THE TWITCHING DOLL came to India from an elderly Irish woman in town. The town was Madrani, population 333, secluded in the redwood forest and situated along Mist River. Kyle, India’s older brother, politely declined on his seven year-old sister’s behalf, but the woman, Mrs. Hutle, probably watching in the window, had come to the door and gotten her copy of the newspaper handed to her specifically because she wanted India to have the doll.
The doll was of a thick, rubbery, almost cork-like substance, grayish-brown and with stubby, semi-cylindrical limbs. It had no jointed movement, no hair, ill-fitting doll clothes that did not seem to match the doll and an expressionless, almost featureless face consisting of unappealing indentations roughly resembling oversize cheeks under pinched-up eyes. The doll felt heavier than it looked, India noticed. Kyle thought it was creepy and wanted India to give it back. But Mrs. Hutle wouldn’t hear of it.
Some days later India accompanied her brother on the route with the aid of the doll, which India called Mr. Zip. Swinging back up through town with only a few papers left to go, Kyle said they could stop off at the old graveyard for their snacks. That was when they discovered a strange thing about the doll: When placed over a dead body, such as one in a grave, after about eight or ten minutes the doll...began to twitch.
It was perfectly inexplicable. Yet there it was. India had Mr. Zip spread out on the grass, lush even halfway through August in the ample redwood shade, while she and Kyle snacked on cheese and crackers behind an overgrowth of brush that had once been tended bushes. Kyle knew the doll had been there nine minutes exactly because he had checked his watch before getting out the snacks. That was nine minutes to three. The first thing India did was put down Mr. Zip and she hadn’t touched the doll since.
Right on top of Margaret Eleanor Sloan’s bulging grave, the dark doll bent from side to side.
The children stared at it. From up the hill in town the fire alarm briefly rang out announcing the hour. For a full minute they stared. Then, almost imperceptibly, the doll added to its movements a slow, tortured twist, until gradually its stubby arms and legs were alternately raised with increasing energy in a motion neither fluid nor pleasant to watch.
There was a slight scratching noise as the heavy doll moved in the grass. After a couple of minutes, just as Kyle wondered if the thing wasn’t working itself up toward getting up and walking away, the speed at which the doll twitched seemed to level off. For all the children knew, Mr. Zip would’ve kept twitching there for the rest of the summer. But Kyle had had enough. He looked behind him, grabbed a long forked stick, scooped the doll and flung it clear of the grave. When it landed near but not on a mossy mound nearby, its thrashing movements subsided like a pan of boiling water taken off a burner.
“Don’t!” India cried, reaching for the stick. Kyle started tugging back, out of instinct more than reason, then he let go.
“All right, let the baby have its way.”
“I am not a baby!”
“All right, okay. But I don’t like that doll. We should show it to Dad.”
“But then he’ll take Mr. Zip away.”
“Let’s just not take Mr. Zip here anymore.”
“All right. But we should still tell Dad.”
“It’s my doll.”
“He’ll only take it away if he thinks it’s not safe. Is Mr. Zip safe?”
“Then don’t worry.”
That night over dinner, their father, Brad, monopolized the conversation with his delineations of unfairnesses found working for “that cretin Larry” at Brew Ha Ha, a combination coffee house and comedy club in nearby Radley.
“Dad, you know that doll,” Kyle said during one of his father’s rare mouthfuls of pork and mashed potatoes through which he was not speaking, “that one Mrs. Hutle gave India?” Kyle, not daring to wait for a response from his father which would most certainly consist of some uninterested dismissal and swift return to his own monologue, increased the volume and speed at which he spoke. “Me and India saw that doll do something really weird today. Maybe even dangerous.”
“What?” This came not as a question in reply, but served as an all-purpose expostulation.
“Yes, yes, what about it?”
“It danced on Mrs. Sloan’s grave,” India said.
“It did what?”
Kyle looked at his father with a solemn face. “Dad, it wiggled. Right on the grass.”
India ate her peas and kicked her legs back and forth under the table.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” Brad drew himself up to his full seated height and slowly shook his head from side to side. “You’ve been hanging out at that old graveyard after I specifically told you not to?”
“No, Dad! It was only just one time for snacks.”
“The doll moves, Dad. It’s not supposed to. It’s like it comes to life! Maybe it was the...I don’t know...ghost of Mrs. Sloan. We both saw it for a long time. I swear.” Kyle turned to India. “Tell him it’s true.”
“It’s true,” India said.
Kyle looked at his father. His father was pointing at him.
“Now you listen to me young man,” he said. “You stay away from that graveyard, mister.”
“But Dad, the doll--”
“Bull! Look, you said the other day it was dry as a cork and then you put it on the grass. Well guess what, Einstein. It wiggled a little because it soaked up the moisture. Figure it out! Different materials act–different! Figure it out!”
“That’s what Larry always says,” India said.
“Larry? That cretin? He couldn’t...”
Having been successfully diverted by India into resuming his monologue, Brad effectively forgot about the doll completely. But Kyle still wanted his sister to get rid of it. The next time on the route he decided, he’d hand the paper to Mrs. Hutle directly and politely ask if she missed her doll. Or say that their dad had told them to give it back. He wasn’t sure exactly what.
“Maybe Mrs. Hutle has other dolls, too, that would miss Mr. Zip for being gone so long,” Kyle said to India as they started on the route the next day.
“No dolls are going to miss anybody,” India said. “Grow up.”
“Well, maybe she misses her old doll and wouldn’t mind if you just gave it back. She’s old. She didn’t know what she was doing.”
“She did too,” India said.
“All right,” Kyle said, stopping in front of the Hoffmann’s driveway adjusting the lightened paper route sack over his shoulders. “I’ll give you one whole dollar if you let me ask her if she’ll take it back. One whole dollar, just to ask. I don’t have to pay you anything for me to ask a question, either. I’m just being nice.”
“Okay. Just to ask?”
“Just to ask.”
“Okay. When do I get it?”
“When we get home.”
“Why not right now?”
Kyle pulled one of the three bills he had in the wallet he got from his father and gave it to India. All the rest of the route to Mrs. Hutle’s house Kyle could see India was dreading the prospect of giving back the doll.
“She probably won’t even want it,” Kyle said half to himself in a low voice as they stood on Mrs. Hutle’s stoop. Kyle had her paper in his hand. He reached for the button to ring the doorbell. “It’s probably only like Dad said.”
The doorbell rang. Bing-bong.
India looked up at Kyle. Mr. Zip was in her arms. “Maybe she’s not home.”
Edna Hutle had been a fixture in Madrani for as long as anyone could remember. It was in a lilting Irish accent, high and thin, that Mrs. Hutle spoke. No one knew exactly how she lived. There was no Mr. Hutle. She had no children that anyone had ever seen. She was simply Mrs. Hutle. It was assumed by those who bothered that she retained the traces of her native tongue through lack of significant daily contact with the outside world and a desire to hang on to her identity. Even her house seemed to sit apart from the others in an area where few of the houses were close.
A noise came from somewhere inside. A voice, faint through the heavy door.
“I think she’s calling out for someone,” Kyle said. “I wonder if we should just go inside.”
“We’re not supposed to go in strange people’s houses.”
“It’s only Mrs. Hutle. You just don’t want to give up that doll.”
Kyle opened the door. “Mrs. Hutle?” he called out.
“Come in,” came the voice.
Instinctively Kyle took India’s hand and led her toward the voice, newspaper foremost, like a torch held out in a cave. He was twelve. If any of his friends saw him, he’d die.
“Come in,” the voice came again, louder now. Perhaps this was because Mrs. Hutle didn’t know who was at the door, Kyle thought, or if anyone had entered the house. Or perhaps it was because she knew every creak, every shadow, knew exactly where they were the way a watchmaker knows when a spring in a watch is loose.
“Come in, children, come in,” said Mrs. Hutle.
Edna Hutle sat on a jade green chair in a room packed, to Kyle’s eyes, with antiquated items. Things from Olden Times. In her shrill Irish lilt she bade them toward her, leaning forward in her chair. Arms outstretched, she took the paper from Kyle’s proffered hand.
Kyle’s eyes traveled round the walls, taking in strange sights of Olden Times machines that looked almost brand-new–things for cooking, things for sewing, glass things, crystal things, figurines and, sure enough, dolls.
Ask her to take back Mr. Zip now, Kyle thought.
“Got that one from the little people,” Mrs. Hutle said, two outstretched fingers wavering like a divining rod pointing at the doll in India’s arms.
India let go of Kyle’s hand and took a step forward. “Do you mean like leprechauns?”
