More than anything else, it was picking up religion after he got busted that turned Julie off of Tim. As far as Julie was concerned, Tim hadn’t just lost his way, he’d turned his back on reason. The fact that he was divorced and destitute did not please her in the slightest, but neither could her pity for him deter her from doing what she needed to do. She divorced Tim, with his new self-righteous smirk, the same way she dispatched the flea from hell standing in her living room.
She didn’t believe in intolerance. Working as she did at The God in the Tree, Julie had no problem including his new religion symbols around the house. But she sure didn’t need him preaching to her and trying to get rid of all the other ones. Mostly it was his idiotic support of right-wing dogma that really bugged her. He simply became a total pain.
She had wanted to stand by him. Then he started mouthing talking points pushed in the right-wing paper that put The Activist out of business. For years The Activist had provided substantive local news coverage. It was a grass roots paper that questioned authority, promoted critical thinking and supported a hands-on community spirit. The Informer pushed right-wing ideology only and demonized those with little or no voice. The Activist tried to inform, The Informer tried to persuade. The Activist had bright minds, The Informer had bright pictures. The complex lost out to the simplistic. Multiculturalism lost out to the corporate monopoly. It was just like life with Tim.
Or rather the lack thereof. What had it been now, eighteen months since he got out? It took almost half a year for her to make up her mind, and when she did it was with no regrets. She knew it was the best thing for her son and for herself. She’d seen too many women sacrifice themselves, sublimate themselves (out of what? intellectual laxity? economic convenience?) too much too often. There was no way she was going down that road.
Even now, after all those years together and only a year apart, when something big was happening, she did not think of running to him. She had no desire to call him. Not just to “see how he was doing” or any other bizarre rationale for self-destructive self-abasement.
With this thought had come a vision of an abusive domestic scenario which unfolded before her mind’s eye like an unwanted program on a set with no remote. The next day, incredibly, she saw the scene played out in a parking lot in Bargerville. Right down to details regarding articles of clothing, the scene was repeated, in broad daylight, exactly as in her fully conscious vision.
And there were others. Random visions bombarded. The gift–which as always was also the curse–consisted of insight not limited to the future. Unsolicited knowledge of the past assailed her equally as well.
All of the visions increasingly vivid, increasingly detailed, increasingly increasing. Somewhere in the back of her mind she remembered having deep conversations with him about how the attempt to control others resulted from the inability to control the self, and that was the story of the human monkey so far, how vitality substitutes of external validation ran the world into the ground, and if you weren’t living your own dream you were dead in someone else’s, but now the memory just seemed unreal.
Julie turned off the TV that she hadn’t been watching and started turning out the lights as she headed to bed. Now with the tube off she could hear Bret snoring in the loft. She smiled as she thought of him starting his first part-time job in the morning. When he told her he might be able to work as an attendant at the gym in Radley, the image of him ogling women in leotards nonsensically and disappointingly did enter her mind, but she understood the difference between a passing thought and a full-on vision as clearly as she understood a rubber duckie was not a gorilla.
She went into her room. Got into bed. Closed her eyes, and promptly realized that her neighbor fed Turk, while the dog was still alive, to something in his basement.
Tyler and Hector were screaming at the top of their lungs. The misshapen moon barely lit the steep hillside littered with shale and loose scrubby brush. A sense hung in the stillness of the air that dawn was not far off.
Neither was Junyer. On the other side of the hill. Coming their way, he was screaming, too.
They skidded down the hillside on their heels leaning into the hill till they could scramble down the scrabble, barely managing to avoid breaking their necks on lethal outcroppings in an endless array dotted about and clustered in a gully preceding railroad tracks, which in the dim gray light Tyler and Hector could see were rusted, overgrown with weeds and long disused.
A hundred yards ahead the tracks went over a trestle bridge spanning Mist River at the base of Mt. Cloude. Breathing came in ragged gulps. Hector looked back to see Junyer top the rise just as Tyler stumbled in front of him and they pitched forward on all fours, scrambling to keep from sprawling face-first on the rock-strewn tracks, and barely succeeding with the next fifty yards looking a mile away.
From behind, a boulder the size of a basketball whizzed over their heads, bouncing off the tracks and crashing down in the brush.
