By Chad Eagleton
At the time of the incident, Ezra Gaskell was dreaming again about the day he found his grandfather dead in the root cellar and discovered something terrible waiting for him in the cool dark beneath the old Dunwich farmhouse.
He felt the presence behind him and, turning slowly—very, very slowly—from his grandfather’s body lying there on the packed earth, an incessant ringing throbbed through into the dream world so when he felt the prick of talons on his shoulders and he opened his mouth to scream, the scream came out as a brrrring-brrrring… brrrring-brrrring…
Gaskell opened his eyes to darkness. He was awake but confused, part of him still in the nightmare even as the other part was aware he wasn’t.
He stared, dumbfounded at the phone until he recognized the specialized ring. He reached for it and someone started pounding on the door.
Gaskell rolled out of bed, snatched the phone, and fell to his knees. Standing, he thumbed to answer but managed only a grunt as he stubbed his toe on his dresser. He stumbled from bedroom to hall, still not speaking, discovered the sharp edge of a toy his son had lost, and finally managed a hello as he opened the front door.
A blast of frigid New England air brought him solidly awake. Wade Morgan and Shirley Armitage both stood on his stoop, bundled and shivering in the bitter cold.
Shirley smiled weakly.
Never one to mince words, Morgan said, “You need to get dressed immediately,” and pushed his way through the door.
Gaskell blinked, hung up and looked stupidly at his phone. “What’s going on?”
Shirley licked her lips, looked around, and then gently shut the front door. Quietly, she said, “We have a potential Dunwich-level event.”
Gaskell was dressed in under five minutes. The three remaining members of the secretive Dunwich Committee on Student Safety were en route to a quiet house in the student slums in less than ten minutes.
Morgan drove quickly down an icy Arkham street.
No one did anything until it was too late…Trying to mentally prepare himself for what might lay ahead of them, Gaskell rolled through everything his grandfather had ever told him about the Dunwich Incident, hoping that experience and initial action would make all the difference.
He scratched his thinning hairline and said, “We—”
Shirley knew what he was thinking. “—Have an official sighting of an entity.”
Sighting – that took his breath away. The Committee had dealt with a lot during his tenure. Emanations, cults, sorcerers, ghouls, a riot, and student psychotic breaks. But they had never dealt with an actual entity.
When you see something like that, it’s hard to accept…
Gaskell sat all the way back in the rear seat. This is what they had always been prepared for, but now that it was actually happening—an extradimensional entity had made an incursion with potential to run amok—it seemed he wasn’t sure of the word he was looking for, insurmountable maybe.
“Any idea where it came from?” He asked. “Was it summoned?”
“It was not summoned,” Morgan said. “We think it is extraterrestrial.”
“Like landed in a damn spaceship? A saucer?”
“No, we think the entity is an ancient astronaut,” Shirley explained. “Possibly spawned from one of the Lake samples.”
“Lake? What lake?” Gaskell rubbed his eyes. For a moment, he thought he might still be dreaming and the thing from the cellar would reach out from under the front seat any minute and try to pull him down into the darkness where his grandfather lies.
“Not a lake,” Shirley said. “Professor Lake. We think it’s one of his samples.”
Gaskell sighed. He rubbed his hands over his face again. The name sounded familiar, but he couldn’t quite place it. At his day job as the “Special Student Advocate” for Miskatonic University, he regularly dealt with faculty. But as acting chair of the Dunwich Committee on Student Safety, he was privy to a vast number of names and incidents that had long been kept secret from the student body, the faculty, and the world outside the university.
When Shirley started to say, “Professor Lake was part of the 1930 Antarctic expedition—” it came to him immediately. He nodded and interrupted, “The one that MU financed and everything went horribly wrong?”
“That’s the one,” Morgan took over. “Professor William Dyer was the only one to make it back alive and whole. Through the university’s foundation, the Committee paid for his care for quite some time.”
“I didn’t think anything made it back but Dyer’s account.”
Shirley nodded. “Well, that’s what we thought,” she said. “However, from what I’ve managed to quickly reconstruct: Lake apparently managed to send a few things back before his camp was destroyed.”
Gaskell nodded appreciatively. When Shirley assumed her position—birthright, really—as Head Librarian and member of the Dunwich Committee, one of the first things she had suggested was using computer systems to not only better manage their own resources and information, but allow the committee almost unrestricted access to all of the university’s systems without wading through a mountain of university bureaucracy and red tape. It had proved to easily be one of the smartest decisions the committee had ever made. “Okay,” he said, “so how’d these samples end up in a house in the student slums?”
