That man with the gun sure was smart, Gladys thought anyway. She did intend of braining whoever came with her first chance she got once they were on the roof. Then she could probably finagle her way down the gutter or something and run for help. Whoever that weirdo was in the car probably wanted one of them and wouldn’t bother with a little old woman.
Well, not exactly little. Dr. Forrest had told her she needed to lay off the fried chicken and the cheese doodles, but since Ferdinand II had died, well she just didn’t feel like doing right no more. Ever since Mr. Kelly had up passed (she refused to think of him as her husband or even Glenn after doing such a terrible thing as what he’d done to her) she’d depended on her little dogs to keep her going and with F2 stuffed on the mantle she was in a boat with only one oar. She had to do something to get out of here and soon. Dionysius was all alone in his crate and he was bound to be hungry soon. What if he starved to death?
Gladys dug into the closet in the office behind Fred’s desk. It really wasn’t a closet, more of a tall skinny locker nailed into the corner. She reached for her tools on the shelf, remembering the gun Fred kept on the one just above it. Gladys stood on tippy-toe, hoping she could reach it—her jumping days were long gone with her calves in the state they were in. A skinny hand reached just above her and she gave a yip, yanking the tools back to her chest as if she’d just been seen without her top on.
“Mighty fine piece, Ma’am.” Gladys turned to see the biker already back in the doorway, leaning against it with his arms folded, the nose of the gun poking out by his bicep.
“I didn’t know that was there.” It sounded like a lie even to her ears. The biker just shrugged.
“Look, can we get this over with? I’m not too eager to be outside with that thing out there.” He made a face as if he were realizing something. “I dunno, it just feels… safer in here.”
“Uh-huh,” she said dumbly, but she recognized the truth in what he had said. Even though that Roscoe character had been killed, the car had come just short of driving through the Spoon, almost as if it had stopped on a dime. And the front was just about all glass, it could have easily and killed half the people in here. Gladys followed the man until they were back behind the counter, wondering why that was.
“Okay, Petey,” the biker said. “Let’s go.”
Petey had a red and white headband on and smiled. He looked young and stupid, made even younger and dumber when he palmed the counter and leapt over to their side. The first man waved to their leader who nodded back at him and turned to Gladys.
“What?” she said when he stared at her.
“Lead the way, Ma’am.”
She led the two men to the back and they had to stop to let Fred and two bikers pass as they dragged Roscoe’s dead body toward the cooler. Fred was swearing just above his breath. One of the men behind her whistled.
“Ain’t no way to go.” Had to have been Petey. His voice was nasally and high, the others was smooth, the words well-rounded. She half turned her head toward him.
“Are you from around these parts?” Gladys asked more to get her mind off the corpse being set next to all those patties than out of curiosity.
“Yes, Ma’am,” he said. “Grew up in Mendy, as a matter-of-fact. That the roof access up there?”
“Oh, um, yes.” Gladys stepped as gingerly as her thirty extra pounded frame would allow over the off-on blood streak Roscoe’s body had left behind. She walked up to the ladder but before she could begin to climb, the man was right next to her, gentling her aside.
“If you don’t mind, Ma’am,” he said, going ahead. They were smart. At least a little bit. She had a mallet inside her tool satchel and could have walloped both of them as they popped out of the access like that old Whack-a-Mole game. This was going to be her chance, though. She just had to watch for it.
“Young man, may I ask your name? I mean, if we’re going to be forced together in this situation then we may as well know what to call one another.”
He looked down at her. “It’s Jackson, Ma’am.”
“Well, Mr. Jackson—”
“No-no. Just Jackson. Mr. Jackson was my grandfather and if you’ll pardon my language, he was an asshole.” He opened the roof access and climbed out and Gladys realized she’d known a Jackson who was about ten years or so older over in Mendy who could have been described as being that word by many people. She tucked that away in case it might come in handy in the very near future.
She turned to Petey. “Young man. I am absolutely positive you are going to be a gentleman until I have made it onto the roof.”
