VII. The First Night.
Mr. McVey had worked in Bridgton cutting meat ever since I was twelve or thirteen, and I had no idea what his first name was or his age might be. He had set up a gas grill under one of the small exhaust fans—the fans were still now, but presumably they still gave some ventilation—and by 6:30 P.M. the smell of cooking chicken filled the market. Bud Brown didn’t object. It might have been shock, but more likely he had recognized the fact that his fresh meat and poultry wasn’t getting any fresher. The chicken smelled good, but not many people wanted to eat. Mr. McVey, small and spare and neat in his whites, cooked the chicken nevertheless and laid the pieces two by two on paper plates and lined them up cafeteria-style on top of the meat counter.
Mrs. Turman brought Billy and me each a plate, garnished with helpings of deli potato salad. I ate as best I could, but Billy would not even pick at his.
“You got to eat, big guy,” I said.
“I’m not hungry,” he said, putting the plate aside.
“You can’t get big and strong if you don’t—”
Mrs. Turman, sitting slightly behind Billy, shook her head at me.
“Okay,” I said. “Go get a peach and eat it, at least. ’Kay?”
“What if Mr. Brown says something?”
“If he says something, you come back and tell me.”
He walked away slowly. He seemed to have shrunk somehow.
It hurt my heart to see him walk that way. Mr. McVey went on cooking chicken, apparently not minding that only a few people were eating it, happy in the act of cooking. As I think I have said, there are all ways of handling a thing like this. You wouldn’t think it would be so, but it is. The mind is a monkey.
Mrs. Turman and I sat halfway up the patent-medicines aisle. People were sitting in little groups all over the store. No one except Mrs. Carmody was sitting alone; even Myron and his buddy Jim were together—they were both passed out by the beer cooler.
Six new men were watching the loopholes. One of them was Ollie, gnawing a leg of chicken and drinking a beer. The mop-handle torches leaned beside each of the watchposts, a can of charcoal lighter fluid next to each . . . but I don’t think anyone really believed in the torches the way they had before. Not after that low and terribly vital grunting sound, not after the chewed and blood-soaked clothesline. If whatever was out there decided it wanted us, it was going to have us. It, or they.
“How bad will it be tonight?” Mrs. Turman asked. Her voice was calm, but her eyes were sick and scared.
“Hattie, I just don’t know.”
“You let me keep Billy as much as you can. I’m . . . Davey, I think I’m in mortal terror.” She uttered a dry laugh. “Yes, I believe that’s what it is. But if I have Billy, I’ll be all right. I’ll be all right for him.”
Her eyes were glistening. I leaned over and patted her shoulder.
“I’m so worried about Alan,” she said. “He’s dead, Davey. In my heart, I’m sure he’s dead.”
“No, Hattie. You don’t know any such thing.”
“But I feel it’s true. Don’t you feel anything about Stephanie? Don’t you at least have a . . . a feeling?”
“No,” I said, lying through my teeth.
A strangled sound came from her throat and she clapped a
hand to her mouth. Her glasses reflected back the dim, murky light.
“Billy’s coming back,” I murmured.
He was eating a peach. Hattie Turman patted the floor beside her and said that when he was done she would show him how to make a little man out of the peach pit and some thread. Billy smiled at her wanly, and Mrs. Turman smiled back.
• • •
At 8:00 P.M. six new men went on at the loopholes and Ollie came over to where I was sitting. “Where’s Billy?”
“With Mrs. Turman, up back,” I said. “They’re doing crafts. They’ve run through peach-pit men and shopping-bag masks and apple dolls and now Mr. McVey is showing him how to make pipe-cleaner men.”
Ollie took a long drink of beer and said, “Things are moving around out there.”
I looked at him sharply. He looked back levelly.
“I’m not drunk,” he said. “I’ve been trying but haven’t been able to make it. I wish I could, David.”
“What do you mean, things are moving around out there?”
“I can’t say for sure. I asked Walter, and he said he had the same feeling, that parts of the mist would go darker for a minute—sometimes just a little smudge, sometimes a big dark place, like a bruise. Then it would fade back to gray. And the stuff is swirling around. Even Arnie Simms said he felt like something was going on out there, and Arnie’s almost as blind as a bat.”
“What about the others?”
“They’re all out-of-staters, strangers to me,” Ollie said. “I didn’t ask any of them.”
“How sure are you that you weren’t just seeing things?”
“Sure,” he said. He nodded toward Mrs. Carmody, who was sitting by herself at the end of the aisle. None of it had hurt her appetite any; there was a graveyard of chicken bones on her plate. She was drinking either blood or V-8 juice. “I think she
was right about one thing,” Ollie said. “We’ll find out. When it gets dark, we’ll find out.”
• • •
But we didn’t have to wait until dark. When it came, Billy saw very little of it, because Mrs. Turman kept him up back. Ollie was still sitting with me when one of the men up front gave out a shriek and staggered back from his post, pinwheeling his arms. It was approaching eight-thirty; outside the pearl-white mist had darkened to the dull slaty color of a November twilight.
Something had landed on the glass outside one of the loopholes.
“Oh my Jesus!” the man who had been watching there screamed. “Let me out! Let me out of this!”
He tore around in a rambling circle, his eyes starting from his face, a thin lick of saliva at one corner of his mouth glimmering in the deepening shadows. Then he took off straight up the far aisle past the frozen-food cases.
There were answering cries. Some people ran toward the front to see what had happened. Many others retreated toward the back, not caring and not wanting to see whatever was crawling on the glass out there.
I started down toward the loophole, Ollie by my side. His hand was in the pocket that held Mrs. Dumfries’ gun. Now one of the other watchers let out a cry—not so much of fear as disgust.
Ollie and I slipped through one of the checkout lanes. Now I could see what had frightened the guy from his post. I couldn’t tell what it was, but I could see it. It looked like one of the minor creatures in a Bosch painting—one of his hellacious murals. There was something almost horribly comic about it, too, because it also looked a little like one of those strange creations of vinyl and plastic you can buy for $1.89 to spring on your friends . . . in fact, exactly the sort of thing Norton had accused me of planting in the storage area.
It was maybe two feet long, segmented, the pinkish color of burned flesh that has healed over. Bulbous eyes peered in two different directions at once from the ends of short, limber stalks. It clung to the window on fat sucker-pads. From the opposite end there protruded something that was either a sexual organ or a stinger. And from its back there sprouted oversized, membranous wings, like the wings of a housefly. They were moving very slowly as Ollie and I approached the glass.
At the loophole to the left of us, where the man had made the disgusted cawing sound, three of the things were crawling on the glass. They moved sluggishly across it, leaving sticky snail trails behind them. Their eyes—if that is what they were—joggled on the end of the finger-thick stalks. The biggest was maybe four feet long. At times they crawled right over each other.
“Look at those goddam things,” Tom Smalley said in a sickened voice. He was standing at the loophole on our right. I didn’t reply. The bugs were all over the loopholes now, which meant they were probably crawling all over the building . . . like maggots on a piece of meat. It wasn’t a pleasant image, and I could feel what chicken I had managed to eat now wanting to come up.
Someone was sobbing. Mrs. Carmody was screaming about abominations from within the earth. Someone told her gruffly that she’d shut up if she knew what was good for her. Same old shit.
Ollie took Mrs. Dumfries’ gun from his pocket and I grabbed his arm. “Don’t be crazy.”
He shook free. “I know what I’m doing,” he said.
He tapped the barrel of the gun on the window, his face set in a nearly masklike expression of distaste. The speed of the creatures’ wings increased until they were only a blur—if you hadn’t known, you might have believed they weren’t winged creatures at all. Then they simply flew away.
Some of the others saw what Ollie had done and got the idea.
They used the mop handles to tap on the windows. The things flew away, but came right back. Apparently they had no more brains than your average housefly, either. The near-panic dissolved in a babble of conversation. I heard someone asking someone else what he thought those things would do if they landed on you. That was a question I had no interest in seeing answered.
The tapping on the windows began to die away. Ollie turned toward me and started to say something, but before he could do more than open his mouth, something came out of the fog and snatched one of the crawling things off the glass. I think I screamed. I’m not sure.
It was a flying thing. Beyond that I could not have said for sure. The fog appeared to darken in exactly the way Ollie had described, only the dark smutch didn’t fade away; it solidified into something with flapping, leathery wings, an albino-white body, and reddish eyes. It thudded into the glass hard enough to make it shiver. Its beak opened. It scooped the pink thing in and was gone. The whole incident took no more than five seconds. I had a bare final impression of the pink thing wiggling and flapping as it went down the hatch, the way a small fish will wiggle and flap in the beak of a seagull.
Now there was another thud, and yet another. People began screaming again, and there was a stampede toward the back of the store. Then there was a more piercing scream, one of pain, and Ollie said, “Oh my God, that old lady fell down and they just ran over her.”
He ran back through the checkout aisle. I turned to follow, and then I saw something that stopped me dead where I was standing.
High up and to my right, one of the lawn-food bags was sliding slowly backward. Tom Smalley was right under it, staring out into the mist through his loophole.
Another of the pink bugs landed on the thick plate glass of the loophole where Ollie and I had been standing. One of the
flying things swooped down and grabbed it. The old woman who had been trampled went on screaming in a shrill, cracked voice.
That bag. That sliding bag.
“Smalley!” I shouted. “Look out! Heads up!”
In the general confusion, he never heard me. The bag teetered, then fell. It struck him squarely on the head. He went down hard, catching his jaw on the shelf that ran below the show window.
One of the albino flying things was squirming its way through the jagged hole in the glass. I could hear the soft scraping sound that it made, now that some of the screaming had stopped. Its red eyes glittered in its triangular head, which was slightly cocked to one side. A heavy, hooked beak opened and closed rapaciously. It looked a bit like the paintings of pterodactyls you may have seen in the dinosaur books, more like something out of a lunatic’s nightmare.
I grabbed one of the torches and slam-dunked it into a can of charcoal lighter fluid, tipping it over and spilling a pool of the stuff across the floor.
The flying creature paused on top of the lawn-food bags, glaring around, shifting slowly and malignantly from one taloned foot to the other. It was a stupid creature, I am quite sure of that. Twice it tried to spread its wings, which struck the walls and then folded themselves over its hunched back like the wings of a griffin. The third time it tried, it lost its balance and fell clumsily from its perch, still trying to spread its wings. It landed on Tom Smalley’s back. One flex of its claws and Tom’s shirt ripped wide open. Blood began to flow.
I was there, less than three feet away. My torch was dripping lighter fluid. I was emotionally pumped up to kill it if I could . . . and then realized I had no matches to light it with. I had used the last one lighting a cigar for Mr. McVey an hour ago.
The place was in pandemonium now. People had seen the
thing roosting on Smalley’s back, something no one in the world had seen before. It darted its head forward at a questing angle, and tore a chunk of meat from the back of Smalley’s neck.
I was getting ready to use the torch as a bludgeon when the cloth wrapped head of it suddenly blazed alight. Dan Miller was there, holding a Zippo lighter with a Marine emblem on it. His face was as harsh as a rock with horror and fury.
“Kill it,” he said hoarsely. “Kill it if you can.” Standing beside him was Ollie. He had Mrs. Dumfries’ .38 in his hand, but he had no clear shot.
The thing spread its wings and flapped them once—apparently not to fly away but to secure a better hold on its prey—and then its leathery-white, membranous wings enfolded poor Smalley’s entire upper body. Then the sounds came—mortal tearing sounds that I cannot bear to describe in any detail.
All of this happened in bare seconds. Then I thrust my torch at the thing. There was the sensation of striking something with no more real substance than a box kite. The next moment the entire creature was blazing. It made a screeching sound and its wings spread; its head jerked and its reddish eyes rolled with what I most sincerely hope was great agony. It took off with a sound like linen bedsheets flapping on a clothesline in a stiff spring breeze. It uttered that rusty shrieking sound again.
