Authors: J. M. Dillard
Tags: #Science Fiction, #General, #Fiction, #Media Tie-In
The boy was dragged down into the nightmare again.
Harrison darling, get up,
his mother said. It always began that way, with the sound of his mother's voice, soft and tinged with panic.
Harrison, get up—
In the dream he had been awake a long time, lying in his bed, the room dark except for the tiny night-light plugged into the wall socket opposite the bed. He listened to the growing rumble outside his window of people talking, of cars driving down the road, their headlights shining through the parted curtains, sweeping across the ceiling and down his bedroom wall. In the far distance, a strange sound . . . almost a hiss, a crackle, and the smell of smoke. Fire. A house burning, maybe lots of houses burning. Maybe the whole town was on fire.
Oddly enough, his parents were still awake and he
heard their urgent voices on the other side of the wall, in the kitchen. He couldn't make out the words, but he caught the higher-than-normal pitch, the fast-paced rhythm, the intonation. Almost as if they were arguing, but it wasn't that at all. They were worried about the fire, he decided finally, and soon they would come for him and tell him what to do.
The telephone rang once. His father picked it up and started speaking very quickly. A sound that had to be
all right, Clayton,
followed by the sound of his father hanging up.
Harrison groaned in his sleep, the muscles in his arms and legs twitching as he tried to run away from the dream before the bad part had a chance to begin.
Get up and get dressed, darling,
his mother said in the doorway. The hall light shone behind her so that her face was hidden by darkness. Although it was the middle of the night, she was dressed herself, in a beige print dress with a full skirt. She spoke with a quiet urgency, but remained calm, controlled—she was always calm and controlled—but he sensed her fear. Underneath, she was frightened, so horribly frightened that Harrison became frightened too. His mother held a cigarette between her index and middle fingers; the ash streaked dull red in the dark as she lifted the cigarette to her mouth and inhaled nervously.
Harrison climbed from the bed and stood expectantly as his mother clicked on the light and rummaged through his dresser for clothes. She turned back toward him with a shirt in her hands. She was a pretty woman, the prettiest woman in the world to
Harrison, who shared her coloring: golden honey hair, eyes palest blue ice. Harrison would not discover the legacy of the curls until years later, when he let the crew cut grow.
Tonight her face was pale and taut; there were two deep creases in her forehead, between her eyebrows, that Harrison had never noticed before. He raised his arms so that she could pull the pajama top off him, then pull the shirt over his head. He got his arms into the sleeves without help. His mother pulled his short pajama bottoms off, then held out underwear for him to step into. Outside, a siren wailed.
He turned his head toward the window and took a step forward, clumsily stepping on the underpants and forcing them from his mother's hands onto the floor.
she snapped. He looked back at her with surprise and this time navigated into the underwear successfully, then into a pair of pants, shoes. Tonight she did not seem to think socks important.
The instant he was dressed, she took his hand and pulled him, jerking him from the room in her haste. He whined a little. She was walking too fast for him, taking big grown-up steps, pulling him down the hallway. She had never acted this way before—so impatient, so hurried—and it scared him more than the sounds of panic coming from outside.
His father, dark-haired and stern, waited at the front door with a large suitcase; as Harrison and his mother passed by, Father paused, then clicked off all the lights.
Shouldn't we leave one on?
his mother asked worriedly.
If people start looting—
Better the place should be looted than burned down.
Father's tone was curt, almost bitter.
see a light—
they? Harrison tried to ask, but his mother pushed him through the doorway. She trundled Harrison across the damp grass to the robin's-egg-blue Chevy parked in front and opened the door on the passenger side. Harrison paused before climbing in. The night air seemed alive, charged with electricity . . . the hair on the boy's arms and the nape of his neck rose slightly. The sky was illumined with streaks of something like lightning, but no roll of thunder followed, just the low rumble of traffic, the occasional blare of a car horn. All up and down the normally quiet neighborhood street, the windowpanes glowed yellow. No one was sleeping.
His mother stood behind him, watching the strange lightning. Harrison had never seen her afraid of anything, but now he caught the panic in her pale eyes as she gazed upward. Usually Harrison sat alone in the back of the car—he was a big boy now—but this time his mother opened the passenger door and pulled him in next to her, clutching him with a fierce tenderness.
His father threw the suitcase into the trunk, then climbed into the driver's seat and started the Chevy. They had to wait for seven cars to pass before someone let them out onto the road.
Where are we going?
Harrison wanted to ask, but the sight of his father's grim face kept him quiet.
They traveled in tense silence. All up and down the narrow street, cars full of frightened families waited to pull out of driveways. The road had filled with traffic all headed in the same direction. It was already bumper-to-bumper, but moving. Those trying to back out onto the roadway were ignored, or honked at if they dared pull in front of someone.
