Travis Harmon felt as though he’d grown another layer of skin—this one a layer of dust and sweat, rather than of flesh.
The sun was sweltering, and dust was thick in the air. He’d had no idea that Nevada was as desolate as the countryside that rolled past him, on either side of his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Travis tied a neckerchief over his mouth and nose, hoping to filter out the heavy dust and sand. His lips were chapped already from the dry wind. An endless expanse of sand, rock, small scrub, cacti and, occasionally, a few bright wildflowers streaked past him, the latter looking all the more forlorn because of their scarcity and isolation.
There was only more of the same as far as the eye could see. Travis knew, of course, that the whole state was pretty much a desert, and he’d expected dunes, bare sandstone mountains, and sparse vegetation, but he hadn’t envisioned the nightmarish wasteland he’d been riding through for the last half hour or so. Nevada was nothing but a harsh, desolate, hostile world of scorched earth under a merciless sun, he thought. There was precious little plant life to be seen, and Travis had
observed exactly one animal since he’d left Utah, traveling west on Interstate 80 through the Peqoup Mountains. Something thin and long had slithered rapidly across the asphalt, and he’d guessed, more than seen, that it was a small lizard.
Travis had lived in Clearwater, Florida, his entire life, except for the first six years, which he’d spent here, in Nevada, a little to the south of the highway he was traveling now, near a little speck of nothing called Dry Gulch. As a result, he had only a vague idea as to what a desert would look like. He’d been too young when his family had left Dry Gulch to remember much about the desert—or anything else—although his father had told him about it often enough.
Rounding a curve, he saw the watering hole, and his heart leaped as he grinned. Outside a weathered, dilapidated building, in a gravel parking lot, a dozen motorcycles similar to his own, as well as a few pickup trucks, were parked, the dust thick on their windshields. Neon signs in the building’s windows advertised various brands of cold beer, and Travis brought his bike to a halt beside the others, lowered his kickstand, and dismounted. He removed his helmet, running a hand through the tangled curls of his thick, long, black hair, before walking toward the rough boardwalk that led along the front of the establishment.
Inside, it was dark, and Travis could barely make out the tables and booths as he shuffled toward the bar. He hadn’t realized it until he’d climbed off the thick, well-upholstered cushion of his motorcycle’s seat, just how sore his legs and back were. He set his helmet down and, without waiting to be asked what he’d like, ordered a draft beer from the dark-haired Latina behind the bar. She brought him a frosted mug, and he chugged its ice-cold contents. Setting the mug aside, he ordered another round. Two big, burly men in well-worn black leather jackets and faded blue jeans stepped up to the bar, one on either side of Travis, crowding him.
Travis’ eyes had adjusted to the dark well enough to see the patches on the sleeves and backs of the jackets, the long, unruly hair, and the hard, weathered faces with scars and thick, wild beards.
“Your money ain’t no good in here,” the one on his left announced.
“It ain’t no good because this is our bar, and you ain’t welcome in here,” the other added, “not unless you’re wearing Vipers colors, which you ain’t.”
The barmaid kept her distance.
“Where’s that beer?” Travis called to her.
She looked at the men standing beside him, and they shook their heads.
“Don’t do it, Shirley,” the one to Travis’ left advised.
She maintained her distance.
The same biker grinned at Travis. “You ain’t drinking no more beer in our place.” He looked past Travis, at his cohort. “Ain’t that right, Chopper?”
The other biker said, “That’s exactly right, Cobra.”
Travis gazed at the gang member, and said, casually, “I have a two-beer thirst, and I’ve only drunk one beer.” Travis was all but certain that, having stumbled into a biker bar in the middle of nowhere, he wasn’t about to walk away unharmed, but he’d try the nonviolent approach first, anyway. “I don’t want any trouble. I just want my other beer, and then I’ll be on my way. Let me buy you one, too, okay?”
“This is our bar. We say who drinks here and who doesn’t.”
