NEVILLE BENT OVER AND picked up a little soil in his right hand. He ran it between his fingers, crumbling the dark lumps into grit. How many of them, he wondered, slept in the soil, as the story went?
He shook his head. Precious few.
Where did the legend fit in, then?
He closed his eyes and let the dirt filter down slowly from his hand. Was there any answer? If only he could remember whether those who slept in soil were the ones who had returned from death. He might have theorized then.
But he couldn't remember. Another unanswerable question, then. Add it to the question that had occurred to him the night before.
What would a Mohammedan vampire do if faced with a cross?
The barking sound of his laugh in the silent morning air startled him. Good God, he thought, it's been so long since I've laughed, I've forgotten how. It sounded like the cough of a sick hound. Well, that's what I am, after all, isn't it? he decided. A very sick dog.
There had been a light dust storm about four that morning. Strange how it brought back memories. Virginia, Kathy, all those horrible days…
He caught himself. No, no, there was danger there. It was thinking of the past that drove him to the bottle. He was just going to have to accept the present.
He found himself wondering again why he chose to go on living. Probably, he thought, there's no real reason. I'm just too dumb to end it all.
Well–he clapped his hands with false decision–what now? He looked around as if there were something to see along the stillness of Cimarron Street.
All right, he decided impulsively, let's see if the running water bit makes sense.
He buried a hose under the ground and ran it into a small trough constructed of wood. The water ran through the trough and out another hole into more hosing, which conducted the water into the earth.
When he'd finished, he went in and took a shower, shaved, and took the bandage off his hand. The wound had healed cleanly. But then, he hadn't been overly concerned about that. Time had more than proved to him that he was immune to their infection.
At six-twenty he went into the living room and stood before the peephole. He stretched a little, grunting at the ache in his muscles. Then, when nothing happened, he made himself a drink.
When he got back to the peephole, be saw Ben Cortman come walking onto the lawn.
"Come out, Neville," Robert Neville muttered, and Cortman echoed the words in a loud cry.
Neville stood there motionless, looking at Ben Cortman.
Ben hadn't changed much. His hair was still black, his body inclined to corpulence, his face still white. But there was a beard on his face now; mostly under the nose, thin?ner around his chin and cheeks and under his throat. That was the only real difference, though. Ben had always been immaculately shaved in the old days, smelling of cologne each morning when he picked up Neville to drive to the plant.
It was strange to stand there looking out at Ben Cortman; a Ben completely alien to him now. Once he had spoken to that man, ridden to work with him, talked about cars and baseball and politics with him, later on about the disease, about how Virginia and Kathy were getting along, about how Freda Cortman was about.
Neville shook his head. There was no point going into that. The past was as dead as Cortman.
Again he shook his head. The world's gone mad, he thought. The dead walk about and I think nothing of it.
The return of corpses has become trivial in import. How quickly one accepts the incredible if only one sees it enough! Neville stood there, sipping his whisky and wondering who it was that Ben reminded him of. He'd felt for some time that Cortman reminded him of somebody, but for the life of him he couldn't think who.
He shrugged. What was the difference?
He put down the glass on the window sill and went into the kitchen. He turned on the water there and went back in. When he reached the peephole, he saw another man and a woman on the lawn. None of the three was speaking to either of the others. They never did. They walked and walked about on restless feet, circling each other like wolves, never looking at each other once, having hungry eyes only for the house and their prey inside the house.
Then Cortman saw the water running through the trough and went over to look at it. After a moment he lifted his white face and Neville saw him grinning.
Cortman was jumping over the trough, then back again. Neville felt his throat tightening. The bastard knew!
With rigid legs he pistoned himself into the bedroom and, with shaking hands, pulled one of his pistols out of the bureau drawer.
Cortman was just about finishing stamping in the sides of the trough when the bullet struck him in the left shoulder.
He staggered back with a grunt and flopped onto the sidewalk with a kicking of legs. Neville fired again and the bullet whined up off the cement, inches from Cortman's twisting body.
Cortman started up with a snarl and the third bullet struck him full in the chest.
Neville stood there watching, smelling the acrid fumes of the pistol smoke. Then the woman blocked his view of Cortman and started jerking up her dress.
Neville pulled back and slammed the tiny door over the peephole. He wasn't going to let himself look at that. In the first second of it, he had felt that terrible heat dredging up from his loins like something ravenous.
Later he looked out again and saw Ben Cortman pacing around, calling for him to come out.
And, in the moonlight, he suddenly realized who Cortman reminded him of. The idea made his chest shudder with repressed laughter and he turned away as the shaking reached his shoulders.
My God–Oliver Hardy! Those old two-reelers he'd looked at with his projector. Cortman was almost a dead ringer for the roly-poly comedian. A little less plump, that was all. Even the mustache was there now.
Oliver Hardy flopping on his back under the driving impact of bullets. Oliver Hardy always coming back for more, no matter what happened. Ripped by bullets, punctured by knives, flattened by cars, smashed under collapsing chimneys and boats, submerged in water, flung through pipes. And always returning, patient and bruised.
That was who Ben Cortman was–a hideously malignant Oliver Hardy buffeted and long suffering.
My God, it was hilarious!
He couldn't stop laughing because it was more than laughter; it was release. Tears flooded down his cheeks. The glass in his hand shook so badly, the liquor spilled all over him and made him laugh harder. Then the glass fell thumping on the rug as his body jerked with spasms of uncontrollable amusement and the room was filled with his gasping, nerve-shattered laughter.
Later, he cried.
He drove it into the stomach, into the shoulder. Into the neck with a single mallet blow. Into the legs and the arms, and always the same result: the blood pulsing out, slick and crimson, over the white flesh.
He thought he'd found the answer. It was a matter of losing the blood they lived by; it was hemorrhage.
But then he found the woman in the small green and white house, and when he drove in the stake, the dissolution was so sudden it made him lurch away and lose his breakfast.
When he had recovered enough to look again, he saw on the bedspread what looked like a row of salt and pepper mixed; just about as long as the woman had been. It was the first time he'd ever seen such a thing.
Shaken by the sight, he went out of the house on trembling legs and sat in the car for an hour, drinking the flask empty. But even liquor couldn't drive away the vision.
It had been so quick. With the sound of the mallet blow still in his ears, she had virtually dissolved before his eyes.
He recalled talking once to a Negro at the plant. The man had studied mortuary science and had told Robert Neville about the mausoleums where people were stored in vacuum drawers and never changed their appearance.
"But you just let some air in," the Negro had said, "and whoom!–they'll look like a row of salt and pepper. Jus' like that!" And he snapped his fingers.
The woman had been long dead, then. Maybe, the thought occurred, she was one of the vampires who had originally started the plague. God only knew how many years she'd been cheating death.
He was too unnerved to do any more that day or for days to come. He stayed home and drank to forget and let the bodies pile up on the lawn and let the outside of the house fall into disrepair.
For days he sat in the chair with his liquor and thought about the woman. And, no matter how hard he tried not to, no matter how much he drank, he kept thinking about Virginia. He kept seeing himself entering the crypt, lifting the coffin lid.
He thought he was coming down with something, so palsied and nerveless was his shivering, so cold and ill did he feel.
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