Mollie L. Burleson
Mollie L. Burleson's short stories have appeared in the magazines Eldritch Tales, Crypt of Cthulhu, and Bare Bone, and in a number of anthologies, including 100 Creepy Little Creature Stories (Barnes & Noble, 1994), 100 Vicious Little Vampire Stories (Barnes & Noble, 1995), 100 Wicked Little Witch Stories (Barnes & Noble, 1995), Horrors! 365 Scary Stories (Barnes & Noble, 1998), Weird Tales (Triad, 2002), and Return to Lovecraft Country (Triad, 1997).
cloud formed atop the distant mountain as he headed west on Second Street. Pretty sight, he thought. It had been a big decision, moving out here. Not at all like living in the northeast. Better. Much better.
The vast turquoise sky above and the clean air and the people were just some of the reasons he had chosen to move here. Squinting slightly as the hot desert sun beat down, making watery images across the road, Tom nosed his car onto Saltillo Road.
He really liked it in New Mexico and was reminded daily of the rightness of his choice by just enjoying the natural wonders he'd see. The small town of Sand Rock was ideal for someone who had retired and was looking for a place to escape the rigors of the northern winters.
It was a friendly place, even though he had to drive two hundred miles a few times a year to shop the big stores and malls in Albuquerque or Las Cruces, and even Midland and Lubbock in Texas. It was a life without hearing daily about crime, and the air was pure, if you didn't count the occasional smell of manure as a pecan rancher fertilized his orchards.
Yes, it was a good life, he thought, as he turned left onto his rocky driveway and parked his truck. Slamming the door, he smiled as he watched the antics of a jackrabbit scampering across the lawn and heard the raucous cry of the long-tailed grackle. Yes, a good place to live.
He thought then about the only eyesore to the place, the huge, silver-colored building on the east side. It was rumored to have once been a place for storing cotton seed, but he'd never in his life seen its like. A tall building, ominous-looking and mysterious as it squatted on its gravel lot. The great domed roof could be seen from almost everywhere in town. It now housed a motley assortment of junk—collectibles, the sign read, which consisted of broken-down furniture, faded drapes and curtains piled high in cardboard boxes, outmoded children's toys, rusty bikes, tarnished mirrors, and the like.
The building was immense. He had been told that it measured a good three hundred feet across and was over one hundred feet high. Somehow, when standing in its very center, he had the feeling of having been swallowed up by a gigantic and repellant bug.
The circular walls of the interior were painted black halfway up and at the very top, a thing, very much like an eye, could be opened to the sky. It had been open for ventilation the day he stopped in to look at the items for sale, and the view it afforded had not been inspiring, but gray, for the day had been threatening rain.
What was curious was the proprietor, a man of few words who spoke only when asked a direct question and then as concisely as possible. Tom didn't know his name and wondered if anyone in town did. The man was clad in tattered overalls, rundown boots, a plaid shirt with gray undershirt beneath, and the ubiquitous southwestern red kerchief at his neck. The kerchief appeared to have never been washed, as it was darkly stained and oily looking. Atop his rather large head, the old man wore a grimy straw hat, and the scraggly long beard upon his chin was as gray as his underwear. What little of his face that could be seen was a pair of reptilian-shaped eyes with lids that never seemed to close. They stared at you, unblinkingly. But of course, that was just Tom's imagination. The man appeared very old and that would make his eyes look like that. Wouldn't it?
Upon Tom's arrival in the town, the Dome had been pointed out to him as a good place to eke out his sparse assortment of furniture. Living on a set income from Social Security and a tiny pension, he was only too happy to give the building a try. He had purchased a rickety chest for twenty dollars that he could use in his shed to hold tools and whatnot, and it suited him admirably. Still, dealing with the taciturn, almost surly old man was no pleasure, and Tom was glad to escape into the sunshine.
He had been in Sand Rock for almost a year now, and fit well into the community. He had met some men his age at the senior center and played pinochle with them from time to time.
One afternoon, as the game ended, Tom's friend Phil hung around and offered to get Tom a cup of coffee. They sat at a table near the snack bar and talked of many things. In passing, Tom mentioned the chest he had bought at the Dome.
"That place?" Phil said. "Why, you couldn't get me closer than a mile to it, now."
"Why?" Tom looked astonished.
