Eater

Eater
by Sean Ealy

Paul hated the night shift. Other jurisdictions might see an elevation in crime after dark, but not in this backwood part of the county. Most of the stores locked up at five o’clock sharp, and even the two gas stations hung up their pumps and shut out the lights by eight. You might find the occasional weekend party up McGowan Creek, with teenagers getting drunk and making out in the backseat of Daddy’s car. But even that was rare anymore. These days they just did that at home.

He turned his cruiser onto County Road 13, headlights barely illuminating the crumbling pavement. Nothing but wheat fields on both sides of the blacktop, and darkness so thick it was like staring at the end of the world.

He used to get the creeps out here sometimes. When the sun went down, those fields seemed to change. All that wide open space stretching out for miles and miles, space you couldn’t see but could feel bearing down on you. You’d stand on the edge of the road and swear you could hear the wheat growing. Sometimes the rustling of grain heads in the wind sounded like voices whispering, conspiring like thieves, and you just knew they were talking about you.

The road took a sharp turn to the left, passing along Jacob Jesperson’s alfalfa field and hay barn. Paul eased on the brake and guided the cruiser around the bend. When the road leveled out again, he hit the gas and flipped on his brights.

He came across the car a half-hour later.

Paul found it abandoned on the right-hand shoulder about a mile into the woods, where the pines were thick and all but blotted out the sky. Black and sleek, it was the kind of car you might see in one of those old gangster movies: rounded fenders, chrome grill, and suicide doors. He pulled up behind it, aimed the spotlight, and picked up the radio.

“Dispatch, this is Patrol 28. Come in.”

“You’ve been quiet tonight, Paul. Thought you might be sleeping.”

“Can’t say it didn’t cross my mind, Jen,” Paul said.

“What are you getting yourself into now?”

“Got an abandoned car out on Six. License plate … shit, look at that.”

“Did I lose you, Paul?”

“Sorry, Jen. Just a funny license plate number, that’s all. Guess I’ve seen ’em all now.”

“What does it say, sweetheart? Can’t run what I don’t know.”

Paul laughed. “EATER.”

“Come again?”

“You heard me right. Echo-Alpha-Tango-Echo-Ralph. Oregon plate, current tags.”

Jennifer giggled. “Ain’t that something. Kids these days …”

“I don’t know if it’s kids, Jen. I’m gonna check it out.”

“I’ll run the plate and get back to you.”

Paul grabbed his hat from the passenger seat and rummaged through the glove box for his flashlight. He approached the car cautiously, shining the flashlight first at the rear windshield, then the driver-side window. The windows were tinted, and he couldn’t see much but the light reflecting back at him. He felt along the hood and kicked a tire. The engine was cold.

Too nice of a car to just leave sitting here. He shined his light down the road. Maybe the driver had run out of gas. Long way to hoof it in the middle of the night, but if that was the case, they were long gone. The car had been sitting for a while.

Paul went back to the squad car.

“Something’s not right out here, Jen.”

“I tried you twice but couldn’t get through. Nothing but static. You alright?”

“I’m fine,” Paul said. “Did you get anything on that license plate?”

“Nope. There’s nothing registered with ODOT. Are you sure you’re reading it right?”

Paul frowned. “It’s right there, Jen. I’m looking right at the letters.”

“Maybe a glitch in the DMV system. Did you see anyone on the road?”

“Car’s cold. Been here awhile.”

“Want me to call Hank and have it towed?”

“Not yet.” Paul stared at the back of the car. Something moved inside the rear window—maybe a face, maybe his imagination. “I’ll call you back in a few.”

“You’re the boss.”

Paul went back to the car and tried the driver’s side door. Locked.

“Hello?”

He shined his light in the window again, then slipped the flashlight into his armpit so he could grab the latch with both hands. The door still wouldn’t budge.

Just have it towed and move on, he thought. This ain’t your problem.

Something thudded against the window. Paul jerked and almost dropped the flashlight. Another thump, and his breath escaped him in a short bark.

Paul thumbed the radio on his shoulder. “Jen? You there?”

The radio was dead.

“What the Hell?”

The thumping came again, frantic now. Thump thump thump!

“Hey, is there somebody in there?”

Paul leaned in, listening.

“Who’s in there? Unlock this door, dammit!”

Something crept up behind him; fingers danced along his neck. He spun around, lifting the flashlight, but there was nothing there. Wind swept through the trees. He heard an owl hoot somewhere.

“Sheriff’s Department,” Paul said. He put his forehead to the car window, cupping a hand around his eyes to see inside. “Open this door!”

Another bang on the window—a single, hard rap on the glass. Paul jerked his head back. This time, he dropped the flashlight as he unholstered his sidearm.

