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Fiction: At the Store by Neal Barrett, Jr.

I’m Billy he’s Bob. I run the store. Bob gets the stuff. Works out fine. I can move good. Got two lookers, pickers and foots. Bob runs the catcher and the sacker. I’m pretty good, but Bob, now, he is fast.

Isn’t a smell that can get away from Bob. Hog hearts dog parts lemon tarts and shit. Dust mites crotch bites parasites and pricks. Bob gets them all, drops ‘em in a sack, brings them back to me.

That’s where I come in. He’s the big swiftie, I got the knack. Mix the heavies with the lights, baby fuzz here, sock-rot there. Lavender and sweat. Toejam and Thyme. Some of this and some of that, toss it in the vat. I like a whiff of pepper, little sniff of snot, but hey, that’s me.

The Gibbies, they know something’s up. They start to grunt and gabble, stumble all about. Isn’t a one of ‘em knows what day it is, what world they’re on or anything else. All they know’s when it’s TIME. Same as they know they ought to nap, crap, or diddle whatever’s standing round.

When it’s time, they’ll walk a hundred miles, go without food, go without drink, stand there and die, wait until the moment they live for comes along. When it does, when the wind’s just right, when the clock beneath the world begins to toll, when darkness bites the day, slashes it, gnashes it, swallows it whole, that’s when the UNGEHEUER begin to come around…

Bob and I are ready. We’ve got the stuff mixed, fixed, fused, fully refined. Pressed, stressed, cunningly defined.

Now we can hear the Gibbies cry, hear them moan, hear them groan, as they fling themselves against the walls outside. Then, scarcely a flea-beat later, from across the leaden hills, from beyond the dead plains, comes theclumpa-bumpa-slither, the stumpa-stumpa-stump of the terrible UNGEHEUER. Closer, closer they come, until the floor begins to tremble and the walls begin to shake. I’ve heard the sounds before, and each time’s the same. The cold dread takes me, my heart nearly stops, and I’m certain I can’t face those ugly mothers again.

Soon, they’re terribly close, a pounding, deafening presence. The great sealed doors slide and groan and there they are. Once more, the UNGEHEUER are upon us…

They shuffle and they grunt, stumble and bump, tons of dread and blubbery flesh. Each scabby hide is covered with great, ugly patches of matted hair and awful open sores. The sores, if one is wont to look, are crawling with hordes of stinging, biting things as horrid as the monsters they ride.

    Still, in all fairness, the UNGEHEUER are no more frightening than, say, the aKanHAI or the MT’CC. Of course, Only Dr. LaCrou’diano has actuallyseen the MT’CC, and he was struck dead at the sight.

    But that’s a different story. The buggers I’m speaking of now, the ones of interest to Bob and me, are a common sight on the grasslands a thousand miles to the east. You could go there and see them. I doubt that anyone would. They come our way once a year, and Bob and I—and the Gibbies—are grateful enough for that.

They are in our compound now, packed one against the other; not a fleck not a speck could pass between them.

It’s time for Bob and me to get ready for the stuff that happens next.

The outer door has been solidly locked and sealed. The walls are strong, so strong even the hundreds of monsters squeezed inside could never break them down.

The next step is a tricky one. We want our prisoners to breathe, of course, but not too much. Bob who has a way with words, calls it SOS: Sort of Suffocation. What we want them to do is breathe our air, not just any whiff that comes along. And, as you can imagine, there’s not a lot left after hundreds of foul, corpulent tubs of flesh have been penned up for a while.

Bob has it ready. All the smells he’s gathered on his trips throughout the year have been crammed, jammed into enormous, vacuum-sealed vats. Now, if I may say, my own not inconsiderable skills come into play. Every fragrance every odor every stink every stench is boiled, filtered, shaken and stirred, ionized, pasteurized, pounded and pulped.

I can’t reveal the details of this process to the public, but needless to say, a lot of complicated stuff goes on before we’re done. The result is orangey-colored gunk sort of like the feed stock eat everywhere else. But looks can be deceiving, and to the UNGEHEUER there’s a special treat in every bite you just can’t get anywhere but here. They know they got to have it, and once a year, their little monster brains tell them this is where it’s at. Man, they lap the stuff up fast as Bob and I can dump it through the tubes. “Crazed” is what Bob calls it, and I can’t disagree with that.

I got to say, Bob and me have studied on this a lot. We know, from some pretty yucky work, that the digestive system of the UNGEHEUER works at a speed that leaves other overweight chunkers behind. As they gobble down their grub and gasp for air to fill their bellies, their cries of pain begin to fill the great room.

That’s when the fun begins. Great, fierce explosions rip the air. First one, then another bloated monster looses a staggering, gaseous mixture into the thick and ghastly air. One blast then another, and another after that. You’d maybe think, after a while things would quiet down some, as the near-exhausted monsters run out of precious fuel.

Not so, friend. Over the years, Bob and I have learned these witless beasts would blow themselves to bits before giving the fun.

Now, that wouldn’t be of any use to Bob and me. We got to stop the game ourselves before it gets all out of hand. As I say, we’ve studied all this and know what to do next. As the room fills with greasy yellow cloud, as the beasts begin to stagger for lack of air, Bob and I open the vents that let these ghastly odors onto the street…

A lot starts to happen after that. Leaves begin to blacken, crumble and fall off the trees. Birds drop out of the sky. Small creatures sicken and die. Bugs, worms, fish in the water perish as well. Even the less hardy strains of bacteria give up the ghost.

The Gibbies, who have waited for this moment a whole year, shake the very walls with their cries of unmitigated

Joy, and begin their Annual Festival of Delight.

The minute this happens, I am out of there. I’m in our truck and ready to flee as Bob turns off the machines and opens the doors to let the monsters out. Even as we race off into the night it is hard to escape the

bluuuuurp bluuurp! blurrp!

BLAT! BLAT! BLAT!

Tooooot-tooot-WHEEEEEE! 

that rumbles like thunder far behind.

I think I ought to give credit where credit is due. It was Bob, who grew up on a farm, who enabled us to make an embarrassing amount of money from the Gibbies’ moment of delight. But I’d be amiss if I didn’t mention barhop cutie and former science person Jane, who really set us out on this venture. It was Jane, who was formerly hot for Bob, who idly pointed out one evening that smell didn’t matter to a creature like the Gibbie who lacks any semblance of a nose.

That stunned Bob quite a bit. “So what if you fart? So what? Nobody smells it.”

“They can hear it, though,” said Jane. 

“Who cares?” I said, but Bob was already on a roll. He was already picturing the goofy, hare-brained Gibbies under the spell of a suddenly piercing andante, a fugue, a sweet prelude to a ripping FRAAAAACK!—that unique sound found only on modern worlds in neighborhood taverns, or, worse, still, in crowded elevators.

It might not work that way, he thought. But then again, it might. It was hard to put down a girl who looked as terrific as Jane, who knew science stuff as well. It’s a good thing he was right, too. If it weren’t for the Gibbies, Bob and I would have ordinary jobs on ordinary worlds, and I feel like we’re ill-prepared for that.

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P.O. Box 190106 Burton, Michigan 48519

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