“India,” Kyle said.
“Yes child,” said Mrs. Hutle, eyes beaming. “Yes child, I do.”
From elsewhere in the house came the sudden sound of something crashing. Then the soft pitter patter of feet. Mrs. Hutle’s face took on a worried expression. “Do be a dear and see what that was, won’t you?” she said.
“Is someone else here?” Kyle asked.
“Did you shut the door?” Mrs. Hutle said. “You mustn’t let my cat outside, dear.”
As if on cue, into the room scurried an insolent-looking old white cat with a puffed-out tail held stiffly high.
“Go and see what the cat has knocked over, dearie. I think it came from the kitchen. Help yourself to cookies on the counter.”
India looked at Kyle. He was hungry, too. They had passed the doorway to the kitchen when they came down the hall. “Come on, let’s go see,” he said.
In the kitchen a crystal vase lay shattered on the floor. Several feet beyond, through an open door in an adjoining room could be seen in the dim gloom an antique-looking broom and dustpan hanging on a wall.
“You just left it lying on the floor?” Kyle heard his father say with a face fixed in a rictus of criticism, as such he might well expect round the table that night should India let it slip. Nor did he want Mrs. Hutle to slip and hurt herself on the jagged shards.
“Come on,” he whispered to India. “If we clean this up, we can earn some of those Nutter Butters over there.
India looked. “Is the package open?”
“I don’t think so. I think it’s brand-new.”
Kyle took off his paper route sack with three papers in it left and set it outside the kitchen doorway in the hall. “I’m going to get that broom and dustpan,” he said. Then, in a voice to carry, “I found it, Mrs. Hutle. It’s a crystal vase. It’s broken. We’ll clean it for you, Mrs. Hutle.”
“Oh, thank you, dearies,” came the voice down the hall.
“I’ll help,” India said, following Kyle into the adjoining room. Kyle found the light switch and turned it on. A white floor freezer next to the broom bore stacks of magazines, mostly National Geographic. The stacks rose to some shelving, on which were canned goods and boxes packed with odds and ends.
Kyle saw a box of Hefty Cinch Sacks and a short step ladder next to the freezer. He opened the step ladder.
“I want to,” India said.
“You don’t even know what I’m doing.”
“Yes I do.”
“Getting the ladder.”
“Well duh. But why?”
India’s face took a dark turn.
“Oh all right,” Kyle said, resuming a low voice. “Let the baby have its way.”
“You’re the baby,” India said. She looked at Kyle. “Sorry.”
“All right, climb on up and get one of those garbage bags on the shelf, okay? And be careful.”
“I have to use both hands, Mr. Zip,” she said, setting down the doll.
“Look at these magazines,” Kyle whispered. “They’re all really old. They’re probably worth a lot of money. And they’re in really good condition.” He pulled Mrs. Hutle’s broom down from the wall and grabbed the handle of a fancy-looking metal dustpan. Then he went to the mess and started sweeping.
“Thank you my dearies,” Mrs. Hutle called. “It’s so very kind of you to help.”
“No problem, Mrs. Hutle,” said Kyle in a polite voice to carry.
India came over with the garbage bag. “Can I open the cookies now?” she whispered.
Kyle looked to see that India had put the step ladder back. She had. “Okay,” he said. “Go ahead. Wait, here. Take back this broom and dustpan and don’t forget to turn off the light, okay?”
India stopped, turned around and went back. But she did not reply.
Kyle found a trash can in a cupboard under the sink next to Olden Times packages of soap and antique-looking brushes. Just as he dumped the busted vase swaying in the Hefty he caught sight of something moving in the corner behind the trash can. It was a mouse in a sprung trap, still barely alive. Kyle quickly shut the cupboard door. Behind him, India tore into the Nutter Butters as quickly as she could.
“Thanks for the cookies, Mrs. Hutle,” they both made sure to say as they returned.
“Do you want one?” India asked.
“Oh yes, that would be lovely.” Mrs. Hutle took a cookie. “You believe in the little people, don’t you now dearie?” Unlike their father, Mrs. Hutle waited kindly for a reply. A fact which did not go unnoticed by India.
“Well,” she said, rolling her eyes at the ceiling and puffing out her cheeks in concentration, “I guess I suppose so.”
Kyle looked at India.
Mrs. Hutle’s eyes lit up as she bit a Nutter Butter in two, swallowing quickly and saying, “Oh, but that’s good my dear. And you know,” she leaned forward, “I found one, you know. One of the little people. At the bottom of a well.”
She eased back and ate the other half of her cookie.
“That was in County Cork, Ireland, ages and ages ago, when I was just a little girl. About your age, dear. The poor thing was hurt. But I took it home. And do you know how I did that?” Mrs. Hutle beamed slyly at India. “ I ran and got my father’s rope, and bade the poor dear fix the loop beneath his arms. Light as a child he was, the wee dear, and my, just weak as a kitten. I pulled him out myself and took him to the hay loft. Quiet as could be he was, and just as good as gold he took the poultices I made for him which I had seen my mother make, a recipe known by my grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother. And I kept the little fellow warm, but he wouldn’t take a bite of bread nor sip of good fresh milk till one morn he sat up, wee thin arms trembling, and he told me he knew what I had done for him, and saw he should repay me in return of the debt he owed. I told him I wanted to travel. And do you know what?” Mrs. Hutle did not wait for a reply. “I got my wish.”
She stood up.
“They need contact with young ones, the little people do. Child, what have you done with the doll I gave you?”
Kyle took India’s hand. “That’s something I wanted to ask you,” he said, making toward the door in a sidelong manner.
“What have you done with the doll I gave you, child?”
Kyle pulled India down the hall.
“I put it down,” India said. “I have to go get it, Kyle.”
“You go get the doll, dear,” Mrs. Hutle said.
Kyle released India’s hand. “Go ahead and get it.” India went into the kitchen.
“Mrs. Hutle,” Kyle said, “my dad said to tell you thank you very much for the doll but it would be best if you take it back.”
“Now now, dearie. That doll is meant for a wee girl just such as your sister. Now that’s a good lad.”
A shriek came suddenly from India somewhere in the kitchen. Kyle rushed to his little sister. “In--” he managed to say, cut off on entering the kitchen at the singular sight which met his horrified eyes.
India stood by the light switch staring into the adjoining room at the large white rectangular floor freezer beneath the stacks of magazines. She had needed both hands to use the step ladder. There it lay on the freezer. The doll. It had been there eight or ten minutes.
Mr. Zip was twitching.
SAM HAIN’S JOURNAL– (Kept in longhand.)
August 17 (10:13 pm)
I haven’t kept a journal in years and have no idea what prompted me to buy this one yesterday but I’m glad that I did, because the strangest thing has happened.
I had just gotten back from a trip into town and was grabbing my stuff from the car when my neighbor Brad’s kids came running up just about screaming bloody murder.
The older kid, Kyle (he’s the paper boy these days for The Freethinker–and I remember when The Freebie was actually free), finally managed to say something coherent, which was that he had left his paper route sack at that old Irish woman’s house. I asked why, but I never could get a straight answer.
Finally I said I would go ahead and get the paper route sack–even though I could see my own paper off in the bushes where he missed my doorstep again. I know Brad works late on Mondays. And I kind of gathered that the kid didn’t want to have to drag his dad over the next morning and take an earful, so I figured I’d be a nice guy. Also, considering that both kids were genuinely freaked, I was actually kind of curious.
At first I figured I should take them with me to sort out whatever problem they had with the old lady. But then I didn’t like the idea of driving off with my neighbor’s kids, and that was just as well because neither one of them wanted to go back anyway.
So I told both of them to go home and call Brad, which I knew they wouldn’t do, then I booked over to the old lady’s house.
When I got there all the lights were off and nobody came to the door. But I did see through a window from the angle of the sun the kid’s paper route sack. Lying there in the hall, just like he said. As soon as I saw the kid’s story was corroborated, I felt kind of justified checking to see if the door was locked. And it wasn’t.
I don’t know, I guess it was technically breaking and entering, but I figured if the old lady wanted to call the cops, she could have a good time explaining why she had the kid’s paper sack.
So I walked in, and I grabbed the bag, and I was just kind of starting to feel sort of spooked out because I wasn’t supposed to be there and the place looks like some sort of weird museum, when I caught a glimpse through the kitchen doorway of a doorway to another room where there was a light on. In that room I could see there was one of those long white floor freezers.
