The third night Brett was gone, Merridee put out all the downstairs lights and waited at the window by the kitchen table, the shotgun loaded and ready. She’d left all the upstairs lights burning; the glow they threw down let her see the backyard pretty well, considering. At fifty-eight, her eyesight wasn’t as dependable as it had once been—thus, the shotgun and not the rifle. You didn’t have to be a crackshot with a shotgun, though at one time she’d been handy with either weapon. Dead-Eye ‘Dee, her brothers had called her back in her target shooting days. They should have seen old Dead-Eye ‘Dee now, she thought, crouched on a chair in a dark kitchen with a shotgun, waiting for God-knew-what.
A hundred yards beyond the house, she could just make out the silhouette of the stand of trees near the well Brett had sunk twenty years ago, only to have it dry up a year later. That was where it came out of, those trees. Maybe it was actually holed up in the old well. If it were, she couldn’t imagine how it was getting out. She shifted position on the chair and carefully set the shotgun on the table. A moth hurled itself against the screen and fluttered away, up toward the light. Awfully late in the year for moths, Merridee thought idly; maybe it wouldn’t come tonight. Maybe it had wandered off or died or something.
There was a rustle of leaves; a small puff of chill October air came through the window. Merridee blinked, adjusting her glasses. Uh-huh, she thought. Dead leaves danced across the yard as the shadow detached itself from the stand of trees and approached the house. Would it think she was upstairs (if it thought at all)? Or could it sense her waiting in the dark?
The thing moved awkwardly, as though it were used to much different terrain. She could see it a lot better from the kitchen window than from upstairs, where she’d watched it the previous two nights. She hadn’t been able to tell much about it at all, not even whether it was worth creeping downstairs to phone the sheriff about. But tonight she’d get a good look at it, see if it were man or beast, and then she’d know what to do. Maybe.
Just out of the range of light, it stopped and she thought she saw it hunker over, as though examining the ground. It was man-sized but she could tell the limbs were all wrong, the one arm she could make out was too long even for an ape. Maybe it was some poor freak, simple-minded as well as deformed, looking for shelter and food.
It made a strange sound and she jumped slightly, putting one hand on the shotgun. It wasn’t a very fierce noise, something between a sigh and a growl, or maybe a sigh and a snore. Not very animal-sounding, but not human, either.
She peered through the screen, wanting to call to it just to make it step into the light. It sigh-growled again and shuffled along the grass and dead leaves, stopping when it was opposite the window.
It knew she was there. The thought gave her a sudden flash of panic. An image of Brett popped into her head. He knew she was here, too, here in the house alone while he was days away, fishing and hunting in Oklahoma with his friends. His friends knew where she was, too, and his friends’ wives, and her son and daughter-in-law; they all knew. But none of them knew the way this thing knew. The thoughts chased each other around in spirals in her mind as panic passed, leaving behind a rationally cold fear.
She picked up the shotgun. Weeks ago, she had hinted to Brett she’d have enjoyed a camping trip. It had been a long time since they’d taken one together. He’d only reminded her of the rheumatism in her shoulders and knees, that she’d just be in pain the whole time. So he was gone with his friends now and she was safely at home, no rheumatism acting up, watching this shadow. She wished she were anywhere else. Then this thing, whatever it was, could have had the run of the whole place and she wouldn’t have had to know about it, she wouldn’t have been trapped in the kitchen, wondering if she should shoot it.
It didn’t move again for a long time. Because it could see in the dark, she thought, and it was looking her over. She imagined how she must look to it, wide-eyed behind her glasses, her loose, broad face homely with old lady worry, a shotgun in her thick hands like a rolling-pin. Not much as a damsel in distress. Somewhere in the back of her mind was the irrational idea that every bit of her life had been pointing toward this moment and whatever happened afterwards would be mere timekeeping till the grave.
She untensed the tiniest bit, her fear smoothing into puzzlement. All right, now what did the thing want? Was it going to attack or not? Should she phone the sheriff and let him come take care of it? Puzzlement mixed with impatience. Suppose she just walked out there, walked right out there and said What do you want? as bold as you please? With the shotgun, of course. Would that goad it into doing something? Anything was better than this cowering in the dark.
The notion of going out to it blossomed suddenly into a powerful urge. Yes, she would go out to it, get a good look, confront it. It certainly wasn’t going to come in for examination. She thought of Brett sound asleep in the camper. He might think to call her and he might not. It wouldn’t enter his head that anything could possibly happen to dull old dependable Merridee securely at home. She was always securely at home as far as he was concerned, him and everyone else. Except that thing, waiting for her in the dark.
