- Author: Jim Harmon
Read book online «The Last Place on Earth by Jim Harmon (book club books txt) 📕». Author - Jim Harmon
Naturally an undertaker will get the last word.
But shouldn't he wait until his clients are dead?
By JIM HARMON
Illustrated by GaughanI
Sam Collins flashed the undertaker a healthy smile, hoping it wouldn't depress old Candle too much. He saluted. The skeletal figure in endless black nodded gravely, and took hold of Sam Collins' arm with a death grip.
"I'm going to bury you, Sam Collins," the undertaker said.
The tall false fronts of Main Street spilled out a lake of shadow, a canal of liquid heat that soaked through the iron weave of Collins' jeans and turned into black ink stains. The old window of the hardware store showed its age in soft wrinkles, ripples that had caught on fire in the sunset. Collins felt the twilight stealing under the arms of his tee-shirt. The overdue hair on the back of his rangy neck stood up in attention. It was a joke, but the first one Collins had ever known Doc Candle to make.
"In time, I guess you'll bury me all right, Doc."
"In my time, not yours, Earthling."
"Earthling?" Collins repeated the last word.
The old man frowned. His face was a collection of lines. When he frowned, all the lines pointed to hell, the grave, decay and damnation.
"Earthling," the undertaker repeated. "Earthman? Terrestrial? Solarian? Space Ranger? Homo sapiens?"
Collins decided Candle was sure in a jokey mood. "Kind of makes you think of it, don't it, Doc? The spaceport going right up outside of town. Rocketships are going to be out there taking off for the Satellite, the Moon, places like that. Reminds you that we are Earthlings, like they say in the funnies, all right."
"Not outside town."
"Inside. Inside town. Part of the spaceship administration building is going to go smack in the middle of where your house used to be."
"My house is."
"For less time than you will be yourself, Earthling."
"Earthling yourself! What's wrong with you, Doc?"
"No. I am not an Earthling. I am a superhuman alien from outer space. My mission on Earth is to destroy you."
Collins pulled away gently. When you lived in a town all your life and knew its people, it wasn't unusual to see some old person snap under the weight of years.
"You have to destroy the rocketship station, huh, Doc, before it sends up spaceships?"
"No. I want to kill you. That is my mission."
"Because," Candle said, "I am a basically evil entity."
The undertaker turned away and went skittering down Main Street, his lopsided gait limping, sliding, hopping, skipping, at a refined leisurely pace. He was a collection of dancing, straight black lines.
Collins stared after the old man, shook his head and forgot about him.
He moved into the hardware store. The bell tinkled behind him. The store was cramped with shadows and the smell of wood and iron. It was lined off as precisely as a checkerboard, with counters, drawers, compartments.
Ed Michaels sat behind the counter, smoking a pipe. He was a handsome man, looking young in the uncertain light, even at fifty.
"Hi, Ed. You closed?"
"Guess not, Sam. What are you looking for?"
"A pound of tenpenny nails."
Michaels stood up.
Sarah Comstock waddled energetically out of the back. Her sweet, angelic face lit up with a smile. "Sam Collins. Well, I guess you'll want to help us murder them."
"Murder?" Collins repeated. "Who?"
"Those Air Force men who want to come in here and cause all the trouble."
"How are you going to murder them, Mrs. Comstock?"
"When they see our petition in Washington, D.C., they'll call those men back pretty quick."
"Oh," Collins said.
Mrs. Comstock produced the scroll from her voluminous handbag. "You want to sign, don't you? They're going to put part of the airport on your place. They'll tear down your house."
"They can't tear it down. I won't sell."
"You know government men. They'll just take it and give you some money for it. Sign right there at the top of the new column, Sam."
Collins shook his head. "I don't believe in signing things. They can't take what's mine."
"But Sam, dear, they will. They'll come in and push your house down with those big tractors of theirs. They'll bury it in concrete and set off those guided missiles of theirs right over it."
"They can't make me get out," Sam said.