It’s interesting. I didn’t pay any attention to it at the time, but now with the thing in front of me, with the light of a single bulb illuminating it, it did occur to me that somewhere in the spastic ramblings of Brad’s kids was elicited the concern that the old lady–whose name according to paper boy Kyle is Mrs. Hutle, by the way–had a body stored in a floor freezer. Although he said he didn’t see it, he knew that one was there.
I thought about just taking a quick look. There were a bunch of magazines on the freezer. If I could even lift up the lid high enough to take a peek, the magazines would have hit some shelving, so I’d have to clear off the tops of the stacks first at least. I actually thought about doing it, but decided against.
Then I turned around to go and there was the old woman.
Now, as anyone who knows me can tell you, I’m not really the scaring kind. I’ve had some notable altercations, and they’ve never been anything but one-sided my way. But I don’t mind saying, as soon as I turned around and saw the old woman, caught as I was there in her house, with her so quiet she could’ve stuck a knife in my back–and by the look on her face, she nearly did–I held out the paper route sack and started stammering, “Neighbor kid left this. I knocked several times. Saw it right there in the window.” The old woman never bothered to explain to me what it was doing in her house or why the kids should run out screaming, but I really didn’t have any right to be there, and as soon as I said I’d see the kid got the sack back she sort of snapped to life and said something like, “Oh, not a problem, dearie.”
So I jetted on back up here, and I don’t know, I was going to drop the bag off at Brad’s, but I guess what with the stress of getting surprised by her and all, I really had to go to the bathroom. I brought it in with me from the car intending to run it right over after relieving myself, like I don’t have anything better to do, but then as soon as I got inside I saw I had a message from Tony. So I had to call him back. And when I finished blabbing with him (he had nothing to say, as usual) I thought I’d better just call up Brad’s and tell the kid to come over and get his paper route sack so I could get on with my dinner. But the first time I called, the line was busy. Then I forgot. I called around 8:30 again and no one was answering.
It’s dark now. I think I usually see Brad get in after eleven-thirty on Mondays. I’ll just stay up to watch the news and walk over to his place when I hear him pull down the road.
Oh my god. I don’t know where to begin.
I fell asleep. I know that much. I remember turning off the TV. It was almost midnight. Eased back with my feet up in the recliner and the fan on me I was content to stretch out there for the night, maybe crawl into bed early in the morning, seeing how I had Tuesday off. And I know I went to sleep. But at some point I had a dream. What I thought was a dream. Oh my god.
The room was filled with light, so blindingly bright it woke me up. Then suddenly the light went out. And then I–felt hands–pulling me.
I was scared out of my mind. And then a voice spoke. Inside my head. Saying everything would be okay.
Out of total blackness there appeared before me the kid’s paper route sack. From out of the sack rose a repulsive doll. The voice inside my head asked if I knew what that was. I said no. I could hear my own voice reply mechanically, almost as though I was hypnotized, but at the same time I was totally aware. The voice said that was okay.
Then I was outside. I walked without seeing what I was doing until I was outside the old woman’s house. It was like it suddenly appeared before me in a dream. The door opened. I walked in. I walked right up to the freezer. The rest of the house was pitch black. As though it didn’t exist. The only thing I could see was the long white freezer stretched out before me. The voice said for me to take the magazines down and stack them to the side.
Standing at the end of the freezer, the voice said for me to raise the lid. I didn’t want to. The voice said it would be okay. There was a loud cracking sound as I swung the lid up against the wall.
Something, I saw, was inside the freezer. It lay on its right side, curled up, and it smelled bad. It was a body. Packed like a tapeworm in thick freezer frost. But it was not human.
The voice said not to worry, that everything was all right. It said that even after all this time, they could help. The voice said that I had done well. All of this made me very uncomfortable. Things felt sluggish, like in a dream that was ending. Gradually I heard other voices. Not like the one I heard in my head. There seemed to be some discussion. The voices were talking, but not to me.
I looked around. I really was standing in Mrs. Hutle’s kitchen. I saw some figures talking. And just like the thing in the freezer, not one of them was human.
Somehow I got out. I ran as fast as I could. I’m home now. I’m sitting in my bed. It can’t be real. But I didn’t dream it. My fingers are dark from all the magazines. What do I
Oh my god they’re here
(Date and time unknown)
Whoever you are, if ever you are, if I told you outright from whence I record this document you now hold, you would not be able to understand, much less believe me.
Allow me to return to the moment at which I stopped writing the previous entry and stuffed this blank book of lined pages into my back pants pocket, an action which considering the circumstances now seems so fortuitous as to border on the miraculous.
I leaped from my bed straight for the door with my baseball bat choked up in both hands, having kept it at my side for just the very such precautionary purpose as I now undertook.
My intention was to bash in the oversize skulls of the terrible little men, insect-like with their black almond eyes whispering in my mind.
But for naught. So great was the power they wielded over me, as if by magic as I was frozen in my steps, bat held high, poised to strike, wanting to strike at the quietly clamoring crowd, yet unable to move more than roll my eyes and breathe. They kept me like that for some time while again communicating solely between themselves. And I was left like a museum piece myself.
Eventually the weapon came slowly down. I dropped it to the floor. Then walked. Perfectly aware, yet still unable to regain the mastery of my own mind necessary to control my body. Even before it spoke, I could feel the return of the voice.
“It’s all right, Sam. Come with us. You’re doing fine.”
I have no idea if they even shut my front door. That was the last time I ever set foot in my house.
We did not parade invisibly in the still, pre-dawn dark. Some dogs briefly barked. A dark shape stepping out of a duplex doorway suddenly froze as a silvery mob of bobbing heads softly approached and mechanically the figure returned inside. Some moments later we came to a field behind someone’s property. From the other side of an overgrown slope, more or less hidden by a ring of redwoods towering like conspirators, there came into my view a strange otherworldly craft. On sight of this large and luminous disturbing device I once more noticed that the dream-like aspect which I experienced when under their control fell away like a silky shroud revealing the true nightmare in which I had been placed. I realized I could control my body again. But this time they must have been ready for me, because with this realization came an instant of searing migraine-like pain. All was blackness as I sank into oblivion. For ages and an instant I knew nothing, until, gently, consciousness returned and I became aware that I was lying supine on a hard surface and that my head hurt. I opened my eyes.
“Sam,” came the voice. I sat up, turned around and saw no one in the dim spare room. “Do you remember the time you fell from the rope swing in the forest?”
“Yes,” I said aloud. Part of me understood that I was not speaking against my wishes precisely. At the same time I wondered that I should reply at all. “I was eight years old.”
“You fell twenty feet.”
“Onto the old brick-and-glass-strewn forest road.”
“Your brother and sister thought you were dead.”
“They might have been afraid for a second. I heard them calling my name. I was barely dazed. I got up. We were amazed.”
“Years later you wondered.”
“If the fall did something to me.”
“It did. It made you different. We can’t control you. Not completely. Not like the others. Even our strongest magic wears off. You intrigue us.”
I could feel the voice leaving. I started to lie back down. I didn’t want to. Then a door opened. Several of them stepped into the room, directing their oversize eyes on me and crowding around as for the second time I felt my mind slipping beyond all sensibility and into what I can only describe as the blackness of oblivion.
This time opening my eyes revealed to me with a suddenness so severe as to make me nearly faint with nausea a different room, with more of the creatures, some of whom were watching me. On seeing my return to consciousness, these few elicited agitation. Theirs, however, was insufficient to my own.
At that moment I thought of nothing but striking out at my aggressors and affecting an escape. I struck at the creatures with the strength and fury of a madman, insane with the savage desire to stomp and kick and hit every one of them on the instant.
What happened next is the most difficult part to explain because I myself don’t fully understand. Not in specifics, any more than the vast majority of television-viewers could specifically explain exactly how an image gets transmitted. Suffice to say, I realize now we were traveling through--impossible as this will seem--a wormhole to a parallel universe, when my disturbance caused the jettisoning of me and one of the creatures with whom I was struggling--jettisoned not necessarily intentionally--to a planet on which I have found life-sustaining conditions.
My appearance here seems to have created quite a stir.
Ron fired up a cigarette and offered one to Phil. Phil declined. Some kids were shooting hoops off a plywood backboard and netless rim. When the ball came Ron’s way he stepped back, lined up a three-point shot, and with the new smoke bouncing in front of his face dismissed any difficulty associated with working at Das Bagels. A skinny kid without a shirt called the play-by-play.
“He fades back--”
The ball sprang off the rim straight into the antenna of a little green Volkswagon.
“–and gets a brick.” The skinny kid inspected the damage amid some general laughter. “Nice one. Whose junker?”