Shirley shrugged. “Best I can tell? They were misfiled.”
“I get that, but still—”
Morgan took over. “The house belongs to a grad student. He’d been given the shit job of clearing out old storage—”
Gaskell nodded. Get a grad student to do it was tenured faculty’s favorite means to dodge anything approaching real work.
“Best Shirley and I can figure, he came across the misshelved samples, was intrigued, took them home and ended up accidently reviving a prehistoric monster from beyond the stars…”
Gaskell leaned forward to see the dark, wintery Arkham skyline through the windshield. He didn’t see any flashing lights or rampaging horrors. “How’d we find out?”
Morgan slowed and looked at Gaskell in the rear-view. “Grad student didn’t show up to work. Didn’t respond to emails and phone calls. His supervisor called MUPD for a wellness check—”
Gaskell trembled. Unless there was belief that a student was in immediate danger or posed an immediate threat to others, he was supposed to be notified before the university police did anything and even then, protocol was for him to be notified en route. “Who took the call?”
“Lucia and Kneale.”
Gaskell didn’t know Kneale but was very familiar with Lucia. When he was still a cadet, the young officer had been involved with the terrible incident at the Pickman Exhibition, an exhibit the School of Fine Arts had unwisely sponsored two years ago. Lucia had handled the violent encounter better than most. When he’d applied to be a full-fledged officer, Gaskell had thrown all his support behind him.
Shirley looked out the window. “Kneale,” she said, “is not in good shape.”
“We don’t know.”
“Look there,” Morgan said, pointing ahead of the vehicle as he turned carefully onto the cross street. Gaskell looked out the rear passenger seat window and saw Officer Lucia standing on the edge of the sidewalk, looking lost and shivering in the cold.
Gaskell stepped out of the car, looked around at all the dark windows and empty driveways. “’Least it looks like the neighbors aren’t home.”
“Thank Christ for winter break,” Morgan said, shivering
Lucia looked tired. “They fill you in?” He asked.
“Mostly,” Gaskell said. “But not exactly what happened with you and Kneale.”
Lucia kept his explanation simple. “We both went up to the house. Knocked, no answer. I remained on the front stoop to knock again while Kneale started around the side. He made it about halfway before stopping in his tracks, clutching his head, and screaming. He fell on the spot. I think his nose was bleeding but couldn’t be sure in the light. Hasn’t moved since.”
Morgan avoided looking in the direction of the rental house. “You think he spotted…”
“Elder thing,” Shirley said. “That’s what they were called in the account from the 30’s expedition.”
Morgan glowered at her. “—spotted the Elder Thing and either had a mental break or suffered a telepathic attack.”
“Attack,” Lucia said, sharply. “He was definitely attacked in some way—psychically or whatever—by the Elder Thing. When he screamed, I started to corner the house and almost immediately felt like a…uh…a buzzing in my head. It made it hard to think so I immediately retreated. I know it was the thing.”
Gaskell stared at the house across the street. It was very quiet and still. A single light burned in a side window. The stillness made everything far more ominous. “How far before it stopped?” He asked. “The mental noise, I mean.”
Lucia thought about it for a moment. “As soon as I was back around front, it subsided. At the sidewalk, only a low buzz. Across the street there, it was more of…an awareness of a mental presence. When I got here? Nothing.”
Gaskell buried his hands deep in his pockets and squeezed his arms in close to his sides. “Anyone been close since?”
Both Morgan and Shelly shook their heads. “I grabbed Armitage and we came straight to get you.”
“Anyone but Kneale actually see it?”
“I have,” Lucia said. “From here. Keep a pair of binoculars in the cruiser.”
“Get them,” Gaskell said, already formulating a plan.
A wide-eyed Morgan handed Gaskell the binoculars. “It’s possible,” he said, “the thing might be sickly.”
“Or young,” Shirley ventured. “Not fully matured.”
Gaskell took a deep breath and looked through the binoculars. He spotted the thing immediately. He guesstimated it to be a little over three and a half feet tall. Its body was barrel-shaped but tapered on one end and thick in the middle. Fleshy appendages ringed the truck like malformed arms. The head rose from the tapered end and looked almost like the head of a slug but with multiple eyestalks. Useless wings flexed and flapped.
“So we’re thinking that it’s not fully, what? powered?”
“Aloud that’s a terrible thought,” Morgan said. “But yes.”
Gaskell handed the binoculars over to Lucia. “Well,” he said, looking at all their faces, “we can’t let it out of there. If that’s a young one—”
“Goes without saying,” Officer Lucia said.
Shirley sighed before she spoke, perhaps already knowing what response she would be met with. “Do we know communicating with it to be out of the question?”
“Really?” Morgan scoffed. “You saw what it did to the other police officer.”
“Yes,” Shirley said, “but he had a weapon.”
Morgan rolled his eyes. Gaskell stopped the verbal onslaught he knew would follow with a calming hand on Morgan’s shoulder.
Officer Lucia seized the opportunity. “Ma’am, there’s something else you might want to see.” He handed Shirley the binoculars and pointed. “The thing is in that window there. Officer Kneale is there,” he said. “But move three paces to your left and look in the second story window. It’s dark and hard to see, but if you look closely…”
Shirley took a breath and followed the instructions.
“You see that?” Lucia asked.
“Yes,” she said quietly.
“That’s your grad student. The creature has experimented on him.”
Shirley swallowed and started to lower the binoculars. Lucia tutted and raised them back up to her eyes. “Now look here,” he said directing their gaze. “At the bottom northwest corner. That used to be the grad student’s dog.”
“He’s been vivisected,” she said softly as she returned the binoculars.
The power on the entire block fluctuated. Officer Lucia rushed forward to the edge of the safe zone, scanning the house with the binoculars. “It’s building something in there,” he warned.
“That thing can’t walk out of there,” Shirley said. “It can’t.”
“How do we do it?” Morgan asked.
Gaskell took a deep breath. “Do we know if the other houses around are actually empty?”
“I can check—” Lucia started.
Morgan grabbed his arm. “Do it quietly,” he said. “Very quietly.”
Shirley gestured for Officer Lucia to wait until Gaskell was finished. “What are you thinking?”
“It’s not pretty,” Gaskell said. “But I think the easiest thing to do would be burn it down. With the thing inside.”
“What about the fire department?” Shirley asked immediately.
Morgan looked at Gaskell. “Surely we can delay them long enough?”
“Might not need to,” Lucia said. “If the houses check out. I mean, it’s late, it’s cold as hell out here. The damn thing can burn quite a bit before anyone notices it.”
“The house is also old. Probably not up to code.”
“What’s to stop the suspicion of arson?”
Gaskell scratched his ear. “We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it.”
Shirley rolled her eyes.
“I can help run inference.” Lucia nodded.
“We might not need to exercise even that much force. This is the student slum for a reason. At the beginning of the school year, I directed several students who live right around here and were having landlord troubles to legal services.”
“So what do you need?”
“I don’t know, I’ve never burned down a house before.”
“That’s a little obvious don’t you think?”
“Not if we give them something.”
“What do you mean?”
“There’s a propane grill around back. Way too close to the house.”
“You can’t shoot it and make it explode. I saw that on MythBusters.”
“No, but if the tank’s full we can open the valve…”
“Okay so that’s covered,” Lucia said.
“Not just yet,” Morgan said. “What’s to keep it from just leaving?”
“You mean when the house goes up in flames?”
“Yes, exactly.” Shirley said. “Isn’t that what you would do immediately? Leave a burning house?”
“She’s right—needs to go up quick,” Lucia said.
“Maybe we should start carrying weapons,” Morgan said.
“I have my sidearm and a shotgun in the car.”
“Get the shotgun,” Gaskell said. “You said you felt the creature’s mental presence?”
“There is something else,” Shirley said. “To use the tank to start a fire, someone is going to have to get close.”
“That’s also how we’ll keep it from fleeing.”
Morgan considered quickly. “You mean, like a what, a mental battle?”
“It dropped Kneale like that, what makes you—”
“I don’t know but I’m gonna try.”
Shirley was horrified. “Ezra—”
“Anyone have a better idea?”
When no one did, Gaskell, said, “No? So let’s get going.”
Gaskell stepped off the sidewalk and immediately felt what Officer Lucia meant by the Elder Thing’s mental presence. It started as a low buzz, a kind of a dull throb, like the onset of a headache.
Gaskell took a deep cold breath. The shock to his lungs was intense. He focused on that pain as a mental distraction and moved quickly across the street.
