After the rain, when jagged green ravines crisscrossed with rotting wood thundered with the muddy runoff, bloated carcasses of cattle choked Mist River. Pronged legs rolled, swollen and bobbing. A greasy slick on the bodies glinted in the dull light of the overcast afternoon.
Denny Holmes watched the river while he ate his lunch. He sat in the shelter of some trees and bushes forming a semi-circle around a bench facing the river. It was his favorite place to mull, when at work. No one really knew where Denny went on his break. Denny saw to that. If he thought anyone was watching on the way to his spot, he wouldn’t duck down under the secret branch, looking both ways like Clark Kent in front of a phone booth first, until he was reasonably certain the coast was clear. Mulling his upcoming duties with one ear on an approaching conversation (girls—students—no one from the Science Department requiring a certain technician on his break for dumping purposes) and jabbed a straw into a juice box, draining it in a few gulps till the sides of the box sucked in and the straw started to slurp.
Denny froze. The sound of the slurp would call attention to his location. He listened for the talking young women to pass by. They had stopped. He could see them out of the corners of his eyes about ten feet away. They were looking at the river.
“That is so disgusting,” he heard one of them say. The other one said something else he couldn’t understand. Then they walked off.
Denny supposed they could have been talking about him, and would have thought so, except that he had seen through the cracks in the branches that the two young women were talking about the dead livestock in the flooded river. And there it was. Just as he was about to get up and head back to the coal mines. Right there on his arm. Biggest flea he ever saw in his life. This is the granddaddy of them all, Denny thought. Oh my sweet lord. This right here is a keeper.
Heart racing, and with one fluid motion, Denny retrieved the Ziploc in which he had packed his tuna sandwich the night before and held it open over the huge flea where it was stretched out, placid on his forearm. He shook his arm and didn’t merely see, but heard it fall into the bag where there were bits of tuna and some seeds from his bread. The flea dwarfed the seeds. Denny sealed the baggie, tossed it into his crumpled brown paper lunch sack, then hustled back to work, pausing under the fresh damp underbrush before revealing his secret exit.
Home at Whale Harbor several days later with a drill in his hand, he took the key
from the side of the handle and loosened the chuck to change the bit. Denny lived by himself. His parents left him the house.
At first he had given the flea a terrarium. It was the one where he had kept two turtles, over the years, a tarantula, countless frogs and a cricket named Pete. Denny found broken glass on the floor in the more or less spare room in the basement where he kept the flea. It took him awhile, but eventually he found the flea itself. It had been hiding behind an old unused dresser. After that, Denny took everything out and let the flea keep the room. This was to ensure that he could always see it. When he found it behind the dresser, the thing had tried to bite him. It was as big as a hamster, then. The thing had outgrown the terrarium in three days.
On the other side of the wall, the flea was crawling toward him. Denny could hear the increasingly audible, distinctive sound of the thing as it dragged its bulk in grotesque bursts of its long legs flailing on the floor. A curious sound, like a scratching hum, also came from where Denny supposed the flea’s mouth must be. Its short front legs worked devilishly, reminding Denny of the wringing hands of a schemer. He felt revulsion and a strange fascination to see the flea’s dirty blood churning in its semi-translucent bulk.
The sudden whine of the drill sent the flea hopping around in the room.
Denny raised his voice in the crawl space on the other side of the wall. “It’s okay, it’s all right, you sickening giant monster bug. I just want to help you. I want to watch you eat.” Denny couldn’t help but smile for a while as he thought about that. He was aware of it. The awareness that he was doing what he was doing amused him in particular. But did nothing to stop him.
“I almost wish I had another one like you, so you could be friends together. Would you like that?” He started up the jigsaw now and began his cuts for a small rectangular hole. In the room—there was only one door, no windows, not counting the one he was making now—sounds of the thing hopping madly about compounded the jigsaw’s blaring grind.