Ron nonchalantly approached the damaged antenna. “That’s the Tom-mobile,” he said. “Gimme that.” He snapped off the antenna and waved it around like a magic wand. Then he sat on the hood with a foot on the fender and used the antenna to gouge out dried mud in the tread of his boot. “Take your breaks whenever you want,” he said, still instructing Phil. “It’s casual. You’ve got it covered. If you have any questions you can always ask Tom. This job is his life.”
“He seems like a nice guy.”
Ron looked at Phil. “Why, because he’s quiet? Listen, if there’s one thing you need to know about this job, it’s that Tom’s a freak.” Ron called out to the skinny kid. “Hey, is Tom a freak?”
The skinny kid came over. “Who?”
“That guy I work with, or used to, you know, Tom?”
A look of recognition came over the skinny kid’s face. “Oh yeah, definitely. That dude’s freaky-deaky.” He looked toward the Das Bagels window facing the side court. “Is he in there now?”
Ron nodded and waved with the bug’s antenna. “You betcha.”
“Dude, he’s a major freak. You ever seen him walk?”
“Man, I worked with him for a whole year. You don’t know the half of it.”
Phil raised his eyebrows. Ron continued.
“I know you think I’m being mean. Believe me, I gave the guy his chances. I used to feel sorry for him. But Tom’s issues are just too major. You’ll see what I mean. I only wish somebody had told me. He’ll drive you nuts the way he has to crawl along a wall in order to get by you, because he can never ever ever be touched, even just barely, accidentally. You’ll see how he always spies. He has to look at you when he thinks you can’t see him. You’ll see his reflection in the clock, and in the windows, and the glass cases. Anytime your back is turned. And only when your back is turned will he try to sneak away, as though you have no idea.”
“Tell me about it.”
Ron motioned for the ball and one-handed a careful three-pointer. It stuck, wedged between the rim and the board. None of the kids could reach it until the skinny one gave an assist with fingers laced into a stirrup. Ron and Phil went back inside.
“You’ll find it gets slow. There’s a lot of down-time here. Don’t expect Tom to help you out when it gets busy. That’s when he goes to find someplace to hide.”
“What does he do here?”
“Supposed to do the same thing as you.”
“Why doesn’t he do it?”
“That’s the big question. I think his parents go to the same church as the owner.”
“Where is he?”
Ron pointed to a door. “That’s where he goes on his breaks.”
“I thought that was a broom closet or something.”
“Bingo.” Ron looked at the clock. “Right about now he’s eating his Twinkie.” Under his breath he said, “He can hear us.”
Then he seemed to get an idea. “Hold on,” he whispered. Fishing with the antenna in the space between the counter and the wall, Ron produced a cobweb-covered bagel. He picked it up, took out a long knife, cut it in half and rubbed the halves around on the floor some more. “Gotta get it nice and good.” He then proceeded to slather both sides with cream cheese, went to a window, looked at the sill, came back with a dead fly and placed it atop the bagel sandwich in the hole on the dirty cream cheese bed squished up in the middle.
The clicking sound of a light bulb chain came from within the broom closet. The door opened. Tom came quickly out and shut it.
Phil thought Tom did look extremely uncomfortable, like a deer caught in the headlights. Even though they were several feet apart, Tom held himself very close to the wall as he passed by, almost inching his way along as though he were on the ledge outside a building several stories high.
“Oh, excuse me,” Tom said. Phil noticed something nervous in Tom’s voice. Instantly painful to hear, it reminded him of the walls of a submarine heading deeper than it was designed to go.
“Well Tom,” Ron said, “not too long now. Hey did you forget your sandwich?”
A puzzled expression crossed Tom’s face. “No, that’s not mine.”
“Are you sure?”
“Well, it’s just sitting here.” Ron pointed with the antenna.
Tom took a closer look at the sandwich. He stood over it, peering closely.
“Well,” Ron said, “are you gonna eat it?”
“Well you can’t just leave it there. Clean it up. You really need to start doing that. It’s your job.”
Tom’s face trembled. He pointed at the antenna. “Where did you get that?”
“What, this? It’s my new pointer stick. You like it? You have to earn it. Start working real hard cleaning things up and someday you just might get one.”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“You broke it from my car.”
“See?” Ron said to Phil. “I told you he spies.”
“I want that back.”
“I don’t think so. I told you, you have to earn it.”
“Give it back,” said Phil.
“Give him back his antenna,” Phil repeated.
Ron tossed the antenna, which bounced and slid under an oven, made a dismissive noise and headed out the back door to shoot some more hoops.
Phil took off his smock, placed it on the counter and stepped out the front door, which slammed satisfyingly behind him on a spring. Breathing deeply of the pulp mill from across the bay he shook his head and walked around the corner to where his car was parallel parked. He pulled his keys, got in, turned the ignition, put on his belt, checked the rear view mirror, and was just about to pull forward when there suddenly appeared directly in front of his car two figures who had not been there a split second before. One was a man with his back turned. The other Phil first took to be an albino child. But when the man turned, Phil saw that the other was no child at all.
The man, who looked at first as though in the throes of a wild fit, took on an unmistakably startled expression viewing his surroundings. The other, seeming to take advantage of this lapse in concentration, sprang nimbly away and ran down an alley.
The man gave chase.
Through the center of town the man ran. Past beggars pontificating in overripe robes, patchouli-drenched in ponchos and dreadlocks playing bongos on the quad. The white boiled egg head of the man’s diminutive quarry bobbed on slender frantic limbs past once-ornate Victorians in various stages of disrepair bedecked in tie-dye wind socks whipped in occasional gales.
In and out of doors.
Up and down the town they ran–past businesses–Nepal Noodle–Soy Boy–Whey To Go–over an arching bridge with a rainbow painted underneath the rapid white small form scurried from the pursuer–into a tunnel where skaters lazed and students bearing backpacks hustled to the university fitting their mouths around burritos–pell mell past classrooms they ran–thoroughfares clogged with plodders domino-like sloshed coffees–
Ex-biker Eddie at Wire You Hear cut off his own big toe when an acetylene torch sank in his slackened arm. Shelves went down when they ran through Bookin’ It. Rodeo Video was a mess. Utterly Cutlery, a disaster.
When it seemed the man had lost the creature, with a wound on his left hand dripping he made his way to a linen van parked with the back doors open. He grabbed a towel to bind his hand as from the white stacks and out the van the frantic creature darted.
A dog with a tick on its neck happening by licked blood on the road from the man’s wound.
Caves of problematical intricacy confronted Sean, Maloc and Byron, who switched their flashlights on.
“I wonder if anybody has ever gotten lost in here,” said Sean.
“Probably,” Maloc said. I remember one time when the fire department and the cops and everybody were at that other cave and they never found anybody.”
“I’m tying my string here,” Byron announced, taking off his pack and producing a spool of twine.
The voices of the three boys, all sophomores at the high school, echoed overlapping in the dark like the ceaseless widening rings produced by drops of water in surrounding muddy pools.
“Where’s Erik been?”
“I think he had food poisoning or something.”
“He had something all right. In P.E. I saw him throw up.”
“I saw that.”
“You weren’t there.”
“Yeah I was.”
“Did you see when he stepped in it?”
“He never stepped in it. That was Mark.”
“I was only testing you.”
“Did you see how he had a bunch on his chin?”
“Yeah I saw that.”
“Liar. I only made that up just now to test you.”
“Well it’s stupid anyway. Who wouldn’t be able to feel it? He’d just wipe it off.”
“Nobody said anything about how long it was on. Do we turn here?”
“Hey, how far have you been in here?”
“I don’t know.” Maloc surveyed the walls with his flashlight. The beam settled on an inconspicuous fissure.
“Where does that go?”
“I don’t know. Why don’t you tie off that twine here and I’ll start one of mine.”
“It looks like it goes a little ways.”
“Watch out for bat crap. I gotta wonder about this air. I hope we don’t get some kind of weird disease.”
“So, these ones coming down from the ceiling are stalactites, and the ones on the ground are stalagmites. Groundwater seeps from the topsoil carrying mineral deposits, limestone mostly. The water evaporates and leaves the tiny little mineral deposit. And that’s how these are formed.”
“It’s impossible to imagine how long that must take.”
“And then this column over here is what happens when the stalactite extends down to the stalagmite.”
“Where’d you learn all this?”
“I grew up here.”
“But you’ve never gone in this one?”
“I’ve been here before. I’ve only really been allowed to go caving for the last three years. It’s pretty dangerous. Like I said, some people who go in never do come out.”
“That’s what they get for leaving graffiti.”