Maybe, she thought as she slid quietly off the chair, it just wanted some food and she should throw it some stale bread.
Hunger. That idea took her as strongly as the notion to go outside. She paused with her hand on the deadbolt. Hunger. One-handed, she fumbled a loaf of that tasteless white stuff Brett was so partial to out of the breadbox on the counter, the shotgun seesawing in the crook of her other arm. Maybe it wouldn’t like the stuff. No; rubbish, she thought. If it were hungry enough, it would eat anything.
She opened the door slowly and poked the screen door with the shotgun. Well, she couldn’t fool it into thinking she was upstairs any more, she thought. But deep down, she knew she hadn’t fooled it at all. Go out. Hunger. She wavered a little before she stepped over the threshold and let the screen door flap shut behind her.
The thing shuffled along in the grass and leaves again. Her coming out hadn’t stampeded it; the knowledge made her feel satisfied and bold. She stood up a little straighter as she hurled the bread in the thing’s general direction. The package landed just inside the lighted area where it lay like litter thrown from some out-of-towner’s car.
Go on; take it, you blamed thing, it’s for you. She wanted to say it out loud but the words stuck in her throat. She heard the hesitant rustling of grass and leaves; the trees on the north side of the house seemed to echo it. Leaves swirled down between herself and the thing. Its shadow stood out a little more clearly to her now and yes, it was all wrong for any man or beast.
It approached the bread with excruciating slowness, like an old fox coming upon a baited trap. Maybe she should have taken the bread out of the bag, Merridee thought. There was a sound like a grunt and she heard something slither along the ground. A lump appeared in the dead leaves beside the bread. Then fingers, big and thick, much thicker than her own or Brett’s or anyone else’s, broke through and clutched the package. Big, thick fingers the color of a thunderhead about to let go, and only three of them, only three big, thick, blue-grey fingers. Merridee stared owlishly, unable to holler or run, the shotgun a meaningless weight in her hands. In some part of her mind, she was screaming her head off but it was so far removed it might as well have been someone else.
One of the all-wrong fingers pierced the plastic and tore into the bread, shredding it. And then … she blinked, her eyes watering madly. Something else strange, as though the arm belonging to those fingers had telescoped as the body came closer. Then the arm showed in the light and she saw it was exactly that way, not jointed but extendable, exactly like a telescope.
Without warning, it thrust its face into the light. Merridee stepped back, bringing one hand up defensively, the shotgun forgotten. At last she found voice enough to gasp; screaming was beyond her. The face hung over the package of bread, refusing to go away. Come out. Hunger.
She hadn’t had it quite right. It had wanted her to come out and it was hungry, but not for bread.
Merridee fled into the house.
She woke just after dawn, lying on top of the bed fully clothed with the shotgun beside her, the stock resting on Brett’s pillow. For a moment she stared at it, not remembering. Then she sat up quickly, looking around the bedroom. The thing—Well, it wasn’t in here with her unless it was hiding in the closet. The closet door was wide open, exposing thirty-four years’ accumulation of clothes and personal belongings. No room for a thing in there. She flashed back to her childhood, a million years ago it felt like, the days of monsters in closets. Not her, but her brothers, Charlie and David. Her mother had always been soothing their nighttime terrors, turning on the lights, showing them there was nothing in the closet but the most mundane items of clothing and shoes, while she lay in her own room listening, not a bit afraid. There had never been monsters in the dark for Merridee Dunham. Nor for Merridee Percy, married to Brett and living in this house for 500,000 years, nor for their one child, who was more of Brett than of herself.
She rubbed her hands over her face, feeling as unwashed and weary as a hobo. It was hard to believe in the thing in the daylight, the same way it had been hard to believe in her brothers’ closet monsters. Now she could only vaguely remember the face it had shown her; she remembered her fear and she remembered running from it. But she remembered nothing after that.
Well, obviously, she’d been so tired from staying up that late she’d gone right to bed without even bothering to undress, just like some old man (Brett; who else) who’s spent all day and half the night in a duck blind.
She looked at the shotgun lying on Brett’s side of the bed. If that wasn’t the silliest thing in the world and dangerous besides, sleeping with a shotgun. She left it there while she went to wash.
Later, sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and two pieces of sourdough toast, she looked out the window at the stand of trees. All the leaves had blown off them now; the bare branches clawed at the sky in the wind. She tried to imagine how it would look, that creature coming through the trees and shuffling toward the house. It was like trying to picture the shirts and coats in her brothers’ closet congealing into a monster. She couldn’t do it. Shaking her head, she smiled to herself. Like two different worlds people lived in, one filled with strange, inexplicable shadows, one utterly prosaic, and she had never doubted once in her million years long life that she existed in the latter.
