In Ken’s voice now, a tremor of anguish, of grief: “Where is my Bobby? What have they done to him? I want to see my boy.”
The mind not only reeled but rebelled, and not only rebelled but retreated to denial, desperate to refute this abomination no matter how vividly the senses confirmed it.
You might imagine surviving in an environment transformed to match that of a world on the far end of the galaxy, dressed with strange malignant plants, populated by a Sabbat broth of repulsive and vicious animals. You might hope for a hospitable corner in some extreme latitude, where you could live out your days in mousehole secrecy, with simple food and the pleasures of the timid.
But Molly couldn’t imagine wanting to survive in a madhouse world where the dead walked, severed heads conversed, dolls made threats, and every horror of the elastic human imagination might be encountered—and worse. Such a place could offer no moment of peace, no chance of happiness.
Here, now, she might have given up the hope of survival, except that she would be left with two options: wait until some nightmare creature found her and tore her to pieces—or kill herself. Either course counted as self-destruction, however, and suicide was not permissible in her philosophy or her faith.
Besides, the children had to be found. What might happen after she had gathered them together under her inadequate protection was something she chose not to dwell upon.
“I love my boy, my Bobby,” said Halleck’s head, “where is my Bobby?”
Neil raised the shotgun, but Molly stayed him with a touch.
“It isn’t Ken,” she said. “There’s no need to put him out of his misery. Ken’s dead and gone.”
“I just want to stop the damn thing,” he said angrily. “Just shut it up.”
“You won’t. It’ll take the blast and keep on talking. And that’ll be even worse.”
Besides, she believed they should conserve their ammunition. Although a few rounds from a 12-gauge had not deterred whatever had come after Harry Corrigan in his house, there might be adversaries in the hours ahead that would be vulnerable to a well-placed punch of buckshot.
Retreating, they couldn’t at once find Virgil in the murk. He barked softly, sought them out, and led them again on the right path.
Before they had gone a dozen steps, a metallic rattle-and-clank challenged the muffling mastery of the mist. They approached the racket cautiously.
This time the parting fog revealed a man in the street, near the curb, on his knees, in the lurid light of this strange dawn. He knelt at an opening to a storm drain, his back to them, hunched forward, attempting to pry the heavy steel grate out of its niche in the pavement.
Although the rain had stopped, runoff still fed the gutters. Dirty water, thickened by a jetsam of leaves and litter, surged over his hands.
A low growl from Virgil counseled caution again.
Molly and Neil stopped, said nothing, waited for the man to sense their presence.
His gibbous posture, the intensity of his focus, the curious nature of the task to which he was committed—these things brought to Molly’s mind disturbing fairy tales of hateful trolls indulging unholy hungers.
With the hard scrape of metal on blacktop, the grate came loose. The troll slid it aside.
He raised his head, but had no head. He looked over his shoulder at Molly and Neil, but even if he knew they were behind him, he could not see them, because he was Ichabod Crane’s nemesis, minus a horse.
The knock-knock-knock of Molly’s heart might also have been the fist of madness rapping on the door of her mind.
In this unearthly purplescent morning and sky-shrouding fog, where the laws of nature seemed to have dissolved entirely in some instances and to have been remade in others, Molly half expected that day would not follow dawn. Sunset might swiftly succeed sunrise, without the intervening hope of light, and the next night would then be endless, moonless, starless, and filled with the furtive sounds of a thousand creeping deaths.
The urge to shoot the headless atrocity proved difficult for both Molly and Neil to resist, but if the guillotining blade had not convinced the thing that it was dead, a 9-mm round through the heart wouldn’t persuade it to lie down and expire.
The decapitated body of Ken Halleck—manipulated by a parasite puppeteer or by some extraterrestrial power that, based on effect, might as well have been sheer sorcery—lowered itself through the open hole into the storm drain. It dropped out of sight, landing with a splash below.
For an instant the night was still except for the gurgle from the gutters and the drip-drip-drip of sodden trees.
Then Molly heard the sloshing and the hollow thumping of the headless wonder as it slogged through deep water, under the streets of Black Lake, with unimaginable intent. Perhaps it would find a ledge in the storm drain, lie down above the rushing torrents, and offer its flesh as the spore bed for a colony of fungi or another life form of more sinister purpose.
“We are born with the dead: See, they return and bring us with them.”