Unfortunately, the distraction vanished quickly and his mind became all too aware of the loud sloshing of gas in the 5-gallon can and begin rapid-fire spinning a host of scenarios of what terrible thing might happen. Then, stepping onto the sidewalk, he slipped on a dark patch of ice, and without warning, the Elder Thing became perceptible. The sensation was immediately strange—the awareness of another consciousness adjacent to the nebulous mindscape where Gaskell’s I-voice dwelled was disconcerting.
His mind started to race with fear and doubt. He held the gas can tight, listening for the sloshing to subside while hyperaware of the alien mental presence. He tried to observe the presence in his mind. It seemed as though it hadn’t detected him yet.
Gaskell moved as quickly as he could across the yard. The problem was that now he couldn’t shake the fear of slipping and the fear of spilling the gas everywhere, including on himself.
Again, he tried to focus elsewhere. This time he tried to suss out the Elder Thing’s powers. He supposed its default mental state might exist in a larger kind of group consciousness, free of the constraints of its physical form, it was aware of all the minds nearby and lay in wait like a predator eager for something to catch its attention. If there were a way to know what it was that mentally triggered a psychic assault response, then perhaps…
Officer Lucia sat in his cruiser and checked his weapons. When he was satisfied, he rolled down the window and handed his sidearm to Morgan. Morgan thanked him with a nod, slipped the pistol in his coat pocket, and took up position on the sidewalk.
Lucia sat the shotgun across his lap. He took a breath and stared at the house across the street. He was struck by how normal it looked. So often in horror movies, the house where the bad stuff goes down looked weird and creepy and you’re watching it thinking, why the hell would you going in there? But this house looked like any other house.
Lucia remembered then how normal things had seemed in the Fine Arts building that night before those hungry things had come up from below the campus.
Looks truly are deceiving, he thought before he closed his eyes to pray.
Gaskell knelt beside Officer Tom Kneale. Gaskell had seen dead bodies outside of funerals, but there was something particularly startling about the MU police officer. It wasn’t just the dried blood in his ears and around his nostrils. It was how vacant his eyes looked, as if something essential had been ripped from inside before the rest of the body could even process that it was dead.
Gaskell closed the officer’s eyes and continued on around the house. He immediately felt the Elder Thing invade his mind. He had thought he would be able to put up more of a fight, but the creature’s psychic tendrils easily tore through everything he thought of as mental toughness and raced through pillaging his internal landscape.
A crushing wave of panic washed over him. His heart beat hard. His lungs ached, he felt like he couldn’t catch his breath. His stomach knotted and trembled. His asshole clenched.
He knew there was no way to keep it from plumbing the depths of his consciousness. Whatever training he had ever done mentally could not match up against this alien entity from beyond the stars.
Breathe, Ez. Breathe.
Gaskell didn’t have to outmatch it though, he just needed to keep one part of his thoughts hidden—his intentions and what he was doing outside the house.
Quickly, he did two things. He partially relented—let the thing sort through the trash heap of my mind—and tried to throw back a conscious attack of his own, a vivid assault of ephemera, a gambit he had referred to in the past as The Kerouac Defense.
Anything and everything that came to him. Dog breeds—pugs, Pekinese, Pomeranians, pitbulls. All the strange character names from the anime his children watched—Naruto, Goku, Vegeta, Sebastian Michaelis. The different colors and patterns of his ties—red, burgundy, navy, purple, paisley, argyle. Each and every one of the CDs gathering dust in his closet, from Fiona Apple to Frank Zappa. Useless bits of movie trivia—Tom Selleck almost played Indiana Jones, The Golden Child was originally a thriller set to star Mel Gibson, John Wayne passed on Dirty Harry and regretted it.
Meanwhile, around front, the timer on Shirley’s smart phone chimed. She slipped the phone into her coat pocket, stepped off the sidewalk, and immediately did the only thing she had been able to think of as she slowly approached the house.
She began singing Taylor’s Swift’s Shake It Off in her head.
Not just singing it but also picturing the words in her mind, almost like a read along. With the words, she added images. Sometimes snippets she remembered from the video. Sometimes Taylor Swift’s face—a huge portrait with moving lips, like the projected image of Big Brother only this was sweet Taylor.
And when she stumbled on the lines or felt herself following into a mumbled humming that only invited intrusive thoughts into her head, she switched lyrics. Jumping to an associated Taylor Swift song or simply the next song she could think of before returning, ever and always, to Shake It Off.
