In his racing, fear-swollen heart, he knew.

The stinking, oozing beast dragged him rudely through the dining room, banging him against the table and chairs. It took him into the kitchen, pulling him through spilled beer, over a carpet of scattered Doritos. The thing plucked the old woman's huge black purse from the table and put it on the floor within Billy's view. The unzippered mouth of the bag yawned wide.

The demon was noticeably smaller now, at least in its legs and torso and head, although the arm—with which it held fast to Billy—remained enormous and powerful. With horror and amazement, but not with much surprise, Billy watched the creature crawl into the purse, shrinking as it went. Then it pulled him in after it.

He didn't feel himself shrinking, but he must have grown smaller in order to fit through the mouth of the purse. Still paralyzed and still held by his hair, Billy looked back under his own arm and saw the kitchen light beyond the purse, saw his own h*ps balanced on the edge of the bag above him, tried to resist, saw his thighs coming in, then hiss knees, the bag was swallowing him, oh God, he could do nothing about it, the bag was swallowing him, and now only his feet were still outside, and he tried to dig his toes in, tried to resist, but could not.

Billy Neeks had never believed in the existence of the soul, but now he knew that he possessed one—and that it had just been claimed.

His feet were in the purse now.

All of him was in the purse.

Still looking back under his arm as he was dragged down by his hair, Billy stared desperately at the oval of light above and behind him. It was growing smaller, smaller, not because the zipper was being drawn shut up there, but because the hateful beast was dragging him a long way down into the bag, which made the open end appear to dwindle the same way that the mouth of a turnpike tunnel dwindled in the rearview mirror as one drove toward the other end.

The other end.

Billy could not bear to think about what might be waiting for him at the other end, at the infinitely deep bottom of the purse and beyond it.

He wished that he could go mad. Madness would be a welcome escape from the dread that filled him. Madness would provide sweet relief. But evidently part of his fate was that he should remain totally sane and acutely aware.

The light above had shrunk to the size of a small, pale, oblate moon riding high in a night sky.

It was like being born, Billy realized—except that, this time, he was being born out of light and into darkness.

The albescent moonform above shrank to the size of a small and distant star. The star winked out.

In the perfect blackness, many strange voices hissed a welcome to Billy Neeks.

* * *

That night in late April, the bungalow was filled with distant, echoey screams of terror from so far away that, although carrying through every room of the small house, they did not reach the quiet street beyond the walls and did not draw any attention from nearby residents. The screams continued for a few hours, faded gradually, and were replaced by licking-gnawing-chewing sounds of satisfied consumption.

Then silence.

Silence held dominion for many hours, until the middle of the following afternoon, when the stillness was broken by the sound of an opening door and footsteps.

"Ah," the old woman said happily as she stepped through the kitchen door and saw her purse standing open on the floor. With arthritic slowness, she bent, picked up the bag, and stared into it for a moment.

Smiling, she pulled the zipper shut.



ON THE NIGHT THAT IT HAPPENED, A BLIZZARD SWEPT THE ENTIRE Northeast. Creatures that preferred to venture out only after sunset were, therefore, doubly cloaked by darkness and the storm.

Snow began to fall at twilight, as Meg Lassiter drove home from the doctor's office with Tommy. Powdery flakes sifted out of an iron-gray sky and at first fell straight down through the cold, still air. By the time she had covered eight miles, a hard wind had blasted in from the southwest and harried the snow at a slant through the headlights of the jeep station wagon.

Behind her, sitting sideways on the rear seat to accommodate his cast-encumbered leg, Tommy sighed. "I'm going to miss a lot of sledding, skiing-ice skating too."

"It's early in the season," Meg said. "You ought to heal up in time to have some fun before spring."

"Yeah, well, maybe." He had broken his leg two weeks ago, and during the follow-up visit to Dr. Jacklin a short while ago, they had learned that he'd be in a cast another six weeks. The fracture was splintered—"minor but complicating comminution"—impacted as well, and it would knit more slowly than a simple break. "But, Mom, there's only so many winters in a life. I hate to waste one."

Meg smiled and glanced at the rearview mirror, in which she could see him. "You're only ten years old, honey. In your case the winters ahead are countless—or darn close to it."