Heads turned up to follow its flaming, dying course. I think that nothing in the entire business stands in my memory so strongly as that bird-thing blazing a zigzagging course above the aisles of the Federal Supermarket, dropping charred and smoking bits of itself here and there. It finally crashed into the spaghetti sauces, splattering Ragú and Prince and Prima Salsa everywhere like gouts of blood. It was little more than ash and bone. The smell of its burning was high and sickening. And underlying it like a counterpoint was the thin and acrid stench of the mist, eddying in through the broken place in the glass.
For a moment there was utter silence. We were united in the black wonder of that brightly flaming deathflight. Then someone howled. Others screamed. And from somewhere in the back I could hear my son crying.
A hand grabbed me. It was Bud Brown. His eyes were bulging from their sockets. His lips were drawn back from his false teeth in a snarl. “One of those other things,” he said, and pointed.
One of the bugs had come in through the hole and it now perched on a lawn-food bag, housefly wings buzzing—you could hear them; it sounded like a cheap department-store electric fan—eyes bulging from their stalks. Its pink and noxiously plump body was aspirating rapidly.
I moved toward it. My torch was guttering but not yet out. But Mrs. Reppler, the third-grade teacher, beat me to it. She was maybe fifty-five, maybe sixty, rope-thin. Her body had a tough, dried-out look that always makes me think of beef jerky.
She had a can of Raid in each hand like some crazy gunslinger in an existential comedy. She uttered a snarl of anger that would have done credit to a caveman splitting the skull of an enemy. Holding the pressure cans out at the full length of each arm, she pressed the buttons. A thick spray of insect-killer coated the thing. It went into throes of agony, twisting and turning crazily and at last falling from the bags, bouncing off the body of Tom Smalley—who was dead beyond any doubt or question—and finally landing on the floor. Its wings buzzed madly, but they weren’t taking it anywhere; they were too heavily coated with Raid. A few moments later the wings slowed, then stopped. It was dead.
You could hear people crying now. And moaning. The old lady who had been trampled was moaning. And you could hear laughter. The laughter of the damned. Mrs. Reppler stood over her kill, her thin chest rising and falling rapidly.
Hatlen and Miller had found one of those dollies that the stockboys use to trundle cases of things around the store, and
together they heaved it atop the lawn-food bags, blocking off the wedge-shaped hole in the glass. As a temporary measure, it was a good one.
Amanda Dumfries came forward like a sleepwalker. In one hand she held a plastic floor bucket. In the other she held a whisk broom, still done up in its see-through wrapping. She bent, her eyes still wide and blank, and swept the dead pink thing—bug, slug, whatever it was—into the bucket. You could hear the crackle of the wrapping on the whisk broom as it brushed the floor. She walked over to the OUT door. There were none of the bugs on it. She opened it a little way and threw the bucket out. It landed on its side and rolled back and forth in ever-decreasing arcs. One of the pink things buzzed out of the night, landed on the floor pail, and began to crawl over it.
Amanda burst into tears. I walked over and put an arm around her shoulders.
• • •
At one-thirty the following morning I was sitting with my back against the white enamel side of the meat counter in a semidoze. Billy’s head was in my lap. He was solidly asleep. Not far away Amanda Dumfries was sleeping with her head pillowed on someone’s jacket.
Not long after the flaming death of the bird-thing, Ollie and I had gone back out to the storage area and had gathered up half a dozen of the pads such as the one I’d covered Billy with earlier. Several people were sleeping on these. We had also brought back several heavy crates of oranges and pears, and four of us working together had been able to swing them to the tops of the lawn-food bags in front of the hole in the glass. The bird-creatures would have a tough time shifting one of those crates; they weighed about ninety pounds each.
But the birds and the buglike things the birds ate weren’t the only things out there. There was the tentacled thing that had taken Norm. There was the frayed clothesline to think about.
There was the unseen thing that had uttered that low, guttural roar to think about. We had heard sounds like it since—sometimes quite distant—but how far was “distant” through the damping effect of the mist? And sometimes they were close enough to shake the building and make it seem as if the ventricles of your heart had suddenly been loaded up with ice water.
Billy started in my lap and moaned. I brushed his hair and he moaned more loudly. Then he seemed to find sleep’s less dangerous waters again. My own doze was broken and I was staring wide awake again. Since dark, I had only managed to sleep about ninety minutes, and that had been dream-haunted. In one of the dream fragments it had been the night before again. Billy and Steffy were standing in front of the picture window, looking out at the black and slate-gray waters, out at the silver spinning waterspout that heralded the storm. I tried to get to them, knowing that a strong enough wind could break the window and throw deadly glass darts all the way across the living room. But no matter how I ran, I seemed to get no closer to them. And then a bird rose out of the waterspout, a gigantic scarlet oiseau de mort whose prehistoric wingspan darkened the entire lake from west to east. Its beak opened, revealing a maw the size of the Holland Tunnel. And as the bird came to gobble up my wife and son, a low, sinister voice began to whisper over and over again: The Arrowhead Project . . . the Arrowhead Project . . . the Arrowhead Project . . .
Not that Billy and I were the only ones sleeping poorly. Others screamed in their sleep, and some went on screaming after they woke up. The beer was disappearing from the cooler at a great rate. Buddy Eagleton had restocked it once from out back with no comment. Mike Hatlen told me the Sominex was gone. Not depleted but totally wiped out. He guessed that some people might have taken six or eight bottles.
“There’s some Nytol left,” he said. “You want a bottle, David?” I shook my head and thanked him.
And in the last aisle down by Register 5, we had our winos. There were about seven of them, all out-of-staters except for Lou Tattinger, who ran the Pine Tree Car Wash. Lou didn’t need any excuse to sniff the cork, as the saying was. The wino brigade was pretty well anesthetized.
Oh yes—there were also six or seven people who had gone crazy.
Crazy isn’t the best word; perhaps I just can’t think of the proper one. But there were these people who had lapsed into a complete stupor without benefit of beer, wine, or pills. They stared at you with blank and shiny doorknob eyes. The hard cement of reality had come apart in some unimaginable earthquake, and these poor devils had fallen through. In time, some of them might come back. If there was time.
The rest of us had made our own mental compromises, and in some cases I suppose they were fairly odd. Mrs. Reppler, for instance, was convinced the whole thing was a dream—or so she said. And she spoke with some conviction.
I looked over at Amanda. I was developing an uncomfortably strong feeling for her—uncomfortable but not exactly unpleasant. Her eyes were an incredible, brilliant green . . . for a while I had kept an eye on her to see if she was going to take out a pair of contact lenses, but apparently the color was true. I wanted to make love to her. My wife was at home, maybe alive, more probably dead, alone either way, and I loved her; I wanted to get Billy and me back to her more than anything, but I also wanted to screw this lady named Amanda Dumfries. I tried to tell myself it was just the situation we were in, and maybe it was, but that didn’t change the wanting.
I dozed in and out, then jerked awake more fully around three. Amanda had shifted into a sort of fetal position, her knees pulled up toward her chest, hands clasped between her thighs. She seemed to be sleeping deeply. Her sweatshirt had pulled up slightly on one side, showing clean white skin. I
looked at it and began to get an extremely useless and uncomfortable erection.
I tried to divert my mind to a new track and got thinking about how I had wanted to paint Brent Norton yesterday. No, nothing as important as a painting, but . . . just sit him on a log with my beer in his hand and sketch his sweaty, tired face and the two wings of his carefully processed hair sticking up untidily in the back. It could have been a good picture. It took me twenty years of living with my father to accept the idea that being good could be good enough.
You know what talent is? The curse of expectation. As a kid you have to deal with that, beat it somehow. If you can write, you think God put you on earth to blow Shakespeare away. Or if you can paint, maybe you think—I did—that God put you on earth to blow your father away.
It turned out I wasn’t as good as he was. I kept trying to be for longer than I should have, maybe. I had a show in New York and it did poorly—the art critics beat me over the head with my father. A year later I was supporting myself and Steff with the commercial stuff. She was pregnant and I sat down and talked to myself about it. The result of that conversation was a belief that serious art was always going to be a hobby for me, no more.
I did Golden Girl Shampoo ads—the one where the Girl is standing astride her bike, the one where she’s playing Frisbee on the beach, the one where she’s standing on the balcony of her apartment with a drink in her hand. I’ve done short-story illustrations for most of the big slicks, but I broke into that field doing fast illustrations for the stories in the sleazier men’s magazines. I’ve done some movie posters. The money comes in. We keep our heads nicely above water.
I had one final show in Bridgton, just last summer. I showed nine canvases that I had painted in five years, and I sold six of them. The one I absolutely would not sell showed the Federal
market, by some queer coincidence. The perspective was from the far end of the parking lot. In my picture, the parking lot was empty except for a line of Campbell’s Beans and Franks cans, each one larger than the last as they marched toward the viewer’s eye. The last one appeared to be about eight feet tall. The picture was titled Beans and False Perspective. A man from California who was a top exec in some company that makes tennis balls and rackets and who knows what other sports equipment seemed to want that picture very badly, and would not take no for an answer in spite of the NFS card tucked into the bottom left-hand corner of the spare wooden frame. He began at six hundred dollars and worked his way up to four thousand. He said he wanted it for his study. I would not let him have it, and he went away sorely puzzled. Even so, he didn’t quite give up; he left his card in case I changed my mind.
I could have used the money—that was the year we put the addition on the house and bought the four-wheel-drive—but I just couldn’t sell it. I couldn’t sell it because I felt it was the best painting I had ever done and I wanted it to look at after someone would ask me, with totally unconscious cruelty, when I was going to do something serious.
Then I happened to show it to Ollie Weeks one day last fall. He asked me if he could photograph it and run it as an ad one week, and that was the end of my own false perspective. Ollie had recognized my painting for what it was, and by doing so, he forced me to recognize it, too. A perfectly good piece of slick commercial art. No more. And, thank God, no less.
I let him do it, and then I called the exec at his home in San Luis Obispo and told him he could have the painting for twenty-five hundred if he still wanted it. He did, and I shipped it UPS to the coast. And since then that voice of disappointed expectation—that cheated child’s voice that can never be satisfied with such a mild superlative as good—has fallen pretty much silent. And except for a few rumbles—like the sounds of those unseen creatures somewhere out in the foggy night—it
has been pretty much silent ever since. Maybe you can tell me—why should the silencing of that childish, demanding voice seem so much like dying?
• • •
Around four o’clock Billy woke up—partially, at least—and looked around with bleary, uncomprehending eyes. “Are we still here?”
“Yeah, honey,” I said. “We are.”
He started to cry with a weak helplessness that was horrible. Amanda woke up and looked at us.
“Hey, kid,” she said, and pulled him gently to her. “Everything is going to look a little better come morning.”
“No,” Billy said. “No it won’t. It won’t. It won’t.”
“Shh,” she said. Her eyes met mine over his head. “Shh, it’s past your bedtime.”
“I want my mother!”
“Yeah, you do,” Amanda said. “Of course you do.”
Billy squirmed around in her lap until he could look at me. Which he did for some time. And then slept again.
“Thanks,” I said. “He needed you.”
“He doesn’t even know me.”
“That doesn’t change it.”
“So what do you think?” she asked. Her green eyes held mine steadily. “What do you really think?”
“Ask me in the morning.”
“I’m asking you now.”
I opened my mouth to answer and then Ollie Weeks materialized out of the gloom like something from a horror tale. He had a flashlight with one of the ladies’ blouses over the lens, and he was pointing it toward the ceiling. It made strange shadows on his haggard face. “David,” he whispered.
Amanda looked at him, first startled, then scared again.
“Ollie, what is it?” I asked.
“David,” he whispered again. Then: “Come on. Please.”
“I don’t want to leave Billy. He just went to sleep.”
“I’ll be with him,” Amanda said. “You better go.” Then, in a lower voice: “Jesus, this is never going to end.”
VIII. What Happened to the Soldiers.
A Conversation with Dan Miller.
