It was the next night. Old man earlobes was the usual, lone customer. Matt and Roy were trying to get the TV in the back corner to turn on.
Delaney and I were in an endless, bitter game of UNO, played with the mutant amalgamation of three miscellaneous and mismatched UNO decks. Some cards were from UNO Attack, some were from Harry Potter UNO.
It infuriated me. Each time a misaligned “Draw 4” was placed that had a whimsical wizard character leering up at me, I felt a stinging impulse to throw the cards in Delaney’s face and scream at her. No words, just screaming.
A loud red pickup careened up to the diner, and two men jumped out. They pulled out several gun cases and brought them into the diner, laying them on the counter and one of the tables.
The first was an older man, with greying hair and a handlebar moustache. He appeared faded in a way I couldn’t explain; like his entire being was worn out, all the coatings of time-wasting civility blasted away by erosion.
“You the ones who called about the 18 wheeler?” he asked us. He was gruff and I liked him immediately. He could have been 40 years old or 60, there was no way to tell.
I pointed at Matt. “That’s your guy.”
“Thanks, ma’am.” He crossed the diner and his partner followed behind him, smiling at us. He was much younger, wearing a beanie and dressed in flannel. Delaney smiled back.
They shook hands with Matt and introduced themselves as Miller and Greene, Extermination and Pest Control. Miller, the older, gestured for Delaney and I to join the group of them. I gleefully threw my hand of UNO cards down and went over.
“So I’ve spoken to Matt briefly on the phone about this truck you lot saw,” Miller said. “We can take care of it, but we’re short-handed tonight.”
“Three call-offs,” Greene, the younger, said.
Miller nodded and smoothed down his mustache. “Exactly. Now, normally for feral 18 wheelers we use three to five people.” He leaned over and started arranging the napkin holder, the salt and pepper, and the sugar on the nearest table. “Our truck is bait–,” he moved the sugar shaker. “One driver, one bait gunner. We find the truck, fire at it to get it to chase us, and keep it on us until–,” he pulled the napkin holder after the sugar shaker, then lined up the salt and pepper. “The 18-wheeler chases us until we get it lined up for our big guns.” He pointed at the salt and pepper. “We would have at least two main gunners firing heavy rifles to pierce the engine block and disable the truck.”
“So,” Greene said, “we need volunteers. Anyone know how to shoot a gun?”
Matt nodded, and I raised my hand.
Roy rolled his eyes. “Oh yeah Samantha? Do a lot of shooting?”
I opened my mouth to respond but Miller cut him off. “If the woman says she can shoot, I believe her.” He opened one of the cases and pulled out a slim, short rifle. “This a .22 semi-automatic.” He handed it to me, and began handing me magazines. “Safety is here, magazine eject is right–yep, you got it.”
He suurveyed the the diner with his hands on his hips. I found myself standing next to him, holding the rifle, feeling important and excited. “These windows come out?” he asked, pointing at the windows on the far side, pointing toward the road, away from the gas pumps.
“Yeah,” Roy said. “They pop out, so do the screens.”
“Okay, get them out. We’re going to set up a firing lane.” He opened another gun case and handed Matt a shotgun and a handful of shells. “Slugs,” he told him. “Greeney here is gonna hit it with the .50 cal and that should pierce through and stop it dead. But if it doesn’t, and it gets close, you need to be putting rounds in this thing as fast you can. Aim middle-right, below the headlights. Got it?”
Matt nodded and began sliding shells into the gun. Behind him, Roy was removing window panes. Greene unzipped the longest gun case and began assembling the largest gun I’d ever seen. It looked like a child’s drawing of a sniper rifle; block, long, with a variety of odd attachments and scopes.
“What should I do?” Delaney asked.
Greene handed her some binoculars. “Night vision. You’re gonna keep watch, let us know when the bait truck is on the way.”
Delaney beamed, and Matt scowled.
“You’re with me, ma’am,” Miller said to me. He jingled his keys and I followed him out the door, where he helped me into the bed of the pickup. I settled in and adjusted the sights of the gun, which he nodded approvingly of. He rested his arms over the side of the tailgate. “You’re not shooting to kill this thing. You’re shooting to annoy. Try to hit the windshield, the headlights, the side mirrors. That’ll piss it off. Shoot it in the trailer, the grille, eh, its got so much armor there it won’t give a shit. We’re a mosquito, we need it to chase us. Got it?”
I nodded. He cocked his head at me, then glanced back at the diner, where the Calypso staff was sticking gun barrels out of windows. Old man earlobe ate slowly and watched.
“You lot have just been waiting for some action, huh?”
“It is a very boring job.”
He laughed and got in the truck. It fired up, rattling and shaking, and soon we were roaring along the road, the lights of the Calypso fading as we cruised into the vacant, empty countryside that seemed inhabited solely by dead fields and abandoned grain silos.
Miller slid open the little window that separated the cab from the truck bed. Mournful country music spilled out. “When we see it, I will cut in front of it. Its gonna chase us. Keep low, keep firing, and hold on.”
I grinned. A few minutes ago I’d been glaring down at UNO cards. Now I was about to shoot at a hell-truck with an underpowered rifle while riding in a pickup with an old guy I’d just met and felt strangely attracted to. The night had turned.
