Forged on the Anvil of Earth
by Joe Williams
©2001 by Joe Williams. All Rights Reserved.
“I’ll just be a minute,” she had said.
Thud, thud, thud.
“I’ll just be a minute,” she had said. . .
Each day he replayed it in his mind a thousand times. All that was left of her were flashes and snippets of an afternoon not long ago, when Robby had left the house to go crawdad hunting at the creek and Elaine had suggested they take the opportunity to make love.
Flashes and snippets.
Alex lounging in bed with his usual post-lovemaking languidness while the buzz of the clothes dryer calls Elaine to the basement. She tosses on a robe and promises over her shoulder to be right back.
“I’ll just be a minute.”
Thud, thud, thud.
Alex standing naked at the top of the basement stairs, gazing down at everything he holds dear. Her robe open. Her body twisted. But no blood. She has to be okay if there’s no blood.
She has to be okay.
Elaine in intensive care, attached to a heart-lung machine. Ghost white. Three times they wheel her into surgery. Three times they open her head. By the time she dies, he hardly recognizes her through the crazy-quilt of sutures.
Alex, delirious with rage, pounding his fist on the surgeon’s desk, only to be met by a stoical professionalism that grants no relief.
Alex wants revenge for this senseless loss of the woman he loves.
She’s gone, he’s alone, and there’s no one to blame.
“I’ll just be a minute,” she had said . . .
* * *
A sharp rap jolted Alex from his reverie. For a moment, he mistook it for gunfire, and his heart raced. Then, through the lace curtains Elaine had hung when they first moved to this farmhouse in the country, he saw a man knocking at the front door. He’d been staring at those curtains since morning, but he hadn’t seen the man pull up in front of the farmhouse or walk up the steps. Like so many things of late, he simply hadn’t noticed.
Determined to return to his grief-induced stupor, Alex focused on the curtains once more and waited in the dark for the man on the porch to give up and go away. The rapping came again, strong and vigorous. Alex gritted his teeth and resolutely ignored it.
Through a haze of white lace, he glimpsed a grime-encrusted pickup truck parked at the foot of the steps. A thousand miles of dust could not obliterate the message stenciled on the side of the truck:
WE STOP ACCIDENTS BEFORE THEY HAPPEN
A little late for that, Alex thought bitterly.
Ever since he had sold his dot-com to a competitor and retired with his wife and son to the country, Alex’s luck had turned sour. In less than three months he had gone from a successful and happy man living the dream of retirement at age forty to a recluse. Had he already used up all the luck he was allotted in life? He didn’t know what was causing his misfortune and pain but he wanted it stopped.
An ache pulsed through his left arm. He’d broken it in a stupid accident a week before Elaine died and it still hurt. A cast covering his elbow held his arm bent as though he were embracing a ghost, only there was nothing there but emptiness.
Try as he might, Alex could not focus on the curtains. His eyes kept looking beyond, at the truck and the message on its side.
WE STOP ACCIDENTS BEFORE THEY HAPPEN
The message compelled him to answer the knock.
So Alex got up from the couch where he’d been sitting every morning for the last month. His arm protested at the sudden movement, bringing a curse to his lips. He cradled the cast against his dingy bathrobe as he turned the deadbolt and opened the front door.
A living wall of denim and flannel filled the doorway. The man on the other side of the screen towered solidly, yet a simple grin abolished any hint of threat. An embroidered patch on the chest of his coveralls identified him as Earl.
Since Earl appeared to be waiting expectantly for some kind of greeting in return, Alex said, “What do you want?” His voice sounded chalky from disuse.
Earl’s grin didn’t slip. “I’m the Troubleshooter.”
“That your truck?”
“The sign says you stop accidents.”
“I sure do.” The gap-tooth grin widened as Earl eyed Alex’s cast. “Looks to me like I got here just in time.”
A spike of anger flared through Alex. “How dare you say that. A broken arm is the least of my problems. My wife . . . “
No, he wouldn’t talk about her. He wouldn’t cry in front of this hick.
The big man doffed his John Deer baseball cap and scratched the stubble of his crew cut. “Shucks, I’ve been doing this for five years and I ain’t gettin any better at it. You see, my partner told me you’ve been having some trouble hereabouts. Thought you might use some help.”
Suspicion knitted Alex’s brow. Misfortune always brought out the vultures. Yet he hesitated, a part of him hoping that somehow this huge man with the earnest face could really help him where the surgeons and pastors and councilors had failed.
Still wary, Alex said, “I’ve had all the help I can afford.”