I went with Ollie. He was headed for the storage area. As we passed the cooler, he grabbed a beer.
“Ollie, what is it?”
“I want you to see it.”
He pushed through the double doors. They slipped shut behind us with a little backwash of air. It was cold. I didn’t like this place, not after what had happened to Norm. A part of my mind insisted on reminding me that there was still a small scrap of dead tentacle lying around someplace.
Ollie let the blouse drop from the lens of his light. He trained it overhead. At first I had an idea that someone had hung a couple of mannequins from one of the heating pipes below the ceiling. That they had hung them on piano wire or something, a kid’s Halloween trick.
Then I noticed the feet, dangling about seven inches off the cement floor. There were two piles of kicked-over cartons. I looked up at the faces and a scream began to rise in my throat because they were not the faces of department-store dummies. Both heads were cocked to the side, as if appreciating some horribly funny joke, a joke that had made them laugh until they turned purple.
Their shadows. Their shadows thrown long on the wall behind them. Their tongues. Their protruding tongues.
They were both wearing uniforms. They were the kids I had noticed earlier and had lost track of along the way. The army brats from—
The scream. I could hear it starting in my throat as a moan,
rising like a police siren, and then Ollie gripped my arm just above the elbow. “Don’t scream, David. No one knows about this but you and me. And that’s how I want to keep it.”
Somehow I bit it back.
“Those army kids,” I managed.
“From the Arrowhead Project,” Ollie said. “Sure.” Something cold was thrust into my hand. The beer can. “Drink this. You need it.”
I drained the can completely dry.
Ollie said, “I came back to see if we had any extra cartridges for that gas grill Mr. McVey has been using. I saw these guys. The way I figure, they must have gotten the nooses ready and stood on top of those two piles of cartons. They must have tied their hands for each other and then balanced each other while they stepped through the length of rope between their wrists. So . . . so that their hands would be behind them, you know. Then—this is the way I figure—they stuck their heads into the nooses and pulled them tight by jerking their heads to one side. Maybe one of them counted to three and they jumped together. I don’t know.”
“It couldn’t be done,” I said through a dry mouth. But their hands were tied behind them, all right. I couldn’t seem to take my eyes away from that.
“It could. If they wanted to bad enough, David, they could.”
“I think you know why. Not any of the tourists, the summer people—like that guy Miller—but there are people from around here who could make a pretty decent guess.”
“The Arrowhead Project?”
Ollie said, “I stand by one of those registers all day long and I hear a lot. All this spring I’ve been hearing things about that damned Arrowhead thing, none of it good. The black ice on the lakes—”
I thought of Bill Giosti leaning in my window, blowing warm alcohol in my face. Not just atoms, but different atoms.
Now these bodies hanging from that overhead pipe. The cocked heads. The dangling shoes. The tongues protruding like summer sausages.
I realized with fresh horror that new doors of perception were opening up inside. New? Not so. Old doors of perception. The perception of a child who has not yet learned to protect itself by developing the tunnel vision that keeps out ninety percent of the universe. Children see everything their eyes happen upon, hear everything in their ears’ range. But if life is the rise of consciousness (as a crewel-work sampler my wife made in high school proclaims), then it is also the reduction of input.
Terror is the widening of perspective and perception. The horror was in knowing I was swimming down to a place most of us leave when we get out of diapers and into training pants. I could see it on Ollie’s face, too. When rationality begins to break down, the circuits of the human brain can overload. Axons grow bright and feverish. Hallucinations turn real: the quicksilver puddle at the point where perspective makes parallel lines seem to intersect is really there; the dead walk and talk; a rose begins to sing.
“I’ve heard stuff from maybe two dozen people,” Ollie said. “Justine Robards. Nick Tochai. Ben Michaelson. You can’t keep secrets in small towns. Things get out. Sometimes it’s like a spring—it just bubbles up out of the earth and no one has an idea where it came from. You overhear something at the library and pass it on, or at the marina in Harrison, Christ knows where else, or why. But all spring and summer I’ve been hearing Arrowhead Project, Arrowhead Project.”
“But these two,” I said. “Christ, Ollie, they’re just kids.”
“There were kids in Nam who used to take ears. I was there. I saw it.”
“But . . . what would drive them to do this?”
“I don’t know. Maybe they knew something. Maybe they only suspected. They must have known people in here would
start asking them questions eventually. If there is an eventually.”
“If you’re right,” I said, “it must be something really bad.”
“That storm,” Ollie said in his soft, level voice. “Maybe it knocked something loose up there. Maybe there was an accident. They could have been fooling around with anything. Some people claim they were messing with high-intensity lasers and masers. Sometimes I hear fusion power. And suppose . . . suppose they ripped a hole straight through into another dimension?”
“That’s hogwash,” I said.
“Are they?” Ollie asked, and pointed at the bodies.
“No. The question now is: What do we do?”
“I think we ought to cut them down and hide them,” he said promptly. “Put them under a pile of stuff people won’t want—dog food, dish detergent, stuff like that. If this gets out, it will only make things worse. That’s why I came to you, David. I felt you are the only one I could really trust.”
I muttered, “It’s like the Nazi war criminals killing themselves in their cells after the war was lost.”
“Yeah. I had that same thought.”
We fell silent, and suddenly those soft shuffling noises began outside the steel loading door again—the sound of the tentacles feeling softly across it. We drew together. My flesh was crawling.
“Okay,” I said.
“We’ll make it as quick as we can,” Ollie said. His sapphire ring glowed mutely as he moved his flashlight. “I want to get out of here fast.”
I looked up at the ropes. They had used the same sort of clothesline the man in the golf cap had allowed me to tie around his waist. The nooses had sunk into the puffed flesh of their necks, and I wondered again what it could have been to make both of them go through with it. I knew what Ollie meant by saying that if the news of the double suicide got out,
it would make things worse. For me it already had—and I wouldn’t have believed that possible.
There was a snicking sound. Ollie had opened his knife, a good heavy job made for slitting open cartons. And, of course, cutting rope.
“You or me?” he asked.
I swallowed. “One each.”
We did it.
• • •
When I got back, Amanda was gone and Mrs. Turman was with Billy. They were both sleeping. I walked down one of the aisles and a voice said: “Mr. Drayton. David.” It was Amanda, standing by the stairs to the manager’s office, her eyes like emeralds. “What was it?”
“Nothing,” I said.
She came over to me. I could smell faint perfume. And oh how I wanted her. “You liar,” she said.
“It was nothing. A false alarm.”
“If that’s how you want it.” She took my hand. “I’ve just been up to the office. It’s empty and there’s a lock on the door.” Her face was perfectly calm, but her eyes were lambent, almost feral, and a pulse beat steadily in her throat.
“I saw the way you looked at me,” she said. “If we need to talk about it, it’s no good. The Turman woman is with your son.”
“Yes.” It came to me that this was a way—maybe not the best one, but a way, nevertheless—to take the curse off what Ollie and I had just done. Not the best way, just the only way.
We went up the narrow flight of stairs and into the office. It was empty, as she had said. And there was a lock on the door. I turned it. In the darkness she was nothing but a shape. I put my arms out, touched her, and pulled her to me. She was trembling. We went down on the floor, first kneeling, kissing, and I cupped one firm breast and could feel the quick thudding of
her heart through her sweatshirt. I thought of Steffy telling Billy not to touch the live wires. I thought of the bruise that had been on her hip when she took off the brown dress on our wedding night. I thought of the first time I had seen her, biking across the mall of the University of Maine at Orono, me bound for one of Vincent Hartgen’s classes with my portfolio under my arm. And my erection was enormous.
We lay down then, and she said, “Love me, David. Make me warm.” When she came, she dug into my back with her nails and called me by a name that wasn’t mine. I didn’t mind. It made us about even.
When we came down, some sort of creeping dawn had begun. The blackness outside the loopholes went reluctantly to dull gray, then to chrome, then to the bright, featureless, and unsparkling white of a drive-in movie screen. Mike Hatlen was asleep in a folding chair he had scrounged somewhere. Dan Miller sat on the floor a little distance away, eating a Hostess donut. The kind that’s powdered with white sugar.
“Sit down, Mr. Drayton,” he invited.
I looked around for Amanda, but she was already halfway up the aisle. She didn’t look back. Our act of love in the dark already seemed something out of a fantasy, impossible to believe even in this weird daylight. I sat down.
“Have a donut.” He held the box out.
I shook my head. “All that white sugar is death. Worse than cigarettes.”
That made him laugh a little bit. “In that case, have two.”
I was surprised to find a little laughter left inside me—he had surprised it out, and I liked him for it. I did take two of his donuts. They tasted pretty good. I chased them with a cigarette, although it is not normally my habit to smoke in the mornings.
“I ought to get back to my kid,” I said. “He’ll be waking up.”
Miller nodded. “Those pink bugs,” he said. “They’re all gone. So are the birds. Hank Vannerman said the last one hit
the windows around four. Apparently the . . . the wildlife . . . is a lot more active when it’s dark.”
“You don’t want to tell Brent Norton that,” I said. “Or Norm.”
He nodded again and didn’t say anything for a long time. Then he lit a cigarette of his own and looked at me. “We can’t stay here, Drayton,” he said.
“There’s food. Plenty to drink.”
“The supplies don’t have anything to do with it, and you know it. What do we do if one of the big beasties out there decides to break in instead of just going bump in the night? Do we try to drive it off with broom handles and charcoal lighter fluid?”
Of course he was right. Perhaps the mist was protecting us in a way. Hiding us. But maybe it wouldn’t hide us for long, and there was more to it than that. We had been in the Federal for eighteen hours, more or less, and I could feel a kind of lethargy spreading over me, not much different from the lethargy I’ve felt on one or two occasions when I’ve tried to swim too far. There was an urge to play it safe, to just stay put, to take care of Billy (and maybe to bang Amanda Dumfries in the middle of the night, a voice murmured), to see if the mist wouldn’t just lift, leaving everything as it had been.
I could see it on the other faces as well, and it suddenly occurred to me that there were people now in the Federal who probably wouldn’t leave under any circumstance. The very thought of going out the door after all that had happened would freeze them.
Miller had been watching these thoughts cross my face, maybe. He said, “There were about eighty people in here when that damn fog came. From that number you subtract the bag-boy, Norton, and the four people that went out with him, and that man Smalley. That leaves seventy-three.”
And subtracting the two soldiers, now resting under a stack of Purina Puppy Chow bags, it made seventy-one.
you subtract the people who have just opted out,” he went on. “There are ten or twelve of those. Say ten. That leaves about sixty-three. But—” He raised one sugar-powdered finger. “Of those sixty-three, we’ve got twenty or so that just won’t leave. You’d have to drag them out kicking and screaming.”
“Which all goes to prove what?”
“That we’ve got to get out, that’s all. And I’m going. Around noon, I think. I’m planning to take as many people as will come. I’d like you and your boy to come along.”
“After what happened to Norton?”
“Norton went like a lamb to the slaughter. That doesn’t mean I have to, or the people who come with me.”
“How can you prevent it? We have exactly one gun.”
“And lucky to have that. But if we could make it across the intersection, maybe we could get down to the Sportsman’s Exchange on Main Street. They’ve got more guns there than you could shake a stick at.”
“That’s one ‘if’ and one ‘maybe’ too many.”
“Drayton,” he said, “it’s an iffy situation.”
That rolled very smoothly off his tongue, but he didn’t have a little boy to watch out for.
“Look, let it pass for now, okay? I didn’t get much sleep last night, but I got a chance to think over a few things. Want to hear them?”
He stood up and stretched. “Take a walk over to the window with me.”
We went through the checkout lane nearest the bread racks and stood at one of the loopholes. The man who was keeping watch there said, “The bugs are gone.”
Miller slapped him on the back. “Go get yourself a coffee-and, fella. I’ll keep an eye out.”
He walked away, and Miller and I stepped up to his loophole. “So tell me what you see out there,” he said.
