Written with Roy Fish
Brad Foster hated driving in the rain. Especially a storm like this one, filled with thunder and lightning.
But worse than driving in a storm, he hated flies. There was something about their little leg-rubbing actions, their constant buzzing, that gave him a chill. It wasn't as if he expected one to swoop down and carry him off, it was just an uncontrollable fear like rats or spiders with other people. Only with him it was flies.
And right now one was in the car.
The wipers whacked at the rain and the fly buzzed around his head. He felt foolish, but he couldn't keep from whimpering. The idea of that fly and those little nasty legs made him cringe.
His wife, Marilyn, knowing full well his fears, scooted over close to him and put a reassuring hand on his knee.
They were on their way to Amarillo for Christmas with relatives, and now fifty miles outside the city the storm had slowed them to a crawl.
It was a strange storm out of nowhere. One moment the sky was blue, the next it was dumping buckets of rain and bolts of lightning. The way it tossed their car, it was like they were a small tin boat in a hurricane.
"It's okay, baby," Marilyn cooed. "Take it slow and easy and we'll be all right ... I'll get this ole nasty fly."
She started slapping her hand at the fly, saying "Shoo, shoo, you mean ole thing."
Brad knew she was trying to help, but it was just making him nervous. She wasn't having any luck with the bug, and her shooing seemed to merely aggravate the fly into flying around his head.
Suddenly they hit a hole in the road and water splashed up under the car, killing it. Brad coasted the dead vehicle to the side of the road. He tried to start the car again, but nothing.
"What happened?" Marilyn asked.
"Distributor cap got wet."
"Can you fix it?"
Marilyn had rolled up an old church program and was trying to swat the fly, but it was much too quick. Brad just knew the little rascal would land on his face and send him into a hissy fit. The thought made getting out of the car slightly more desirable.
"I'll try to dry the cap."
"Oh, Brad, I hate to see you get out in this rain."
"Can't be helped."
He pulled the hood switch, got out and went around and lifted the hood. He used a handkerchief to try and dry the cap, but he and the handkerchief were soaked to the bone and the cap was very wet.
He tapped on the window and Marilyn rolled it down. "Going to have to go for help, I guess."
"We could just wait it out," she said.
"This storm could go on a while, and waiting beside the road doesn't appeal to me."
"There's no town near here."
"I know, but there are houses. Maybe someone will let me use their phone.... Look, I'm just getting wetter. Climb in the back ... cover up with that blanket, try to get some sleep."
With that, he turned and started walking. After a few minutes he looked back at the car. It was no longer visible. A curtain of rain had been drawn before it.
He pulled the collar of his coat up around his face, but it didn't help much.
God, but he hoped he would see a house soon.
Actually, in spite of what he told Marilyn, he wasn't sure there were houses around, but he hoped so. Surely someone lived out here, bleak as it was.
Besides, anything was better than staying in the car with that fly.
A bolt of lightning sizzled down out of the sky and struck the highway near him. He could smell the ozone and feel the shock in his feet from the impact. His vision went white for a moment and he began to shake with fear.
When his sight came back, he took a deep breath and noted that off to his right was a weather-beaten building with gas pumps out front and a rusted sign on its roof that read: CONOCO.
Brad ran to it, and a bell clapped above his head as he opened the door and stumbled inside.
It was an old-fashioned service station combination General Store. He hadn't seen one like it in years. There was a man behind the counter with his back to him, and he looked to be messing with a coffee dispenser.
Another man sat on a stool in a corner reading a car magazine. He wore greasy clothes, and above the magazine that hid his face was an equally greasy welder's cap.
Just as Brad was about to turn his collar down and unbutton his coat, the counter man turned and Brad saw he suffered a deformity. His skin was mottled and his neck appeared swollen. His eyes were large, like over-sized pimples with black heads in the center. His lips were slits.
"Uh ... real frog-strangler out there," Brad said.
The counter man blinked, almost smiled with his thin, slit lips. "Some sense of humor you got there," he said.