The car began to rock back and forth. Paul watched, his breath streaming out in front of him in great plumes. The gun shook in his hand. He almost fired when he heard the scream. It was a man’s voice. Familiar.

The Pontiac came to life. Its headlights flipped on like two round eyes. The engine revved, a guttural sound, loud and powerful and shocking. Exhaust billowed all around him, choking him and stinging his eyes.

Paul stepped back until he was actually standing in the road. He watched the door, his palms slick, the gun slipping. In his 12 years as a deputy sheriff, he had never discharged his firearm.

The driver door cracked open. Fingers, long and pale in the low light, curled around it.

The man who pulled himself out of the car was tall and lean. His khaki shirt was well pressed and his black boots well polished. The star pinned to his left breast pocket said Benton County Deputy Sheriff. He stood up, stretched, and yawned as if waking from a long nap. Finally, he acknowledged Paul with a curt nod before leaning back into the car to grab a brown hat.

The man put the hat on, and Paul found himself staring into those sleepy eyes. The imitation was so perfect it was chilling.

“Who are you?” Paul said. “How is this possible?”

The Paul Stone doppelganger took a step forward, and the real Paul lifted his gun and squeezed the trigger. The bullet went wild, ricocheting off the metal door.

The doppelganger grinned. He reached for Paul’s gun and wrapped those long fingers around the barrel. If the metal was hot, the doppelganger didn’t seem to notice.

“What are you?”

The doppelganger pulled the gun from Paul’s lucid fingers and tossed it into the bushes.

“My gun,” Paul said, his voice barely a whisper. “My face … you have my …”

“Hungry,” the doppelganger said. “So hungry.”

Paul spun on his heels, but the doppelganger was quicker. His hand seized Paul’s shoulder, jerked him hard, and forced him to look into that familiar face. It’s horrible, Paul thought. Up close, he could see there was something wrong with the man’s eyes. It was death he saw there, staring back at him, and death had teeth.

“Hungry,” the doppelganger said. It lifted Paul so that his feet were inches off the ground.

“No,” Paul said. “Please.”

“Please,” the doppelganger mocked, then threw the deputy into the front seat of the car. Paul slid across the leather, smacking his head on the passenger-side door.

The inside of the car smelled putrid, like rotten vegetation and old earth. Like a sealed tomb. He choked on that smell, felt it reaching down inside him and stealing his breath, gagging him and making his head feel thick.

The doppelganger leaned inside the open door.

“What are you?” Paul asked.

“I’m you.” It winked.

Paul kicked at the doppelganger’s face but hit the steering wheel instead.

The doppelganger wagged its index finger back and forth. “Naughty, naughty little boy. Not playing nice.”

“Let me out of here!”

The engine roared. Paul could feel the vibrations, the power of the engine, the car itself, rising up through his body, chattering his teeth, rattling his brain. It was like being caught in the belly of a beast.

“Goodbye, Paul.”

The doppelganger slammed the door.

Paul screamed. He tried opening both doors but they were locked. He tried to pull the locks but they were stuck. He hit the dash, hit the window, again and again until his fist was bruised. The car gunned its engine, and for one small moment, Paul was sure he could hear it laughing.

That’s crazy, he thought. Cars don’t laugh.

The gearshift dropped into drive. The radio flicked on and Mick Jagger’s voice filled the air: “I can’t get no satisfaction.”

The tires spun underneath him as the tail end of the car began to drift, and Paul heard the gravel hitting the undercarriage. He could smell the exhaust and smoke and dust.

“Let me out of here!”

The brakes released and the car shot forward. The doppelganger watched the red taillights disappear down the hill and into the darkness. The stupid grin on his face never faltered. After a while, the sound of the car’s engine no longer carried on the wind.

The doppelganger walked slowly to the squad car. His boots crunched in the gravel. He slid in behind the wheel, knocking his hat off his head and into his lap, and stared at the radio. What was it? How did it work? He picked up the speaker and depressed the call button.

“Hello,” he said.

“Criminy, Paul, is that you? I was just about to send Danny out there looking for you.”

“I’m fine,” the doppelganger said. It licked its lips and something flickered in its eyes. “Hungry.”

“What have you been doing out there, Paul?”

“I’m coming in.”

“What about the car?”

The Paul Stone thing ran its small pink tongue over the chapped surface of its thin lips. Something growled in its belly. “I’m hungry. So hungry.”

It tossed the radio aside.

The car would return, empty once again, but not tonight. Maybe not even tomorrow night.

The doppelganger would be waiting.

But first it would feed.


Copyright © 2015 Sean Ealy