“See the Fairville Oddity!” by David Afsharirad
SEE THE FAIRVILLE ODDITY!
For the last fifty miles, Aaron had seen this message proclaimed from various sun-bleached billboards as he travelled along Highway 285. These weren't the big steel contraptions that lined the interstate, but old wooden structures, made of painted plywood, most falling down and nearly illegible. He wondered how old they were. Fairville, his phone's GPS informed him, wasn't on the map anymore, just another ghost town in the vast empty of West Texas.
It had been a mistake to take the back roads, he thought now. He'd reasoned it would be a good way to see some of the country as he travelled from Austin to Los Angeles, where Megan awaited, but though the views had been intermittently lovely, overall the trip made him lonely. Rural Texas had been emptying out for decades, everyone moving to one of the major cities along the I-35 corridor. Driving these lonesome roads, it would sometimes be hours before he saw another vehicle, and the small towns he stopped in had the hallowed out look of someone waiting to die.
And it was taking forever. He thought of an old saying he'd heard from his grandmother. The sun has rose and the sun has set and we ain't out of Texas yet.
SEE THE FAIRVILLE ODDITY!
Like the others, this sign featured a giant yellow question mark and a listing for how many miles still separated the weary traveler and the aforementioned oddity. Twenty-five, in Aaron's case.
This particular billboard looked to be in slightly better repair. And the one at the ten-mile mark looked like it might even have been touched up in the last decade. Was it possible, Aaron wondered, that though Fairville itself had gone the way of the dodo, the Oddity remained?
He hoped so. In addition to the Oddity, the billboard promised FOOD and GAS, and he could stand both. He remembered his mom always packed a cooler full of food when the family went on long road trips back when he was a kid, but this habit hadn't been passed down to the younger generation. Whenever Aaron took to the road, the fuel he ran on was McDonald's cheeseburgers and Taco Bell burritos, with the occasional gas station hot dog thrown in for good measure. What he hadn't counted on was that most of this back-country route did not fall in the shadow of the Golden Arches. Yesterday, he'd stocked up on beef jerky and Hostess cupcakes (not nearly as good as he remembered), but his supply was dwindling. Some real food would be nice. And he could top off the tank. At a little less than half-full, he wasn't in dire need of gas, but like fast food establishments, gas stations were in short supply along this forgotten stretch of road, and he did not want to have to get out and push.
So yes, he's stop and grab a bite and fill the tank—and see the Fairville Oddity, while he was at it. If, he reminded himself, there was still food and gas to be had and an Oddity to be seen.
SEE THE FAIRVILLE ODDITY!
This sign looked—well, not new, but in decent condition. Below the admonition to see the Oddity were the words "NEXT RIGHT."
The sun baked the road ahead, sending up heatwaves off the cracked pavement. The sky was bleached the same color as the surrounding land, everything in faded blues and browns and whites the color of bone. But just on the horizon, he thought he saw another billboard, with another yellow question mark.
As he approached, it resolved. Sure enough:
THE FAIRVILLE ODDITY!
YOU MADE IT!
And below the big yellow question mark, an arrow pointing down a hardpacked dirt road.
Aaron slowed the car to a stop at the intersection. He looked down the dirt road. Off in the distance, he made out the low-slung silhouette of a cluster of dilapidated buildings backed up to an arroyo. Like everything else out here, they were sun-bleached and wind-beaten. But still standing. It was hard to tell, but he thought he could make out a car parked to one side of the smaller structure. A minivan, looked like. And there were pumps out front. The lights didn't seem to be on, but that didn't mean that nobody was home.
As he neared the buildings, his hopes, however small, were dashed. The car he’d seen from the road—it was indeed a minivan—was empty, and both it and the building it was parked next to had the feel of being recently abandoned, but abandoned none the less.
Aaron pulled up to one of the pumps. It was covered in dust, but then so was everything out here, and the price of gas seemed about right. Was it possible…?
He got out of the car. The pumps were situated on a concrete island, with no overhang or awing, about two dozen yards from the main structure. Aaron removed his gas cap and set the nozzle. The pump was ancient, something that begged to be featured on one of those cheesy basic cable reality shows where the not-intimidatingly-good-looking-but-still-handsome hosts could "find" it in a barn, "haggle" with the owner, then restore it just after the last commercial break. All analog, there was no way to tell if the pump was operational without giving it a try. He flipped the switch and squeezed the handle.
Dry as a bone.
Aaron turned to surveil the station. It was made of adobe—what looked like real adobe, not just an adobe layer over a wood frame like most "adobe" structures were these days—and must have been built over a hundred years earlier. He wondered what it had been originally. Not a gas station. No call for gas in these parts that far back, was there? To the right of the main structure sat a double-wide trailer that had once been painted the same bright yellow as the question mark on the billboards. On its side, in red-faded-to-pink letters big as a man, was written: THE FAIRVILLE ODDITY! WHAT IS IT?!?!?! The door to the double wide hung ajar.
Aaron pulled his cell phone out of his pocket, noted that—surprise, surprise—he had no signal and that it was now after six. No wonder he was so hungry. If he pushed on, he might make it into New Mexico before he got too tired to keep driving. Then he could hunker down for the night—in a roach-infested motel room if there was one available, in the backseat of the car if there wasn't. Tomorrow, he'd make a beeline for the interstate, where he'd cruise along at seventy-plus miles an hour all the way to L.A. and Megan's waiting arms.
