Bogleech.com's 2016 Horror Write-off:
No Moon At All
Luke Jones (email)
One day in 1981, my grandpa took me to his old filling station outside of Sherwood, Arkansas, to shut it down. He'd run the place since he was just a kid in high school - paying other kids to come out and man it while he was taking classes.
But by the mid-70s, the highways had bypassed the little state road and traffic had dried up. It's really too bad - the station is an architectural curiosity. It's called the "Roundtop" and it looks like a tiny castle. Just a single turret with a pointed roof, a couple of gas pumps, and inside, barely enough room to turn around. White plaster walls and red shingles. You get off the highway, drive through the swamps and cypress trees for about a mile, and suddenly there's this little storybook building. It's a magical little place.
Anyway, on that day, grandpa asked me if I wanted to come out with him to see the Roundtop before he closed it. I had nothing better to do, so I agreed. It was a cool day in March, a stiff breeze sawing at our bones through our coats.
We got out to the station. Grandpa made a little patrol around the outside of the building - probably looking for trash. He made a point to keep the Roundtop as clean as possible, even when barely anyone came down this road to see it. He came back around to where I was standing, looked up and down the road, and motioned for me to come over. He sat down on a little bench near the front door.
Then this look came over his face - a shadowy look - and he grimaced, almost like he was about to puke. Understand this: people called my grandpa "Happy." He never left a conversation without saying something nice to at least everyone once. It's only rarely that he's not smiling. If I didn't know better, I would have thought he was glad to come out here and shut down his longtime business. So I got a weird, sick feeling when I saw this look on his face.
"Have a seat, Ricky," he said, and patted the bench.
"I'm gonna tell you a story, Ricky," he said, "that I ain't never told anyone."
He looked up at the sky as if he was searching for something up there. He twisted his lower lip between thumb and index finger.
"You know what it's like to work in this place, alone, at night?"
I said no. Grandpa never really talked about working at the station.
"It's just you, the fan, the radio, and the distant roar of engines drowned by a million bugs, Ricky. You look off down the dark road, and the way the swamp swallows it up, you get the sense that anything is possible - you get this dread, you know?"
He shook his head.
"But it's just the human brain. We invent more horrors in there than there ever could possibly be. Or at least that's what I like to tell myself."
He paused for a moment, still staring off into the sky.
"So it was sometime between July and August 1953," he said. "Back in those days I could only afford to pay my help about four bucks a week. It wasn't much, not even then, so a lot of times I found myself manning the station at all hours. There wasn't much in the way of places to stop along this road, so y'know, people were basically guaranteed to take a break here, even if they didn't need the gas. So I wanted to keep the place open as often as possible. This meant long nights, sometimes.
"This night was no different, except for the heat. Summer of 1953, Ricky - it felt like God had fallen asleep at the controls. You know how they say you could fry an egg on the sidewalk? That year, the egg was fried before it came out of the chicken. And back then, we didn't have much to cool us down. Here at the station, we had an old electric fan on the counter and that was it. But the folks drivin' in from St. Louis, all they had was the four-sixty. You know what I mean? Four windows down, sixty miles per hour. It's purgatory on wheels.
"Everyone who pulled up seemed just a little bit crazy. I felt crazy. You sweat and sweat until you feel like a slime mold, and that's with your face right in the fan. You get up and walk outside, and it's like walking into a solid wall of heat.
"Give you an example. A guy came up in one of those old Studebaker Land Cruisers, got out, and just sorta stared at the gas pump. I came out and offered to fill up, and he looked at me like I had six heads. 'No, uh, I just need directions...' he muttered, but didn't finish, so I came back in and handed him one of the free road maps we gave to everyone.
"He nodded, got back in his car, and drove right off.
"Another example. A family stopped to fill up, and I noticed the backseats of the car were folded down so the kids could sleep back there. The dad was out, walking around, muttering about making good time, and one of the kids leaned out of the window, her hair blown everywhere from the wind, and handed me three Coke bottles.
"'Can you throw these away, mister?'
"I nodded, confused at first, because the bottles were full, and then I realized these folks hadn't bothered to stop anywhere to use the bathroom.
"So it went on like that, everyone seeming stretched just a little bit beyond their ability to cope. Then one night, just before sunset, I got a call from my buddy Al Plunkett."
Here, Grandpa stopped from a moment, and looked at me. I'd never noticed before how lined his face was.
"Now, Al was an odd guy already. He was into weird stuff, occult stuff. Stuff about flying saucers and little green men. I didn't mind him, though. He'd agree to work the station at almost any hour, for one thing, so that already put him in my good books. He had a good attitude. Good work ethic.
"So Al calls me up at the station. He says he needs to come out and work. I say why, Al? I'm good for the night. But he insists. Says he can't be at home. Al lived by himself over by Jacksonville. Thought it was weird he never married, but I guess he spent all his free time writing his newsletter.
"I say sure, Al. Come on out. He sounds relieved. Oh thanks Happy, he says, you're a lifesaver.