“Maybe you could make a family,” Denny yelled. “I can see a whole bunch of you in there. What are you, anyway? I wonder. Maybe you’re a girl. Are you carrying any eggs?”
He finished his last cut, careful to pull the plywood rectangle back in with him.
There was a moment of quiet. Then the thing suddenly jumped up, jabbing in a leg and flailing around like a cook with a spoon in a bowl. It was only for a moment. The thing couldn’t hold its own weight up with one leg in the window like that for long. But it was enough.
“Are you hungry? Hungry, girl? Hungry?” Denny was aware that he was chattering. Beads of sweat, collected in a matter of seconds, were dripping from his brow. The thing’s leg was bigger now than it was just a few hours ago. “Don’t worry, you freak. Hang on, you sickening monster. Daddy’ll find ya somethin’.”
“Just like your goddam dad!” Julie yelled up the stairs so Bret would hear it loud and clear in the loft. Bret was sitting on the clothes-strewn bench next to the bed under the window. The bench that he and his father had made. It was just a crappy old bench but they had made it together. He heard her loud and clear.
His goddam dad was a part-time short order cook at Wok This Whey on account for the last year and a half he was also an ex-con. Never should have happened. Ten years mandatory. If Bret wanted to waste his weekends blowing his money in town instead of gearing down on his homework, maybe he could wind up wearing a nice little hat like that in his forties, too.
“I’m sorry,” Julie called out. “It’s true that you’re a lot like him. He used to have a lot of great qualities. He still does.” Bret noticed his mom didn’t voice the good stuff with quite as much forcefulness as she had the bad. She never acted like that about anybody else. He was seventeen now, and he promised himself he would be more careful than they had been. He would exercise good judgment. He would never act the way his parents did.
“Listen,” she said, “I’m going over to the market for a few things. I’ll be right back. Is there anything you want me to pick up?”
Then the voice carefully enunciated to carry out of the loft: “No.”
“All right. See you in a little bit.”
Bret heard the door shut. The engine started up. Grind of gravel. He got up.
The lights of the car were receding. Bret looked at the loft bed he got half the month and tried not to wonder if his mom and her sort of halfway boyfriend ever spent any time there.
Someone was coming down the winding zig-zags and switchbacks to Whale Harbor Road. Bret watched, waiting to see if when the car came under the light at the stop it was his friend Nick on his way over. The car did not have far to go before it came into the light of the lamp. It was a green Plymouth Valiant.
“Dad,” Bret said aloud on recognizing his father’s beat-up old clunker from half a mile away. A second later he said it again as he saw the car slowly move through the lamp light and straight through the stop sign.
The car veered sickeningly off and plowed through a section of fence before bottoming out nose-first in a gully.
Bret grabbed his keys and hustled down to his Quadrunner ATV as fast as he possibly could. The twenty seconds it took him to cross the blacktop to the broken tracts between his mom’s house and the light about a half a mile east seemed to take forever. “The moors,” they all three used to call it, long before his mom ever bought a place out here on her own. Bret bounced crouching on the Quadrunner over the hard, uneven turf. There had seemed no point going the long way around by the road when he could simply cut straight across. The four-wheeler was taking a whalloping, though. The modified headlight Bret mounted dove up and down faster than Norman Bates’ knife.
Tim Mayer was out cold on the dash. His right arm was stretched out to the far corner of the dashboard; the waist section of his seat belt held him, but the chest-strap did not keep him from falling over sideways to the right, which was how the car had landed in the ditch.
It wasn’t that Bret didn’t know any better. He’d seen enough TV to know you never move anybody after an accident. Nor was it the knowledge that if his dad was seriously injured he would have to get helicoptered out, and that if he lived to see the bills he would wish that he hadn’t. At first it was because he forgot these things. He was on the verge of trying to pull his dad out of the car when he heard strange sounds nearby.
Near the horizon, the early night sky shone an otherworldly blue, against which Bret saw indistinctly silhouetted some strange shape as it rose up, like a fish with legs. The thing rose up, then suddenly disappeared. It almost looked like it jumped.