He returned the nozzle to its cradle and re-screwed his gas cap. Ducking through the open driver-side door, he did a quick sweep of the car, gathering the various used napkins, soda bottles, coffee cups, and beef jerky and candy wrappers that had accumulated on the floorboard and passenger seat. All of this he tossed in a plastic trash can the size of a whiskey barrel that had been painted to look like just that, with fake wood grain and steel hoops and three black Xs on its side. The paint was faded and peeling and the effect wasn't particularly convincing. Tourist trap kitsch, gone to seed. Back behind the wheel, he scanned the adobe structure and the double-wide once more. Hadn't he taken these back roads to encounter places such as this, the forgotten side of America that had been fading from memory? So what if it was closed? He could still have a look around, couldn't he? Realistically, he had no appointments to keep. What was ten minutes scouting an abandoned roadside attraction going to cost him in the scheme of things?
He got out of the car. By force of habit, he locked and shut the door—and immediately regretted it.
"No, no, no." He slapped his right pocket, the usual resting place for his car keys, then his left (unlikely but possible), then his back pockets, and the place on his chest where a shirt pocket would have been if he had been wearing more than a T-shirt.
The sun glinted off the driver's side window, turning it into a reflective mirror. In it, Aaron caught a glimpse of his wide-eyed, frantic face before cupping his hands over his eyes to peer into the interior of his Honda.
There they were, taunting him from the center console. Right where he'd set them while mulling over whether or not to go exploring.
He knew he'd locked the doors but tried all four anyway. He even tried the trunk. The mechanism that opened the gas door also opened the trunk, depending on whether or not you pushed it up or down. Perhaps he had popped the trunk and hadn't realized it. If that was the case, there was a pass-through door in the trunk that led into the back seat so that you could haul long objects. Aaron had used this feature exactly no times since he'd bought the car, but knew that though the pass-through door had a lock, the lock was broken. If he could get into the trunk, he might be able to wriggle through into the back seat, at least far enough to reach one of the back door locks.
But when he tried to lift the trunk, it remained stubbornly closed. He tried the doors again. Then again. He peered in through the window at the keys as if he could guilt them into teleporting themselves into his pocket.
Speaking of pockets, didn't he have a cell phone in one of his? This being the second decade of the twenty-first century, of course he did. He dug it out.
Fifteen minutes later—he knew because he was staring at the clock on his cell phone—he gave up hope of getting a signal. He'd walked up and down the dirt road hoping for even just one bar, but to no avail. Had even tried lifting the device into the sky, as if it being that extra couple feet closer to orbit would help.
Bust the window.
Neither was great, but soon the sun would dip below the horizon, and he figured the second was the better choice of the two. With the sun down, the temperature would start to drop —it got surprisingly cold at night—and his jacket was locked in the car with the rest of his worldly possessions. Not to mention that it wasn't too likely he'd encounter anyone willing to pick him up, certainly not on the stretch of dirt road that led to the Oddity—he'd been here over half an hour and hadn't seen a single car—and probably not on Route 55. He could walk until his phone had signal, but who knew how long that would take.
Nope, better to find a rock.
He began to search for one. There were plenty of smaller stones scattered around the cracked pavement of the lot as well as on the sides of the dirt road, some as big as his fist, but to knock the window out, he'd need something more substantial.
Aaron walked toward the arroyo behind the station. He didn't know why, but he gave the trailer a wide berth. Something about its open door. He passed the minivan, paying it attention for the first time. It was in fairly good shape. He wasn’t up on minivan trim packages and body styles, but it looked relatively new. As he rounded it, he saw that the sliding door on the driver’s side was open. When he’d been a kid, his mother had always refused to park next to a van’s sliding door. If you did, she warned, kidnappers might slide it open, snatch you up, and be gone. It was a ridiculous fear, of course. Aaron doubted that there’d ever been even a single such case reported, but the lesson had been imprinted on him at a tender age, and had more or less stuck. There was a part of him, creeping at the back of his mind, that expected some horror to jump out of the van.
But of course none did.
There were two car seats in the middle row of the van, a pink one and a larger red one. Loose crayons littered the floor. His heart nearly stopped when he saw what he at first took to be a bloodstain on the tan carpeting, but then his eyes found the overturned bottle of Big Red.
Still, it was plenty creepy.
He told himself there was an easy explanation, but gave up trying to think of one as he came around the back corner of the adobe station, and a stench hit him like a physical thing. It seemed trash service hadn't been exactly regular out in this part of the world, and the proprietor had taken to using the arroyo as his own personal landfill. The wind shifted and the smell of rotten meat wafted over him. Aaron gagged, pulled his shirt over his nose and mouth, thankful this lovely tableau was in the desert and not some Louisiana swamp, where the stench would be even worse. Down below, he saw dozens of black Hefty bags, filled to bursting. Some had burst, revealing rotten meat, moldy bread, cardboard boxes full of expired snack cakes. There was a bathtub down there, a porcelain sink that looked to date from the first half of the twentieth century. Enthralled by the depravity of the scene, he walked up one side of the arroyo.
Good God, was that a horse skull down there? He peered closer, shook himself.
"Not the time." He went back to searching for something he could use to break the window. Rocks large enough for his purposes seemed to be in short supply, but there was a rusty metal shed backed up to the station. Its door was pulled-to, but there was no padlock looped through the hasp. There might be a hammer or something in there. Aaron slid the sheet-metal door aside with a screeching that reverberated in the still air. He stuck his head inside, waited for his eyes to adjust to the low light.
