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As we listened to Delacroix weep, Bobby said, “You mean losing control to…?”


“Yeah.”


“To whatever was fluttering.”


“Yeah.”


“Everyone died. Everyone on the first expedition. Three men, one woman. Blake, Jackson, Chang, and Hodgson. And only one came back. Only Hodgson came back. Except it wasn’t Bill Hodgson in the suit.”


Delacroix cried out with sudden pain, as if he’d been stabbed.


The tortured cry was followed by an astonishing spell of violent cursing: every obscenity I had ever heard or read, plus others that either weren’t part of my education or were invented by Delacroix, a vile torrent of rapid-fire vulgarities and blasphemies. This stream of raw filth was venomously ejected, snarled and shouted with a fury so blazing that I felt seared even when exposed to only the recording of it.


Evidently, Delacroix’s vocal outburst was accompanied by erratic driving. His cursing was punctuated by the blaring horns of passing cars and trucks.


The cursing sputtered to a stop. The last of the horns faded. For a while Delacroix’s raggedly drawn breaths were the loudest sounds on the tape. Then:


“Kevin, maybe you remember, you once told me that science alone couldn’t give us meaningful lives. You said science would actually make life unlivable if it ever explained everything to us and robbed the universe of mystery. We desperately need our mystery, you said. In the mystery is the hope. That’s what you believe. Well, what I saw over on the other side…. Kevin, what I saw over there is more mystery than a million years of scientists can explain. The universe is stranger than we ever conceived…and yet, at the same time, it’s eerily like our most primitive concepts of it.”


He drove in silence for a minute or so and then began to murmur to himself in that cryptic language.


Bobby said, “Who’s Kevin?”


“His brother? Earlier, he referred to him as ‘big brother.’ I think Kevin might be a reporter somewhere.”


Still speaking what was gibberish to us, Delacroix shut off the recorder. I was afraid this was the last piece of an incomplete testament, but then he returned.


“Pumped cyanide gas into the translation capsule. That didn’t kill Hodgson, or what had come back in Hodgson’s place.”


“Translation capsule,” Bobby said.


“The egg room,” I guessed.


“We pumped all the atmosphere out. The capsule was a giant vacuum tube. Hodgson was still alive. Because this isn’t life…not as we think of life. This is anti-life. We kept the capsule operative, powered it to a new cycle, and Hodgson, or whatever it was, went back where it came from.”


He switched off the recorder. Only four entries remained in his testament, and each was spoken in a more confused, fearful voice. I sensed that these were Delacroix’s few fitful moments of coherence.


“Eight of us on the second expedition. Four came back alive. Me among them. Not infected. The doctors declared us free of all infection. But now…”


Followed by:


“…infected or possessed? Virus? Parasite? Or something more profound? Am I just a carrier…or a doorway? Is something in me…or coming through me? Am I…being unlocked…opened…opened like a door?”


Then, with decreasing coherence:


“…never went forward…went sideways. Didn’t even realize there was a sideways. Because we all long ago…we stopped thinking about…stopped believing in a sideways….”


Finally:


“…will have to abandon the car…walk in…but not where it wants me to go. Not to the translation capsule. Not if I can help it. The house. To the house. Did I tell you they all died? The first expedition? When I pull the trigger…will I be closing the door…or opening it to them? Did I tell you what I saw? Did I tell you who I saw? Did I tell you about their suffering? Do you know what flies and crawls? Under that red sky? Did I tell you? How did I get…here? Here?”


The last words on the tape were not in English.


I raised the bottle of Corona to my mouth and discovered that I had already emptied it.


Bobby said, “So this place with the red sky, the black trees—is it your mom’s future, bro?”


“Sideways, Delacroix said.”


“But what does that mean?”


“I don’t know.”


“Did they know?”


“Doesn’t sound like they did,” I said, pressing the rewind button on the remote.


“I’m having some quashingly funky thoughts.”


“The cocoons,” I guessed.


“Whatever spun the cocoons—did they come out of Delacroix?”


“Or through him, like he said. Like he was a doorway.”


“Whatever that means. And either way, does it matter? Out of or through, it’s the same to us.”