“Dad!” Bret said, shaking his father by the shoulder. “Dad!”
It knows I’m on the other side, Denny thought. That sudden scrambling sound means it heard me.
The three pairs of legs that pulled the compressed articulated plating of the semi-opaque body scraped against the concrete floor in flurries of motion. A chittering sound came from the thing’s mouth.
Denny lifted the pin and slid the door to the little window aside, reached down to the large canvas bag filled with something at his feet, hefted it up and dumped the contents in one fluid motion. Thunk, went the contents onto the floor. The sound was mingled with a simultaneous yelp.
Denny shut the window just enough to allow him a clear line of sight.
The thing did not spring upon the dog immediately. For what seemed a long time it lay on its side apparently regarding the dog with caution, and perhaps stealth. Duct tape bound the dog’s mouth. It was whining now.
“Turk,” Denny said, his face grinning in the little window. He had heard his neighbor often enough. Frequently he had woken up to the annoying sound of her strident cries for the dog. More than once he’d found dog shit right on his property and he did not own a dog. Besides, fucking thing was old anyway.
“Turk!” It sounded strange, the sound of that name coming from him and not from his neighbor, Julie.
Suddenly the dog struggled to free itself from the duct tape wrapped around its legs. There was nothing else in the room. Only the golden retriever and the gargantuan insect. The thing flailed its way to the dog as it chittered.
The wide-eyed dog’s mind seemed to snap with fear as something long and sharp from the thing’s approaching mouth audibly tore into the retriever’s neck and furiously sucked and slobbered up the blood.
Denny eased the window shut, sank the pin, grabbed the empty canvas bag and tiptoed crouching out of the crawl space, upstairs and into the dim pre-dawn light and brazen clamor of the gulls.
A hundred yards away someone was jogging. Denny recognized the jogger as his nearest neighbor. He went straight to his garage and pulled a garbage bin full of recycling to the road, squaring it in place as Julie came within earshot. A thin sheen of sweat seemed to have developed from this effort.
“Have you seen my dog around this morning?” she said, hands on hips and with a worried look.
“No, I haven’t.” That he might have seemed somewhat out of sorts was not altogether unusual. The recycling bin was heavy and smelled a little ripe.
“He’s been getting out and chasing those darn rabbits,” Julie resumed her jogging pace. “Thanks anyway.”
“Okay,” Denny called out. “Good luck.”
Cries of “Turk! Turk!” drowned in the pounding surf.
Denny thought he had sounded quite concerned. He went back inside.
* * *
A few days later he was taking a sip of coffee when the phone rang.
“Hello?” Denny said, picking up after three rings.
He put his coffee down, grabbed a pen from a cup and reached around for a piece of paper.
“Yes,” he said. “All right.” Denny wasn’t writing anything. “Okay then. All right. Good-bye.” Denny clicked off his phone and set it down. Then he drained his cup, put it in the sink, placed the brown paper bag with his lunch on a shelf inside the refrigerator and went down the steps from the kitchen into the basement, leaving the door open for the added light.
Yellowy bulbs muffled by tapestries of cobwebs blanketed with dust silhouetted large furtive shapes. The spiders of the basement audibly repositioning themselves in their cotton candy webs were disturbed routinely and almost seemed to consider Denny, who scuttled in sometimes with meat, the great chief of their kind.
Denny hitched his body sideways along the crawl space between the concrete wall and the spacers until he came to the sliding window of which he was so fond. Pulling the neck of his shirt over his nose and mouth he squinted into the room, hanging back outside in a wary crouch.
One of the bulbs inside was still working. The light thus cheaply afforded was dim, but still Denny could clearly see the body. Rather, what was left of it. The monster had fed on Turk till his sides caved in like a juice box.
The experience of feeding on the dog had exhibited an immediate effect upon the giant flea. Its ordinarily dirty-looking blood, which had always hitched along in an ungainly and irregular manner now sped fluidly. Its attitude had also changed. Discontent seemed conveyed by its vocalizations. For once, though, Denny noticed that he wasn’t hearing any of those.
