As the boy lowered the broom, taking a less defensive posture, Molly asked him, “What’s your name?”
“Johnny. This is Abby. She’s my sister. I’m not going to let anything bad happen to her.”
“Nothing bad’s going to happen to either of you,” Molly assured him, and wished she felt confident that she and Neil would be able to fulfill this guarantee.
Abby’s eyes were a dazzling blue like Johnny’s, and every bit as haunted as her brother’s.
To counter what her own eyes might reveal, Molly forced a smile, realized that it must look ghastly, and let it fade.
“Where are your parents?” Neil asked.
“The old man was wasted,” Johnny said with a grimace of disgust. “Tequila and pills, like usual. Before the TV went out, he pissed himself watching the news and didn’t even know it. He was talking crazy about making a fortress, went into the garage to get tools, nails, I don’t know what.”
“We heard what happened to him,” Abby said softly. “We heard him scream.” She anxiously surveyed the room, the ceiling. “The things in the walls got him.”
As if the teeming hosts behind the plaster understood the girl’s words, they thrashed with greater fury. Entomologic. Polymorphic. Pandemoniac.
“No,” Johnny disagreed. “Something else must’ve got hold of him, something bigger than whatever’s in the walls.”
“He screamed and screamed.” Abby’s eyes widened at the memory, and she crossed her arms on her chest as if those frail limbs might serve as armor.
“Whatever got him,” the boy said, “screeched and snarled like a cougar, but it wasn’t any cougar. We could hear it real good. The door was open between here and the garage.”
That door was currently closed.
“Then it shrieked like nothing I ever heard,” Johnny continued, “and it made this sound…something like a laugh…and there were…eating noises.”
The boy shuddered at the memory, and the girl said, “They’re gonna eat us alive.”
Resting the flashlight on a counter, still holding the pistol, Molly went to Abby, drew her to the edge of the table, and put an arm around her. “We’re taking you out of here, sweetheart.”
“Where’s your mother?” Neil asked.
“Left us two years ago,” the boy explained.
His voice broke more raggedly than before, as though abandonment by his mother still shook him more deeply, two years after the fact, than did any extraterrestrial horrors that they had encountered here in the past few hours.
Johnny bit hard on his lower lip to repress this emotion, then turned to Molly: “Me and Abby, we tried to leave a couple times. The doors won’t open.”
“They opened for us,” Neil assured him.
Shaking his head, the boy said, “Maybe coming in. But going out?”
He snatched a small pot from the cooktop and flung it hard at one of the kitchen windows. It struck the glass with a solid crack and a reverberant clang, but bounced off, leaving the pane intact.
“Something weird’s happening to the house,” the boy said. “It’s changing. It’s like…almost alive.”
OUT OF THE KITCHEN, ALONG THE HALL, TO the foyer, they were accompanied by a rising chorus of frenzied fluttering within the walls, a rustle, a bustle, an urgent quickening, as if the horde sensed that its tender prey were escaping.
“They talk,” Abby confided to Molly as they hurried out of the kitchen, behind Virgil.
“The walls. Don’t they, Johnny? Don’t they talk?”
“Sometimes you can hear voices,” the boy confirmed as they arrived at the foyer closet.
In the event that the storm resumed, the nearest thing to rain gear that the kids had were nylon jackets with warm lining.
As Abby and her brother shrugged into their coats, Molly said, “You don’t mean—voices in English.”
“Sometimes English,” Johnny confirmed. “But sometimes another language. I don’t know what it is.”
Throughout the house arose a subtle creaking from floorboards, wall studs, ceiling joists. The structure sounded like a ship at sea, riding out the steep swells of a storm fringe.
Virgil, thus far not given to barking, barked. Just once. As if to say, Let’s go!
The creaking house abruptly creaked louder and with a greater number of complaints from floors, ceilings, doorjambs, window frames, walls. The bone-rattle of plumbing. The wheeze and whistle of hot breath in torquing ducts. Suddenly the place groaned like a tired old behemoth waking from the sleep of ages.
When Neil tried the front door, it seemed to be locked.
“I knew,” the boy said, and the girl clung desperately to Molly.
Neil worked the deadbolt, wrenched at the door with all his strength, but it resisted him.