I looked. The litter barrel had been knocked over in the night, probably by one of the swooping bird-things, spilling a trash of papers, cans, and paper shake cups from the Dairy Queen down the road all over the hottop. Beyond that I could see the rank of cars closest to the market fading into whiteness. That was all I could see, and I told him so.
“That blue Chevy pickup is mine,” he said. He pointed and I could see just a hint of blue in the mist. “But if you think back to when you pulled in yesterday, you’ll remember that the parking lot was pretty jammed, right?”
I glanced back at my Scout and remembered I had only gotten the space close to the market because someone else had been pulling out. I nodded.
Miller said, “Now couple something else with that fact, Drayton. Norton and his four . . . what did you call them?”
“Yeah, that’s good. Just what they were. They go out, right? Almost the full length of that clothesline. Then we heard those roaring noises, like there was a goddam herd of elephants out there. Right?”
“It didn’t sound like elephants,” I said. “It sounded like—” Like something from the primordial ooze was the phrase that came to mind, but I didn’t want to say that to Miller, not after he had clapped that guy on the back and told him to go get a coffee-and like the coach jerking a player from the big game. I might have said it to Ollie, but not to Miller. “I don’t know what it sounded like,” I finished lamely.
“But it sounded big.”
“Yeah.” It had sounded pretty goddam big.
“So how come we didn’t hear cars getting bashed around? Screeching metal? Breaking glass?”
“Well, because—” I stopped. He had me. “I don’t know.”
Miller said, “No way they were out of the parking lot when whatever-it-was hit them. I’ll tell you what I think. I think we didn’t hear any cars getting around because a lot of them
might be gone. Just . . . gone. Fallen into the earth, vaporized, you name it. Strong enough to splinter these beams and twist them out of shape and knock stuff off the shelves. And the town whistle stopped at the same time.”
I was trying to visualize half the parking lot gone. Trying to visualize walking out there and just coming to a brand-new drop in the land where the hottop with its neat yellow-lined parking slots left off. A drop, a slope . . . or maybe an out-and-out precipice falling away into the featureless white mist . . .
After a couple of seconds I said, “If you’re right, how far do you think you’re going to get in your pickup?”
“I wasn’t thinking of my truck. I was thinking of your four-wheel-drive.”
That was something to chew over, but not now. “What else is on your mind?”
Miller was eager to go on. “The pharmacy next door, that’s on my mind. What about that?”
I opened my mouth to say I didn’t have the slightest idea what he was talking about, and then shut it with a snap. The Bridgton Pharmacy had been doing business when we drove in yesterday. Not the laundromat, but the drugstore had been wide open, the doors chocked with rubber doorstops to let in a little cool air—the power outage had killed their air conditioning, of course. The door to the pharmacy could be no more than twenty feet from the door of the Federal market. So why—
“Why haven’t any of those people turned up over here?” Miller asked for me. “It’s been eighteen hours. Aren’t they hungry? They’re sure not over there eating Dristan and Stayfree Mini-pads.”
“There’s food,” I said. “They’re always selling food items on special. Sometimes it’s animal crackers, sometimes it’s those toaster pastries, all sorts of things. Plus the candy rack.”
“I just don’t believe they’d stick with stuff like that when there’s all kinds of stuff over here.”
“What are you getting at?”
“What I’m getting at is that I want to get out but I don’t want to be dinner for some refugee from a grade-B horror picture. Four or five of us could go next door and check out the situation in the drugstore. As sort of a trial balloon.”
“No, there’s one other thing.”
“Her,” Miller said simply, and jerked his thumb toward one of the middle aisles. “That crazy cunt. That witch.”
It was Mrs. Carmody he had jerked his thumb at. She was no longer alone; two women had joined her. From their bright clothes I guessed they were probably tourists or summer people, ladies who had maybe left their families to “just run into town and get a few things” and were now eaten up with worry over their husbands and kids. Ladies eager to grasp at almost any straw. Maybe even the black comfort of a Mrs. Carmody.
Her pantsuit shone out with its same baleful resplendence. She was talking, gesturing, her face hard and grim. The two ladies in their bright clothes (but not as bright as Mrs. Carmody’s pantsuit, no, and her gigantic satchel of a purse was still tucked firmly under one doughy arm) were listening raptly.
“She’s another reason I want to get out, Drayton. By tonight she’ll have six people sitting with her. If those pink bugs and the birds come back tonight, she’ll have a whole congregation sitting with her by tomorrow morning. Then we can start worrying about who she’ll tell them to sacrifice to make it all better. Maybe me, or you, or that guy Hatlen. Maybe your kid.”
“That’s idiocy,” I said. But was it? The cold chill crawling up my back said not necessarily. Mrs. Carmody’s mouth moved and moved. The eyes of the tourist ladies were fixed on her wrinkled lips. Was it idiocy? I thought of the dusty stuffed animals drinking at their looking-glass stream. Mrs. Carmody had power. Even Steff, normally hardheaded and straight-from-the-shoulder, invoked the old lady’s name with unease.
That crazy cunt, Miller had called her. That witch.
“The people in this market are going through a section-eight experience for sure,” Miller said. He gestured at the red-painted beams framing the show-window segments . . . twisted and splintered and buckled out of shape. “Their minds probably feel like those beams look. Mine sure as shit does. I spent half of last night thinking I must have flipped out of my gourd, that I was probably in a straitjacket in Danvers, raving my head off about bugs and dinosaur birds and tentacles and that it would all go away just as soon as the nice orderly came along and shot a wad of Thorazine into my arm.” His small face was strained and white. He looked at Mrs. Carmody and then back at me. “I tell you it might happen. As people get flakier, she’s going to look better and better to some of them. And I don’t want to be around if that happens.”
Mrs. Carmody’s lips, moving and moving. Her tongue dancing around her old lady’s snaggle teeth. She did look like a witch. Put her in a pointy black hat and she would be perfect. What was she saying to her two captured birds in their bright summer plumage?
Arrowhead Project? Black Spring? Abominations from the cellars of the earth? Human sacrifice?
All the same—
“So what do you say?”
“I’ll go this far,” I answered him. “We’ll try going over to the drug. You, me, Ollie if he wants to go, one or two others. Then we’ll talk it over again.” Even that gave me the feeling of walking out over an impossible drop on a narrow beam. I wasn’t going to help Billy by killing myself. On the other hand, I wasn’t going to help him by just sitting on my ass, either. Twenty feet to the drugstore. That wasn’t so bad.
“When?” he asked.
“Give me an hour.”
“Sure,” he said.
IX. The Expedition to the Pharmacy.
I told Mrs. Turman, and I told Amanda, and then I told Billy. He seemed better this morning; he had eaten two donuts and a bowl of Special K for breakfast. Afterward I raced him up and down two of the aisles and even got him giggling a little. Kids are so adaptable that they can scare the living shit right out of you. He was too pale, the flesh under his eyes was still puffed from the tears he had cried in the night, and his face had a horribly used look. In a way it had become like an old man’s face, as if too much emotional voltage had been running behind it for too long. But he was still alive and still able to laugh . . . at least until he remembered where he was and what was happening.
After the windsprints we sat down with Amanda and Hattie Turman and drank Gatorade from paper cups and I told him I was going over to the drugstore with a few other people.
“I don’t want you to,” he said immediately, his face clouding.
“It’ll be all right, Big Bill. I’ll bring you a Spiderman comic book.”
“I want you to stay here.” Now his face was not just cloudy; it was thundery. I took his hand. He pulled it away. I took it again.
“Billy, we have to get out of here sooner or later. You see that, don’t you?”
“When the fog goes away . . .” But he spoke with no conviction at all. He drank his Gatorade slowly and without relish.
“Billy, it’s been almost one whole day now.”
“I want Mommy.”
“Well, maybe this is the first step on the way to getting back to her.”
Mrs. Turman said, “Don’t build the boy’s hopes up, David.”
“What the hell,” I snapped at her, “the kid’s got to hope for something.”
She dropped her eyes. “Yes. I suppose he does.”
Billy took no notice of this. “Daddy . . . Daddy, there are things out there. Things.”
“Yes, we know that. But a lot of them—not all, but a lot—don’t seem to come out until it’s nighttime.”
“They’ll wait,” he said. His eyes were huge, centered on mine. “They’ll wait in the fog . . . and when you can’t get back inside, they’ll come to eat you up. Like in the fairy stories.” He hugged me with fierce, panicky tightness. “Daddy, please don’t go.”
I pried his arms loose as gently as I could and told him that I had to. “But I’ll be back, Billy.”
“All right,” he said huskily, but he wouldn’t look at me anymore. He didn’t believe I would be back. It was on his face, which was no longer thundery but woeful and grieving. I wondered again if I could be doing the right thing, putting myself at risk. Then I happened to glance down the middle aisle and saw Mrs. Carmody there. She had gained a third listener, a man with a grizzled cheek and a mean and rolling bloodshot eye. His haggard brow and shaking hands almost screamed the word hangover. It was none other than your friend and his, Myron LaFleur. The fellow who had felt no compunction at all about sending a boy out to do a man’s job.
That crazy cunt. That witch.
I kissed Billy and hugged him hard. Then I walked down to the front of the store—but not down the housewares aisle. I didn’t want to fall under her eye.
Three-quarters of the way down, Amanda caught up with me. “Do you really have to do this?” she asked.
“Yes, I think so.”
“Forgive me if I say it sounds like so much macho bullshit to me.” There were spots of color high on her cheeks and her eyes were greener than ever. She was highly—no, royally—pissed.
I took her arm and recapped my discussion with Dan Miller.
The riddle of the cars and the fact that no one from the pharmacy had joined us didn’t move her much. The business about Mrs. Carmody did.
“He could be right,” she said.
“Do you really believe that?”
“I don’t know. There’s a poisonous feel to that woman. And if people are frightened badly enough for long enough, they’ll turn to anyone that promises a solution.”
“But human sacrifice, Amanda?”
“The Aztecs were into it,” she said evenly. “Listen, David. You come back. If anything happens . . . anything . . . you come back. Cut and run if you have to. Not for me, what happened last night was nice, but that was last night. Come back for your boy.”
“Yes. I will.”
“I wonder,” she said, and now she looked like Billy, haggard and old. It occurred to me that most of us looked that way. But not Mrs. Carmody. Mrs. Carmody looked younger somehow, and more vital. As if she had come into her own. As if . . . as if she were thriving on it.
We didn’t get going until 9:30 A.M. Seven of us went: Ollie, Dan Miller, Mike Hatlen, Myron LaFleur’s erstwhile buddy Jim (also hungover, but seemingly determined to find some way to atone), Buddy Eagleton, myself. The seventh was Hilda Reppler. Miller and Hatlen tried halfheartedly to talk her out of coming. She would have none of it. I didn’t even try. I suspected she might be more competent than any of us, except maybe for Ollie. She was carrying a small canvas shopping basket, and it was loaded with an arsenal of Raid and Black Flag spray cans, all of them uncapped and ready for action. In her free hand she held a Spalding Jimmy Connors tennis racket from a display of sporting goods in Aisle 2.
“What you gonna do with that, Mrs. Reppler?” Jim asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. She had a low, raspy, competent voice. “But it feels right in my hand.” She looked him over
closely, and her eye was cold. “Jim Grondin, isn’t it? Didn’t I have you in school?”
Jim’s lips stretched in an uneasy egg-suck grin. “Yes’m. Me and my sister Pauline.”
“Too much to drink last night?”
Jim, who towered over her and probably outweighed her by one hundred pounds, blushed to the roots of his American Legion crewcut. “Aw, no—”
She turned away curtly, cutting him off. “I think we’re ready,” she said.
All of us had something, although you would have called it an odd assortment of weapons. Ollie had Amanda’s gun, Buddy Eagleton had a steel pinchbar from out back somewhere. I had a broom handle.
“Okay,” Dan Miller said, raising his voice a bit. “You folks want to listen up a minute?”