"No way, Mom. Soon it'll be college, which'll mean a lot more studying, not so much time to have fun—"

"That's eight years away!"

"You always say time goes faster the older you get. And after college I'll have a job, and then a family to support.'

"Trust me, buckaroo, life doesn't speed up till you're thirty."

Though he was as fun-loving as any ten-year-old, he was also occasionally a strangely serious boy. He'd been that way even as a toddler, but he had become increasingly solemn after his father's death two years ago.

Meg braked for the last stoplight at the north end of town, still seven miles from their farm. She switched on the wipers, which swept the fine dry snow from the windshield.

"How old are you, Mom?"


"Wow, really?"

"You make it sound as if I'm ancient."

"Did they have cars when you were ten?"

His laugh was musical. Meg loved the sound of his laughter, perhaps because she had heard so little of it during the past two years.

On the right-hand corner, two cars and a pickup were filling up at the Shell station pumps. A six-foot pine tree was angled across the bed of the truck. Christmas was only eight days away.

On the left-hand corner was Haddenbeck's Tavern, standing before a backdrop of hundred-foot spruces. In the burnt-out gray twilight, the falling snow was like cascading ashes descending from an unseen celestial blaze, though in the amber light of the roadhouse windows, the flakes resembled not ashes but gold dust.

"Come to think of it," Tommy said from the rear seat, "how could there have been cars when you were ten? I mean, gee, they didn't invent the wheel till you were eleven."

"Tonight for dinner—worm cakes and beetle soup."

"You're the meanest mother in the world."

She glanced at the mirror again and saw that in spite of his bantering tone, the boy was not smiling any longer. He was staring grimly at the tavern.

Slightly more than two years ago, a drunk named Deke Slater had left Haddenbeck's Tavern at the same time that Jim Lassiter had been driving toward town to chair a fund-raising committee at St. Paul's Church.. Traveling at high speed on Black Oak Road, Slater's Buick ran head-on into Jim's car. Jim died instantly, and Slater was paralyzed from the neck down.

Often, when they passed Haddenbeck's—and when they rounded the curve where Jim had been killed—Tommy tried to conceal his enduring anguish by involving Meg in a jokey conversation. Not today. He had already run out of one-liners.

"Light's green, Mom."

She went through the intersection and across the township line. Main Street became a two-lane county route: Black Oak Road.

Tommy had adjusted intellectually—for the most part emotionally as well—to the loss of his father. During the year following the tragedy, Meg had often come upon the boy as he sat quietly at a window, lost in thought, tears slipping down his face. She hadn't caught him weeping for ten months. Reluctantly he had accepted his father's death. He would be okay.

Nevertheless, that didn't mean he was whole. Still—and perhaps for a long time to come—there was an emptiness in Tommy. Jim had been a wonderful husband but an even better father, so devoted to his son that they essentially had been a part of each other. Jim's death left a hole in Tommy as real as any that a bullet might have made, although it would not scar over as fast as a gunshot wound.

Meg knew that only time could knit him completely.

Snow began to fall faster and dusk surrendered to night, reducing visibility, so she slowed the jeep wagon. Hunching over the wheel, she could see ahead only twenty yards.

"Getting bad," Tommy said tensely from the rear seat.

"Seen worse."

"Where? The Yukon?"

"Yep. Exactly right. Middle of the Gold Rush, winter of 1849. You forgetting how old I am? I was mushing Yukon dog sleds before they'd invented dogs."

Tommy laughed but only dutifully.

Meg could not see the broad meadows on either side, or the frozen silver ribbon of Seeger's Creek off to the right, although she could make out the gnarled trunks and jagged, winter-stripped limbs of the looming oaks that flanked that portion of the county road. The trees were a landmark by which she judged that she was a quarter mile from the blind curve where Jim had died.

Tommy settled into silence.

Then, when they were seconds from the curve, he said, "I don't really miss sledding and skating so much. It's just ... I feel so helpless in this cast, so ... so trapped."

His use of the word "trapped" wrenched Meg because it meant that his uneasiness about being immobilized was closely linked to memories of his dad's death. Jim's Chevy had been so mangled by the impact that the police and coroner's men had required more than three hours to extract his corpse from the overturned car; ensnared by tangled metal, his body had to be cut loose with acetylene torches. At the time, she had tried to protect Tommy from the worst details of the accident, but when eventually he returned to his third-grade class, his schoolmates shared the grisly facts with him, motivated by a morbid curiosity about death and by an innocent cruelty peculiar to some children.