Gaskell felt the mental pressure lessen. He assumed that meant that Shirley had entered the fray. He gripped the gas can with both hands and quickly rounded the house.
Morgan’s alarm chimed. He took a deep breath and found his feet couldn’t move. He took another breath and started forward, only to stop immediately with the first sense of the Elder Thing’s mind. He had been a declared atheist since he was little more than a child, but very loudly, he said, “Please God no…” and considering praying.
He glanced over at Shirley. He could see her lips moving as she sang to herself.
“Come on, man,” Morgan said, under his breath. He took the cold air deep into his lungs, held it till it burned, and stepped off the sidewalk.
It was like diving into a frozen river…only with your mind as the distant alien consciousness bore down upon him. Morgan fought to regain the surface. But it wasn’t just the strangeness of it or even the intensity with which the thing probed at his thoughts, it was the deep and lasting blow to his ego.
Morgan had always considered himself well-educated and smart—brilliant even. He thought of himself as an asset to the university and to his community of fellow scientists, as an unparalleled and disciplined instructor who shaped the malleable young minds of the world’s future leaders and now—
None of that was true. This alien consciousness tore through his mind like it was wet tissue paper.
Remember the plan… Remember the plan…
The alien presence stopped at the word plan. The mental pressure lessened and Morgan felt a sense of understanding from the thing—something about the word “plan” made sense to it. This was all buried under a rapid search of the contents of Morgan’s mind, information being pulled to his surface thoughts, quickly examined, then tossed as this thing strived to quickly understand the word plan and then to understand what went into the particulars of this the plan.
Ah hell—Morgan pushed back. First, simply willing the thing out of his head. The thing blew over his will like a tidal wave shattering a crumbling sea wall.
Morgan began to cry. The psychic backlash was so intense he felt his knees bend as his hands shot to his skull, convinced his brain was going to leak from his ears. He grunted back to his feet and choked down his pride. He tried the first thing that came to him, reciting the periodic table. The Elder Thing was familiar with it, more familiar even—Morgan had a brief flash of unknown elements—that it registered only as a bump in the rapid cycle through his consciousness.
Morgan’s mind raced for something else, something to pour over. His desperation was so intense at that point and the possibilities so wide open, he felt himself shutting down. Then it came to him—
Let’s see, first was…Lizzie Kirkman. He remembered her braces. The way her mouth looked when she laid back on the old couch in his parents basements. The peppering of pimples along her hairline she hid with too much makeup…
Later that summer was Jenny Cruiser…God, he though, her mouth always tasted like grape bubblegum…
Gaskell reached the backyard and nearly screamed with relief. Which unfortunately lessen the mental barrage of word associations he had thrown at the creature. He felt its tendrils once more grip his mind and he knew immediately and instantly, deep down in his bones, he had never known anything else, that the only thing that kept the creature from ripping the contents of his consciousness away and taking it for its own was the continued distraction-assault by his fellow committee members.
Chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, rocky road—Rocky and Bullwinkle…moose and squirrel, tutti fruiti—Little Richard…Good Golly Miss Molly…
Gaskell sensed confusion in the Elder Thing. Confusion and frustration. Even freed from the trappings of spoken language as the creature was, it struggled to make any sort of sense of the images, feelings, tastes, colors, associations and memories each of the word-concepts carried with it.
…Miss Molly…Molly Dodd…The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd…staring Blair Brown…a young Blair Brown…long before she appeared on Fringe…young and sexy short haired Blair Brown…God I crushed on her…the Cleveland Browns were named for their first coach Paul Brown…Brown is a color…the German word for brown is braun which sounds like brawn…brawn—brawny paper towels the quicker picker upper…uppers dowers ludes…Christ, sometimes, I miss illicit drugs…
Gaskell unhooked the tube to the grill and turned the valve on the propane tank full blast. He stood quickly, tried the door, found it unlocked. He opened it and was hit with a wall of heat and realized the Elder Thing had been adjusting the climate inside the house to something more suitable.
Gaskell splashed gasoline on the floor, along the walls, and even tried to fling some to the ceiling. He stepped quickly back out of the doorway and tossed the can against the grill.
Drugs rugs hugs…hugs…his grandmother had given the best hugs…shrugs…students shrugged a lot…so many times in his office, he’d asked them questions, and their only response would be a shrug.
Gaskell glanced briefly at the open door and he saw the Elder Thing standing there in the hallway. Quickly, he grabbed the knob and slammed the door closed and when door hit the jam—the cellar door slammed above him and—
Ezra’s breath caught in his chest. He looked down at his hand and saw it was his hand. His adult human hand. Hairy, wrinkled, scarred, and still with that worn spot around his finger where his wedding ring had been too tight all the years he was married. But he had a sense of himself, as he had that day long ago in Dunwich, as a scrawny, scared child.
“This is not real,” he said aloud.
The root cellar was cool and dark. Dirty shafts of light knifed through the worn ceiling slats. Ezra could hear his grandmother above him. The creak of her every movement across the kitchen floor. The rhythmic sway of the boards as she stood at the kitchen sink, dressed a chicken and shifted from one leg to the other, one leg to the other.
Ezra turned and rushed up the stairs. As soon as he laid hands against the cellar doors, he felt a weight press back from the other side. The doors wouldn’t budge.
His ex-wife called to him from the other side. “You stay down there, asshole. That’s where you belong. In the dark and in the ground. I hate you and I’ve always hated you.”
Ezra sat on the steps, stooped beneath the cellar doors while she laughed at him from above. “This is not real,” he said. “She’s not here. She’s in Kingsport, teaching at the Hall School.”
Something moved under the stairs.
Reflexively, Ezra raised his legs and looked below. He saw old boxes and crates rising out of the darkness below like skyscrapers rising out of the fog. There was nothing—directly below, the darkness moved, it swished, and roiled not like true darkness but like pitch-colored water churned by the tail of something large and predatory.
Ezra gasped, stood to flee, forgot where he was, and cracked his skull—the Elder Thing stood at the backdoor, its fleshy appendages slapping against the glass—and tumbled down the stairs, landing with a hard thud on the packed earth.
Something scratched at his canvas tennis shoe.
Ezra looked and saw his right foot was against the bottom step. A long finger tipped with a brown-nail talon retreated into the darkness.
He kicked at the stairs. Flipped over and pedaled away from the darkness, screaming.
His grandmother called down from above. When he looked up, he could see her bent over, looking at him through the slats. “Is that you down there, Ezra? Are you trying to look up my skirts? You little pervert, you want to see an old woman’s panties, don’t you?”
“No,” he said, with his deep man’s voice.
“No,” he said, looking away, and suddenly speaking as a child.
Gaskell closed his eyes. This is not real. You are standing in the backyard of a house in Arkham. The Thing has you trapped psychologically. This is not real. Not real.
“It is real,” Shirley Armitage said.
Ezra opened his eyes. He was standing in the center of the room. Ugly yellow light poured through the floorboards. He could hear the load swish of her grandmother’s skirts as she twirled around singing about panties. The rest of the root cellar was total darkness.
Shirley’s square face pressed out of the thick shadows and into the light. Her watery eyes looked as vacant as Kneale’s had. “It’s real,” she said again. “We’ve failed. The Elder Thing has eaten our minds. This is how we shall spend the rest of eternity. Torn shreds of consciousness tossed together like a brain salad.”
This is a trick, he thought. Bring your awareness back to the body. The body is always in the now.
“It’s not a trick,” Shirley said. “It’s real. This is it. This basement forever. Why don’t you just give in?” She stepped into the light and she was wearing an old timey dress, like the ones his grandmother had kept in her closet and never worn. The fabric was patterned but thin and tight against her frame. He had never noticed how shapely Ms. Armitage was.
“See,” she said, unfastening the buttons down the front of her dress as Ezra felt his nose begin to bleed. “You do like me.” She pulled the dress open and slipped her breasts out. “We can have fun forever.”
Ezra felt a pain behind his left eye. He touched his nose. His blood was warm. “No,” he said, and Shirley hissed at him as her entire body folded in on itself and retreated back into the darkness with strange scuttling movement punctuated with the constant crack of bones while his grandmother sang louder about perverts and panties.
“He likes me,” Emmalee Pearson said suddenly standing behind him, touching him lightly on the back of the neck.
Ezra elbowed her arms away, spun and retreated from her and her newly claimed spot in the light. When his back brushed against the wall of darkness, he felt it undulate against him and when the darkness touched him every bad thing that had ever happened to him, every intense moment of fear, every breath-stealing incident of terror, every single bit of pain, flashed across his mental landscape.