As she was getting up to refill her coffee cup, she caught sight of the spot where she had thrown the bread. It was gone; not even a shred of the plastic wrapper remained. Squirrels, she thought. And birds, the tough little sparrows who hopped through the bitter snows. And the wind had blown away whatever had been left behind.
In the early afternoon, she bundled herself up in two sweaters and one of Brett’s old hunting jackets and went for a walk. The phone had not rung all day and she was tired of waiting for a call that probably wouldn’t come. The house was clean—the house was always clean—and there was nothing that needed doing urgently. Brett could recaulk the windows and put up plastic himself after he came back. He was expecting her to do it while he was gone, she knew, but she didn’t feel like it. Let him grumble over it. She would just tell him: I didn’t feel like doing it. What would he make of that? She didn’t know and didn’t care. I’m apathetic but who cares, she thought, and giggled, still tickled at the old joke.
She walked the quarter mile down the dirt drive to the mailbox. The October wind tore at her hair and made her eyes water behind her glasses. She took the glasses off and tucked them into her jacket pocket. There wasn’t much to look at. It was very pretty country but she’d seen it and seen it. Seen it for a million years.
The mailbox leaned forward over the paved road as though it might have been watching for oncoming traffic, of which there was very little on any given day. The mailman had left only one envelope, a brown and green announcement that she, Mrs. Merridee Percy, had another chance to enter the biggest sweepstakes of the year. A quarter-mile hike for a piece of junk mail. But she didn’t begrudge the time or effort. She put her glasses back on and examined the brightly colored enclosures on the walk back. A $100,000 dream house, a yacht, a brand-new Lincoln-Continental (she could just picture it destroying its suspension on the dirt drive), a full-length mink, a home entertainment system with a big screen TV and a record player that took funny-looking little records—compact discs, the brochure called them—a video-recorder and lots of other things. Any of them might be hers already. There was also a sheet of little stamps offering cut-rate subscriptions to magazines. No purchase was necessary to enter this wonderful sweepstakes but she examined the stamps anyway. Maybe she might order a magazine or two, something that had articles on foreign places or one of those science magazines if they had one that wasn’t too technical to understand. Brett had given her the Ladies’ Home Journal once, years before, but she’d found little in it to pique her curiosity. She’d already been living in the Ladies’ Home Journal for a quarter of a million years by then.
She reached the house, paused, and then walked around back. The trip to the mailbox had not been sufficient to relieve her cooped-up feeling.
The sweepstakes announcement was crammed into a pocket. She kept her hand on it while she approached the stand of trees. She wasn’t looking for the creature, she told herself, absolutely not. It was getting harder and harder to believe in it as the day wore on. But if anything unlikely did pop out at her from somewhere, she’d pull the sweepstakes announcement out and throw the brochures right in its face. All right, she’d say, you tell me how you can be real in a world that has sweepstakes and cut-rate magazine subscriptions! Well, it wouldn’t be able to, that was all there was to it, and the thing would just melt away into thin air, and that would be the end of the matter. A $100,000 dream house didn’t come with monsters in the closets. Reality would take care of any old thing better than a shotgun would.
She found the package of bread lying torn up on the boards Brett had nailed down over the dried-up well. Some of it had been nibbled at. Squirrels, she thought firmly. And birds. Squirrels and birds for certain and apparently they didn’t like that bland white stuff any better than she did. And monsters didn’t eat Wonder Bread, whether they lived in closets or dried-up wells.
She left the enclosure describing the $100,000 dream house crumpled up next to the bread and walked back to her own house.
When evening came, she went upstairs to the bedroom and looked at the shotgun still lying on the bed.
“Slept all day, did you?” she said aloud and laughed at the absurdity of the statement and the sound of her own voice. She’d hardly ever spoken out loud in an empty house; unlike some people, she wasn’t in the habit of talking to herself, never had been. Oh, when that Brett called—if he called—she’d give him what her grandfather had called Billy Blue Hill. You go off shooting up half of Oklahoma and what happens to your stay-at-home wife but she becomes a babbling idiot, talking to shotguns and sundry. And seeing shadows in the back yard.
She cradled the shotgun in her arms. Not thinking, not feeling anything at all, she took it downstairs to the kitchen and stood it against the wall next to the table while she made supper.
