We threw ourselves to the far end of the room and covered our heads. The sound was massive, a sharp PAKK! that was like nails in the eardrums. There was no sound of shattering glass and I was afraid it had failed. I rose and saw in the clearing smoke that a large, puckered hole had formed in the clear wall, like a hole punched in taffy. Amy ran out and I threw my arms around her.
She said, “Where are we? I don’t know how—”
“Later.” I turned to Largeman. “If you can’t cure her then you get us outta here, get us back to our world. We’ll find a way.”
“Gladly. We haven’t long before she . . . hatches.”
I said, “And let me guess. If she dies, these things come out of her right away, right?”
He didn’t reply, but I knew I was right.
“Okay, so you got some serious motivation to keep her safe, right? Now get us the fuck out of here.”
John said, “You better hurry, too.”
TWO ROOMS AWAY, an inch of ash fell from a rolled cigarette crammed into a poo-smeared dog biscuit. A faint ember of orange light smoldered away at the remaining two inches.
JOHN SAID TO me, “We have” —he thought for a moment— “five minutes, thirteen seconds before biscuit time.”
I set my watch. I couldn’t find the countdown feature, managed to change the date and the time zone both before I got it set, then had to adjust for the time lost.
We burst out of the door, me with my arm around Largeman’s neck, holding the lighter to his cheek.
“Nobody move, or I’ll light his fucking face on fire!” I meant it, too.
Either they took this threat seriously or Largeman was giving them instructions to back off. We pushed him down the hall and he pointed us to an elevator.
We climbed inside another giant spider, much to Amy’s horror, and took an agonizingly long, slow ride down. Amy was having trouble standing, squeezing her eyes shut and wrapping her arms around her gut.
Something’s growing in there. Oh, shit, shit, shit.
Down and down and down. These people built their skyscrapers upside down.
Finally, it stopped. We emerged in a round, tube-like hallway. We passed through one thick, round door after another.
We entered an enormous chamber. Organic machines and clear tubes and huge, egg-shaped pods that thrummed with power. I barely noticed any of it. What caught my attention was an enormous creature in the center of the room, shaped something like a huge, elephant-sized toad. It squatted in the center of the room and at the soundless command of Largeman, it opened its enormous mouth wide.
Blackness. Inside this creature was the same swirling darkness we saw in the dark column in the mall complex. I squinted and with concentration I could see light, shapes, a room. A moving figure . . .
Largeman stepped aside and pointed us toward the mouth.
I said, “Where does it go? I mean, specifically, where will we come out?”
“Theoretically? You should not emerge far from where you went in. But it is difficult to predict.”
“Amy survived going through. She’ll survive going back?”
No answer. I stepped up to the dark portal and as I got closer I realized I could see faintly through it. There did seem to be a small room on the other side, barely visible. I held my breath and stepped into the mouth of the beast, felt again that disconnected, time-lost feeling of an unexpected nap. I was pitched forward and landed on a hardwood floor. I looked up and saw I was in a hallway, turned and saw an open doorway with a VNV Nation poster on it.
I stood and realized I was looking through the Irish elevator door in the Sullivan house, only instead of open air I was looking into the toad room I had just come from. The door stood open next to me, as if it had been flung open when I fell in.
Molly leapt through and trotted past me. John pushed Amy through and she tumbled onto the floor and instantly went into a fetal position, face twisted in pain. There was a commotion in the other room now. I could see a dozen of the Beastments in there, wreaking havoc. There was a crowd of naked humanity as word seemed to have spread that things were about to go terribly wrong.
Largeman had ahold of John as they had apparently either changed their mind or had decided to keep him as a souvenir. There was a struggle of flailing arms and kicking feet and John grabbed Largeman’s face and came away with a leathery bundle—the man’s mask.
John froze. The man’s back was to me so I couldn’t see what John saw, but the look in John’s eyes was a sort of sudden blankness. He didn’t scream or puke or react at all; it was like his brain suddenly crashed like Windows.
I heard footsteps in the hall of the Sullivan house. I spun and saw Robert North jogging toward me from the stairwell, wearing a long, tan woman’s overcoat and an enormous feathery hat.
“Hey!” I shouted. “We made it! She’s sick, she has—look, get me some, uh . . . a cross or some holy water or . . . oh, get the Jesus picture! We’ll rub it on her.”
