“Extreme geek-a-mo,” Bobby said as he edged back to the Jeep.
“Major geekster,” I agreed.
On the roof, Big Head turned its face skyward, as if studying the stars, still concealing its features behind the mask of its arms.
Suddenly I found myself identifying with this creature. Its posture, its very attitude, told me that it was covering its face out of embarrassment or shame, that it didn’t want us to see what it looked like because it knew we would find it repulsive, which meant that it must feel repulsive. Perhaps I was able to interpret its behavior and intuit its feelings because I’d lived twenty-eight years as an outsider. I’d never felt the need to hide my face, but as a small child I’d known the pain of being an outcast when cruel kids called me Nightcrawler, Dracula, Ghoul Boy, and worse.
Echoing in my mind was my own voice from a moment ago—major geekster—and I winced. Our pursuit of this creature reminded me of the way bullies had chased me when I’d been a boy. Even when I had learned to defend myself and fight back, they were sometimes not dissuaded, willing to risk a drubbing merely for the chance to harass and torment me. Of course, with Orson and Jimmy in peril, Bobby and I had good reason to follow any lead. We hadn’t been motivated by meanness; but what troubled me, in retrospect, was the strange dark wild delight with which we had mounted the chase.
The stargazer shifted its attention from the heavens and peered down at us again, still hiding its face.
I directed the spotlight onto the asphalt shingles near the creature’s feet, letting the backwash illuminate it rather than directly assaulting it with the beam.
My discretion didn’t encourage Big Head to lower its arms. It did, however, issue a sound unlike the previous screams, one at odds with its fierce appearance: a cross between the cooing of pigeons and the more guttural purr of a cat.
Bobby tore his attention away from the beast long enough to conduct a three-hundred-sixty-degree sweep of the neighborhood around us.
I, too, had been stricken by the nape-crinkling feeling that Big Head might be distracting us from a more immediate threat.
“Super placid,” Bobby reported.
Big Head’s cooing-purring grew louder and then became a fluent series of exotic sounds, simple and rhythmic and patterned, but not like mere animal noises. These were modulated groups of syllables, full of inflection, delivered with urgency and emotion, and it was no stretch to think of them as words. If this speech wasn’t complex enough to be defined as a language in the sense that English, French, or Spanish is a language, it was at least a primitive attempt to convey meaning, a language in the making.
“What’s it want?” Bobby asked.
His question, whether he realized it or not, arose from the perception that the creature was not just chattering at us but speaking to us.
“No clue,” I said.
Big Head’s voice was neither deep nor menacing. Although as strange as a bagpipe employed by a reggae band, it was pitched like that of a child of nine or ten, not entirely human but halfway there, edgy, eerily lilting without being musical, with a pleading note that aroused sympathy in spite of the source.
“Poor sonofabitch,” I said, as it fell silent again.
“Sorrowful damn thing.”
Bobby studied this Quasimodo in search of a bell tower and finally allowed, “Maybe.”
“You want to go up on the roof, give it a big hug?”
“I’ll turn on the Jeep’s radio. You can go up there and ask it to dance, make it feel attractive.”
“I’ll pity it from afar.”
“Typical man. You talk a good game of compassion, but you can’t play it.”
“I’m afraid of rejection.”
“You’re afraid of commitment.”
Turning away from us, Big Head dropped its arms from its face. On all fours, straddling the ridgeline, it raced across the bungalow roof.
“Keep the light on it!” Bobby said.
I tried, but the creature moved quicker than a striking snake. I expected it to launch itself off the roof and straight at us or disappear across the peak and down the far slope, but it traveled the length of the ridgeline and sprang without hesitation into the fifteen-foot gap between this bungalow and the next. With catlike poise, it landed atop the neighboring house, where it reared onto its hind legs, cast a green-eyed glance back at us, then dropped low, sprinted from gable to gable, leaped to a third roof, crossed over that ridgeline, and disappeared onto the back of the house.
During its swift flight, captured repeatedly by the spotlight beam but for only an instant at a time, the creature’s face had been less than half revealed in kaleidoscopic glimpses. I was left with impressions rather than clear images. The back of its skull seemed to be elongated, and like a cowl, its forehead appeared to overhang its large sunken eyes. The lumpish face might have been distorted by excrescences of bone. To an even greater degree than the head was disproportionate to the body, the mouth appeared too large for the head. Cracking its steam-shovel jaws, the creature revealed an abundance of sharp curved teeth more wicked-looking than Jack the Ripper’s cutlery collection.
Bobby gave me a chance to reconsider my assessment of Big Head. “Sorrowful?”
“I still think so.”
“You’re nothing but cardiac muscle, dude.”
“Anything moves that fast, teeth that big—its diet isn’t just fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.”
I switched off the handheld spot. Although the beam had been directed away from me, I was groggy from a surfeit of light. I had not seen much, yet I’d seen too much.
Neither of us suggested going on another Big Head hunt. Surfers don’t trade bite for bite with sharks; when we see enough fins, we get out of the water. Considering this creature’s speed and agility, we wouldn’t have a chance of catching it, anyway, not on foot or in the Jeep, and even if we did find and corner it, we weren’t prepared to capture or kill it.
“Supposing we don’t just want to sit here sucking down beer and trying to forget we saw anything,” Bobby wondered as he got behind the wheel.
“Then what was that thing?”
Settling into the passenger seat again, working my feet around the beer cooler, I said, “Could be an offspring of the original troop that escaped from the lab. There might be bigger, stranger mutations occurring in the new generation.”
“We’ve seen beaucoup offspring before. And you saw a bunch earlier tonight, right?”
“They look like normal monkeys.”
“This was awesomely not normal.”
I knew now what Big Head was, where it had come from, but I wasn’t ready to tell Bobby quite yet. Instead, I said, “This is the street where they trapped me in the bungalow.”
Assessing the sameness of the houses around us, he said, “You can tell one of these streets from another?”
“Then you’re spending a seriously psychotic amount of time here, bro.”
“Nothing hot on TV.”
“Try stamp collecting.”
“Couldn’t handle the excitement.”
As Bobby drove off the rutted lawn and over the curb, into the street, I holstered the 9-millimeter Glock and told him to turn right.
Two blocks later, I said, “Stop. Here. This is where they were spinning the manhole cover.”
“If they take over the world, they’ll probably make that an Olympic event.”
“At least it’s more exciting than synchronized swimming.”
As I got out of the Jeep, he said, “Where you going?”
“Pull forward and park with one wheel on the manhole. I don’t think they’re still here. They’ve moved on. But just in case, I don’t want them coming up behind us while we’re inside.”
I walked in front of the vehicle and directed Bobby until he stopped with the right front tire squarely atop the manhole cover.
He switched off the engine and, with the shotgun, got out of the Jeep.
The weak onshore breeze grew a little stronger, and the clouds in the west, which had swallowed the moon, were gradually expanding eastward, devouring the stars.
“Inside what?” Bobby repeated.
I pointed to the bungalow where I’d squeezed into the broom closet to hide from the troop. “I want to see what was rotting in the kitchen.”
“Need to,” I said, heading toward the bungalow.
“Perverse,” he said, falling in beside me.
“The troop was fascinated.”
“We want to lower ourselves to monkey level?”
“Maybe this is important.”
He said, “My belly’s full of kibby and beer.”
“Just a friendly warning, bro. Right now I’ve got a low puke threshold.”
The front door of the bungalow was open, as I had left it. The living room still smelled of dust, mildew, dry rot, and mice; in addition, there was now a lingering odor of mangy monkey.
My flashlight, which I’d not dared to use here before, revealed a series of three-inch-long, yellowish-white cocoons fixed in the angle where the back wall met the ceiling, home to developing moths or butterflies, or perhaps egg cases spun by an exceptionally fertile spider. Lighter rectangles on the discolored walls marked where pictures had once hung. The plaster wasn’t as fissured as you would expect in a house that was more than six decades old and that had been abandoned for nearly two years, but a web of fine cracks gave the walls the appearance of eggshells beginning to give way to hatching entities.