A dozen people had drifted down toward the OUT door to see what was going on. They were loosely knotted, and to their right stood Mrs. Carmody and her new friends.
“We’re going over to the drugstore to see what the situation is there. Hopefully, we’ll be able to bring something back to aid Mrs. Clapham.” She was the lady who had been trampled yesterday, when the bugs came. One of her legs had been broken and she was in a great deal of pain.
Miller looked us over. “We’re not going to take any chances,” he said. “At the first sign of anything threatening, we’re going to pop back into the market—”
“And bring all the fiends of hell down on our heads!” Mrs. Carmody cried.
“She’s right!” one of the summer ladies seconded. “You’ll make them notice us! You’ll make them come! Why can’t you just leave well enough alone?”
There was a murmur of agreement from some of the people who had gathered to watch us go.
I said, “Lady, is this what you call well enough?”
She dropped her eyes, confused.
Mrs. Carmody marched a step forward. Her eyes were blazing. “You’ll die out there, David Drayton! Do you want to make your son an orphan?” She raised her eyes and raked all of us with them. Buddy Eagleton dropped his eyes and simultaneously raised the pinchbar, as if to ward her off.
“All of you will die out there! Haven’t you realized that the end of the world has come? The Fiend has been let loose! Star Wormwood blazes and each one of you that steps out that door will be torn apart! And they’ll come for those of us who are left, just as this good woman said! Are you people going to let that happen?” She was appealing to the onlookers now, and a little mutter ran through them. “After what happened to the unbelievers yesterday? It’s death! It’s death! It’s—”
A can of peas flew across two of the checkout lanes suddenly and struck Mrs. Carmody on the right breast. She staggered backward with a startled squawk.
Amanda stood forward. “Shut up,” she said. “Shut up, you miserable buzzard.”
“She serves the Foul One!” Mrs. Carmody screamed. A jittery smile hung on her face. “Who did you sleep with last night, missus? Who did you lie down with last night? Mother Carmody sees, oh yes, Mother Carmody sees what others miss.”
But the moment’s spell she had created was broken, and Amanda’s eyes never wavered.
“Are we going or are we going to stand here all day?” Mrs. Reppler asked.
And we went. God help us, we went.
• • •
Dan Miller was in the lead. Ollie came second, I was last, with Mrs. Reppler in front of me. I was as scared as I’ve ever been, I think, and the hand wrapped around my broom handle was sweaty-slick.
There was that thin, acrid, and unnatural smell of the mist. By the time I got out the door, Miller and Ollie had already
faded into it, and Hatlen, who was third, was nearly out of sight.
Only twenty feet, I kept telling myself. Only twenty feet.
Mrs. Reppler walked slowly and firmly ahead of me, her tennis racket swinging lightly from her right hand. To our left was a red cinderblock wall. To our right the first rank of cars, looming out of the mist like ghost ships. Another trash barrel materialized out of the whiteness, and beyond that was a bench where people sometimes sat to wait their turn at the pay phone. Only twenty feet, Miller’s probably there by now, twenty feet is only ten or twelve paces, so—
“Oh my God!” Miller screamed. “Oh dear sweet God, look at this!”
Miller had gotten there, all right.
Buddy Eagleton was ahead of Mrs. Reppler and he turned to run, his eyes wide and stary. She batted him lightly in the chest with her tennis racket. “Where do you think you’re going?” she asked in her tough, slightly raspy voice, and that was all the panic there was.
The rest of us drew up to Miller. I took one glance back over my shoulder and saw that the Federal had been swallowed by the mist. The red cinderblock wall faded to a thin wash pink and then disappeared utterly, probably five feet on the Bridgton Pharmacy side of the OUT door. I felt more isolated, more simply alone, than ever in my life. It was as if I had lost the womb.
The pharmacy had been the scene of a slaughter.
Miller and I, of course, were very close to it—almost on top of it. All the things in the mist operated primarily by sense of smell. It stood to reason. Sight would have been almost completely useless to them. Hearing a little better, but as I’ve said, the mist had a way of screwing up the acoustics, making things that were close sound distant and—sometimes—things that were far away sound close. The things in the mist followed their truest sense. They followed their noses.
Those of us in the market had been saved by the power outage as much as by anything else. The electric-eye doors wouldn’t operate. In a sense, the market had been sealed up when the mist came. But the pharmacy doors . . . they had been chocked open. The power failure had killed their air conditioning and they had opened the doors to let in the breeze. Only something else had come in as well.
A man in a maroon T-shirt lay facedown in the doorway. Or at first I thought his T-shirt was maroon; then I saw a few white patches at the bottom and understood that once it had been all white. The maroon was dried blood. And there was something else wrong with him. I puzzled it over in my mind. Even when Buddy Eagleton turned around and was noisily sick, it didn’t come immediately. I guess when something that . . . that final happens to someone, your mind rejects it at first . . . unless maybe you’re in a war.
His head was gone, that’s what it was. His legs were splayed out inside the pharmacy doors, and his head should have been hanging over the low step. But his head just wasn’t.
Jim Grondin had had enough. He turned away, his hands over his mouth, his bloodshot eyes gazing madly into mine. Then he stumbled-staggered back toward the market.
The others took no notice. Miller had stepped inside. Mike Hatlen followed. Mrs. Reppler stationed herself at one side of the double doors with her tennis racket. Ollie stood on the other side with Amanda’s gun drawn and pointing at the pavement.
He said quietly, “I seem to be running out of hope, David.”
Buddy Eagleton was leaning weakly against the pay-phone stall like someone who has just gotten bad news from home. His broad shoulders shook with the force of his sobs.
“Don’t count us out yet,” I said to Ollie. I stepped up to the door. I didn’t want to go inside, but I had promised my son a comic book.
The Bridgton Pharmacy was a crazy shambles. Paperbacks
and magazines were everywhere. There was a Spiderman comic and an Incredible Hulk almost at my feet, and without thinking, I picked them up and jammed them into my back pocket for Billy. Bottles and boxes lay in the aisles. A hand hung over one of the racks.
Unreality washed over me. The wreckage . . . the carnage—that was bad enough. But the place also looked like it had been the scene of some crazy party. It was hung and festooned with what I at first took to be streamers. But they weren’t broad and flat; they were more like very thick strings or very thin cables. It struck me that they were almost the same bright white as the mist itself, and a cold chill sketched its way up my back like frost. Not crepe. What? Magazines and books hung dangling in the air from some of them.
Mike Hatlen was prodding a strange black thing with one foot. It was long and bristly. “What the fuck is this?” he asked no one in particular.
And suddenly I knew. I knew what had killed all those unlucky enough to be in the pharmacy when the mist came. The people who had been unlucky enough to get smelled out. Out—
“Out,” I said. My throat was completely dry, and the word came out like a lint-covered bullet. “Get out of here.”
Ollie looked at me. “David . . . ?”
“They’re spiderwebs,” I said. And then two screams came out of the mist. The first of fear, maybe. The second of pain. It was Jim. If there were dues to be paid, he was paying them.
“Get out!” I shouted at Mike and Dan Miller.
Then something looped out of the mist. It was impossible to see it against that white background, but I could hear it. It sounded like a bullwhip that had been halfheartedly flicked. And I could see it when it twisted around the thigh of Buddy Eagleton’s jeans.
He screamed and grabbed for the first thing handy, which happened to be the telephone. The handset flew the length
of its cord and then swung back and forth. “Oh Jesus that HURTS!” Buddy screamed.
Ollie grabbed for him, and I saw what was happening. At the same instant I understood why the head of the man in the doorway was missing. The thin white cable that had twisted around Buddy’s leg like a silk rope was sinking into his flesh. That leg of his jeans had been neatly cut off and was sliding down his leg. A neat, circular incision in his flesh was brimming blood as the cable went deeper.
Ollie pulled him hard. There was a thin snapping sound and Buddy was free. His lips had gone blue with shock.
Mike and Dan were coming, but too slowly. Then Dan ran into several hanging threads and got stuck, exactly like a bug on flypaper. He freed himself with a tremendous jerk, leaving a flap of his shirt hanging from the webbing.
Suddenly the air was full of those languorous bullwhip cracks, and the thin white cables were drifting down all around us. They were coated with the same corrosive substance. I dodged two of them, more by luck than by skill. One landed at my feet and I could hear a faint hiss of bubbling hottop. Another floated out of the air and Mrs. Reppler calmly swung her tennis racket at it. The thread stuck fast, and I heard a high-pitched twing! twing! twing! as the corrosive ate through the racket’s strings and snapped them. It sounded like someone rapidly plucking the strings of a violin. A moment later a thread wrapped around the upper handle of the racket and it was jerked into the mist.
“Get back!” Ollie screamed.
We got moving. Ollie had an arm around Buddy. Dan Miller and Mike Hatlen were on each side of Mrs. Reppler. The white strands of web continued to drift out of the fog, impossible to see unless your eye could pick them out against the red cinderblock background.
One of them wrapped around Mike Hatlen’s left arm. Another whipped around his neck in a series of quick winding-up snaps.
His jugular went in a jetting, jumping explosion and he was dragged away, head lolling. One of his Bass loafers fell off and lay there on its side.
Buddy suddenly slumped forward, almost dragging Ollie to his knees. “He’s passed out, David. Help me.”
I grabbed Buddy around the waist and we pulled him along in a clumsy, stumbling fashion. Even in unconsciousness, Buddy kept his grip on his steel pinchbar. The leg that the strand of web had wrapped around hung away from his body at a terrible angle.
Mrs. Reppler had turned around. “Ware!” she screamed in her rusty voice. “Ware behind you!”
As I started to turn, one of the web-strands floated down on top of Dan Miller’s head. His hands beat at it, tore at it.
One of the spiders had come out of the mist from behind us. It was the size of a big dog. It was black with yellow piping. Racing stripes, I thought crazily. Its eyes were reddish-purple, like pomegranates. It strutted busily toward us on what might have been as many as twelve or fourteen many-jointed legs—it was no ordinary earthly spider blown up to horror-movie size; it was something totally different, perhaps not really a spider at all. Seeing it, Mike Hatlen would have understood what that bristly black thing he had been prodding at in the pharmacy really was.
It closed in on us, spinning its webbing from an oval-shaped orifice on its upper belly. The strands floated out toward us in what was nearly a fan shape. Looking at this nightmare, so like the death-black spiders brooding over their dead flies and bugs in the shadows of our boathouse, I felt my mind trying to tear completely loose from its moorings. I believe now that it was only the thought of Billy that allowed me to keep any semblance of sanity. I was making some sound. Laughing. Crying. Screaming. I don’t know.
But Ollie Weeks was like a rock. He raised Amanda’s pistol as calmly as a man on a target range and emptied it in spaced
shots into the creature at point-blank range. Whatever hell it came from, it wasn’t invulnerable. A black ichor splattered from its body and it made a terrible mewling sound, so low it was more felt than heard, like a bass note from a synthesizer. Then it scuttered back into the mist and was gone. It might have been a phantasm from a horrible drug-dream . . . except for the puddles of sticky black stuff it had left behind.
There was a clang as Buddy finally dropped his steel pinchbar.
“He’s dead,” Ollie said. “Let him go, David. The fucking thing got his femoral artery, he’s dead. Let’s get the Christ out of here.” His face was once more running with sweat and his eyes bulged from his big round face. One of the web-strands floated easily down on the back of his hand and Ollie swung his arm, snapping it. The strand left a bloody weal.
Mrs. Reppler screamed “Ware!” again, and we turned toward her. Another of them had come out of the mist and had wrapped its legs around Dan Miller in a mad lover’s embrace. He was striking at it with his fists. As I bent and picked up Buddy’s pinchbar, the spider began to wrap Dan in its deadly thread, and his struggles became a grisly, jittering death dance.