"Well, I went there a few years ago to pick up some tools I'd been needing, and when I walked in there, I saw the old man that runs the place crouched over some huge old book and mumbling to himself, and as I went closer, I could see strange figures and drawings on its pages and tried for a better look, but when I stumbled against one of the chairs, he looked up, wary-like, slammed the book shut and stuck it under the desk.
"You don't say."
"I do say! And the look he gave me with those bleary eyes was enough to kill! So I'd never go back there even if everything was free."
Tom thought about this and took a last swallow of his now-cold coffee.
They sat together in companionable silence for a while, then Phil took up the tale once more.
"And you know, my granddaddy once told me about that place and the story he'd heard about a strange cult that held its meetings at night under the Dome, usually about midnight around May Eve or Halloween. When granddaddy said that, he'd spit into the dust. It was the kind of thing that didn't set well with him, seeing that he was raised a Baptist."
Tom sat there, engrossed.
"'Course, that was after the seed was gone and they'd turned it into that junk store," Phil went on. "Don't think it's changed much, even to this day."
Tom had gone home then, stopping at the local country market. Being a fairly good cook, he enjoyed being able to buy freshly roasted chiles and local spices, and he produced some very tasty meals. Usually after dinner, coffee cup in hand, he would sit in his rocker on the cement patio and listen to the birds and locusts. Sometimes he'd walk back onto his property and survey his few pecan trees. In the distance, ever present, was the silver dome jutting into the sky. The structure seemed to him a blight on the town, a gigantic metallic blister, as it squatted there, silent and forbidding, and he'd turn his back on it and concentrate on the nearby beauty that surrounded him.
It was near the end of July that he received a note from his granddaughter telling him that she'd be passing through town soon and wondering if he could put her up for a night. He was overjoyed at the news, for he loved his pretty little granddaughter who had just graduated from high school and was heading west to a college near Phoenix.
But there was a problem. Although he had two bedrooms, only one was furnished. He'd have to go to town and find a bed for her. It wouldn't be too great an expense if he bought it second hand, and, he could use it for unexpected guests in the future.
So, the next morning after breakfast, he got into his truck and headed for the used furniture store in town, a real store without domed roof or surly proprietor. But, as luck would have it, there was no bed suitable for his granddaughter and none priced to fit his meager budget. He squared his shoulders. There was nothing for it but to try out the silver dome again. He seemed to recall a fairly good selection of used beds when he last was in the store, and what harm could an old building and a crusty owner do?
The building was the same as before, huge and unpleasantly warm and slightly humid, even though the humidity was in the teens. There seemed to be an indefinable odor to the place, something reminiscent of the salt flats near the east coast of Maine. As he wandered the uneven and cluttered aisles, his footsteps and the voices of two other customers speaking to each other, echoed eerily off the walls. Almost as if they were underground. Or under the sea.
Now where had that idea come from? Under the sea, in the desert southwest! Strangely enough, Tom had read a little about the area in which he lived and had been surprised to learn that the hundreds of miles that stretched from west Texas to where he now lived had once been the bottom of a great Permian sea. Shallow, but still a sea.
The other two customers left and it was oddly still, except for his own echoing footsteps. There was an eerie sense of being dwarfed by the immensity of the place, and an almost claustrophobic feeling even though it was so huge. A panicky feeling came over him and he wanted to run. To get out of the place. To reach safety. Foolish! He got control of himself and went on looking.
Finding the assortment of beds for sale, he bent over, examining closely the quality of one of them. It wasn't bad at all, white with pink flowers on the headboard, and the price was only one hundred dollars, including mattress and box spring. And best of all, it was clean.
He reared up in surprise then as he heard a terrific screeching from above and saw the "eye" of the dome slowly opening like the lens of a camera. The sky, seen from the interior of the dome was black, a roiling, churning fathomless black, and he imagined he could see something moving within the ropy coils of cloud. He knew that the sky couldn't be black. It was only eleven in the morning and the sky outside was its usual vivid blue.
He cried out then and as he did, the old man appeared out of nowhere and scuttled beetlelike to the wall, where he manipulated some dials or controls, thereby closing the aperture.
Tom, shaking and ashen, stood looking upwards at the nowclosed opening when the old man sidled up to him, grinning a broken-toothed smile, and looking, for the first time, actually affable. And talkative. He told Tom that the bed was on sale for fifty dollars. Even shaken as he was, Tom knew a bargain when he saw one, and he hastily paid the man and with his help loaded the bed and mattress onto his truck. As he did so, he noticed the man's hands—or what appeared to be hands. Dark and leathery and webbed! Webbed! Surely that was a trick of his eye or a condition caused from a rare disease. Everything about the man appeared strange and diseased. Tom shuddered.