“I think if his body hadn’t been there, the cocoons wouldn’t be there, either,” I said.


“Gotta get some angry villagers together and march up to the castle with torches,” he said, his tone of voice more serious than the words he had chosen to express himself.


As the tape rewound and clicked to a stop, I said, “Should we take the responsibility on this one? We don’t know enough. Maybe we should tell someone about the cocoons.”


“You mean like authority types?”


“Like.”


“You know what they’ll do?”


“Screw up,” I said. “But at least it won’t be us screwing up.”


“They won’t burn’em all. They’ll want samples for study.”


“I’m sure they’ll take precautions.”


Bobby laughed.


I laughed, too, with as much bitterness as amusement. “Okay, sign me up for the march on the castle. But Orson and the kids come first. Because once we light that fire, we won’t be as free to move around Wyvern.”


I inserted a blank cassette into the second deck.


Bobby said, “Making a dupe?”


“Can’t hurt.” When the machines started working, I turned to him. “Something you said earlier.”


“You expect me to remember all the crap I say?”


“In that bungalow kitchen, with Delacroix’s body.”


“I can smell it vividly.”


“You heard something. Looked up at the cocoons.”


“Told you. Must’ve been in my head.”


“Right. But when I asked you what you heard, you said, ‘Me.’ What’d you mean by that?”


Bobby still had some beer. He drained the remaining contents of his bottle. “You were putting the cassette in your pocket. We were ready to leave. I thought I heard somebody say stay.”


“Somebody?”


“Several somebodies. Voices. All speaking at once, all saying stay, stay, stay.”


“Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs.”


“So you’re studying to be a jock at KBAY. The thing is…then I realized the voices were all my voice.”


“All your voice?”


“Hard to explain, bro.”


“Evidently.”


“For eight, ten seconds I could hear them. But even later…I felt they were still talking, just at lower volume.”


“Subliminal?”


“Maybe. Something way creepy.”


“Voices in your head.”


“Well, they weren’t telling me to sacrifice a virgin to Satan or assassinate the pope.”


“Just stay, stay, stay,” I said. “Like a thought loop.”


“No, these were like real voices on a radio. At first I thought they were coming…from somewhere in the bungalow.”


“You panned your flashlight over the ceiling,” I reminded him. “The cocoons.”


The faint glow from the audio equipment was reflected in his eyes. He didn’t look away from me, but he didn’t say anything.


I took a deep breath. “Because I’ve been wondering. After I called you from Dead Town, I started to feel vulnerable out in the open. So before I called Sasha, I decide to go into a bungalow, where I wouldn’t be so exposed.”


“Out of all those houses, why did you pick that one? With Delacroix’s body in the kitchen. With the cocoons.”


“That’s what I’ve been wondering,” I said.


“You hear voices, too? Saying, Come in, Chris, come in, sit down, come in, be neighborly, we’ll be hatching soon, come in, join the fun.”


“No voices,” I said. “At least not any I was aware of. But maybe it wasn’t by chance I chose that house. Maybe I was drawn to that place instead of the one next door.”


“Psychic hoodoo?”


“Like the songs that sea nymphs sing to lure unwary sailors to destruction.”


“These aren’t sea nymphs. These are bugs in cocoons.”


“We don’t know they’re bugs,” I said.


“I’m way sure they aren’t puppy dogs.”


“I think maybe we got out of that bungalow just in time.”


After a silence, he said, “It’s crap like this that takes all the fun out of the end of the world.”


“Yeah, I’m starting to feel like a piece of chum in a school of hammerheads.”


The tape was duped. I took the copy to the composition table and, picking up a felt-tip pen, said, “What’s a good neo-Buffett song title?”


“Neo-Buffett?”


“It’s what Sasha’s writing these days. Jimmy Buffett. Tropical bounce, parrothead worldview, fun in the sun—but with a darker edge, a concession to reality.”


“‘Tequila Kidneys,’” he suggested.


“Good enough.”


I printed that title on the label and inserted the cassette nto an empty slot in the rack where Sasha stored her compoitions. There were scores of cassettes that looked just like it.


“Bro,” Bobby said, “if it ever comes to that, you would low my head off, wouldn’t you?”


