Tommy said, "You missed a bit," and pointed to the floor beside his brother's nightstand.

The beast looked at Frank's severed hand.

"Ahhhh," said the black pumpkin, snatching up the hand and stuffing that grisly morsel into its mouth.

The flame within the squashy skull suddenly burned very bright, a hundred times brighter than before, then was extinguished.



THROUGH FROST AND THAW, THROUGH WET AND DRY SEASONS, THE thing on the forest floor had waited many hundreds of years for a chance to live again. Not that it was dead. It was alive, aware, always alert to the passage of warm-blooded creatures in the dense woods around it. But only a small portion of its mind was required to monitor nearby animals for a possible host, while for the most part it was occupied with vivid dreams of previous, ancient lives that it had led on other worlds.

Deer, bears, badgers, squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, possums, wolves, mice, foxes, raccoons, cougars, quail that had strayed in from the fields, dogs, toads, chameleons, snakes, worms, beetles, spiders, and centipedes had passed near enough to the thing to have been seized if they had been suitable. Some, of course, were not warm-blooded, which was one of the creature's primary requirements of a host. Those that did have warm blood—the mammals and the birds—did not meet the other important requirement: a high order of intelligence.

The thing did not grow impatient. It had found hosts in one form or another for millions upon millions of years. It was confident that it would eventually have an opportunity to ascend from its cold dreams and experience this new world, as it had experienced—and conquered—many others.


JAMIE WATLEY WAS IN LOVE WITH MRS. CASWELL. HE HAD CONSIDERABLE artistic talent, so he filled a tablet with drawings of his dream woman: Mrs. Caswell riding a wild horse; Mrs. Caswell taming a lion; Mrs. Caswell shooting a charging rhinoceros that was as big as a Mack truck; Mrs. Caswell as the Statue of Liberty, holding a torch high. He had not seen her ride a horse, tame a lion, or shoot a rhino; neither had he ever heard of her having performed any of those feats. And she certainly did not look like the Statue of Liberty (she was much prettier), but it seemed to Jamie that these imaginary scenes nevertheless portrayed the real Mrs. Caswell.

He wanted to ask Mrs. Caswell to marry him, although he was not confident about his chances. For one thing, she was well-educated, and he was not. She was beautiful, and he was homely. She was funny and outgoing, but he was shy. She was so sure of herself, in command of any situation—Remember the school fire back in September, when she single-handedly saved the building from burning to the ground?—while Jamie had difficulty coping with even minor crises. She was already married too, and Jamie felt guilty about wishing her husband dead. But if he were to have any hope at all of marrying Mrs. Caswell, the worst problem to be overcome was the difference in their ages; she was seventeen years older than Jamie, who was only eleven.

That Sunday night in late October, Jamie sat at the plank-topped, makeshift desk in his small bedroom, creating a new pencil drawing of Mrs. Caswell, his sixth-grade teacher. He depicted her in their classroom, standing beside her desk, dressed in the white robes of an angel. A wonderful light radiated from her, and all the kids—Jamie's classmates—were smiling at her. Jamie put himself into the picture—second row from the door, first desk—and, after some thought, he drew streams of small hearts rising from him the way fog rose from a block of Dry Ice.

Jamie Watley—whose mother was an alcoholic slattern and whose father was an alcoholic, frequently unemployed mechanic—had never much cared for school until this year, when he had fallen under the spell of Mrs. Laura Caswell. Now, Sunday night was always the slowest night of the week because he was impatient for the start of school.

Downstairs, his mean-spirited, drunken father was arguing with his equally drunken mother. The subject was money, but the argument could as easily have been about the inedible dinner she had prepared, his eye for other women, her sloppy appearance, his poker losses, her constant whining, the lack of snack foods in the house, or which TV program they were going to watch. The thin walls of the decrepit house did little to muffle their voices, but Jamie was usually able to tune them out.

He started a new drawing. In this one, Mrs. Caswell was standing on a rocky landscape, wearing futuristic clothing, and battling an alien monster with a laser sword.


BEFORE DAWN, TEEL PLEEVER DROVE HIS BATTERED, DIRTY, EIGHT-YEAR old jeep station wagon into the hills. He parked along an abandoned logging road deep in the forest. As dawn was breaking, he set out on foot with his deer rifle. The gun was a bolt-action Winchester Model 70 in .270 caliber, restocked in fine European walnut, with a four-power scope on Stith Streamline mounts, incorporating windage.