“Hey,” Denny said, aware of his voice disturbing the silence of the room. He had intended to share with his incarcerated friend the great news of no work for the next two days at least, and almost did say, “You in there?” but caught himself as his eyes scanned on a hole in the far right corner.
Probably he had walked right past the beast. Denny chanced a quick peek and made certain that the flea was out of the room.
All of its bouncing around must have loosened the plywood wall on the far left side, Denny thought. Once it got its legs in, it just pried and chipped and wedged itself right through.
His opinion of how exactly the thing was growing differed daily, almost hourly. Was it freed by the river flooding? Had it been affected by farm soil filled with weird chemicals and fertilizers? Was it a case of a mutation with a freakish growth hormone somehow activated? How much bigger could it possibly grow? Would it still act exactly like a flea, only bigger? Last he saw, it was almost as big as he was. Supposedly, from what he looked up in his parents’ old encyclopedia set, a flea his size would have a vertical jump of two hundred and fifty feet, and a horizontal leap capability of a whopping four hundred and fifty feet.
When he found it, he also found that the damn thing was tougher than it looked. Denny Holmes was not one of the world’s great gun aces but he’d plinked enough bottles with his old single bolt .22 to hit the thing from twelve feet away–a darkish spot where he supposed its nervous system must be. The bullet left a mark on the semi-translucent shell near where he had aimed. That was about it. Unless, Denny thought, in the intervening seconds it was recovering from the shot it took, for it was several moments before the thing launched itself straight through the sliding glass doors.
A banshee wind howled through the shattered doors, bearing the attendant sounds of the ocean. Wind-wild curtains flapped. It was as though a giant slingshot had been pulled.
Somewhere in the back of his mind Denny knew he couldn’t sleep at night with that thing hopping around. He wished it would accidentally jump in the ocean so a nice big shark would get it, but in the meantime he should probably try to shoot it again. It wouldn’t do to have the thing show up somewhere in his house unexpectedly when it got cold and hungry. Yet there was also the nagging tug of: You don’t want to get in any kind of trouble. Nobody has to know that you fed it.
He followed the thing outside, empty .22 shell discarded, one new one loaded.
The question was, where did it go?
East, toward the bluffs, perhaps to Oceanside Health Center? Nice thing for someone there to wake up to. North? It would have to go over or around the property, and maybe it did. There wasn’t much back there, though. His was the last ocean-front residence. But Denny had a hunch the thing went south. It was sandy in that direction, dotted with scrubby clumps of bush, riddled with soft cracks and gullies thick with swaying dune grass almost like a dirty giant carpet. All the houses were ahead.
Someone was booking on a four-wheeler.
The handful of bullets in Denny’s jeans jangled awkwardly as he maneuvered over the terrain. Haphazard thoughts bounced similarly in his mind. The mental image of the mess from the broken sliding glass doors, memories of how he had seen the thing feed.
Denny topped a rise and saw in the dim light afforded by the nearby corner lamp post a car crashed in a ditch. One person was helping another from the car.
“Over here!” one of them yelled. Younger voice. That jogger’s kid. “Watch out!”
The thing stumbled out of the brush.
The six-foot flea teetered on its long back legs in the dim lamp light and the glare of the four-wheeler’s headlight, a hideous nightmare delicately poised, then sprang in a panic-producing arc perhaps twenty yards toward Tim and Bret. The man and his son yelled as they stumbled to the ATV. The thing flopped on the car not far behind them in a loud heap, landing like a body at the bottom of a four-story window. The impact did not seem to faze it.
Denny let the monster have it, unloading the full force of his .22 shell screaming, “Diiiiieee!” He threw back the bolt, chucked the empty smoking shell, dug into his pocket, grabbed one of the bullets there, put a new one in the chamber, slid the bolt forward, twisted the handle cocked and again screamed, “Diiiieeee!”
