part of a big churnin' whirlpool, and I'm tellin' you that the noise they made-hollerin' and screamin' at each other was somethin' fearsome. No doubt about it: Even when people were dead, they still couldn't get along. Then a few dogs were even runnin' around out among the ghosts—ghost dogs, snappin' at ghost ankles. Maybe there was a horse or two out there, but I'm not sure. Anyway, it looked like Animal Heaven had started overfiowin' too. "Lord save us!" Vera said, but Ben Junior said, "Neat!" and I saw he was grinnin'. Boy's got a strange sense of humor. Takes after me, I reckon, because I was kinda fascinated at the sight of all those ghosts tanglin' and whirlin'.
Vera turned away from the window, and that was when she screamed.
I looked. I think Ben Junior let out a strangled squawk. It might've been my voice.
Standin' in front of us, right in our pine-paneled livin' room, was a red-bearded man with a double bladed battle-ax. That sumbitch stood at least six foot six, taller even than Luke McGuire, and he had on some kind of ragged animal skin and a metal skullcup with bull horns sticking out on either side of it. His face looked like a lump of meat wrapped up in wrinkled leather. He had green eyes under red brows as big as scrub brushes, and he let out a holler that shook the room as he lifted that battle-ax up over his head.
What would you have done? I knew he was a ghost and all, but at a time like that you don't think exactly calm. I shoved Vera out of the way of that battle-ax, and I picked up the first thing that came to hand: a lamp table beside the couch. The lamp flew off of it, and I thrust that little wooden table up like a Vikin' shield, my shoulders tensin' for the shock.
It didn't come. The battle-ax, a misty thing, went right through the table. I swear I saw a glint of metal, though, and old blood on the edge. I could smell that sumbitch, sure enough; he smelled like a dead cow. He took another step forward, crowdin' me, and he flailed back and forth with that battle-ax like he really thought he was gonna hit somethin'. His face was splotched with red. Ever heard the expression, "mad as a ghost"? I just made it up, 'cause he was mad as hellfire sure enough. He chopped the ax back and forth a dozen times, and the rage on his face would've been terrible if he'd been flesh and blood instead of colored mist. I laughed, and that made him madder still. The ax kept whippin' back and forth, through the table. I said, "Fella, why don't you put that toy away and get the hell out of my house?"
He stopped choppin', his big chest heavin' up and down. He glared at me for a minute, and I could tell he hated me. Maybe for bein' alive—I don't know. Then he gave a growl and started to fade away. His beard was the last thing to go. It hung in the air for a few seconds, workin' as if it still had a mouth under it, and then it went.
"Is it gone? Is it gone? Ben, tell me it's gone!" Vera had scrunched herself up into a corner, her arms hugging herself and her eyes wide and starey. I didn't like the looks of them. Ben Junior was kinda dazed. He stood where the Vikin' had been, feelin' around in the air.
"It's gone, hon," I said to Vera. "Wasn't ever here, really. You okay?"
"I've never...I've never...seen anything...like that." She could hardly get a breath, and I set the table down and put my arms around her while she trembled.
"They're not real," I told her. "None of them are. They're just...pictures in the air. They hang there for a while, and then they go away. But they're not real. Okay?"
She nodded. "Okay," she said, but she sounded choked.
"Just a minute. You want me to go get you an aspirin? You want to lie down awhile?" I kept my arms around Vera, for fear her knees might give way.
"Dad?" Ben Junior's voice was a little higher. "Look at this."
"I'm all right," Vera said. She had a strong constitution. Livin' on a farm for over twenty years makes you that way. "See what Ben Junior wants."
I looked over at the boy. He was standin' there, starin' at the table I'd just set down. "Dad?" he repeated. "I...don't think this was here before."
"What wasn't there before?" I walked over beside him, and I saw what he was talkin' about.
On the table's surface was a single diagonal scratch. It wasn't much. The tip of a nail might've done it. Only Ben Junior was right, and I knew that at once. The scratch hadn't been there before. I touched it to make sure it was real, and ran my finger along its length. The lamp's base had green backing on it, to keep it from scratchin' anythin'. I looked at Ben Junior. He was a smart boy, and I knew he knew. And he knew I knew, too.