Screaming in frustration, Junyer hunted about for another rock of the right size. He found one a little bit bigger. But by the time he threw it, they were further away, and the rock did not hit them. When he found another one, a good one, for a good job, they both had reached the bridge. Junyer screamed, hesitated, dropped the rock, screamed again and ran as fast as he could for the bridge.
But it was too late. They climbed through the railing, took a look back at him barreling down, looked down at the river, and jumped.
The bitter cold of the river hit them even harder than the surface of the water forty feet down. Brown from the rain and moving fast, the river bore bobbing limbs from a tree spinning in the current which, had Hector waited three seconds longer before jumping, he would have directly hit. As it was, a branch caught onto his legs. Frantically kicking, he managed to free himself in time to catch a glimpse of Junyer screaming on the bridge and appearing confused about what to do.
“Stay in the water!” Hector called out to Tyler, seeing that the river rounded a bend. “Let the current take us–I think he’s afraid of the water. Don’t let him see what side we get out on.”
“Which side do you want?”
Before Hector could answer, as they rounded the bend, they heard it.
“There’s a waterfall ahead!” Tyler yelled.
“I can’t! The current’s too strong!”
Exhausted and fully clothed as they were, and neither one what anybody would call a strong swimmer, they were no match for the surging current that carried them helpless over the thundering falls.
Fifty feet down, the force of the falls over the years, having pushed boulders aside in the billowing surge, formed a wide scoop scoured into the riverbed. Into this pocket they fell, disoriented and battered, managing somehow to continue down river far enough, they hoped, to lose Junyer. Clambering out, they hobbled to the shore.
“Come on,” Hector said, gasping with Tyler. He indicated toward the mountain, leaning with his sopping wet hands on his sopping wet knees.
“I can’t,” Tyler panted. “That’s all I’ve got. I don’t–have anything left. I can’t.”
“Yes you can. Move. Up there, those rocks–we can hide there. Come on.”
They staggered up the hillside, grave impetus added to their efforts on hearing crashing sounds an insufficient distance back upriver.
“We can’t make it,” Tyler gasped.
“Quick,” Hector said, “over there!” pointing at some boulders offering a narrow opening. They reached the cleft just as Junyer saw them.
Tyler squeezed through the stone with Hector behind, yelling. Both slipped down inside the small space provided as Junyer’s arm shot in, groping. But he could not reach them.
For a minute or so they could hear him outside, breathing heavily more from anxiety than exertion, and making worried sounds. Then he began examining the rock. He was starting to look for handholds. Grunting, Junyer strained.
The sun was coming up. Inside, Tyler and Hector watched the boulder begin to budge.
Literally right over the guy’s shoulder, Bret noticed mid-set on incline bench press, perfectly placed like a little mini-self, and even wearing the same tight sky-blue t-shirt, the picture of Chris, owner of Bulk kluB Gym, showed Chris declaring on the poster for everyone to “Come On Down And Get Your Extra-Size!” The real Chris below looked like a larger, closer duplicate.
Bret forced himself to look elsewhere–not at the ceiling while Chris talked, simply to be polite, but not right at him, either. A bumper sticker tacked to a corkboard read Losing Fat Takes Guts. In a corner of the gym a guy running on a treadmill, running in place for all he was worth while he watched the TV in front. Somehow, looking at him reminded Bret of running from the thing that chased them on the moors. That flea thing.
“Yeah, sure, I’ll try you out on a few hours, to see how you do, seeing how you need a few bucks and all. You mind if I get in a set?”
“Sure.” Bret got up and stepped aside.
With every exhalation from Chris as he pushed the bar up in a steady, piston-like manner, he gave off a noise sounding like “choot.” After twenty-one reps and choots, topping Bret’s set by one, Chris hopped up. “What is that? Two twenty-five? Can you believe it? I used to do way more, now I’m down to this.”
“I can do more than that.”
“Sure, yeah, put on another couple of wheels, why don’t you?”
“All right.” Bret reached for another forty-five plate off the rack and slid it on the bar up against the other two with a satisfying clang.
On the other side, Chris reached for one. “Three-fifteen, huh? Go for it. But I’m not responsible if you injure yourself. Need a lift up?”
Bret saddled up. Got his hands on the bar just right. Took a deep breath. And steamed out fifteen perfect reps.
“No way,” Chris said. “I did not see that. Eddie! Come here!”