We cruised under a fat, lazy full moon, faintly yellow from whatever mixture of pollution and dust that coated the night sky. I craned my neck around, scanning the distant horizons for any hint of the mechanical beast, ears open for the tell-tale rumbling engines of the feral 18-wheels.
About five miles from the Calypso, we found it.
I caught a glint of light in the corner of my eye and turned to see the 18 wheeler from last night in the middle of a field, bathed in moonlight. Dozens of tentacles were protruding from it, a dizzying tangle of writhing, muscled limbs, flickering and dancing with each other. They looked loose and almost papery with how fast they waved in the air, like they were crepe paper streamers on the tail of a pinata.
I rapped my knuckles on the window, but Miller was already whipping the pickup around, yelling: “Go on take your shot, let’s get it nice and pissed!”
I levelled the rifle and aimed toward the front of the truck, at one of the passenger windows. I fired twice, the rifle louder than I expected, a sharp, piercing —Crack-Crack!– that stayed whistling in the air long after the shots were fired.
The tentacles froze, then retracted violently, as the engine clicked on and dust swirled as the wheels cut into the field, the beast whirling on us, its headlights snapping on as it devoured the ground in front of it, racing toward us, a rooster tail of dust and debris flying behind it.
“It worked!” I screamed gleefully.
I heard Miller laughing as we sped cataclysmic down the road, the titan of a semi-truck barrelling after us. I felt another sharp pang of liking toward Miller; we were the same brand of mentally ill.
The semi closed the gap on us, the headlights blinding me slightly as the front grille, taller than me, got closer and closer. I braced myself and started firing rapidly, plinking shots off the windshield of the monster. It whined, then screamed, the horn blaring so loudly that it made my eyes water. I fired again, yelling back at it, my voice drowned out by the sounds of gunfire and engines.
I reloaded, and shot out a headlight.
I reloaded, and took out a side mirror.
The 18-wheeler began snaking side to side, trying to get around the side of Miller’s pickup. It wanted to slam us off the road. A tentacle erupted from the center of the engine block, extending toward me like a question, whipping back and forth as it tried to lash me. I ducked, but my gun barrel was still in the air. Tiny, pencil-thin tendrils popped out of the tentacle and wrapped themselves around the gun, pulling on it, trying to rip it out of my hands.
I pulled the trigger and a bullet cut through some of them, spraying orangish-yellow blood all over the pickups bed, all over me. Some of the tendrils fell in the truck as the tentacle retreated, and I stomped them with my foot.
“We’re not going to make it!” I yelled at Miller, who turned back to me, his mustache crinkled into a smile.
“We got ‘em right where we want ‘em!”
I looked ahead on the road and saw the lights of the Calypso, maybe a quarter mile away. But the 18-wheeler was about to catch us, how were we going to–,”
Miller slammed on the brakes, making me yelp as I managed to grab the side of the truck bed, falling over and bouncing my head off the metal floor.
The semi shot past us, howling like a train. I heard its brakes hiss as they engaged, and the tires began their wuv-wuv-wuv as they struggled to grip the pavement and resist the momentum.
Concussive gunshots rumbled like outraged thunder, sharp muzzle flashes from the Calypo as heavy bullets thudded into the semi. The 18 wheeler veered, cutting into the dirt shoulder, the engine hiccuping as it opted to stop braking and instead drive at the Calypso.
More shots. The machine groaned as something vital was hit, all of the tentacles springing out, but without much vigor or energy. Some flopped onto the ground and dragged behind the racing vehicle, shredding themselves on the pavement, a long, clumpy mess of blood trailing behind.
The firing squad in the Calypso were relentless. Round after round hit the wounded semi-truck, until it wheezed to a stop maybe 20 yards from the windows. The remaining tentacles went completely limp. The sound of ticking engine and dripping fluid were all that could be heard.
I followed Miller as he stopped the pickup and hopped out. We strode to the front of the semi. The metal grilled had been torn apart, it was twisted and bent open, parts of it hanging off. The plastic and aluminum casing around the engine block was pockmarked with bulletholes, cracked and shattered, bits of it flaking off like eggshells.
Inside the largest hole, we could see a red, pulsing mass the size of a pumpkin. It had ventricles and ligaments suspending it as it beat weakly. Miller tugged my rifle out of my hands and stuck it against the giant heart, and fired three times.
The 18-wheeler went silent. Roy, Matt and Delaney cheered. Miller and Greene began wiping down their guns.
I felt something writhing on my leg, and looked down to see a dark purple tendril, one of the small ones, worming its way up my shin, over my thigh, onto my waist. I plucked it off with my thumb and index finger, and watched as it curled itself gently around my right wrist. It had been severed, and was bleeding. It opened its serrated, circular worm mouth and bit down on the bleeding tail of itself, locking against my wrist like a watchband. It shuddered there against my skin like a scared animal.
I ran my fingers along it, soothing the tentacle.
I was already in love with it.
Greene and Miller helped us put the windows back in. I helped them spray out the truck bed. Before they left, Miller took me aside and handed me a card. It was black and white, and simply said: “Miller and Greene Extermination– bugs, weeds and roadkill, we do it all”.
“You ever get tired of serving coffee, give me a call. We could use you on the night shift.”
I smiled at him and waved as the pickup sped away, that mournful country music playing loudly.