One of my favorite authors is Stephen King. I am admittedly influenced by his early work. One of my absolutely favorite stories of King’s is ‘The Mist’. That story, and a touch of the Cthulhu mythos, kindled this tale.
I crouched next to the corner of Mr. Wilkes’ house and peered out at the street. A curl of peeling paint caressed my forehead and I had to bite my tongue to keep from screaming in surprise. I flicked the strip of lemon-yellow away (and hadn’t my mother rolled her eyes when Mr. Wilkes slapped that color up on his walls?) and studied the neighborhood.
The sky was a pale shade of green. There were no clouds, no sun. Looking up at that sky made me think of Lake Fortre, and the swimming trips me and my brothers and my mom used to make. We grew up and the lake got dirtier, algae-choked and studded along the silty bottom with shopping carts and beer kegs. Still we used to go, gliding through the water below the green flats of algae, and I would show off by swimming on my back beneath the water. Looking up, the sky would be alien and strange and pale green.
We went less and less as the years went on. My brothers went off to fight bad guys in the desert; two of them never came home, and the one that did left all the best parts of himself over there. He ate the business end of a shotgun less than a year after the end of his tour. Mom had been sick for a long time, but even the deaths of all three of her boys didn’t put her down.
It took the Tear, the rip in the sky and the underwater colors and the acidic fogs to do that.
The glimpse of something, mud-colored and with too many limbs, reminded me to keep my mind on my business. I sank as deep into the dead grass as I could and watched. The thing, like a spider but with about six extra legs, bulbous unlidded eyes everywhere, and as big as a cow, scuttled down the middle of the street. It would have been invisible on the bottom of Lake Fortre until your bare foot came down squarely on its bulging middle section. I had never seen one of these spiders attack anything and for all I knew they were as harmless as kittens. I wasn’t willing to test that, though.
The spider slid along the side of a car, a station wagon that still held the desiccated remains of Ms. Ilona. The fool woman had locked herself in her car and had died in there. Now, this wasn’t during the first craziness of the Tear. Ms. Ilona, seventy if she was a day and as mean as a pit bull force-fed pepper, seemed like the perfect person to outlive everyone else on St. Mary’s. But no – two weeks in she’d freaked out at the sight of the first fluppy (little mudpuppy-looking thing, except they had disturbingly human-like eyes and screamed like a baby being flayed) and locked herself in her car.
She died fast and I didn’t know if she’d killed herself somehow or if the weather did it. Never mind the lake-colored sky and the gross ‘moist-ness’ of the things that wandered everywhere; there was not a drop of water in the air. The wind didn’t blow and people dried up as fast as the grass and trees did.
The spider-thing was running several of its multi-faceted legs over the window and door of the station wagon. I could see Ms. Ilona’s mummy face, all teeth and cheekbones (and who would have guessed that she still had all her own teeth?) pressed against the glass. It looked like her corpse was trying to gnaw its way out. One of the spider-thing’s legs, mottled shades of brown, green, and yellow that ended in a glossy black foot, tapped delicately on the window. Something about that very precise movement gave me chills. It looked almost human, that soft tapping.
From overhead came the flapping of wings. The spider-thing took off, gone into the gloom of Ms. Ilona’s yellowed hedges. I looked up automatically, something I tried never to do but inevitably found myself doing at least once a day. And who could blame me?
The flying creature moved ponderously through the air. It was huge; I’d swear on a stack of Bibles that it was half-a-block long. It was a darker shade of green than the sky. The wings looked like a bat’s, but the damn thing had long legs that ended in something like hands at one end of its body, and at the other end – well, it looked like it had no head at all. Maybe it did, but I had never seen it land. I had never seen more than one of the flying things at one time, either. There could only be one of them for all I know.
Against my will I tracked its path against the sky. And then I was looking at it, at IT, and once you do it’s so hard to look away.
That’s what it looked like. A tear in the sky, probably miles long and miles wide although from here on earth it was as long as my forearm, held up against the underwater view. I don’t know what other people call it – hell, I haven’t seen other people in so long now – but mom called it the tear, and then the Tear. It gained the capital letter by dint of its existence. It appeared in the sky on a day that was so beautiful and normal and wonderfully early-summery. There was no herald of trumpets or strange sights in the sky, just a sudden low thrumming sound that started in the earth beneath your feet and threatened to shake your bones loose from your skin. The thrum became a roar, the ground shook and the air screamed, and when it all settled there was the Tear.