"Vera?" I tried to sound calm, but I don't think I did. "Let's drive on into town and get some dinner. How does that suit you?"
"Fine." She took my hand and wouldn't let go of it, and I walked with her to the closet to get her sweater. Ben Junior went back through the hallway at a cautious pace, stirrin' the air before him with his hands to make sure nothin' was there, and a minute later he returned with a jacket from his room. I got my wallet and the keys to the pickup, and we went outside into the gray-green twilight. The driveway was full of fightin' ghosts: Chinese, Romans, an Indian or two, and a husky fella wearin' a kilt. I backed the truck right through 'em, and none of 'em seemed to mind.
On the drive to Concordia I turned on the radio, but all the stations were screwed up with the most god-awful static you ever heard. I switched it off real quick, because the noise sounded to me like the whole world was screamin'. Vera touched my arm and pointed off toward the right. Another tornado was movin' across the hills, blowin' red leaves before it and leavin' ghosts in its wake. The sky was green and low, shot through with pearly streaks. Half-formed, misty figures swept past the truck. I turned on the windshield wipers.
We passed Bobby Glover's pasture. There were so many ghosts wanderin' and staggerin' around that field it looked like a spirit convention. Things that looked like pieces of filmy cloth were hangin' in Bobby's barbed-wire fence, and they were growin' arms, legs, and heads. An old woman dressed like a Pilgrim was walkin' in the middle of the road, and she saw us comin' and made a noise like a cat gettin' skinned as the truck went through her. I looked back in the rearview mirror and saw blue mist floatin' in the air where the Pilgrim lady had been a second before. Somethin' occurred to me real strange just about then: Somewhere in the world my own father and mother were wanderin'. Vera's mother, too; her father was in a rest home in Montgomery. Somewhere all our ancestors were out in the haunted world, and the ancestors of everybody who'd ever drawn a breath. I hadn't seen any ghosts of babies yet. I hoped I wouldn't, but you never knew. Peculiar thoughts whirled through my brain, like those red leaves thrown by the tornado: My father had died six years ago, and my mother had gone on a year later. They could be roamin' the jungles of Brazil or the streets of Dallas for all I knew. I hoped my father didn't come back in Tokyo. He'd fought the Japanese in World War II, and that would be pure hell for him.
About three miles from Concordia, we came upon a station wagon that had gone into a ditch. Both the front doors were open, but nobody was around. I stopped the truck and was gonna get out to take a look, hut I heard what sounded like Indian war whoops off in the woods somewhere. I thought about that scratch on the table, and I swallowed hard and drove on.
I took the next curve pretty fast. Anyway, we were on him before we knew it. Vera screamed and her foot plunged to the floorboard, but of course the brake pedal was on my side, and I sure as hell wasn't gonna hit it.
He looked more ape than human, really. He was monstrous, and he wore a tattered lion's skin that still had the lion's head on it. He bellowed and charged the pickup, his fangy teeth showin'. I tried to swerve, but there wasn't much use, and I sure didn't want to go into a ditch. The caveman lifted a club that had sharp rocks embedded in it, and he swung that thing like it weighed a feather.
The club turned to mist an instant before it would've hit the fender. I heard the caveman bellow again—right up next to my head, it seemed like—and I gave the truck all the gas she could handle. We sped on down the road, the engine poppin' and snarlin'. I guess that caveman—ghost of a caveman, I mean—must've thought we were somethin' good to eat. I looked in the rearview mirror, but he was gone.
"It wasn't real, was it?" Vera said in a quiet voice. Her gaze was fixed straight ahead. "It was just a picture that hung in the air, wasn't it?"
"Yeah, that's right," I answered. I thought about the scratched table. My fingers were clenched real hard around the steerin' wheel. That table hadn't been scratched before the Vikin' sumbitch had swung his ax at me. My mind was wanderin' in dangerous country. The Vikin' was a ghost, with the ghost of a battle-ax. Just a picture, hangin' in the air. So how come the table was scratched, as if the slightest edge of metal had grazed it?