“He doesn’t understand words,” the other biker opined. “With his kind, you have to use your fists to make a point.”
Well, Travis thought, I tried to be polite and courteous; I tried the nonviolent approach, but it’s clear that they don’t intend to respond in kind. His eyes hard and his voice flat, he replied, “Even this pigpen is part of America, and America, last I heard, is a free country.”
“Yeah? Well, you heard wrong!”
Travis shoved himself back from the bar, and the bikers’ fists smashed into one another. Both Bikers had swung simultaneously, intending their blows to strike their target at the same time, from different sides. They cried out in pain and confusion. But the confusion didn’t last long.
Cobra threw a huge punch at Travis’ head, but
Travis ducked, seizing the biker’s forearm in an iron grip.
Cobra screamed. He fell to his knees.
Chopper stared in astonishment as Cobra‘s flesh melted off the bones in his arm and dripped, like molten wax, onto the floor.
Chopper backpedaled. “What the hell?”
“Get the bastard!” another Viper cried, and the gang members swarmed to their comrade’s aid, forming a circle around Travis.
Travis released Cobra’s arm, and the biker collapsed onto his knees, before pitching onto his face. Kneeling beside him, Travis opened his hand over Cobra‘s contorted countenance, spreading his fingers into claws. The skin of his hand glowed green. “Get back, or your friend will have a skull instead of a face!” he demanded.
The bikers hesitated. “He can’t take all of us,” one of them declared.
Travis released his grip on Cobra’s ruined arm and clutched the biker’s jacket. The leather bubbled, blistering, and holes formed where Travis’ fingertips pressed the hide. Then, he shoved the same hand an inch closer to his captive’s face, and Cobra shrieked.
“Back off! Now!” Travis commanded.
The bikers obeyed, their circle widening as they withdrew.
They moved farther back, their eyes staring warily, as they waited for the stranger to make a false move, willing him to make just one mistake.
“Get up!” Travis ordered Cobra.
“I can’t!” the biker wailed.
Travis had no doubt that Cobra was in agony, but he also knew that the biker could be hurt more. “I said, Get up!”
“I can’t, you son of a—”
Travis seized one of Cobra’s ears between his thumb and finger, and the melting flesh ran down his fingers and along the biker’s jaw line as the gang member squealed, struggling to get away. “Get up, now, before I grab your other ear—or somewhere worse!” Travis warned.
Horrified, Cobra found the strength—or the sheer will—to rise. He teetered and swayed, but he managed to stay on his feet. He held his ruined arm against his side so that it wouldn’t move. The sleeve of the heavy leather jacket had been burned through, as had the skin and the muscle of the biker’s arm. The humerus showed, smooth and white, except where Travis’ fingers had burned fingerprints into the bone. Cobra hurt so bad he could hardly stand it.
“Now, walk to the door.”
Cobra’s knees were weak and wobbly, but he forced himself to walk one more step, and then another.
The captive biker half-hoped that the maniac would let him go when they reached the doorway, but Travis maintained his grip on Cobra’s jacket, releasing his hold only long enough to transfer his grasp to an undamaged part of the jacket whenever the leather disintegrated. “If any of you follow me, he dies,” Travis called to the other gang members. Then, he issued another order to his captive, saying, “Now, head down the walkway, to my bike.”
Somehow, Cobra found the strength and will to stagger down the boardwalk in front of the bar and across the gravel parking lot to Travis’ Harley. Cobra’s jacket was a ragged fringe around his shoulders, the burned and tattered sleeves and lower portion all but disintegrated by the time that Travis finally released him and Cobra fell onto the gravel.
Travis leaped onto his motorcycle and started the engine. He shot forward, his rear tire flinging gravel, and sped along the road that led into the Nevada desert.
“Get the bastard!” he heard the Vipers’ leader, Big Bruiser, thunder.
“What about Cobra?” one of the bikers asked.
“Shirley’s called an ambulance for him.”