Sean swung back his light.
“That’s not graffiti,” said Byron. “Those are hieroglyphs.”
“No they’re not,” Maloc said. “Hieroglyphs are ancient Egyptian. There is another word for it, though. I know what you mean.”
“Looks like animals.”
“Yeah. I guess it must be some Indian thing.”
“Look. Those are tusks. Wooly mammoths. And here. Saber-tooth cat.”
“Weren’t there Indians back then?”
“I’m tying on a new spool.”
“Look, there’s more down there.”
“Wow, these are really awesome. Check out the detail on the deer.”
“It looks like this opens up into a room over here.”
“What’s in it?”
“I can’t see yet.”
“We have to come back down here with cameras.”
“Does anybody even know about this place?”
“There’s more over here.”
“What are those?”
“Look at this one. It looks like a space ship.”
“Geez, it does completely.”
“Oh my god, look!”
Three flashlight beams focusing on the far end of the roughly circular chamber twenty feet away showed the pale sickly form, ordinarily black almond eyes now mere slits. Feebly the exhausted creature struggled. Its palsied oversize head, lacking ears, lacking a protruding nose and tapering to a doll-like mouth, was clearly too heavy a load for the frail form to bear.
“It looks scared.”
“Take it easy. Hold on. Don’t run. Just stick together and stay calm. Look around. Is this the only one?”
“I don’t see anything else.”
“It looks really sick.”
“It looks starving. It could probably use some clothes. It’s cold in here.”
“Get the light out of his eyes.” Sean’s voice softened. “It’s okay. We won’t hurt you.”
“You guys,” Byron said.
“Put your light up like a torch, like this, so the light isn’t in his face.”
“I guess it’s a he.”
“Doesn’t really look like an anything.”
“You know what?” Maloc was incredulous. “I think I saw something about this in the newspaper a couple months ago. A bunch of people said they saw a guy chasing some little alien-looking thing. This is it. This really is an alien. We’re actually looking at an alien. These things really are real.”
“You guys. I think I’m going to be sick.”
“Tell me when on the sauce,” Tandi said. Just like she ever would have. Looking exactly the same. Right down to that cute little mole at the base of her neck on the lefthand side. Even her spaghetti smelled the exact same. Served up a little early was all.
Sam reached for the Parmesan. “When.”
“Chico came by today.”
“What did he have to say?”
“He says Shelley’s working over at Nicky’s.”
“She’s not cutting hair over there at Daring ‘Do anymore?”
“I don’t think she ever did.”
“Well what about Chico? I guess he was he driving that clunker.”
Tandi nodded, chewing. “The bank called when I was over at your place.”
“What do they want?”
“It’s okay. I think I cleared it up. You haven’t been misspelling your name, have you?”
“What do you mean?”
“They’re complaining you’ve changed your signature and you’re misspelling your last name ‘Hain’ instead of ‘Hane.’”
“I got it straightened out. I asked to talk to Linda and she took care of it. You remember Linda. She was the one I told you showed me how to make s’mores. Are you going back to your place tonight or staying here?”
“Oh. I’m not really sure.”
“Okay, well, just let me know so I can give Sean a call.”
“All right. This is really good, but it’s kind of too early for dinner for me. Actually, you know, I think I’ll probably head on back pretty soon.”
“I’ve just got a lot of stuff I’ve got to do.”
They took a few bites and made chewing noises. The forks clinked on the plates.
“You know, the last couple of months with you.”
“Never mind, I said.”
“All right. Well, I’m going to get going.”
“Don’t bother doing any dishes.”
“I did them all this morning before breakfast.”
He gave her a cold kiss and headed out the door. He got in his car, drove home, got out of the car, went into the house, sat down, reclined, opened up a journal and wrote
October 17 (5:17 pm)
I have to remember that my last name is “Hane.”
After all that ruckus the first day I’m just lucky no one’s pulled an “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” finger-pointing shriek on recognizing me.
There was a night in Radley’s upper-income residential area–seeming to slope impossibly ever-downward as we drove–the winding road curve of the road affording giddying and even nightmarish glimpses of steep rooftops passed on tight switchbacks. Tops of redwood trees meet the disoriented eyes of passengers and drivers alike, so steeply do the perilous switchbacks creep. And then we would be parked outside some place posh, met by generosity and warmth from familiar faces in the dark, in places similar to the memory, but oddly dream-like and off.
I found myself in places to which I could never belong, with sometimes genuinely trustworthy and other times totally unfamiliar people in intense situations in dark market venues, and old libraries revisited, and eerily-idyllic perpetually-autumnal off-campus housing. I felt a bone-deep memory of connectedness with the myriad of characters whose fantastic environment I share the reality of my own impossible visit.
Day after day and night after night since arriving, each moment’s every step, even now, feels exactly like walking in a dream.
At one place we played fusball. Some of Tandi’s friends knew the people whose house it was. There was great deal of feathery hair and discussion of surfing. They skied, too, just about every single one.
I wandered into a room where they were playing darts and lounging in bean bags with some kid or other lording some privileged host capacity, tall and skinny with zits and a sports franchise jersey, playing a video game with the frenetic encouragement of toadying lackeys. Mind-numbing banter on balconies gelled, quivering with cosy if not compromising views of the neighbors, some of whom I recognized, who apparently all shared their common and quietly-kept secret up-scale bond. These were the people who had the pools, with perpetual generations of drink-clinking guests and wearers of bikinis.
Even now I have not completely come to grips with the unreality of life here. Some things so familiar, but not quite, other things so exact, just like no difference. And other things, off. Way off. And you never can quite tell after a while if maybe it wasn’t just your memory that was off, or if you’d dreamed some thing. Things do get blurred. Somehow, you just stumble along.
One night at one of those houses with some of those people I was shown a telescope mounted on a swivel. The night was clear. The stars looked close and bright, as they had to an even more astonishing degree inside the craft of they who held me hostage, and left me marooned on a distant world.
What is it like for my other self? Is he, like me, due to a series of unique and unduplicatable events writing in his own journal now? How many of all of us are there? Is there any way we can see each other? If we’re both in each other’s parallel dimension and want to get back, will we somehow cross paths when we didn’t before? What would happen if we did meet?
Then there’s the crossover itself. I can’t believe what it’s done to me. My physical strength is incredible. I’m like Jeff Goldblum in “The Fly.” And it’s not just my body that got changed. My mind has been transformed as well. Everything has opened up. Even powers of intuition have blossomed. It’s amazing. I’m practically psychic.
That’s why I think Sean’s hiding something. I’m certain of it. And for no good reason. I just have a feeling. The same way I came to know what happened. I understood the most complicated part before I even knew what date it was. Some things are really clear–the important stuff, I guess–and then other things are just like normal. Like with my signature. And I have no way of knowing unless somehow I get tipped off. Some but not all things are different here. Somehow I have to keep it all straight.
I think Sean knows where it is. I think he’s been feeding it. I know I’m near. Why can’t I tell?
Of course: Because it’s alive. It’s putting up some sort of blinder, blocking my ability to find it. If and when I do find out where it is, that’s when I’ll know I’m in trouble. That’s when I’ll know that it’s died. And they’ll never come back for me. Once it’s gone, I can just about kiss goodbye my chance of ever getting home again.
Sam put down the pen and closed his journal when he heard a knock at the door. When he opened it up he said, “Oh, hey Kyle.”
The boy with the paper route sack standing outside with his younger sister started to point upward, then stopped and said, “My name’s not Kyle. My name’s Keith.”
“All right. Sorry, Keith.”
“That’s okay. I just wanted to say I accidentally threw your paper on your roof. Here’s another one. Sorry.”
Sam shut the door, went back to his chair, sat down and with pen and journal in hand wrote
Paperboy here called “Keith.”
October 17 issue of The Freethinker
What Are They?
by Shela Leigh
Freethinker Contributing Writer
Carata residents awoke Monday morning to the unusual sight of what witnesses describe as “giant ticks on the lawns.”
According to Sheldon Fetchley of Winniver Lane, “These animals burrow their mouths into the ground and gorge themselves gray.”
Residents wishing to remain anonymous concur. As recently as September, neighborhood children have been seen plucking ticks the size of figs from the ground and throwing them at each other like hand grenades.
More recently, deer stumbling under the weight of more than could be conveniently counted disturbed some locals only now willing to speak on condition of anonymity.
Wildlife biologist Robert Kinch, also of Carata, says of the animals, “What we are seeing now is punctuated evolution in action. This is genetic mutation kicked into overdrive.”