Eddie came over.
“This kid pumped out fifteen reps of incline bench at three-fifteen.”
“I just now saw it. And that’s what I said. No way.”
Bret got up. “It’s not that bad.”
“Not that bad, he says.”
“You can do it,” Bret encouraged. “Just believe in yourself.”
“You think I don’t believe in myself? You think I can’t do this?”
Chris sat down. Positioned his hands. “Think I can’t?” he screamed. “Go baby go baby!” Took deep breaths. “One more time, baby, do it!” He pushed off, held it, shaking...one rep...two reps...three...four....
“Get the other side!” yelled Eddie.
“No way,” Chris panted when they got the bar rested, “no way.” He stood up. “I really hit it on two twenty-five. I haven’t even gotten a good night’s sleep in I don’t know when. We’ll see about that in a couple of days. I gotta start eating right again. You can start tomorrow night.”
The whole time Bret was filling out his paperwork, Chris orbited him, appraising his build, brows furrowed, shaking his head. When Bret finished, Chris came up to him.
“You’re pretty strong for your size. What do you max out at on flat bench?”
“Oh, I don’t know. What about you?”
“Well. Let’s give that a try.”
“What, you? Now?”
They stepped to the bench and put the plates on.
“Show me how it’s done,” Bret said.
“All right. I haven’t even had any sleep. All right.”
“Come on, Chris!” Eddie yelled, approaching. “Do it, baby!”
“Who da boss?”
“You da boss! Do it, baby!”
Face instantly crimson with effort, back largely arched, Chris squeezed out one quick rep off his chest and one more, barely, with a slight assist from Eddie spotting. “It’s all you, it’s all you.”
Chris flew up screaming into a double-handed high-five with Eddie.
Bret sat down. Leaned back. He calmly examined the placement of his fingers on the bar, stared at the ceiling and in perfect piston-like form pumped out twelve.
“Geez, Chris,” Eddie said. “You got to admit the guy’s good. Damn good.”
Chris turned and stomped off toward the door. A bar was on the floor.
“What do I pay you for?” He stooped down to pick it up, looking as though he would like to have hurled it, but he could barely lift it. It was as though hundreds of pounds were loading it down, and it took all Chris had, again screaming, to get the bar upright in the corner before he stomped out.
Bret could barely keep from exploding. He had been a little worried that Chris might try to take him on with dead lifts or clean and jerks with the rubber plates. The limited newfound telekinetic control he noticed two days after his mom shot the big flea worked only on metal objects.
And best on solid iron.
When the arm came back in, it was with a six-foot pry bar. At the first rattling sounds against the concrete as the creature tried to negotiate the tip inside, Harry turned his flashlight back on, pulling Mary and Calie with him to the other side of the little room. The arm shot in with the pry bar. The hair on the arm that hung down into the hole jiggled as the giant flailed, jabbing and stabbing the back wall. Bursts of broken concrete sent sparks up. When the arm pulled out, Mary, Calie and Harry scurried to the opposite side of the room.
Again the pry bar entered, this time jabbing where the three of them had been.
“Is there any other way out of here?” Mary said.
“This is it! I never even knew what this room is doing here. But this is as far as we can go.”
Calie called out, speaking for the first time since the shock of seeing the giant step out of the woods, “Over here! Shine the light over here!”
Harry aimed it where Calie indicated. “Holy crud,” he said, looking inside.
Through a crack in the concrete caused by the giant’s stabbing, Harry saw a cave on the other side in a crumbling corner big enough to get through. Snagging his tool box, Harry helped Mary and Calie slide through before doing so himself and arriving outside the broken corner to an array of rubble in a long low cave stretching out below.
Light filtering down from a hollow stump some thirty feet away illuminated a brackish body of water below. Harry approximated that the cave wound under the bulk of the northwest corner of Madrani. There wasn’t much up above there but a field, a few of the older houses and the graveyard.
No sooner had these thoughts entered Harry’s mind than an earsplitting crash of concrete in the trapdoor room announced the shop floor’s inability to long withstand the giant’s weight. He had fallen from above into the crypt-like room below.
“This way,” Harry hissed, hustling away along a natural trail winding down through the cave lit with the dwindling aid of the flashlight’s feeble beam.
