I appear to be uninjured. In the morning, I’ll probably suffer from whiplash and other pains, but now everything seems to work.
The driver’s door is buckled, won’t open. The passenger door still functions. As I get out of the vehicle, I draw the pistol from under my sweatshirt, reminding myself that the magazine contains only seven rounds, not ten.
The wreckage in the family room makes it difficult to know quite what the place must have been like before I arrived. But there are cobwebs in the corners of the ceiling, a mobile of moths and flies in one of them, suggesting that the spider never lived to taste the prey that was enchanted by its architecture, and everywhere is a layer of dust that couldn’t have settled over everything in this first minute after the Jeep broke the doors down.
Pistol in a two-hand grip, I sweep the room left to right. No one. Nothing.
North of here, the sirens of the fire trucks groan into silence. The only sounds in the house are the ticks and creaks of the tortured Grand Cherokee cooling down, settling into ruin.
Hiskott might have expected me to attempt a break-in, but of a more conventional kind. He won’t have anticipated this. But he surely knows I’m here now, and my success depends on moving quickly, before one of the family, possessed, shows up in a killing frenzy.
A glance at the windows reveals that although the air is largely clear around this house and its neighbors on the flat ground below, the rest of Harmony Corner remains socked in by churning clouds of soot and ash. The marker lights and the warning lights of the fire trucks pulse and swivel deep within that seething murk, flinging off red-and-blue apparitions that chase one another through the scudding smoke.
An archway connects the family room to a large eat-in kitchen with an island. Crumbs, stale crusts of bread, desiccated cheese rinds, dried spills of sauces, and moldering wads of unidentifiable food litter the countertops. Scores of ants crawl through the debris, but they don’t scurry busily in efficient lines of march as do most ordinary ants; instead, they wander desultorily across the counters, as though they have consumed a toxin that leaves them confused and without purpose.
Piles of bones litter the filthy floor. Ham bones, beef bones, chicken bones, and others. Some have been broken as if to facilitate access to the marrow.
One of the pair of cabinet doors under the double sink has been torn off its hinges and is nowhere to be seen. From the space beyond spills a brittle drift of what appear to be dozens of rat skulls and skeletons, each sucked as clean as a turkey drumstick provided to a starving man. Not a scrap of skin or fur remains on any of them, and not a single length of scaly tail has been discarded.
The cooktop is encrusted with charred food and filth, less like a stove than like the unholy altar of some primitive temple with a long, cruel history of grisly sacrifices. I doubt that the propane-fired burners have worked in two or three years. The assumption has to be made that everything Dr. Hiskott consumes has, for a long time, been eaten raw.
According to Jolie and her mother, Ardys, the family brings their ruler everything he demands, including a great deal of food, which I believe they leave just inside the front door. I doubt that they brought him the rats.
I have been expecting a hybrid of a man and an extraterrestrial that will be far advanced beyond the condition of a human being, as clear-eyed and formidable as it also might be strange beyond easy comprehension. This unsettling evidence seems to argue instead for devolution: if not a steep intellectual decline, at least a severe diminishment of Hiskott’s ability to hold fast to any cultural norms and to repress animal compulsions.
A pantry door stands ajar, darkness beyond. Pistol still in a two-hand grip, I toe the door open wide. The inspill of pale light reveals that the shelves are bare. Not one can of vegetables or jar of fruit, or box of pasta. Sitting on the floor is a headless human skeleton. The skull rests on a shelf separate from the other bones, and a detached arm lies on the floor, one finger extended, pointed toward me as if I am expected. Neither the bones nor the floor under them are marked by the stains of decomposing flesh.
This discovery necessitates a correction to the Harmony-family history of the past five years. The skeleton is that of a child, perhaps a boy of about eight. If members of the family buried Maxy in an unmarked grave in some far corner of their property, then either the Hiskott thing ventured forth that very night to retrieve the corpse for his larder—or the dead boy was left with him, and Hiskott fashioned for the family false memories of an interment. This final twist to the story of Maxy’s already-horrific death is so unthinkable that, should I live, it will be my obligation to keep it from them. Neither Jolie nor anyone close to her must know, at least not until many years of freedom and peace have faded this part of their past as if it were a fever dream.
In this house of secrets, I feel displaced in time and space, as if, by the power of the alien presence, this land exists more on the planet of the creature’s origin than here on Earth, as if I live now not less than two years after losing Stormy but dwell instead in the dark future, on the eve of the end-of-all event that will explain the history of the universe.