“Huh?” Petey said.
“She means stay off the ladder until she’s up here,” Jackson said. “So you won’t see up her skirt.”
“But why would I want to—” Petey pulled a face that looked like how a sputtering engine sounded. Gladys put the satchel over her shoulder and climbed. When she reached the top, Jackson had a hand out and helped her the rest of the way. That posture alone cinched it for her. She did know this boy’s grandfather. Or at least had. She’d seen him in a similar pose several times. He’d had a tendency of knocking people down with his fists and having the audacity to help them up as if they’d only tripped. But on Jackson it came off as a true kindness.
“Seems fine.” Jackson looked around, a worried stitch between his brows. What he was looking for was anybody’s guess. She took his hand and ascended into the mock-furnace that was outside.
“Of course it’s fine. That man is down there. We’re up here.” Petey climbed up, that dumb grin back on his face. Jackson nodded, to her or Petey she wasn’t sure. “The rooftop unit is over this way. Gladys surged past Jackson, passing by several structures she wasn’t entirely sure what they did. Even though she believed what she’d just said, it felt different out here than inside. Her heart fluttered—suddenly, she didn’t feel safe. Gladys was suddenly reminded of a childhood game, but she couldn’t quite remember what it was called or how it was played.
“Here it is,” she said, approaching the unit. She used a screwdriver to wedge the panel open. Jackson leaned in to look and she realized he was close enough she could have easily stabbed him through the eye. Maybe she would have if it had been Petey looking, but she had a strange affinity she couldn’t quite explain. It was odd considering he’d been a complete stranger who was holding her hostage ten minutes ago and now he was the grandson of one of the most awful human beings she’d ever met.
“I need a little room here.” She didn’t, but wanted him to move back just the same. Gladys glanced over her other shoulder and Petey wasn’t anywhere in sight. Jackson must have picked up and looked around for him.
“Ay, Petey, don’t get lost!” he called. Gladys got down to her work and after a minute had figured the problem. She was mostly through correcting it when she heard footfalls behind them, rapidly approaching.
“Man, I don’t have a good feeling about this!” Petey said. “I wanna get back down in the restaurant.
“Just cool it,” Jackson said. “We’ll be done soon. Right, Ms. Gladys?” She picked up on the fear creeping into Jackson’s voice and she felt the same. It felt wrong out here. Gladys had to suppress the constant urge to look over her shoulder.
“Movin’ just as fast as I can.”
“It’s that thing!” Petey said. “It’s up here!”
Gladys felt sudden cold in the sweltering heat, racing through her.
“Ma’am, can you hurry?”
“I’m trying. I’m trying!” she plead as if he’d threatened her. Twice her hands fumbled, the second time she succeeded in slicing her index with the flathead screwdriver. She blocked everything out as best she could and concentrated as best she could. Had she had the patience for book-learning, she could have gotten her license and worked her own heating and cooling business.
“Ms. Gladys, Ma’am, I think we need to go.”
“Almost done. Don’t think we came here just to run away before the job was done.”
Jackson licked his lips, but only nodded at her.
“Petey, cool it. Maybe if we stay quiet, it won’t know we’re here. What was it doing, anyway?”
“It was makin’ these sounds—I don’t know, I couldn’t see its head.”
Gladys took a glance over her shoulder at the two men behind her and saw Jackson stepping side-to-side, gripping the gun he’d taken from Fred’s office in his hand. If there were a time at all to make a break for it, then it was coming up. She screwed a panel back in place, dropped the flathead back in the satchel and grabbed the mallet with her hand still inside.
“Let’s go, Jackson.” He turned and looked at her and nodded who in turn patted Petey on the back and they moved forward. They moved a little too fast for her to keep up, which was fine. One of three things was about to happen: Jackson would go down first with Petey tight on his heels, Jackson would go down and Petey would let her go first, or Petey would go down and Jackson would let her go down. If they both went down without her she could head straight for the ladder and make a break for her car, parked in back. If Jackson went first she would smash Petey’s head with the mallet and if Petey went first she’d just run. For some reason she didn’t believe Jackson would do anything, that he might say something, but wouldn’t actually do anything to stop her.
They were almost at the access when Gladys bumped into Jackson.
“What?” she called too loudly.
“Ma’am,” he whispered, “please be quiet.” There was something about the tone of his voice that compelled her to step around his shoulder to see what he was seeing. It didn’t make sense in that it wasn’t completely abnormal.
She’d seen a dog in the middle of the night by the roadside tearing out the entrails of a dead elk by the roadside and obviously, she’d seen the man no more than fifteen feet away from them, but what he was doing—
Petey vomited. A soft, wet sound and Gladys saw him from the corner of her eye lurch forward and meet whatever had come out of him with the palms of his gloved hands. Her heart began a slow revving up in her chest until she got a light, fluttery feeling in her wrists and the heels of her hands until she began making fists to chase the sensation away.
The man with the motorcycle helmet was on one knee, tearing the flesh off a hunk of meat wearing a cream suit jacket spattered with blood. It looked familiar until the necklace she’d complimented and the French-manicured hand with a butterfly ring dragging around in semi-circles as the man ate clicked something in her brain and she realized who he was eating.
The oddest part was he still had his helmet on.
“Don’t move, Petey,” Jackson said, stiff at her side. “Don’t!”
“Fuck this shit, I’m gettin’ back inside!” He threw Jackson’s hand off him and stepped forward. The man in the helmet either didn’t notice or didn’t care and Jackson and Gladys looked at each other. She certainly didn’t want to be the only one left if Petey actually made it, but she wasn’t in a rush to get eaten, either. All thought of escaping the roof had been abandoned especially considering she’d have to pass that man to get to the ladder.
Petey reached for the access door. The man shook his head, tearing a hunk of flesh free from the dead woman’s torso.
“Oh,” Gladys said, unintentionally. The man’s head turned. Petey froze and she felt Jackson go completely still at her side. Gladys couldn’t swallow properly. Her heart felt too large and cold in the center. She tried to control her breathing, but her lungs felt already full—she couldn’t fill them with enough oxygen when she breathed in and felt instantly on the verge of suffocation when she breathed out. This was panic—an appropriate time for such a reaction, but she forced herself to hold still.
The man was watching Petey. He growled, although she’d never heard a sound like that before. It sounded… metallic.
“Petey, get back,” Jackson whispered. “Get back here right now.”
Petey shook his head. He was going for it. Gladys didn’t know why, but she knew he would have been safer standing with them. That maybe if they were all at the access door at least the first two people down would have made it.
But Petey took one last step and in the process of blinking her eye, it—Gladys could no longer fool herself into believing this was a man—was on him. She still had the after-image of it kneeling and eating that poor woman as it was tearing into Petey.
He screamed and Jackson pumped his arms by his sides as if revving himself to throw himself at the thing attacking his friend. He went and Gladys caught a glimpse of Petey being thrown from side to side as it held him in its hands. It still had its helmet on as it chewed into him and she saw how it could heat with it on: the helmet had to have been its head because its the crease open to where its ears should have been revealed dozens of jagged, cloud white teeth spilling out of the red-red cave of its mouth.
Petey was still screaming and Jackson was shouting as well and underneath, Gladys could hear the horrible sounds it was making as it was eating the younger man. As quickly as she could, she made her way past the three of them, sweat prickling down her back as the fingertips of her left began tingling. She must have fainted because she was suddenly looking at the roof tile from inches away. Gladys’ legs were still going, but she was pretty certain she wasn’t on her feet. Petey’s screams had ceased, but what was more terrifying (in a detached sort of way) was Jackson was quiet too. The only thing she could hear was that thing eating. She didn’t know whether to hope he’d left her here alone or was busy being lunch. Her breathing was shallow and quick and she was certain she was on the verge of freezing to death. She must have done a hell of a job with the a/c.