William Browning Spencer
William Browning Spencer is the author of the innovative Lovecraftian novel Résumé with Monsters (White Wolf, 1995) as well as the novels Maybe I'll Call Anna (Permanent Press, 1990), Zod Wallop (St. Martin's Press, 1995), and Irrational Fears (White Wolf, 1998) and the short story collections The Return of Count Electric and Other Stories (Permanent Press, 1993) and The Ocean and All Its Devices (Subterranean Press, 2006).
hey were driving back from El Paso, where they had been visiting Meta's parents, when Brad saw something shimmering on the road, a heat mirage or, perhaps, some internal aberration, those writhing, silver amoebae that were the harbingers of one of his murderous migraines.
Meta had insisted that they turn the air off and roll the windows down. "I love this desert air," she had said, inhaling dramatically.
"Nothing like the smell of diesel fumes at dusk," Brad had responded, only he hadn't. He was thirty-six years old, and he had been married for almost half his life, and he loved his wife, loved her enthusiasm for the flawed world, and understood how easily, how unthinkingly, he could curdle her good mood with his reflexive cynicism. Besides, the trucks that had heaved by earlier were gone, as was their stink, and the two-lane highway he presently followed was devoid of all vehicles and had been ever since he'd abandoned the more straightforward eastbound path.
Having satisfied himself that the cloud was illusion, a trick of nature or his mind, he no longer saw it. Such is the power of reason.
And then, like that, the wasps filled the cab. Incredibly, amid the pandemonium and his panic, he knew them instantly for what they were, saw one, red-black and vile, arc its abdomen and plunge its stinger into his bare forearm, a revolting, indelible mental snapshot. A whirring of wings, wind buffeting his ears, thwack of bodies, one crawling on his neck, another igniting his cheek with bright pain, and Meta shrieking—and he made a sound of his own, an aaaaaaaaghaaah of disgust—as he wrenched the steering wheel, and the Ford Ranger leapt up, surprised by his urgency, and twisted, exploded, a series of jolting explosions, with the sky and the earth tumbling in ungainly combat.
He blinked and a hundred thousand stars regarded him. He lay on his back, unable to summon full consciousness, resistant to what its return might mean. Breathing was not easy; the air was full of razors. He rolled onto his side, slowly. Mesquite and cacti and unruly juniper threw tortured shadows across a flat, moonlit expanse that stretched toward distant mountains.
He raised himself on his elbows; a knife-thrust of pain took his breath away, and he was still, waiting, as a deer might freeze at the sound of a predator. He slid his right hand under his T-shirt, and he found the source of the pain, more than he wanted to find, ragged bloody flesh and the broken spike of a rib.
He stood and might have thought to rejoice that he had no greater injuries, that he had, miraculously, survived the wreck, but he couldn't imagine more pain; he had a plenitude of pain, a surfeit. Meta might say—
He saw the Ranger then, lying on its side, the passenger door gone and the windshield gone, a bright spume of pebbled glass vomited into the sand in front of its sprung hood. "Meta!" he shouted. "Meta!"
He limped toward the vehicle. There was something wrong with his left knee, too, as though his knee cap had been replaced with a water-filled balloon.
She wasn't in the Ranger, wasn't under it either.
Moonlight painted everything in pale silver, revealing detail in every shadow, a hallucinatory world, too precisely rendered to be real. Brad moved in slow, widening circles, calling her name. Finally, he turned toward the road, approaching a thick-trunked live oak, solitary and massive, its thousand gnarled branches festooned with small, glittering leaves. The tree, he saw, had claimed the passenger door, which lay, like a fallen warrior's shield, close to the oak's gashed trunk.
And here, Brad thought, is where she was thrown.
Maybe he would discover her on the other side of that thick trunk, her body hidden in some declivity, invisible until you stumbled on its very edge.
But there was no hollow to hide her body, nothing. And after he had climbed to the road, looked up and down it, and crossed to gaze at another stark vista that revealed no trace of her, he accepted what he'd already known. She wasn't here. He would have known if she were nearby—because he was connected to her, more than ever since the onset of her illness. He had always had this psychic compass, this inexplicable but inarguable ability to know just where she was in the world.
In their house in Austin, he always knew what room she was in. If she was down the street visiting a neighbor, Brad knew that, too—and knew which neighbor. If her car was gone, he knew where she had driven to (the library, the grocery store, the YMCA at Town Lake, wherever), and he realized, one day, that he knew this whether or not she had told him.
Once, when they were kids, nine-year-olds, Meta had gone missing. It was dark outside, and Meta had failed to come home. The neighborhood went looking. Brad set off on his own. Under the luminous summer moon, he ran past the elementary school, past the creek where they hunted frogs and crayfish, across old man Halder's field. He found her at the abandoned barn. She lay next to a rusted-out wheelbarrow, one of her legs crimped oddly under her. That she was alive filled him with wild relief and the terrible knowledge that he could have lost her forever, that the world was a monstrous machine, and anyone in its path could come to mortal grief. She frowned at him, pale blue eyes under tangled red hair, and said, "You were right about that rope," and they both gazed at the tire, on its side in the dust. Until recently, the tire had been an integral part of a swing.
"Why did you do something so stupid?" he had shouted, and she had begun to cry, silently, tears falling from her eyes, her lips parted, lower lip trembling, and he thought, I'm an idiot, and he realized that he would marry her one day, if only to keep an eye on her, to protect her (from evil, which ranged across the world, and from his own desperate love, half-mad and hiding in his heart).
Standing on the road, he remembered that he had a cell phone and, after retrieving it from his pocket and turning it on, he remembered why the cell phone was no cause for rejoicing: no signal, no help.
He turned away from the empty road and studied the mountains. They were purple and black and seemed closer now. Could she have walked to the mountains? And why would she do such a thing? Surely the road was more likely to bring rescue.
He thought of Meta, conjured her, carefully visualizing her blue eyes, curly red hair, and high cheekbones (sown with a constellation of freckles that refused to fade, a last vestige of her tomboy childhood). Ordinarily, imagining her calmed him, relieved the stress of a bad day at the office, an unhappy client, the black dog of depression, of fear, but now, with Meta missing, her image failed to console, only exacerbated his dread. Her face shimmered, faded, was gone, and he realized that the mountains were glowing, exuding a pulsing light, a mottled purple hue that filled him with inexplicable disgust and panic and despair.
He felt consciousness receding like a tide. He leaned into oblivion, seeking refuge from the horror that assaulted him.
e woke to white light in a white room. He was propped up in a hospital bed, his left leg encased in an elaborate cast and suspended artfully from stainless steel scaffolding. A large, ridiculous bolt pierced the cast in the vicinity of his knee, like an elaborate magic trick. Breathing, he discovered, was difficult— although not, he decided, impossible, not worthy of panic—and gazing down at his chest, he saw what looked like duct tape, yards of it, binding swathes of surgical gauze and cotton around his ribs.
He remembered the damage then, remembered the wasps.
A woman stepped into the room and said, "Where's Meta?"
It was Gladys, Meta's mother, dressed in khaki pants and a white blouse, filling the room with willed energy.
Where is— Before Brad could speak, someone to his right spoke.
"She went to the cafeteria to get some coffee." It was Buddy, Gladys's husband. He had been sitting silently in a chair, dozing perhaps. He was a stern, formal old man (much older than his wife), bald with tufts of grey hair sprouting above each ear. Querulous, nobody's buddy: Buddy.
Before Brad could assimilate Buddy's statement, Meta appeared in the doorway, behind her mother. She was holding a cardboard carton containing three styrofoam cups with plastic lids. Her eyes widened. "Oh," she said. "Brad."
Gladys turned. "Oh my," she said.
Meta put the carton down on a dresser top and came to him. There were tears in her eyes, and she was smiling. Brad felt as light as dust, mystified, out of context. Wasn't Meta the one in hospital beds? Wasn't he her visitor, her caretaker, her terrified lover?
"Where have you been?" she said, laughing, running her hand through his hair.
And wasn't that his question?
Meta told him he had been unconscious for two days. They sorted it out, or rather, they did their best to make sense of what had happened. Wayne County's sheriff came by the hospital, and Brad and Meta told him what they could remember.
The sheriff was a big man with a broad face and a mournful mustache. He was slow, his bearing solemn and stoical, as though he'd seen too much that ended badly. He introduced himself by taking his hat off and saying, "Mr. and Mrs. Phelps, my name is Dale Winslow, and I'm the sheriff in these parts, and I'm sorry for your misadventure," and he pulled up a chair and produced a small notebook and a ball-point pen from his breast pocket.
He told them what he already knew. A local named Gary Birch had been driving back from a visit to his ex in Owl Creek when he'd seen a woman out on the road. He stopped and got out of his car. He could see she was bleeding, blood on her face, her blouse, and, when he came up to her, he could see the Ford Ranger on its side maybe fifty yards from the road. It didn't take any great deductive powers to figure out what had happened. Here was a woman who had flipped her truck; she was in shock, couldn't make a sound. Gary told her to hang on, and he went down and looked at the Ranger, checked to see that there wasn't a gas leak, took the keys out of the ignition. He didn't see anyone else, but he wasn't looking. A fool thing, not to look, but it didn't even enter his mind. He wanted to get her over to the hospital in Silo. For all he knew she might already be as good as dead and just not know it. That happened sometimes. Gary had heard about such things from his dad, a Nam vet. A fellow could say, "I'm okay," when he was nothing but a disembodied head, although maybe that one was just a story.
Meta, it turned out, had sustained no serious injuries. She didn't remember anything about the accident. She didn't remember the wasps in the truck, didn't remember Gary stopping for her and taking her to the hospital. At some point, in the ER, she'd started screaming for Brad, and a nurse, Eunice Wells, who'd worked the ER for twenty-some years, put two and two together, got Sheriff Winslow on the phone, and hollered Gary Birch out of the waiting room. "This is Eunice Wells," she told Winslow. "Gary Birch just brought a woman in here for treatment. He found her on Old Nine where she'd flipped her truck. Sounds like there's someone still out there. I'm gonna give the phone to Gary, and he's gonna tell you just where you gotta go."
Which Gary did. Sheriff Winslow found Brad lying by the side of the highway, as inert as yesterday's roadkill, a dark lump next to a creosote bush. He might have been a sideswiped deer or a sack of trash that fell off someone's pickup on the way out to the Owl Creek dump. Likely Winslow wouldn't have noticed him if he hadn't known where to look.
Brad asked about the wasp swarm. Was that sort of thing common around here?
Brad thought he saw something flicker in Winslow's eyes, something furtive. The sheriff closed his eyes, and when he opened them, whatever had been there was gone. The man just looked tired. He said, "It's hard to say what an insect will do. I haven't heard of anyone running through a patch of wasps, but termites will swarm. And you can get locusts out of nowhere, like a judgment." He shrugged. "I'd thank the good Lord you're alive and put it behind you."
Good advice, but not easy to follow. He was in the hospital four more days, foggy time, nurses in and out of the room, Meta sitting in a chair, sometimes holding his hand in hers. He would wake as though falling into freezing water, his heart clenching like a fist, nightmares leaving a coppery sediment in the back of his throat. He had no memory of the dreams, only a sense of diminishment and hopelessness. He would look down and see his hand resting in that other's hand, and his eyes would trace the route of that hand to arm, to shoulder, to neck, to that lovely face, and slow seconds would fill with disquiet before he realized he was looking at his wife, at Meta. He, who had always been able to find her wherever she was in the world, could no longer sense her presence when she sat beside him holding his hand. He said nothing of this to Meta; it frightened him too much. This disoriented state might, he reasoned, be the result of the pain medications they gave him, and as he tapered off, his sense of his darling's spiritual weight, her certainty in his world, would return.
The day before Brad was to leave the hospital, a wizened man with a close-cropped gray beard came to visit him. The man wore a light blue shirt, tan slacks, and a brown sports jacket. He was pale and sickly looking, wearing glasses with thick black frames, glasses that a younger man would have worn for comic or ironic effect. He introduced himself, and Brad said, "So, how am I doing? Do I still get to leave tomorrow?"
The man frowned, perplexed. "I don't—" He realized his mistake then and said, "I'm sorry. I'm not a medical doctor. That's what I get for calling myself a doctor in a hospital. I'm a Ph.D. I taught at Baylor but I'm retired now."
It was Brad's turn to look stumped. Dr. Michael Parkington introduced himself again. He said that he was writing a book on the desert and was particularly interested in unusual anecdotal material. He'd heard about Brad's encounter with a swarm of wasps, and he wondered if Brad would mind telling him about it.
Brad had nothing better to do—Meta was seeing her parents off at the airport and wouldn't be back for hours—and he was interested in what this man could tell him.
Parkington asked if it would be all right if he recorded Brad's recollections of the accident, and Brad almost said no, which was irrational, of course, but he would have preferred an undocumented chat. He'd heard his voice on a recorder once, and his voice sounded thin and full of complaint. But he said, "Sure," and the professor turned on a small, cell-phone-sized recorder, and Brad told him everything he could remember, ending with, "I got woozy standing out there on the road, and I just passed out, I guess."
"How many times were you stung?" Parkington asked.
Brad shrugged. "Maybe half a dozen times. I don't know. It's hard to keep count when you're flying through a windshield."
Parkington smiled ruefully. "Any welts? Any swellings or discolorations?"
Brad looked down at his forearm where he'd seen the wasp sting him. Nothing. His skin was smooth, unblemished. He lifted his hand to touch his cheek. No soreness there, and, shaving for the first time that morning, he hadn't noticed any redness or swelling.
"No," he said, slightly puzzled. "I didn't even think to look."
Parkington turned the recorder off and put it in his pocket. "I want to thank you for your time, Mr. Phelps." He stood up.
"Sure. How many people have you interviewed?" Brad asked.
The professor sat down again. He took his glasses off, rubbed his forehead, and put the glasses back on. "I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't say anything to Sheriff Winslow about my coming by."
"Why's that?" Brad was starting to feel a little miffed. He hadn't wanted that recorder running, and he should have trusted his intuition, because . . . well, here was this guy getting all circumspect, enlisting him in some local intrigue.
"Winslow thinks I'm trying to stir things up. Truth is, he thinks I'm a crackpot," Parkington said. "He'd be pissed if he knew I'd come out here." He looked at the doorway, as though expecting the sheriff to come walking through it on cue. He made a decision then. Brad could see it in the way he straightened his spine and narrowed his eyes. "I haven't been entirely candid with you."
The man leaned over and fumbled in his briefcase. "I've already written a book," he said. He retrieved a book and handed it to Brad. Brad knew a self-published book when he saw one. The title was set in a lurid, old-English typeface: Haunted Mountains: Atlantis in the Desert by Michael Parkington, Ph.D. Translucent ocean waves were superimposed over a photograph of a desert panorama, mountains in the background. This computer-manipulated image, murky and lurid, offended Brad's artistic sensibility while managing to instill a queasy sense of dislocation.
Brad looked up from the book in his hands and said, "And what, exactly, haven't you told me?"
Parkington nodded his head. "I didn't tell you that after interviewing some other people who encountered hostile swarm phenomena, I've come to the conclusion that these people were not attacked, not physically, in any event. I believe they all experienced a psychic derangement. I'm telling you that I don't think you were attacked by wasps, Mr. Phelps. I think you were the victim of an induced hallucination."
Brad sighed, disgusted. "The last week hasn't been one of my best, but I think I know what I saw." Brad held out the book, but Parkington smiled and shook his head.
"You keep the book. Maybe you'll want to read it sometime. You know, not a single wasp was found in your vehicle, which is what I expected. I've documented five other cases of people being attacked by swarms, all within a half-mile of where you were found."
Brad was silent.
Parkington held his hand up, fingers wide, and lowered each successive finger as he ticked off an attack: "Birds, bats, rattlesnakes, ants, and—my favorite menace—moths. In all but one case, the subjects were driving down Route 9 when they were attacked. The drivers were all forced to abandon their vehicles as a result of an onslaught of bats or flying ants or sparrows or moths, and all the attack victims seem to have lost consciousness for some period of time. Your adventure was the only life-threatening encounter, although any of the attacks could have resulted in a fatal accident.
"I might add that I know about these attacks because other travelers along that lonely stretch spotted the abandoned vehicles or the confused, semi-conscious owners and stopped to offer assistance. It seems reasonable to assume that some other drivers suffered swarm attacks during times when traffic was sparse, came to their senses, shrugged off their weird adventures, and drove on."
Parkington said that there was one man who was not in a car when attacked. A man named Charlie Musgrove was on foot when he found himself surrounded by rattlesnakes. Musgrove maintained that he was bitten by five or six of the creatures, but a sample of his blood revealed no toxins, other than the alcohol he habitually imbibed.
"He's a local, a homeless alcoholic," Parkington said, "and not a credible witness, but I'm inclined to believe him, because he was in the vicinity of the other reported incidents, and his account is consistent with them."
Parkington said that, in every single one of these reported attacks, no sign of the attacking creatures was found, no birds, bats, rattlesnakes, ants, or moths. And in the case of the birds, the driver was adamant in her description of their thrashing and banging around in the car, feathers flying everywhere, much avian carnage, so one would think that the most cursory forensic examination would have produced some corroborating evidence. Nothing could be found. "I'm guessing Sheriff Winslow hasn't told you any of this."
"He hasn't," Brad said. "Probably because he is a professional and understands that it is not his job to share bizarre theories with someone who has just been traumatized by a near-fatal accident. Now my meds are kicking in, and I'm going to close my eyes and get some sleep. Thanks for the book."
And Brad closed his eyes, and when he opened them again, it was dark outside his window, and Meta was sitting in a chair with the book on her lap. She looked up, smiled, and said, "It says here that during the Permian age this whole area was under an ocean. That was 250 million years ago. Who gave you this book?"
"The ancient mariner," Brad said.
hey drove back to Austin in a rented Honda Accord. Meta did all the driving. Brad remained bundled in a semi-fog of pain meds, and a substantial cast girded his left leg. He'd been instructed in the use of crutches, but they were of limited utility thanks to his ravaged rib cage. A folded wheelchair, which would be his primary mode of transportation for the next six weeks, lay in the car's trunk.
Once home, Brad called friends and family, quickly wearied of telling his story, and cast a forlorn eye on the upcoming weeks of recuperation.
On the positive side, he accompanied Meta to an appointment with her oncologist, who was pleased to tell them that all tests were negative; there was no trace of the cancer that had shortcircuited their lives for the last year and a half. They had celebrated that night, with champagne and sex.
The sex had not been entirely successful. Brad had been struck with the intense conviction that, should he experience an orgasm, it would kill him; something vital to sustaining his life would be seized and devoured by his partner's need. This thought robbed him of an erection, but his failure to achieve orgasm was, paradoxically, a great relief, as though he had survived a brush with death, so it wasn't the worst sex he'd ever had, but it didn't bode well for his erotic future.
Brad called work and had to talk to the insufferable Kent, a completely insincere creature, ambitious and feral, who assured Brad that he could avail himself of as much time off as his recuperation required. "I got your back, Brad-O," he said, which didn't cheer Brad at all. And yet, Brad felt no urgency about returning to work. Work felt like some remote, arcane endeavor, the rituals of some strange religion in which he had long ago ceased to believe.
Having plenty of time on his hands, Brad read Parkington's book, Haunted Mountains: Atlantis in the Desert. The bulk of the book, after its author had argued unconvincingly for a sunken Atlantis near the town of Silo, presented the usual lost civilization stories. The only part of the book that was interesting (and poignant for the insights it offered) was Parkington's revelation that his own father, a lawyer and amateur paleontologist, had encountered an Entity (his father's word) while camping in the mountains outside of Silo. Parkington's father referred to this alien visitation as a "remnant manifestation" and had embarked on a book about this visitation. He believed that there was an alien enclave established under the mountains in a "waiting configuration" that would transform the world when its time came round.
The author's father disappeared in 1977 after a sudden decline in his mental state, characterized by paranoia, hallucinations, and a fervid hatred and fear of Christian doctrine. On more than one occasion, the man had entered one of Silo's numerous churches during a Sunday service, wild-eyed and disheveled, and beseeched the minister and his congregation to "be silent and know that the only thing that hears you is monstrous and indifferent to prayers." Much of the man's rant was in an unknown tongue, and he was committed to private mental asylums on two occasions, but he was never at such places for long, because he grew remarkably calm and rational after a brief period of confinement. When he disappeared, he left a note for his son, which, Park ington writes, "I destroyed after reading, or, rather, after I had read as much as my sanity could bear."
It was this last part of the book that spoke most directly to Brad, because it explained the author's attempt to find some explanation for his father's last years. The book Brad held in his hands was an artifact of two generations of pathology, and, as such, it was sadder and more profound than its clichéd, sensational subject initially suggested.
There was no mention of the swarm attacks, and Brad assumed that such attacks were a more recent phenomenon.
Brad's health improved, and he ceased to rely on the wheelchair. The cast came off his leg, and his ribs were protected by a more flexible, shower-friendly fiberglass cage. With the help of a cane—he'd never had any success with the crutches, which promoted a form of locomotion too unnatural to be taken seriously—he was able to hobble to the kitchen and back to the bedroom, exhausted at first but slowly regaining his stamina, reclaiming his will.
He had much time for solitary reflection, because Meta, on his urging, had returned to her job at the UT library. In the evenings, she'd talk to him about her day, her voice his only window on a larger world.
Brad found his attention straying from her words. His mind, his heart was otherwise occupied: he was waiting (every day, every hour, every second) to feel, again, her presence. Since the accident, she had turned invisible . . . and opaque. Both words described her, despite their warring definitions. She was a ghost in his mind when out of his sight. His psychic compass could no longer find her. She could be anywhere, pursuing any activity—and he imagined her in the strangest places: curled amid warm towels in a clothes dryer; hanging upside down in a closet; smiling with her eyes open while underwater in the upstairs bathtub—and when she was in front of him, he did not know her. She seemed to study him with cool interest and an absence of any binding emotion. Even her voice had altered, and he found himself marveling at how skillfully this woman reproduced his wife's sounds, failing only in recreating certain resonances that were within the province of her soul.
He should have been afraid, but he was not—not, that is, until he received a call from Sheriff Winslow, who informed Brad that Michael Parkington had left Silo, abruptly and without notice. The date of his departure was uncertain, since he kept to himself. Only when Parkington failed to show up on the first with the rent check did anyone (i.e., his landlord) evince interest in his whereabouts.
Brad was wondering why he had been called, since he had only met the man once, but the sheriff must have been anticipating this question, because he answered it before Brad asked.
"I called because we don't know whether the man is dead or alive, and he may be dangerous." Winslow explained that, on entering Parkington's apartment, they had immediately been confronted with a wall of photographs and newspaper clippings, and while the bulk of these items had yet to suggest anything relevant to the man's disappearance, the investigation had discovered an interesting and disturbing connection between four people (one woman and three men). These people were all the subjects of hometown newspaper articles (newspapers in Newark, El Paso, Phoenix, and Santa Fe) and had all, prior to the appearance of these articles, been interviewed by Dr. Parkington.
"We also discovered a small digital recorder and listened to your interview," Winslow said.
"I still don't understand why you called me," Brad said, mildly irked, again, for having allowed Parkington to record him.
"Those newspaper articles are about people who have disappeared. They are the people Parkington interviewed. Since they all disappeared between one and four months after he interviewed them, and since he took the trouble to track those clippings down and stick them on his wall, it is likely those vanished folks are connected, in some way, to Parkington. I wanted to call and give you a heads up, in case he comes knocking on your door. You might not want to open it."
"You think he killed those people?" Brad had difficulty envisioning a homicidal Parkington.
"I don't know what to think. Do you?"
Brad didn't, and he promised to call if Parkington showed up in Austin.
After he replaced the phone in its cradle, he went to the refrigerator and got a beer. He drank half of it and decided to call Meta at work.
"She left early today," someone told him. "A couple of hours ago, I guess."
Brad sat in a kitchen chair and drank the rest of his beer. He had no idea where she was.
But he did. He realized he did know. Not in the way he had always known, not with that magical (gone and now precious) lost sense but with the new cold logic that had replaced it. She was on her way to Silo, the town where it had all unraveled and where, now, some accursed force awaited her.
