“Roadkill Joe is a very old soul — Can’t die cuz he’s a freak!”
Barry watched from his perch on the barbershop’s torn swivel chair as gas-masked children chanted and hopscotched through the ashes of an abandoned street. He longed to join them. His mother cussed behind him as she fumbled with the electric clippers.
“Hold still now. Can’t let none of them creepy-crawlies lay their eggs on you, boy.”
Barry nodded. The clippers buzzed over his left ear as Momma pinched it down out of the way. “Who’s Roadkill Joe?” he asked.
He pointed at the orphan children outside, five of them in the middle of the street.
“Don’t pay them no mind.” She shoved his head forward, chin to his chest, as she shaved the back of his neck. “Fools out in the open like that, they don’t have a brain in their heads.”
“I’ve heard of him,” Barry murmured into his new nylon jacket.
The clippers hovered, buzzing like one of the Horrors’ air-cars. He raised his head to look at her in the cracked wall mirror. She glanced away like somebody might be listening. But they both knew full well nobody else was there.
“You heard what, boy?”
Barry’s bony shoulders rose and fell. “He can’t die. He fights the Horrors. He won’t stop till they leave us alone and go back where they came from.”
Momma raised a finger in warning and he froze. Then she spun him around in the creaky chair to face her wide eyes. “I raised you better than to believe any old crap, didn’t I?”
He nodded, chin dipping low.
“Just cuz some other folks believe in Santa Claus don’t mean we do.” She cussed again and he fought the grin her foul language always brought to his cheeks. “I’ve heard the stories,” she said. “Heard ’em my whole damn life. They make him out to be some kind of superhero. God knows we could use one. But wanting something to be so don’t make it that way. All we got is us.” She pulled him close, near smothering him against her bosom.
“Yes’m.” His voice came muffled as her tears dribbled across his bare scalp.
An air-car buzzed in the distance. With abrupt yelps, the kids outside took off running in five different directions. They would have to be well out of sight before the Horrors arrived, or their lives were forfeit.
Momma yanked Barry out of the chair, near pulling his arm out of its socket. They ducked into a dark supply closet reeking of chemical cleaners. Barry shut the door, but there was a hole the size of a man’s boot in the bottom half, like somebody had gotten real angry once upon a time. Barry glanced over his shoulder to find Momma squishing herself next to a tall metal cabinet in the far corner where no light from outside could catch her. Barry knelt in the dark beside the door’s jagged hole and watched the street.
“Get away from there,” Momma hissed.
Barry nodded, knowing full well he aimed to stay right where he was.
The ash on the street swirled, wiping out hopscotch marks as a bulky air-car descended. Its side hatch swung open and two of the Horrors climbed out with skin slick as snot, green and white like mold. With four muscled arms each and legs like tree trunks, they staggered under the weight of the earth’s gravity for a moment, catching their balance. Their phlegm-faces twitched as bulging, lidless eyes jerked in their sockets, sweeping over the surroundings.
“They comin’ this way?” Momma whispered.
He shook his head. Not yet.
One Horror launched its harpoon gun and a shriek the likes of which Barry had never heard tore through the empty street. Both Horrors gargled with glee as they reeled in their catch — the smallest of the hopscotch kids, a boy just a few years younger than Barry. If there’d still been schools, the kid would have been in first grade. He thrashed against the spearhead dragging him through the dust. When he came within range, one Horror snatched him up by the leg and tore off his gas mask, spitting black sludge all over the boy’s face. He stopped fighting them and hung limp without another sound.
“God Almighty protect us,” Momma wept in whimpers.
Barry faced her. “Is he real?”
She scowled. “Don’t you dare question the Good Lord —”
She stared at him, the whites of her eyes visible in the sparse light.
“Cuz if he is —” Barry returned to his view of the street as the Horrors dumped the kid’s body inside their air-car. “God might want to send him right about now.”
The Horrors faced the barbershop, their tentacles swinging like long dreadlocks, their pulsing eyes focused on the supply closet’s door as if they had x-ray vision. Barry watched the Horrors advance, smashing through the front windows like they weren’t even there. Momma squeaked out tiny prayers.
“Roadkill Joe!” Barry screamed with all he had in him.
* * *
On the far side of town in an abandoned diner, Joe sat slumped forward in a booth and cursed his superhuman hearing.
It hadn’t always been so good — not even close. But when those aliens abducted him to poke, prod, and probe every orifice before dropping him into the middle of a busy street to be run over three or four times, it was immediately apparent that they’d changed him. And for the past six decades or so, he’d been able to hear things well beyond the range of any natural creature.
He hauled himself out of the booth with a heavy sigh. “Time to save the day.”
Problem was, no matter how many of those aliens he offed, there were always plenty more where they came from. And Joe had a sneaking suspicion he’d be around long after the human race had gone extinct.
Just the thought of roaming the planet alone made him sick to his stomach.
* * *
The Horrors chuckled as they approached, gagging on their own mucous. Momma prayed harder, eyes squeezed shut, hands clasped tight. Barry slid away from the door, but he couldn’t keep himself from watching through the hole as the Horrors stormed the shop.
One of them reloaded its harpoon gun, the barbed spear dripping with that poor kid’s blood. The other one ripped the swivel chairs free of their bolts and smashed them against the mirrors. The Horrors thrived on destruction. You just had to look around town to see: It was in shambles. Barry had kind of liked having the whole city to himself up to now — well, him and Momma and those orphans and maybe a dozen other folks who stuck to themselves mostly. It was fun going into any store and taking whatever you wanted right off the shelves. There’d always been the threat of the Horrors sweeping through, looking for stragglers after everybody cleared out and hid themselves up in the hills, but Barry had never thought they’d catch him — not like this.
