The speed of light may be the one absolute constant in our physical universe, but it is truer to say that light, like a road, goes nowhere, and it is only we, having taken incarnate form, who have wandered off its path to create so vast, lonely, and treacherous a place. ~Omar
Granny had lived in rooms behind her store with her parakeets, where only a potbelly stove provided heat for the property. Though no doors separated these small rooms, the warmth did not make it back far into the dwelling.
The hunkered-down grandchildren would not stir from their frozen beds, not until their grandmother rose to rouse a morning fire. Then it would be a daylong endeavor to regulate their bodily temperature while playing in varying proximity to their minor sun. It was with the mindfulness of the orbiting planet Mercury, with its one face molten, and its other buried in mountains of ice, that this regulation was their constant object. Inevitably they were compelled, before the embers died completely, to retreat to bed and wait again on the primal predator. Aloysius could not follow this understanding back through the vitreous chambers of the eye, or over tectonic plates imagined to gain and lose their frost. Yet he knew this elemental moved with license in every domain of disrupted thought.
Thump, Thump, rocked the glass doorknob.
A door, an intellectual impediment, inserted itself; Aloysius labored to clear the limbs of little cousins arrayed around him, but they were too much of a tumbled-down ladder to hoist him out of sleep. His mother peeked through the crack to see them dozing head-to-knee on the large bed. “Someone will have to sleep on the couch in the living room,” she announced. “There are too many kids to fit in here.”
Her gaze fell on her young son, who was the tallest; nodding, he obeyed.
Valerie led the way down the stairs with a pillow and blanket. The house was dark, and all the adults had retired to the various bedrooms for the evening. Each solid door in passing appeared as another stage in waking until, on reaching the living room, the open casket of Aloysius’ grandmother came into view; a floor fan blew lengthwise down the pallbearer’s rail and fluttered floor-to-ceiling drape in a window.
His mother explained, “It’s best to leave the lamp on.”
The grandson sat on the corner of the couch and pondered the serene expression on his grandmother’s face.
Valerie was slow to leave after fluffing the pillow, but, seeing her son was not scared to be alone in the room with the dead body, she returned to the stairs. Her unhurried steps found the landing, whereupon the only other light in the house was turned off. “Goodnight, baby,” she called down.
The child reclined after a few minutes, with the sense his grandmother slept peacefully across from him.
In unraveling sense, he meditated on the drape, which grew bolder where its billowy folds waxed and waned in the window. The night beyond the panes also drew encouragement, lurching forward to envelop and then merge with shadows around the lamp.
“Is that you, Granny?” he mumbled aloud.
The drape continued its pantomime, or rather resumed it. Its weighted hem toyed with a leg of the bier.
His eyelids were too much like river barges resistant to course corrections, and as their inevitable collision neared again, everything bound and ruled by line dimmed. It was only in seeing the curtain swell and drape the coffin lid that something moved beneath it.
Aloysius threw his eye open and gasped, “Granny...? Is that you?”
Granny would soon rise to start the fire, as every morning succumbed to the cold: The bright eternal winter day, and its idle hours and play, waited on her dispatch and bundle of cordwood…
“Is that you, Granny?” the joyous grandson whispered, hearing the poker in the grate.
The Sublime answered only, “Thump. Thump.”
The faint knock sent him meandering up from a depth. Words, perhaps tumbling out of his dream, gave him form, though he did not hear them issuing from his mouth. Aloysius raised a hand to his muzzy face and discovered an obstruction. A padded trim indicated part of a blindfold, and in pushing it away, a crystallized haze of catheters surrounded him. They extended from his arms and abdomen and wove together a silken web over the bed. Cadmium orange candlelight doubled their number on the facing wall in scarab green shadow.
The sleeper gradually appreciated the context in which he found himself. Flame-licked furniture leapt up in a blur from one side of the room, though none of it corresponded to fractured memory. Scales were off; veneers looked more like polyresin than wood. Most disconcerting, dresser, wedged chair, and bed visibly (if inaudibly) shook. The violence of the impression led to him to feel the side of his face for another foreign body. When the earmuffs were nudged aside, nothing was left to blunt the full whirr. Its point of origin was indeterminable, as every wall pealed like the surface of a deafening bell.
The druggy man sat up more easily than he would have thought and removed the cannulae. Several were flecked with reddish-purple granules, while others were filled with dark yellowish bile. He supposed these were his bodily fluids, yet were they siphoned off and dehydrated for unknown reasons, or had this process occurred naturally from prolonged neglect?
Plunging over the side of the bed, tremors were felt more keenly in the floor. They pulsed through his kneecaps and agitated hairs in his nostrils. He planted on all fours to still the spinning, thumping planks, and grasped the magnitude of what was arrayed against him: More glassy tubes encircled the bedposts and converged on a six-inch hole above the headboard. This suspiciously resembled hoist.
Thump. This knock originated from inside the closet.
Aloysius crawled into the dim recess to rest his forehead against the nailed-to panel. Feebly he pried at the flimsy barrier until it gave with a crack; the candlelight jumped past his shoulder, entering the dark crawlspace to glint off the handle of a toppled suitcase. It was inconceivable that, in this ruckus, he should hear the piece of luggage fall over, so he wondered if someone had knocked on the panel door to draw his attention to it. The object was nevertheless snatched back into the closet before it was unclasped.
A pile of blackened ashes filled the primary compartment, while a bundle of schematics were tucked inside the lid’s puckered, moth-eaten, velvet sleeve. Taking these heavy pages in hand, he let them scatter over his lap. Several appeared to be elaborate designs for a box apparatus. One page—though particularly one line of bold text—surrendered to scrutiny: Phone does not ring.