Kinch adds, “The ones on the deer seem to have clung with only minimal feeding on the deer’s blood as a sort of instinct misfire.” When asked what would happen if one of the big ones acted similarly on a human being, Kinch responded, “Obviously people have to exercise common sense with any wild animal.”
Dangerous or not, waking up to a four-to-five foot-tall tick looking “like a giant gray tombstone on the lawn,” in the words of Spiro Street resident Marcia Haver, comes as quite a surprise.
“The real shock,” Haver says, “is seeing folks come from all over the county to gather round for a gander.”
“You’d think people had something better to do than put their kids on top of these things and take pictures.”
Haver adds, “Just in time for Halloween, I guess.”
Living in Madrani, Sean and Maloc vowed to make looking in on Whitey, as they called the being, part of a regular routine.
They entered the forest from the south end of town, descending into the cool lush darkness of the redwoods via Maloc’s Pinto looking for and finding the good pullout that they wanted. Shouldering their backpacks they steamed up a hillside rife with emerald fern and green redwood twigs turned to the rust duff of decay, until they reached the trail that took them out of sight from locals and tourists alike driving in occasional cars on the winding road below.
Maloc led. Unseen strands of spider web encountered on his arms and face assured him of the trail’s disuse. Multi-colored mushrooms of vivid orange and red and bright white mushroom ghosts dotted moss of neon green. The hollow tok, tok in the upper reaches of the trees and bold swoop of wings announced a raven or two.
Proceeding at a switchback into a cluster of redwoods sprouted centuries ago from some fallen giant took them off the trail and marked what they regarded as the starting point of the trail known only to them, which they had forged, like the secret doorway to a hidden passage.
Maples interspersed among the preponderance of coast redwood, having reached their peak in color, had largely dropped their withered leaves of crimson and gold, boughs outstretched like gem-laden supplicants bearing offerings before the ancient giants.
It was late afternoon. The sun descending to the western mountains cast through the branches kaleidoscopic rays. When they reached the creek, they traveled up–walking out on fallen trees criss-crossing like bridges–until reaching a stump shaped like a pointing finger. Here they took another trail down a dank boulder-choked gorge which marked the way to the mouth of the cave.
They took off their packs at the yawning entrance, breathing hard. The darkness within demanded the use of their flashlights, but the familiarity of several visits permitted the twine which they carried to remain in their packs. When they reached the chamber, they saw Whitey waiting.
Sean produced from his pack a small blanket, an unopened bottle of purified water, various quantities of salt, sugar, trail mix, applesauce, Swiss cheese, peanuts and a banana. Maloc brought candles, two root beers, chocolate, honey, rice cakes, baked tofu, three bagels, a pomegranate and a camera, with which they had already taken a fair number of shots. After their initial elation in Maloc’s room with Byron present they realized that most people looking at the photos, even if they had been taken with proper lighting, which they were not, would simply say that the pictures were faked.
The boys lit the candles and presented the array of items, then sat cross-legged, by gentle gestures indicating that Whitey, opposite them, do likewise. Whitey did. Proceeding to partake of the bounty before them, the boys respectfully invited Whitey to join them. Whitey did not.
“What are we going to do?” Sean asked, slicing some Swiss cheese and putting it on half a bagel.
Maloc broke off a piece of rice cake and poured honey on it. “I don’t know,” he replied.
“He’s got a mouth, doesn’t he? He’s got to eat.”
“Makes sense to me, but he hasn’t eaten anything yet. He’s breathing our air. He’s got a stomach.”
“What does breathing our air have to do with it?”
“I don’t know. I guess our world can’t be all that bad for him.”
“Maybe he’s not even a, you know, one of them.”
Maloc turned to Sean with an incredulous expression, then looked back at Whitey. “I wonder if they’ve always been here.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well who’s to say they all have to come from somewhere else? Maybe they’ve been here all along.”
“They had to come from somewhere.”
“Yeah–why not here?”
“He’s listening to every word we say.” Sean pulled the foil off an applesauce cup. “He sure doesn’t look anything like E.T.”
“Looks more like Gollum.”
They froze. Slowly, Whitey reached toward the food stretched before him. Thin smooth pale fingers selected and retracted.
“Look,” Sean whispered. “He’s got a peanut.”
Black almond eyes regarding the boys, Whitey put the peanut in his mouth and chewed. The boys watched as the mouth, small as a child’s, ceased chewing, swallowed. In the great obsidian orbs no reflected candle burned. It was as though Whitey’s eyes sucked in all light, like twin black holes.
Whitey rose. The pale form, seemingly neither unclad nor clothed, frail in appearance yet deceptively rangy and sturdy, stood motionless as the inscrutable mouth, hardly more than a sullen slit, widened and contracted into a small silent circle.
The hands went to the throat. Lesions on the pallid skin came suddenly into view. With a sickening slap Whitey fell to the hard-packed dirt of the floor and went into convulsions. The boys looked on in horror as for approximately ten minutes the being twitched. Then all movement stopped. A minute later, bursting into the cave, breathing hard more from desperation than exertion, Sam appeared.
SAM HAIN’S JOURNAL– continued.
October 20 (7:07 pm)
I had just walked in the door at Madrani Market and saw on the cover of The Freebie a picture of someone holding up, by the wings, a dead bumblebee about the size of a cat, when boom, suddenly I realized I knew where it was.
Tandi’s had the car the last couple of days, which annoyed me before because I knew I could need it at any moment but couldn’t explain to her why. I therefore had to hoof it, but didn’t want to go tearing off down the street at top speed. So I walked around behind the store looking as calm as I could and found the trail there (just like back home) and ran through the forest for all I was worth. I was going so fast I tore through a strand of barbed wire and cut my leg pretty good–although I have to say, if I’d run into barbed wire back home I certainly wouldn’t have snapped through as though it were old fishing line, and I would’ve had to go to the hospital for stitches at the very least.
How can I even go on? Every day since my arrival in this strange land has been a blur–the powers of which I am capable, and no one to know, no one to understand–
Suffice to say, I found the location. The creature was in a cave. And not alone. I was right about Sean.
I must have rushed in like a madman. My shoes were soaking wet. As were my pants from the knees down. My arms had welts from branches I’d brushed rushing through the woods. I cracked my knee a good one on a rock charging blindly into the cave with no light at all.
And then suddenly there was light, flickering feebly anyway, and my girlfriend’s kid, and his buddy. And it.
I knelt down. I held it. Of course Sean couldn’t believe I was there. I think he said something to me–I didn’t even hear. All I could say was No. No. Just No. I simply refused to accept it.
A bolt of inspiration suddenly struck. On the floor of the cave were a couple of backpacks. One of them looked exactly like the one I have back home, except green instead of gray. “Is that my backpack?” I said. Sean just stared at me. He couldn’t figure out how I showed up, or why, or anything else, rightly enough. “Is that my backpack?” I repeated.
“What? Yes–Mom let me use it.”
“Toss it here. Toss it here!”
It’s a big backpack. When they saw what I was doing, they started to get upset. Sean’s buddy–Maloc, I understand–was beginning to annoy me. I stood up, pointed my finger and told him to sit. Then I went back to folding up the little legs and shoving the body into the pack.
I zipped it up, adjusted the straps and hefted it on. The other kid was saying something like, “He’s our friend! You can’t do that!” I couldn’t dignify that with a response. All things considered, however, I thought Sean did pretty well.
“What’s going on?” he said.
I looked at him, right in the eye, and told him, “You don’t want to know.”
By this time it must have been about five o’clock. The sun was low, but I had enough daylight left even in the woods to make it back the way I came without really having to rush. Which I initially did just to get away from the kids. I like Sean fine and don’t dislike his pal, but I couldn’t have them following after me.
The body of the thing in the pack felt awful rubbing up against me.
When I got back down to the road, I noticed a bit of traffic developing. It didn’t take much to cross over the way I had come, and pretty soon I was in territory once again so much like what I remember from when I was young. In the rolling fog and wistful wisps of mist, I noticed a chrysalis big as my fist. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen butterflies late in October, but the ones I saw here had wings like stained glass that stirred weird winds and flitted dangerously, plump rat-sized bodies thudding around the trees.
Eventually I reached the barbed wire I broke running. About a hundred of what I realized used to be mosquitos rose from a clump of ferns, buzz saw wings clacking. In what I both reasoned and intuited to be a drop or two of my blood on the barbed hoop, additional mosquitos were also drawn. Some awfully big-sounding frogs were croaking nearby.
Crossing the vociferous creek I accidentally slipped all the way up to the cut on my leg. The way the body on my back shifted in the pack felt repulsive.