Mrs. Reppler walked toward the spider with a can of Black Flag insect repellent held outstretched in one hand. The spider’s legs reached for her. She depressed the button and a cloud of the stuff jetted into one of its sparkling, jewel-like eyes. That low-pitched mewling sound came again. The spider seemed to shudder all over and then it began to lurch backward, hairy legs scratching at the pavement. It dragged Dan’s body, bumping and rolling, behind it. Mrs. Reppler threw the can of bug spray at it. It bounced off the spider’s body and clattered to the hottop. The spider struck the side of a small sports car hard enough to make it rock on its springs, and then it was gone.
I got to Mrs. Reppler, who was swaying on her feet and dead pale. I put an arm around her. “Thank you, young man,” she said. “I feel a bit faint.”
“That’s okay,” I said hoarsely.
“I would have saved him if I could.”
“I know that.”
Ollie joined us. We ran for the market doors, the threads falling all around us. One lit on Mrs. Reppler’s marketing basket and sank into the canvas side. She tussled grimly for what was hers, dragging back on the strap with both hands, but she lost it. It went bumping off into the mist, end over end.
As we reached the IN door, a smaller spider, no bigger than a cocker spaniel puppy, raced out of the fog along the side of the building. It was producing no webbing; perhaps it wasn’t mature enough to do so.
As Ollie leaned one beefy shoulder against the door so Mrs. Reppler could go through, I heaved the steel bar at the thing like a javelin and impaled it. It writhed madly, legs scratching at the air, and its red eyes seemed to find mine, and mark me . . .
“David!” Ollie was still holding the door.
I ran in. He followed me.
Pallid, frightened faces stared at us. Seven of us had gone out. Three of us had come back. Ollie leaned against the heavy glass door, barrel chest heaving. He began to reload Amanda’s gun. His white assistant manager’s shirt was plastered to his body, and large gray sweat-stains had crept out from under his arms.
“What?” someone asked in a low, hoarse voice.
“Spiders,” Mrs. Reppler answered grimly. “The dirty bastards snatched my market basket.”
Then Billy hurled his way into my arms, crying. I held on to him. Tight.
X. The Spell of Mrs. Carmody.
The Second Night in the Market.
The Final Confrontation.
It was my turn to sleep, and for four hours I remember nothing at all. Amanda told me I talked a lot, and screamed once or twice, but I remember no dreams. When I woke up it was afternoon. I was terribly thirsty. Some of the milk had gone over, but some of it was still okay. I drank a quart.
Amanda came over to where Billy, Mrs. Turman, and I were. The old man who had offered to make a try for the shotgun in the trunk of his car was with her—Cornell, I remembered. Ambrose Cornell.
“How are you, son?” he asked.
“All right.” But I was still thirsty and my head ached. Most of all, I was scared. I slipped an arm around Billy and looked from Cornell to Amanda. “What’s up?”
Amanda said, “Mr. Cornell is worried about that Mrs. Carmody. So am I.”
“Billy why don’t you take a walk over here with me?” Hattie asked.
“I don’t want to,” Billy said.
“Go on, Big Bill,” I told him, and he went—reluctantly.
“Now what about Mrs. Carmody?” I asked.
“She’s stirrin things up,” Cornell said. He looked at me with an old man’s grimness. “I think we got to put a stop to it. Just about any way we can.”
Amanda said, “There are almost a dozen people with her now. It’s like some crazy kind of a church service.”
I remembered talking with a writer friend who lived in Otisfield and supported his wife and two kids by raising chickens and turning out one paperback original a year—spy stories. We had gotten talking about the bulge in popularity of books concerning themselves with the supernatural. Gault
pointed out that in the forties Weird Tales had only been able to pay a pittance, and that in the fifties it went broke. When the machines fail, he had said (while his wife candled eggs and roosters crowed querulously outside), when the technologies fail, when the conventional religious systems fail, people have got to have something. Even a zombie lurching through the night can seem pretty cheerful compared to the existential comedy/horror of the ozone layer dissolving under the combined assault of a million fluorocarbon spray cans of deodorant.
We had been trapped here for twenty-six hours and we hadn’t been able to do diddlyshit. Our one expedition outside had resulted in fifty-seven percent losses. It wasn’t so surprising that Mrs. Carmody had turned into a growth stock, maybe.
“Has she really got a dozen people?” I asked.
“Well, only eight,” Cornell said. “But she never shuts up! It’s like those ten-hour speeches Castro used to make. It’s a goddam filibuster.”
Eight people. Not that many, not even enough to fill up a jury box. But I understood the worry on their faces. It was enough to make them the single largest political force in the market, especially now that Dan and Mike were gone. The thought that the biggest single group in our closed system was listening to her rant on about the pits of hell and the seven vials being opened made me feel pretty damn claustrophobic.
“She’s started talking about human sacrifice again,” Amanda said. “Bud Brown came over and told her to stop talking that drivel in his store. And two of the men that are with her—one of them was that man Myron LaFleur—told him he was the one who better shut up because it was still a free country. He wouldn’t shut up and there was a . . . well, a shoving match, I guess you’d say.”
“Brown got a bloody nose,” Cornell said. “They mean business.”
I said, “Surely not to the point of actually killing someone.”
Cornell said softly, “I don’t know how far they’ll go if that mist doesn’t let up. But I don’t want to find out. I intend to get out of here.”
“Easier said than done.” But something had begun to tick over in my mind. Scent. That was the key. We had been left pretty much alone in the market. The bugs might have been attracted to the light, as more ordinary bugs were. The birds had simply followed their food supply. But the bigger things had left us alone unless we unbuttoned for some reason. The slaughter in the Bridgton Pharmacy had occurred because the doors had been left chocked open—I was sure of that. The thing or things that had gotten Norton and his party had sounded as big as a house, but it or they hadn’t come near the market. And that meant that maybe . . .
Suddenly I wanted to talk to Ollie Weeks. I needed to talk to him.
“I intend to get out or die trying,” Cornell said. “I got no plans to spend the rest of the summer in here.”
“There have been four suicides,” Amanda said suddenly.
“What?” The first thing to cross my mind, in a semiguilty flash, was that the bodies of the soldiers had been discovered.
“Pills,” Cornell said shortly. “Me and two or three other guys carried the bodies out back.”
I had to stifle a shrill laugh. We had a regular morgue going back there.
“It’s thinning out,” Cornell said. “I want to get gone.”
“You won’t make it to your car. Believe me.”
“Not even to that first rank? That’s closer than the drugstore.”
I didn’t answer him. Not then.
About an hour later I found Ollie holding up the beer cooler and drinking a Busch. His face was impassive but he also seemed to be watching Mrs. Carmody. She was tireless, apparently. And she was indeed discussing human sacrifice again, only now no one was telling her to shut up. Some of the people who had told her to shut up yesterday were either with her
today or at least willing to listen—and the others were outnumbered.
“She could have them talked around to it by tomorrow morning,” Ollie remarked. “Maybe not . . . but if she did, who do you think she’d single out for the honor?”
Bud Brown had crossed her. So had Amanda. There was the man who had struck her. And then, of course, there was me.
“Ollie,” I said, “I think maybe half a dozen of us could get out of here. I don’t know how far we’d get, but I think we could at least get out.”
I laid it out for him. It was simple enough. If we dashed across to my Scout and piled in, they would get no human scent. At least not with the windows rolled up.
“But suppose they’re attracted to some other scent?” Ollie asked. “Exhaust, for instance?”
“Then we’d be cooked,” I agreed.
“Motion,” he said. “The motion of a car through fog might also draw them, David.”
“I don’t think so. Not without the scent of prey. I really believe that’s the key to getting away.”
“But you don’t know.”
“No, not for sure.”
“Where would you want to go?”
“First? Home. To get my wife.”
“All right. To check. To be sure.”
“The things out there could be everyplace, David. They could get you the minute you stepped out of your Scout into your dooryard.”
“If that happened, the Scout would be yours. All I’d ask would be that you take care of Billy as well as you could for as long as you could.”
Ollie finished his Busch and dropped the can back into the cooler, where it clattered among the empties. The butt of
the gun Amanda’s husband had given her protruded from his pocket.
“South?” he asked, meeting my eyes.
“Yeah, I would,” I said. “Go south and try to get out of the mist. Try like hell.”
“How much gas you got?”
“Have you thought that it might be impossible to get out?”
I had. Suppose what they had been fooling with at the Arrowhead Project had pulled this entire region into another dimension as easily as you or I would turn a sock inside out? “It had crossed my mind,” I said, “but the alternative seems to be waiting around to see who Mrs. Carmody taps for the place of honor.”
“Were you thinking about today?”
“No, it’s afternoon already and those things get active at night. I was thinking about tomorrow, very early.”
“Who would you want to take?”
“Me and you and Billy. Hattie Turman. Amanda Dumfries. That old guy Cornell and Mrs. Reppler. Maybe Bud Brown, too. That’s eight, but Billy can sit on someone’s lap and we can all squash together.”
He thought it over. “All right,” he said finally. “We’ll try. Have you mentioned this to anyone else?”
“No, not yet.”
“My advice would be not to, not until about four tomorrow morning. I’ll put a couple of bags of groceries under the checkout nearest the door. If we’re lucky we can squeak out before anyone knows what’s happening.” His eyes drifted to Mrs. Carmody again. “If she knew, she might try to stop us.”
“You think so?”
Ollie got another beer. “I think so,” he said.
• • •
That afternoon—yesterday afternoon—passed in a kind of slow motion. Darkness crept in, turning the fog to that dull
chrome color again. What world was left outside slowly dissolved to black by eight-thirty.
The pink bugs returned, then the bird-things, swooping into the windows and scooping them up. Something roared occasionally from the dark, and once, shortly before midnight, there was a long, drawn-out Aaaaa-rooooooo! that caused people to turn toward the blackness with frightened, searching faces. It was the sort of sound you’d imagine a bull alligator might make in a swamp.
It went pretty much as Miller had predicted. By the small hours, Mrs. Carmody had gained another half a dozen souls. Mr. McVey the butcher was among them, standing with his arms folded, watching her.
She was totally wound up. She seemed to need no sleep. Her sermon, a steady stream of horrors out of Doré, Bosch, and Jonathan Edwards, went on and on, building toward some climax. Her group began to murmur with her, to rock back and forth unconsciously, like true believers at a tent revival. Their eyes were shiny and blank. They were under her spell.
Around 3:00 A.M. (the sermon went on relentlessly, and the people who were not interested had retreated to the back to try to get some sleep) I saw Ollie put a bag of groceries on a shelf under the checkout nearest the OUT door. Half an hour later he put another bag beside it. No one appeared to notice him but me. Billy, Amanda, and Mrs. Turman slept together by the denuded cold-cuts section. I joined them and fell into an uneasy doze.
At four-fifteen by my wristwatch, Ollie shook me awake. Cornell was with him, his eyes gleaming brightly from behind his spectacles.
“It’s time, David,” Ollie said.
A nervous cramp hit my belly and then passed. I shook Amanda awake. The question of what might happen with both Amanda and Stephanie in the car together passed into my mind, and then passed right out again. Today it would be best to take things just as they came.
Those remarkable green eyes opened and looked into mine. “David?”
“We’re going to take a stab at getting out of here. Do you want to come?”
“What are you talking about?”
I started to explain, then woke up Mrs. Turman so I would only have to go through it the once.
“Your theory about scent,” Amanda said. “It’s really only an educated guess at this point, isn’t it?”
“It doesn’t matter to me,” Hattie said. Her face was white and in spite of the sleep she’d gotten there were large discolored patches under her eyes. “I would do anything—take any chances—just to see the sun again.”
Just to see the sun again. A little shiver coursed through me. She had put her finger on a spot that was very close to the center of my own fears, on the sense of almost foregone doom that had gripped me since I had seen Norm dragged out through the loading door. You could only see the sun through the mist as a little silver coin. It was like being on Venus.
It wasn’t so much the monstrous creatures that lurked in the mist; my shot with the pinchbar had shown me they were no Lovecraftian horrors with immortal life but only organic creatures with their own vulnerabilities. It was the mist itself that sapped the strength and robbed the will. Just to see the sun again. She was right. That alone would be worth going through a lot of hell.