She ate staring at the barrel. No, she imagined herself saying to someone who didn’t know anything about how people lived (and she couldn’t think who that might be), no, we generally don’t eat supper with our shotguns handy, or sleep with them either. It’s just a funny kind of thing I’m doing here and I don’t know what for.
A funny kind of thing. Come to think of it, there was lots of room in her life for funny kinds of things. She could set down her spoon, get up, walk around to the shotgun, pick it up and blow a hole right through any one of the four walls, or all of them. She could shoot up the whole house and dance naked in the ruins until Brett came home, if she wanted to. Or she could run upstairs, pack a bag and take off to see the world. She could fling her plate of pork and beans on the floor and roll around in the mess singing; she could phone the fire department and say there was a brush fire raging out of control behind the house; she could start the fire herself and not phone anyone. She could have done anything that came into her head no matter how foolish or malign, and there were plenty of people whose lives were so crowded up with such things that there was barely room for the things they hadn’t done yet. But her life was spacious enough to accommodate a Sears-sized catalogue of antics. Even in the days of Dead-Eye ‘Dee, there’d been plenty of latitude and a look down the coming longitude would have shown nothing but the traditional, famed, proverbial and inescapable straight-and-narrow.
I see, said the imaginary person she had been relating all this to. She froze, bent over her plate. A tingle crept along her scalp from neck to crown. She had forgotten this imaginary person, the one who didn’t know anything about how people lived. She had done with that stray notion but here it was hanging on in her head as though she didn’t know her own mind.
She turned her head to the window; it was closed and she saw only her own reflection against the night. Her reflection nodded at her slowly, with great certainty.
She didn’t hurry. She scraped the rest of the pork and beans into the garbage pail and washed the bowl thoroughly, leaving it to drain in the dish rack. Then she slipped on the two sweaters and the jacket, taking time to adjust the rumples and pull the sleeves down. The shotgun—well, of course, she would take it. She found extra shells in the utility drawer and put them in the empty pocket in the jacket.
Light? She went upstairs and put all the lights on again but she didn’t turn off the kitchen light. There was no more bread to offer it except her own sourdough and she wasn’t going to give it that—that was the good stuff. Tonight she’d fling the rest of the contest brochures at it if it got too active. Maybe then it would get the hint. And if it didn’t, there was the shotgun.
Prepared, she stood in the middle of the kitchen and counted to thirty before she picked up the shotgun and went outside.
There was the smell of coming rain or snow in the chill air and the wind had picked up. Merridee walked forward a few steps, her feet crunching on the newest layer of dead leaves. She’d just keep going until there was some sign that she should stop.
The sign came as a feeling of pressure high on her chest, as if the wind pushing against her had suddenly become deep water. All right, she’d stop. She hefted the shotgun impatiently, wanting to get this whatever it was going to be over with, just as if she didn’t have what amounted to all the time in the world.
She could practically feel all that time all around her, stretching away from her in every direction, past, present and future. Far, far away, almost too far to see was Dead-Eye ‘Dee, still shooting and hitting nearly every bull’s-eye. You could only see her from behind; maybe she’d known even then there were no targets to shoot at ahead of her. After Dead-Eye ‘Dee there was a big patch of present, forty years of Now, one day almost interchangeable with any before or behind it. And then an area that rose up unseeable into the dark, into the night sky for all she knew, but if it had been steps, she would have liked to climb them.
And if she did climb them, what might she find? Nothing so prosaic as, say, a $100,000 castle in the air or heaven. No, something else, something really else, that couldn’t be weighed or measured by the standards of white bread or shotguns or sweepstakes. There would be closet monsters and strange, inexplicable moving shadows and ideas you’d have liked to have in your head to do if you could even have conceived of them, and things—
And things that moved in an atmosphere neither air nor water but something in between. They didn’t eat anything like pork and beans or sourdough; they didn’t eat. They were consumed themselves by something that might have been food in the real world of shotguns and somehow they emerged not just whole but more than they had been before, and they didn’t take notions to do this or that, notions took them and they found themselves in this notion or that one. It was a world where they did not dream; the world dreamed them and lived through them as instruments. And as instruments, their limbs bent in odd angles and directions, and their joints telescoped—
And their faces. She looked at its face now without fear, without anything. Their faces were an asymmetrical arrangement on an oval of puckered openings, none of which were eyes and at the top a large irregular dark pad crisscrossed with tiny lines, like a picture in a science book of human skin enlarged a hundred times to show detail. It would be sensitive, that pad, like sight and smell and taste and touch and hearing all run together and enlarged a hundred times as well, and the size and shape of the patch would determine what the creature it belonged to was like—
“I see,” Merridee said, even though there was no need to speak out loud. But she wanted to tell it the same thing it had told her. She lowered the shotgun, resting the stock on the ground.