Every so often Harry cast the light back to see if everyone was okay. In so doing he was more than once disquieted to catch the bizarre glimpse of Calie smiling starry-eyed as though she traipsed in a wonderful land of beauty.
When they seemed to have gone far enough for a quick breather, Harry asked the empty air as much as Mary or Calie, “What is that thing? What the hell’s going on?”
“Don’t ask me!” Mary gasped. “I sure as hell didn’t do anything. Doesn’t look like that flashlight’s batteries are very fresh. We’ve got to climb up somehow, fast.”
“No kidding. Where?”
“There!” came Calie’s happy cry.
“Oh my god,” Mary said. “We’re under the graveyard.”
Harry’s light shone on the upturned caskets. An underground river had diverted channels as a result of an earthquake some years ago, hollowing away the soil until the bottom of the graveyard had so decayed that the contents were spilled below while the surface remained precarious yet generally intact.
From the direction they had traveled, distant and muffled, echoed a cracking sound as of concrete or stone being broken. Then came the exultant reverberations of the giant ape, howling. He had broken through.
An open coffin, standing like a grandfather clock, exposed green tufts of grass above in glinting rays of sunlight. Harry brushed aside the moldered contents with a grimace. “Hurry!” he hissed, pointing to the light above and bracing a foot against the mass of root and clay and soft coffin bits to steady himself as he aided up first Calie, then Mary. He handed Mary his tool box, then took her hand, emerging into the gray overcast morning on the overgrown side of the graveyard. They brushed the filth off themselves as best they could, looking down the small rent in the mossy loam through which they had emerged. “We’ve got to get out of here,” Mary said.
Over the blackberry bushes they saw a group of four local boys about Calie’s age, maybe a year or two older, approaching from a trail leading down into the forest past The Burl Barn. Now in sight of the road, they had a view of the center of Madrani from the opposite side of town. One of the Bigfeet was doing something down the street causing screams. Otherwise, the town looked deserted.
A Jeep Cherokee appeared, skidding to a stop nearby. The driver rushed out screaming toward the boys, “Billy! Billy!”
Both Harry and Mary recognized him as the guy from the Bulk kluB commercials.
“Billy!” Chris yelled out.
One of the kids in the group yelled back, “Watch out!” right as the third Bigfoot came up the rise behind the Cherokee.
Chris turned around, screaming a high-pitched scream and went into a defensive posture. The creature, twice Chris’s height and far more hugely muscled, strode unchecked swiping at him, kicking him and stamping down upon him with one huge foot backed by the bulk of the great weight. Chris’s last gasping cry reminded Harry of Robert Shaw in “Jaws.” There was the audible crunching of bone as his entire mid-section was crushed. The giant even had to work to get Chris’s mangled body off of his foot. The four screaming boys fled back into the forest.
Harry pulled Mary and Calie toward the Jeep, hoping the keys were still in. They were.
Driving off, Mary noticed a commotion coming from behind the blackberry bushes. A large headstone flying up burst against a tree.
“Go!” she said.
“Did you bring the tool box?”
Five seconds later in front of Madrani Market they skidded to a stop on Calie’s shrill cry, “That’s my Mommy and Daddy!”
Before the Jeep had even come to a stop she was bolting, her sobbing parents scooping her up in their outstretched arms. As the three shot out of town at the nearer north end and headed down the hill into the deep dark of the winding redwood road, from behind Mary and Harry the Bigfoot that had chased them underground burst out of the graveyard, spotting Calie in the one rig moving away and Mary and Harry in the other. Seeing this, Harry honked the horn and hit the gas.
They were looking at a good hundred yards to the base of the hill in the middle of town. Harry had the Cherokee floored on a straightaway with nothing ahead and fifty yards on the giant. Still, so fast was the Bigfoot, once it got attracted to Harry and Mary it bore down on them at an unsettling speed made hideous with determination, and would certainly have caught them at the base of the hill were it not for a Chevy one-ton charging out of a driveway at forty miles an hour, slamming into the Bigfoot hard enough to knock it over. The last thing Mary and Harry saw behind them as they topped the hill was the apparently dazed creature turning attention on the guy in the stalled Chevy.
Denny Holmes knew something was wrong right away. He could feel the uncomfortable difference in places all over his body the day after his neighbor killed his pet.