The downstairs hallway is like a tunnel to the afterlife in a film about near-death experiences, a shadowy length that telescopes toward a mysterious light, though the promise at the farther end is not bright or inviting, but pallid, wintry, and uncertain. A switch turns on three ceiling fixtures. The bulbs are burned out in the second and third of them.
In the fall of light, immediately to my right, a door stands open on a landing, beyond which stairs lead down into an unrelenting darkness. A stench rises from what lies below, a witches’ brew of rancid fat, rotten vegetation, urine, and other foulness unknown. Something moves in that deep dankness, what might be heavy horn-heeled feet knocking and scraping along a concrete floor, and a voice issues an eerie trilling sound.
I try the switch on the landing wall, but it doesn’t summon any light. I pull the door shut. There is a deadbolt, which I engage. If eventually I must go into the cellar, I will require a flashlight. Before that, I need to clear the rooms on the first two floors, and hope to survive that inspection.
I move through a dining room long unused, revealed in sunlight filtered by gauzy curtains that hang between open draperies, through a study where bevies of fat moths quail from the window sheers and flutter to darker corners as if the shadows will save them from me, and then I return to the hallway, proceeding toward the foyer and the front rooms.
I am no less afraid, but my fear is tempered now by a healthy detestation and by a conviction that my mission is something even more important than freeing the Harmony family from this curse. In some fundamental sense, I am here to perform an exorcism.
So here we are, inside Wyvern, and might as well be a thousand miles away from Oddie for all the help we can give him. We hear him crash into the house as planned, but right after that we lose contact with him, because the car is probably smashed up and all. Ed says the Jeep is still transmitting a signal, and so is the smartphone. He’s sure that Odd is alive and well. Okay, so Ed’s super-smart, but that doesn’t mean he knows everything, he’s not like God or anything. As you can imagine, I want him to call that phone and see if Oddie’s all right, but Ed says not yet, give Oddie time to orient himself, we don’t want to distract him at a critical moment.
One of our three big worries, if we can limit them to three, is that when Oddie rocketed into the house, the boom of it alerted the county firefighting crew, and that they’ll rush to the house, see what Hiskott cannot afford for them to see, and lots of people will die before it’s over. But Ed is monitoring the emergency-band radio traffic plus all phone and cell-phone calls from anywhere in the Corner, and he says nobody seems to have noticed. The sirens, wind, fire, and just general commotion must have provided enough cover for Oddie.
I’m half sick thinking about it, but one of our other biggest worries is that Hiskott will use someone in my family to kill Oddie or that Oddie will have to kill some people in my family when he’s attacked. Either way, you know, it’s like I might just die myself if that happens, or if I don’t die, then something in me will die, and I won’t ever be the same or want to be.
If you want to know, the third thing that’s making us nuts—or making me nuts, since Ed just isn’t capable of being made nuts—is thinking about those three guests of the motor court that Hiskott took into his house over the years, those loners nobody missed, and they never came out again. Ed thinks maybe crazy old Hiskott might have done something more than mind-control them. He says maybe, after that injection of alien cells and over time, Hiskott is more alien now than human, and so he was able to infect those three and turn them into something alien, too. You know, like with a vampire bite or something less stupid than a vampire bite. Ed knows everything Hiskott and his team learned about the ETs, because he has access to those files. He says it’s major scarifying stuff. So whatever Oddie’s got to deal with in that house, it’s not a close encounter of the third kind in the cuddly Spielberg style.
Over the past five years, I’ve said my best prayers every night, haven’t missed a night, though I gotta admit, if it wouldn’t break my mother’s heart, I’d probably have stopped a year ago. I mean, praying to be free of Hiskott only makes me expect to be free soon, and then when the prayer’s never answered, you feel even worse, and you wonder what’s the point. I’m not criticizing God, if that’s what you think, because nobody knows why God does things or how He thinks, and He’s humongously smarter than any of us, even smarter than Ed. They say He works in mysterious ways, which is for sure true. What I’m saying is, maybe the whole praying business is a human idea, maybe God never asked us to do it. Yeah, all right, He wants us to like Him, and He wants us to respect Him, so we’ll live right and do good. But God is good—right?—and to be really good you’ve got to have humility, we all know that, so then if God is the best of the best, then He’s also the humblest of the humble. Right? So maybe it embarrasses Him to be praised like around the clock, to be called great and mighty all the time. And maybe it makes Him a little bit nuts the way we’re always asking Him to solve our problems instead of even trying to solve them ourselves, which He made us so we could do. Anyway, so after almost giving up on prayer, and being pretty darned sure that God is too humble to sit around all day listening to us praise Him and beg Him, the funny thing is, I’m praying like crazy for Oddie. I guess I’m hopeless.
As I reach the end of the downstairs hall, from behind me comes the sound of the knob rattling in the cellar door. The door is a good mahogany slab, the deadbolt thick, the hinges blackened iron. Great effort will be needed to break it down, and the noise will give me plenty of warning. The rattling stops and all is quiet.
The six-pane sidelights flanking the front door admit only a dim and wintry light into the foyer, partly because acid-etched patterns of ivy vines frost significant areas of the glass. Also, the front porch faces west, away from the fullest brightness of the morning sun. The windowsills are gray with thick dust, littered with dead gnats, dead flies, dead spiders.
To the left, a living room is overfurnished with floral-pattern chesterfields laden with decorative pillows, handsome wing chairs with footstools, curio cabinets, and several plant stands in which once-flourishing ferns now hang in brown sprays of parched fronds, the carpet under them littered with dead pinnules. Everywhere there is dust, cobwebs, stillness, and the air seems more humid toward the front of the house than in the back.
To the right of the foyer, a mahogany-paneled library offers an impressive collection of books, but they emit the odor of mildew. When I switch on the lights, a multitude of moths shiver out of the bookshelves, abandoning their feast of damp dust jacket and rotten binding cloth, by far more of them here than in the study. They swoop this way and that for a moment, agitated but without purpose.
A few take refuge on the ceiling, others settle upon a pair of club chairs upholstered in a shade of brown leather with which they blend, and the mass of them swarm toward me, past me, out of the room. Their soft bodies and softer wings flutter against my face, which I turn down and away from them, chilled by the contact to a degree that surprises me.
In the center of the library stands an antique pool table with elaborately carved legs and two carved and gilded lions as the cross supports that connect the legs. Silverfish skitter across the green-felt playing surface, disappearing into the ball pockets.
Even in the most disturbing environments, in the presence of deeply corrupt people who want nothing less than to kill me, I tend to find a vein of fun in either the rock or the hard place between which I’m trapped. Not this time. The atmosphere in this house is pestilential, poisonous, so unwholesome that I feel as if the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done is breathe the air herein.
At one end of the pool table lies an object that is no less enigmatical upon close inspection than from a distance. Round but not perfectly so, about five feet in diameter, it resembles nothing so much as a giant version of the medicine ball that men used to throw to one another for exercise before health clubs became high-tech. The object is mottled several shades of gray and is grained like leather, but it has no seams or stitching, and the lacquered sheen is unlike any leather finish I have ever seen. Some of the bulbs are burned out in the chandelier above the pool table, but what light there is glimmers in the surface of this unfathomable construction much the way that moonlight plays on dark water.
My perception of the object’s nature changes from one instant to the next when the surface proves to be not lacquered but wet. A bead of moisture swells out of it and trickles down the curved form to the carpet. Then something within the great ball writhes.
As I back hurriedly away, the surface of the thing is revealed to be rather like a cloak but not of cloth, of skin, which now peels up with a slick slithering sound, revealing a crouched form that in this unveiling rises with alarming alacrity to a height of almost seven feet. The limbs are jointed in ways that suggest machinery rather than bone, but this is no robot. It seems both reptilian and insectile, its flesh so tightly strung on its legs and arms that it appears withered but nonetheless strong. In the torso, in the set of the shoulders, it seems less reptilian and less insectile than human, and of course it stands erect. The gray cloaklike mass of skin falls in folds around it, less like a coat than like a cape, and its flesh is otherwise pale with muddy-yellow striations.
I would run, but I know that to turn my back will be to invite attack. Besides, everything about it speaks of speed, and it will have me before I’ve gone a dozen steps.
Because of my disturbed mother and her resort to threats with firearms as a primary child-raising technique, I have all my life disliked guns, though at this moment I love the one in my hands. I hesitate to use it only because I don’t yet know the full nature of my adversary, for its face remains concealed in the dark cowl that is part of its capelike garment of loose skin.
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