And was Clark passing through even now, desperately keeping to the posted speed limit while the sweat trickled down his face and his eyes rolled back and forth from the mirror to the windshield and back to the mirror again? Was he?
The man in the plaid sportcoat grinned, revealing teeth that were too big and much too sharp. "Yep, I know how that is, all right -- y'all seen hoot, n now you're on your way to holler. That about the size of it?''
"I thought this was hoot," Mary said primly, and that made the newcomers first looks at each other, eyebrows raised, and then shout with laughter. The young waitress looked from one to the other with her frightened, bloodshot eyes.
"That ain't half-bad," Buddy Holly said. "You and y'man ought to think about hangin on a little while, though. Stay for the concert tonight, at least. We put on one heckuva show, if I do say so myself." Mary suddenly realized that the eye behind the cracked lens had filled up with blood. As Holly's grin widened, pushing the corners of his eyes into a squint, a single scarlet drop spilled over his lower lid and tracked down his cheek like a tear. "Isn't that right, Roy?"
"Yes, ma'am, it is," the man in the shades said. "You have to see it to believe it."
"I'm sure that's true," Mary said faintly. Yes, Clark was gone. She was sure of it now. The Testosterone Kid had run like a rabbit, and she supposed that soon enough the frightened young girl with the coldsore would lead her into the back room, where her own rayon uniform and order pad would be waiting.
"It's somethin to write home about," Holly told her proudly. "I mean to say." The drop of blood fell from his face and pinked onto the seat of the stool Clark had so recently vacated. "Stick around. You'll be glad y'did." He looked to his friend for support.
The man in the dark glasses had joined the cook and the waitresses; he dropped his hand onto the hip of the redhead, who put her own hand over it and smiled up at him. Mary saw that the nails on the woman's short, stubby fingers had been gnawed to the quick. A Maltese cross hung in the open V of Roy Orbison's shirt. He nodded and flashed a smile of his own. "Love to have you, ma'am, and not just for the night, either -- draw up and set a spell, we used to say down home."
"I'll ask my husband," she heard herself saying, and completed the thought in her mind: If I ever see him again, that is.
"You do that, sugar pie!" Holly told her. "You just do that very thing!" Then, incredibly, he was giving her shoulder one final squeeze and walking away, leaving her a clear path to the door. Even more incredibly, she could see the Mercedes's distinctive grille and peace-sign hood ornament still outside.
Buddy joined his friend Roy, winked at him (producing another bloody tear), then reached behind Janis and goosed her. She screamed indignantly, and as she did, a flood of maggots flew from her mouth. Most struck the floor between her feet, but some clung to her lower lip, squirming obscenely.
The young waitress turned away with a sad, sick grimace, raising one blocking hand to her face. And for Mary Willingham, who suddenly understood they had very likely been playing with her all along, running ceased to be something she had planned and became an instinctive reaction. She was up and off the stool like a shot and sprinting for the door.
"Hey!" the redhead screamed. "Hey, you didn't pay for the pie! Or the sodas, either! This ain't no Dine and Dash, you crotch! Rick! Buddy! Get her!"
Mary grabbed for the doorknob and felt it slip through her fingers. Behind her, she heard the thump of approaching feet. She grabbed the knob again, succeeded in turning it this time, and yanked the door open so hard she tore off the overhead bell. A narrow hand with hard calluses on the tips of the fingers grabbed her just above the elbow. This time the fingers were not just squeezing but pinching; she felt a nerve suddenly go critical, first sending a thin wire of pain from her elbow all the way up to the left side of her jaw and then numbing her arm.
She swung her right fist back like a short-handled croquet mallet, connecting with what felt like the thin shield of pelvic bone above a man's groin. There was a pained snort -- they could feel pain, apparently, dead or not -- and the hand holding her arm loosened. Mary tore free and bolted through the doorway, her hair standing out around her head in a bushy corona of fright.
Her frantic eyes locked on the Mercedes, still parked on the street. She blessed Clark for staying. And he had caught all of her brainwave, it seemed; he was sitting behind the wheel instead of groveling under the passenger seat for her wallet, and he keyed the Princess's engine the moment she came flying out of the Rock-a-Boogie.
The man in the flower-decorated top-hat and his tattooed companion were standing outside the barber shop again, watching expressionlessly as Mary yanked open the passenger door. She thought she now recognized Top-Hat -- she had three Lynyrd Skynyrd albums, and she was pretty sure he was Ronnie Van Zant. No sooner had she realized that than she knew who his illustrated companion was: Duane Allman, killed when his motorcycle skidded beneath a tractor-trailer rig twenty years ago. He took something from the pocket of his denim jacket and bit into it. Mary saw with no surprise at all that it was a peach.
Rick Nelson burst out of the Rock-a-Boogie. Buddy Holly was right behind him, the entire left side of his face now drenched in blood.
"Get in!" Clark screamed at her. "Get in the f**king car, Mary!''
She threw herself into the passenger bucket head-first and he was backing out before she could even make a try at slamming the door. The Princess's rear tires howled and sent up clouds of blue smoke. Mary was thrown forward with neck-snapping force when Clark stamped the brake, and her head connected with the padded dashboard. She groped behind her for the open door as Clark cursed and yanked the transmission down into drive.
Rick Nelson threw himself onto the Princess's gray hood. His eyes blazed. His lips were parted over impossibly white teeth in a hideous grin. His cook's hat had fallen off, and his dark-brown hair hung around his temples in oily snags and corkscrews.
"You're coming to the show!" he yelled.
"Fuck you!" Clark yelled back. He found drive and floored the accelerator. The Princess's normally sedate diesel engine gave a low scream and shot forward. The apparition continued to cling to the hood, snarling and grinning in at them.
"Buckle your seatbelt!'' Clark bellowed at Mary as she sat up.
She snatched the buckle and jammed it home, watching with horrified fascination as the thing on the hood reached forward with its left hand and grabbed the windshield wiper in front of her. It began to haul itself forward. The wiper snapped off. The thing on the hood glanced at it, tossed it overboard, and reached for the wiper on Clark's side.
Before he could get it, Clark tramped on the brake again -- this time with both feet. Mary's seatbelt locked, biting painfully into the underside of her left breast. For a moment there was a terrible feeling of pressure inside her, as if her guts were being shoved up into the funnel of her throat by a ruthless hand. The thing on the hood was thrown clear of the car and landed in the street. Mary heard a brittle crunching sound, and blood splattered the pavement in a starburst pattern around its head.
She glanced back and saw the others running toward the car. Janis was leading them, her face twisted into a hag-like grimace of hate and excitement.
In front of them, the short-order cook sat up with the boneless ease of a puppet. The big grin was still on his face.
"Clark, they're coming!" Mary screamed.
He glanced briefly into the rear-view, then floored the accelerator again. The Princess leaped ahead. Mary had time to see the man sitting in the street raise one arm to shield his face, and wished that was all she'd had time to see, but there was something else, as well, something worse: beneath the shadow of his raised arm, she saw he was still grinning.
Then two tons of German engineering hit him and bore him under. There were crackling sounds that reminded her of a couple of kids rolling in a pile of autumn leaves. She clapped her hands over her ears -- too late, too late -- and screamed.
"Don't bother," Clark said. He was looking grimly into the rear-view mirror. "We couldn't have hurt him too badly -- he's getting up again."
"Except for the tire-track across his shirt, he's -- " He broke off abruptly, looking at her. "Who hit you, Mary?"
"Your mouth is bleeding. Who hit you?"