I didn't care to think about that anymore. Such thoughts made the hair prickle on the back of your neck.
Concordia was a small town, hardly much to look at, but it had never been prettier. The sun was goin' down fast, into a lizard-skin horizon, and Concordia's street lights were glowin' in the murk. We went straight to the Concordia Cafe. It was crowded, I guess because a lot of folks had the same idea as us. Bein' with real people was a comfort, though the food was as bad as usual. You can be sure that ghosts were the prime topic of conversation, and every so often somebody would holler for everybody else to look out the windows and you could see spirits on Main Street. The sky flashed and flickered, blue lightnin' jumpin' from horizon to horizon, and we all sat in the Concordia Cafe and watched the parade of ghosts. Here came a fella dressed up in a tuxedo, his hair gleamin' with pomade, and spats on his shoes, and he was callin' for somebody named Lily in a broken voice, ghost tears runnin' down his cheeks. Then a Nazi soldier ran past, carryin' a ghost rifle. A little girl in a nightgown, her hair red and curly, staggered along the street callin' in a language I couldn't understand. Some of the women wanted to go out and help her, but the men blocked the door. It was a ghost little girl, and the hell if we wanted her in here among the livin'.
A whole bunch of 'em wandered past the cafe: half-naked Egyptians brown as berries, women in gaudy dance-hall duds, a pair of fellas in those tall caps with fur on 'em, and ghosts in rags. And then the ghost of a boy about twelve, Ben Junior's age, came over and peered in the cafe's window, and he was joined by the ghost of a woman with long white hair and no teeth. A man in a striped prison suit looked in another window, and peerin' in over his shoulder was the ghost of a tall, skinny fella in clown makeup. In a few minutes more they were all around the cafe, starin' in through the windows at us, and Lord knows our appetites fled. Fifty or sixty ghosts were out there, lookin' in and maybe longin' to join us. Grace Tarpley, the head waitress, started closin' all the blinds, then Mitch Brenner and Tommy Shawcross got up from their tables and helped her. But as soon as all the blinds were down and the windows sealed up, the ghosts outside took to moanin' and catterwaulin' and that was the end of our dinner. Some folks—live folks, I mean—started cryin' and wailin' too, specially some of the children. Hell, I even saw a couple of men break down and start bawlin'. This wasn't no fun, that's for sure.
Anyway, the noise comin' out of the Concordia Cafe must've scared the ghosts off, because their voices started gettin' fainter and fainter until finally it was just the live people moanin'. Then Gracie let out a scream that almost lifted the roof, because the old farmer sittin' by himself at a booth in the back, an untouched cup of coffee on the table before him, suddenly stood up and faded away. Nobody had known him, but I guess we all figured he was from the next county. It was gettin' so you couldn't tell the livin' from the dead anymore.
The night moved on. It seemed like nobody wanted to go home to their haunted houses. Jack and Sarah Kelton came by our table for a few minutes and said the power was still out their way and they'd heard the lines were all fouled up. Which didn't sound so good, since the Keltons lived about two miles closer to town than us. The lights flickered off and on a few times in the cafe, which made everybody scream to high heaven, but Gracie said the men were workin' on the wires down the road and not to worry because there were plenty of flashlights and candles. As Jack talked on about seein' a ghost he swore was Abraham Lincoln strollin' along Highway 211, I looked out the blinds and watched the blue lightnin' cracklin' across the sky. It was a bad night here. Hell, it was a bad night everywhere.
I don't know how many cups of coffee Vera and I had. Ben Junior got stuffed on potato chips, and gettin' his belly full is a true miracle. Anyway, the crowd started thinnin' out, folks decidin' to go home to sleep—if they could sleep, that is. It was almost time for the Johnny Carson show, and I paid the bill and took Vera and Ben Junior to Clyde's barbershop down the street.