On the floor, in a corner, was a child’s red sock. It couldn’t have anything to do with Jimmy, because it was caked with dust and had been here for a long time.
As we crossed to the dining-room door, Bobby said, “Got a new board yesterday.”
“The world’s ending, you go shopping.”
“Friends at Hobie made it for me.”
“Hot?” I asked as I led him into the dining room.
“Haven’t ridden it yet.”
In one corner, at the ceiling, was a cluster of cocoons similar to those in the previous room. They were also big, each three to four inches long and, at the widest point, approximately the diameter of plump frankfurters.
Outside of this bungalow, I had never seen anything quite like these silken constructs. I moved directly under them, fixing them with the light.
“Not uncreepy,” Bobby said.
Within a couple of the cocoons were dark shapes, curled like question marks, but they were so heavily swaddled in flossy filaments that I could make out no details of them.
“See anything moving?” I asked.
“Might be dead.”
“Yeah,” I said, though I wasn’t convinced. “Just some big, dead, half-made moths.”
“What else?” I asked.
“Maybe new moths. A new, bigger species. Becoming.”
“If people, dogs, birds, monkeys…why not bugs?”
Frowning, Bobby thought about that. “Probably wouldn’t be smart to buy any more wool sweaters.”
A cold quiver of nausea wound through me as I realized that I’d been in these rooms in absolute darkness, unaware of the fat cocoons overhead. I’m not entirely sure why I found this thought so deeply disturbing. After all, it wasn’t likely that I’d been in danger of being pinned to the wall by some bug and imprisoned in a suffocating cocoon of my own. On the other hand, this was Wyvern, so perhaps I’d been in precisely such danger.
Partly, the nausea was caused by the stench wafting from the kitchen. I’d forgotten how fiercely ripe it was.
Holding the shotgun in his right hand, covering his nose and mouth with his left, Bobby said, “Tell me the stink doesn’t get worse than this.”
“It doesn’t get worse than this.”
“But it does.”
“Let’s be quick.”
Just as I moved the flashlight away from the cocoons, I thought I saw one of the dark, curled forms writhe inside its silken sac.
I focused the beam on the cluster again.
None of the mystery bugs moved.
Bobby said, “Jumpy?”
“As a toad.”
We ventured into the kitchen, where the linoleum cracked and popped underfoot and where the reek of decomposition was as thick in the air as a cloud of vaporized, rancid cooking oil in the kitchen of a greasy-spoon restaurant.
Before searching for the source of the stench, I directed the light overhead. The upper cabinets hung under a soffit, and in the angle where the soffit met the ceiling, there were more cocoons than in the previous two rooms combined. Thirty or forty. Most were in the three-to-four-inch range, though a few were half again as large. Another twenty were nestled around the boxy fluorescent fixture in the center of the ceiling.
“Not good,” Bobby said.
I lowered the flashlight and at once discovered the source of the putrescent smell. A dead man was sprawled on the floor in front of the sink.
At first I thought he must have been killed by whatever made the cocoons. I expected to see a wad of spun silk in his open mouth, yellowish-white sacs bulging from his ears, wispy filaments trailing from his nose.
The cocoons, however, had nothing to do with it. This was a suicide.
The revolver lay on his abdomen, where recoil and death spasm had tossed it, and the swollen index finger of his right hand was still hooked through the trigger guard. Judging by the wound in his throat, he’d put the muzzle under his chin and fired one round straight up into his brain.
Entering the lightless kitchen earlier in the night, I had gone directly to the back door, where I’d halted with my hand on the knob when a monkey shadow leaped up the glass. Approaching the door and backing away from it, I must have come within inches of stepping on this corpse.
“This what you expected?” Bobby asked, voice muffled by the hand with which he was trying to filter the sickening odor.
I didn’t know what I’d expected, but I was sure this wasn’t the worst thing that had been lurking in the deepest cellars of my imagination. When I’d first seen the cadaver, I’d been relieved—as though subconsciously I had envisioned a specific and far worse discovery than this, an ultimate horror that now I would not have to confront.