I saw a mushroom in the woods–fat, saucer-like, chalky, looking like a moldy white discus jammed in a tree. The fungus on the mossy bark reminded me of my own burden. Envisioning myself back in the cave, holding the alien in my arms, I was struck with the image of an alien pieta. Hosts of images assailed my mind. It was as though a mask had been removed from the world. In the most distinct and profound manner imaginable I felt a sense of the perennial presence of magic.
Some point soon after I tripped on a banana slug scrunched up to the size of a foot stool. It left a wet smear on my pants leg with a beefy audible slap. The dirty yellow body, dotted with black over-ripe spots, moistly oozed as it stretched across the trail in the span of several seconds, four obscene and canny horn-like feelers bobbing on the end of the bulging hood as it lurched into the primordial fern with skin dimpled like an elephant’s.
Coming up behind town I wound up down at the old graveyard, grossly overgrown, and found myself gagging at the sight of several VW bug-size bodies, gray, engorged and packed like kernels of corn among the mossy upturned slabs of the untended grounds, apparently feeding on the nutrient-rich content as though the bodies in the graves were dog kibble. The ticks emitted a peculiar stench, giving off also that awful churning grind which sounds for all the world like grotesque purrs of content.
Hopping over some brush not far from The Burl Barn, I saw on the road roll into town a masked man clad in motley, cap and bells. There were harlequins and mimes, Shields and Yarnell. Sonny and Cher ponderously pedaled the Yellow Submarine Sandwich. The Captain and Tennile worked the Hieronymous Bosch and Loam eight-wheel Pullman car with mustered diligence, looking like fish with legs on a green shag carpet as they labored up the steep hill into Madrani.
Aboard the Danish Inquisition, the Grim Reaper Ballerina conveyed a contraption consisting of various torture devices and glazed rolls. A UFO on wheels rolled by with a hatch at the top propped up. The driver pedaling away inside wearing a Richard Nixon mask hunched up his shoulders and flashed sudden peace signs.
It was Local-Motion Days’ Promenade of the Odd. Up the street past Just Desserts was the road to Mrs. Hutle’s. That was where I had to go. She was the only one who could help me. Everything’s riding on her. I’ve been at her place about an hour now, writing.
“Sure an’ I knew you’d be callin’, my darlin’,” the old woman said in her high Irish lilt, wrapped in a lace shawl and filling the doorway with her otherworldly presence. Strains from The Mist River Libertine’s cover of Herb Alpert’s “A Taste of Honey” wafted through the floating fog. In the eerie glow of the setting sun Sam Hain went inside.
Outside the house, a black cat sat on an upended barrel next to a planter box on top. To anyone approaching the house, the black set of upper-story windows would have looked like two great black eyes over the centered inset mouth of the doorway. Upon exiting with a lightened pack not long thereafter, in Sam’s mind some shrubbery extending upward in front of the house resembled so many fingers on cheeks, fleetingly reminding him as he glanced back of Munch’s “The Scream.”
Wading through some costumed loiterers at the end of the gravel drive Sam did a double-take on a streaker heading toward the music, half-certain that he recognized her from several years of grade school together. Sam feared calling out yet wanted to not because she was streaking but in spite of it. It was the way he felt whenever he saw anyone he thought that he knew, or used to, but had to be on his guard with if he was to maintain a sense of what would have to pass for normalcy. Things of course were slightly off. For all Sam knew, a trustworthy friend at home could prove unexpectedly problematic here. Consequently, barring the occasional burst of intuition to aid his judgement, Sam thought he may have seemed to some as lacking in people skills.
Shela Leigh, contributing writer for The Freethinker, picked up on what she took to be the insecurity of the man stepping out of the dark hedge.
“Oh good,” she said, “someone else who’s not wearing a costume.”
“Which is not to say I’m not disguised,” Sam replied.
“Or funny-looking. That was a joke.”
“I know. And funny because it’s true.”
A passerby wearing a tall pointed hat with a wide brim and a long cloak appeared and gravely intoned, “What’s true? Truth? Truth?”
“Is that a cotton beard?” Shela asked, regarding several strips of tape depending from some string affixed near his jaw line and bearing wispy wads of cotton. “Did you tape cotton to your eyebrows?”
“Yes it is and yes I did,” the cloaked one intoned. “Now you listen to me. In my travels I have learned that what you need to do, yes you, is go to a place of honest business like that one right over there–what is that? Kung Food?–you go over to Kung Food, and you start working. You hear me? You work! I am pointing my finger at you right now and I am telling you to work! Scrub those floors for free, and in time you’ll become Head Floor Scrubber. That will make you a dollar. After that you’ll work your way toward Co-Assistant Gum-Under-The-Table-Picker, then Head Gum-Under-The-Table-Picker. At which point you can wash the dishes. But I’m not through. Because then you get to be the Condiment Shaker, then Door Handle Licker, until, in time, through hard honest work, mind, you will become the President of the Untied Blah-Blah of Yadda Yadda. That’s how life works. And that is the truth. Now you go do it.”
“I already have a job.”
“I write for The Freebie.”
“Then you’ll never amount to anything.”
“Ah,” Sam said, “I see. You must write for The Informer.”
The cloaked one turned and left.
“So is that going to go in the paper?”
“Front page, don’t you think?”
“Right up there with those big ticks.”
“Oh my god!” Shela laughed with a mixture of exasperation and disbelief. “Have you seen the shrines people are setting up around those things?”
“But didn’t you know? They’re angels. I had to talk with some people in Radley at a place called Our Trailer Park of the Recovering Addict or whatever to hear about that, but still. One guy there has a little single-page newsletter he’s putting out called “Tick Talk.” Some of these angels of his feed until they explode. I think the trailer park was built over a landfill or something, so his angels love it there. He’s got a picture of one bursting, which, if you stare at it long enough there in the trailer park, with all the rock and dirt and blood spraying, starts to look a little like the flag. It’s a sign.”
“That’s funny. I thought angels were supposed to be invisible and have bird wings.”
They had been walking as they spoke, gravitating toward the sounds and scents of music and food. Businesses with booths set up could be seen lining three sides of a large field, the west end of which faced several houses a stone’s throw from the street running through town. At a right angle from the street and parallel to the longer north side of the field ascended a road leading up to private forested land, the jagged horizon of which on clear nights appeared black against the blue evening sky, but was lost on this night in a dense haze of fog. On the other side of this road sat the high school to the southern portion of the county, which while sporting a football field, did not host the event owing to insurance purposes. Over the long south side of the field, where revelers chiefly milled, the redwood tree-line loomed close enough for hangers-on at booths to lean back in folding chairs and pick absentmindedly at the deep-grooved fibrous bark. The upward-sloping east end of the field bore a bandstand built at the edge of the grove, and it was here that The Mist River Libertines, also called by their friends “Mr. L.,” were covering some Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Standing in line at the Nepal Noodle booth waiting to order a cup of Yeti Spaghetti, Shela recognized the server as a friend of hers named Phil. She called out to him, craning around some customers in front as Sam returned sans backpack, having stashed it safely in the grove under the legitimate pretext of needing to relieve himself.
“That’s my friend Phil,” she said, with a touch of her fingertips on Sam’s arm. “I’ve known him a long time.”
“Hey look,” Sam said, peering off to the side. “It looks like they’ve got a tightrope over there.”
Indeed, some among the crowd had gathered with shoes in hand, laces tied together, and set about tossing the shoes so that they hit the rope fifteen feet overhead, wrapping around like a set of bolos. A mismatched pair of Chuck E. Taylor hi-tops so far were the only success.
“Looks like yin and yang,” someone said. A pair of boots shot out of the crowd in an ungainly arc and came down nearly hitting a guy in the head. Some cheers went up for no apparent reason. “Look at me,” another cried. “I’m Gaucho Marx!”
Shela proceeded to tell Sam an amusing anecdote about Phil. Somewhere during the course of this she abruptly stopped and stared at Sam, who seemed fascinated by the opposite-colored shoes dangling from the wire. The Mist River Libertines had just finished a set. The customers in front had moved off to the side twisting plastic forks in cups of steaming pasta. It was Sam and Shela’s turn to order. Still looking at Sam, Shela said, “You are so insecure.”
“I told you I’ve known Phil forever. Look, I don’t even know your name. I never should’ve taken pity on you. It’s just spaghetti. It’s not like we’re on a date. God, you’re just a jerk.” She turned to the counter. “Hi, Phil. Can I get a large Yeti? Thanks.”
Phil stared at Sam as he scraped aromatic noodles flecked with seasoning into a Styrofoam cup.