Ed Michaels scooped up a pound, one ounce of nails and spilled them onto his scale. He pinched off the excess, then dropped it back in and fed the nails into a brown paper bag. He crumpled the top and set it on the counter. "That's twenty-nine plus one, Sam. Thirty cents."
Collins laid out a quarter and a nickel and picked up the bag. "Appreciate you doing this after store hours, Ed."
Michaels chuckled. "I wasn't exactly getting ready for the opera, Sam."
Collins turned around and saw Sarah Comstock still waiting, the petition in her hand.
"Now what's a pretty girl like you doing, wasting her time in politics?" Collins heard himself ask.
Mrs. Comstock twittered. "I'm old enough to be your mother, Sam Collins."
"I like mature women."
Collins watched his hand in fascination as it reached out to touch one of Sarah Comstock's plump cheeks, then dropped to her shoulder and ripped away the strap-sleeve of her summer print dress.
A plump, rosy shoulder was revealed, splattered with freckles.
Sarah Comstock put her hands over her ears as if to keep from hearing her own shrill scream. It reached out into pure soprano range.
Sarah Comstock backed away, into the shadows, and Sam Collins followed her, trying to explain, to apologize.
The voice cut through to him and he looked up.
Ed Michaels had a double-barreled shotgun aimed at him. Mrs. Michaels' face was looking over his shoulder in the door to the back, her face a sick white.
"You get out of here, Sam," Michaels said. "You get out and don't you come back. Ever."
Collins' hands moved emptily in air. He was always better with his hands than words, but this time even they seemed inexpressive.
He crumpled the sack of nails in both fists, and turned and left the hardware store.II
His house was still there, sitting at the end of Elm Street, at the end of town, on the edge of the prairie. It was a very old house. It was decorated with gingerboard, a rusted-out tin rooster-comb running the peak of the roof and stained glass window transoms; and the top of the house was joined to the ground floor by lapped fishscales, as though it was a mermaid instead of a house. The house was a golden house. It had been painted brown against the dust, but the keening wind, the relentless sun, the savage rape of the thunderstorms, they had all bleached the brown paint into a shining pure gold.
Sam stepped inside and leaned back against the front door, the door of full-length glass with a border of glass emeralds and rubies. He leaned back and breathed deep.
The house didn't smell old. It smelled new. It smelled like sawdust and fresh-hewn lumber as bright and blond as a high school senior's crewcut.
He walked across the flowered carpet. The carpet didn't mind footsteps or bright sun. It never became worn or faded. It grew brighter with the years, the roses turning redder, the sunflowers becoming yellower.
The parlor looked the same as it always did, clean and waiting to be used. The cane-backed sofa and chairs eagerly waiting to be sat upon, the bead-shaded kerosene lamps ready to burst into light.
Sam went into his workshop. This had once been the ground level master bedroom, but he had had to make the change. The work table held its share of radios, toasters, TV sets, an electric train, a spring-wind Victrola. Sam threw the nails onto the table and crossed the room, running his fingers along the silent keyboard of the player piano. He looked out the window. The bulldozers had made the ground rectangular, level and brown, turning it into a gigantic half-cent stamp. He remembered the mail and raised the window and reached down into the mailbox. It was on this side of the house, because only this side was technically within city limits.
As he came up with the letters, Sam Collins saw a man sighting along a plumbline towards his house. He shut the window.
Some of the letters didn't have any postage stamps, just a line of small print about a $300 fine. Government letters. He went over and forced them into the tightly packed coal stove. All the trash would be burned out in the cold weather.
Collins sat down and looked through the rest of his mail. A new catalogue of electronic parts. A bulky envelope with two paperback novels by Richard S. Prather and Robert Bloch he had ordered. A couple of letters from hams. He tossed the mail on the table and leaned back.
He thought about what had happened in the hardware store.
It wasn't surprising it had happened to him. Things like that were bound to happen to him. He had just been lucky that Ed Michaels hadn't called the sheriff. What had got into him? He had never been a sex maniac before! But still … it was hardly unexpected.