Surrounded by groans and creaks and cracks and pops, Molly half believed that the house might close around them like a pair of jaws, grinding their bodies between the splintery teeth of its broken beams, tasting them upon its tongue of floors, pressing them against its palate of ceilings, finally swallowing their masticated remains into a basement, where the rustling legions would swarm over them, reducing flesh to fluid and bones to powder.
Neil stepped away from the door. “Move, get back,” he ordered, and raised his shotgun, intending to blast loose the recalcitrant lock.
Virgil padded into the line of fire and pawed at the door—which swung inward.
Molly didn’t pause to puzzle over whether Neil, always as steady as a ship at anchor, had lost his cool for a moment and had turned the knob in the wrong direction, fighting with an unlocked door, or whether instead the dog possessed major mojo beyond anything they had heretofore witnessed. Holding Abby against her side, she followed Virgil and Johnny out of the house, onto the porch, down the front steps, onto the flagstone walk.
When she turned, she was relieved to see that Neil hurried close behind her and that he had not been imprisoned by animate architecture.
The house looked no different from the way it had been when they’d first seen it. Craftsman style, no Cthulhu.
In the hush of the purple mist, Molly expected to hear the structure creaking, groaning, midway in a performance to match that of Poe’s self-consuming House of Usher, but her expectations went unfulfilled—not for the first time in this bizarre night—because the residence stood as silent, as deceptively serene, as inspiring of convoluted syntax as the stately manor in a ghost story by Henry James.
The front door slowly drifted shut, as though it had been hung with an inward-swinging bias on well-oiled hinges. She suspected, however, that a less mechanical force—one capable of conscious and cruel intent—was at work.
The crusty lichen on the stone pines, flecked with emerald-green radiance, though cancerous in appearance and rapidly metastasizing up the limbs, now seemed to be a benign and almost charmingly festive bit of extraterrestrial vegetation compared to whatever hellish things had been breeding or growing in the walls of the house.
Assuming that the rising sun had not faltered in its ascent, the mist must have thickened overhead even as it had dissipated somewhat here at street level, for the amethystine light had darkened to plum-purple. The promise of morning had already given way to a threatening shadowland more suitable to a Balkan twilight than to a California dawn.
“Where do we go now?” Johnny asked.
Molly looked at Virgil, who regarded her expectantly. “Wherever the dog leads us.”
At once, the shepherd turned away from her and trotted along the flagstone path to the street.
The four of them followed Virgil into a mist that had thinned and lifted until visibility, even in this false dusk, extended about two blocks.
Molly’s initial sense that the overhead fog had grown markedly more dense, even as the lower blear somewhat clarified, proved correct on calmer observation.
In fact, the stratification between the ground-level haze and the higher pea soup was so abrupt that a ceiling seemed to have been constructed over Black Lake at a height of fifteen feet. Everything above that line—part of the upper floors and the roofs of two-story houses, the higher limbs of trees—vanished entirely from sight in the livid murk.
She felt oppressed by the impenetrability of the overcast and by its proximity to the ground. The sluggish, clotted fog allowed penetration by only a narrow band of the light spectrum, resulting in this plummy gloom, piling a weight of claustrophobia atop the onerous mood.
Something else about the lowering sky disturbed her, but she could not at once identify the reason for her concern.
They had followed Virgil only half a block, however, before that cause presented itself: Things could move half seen or even unseen in that dismalness.
Out of the west came a light in the overcast. The fog diffused it, obscured the source, but the brightness approached across the besieged town.
The nearer it drew, the more evident its shape became: a disc or perhaps a sphere. At the heart of the surrounding corona burned the more intense light of the object itself, which approximately defined it. She guessed it might be the size of an SUV, although she couldn’t accurately discern proportions without knowing at what altitude the vehicle cruised.
She had no doubt that it would prove to be a vehicle. The movies had prepared her for this sight, too, as had decades of news stories about UFOs.
The object traveled silently. No purr of engines. No whoosh of displaced air. From it emanated none of the pulsations that had radiated from the larger ship and that had throbbed in blood and bone.
If the southbound leviathan that had recently passed over was the mother ship—or one of many mother ships—then the approaching UFO had most likely been dispatched from that larger vessel. This might be an observation craft, a bomber or the equivalent, or maybe a troop transport.