“This won’t cost you a thing. No sir. I’m not here to take your money. I just need to look around your yard a bit. I know it sounds silly. But I’ve been working these parts for years, and you can’t imagine the kind of trouble comes out of a man’s yard. It’ll take just a few minutes of your time.”
* * *
A tall row of arborvitae shaded the back yard. Alex hadn’t bothered with the yard since Elaine died. It was so overgrown that even his teenage son had started complaining about it, not that Robby would ever touch a lawnmower.
Weeds whipped at Earl’s shins as he marched to the garden Elaine had planted last spring. Dandelions and nettles choked the roses. Kneeling, Earl poked his head behind a growing sprawl of blackberries and grunted.
“Just like I thought. You’ve got devils.”
The assessment startled Alex with its absurdity. No way he heard that right. “Excuse me?”
The husky man rolled back on his heels and crouched there in his overalls like a denim toadstool. He wiped cracked hands on his knees. “You’ve got dirt devils.” Then he added, as if it explained everything, “The kind that live in the ground.”
The joke, if that’s what it was, angered Alex. Maybe the pain in his arm dulled his sense of humor. His grief councilor had advised him to make an effort to be more sociable, so he tried forcing his sneer into something that might be mistaken for a grin. “No. I don’t think so. I’ve never seen anything like that.”
Earl grinned right back. “Course not. They’re invisible.”
“So how do you know they’re there?”
“Oh, I got my ways. But lookie here.” Earl parted the weeds with a stubby finger. “See them holes?”
Alex bent closer and saw, hidden under the foliage, a half inch diameter hole in the ground. He’d never noticed it before, but similar holes dotted the garden.
“So I’ve got moles. Big deal. That’s not what caused this.” Alex lifted the cast in its sling. His elbow gave him a sharp rebuke. He thought of the vicodin in his medicine cabinet, and though he wasn’t supposed to take a dose of painkillers until seven, he felt an overwhelming and immediate need for it.
“Them ain’t mole holes. See, moles push the dirt up in a mound. These holes just go straight down like a worm hole.”
Alex imagined a worm fat enough to fill such a hole. He shook his head to rid himself of the image.
“What you got here are devil burrows. They just wind down and down, branching into more and more tunnels. No sense digging ‘em up or filling them in. The devils still find a way up.”
Although he felt like swearing at this foolish lout, Alex bit his anger back. “Devils. They live in these holes?”
“Sure. Where do you think they’d live?” Grunting, Earl heaved himself upright and looked back at the house. “Where’d you bust your arm?”
“The shed.” Alex nodded to a dilapidated structure with a heavy wooden door. The renovation that had updated the house hadn’t touched the shed. Its curled siding hadn’t been painted in decades, and birds roosted in the gaps in its roof. “The door blew shut on my elbow. Crushed the bone.”
“Blew shut, huh?” Earl grinned like that was something funny. “Any accidents happen inside the house?”
“No . . .” Alex still didn’t want to tell Earl about Elaine. Talking about it brought back too many memories.
“What about your keys or the TV remote? They ever turn up missing when you know right where you put ‘em? Or do you wake up late for work and swear you set the alarm?”
“No. Nothing like that.”
“You’re lucky if all you’ve got are dirt devils in your flowerbed. Less damage that way. But just to be sure, I better check your basement.” He started for the house.
Alex braced his fist on his hip. No way was he letting this man into his house, not when Robby was in there. “Stop right there. This foolishness has gone far enough.”
Pausing, the big man glanced over his shoulder. “Won’t take long. I’ll put out a few saucers of milk and check in a few hours. Dirt devils sour milk.”
Hot prickles danced across Alex’s face. “Look, do you think I’m an idiot? I’m not going to pay you to get rid of invisible creatures.”
“Like I said, I don’t charge for what I do. Call it a crusade, if you want, but what I do I do for free.”
“Come on, you’re talking about something that’s invisible.”
“Hard to believe, ain’t it? But think about it for a minute. On some level, most people know their bad luck ain’t all their fault.”
Alex’s left arm itched fiercely inside its cast. He remembered Elaine, and wished he could believe Earl. If only life was so simple. He stared at the tall grass around his feet, noticing distantly that he still wore his robe and slippers. Sharp seeds that had fallen into his slippers jabbed his ankles.
Earl’s voice, so resonate and solid, was a soothing balm. “Whatever happened here, it ain’t your fault.” His huge hand was surprisingly light as it touched Alex’s shoulder. “The dirt devils have always been here, lifting the edges of a rug, loosening the tread of a stair, turning the gas on at night. Trying to drive away the big people. Killing the weak. There’s a war going on, my friend, only most people can’t even see it.”
