She recalled, as well, how the nine dogs had roamed the tavern end to end, assiduously sniffing the well-worn floor. She had assumed they were savoring the fragrant stains of dropped food and spilled drinks.
Her assumptions had changed.
“If the tavern has a basement, there’s something in it, sure as hell. We’ve got to get those people out of there before it’s too late.”
They were just twenty feet from the street when a refugee out of an LSD-inspired hallucination moved in the purple half-light, approaching from their right across the rectory lawn. They halted but didn’t at once retreat.
A colony of white fungi, smaller than but otherwise identical to the one they had seen in the narthex of St. Perpetua’s, was on the move: round bladderlike structures in various sizes, glistering with a milky ooze, and soft veiny sacs that continuously swelled and partially deflated and swelled again, as though the creature had been turned inside out, revealing clusters of internal organs. It progressed on eight short legs that reminded Molly of those on a Jerusalem cricket—insectile but thick and tough.
The children crowded close to Molly. She discovered that their trust gave her courage in return for whatever strength her presence imparted to them.
Neil fished shells out of his coat pockets, pumped one into the chamber of the shotgun, and loaded three more in the tubular magazine.
Asymmetrical, about twice the size of Virgil, low to the ground, the thing proceeded at a measured pace. Although it didn’t seem to be built for speed and had no apparent visual apparatus to guide it, Molly didn’t discount the possibility that it could move much faster when necessary, guided by some sense other than—but as reliable as—eyesight.
Well fed and content, crocodiles also appeared to be slow and ungainly. When hungry or irritated, however, they could outrun most dogs or any human.
If this too-solid apparition was a mere fungus or another more sophisticated phylum of plant, it wasn’t likely to be a dangerous predator in the tradition of the potted carnivore in Little Shop of Horrors. On the other hand, innocuous plant life didn’t sprout legs and travel.
Behind them, church windows burst from the heat. Showers of bright glass rained down and puddled into darker mosaics on the wet lawn.
Like cloud-fluttered moonglow in a dream rich with psychosis, orange firelight rippled across the rain-soaked lawn, over the loathsome bulbous fungus that now seemed obscene in its slimy tumescence.
She remembered her certainty, at first sight of the larger specimen in the narthex, that it was malignant, if not malevolent. And aware.
Drunk or not, Derek Sawtelle had gotten to the heart of the matter when he had said that on the world from which these invaders came, perhaps the differences between plant and animal life were not as clearly defined as on Earth. Consequently, predators might not be easily recognized in all instances.
The creature didn’t deviate from its original line of direction, didn’t start toward them, but marched steadily southward. It crossed their path and kept going.
As it began to move away, a sound so unexpected and disturbing issued from it that Molly felt her reason wobble like a spinning coin losing momentum. This thing, this pale atrocity, let out a sound that was too much like a grief-stricken woman weeping quietly, quietly but in the most poignant misery.
For an instant she tried to deny the source of the lamentations, and scanned the nearby night for a human figure to match the voice. She could see no one.
The eight-legged abomination was indeed the mourner, although the quality of its cry was most likely natural to it and not mimicry, a similarity explained sheerly by chance.
To hear it as grief or misery was no doubt to misunderstand it. The cry of a loon pealing across the stillness of a lake on a summer night will sound lonely to the human ear even if loneliness is not the state of mind that the loon intends to express.
Nevertheless, to hear such pitiable human sounds issuing from a creature so alien and repulsive in every regard was profoundly disquieting, chilling.
The thing fell silent—but a moment later, from between or behind the houses across the street, came a faint answering pule.
Another of its kind was out there in the purple morning, and the monstrous crier halted, as if listening to this response.
A second reply rose from a different direction, also faint—but this one was of a deeper timbre and sounded less like a weeping woman than like a weeping man.
When those other voices fell silent, the abomination moved once more, continuing on its original course.
Surreal. Unreal. Too real.
“Look,” Neil said, pointing north.
Another luminosity, like the one that had hovered over them on La Cresta Avenue, appeared in the dense fog layer, traveling soundlessly across the town from the northeast to the southwest.
A second glowing craft brightened out of the west and proceeded eastward on a serpentine course.
Behind the secreting overcast, the masters of the morning sky were attending to the business of conquest.
“But at my back in a cold blast I hear The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.”
—T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land
EN ROUTE FROM ST. PERPETUA’S TO THE TAIL of the Wolf Tavern, Johnny and Abby stayed close to Neil, while Virgil trotted behind them, alert to the possibility of attack from the rear or from either flank. The dog seemed to understand that for the moment his primary duty was to guard rather than to lead.
At the front of their small column, traveling with the twins and their sister, Molly learned that the boys were Eric and Elric Crudup, born on New Year’s Day ten years ago this coming January. They had been named after Viking heroes, although neither of their parents could claim a single Scandinavian ancestor.
“Our mom and dad like aquavit and Elephant beer,” said Eric. “They chase one with the other.”
“Aquavit and Elephant beer are made in Scandinavia,” Elric explained.
Their sister—more Scandinavian-looking with her lighter locks than her brothers were with their dark hair—went by her middle name, Bethany, because her first name was Grendel.
Her mother and father had named her Grendel because they knew it to be Scandinavian. The girl was almost four years old before her parents discovered that Grendel was the name of the monster slain by Beowulf. Their knowledge of Scandinavian myth and English literature had not been as complete as their appreciation for Scandinavia’s finest alcoholic beverages.
Neither of the two men who perished in the church had been related to the Crudup siblings. The heavyset man, whom they’d known—but not well—as Mr. Fos-burke, had taught sixth grade at their elementary school. The tall man had been a stranger to them.
Eric, Elric, and Bethany believed their parents were alive, although they—and the maternal grandmother who lived with them—had “gone through the ceiling,” during the night, leaving the children to defend themselves.
Later, when the power went off, the three kids had become too frightened to remain at home. They had fled two blocks through the rain to the protection of the church. Where evil found them.
…gone through the ceiling…
Under the sea of purple fog, in this dim mortuary light of the drowned sun, with the trolls and menaces of another world set loose in unknowable numbers and forms, Molly had to remain alert to every shadow, which might be simply a shadow or instead a mortal threat. On the move and in a hurry, she couldn’t concentrate on conversation intently enough to finesse from Eric, Elric, and Bethany a coherent explanation of exactly what they meant by “gone through the ceiling.”
The children hurried with her, eager to share what they had witnessed.
“Just floated up out of the family room,” said six-year-old Bethany, who seemed to have rebounded with remarkable resilience from the trauma of having dangled, baitlike, above the basement lair of the insectile horror.
Elric said, “Floated like astronauts with no gravity.”
“We ran upstairs,” Eric said.
“And we found them in our folks’ bedroom, but they kept going up,” said Elric.
Bethany said, “I was scared.”
“We all were,” said the twins simultaneously.
“Not Grandma. She wasn’t scared.”
“She went crazy,” Eric declared.
Bethany took offense. “She did not.”
“Fully, totally nut-ball,” Eric insisted. “Laughing. I heard her laughing.”
From a nearby backyard or alleyway came the weeping of a woman, which might have arisen in fact from a grieving mother or a desolate widow, but Molly wouldn’t have bet on either.
In normal times, she would have gone at once to investigate these lamentations, to offer assistance, consolation. Now she dared spend her compassion only on the children. These cries of anguish and woe were a lure, and her pity would be repaid with a hook, a gaff, a gutting.
She walked faster, thinking of Cassie at the tavern, in the care of the drunk and the self-deluded, and the Crudup children matched her pace.
“Anyway, whether Grandma went crazy or not, that was later,” said Elric. “First we ran upstairs and saw how they came through the floor from the family room.”
Eric said, “And then they floated right up through the bedroom ceiling, too.”
“They grabbed at us,” said Bethany, “like maybe we could weigh them down, but we were scared, and anyway they couldn’t hold us.”
“They could never hold on to us or anything.” Eric sounded angry about offenses committed long before the taking of the Earth had begun.
“When it happened again later,” Elric remembered, “I tried to hold Grandma by the foot.”
Bethany said, “And I held Elric ’cause I was afraid he’d go right up with her.”
Bewildered by this tale, which on any other night would have sounded like a report of a nightmare or a hallucination and might have been easily dismissed, Molly said, “What do you mean through the ceiling?”
“Through,” said Eric. “Like the ceiling wasn’t solid at all, just a dream of a ceiling.”
Elric said, “Like when a magician puts his assistant in a box and saws her in half, and the blade goes right through her legs but she isn’t hurt and the blade isn’t bent.”
“We thought we would float up, too, since they did,” Bethany recalled, “but we didn’t.”
Eric said, “We climbed the pull-down ladder into the attic, and they were screaming up there.”
“Not Grandma,” Bethany reminded him.
“No. She was getting ready to go crazy later.”
“Anyway,” Elric continued, “they were screaming and trying to hold on to things, like the attic rafters.”
Eric said, “Screaming at me and Elric, ‘You little bastards, do something.’”
“They used lots of words, all worse than ‘bastards,’” Bethany said. “But we agreed months ago never to talk like they do.”
“We would’ve done something,” Eric said, “but there wasn’t anything we could do, and they couldn’t hold, so they went right through the roof.”
They turned the corner into a street where half the trees were festooned with gray moss, like a scene from the swamps of Louisiana or from the mind of Poe on opium. The gnarled trunks were embossed with luminous lichen and deformed by growths that Molly had not seen before, ringworm forms the size of ashcan lids, fat and festering under the bark.
“We couldn’t get onto the roof,” Elric told Molly, “we couldn’t see what happened after that.”
“But we could hear them out there,” Bethany said solemnly.
“Screaming,” Eric said, “out there in the rain above the house.”
“We were scared.”
“So pretty quick their voices faded in the rain,” Eric said.
“They were beamed up,” Bethany explained.
“To the mother ship,” the twins said in unison, shaped by the enduring age of techno-fantasy that their parents and grandparents had bequeathed them.
“Mother ship. That’s what we think,” their sister agreed. “So they’ll be back. People who get beamed up sooner or later get beamed down again, but sometimes in other places.”
Even in the middle of the street, they had to pass under the spreading boughs of the infected trees. Molly almost turned back, but they were on the last leg of the shortest route to the tavern.
In the windless stillness, Molly thought she heard furtive noises overhead. Squinting up into the fretwork of branches, which at fifteen feet vanished in the purple fog, she could not see much, for where the limbs were not leafed or hung with moss, they were leafed and hung with moss.
The kids, creeped out as well, resorted to more chatter to talk themselves through this haunted woods.
“When we went up into the attic, after Grandma,” Elric told Molly, “this thing was there, though we didn’t see it at first.”
“We smelled it though, right away,” said Eric.
Bethany said, “It smelled like rotten eggs and burnt matches.”
“It smelled like shit,” Elric said bluntly.
“Poop,” Bethany corrected, clearly disapproving of his use of the vulgarity. “Rotten eggs, burnt matches, and poop.”
Through the piercings in the woody fretwork above them, against the purple backglow of the luminous overcast, Molly saw quick and fluid movement. She glimpsed too little to judge the form or size of whatever tracked them from branch to branch.
“We didn’t see the thing until Grandma was gone through the roof,” said Elric.
“And then we didn’t exactly see it,” Bethany recalled.
“The power hadn’t gone off yet,” Eric said, “so there was a light in the attic.”
Elric remembered: “But when you looked at the thing straight on, you couldn’t see any details, only this shape.”
“And it kept changing shape,” said Bethany.
“You could see it clearest like from the corner of your eye,” said Eric. “It was between us and the attic trapdoor, and it was coming toward us.”
“Then we were way scared,” said Bethany.
“Shitless,” said Elric, but he at once apologized to his sister, although perhaps not with complete sincerity. “Sorry, Grendel.”
“Dork,” said the girl.
“Walking fart,” she countered.
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