A shuffling sound behind him, as of something being dragged.
Aaron pulled his head out of the shed and spun around. The wind whipped his hair and T-shirt. Not the hot wind of mid-day; there was the slightest hint of desert-night chill in it.
The shuffling again. It sounded as if it was coming from down in the arroyo. Aaron inched closer to the side. Cautiously, he peered over. He could see nothing but the piles of garbage.
Probably a rat, he thought. A big rat.
Or a coyote. They were supposedly pretty timid around people, but if this one had been making regular meals of the garbage out back of the station, its natural fear of humans might have worn off, in which case, even if it was small—and any coyote that had been gorging itself on this garbage was likely to be pretty large—it could be extremely dangerous.
The shuffling again. And did he see a Hefty bag shift over to the right of the bathtub, or was it just the wind and his mind playing tricks?
Best to find a hammer and get the hell out. He stepped inside the shed and found what he was looking for. The place was as organized as the arroyo was not. Rows of tools gleamed on the walls and the worn wooden workbench. To his left, hung a chainsaw, ax, shovels of different shapes and sizes, and a gas-powered weed-whacker. He removed a claw hammer from the pegboard and stepped out.
The rat/coyote had, it seemed, vacated the premises. Aaron no longer heard the shuffling. He walked back toward the car. As he passed by the trailer (SEE THE ODDITY! WHAT IS IT?!?!?), he paused.
"Oh, what the hell," he said. He had driven all this way, had locked his keys in the car, and would shortly have to replace a car window. He was going to see that damn Oddity.
He climbed the rough-hewn wooden steps and pushed the trailer door. The lights were off. He located a switch, flipped it one-two-three times. It made a satisfying click each time but did little else. He got out his cell phone and, using it as a flashlight, stepped inside.
To his right was the "souvenir shop." Red and yellow T-shirts with contrasting lettering hung on the walls behind a glass case, which, on closer inspection, held keychains, coffee mugs, and mousepads, all with the same "THE ODDITY! WHAT IS IT?!?!?" logo. It looked like the sort of stuff you could order from an internet site. Just upload your text and pick your colors and voilà: instant souvenirs. As with the outdoors, there was a thick layer of dust over everything inside. The T-shirts hung limp from their hangers, like wilted flowers, and slowly swiveled from side-to-side in an unfelt breeze.
A piece of posterboard on a collapsible easel to his left proclaimed that he was about to enter The Fairville Museum of Curiosities—Home of THE ODDITY. Other than the sign, there was no differentiation between the two sides of the trailer.
Aaron stepped past the sign and into the museum, such as it was. Mostly, it seemed to be a series of glass cases with desiccated knick-knacks and taxidermied animals: a one-eyed pig fetus, a two-headed snake. In one corner stood a six-legged cow. There was a Fiji mermaid, clearly fake, and a jackalope, equally as fake but charmingly so. The little critter reared up on hind legs, his glassy eyes full of mischief.
Faded photographs rested alongside the taxidermied animals and were stapled to the walls. These featured old sideshow freaks and images of Bigfoot, Yetis, lake monsters, and various assorted cryptozoological anomalies. Most were so grainy it was impossible to tell what you were supposedly looking at without first consulting the handwritten 3x5 notecard tacked next to the photo. None of the photographs looked to be original to the Fairville Museum of Curiosities. Instead, they were clipped from coffee table books and old issues of supermarket check-out periodicals. It was just the sort of junky stuff one would hope to find in a roadside attraction, and Aaron was glad he'd taken the time to stop. Well—maybe that was an overstatement. Rather, since he had stopped, he was glad that he'd taken the time to see the sights.
He shone his flashlight at the far end of the trailer where a casket-sized deep freeze lay on a velvet-draped table. On the wall behind was a vinyl poster bearing, unsurprisingly, the inscription THE ODDITY! WHAT IS IT?!?!? In addition to the yellow question mark, the poster featured a bright red arrow pointing down at the deep freeze.
"Guess I'm about to find out," Aaron said. His words cut through the stillness and he was suddenly aware of just how alone he was. He thought about the coyote/rat/whatever down in the arroyo. He shuddered and told himself it was because the air was turning chill and had nothing to do with his being all alone in what could easily be used as the set of a horror movie.
He stepped forward, his footsteps reverberating on the hollow floor. So, what was the Oddity, he wondered? He'd seen a few of these old carnival gaffs in his day. Usually it was some rubber monster so covered in ice that you couldn't quite make out how fake it was or what, exactly, it was supposed to be. The worst of them were just repurposed Halloween costumes, the best, custom-made monsters. He hoped the Oddity would fall into the latter category, though judging from the rest of the Fairville Museum of Curiosities, he wouldn't be surprised to see a gorilla suit stuffed with newspaper in the deep freeze.
A yellow line was painted on the carpet of the trailer two yards in front of the Oddity's resting place. "POINT OF NO RETURN" was written across the line in unsteady red-lettering. Aaron stepped over the line and peered down into the deep freeze.
The Oddity was gone, stolen from the looks of it. The glass lid of the deep freeze was shattered. Shards of glass crunched under the soles of his sneakers and sparkled under a few inches of dirty melted ice, now turned to room temperature water.