The regulars were there, and the cast-iron stove was stoked up warm and ruddy. The TV was on, the show about ten minutes away from startin'. We found chairs and sat down next to Phil and Gloria Laney. Luke McGuire was there with his wife Missy and their two kids, the Trumans were there and so was Sammy and Beth Kane. Clyde had a few sixpacks of Bud ready, but none of us felt like a beer.
The show started, Johnny Carson came out—all serious this time, didn't even crack a funny—and he showed a few old pictures of Thomas Edison. The first guest was a fella who'd written a biography of Edison, then Mickey Rooney came on because he played Young Edison in a movie a long time ago. The next guest was a man who talked about the ghosts appearin' all over the world, and he said ghosts had been seen from the Sahara Desert to the South Pole. He was an expert, I guess, but exactly what at I don't know. While the talkin' was goin' on, buildin' up to Edison appearin', I was thinkin' about the scratched table. What had made that mark? The edge of that Vikin's battle-ax? No, that couldn't be! The ghosts were just pictures hangin' in the air. They weren't real. But I thought about that station wagon we'd seen in the ditch on the way to town, and the sound of Indians war-whoopin' in the woods.
I remembered Clyde saying, "What do you think would happen if everybody who ever died in the whole world came back?"
Ghosts of everybody who'd ever died was one thing. But what if—I liked to choke thinkin' about this...what if everybody who'd ever died in the whole world did come back? Maybe as ghosts first, yes, but...maybe they weren't always gonna stay ghosts. Maybe death had reversed itself. Maybe some of 'em were already turnin' solid, a little piece at a time. As solid as the sharp edge of an ax blade. As solid as Indians, who'd pulled somebody out of their station wagon and—
I shook those thoughts out of my head. Ghosts were ghosts. Weren't they?
Shirley MacLaine came on next, carryin' a crystal ball. She said Thomas Edison was a good friend of hers.
And then it was time.
They lowered the lights in the studio, I guess so Edison wouldn't get spooked. Then all the guests started callin' his name and Johnny Carson asked the audience to be real quiet. They guests kept on callin' Thomas Edison's name and askin' him to join them, but the seat next to Johnny's desk stayed empty. It went on awhile, and pretty soon Johnny got that look on his face like when he has a talkin' dog on the show and it won't pip a squeak. I mean, the whole thing was almost ridiculous.
"I need a beer," Luke said, and he reached for one.
His hand never got there. Because suddenly we all gasped. There was a shape just beginnin' to take form in that empty chair next to Johnny's desk. Some of the audience started talkin', but Johnny hushed them up. The shape was becomin' the body of a man: a white-haired, sad-faced man, dressed in a wrinkled white suit that looked as if it had been slept in for quite some time. The figure got clearer and clearer, and damned if it wasn't the man who was in those old yellowed photographs.
"Got on clothes," Luke rasped. "How can a ghost wear clothes?"
"Shush!" Phil told him, and he leaned closer to the TV.
Clyde turned up the volume. Thomas Edison his own self was sittin' in that chair on the Carson show, and even though the lights were dim he blinked as he looked around as if they stung his eyes. He was tremblin'. So was Johnny, and &rquot;most everybody else. Thomas Edison looked like somebody's frail, scared old grandpap.
"Hello, Mr. Edison," Johnny finally said. He sounded like he had a chicken bone caught in his throat. "Can I...call you Tom?"
Edison didn't answer. He just shook and gasped, plain terrified. "Stage fright," Burt said. "Happened to me once when I gave a speech to the Civitan Club."
"Tom?" Johnny Carson went on. "Do you know who I am?"
Edison shook his head, his eyes wet and glassy.
"Mr. Edison," Shirley said, "we're all your friends here."
Edison gave a soft moan, and Shirley recoiled from him a little bit. "Tom?" Johnny tried again. "Where did you come from?"
"I...don't..." Edison started to speak, but his voice was wispy. "I...don't..." He looked around, gasping for words. "I...don't...belong here." He squinted at the audience. "I don't...like this place."
