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.
Stan the Man liked his coffee. With his hat and shades you couldn’t really tell how old he was. He was a fit dude, was Stan the Man.
“Good show, that,” Stan said as Carl’s shuffleboard puck eased onto the ten point spot at the top of the triangle on the other end of Stan’s deck. Stan was speaking in the manner of an 18th Century English seafaring man, a habit he had formed after reading Captain Blood one day. “We shan’t be abiding this indignity for long, I must say.”
Stan’s left elbow bore creases from the cracks in the grayed and intentionally untreated redwood railing and bits of debris from the rusty duff settled there. He brushed off his elbow as he positioned himself, then launched a puck that knocked Carl’s brief single score of ten with his own clear off the board.
“Deftly done, sir,” Carl said.
“By the Queen’s ass, I do believe we have a reversal of fortune.”
“Yep, that puts you over fifty. Fifty-six to thirty. Good job.”
“Right well played, old chap. Touch and go, as we say. Shall we be enjoying a refresher cup on the java then?”
“I’m not sure if there’s any left.”
“Do let’s ascertain.”
Carl checked the thermos on the wire table. “Bone dry.”
“Well then, by the gods, we’ll just have to remedy that, shan’t we?”
Stan drifted indoors.
“Hey, there’s a wild turkey out here,” Carl called.
“Indeed there is, sir,” Stan’s voice returned. “Beautiful bastard, what?”
“Almost looks like a peacock.” Carl saw in the tree line a buck and a doe down the hill. Below the deck at Casa de Stan the long yellow grass spread over the hill and the gray overcast sky capped the rolling green forest beyond. A swift rush of wings nearby told of a buzzard lighting.
“I’ve been having that vision,” Carl called out.
“Have you now?”
“Yeah, getting more intense now.”
“More intense you say?”
“I’d say so.”
“Hold that thought.”
Stan returned after a bit. He handed Carl a cup. “Go on,” he said.
“The vision occurs when I sleep, but not usually. More often it’s images I get playing out in my mind walking around in broad daylight. I’m on my bike, in the woods. I’ve got a spear in one hand, and the throttle in the other. Sometimes, I see myself doing things with my axe. I see something in my path. Something awful. And I have to stop it. That’s about it.”
Six or seven buzzards in sweeping arcs nearby circled closer.
“Just from what you’ve told me, there’s more than one way to interpret it.”
Carl squinted into his cup and hissed, Eastwood-like, “Interpreting it feels pretty clear to me.”
Stan raised the cup as he raised a cheek and farted.
He saw the imaginary axe Carl was holding in his hands. Carl, the Standing Block Chop champ. Not looking sizeably different on Stan’s deck than on the Timber Sport reruns from three and four years ago for which he was sometimes recognized. To anyone who had ever flipped channels for long, seeing someone of Carl’s general size and proportion taking huge precise strikes at the target log with disconcerting speed was memorable.
None of Carl’s achievements with an axe, however, impressive and numerous though they were, in any way dimmed the monumental glory that was Stan, six-degree black belt in Aikido, owner and operator of Mojo Dojo–who, even at the age of fifty-nine could seriously whup just about anybody you could find in the blink of an eye. Nicest guy in the world, though. Never preachy and always wise, balanced, in the moment.
It took him a long time to go from being something of a wild card back in the day to the established and respected counter-culture figure he had finally become, not least in the eyes of the stalwart handful who benefited from the intoxicating beverage and acquired taste that was friendship with Stan the Man.
Stan settled back into a favorite wooden deck chair. “I had a garden years ago that kept getting raided. One night I stayed up on guard duty and caught the thief. It was a young male Bigfoot.”
He paused for a good sip. Buzzards spun.
“I don’t know if it was at all afraid of getting caught. I might have been downwind. Mostly I was really quiet, sort of willing myself into invisibility. You can try that some night. You’ll see how you blend in with the forest, and all the forces at work. And so anyway for a long time I couldn’t really tell what it was. But I knew something was there munching away. Some clouds moved away from the moon–which was full that night–and I saw what it was. For a long time it didn’t even notice me. Then after it more or less had had its fill, it sort of calmed down. Well, I mean, what was I going to do? After a little bit it started acting more intelligently, sort of checking things out, reaching out, and touching things, just really gently. It was amazing, Carl. Beyond belief amazing. I’ll tell you.”
“Well, tell me. What happened?”
“It found me out, is what happened, buddy. But this guy, this curious, peaceful being, gentle and content and wanting to learn and understand more about life, the world around him, he acted so mellow. With the light-colored markings of his fur, I had to call him Mellow Yellow. Wasn’t too long after that I got the idea to start up Mojo Dojo. I was inspired to do a lot of things after that encounter, actually, but Mojo Dojo was the main dream I got off the ground. So I guess whatever that vision of yours that keeps recurring can do to inspire you, you should listen to that.” Stan grabbed his shuffleboard cue from where it leaned against the side of the house like a wizard’s staff. “Feeling puckish?”
Carl downed his coffee, nodding, and used the long cue to pull some pucks to the right side lane. “You know,” he said, pushing one and sliding it across the nearly deck-long track toward the triangle with points on the opposite side, “I saw Tim Mayer at The Burl Barn.”
A few miles down the hill in Madrani Carl worked at the large wood yard which displayed all manner of chainsaw carvings–standing bears, life size Bigfeet caught mid-stride, howling wolves, redwoods, totem poles. Inside the shop, tourists passing through the redwoods found an authentic-looking worker in Carl, covered in sawdust and built like a Bigfoot himself.
Stan shot past Carl’s pointless eight and got a solid seven. “Happened to see him myself.”
“Did he show you his hand in the dark?” Carl launched one that knocked Stan’s seven out, and his own as well.
