Midnight Page 33


Abruptly they were in the real car, cast back in time. Ahead of them on the highway, coming toward them, was the drunk in the white pickup truck, weaving across the double yellow line, bearing down on them at high speed. Sam cried out—"Mom!"—but she couldn't evade the pickup this time any more than she had been able to avoid it thirty-five years ago. It came at them as if they were a magnet and slammed into them head-on. He thought it must be like that at the center of a bomb blast a great roar pierced by the shriek of shredding metal. Everything went black. Then, when he swam up from that gloom, he found himself pinned in the wreckage. He was face to face with his dead mother, peering into her empty eye socket. He began to scream.


That nightmare also failed to wake him.


Now he was in a hospital, as he'd been after the accident, for that had been the first of the six times he'd nearly died. He was no longer a boy, however, but a grown man, and he was on the operating table, undergoing emergency surgery because he had been shot in the chest during the same gun battle in which Carl Sorbino had died. As the surgical team labored over him, he rose out of his body and watched them at work on his carcass. He was amazed but not afraid, which was just how he had felt when it had not been a dream.


Next he was in a tunnel, rushing toward dazzling light, toward the Other Side. This time he knew what he would find at the other end because he had been there before, in real life instead of in a dream. He was terrified of it, didn't want to face it again, didn't want to look Beyond. But he moved faster, faster, faster through the tunnel, bulleted through it, his terror escalating with his speed. Having to look again at what lay on the Other Side was worse than his dream confrontations with Scott, worse than the battered and one-eyed face of his mother, infinitely worse (faster, faster), intolerable, so he began to scream (faster) and scream (faster) and scream—


That one woke him.


He sat straight up on the sofa and pinched off the cry before it left his throat, An instant later he became aware that he was not alone in the unlighted living room. He heard something move in front of him, and he moved simultaneously, snatching his .38 revolver from the holster, which he had taken off and laid beside the sofa.


It was Moose.


"Hey, boy."


The dog chuffed softly.


Sam reached out to pat the dark head, but already the Labrador was moving away. Because the night outside was marginally less black than the interior of the house, the windows were visible as fuzzy-gray rectangles. Moose went to one at the side of the house, putting his paws on the sill and his nose to the glass.


"Need to go out?" Sam asked, though they had let him out for ten minutes just before they'd gone to bed.


The dog made no response but stood at the window with a peculiar rigidity.


"Something out there?" Sam wondered, and even as he asked the question, he knew the answer.


Quickly and gingerly he crossed the dark room. He bumped into furniture but didn't knock anything down, and joined the dog at the window.


The rain-battered night seemed at its blackest in this last hour before dawn, but Sam's eyes were adjusted to darkness. He could see the side of the neighboring house, just thirty feet away. The steeply sloping property between the two structures was not planted with grass but with a variety of shrubs and several starburst pines, all of which swayed and shuddered in the gusty wind.


He quickly spotted the two Boogeymen because their movement was in opposition to the direction of the wind and therefore in sharp contrast to the storm dance of the vegetation. They were about fifteen feet from the window, heading downslope toward Conquistador. Though Sam could discern no details of them, he could see by their hunchbacked movement and shambling yet queerly graceful gait that they were not ordinary men.


As they paused beside one of the larger pines, one of them looked toward the Talbot house, and Sam saw its softly radiant, utterly alien amber eyes. For a moment he was transfixed, frozen not by fear so much as by amazement. Then he realized that the creature seemed to be staring straight at the window, as if it could see him, and suddenly it loped straight toward him.


Sam dropped below the sill, pressing against the wall under the window, and pulled Moose down with him. The dog must have had some sense of the danger, for he didn't bark or whine or resist in any way, but lay with his belly to the floor and allowed himself to be held there, still and silent.


A fraction of a second later, over the sounds of wind and rain, Sam heard furtive movement on the other side of the wall against which he crouched. A soft scuttling sound. Scratching.


He held his .38 in his right hand, ready in case the thing was bold enough to smash through the window.


A few seconds passed in silence. A few more.


Sam kept his left hand on Moose's back. He could feel the dog shivering.


Tick-tick-tick.


After long seconds of silence, the sudden ticking startled Sam, for he had just about decided that the creature had gone away.