Travis glanced at his speedometer. He was already traveling fifty miles per hour, on an unfamiliar road. What lay ahead, he had no idea. In a desolate wilderness like the Nevada desert, anything could be in the road—a dead Gila monster, heavy sands from a shifting dune, a sharp turn, a narrowing of the road, a stalled vehicle, or an overturned tractor-trailer—anything. It was dangerous driving at such a speed on an unfamiliar road in unknown territory, but it was more dangerous to be caught by the dozen bad ass bikers he’d just pissed off. Travis accelerated more, and the needle on the speedometer swung past eighty, ninety, a hundred.
Behind him, he could hear the engines of the bikers’ motorcycles, and he knew that the gang would not stop until they’d avenged their friend. Travis also knew that, unlike him, the bikers rode on a highway that they knew as intimately as they knew the surrounding desert.
Chapter One—The Hideous Harmons
When Floyd finished his spiel, he’d managed to pack the tent once more so that paying customers could ooh and aah at The Hideous Harmons and go home feeling better about their own inner deformities and grotesqueries. Like his wife, Daphne, and their children, Abner had heard the pitchman’s shtick so many times that he could recite it verbatim.
Ladies and gentlemen, The Hideous Harmons will horrify; they will astound! You won’t believe your eyes! Hurry, hurry, hurry! Step right up, and see Mr. Invisible, The Invulnerable Woman, Windlass, Serpentina, and Mind Master perform fantastic feats that will frighten and amaze! Hurry, hurry, hurry. . . .
Like other circus “freaks,“ Abner may have found the pitchman’s spiel offensive, but he had to admit that Floyd knew how to pack them in. As much as Abner might hate to admit it, he and his family had the barker’s salesmanship, such as it was, to thank, as much as their own special abilities, for the income they earned. Consequently, Abner had lectured himself, time after time, he’d better get used to hearing Floyd’s hyperbole.
Now that he’d filled the tent, Floyd became the narrator for the exhibition and, once again, Abner knew exactly what the pitchman would say before he said it. The chatter was always the same:
There are five people on this stage, but you see only one, Mr. Invisible himself—and you will see only one person until Mr. Invisible allows you to observe the others, whom he has cloaked with invisibility!
On cue, Abner envisioned the presence of the others, and he felt the familiar buzzing of electrons along his nerves as electricity surged within his brain, flashing across synapses and activating the specialized cells that could bend light around himself or any other object near his location, and his wife and children appeared, seemingly out of thin air, beside him on the stage. He could hear the astonished gasps of the audience and the rhetorical question that was invariably asked, “How did he do that?”
How, indeed? No one knew, including Abner himself, although the patriarch of The Horrible Harmons had a theory. He believed that his family’s powers were the result of some freakish genetic mutation—the rare kind that doesn’t kill the organism to which it occurs. However, neither Abner nor his family was stupid enough to let anyone believe that their powers were anything other than the results of trickery and illusion. If it was known that their abilities were real, they might well become the guinea pigs of government scientists, whether they wanted to “serve their country” in that capacity or not.
Floyd resumed his scripted patter again, now that the circus strongman had entered the stage, sledgehammer in hand:
Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce Mr. Muscles, our strongman. Behold the power he has within his brawny frame!
Mr. Muscles lifted the sledgehammer high overhead, bringing its weight down, hard and fast, upon his target, and the stack of cinderblocks he’d struck shattered into flying chunks.
Floyd spoke again:
As you have just seen, cinderblocks cannot withstand the mighty blows of Mr. Muscles’ sledgehammer. Can the fragile form of a beautiful lady? It can—if it belongs to The Invulnerable Woman!
The audience gasped as Mr. Muscles hefted the sledgehammer and brought it forward in an arc parallel with the floor of the stage, swinging the head as fast and hard into Daphne Harmon’s stomach as he had swung the hammerhead into the cinderblocks. The hammer rebounded from her belly as if it had struck a steel girder, albeit noiselessly. The strongman hit Daphne again, in the head, this time, just as savagely, and the sledgehammer bounced harmlessly off her skull.