Tim and Bret were on the four-wheeler now, Tim in front, Bret with his knees jutting crazily out at the sides like a grasshopper. The Quadrunner’s headlight caught the surreal scene of the monster flopping around in the sandy slope of the gully.
“Go!” Denny said with a wave of his rifle as he reloaded on the move toward the mutually recognizable shelter of Julie’s house. The Quadrunner dove up and down the harsh terrain.
Tim and Bret pulled ahead of Denny and punched it the last several yards to the blacktop, roostertailing with a little brodie on the other side in the soft scrub before the clean gravel of the wide drive to Julie’s front door. Bret hopped off before the four-wheeler had stopped and raced into the house. Tim looked back and saw Denny fire off another shot from a crouch scuttling crab-like down the drive.
“What the hell is that thing?” Tim said as they hustled to the open door.
“I don’t know!” Denny said.
Tim shut the door behind Denny. They went over to the window. “Thanks for helping back there. I’m Tim Mayer.”
“Bret’s getting the .357 Magnum. Lucky thing you had your .22 with you.”
Bret came over with the gun. It was big and gleamed. “This is Denny,” Tim said.
“I know, Dad. He lives right down there.”
Tim took the pistol. “Where is it?”
“It’s somewhere over there, I think,” Denny said.
“So how did you wind up chasing that thing with that .22 there?”
“It broke a couple sliding glass doors at my house. So I grabbed this. I’ve hit it a few times. Somehow it knocked your car into the ditch I guess, right?”
Down the road off to the right some lights were coming.
“That’s Mom,” Bret said.
“You know what it looks like,” Tim said, “is a giant fucking flea.” He took the gun with him downstairs, peering cautiously with it around corners until he reached a side yard on the south end of the house where he could see Julie as she pulled in.
He saw her turn off Steve Miller in the middle of flying like an eagle and reach for a bag on the passenger seat. The cab light came on.
“Julie,” Tim hissed from the shadows.
“Who is that?” Julie had a hand up to shield the glare of the porch light as she peered. She saw Tim against a corner of the house.
“Holy shit,” she said. “What are you doing here?”
“Get over here, quick!”
“Is that my gun?”
“Listen. There’s some weird animal or something right out there.”
“He’s inside. He’s fine. Your neighbor’s inside, too.”
“Said his name was Denny. Bret knows him. From right over there. He says he shot the thing a couple times with a .22.”
“What kind of an animal is it?”
“I really don’t know. You wouldn’t believe it. I don’t know what it is. It looks like a giant fucking flea.”
Julie gave him a look.
“Don’t give me that look. I’m dead serious. We’ve got to get back inside.”
“So what are you doing here with my Magnum?” She held out her hand. Tim gave her back her gun.
“I was coming over to pick up Bret tonight, remember? I had a small accident.”
“Oh, that’s right! What? When?”
“Right over there. The car’s in a ditch.”
“Are you okay?”
“Bret pulled me out of the ditch, and then that thing suddenly showed up. Plus your neighbor. We just now had to haul ass to get in the house and saw you show up.”
They went around the house into the living room, where Bret and Denny were waiting for them, standing around uncertain and uncomfortable. As soon as they stepped inside, Julie exclaimed, “Oh my god!” Through the sliding glass doors everyone saw as the thing stood up in the trash and balanced on its back legs.
“Watch out,” Denny said, cold sweat in his voice. “It’s going to jump.”
Suddenly the sound of broken glass. The sliding doors were demolished.
The thing was in the room. In the ungainly semi-translucent body could be seen mottled clumps pushed in irregular bursts through its digestive system. Parts that seemed to comprise a sort of face and mouth quivered hideously as the nightmare thing chittered. Julie whipped out her fully-loaded .357 Magnum, assumed a slight crouch with one hand bracing the other at the wrist, and emptied her weapon . . .
In the print book,
precedes THE MESMERIZER: