Behind them, a Humvee rolled up and the street in front of my house was now a goddamned stationary parade. Out stepped an officer from the National Guard, who I guessed was the guy put in charge of the manhunt for Franky, who appeared to loudly be asserting that this was his show since roasting behind those walls was the man he had been charged with finding. Behind them, a white channel 5 news van pulled up, shitting a cameraman from the rear doors before the wheels even stopped turning. Meanwhile, the crowd of bystanders was doubling every five minutes, as text messages flew furiously through the air to announce that the coolest freaking thing ever was going on down at the old Wong place right this very minute. The whole situation was devolving into what John would later refer to as “a fucktard circus.”
I shifted my gaze back behind the house.
The fireman was flat again, his protective hat laying a few feet away. His friend nowhere to be found. Maybe he went for help?
Suddenly, several things hit me at once:
1. That the fireman was missing his head;
2. The fact that the hat that was laying a few feet away still had the head in it;
3. The realization that this was not the body of the guy who was hurt earlier—this was the guy who came to help;
4. A fist, which smashed through the window and knocked me out cold.
When I came to a few seconds later, I was being dragged through glass and people were screaming. I landed with a thud on the grass outside the Porsche. A pair of arms coated in the black sleeves of a firefighter’s coat were clenched around my chest, dragging me across my lawn. Something was clasped in one of the hands, red and white and shaped like a horseshoe. My vision came into focus enough for me to realize it was a human jawbone, complete with a full set of teeth. One of the molars had a silver filling in it.
With each passing foot, things got a little warmer and a little smokier, which my bell-rung brain finally realized meant I was being dragged toward the fire. I thrashed to get out of the man’s grip, my hands still pinned behind me in handcuffs. The burst of panic-fueled strength got me free, for the moment anyway, and I tried to crawl away from him. A boot came down on my back. I fought and managed to roll over.
The fireman—a huge, strapping guy—was missing the lower half of his face. Where his jawbone should have been, and presumably had been all of his life until a few minutes ago, was the mouth and a dozen black wiggling feet of my spider. It looked a bit charred in places.
Halfface Firefighter threw off his fireman’s jacket. He lifted his right arm, and two thin, sharp, white protrusions emerged from his wrist, kind of like Wolverine’s claws except when Wolverine pushed his out, his hand didn’t immediately fall off, as happened here. From the wrist stump the two protrusions grew and sharpened. Then, a red split appeared at the man’s wrist, growing down to his elbow. With a wet tearing sound, his forearm pulled itself into two lengthwise halves, the two bones of the forearm splitting apart like blades opening on a pair of scissors.
Halfface Firefighter Scissorarms brandished his new appendage and leaned down.
His forehead exploded.
Gunshots hammered the air. Screams from all around. Halfface Bloodyhead stumbled back.
It was Falconer, advancing behind his enormous chrome handgun. It fired again, and again, shots punching bloody holes in a firefighter-issue T-shirt. But the man just would not go down.
I was up and on my feet and running, off balance and stumbling with my hands pinned behind me. I heard Falconer let out a frustrated, growling scream. I spun and saw Halfface grab the detective around the base of the skull. He forced Falconer’s head down to waist level, then turned his body away from him. Holding Falconer’s face directly in front of his buttocks, Halfface farted. Falconer collapsed to the leaves, as if dead.
Another gunshot smacked Halfface in the shoulder. Annoyed, he held up his scissored arm. The two sharpened bones rotated at the elbow joint. Slow at first, and then faster and faster until they were twirling at the elbow like a band leader’s baton, whizzing through the air and throwing off flecks of blood and meat.
Halfface Firefighter Bloodyhead Spinbones strode toward the burning house with purpose, directly toward my bedroom window, where a column of fire was rushing upward, causing the gutter above it to melt and sag like saltwater taffy.
Starting from the foundation, he angled his spinning appendage into the wall, tearing a ragged hole in the siding and insulation behind it, making a sound like a jackhammer. He made a vertical gash about chest high, leading up to the bottom left corner of the broken window.
Cops screamed commands around me. One was tending to Falconer, the other was shouting about backup.
Halfface finished his cut, then made another one a few feet to the right of it, again ending at the window. He was turning the window into a door.
It was John. His plastic handcuffs were cut but he still wore the loops around his wrists like a pair of cheap bracelets. Munch came running up behind him, looking panic-stricken. He was carrying a huge set of bolt cutters.
Halfface bashed out the rest of the glass with his remaining fist. Then he reached through the window and pulled.