"I thought, that's a weird thing to say. But Al's a weird guy, and it's nice to have company at the station anyhow.
"So Al shows up in about ten minutes. He's wearing an old sweater and jeans, and looks like he hasn't bathed in a week. He's got bags under his eyes. So I know something's up.
"'What's new, Al?' I ask him. He shuts the door and looks out the window like someone's following him.
"He just shakes his head - shakes it a lot, and sits down near me and pulls out a lighter. But he's got no smokes, and he reaches into his jeans and realizes he doesn't have his wallet either. I give him a nickel and a quarter to get a pack out of the machine, and he seems to relax a little as he lights up.
"He goes through two cigs before he says anything.
"'I think there are men after me,' he said.
"'What men, Al?'
"'Men from...well, you know,' and he waves his hand, I guess to indicate 'elsewhere.'
"I didn't know what to say to him. I figured he'd just had a bad dream. That's what it's like when you have an overactive imagination and live in a place where nothing happens. So I reached over and patted him on the shoulder.
"'Stay as long as you like, Al,' I said.
"For a while, it was a normal night, except for the heat. I started doing inventory on sodas and whatnot, and had him go out and fill tanks. But mostly we sat on our stools, sweating and listening to the radio. Al smoked through two whole packs of Pall-Malls, sometimes pausing to glance out the windows.
"So this goes on for a few hours. Then, right at about 10 p.m., about an hour before we closed up, I hear the bell ring for service. I'm running the books, so I ask Al to go out and fill up. He doesn't reply. So I look over at him and he's frozen at the window, staring outside.
"'What is it? What do you see?'
"'It's...it's them,' he stutters.
"I don't get it, so I just shake my head, put down my papers, and head to the door.
"'Don't go, Happy! Stay here!'
"But I didn't listen to him, and I went right out into the heat."
Grandpa paused again.
"I wish I hadn't. But I guess ultimately it wouldn't have mattered.
"So I go out to the pump, and the first thing I notice is two unusually tall men in black derbies. Now I know nowadays people don't wear hats much, but even in 1953 it was odd to see folks in derbies. Next, I see these men are wearing matching, tailored suits. Given it was at least 100 degrees outside, this was even more odd. Moreover, these guys didn't have that sweaty, windblown look that everyone else coming off the highway did. They looked downright serene, and both of them had this identical pleasant smile that felt wrong to me.
"One of the guys made a motion toward his car - you'd think he was a machine, the way he moved his arm - and asked me to 'please replenish the vehicle.' He used those exact words. I remember it because it was such a weird turn of phrase.
"I shrugged at them, nodded, and went to the car. I saw there was a third suited man in the car. He sat in the passenger side, staring straight ahead, hands in his lap, that same pleasant look on his face. Then, I saw that the car was weird too. It's gleaming silver, very sleek, and it's no car I've ever seen before. Looks brand new. I figured it's some new model from up north I hadn't seen yet. There's no obvious maker emblem, and I also noticed there were no latches for the doors, and, more importantly, no hatch for the fuel tank that I could see. I turn to ask the two men about this, and I see Al - standing in the doorway of the station, his right hand pushed up under his sweater. He's looking right at the two men.
"'Go away,' he says in a thunderous voice. 'You can't enter here. You know you can't.'
"The two men stood stock still, making no reply to Al. Then I heard a motor behind me, and turned to see the silver car had started up and was peeling out of the parking lot - still with no one in the driver's seat, and with the suited man still staring straight ahead, smiling. I watched the car disappear into the swampy darkness, then spun and saw that the other two men were gone as well.
"I was aware of a smell like someone had ripped a big one - that sulfur smell you get on the roads sometimes, and there were these lights floating everywhere that I thought was fireflies, but were a little bit bigger and bluish. Al was motioning frantically for me to come back inside.
"'What did I just see, Al?' I asked him.
"'I'm not...I can't...' he muttered, and hugged himself, staring at the floor. His hand was still under his sweater.
"'What do you have under there?" I said.
"'Don't worry about it,' he said. 'Just don't ask. You're safe if you don't know. And we're safe in here as long as I stay.'
"I had to believe him. What else could I do? So I told him he could stay until I closed up shop, and then he had to go somewhere else. He told me that was fine, but he didn't seem happy about it.
"The next hour creeped by like molasses - the clock felt like it was going backwards. That sulfur smell clung in my nose, and I was getting an awful headache. Worse, the fan stopped working, meaning it was hotter than hell inside. Even the sun being down didn't keep back the heat that year.
"When customers rolled up, Al wouldn't go outside, so I had to. And I was shaken to, Ricky, who wouldn't be? Now I was the crazy one. The lamps over the pumps cast long shadows behind people, and in them I saw those black-suited men and their stiff postures. Headlights off in the distance filled me with dread. I was sure the lights were floating off the ground at some impossible angle - then a regular old Chevy would drive up behind them. I was losing my mind.