"You're not trapped in the cast," Meg said, as she piloted the jeep into the long, snow-swept curve. "Hampered, yeah, but not trapped. I'm here to help."

Tommy had come home early from his first day of school after the funeral, bawling: "Daddy was trapped in the car, couldn't move, all tangled up in the twisted metal, they had to cut him loose, he was trapped." Meg soothed him and explained that Jim had been killed on impact, in an instant, and had not suffered: "Honey, it was only his body, his poor empty shell, that was trapped. His mind and soul, your real daddy, had already gone up to Heaven."

Now Meg braked as she approached the midpoint of the curve, that curve, which would always be a frightening place no matter how often they navigated it.

Tommy had come to accept Meg's assurances that his father had not suffered. Nevertheless, he was still haunted by the image of his dad's body in the clutch of mangled metal.

Suddenly, oncoming headlights seared Meg's eyes. A car rushed at them, moving too fast for road conditions, not out of control but not stable either. It started to fishtail, straddling the double line down the center of the road. Meg pulled the steering wheel to the right, swinging onto the hard shoulder, pumping the brakes, afraid of putting two wheels in a ditch and rolling the station wagon. She held it all the way around the curve, however, with the tires churning up gravel that rattled against the undercarriage. The oncoming car skinned past with no more than an inch to spare, vanishing in the night and snow.

"Idiot," she said angrily.

When she had driven around the bend into a straightaway, she pulled to the side of the road and stopped.

"You okay?" she asked.

Tommy was huddled in one corner of the backseat, with his head pulled turtlelike into the collar of his heavy winter coat. Pale and trembling, he nodded. "Y-yeah. Okay."

The night seemed strangely still in spite of the softly idling jeep, the thump of windshield wipers, and the wind.

"I'd like to get my hands on that irresponsible jerk." She struck the dashboard with the flat side of her fist.

"It was a Biolomech car," Tommy said, referring to the large research firm located on a hundred acres half a mile south of their farm. "I saw the name on the side. `Biolomech.' "

She took several deep breaths. "You okay?"

"Yeah. I'm all right. I just ... want to get home."

The storm intensified. They were beneath the snowy equivalent of a waterfall, flakes pouring over them in churning currents.

Back on Black Oak Road, they crawled along at twenty-five miles an hour. Weather conditions wouldn't permit greater speed.

Two miles farther, at Biolomech Labs, the night was shot full of light. Beyond the nine-foot-high, chain-link fence that ringed the place, sodium-vapor security lamps glowed eerily atop twenty-foot poles, the light diffused by thickly falling snow.

Although the lamps were set at hundred-foot intervals across the expansive grounds that surrounded the single-story offices and research laboratories, they were rarely switched on. Meg had seen them burning on only one other night in the past four years.

The buildings were set back from the road, beyond a screen of trees. Even in good weather and daylight, they were difficult to see, cloistered and mysterious. Currently they were invisible in spite of the hundred or more pools of yellow light that surrounded them.

Pairs of men in heavy coats moved along the perimeter of the property, sweeping flashlights over the fence as if expecting to find a breach, focusing especially on the snow-mantled ground along the chain-link.

"Somebody must've tried to break in," Tommy said.

Biolomech cars and vans were clustered around the main gate. Sputtering red emergency flares flickered and smoked along both shoulders of Black Oak Road, leading to a roadblock at which three men held powerful flashlights. Three other men were armed with shotguns.

"Wow!" Tommy said. "Door-buster riot guns! Something really big must've happened."

Meg braked, stopped, and rolled down her window. Cold wind knifed into the car.

She expected one of the men to approach her. Instead, a guard in boots, gray uniform pants, and a black coat with the Biolomech logo moved toward the jeep from the other side, carrying a long pole at the base of which were attached a pair of angled mirrors and a light. He was accompanied by a much taller man, similarly dressed, who had a shotgun. The shorter guard thrust the lighted mirrors beneath the jeep and squinted at the reflection of the undercarriage that the first mirror threw onto the second.

"They're looking for bombs!" Tommy said from the rear seat.