Or none of the above. This war bore little or no resemblance to any of the many conflicts of human history, and the usual lexicon of battle had no application to these events.
As the UFO drew near, it slowed, appearing to glide with the gravity-defying ease of a hot-air balloon.
It came to a full stop directly above their little group, where they stood in the street, and there it hovered soundlessly.
Molly’s heart swelled with a rush of dread.
Teach us to care and not to care. Teach us to sit still: quoting Eliot to herself now, seeking consolation in the cadence, reassurance in the rhythm.
When Abby cringed against her, Molly dropped to one knee, to be at the girl’s level, to pull her close and to help her find the courage to face whatever might come.
BENEATH THE FLOATING MYSTERY, IN ITS golden yet baleful light, under its malevolent influence, the four of them gazed up, afraid but unable to look away.
At first sight of the approaching light, Molly had considered fleeing with the children, hiding, but she had realized that if the pilot of the craft wished to find them, they would be found. Surely these ETs could track ground targets by infrared surveillance, by body-heat profiling, by sound-spoor detection, and by other means beyond the capabilities of human science and technology.
She felt watched, and more than watched: intimately scrutinized, physically and mentally analyzed, her fullest measure taken in ways unknowable and profound. As she became more sensitive to the depth of this analysis, her fear grew more intense and, to her surprise, she was also overcome by shame—her face burned with it—as if she stood na*ed before strangers.
When she heard herself murmuring the Act of Contrition, she realized that instinctively she expected to die here in the street, in this minute or the next.
Neither the hovering transport’s powerful light nor the effect of its silent propulsion system to any degree burned off the fog beneath it. If anything, the mist thickened, conspiring to keep hidden the contours and every detail of the machine.
She expected to be incinerated, reduced to burning tallow in a boiling pool of blacktop, or to be atomized.
Alternately, the prospect of the craft descending to the street, of being taken aboard, of coming face-to-face with their inhuman masters and subjected to God knew what experiments and humiliations made atomization almost appealing.
Instead and unexpectedly, the luminous object moved away from them, receding rapidly. In seconds, every glimmer of its golden glow had been extinguished by the overcast.
The thick mist was empurpled again, and the street cast into false twilight, as before.
After hugging Abby almost too fiercely, Molly rose shakily to her feet. Neil stood with one reassuring hand on Johnny’s shoulder. His eyes met hers, and did not blink.
Their mutual sense of relief was palpable, but none of them had a word to say about the event that had just transpired, as though to speak of the craft would be to invite its immediate return.
During the encounter, she had not been aware of the dog. If he had been frightened, he had recovered as quickly as the vessel had vanished in the fog. He stood, alert and apparently undaunted, ready to lead the search for other children.
Molly was eager to follow him—and grateful to have a purpose important enough and difficult enough to prevent her from brooding too intently on the hostile new world they would have to face in the days ahead.
Nonetheless, as Virgil led them farther north along the street, Molly noticed that the radiant lichen crusted a significant number of trees: stone pines, sugar pines, sycamores dressed with the yellow foliage of autumn. The transformation of the earth continued apace.
She saw other sycamores and cottonwoods with beards of gray moss like nothing that previously had grown in Black Lake. Some of this mossy bunting hung in swags as wispy as the mist, but other drapings were dense, conveying an impression of rot and disease.
Two massive trees had toppled, but their fate appeared to have nothing to do with aggressive alien plant forms. They had stood in soil so saturated by the rains that their weight was greater than the power of the sodden earth to hold them erect. One tree had fallen into the street, entirely blocking it, and the other had crashed onto a house, doing serious damage.
Never wandering, never pausing to sniff the ground or the air, Virgil proceeded one block farther north, then turned east and trotted uphill to Chestnut Lane.
Molly expected to be led to another residence, in which the walls would be infested. Perhaps this time the fluttering multitudes would escape their hive and seek whatever sustenance they needed.
The shepherd took them instead toward St. Perpetua’s, the church at the corner of Chestnut Lane and Hill Street, the steeple and the roof of which thrust up and vanished into the overcast.
This structure had been built of stone quarried from these mountains. The two oak front doors stood under handsome limestone tympanums that together cradled a stained-glass rose window, all surrounded by a cinquefoil arch.
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