Stan nodded. “Like electric sherbet.” He eased a liner. No good. “How did he happen to show you?”
“I couldn’t believe it.” Carl shot and came up with an eight. “I was standing behind the counter there finishing a little sale with him and I go, ‘Looks like you’ve been doing a bit of painting.’
“And he goes, ‘How’s that?’
“‘Your hand. It looks like it’s got about every color in the rainbow all over it.’
“Then he looked down at both hands. You could literally see his face drain.”
“Yep. He waved his fingers around in front of me,” said Stan, “and just like you saw, I guess, gently undulating waves of color were left in the air where his fingers had been. Then his hands looked normal again and all the trippy dippy colors in the air gradually faded.”
Stan bumped Carl’s eight and kept it for himself.
“It sure doesn’t look like any radiation I ever heard of.”
“I daresay it comes and goes pretty much as it damn well pleases. Although I think he said he thought it would probably feel good if he could not be so stressed out about it the whole time.”
“What do you think it is?” Carl asked.
“Well me laddie, I’ve no idea. I call it ‘contagination’ because it’s like a contagious hallucination. It’s like he’s seeing tracers and we all get to see it, too.”
Carl shot his last for the ten spot and came up shy.
“How does he manage to walk around town or whatever without his contagination going off?”
Stan eased his into the seven point box, but was left touching the line.
“No problem there,” he said. “He wears gloves.”
“Dude, it’s been three days. We better tell.” It had been four. Tyler was fiddling with the long braid-like chin straps of his Nepal hat. He wanted to go to the cops.
“Tell them what?” Hector’s brows were knitting. “We were out spiking old growth and now we can’t find him?” The him was Rasta Rob.
The pair were friends only in the academic sense. This did not mean they had met in a class. They hadn’t. Tyler and Hector had, however, attended quite a few classes together without ever realizing it. What Tyler majored in, no one had any idea. Some thought Hector was going for forest management. Others felt he was in some way involved with theater. It was one of those cases where both sides were theoretically correct.
At orientation years earlier, they had stood in the same line. That took up an hour. They shared an English class that year. Second year was unremarkable. By third year, they sat in the same psychology class. It was an otherwise unremarkable year. Fourth year, more of the same. But fifth year, things started really coming together. Hector grew a goatee. Sixth, nothing again. Then, in the seventh, when Rasta Rob was handing out flyers on the quad for a demonstration coming up, (some say it was a demonstration against not demonstrating,) he happened to speak to them both at the same time, high atop a concrete planter box, as though Tyler and Hector were in some way acquainted, and the rest was history. The figure of speech, not the class.
“We file a missing persons report, that’s what we do.” Tyler, still fiddling with the straps like Bogie in “The Caine Mutiny.”
“After three days?” (It had been four.) “Why did we wait so long?” (The big question in more ways than one.)
“We’ll tell them we’re not sure exactly how long he’s been missing. If we have to, I can always point out I did make a good faith effort trying to find him.”
Hector didn’t like the sound of that. “Like what?”
“I called Sue,” Tyler said.
“You told who?”
“I said I called her. I asked if she knew where he was.”
It just went on forever. Rasta Rob used to have a large loose-weave hat sporting levels of multi-color rings, and it may well have been this hat which he himself pulled down into his mouth and choked to death on it to get away from the two of them.
Hector was incredulous. “Why did you do that?”
“Dude, ease up. It’s not a problem.”
“We need to go back there ourselves.”
“I’m not going back there.”
The skin in Hector’s goatee, frequently dry, required that he scratch. It was a gesture that looked patient and full of thought. “Tyler, listen.” (He really should’ve been using conditioner in it, but not only was that stuff ruining the planet, it was way too expensive.) “They know who Rob is. I mean, come on. The cops, everybody. They know. They’ll know we weren’t just out hiking at night. On private land. The cops won’t care anyway. Not about Rob’s safety, they won’t.”
He had a point.
“So we make an anonymous tip.”
“No way. Don’t do that. They’ll voice-ID you.”
Another good one for Hector.
“We say we heard screams and ran back to the car, that’s what we say.” Tyler’s chin straps were dangling, but his voice was rising. “We tell them how we heard him screaming bloody murder and we were lucky to get away with our lives.”
“Don’t you get it?” Hector was never one to be outdone. “We won’t have our lives anymore if we tell. Ruining our lives won’t bring him back. If he’s even dead.”
In the end, they went. Final exams were coming up again, and with everyone else so busy there really wasn’t much else to do.
That afternoon, the closer they got to Arbora, the more they felt like they were looking for Col. Kurtz. Instead they got a state trooper. Some sort of cop, anyway. He had the hat and the boots and the belt and the thick jacket and things. With him standing down in the pullout yelling next to his cruiser behind Hector’s Subaru, what else was there to really do? They came down from up there in the trees.
The way the trooper called them “gentlemen” sure didn’t sound like he thought so.
“Is there a problem, officer?” Hector had a way with words.
“Is this your vehicle?”
“Yes it is.”
“May I see your license and registration?”
“Yes you may.” Hector reached into his wallet and showed the trooper his license. “The registration’s in the glove compartment.”
“Can you get that?”
To Tyler the trooper said, “Looks like you’re all set for some hiking.”
“Yes, we are.”
“Do you have any idea where you’re going?”
“No, I guess not. Not really. It looks like a nice spot, though.”
Hector handed the trooper the registration.
“It’s really pretty country out here,” Hector said.
“Wait here, please.” The trooper walked over to his cruiser. He stood there talking with a female operator in a garbled exchange which he seemed to enjoy, then he came back and said, “You need to get that front light fixed,” handing Hector a ticket.
They both looked over. The left headlight was hanging out.
“By the way,” the trooper said, “which one of you plays the guitar?”