Trapped in the dark.
He reached back to pat Momma’s bare ankles just as the Horror took brief aim and released its harpoon. The spear thudded through the door like it was made from paper and punctured Momma’s belly. She screamed as the Horror gave the line a swift jerk, tugging her flat against the door. The door crashed outward under her weight. Barry scampered after her as the Horrors dragged her away.
They gargled, slick eyes twitching from Momma’s writhing form to Barry. Then one puked out a thick volume of black sludge onto Momma’s face, silencing her wails. She lay still.
Barry whipped Momma’s heavy purse at the closest Horror, and it flinched back in surprise. “Get away from her!”
The other Horror ripped the spear free of Momma’s limp body and reloaded the bloody thing into its harpoon gun.
So much for Roadkill Joe.
Barking alien threats, the Horror swatted away the purse with a greasy, knotted arm and reached for Barry’s throat. Long talons twitched and clicked against each other. Barry ducked and scuttled forward between the thing’s legs in time to see a dark figure approach the front of the shop. Backlit by the sun, features in shadow, the man wore some kind of canister harnessed to his back and held a solid length of hose. Barry froze, staring.
The Horror with the harpoon wasted no time. Lurching to face the intruder, it released the barbed spear in a blur of speed, punching through the stranger’s chest with a wet crunch and bloody backwash. The man stumbled a step, but he didn’t go down.
“Rotten sludge-monkeys,” he grumbled, cussing the shaft that skewered him. “Eat fire, you bastards.”
A stream of liquid flame erupted from the nozzle. The Horrors roared at the sudden inferno enveloping their slimy bodies, the goop oozing from every pore fueling the blaze like gasoline. The one with the harpoon gun jerked back on its weapon, intending to knock the stranger off balance, but only succeeded in tearing the spear free along with plenty of the man’s innards. They slopped onto the cracked linoleum, yet the man remained standing, staggering forward with the momentum of the retracted spear. Barry crawled as fast as he could, slipping and sliding on hands and knees, until he came under one of the sinks left intact from the Horrors’ rampage. The two monsters beat at the flames that engulfed them with their extra arms and dropped to the floor, thrashing and roaring until they eventually expired — just moments before the flamethrower ran out of juice.
Momma’s charred remains lay where she’d fallen with their muck all over her face, smothering her and wriggling in snakelike tendrils to burrow into her facial orifices. But there would be no creepy-crawly eggs spawned inside her brain. The stranger’s flames had taken care of that. Barry knew it wasn’t her anymore. She was someplace else now where the Horrors couldn’t ever touch her again.
She was safe.
Even so, he felt like one of those harpoons had punched straight through his gut.
The stranger’s flamethrower hit the floor with an empty clatter. The man turned away, doubled over as he put one foot in front of the other and headed back the way he’d come.
“Wait,” Barry gasped, lips wet with salty tears. He couldn’t make out the man’s features, not with the white-hot sun so bright behind him. “Wait, Mister.” He scampered to his feet, tugging the gas mask from Momma’s purse and fumbling to strap it on.
The unmasked man stopped just outside the shattered window glass. “Was that your mother?”
Barry skidded to a halt a few steps behind him. “Yessir.”
The dark silhouette nodded. “I’m sorry.”
Barry tried to swallow. “She’s in a better place — where they can’t get to her.”
The man touched the hole in his chest where rays of sunlight passed through. “Reckon so.”
“You’re hurt.” Barry advanced a step. “You need —”
“I’m fine, kid. Believe me, they’ve done worse.” He resumed his outbound course.
“You’re him, aren’t you. The one they call Roadkill Joe.”
The man chuckled. He half-turned to face the boy, and Barry saw that the man’s skin was as dark as his own, his hair too, with grey at the temples — not that Barry had any left just now.
“There’s no such person, son.” The man shook his head. Barry could only stare. The man’s ruptured chest was mending itself, leaving just his bloodstained shirt torn open, as ragged as that closet door with the boot hole.
“You can’t die!”
The man shrugged. “Not yet. But I aim to, one of these days.”
He shambled off into the middle of the street where the air-car sat, the orphan’s white legs dangling out of the open hatch. Roadkill Joe didn’t even give him a sideways glance. By now, the Horror sludge had already gotten into the kid’s brain. It might have been a piece of mercy to end the little guy in a permanent sense before the eggs hatched, but maybe that wasn’t Roadkill Joe’s way.
Maybe he helped only the living.
“Where you going, Mister?”
“Lunch,” the man said without looking back. Already he seemed to be walking straighter, his posture stronger. He was healing fast.
“I’m coming with you.”
“Don’t need no boy wonder.”
Barry frowned. “I got nowhere else to go.”
“No one does anymore, son.”
Barry’s voice grew desperate. “We got plenty of food at my house!” He pointed down the street as the man turned to face him again.
“Yeah? Better than Shaky’s Diner?”
Barry wrinkled his nose. “I’d say.”
The stranger almost grinned. “Well then.” He gestured for the boy to lead on.
Roadkill Joe’s new partner led him up the middle of the ashen street, both their minds set on lunch. They had a whole lot of Horrors to kill, after all, and saving the world is hungry work.
Milo James Fowler is a teacher by day and a writer by night. His work has appeared in Cosmos, Daily Science Fiction, and Shimmer. When he’s not grading papers, he’s imagining what the world might be like in a few dozen alternate realities.