Might as well wait to start on those rabbit cages until tomorrow, he decided. This evening he felt like exploring.
The house was so big, and packed with so many things that he never found and examined them all. Or if he did, he forgot a lot about the things between times, so it was like reading a favorite book over again, always discovering new things in it.
The parlor was red in the fading light, and the hall beyond the sliding doors was deeply shadowed. In the sewing room, he remembered, in the drawers of the treadle machine the radio was captured. The rings and secret manuals of the days when radio had been alive. He hadn't looked over those things in some little time.
He looked up the shadowed stairway. He remembered the night, a few weeks before Christmas when he had been twelve and really too old to believe, his mother had said she was going up to see if Santa Claus had left any packages around a bit early. They often gave him his presents early, since they were never quite sure he would live until Christmas.
But his mother had been playing a trick on him. She hadn't been going up after packages. She had gone up those stairs to murder his father.
She had shot him in the back of the head with his Army Colt .45 from the first war. Collins never quite understood why the hole in back was so neat and the one in front where it came out was so messy.
After he went to live with Aunt Amy and the house had been boarded up, he heard them talking, Aunt Amy and her boy friend, fat Uncle Ralph. And they had said his mother had murdered his father because he had gone ahead and made her get pregnant again and she was afraid it would be another one like Sam.
Sam Collins knew she must have planned it a long time in advance. She had filled up the bathtub with milk, real milk, and she went in after she had done it and took a bath in the milk. Then she slit her wrists.
When Sam Collins had run down the stairs, screaming, and barged into the bathroom, he had found the tub looking like a giant stick of peppermint candy.
Aunt Amy had been good to him.
Because he didn't talk for about a year after he found the bodies, most people thought he was simple-minded. But Aunt Amy had always treated him just like a regular boy. That was embarrassing sometimes, but still it was better than what he got from the others.
The doctor hadn't wanted to perform the operation on his clubfoot. He said it would be an unproductive waste of his time and talent, that he owed it to the world to use them to the very best advantage. Finally he agreed. The operation took about thirty seconds. He stuck a knife into Sam's foot and went snick-snick. A couple of weeks later, his foot was healed and it was just like anybody else's. Aunt Amy had paid him $500 in payments, only he returned the money order for the last fifty dollars and wished them Merry Christmas.
Sam Collins could work after that. When Aunty Amy and Uncle Ralph disappeared, he opened up the old house and started doing odd jobs for people who weren't very afraid of him any more.
That first day had been quite a shock, when he discovered that not in all these years had anybody cleaned the bathtub.
Sometimes, when he was taking his Saturday night soaker he still got kind of a funny feeling. But he knew it was only rust from the faucets.
Collins sighed. It seemed like a long time since he had seen his mother coming down those stairs….
He stopped, his throat aching with tightness.
Something was very strange.
His mother was coming down the stairs right now.
She was walking down the stairs, one step, two steps, coming closer to him.
Collins ran up the stairs, prepared to run through the phantom to prove it wasn't there.
The figure raised a gun and pointed it at him.
This time, she was going to shoot him.
He always had bad luck.
"Stop!" the woman on the stairs said. "Stop or I'll shoot, Mr. Collins!"
Collins stopped, catching to the bannister. He squinted hard, and as a stereoptic slide lost its depth when you shut one eye, the woman on the stairs was no longer his mother. She was young, pretty, brunette and sweet-faced, and the gun she held shrunk from an old Army Colt to a .22 target pistol.
"Who are you?" Collins demanded.
The girl took a grip on the gun with both hands and held it steady on him.
"I'm Nancy Comstock," she said. "You tried to assault my mother a half hour ago."
"Oh," he said. "I've never seen you before."
"Yes, you have. I've been away to school a lot, but you've seen me around. I've had my eye on you. I know about men like you. I know what has to be done. I came looking for you in your house for this."
The bore of the gun was level with his eye as he stood a few steps below her. Probably if she fired now, she would kill him. Or more likely he would only be blinded or paralyzed; that was about his luck.
"Are you going to