It was one of those days when it's a minute away from snowing and there's this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it, right? ... And that's the day I knew there was this entire life behind things, and ... this incredibly benevolent force, that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid. Ever. - American Beauty, Alan Ball
Simon was dreaming about his mother, and dreaming, he remembered the Joan Baez she played loudly on the stereo, and the smell of the bread she baked, and how no bread had ever tasted as good before or since, as the bread he received when he got home from school and was treated to an inch-thick slice, laved with melted butter. Mom.
Then – not even a click! – and there she was at the hospital, all desiccated and drawn up like a dry twig, grey under stiff white hospital sheets, and then there was the wincingly harsh clinical repetitive beeping the life support system made ―!
In his dream-memory, Simon’s mother opened her eyes as she died.
Simon opened his eyes and saw that his pager was going off on his nightstand, each beep accompanied by a deep-throated bullfrog buzz as it vibrated on the pine top, moving slightly closer to the edge with each burst.
He reached for it, misjudged the distance badly in the dark and knocked the angry little thing to the floor where – buzzing angrily the whole while – it bounced, rather improbably, under the bed.
“Fuck,” he said throatily, still tasting bread and butter in his dry mouth, and sat up.
“OK, yeah I’m on my way in, no problem. Less than an hour.”
Judd came in from the kitchen and looked at him quizzically, head cocked to one side. Simon waved the dog over, and Judd happily approached to receive a good morning pat and chest thump.
“I dunno. It probably just needs a reboot. When was the last–?” Simon nodded. “Well, there you go, everybody benefits from a therapeutic restart now and then. Anyway, I’m on my way. All right. Bye.”
“Hey Bud…Simon says go back to sleep. I gotta get to work. I’ll come back early and we’ll go for a long walk.” Judd whined a little; then went back to the kitchen to get his bowl.
Simon got dressed, fed Judd and left for work. And he left the damn pager at home, but not under the bed.
It was 4:18AM as Simon went out the front door to his car.
“—This is Mark Breen with Eye on the Sky Weather with today’s extended forecast—” and Simon switched the radio off, its sudden volume offensive so early, and eased his rust-eaten Subaru Outback out from the parking lot, headed down Stonecutter’s Way, and then over the bridge to River Street and from there to I89 North and Burlington, where he worked.
MIDDLESEX, VT – CENTER ROAD – 4:42 AM
“HOLY CHRIST!” Simon shouted, half-rising out of the driver’s seat and wildly yanking the wheel to the left. His weather-beaten Subaru responded gamely, swerving harshly left and narrowly missing the blackish-purplish-reddish lump that had just unceremoniously flopped over the guard rail, to faceplant – was that it’s head? Was it burnt? – and then to roll limp-limbed into the right-hand lane.
Simon cut the wheel back until the Outback was more less in the left-hand breakdown lane and then stood on the brake; the car tires screamed like cats aflame and the Outbook crow-hopped and slid to a stop some 100 feel further down the highway. The Outback then grumped exactly once and died.
Simon realized he was squeezing the steering wheel so hard his knuckles were white and his hands were shaking; with a conscious effort, he released them and felt the warm rush of blood in his fingers. He flexed them experimentally, noticed a faint rosy glow on them and looked up, saw It crawling/rolling slowly toward his car and as it came, it seemed that large blackened chunks were calving off it, exposing hot pink flesh underneath. Its two front limbs were becoming more arm-like with each grinding pull forward.
Simon was too mesmerized to turn around, his gaze fixed to the rearview mirror, when the smell hit him: Even with the car windows up, the stench was inhuman, full of long-chain carbon and monomers, cancer and death and somehow scorching heat.
It was within twenty feet of the car now, slouching ever closer toward him, sprawled in the left-hand lane when it seemed to crumble internally somehow and slump to the pavement. It lay there immobile, huffing its torso up and down, breathing, Simon realized, finally thinking to turn around. He could see a little better and realized he was right: Its outer—what… shell?—was crusting off.
Then the Burnt Thing raised a decidedly pink and human hand toward the car.
Headlights crested the hill a quarter-mile away; a truck.
Simon got out of the car quite certain he was still in his bed dreaming. Shit like this just does not happen, he thought, hustling his bulk toward It, entirely conscious of the tractor-trailer truck bearing down on them.
Ten steps and he was grabbing the hot pink hand – a man’s hand, Simon could feel right away with a deep mammalian certainty – and pulling into the breakdown lane. A moment later, the truck shot past.
Simon looked down the predawn light and saw only broken black chunks of (shell) material that radiated an uncomfortable amount of heat. The pink hand shook itself and began to pull chunk off itself; it made no noise, but the process looked excruciatingly painful. And there, for several minutes, first with one hand and then with both, the Man clawed himself from his Crust.
After tearing a last chunk from his solar plexus, the man, who had disturbing bottle-green eyes, looked at him, and smiling with a shocking white set of teeth, hissed “Thanks….” And keeled over on his side, sending blackened bits everywhere.
“Holy crap,” Simon said flatly. “Holy friggin’ crap.”
“Hey, can you hear me?”