The man in the greasy clothes lowered his magazine and looked at Brad. He had the same deformity. His throat seemed to vibrate ... like a frog about to croak. Brad sorely regretted his remark about a frog-strangler. They must be brothers, he thought, both cursed with the same birth defect.
"My car stalled," Brad said.
"Yeah," the one on the stool said. "Where is it?"
"Back up the road a ways."
The man on the stool nodded. "I'm a mechanic. Maybe I can help you."
"Could be," Brad said. He noticed for the first time that the man's fingers were webbed. "I'd appreciate you having a look ... but first could I have a cup of coffee? I'm darn near frozen from this rain."
"Coffee?" the man behind the counter said.
"Yes..." Brad turned to wave a hand at the coffee dispenser, but he saw that though it looked like one at first glance, and there was a pot half-filled with something dark, it wasn't coffee. It was flies. Across the top of the machine was a strip that read: MR. INSECT.
Brad no longer felt cold. He felt confused, strangely hot. Like he was going to faint. He unbuttoned his jacket and pulled the tall upturned collar down from around his face, trying to cool off, get some air.
The man behind the counter gasped, raised a webbed hand to his face. The man on the stool stood, letting the magazine fall to the floor. They were looking at his revealed face with what looked like horror.
Behind him, Brad heard the doorbell clang. He turned to see a couple and a youngster entering the station. All three had the same mottled skin, swollen necks and webbed fingers as the men in the station. They also had incredibly bandy legs.
The trio looked at him with the same surprise and revulsion he was giving them. They edged to the side, and as they did, Brad bolted for the door.
As he ran, he thought that he had come upon a small community of inbreds. It was farfetched, but possible. Intermarrying generation after generation could account for such a hideous and constant deformity ... But the flies. What about the flies? MR. INSECT.
He stopped running. He felt dizzy.
The rain was almost gone, and he saw that the countryside looked strangely new now. It was as if the storm had polished up everything and slightly transformed it.
The dizziness increased. His body was tingling. He thought maybe he was coming down with something. He buttoned up his wet coat and walked on.
About fifteen minutes later, he passed a man hopping along. He looked exactly like the people (people?) in the station. As he hopped by, he stared strangely at Brad, as if fighting back revulsion. He tipped the old cap he was wearing quickly and mumbled, "Day," and was gone.
Brad began to run again, and as he neared the car he became oddly weak. He found he could hardly walk, but instead had to sort of stumble along. He reached the door and opened it with his key. In the back he could see Marilyn's shape beneath the blanket. She was snoring.
He unlocked the door, climbed in and leaned back against the seat. He felt strange, ill. The air smelled of ozone. He heard the buzzing of the feared fly, but he was too tired and weak for it to matter. And besides, he had acquired a new phobia: frog-like deformities. But at least that was something you didn't see every day, even if he had seen it six times this day already.
He shook with the memory of it. Those people in the station, that man hopping by. And MR. INSECT! Surely it was a joke. Surely.
He drifted off.
When he awoke the sun was out and it was hot.
He rolled down the window and tried to crank the car. The distributor cap had dried and it caught first try.
Glancing at the back seat, he saw that Marilyn was still covered, asleep.
He drove on without waking her, noted that the rain had given everything a fresh, otherworld look. He drove by the CONOCO station and chanced a glance. No one was out front, and he couldn't make out anyone behind the windows.
A few minutes later he heard Marilyn stirring, then she put a hand on his shoulder. And though she had not seen his face, he had seen hers (as well as her webbed hand) in the rearview mirror.
Before he could scream, the fly buzzed by his ear and Marilyn's long, sticky tongue darted out to spear it.
"A Frog-Strangler" was originally published in 1997 in The Good, the Bad, and the Indifferent, a collection of Lansdale's short stories published in a limited-edition hardcover by Subterranean Press. "A Frog-Strangler" © 1997 Joe R. Lansdale and Roy Fish.
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