Aloysius doddered back to the bedside and picked up the phone on the nightstand. Static, mimicking the thrum in the wall, streamed from the earpiece. “—- — - —— - - —- - - - —- ——- - —— - — ——- — —”
“Hello?!” he yelled.
A spindly current of electricity traveled up the phone cord before reversing course down his forearm; it ended with a crackle on the mattress liner. He stiffened against the bedpost and dropped the handset on the base. It missed the hook and tumbled over the brink, sweeping along in its wake, the candleholder and struggling candle. He knelt to retrieve his only source of light, and spotted something peculiar and pale under the bed skirt. He stuck a finger in, thinking it a pincushion, yet fell away with a shriek to find a kneecap covered with bristly translucent hairs. The attenuated limb twitched to betray the burrow of a giant flesh-colored spider!
Aloysius’ eyes shot up as the last of the candlelight twisted in the glassy braid—the ghastly creature lifted the lassoed bed in the manner of a trapdoor! Darkness spread outward from this subduction, extinguishing the candle flame and plunging the room into smothering silence.
He latched onto the dangling end of the phone. Static—now the only thing heard—popped in the earpiece. It creaked with the doom of the spider’s pulley. The panicking man reconnected the receiver, though, with the source of the noise cutoff, his unnatural breathing set him off cruelly without cover. He cautiously probed for the toppled candleholder and brought it back to the ledge of the nightstand, whereupon it was rejoined with a book of matches. The wick was swiftly relit, and the cacophony rushed in to reclaim the room.
Nothing more stirred under the bed, and all four posts were mercifully returned to ground. The shot of adrenaline served as an antidote to the lingering effects of a sedative, although shadows continued to bob and weave in a monstrous dance around him.
Another, less pronounced shadow—that of a crumpled piece of paper—lay at the foot of the nightstand. The vibration made the phone number written on it unreadable, but a string of numbers sprang to mind. Aloysius braved the phone once more, and with the last digit released on the rotary, a muffled ping alerted him to the presence of a second phone. He reached under the pillow to fish out the cell phone; static now emanated from two earpieces.
The candle flame, reacting to disturbance in the air, whipped the crowding shadows into greater frenzy. What had been under the bed was now dangerously elsewhere on the premises. The resident was certain he dialed an exchange outside of town, so wisely disconnected both phones.
There was some small clarity in his thinking, enough to return to the dark closet and tear open a dry-cleaners bag at the end of a row of hangers. It contained a sports jacket and a pressed pair of trousers.
On dressing, Aloysius dropped the cell phone into his coat pocket and stumbled over something in its lining: The coiled strand of hair, like the scrap of paper, caught too far back in his mind to grasp its significance, although it too had tactile meaning.
The schematics were collected off the floor and replaced in the suitcase.
Windowpanes past the footboard were black as hematite, yet conveyed, in their transparency, the outline of light-tinged trees in the courtyard below. With suitcase in hand, Aloysius stepped into a darker, quieter hallway. His eyes quickly adapted, not to darkness but to a throbbing cobalt blue illumination. It was observed distinctly on the stair treads, though its source lay in the living room.
The waker peered down the cockeyed banister in disbelief. Something incomprehensible pierced the house through the ruptured attic, and amid the wreckage, its plasmatic, imprecise nature was a matter of grave concern. It resembled an exoskeletal casing, or membrane, and brought to mind the chthonic creature under the bed. Its color resonated with the disturbance upstairs, yet beyond the draft whistling through the portion of the house exposed to the elements, the vessel itself was profoundly silent.
A sudden drop-off greeted Aloysius with the last stair step. It was a jolt to find dirt instead of solid floor. A few pieces of furniture were on hand—all still aligned with the walls and miraculously upright. The house was presumably knocked off its foundation, but not a single chair was toppled. It was as if a magician yanked a tablecloth out from underneath a table setting without rousing a tinkle from silverware.
Aloysius’ sights winnowed first over the shadow of a nearby bookcase, and then over the shadow of a chair. The former was traced to its source, but there was nothing material to connect to the latter. This unassuming outline on the wall was studied, but it remained resolutely chair-like. Was this shape-shifting entity allied with the spider? Did it employ shadows, expectations, as its immurement?
The frightened captive sprinted toward the kitchen; in a blink, the goblin form leapt to the ceiling to become the shadow of a nonexistent chandelier. He did not wait for the next transformation but dove out the backdoor.
Approaching his car, the ragged luggage was tossed in the backseat, and he was as quickly behind the steering wheel. A trellis of withered wisteria crawled into the glare of his headlights, but stopped short of the roofline. From there the formidable vessel dominated the view. Distant stars, or their appearance, were made to fold around it like paper.
Turning the ignition key, the driver glanced at his bedroom window; something walked between the wispy candle and drapes. It snuffed out the wick, and while he waited to discover motive for this action, the realization came to him that his pursuer was not hiding in the darkness but had become it. This thought made Aloysius short of breath, and re-immersed his lungs and neural pathways in an inky embryonic memory that could only have preceded his waking.
The Saturn started down the alleyway toward the street, and as his house shrank behind him, the deep blue blade of the alien craft remained visible in his rearview mirror. With distance, however, it dissolved into the gathering timbers of rooflines.
Each city block offered a minimum of landmarks, mostly trees dripping with wet toilet paper. The decorated branches stretched forward into his high beams to guide the car before fading into oblivion in his taillights. Some unspeakable calamity had devastated the landscape, leaving only chimneys and a few clinging exterior walls behind. The car’s headlamps found an occasional unbroken window, although the driver could not help but think that his monster kept pace, hopping from house to house to pinch out each flicker of light.
Chapter Twenty-eight, Section Two/ Back/ Contents Page
Copyright © 2007 Michael Teague. All rights reserved.