“Can I get a lid on that please, Phil?” Shela added. “Oh, and one fork? Thanks.”
The white plastic lid, gliding like gilding through space, hovered and descended, pinioning overhanging noodles against the side of the cup. Still staring at Sam, Phil suddenly said, “Haven’t I seen you from somewhere?”
“Well sure you have,” Sam said, not missing a beat and extending his hand in a gladsome manner, “I’m Der White Angel. Is it safe yet?”
His proffered hand remained in the air as he held his gladsome smile, then retracted both and walked away.
“‘Medicine Man,’” someone in line said knowingly behind him. “Laurence Harvey.”
Maenads and magicians swam in lurid light. Increasingly Sam had difficulty telling sketchy people acting pretentious apart from pretentious people acting sketchy. So overcast was the night, particularly over the field, that the waxing moon appeared as a silver sliver. Dead Smoke, a local band unknown to most, materialized upon the bandstand in conjunction with a smattering of applause which may have had more to do with a successful tossing up of shoes just as a scarlet-clad figure with an antiquated hat bearing a bobbing feather emerged over Sam’s left shoulder in the confines of the crowd and spoke in suave tones of a dream he’d had where small aliens with scythes labored in that very field. Huge white heads under frayed straw hats bent low, reaper’s blades swinging to the steady cicada thrum as dour overseers with black-lined eyes made almond-like sat rocking on porches with slow sips of cool drinks and shotguns in their laps while mutated children suffered wet bandages wrapped around their skulls intended to elongate them in the manner of ancient Egyptians.
In Sam’s clouded vision plunging cataracts resounded. Honeyed speech from the scarlet figure poured into his ear. Strange images mingling with the music manifested in his mind. Nightmarish faces tipped back laughing. Icy laughter rang. Whup-whup-whupping shoes windmilled in the dark sent scent like spuming censors of votaries at variegated speeds–now threatening to slice through the crowd like a runaway radial arm saw–now ranging round worlds in impossibly enormous orbits–now a roulette wheel–now a cosmic cyclone–all molecular action was wrapped up in the motion of the shoes–now a single spinning source, now countless replications, vibrations glimmering like rings spreading in pools–nightmare faces plastered on darkness tipped back ringing icy laughter mismatched with monstrous mouths–
Suddenly Sam leaped up on the stage, tearing the mike from the stand. Dead Smoke had just finished their set. Epiphany was coming on.
“I come from another dimension! I am not of this world! Listen to me! I had to get a paper route sack! A paper route sack with a doll inside! I didn’t know about the doll! I didn’t know it was made of this weird cork stuff that’s like a homing device for aliens! I’m not kidding! Back in the 1800s an alien was down in a well trying to find something with this homing device thing, I don’t know, dead aliens I guess, but a girl accidentally dropped a bucket on its head and knocked it loopy. Wait! It’s a long story! She’s a crazy old woman now I tell you! But the aliens, they got me after I got the doll because I was too tired! I didn’t know! Except they couldn’t control me for long because of a blow to the head I took from a fall when I was a kid. So then when I was on the spaceship, I beat a bunch of them up! I was hitting and hitting and hitting so much! That’s how I got here. It was an accident. That’s all. One of the aliens got accidentally zapped down with me. Right in the middle of Carata. And then I found out I have the super powers when I tried to catch it. I ran and ran so hard. That was when I cut my hand in a knife shop. Bugs and stuff that lick my blood, I know this now, that’s why they grow big. I can’t explain why. But the alien jumped on the back of a truck and I got a ride from an old Indian guy. He said his name was Chimney. Does anybody know a Chimney? And then when we got down here I knew the alien was somewhere nearby, because that’s one of my powers too, and I just sort of laid low, which was perfect because back home I lived here anyway! In the parallel universe. All I wanted was to get back home. Then it turned out my parallel universe girlfriend’s kid was helping the alien. How’s that for weird? But it was allergic, allergic to peanuts, and it died. So I stuffed the body in my pack and took it to the old woman. Right here in town. It’s the only way I’ll ever see the aliens to maybe catch a ride back. She’s probably still bathing it in buttermilk right now. I don’t know. I’m supposed to go back later and help her stuff it in the freezer. I know all this sounds crazy, but it really is the truth. You people have no idea. You run around acting like you know everything, when really you haven’t got the slightest clue what’s going on at all.”
At this point it was unclear to Sam if the mike had even been working. Members of the band Epiphany had been engaging themselves so busily off the stage with cords, equipment, instruments and various other apparatus, perhaps assuming Sam was himself part of the event, a postulation which may have been shared by a majority of those concerned, that it was possible no one in the band paid more than cursory attention to a word that he had said.
Indeed, so forcefully and incoherently did Sam unburden himself with his bizarre announcements, and so completely unencumbered was the truth of his experience with the trappings of artifice which the peoples of all worlds generally recognize what is called communication, that no one in the crowd at that hour of the night questioned the authority of Sam’s self-expression in the slightest. But if Sam had been given a free pass by a less than keenly observing audience, suddenly that pass was revoked on the nearly simultaneous occurrence of what were for Sam perhaps the two strangest events of his journey yet to unfold.
At the sound of thunderous applause Sam looked to see, stepping on stage, Neil Young.
Instinctively Sam withdrew. Rather, he started to–wide-eyed, open-mouthed, dazed–when something beyond the clamorous throng had him doing, had anyone been observing, an unintentionally decent impression of Radar O’Reilly from “MASH.”
“Listen–listen! What’s that?” he said, and not a single person heard as Neil Young, backed by Epiphany, launched into “Rockin’ in the Free World.” Just when Neil reached, with ferocious intensity, the line by which he titled the song, there appeared from overhead nothing less than a gigantic bumblebee which descended toward the side of the stage where Sam now stood, totally disoriented and utterly befuddled.
Up went his arms–whether in supplication or self-defense will forever remain unclear–and the next thing Sam knew he was both gripping and gripped by two of six oddly-jointed armor-like legs, the ones in back to which he clung each as long as he was tall. Plucked like a piece of pollen, Sam dangled over the crowd.
Of those who even noticed–and the fact that not all did will not be too difficult to be believed on the part of those who have ever seen Neil Young perform–some percentage doubtless assumed the bee was simply part of the show, manipulated perhaps by pulleys and wires arranged overhead and unseen in the dark. Others there, following the lead of the crowd around them, contributed to the uninterrupted flow of general hysteria.
Whatever the case, in the moments it took for the monstrous creature to adjust its flight to the weight differential, Sam overheard overhead from one or two sources in the crowd, while his flailing feet brushed hands outstretched as though to receive him, “It’s the bee’s knees!” and “Look at him, he’s catching a buzz!”
Sam felt a tugging which nearly grounded him, then suddenly rose, borne again, bare feet brushing the tightrope wire. They had gotten his shoes. Socks, too. Some cheers flew up from the crowd as the song went on and high over the giant trees Sam was carried completely away.
Precisely as Sam closed his journal, he saw himself walk through the door.
It was Halloween. The events of a week and a half before might have seemed but a crazy dream were it not for dandelion spores the size of umbrellas bouncing outside against the window. Blisters and cuts on his feet retained from the long walk home still stung. Having made a bee-line to his journal, the only contents of the backpack he had stashed, and that being the first thing he had retrieved upon return to town, Sam left a trail a mile wide of his passing with no sign of abatement. Apparently his blood had mutated.
Conversely, there had been no sign of Mrs. Hutle. Evidently she went wherever it is that an old Irish woman goes. Tapping at her chamber door eventually felt suspicious. Nor did Sam much wish to even go outside, considering that during the walk back to Madrani early that morning, after the yellow- and black-haired buzzing monster with giant stereo speaker eyes descended to a clearing slow enough and low enough for Sam to literally hit the ground running while the bee itself disappeared into a hole in the side of a hill, he had seen in the river at least one eel of truly chilling proportions and had to use a rock to club to death a butterfly with a body as big as a good-sized dog, and which actually screamed before it expired.
But it was only in the last few days that he noticed the effect on dandelions. How the local ecology would be affected in the coming weeks and months, and that of the planet for the rest of its duration, was entirely uncertain. Conceivably the condition would eventually wear off. The thought had not yet entered Sam’s mind to rid the globe of the source of the problem as swiftly and efficiently as possible. So far, in the creative attempt to make sense of his experience, Sam had decided that his was the story of how a self-overcoming became a self coming over.
Sam smiled to himself as he leaned back comfortably in the recliner on one side of the room, and shut the door exhausted on the other.