But even the Tear wasn’t the worst part.
The Tear wasn’t the worst part. Nor were the unnatural animals and the green sky and the rare yellow fogs that stripped paint from cars as fast as it stripped flesh from your bones.
No, no, that wasn’t the worst.
The worst was the tentacles.
Whatever was on the other side of the Tear couldn’t be seen. Protruding from the Tear was a mass of tentacles, writhing and twisting in a slow and endless tangle. They weren’t like an octopus or squid. These blackish-green things were smooth and wet-looking, each of them ending in a point. Like the Tear it was impossible to know how big they were. When I used my arm as a guide the tentacles stretched from my palm to my shoulder.
The Tear never moved. It was just there, in the east, halfway between the horizon and the point in the sky that used to mark noon, back where there was a sun and a moon. Now it was always green, and the tentacles were always there.
I realized I’d been staring at the Tear for a while and slapped myself out of my stupor. Time was wasting; and while night now was only marked by a darkening of the sky from algae-green to pine the things that came out then were not ones I wanted to meet. I checked the street again. The spider was gone, and it was just me and Ms. Ilona and a few paint-stripped cars. My goal was actually Ms. Ilona’s house, the last one on the block I hadn’t scavenged. The street looked as wide as the ocean, and the skin on my back prickled. Just because I didn’t see anything didn’t mean there wasn’t anything there. The spider-things seemed harmless, the fluppies were fast as cockroaches and if they bit you could make you sick enough to wish for death, and the weirdness that was the croaks – frogs that dripped venom from their skin and were as big as bears – these were bad enough. But before Mom had taken my brother’s shotgun and used it in the same manner as him she swore that she saw…something. Something that walked upright but oozed gunk and could turn invisible.
I drew my wandering mind back to the task. Still no movement on the street. It was now or never. I took a deep breath and launched myself forward, sprinting across Mr. Wilke’s dead lawn. When I hit the pavement my footsteps sounded like gunshots and I hunched my head down between my shoulders. The brother that returned from the desert told me how he used to run like that while sweeping some dirty little town, always anticipating the bullet that would kill him. He did it so often, he said, that it became second nature. He couldn’t stop anticipating, and I wondered if that was what led him to kill himself. I wondered if I would end up the same way.
I thundered up Ms. Ilona’s sidewalk and screeched to a halt on her porch. The porch had been the old woman’s favorite place of late. It offered her a nice view of everybody’s business on this block of St. Mary, and she loved to know everybody’s business. Now the place was just a dusty space filled with dead plants.
The front door was unlocked and I eased it open. A gust of stale air met me. The house was dark; Ms. Ilona had closed her curtains against the Tear like everyone else on the block. I switched on my trusty flashlight and shone the beam around.
I was in a short hallway that led to the living room. It had been years since I’d been in here and it took a moment for my memories to return. I moved through the living room, full of over-stuffed furniture and the sappy knick-knacks certain old women liked to collect, and headed for the kitchen. I passed the stairs that led to the second floor where Ms. Ilona’s bedroom was. On everything there lay a thin layer of dust and a sense of abandonment.
In the kitchen I remembered that Ms. Ilona had had two yappy little pugs when I found their remains. I didn’t look at the mess too closely; just enough to see that they had turned on each other when the food ran out. The egg-yolk-yellow cabinets were my focus. Methodically and with the efficiency of practice I ransacked the shelves. Ms. Ilona was heavily into canned corn and sauerkraut. I wrinkled my nose but took everything I could use. There wasn’t much, and my bag was hardly heavy. I went in search of the bathrooms.
The first-floor bath was small but the toilet tank held a wealth of water. Thankfully the old woman hadn’t used any drop-in cleansers. I filled my bottles and then rifled the medicine cabinet, taking aspirin and painkillers. There was still something else I needed.