He set off at once, driving toward Silo, stopping every hundred miles or so to empty his bladder and take on gas and supplies (which consisted primarily of beer and snacks). He wasn't up for such a trip, not fully recovered from the accident and emotionally exhausted by Meta's betrayal, her retreat from his love and protection into the arms of some monstrous Casanova from Atlantis—and, yes, he admitted that he now swallowed Parkington's nutcase scenarios, and they went down easy; there was something out there in the mountains—under the mountains— that had reached out and wrecked his marriage and was now dragging Meta toward its lair.
But he was exhausted and would be no good at all unless he rested. So, on the far side of midnight, miles away from morn ing, he pulled into a rest stop and turned the engine off and slept.
The sun was up when he woke, and it was late afternoon when he drove down Silo's Main Street. It was a lean town, not given to airs, saturated with the sun's weight, sidewalks cracked by time, two old men on a bench in front of Roy's Restaurant, the Silo Library next door, then a barbershop called Curly's Quick Hair. Brad parked in front of a bar, B&G (which he knew, having eaten lunch there with Meta on a therapeutic outing from the hospital, stood for Bar & Grill, minimalist humor or the lack of it).
Brad wasn't a drinker, and his overindulgence of the day before was now taking its toll. So he went into B&G and sat at the bar counter. He ordered a beer and a fried egg sandwich from the barmaid, a middle-aged woman of undecided hair color with a tattoo on her shoulder that said "Dwayne" over a heart. Under the heart, clearly the work of a less skilled artist, it read: "Stinks." It made Brad sad, that tattoo. He thought of the entropy inherent in all relationships, and he ordered another beer. He considered a plan of action.
He didn't have one, he realized. The certainty that had brought him here had drained out over the miles, and he was left with a panicky sense of abandonment. Who did he know in town? No one. Well, Sheriff Winslow, but what could he say to him? Nothing relevant. He'd sound like a madman.
Am I? he wondered. But it was the truth itself that was mad, and how could it help but irradiate him, taint his own sanity?
His musings were interrupted by the barmaid, shouting "Musky! Hey Musky! Wake up! Come on. I got a couple of beers for you if you take out the trash."
She was leaning over a man and shaking his shoulder. He stirred, raised his head like an ancient bloodhound scenting a rabbit, and said, "Trash." He was a bearded man with a pocked face and heavy-lidded eyes stained yellow, the same color as the bar's smoke-saturated walls, and he had been sleeping in a corner booth, the only other patrons an elderly couple who were dancing to tinny sounds from the jukebox, the sort of music you could make with a comb and a piece of wax paper.
Brad watched the man lumber past the bar counter and through a door that must have led to the alley in back. Brad called to the barmaid, and when she came over, he asked her who she'd just been talking to.
"You mean old Musky?" She looked a little incredulous, a little suspicious. "Musky?"
"That's his name?"
"It's what he answers to, yeah. Why you want to know?"
Brad hesitated. "I thought he might be somebody I heard of recently. But I believe that person's name was Charlie."
"Ain't nobody calls him that anymore. But that's what he was born. Born Charlie Musgrove, the light of his momma's eye, and as full of promise . . . you won't credit this, 'cause he looks about a hundred years old now, but we were in high school together."
"What happened?" Brad said.
"Shit," the woman said. "Ain't that what the bumper sticker says? Shit happens. He drank up all his opportunities 'cept the opportunity to drink more." She backed up and narrowed her eyes. "Why you want to know about Musky? What makes him any of your business?"
Brad explained, starting with the wasps that had attacked him and his wife in the desert. He did not mention Atlantis under the mountains or the alien theft of his wife's soul, however. He did tell her how Charlie Musgrove figured in the narrative.
"Rattlesnakes!" she said. "You want old Musky to tell you about them rattlesnakes that tried to get him!"
"Yes," Brad said, not wishing to explain, in detail, what he really wanted.
"Hell, he's been hard to shut up on that subject. You won't have any trouble there. If you say the magic words, you'll get an earful. I guarantee it."
"What are the magic words?" "Can I buy you a beer?" she said.
