The Popper

Folks, this will be the last regular short story of the week. In the future, when I write one I’ll post it here, but those won’t be every week. You can always find the latest by clicking A Free Short Story in the menu. Thanks, Harvey

The first one popped the day before the Sturgis Metal Run. Me and Ronny and a few others were revvin’ the dream, hittin’ 90 in a 75. In the fast lane, of course, northbound.

It was a cool morning, with temps probably in the mid-fifties. Not cool enough for any fog, really, or wet enough. Though I did see a little dew sparkling now and then off the side of the road as we passed.

There were a few clouds around too, but up high, like a painting, and the sun was out

And poppo! There it was. The thing appeared right in front of Ronny, and what passed for its arm extended toward him just like it would do any good.

I’ve seen Ronny swerve to miss ants on the road, so it isn’t like he’d intentionally run down something. But this was too close, too immediate, and Ronny ran through it like nobody’s business. I did too, in his wake a split second later.

Jerry, Barlow and Rex missed the thing, but only because they were slightly left (Jerry) and right (Barlow and Rex) pushing the edges of the lane.

It was like running through a quick fog bank that popped up out of nowhere, an’ that’s what we thought it was at first.

Only it didn’t play like a fog bank.

I didn’t realize that until later. It first dawned on me maybe five or ten seconds later. But at 90 miles per hour, five or ten seconds is a long time.

I mean, in the instant when Ronny hit it, it didn’t swirl and follow along in the vacuum created by his passing.

“Wh—” started to cross my mind then, but by the time “—at?” got there I was through it. And I wasn’t thinking about whether it was swirling and following along and all that.

I was too busy wondering why Ronny dumped his bike.

And my eyes were glued to the road—well, as glued as they could be at 90 miles per hour—between the back of Ronny’s Softail Harley and my Indian Chief. You know how fast your brain works. As my law prof would’a said, “It would be immeasurably better for your health, young man, to avoid whatever bit of detritus side-bored your buddy.”

Okay, the “side-bored your buddy” was my substitution for what Ms. Gramley would’a said, but you get the drift.

Only there wasn’t nothin’. The road was clean. Maybe a pebble here and there, and that one little slip of a shredded tire. I flashed my front tire past it maybe a half-inch to the left. But it was a sliver anyway, maybe three or four inches long and a tread wide, so nothin’ that would’a flipped Ronny like that.

And I had time to look. I mean, I got off the throttle some when Ronny’s back end shivered hard left. I probably wasn’t doin’ 85 when Ronny swiveled the front end to the right and laid it down. And I got on my brakes as I passed.

But I looked back just in time to see that Softail starting to flip. I figure his right peg caught pavement.

Me and the others tried for two years to talk Ronny into trading out those steel pegs for aluminum, but he was sure the steel would skip along the top of the road and save his leg.

As if.

“Besides,” he said the last time we talked about it, “I ain’t gonna lay it down, man. It’s all a choice.”

Yeah. But not always.

Sometimes other stuff chooses for you. And sometimes, as it turns out, the other stuff is a Popper.

Now we didn’t know anything about Poppers before that. I guess maybe the one that popped in front of Ronny was the first one on the planet. At least it was the first one we’d ever seen, if “seen” is the right word. Like I said, we thought it was a fog bank. Only with an arm and a something like a hand. I saw that much.

Anyway, even with my fast brain showing me Ronny was flipping, I squeezed the brakes on my Vic and skidded to the far right shoulder. The plan, I guess, was to kickstand it and run back to help Ronny.

But as I twisted left in the saddle and started to get up, he passed me, about eight feet in the air, about twenty feet behind me. In one’a those snapshots your brain takes at such times, the lines that divide the lanes split his Softail in half.

Ronny and the bike were laying sideways and he was still on the seat. Only his head was pointing down the road and the bottom of his bike was pointing back the way we came. His arms were stretched to the handlebars, his fingers clenched and his mouth in a big O.

Then his face disappeared as he rolled on over.

His left shoulder probably hit first, then his head, then the bike.