There were many moans and groans from the audience as the spectators murmured excitedly, expressing their amazement and disbelief.
Mr. Muscles stepped up to another stack of cinderblocks, reducing them to rubble with the same hammer he’d used to strike Daphne, to show the audience that it was the same hammer he’d employed to crush the first stack of cinderblocks. The spectators mumbled again, wide eyed.
Floyd drew the viewers’ attention to the next member of The Horrible Harmons: Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce still another astonishing performer, the wonderful Windlass!
An old steamroller, such as highway construction crews used to smooth out asphalt, was illuminated, and Floyd shouted his over-the-top commentary:
He uses no ropes or chains, no cables or lines of any kind—except the irresistible strength of his mind!
Steve Harmon focused on the steamroller, willing the massive machine to roll forward, seeing it happen in his mind, and he felt lightning inside his cranium as the electricity within his brain surged along his nerves. Incredibly, the heavy equipment rolled forward, as if an operator had climbed aboard the machine, started its engine, engaged the gears, and stepped on the accelerator, except that there was no sound, no exhaust—and no driver. Steve relaxed, and the steamroller stopped, having moved a distance of fifteen feet.
The crowd marveled.
Floyd introduced the next performer:
Invisibility, invulnerability, and telekinesis—as absolutely amazing and altogether astonishing as these fantastic feats must be reckoned, ladies and gentlemen, believe me when I tell you, You ain’t seen nothing yet! Watch the T. V. monitor, and behold—Serpentina!
Stella Harmon gazed into a closed-circuit television camera, opening her mouth wide to exhibit long, curving fangs that tapered to needle-sharp points.
Serpentina is more venomous than a cobra, more poisonous than a pit viper, more toxic than a rattlesnake!
The images on the television monitor changed, as a pre-recorded tape rolled, showing a white rabbit nibbling at a carrot inside a cage, the nostrils in its pink nose twitching, like its whiskers, as it sniffed its food. A slender arm appeared in the frame as someone reached down, inside the cage. The person’s hand, which had long, painted nails, closed beneath the rabbit’s belly and lifted the animal out of the cage.
The camera drew back, and the spectators saw that the hand and arm belonged to the young woman whom the barker had introduced as Serpentina. She brought the rabbit toward her face, and her mouth opened, wider than would have seemed possible, revealing the long, curved fangs among her normal teeth.
The more squeamish viewers looked away from the monitor, but most of them watched as the young woman thrust the rabbit’s neck into her jaws and bit down hard. Blood spurted from her mouth, some of the crimson fluid dribbling down her chin. The rabbit, tensed, trying to hop away, but she held it fast in her grip, and the struggling animal was, within a second or two, absolutely still. She opened her hand and let the carcass fall to the table on which the rabbit’s cage sat, now empty, its sole occupant having been evicted by death.
Floyd provided a commentary concerning the event that the spectators had just witnessed:
It may interest you to know that the rabbit was fed to one of our boa constrictors, so it was not wantonly slaughtered. Snakes have to eat, too, right? Just ask Serpentina!
Floyd, as always, filled the void left by the spectators’ uncertain silence:
Our final demonstration is one of mind-reading. Mind Master has asked me to request that each of you think of your pet’s name. If you have more than one pet, think of the name of the animal that you most recently acquired. Now, keep that one name in mind, and Mind Master will tell you the name of your pet!
Hanover Harmon could discern the names easily. This demonstration of his power was so undemanding that it was absurd, but it never failed to impress an audience, and this time was no exception. Hanover could see the surprise, delight, amazement, and disbelief in their eyes as he looked at the redheaded girl in the light blue top and said, “Pepper”; at the blonde woman in the beige sweater and said, “Topper”; at the young man in the gray sports jacket and said, “Skipper.” In a few minutes, he’d successfully named the pet that each member of the audience had in mind, and there was an excited buzz among them.