Alex found his voice. “A war?”
“Between heaven and hell. Now I’m not a religious man. I’m not saying there’s a God or a Lucifer, but I am saying there are things in the earth and things in the sky that we don’t know about. Some people catch a glimpse of them every now and again. They see something in the sky and call it an angel or a flying saucer. They see something come up out of the ground and they call it a ghost or a will-o-wisp. But I got a gift, see? It came down over my pasture on a silver thread, hanging there from a thunderhead. All my life, I’ve been nothing but a pig farmer, but this gift, it makes me special. It lets me see what’s really going on.”
This was insane. Alex shook his head. His body trembled with the effort to contain his growing indignation at having his emotions twisted by this backwoods evangelist. He’d been a fool to think answers could come out of the blue. “Get out, Earl. I don’t need your help.”
Earl gave a good-natured grin. “Well, as you can imagine, I get that a lot. But I promise I can get rid of these dirt devils for you. I can stop the accidents.”
Why wouldn’t this man listen to him? No one could stop an accident that had already happened. Anger flared in Alex. “Get off my property before I call the police!”
Earl blinked big brown eyes like those of a cow that had just been tipped.
Alex raged on. “Do you think I’m so crippled by grief that I’ve lost my mind? I get suckered by the doctors, the funeral director, the grief councilor. Everyone wants a piece of my misery. I lost my wife, damn it. I lost her to a stupid accident. I didn’t lose my mind.”
Earl, clearly concerned, stepped closer as if to console him. With his good hand, Alex grabbed a fist full of denim and shoved. “Get out!”
Earl’s bulk was unmoved. He stood there, looking down at Alex. His grin had vanished.
Alex rubbed his eyes, trying to stop the tears before they started. “Just get out, all right?”
Earl simply nodded. “Suit yourself. But just to be on the safe side, you better put a saucer of milk in the basement before you go to bed. If it’s lumpy by morning, give me a call. It’s a sure sign you got dirt devils in the basement.” Earl reached out his hand. Alex flinched but before he could pull away, Earl slipped a business card into the pocket of Alex’s robe. Wordlessly, Earl turned and slogged through the grass back to his pickup truck.
Alex stood alone in his yard.
Oh God how he missed her.
* * *
The basement stairs appeared safe enough. Invisibly, one of the stringers halfway down had rotted just enough for the nails holding the tread to work lose. When Elaine had stepped on it, the tread had tipped out of place.
Alex stood at the top of the stairs, staring down at the bare concrete floor. He hadn’t gone down there since the day Elaine died. Unwilling to access the laundry, he’d worn the same unwashed clothes until they stank.
He descended the stairs with an uncharacteristic poise, like a beauty queen balancing a book on her head. He carried a saucer of milk in either hand. His cast made the saucer in his left hand especially precarious. He deliberately stepped on the loose tread—fixed now by a few sixteen penny nails—daring it to tip him to the floor. It held solid. Somehow, he found that disappointing.
Now at the foot of the stairs, he gazed at the spot where he had found Elaine lying unconscious. His heart thundered in his ears. If only he had lasted longer, so that when the buzzer on the clothes dryer went off she wouldn’t have heard it over her own panting. She never would have come down here. She never would have died.
It was all his fault.
His hands trembled and milk sloshed over his fingers. Just remembering that day made him mad. Before he could spill anymore milk, he placed a saucer in the cobwebs and lint behind the clothes dryer.
He surveyed the clutter in the basement for a place to put the second bowl. Most of the junk belonged to Elaine. Sentimental to the core, she had kept all her parent’s possessions when they passed. Much of the basement was packed with bureaus, bedframes, an old sofa with thinning upholstery, and musty cardboard boxes.
He was putting the saucer at the foot of a heavy hardwood wardrobe when he heard Robby at the top of the stairs.
“Hey, Dad, what’re you doing?”
What, indeed. Looking for devils, what else? Too embarrassed to admit his guilty secret, Alex straightened and wiped the milk onto his already dirty robe. “I was just finishing up down here.” He glanced at his teenage son, daring him to press him.
At fifteen, Robby looked much older than he should have. His mother’s death had aged him. Although his chin and neck were spotted with red pimples, his eyes were those of an adult.
Those eyes were confused and worried. “But Dad, you never go in the basement.”
“Well, maybe it’s time I started.”
Robby chewed on his lower lip, his eyes darting to the saucer of milk and then back to his dad. “I guess that’s a good thing.”