“We both do,” Tyler said.
“Is that your guitar in the back seat?”
“No, that’s his.”
“Well listen, however long you guys are planning to be here out hiking, a cousin of mine happens to have a band, and he’s going to be playing tonight at our church, but I just found out his guitar player has had an accident. My cousin is Jimmy Furze. He’s the Weatherman. Owns the TV station, in fact. All purely local, right here. Pays real well. You boys ought to look into it.”
Tyler and Hector looked at each other.
“How long will you be hiking?” the trooper said. “Because you know, actually, that’s private property up there and it belongs to Mr. Furze. So you’re going to need to ask his permission anyway to go hiking around up there. Chances are, anywhere you’re likely to hike around here is the private property of Jimmy Furze. Why don’t you two go on into town with me right now? Jimmy’ll be finishing up the evening weather broadcast in a few minutes. You can ask him then if you can go hiking on his property. And who knows? Maybe make that thing”–here he indicated the guitar–“start earning you a little money.”
“Well,” Hector said, “I guess it wouldn’t hurt. How much time do you think we’d be looking at?”
“Five minutes into town. You go on ahead. I’ll follow. Show you to the nearest body shop, too. You better get that thing fixed before it gets dark tonight.”
They got in the Subaru.
“Did all of that actually happen?” Tyler said.
“Dude, I think we’re going into fucking Arbora for awhile.”
“What is it with this cop? Is he putting us on or what?”
“Where are we supposed to go? He never did specify.”
Hector rolled down his window and leaned out. “Excuse me.”
The trooper rolled down his window. “What?”
“Where do I go?”
“You go down till you come to the light, you take a right all the way to the TV station, about four blocks. Can’t miss it. Jimmy’s there taping right now.”
They nodded as the windows went back up.
“You catch all that?”
Hector eased into the road. Looking in his rear view he saw the trooper follow.
“I feel like I’m taking my driver’s test,” Hector said.
“Please tell me this isn’t really happening. I knew we never should have come back here. Never. Never ever ever.”
“Don’t get paranoid on me.”
“You’re going too fast.”
“No I’m not.”
“Tyler, listen. I’m trying to drive. I can’t handle your freaking me out with your stress anymore. Please for the love of fuck just don’t, just knock it off, and don’t. Don’t say anything or you’ll fuck me all up and we really will both get busted. Shit! I can’t get busted.”
“It’s okay. It’s all right.”
They drove the last two miles with quiet.
“All right. Here we are.” Hector slowed to the posted limit on entering town.
“He said take a right at the first light about four blocks.”
“There it is. I see the light.”
“Shit. He’s still watching us.”
“It’s cool, it’s cool. There’s the body shop right there.” Tyler pointed to a place on the corner called Arbora Body.
Hector took a right. “That must be the TV station.”
“You’re not really going to play a gig for this guy, are you?”
“I say we fix the headlight and get the hell out of here.”
The trooper was out of his cruiser, standing by the corner of the building. He held up an arm and flipped his hand a couple of times.
“He wants us to follow him,” Tyler said.
The lights were down. The music was on. Jimmy Furze, the Weatherman, stood before the cameras. Behind him, on the crescent curve of screens, clouds streamed by. One hand was a clenched mass of knuckles, the other a long outstretched claw. His bull neck rolled, moody in the high black collar turned up, the huge chest exposed. Magic from his fingertips was tossed, hips grinding up a storm.
Clouds gathered. Rock n’ roll filled the studio. Below the smoldering eyes ran the vampire sneer. The dark tribal beard. His thick lion’s mane shook, a shaman’s headdress, a mad Druid’s cowl.
Over the speakers, the teasing of the cymbals. Eerie cries building, back and forth, building to the point of breaking. Jimmy Furze, magnetic, hypnotic, transcended the music as he became one with it.
Then came the drums. The mike stand swung. Arms outstretched, stand in hand, his hips hit the air. On the screens lightning flashed. RAIN RAIN ran the words. The clouds burst. Pyrotechnics pumped, lighting up the studio in a climax of fire, in accordance with the music as drums pounded over the frenzy of guitar. All along, Jimmy Furze, the Weatherman, chastising the air, a whirl of grimaces and maneuvers, digging deep, belting it out, a one-man lightning rod, sweating bullets out of love.
When he had finished, he turned to Brenda and Steve.
“That’s weather. Back to you.”
From where Tyler and Hector were standing with the trooper backstage in the shadows among the studio equipment and set pieces they could see that the cameras had gone back to Brenda and Steve, who shook their heads with amazement while they clapped and said, “Thanks, boss,” and “Amazing, the man is absolutely amazing.”
When Jimmy was off-camera and mopping his brow with a scarf, the trooper hustled over to him, smiling and speaking in low tones. Jimmy looked over at them. The trooper leaned in and said something. Still looking, Jimmy nodded. They walked over to Tyler and Hector.
“This here’s Mr. Furze,” the trooper said.
“Jimmy,” said Jimmy. He spoke softly. His mellow presence seemed out of sync with the electric display still ringing. “Just Jimmy. I understand you boys want to run around a little on my property. That’s cool. And one of you plays?”
“Actually, we both do,” Tyler said.
“Well that’s fantastic. I’ve got some recording equipment right down the hall, here. Why don’t you let me hear you play a little?”
“I really appreciate the offer,” Hector said, “but I’ve got to fix my headlight and all.”
“I can get that fixed for you right now. Tony, call Rick. Have him get on that.”
“No, really, it’s okay, I can do it.”
“I’m sure. Thanks, though. We really appreciate your letting us hike a little. It really is beautiful country out here. Great show, too. Thanks again.”
“Thank you so much. You come back now, anytime.”