That was the first time I really noticed a sound. I mean there was a general jumble of noises, but when his helmet hit the pavement it was a sharp crack. Either that or when his neck broke.

Then everything went back to regular speed. Ronny and the Softail smudged along the centerline, tires up and spinning. Jerry flashed by in a smeared shadow on the distant left of my vision as Barlow and Rex crashed through the scene right in front of me in two big roars just off the back of my bike.

I don’t remember getting off my Chief but I was running down the road, my heavy boots clomping in time to the squeal of brakes. I think that was Barlow.

And everybody was a hundred feet away.

Ronny and the Softail were in a pile in the middle of the road beyond a streak of something glistening. Nothing was moving from what I could tell, but I didn’t have the best look with my head bobbing as I ran. I just kept thinking of what might happen if a semi topped that low rise behind us.

Jerry was stopped in the dip of the soft median, his jeans making an inverted U as he got off his bike. A fourth of his front tire was sunk in mud. Not sure why he stopped there. Gravity maybe.

Barlow and Rex parked side by side. The noses of their bikes were at the edge of the rough asphalt shoulder, pointing toward a four-strand barbed wire fence on the other side of a grassy right of way. On the other side of the fence was grassland, a windmill and a caliche-rock stock tank.

They dismounted and turned at the same time like it was choreographed.

Jerry got to Ronny’s pileup just ahead of Barlow and Rex.

I was still around fifty feet away, huffing and wondering why I didn’t just start my bike, nose her back to the road and drive up.

Jerry crouched down on one knee on the other side of that Softail, then glanced at Barlow and Rex and extended his right hand. Like he was telling them to wait. He studied to be a doctor for a couple years and his brother’s a cop, so.

As Jerry leaned forward over Ronny and extended that same right hand, Barlow said something I couldn’t hear.

They were all in the middle of the road and not paying the slightest bit of attention.

I yelled, “Trucks!” and pointed past them. I wanted Barlow and Rex to go farther up the road and ward off any approaching trucks. But we were in the northbound lane, so any trucks would be coming from behind me.

As I yelled, Barlow and Rex looked at me. Barlow put his hands on his hips. He yelled, “What?” and I just shook my head and kept running.

Barlow glanced at Jerry, then started jogging toward me. As we passed, he said quietly, “I’ll watch for trucks.” I guess he heard me after all.

But trucks were the least of our problems.

We’d forgotten all about the fog bank Ronny and I drove through.

* * *

I finally got there, stomping to a heavy stop just short of Ronny’s bike. I bent forward, my hands on my hips, breathing hard. That’s when I caught that glistening smeared stuff in my periphery and realized what it was. Then I glanced at Ronny’s muddled form, then looked at Jerry. “Oh Jesus! Is he okay?”

Well, I knew he wasn’t okay. I’d seen him in the air, and I’d seen and heard him hit. A miracle couldn’t make him okay.

Jerry didn’t even look up. He pulled his hand back from the side of what was left of Ronny’s throat, his index and middle finger still extended together, and shook his head. Quietly, he said, “Naw. He’s gone, man.”

Rex leaned forward over the twisted front wheel of the Softail. Softly, he said,  “Damn, man.”  Then he pointed. “What’s that?”

I looked where he was pointing. “What?”

He wagged his extended index finger. “That!”

I looked again just as Jerry sat back. He pointed too, “Oh man!” as he overbalanced and sat hard on both cheeks. “Damn!” He worked his heels, kicking against the asphalt to back himself away.

Something milky purplish, kind of a spot, lay on Ronny’s skin. Or maybe it was part of his skin. A misshapen, ragged oval from where his black t-shirt hit on his neck up to where it disappeared under the hair beneath the bottom of his helmet. Probably it ran up behind his left ear.

“A birthmark?” I said, but I knew better. I’d known Ronny since third grade. He didn’t have any birthmarks.

As we watched, the thing pulsed.

Jerry was finally on his feet near the shoulder next to the median and turning toward his bike.

“Hey,” I said. “Where you goin’?”

He shook his head as he sank sole-deep in the damp median. His voice trembled. He mumbled, “Gonna get help.” But it sounded like it was just something to say.

I frowned. “Jerry?”

He kept walking.


“Me too.”

That voice came from my right. I looked back.

Rex was halfway to his bike too.

I looked at Jerry’s back again. He was getting on his bike. I looked back toward Rex. He was almost to his bike. I held my arms out at my sides and yelled, “Hey, we gotta move him or something. Right?”

Jerry didn’t answer. He started his bike and gave it some gas, urging it up onto the south-bound lanes, but he turned north. Probably going to the next clear cross-over.

I dropped my arms and looked back at Rex. “Rex? Hey, c’mon, man. Help me move Ronny so—”

He shook his head. “Sorry, man.” He started his bike and leaned it over, spinning the back tire in the mud and soft gravel along the edge of the shoulder, and drove away north. Fast. Catching gears. Nothing left but that annoying Yamaha whine and that tire arc off the shoulder.

What the hell?

I looked up at Jerry, just crossing the median a couple hundred feet north. Barlow already was a receding spot far beyond him. What the hell?

I put my hands on my hips. How was I going to move Ronny off the damn road? I couldn’t leave him here to get run over like a dead bird. And his bike. I’d have to move his bike too.

Jerry said Ronny was dead. So why was he going for help? Help for who?

I looked down at Ronny again. How was I gonna move his bike without dragging him along with it? Underneath it all I wasn’t even sure where the bike left off and Ronny began.

I focused on his neck again. That and his helmet and his left shoulder and arm and side were intact.

The purplish spot was larger, but it was also less purple. Well, it was more milky than purple. As I watched, the purple pulsed and faded to milky white.

I could grab his left wrist and forearm maybe and pull what was left of him away from the bike. Pull him over to the soft median. Probably he was ground off beneath the bike.

But I didn’t want to do that. He was my friend, not just some road-killed coyote. He deserved better. I didn’t move, other than shifting my feet. I thought back about some of the stuff we’d done together over the past thirty years or so. Probably putting off the inevitable. I mean, gross as it was, I had to move him, right? Either that or stand there and wave traffic around him. If any traffic came.

The whole time I watched that splotch on his neck. It seemed to be growing, but maybe that was a trick of the light or something.

I shifted my feet again and put my hands on my hips. If the situation were reversed, what would Ronny do?

He’d move me, that’s what he’d do.

But what if it was catching, whatever that was on his neck? And where’d it come from? It wasn’t from the road. I mean, the skin was there, and all his stuff on the left side was there. Even his helmet wasn’t scratched on that side.

The splotch continued to pulse. I felt like I was watching something intimate that was none of my business. It pulsed and seemed to expand a little, then again, and again.

I shifted my feet again, looked away and shook my head. Maybe my eyes were playing tricks on me or something.

And when I looked back at him again, they did.

I swear, the guy started to evaporate.

Maybe. Whatever that splotch was on his neck, it’s like he was becoming it. Or it was becoming him. Or something.

It was like the splotch was external to him, but part of him too. A new part of him.

The fog thing? Is that what caused it?

But I’d run through it too, and I didn’t wreck. And I didn’t have any purple-milk splotches on me as far as I knew. I reached up and ran my palm over my neck.

Why’d Jerry and Rex have to split like that?

But they were both looking at Ronny when they decided to leave. They weren’t looking at me.

I watched the splotch more closely, but I backed up a step too. It was surreal. My friend was lying dead in the road beneath his bike. And the bike was pretty much flat on the road, so….

I glanced back along the road.

Ronny’s right leg and foot, still in the boot, lay back along the way. How had I missed seeing that before?

I shifted again, faced away from Ronny, back along the road. I looked past his leg too, and his boot. I think I knew I was delaying the inevitable. Delaying looking directly at him. And the splotch.

But I was trying to piece the wreck together in my mind. It was a horrific wreck. Had the fog thing caused it?

The fog thing. It was back there somewhere, right? I mean, that’s the way we came. About a hundred feet back. Maybe a hundred and fifty.

I decided maybe the fog thing did it. It made sense, sort of.

It almost looked like the thing held up a hand and arm, like it was warding him off just before he plowed through it. But not really, now that I had time to think about it.

It wasn’t like it was trying to defend itself so much as to touch him. It reached for him and touched him as he passed through it.

And it wasn’t really fog either, come to think of it. It was thicker, sort of. More substantive than microbial water droplets suspended in air. And it was—almost creamy. Milky.

Maybe that’s what the splotch was.

I focused, looked for the spot of fog.

And as I looked, I tried to think it through. We’d run through that little spot of fog, s0 probably it dissipated. That would make sense, right?

But it hadn’t folded in on itself, whipped through the vacuum created by his passing. That much I knew. And that’s when it finally came home to me.

I got to thinking, maybe it touched him. Maybe it wasn’t reaching to make him stop. Maybe it was reaching to touch him. Maybe it left part of itself on him. And maybe it didn’t have time to reload before I passed through it an instant later. Maybe I was just lucky.

While I was thinking about all that, it was almost like my vision was getting cloudy. Then I realized there was fog back there. There wasn’t before, except the bit Ronny and I drove through. But it was there now, and it was growing.

Only it still wasn’t a bank, like a cloud on the ground. It was more like a series of smaller bits of fog. Like several steam guysers all lined up across and deep, the ones in the back a little offset, peering past the others’ shoulders.

Maybe it—


I almost came out of my skin.

The voice came out of the fog, but a lot closer. And separate.

It was Barlow. I mean, it was Barlow’s face. Barlow’s tall, lanky body, but as if he was draped in fog. He was moving smoothly toward me, not thirty feet away. But I hadn’t noticed him before. Maybe he was faded into all stuff behind him at first. Or probably I was focusing too hard on where I thought the earlier fog thing was, the one we drove through. Or maybe I was caught up in thinking about the wreck or—

I frowned. This wasn’t quite right. He was moving without that jerky, ditty-bopping gait he usually had when he walked. Like he was on wheels or something. “Barlow?”

He nodded, slowly, smoothly. “Okay,” he said.

Okay? What’s that mean? But I decided to cling to normalcy. “Traffic,” I said, and gestured past him. “You were gonna watch for traffic and—”

“Where did your people go?”

What? My people? I looked past him. The fog—or fogs—were getting closer. I said, “You mean Jerry and Rex?” Then I jerked a thumb over my shoulder. Weakly, I said, “They, uh—they went for help.” Bearing in mind where Ronny’s bike was, I took a step back and to the left.

Barlow stopped maybe five feet from me. “Help?” He nodded, slowly, smoothly. His right arm came up, slowly. “Help.”

I took another step back. “You, uh—” I pointed back down the road. Quietly, as if sharing a secret, I said, “Barlow, you one’a them poppers?”

His face rippled. “Pop-purse?”

“Doesn’t matter.” I took another step back, then gestured past him again toward my beautiful Victory Indian Chief. The front of it was visible beyond the left-most bit of fog stuff. Me and that bike had been through a lot together. “Hey, man,” I said. “Let’s get our bikes and go find Jerry and Rex. I’m sure we can find them.”

“Okay,” he said.

I pointed past him again at my Vic. “Your bike’s back there. Go get it. I’ll wait here with Ronny.”

He glanced back. “Okay.”

Then he reversed. Understand? He didn’t turn around. The guy reversed.

One second I was looking at his face and lowering my hand from pointing past him, and the next I was looking at the back of his head. It’s like he passed through himself. He reversed direction without turning around.

And he moved away. Slowly. Smoothly.

When he’d gone maybe ten feet and I was sure he wasn’t going to reverse again, I raced across the slow lane to his bike. He always left the key in the ignition, and today was no exception.

I braced it, then glanced back toward Barlow. Or whatever he is now. He was a little over halfway to the Vic.

I started the Goldwing, and I’ll bet I left a bigger tire arc than Rex did.

* * * * * * *