Probably some teenagers on a dare, Aaron thought. Or it was possible that the thieves had a fiscal interest in the Oddity. A few of these old gaffs, like the Minnesota Iceman and The Thing in Arizona, were rather famous and might be of value if sold on the black market to a collector. The rest of the stuff in the museum could be picked up for a few bucks on eBay, but the Oddity—whatever it had been—might have enticed an entrepreneurial criminal to break the door in and swipe the gaff.
On his way out, Aaron paused at the gift shop. Along with the junky trinkets was a stack of slim paperbacks: The Fairville Oddity: A History with Commentary. It was a homemade affair, printed on Xerox paper, the pages affixed with office staples. Inside there were a few black and white photographs interspersed among the dense, single-spaced text. One showed the trailer looking much newer than it did now, another, the Fiji mermaid—not even the Fiji mermaid on display at the museum, just a generic Fiji mermaid shot pulled out of some book. There was a picture of the casketlike deep freeze—and finally, yes, there it was, a photograph from above, the camera pointing down on the Oddity.
Reproduced in such poor quality, it was difficult to make out just what he was looking at. The Oddity was buried under a layer of snow-fine ice so that only the barest outline was discernible. It wasn't a gorilla suit, whatever it was; the proportions were all wrong for that. Aaron turned the book this way and that, squinted, trying to figure out what it was he was supposed to be looking at. A large oval, perhaps three feet in diameter lay at one end of the deep freeze. From this protruded two small appendages, arms he supposed. Which would mean that the oval wasn't the head of the creature, but its body. Did it have a head? He looked closer, but there just wasn't enough detail in the photograph. From the bottom of the oval, two long legs(?)—tentacles(?)—stretched to fill the length of the deep freeze. The whole thing was almost six feet long.
"The Oddity!" Aaron said, under his breath. "What is it?" He chuckled and tossed the book back on the pile, then changed his mind and slipped it into his back pocket. He'd keep it as a souvenir; there was no one around to protest his taking the old five-finger discount. He switched off the flashlight on his phone and made his way toward the crack of pale light that was the open door.
The Oddity was a fake, he thought. Had to be. Just a random assemblage of parts—maybe from real animals, like the Fiji mermaid (monkey and fish) and the jackalope (rabbit and deer antlers), maybe just various pieces of rubber and latex pieced together to give the impression of having once been some otherworldly creature.
It was rather effective, he did have to admit that. There was something familiar about the dark outline under all that frost. Not mammalian. Reptilian? Something about the bend of the legs/tentacles . . .
Not that it mattered. What mattered was getting back into his car and eating up the highway. He'd spent too much time dilly-dallying, and as he stepped out of the trailer he noted that the sun had gone down, the last rays of daylight fading to purple. He turned to push the door closed behind him, but both the bolt that the knob operated and the deadbolt had torn through the frame, leaving jagged splintered holes in the wood. Done, no doubt, by whoever had busted in and stolen the Oddity. Only something about it bothered him. It took him a moment before it clicked: the door seemed to have been kicked outward.
Once again he was aware of how alone he was. A shiver worked its way from the base of his spine to the top of his head, his arms erupting in gooseflesh. All at once he felt like getting the hell out of there. And quick.
He was at the base of the steps in a single bound and halfway across the barren expanse of the lot before he noticed the thing squatting in front of his car.
No, he thought. It wasn't a thing. Wasn't a thing at all. It was—the Oddity.
His feet nearly slipped out from under him as he skidded to a stop, his sneakers sliding on the compact dirt and gravel. His arms pinwheeled frantically trying to right himself. Falling now would be bad.
Once he had regained his balance, he stood rooted to the spot. The station, the trailer, and his car were equidistant. He was out in the open, exposed. The trailer would be his best bet, but the door was busted. There would be no way to barricade himself inside. The station was second-best, but as far as he knew, it was locked tighter than a drum. Whoever had broken into the trailer hadn't robbed the store.
Only no one had broken into the Fairville Museum of Curiosities, had they? Something had broken out.
He fixed his eyes on the Oddity, realizing what had been familiar in the poorly reproduced photograph. The bulbous head/body. The small arms. The strange bend of the outstretched legs.
As a kid, he'd been obsessed with nature documentaries, had absorbed them like a sponge. In those pre-streaming days, he'd recorded National Geographic specials on VHS tapes and watched them over and over again while other kids watched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and reruns of Adam West's Batman. His favorite had been an hour-long special on amphibians. Something about them simultaneously fascinated and repulsed him. Their proportions were all wrong, the bend of their limbs out-of-whack. As he stared at the Oddity, he remembered scenes from the documentary he hadn't thought about it years.
The Oddity was a giant frog or toad. Squatting on its legs, the top of the Oddity's eyes came to the level of the car's bumper. It was a solid thing, compact. As he watched, it blinked its eyes slowly. Aaron had read an article not too long ago, something that had popped up randomly on his Facebook feed. Frogs and toads, it seemed, used their eyes to push food down their throats. When they blinked, the eyes pushed down into the roof of the mouth, giving whatever prey they'd just consumed a helping hand.
Now, seeing the monstrous Oddity, the idea made him sick to his stomach. Afraid he might puke, he averted his gaze—only for a moment. He couldn't afford to take his eyes off the Oddity for long. It was sitting still now, but with those powerful legs, it could make the distance between them in two leaps.
Slowly Aaron backed up, using his feet to feel behind him lest he trip over a rut. Falling flat on his ass would be bad right about now.
The Oddity blinked again. There was something unsettling about those eyes. They were so alien, with their oddly shaped pupils. Impossible to tell what was going on behind them. Amphibians were much lower on the evolutionary scale than mammals or even reptiles, their brains so inhuman it was impossible to comprehend what was going on in back of those eyes.
He was halfway back to the trailer when the Oddity leapt. It was like a film with a few frames missing, the reel spliced back together. One second the Oddity was sitting a couple feet in front of his Honda's bumper, the next it was in the air. It came down in a cloud of dust with an audible thump.
It took everything in him not to run for it. But there was no indication that the Oddity was interested in him. It had probably been gorging itself on trash—he now realized it was no rat or coyote he'd heard down in the arroyo—since it had busted out of its fiberglass coffin. And frogs and toads weren't, so far as he could remember, territorial. If he ran, it might see him as prey. But if he took things easy . . .
He backed up another few yards until his sneaker connected with the wooden stairs that led to the trailer.
The Oddity jumped toward him once again as he ascended the first step. It was now no more than a dozen feet away.
Okay, that was no good. If he went inside and the thing continued to follow, he'd be cornered. He put both feet back on solid ground.
Maybe he could lure it away. He sidestepped. The Oddity did not move and it was impossible to tell if it was tracking him with those dinner-plate eyes. If he could get it to follow at a safe distance, he could circle back around to his car and jump in.
Suddenly, the hammer felt very heavy in his hand. He hadn't remembered he'd been carrying it and for a moment he couldn't imagine where it had come from or what he was planning to do with it.
The keys. Damn it, the keys.
Would he have enough time to break the window? Or would the Oddity overtake him?
No matter. He would have to make time.
He sidestepped again, slowly. As he passed to the Oddity's right, several dozen yards away now, it turned to face him. No doubt but that it was tracking him now. He kept walking, slowly as possible so as not to provoke the Oddity into attacking. The Oddity followed in a series of short hops. Presently, he found himself facing the passenger's side door of the Honda. He was a good twenty feet away. The Oddity was to his right, halfway between where he stood and the trailer. Now was his chance. He'd have to run for it. He'd head straight for the car, hoping he could make it around the back bumper before the Oddity could overtake him.
His heart was beating, the blood pulsing in his ears, drowning out all other sounds save his labored breathing.
Okay, he thought. On three.
He gripped the hammer tighter. His hand ached from the vise-like grip he kept on it. He could feel the wood handle slick with his sweat. It was his last line of defense, though he admitted that it was mostly psychological. Taking down an animal that size with a hammer blow was unlikely.
One, he thought. Two.
But his legs refused to cooperate. He was fine shuffling along, like a man on a high ledge, but the idea of breaking out into a full-fledged run was untenable. What if he tripped and fell? What if his legs cramped up? The Oddity seemed to be keeping its distance. Better, perhaps, to keep moving slowly, edge his way to the car foot-by-foot and slip in.
Just then, the Oddity jumped a greater distance than it had heretofore. In a single bound it had halved the distance between them. Another leap like that and it would be on him.
He needed to move, and now. With as much will power as he had ever managed to muster in his life, he forced himself to run, full-out, toward the Honda.
He didn't trip and his legs didn't cramp. Behind him, he could hear the Oddity as it crashed down with each jump. It was following him, clearly. But the Honda was now only a few feet in front of him. He aimed straight for it, only sidestepping at the last moment to skirt around the back end of the car. As he did so, he heard a wet slap accompanied by a metallic thwap! Without thinking, he turned to look over his shoulder and faltered.
The Oddity sat six feet away, mouth agape. The sound had been its gargantuan tongue lashing out to grab hold of him. Only by skirting around the car at the last second had he avoided being hit. The tongue was a grotesque thing, a wet rope of purple and pink flesh that looked like entrails. As Aaron watched, the Oddity reeled it back in, leaving a patch of viscous saliva on the back panel of the car and a snail-trail in the dust. He felt his gorge rise, tasted hot bile in the back of his throat, but to stop now was unthinkable.
He dashed to the driver's side window and swung the hammer as hard as he could. It connected with a satisfying crack, the glass pebbling into pieces and falling away. Aaron reached through the door, pulled up the lock. As he reached for the handle, he looked up, realizing he'd taken his eyes of the Oddity for far too long.
It was gone.
Don't question it, he thought.
He reached for the handle, got the door open.
The car shifted, the shocks squealing in protest in concert with the sound of metal crumpling.
Aaron flung himself back from the car. The Oddity sat perched on the roof.
The Oddity gave chase, but he couldn't risk looking back over his shoulder. Ahead, the adobe gas station sat, inscrutable, in the coming desert night. The main door was made of solid glass and he still had the hammer in his hand. If it was locked, as it most certainly was, he could smash through.
But the Oddity would simply follow behind him. He would be trapped inside with the beast.
Run to the trailer?
No. His situation there would be no different.
The Oddity crashed down behind him, almost on his heels now by the sound of it. With the length of its jumps being what they were, it was a miracle it wasn't on him already.
The station was now not more than a few feet in front of him. Suddenly, he remembered: he'd seen a side entrance when he'd gone around back to get the hammer. It was made of solid-looking wood, but had an elongated rectangular window inset in it. The service entrance, designed for deliveries. If he could smash the window, he could get the door unlocked and dash inside. The Oddity would have no way of following him.
If, he thought, he could make it in time.
He turned to his right and made his way around the building, skirting past the deserted minivan, the presence of which was now all too easily explained. He was almost glad he was running for his life. It kept his mind off what must have happened to the family in the van, the two kids who sat in the pink and red car seats, drawing and drinking Big Red.
Behind him, he heard the wet squelch impact of the Oddity crashing into the side of the station. It had been that close. He would never have made it inside.
Up ahead—yes, there it was—the door. He'd remembered correctly. He skidded to a stop in front of it, swung the hammer at the window, which shattered, not in small safety-glass pebbles, but in jagged, mean-looking shards. He tried clearing the window frame completely, but still cut his arm badly as he reached through to open the door. The pain knifed up his arm and forced his jaw shut with an audible snap. As he pulled his arm back through the window, he saw rivulets of crimson blood streaking down his arm.
Well, when he was inside and safe, he could deal with that. A cut wrist wouldn't make much difference one way or the other if the Oddity got ahold of him. He chanced a glance to his left just as the Oddity appeared around the corner of the station. There was something disturbing about how calm it looked. With a slavering bear or wolf or dog, you could see the blood-lust in the creature's eyes.
Aaron swung open the door and fell inside. He threw his weight against it, and locked it behind him.
Inside, the station was a tomb, dark, cool, and silent. He pulled his cell phone from his pocket, checked to see if he had signal (he did not), and turned on the flashlight.
He was in the back stockroom. Ancient wire shelving held nondescript cardboard boxes. But cryptlike or not, the seals of the windows and doors hadn't managed to keep out the desert dust. He scraped at it with his sneaker, tracing a pattern on the worn linoleum beneath. Must be a half inch of dirt in here, he thought. How long would it take to accumulate?
All thought was cut off as the door jumped in the frame behind him. Aaron darted away from where he stood, nearly tripped over an empty carton that, according to the stark black lettering on the side, had once contained Snickers. The door jumped in the frame again—but held.
"Guess you'll have to find another snack, asshole," he called through the door.
Slowly, he stepped back toward the door and looked out the window. The Oddity sat in the dust, facing away from him now. Off to its left was the trash-filled arroyo where it had come from. If he sat tight long enough, it might lose interest and return there. Or he could make a break for it out the front doors. Frogs and toads could be crafty hunters, but they weren't particularly intelligent. The Oddity would have no way of knowing that Aaron could escape through the front of the station.
But first, he had to take care of his cuts. He looked down at his blood-slicked arm and at the spatters and small pools on the floor of the stockroom. Impossible to tell how badly he was injured; there was too much blood obscuring the wounds. It looked bad but not life-threatening.
He made his way down the narrow aisles between the shelving. Against a wall was an industrial sink with a cast iron faucet. He crossed to it, spun the rusty knobs. They turned with a protesting groan, but nothing came out of the pipes.
Sure, the electricity was off, why wouldn't the water be?
But this was a convenience store in the middle of the desert. There ought to be jugs of water.
Behind him was a door marked OFFICE and another, which was not labeled. He pushed through it out into the convenience store proper. It wasn't as large as he had expected, looking from the outside. He made his way to the refrigerated case along the back wall. Ignoring the soda and beer—and he didn't even want to think about how spoiled the milk was—he found the case that contained water, opened it and removed a gallon jug. There didn't seem to be a first aid shelf, but he found paper towels. They would have to do as a bandage for now. As he went back into the stock room, he chanced a look outside through the glass front doors. It was full-on dusk now and soon it would be too dark to see. If he was going to make a break for it tonight, he'd need to do it soon.He looked around for the Oddity, but didn't see it. He'd look out through the storeroom again, once he got his arm taken care of. Hopefully, it had disappeared back down into the arroyo. But if it was still waiting for him around the side of the building, he'd make a run for it. The thought of spending the night in the station did not appeal at all.
He pushed back through the storeroom door and went to the sink. There were three cuts on his arm, as well as an assortment of scrapes, but only one was what he might consider serious. He washed the wounds clean, managed to mostly staunch the flow of blood, though the most serious cut still seeped, and fashioned a bandage out of the paper towels and a roll of duct tape he found hanging on a peg above the sink.
Throughout this process, he had kept his back to the service entrance, as though ignoring the Oddity would make it go away. Now, he edged closer to it. Through the empty window inset in the door, he could see the moon rising, not quite full but close. Good. That would give him at least some light to see by when he made a break for the car. As he edged closer, he put his eye up to the busted-out window.
The Oddity sat a few feet away in the dust, facing the door.
It made sense. Most frogs and toads were ambush predators, and while the Oddity had displayed slightly different hunting patterns by stalking and finally chasing after him, it wasn't too much of a stretch to imagine that it probably more or less behaved the way its normal-sized counterparts did.
Quietly as possible, he backed away from the service entrance and walked back into the convenience store. For all intents and purposes, it looked like a run-of-the-mill gas station convenience store. Wire racks of candy bars, beer, soda, a few grocery staples, oil, wiper fluid. And behind the scuffed counter, lottery tickets and rows of cigarettes.
Aaron had smoked in college, had started in high school, in fact. He'd quit at the insistence of an old girlfriend who said he tasted like an ashtray. (She hadn't thought it funny when he asked her how many ashtrays she'd Frenched to make that comparison.) There were some former smokers, he knew, that spent the rest of their lives craving a cigarette, but not Aaron. He'd quit cold turkey and had never again felt the urge.
He walked around the counter and helped himself to a pack of Camels and a Bic lighter. The cigarette tasted terrible, but it wasn't stale. Whatever had happened here hadn't happened all that long ago, in the scheme of things. He walked out from behind the counter to a rack of beef jerky, used his cell phone to check the expiration date on the package. Still good, and would be for some time. Same story with the Twinkies, which urban legends aside, had a relatively short shelf life.
Now was the time to run to the car, but he would feel better if he had something in his hands to defend himself. He'd dropped the hammer at some point in his haste to escape the Oddity and was now unarmed. But he was stuck inside convenience store, not a Walmart or Bass Pro Shop. No handguns for sale, no bows and arrows. Not that he'd know how to use either. But no hunting knives either. There was the tools he'd seen in the shed out back, including, if memory served, a rather lethal-looking axe, but they might as well have been on the moon for the good they would do him out there.
Aaron dropped the cigarette to the floor. He didn't want the thing, after all. As he ground it under his foot, he glanced over and noticed a wood-paneled door along the back wall, next to the row of refrigerated cases, marked PRIVATE. It couldn't lead to the back storeroom. A waste of time? Or perhaps there would be something back there he could use against the Oddity.
The moment of indecision stretched out until it felt to him like he had been standing on the scuffed linoleum for the better part of his life. Finally, he managed to shake himself out of it.
"Okay," he whispered as he headed for the door, "in and out. Five minutes tops, then I bolt for the car."
The smell assaulted him as he pushed through the door. The festering odor he'd smelled wafting up out of the arroyo multiplied by several factors of one hundred. In the cramped quarters of the apartment attached to the convenience store—for that is where the door led—it was almost unbearable. Aaron turned his head and vomited on a hook rug just inside the doorway. It tasted of bile and the half-cigarette he'd just smoked, a foul blend of acid-tang and ashy putrefaction. The stench was a real thing, a thick weight pushing against him.
Stumbling out of the apartment, he gasped for a breath of what a moment earlier he would have described as stale, musty air, but now felt as clean and fresh as a mountain breeze. He was still gagging, but thought that with any luck he would be able to keep from vomiting again.
Pulling his shirt up over his nose wasn't going to do much to keep the odor out, but there might very well be something he could use against the Oddity in there. Possibly even a gun. He found the automotive section of the store and opened a pack of shammies, which he held over his nose and mouth, then plunged back into the darkness and stench of the apartment.
It was a small cavern of a living space. One room for the living area and kitchenette. A sofa sagged in the middle of the room in front of an ancient tube television outfitted with foil-covered rabbit ears. Dirty plates were stacked on the coffee table and in the mildew-stained sink of the kitchenette, but there was no way that this was what caused the stink. Aaron stepped hesitantly into the room. He opened a closet on his right. Jackets hung below a shelf sagging under the weight of old Kodak slide carousel boxes. He rummaged around for a moment, but if there was a shotgun or baseball bat hidden among the detritus, he couldn't find it.
Closing one door, he walked toward the other. This one was set into the back wall and as he approached, he though the stink was getting worse. Perhaps it was because he was venturing deeper into the apartment, but he had a feeling that whatever was behind that door was what was causing the smell. And he didn't particularly want to find out what it was.
But the door undoubtedly opened onto a bedroom, the most likely place to find a firearm. The knob felt cool in his hand. He turned it and eased the door open.
That the odor didn't waft out on a visible green cloud was nothing short of a miracle, he thought. And all at once he was aware of a sound he hadn't noticed before. A low-level buzzing that was now almost deafening in the enclosed space.
Steeling himself, Aaron stepped into the bedroom and looked down at the rotting corpse of the old man who had once owned and operated the service station as well as the Fairville Museum of Curiosities. He looked to have died in his sleep. There was no sign of violence and the covers were pulled up around his neck. Aaron didn't want to do any further investigating. It was obvious what had happened. Old guy, all alone out here. He dies one night while the museum and station are closed and he never reopens. The few people that stop by assume the place is deserted and move on. When the power and water bills aren't paid, the utilities are cut off and the place looks even more deserted than it did before.
There were frogs in the arctic that would freeze solid as rocks during the winter. Come spring, they'd thaw out, good as new. When the power was cut off and the deep freeze that housed it started to defrost, spring had come for the Oddity for the first time in who knew how long. Maybe since the last ice age.
How strange, Aaron thought, it must be for it to wake up in a world that has passed it by. A desert landscape wholly alien to what it knew. It was the last of its kind, no doubt about that.
Well, if it tried to make a snack out of him again, he would see to it that it joined its compatriots in extinction. But in order to do that, he'd need a weapon. The bedroom was a wreck. Stacks of old newspapers tottered, lining the walls. But there was a small night stand on the side of the bed nearest him. If there was a gun here, this would be the place to find it. Aaron took a last long breath through his shirt and held it as he entered the room and rushed to the night stand. Inside: a flashlight, a Gideon's Bible stolen from some motel, and a stack of vintage porno mags that, judging by the soft-focus photography and feathered hair, dated to the 1970s. No gun. Whoever the dead man had been, he hadn't been too afraid of intruders all alone out here.
Aaron did his best to avoid looking at the desiccated corpse as he made his way out of the room, shutting the door behind him.
A window over the sink in the kitchenette was now a black mirror. It was full dark outside. No more time for dilly-dallying. If he was going to go for the car, he'd have to do it now.
Without thinking—because if he thought, he'd never be able do it—he walked out of the apartment and through the convenience store to the glass double doors. Outside, he could just make out the outline of his car at the darkened pump island. Not far. Not really. Farther than he would have liked and farther than was standard for a gas station to be set back from the pumps. But not far.
He could make it, easily.
With shaking hands, he unlocked the doors. The deadbolt snicked open with a deafening sound. Did frogs have good hearing? That was one fact he couldn't dredge up from the memory of nature documentaries past. If they did, it was possible it had heard him.
"Three, two . . ."
Suddenly the door was open and he was outside. He hadn't even waited for his countdown to end. The air was brisk now, a north wind cutting through him like a blade. His feet pumped the ground beneath him, churning up dust devils as he ran. He closed half the distance, two thirds.
I'm going to make it, he thought.
Three quarters of the way there. Now, he could make out the details of the car.
He skidded around the front of the car and tripped. His jaw snapped shut as he fell painfully on his right knee. He tasted the metallic tang of blood in his mouth. He tried to push himself up on scraped palms, but he was unable to stand. Was something broken?
He felt himself being pulled inexorably backward, his shirt riding up, his stomach scratching on bare cement. With effort, he managed to turn onto his back.
The Oddity sat, mouth agape, tongue extended. It was looped around his left leg. The Oddity was reeling him in like a fisherman hauling in a prize bass. Only this wouldn't be a catch-and-release situation if Aaron didn't manage to break the line.
He fought back vomit as he dug his fingers under the slime-slick rope of the Oddity's tongue. It stretched but was as strong as a steel band. Beating at it seemed to do no good, and all the while he was trying to escape, the Oddity, with its fixed dead eyes, was pulling him ever closer to his death. He turned back on his stomach, grasped at the pavement but only succeeded in breaking his fingernails. Pitted as the slab was, there was not a handhold sufficient to grab onto. Rolling back over, he began kicking at the Oddity's tongue with his right leg, clawing at it with bleeding fingers. It was as if he was doing nothing. He was close enough now to smell the swamp-stink of the Oddity's breath. He could see the razor line of jagged teeth in its jaw. Small, yes, but incredibly sharp, and angled in such a way that they prevented prey from wriggling back out of the mouth. This was because frogs and toads ate their meals whole, like snakes. Insane that he was thinking all of this as the last seconds of his life ticked away, but Aaron seemed unable to help himself. His foot was no more than six inches from the Oddity's jaws. Once inside, it would clamp down like a bear trap and that would be it. No escape. Once something went in a frog's mouth, it wasn't coming back out.
Again, an insane, useless memory from that old National Geographic special: an American Bullfrog that had starved to death after trying to eat another frog of slightly greater size. The bigger frog had gotten stuck in the throat of the smaller, and the smaller, due to its anatomy and method of hunting, had been unable to spit the larger out. The image had fascinated and sickened him as a child and it came back now with the force of a freight train, and suddenly he knew that it might just save his life.
With renewed ferocity, he clawed at the Oddity's tongue, to no avail. But as he was drawn closer, he sat up and attacked its bulbous eyes with hammered fists. He felt one pop under his hand, hot blood and vitreous fluid spraying onto his arms and face. The eye was like a deflated balloon.
And it had worked. The Oddity released his leg, reeling its tongue back in. Aaron scrambled to his feet, ran for the car. The Oddity gave chase. If it lashed out with its tongue before he could get around to the driver's side, he was sunk.
But no. He had made it around the car.
Behind him, he could hear the Oddity give chase. The open window and unlocked door were a beacon and he wanted nothing more than to climb inside his car and put the gas station, the Fairville Museum of Curiosities, and most of all, the Oddity, behind him. But there wasn't time. As the Oddity rounded the car, Aaron hoisted the barrel-painted plastic trash can that sat next to the pump. The soda bottles and coffee cups he'd deposited earlier clattered to the ground, the wrappers and napkins blowing away on the chill breeze.
The Oddity opened its mouth, the massive tongue preparing to dart out. He raced toward the Oddity, the trash barrel held out in front of him like a shield. When the tongue made contact with it, it was like being pushed hit by a baseball bat, but Aaron kept his feet under him. He held onto the barrel, rushing forward as the tongue reeled it in. With all the strength he could muster, Aaron jammed the barrel down the throat of the Fairville Oddity, wedging it as tight as possible between the beast's jaws. He stumbled backward and watched as the giant frog flailed in the dirt, trying to dislodge the obstruction from its throat. It banged into the pumps, knocking the nozzle loose.
Aaron climbed into his car, found the keys where he'd left them, started the engine, and threw it into gear.
As he made his way down the rutted gravel road, he watched as the Oddity struggled. It wouldn't suffocate. Its anatomy would allow it to go on breathing until it finally starved to death. It would be slow and probably painful, to the extent that a frog could feel pain. For a moment, he felt a little bad about it, killing this wonderful freak of nature. Then he looked down at the slimy residue on his leg left by the Oddity's tongue. He remembered the stink of its breath and the wet shine of its throat.
"Screw you, Oddity," he said. "And screw Fairville."
Soon, he was back on the highway. On the opposite side of the road, he saw the outline of a billboard against the night sky. He glanced up at his rearview mirror as he passed. As he expected it read, "SEE THE FAIRVILLE ODDITY!!!"
He had. And once was enough.
Copyright © 2022 by David Afsharirad
David Afsharirad is a writer and Associate Editor at Baen Books. He lives in Austin, TX.