"Finally, ten rolled around. I'd finished the books. I'd changed my shirt twice over that past hour - I kept spares in the closet since I knew I'd sweat through them. I asked Al if he was ready to go. He said he was, just as long as he could drive with me, and could I drop him at home. I agreed.
"We opened the door, and the three men were there. Standing right in front of us. I felt my heart drop.
"I heard this awful sound which at first I thought was Al screaming, but it was the radio - it had come back on, and it was shrieking out static. I was sure the radio's volume couldn't even go that high.
"I hadn't noticed this earlier, but the men were at least seven feet tall. Despite this, they didn't look down at us - they didn't look at anything, instead simply moving forward into the station. The one on the left waved his arm out at me - and struck me with what felt like a ton of bricks, and I flew backward, crashing into a stack of Purolators.
"Al opened his mouth, and reached under his sweater, but two of the men grabbed him by the arms before he could. The radio started shifting through stations - all deafeningly loud - and eventually caught on one, the ghostly voices of the Ames Brothers repeating a single lyric:
"'No moon at all, in the sky'
"The third man stood in the doorway, his body oriented toward me, but not looking at me at all. The other two men grasped Al's sweater and ripped it off like paper.
'No moon at all'
"Al had something stuck in his skin, a piece of metal, just above his navel.
'In the sky'
"In a moment, the men had shredded the rest of his clothing, and Al struggled pathetically in their grasp.
'No moon at all'
"One of the men touched the piece of metal, and my headache immediately got much worse - I could barely hold my eyes open, and the shrieking radio suddenly sounded very far away. There was a blinding flash of blue, and a feeling like I was being lifted off the ground.
'In the sky -'
"When I opened my eyes, I was sitting on what looked like a field of nothingness that seemed to go on forever. Everything, just, nothing - all white. I couldn't move. I looked up, and in the sky was this enormous black triangle. I couldn't tell if it was stationary or spinning very slowly down toward me, and I got a horrible sense of panic. I wanted to run as fast as I could in any direction, but I still couldn't move. Then I realized I could hear shrieking, mixed with some other noise.
"At first I thought it was more radio static. But then I realized it was more like a sizzling, like bacon cooking.
"Straight ahead of me, how far away I couldn't tell, was Al, lying nude on the ground. Surrounding him were the three men, now also nude, but hairless, featureless, like mannequins, all three staring down at him with those pleasant looks on their faces. As they stared at him, I saw that the field of white was turning red around his body. It was like Al was being liquefied. Parts of him were rippling away, turning red, then pink. He was screaming like an infant. Everything that was Al Plunkett, skin, muscle, bone, boiling away under the gaze of the tall men. What was left floated away in a pink mist. And I'm sure he felt every second of it."
Grandpa swallowed. I realized it was difficult for him to tell me what he was telling me. Up to this point I wasn't sure if I believed his story. But it was this pause that sold it for me. His nostrils twitched. If grandpa was an actor, or a liar, he was really good at it. I felt that he was experiencing that moment all over again, probably for the first time in decades.
"Soon, he stopped screaming," Grandpa continued. "Hovering over what was left of his body was that big piece of metal - much bigger than it looked when it was lodged in his body. Al was just a pink blot now, slowly dissolving away into the nothingness.
"The three men all turned towards me, Ricky. And in that moment you wouldn't believe the horror I felt. I would have betrayed anyone, given anything, not to experience what I knew would happen under the stare of those men.
"But instead I felt the awful throbbing again, and the space filled with the blackness of that floating shape, and again it was like I was being lifted. And I was back here, in the station, and the buzzing in my ears resolved into the voices of the Ames Brothers, still crooning.
"'No moon at all, in the sky,
"'This is nothing like they told us of...'
"And then the song broke off into static again, and I'm sure I heard a voice inside it. 'Tell no one,' it said. 'Tell no one.'
"And until today, I haven't."
Grandpa looked down at me, and smiled. But it was a mirthless smile, lacking none of the warmth that usually characterized him.
"Forget it," he said. "It was probably just the heat."
We spent the rest of the day wordlessly clearing out old Dr. Pepper palettes and other stuff and loading them into grandpa's truck. He didn't say anything more about Al or the suited men, and I couldn't bring myself to ask.
A few years later, I got curious. I did some research on Al Plunkett. At first I was sure the guy had never really existed, and grandpa actually was pulling my leg. There was no information on him. No relatives, no grave, no obituary. But by a stroke of luck, I found something at the public library in Jacksonville. It was a UFO newsletter from the 50s, with Al's name right on the cover.
It was mostly fluffy articles about local cryptids and theories about green men. But there was an article in the back, a personal account from Al, where he describes finding something in the woods. A metal object. He was sure it was a piece of an alien ship or weapon. Having it around caused weird things to happen, like time slowing and levitation. He talked about the suited men.
He said he thought they lived among us. That they were not good at mimicking us, but were getting better. I thought about grandpa's mirthless smile. I thought about all the people I'd seen in my life that seemed just slightly wrong. I thought about what the men could do with just a glance.
Since then, it's been hard not to spend every day living in fear.