"We all love you," Shirley told him. "Tell us about your journey, and what you've seen on the other si—"
If ever hell broke loose on earth, it was the next instant.
Somebody in the audience took a picture. You could see the quick pop and glare of the flashbulb, right in Tom Edison's eyeballs. Another flash went off, and a third. Johnny Carson jumped up and shouted, "No pictures! I said no pictures! Somebody get those cameras!" The studio lights came on, real sudden. Tom Edison almost jumped out of his chair. People in the audience were rushin' the stage, and Johnny Carson was yellin' for everybody to stay back, but you could hardly hear him over the noise. More flashbulbs were poppin', and I guess somehow the reporters had gotten into the studio when they weren't supposed to be there. Lights flashed in Tom Edison's face, and all of a sudden he reached out and plucked that crystal ball off Shirley's lap, and he threw it straight into the TV camera that was trained on him. The camera smashed, zigzag lines goin' all over the screen. Another TV camera trained on Edison and caught him as he stood up, screamed at the top of his lungs, and vanished in a whirl of blue mist. "Everybody sit down!" Johnny was shoutin'. People were still tryin' to get closer, and now you could see folks grapplin' with each other like a backwoods wrestlin' match. "Everybody please sit—"
The screen went dark. "Somebody stepped on a cord," Burt said. Static jumped and jittered across the screen, and then a message came on: NETWORK DIFFICULTY. PLEASE STAND BY.
We stood by, but the Carson show didn't come back on. "He picked it up," Luke said quietly. "Did you see that? He picked it up."
"Picked what up?" Clyde asked. "What're you babblin' about?"
"Thomas Edison picked up the crystal ball and flung it," Luke told him, and looked around at the rest of us. "A ghost picked up somethin' solid. How can a ghost pick up somethin' solid?"
Nobody answered. I almost did, but I kept my mouth shut. I didn't want what I was thinkin' to be true. Maybe I should have said somethin', but the time slipped past.
Lightnin' flared and crackled over Concordia. About three seconds later, the barbershop's lights flickered once, twice, and went out. All of Concordia lay in darkness. Vera grasped my hand so hard I thought my knuckles were about to bust.
"Well, that's that," Clyde said. He stood up in the dark, and Luke lit a match. In its pale glow we all looked like ghosts. Clyde turned off the dead TV. "I don't know about everybody else," he said, "but I'm goin' home and get a good night's sleep, ghosts or not."
The group started breakin' up, and Clyde locked the doors. "We ought to go to the Holiday Inn over near Grangeville," I told Vera and Ben Junior as we were walkin' back to the pickup. "Maybe they'll have the power on over there. All right?"
Vera wouldn't let go of my hand. "No," she said. "I can't sleep in a strange bed. Lord knows all I want to do is get in my bed and pull the covers over my head and hope I wake up from this nightmare in the mornin'.
"Holiday Inn might be safer," I said. Instantly I regretted it, because Vera stiffened up. "Safer?" she asked. "Safer? What's that mean?"
If I told her what I was thinkin', that would be all she wrote. You'd have to peel Vera off a wall. Ben Junior was listenin' too, and I knew he knew, but still and all, home was where we belonged. "All right, hon," I said, and put my arm around her. "We'll sleep in our own bed tonight." Vera relaxed, and I was mighty glad I hadn't steered her into dark, deep water.
We started off. The pickup's headlights were a comfort. Maybe we should sleep in the truck tonight, I thought. No, we'd all have cricked backs in the mornin'. Best to get on home and pull the covers over our heads just like Vera wanted to. I found myself thinkin' about the rifle down in the basement. I ought to get that out and loaded. Wouldn't hurt to have it beside the bed if I needed—
"Look out, Ben!" Vera shouted, and I went for the brake, but too late.
The caveman was standin' in the road. He snarled and lifted that club studded with sharp-edged rocks, and as he swung it I could see the muscles ripple in his ape-like shoulders.
I expected the club to turn to mist. I wanted it to. I prayed for it in that long instant as it came at the fender in a powerful blur. Oh, God, I prayed for it.