They were quiet on the way out to the car. They got in. Turning the ignition, Hector said, “This place is creepy.”
“I don’t know, man. I kind of like it here. It reminds me of a storybook. You know the kind with the forests and the little villages and shit. It’s good. It’s good. It’s definitely–I don’t know.”
Hector pulled back up the street to Arbora Body. There was someone inside on the phone.
Hector parked. The person inside hung up the phone and came out.
“Hi,” Hector said. “Got a little problem with my headlight.”
The sign on the door said Open.
“Do you think I could get you to—”
“Come back tomorrow if you want. We’re closed.”
“Well is there a mechanic—”
“I’m the fuckin’ mechanic! What the fuck do I look like to you? I said we’re closed! Now get the hell out!”
“Whoa, okay, all right.”
Hector got back in the car.
“What the hell was that?” Tyler said.
“We’re getting out of here. Shit. We’re low on gas. Where’s a station?”
The afternoon was growing dim. Dark clouds gathered. Down the street, Jimmy Furze and hangers-on piled out of the station. Trooper Tony was pulling away. Everybody down the street was looking at Tyler and Hector.
“Take a right,” Tyler said. “There’s a station up there.”
Hector made the turn and cruised down. As the Subaru’s tires dinged the bell they heard through the open windows a phone ringing somewhere in the service station.
No attendant came out. The digital display on the pumps went dead.
“Have we got enough gas to get out?” Tyler said.
“No. I don’t think so.”
It started to rain. Down the street, everyone was still looking at them. Jimmy stepped out. “Boys,” Jimmy Furze called out, “if you come back to see that tree-spikin’ buddy of yours, you come back to the right place.”
Tyler and Hector looked at each other.
Jimmy said something to one of his goons.
With shrugged shoulders and hands quizzically upraised, Tyler got out of the car and stepped forward calling out, “All we want to do is buy some gas and go. Peace, man. That’s all we want.”
A door slammed somewhere. Hooting and hollering sounds grew.
From behind a corner the mob emerged, hick underlings in advance, peering back at something approaching, almost hysterical with glee. When it appeared, it was more or less surrounded by gleeful goobers keeping at a wary distance.
What appeared was nine feet tall, no one knew how heavy. He had incredibly broad, square shoulders and almost no neck at all. His arms were quite long, even for his size. He had a huge square jaw and huge square teeth, almost shovel-like. His eyes were large and football-shaped. Narrow in the hips, but muscular in the extreme, his heavy, square brow quickly receded to a sloping, conical-shaped head. The dirty skin was pinkish and entirely devoid of hair.
“This here’s Junyer,” Jimmy said. “Junyer’s what you might call an interesting case. Some years back his mother, well, she met herself a Bigfoot. Right in these woods, actually. Never was the same after. Us locals, we see a lot of things out here you city-folk can’t understand. Like Junyer here. He beats up on Bigfeet. Cornered a younger one once in a gully and beat that one something awful. That one didn’t want no part, no sir. They never do. But we showed old Junyer here some of that bareknuckle martial arts they got on satellite. All I can say is, it’s too bad you won’t be around to place any bets on Junyer his first night out.” He turned to Junyer, speaking slowly. “Junyer, you want to show these boys what you did to their friend who hammered them stakes in my trees?”
Everybody stepped back and kept stepping back. Junyer looked increasingly upset. He tore off his thinly-stretched shirt. His body and his limbs quivered in the light rain, then began to violently shake. Spittle flew from the corners of Junyer’s mouth. His eyes took on a wild glow. He began beating his wet chest with both fists. Thunderously he began to scream.
Junyer riveted his vision on Tyler and Hector. Then he started heading their way. And he was coming down fast.
Hector yelled to Tyler, “Get in! Get in!”
Tyler hustled around the back of the car even as it was already moving yelling, “Wait! Wait!”
“Get in!” Junyer was almost on them.
“Go! Go!” Tyler slammed the door and Hector punched it just as Junyer, making a sudden left lateral lunge to catch them, slipped on the oily wet concrete and collided head-on with a lamp post.
Hector fish-tailed, skittering nightmarishly toward Jimmy and his clan down the street for moments that seemed an eternity as he crossed the empty street to take the right turn back out of town, then barreled off with a squeal of tires echoing in the advancing rain.
Lights came on as rigs were fired up. In the blare of high gears came thunderous roars.
Tyler turned around to look back. “Holy shit! They’re all after us!”
“They’re trying to kill us!”
“What do we do?”
“What do you mean what do we do?”
“Shut up! I mean we’ve got to think of some way to defend ourselves!”
“No fucking shit! Except there’s a dozen of those stupid ass—”
Something loud hit the rig.
“Holy shit! They’re shooting!”
“Swerve! You’re going right down a straight line!”
From a distance through the drumming rain came a sound like a firecracker going off. Then a series of pops, closer. Hector swerved around a bend and lost the lights behind him.
“Look for a pullout,” Tyler said. “They’ll go right past us.”
“What if they see us?”
“We haven’t got an hour’s worth of gas. We’ll never make it to town!”
“I have to get farther ahead before I stop or they’ll see us!”
Lights from an oncoming car blinked in the trees ahead.
“We should flag whoever this is down,” Tyler said. “We need lots of people, lots of witnesses. Maybe they’ve got a gun.”
“They’re hauling ass.”
A truck came over the rise, hit the brakes on sight of the Subaru, and burned around in a loud U.
“Shit! It’s one of them!” Hector bore down on the switchbacks through the redwoods, squealing on the turns.
“It’s that Jimmy Furze fucker! He must have called up somebody on ahead who lives down some side road or something.”
“We’re on empty!”
“There’s a road off to the left right there! There!”
“I’m taking it!”