Teel loved the woods at dawn: the velvety softness of the shadows, the clear early light spearing down through the branches, the lingering smell of night dampness. He took great satisfaction from the feel of the rifle in his hand and from the thrill of the hunt, but most of all he enjoyed poaching.

Although he was the most successful real-estate wheeler and dealer in the county, a man of position and modest wealth, Teel was loath to spend a dollar when the same item could be had elsewhere for ninety-eight cents, and he refused to spend a penny when he could get what he wanted for free. He had owned a farm on the northeast edge of Pineridge, the county seat, where the state had decided to put the new turnpike interchange, and he'd made better than six hundred thousand dollars in profit by selling off pieces to motel and fast-food chains. That was the biggest of his deals but far from the only one; he would have been a rich man without it. Yet he bought a new jeep wagon only every ten years, owned one suit, and was notorious at Pineridge's Acme Supermarket for spending as much as three hours comparison shopping to save eighty cents on one order of groceries.

He never bought beef. Why pay for meat when the woods were full of it, on the hoof, free for the taking? Teel was fifty-three. He had been shooting deer out of season since he was seventeen, and he had never been caught. He had never particularly liked the taste of venison, and after having eaten uncounted thousands of pounds of the stuff over the past three and a half decades, he sometimes didn't look forward to dinner; however, his appetite always improved when he thought of all the money that he had kept in his pocket and out of the hands of cattle farmers, beef brokers, and members of the butchers' union.

After forty minutes of climbing the gently sloped, forested foothills without spotting deer spoor, Teel paused for a rest on a large flat rock between two big-cone pines. After he sat on the edge of the rock and put his rifle aside, he noticed something odd in the ground between his booted feet.

The object was half buried in the soft, moist, black soil. It was also partly covered by decaying, brown pine needles. He reached down with one hand and brushed the needles away. The thing was the shape of a football but appeared to be about twice as large. The surface was highly polished, as glossy as a ceramic glaze, and Teel knew the object must be man-made because no amount of wind and water abrasion could produce such a sheen. The thing was darkly mottled blue and black and green, and it had a strange beauty.

He was about to get off the rock, drop to his hands and knees, and dig the mysterious object out of the soil, when holes opened in several places across its surface. In the same instant, black and glossy plantlike tendrils exploded toward him. Some whipped around his head and neck, others around his arms, still others around his feet. In three seconds he was snared.

Seed, he thought frantically. Some crazy damn kind of seed no one's seen before.

He struggled violently, but he could not pull free of the black tendrils or break them. He could not even get up from the rock or move an inch to one side or the other.

He tried to scream, but the thing had clamped his mouth shut.

Because Teel was still looking straight down between his legs at the nightmarish seed, he saw a new, larger hole dilate in the center of it. A much thicker tendril—a stalk, really—rose swiftly out of the opening and came toward his face as if it were a cobra swaying up from a snake charmer's basket. Black with irregular midnight-blue spots, tapered at the top, it terminated in nine thin, writhing tendrils. Those feelers explored his face with a spider-soft touch, and he shuddered in revulsion. Then the stalk moved away from his face, curved toward his chest, and with horror he felt it growing with amazing rapidity through his clothes, through his skin, through his breastbone, and into his body cavity. He felt the nine tendrils spreading through him, and then he fainted before he could go insane.


ON THIS WORLD, ITS NAME WAS SEED. AT LEAST THAT WAS WHAT IT SAW in the mind of its first host. It was not actually a plant—nor an animal, in fact—but it accepted the name that Teel Pleever gave it.

Seed extruded itself entirely from the pod in which it had waited for hundreds of years and inserted all of its mass into the body of the host. Then it closed up the bloodless wounds by which it had entered Pleever.

It required ten minutes of exploration to learn more about human physiology than humans knew. For one thing, humans apparently didn't understand that they had the ability to heal themselves and to daily repair the effects of aging. They lived short lives, oddly unaware of their potential for immortality. Something had happened during the species' evolution to create a mind-body barrier that prevented them from consciously controlling their own physical being.


Sitting on the rock between the pine trees, in the body of Teel Pleever, Seed took an additional eighteen minutes to acquire a full understanding of the depth, breadth, and workings of the human mind. It was one of the most interesting minds that Seed had encountered anywhere in the universe: complex, powerful—distinctly psychotic.

This was going to be an interesting incarnation.

Seed rose from the rock, picked up the rifle that belonged to its host, and headed down the forested hills toward the place where Teel Pleever had parked the jeep wagon. Seed had no interest in deer poaching.


