Page 29


“In the movie,” he said, “both Gene Barry and Ann Robinson survived.”


“Earth’s bacteria killed off all the mighty Martians,” Molly recalled.


She didn’t expect a Hollywood ending this time.


Remembering how Neil, a film buff, had stood in front of the TV watching moments of favorite old movies for the last time, before they had left home, she knew that he would enjoy a question to test his knowledge.


“Whatever happened to Gene Barry, anyway?” she asked. “Did he make any other movies?”


“Several, including a really great one. Thunder Road with Robert Mitchum.”


Leaving the kids to the care of the other three dogs, Virgil had come to Molly’s side. He chuffed with impatience.


Stooping before the shepherd, scratching gently behind his ears, giving no indication that her trust of him was no longer complete, Molly said, “All right, boy. I know. Time to do the work.”


At this, Virgil turned from her and padded away, hurrying south on Main Street.


They set out again: Molly following Virgil, the six kids and the other three dogs close behind her, Neil guarding the back of the column.


The wine-dark day, clammy between the sodden earth and the low overcast, said funeral, said cemetery.


Black-and-gray bunting, shadows and moss, swagged the trees, and along the curb, parked vehicles seemed to be waiting to form a ceremonial procession as soon as the hearse appeared and led the way.


The shops and houses rose like blank-walled mausoleums, lacking names and epitaphs, as if the dead had been forever forgotten as soon as they had been interred.


The breathless day lay in throttled silence again. The mimicry of weeping women and sobbing men had ceased.


No feathered omens of death—no ravens, owls, crows—dared the ominous sky. None sang or hooted in the trees, either, or hopped the wet yards in search of fat earthworms, or gathered to sit shivah on fences or on porch railings.


Despite a lack of winged portents, Molly sensed that most of the people in Black Lake were dead. Not long ago, she had thought they might be found huddled in their fortress houses, armed with guns and knives and baseball bats, prepared to defend their families, but she knew better now.


Those who had not been slaughtered had instead been taken and imprisoned to serve as subjects of experimentation or as objects of cruel play. Nothing lived in most of these houses anymore—unless otherworldly vermin crawled the damp rooms, unless unearthly plants rooted in cellars, in rich beds of decaying cadavers, spreading pale leaves and black blooms.


Molly glanced back at the children and winced when she saw that they regarded her so hopefully, with such evident conviction that she could be relied upon. A few smiled thinly, and their pathetic confidence moved her. She looked forward again to prevent them from seeing the tears that she blinked away.


Although she was prepared to die for them, she didn’t deserve their trust. In this worldwide holocaust, during which entire armies had perished before one soldier could fire one shot, she was acutely aware that she and Neil were inadequate to the task before them.


A failed writer with a pistol, a failed priest with a shotgun. In their lives they had succeeded—truly and unequivocally succeeded—at only one thing: love. In their enduring and always growing love for each other, they had found redemption, peace.


Their enemy, however, was impervious to the power of love. Judging by all available evidence, these invaders lacked even the capacity to grasp the concept.


Virgil turned right at the corner, onto Marine Avenue, and when Molly followed him, she thought for an instant that the humid air and the peculiar light had conspired to play a trick, the equivalent of a mirage or Fata Morgana. It seemed that an enormous mirror filled the intersection a block to the west, reflecting Virgil and the procession that followed him.


Then she realized that the dog leading the other procession was not Virgil, but an Irish setter. Two armed women, not one, were at the head of the column, and one armed man—shorter and older than Neil—brought up the end. In the middle were a dozen children and half a dozen dogs.


The other group was proceeding north on the cross street. They paused, staring uphill at Molly. She couldn’t clearly see their faces in this poor light and at the distance of a block, but they must be astonished.


She waved, and they returned the greeting.


Their lead dog, the Irish setter, kept moving. After a brief hesitation, they decided to continue following it rather than turn onto Marine Avenue and come uphill to satisfy their curiosity. Their work was not finished.


Besides, they recognized the task on which Molly and Neil were embarked, as she recognized theirs. The population of children in Black Lake was too large to be rescued by a single team. And if there were two teams, most likely there were three or more.


This might have lifted Molly’s spirits if she had not come to suspect that they were not rescuers but harvesters.


The other group moved out of sight on the cross street.


Virgil led Molly toward a nearby Victorian house that was elegant in its dormers, gables, and gingerbread.


She glanced at her wristwatch. Almost noon. Ten hours had passed since she’d first seen the luminous rain, the coyotes on the porch. She sensed that they were running out of time and that the final blow of this war, whatever it might be, would be struck soon.


PART SEVEN


“In my end is my beginning.”


—T. S. Eliot, East Coker


53


DORMERS DECORATED WITH CARVED FLORAL-THEME pediments, a wealth of millwork applied with exuberance, primrose gardens surrounded by palisades of wrought iron, fluted porch columns with Italianate capitals, a paneled and intricately painted entry door with stained-glass window: This house was the epitome of architectural order, evidence of humanity’s long struggle against chaos and of its search for meaning.


During Molly’s lifetime, architects had largely championed sterility, which is order bled of purpose, and celebrated power, which is meaning stripped of grace. By rejecting the fundamentals of the very civilization that made possible its rise, modernism and its philosophical stepchildren offered flash in place of genuine beauty, sensation in place of hope.


All her life, she had watched civilization grow uglier, meaner; now as she followed Virgil up these porch steps, she was overcome by a devastating sense of loss. This beautiful house, on which so much love had been expended in the design and construction, was a symbol of all that would be scoured out of existence by the new ecology and by the brutal new masters of the earth. The destruction that had been wrought in incremental steps by a century of modernism had been exceeded a thousandfold in less than one day; and soon all the works of modernism itself would be obliterated by cold-blooded creatures that embodied the future for which modernism yearned.


All of humanity’s follies seemed worth embracing if that were the price to preserve everything beautiful in human civilization. Although the human heart is selfish and arrogant, so many struggle against their selfishness and learn humility; because of them, as long as there is life, there is hope that beauty lost can be rediscovered, that what has been reviled can be redeemed.


Life of the human variety, however, might soon be eradicated as thoroughly as if it had never existed.


With Virgil at the door, Molly looked back at Neil in the street with their six hostages to fortune. Seven years of marriage had gone by so swiftly; seventy would not have been enough.


The kids looked excruciatingly vulnerable. Evil seemed always drawn to children, especially to children. To those through whom flow the strongest currents of evil, the corruption and destruction of the innocent is the greatest bliss.


Virgil made a gruff sound.


As at the residence where they had found Johnny and Abby, the door opened, perhaps because the dog had the power to command it or because a malign force in the house wished to induce Molly to enter, in the spirit of the spider extending an invitation to the fly.


The dog crossed the threshold. Molly hesitated.


If these were the last hours of her life, she wanted to spend them in the service of children, whether or not she could save them in the long run. She was weary, however, and her eyes were sore from lack of sleep. Too many terrible sights had emotionally drained her. Consequently, between the good intention and the act lay a chasm of self-doubt.


She stiffened her resolve with a line of Eliot’s verse: Life you may evade, but Death you shall not.


Grim courage could be taken from such hard truths.


She entered the house.


Although no one had touched it, the door closed behind her and Virgil.


As in that other house on another street, she heard a rustling in the walls—the teeming of many-legged multitudes or the beating of uncounted wings.


This time she did not have the moral support of Neil, only the guidance of the German shepherd, which might be in the service of some evil. To trust her intuition and her faith, which had never failed her, she must also trust the dog.


Face to windowpanes, the purple day peered in but brightened nothing. She switched on the flashlight and tried not to think about how much—or little—juice might be left in the batteries.


Virgil went to the stairs and climbed.


Ascending behind him, Molly heard the whirling wash of noise in the walls suddenly organize into a rhythmic tide. This repetitive ebb and flow brought her to a halt at the landing.


In the metered susurrations of this thousand-voiced sigh, she detected intention, meaning, and something like desperation. Listening more closely, she twitched with surprise when the soft cadenced rustling resolved into words: “Time to murder…time to murder…time to murder…time to murder….”


Although the voices of this malicious choir were many, each registered hardly louder than a breath. The cumulative effect was a whisper of such insidious subtlety that it almost seemed to arise within her head, less like a real sound than like an auditory hallucination.