I smiled at Hattie and she smiled tentatively back.
“Yes,” Amanda said. “Me too.”
I began to shake Billy awake as gently as I could.
• • •
“I’m with you,” Mrs. Reppler said briefly.
We were all together by the meat counter, all but Bud Brown. He had thanked us for the invitation and then declined it. He would not leave his place in the market, he said, but
added in a remarkably gentle tone of voice that he didn’t blame Ollie for doing so.
An unpleasant, sweetish aroma was beginning to drift up from the white enamel case now, a smell that reminded me of the time our freezer went on the fritz while we were spending a week on the Cape. Perhaps, I thought, it was the smell of spoiling meat that had driven Mr. McVey over to Mrs. Carmody’s team.
“—expiation! It’s expiation we want to think about now! We have been scourged with whips and scorpions! We have been punished for delving into secrets forbidden by God of old! We have seen the lips of the earth open! We have seen the obscenities of nightmare! The rock will not hide them, the dead tree gives no shelter! And how will it end? What will stop it?”
“Expiation!” shouted good old Myron LaFleur.
“Expiation . . . expiation . . .” They whispered it uncertainly.
“Let me hear you say it like you mean it!” Mrs. Carmody shouted. The veins stood out on her neck in bulging cords. Her voice was cracking and hoarse now, but still full of power. And it occurred to me that it was the mist that had given her that power—the power to cloud men’s minds, to make a particularly apt pun—just as it had taken away the sun’s power from the rest of us. Before, she had been nothing but a mildly eccentric old woman with an antiques store in a town that was lousy with antiques stores. Nothing but an old woman with a few stuffed animals in the back room and a reputation for
(that witch . . . that cunt)
folk medicine. It was said she could find water with an applewood stick, that she could charm warts, and sell you a cream that would fade freckles to shadows of their former selves. I had even heard—was it from old Bill Giosti?—that Mrs. Carmody could be seen (in total confidence) about your love life; that if you were having the bedroom miseries, she could give you a drink that would put the ram back in your rod.
“EXPIATION!” they all cried together.
“Expiation, that’s right!” she shouted deliriously. “It’s expiation gonna clear away this fog! Expiation gonna clear off these monsters and abominations! Expiation gonna drop the scales of mist from our eyes and let us see!” Her voice dropped a notch. “And what does the Bible say expiation is? What is the only cleanser for sin in the Eye and Mind of God?”
This time the chill shuddered up through my entire body, cresting at the nape of my neck and making the hairs there stiffen. Mr. McVey had spoken that word, Mr. McVey the butcher who had been cutting meat in Bridgton ever since I was a kid holding my father’s talented hand. Mr. McVey taking orders and cutting meat in his stained whites. Mr. McVey, whose acquaintanceship with the knife was long—yes, and with the saw and cleaver as well. Mr. McVey who would understand better than anyone else that the cleanser of the soul flows from the wounds of the body.
“Blood . . .” they whispered.
“Daddy, I’m scared,” Billy said. He was clutching my hand tightly, his small face strained and pale.
“Ollie,” I said, “why don’t we get out of this loony bin?”
“Right on,” he said. “Let’s go.”
We started down the second aisle in a loose group—Ollie, Amanda, Cornell, Mrs. Turman, Mrs. Reppler, Billy, and I. It was a quarter to five in the morning and the mist was beginning to lighten again.
“You and Cornell take the grocery bags,” Ollie said to me.
“I’ll go first. Your Scout is a four-door, is it?”
“Yeah. It is.”
“Okay, I’ll open the driver’s door and the back door on the same side. Mrs. Dumfries, can you carry Billy?”
She picked him up in her arms.
“Am I too heavy?” Billy asked.
“You and Billy get in front,” Ollie went on. “Shove way over. Mrs. Turman in front, in the middle. David, you behind the wheel. The rest of us will—”
“Where did you think you were going?”
It was Mrs. Carmody.
She stood at the head of the checkout line where Ollie had hidden the bags of groceries. Her pantsuit was a yellow scream in the gloom. Her hair frizzed out wildly in all directions, reminding me momentarily of Elsa Lanchester in The Bride of Frankenstein. Her eyes blazed. Ten or fifteen people stood behind her, blocking the IN and OUT doors. They had the look of people who had been in car accidents, or who had seen a UFO land, or who had seen a tree pull its roots up and walk.
Billy cringed against Amanda and buried his face against her neck.
“Going out now, Mrs. Carmody,” Ollie said. His voice was curiously gentle. “Stand away, please.”
“You can’t go out. That way is death. Don’t you know that by now?”
“No one has interfered with you,” I said. “All we want is the same privilege.”
She bent and found the bags of groceries unerringly. She must have known what we were planning all along. She pulled them out from the shelf where Ollie had placed them. One ripped open, spilling cans across the floor. She threw the other and it smashed open with the sound of breaking glass. Soda ran fizzing every which way and sprayed off the chrome facing of the next checkout lane.
“These are the sort of people who brought it on!” she shouted. “People who will not bend to the will of the Almighty! Sinners in pride, haughty they are, and stiff-necked! It is from their number that the sacrifice must come! From their number the blood of expiation!”
A rising rumble of agreement spurred her on. She was in a
frenzy now. Spittle flew from her lips as she screamed at the people crowding up behind her: “It’s the boy we want! Grab him! Take him! It’s the boy we want!”
They surged forward, Myron LaFleur in the lead, his eyes blankly joyous. Mr. McVey was directly behind him, his face blank and stolid.
Amanda faltered backward, holding Billy more tightly. His arms were wrapped around her neck. She looked at me, terrified. “David, what do I—”
“Get them both!” Mrs. Carmody screamed. “Get his whore, too!”
She was an apocalypse of yellow and dark joy. Her purse was still over her arm. She began to jump up and down. “Get the boy, get the whore, get them both, get them all, get—”
A single sharp report rang out.
Everything froze, as if we were a classroom full of unruly children and the teacher had just stepped back in and shut the door sharply. Myron LaFleur and Mr. McVey stopped where they were, about ten paces away. Myron looked back uncertainly at the butcher. He didn’t look back or even seem to realize that LaFleur was there. Mr. McVey had a look I had seen on too many other faces in the last two days. He had gone over. His mind had snapped.
Myron backed up, staring at Ollie Weeks with widening, fearful eyes. His backing-up became a run. He turned the corner of the aisle, skidded on a can, fell down, scrambled up again, and was gone.
Ollie stood in the classic target shooter’s position, Amanda’s gun clasped in both hands. Mrs. Carmody still stood at the head of the checkout lane. Both of her liver-spotted hands were clasped over her stomach. Blood poured out between her fingers and splashed her yellow slacks.
Her mouth opened and closed. Once. Twice. She was trying to talk. At last she made it.
“You will all die out there,” she said, and then she pitched
slowly forward. Her purse slithered off her arm, struck the floor, and spilled its contents. A paper-wrapped tube rolled across the distance between us and struck one of my shoes. Without thinking, I bent over and picked it up. It was a half-used package of Rolaids. I threw it down again. I didn’t want to touch anything that belonged to her.
The “congregation” was backing away, spreading out, their focus broken. None of them took their eyes from the fallen figure and the dark blood spreading out from beneath her body. “You murdered her!” someone cried out in fear and anger. But no one pointed out that she had been planning something similar for my son.
Ollie was still frozen in his shooter’s position, but now his mouth was trembling. I touched him gently. “Ollie, let’s go. And thank you.”
“I killed her,” he said hoarsely. “Damn if I didn’t kill her.”
“Yes,” I said. “That’s why I thanked you. Now let’s go.”
We began to move again.
With no grocery bags to carry—thanks to Mrs. Carmody—I was able to take Billy. We paused for a moment at the door, and Ollie said in a low, strained voice, “I wouldn’t have shot her, David. Not if there had been any other way.”
“You believe it?”
“Yeah, I do.”
“Then let’s go.”
We went out.
XI. The End.
Ollie moved fast, the pistol in his right hand. Before Billy and I were more than out the door he was at my Scout, an insubstantial Ollie, like a ghost in a television movie. He opened the driver’s
door. Then the back door. Then something came out of the mist and cut him nearly in half.
I never got a good look at it, and for that I think I’m grateful. It appeared to be red, the angry color of a cooked lobster. It had claws. It was making a low grunting sound, not much different from the sound we had heard after Norton and his little band of Flat-Earthers went out.
Ollie got off one shot, and then the thing’s claws scissored forward and Ollie’s body seemed to unhinge in a terrible glut of blood. Amanda’s gun fell out of his hand, struck the pavement, and discharged. I caught a nightmare glimpse of huge black lusterless eyes, the size of giant handfuls of sea grapes, and then the thing lurched back into the mist with what remained of Ollie Weeks in its grip. A long, multi-segmented scorpion’s body dragged harshly on the paving.
There was an instant of choices. Maybe there always is, no matter how short. Half of me wanted to run back into the market with Billy hugged to my chest. The other half was racing for the Scout, throwing Billy inside, lunging after him. Then Amanda screamed. It was a high, rising sound that seemed to spiral up and up until it was nearly ultrasonic. Billy cringed against me, digging his face against my chest.
One of the spiders had Hattie Turman. It was big. It had knocked her down. Her dress had pulled up over her scrawny knees as it crouched over her, its bristly, spiny legs caressing her shoulders. It began to spin its web.
Mrs. Carmody was right, I thought. We’re going to die out here, we are really going to die out here.
“Amanda!” I yelled.
No response. She was totally gone. The spider straddled what remained of Billy’s babysitter, who had enjoyed jigsaw puzzles and those damned Double-Crostics that no normal person can do without going nuts. Its threads crisscrossed her body, the white strands already turning red as the acid coating sank into her.
Cornell was backing slowly toward the market, his eyes as big as dinner plates behind his specs. Abruptly he turned and ran. He clawed the IN door open and ran inside.
The split in my mind closed as Mrs. Reppler stepped briskly forward and slapped Amanda, first forehand, then backhand. Amanda stopped screaming. I went to her, spun her around to face the Scout, and screamed “GO!” into her face.
She went. Mrs. Reppler brushed past me. She pushed Amanda into the Scout’s back seat, got in after her, and slammed the door shut.
I yanked Billy loose and threw him in. As I climbed in myself, one of those spider threads drifted down and lit on my ankle. It burned the way a fishing line pulled rapidly through your closed fist will burn. And it was strong. I gave my foot a hard yank and it broke. I slipped in behind the wheel.
“Shut it, oh shut the door, dear God!” Amanda screamed.
I shut the door. A bare instant later, one of the spiders thumped softly against it. I was only inches from its red, viciously stupid eyes. Its legs, each as thick as my wrist, slipped back and forth across the square bonnet. Amanda screamed ceaselessly, like a firebell.
“Woman, shut your head,” Mrs. Reppler told her.
The spider gave up. It could not smell us, ergo we were no longer there. It strutted back into the mist on its unsettling number of legs, became a phantasm, and then was gone.
I looked out the window to make sure it was gone and then opened the door.
“What are you doing?” Amanda screamed, but I knew what I was doing. I like to think Ollie would have done exactly the same thing. I half-stepped, half-leaned out, and got the gun. Something came rapidly toward me, but I never saw it. I pulled back in and slammed the door shut.
Amanda began to sob. Mrs. Reppler put an arm around her and comforted her briskly.
Billy said, “Are we going home, Daddy?”
“Big Bill, we’re gonna try.”
“Okay,” he said quietly.
I checked the gun and then put it into the glove compartment. Ollie had reloaded it after the expedition to the drugstore. The rest of the shells had disappeared with him, but that was all right. He had fired at Mrs. Carmody, he had fired once at the clawed thing, and the gun had discharged once when it hit the ground. There were four of us in the Scout, but if push came right down to shove, I’d find some other way out for myself.