The one-lane road twisted under overhanging boughs. Hector rounded a quick couple of corners, came to a stop and switched off the lights. They rolled down their windows. Sounds of pursuit faded in the winding switchbacks through the grove.
“They’ll figure out they passed us,” Hector said. “They’re probably telling the rest of them right now. They killed him. They actually killed him. I can’t believe they killed Rob. You were right. We never should have come back here.”
“Listen,” Tyler said.
The sound of brakes tapped on the switchbacks. Some lights were flickering in the trees nearby. They were coming back.
Hector’s idling engine coughed and died. Out of gas, they had to hoof it. Neither was in much shape for running–especially not in the dark, in the woods, and the rain. Soon they had to take a breather. Panting in a crouch and dripping, Tyler had the crazy thought of maybe making a confession. What Hector didn’t know was, Tyler’s dad was the fascist who owned The Informer.
He really was a fascist, too. Nothing pleased Tyler’s dad so much as a man in uniform. Just the sound of the words “multinational corporation” gave him a stir. He hated the ecology. He demanded his kid go to college, but he hated education. As far as he was concerned, a freckle on a forearm was as good a sign of being an illegal immigrant as any. The longer his son stayed in school, the further to the right his newspaper got. He hated Nepal, and hated that hat even more than he hated the environment. Nobody ever had such a cross to bear.
Hector put up a finger. “Shhh.” He froze, ears straining. There came the distant crack of a branch, as of someone walking over the unavoidable carpet of debris.
Tyler crouched back down. He whispered into Hector’s ear, “They must have found the car.”
More snaps and cracks from twigs and branches. The wind was dying down. Momentarily, the rain had stopped.
From the dark a voice called. “We know you’re out there. You might as well come out.”
A moment’s pause. The sound of limbs being stepped on seemed to come from all over.
“It’ll go harder on you if you don’t.”
Then the gleeful noise of cackles and hoots. “Here comes Junyer!” someone cried.
A car was pulling up the rut-scarred drive.
“Speak of the devil,” said Stan.
It was Tim Mayer. Stan’s dogs quieted down at a command as Tim got out–blocking Carl’s rig, Carl noted–and ambled over to the deck. He was wearing gloves.
“Have you got a second, Stan?” Tim asked.
“No, I’m the only Stan I’ve got,” Stan replied.
They talked on the deck for a bit. Tim had left his headlights on all night a couple days before and had to jump his car. He had not bothered to explain that the Corona was not actually his, but rather a loan from his ex-wife because he sent his Valiant over the brink when he ran it into a ditch. (She let him drive the Corona on the condition that he not deface bumper stickers that read: They Say They Like To FOIL A PLOT, But What They Get Is OIL A LOT, and Consumerism Is Empty–QUICK, GET MORE! and I’M PRO-CAPITALISM–IT MAKES LETTERS BE BIG.)
When he said he’d left his lights on, Tim did not notice the look between Stan and Carl. Stan mentioned how he had a couple car batteries he had to get rid of. That got Carl on what he saw one time when a guy got battery acid on his hand.
“Actually,” Tim said, “that’s not too far off base from why I’m here to talk with you, Stan. You can stick around, Carl.”
“As long as I have your permission.”
“What’s up?” Stan said.
Tim hesitated, looking at the shuffleboard track and shaking his head before it came up out of him. “There was this weird night not too long ago. I was heading out to pick up Bret. I passed out from a little heart attack.” He paused for effect. Then went on. “I’m on medication for that, but like anybody else I forget to take it sometimes. I guess somebody watches over me. The next thing I knew, Bret was pulling me out of the car. And well, there was some sort of animal out there on the dunes that night. I haven’t told anyone before now because I know it’s so unbelievable. But I think my hands and all, I think that has something to do with the...well, it looked like a giant flea. I don’t know how else to describe it.”
“Giant flea, you said?”
“I know it sounds pretty unbelievable, Stan. But yeah, giant flea. Tall as I am. So it was me and Julie and Bret and some neighbor who saw it. He’d been chasing it with a .22 and that did nothing. But Julie had her .357 Magnum and she shot the hell out of it. I thought I’d never get my hearing back.”
“Shot it?” Carl said.
“Big time. That thing was full of blood. All four of us in the room got splattered. And it gets weirder. You’d think it would’ve ruined Julie’s living room. I mean you can’t believe how much of that place got covered. Julie stayed in a motel that night. When she went back the next day, the house was mess, but it was as though all the blood had evaporated.”
“And so you think there’s a connection between—”
Tim cut Stan off. “Between what’s happened to me and that thing’s blood, yes I do. I’m not the only one, either.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, Julie said she’s been having some funny dreams, or thoughts, I guess.”
Stan looked at Carl.
“Anyway,” Tim went on, “I won’t speak for her, but it’s obvious to me there’s a direct connection.”
“Where’s the thing’s body?” said Carl.
“The neighbor, Denny, supposedly works up at the university in the Science Department or something. He said he wanted to take it up there to get somebody to look at it.”
“When did your hands kick in?” Stan asked.
Tim looked at the gloves he was wearing. “Pretty soon after she shot it. Two or three days, I guess. I’d have to think about that. Anyway, then she asked that Denny guy what happened when he dropped the body of the thing off at the university, and he told her that he tried to, but that the thing fell apart. He said he threw it away. Then when she asked him if the garbage got picked up yet, he said well, actually, he threw it in the ocean.”
“Come with me,” Stan said, getting up. “I want to check out your hands with some gizmos I’ve got in my basement.”
Inside, hand-woven blankets of red, yellow and green draped sofas. Clay gargoyles squatting in tall inset windows held thick incense sticks. Parallel vertical strips of dark-stained wood bearing pegs and secured to a wide white expanse of wall bore the softly curved black sheaths of Japanese swords. Through the kitchen and past a stairway leading up they reached the creaking steps which took them down to the basement.
Most of the sprawling room was left unfinished. Because Stan’s house was built on a hillside, much of the uneven earthen floor angled upward. Fingers of land extending back into crevices provided mountain ranges in miniature, the tapering extremities of which were perfect for planting a boot and leaning on a knee.
Waist-high carvings of redwood treetops adorned Stan’s basement. He had designed and used them in his living room, having roughed them out with a chainsaw before going to work with mallet and chisel. He used them in his living room and throughout the house for years, before eventually collecting too many other things and moving them down to the basement.
Evidence of spaces devoted to past obsessions was rife. It wasn’t exactly a shop. It wasn’t quite a gallery. It was a basement only technically, and if the whole space resembled anything, probably it was the inside of Stan’s mind. Here the part of his brain devoted to painting, there the part for fixing dirt bikes. Throughout the basement books were stacked, many bearing used coffee cups. Ceremonial masks of tribes around the world stared down from the dark walls.
“Watch out for scorpions. Actually we should all watch out for them. Stand over here.” Stan maneuvered through tree tops and book stacks to some switches on the wall. When he turned out the overhead lights he also turned on various black lights mounted around, causing sundry points to light up like little green glow-in-the-dark stars.
“See all those bright green spots?”
“Those are scorpions.”
Stan turned the overheads back on. “They’ve been cropping up the last several years. I put these lights in when I found out that scorpions have a natural fluorescence when lit with UV bulbs.”
“I didn’t know that. Kind of like fireflies or electric eels.”
“Kind of like your hands, for that matter. Let’s see them.”
Tim took off the gloves. His hands looked normal.
“This,” Stan said, producing a device with a gauge to which was attached a cord with a short tube at the end, “is a Geiger counter. I got it from a guy I get all sorts of weird materials from. Remember those silver sheets of cloth-like foil or whatever that you could wad up and it would always return to the same shape?”
“Most definitely,” said Carl. “Couldn’t even hurt it with a blow torch.”
“Well anyway, this here won’t hurt you in the slightest. All it does is measure alpha, beta and gamma radiation.” Stan flicked a switch on the device and started waving the wand around Tim. “If I was a doctor I’d probably ask your consent, of course. But seeing how I’m not and you’re potentially contaminating my basement...but not with any radiation that this thing can detect. You’re okay.”
“I heard clicking.”
“That’s just normal. What we want now is to see what happens when you’re lit.”
Having located the pellet pistol, Carl set about priming it. “So light up already.”
“I really don’t have any control over it. If I try hard enough I might need a sponge for wiping but it won’t make my hands turn weird colors.”
“Really?” Stan said. “You wipe with a sponge?”
Carl held the air gun in the upraised TV cop position with an expression on his face showing he was ready for danger. “Let’s do it.”
Stan turned off the overheads and flipped on the black lights. A green glow in a crevice suddenly rose up in two pieces with a sharp thut from the air pistol. Carl gave the gun a quick nine pumps to prime it, then sighted on another.
“Did you get that one?” It was not the sort of practice that turned Stan on. But when a dog of his died after getting stung, he let Carl occasionally thin the population to maintain a viable balance, and from this somewhat immoderate act–sincere consideration told him that moderation in all things was itself immoderate–he did not extrapolate a rationale of convenience beyond the dangers of his own basement.
“Oh, I got it.”
“I’m not so sure.”
“Well hey Stan, thanks for taking a look. You too, Carl.”
“You taking off? I’m not through with you. I’ve got a whole battery of tests.”
“Yeah, I better get going.”
“Okay then, Tim,” Carl half-hollered. “Hope your hands get better there.”
“Thanks. Keep up the hard work.”
“You think this is easy?” Carl primed the gun, aimed and shot another scorpion in two.
After Tim left they turned the overheads back on.
“I don’t think he was too pleased with your services.”
“Tim doesn’t really know what he wants. What I could’ve told him, he wouldn’t have heard. What he should be saying is, ‘After I got busted, I lived in a world of black and white. Now I’m going gray. Yet, color is at hand. I have a color spectrum, a range of possibilities before me. The planet is my canvas, I paint the air, I create a bright and vivid and intoxicating presence in the world. I’m different. If you know the specialist who can treat me, and you’re ready to foot the bill for my hands, groovy. Otherwise, I’m the Rainbow-Hand Man, and there’s nothing anybody can do about it.’”
Calie’s mom and dad owned and ran Kung Food, a decent diner with as tie-dyed an atmosphere and counter-culture a flavor as the majority of the other small businesses in the county.
Outside Kung Food’s doors a little old organ-grinder with a monkey on a leash turned a small handle on a redwood box which hung by a strap from his neck. The old man, who was of Gypsy stock, had worked long ago as a theater projectionist. Early in the silent era a local land baron had the best theater in the country built especially for his daughter. The organ-grinder’s name was Carlo, but everyone called him Cookie. This was because of the cookies he pulled from an old leather bag at his belt and tossed up for Zeppe, his cap-tipping Capuchin monkey.
Cookie was born in 1888. Work in the projectionist’s booth started for him at the turn of the century when he was just a year or two older than Calie. He told Calie while she ate a slice of Keye Luke pie of a time in the year 1913 when a real moving picture was actually shot right in Madrani. Cookie couldn’t remember the name of the movie to save his life, but recalled as clear as anything the hero of the picture holding a shining blade and facing a giant wild man that lived in the redwood forest.
A woman with spicy eyes across the street actually lived inside of a redwood. Her house was built inside what had once been a drive-thru tree. She had two iguanas, one purple dune buggy and a honkin’-on belt buckle that spelled her name, Mary.