Abby had insisted that sometimes the walls talked. The girl had not revealed what they said.


“…time to murder…time to murder…”


Molly could not determine whether this was a threat or a command meant to mesmerize by repetition—or something else entirely.


She told herself that she should ignore this compelling dark chorus. Instead, curiosity drew her nearer to the wall of the landing.


Under the cultivating beam of the flashlight, roses bloomed in the wallpaper, mostly yellow, some pink, thornless, leafy.


She slid one hand across the paper roses, not sure what she expected to feel. Maybe a swelling in the plaster. Evidence of structural deformities.


The wall was flat, dry, and solid. A faint vibration tingled across her palm, nothing more.


“…time to murder…time to murder…”


Among the voices in English, she thought that she detected others speaking a different language.


She leaned her head against the wall, one ear to the yellow roses.


A faint but disturbing smell came from that printed rosarium—perhaps chemicals in the paper or in the paste beneath.


When she focused her attention on the voices in foreign tongues, they clarified as though aware that she had a particular interest in them. She heard the same three-word phrase in French and Spanish. Insistent voices chanted in what might have been Russian, Japanese, Chinese, German, Swedish, and others in languages that she could not hope to identify.


Then the rhythm broke. The metered waves of sound collapsed into a wordless rush of thousands upon thousands of crisp little noises, the pitapatation and swish, the tick and buzz, of a busy nest.


Trying to divine by sound alone what kind of pestilence swarmed behind the plaster, she kept one ear to the wall a moment longer—until a lone voice whispered out of that soft tumult of flutter and squirm: “Molly.”


Startled, she pushed away from the wall.


Tread by tread, the flashlight beam played down the stairs, then riser by riser upward to where the dog waited above, and found no one who could have said her name.


Planetary apocalypse suddenly had become unnervingly personal. Something of unearthly origin, crawling inside the walls to unknown purpose, had spoken her name with a creepy intimacy, filling her with revulsion.


And again, in a needful, yearning tone: “Molly.”


54


EYES RADIANT AND FAMILIAR IN SHADOW, flaring and strange in the flashlight, Virgil greeted Molly at the head of the stairs, not with a wag of his tail but with an urgent whine, and led her directly to the only one of five doors that was closed.


In that room, a child cried faintly, perhaps a boy, sobbing not as though in immediate jeopardy but as though he had been worn down by long endurance of terror.


She tried the door with the same hand that held the flashlight. The knob would not turn.


For a moment, she waited for the door to open at the command of the dog or whatever presence had let them in downstairs, but it remained closed.


Reluctant to pocket the pistol, she put the flashlight on the floor instead, and tried the door again with her free hand. Locked.


She called out to the weeping child, “Honey, we’re here to help you. You’re not alone anymore. We’ll get you out of there.”


As if her words had been an incantation, the door abruptly swung inward, revealing darkness complete, the blackness of a hungry maw.


Out of the walls and ceiling came her name, whispered with a ravenous eagerness: “Molly, Molly, Molly, Molly…”


She spooked backward a step.


Undaunted, Virgil dashed past her and into the room.


The door crashed shut.


She tried the knob, knowing that it wouldn’t turn, and it didn’t.


Stooping, she retrieved the flashlight from the floor. Rising, she detected movement in the hall, something closing fast from her right side.


He body-slammed her: a man not as big as Neil, but big enough. Hit hard, she fumbled the flashlight, dropped the gun, and went down.


Falling atop her, driving the breath out of her, he said, “You ain’t gettin’ them. They’re my sacrifices.”


The flashlight lay mere inches to their left, revealing him. Close-cropped red hair. A sensuous face—heavily lidded turquoise eyes, full lips. A cord of keloidal scar tissue tied his left ear to the corner of his mouth, souvenir of a long-ago knife fight.


“The little lambs are mine,” he said, his breath a stench—the sourness of beer, the sharpness of garlic, the wretched pungency of rotted teeth.


He cocked a fist the size of a three-pound canned ham and drove it at her face.


She turned her head. His punch mostly missed her, his thumb knuckle cracked the cartilage in her left ear, and he struck the carpeted floor.


They both cried out with pain, and she knew that she wouldn’t be able to dodge another blow. He would smash her nose, her cheekbones, and batter her to death.

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