• • •
I had a terrible moment when I couldn’t find my key ring. I checked all my pockets, came up empty, and then checked them all again, forcing myself to go slowly and calmly. They were in my jeans pocket; they had gotten down under the coins, as keys sometimes will. The Scout started easily. At the confident roar of the engine, Amanda burst into fresh tears.
I sat there, letting it idle, waiting to see what was going to be drawn by the sound of the engine or the smell of the exhaust. Five minutes, the longest five of my life, drifted by. Nothing happened.
“Are we going to sit here or are we going to go?” Mrs. Reppler asked at last.
“Go,” I said. I backed out of the slot and put on the low beams.
Some urge—probably a base one—made me cruise past the Federal market as close as I could get. The Scout’s right bumper bunted the trash barrel to one side. It was impossible to see in except through the loopholes—all those fertilizer and lawn-food bags made the place look as if it were in the throes of some mad garden sale—but at each loophole there were two or three pale faces, staring out at us.
Then I swung to the left, and the mist closed impenetrably behind us. And what has become of those people I do not know.
I drove back down Kansas Road at five miles an hour, feeling my way. Even with the Scout’s headlights and running lights on, it was impossible to see more than seven or ten feet ahead.
The earth had been through some terrible contortion; Miller had been right about that. In places the road was merely cracked, but in others the ground itself seemed to have caved in, tilting up great slabs of paving. I was able to get over with the help of the four-wheel drive. Thank God for that. But I was terribly afraid that we would soon come to an obstacle that even the four-wheel drive couldn’t get us over.
It took me forty minutes to make a drive that usually only took seven or eight. At last the sign that marked our private road loomed out of the mist. Billy, roused at a quarter of five, had fallen solidly asleep inside this car that he knew so well it must have seemed like home to him.
Amanda looked at the road nervously. “Are you really going down there?”
“I’m going to try,” I said.
But it was impossible. The storm that had whipped through had loosened a lot of trees, and that weird, twisting drop had finished the job of tumbling them. I was able to crunch over the first two; they were fairly small. Then I came to a hoary old pine lying across the road like an outlaw’s barricade. It was still almost a quarter of a mile to the house. Billy slept on beside me, and I put the Scout in Park, put my hands over my eyes, and tried to think what to do next.
• • •
Now, as I sit in the Howard Johnson’s near Exit 3 of the Maine Turnpike, writing all of this down on HoJo stationery, I suspect that Mrs. Reppler, that tough and capable old broad, could have laid out the essential futility of the situation in a few quick strokes. But she had the kindness to let me think it through for myself.
I couldn’t get out. I couldn’t leave them. I couldn’t even
kid myself that all the horror-movie monsters were back at the Federal; when I cracked the window I could hear them in the woods, crashing and blundering around on the steep fall of land they call the Ledges around these parts. The moisture drip-drip-dripped from the overhanging leaves. Overhead the mist darkened momentarily as some nightmarish and half-seen living kite overflew us.
I tried to tell myself—then and now—that if she was very quick, if she buttoned up the house with herself inside, that she had enough food for ten days to two weeks. It only works a little bit. What keeps getting in the way is my last memory of her, wearing her floppy sunhat and gardening gloves, on her way to our little vegetable patch with the mist rolling inexorably across the lake behind her.
It is Billy I have to think about now. Billy, I tell myself. Big Bill, Big Bill . . . I should write it maybe a hundred times on this sheet of paper, like a child condemned to write I will not throw spitballs in school as the sunny three-o’clock stillness spills through the windows and the teacher corrects homework papers at her desk and the only sound is her pen, while somewhere, far away, kids pick up teams for scratch baseball.
Anyway, at last I did the only thing I could do. I reversed the Scout carefully back to Kansas Road. Then I cried.
Amanda touched my shoulder timidly. “David, I’m so sorry,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said, trying to stop the tears and not having much luck. “Yeah, so am I.”
• • •
I drove to Route 302 and turned left, toward Portland. This road was also cracked and blasted in places, but was, on the whole, more passable than Kansas Road had been. I was worried about the bridges. The face of Maine is cut with running water, and there are bridges everywhere, big and small. But the Naples Causeway was intact, and from there it was plain—if slow—sailing all the way to Portland.
The mist held thick. Once I had to stop, thinking that trees were lying across the road. Then the trees began to move and undulate and I understood they were more tentacles. I stopped, and after a while they drew back. Once a great green thing with an iridescent green body and long transparent wings landed on the hood. It looked like a grossly misshapen dragonfly. It hovered there for a moment, then took wing again and was gone.
Billy woke up about two hours after we had left Kansas Road behind and asked if we had gotten Mommy yet. I told him I hadn’t been able to get down our road because of fallen trees.
“Is she all right, Dad?”
“Billy, I don’t know. But we’ll come back and see.”
He didn’t cry. He dozed off again instead. I would have rather had his tears. He was sleeping too damn much and I didn’t like it.
I began to get a tension headache. It was driving through the fog at a steady five or ten miles an hour that did it, the tension of knowing that anything might come out of it, anything at all—a washout, a landspill, or Ghidra the Three-headed Monster. I think I prayed. I prayed to God that Stephanie was alive and that He wouldn’t take my adultery out on her. I prayed to God to let me get Billy to safety because he had been through so much.
Most people had pulled to the side of the road when the mist came, and by noon we were in North Windham. I tried the River Road, but about four miles down, a bridge spanning a small and noisy stream had fallen into the water. I had to reverse for nearly a mile before I found a spot wide enough to turn around. We went to Portland by Route 302 after all.
When we got there, I drove the cutoff to the turnpike. The neat line of tollbooths guarding the access had been turned into vacant-eyed skeletons of smashed Pola-Glas. All of them were empty. In the sliding glass doorway of one was a torn jacket with Maine Turnpike Authority patches on the sleeves.
It was drenched with tacky, drying blood. We had not seen a single living person since leaving the Federal.
Mrs. Reppler said, “David, try your radio.”
I slapped my forehead in frustration and anger at myself, wondering how I could have been stupid enough to forget the Scout’s AM/FM for so long.
“Don’t do that,” Mrs. Reppler said curtly. “You can’t think of everything. If you try, you will go mad and be of no use at all.”
I got nothing but a shriek of static all the way across the AM band, and the FM yielded nothing but a smooth and ominous silence.
“Does that mean everything’s off the air?” Amanda asked. I knew what she was thinking, maybe. We were far enough south now so that we should have been picking up a selection of strong Boston stations—WRKO, WBZ, WMEX. But if Boston had gone—
“It doesn’t mean anything for sure,” I said. “That static on the AM band is pure interference. The mist is having a damping effect on radio signals, too.”
“Are you sure that’s all it is?”
“Yes,” I said, not sure at all.
We went south. The mileposts rolled past, counting down from about forty. When we reached Mile 1, we would be at the New Hampshire border. Going on the turnpike was slower; a lot of the drivers hadn’t wanted to give up, and there had been rear-end collisions in several places. Several times I had to use the median strip.
At about twenty past one—I was beginning to feel hungry—Billy clutched my arm. “Daddy, what’s that? What’s that!”
A shadow loomed out of the mist, staining it dark. It was as tall as a cliff and coming right at us. I jammed on the brakes. Amanda, who had been catnapping, was thrown forward.
Something came; again, that is all I can say for sure. It may have been the fact that the mist only allowed us to glimpse things briefly, but I think it just as likely that there are certain things that your brain simply disallows. There are things of such darkness and horror—just, I suppose, as there are things of such great beauty—that they will not fit through the puny human doors of perception.
It was six-legged, I know that; its skin was slaty gray that mottled to dark brown in places. Those brown patches reminded me absurdly of the liver spots on Mrs. Carmody’s hands. Its skin was deeply wrinkled and grooved, and clinging to it were scores, hundreds, of those pinkish “bugs” with the stalk-eyes. I don’t know how big it actually was, but it passed directly over us. One of its gray, wrinkled legs smashed down right beside my window, and Mrs. Reppler said later she could not see the underside of its body, although she craned her neck up to look. She saw only two Cyclopean legs going up and up into the mist like living towers until they were lost to sight.
For the moment it was over the Scout I had an impression of something so big that it might have made a blue whale look the size of a trout—in other words, something so big that it defied the imagination. Then it was gone, sending a seismological series of thuds back. It left tracks in the cement of the Interstate, tracks so deep I could not see the bottoms. Each single track was nearly big enough to drop the Scout into.
For a moment no one spoke. There was no sound but our breathing and the diminishing thud of that great Thing’s passage.
Then Billy said, “Was it a dinosaur, Dad? Like the bird that got into the market?”
“I don’t think so. I don’t think there was ever an animal that big, Billy. At least not on earth.”
I thought of the Arrowhead Project and wondered again what crazy damned thing they could have been doing up there.
“Can we go on?” Amanda asked timidly. “It might come back.”
Yes, and there might be more up ahead. But there was no point in saying so. We had to go somewhere. I drove on, weaving in and out between those terrible tracks until they veered off the road.
• • •
That is what happened. Or nearly all—there is one final thing I’ll get to in a moment. But you mustn’t expect some neat conclusion. There is no And they escaped from the mist into the good sunshine of a new day; or When we awoke the National Guard had finally arrived; or even that great old standby: It was all a dream.
It is, I suppose, what my father always frowningly called “an Alfred Hitchcock ending,” by which he meant a conclusion in ambiguity that allowed the reader or viewer to make up his own mind about how things ended. My father had nothing but contempt for such stories, saying they were “cheap shots.”
We got to this Howard Johnson’s near Exit 3 as dusk began to close in, making driving a suicidal risk. Before that, we took a chance on the bridge that spans the Saco River. It looked badly twisted out of shape, but in the mist it was impossible to tell if it was whole or not. That particular game we won.
But there’s tomorrow to think of, isn’t there?
As I write this, it is a quarter to one in the morning, July the twenty-third. The storm that seemed to signal the beginning of it all was only four days ago. Billy is sleeping in the lobby on a mattress that I dragged out for him. Amanda and Mrs. Reppler are close by. I am writing by the light of a big Delco flashlight, and outside the pink bugs are ticking and thumping off the glass. Every now and then there is a louder thud as one of the birds takes one off.
The Scout has enough gas to take us maybe another ninety miles. The alternative is to try to gas up here; there is an Exxon out on the service island, and although the power is off, I believe I could siphon some up from the tank. But—
But it means being outside.
If we can get gas—here or further along—we’ll keep going. I have a destination in mind now, you see. It’s that last thing I wanted to tell you about.
I couldn’t be sure. That is the thing, the damned thing. It might have been my imagination, nothing but wish fulfillment. And even if not, it is such a long chance. How many miles? How many bridges? How many things that would love to tear up my son and eat him even as he screamed in terror and agony?
The chances are so good that it was nothing but a daydream that I haven’t told the others . . . at least, not yet.
In the manager’s apartment I found a large battery-operated multiband radio. From the back of it, a flat antenna wire led out through the window. I turned it on, switched over to BAT., fiddled with the tuning dial, with the SQUELCH knob, and still got nothing but static or dead silence.
And then, at the far end of the AM band, just as I was reaching for the knob to turn it off, I thought I heard, or dreamed I heard, one single word.
There was no more. I listened for an hour, but there was no more. If there was that one word, it came through some minute shift in the damping mist, an infinitesimal break that immediately closed again.
I’ve got to get some sleep . . . if I can sleep and not be haunted until daybreak by the faces of Ollie Weeks and Mrs. Carmody and Norm the bag-boy . . . and by Steff’s face, half-shadowed by the wide brim of her sunhat.
There is a restaurant here, a typical HoJo restaurant with a dining room and a long, horseshoe-shaped lunch counter. I am going to leave these pages on the counter and perhaps someday someone will find them and read them.
If I only really heard it. If only.
I’m going to bed now. But first I’m going to kiss my son and whisper two words in his ear. Against the dreams that may come, you know.
Two words that sound a bit alike.
One of them is Hartford.
The other is hope.