—T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding
WAGLESS, ALL BUSINESS, AND AS QUICK AS THE fog allowed, Virgil led them to a residence on La Cresta Avenue, which was neither near the crest of the mountain nor an avenue, but halfway between the lake and the ridge line, a two-lane street not appreciably different from all the others in town.
The single-story house, in the Craftsman style, looked cozy and welcoming, in spite of the fact that the fierce rain had stripped all the leaves from the trumpet vines that climbed its trellises and had battered beds of cyclamens into red-and purple-petaled ruin.
As they approached the front porch along handsome flagstones, Neil suddenly stepped off the walkway, squished three steps across the soggy lawn, and said, “Look at this.”
The object of his interest was a stone pine, and not the tree itself so much as what clustered on its fissured bark. Squinting in the bruised light, Molly saw patches of a blackish thallus, flecked with green, growing on the trunk in crustlike forms.
She’d seen lichen similar to this, although no earthly lichen featured luminous elements to equal these. Every emerald-green fleck was softly radiant; the glow pulsed in what she suspected might be a sympathetic rhythm that matched the long, slow throbs of the engines powering the airborne leviathan that had only recently passed over them.
Along the perimeter of every thallus, the aggressive lichen grew at a visible rate, outward in all directions, as if she were watching time-lapse photography. During the minute that she and Neil studied it, the crust advanced almost half an inch.
At this rate, the trunk and every branch would be covered in this scaly scab in only a few hours.
Lichen were themselves complex symbiotic organisms composed of a fungus in union with an alga. They frequently thrived without damage to the host tree.
In this instance, Molly suspected that the stone pine would not survive the encrustation. Either it would perish and fall, hollowed out by a species of rot as alien as the organism colonizing its bark, or it would be invaded, mutated, and remade into the genetic image of a plant from another world.
The radiant emerald pulse that stippled the blackish thallus had a jewel-bright gleam. In different circumstances, the tree might have appeared to be inlaid with a wealth of precious gems, glittering and magical.
No aura of fairyland wonder surrounded the pine, however. Quite the opposite: In spite of its bejeweled aspect, and though the lichen infestation had only recently begun, the tree appeared cancer-ridden, mottled with malignancies.
Virgil had not approached the pine, but had remained on the flagstone walkway, watchful and tense.
Molly shared the dog’s wariness. She didn’t touch the lichen, fearing that it might transfer to her fingertip and prove able to colonize human skin as readily as it did tree bark.
On the other side of the walkway stood a matching pine, and from a distance, even in this half-light, she could see the luminous lichen thriving on that specimen.
Virgil led them up the porch steps to the front door.
No candles, oil lamps, or other emergency lighting shone inside. The windows were dark except for dim reflections of the purple glow that suffused the lazily stirring mist.
If they entered without knocking, they were inviting gunfire.
On the other hand, if children inside were already in any kind of danger—from Michael Render or from something even less human—Molly and Neil might raise the level of jeopardy by announcing themselves.
Their dilemma was resolved, in part, when the front-door lock clicked and disengaged.
Reflexively, they stepped back and to the side, making less obvious targets of themselves.
Virgil stood his ground.
The door opened in a swift, inward sweep. Although only the influx of fog-filtered morning sunshine illuminated the small foyer, visibility was sufficient for Molly to discern that the space was deserted, as though they were being welcomed by a ghost.
The hallway beyond the foyer remained as dark as a snake hole.
To leave both of Neil’s hands free for the shotgun, Molly produced her flashlight.
Stout-hearted, Virgil boldly entered in advance of the light.
From the porch, with the flash, Molly probed past the foyer. A narrow hall table, two vases atop it. A door at the far end. She saw no immediate threat.
Although all of the dogs had exhibited extraordinary behavior this night, though Virgil in particular had astonished with the rose and with his apparent understanding of Molly’s mission, entering a stranger’s house, uninvited and unannounced, required nerve and full trust in the animal’s reliability. For a moment, she couldn’t summon either, and Neil hesitated, too.
In response to their reluctance, Virgil turned his head and regarded them with a golden gaze. To Molly, this seemed not to be the usual eyeshine of animals in the dark, but a phenomenon unique to this night, not simple light refraction, not bioluminescence, but something of a wondrous character: nimbuses pooled in sockets, signifying sanctification.