Floyd addressed the crowd of spectators a final time, announcing the end of the show:
Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for viewing our exhibit of Circus Freaks and Geeks. We hope you enjoyed seeing Mr. Invisible, The Invulnerable Woman, Windlass, Serpentina, and Mind Master up close and personal, and we hope you’ll tell all your family members and friends to see the show.
The visitors to the exhibit began muttering again, as they filed slowly out of the tent, and Stella heard the usual comments about “freaks,” and “fakes,” and “tricks,” and “frauds.” As always, the remarks depressed her. As usual, her parents and siblings recognized her unhappiness and reassured her that it was the so-called normal people who had a problem, not them.
“Don’t let them bother you,” Abner counseled.
“Pay them no mind,” Daphne agreed.
“They’re just jealous,” Steve ventured, only half-jokingly.
“I know; you’re right,” Stella admitted. “Still, sometimes I think Travis had the right idea.”
“To run away?” Abner asked sharply.
“Abner, he didn’t run away,” Daphne said.
“Oh? Where is he, then? I haven’t seen him in weeks.”
“He left home,” Daphne agreed, “but when a man is twenty six years old and leaves home, it can’t be called running away.”
“Bah! What is it, then?”
“He’s seeing the world, Daddy,” Stella said, wistfully.
“What world? California? That’s no place to live.”
“I understand why Travis became tired of being viewed as a freak. I’m thinking of leaving the circus myself. I want to go places and see things and meet new people. I want to get married and have a family.”
“You go places and see new things and people now, with the circus,” Abner protested, “and, as for getting married and having children—I thought you said you didn’t want any part in the creation of another generation of The Horrible Harmons.”
“I don’t, Daddy, not if that means they have to live as featured performers in a show called ‘Circus Freaks and Geeks,’ but if they can see the world—”
“Maybe it is best that Travis did leave,” Abner declared. “At least he is no longer here to put idle nonsense into the minds of his younger brothers and sister!”
“Where is Travis, anyway?” Hanover asked.
“What’s he doing?”
Abner shrugged. “We haven’t received a letter or a postcard from him in a week. The last we heard, he was in Utah and planned to ride his motorcycle west, through Nevada, to California. California! Bah! What is there for Travis Harmon in California? Or Nevada? Or Utah? Or anywhere else but Clearwater?”
“Abner, hush,” Daphne said. “There’s nothing wrong with any of those places. Everywhere can’t be Clearwater, and our town has its problems, too, you know. Besides, we’re in Provo, Utah, at the moment, and things are going well enough, right?”
“We’re not ‘in’ Provo; we’re traveling through Provo. There’s a big difference,” Abner countered. He looked at his wife for a moment before asking, “Have you forgotten what happened in Dry Gulch a few years back, Daphne? Have you forgotten why we left that hell?”
“That was a long time ago, Abner.”
Abner scowled. “It will never have been long enough for me, even if it happened a hundred thousand years ago.” He turned to his daughter. “Stella, can I see a smile? You are too beautiful to be sad.”
Dutifully, Stella smiled, half-heartedly.
“You call that a smile?”
She smiled more broadly, her lips parting to frame her teeth. They were even and white and beautiful, except for the fangs, which were long, curved, sharp, and deadly. She was self-conscious about them, and revealed them only when she smiled for her father, mother, or brothers.
“That’s much better!” Abner declared approvingly. “Now, I can see your lovely teeth.”
Summoned by an unspoken, but irresistible, command, strangers come, from all over the United States, to Dry Gulch, a small northern Nevada town where life's become unaccountably strange of late. Servers deliver raw food to diners' tables. The town's cemetery is enormous, the dates on the headstones remarkable. A boardinghouse landlady, like the local police, takes an odd interest in her tenants' comings and goings. A homeless man roaming the streets warns of weird lights and the approach of something dangerous and uncanny. Then, the army comes to town, as do outlaw bikers and a circus troupe of extraordinary performers. What force or power could underlie such an astonishing mix of humanity? The townies—and the rest of the world—are about to find out.
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