Of the four present in the room when it happened that night, he was the one that got the worst exposure. The three of them could and did shower off there. He, however, had walked home. The thing’s blood had stayed on him the longest by far.
Right away. He knew there as a connection. That was why he had gone back over the next afternoon. To get the body. When he told them that he worked at the university, that had been the truth. When he saw that the copious stains from the perforated innards had mysteriously all but vanished, as if due to evaporation or some other means unknown, Denny was doubly certain of disquieting unnatural qualities to the thing’s blood.
Wrapping the thing up in a tarp and driving back over to his place had been easy enough. They had all welcomed being rid of it.
Then the neighbor woman had to come by, snooping around. Checking up on him. Just like at work. Just like his whole life. Always somebody breathing down somewhere.
“Can I help you?” he’d had to yell, hoarsely, through the screen of the open kitchen window. Only by sheer luck had he happened to see her heading over on her jog.
“Where are you?” she said, peering under a hand. Then, “Oh, there you are. Hey, sorry to bother you.”
“I wasn’t expecting visitors. I’m not decent.”
“I was wondering if they ever figured out at the university what the heck that thing was. Any word yet?”
Even then, telling her from the shadows through the screen, like a priest at confession, how the body had fallen apart like food boiled too long, he was suffering the throes of another change. The growth occurred sporadically and at increasingly accelerated rates. He supposed she attributed his difficulty speaking to his feeling uncomfortable about the subject and being naked.
His sick leave was used up. For awhile he could get a bag of groceries delivered by leaving the money in an envelope outside his door and pulling the groceries in when he was sure no one was looking. But then one afternoon he forgot how to do those things or that he even needed to. He dragged himself from room to room, occasionally noticing the filth which had built up in the house. At times he found himself gazing out of a window at a nearby plot of sand and realize he had been staring at the little sand flies and sand spiders hopping in it for hours.
On a flash of consciousness he would remember the body of the thing that was still in the house. Then he would go to the room where he kept it. That was the place where he felt most safe. That was the place where he felt most normal.
He hadn’t eaten in a long time, and he felt as though he hadn’t eaten a real meal in his life. Somehow he knew the thing to do was hide. Now the thing to do was hunker down and wait.
The next flash of consciousness he had was the sudden sound of what he distantly remembered to be a doorbell.
Julie stabbed the doorbell for the fourth time and held it. It was eight a.m. Could he still be asleep? His car was there, but no answer. She took a deep breath, thankful to not have brought the gun.
What if she was wrong?
She couldn’t call the cops. Officer, I had a vision! But she couldn’t let it go, either. If this guy killed her dog, she damn-well wanted to know.
Even standing outside in the wind she could hear the doorbell clearly. No one could sleep through that. She stabbed the doorbell a few more times, then found her hand checking the doorknob. It turned. Slowly Julie opened the door.
It was dark inside. The filth was awful. In the murky gloom of Denny’s home Julie saw not only plates and cups lying around, broken and molding, but furniture apparently knocked about and overturned as well. Cobwebs were everywhere. A black stain evidently having spilled over from something on the stove draped the front of the oven and parts of the kitchen floor. That part was exactly like what she had seen in her vision.
Ocean wind blowing in stirred a stale scent which made Julie wince. Opening the door as far as it would go and setting a chair against it she called out, “Anybody home?” as she moved toward the kitchen.
A door appeared, as she knew it would. Propping it open with a skillet on the floor, she flipped the switch to the basement lights which provided a dim yellowy glow.
A quick sweep of the counter behind her and her eyes locked onto a set of knives. From Utterly Cutlery, she realized. Selecting the biggest, she headed down the stairs.
“What are you doing?” she thought. “This is ridiculous. I should go back for the gun. I know I’m right. I know he did it. How much proof do I need? What if he has a gun and he sees me with this knife of his sneaking around in his house? What if he saw me storming up to his house bright and early and went ahead and called the cops?”
Wrapped in her thoughts, she found herself in a long narrow aperture before a small rectangular door. In her vision, she had seen Denny pushing Turk, wrapped in duct tape, through the opening. By flashes and glimpses she saw Turk being eaten alive. The sound of the dog’s plaintive whining assailed her mind, as did the sight of gloating disgust fixed on her neighbor’s face in the opening he had constructed for that express purpose. If she opened the little door, would she see Turk’s body? Would whatever was inside–get out?