The thing bowed its head, aiming the dark pad at her and its arm telescoped out, sliding through the grass and leaves until the three-fingered hand lay within six feet of her. The thing crouched and its arm telescoped inward, dragging the creature’s body closer to her. The pressure against her chest increased.
Poor thing, she thought. It was hungry for its home. And where it touched her mind, it let her know that she was right. Yes, hungry to be home and it was going home soon.
Going home with her help.
Merridee’s nerves gave a jump and she wasn’t sure she had understood it that time. But it prodded her gently in her mind again (she still didn’t think to wonder how it could do that) and she knew she had understood. Going home with her help. She would take it home.
“Me?” she whispered. “I can do that?”
Yes. She could.
She put a hand to her mouth. It was too—All her life—Nothing ever—The thoughts came and went in flashes. She looked back at the house (half a million years of nothing and he couldn’t even find heart enough to take you on a camping trip, leave you behind with the rest of the furniture) and back at her life (Dead-Eye ‘Dee shooting bull’s-eyes with her back to the future because she knew nothing would come to a girl who didn’t even get monsters in her closets) and back at her world (where sweepstakes announcements came solely to show her what other people would be having, to show her that everyone knew exactly where she was, securely at home, at her correct address) and then she turned back to the creature with her eyes tearing in the cold October wind, a million years of life with all that room in it falling away from her old lady body like a worn-out skin. Yes, yes, she would take it home and gladly, if she had to carry it on her back, she would take it home if the effort tore her into a million bloody pieces. She would take it home. Yes.
The negation in her mind was strong and deep enough to make her reel. She caught herself, leaning on the shotgun until the dizziness passed. The thing shimmered in her watery vision. Panting a little, she wiped her eyes and leaned toward the creature with pained confusion. “No?” she whispered. “But I thought—I thought you—” She remembered the thickened medium it lived in, the way its nourishment consumed it (what a bad time it would have had trying to get bread to eat it rather than vice versa); she remembered all the wonderful strangeness it had showed her and thought a question mark at the end. I thought you wanted me to take you home?
Its home receded in her mind and was replaced by the house behind her.
“What?” she asked and even as she spoke, the answer was forming. The dark pad, touched to her open mouth. She tasted something thick. The all-wrong limbs collapsed, the body shrank in on itself, the head going down like a deflating balloon. Gone home, at home in her and in her house and her world, where they would stay together, its own world only in their joint memory. She would remember what it remembered, know the things it knew. But she would remain in the house, waiting for Brett, and it would be home.
“Going home . . . to me? In me?” she said, incredulous.
The image of her open mouth pressed to the pad flashed in her brain again. No pain. No fear. No difference.
“You son of a bitch.” She raised the shotgun and pulled the trigger.
The explosion seemed to echo for hours. She wasn’t used to the noise of a shotgun; it had been years. The shotgun had bucked in her hands but Dead-Eye ‘Dee had always been able to stand up to any kind of recoil. She waited until the ringing in her ears began to fade before she walked over to examine the thing.
She had literally blown it to pieces. There was hardly a fragment larger than the palm of her hand, except for its arm, which had still been extended. It lay like a forgotten pole in the leaves, the fingers limp and boneless. There wasn’t blood, just a kind of syrupy jelly glistening on the dead leaves. She had a crazy urge to scoop the jelly up and touch it to her mouth, but the urge died quickly.
Even as she watched, the pieces of the thing were melting. Like snow. She poked one of the fragments with the barrel of the shotgun and made a face at the slime it left on the metal.
Here it had come creeping around the house, peering into her mind, showing her things, showing her all those wonderful things, touching her, making her feel different and letting her believe it would take her away, take her out of the house of white bread and Brett and sweepstakes—and all it wanted was for her to stay right where she was, knowing what was out there and not being allowed to go to any of it. Just like Brett and everybody else.
“You son of a bitch,” she said again. “To hell with you.” She kicked some leaves over the remains and turned back toward the house. The sight of the hand, melting like all the rest of it, stopped her for a moment. Then she walked on, hoping it had known at the end just what it was like to have a last chance snatched away from it.
It melted away completely during the night in spite of the cold temperatures. There was no trace of it at all in the morning, not even in the frost.
© 1985 by Pat Cadigan
Originally Published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine
Reprinted by Permission of the Author
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