Alex shrugged and moved to the bottom of the stairs. He wanted out of the basement, but with Robby standing in the doorway, he was trapped.
Robby added, “It’s like what that lady at the hospital said. You know, Mrs. Sanderson or whatever her name was.”
Alex stiffened at the name of the grief councilor. “Sanderfall,” he said.
“Yeah. It’s like what she said. Mom’s gone and you’re just going to have to get over it.”
His son’s bluntness shocked him. How could Robby talk like that? Alex stifled his smoldering anger. He supposed he should be thankful that his son wasn’t sharing in his suffering.
Robby didn’t seem to notice the ice in Alex’s glare. “So, what did that guy want?”
Alex thought Robby had been in his room when Earl had knocked. “I didn’t know you heard us.”
“Naw, I saw you and him out in the yard, looking at the grass. I thought he might be a gardener. So, is he gonna come back and mow the lawn? It sure needs it.”
Alex didn’t answer. Being in the basement made him ill. He felt the sweat breaking out across his forehead, his scalp itched, and his broken arm hurt. He thought of the vicodin waiting for him in the medicine cabinet and slowly started up the stairs.
“I thought maybe he went to get his lawn mower. He didn’t have one in his truck. All he had was an old milk thingy, like farmers used to put cow milk in.”
“He won’t be back,” Alex assured him.
“Aww. It’d be fun to have someone else around, if only for a little while. It’s kind of boring around here.”
This was the most interest Robby had shown in anything since Elaine died. But Alex didn’t want to talk. He wanted to sit on the sofa and stare at the lace curtains. He stopped on the step below his son and met his eyes. When had Robby gotten so tall? “That man was dangerous. He was unstable.”
“Yeah? That coming from a guy who stopped showering weeks ago. Face it, dad, you haven’t been too stable yourself.”
His hand wanted to strike out, but Alex kept it in check. He knew he had to be sympathetic to his son. He was an only parent now, and his son needed him.
Robby, arms crossed, leaned his gangly frame against the doorjamb. Light from the kitchen surrounded him in a nimbus. “So if he wasn’t going to do the lawn, what did he want?”
“He wanted to help.” Alex held his son’s eyes. “The doctors, Mrs. Sanderfall, everyone just wants to help us.”
“They think we’re babies,” Robby sneered. “Like we can’t take care of ourselves.”
“We’ll show them. Won’t we?”
Without answering, Robby turned away.
* * *
The next morning, the saucer next to the wardrobe was missing, but the milk next to the clothes dryer was curdled to the consistency of cottage cheese.
Dirt Devils. What if they were real? What if they killed Elaine? Alex could imagine them pulling the nails loose from the stairs, chortling gleefully as she stumbled and fell.
Earl might have sounded crazy, but at least he had answers where Alex had none.
Over the phone, the Troubleshooter didn’t ask what changed his mind. He simply showed up on Alex’s porch that afternoon at the arranged time, an old-fashioned metal milk can in one hand and a shotgun in the other, it’s sawed-off barrel carefully aimed at the ground.
To Alex, the sight of the shotgun suddenly made the thought of dirt devils ridiculous again. No matter how self-assured the Troubleshooter appeared, he was one seriously demented man. Alex congratulated himself for planning ahead by sending Robby to the movies.
Alex couldn’t take his eyes form the expensive, pump-action shotgun. Despite his city-bred ignorance of firearms, he knew it wasn’t legal to cut down the barrel like that. “I think you should leave your gun in the truck.”
Earl grinned. “It’s the safest way I know of to deal with dirt devils.”
“But a shotgun? Can’t you just poison them, like rats?”
“Course not. They ain’t flesh and blood. You gotta use the proper tools.” He set down the milk can and pumped the shotgun, ejecting a shell. It rattled on the porch. He picked it up and showed it Alex. “See? I load my shells with iron instead of lead. Dirt devils hate iron. The buckshot breaks ‘em up.”
As much as he liked the idea of dirt devils getting blown apart, Alex felt a knot of worry twist his bowels. Fortunately, Robby had left a half-hour ago on his bike and wouldn’t be home for hours.
Plenty of time to see how this would play out.
Alex eyed the milk can. “I already set out saucers of milk. They clotted, just like you said.”
“Oh, I ain’t got milk in here.” He scooped the milk can under his arm and started down the porch steps. “You better stay inside. I’ll start in the garden.”
Alex didn’t know whether to feel relief or concern. But he’d already decided to let Earl fight this battle for him. So he went inside, closed the door, and stared at the patterns in the lace curtains.