Simon looked at shivering pink, naked, somehow scarred shape huddled in the Outback’s passenger seat. Simon couldn’t really see a well-defined head, but that may have been just because it all kind of ran together if you stared at it. Other than the steady rasp of its breath, it didn’t move or respond. “Okay, hang on, brother. There are people where I work who can help us.”
A single pink index finger – nail-less Simon saw – extended upward to the Outback’s roof.
“He is coming.”
A Sudden Voice like dry broken rock. Not loud, but you felt it; a voice like two bones grating against one another.
Simon realized he was pressed up against the driver’s side door in an instinctual, animal response to what he had just heard. Then he noticed that Outback’s engine pitch sounded wrong and he looked down at the speedometer to discover he was travelling at a mere 35 mph. “Son of a bitch,” he said, stamping his fear and loathing down on the accelerator pedal, making the vehicle jump and rocking the pink manthing that was…becoming there, but it said no more.
THE UNIVERSITY OF VERMONT MEDICAL CENTER
EMERGENCY DEPARTMENT ENTRANCE – 5:38AM
“Can I get some help here?” Simon said, half-dragging it through the sliding glass doors, looking for all the world like he was carrying a fully-skinned and freshly bleeding corpse. “A little help?” Simon added, and then he was noticed, which resulted in three things happening in rapid succession:
The three young women who were in the waiting room, dutifully awaiting a fourth friend’s recovery from mild alcohol poisoning (the result of a night’s partying), stood up as drawn erect by an invisible thread, and thereupon gasped in perfect three-part harmony.
The security guard on duty rushed forward and took the thing’s other arm around his neck just in time to feel the wormy pink and oozing body convulse and to see, hear and smell the silver-blue arching jet of vomited goo sail across the waiting room to splash gluishy at the young trio’s six horrified feet, reflecting the fluorescent lights oddly.
Ellen came out of the ED headed for her tardy 5:30 smoke break at the precise moment when the Security Guard’s eyes rolled up into his head, his legs already going, the better part of ninety kilograms of limp flesh sliding all at once to the floor, pulling Simon and well, something else, with it.
“For Christ’s sake!” Ellen said, jumping back. “What the fuck is that?” She instinctively covered her nose and mouth with her hand.
The smell was indescribable.
No one answered Ellen, but the girl on the left also covered her nose and mouth as she fled outside via the sliding glass door; the one in the middle fainted dead away, and the last screamed and assumed a crouching fetal position, making a low, keening moan.
“He’s heavy. Please help me with him,” Simon said from the other side of the unbelievable shape, and the spell of shock broke. She assumed the Security Guard’s position and guided them through the double doors into the ED. She led them to the nearest examination bay, her eyes watering with the acerbic chemical burning somehow fecal smell emanating from the writhing and disturbingly hot figure she supported. Its…arm? she supposed was across her shoulders, and it was growing uncomfortably hot back there by the time she and Simon laid the shape down on the examination bed, which shifted under its weight and slid closer to the wall.
“I found him out on I89. I almost hit him.”
Ellen was staring at her open right palm, the one with which she had been gripping the “arm.” It was full of a reddish-brown powder, like burnt ash or something.
“Hullo? Shouldn’t you get someone…or something?” Simon was actually bouncing from foot to foot with anxiety.
Ellen looked blankly at him. “What is this?” Her tone was bluntly accusatory. Then she looked down again at what she could clearly see now was a man’s, long lean body, over six feet, rail-thin, heavily scarred, burnt reddish-brown flesh, perhaps Native American? “Did he get burned or…?”
“I have no idea. ” Hop. “He lurched out onto the highway in front of my car.” Hop. “I almost hit him, so I brought him here.” Hop.
Ellen shook her head, silently said goodbye to her smoke break, then put rubber gloves on and got to work with vitals. She checked for a pulse, and there was one. A strong, steady pulse. And despite the heat she still felt on her shoulders, his wrist – and it was a wrist – was cool to her touch.
78 beats per minute. Ellen couldn’t stop looking at the scars covering the skin, they were symmetric along the man’s spine and reached all the way around and over his shoulders to his back…
“Help me turn him,” Ellen said to Simon. Together, they rolled him onto his right side, facing Simon, and giving Ellen a clear view of the man’s back. A large, somehow molten, chunk of black material detached from the back of the man’s shoulder and fell to the bed. Where the chunk landed, the bed linen sizzled, then curled black and away from it. Ellen jerked upward spasmodically, and then slowly stood back, her gloved hands in an unintentional position of surrender. She gaped at Simon, who had the presence of mind to say: “I know. I get it, uh…” he scanned her badge. “Ellen. This is some very weird shit going on here, no doubt. But I swear there’s a man in this shit and we need to get him out of it.”
Ellen pulled off the gloves. “I’m getting Dr. Morton. This is too much.”
The rasp of breath stopped. They stared down at the now motionless figure, naked and steaming, enshrouded by the same burnt brownblack material. Like someone made a snow angel in soot, Ellen thought, with the lucidity of shock.
And then the man opened his eyes.
Go on to chapter two.