A burning section of wall fell at his feet. Behind it was the charred, melting springs and frame that had been my bed. The flames roared, fueled by the new rush of oxygen.
John took the bolt cutters from Munch and went to work on my handcuffs. To Munch he screamed, “RUN! TAKE DAVE’S BRONCO! THE KEYS ARE IN IT. DRIVE UNTIL YOU’RE SOMEPLACE NOBODY SPEAKS ENGLISH!”
My hands were free. Explosions erupted a few feet away—a cop going to work on Halfface with a riot gun. The monster was down on his knees. I saw a shot blow a hole in his neck and his head flopped over, dangling by a tendon.
There was victory, for about three seconds. Then …
The cop started screaming.
The cop next to him started screaming.
The nearest firefighter started screaming.
They were clawing and swatting and scraping at themselves, trying to knock away tiny biting monsters that they could not see. Then I looked back at my house, and understood.
I just killed the world.
Black wiggling shapes fanned out from the hole in the wall, spilling in waves over the broken boards and plaster on the lawn, disappearing into the grass.
A firefighter ran up with a bullhorn, raised it and shouted, “WARNING! WE HAVE TOXIC FUMES! EVERYONE—AND I MEAN EVERYONE—LEAVE THE AREA IF YOU DO NOT HAVE BREATHING APPARAAAAAAHHHH!!!”
A spider was eating his eyeball.
A bystander, shooting the scene on his phone, had a baby spider on his hand and another in his hair.
I couldn’t breathe. This was not happening. This was not possibly happening.
A hand on my elbow, pulling me away. John saying something I couldn’t hear. Everything was silent. My brain had frozen up. People were running.
It all seemed very familiar.
John was pulling me along. I caught the eyes of Detective Falconer, who was back up, now trying ineffectually to help a heavy teenage girl get the spider off of her neck. His look spoke clearly:
Take it all in, white trash. You did this.
He was right. Before the fire, we had the parasites imprisoned inside the house. The feds could have roped it off, sealed it up, kept all the bystanders safely away. They could have taken their time figuring out how to neutralize the threat. We could have told them what we knew, told them not to get within a hundred yards without mouth protection and to bury the house under a mountain of concrete. Instead, the fire had drawn a crowd. First the firefighters with no protection, and then the gawkers who crowded around like a goddamned all-you-can-eat parasite buffet. They would all die. Maybe everyone would die. Maybe the parasites would own the planet. And it would all be my fault. It was the DVD sticker situation all over again.
We ran. We bumped into CDC crews with holes chewed through their space suits. We shouldered past confused National Guardsmen. We dodged the Action 5 News camera guy and a lady reporter demanding an interview from someone, anyone.
We piled into the Caddie. It stank of turkeys, possibly because there were two turkeys in the backseat. Live ones, pecking at the seat cushions. John cranked the ignition and Creedence Clearwater Revival blared from the dash. He stepped on the gas and we ripped through a band of yellow police tape somebody was trying to string up.
Probably a little late for that, buddy.
Amy decided she was fighting mankind’s most ancient battle: physical impulse versus human dignity. Her bladder felt like it was filled with knives, but the bus toilet was not something a human should be allowed to touch without wearing a wet suit. Would she give in to animal impulse and surrender her human dignity? She would not. Actually, she tried to go back there about fifteen minutes ago but it was occupied and there was a guy in there making weird noises. So, she was back in her seat, counting the miles to the nearest bathroom. Not far, now. They were right outside of town, already past the tractor dealership.
On the seat next to her was a white cardboard box from a bakery not far from the university, containing what was probably the finest food ever produced by the human species. They were red velvet cupcakes with a cheesecake filling and a cream cheese icing. There were only half a dozen in the box but you could barely finish one of them before you had to go sit down somewhere and stare at the ceiling. It’d sit in your belly like a bag of concrete but you’d have no regrets. The fat and sugar hit your system so hard that with every bite you just wanted to give the world a hug—
Oh, no …
The bus was stopping.
Amy stood up and saw cars. Cars and cars and cars, stopped dead on the highway leading into town.
Her heart sank.
This was … surely just a car accident or something. Not every bad thing that happened revolved around David. Surely.
She was already dialing. But this time, no voice mail—a recorded message from the cell phone carrier saying all circuits were busy.
A helicopter swept overhead. Low.
Ohhhhh … crap.
Across the aisle of the bus, a couple of college-looking guys in vintage clothes and thick-rimmed glasses were whispering frantically to each other, huddled over the screen of a cell phone.