Tick-tick-tick-tick.


It was tapping the glass, as if testing the solidity of the pane or calling to the man it had seen standing there.


Tick-tick. Pause. Tick-tick-tick.


5


Tucker led his pack out of the mud and rain, onto the sagging porch of the decrepit house. The boards creaked under their weight. One loose shutter was banging in the wind; all the others had rotted and torn off long ago.


He struggled to speak of his intentions, but he found it very difficult to remember or produce the necessary words. Midst snarls and growls and low brute mutterings, he only managed to say, "… here … hide … here … safe …"


The other male seemed to have lost his speech entirely, for he could produce no words at all.


With considerable difficulty, the female said, "safe … here … home… ."


Tucker studied his two companions for a moment and realized they had changed during their night adventures. Earlier, the female had possessed a feline quality-sleek, sinuous, with cat ears and sharply pointed teeth that she revealed when she hissed either in fear, anger, or sexual desire. Though something of the cat was still in her, she had become more like Tucker, wolfish, with a large head drawn forward into a muzzle more canine than feline. She had lupine haunches, as well, and feet that appeared to have resulted from the crossbreeding of man and wolf, not paws but not hands either, tipped with claws longer and more murderous than those of a real wolf. The other male, once unique in appearance, combining a few insectile features with the general form of a hyena, had now largely conformed to Tucker's appearance.


By unspoken mutual agreement, Tucker had become the leader of the pack. Upon submitting to his rule, his followers evidently had used his appearance as a model for their own. He realized that this was an important turn of events, maybe even an ominous one.


He did not know why it should spook him, and he no longer had the mental clarity to concentrate on it until understanding came to him. The more pressing concern of shelter demanded his attention.


… here … safe … here .


He led them through the broken, half-open door, into the front hall of the moldering house. The plaster was pocked and cracked, and in some places missing altogether, with lath showing through like the rib cage of a half-decomposed corpse. In the empty living room, long strips of wallpaper were peeling off, as if the place was shedding its skin in the process of a metamorphosis as dramatic as any that 'Tucker and his pack had undergone.


He followed scents through the house, and that was interesting, not exciting but definitely interesting. His companions followed as he investigated patches of mildew, toadstools growing in a dank corner of the dining room, colonies of vaguely luminescent fungus in a room on the other side of the hall, several deposits of rat feces, the mummified remains of a bird that had flown in through one of the glassless windows and broken a wing against a wall, and the still ripe carcass of a diseased coyote that had crawled into the kitchen to die.


During the course of that inspection, Tucker realized the house did not offer ideal shelter. The rooms were too large and drafty, especially with windows broken out. Though no human scent lingered on the air, he sensed that people still came here, not frequently but often enough to be troublesome.


In the kitchen, however, he found the entrance to the cellar, and he was excited by that subterranean retreat. He led the others down the creaking stairs into that deeper darkness, where cold drafts could not reach them, where the floor and walls were dry, and where the air had a clean, lime smell that came off the concrete-block walls.


He suspected that trespassers seldom ventured into the basement. And if they did … they would be walking into a lair from which they could not possibly escape.


It was a perfect, windowless den. Tucker prowled the perimeter of the room, his claws ticking and scraping on the floor. He sniffed in corners and examined the rusted furnace. He was satisfied they'd be safe. They could curl up secure in the knowledge that they would not be found and if, by some chance, they were found, they could cut off the only exit and dispense with an intruder quickly.


In such a deep, dark, secret place, they could become anything they wanted, and no one would see them.


That last thought startled Tucker. Become anything they wanted?


He was not sure where that thought originated or what it meant. He suddenly sensed that by regressing he had initiated some process that was now beyond his conscious control, that some more primitive part of his mind was permanently in charge. Panic seized him. He had shifted to an altered state many times before and had always been able to shift back again. But now … His fear was sharp only for a moment, because he could not concentrate on the problem, didn't even remember what he meant by "regressing," and was soon distracted by the female, who wanted to couple with him.


Soon the three of them were in a tangle, pawing at one another, thrusting and thrashing. Their shrill, excited cries rose through the abandoned house, like ghost voices in a haunted place.


6


Tick-tick-tick.


Sam was tempted to rise, took through the window, and confront the creature face to face, for he was eager to see what one of them looked like close-up.