Then she realized, and through no vision, that the flea from hell had been in her neighbor’s house, growing. He had fed the thing her dog.
And on the instant she realized this, she turned and saw. It was blocking the way she had come in, blocking the way out. There was a head, shoulders, arms, legs. No clothing. Pinkish, fleshy, devoid of hair. Whatever it was that had affected her affected Denny Holmes as well. But differently. Denny Holmes was no more.
Blackish patches where eyes should have been stretched across the face–or rather, the front of the head. There was no actual face. Bizarre, dagger-like appendages hung in lieu of a mouth. Behind these dangled two insect-like arms, tucked up beneath where a neck would be. The thing had trouble standing upright due to the bulbous body it dragged behind. Shifting itself on freakishly rangy legs with the support of flailing arms along the walls of the narrow aperture as it positioned itself to spring, the thing loudly emitted excited chitters.
The leathery plating of the bulky sac-like body throbbed and the excited chittering coming from behind the daggers of the walrus mouth rose to frantic pitch to rival the torrent of bloodcurdling screams coming from Julie as she strove to open the little door to the room just in time to drop the knife and dive in headlong, barely avoiding the thing as nightmarishly it suddenly sprang fifteen feet across the narrow aperture.
Inside the interior room, sunk six feet deeper than the level of the basement, Julie could hear the thing scrambling to right itself. It had overshot the opening enough that she could now see the obscene dartboard-like rings at the base of the sac. Unable to turn around, and having a hard time backing up, could it even fit through the opening? Julie hoped not.
All of this she took in on the instant, grateful for the single bulb illuminating the room. There were stains on the floor, stinking of decomposition. The only avenue out other than the one she came in was a hole in a plywood wall big enough to admit her.
Looking back as she climbed through, Julie was shocked to see the thing in the opening drop down inside. Was it her imagination, or did the arms now appear considerably less human? No, the body was definitely more tapered, the shoulders entirely gone.
A broken two-by-four on the other side skidded over the concrete when she accidentally kicked it with her shin just as the creature slammed into the plywood behind her. She was in the crawl space now, making her way to the exit. Behind, furious limbs flailed as it tried to wriggle through the hole in the plywood, too. Julie grabbed the two-by-four and chopped at the thing’s emerging head with everything she had.
Screaming, she jabbed an end at a black indistinguishable eye. It backed off–only for a moment. But in that moment Julie saw it definitely was smaller now.
Ahead of her, between the concrete wall of the basement on her left, and a wall on her right consisting of two-by-four uprights and spacers on the back side of the plywood, a dirt incline took her the six feet back up to the original level of the basement. She could see the steps ahead of her.
Heart racing, she powered up the steps into the kitchen. At the moment that she tried to lock it in the basement, the thing slammed into the door with a single prodigious leap from the base of the stairs, and with such force that the door hit Julie on the head, knocking her backwards.
With one foot forward she propelled herself on the floor toward the door, pinching the thing against the jamb with its six nightmare legs feverishly flailing under the jittering Nietzschean mustache.
Now the thing was half its former size, but by the way it slowly pushed open the door against her best efforts to stop it, she knew she couldn’t hold it off for more than a few seconds. Grabbing a mop from a heap of debris she jabbed at it well enough to get to her feet, yank the microwave from the counter in both hands and heave it with all her strength on the visibly diminishing shape that struggled to right itself in preparation for a leap toward the warm form of a host body pulsing with nourishment. The microwave hit the flea mid-air. Julie ran for the front door.
Still it was jumping behind her, hopping mad. Kicking the chair she’d used to prop the door, she grabbed the knob and slammed it shut as the flea shot through over her shoulder, horrifically brushing her hair in its ungainly and repulsive flight, flopping in the sand nearby, now about the size of a cat.
Julie caught sight of some big rocks at hand and started chucking them at the thing as it tried to flop away across the dunes, but now it was small enough and light enough that the strong ocean winds of Whale Harbor buffeted the thing about toward the crumbling rock of time-eroded bluffs. Julie watched as the flea was swept down a fissure in the rock, still visibly diminishing, and as she watched she saw his life flash before her eyes, while what had been Denny Holmes sank in a black canyon of infernal descent into an underworld with no return...