State-of-the-art alternative energy used at the time the house was constructed, which was in 1977 when her boyfriend finally built it, gave the little studio house an almost “Logan’s Run”-like hi-tech yet back-to-nature feel. Those were the days Mary Farrell wore her sleek black hair long and parted loose down the middle, so long it would almost reach a tight little pair of long-fringed Levi’s cutoffs.
Calie was sitting upstairs at a table by the window with a full view of the street. Mary Farrell had just pulled up in her purple dune buggy in front of Cookie, who stood benignly grinding his organ. Calie’s dad waved to Mary as he crossed the street to Madrani Market to pick up some milk. That was when, from behind a defunct gas station, something came out of the forest.
It had to be ten feet tall. It walked on two legs upright, but was almost entirely covered with long reddish-brown hair or fur. Standing near Calie’s dad, it dwarfed him the way Cookie towered over Zeppe.
“Get in! Get in!” Mary yelled over the sound of her engine when she saw Calie run outside screaming. When the girl ran past, Mary swung the buggy around and intercepted. “We’ve got to get away!” Mary said as much to herself as to Calie, whom she pulled in by the shirt. “I’m taking you to safety!”
Calie’s dad, bent low and crouching at the knees, ready for flight in any direction, was unaware of his daughter’s screams for his safety. As he scuttled behind a minivan, Mary’s buggy coughed up the hill midway through town.
Mary could see that Calie was in shock, but her mind was racing on her buggy’s dying engine. At the top of the hill the engine gave out. Frantically Mary turned the ignition trying to start it up without flooding the carburetor or frying the starter. As the buggy rolled to a dead stop, Mary looked back and saw two more of the shaggy giants lurch up out of the woods. But the attention of the first one, Mary saw, was all on her. A hundred yards apart they locked eyes–just as the buggy’s engine started up.
Mary hit the gas and bounced down a pothole-pocked road which she knew wound down to the river and had just gotten past a few houses when the engine gave out yet again. She slammed into a section of high wooden fence before righting the buggy sufficiently to drag Calie from it and dash down a driveway lined with dead rose bushes, scooting through maddeningly loud debris into the quickest and safest-looking shelter she could find, a small structure adjacent to a garage.
The door was partly open. Quickly Mary shoved Calie in and shut the door behind her, barely registering that she was in someone’s shop. The someone stood writing something by hand. By hissed words and rapid signs, Mary managed to sufficiently convey the dire need for silence in order to elude something or someone dangerous outside.
The man put down the pad and pen, walked over to the door, fastened the door tightly with an unlikely arrangement of hooks, then shut yet another interior door which consisted of a plywood sheet on hinges. Turning his attention to a college pennant hanging from a nail on the wall near the door, he eased it to one side exposing a knot, removed the knot and looked through. The man blinked a couple of times, squinting at first as he adjusted his eyes to the view beyond. Outside, something was crashing around loudly. The man’s peering eye widened. The blood in his face seemed to have drained. He put the knot back in the hole, eased the pennant back down, then moved swiftly and quietly to the other side of the shop.
Where one side of the inconspicuous structure held a pegboard with hammers, saws, screwdrivers, crescent wrenches, chisels, clamps and assorted sundries, the other side with its stereo, antlers and large green rug seemed almost like a different room entirely. Pulling back the rug revealed a wooden door set in the concrete underneath. The man grabbed his tool box. Looking at Mary, he pointed at the trapdoor. As he lifted it up, the hinges gave a squeaking sound that made them all wince.
Mary hustled down a short ladder with Calie as quickly as she could. The man followed with his tool box, lowering the trapdoor over his descending head. There was a soft fumbling sound of the man reaching in his jacket, then a flashlight came on. With a finger to his lips he whispered, “Over here.”
Crouching down in the dark, a thin dimness provided by minor imperfections in the trapdoor above allowed the man to quietly click his flashlight off. He and Mary surveyed each other, sharing the terror of the noises above.
She was a woman in perhaps her early fifties, quite good-looking, the man realized. He recognized her from around town, usually tooling around in a purple dune buggy. She, however, did not recognize him, but thought that he was an attractive man in his late thirties to early forties.
“I’m Mary Farrell,” she said in a low whisper. “I don’t know her name but I know her parents run Kung Food. I think she’s in shock. Her dad was in the middle of the street when that,” she said pointing up, “just suddenly appeared. He ran away before I could help him, poor guy. At least I got her. You saw what they look like, right?”
“I saw,” he whispered back. “I’m Harry Chaney. You mean there’s more?”
Mary stopped mid-nod as a huge tearing sound came from above. Wood was being splintered. Now the wavering reverberation of metal siding, stomping sounds. Tools clanked on concrete.
Suddenly the wooden trapdoor was shattered with an ear-splitting crunch accompanied by a thunderous roar as an impossibly long matted arm, hugely muscled and far thicker than any human being’s could be, shot into the hidden chamber, groping. The huge index digit of the giant’s right arm actually snared Harry’s jacket, and only barely did he manage to pull himself free before the giant’s straining fingers could gain purchase.
Backed to the wall, all three were out of reach by a good four feet. Shaggiest at the shoulder, the arm stank of wilderness. The sagging skin around the knuckles appeared aged and creased. Then the limb left the room. Replaced in the ragged aperture was the giant’s leering face.
Not only did Jimmy Furze drink only bottled water, the only water he drank was bottled in Arbora. Not because the taste was so damn good. Most folks would have been hard-pressed to tell it from tap water–which most gladly Jimmy’s plant manager would have put in each and every bottle. But Jimmy Furze wouldn’t have it. No sir. Arbora Water, “Bottled Exclusively with the Natural Spring Waters of Mt. Cloude,” if not exactly Jimmy’s only bread and butter, undeniably made him more than Gen-U-Wine ever did, and that was what put him on the map.