“Anytime.”


“Wait for me to ask.”


“Sure. And you me?”


“Ask, and you’re dead.”


“The only fluttering I feel is in my stomach,” I said.


“I figure that’s normal right now.”


I heard a hard snap and a series of clicks, followed by the same sounds again—then the unmistakable creak of the back door opening.


Bobby blinked at me. “Sasha?”


I went into the candlelit kitchen, saw Manuel Ramirez in his uniform, and knew the sounds I’d heard had been from a police lock-release gun. He was standing at the kitchen table, staring down at my 9-millimeter Glock, to which he had gone directly, in spite of the dim light. I had put the pistol on the table when Bobby’s news about Wendy Dulcinea’s kidnapping had left me shaky.


“That door was locked,” I said to Manuel, as Bobby entered the kitchen behind me.


“Yeah,” Manuel said. He indicated the Glock. “You buy this legally?”


“My dad did.”


“Your dad taught poetry.”


“It’s a dangerous profession.”


“Where’d he buy this?” Manuel asked, picking up the pistol.


“Thor’s Gun Shop.”


“You have a receipt?”


“I’ll get it.”


“Never mind.”


The door between the kitchen and the downstairs hall swung inward. Frank Feeney, one of Manuel’s deputies, hesitated on the threshold. For an instant, in his eyes, I thought I saw a veil of yellow light billow like curtains at a pair of windows, but it was gone before I could be sure that it had been real. “Found a shotgun and a .38 in Halloway’s Jeep,” Feeney said.


“You boys belong to a right-wing militia or something?” Manuel asked.


“We’re going to sign up for a poetry class,” Bobby said. “You have a search warrant?”


“Tear a paper towel off that roll,” the chief said. “I’ll write one out for you.”


Behind Feeney, at the far end of the hall, in the foyer, backlit by the stained-glass windows, was a second deputy. I couldn’t see him well enough to know who he was.


“How’d you get in here?” I asked.


Manuel stared at me long enough to remind me that he was not a friend of mine anymore.


“What’s going on?” I demanded.


“A massive violation of your civil rights,” Manuel said, and his smile had all the warmth of a stiletto wound in the belly of a corpse.


19


Frank Feeney had a serpent’s face, one without fangs but with no need of fangs because he exuded poison from every pore. His eyes had the fixed, cold focus of a snake’s eyes, and his mouth was a slit from which a forked tongue could have flicked without causing a start of surprise even in a stranger who’d just met him. Before the mess at Wyvern, Feeney had been the rotten apple on the police force, and he was still sufficiently toxic to cast a thousand Snow Whites into comas with a glance.


“You want us to search the place for more weapons, Chief?” he asked Manuel.


“Yeah. But don’t trash it too much. Mr. Snow, here, lost his father a month ago. He’s an orphan now. Let’s show him some pity.”


Smiling as if he had just spied a tender mouse or a bird’s egg that would satisfy his reptilian hunger, Feeney turned and swaggered down the hallway toward the other deputy.


“We’ll be confiscating all firearms,” Manuel told me.


“These are legal weapons. They weren’t used in the commission of any crime. You don’t have any right to seize them,” I protested. “I know my Second Amendment rights.”


To Bobby, Manuel said, “You think I’m out of line, too?”


“You can do what you want,” Bobby said.


“Your boardhead buddy here is smarter than he looks,” Manuel told me.


Testing Manuel’s self-control, trying to determine if there were any limits to the lawlessness in which the police were willing to engage, Bobby said, “An ugly, psychotic as**ole with a badge can always do what he wants.”


“Exactly,” Manuel said.


Manuel Ramirez—neither ugly nor psychotic—is three inches shorter, thirty pounds heavier, twelve years older, and noticeably more Hispanic than I am; he likes country music, while I’m born for rock-’n’-roll; he speaks Spanish, Italian, and English, while I’m limited strictly to English and a few comforting mottoes in Latin; he’s full of political opinions, while I find politics boring and sleazy; he’s a great cook, but the only thing I can do well with food is eat it. In spite of all these differences and many others, we once shared a love of people and a love of life that made us friends.

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