He felt something wet in his ears.
“He likes me,” Emmalee Pearson said, tossing her long dark hair out of her face and moving toward him slowly. She wore a long Mistakonic University sweatshirt and a pair of black leggings printed with red vines and flowers. As she moved, she pulled the sweatshirt slowly over her head.
Ezra couldn’t help but notice her hips and her thighs and how tight the leggings were against her mons pubis and there was her stomach…
“No,” Gaskell said. “No. It’s not her. You checked in on her last week. She’s doing fine since the incident. She’s cut her hair. This isn’t her, her hair—”
Emmalee tossed the sweatshirt. It hit the wall of darkness and was sucked inside the black. Her hair was suddenly short. Bobbed just below her chin.
“I know you want me,” she said, pressing against him. “It’s okay. I want you too. You saved me. I’ve never been with a real man.”
She kissed him hard on the mouth. He tried to push her away but she held him tight. They spun. He struggled in her grasp as she kept telling him to take her, and suddenly his children were standing on the stairs, jumping up and down in time with their chant, “Daddy’s a pervert. Daddy’s a pervert.”
Ezra screamed and pushed Emmalee’s face away until her neck cracked and suddenly she let go as her head flopped against her spine.
He backed up as she put her hands on her hips and turned slowly around. “Now, look what you’ve done, Ezra,” her dangling head said. “Look what you’ve done!”
“You’re a bad boy,” his grandfather said, grabbing him from behind. “A bad, bad boy.”
“You’re dead,” Ezra said. “You’re dead.”
His grandfather squeezed him hard enough, Ezra felt his little ribs compress and he squeezed his eyes closed to keep from screaming out in pain. “You’re dead too,” his grandfather said and pressed his mouth close to his ear. Ezra felt that mouth open wide and phlegm-covered tentacles slide out of it like a crab sliding from its shell.
Somehow, his grandfather continued speaking, “All your friends are dead.”
Gaskell opened his eyes and said. “…all my friends—”
The Jim Carrol punk song filled his mind. The opening riff blew his grandfather backward and when he hit the darkness, the darkness retreated, taking with it the old farmhouse cellar.
“—who died,” Gaskell screamed and tossed the match.
The Elder Thing knocked the backdoor open.
The fumes ignited and the explosion knocked him down. The Elder Thing emitted an eerie panicked and pained noise, its stalks trembling like a plant rustling at the passage of some larger creature.
Gaskell watched the rear of the house go in flames and realize suddenly he was on fire. He curse, scrambling backwards, slapping at his legs, rolling in the ice and the snow.
The Elder Thing stood there dumbfounded as fire rolled up the creature’s barrel-like trunk.
Gaskell stumbled to his feet, still retreating from the fire and the creature. He fell backwards, landed hard on his hip against a thick piece of ice. He immediately felt the thing’s consciousness reach out toward his mind. Instinctively, he knew it would try to take over his mind as its body died.
Desperate, Gaskell’s mind raced for something, maybe the song again, no, not that song, another punk song, and then he noticed his arm was on fire and he slapped it against the wet snow and his felt his mind—
The shotgun boomed. He looked up as Lucia pumped the empty casing clear, moving steady around the creature. Morgan stood near the side of the house, conscious of the rapidly spreading flames. He took aim and fired. Missed completely, his shot pinging into the grill.
Shirley called his name and ran across the yard to him, shielding her face against the bright glare of the flames.
Lucia fired again. This time striking dead center in the trunk. The Elder Thing squealed and collapsed down and in on itself.
Shirley dropped to her knees, sliding a little in the snow even as she flung it against his burning coat.
Morgan moved away from the house, around toward Lucia but slightly behind the more experienced police officer as he pumped the next round clear. He didn’t fire but held his gun at the ready, in case the thing got up again and made it through the officer’s onslaught.
Lucia moved closer and fired on last time, blowing a large hole in the trunk of the creature. It waivered, seemed like it might topple over into the now roaring flames. When it didn’t, Lucia cleared the chamber, and kicked it backwards into the house before falling back.
Shirley batted the fire on his sleeve out and slid up closer to Gaskell. “Are you okay?”
Gaskell looked at her, then up at the night sky.
“Are you okay,” she asked again.
“Yeah.” He nodded. “Punk rock will never die.
Shirley brushed her hair away from her face. “What?”
Gaskell laughed as smoke overtook the expanse of the stars in the wintery night sky.