I turned and saw that the man had snatched the mask from John’s hand and was sticking it back on his face. I opened my mouth to scream to John, then wondered if sound would even travel through the rift. Then that question was answered when—
—a deep, heavy THOOMPH like a sonic boom hammered the world on the other side of the door. The crowd in the room flew into a frenzy. John kicked his way to his feet and ran my direction. He threw himself through, fell into the hallway. I went to close the door, but North calmly strode over. He reached out a hand, stopped the door, and looked in at Largeman. The two stared at each other across worlds and the man on the other side mouthed something that seemed like a bitter insult. Though I couldn’t hear it and I knew neither of these men, the meaning was clear. I should have known you were behind this.
Amy’s skin was bulging and swelling in places. I grabbed her hand and wrapped an arm around her neck and pulled her close, whispered that it was going to be okay, that we would get her fixed right up, that—
There was suddenly warm blood all over me and a ragged hole appeared in Amy’s temple. She went limp in my arms.
Standing a few feet away, was North.
He was holding a little silver gun.
A woman’s gun.
A thread of smoke drifting up from the barrel.
EVERYTHING INSIDE MY head turned black as deep space. I just sat there, shirt and arms flecked with red, just looking at her, at her slack face, her mouth hanging half open. And suddenly her body was being pulled from my arms and North was pulling her, dragging Amy by her feet like a rag doll. John just stood there, he just fucking stood there while all this happened and I found I had no strength to stand.
North wrestled with Amy’s body and threw the legs into the doorway, then came around and lifted the shoulders and pushed them through. The crowd in the other world, in the toad room, seemed completely confused by this, a dead body forcing its own way through the portal. But Largeman got it and he screamed. He screamed so loud I could hear it on the other side and soon the people around him understood it and bedlam ensued.
It was too late. Amy’s body ruptured, spilling out a cloud of the swirling white insects. The flying parasites saw a room full of hosts and poured forth into the naked crowd. A stampede ensued. The rest of Amy’s body exploded, bits of blood and bone flying back into the hallway. I heard a metallic tinkling sound like a coin hitting the floor, just as North slammed the door shut. He opened it again and saw only the Undisclosed night sky and a downpour of snow.
I started to stand but North spun and put the pistol on me.
“I know what you are thinking,” he said.
“And you are wrong.”
He started to say something else but at that moment John came up behind him and punched him in the kidneys. North arched his back and suddenly I saw the metallic object I had heard hit the floor. It was a shiny, curved bit of steel, flecked with red. Something a surgeon would use to brace a broken spine.
I picked up the piece of metal and jabbed it into the wrist of North’s gun hand. I felt it go in, punching through skin and popping between the two bones of his forearm. North shrieked and the gun clattered to the floor.
I grabbed the gun, pointed it at North’s heart, and watched him melt. Literally. He fell into a puddle of goo and, from it, emerged a creature not unlike a jellyfish.
A man-of-war, actually . . .
It floated up, just as we had seen it do a couple of days ago. I squeezed the trigger and sent shot after shot at the thing, chips of wood flecking off the walls. The jellyfish barely noticed. It floated downstairs and Molly ran barking after it.
We never saw it again.
There was a puddle of marbled goo on the floor that seemed to be steaming, dissolving. North’s leftovers.
I took a step forward and yanked open the door, just as North had. A blast of cold air and a dusting of snow blew in; the Sullivans’ backyard lay ten feet below. I was amazed that there was still light outside. The whole thing had only taken an hour or so. I sat down on the hardwood floor, sticky dots of blood drying on my face, snowflakes melting on my knees. I couldn’t think of a single reason to ever stand up again.
WE WENT OUT to my truck, then remembered that my truck was not at this house but was at the mall about a mile away. I also had lost my keys at some point but couldn’t remember when. We set out wading through the storm, not sure if a person could walk that far in ankle-deep snow without getting frostbite. We didn’t care. We plowed through it, not talking. The afternoon was fast fading to evening and what would happen after darkness fell and the shadows grew, we didn’t know. A few minutes into our trip, during which we made depressingly little progress and lost feeling in all twenty of our toes, a pickup came grinding up behind us, pulling over just ahead. The driver leaned out, a young guy with a red baseball cap.
“Yo!” he said, looking over the dusting of snow on our coats. “What’s up? Want a ride?”