No, it wasn’t the taste. It was Jimmy’s strong sense of belief in his product. When he first started bottling water twenty years earlier, he figured he’d better show he liked the stuff. So he wound up drinking a lot of it. Pretty soon, what started out as a marketing aid actually seemed like a pretty good idea. And after a while, when the interesting things began happening, and he learned about the connection he had with the weather, how he could influence it, well, Jimmy Furze didn’t figure there was any sense rocking the boat. He went through ten bottles of the stuff a day, every day, religiously. Damn near pissed his guts out.
Jimmy Furze had an Arbora Water in his hand a good deal. He was drinking from one in the back of the rig, and the rain was coming down again hard. It did that a lot in Arbora. Jimmy Furze saw to it. He wasn’t the Weatherman for nothing.
The chauffeured rig in which he sat brooding jostled sufficiently for the front passenger seat to slip from what was not the firmly-engaged forward-most setting. It slipped backwards and went into Jimmy Furze’s very knees, causing consternation among the underlings always clamoring for favor. Graciously, the Weatherman dismissed the incident with a gesture of his ring-laden hand.
The driver, Bobby, hunched up over the wheel and peering through the wipers clacking on high as if to get that much closer to the quarry quicker, swerved sharply around big rocks in the road.
“Goddam you, Bobby!” Darryl said in the passenger seat, anxious to deflect wrongdoing onto someone else. “You drive like a fuckin’ moron!”
“You shut your damn mouth, Darryl!”
“Why don’t you make me?”
“Make your own self! Or I will!”
With Jimmy Furze, every day was a party, and his party acted real base. Bobby and Darryl knew that real good. But damn if he didn’t energize those boys better than the proverbial bunny. And nobody ever needed any kind of book-learnin’ to see his power was real, neither. Hell, he was on the damn TV. Broadcast right there in town. Hell, he owned the whole damn station. What the hell more could a man even need? Jimmy Furze controlled the sky. He was the guy who controlled the sky. He was TGG. This Guy God. Said so right there on a big old gold necklace Jimmy Furze hung from his very own neck. TGG. Didn’t get no better.
And another thing Bobby and Darryl both knew certain. No damn woman couldn’t never be good enough for him, neither. No sir. Hell, them women weren’t even second dairy. They were barely even eight or nine down the list after a whole bunch of others. If they were even lucky. Hell, it ain’t like they were the ones got to ride shotgun. Jimmy Furze was el lobo solo. The strong dog. The big dog. He knew what made dogs tick.
Weren’t no fuckin’ woman. Jimmy Furze was born and bread in Arbora. Real men in Arbora loved Jimmy Furze. Loved him with all their hearts. Till Jimmy Furze come along, they weren’t even nothin’. That’s how much they loved him. They’d kill for him. He gave the experience of feelin’ alive. Damn shrewd businessman, too. Everybody else could all go to hell. And that was all anybody ever needed to know.
Wade, sitting in the back next to Jimmy, leaned forward. “Watch the road! Where’s Junyer?”
“Shut up, Wade. I’m watchin’ the damn road.”
“I seen him back there,” Darryl said, pointing. “There he is! He’s splashin’ across the river right now.”
“Where?” Bobby leaned for a better look as he drove just as a jagged rock the size of a Magnavox, loosened by the heavy rain in the blue clay hillside, wobbled down onto the road. The front left tire burst on impact and sent the skidding rig in the span of a second over the side of the road, corkscrewing like a cap off a bottle of Gen-U-Wine unimpeded through some brush and slapping upside-down thirty feet below into the base of an uprooted tree sticking out of the river.
The sandbar that held the log held the rig as well. Water rushed around it real good, and the tires spun in the rain. Inside, everyone was dead.
When Carl bought Ed Howard’s old place in Madrani, on the edge of town and right at the base of a thick cluster of redwoods, Ed had lived for years in fear of being impaled. This fear came about after a branch fell through his roof right in the middle of “Jeopardy!” That, and wanting to move down south to be near his daughter, got Carl a good price on the house.
He kept a few of his own chainsaw carvings outside. A wolf, a bear, a gargoyle. One longbow and some arrows in a hand-made quiver that looked like it might have been peeled off the back of a frozen cave-man caught the eye on entering the house, as did a large, irregularly-shaped burl slab table, rich with rings in the dark marbling. The Standing Block Chop Champ trophy, which went on a bookcase at the end of the hall, would have been visible had the open back door not obscured it. The smell of freshly-lit Kingsfords on the barbeque filtered through the screen door from the yard in back where Carl had Led Zeppelin’s “In the Evening” cranked up and spilling out the open door and several windows.
Tools clinked on concrete in the car port where Carl tinkered with his dirt bike, testing the engine idly with a brew. By the way his forearm felt hitting the throttle, he knew he would be sore from turning redwood burl bowls on the lathe all the previous day. Just enough to feel good.
Putting the shish kebab skewers on the barbeque demanded Abbey Road be followed up with Santana. In the golden slanting dusk light he gave the tulips a good drink and snacked on Swiss cheese and a can of smoked baby oysters he’d been saving. But much later in the night, when he found a Guinness hidden in the door of the fridge behind the soy sauce and the sauerkraut, he knew it was time for some serious tunes.
Bohemian hours were not unusual with Carl. When, out of high school, he’d lived in Fernden and worked at a restaurant there washing dishes, he spent entire nights in the multi-tiered cemetery writing with a flashlight and sometimes just the moon on the tops of crypts and mausoleums.
Dawn was an hour off and the rousing strains of “The Thieving Magpie” abridged overture still rang in Carl’s ears as, unsuccessfully fighting the ill-advised urge to flagellate a skyward arm like an overzealous conductor, he took the bike out for a spin.
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...