JACK CASWELL SAT AT THE KITCHEN TABLE, WATCHING HIS WIFE AS SHE got ready for school that Monday morning, and he knew beyond a doubt that he was the luckiest man in the world. Laura was so lovely, slender, long limbed, and shapely that Jack sometimes felt as if he were dreaming his life rather than actually living it, for surely in the real world he would not have merited a woman like Laura.

She took her brown-plaid scarf from one of the hooks by the back door and wrapped it around her neck, crossing the fringed ends over her breasts. Peering through the half-steamed window in the door, she read the outside temperature on the big thermometer mounted on the porch. "Thirty-eight degrees, and it's only the end of October."

Her thick, soft, shiny, chestnut-brown hair framed a perfectly proportioned face reminiscent of the old movie star Veronica Lake. She had enormous, expressive eyes so dark brown that they were almost black; they were the clearest, most direct eyes that Jack had ever seen. He doubted that anyone could look into those eyes and lie—or fail to love the woman behind them.

Removing her old brown cloth coat from another hook, slipping into it, closing the buttons, she said, "We'll have snow well before Thanksgiving this year, I'll bet, and the whitest Christmas in ages, and we'll be snowbound by January."

"Wouldn't mind being snowbound with you for maybe six or eight months," he said. "Just the two of us, snow up to the roof, so we'd have to stay in bed, under the covers, sharing body heat to survive."

Grinning, she came to him, bent, and kissed him on the cheek. "Jackson," she said, using her pet name for him, "the way you turn me on, we'd generate so darn much body heat that it wouldn't matter if the snow was a mile higher than the roof. Regardless of how cold it was outside, it'd be sweltering in here, temperature and humidity over a hundred degrees, jungle plants growing out of the floorboards, vines crawling up the walls, tropical molds in all the corners."

She went into the living room to get the briefcase that was on the desk at which she planned her school lessons.

Jack got up from the table. A little stiffer than usual this morning but still in good enough shape to shuffle around without his cane, he gathered up the dirty breakfast dishes. He was still thinking about what a lucky man he was.

She could have had any guy she wanted, yet she had chosen a husband with no better than average looks and with two bum legs that wouldn't hold him up if he didn't clamp them in metal braces every morning. With her looks, personality, and intelligence, she could have married rich or could have gone off to the big city to make her own fortune. Instead she had settled for the simple life of a teacher and the wife of a struggling writer, passing up mansions for this small house at the edge of the woods, forgoing limousines for a three-year-old Toyota.

When she bustled into the kitchen with her briefcase, Jack was putting the dishes in the sink. "Do you miss the limousines?"

She blinked at him. "What're you talking about?"

He sighed and leaned against the counter. "Sometimes I worry that maybe ..."

She came to him. "That maybe what?"

"Well, that you don't have much in life, certainly not as much as you ought to have. Laura, you were born for limousines, mansions, ski chalets in Switzerland. You deserve them."

She smiled. "You sweet, silly man. I'd be bored in a limousine. I like to drive. It's fun to drive. Heck, if I lived in a mansion, I'd rattle around like a pea in a barrel. I like cozy places. Since I don't ski, chalets aren't any use to me. And though I like their clocks and chocolates, I can't abide the way the Swiss yodel all the time."

He put his hands on her shoulders. "Are you really happy?"

She looked directly into his eyes. "You're serious about this, aren't you?"

"I worry that I can't give you enough."

"Listen, Jackson, you love me with all your heart, and I know you do. I feel it all the time, and it's a love that most women will never experience. I'm happier with you than I ever thought I could be. And I enjoy my work too. Teaching is immensely satisfying if you really try to jam knowledge into those little demons. Besides, you'll be famous someday, the most famous writer of detective novels since Raymond Chandler. I just know it. Now, if you don't stop being a total booby, I'm going to be late for work."

She kissed him again, went to the door, blew him another kiss, went outside, and descended the porch steps to the Toyota parked in the gravel driveway.

He grabbed his cane from the back of one of the kitchen chairs and used it to move more quickly to the door than he could have with only the assistance of his leg braces. Wiping the steam from the cold pane of glass, he watched her start the car and race the engine until, warmed up, it stopped knocking. Clouds of vapor plumed from the exhaust pipe. She drove out to the county road and off toward the elementary school three miles away. Jack stayed at the window until the white Toyota had dwindled to a speck and vanished.