It was a dark night--and it was stormy, and there was a flood. The town's small cinema was on higher ground than the small motel, so while the water was ankle deep, the few guests had headed up the crumbling pavement to the small theatre; several people were already sitting on their sleeping bags and playing cards by the light of a propane lantern in the foyer. The older man, who seemed to the be the leader of the group, asked if they could go into the auditorium to sleep since it was less crowded.
"Sure, I guess, if you want." The young man at the desk, still in the greasy burgundy vest that seems to be a staple of all theatre uniforms. He flicked his flashlight on and off while she spoke. "The only thing is--there's a dead guy in there. I mean, he was at the morticians' but they got flooded too and had to find a place to put the guy, so he's on the stage."
"Do they mind us in there? We're exhausted." There was a young couple and two girls behind him, all sleepy-eyed and shivering.
"Uh . . . They're still in there; you can ask, if you want to." He jerked a thumb towards the darkened door.
The six tired figures, laden with nondescript bundles, filed into the theater. It smelled of stale popcorn, and something else they couldn't put a finger on. The burgundy carpets weren't lit down the sides since the electrical power was out, but there were lights on the stage--flashlights--and there was a man in a white jacket with the cliched clipboard standing next to a covered stretcher.
The leader of the group went up to speak to him while the others leaned against the wall or sat down on the folding chairs, letting their bags and bundles fall to the floor. Only one of the girls followed him after dropping her rucksack on a folding chair.
" . . . Yes, it is rather an interesting case; you see this man isn't recently dead--that's why we can place him here." The man in the white jacket was not the type of person to push his glasses further up on his nose, nor was he the sort of person who would ever have a crooked bowtie. He hugged his clipboard protectively to his chest. "His grave was exhumed shortly before the flood started because we were afraid of the ground giving way. It's a good thing we did get him out of the way before the rains came because then we certainly would have had some trouble."
"So he's decomposing? If it's unsanitary, we should stay in the foyer until this can be cleared away." The leader was scarcely stomaching the images of washed up bodies whose graves had been violated by the most thoughtless of criminals, Nature.
The white-jacketed man's voice grew more excited. "No no no; it's perfectly safe. This is incredible! Simply unbelievable! The man died sometime in the sixties, to judge from the coffin type--but we can't find a record of him or any of his relatives or anything of the sort--but he hasn't decomposed! Not a molecule, as far as we can tell! It really is fascinating. But we haven't figured out anything so far that might put anybody in danger. Just don't touch him, and it should be alright for the night. We'll get him out by morning."
"Okay." He was thoroughly nauseated. "Yeah . . . Thanks."
The man in the white jacket took the flashlight that he'd been holding and walked swiftly up the sloped floor and out into the foyer. For a moment the theater was in complete darkness, until the young man at the other end of the room flicked the switch on his flashlight. The leader and his young companion hurried away from the dark stage.
The leader told everyone what had transpired and suggested they set up camp at the far end of the theater, away from the body, and everybody concurred.
After a little while, they remembered the car. How could they have forgotten the car! Somebody needed to go see if the car was alright. The young man volunteered to go, and though the leader was chagrined about his going, allowed it, gave him the keys, and turned on his own flashlight.
The young woman had curled up with her legs over the arm of a chair, and the girl that had not eavesdropped on the leader's conversation with the man in the white jacket promptly fell asleep against the wall. The other girl shook her flashlight until the light flickered a dim yellow and then took out a battered paperback novel. The man sat in a thoughtful silence; he didn't like the looks of the people in the foyer, and he was the only one in the present company who could stay up half the night. Somebody would have to share shift with him sooner or later.
In a short few minutes, the young man came back with the news that the car was indeed safe, but that there were a few homeless people rummaging about, ransacking people's cars that had left things open and ran, so he'd be comfortable sleeping in the car if that was ok. It was, begrudgingly.
In the next half-hour, it was evident that he had dozed, because he heard a voice from outside the small circle of dim electric light--wait, no; her flashlight battery had gone--and he hadn't seen the theater door open or close. She was probably asleep. The voice was conversational and calm, sounding as if it was glad to be out of the storm as well.
For the next hour, he and the voice riddled and spun old stories (He'd forgotten about Paul Bunyan and the blue ox, Babe) and talked about the fields and the sky and the wind in the summertime. Then the leader remembered the young man. He realised that he'd taken no blankets, and the night was cold--that he'd taken no light, and the night was dark.
The girl, who had not fallen asleep but lay listening, fighting exhaustion, seemed to read his thoughts and startled him a little with her whisper; "Jamie hasn't got any blankets, Dad." On common consent and since the car was not far away and Jamie would be awake, the girl tucked a polar fleece camp blanket under her arm and put her jacket over her head to ward off at least a little bit of the rain. She could bring her raincoat back with her since she'd left it in the car to begin with.
The street was not raised, like others, so there was a kind of river that she had to wade before reaching the car, which was in plain sight from the time she left the cinema doors. The water had risen to a height above her knees, and it was a struggle to keep the blanket dry. In the rain, it was hard to see whether there were people about, but she thought she saw a figure to her left a dozen or so yards away, keeping time with her. Probably just the reflection of light on the choppy, muddy waters. Or it could have been something floating in the water.
When she got to the car, she could see the figure moving slowly but steadily nearer. Giving way to a tired fear, she frantically beat on the window of the car. Jamie had fallen asleep, and was groggily squinting out the window at the small figure beating at it from the outside.
"Open it, Jamie!" she cried. "Please!" The figure seemed to be wearing a white t-shirt, now drenched, and denim jeans. Somehow it seemed old. She caught a glimpse of his head, bald on top with grisly long grey hair streaming down the sides. At any other time the style would have seemed absurd. Jamie opened the door and she handed in the blanket as the figure drew nearer.
"Move, Jamie: let me in, too!" But it was too late; the man had reached the girl and clutched her shoulder with a crooked, arthritic hand. She swallowed a scream and calmed slightly as the man started to mumble something about being lonely. Only a creepy homeless guy, maybe? she thought, wondering at the oddity and trying not to be afraid.
"No," she said, "I have to go. Don't touch me." She shrugged his hand off of her shoulder and looked up. Jamie seemed paralysed inside the car. There wasn't much he could do.
The man's eyes were lidless and had no pupils, as black as the night and round, shiny like the water in which he stood. He smiled an unearthly smile and looked down at her. Too stunned to gasp and trying not to show she was afraid, she said, half sobbing, "Don't!"
And then she woke up, like people do after nightmares are over.