That evening, as Tom sat in his yard, he pondered what he had seen or thought he had seen at the top of the dome. It had probably been some aberration—the sun had been high and somehow the rays hit the silvery metal, blinding him for an instant. That's what it had been. He shivered and wrapped his arms around himself, though the temperature was in the nineties.
His granddaughter came on that Friday and they had a grand time together, enjoying some of his hot and spicy burritos and reminiscing on the patio. When she left the next morning he felt alone, more alone than he had ever felt before.
That night he had awful dreams, dreams about black skies, twisting snakelike arms, and the smell of sea bottom. He awoke in a sweat and went to the refrigerator for a cold glass of water. Now why should he dream such dreams? It had to be that experience he'd had in the dome. A mere trick of the eye and his subconscious had added the gory and frightening details.
The next day he spent puttering around in his shed, mending a few things and then watering his pecans. He went to the senior center and played a few hands of pinochle. Phil wasn't around. No one seemed to know where he was. Tom enjoyed the game, but still, at the back of his mind dwelled his experience and his terrible dreams.
He spent another fright-filled night, tossing and turning, dreaming of things ancient and horrible and of a writhing, twisting thing wrapping itself around his throat. He woke up screaming and found his sheet twined around his neck. In the morning he decided to put an end to the awful fears he had of the dome and what he thought he saw there, high up in the eye. After dressing and downing a cup of coffee, he got into his truck and headed for that bloated sphere.
He parked his truck and noticed that though it was after nine a.m. there was no other vehicle in the lot. He climbed out and closed the door, being careful not to slam it. He quietly made his way to the doors of the building and walked inside. He had purposely worn his sneakers so that his footsteps wouldn't be heard. There appeared to be no one around, no customers, no old man. He went inside and looked upward toward the ceiling. The eye was closed. And then he heard some strange ululating sounds, as if from someone chanting in a strange language. Louder and louder the voice called, higher and higher in pitch. The language was some guttural tongue with impossible vowels and consonants. Along with the strident tones, the screeching that he had heard before began again—this time, ear-deafening in volume. He looked up to see the black and roiling sky above, the sky of his nightmares. And appearing through the inky darkness was something moving, something sinuous in motion, which seemed to come through the eye and snake downward toward the interior of the dome.
He could bear no more; he screamed and ran, stumbling through the masses of detritus, falling once, bloodying his face and then half running, half crawling to the doors. As he reached the safety of the threshold he turned around, just once, and that sight was enough to last him the rest of his days.
At last he reached his house, trembling and nauseous, and fell into bed. He dropped into a sort of stupor in which he had no dreams. He awakened at sunset and felt better and sat at his table pondering the events of the morning. Was what he saw real or did he imagine the whole thing? But why should he imagine something like this when he had never been a man of fancy, but a practical person who took each day as he found it? Then it must have been real, what he saw, and he shuddered as he recalled the vision. It was Tom's scream that alerted the old man in the domed building, that made him start the machinery in motion that caused the eye to close.
Tom's scream that stopped that monstrous thing from entering this world.
Winter had come and gone. Tom kept to his daily ritual of doing his chores and tending to the pecan trees. He had few dreams anymore, but at times during the day the whisper of a hated memory crept through and he felt afraid. Locals had told him that the dome was closed. The day after Tom's visit, the place had been boarded up, and in time the signs that announced its wares had fallen into disrepair. Whenever he would pass the place, he couldn't help looking its way and he would notice that it now looked only squat and benign and somehow ludicrous. Its silver dome was turning rusty and no one came to its doors. What had happened to the old man remained a mystery.
But the fleeting memories Tom still had were enough to convince him that what he had seen that day had been real—that blackness, those bloated wormlike arms writhing and groping, and that sound, like waves breaking upon an unlit and unknown shore. And most of all, the smell, a rank and rotten smell of a sea bottom upturned. The smell of things better left alone. Yes, there had been something in that aperture, something gigantic and evil. Something ancient and grotesque, called there by the old man. Some thing whose entry into this world had been stopped by Tom's screams. And, before the eye had screeched shut, that nameless being had stretched ropy arms downward and enfolded the old caretaker into its embrace before the opening had closed forever.