Almost as if enchanted, spell-struck and spell-caught, by the dog’s golden stare, Molly shed her reservations. Her mouth was dry with doubt, but she worked up spit, and spat. She stepped across the threshold, entered the house.
Neil followed her, and when they both stood in the foyer, the front door closed behind them with a softness more disturbing than a slam. No draft had pulled it shut.
Fear abided with Molly, and fed on itself, and grew, but she did not turn back to wrench open the door. She knew that it wanted her to flee—whatever it might be. If she retreated, she would choose the moment of retreat and would not allow it to be chosen for her.
Virgil sniffed at closed doors and open archways to the left and right of the central hall.
The dog had no suspicion of the foyer closet. Molly opened that door anyway, and Neil probed the hanging coats with the barrel of the shotgun.
Although Virgil showed no interest in the study, where the drapes were drawn and the blackness was absolute, Molly scanned that chamber with the flashlight. Shadows stretched and flexed, but they were merely the shadows of furniture, granted movement by the moving beam.
At the living-room archway, the shepherd made a thin sound of canine anxiety.
Amethystine light, from the dusky morning, pressed against the mullioned windows, revealing nothing, but Molly knew what troubled the dog, for she heard it, too: a whispery sound, a rustle and susurration.
The flashlight winked and flared off the glass in picture frames. Off ceramic lamps. Off a vase, a cut-crystal bowl, a mirror above the fireplace. Off a dead TV screen.
With the 12-gauge, Neil followed the beam, but he found nothing to shoot.
The rustling grew louder and seemed to come from all sides.
Ears pricked, tail lowered, the dog turned in a circle.
“The walls,” Neil said, and with the flashlight, Molly found him with one ear to the plaster.
She and Neil flanked the archway, and she moved to the wall on her side of that opening. She leaned close, closer.
To a more analytic ear, the sound was not a rustle, exactly, but a fluttering, thrumming, as if a flock of birds or a horde of flying insects were frenziedly beating wings against the back side of the lath and plaster.
NOW IN THE WALLS OF THE HALLWAY AND, ON further exploration, in the walls of the dining room, and perhaps in the ceiling as well, the numberless wings, whether feathered or membranous, beat against confinement and against one another.
Molly angled the flashlight at grille-covered heating vents high in the walls, but nothing fluttered at the slots between the louvers, trying to get out. The unknown horde had not yet migrated from the walls into the ductwork of the heating system.
This was not a house anymore, but an incubator, a nidus for something more repellent and certainly more dangerous than spiders or cockroaches. She did not want to be in this house when the agitated legions found a way out of their wood-and-plaster prison.
Stalwart Virgil, spooked by the denizens of the walls but not inclined to bolt, led Molly and Neil to the end of the hall. A closed door opened, as had the one at the front of the house, under the influence of an invisible hand.
A kitchen lay beyond, barely brightened by the purple morning. With pistol and flashlight, Molly followed the dog through the doorway, even more cautious than she had been when entering the house—but then rushed forward, with Neil close at her heels, when she heard the fearful cries of children.
A boy of nine or ten stood by the kitchen table. Virgil had startled him, and he held a broom as if he were at home plate, ready to take a swing. He had only this pathetic weapon to do battle with what might swarm from the walls—beetles or bats, or beasts from the far end of the galaxy.
On the table sat a girl of about six, her legs drawn under her, as though she were afraid that jittering multitudes would suddenly surge out of cracks in the baseboard and across the floor. Thirty inches of altitude amounted to the only safety that she could find.
“Who’re you?” the boy demanded, trying to sound strong, but unable to keep his voice from cracking.
“I’m Molly. This is Neil. We—”
“What are you?” he demanded, for he knew all the movies, too, and suspected body snatchers, parasites.
“We’re just what we seem to be,” Neil said. “We live north of town, off the ridge road.”
“We knew you were in trouble,” Molly said. “We’ve come to help you.”
“How?” the boy asked suspiciously. “How could you know?”
“The dog,” she said. “He led us here.”
“We knew there would be kids alone, in trouble. Virgil is finding them for us,” Neil explained. “We don’t know why. We don’t know how.”
Perhaps the directness of their answers helped reassure the boy. Or maybe he was convinced solely by Virgil’s new demeanor: the friendly c**k of the shepherd’s furry head, his panting tongue, his swishing tail.
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