But as violent as these beings evidently were, a confrontation was certain to result in an attack and gunfire, which would draw the attention of the neighbors and then the police. He couldn't risk his current hiding place, for at the moment he had nowhere else to go.


He clutched his revolver and kept one hand on Moose and remained below the windowsill, listening. He heard voices, either wordless or so muffled that the words did not come clearly through the glass above his head. The second creature had joined the first at the side of the house. Their grumbling sounded like a low-key argument.


Silence followed.


Sam crouched there for a while, waiting for the voices to resume or for the amber-eyed beast to tap once more—tick-tick—but nothing happened. At last, as the muscles in his thighs and calves began to cramp, he took his hand off Moose and eased up to the window. He half expected the Boogeyman to be there, malformed face pressed to the glass, but it was gone.


With the dog accompanying him, he went from room to room on the ground floor, looking out all the windows on four sides of the house. He would not have been surprised to find those creatures trying to force entry somewhere.


But for the sound of rain drumming on the roof and gurgling in the downspouts, the house was silent.


He decided they were gone and that their interest in the house had been coincidental. They weren't looking for him in particular, just for prey. They very likely had glimpsed him at the window, and they didn't want to let him go if he had seen them. But if they had come to deal with him, they apparently had decided that they could no more risk the sound of breaking glass and a noisy confrontation than he could, not in the heart of town. They were secretive creatures. They might rarely cut loose with an eerie cry that would echo across Moonlight Cove, but only when in the grip of some strange passion. And thus far, for the most part, they had limited their attacks to people who had been relatively isolated.


Back in the living room he slipped the revolver into the holster again and stretched out on the sofa.


Moose sat watching him for a while, as if unable to believe that he could calmly lie down and sleep again after seeing what had been on the prowl in the rain.


"Some of my dreams are worse than what's out there tonight," he told the dog. "So if I spooked easily, I'd probably never want to go to sleep again."


The dog yawned and got up and went out into the dark hall, where he boarded the elevator. The motor hummed as the lift carried the Labrador upstairs.


As he waited for sleep to steal over him again, Sam attempted to shape his dreams into a more appealing pattern by concentrating on a few images he would not mind dreaming about: good Mexican food, barely chilled Guinness Stout, and Goldie Hawn. Ideally, he'd dream about being in a great Mexican restaurant with Goldie Hawn, who'd look even more radiant than usual, and they'd be eating and drinking Guinness and laughing.


Instead, when he did fall asleep, he dreamed about his father, a mean-tempered alcoholic, into whose hands he had fallen at the age of seven, after his mother had died in the car crash.


7


Nestled in the stack of grass-scented burlap tarps in the back of the gardener's truck, Chrissie woke when the automatic garage door ascended with a groan and clatter. She almost sat up in surprise, revealing herself. But remembering where she was, she pulled her head under the top half-dozen tarps, which she was using as blankets. She tried to shrink into the pile of burlap.


She heard rain striking the roof. It sliced into the gravel driveway just beyond the open door, making a sizzling noise like a thousand strips of bacon on an immense griddle. Chrissie was hungry. That sound made her hungrier.


"You got my lunch box, Sarah?"


Chrissie didn't know Mr. Eulane well enough to recognize his voice, but she supposed that was him, for Sarah Eulane, whose voice Chrissie did recognize, answered at once:


"Ed, I wish you'd just come back home after you drop me at the school. Take the day off. You shouldn't work in such foul weather."


"Well, I can't cut grass in this downpour," he said. "But I can do some other chores. I'll just pull on my vinyl anorak. Keeps me dry as bone. Moses could've walked through the Red Sea in that anorak and wouldn't have needed God's miracle to help him."


Breathing air filtered through the coarse, grass-stained cloth, Chrissie was troubled by a tickling sensation in her nose, all the way into her sinuses. She was afraid that she was going to sneeze.


STUPID YOUNG GIRL SNEEZES, REVEALING HERSELF TO RAVENOUS ALIENS; EATEN ALIVE; "SHE WAS A TASTY LITTLE MORSEL," SAYS ALIEN NEST QUEEN, "BRING US MORE OF YOUR ELEVEN-YEAR-OLD BLOND FEMALES."

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