For once, the curtains were just curtains. His mind, worrying about the madman outside with his shotgun, wouldn’t conjure memories of Elaine.
Even though he knew what to expect, he jumped when he heard the shotgun blast.
He moved to the kitchen where he could see into the garden. At first he didn’t see the Troubleshooter. Then he spotted the denim legs sticking out from under a blackberry bush.
Why was Earl lying down? And his boots were twisted at such an awkward angle . . .
Alex ran out the back door, letting the screen slap shut behind him.
The shotgun lay in the tall grass. Alex stopped next to it, face locked in horror. Red beads dotted and drooled down the overgrown bushes. The ground beneath the briars sucked up a vast puddle of blood. White bone and gray globs glinted from the crimson blanket.
Most of Earl’s head was gone. The little of his face that remained bore an expression of profound surprise.
Alex fell to his knees and vomited until his throat burned.
* * *
At his kitchen table, the phone to his right and Earl’s metal milk can to his left, Alex sat and despaired.
He knew he should call 911 and report Earl’s death. He couldn’t ignore a body splattered across his garden.
Earl must have had an accident with the shotgun. Maybe he’d been more unstable than Alex suspected and had intentionally blown his brains out across Alex’s blackberries.
Still, the police would wonder. And if he mentioned dirt devils, they’d either arrest him or put him away. Mrs. Sanderfall would tell everyone how depressed he’d been and they might even think he killed Earl.
What rotten luck.
Alex glanced at the milk can, its sides shiny with blood. He’d found it in the garden near Earl’s body, lying on its side. A white slime trail a foot wide twisted from Earl’s head to the milk can. The lid had been loosely fitted in place but the wire latch that held it hadn’t been secured. When he lifted it in his good right hand, something shifted inside like partially hardened gelatin.
He hadn’t opened it.
He wondered if it contained Earl’s gift, the thing he found hanging from the sky on a silver thread.
Finding a man dead in his yard, a man he saw just minutes ago whole and confident and armed with a shotgun, made him wonder things he’d otherwise dismiss.
With his right hand, Alex took the cap off the milk can. A strange odor issued from it, the smell of fresh rain. He flashed on spring showers from his childhood, of getting caught in a cloudburst as he walked to school and taking shelter under a maple tree. How odd to be sitting in his kitchen surrounded by the smell of the outdoors.
The mouth of the milk can was about the diameter of a softball. Standing with his face as far from the opening as he could, he peered inside.
The can was three feet tall and mostly empty. Down at the bottom he caught a glimpse of something white and quivering. It was too dark to see anything else.
Alex left the milk can on the table and went in search of a flashlight. He found where Elaine had left it in a nightstand drawer. Checking to make sure the batteries still worked—it illuminated his hand quite nicely—he returned to the kitchen table and directed the beam into the milk can. He held his broken arm in front of him, using the cast as a shield.
A thick white slime coated the insides of the can. He saw all the way to the bottom. Otherwise, the can was empty.
Oddly disappointed, Alex turned off the flashlight and sat down. What had he expected to see?
He looked down at his cast. Within it his arm yearned for a touch that he would never again feel. How he missed Elaine.
He was acting irrationally, he realized. He wanted so badly to blame something for Elaine’s death that he almost believed the impossible. Best to report Earl’s death and confess what he knew. Let the police figure out what really happened.
Alex picked up the telephone receiver and started dialing 9-1-.
The smell of rain stopped him. It was suddenly stronger, as though he’d been engulfed by a passing rain cloud. He instinctively glanced up and a white cloud fell over him.
Alex yelled in surprise.
The whiteness enveloped his face and for a moment everything was white, the room, the farmhouse, the world. He couldn’t see, and then he saw with such clarity that it was as if all his life he’d been blind. And now, for the first time, he could see.
The room glowed with diamond brilliance. He recognized the stove, the refrigerator, the sink, but the angles were different, twisted so that he could see sides of them he’d never seen before; fronts and backs and tops and bottoms all at once as though his kitchen had been remodeled by Picasso. It reminded him of when he was a child and he would wake up in the middle of the night and the clothes in the corner would be a ghost, the dresser a leering face, the curtains a woman in white standing over his bed. It would last an instant and then vanish, and he’d be in his room again.
But now, his altered vision stayed with him. Not only did he see differently, he felt different.
He felt wounded and weak. He felt in danger.
These sights that filled his eyes, these feelings that filled his mind, they came not from him. They came from somewhere outside him.
Dropping the phone receiver, he reached up with his right hand to touch his face.
He felt the stubble of his chin—he’d hadn’t shaved in days. He felt higher, past his lips.
He touched a warm stickiness. It quivered under his fingertips like a layer of jelly.
Fear swamped him. This time, the fear was his own.
He ran through the kitchen, his cast banging against a doorjamb. He ignored the pain and rushed into the bathroom.
He fumbled for the light switch, threw it and looked in the mirror.
Oh yes, he could see. He could see in perfect detail.
A thick mist covered his head, masking him from the tops of his cheeks to his forehead. Silvery strings stretched from the pulsating jelly, dimpling his skin where the filaments penetrated his temples and scalp.
He might not have screamed, if that were all. What shredded his self-control was his own face. For through the translucent blob he could see his own closed eyes.
He clawed at the thing on his face, his stubby fingernails scratching at its rubbery skin. It sent waves of agony into his temples until the pain brought him screaming to his knees. He lowered his hands and the pain went away, leaving only the ache of his overtaxed broken arm.
He collapsed to the linoleum floor, his mind pawing through one shock after another until, unable to deal with reality, he slipped into the shelter of unconsciousness.
Minutes later, he awoke on the bathroom floor. He prodded his face and felt dry, flaky skin. Rising, he braced himself against the bathroom skink and stared in the mirror.
The thing on his face was gone, as he knew it would be since the world now appeared as dull and lifeless as a faded photograph. A scattering of white flakes covered his face. Dried slime.
The same slime streaked the floor. He followed it back into the kitchen.
The milk can had been knocked off the table. It lay on its side on the floor. This time, the lid hadn’t been pulled back into place.
Alex had to know how much of what he remembered was real. He picked up the flashlight and, crouching a good ten feet away, he directed the light into the milk can.
The cloudy-white thing coiled in the bottom of the milk can. Droplets of white quivered from discolored patches that might have been wounds. He’d hurt it.
No, it had been hurt when he first saw it. The shotgun blast that had killed Earl had injured this creature as well, probably as it rode Earl’s face, allowing him to see what others couldn’t.
Alex sat across from the quivering thing. It had given him a scare, but it hadn’t hurt him. And if Earl used it to hunt dirt devils, it couldn’t be all bad.
Maybe he could also use it to hunt devils. Punish them for killing Elaine.
But what if it was dying? What if in his fear he had made it so it would never grant him the sight?
He realized now that he needed this creature. For forty years he’d been blind. He’d been granted a moment of true sight and that brief moment of alien vision had changed him forever. His surroundings now looked dull and bland, like a shadow play of the truth.
He crawled closer to the milk can. “Come out,” he whispered. “I’m sorry for hurting you. Come out.” He laid his face next to the mouth of the can and closed his eyes.
The thing in the milk can didn’t move.
It didn’t take long for Alex to realize he needed to deal with Earl before Robby got home.
First, he carried the milk can upstairs and hid it in his closet under a pile of dirty clothes. It seemed supremely important to him that he protect the creature in the milk can. Vaguely he wondered whether his motivations where his own or some residue of their brief contact. Had the creature left a part of itself in him?
Yet he felt very much himself.
His nearest neighbor was a half-mile away. Since the police hadn’t shown up, Alex figured the shotgun blast had gone unreported.
The conclusion brought him relief. The police would ask too many questions. Alex would have to show them the thing in the milk can to prove his story, and they would take it away. And with it, they would take his only chance to do something about the death of his wife.
He couldn’t let that happen. The thing in the milk can had to be protected. He would not let it end up on some dissection slab.
He checked Earl’s pockets and found the keys to the truck. He then dragged Earl’s body to the shed and padlocked the door, pocketing the only key. He would bury it later, under the cover or darkness. Next he hosed off the blackberry bushes, washing away the gore.
A search of the truck turned up a box of ammo loaded with iron buckshot. He put it along with the sawed-off shotgun under his bed.
Robby still wasn’t home, but he could be back at any minute. Alex donned leather gloves and got into the truck. He drove it deep into the country, away from town, and left it on an old logging trail with the door unlocked and the keys in the ignition. With any luck, it’d be stolen and end up in pieces in some chop shop.
It took him three hours to walk home. Robby was waiting for him.
“Dad! Where’d you go?”
The genuine concern in his son’s voice brought a lump to Alex’s throat. “I just went for a walk. I’m afraid I went farther than I expected. I had a lot to think about.”