The club smashed into the front of our pickup truck with a shock that lifted us all off the seat. Vera screamed and so did Ben Junior, and I think Ben Senior let out a scream too. One of the headlights shattered and went out. I felt and heard somethin' boom and clatter in the engine, behind the crushed radiator. The truck lurched, and steam bellowed out around the crumpled hood. The caveman jumped back as the truck passed him, but I think he was scared just as witless as we were. I looked into the rearview mirror and saw him standin' there in the glare of the red taillights. Lightnin' flared behind him, over dark Concordia. I think he was grinnin'. He swung his club, and he started lumberin' along the road in the direction we were goin'.
The truck was laborin'. "Come on, come on!" I said, and I kept my foot to the gas. Vera's scream had broken; she was a shakin' moan, pressed up against my ribs. "He hit us, Dad!" Ben Junior said. "That sumbitch hit us!"
"Yeah," I told him. Wheezed it, really. "Yeah, I know he did."
The truck kept goin'. Chevy builds 'em strong. But I watched the gauges and I listened to the engine racketin', and I knew the eight miles home was askin' way too much.
Finally, with a groan and a shudder, the engine quit. I let the truck coast as far as she'd go, and I prayed again, this time for a slope to take us home, but I knew the road was flat as a flounder all the way to our front porch. We rolled to a stop, and we sat there.
"We've stopped, Dad," Ben Junior said.
I nodded. One part of me wanted to wring his neck. One part of me wanted to wring my own neck. Vera was sobbin', and I put my arm around her tight. "Don't cry," I said. "We're all right. We're gonna be fine. Don't cry, now." She kept cryin'. Words were cheap.
We sat for a while longer. Out in the night we could hear the freight-train roar of a tornado movin' through the hills. "Dad?" Ben Junior said at last, "I don't think we ought to stay here all night." I hadn't raised a dummy, that was for sure; I was the dumb one, for not insistin' we go to the Holiday Inn.
I hesitated at openin' the door. Vera was clingin' to me, and I'm not sure whose heart was poundin' harder. I was thinkin' about the caveman, with his club that must've weighed seventy or eighty pounds. He was between us and Concordia, and every second we wasted brought him closer. I got out of the truck real quick, pulled Vera out, and Ben Junior scram bled out the other side. Lightnin' crackled overhead, and you could hear tornadoes moanin' in the night.
"We've got to get home," I said, maybe just to steady up my own nerves. Once I had my hands on that rifle and we were shut up in our bedroom with our backs to the wall, we'd be just fine. "Sooner we start, the sooner we'll get there."
"It's dark," Vera whispered, her voice shakin'. "Oh, Lord, it's so dark."
I knew she was talkin' about the road that lay ahead. I knew every curve and bump in it, but tonight it was a road that led through the haunted world. Out in the woods were Indians, Roman soldiers, Nazis, Chinese karate kickers, at least one Vikin' with a battle-ax, and God only knew what else. And behind us, maybe stalkin' somethin' good to eat, was a caveman with an eighty-pound club.
And all of 'em, all the ghosts, maybe gettin' more solid by the hour. What was gonna happen, I wondered, when all the billions and billions of people who'd ever died in the world were back on earth again, hungry and thirsty, some of 'em peaceful folks for sure, but others ready to chop your head off or bust your skull with a club? One rifle suddenly seemed an awful puny thing. I had a thought: If we got killed, we wouldn't stay dead very long, would we?
The tornadoes sounded closer, whirlin' more ghosts into the woods. I said, "Come on," in the calmest voice I could manage, and I pulled Vera along with me. Ben Junior walked close to me on the other side, his hands clenched into fists. We had a long way to go. Maybe a car would come along. Maybe. This wasn't a night fit for travelin'. The road ahead was dark, so very dark. We had no choice but to walk it.
Copyright © 1989 by Robert R. McCammon. All rights reserved. This story originally appeared in the anthology Post Mortem, edited by Paul F. Olson and David B. Silva and first published in March 1989. Reprinted with permission of the author.