Dallas. 12:30am. August 20.
It was a little game they would play. Henry would come into the 7-11 for coffee on his way to work the night shift and Agnes would pretend not to remember him. Each time it was the same and in 2 years of consistency, Henry found comfort and Agnes found the respect from a fellow human being not often afforded one behind a counter.
August in Dallas, for those not familiar with the geography, meant it was hot enough to fry eggs on the hood of old cars. The local television stations all relished the ratings boom that hit when the thermometer allowed such a display as much as the residents hated the constant reminders. The heat had the bad habit of lingering long after the sunset, eliminating any logical expectation of relief, like the random acquaintance that sat at your table in the bar and refused to get the hint that you would rather be left alone. In this, it became just as annoying.
Henry's headlights shone in Agnes' window alerting her to his arrival and the start of their game. He entered as he usually did but something was different this time. Henry looked shaken.
“What happened, Mr Henry?” Agnes ignored the game for the sake of her friend. “You look like you seen a ghost.”
“I'm...I'm not sure, Agnes,” he looked back across the river in the direction from which he had come. “I was driving through West Dallas like I always do but just as I got to the bridge across the Trinity, some fella jumped outta the shadows onto the street, waving his arms like a wild man.”
“You didn't hit him, did you?”
“No! No...but there was something in his eyes....or rather missing from them. It set something off inside my head. Scared the shit outta---oh, sorry. Scared the Dickens outta me. It wasn't like he wanted help. No. It was like he wanted...”
“Like he wanted you.” A voice from the coffee bar answered.
Both Henry and Agnes spun around to see the owner of this voice.
“You didn't stop, did you?” she asked.
“No. HELL No!” Henry said. “Why would I? I don't know him. Some crazy crackhead jumps outta the bushes? I don't care if he was just shot. I'm crazy enough driving through this part of town just to shave 10 miles off of my commute. I don't need to add getting chopped into little crackhead kibbles to that list.”
“That won't no crackhead you seen, mister. Saw him just fore you crossed the river, yeah? Jumped outta them shadows like come outta nowhere, yeah? Looked atchoo like he know you, yeah?”
“...yeah. How do you know all this, ma'am?”
“Cause I seent that man too. Dat tha Bottom Man.”
“Tha Bottom Man. He come from the river bottom, snatchin up souls what wanna cross that river. Everywhere there a river where the folk live, there a Bottom Man live too. He pure Evil, he is.”
“Bullshit, lady. That was no supernatural entity I saw. That was a crackhead. I have seen one there almost every night I drive past. It's where they hang out. Next thing you'll tell me you seen the Lady of the Lake. Over at White Rock Lake? Is that his sister?” Henry laughed.
“No. I never seen her, but she diff'rent. My folks grow up over there before the war. They saw that lady. She wasn't tryin to snatch no souls. She jus tryin to get home is all. Like I say. Diff'rent.”
She hobbled closer to Henry and he got a good look at her. She was an ancient looking woman no taller than a 7th grader. Her skin was as weathered as the cotton dress she wore and she put a gnarled finger into Henry's chest. It was much stronger than it had any right to be.
“Don be fooled, child. Da Bottom Man don't never look the same way twice. You seen him many time but now he seen you too. He know you and he tellin you he want you. You can't go dis way no more. You gotta never pass that way ever again. Promise me you won't never go that way no more!” Her eyes glistened through her pleading. “He know you weakness now and next time you see him, he gonna go fo yo throat like a Pitt Bull an he ain't never gone let go.”
She clasped a bony fist in front of Henry's face to drive her point home. “You be careful if you ever come this way again, child. Don't stop for nobody nohow at that bridge.”
She paid for her coffee and hobbled away into the darkness. Henry and Agnes stood in silence as she vanished into the night. They said nothing to each other as Henry paid for his coffee and resumed his midnight commute. Agnes watched his headlights fade into the hot summer night and took a breath. She realized it was the first one she had taken since the old crone had started talking.
Another blistering weekend passed before Agnes returned to her post at the convenience store counter. She had spent more time worrying about her friend than she was willing to admit. She returned to work on the hottest night of the year. It was still in the 90's at 10pm, one of those nights when it felt like Hell itself had given the Earth a smothering hug.
Agnes was hot and sticky even inside the air-conditioned confines of her store. Customer after customer passed before her counter but Agnes paid them no mind. Her eyes darted to the clock over the cooler at the back of the store as she waited for 12:30 to arrive. Her coworkers filed out to leave her to her solitary post as the clock passed midnight. Any second, Henry would pass through that door and they would play their little game and laugh at that crazy old woman.
Her eyes never left the parking lot as 12:30 came and passed. There was no sign of Henry, but this was no cause for concern. Often he would be running late and bypass his coffee to get to work on time. This had happened many times over the years. This time, it felt different, although Agnes refused to acknowledge that fact.
Three more nights came and went with no sign of Henry. Agnes felt now that she had permission to worry. She called in sick Friday night for the first time since she began working at the store and borrowed her neighbor's car. She drove into Oak Cliff to the nice part Henry lived in. He had described his house often enough to her she knew the way by heart. She saw no sign of his green Jeep Cherokee in the driveway.
She turned around and followed the path he took on his commute, passing several other open convenience stores that sold coffee. This made her feel a touch of pride that her friend came to see her more for the companionship than the coffee. She passed beneath the highway as she drove down Westmoreland Avenue north towards the river. She drove through old West Dallas where Clyde Barrow grew up and past all the night walkers that inhabited this downtrodden neighborhood.
She saw how easy it was for Henry to assume the man was a crackhead from the many that loitered at the intersections even on this blast furnace of a night. The streetlights were out here in the City's attempt to conserve power at this time of peak electrical demand. The radio in her neighbor's car was unable to hold onto a station, but this was the Bottoms and that was to be expected.
Wary of running into an unseen obstacle on this dark street, Agnes hit the car's bright lights. To her shock, Henry was standing in the middle of the road less than 100 feet in front of her. She slammed on the brakes as hard as she could and screeched to a stop inches from where he stood.
He was torn and covered in muck from head to toe.
He stood in the middle of the street and made no effort to communicate. He stared at Agnes as she sat behind the wheel but she felt him looking deeper inside her than any eye has the ability to. Any human eye, that is.
She began shaking as Henry turned and began shuffling around to her door. He walked one step at a time with a deliberate measure that frayed her nerves, all the time never taking his eyes off hers, until he stood right outside her window.
His broken fingernail tapped on the glass three times. Each time Agnes felt the window would shatter from the sheer malicious nature of the blow that struck it. She could see holes in Henry where no holes belonged and there was a worm that had erupted from his forearm, flailing against the air that had replaced the flesh it had just gnawed upon.
Agnes rolled down the window that stood between her and her friend and was never seen alive again.