“I’ve been worried about you. You know, when I saw you putting that saucer of milk in the basement, I got kind of scared. Putting milk out just isn’t normal. Maybe if we had a cat. But we don’t have a cat. So I threw it out. I hope you’re not mad.”
The worried look on Robby’s face touched him. He suddenly realized that by indulging his grief, he must have been scaring his son. Robby needed someone to respect and admire. He didn’t need a broken man for a father.
Alex put his right hand on his son’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, Robby. I promise you everything will be all right. Starting today, I’m putting the past behind us.”
Robby smiled up at him.
Alex noticed a dab of Earl’s blood on the back of his hand. He quickly stuffed his hand into his pocket and headed upstairs to take his first shower in weeks.
* * *
That night Alex pulled the milk can from the closet and put it in the bed next to him. He curled next to it and fell asleep.
He dreamed of chthonic chambers where noxious gasses congealed and capered in the semblance of sentient flesh. He saw envious devils and lofty angels and those caught between the anvil of earth and the hammer of heaven. And when he awoke at dawn, the sight had returned.
Electricity limned the bedroom. He could see the back of his dresser even though it stood against a wall. He didn’t need to touch his face to know the thing had affixed itself there.
Alex rolled out of bed and grabbed the shotgun. With his broken arm, aiming was awkward until he discovered he could brace the short barrel on his cast. At close range, the wide choke would spray shot in such a broad pattern that he wouldn’t need much accuracy.
The garden glowed in the early morning light, each droplet of dew a gemstone to Alex’s closed eyes.
The wet grass chilled his bare feet—in his hurry he’d forgotten to put on his shoes. He still wore the t-shirt and boxer shorts he’d gone to bed in. He didn’t care.
Come on, you little devils. Show yourselves. You bastards.
He headed for the blackberries where Earl had found the devil burrows.
Under his closed lids, his eyes rolled to the left. He turned his head. Through the hyper-clarity of the thing on his face, he saw a corkscrew of mist curling from one of the holes in the ground. He stopped and stared, astonished even though he knew he shouldn’t be. The gun hung forgotten in his hand.
The smoke congealed into a small ball of darkness. Within the darkness he saw a twisted little body mocking the human form.
The thing on his face snapped his gaze downward. Another dirt devil, this one carrying a briar thorn, crept toward his bare foot. It was an ugly thing, no taller than Alex’s forefinger. Its miniature face bore a mischievous leer. More ape-like than human, with hairless, scaly skin the color of rotted meat, the dirt devil radiated the smell of mold.
Alex hated the small homunculi. He knew the Troubleshooter had been right. Dirt devils were the cause of all his trouble.
Little, miserable, annoying devils.
Alex stumbled back from the creature before it could prick him with its thorn. He pointed the shotgun and fired.
The recoil strained his arm and the roar rang in his ears. The dirt devil burst apart. The fragments drifted into the air. The air itself devoured the small pieces until nothing remained.
The other dirt devils in the garden scampered on tiny legs to their holes, scattering like cockroaches.
Alex laughed for the first time since his wife died. They were made of vapor! Such evil was no more substantial than mist! He’d kill them all for what they did to Elaine.
The thing on his face pulled his sight back toward the farmhouse. Yes, Alex thought. The basement.
That’s where we will start.
* * *
Standing at the top of the stairway, Alex didn’t need to turn on the basement light to see through the gloom. The creature on his face allowed him to see every detail. He could see the burrows behind the old wardrobe and hidden behind the stacks of boxes. He knew where the devils lived.
His sight kept pulling to the right, but Alex deliberately examined the basement. He wouldn’t let the thing on his face control him. He was the master here.
“Come out, you damn devils. Come out and die.”
An alien sense of danger surrounded him, but he was so intent on looking for dirt devils in the basement that he ignored it until it became so strong that he started to turn.
But it was too late. Hands pushed his shoulders and he started to fall backwards. Behind him he could feel the emptiness of the basement stairs. He dropped the shotgun with a clatter and reached for the handrail. But the screws that held it to the wall popped from their holes. The handrail fell with him as he tumbled backward down the stairs.
He lashed out with his left arm. His cast cracked on the nose of a tread and sent a flash of pain through him. His leg, partly twisted as he fell, hit the stairs and his kneecap popped with the sound of a rifle shot. Then he was tumbling head over heels and the pain struck him everywhere at once: his neck, his head, his hands, his back.
Battered, he rolled to the foot of the stairs, the shotgun clattering nearby. His cast had split and he could see his already weakened left arm had broken again, only this time the elbow had shattered and his forearm hung to the side at an grotesque angle. His knee had broken as well. The pain struck at once and Alex shuddered in agony.