"urn here," Musky said. They followed a winding road into the mountains. The car leaned upward, as though the stars above were their destination. Musky took a swig from the beer bottle and lurched into song again: "Away in a manager no crib for his bed, the little Lord Jesus was wishin' he's dead. No . . . "
It hadn't been hard to elicit the rattlesnake story from Musky—who hadn't responded to Brad's initial Charles Musgrove? query—and Musky had a few things to say about Michael Parkington. "That fellow told me I didn't see no rattlesnakes, said I lucinated them. I didn't tell him I'd read that fool book he wrote. Yep, found a copy in a dumpster, autographed to Cindy Lou with his cell phone number, but I guess that didn't work out. That book was a lot of crap, all that Atlantis stuff."
"You don't believe there is some alien force in these mountains?"
Musky finished the beer and threw the empty bottle out the window, which made the Austin-environmentalist in Brad cringe when he heard the shattering glass. "Oh, there's something awful and ancient in these mountains. My grandfather knew all about it, said he'd seen it eat a goat by turning the goat inside out and sort of licking it until it was gone. He said it was a god from another world, older than this one. He called it Toth. A lot of people in these parts know about it, but it ain't a popular subject."
He opened another beer and drank it. "Anyway, I think those rattlesnakes were real."
They bumped along the road, flanked by ragged outcroppings, shapes that defied gravity, everything black and jagged or half erased by the brightness of the car's rollicking headlights.
"Okay! Stop 'er!" Musky said. Brad stopped the car. Musky was out of the car immediately, tumbling to the ground but quickly staggering upright with the beer bottle clutched in his hand. Brad turned the ignition off, put the key in his pocket, and got out.
Brad followed the man, who was moving quickly, invigorated, perhaps, by this adventure. The incline grew steeper, the terrain devoid of all vegetation, a moonscape, and Brad thought he'd soon be crawling on his hands and knees. Abruptly, the ground leveled, and he saw Musky, stopped in front of him, back hunched, dirty gray hair shivered by the breeze.
"There's people who would pay a pretty penny to see this," he said, without turning around. Brad reached the man and looked down from the rocky shelf on which they stood. Beneath them, a great dazzling bowl stretched out and down, a curving motherof-pearl expanse, a skateboarder's idea of heaven—or imagine a giant satellite dish, its diameter measured in miles, pressed into the stone. No, it was nothing like anything. He knew he would never be able to describe it.
He felt a sharp, hot ember sear into the flesh immediately above his right eyebrow, brought his hand up quickly, and slapped the insect, crushing it. He opened his fist and looked at the wasp within. Its crumpled body trembled, and it began to vibrate faster and faster, emitting a high-pitched whirrrrr. It exploded in a purple flash that left an after-image in Brad's mind so that, when he turned toward the sound of Musky's voice, part of the man's face was eclipsed by a purple cloud.
"I always bring them up here," he said. "Toth calls 'em and I bring 'em the last lap."
"You brought my wife here?" Brad asked.
"Nope. Just you. She wasn't savory somehow. She had the chemicals in her, and it changed her somehow. Wouldn't do. Mind you, I ain't privy to every decision, I just get a notion sometimes. I think she was poison to it, so it didn't fool with her."
"But it changed her," Brad shouted, filled with fury, intent on killing this traitor to his race.
"It wasn't interested."
Brad's cell phone rang.
"You get good reception up here," Musky said.
Brad tugged the phone out of his pocket, flipped it open.
"Where are you, honey? I've been trying to call you. I've been going crazy. I called the police. I even called Sheriff Winslow, although why—"
Brad could see her standing in the kitchen, holding the wall phone's receiver up to her ear, her eyes red and puffy from crying. He could see her clearly, as though she stood right in front of him; he could count the freckles on her cheeks.
Her tears, the flush in her cheeks, the acceleration of her heart, he saw these things, saw the untenable vascular system, the ephemeral ever-failing creature, designed by the accidents of time.
He was aware that the cell phone had slipped from his fingers and tumbled to the stony ledge and bounced into the bright abyss. He leaned over and watched its descent. Something was moving at the bottom of the glowing pit, a black, twitching insectile something, and as it writhed it grew larger, more spectacularly alive in a way the eye could not map, appendages appearing and disappearing, and always the creature grew larger and its fierce intelligence, its outrageous will and alien, implacable desires, rose in Brad's mind.
He felt a monstrous joy, a dark enlightenment, and wild to embrace his destiny, he flung himself from the ledge and fell toward the father of all universes, where nothing was ever lost, and everything devoured.