Beyond the living room was a small dining room that led to an equally small mudroom. Shelves and cabinets turned up nothing I wanted. More dead plants, dusty books and clothes, boxes of junk, but not what I was looking for. A glass-fronted case twinkled in the beam of my flashlight, and something behind the glass also twinkled. I flipped the latch and yanked the door open.
Empty bottles in all the shades of the now-gone rainbow lined the shelves. I reached for one, a deep purple that reminded me of violets. I had always liked violets. The bottle, wrapped in a scrap of cloth, went into my bag. I headed upstairs.
The old wood creaked beneath my feet and the rose-colored carpet at the top was a welcome muffler. I had grown used to the absence of noise. Up here on the second floor there was Ms. Ilona’s bedroom, a guest room that to my knowledge had never housed a guest, and a bathroom. I started with the bathroom.
Another handful of pill bottles went into my bag. The toilet tank water was stained blue and I left it alone. The guest room held nothing but boxes and boxes and boxes, stacked two and three high. Out of curiosity I sifted through a few of them. Ms. Ilona had been addicted to home-shopping networks and there was a wealth of useless stuff here. After the third set of duck-shaped mugs I left the mess behind and went into the old woman’s bedroom.
A big four-poster bed with an actual canopy took up most of the space. A tall wardrobe on one wall, a roll-top desk on another wall, and on the third wall, right next to the bed, a low, long cabinet. I crossed over to the cabinet and raised the lid, drawing in a trembling breath at finding what I was looking for.
I realized I wasn’t alone.
There was something behind me, a presence moving space and air around me. It made no sound yet it was there, and against my will my body turned around to face it.
It was in the shape of a person and stood upright like a person, but that was the end of the resemblance. The thing wavered and flickered like a TV with bad reception. Its two arms ended in writhing tentacles, its two legs in crab claws. Its skin was an oozing swamp of constant motion, green as the sky, green as the lake. A circle opened in the face where the mouth might-could-should be and a handful of snake-headed tentacles shot out. Each snake’s mouth yawned wide and they screamed in voices like burned humans.
I screamed back and, without thinking, swung my bag of supplies at the thing’s head. My blow sent the creature staggering backward. The snakes continued screaming as the thing lurched back at me, arms outstretched and tentacles snapping. I dropped the bag and pulled my brother’s shotgun out from its place under my arm. I knew nothing about guns but it didn’t take much knowledge to point and shoot, as the brother that had returned told me. I pointed and shot.
The noise was almighty loud, like the day the Tear appeared. The butt of the shotgun slammed into my chest and tumbled to the floor. The screaming creature…it exploded. No other way to say it. Green and black fluid, slimy and stinking like Lake Fortre when it finally died, splattered over the walls, the ceiling, the bed, and me. Where it touched my bare skin it was cold as ice. Gobbets of quivering jelly-like flesh landed everywhere with moist thumps.
Somehow the thing was still screaming. It took me a moment to realize it was me. My hand rose like it belonged to someone else and slapped me across the face. The screams stopped. I stood there in an echoing silence broken only by wet dripping sounds.
Everything seemed very far away and dreamlike. I scooped up my bag and filled it with the contents of the cabinet, and then I walked down the stairs and out the front door. Automatically I looked up at the sky. Algae-green, lake-water green.
Somehow I got home, following the memory of my past trips. In the back door, through my brothers’ old room, into the kitchen. Mom, on her last day, had set the table for dinner for all five of us. I had left it that way, the good crystal and china and linen napkins that Mom had scrimped and saved for.
The canned goods tumbled out onto the yellowed counter to join the pile of other food. Shards of violet glass fell out like dead flower petals. I grabbed one of the bottles that I had removed from Ms. Ilona’s bedside liquor cabinet and sat down in my usual place at the table.
I opened the bottle and took a good pull. Ms. Ilona liked the good stuff and the whiskey burned like the fire of Armageddon on its way down. Mom was the only one on St. Mary’s that didn’t cover all her windows, and I watched as the green light that shone through the windows began to darken. Something was scratching tentatively at the wall outside. Something else screeched far overhead.
I raised the bottle to my lips and drank, wondering how much it would take before I was underwater again, swimming through Lake Fortre with my brothers.