His eyes rolled in his head as the creature on his face made him look up the staircase. He saw someone standing in the light from the kitchen. His eyesight sharpened, the living mask compensating for the backlighting, and he saw Robby standing far above him.
Thank God Robby had heard him fall. Alex tried to tell him to call an ambulance, but the wind had been knocked from him and all he could do was gasp in enough air to stay conscious.
The sense of peril radiating from the thing on his face grew stronger as Robby a swollen dirt devil the size of a watermelon crawled up Robby’s leg. It’s spidery fingers pulled the abomination up past his waist.
Robby wouldn’t be able to see the creature crawling up him. Despite his pain and lack of breath, Alex summoned the strength to shout, “Watch out!”
Robby merely smiled.
The ethereal earth spirit mounted Robby’s shoulders and pressed against his neck like a slug. Its long fingers and toes worked their way into the pimples dotting the boy’s cheeks and neck. Robby’s eyes rolled up in their sockets, exposing the bloodshot whites. An ecstatic sigh seeped from his slack lips.
Robby started down the stairs. The rank smell of rotted meat and freshly turned earth radiated from the small creature perched on his head.
A memory came to Alex’s mind—a memory of something he’d never seen. He saw Robby walking across the gassy yard. He saw him smiling and asking what was going on. He saw the shotgun being set aside and Earl’s big hands parting the blackberry bushes. He saw gore spray the bushes.
With a sinking sense of horror, Alex realized his son hadn’t gone to the matinee yesterday. He had been there in the yard with Earl. He had picked up the shotgun and killed him.
Worst of all, when he shot Earl, Robby hadn’t been wearing the dirt devil.
Alex choked back the sorrow that threatened to steal his voice. He remembered how his contact with the thing on his face made him hide Earl’s body and pickup truck. “Fight it, Robby! You’re strong. You don’t have to do what that thing wants.”
Robby laughed. “Dad, you are so stupid. But you’re still a lot tougher than mom.”
Shock struck Alex like a sledgehammer to the gut. “You killed your mother?”
“The earth spirits revealed themselves to me when we first moved here. They showed me things, Dad. They showed me such petty suffering. I knew I could do better. You know, the world we see with our eyes is only a shadow of what’s really going on. You thought I went crawdad hunting. But if you could see the way I do, you’d know I snuck back here and listened to you two going at it. I watched everything, every disgusting moment. Then I hid in the kitchen, where no one could see me, as invisible as my friends. They wanted to twist her ankle, give her a little pain. But I knew I could show them a few things. So I pushed her.”
Alex stared up at his son in speechless horror. His eyes were closed beneath the living gelatinous mask, and yet what he saw in his son’s unholy leer crushed every soaring hope he once held.
“With her, a little shove was all it took. But your accident’s gonna need some extra work.” He looked around the basement with egg white eyes. The dirt devil pulled his head toward the heavy wardrobe, and his smile broadened. “Yeah, that’s it. This thing could fall on your head as you struggle to get up.”
“Robby, you don’t have to do it!” Alex tried to crawl away, but his broken leg was tangled in the staircase and with only one useable arm he couldn’t free himself.
Robby pushed on the wardrobe. It wobbled, then dropped heavily back into place. “Damn thing’s heavier than it looks,” Robby muttered. “Must be full of junk. That’s a good thing.”
He threw his weight against it. The wardrobe creaked and tilted.
Although Alex wanted to stare at Robby and the wobbling wardrobe leaning above him, the thing on his face had other plans. It snapped his head to the right to where the shotgun lay just within reach.
Without thinking, he snatched up the shotgun, braced it against the floor, and fired.
The blast tore out a chunk out of the wardrobe and sprayed Robby’s hands with buckshot and splinters. Yelping, the boy let go of the wardrobe and it teetered back with such force that it tipped over.
Robby braced his shoulder against the wardrobe when he should have dodged. He didn’t stand a chance. The wardrobe slammed down on his head, crushing him to the floor. His legs twitched briefly. Blood ran from beneath the wardrobe, snaking toward the floor drain. With it came a thick brown syrup.
Alone, Alex lay stunned on the basement floor. As the ringing in his ears subsided, he heard a faint scuttling. Once, he might have mistaken it for mice.
Now, he knew the devils were coming for him.
The pain stopped and Alex raised his head. A steady rage beat within him. He touched the diaphanous creature that clung to his face, and then racked the shotgun. Angels or devils, he would fight them to the end.