At the Robey's house, Harrison's father braked the Chevy and waved for elderly Mr. Robey and his wife to pull out in front of him, ignoring the blaring horns and shouted curses behind him.
Harrison's mother glanced nervously over her shoulder, then back at her husband. "James ..
He shrugged. "Someone did the same for us, Sarah. A few seconds aren't going to make any difference."
She nodded in agreement, but her eyes remained anxious.
Traffic remained heavy all the way through the city; it took Father fifteen minutes to get to the outskirts of town. Harrison realized then that they were headed for the highway, the road his parents took to get to work. Traffic was even worse here; the Chevy slowed to a crawl. There were people walking along the side of the road, begging for a ride. Harrison stared through the window, his eyes widening as a group of would-be hitchers headed toward the Chevy.
Lock the door,
Father ordered. His mother complied, then the two of them hurried to roll up the windows. She stared at the approaching group, her eyes wide, her mouth a thin line. Harrison cringed as a man his father's age, barefoot and dressed only in a pair of dark pants, rapped his knuckles against the window, then leaned close to the glass, where his breath formed a small circle of mist. Harrison could read the words on the man's lips:
Please, lady, please
. . . The man's face contorted as if he were about to cry. Others began pressing against the Chevy; the car rocked slightly.
We have a child, we can't stop,
his mother cried, hugging Harrison closer to her.
I'm sorry. . . sorry ... we can't stop.
His father swore and blew the horn impatiently. The car in front of them had stopped. The man withdrew from the window, carried away on the tide of the jostling crowd as other desperate faces appeared in the window, other hands clawed at the glass.
And then a flash of light erupted from the sky and streaked through the crowd. People scattered, screaming. Harrison shrieked and hid his face against his mother's shoulder. When he looked out again, the people were all running away, toward the woods across the open field. Car doors flew open as those inside bolted out to join those fleeing. The earth on the side of the road was blackened and smoking; a wide, grassy strip had caught fire.
His father caught her elbow and pointed at a sight beyond the rear windshield.
One of their ships! No
Harrison pressed his nose to the glass and stared. In the distant sky, three huge blacksilver ships glided in triangular formation. To Harrison, they resembled the giant manta rays he had once seen at the Aquatarium —but a filament rose from the center of each ship, and atop each filament sat a large red eye. The eye was the most horrifying part, for it turned, studying the crowd . . . and then its gaze rested on the Chevy, and on the people sitting inside. His mother made a strangled noise like a sob and pressed her son closer to her.
Harrison's father unlocked and opened his door, his hand still grasping Mother's arm. He pulled her out through the driver's side; she in turn pulled the boy with her. The three of them began to run hand in hand after the shrieking crowd. But the field was flat and grassy, and other than the distant woods, there was no place for them to run, no place Harrison could see to hide. His skin prickled, and he heard a strange hum, then a crash and the crackle of fire behind them. He swiveled his head to see the Chevy and three cars in front of it in flames.
His parents ran even faster. Someone in the crowd bumped into him, and he tripped over a grassy mound and fell facedown. The crowd swept his parents along for a ways before his mother turned and screamed.
Of all the images in the dream, he saw this one the most clearly, the way it had really happened. His mother's blue eyes wild, bulging with fear, her mouth a perfect
her beautiful face aglow with reflected firelight.
ran past her, bumping her, but she fought to keep her footing, to make it back to him.
His father heard her shrill cries and turned. He clutched her by the shoulders to keep from being separated. They tried to force their way back, but the crowd swept them along so that they could barely hold their ground. Someone stepped on Harrison's leg, someone else on his back; he cried out and scrunched up into a tiny ball, covering his head to protect himself. And then the crowd was gone, and he lay alone on the ground. He pushed himself up so that only his lower half was lying in the grass, and looked behind him. One of the silver ships was drawing closer, its great red eye blinking at him. The hair on the back of his neck rose until it stood on end.
His parents broke free of the crowd and began to run toward him.
A blast of heat singed the top of Harrison's head. The briefest flash of his mother's and father's bodies glowing brilliant, unearthly red imprinted itself on his eyes before he was dazzled into blindness.
Harrison hid his face and lay motionless on the ground for what might have been days ... or several seconds.
When he looked up again, he saw two charred, smoking lumps where his parents had stood.
The muffled cries in the next room wakened Clayton Forrester from an uneasy sleep. For the split second it took him to awake, he was back in the full horror of it all, expecting to see the night sky orange with flame, imagining that in the deep shadows by the open door, something soft and unspeakable writhed, probing gently, tentatively, until it found him in his bed. . . .
The screams grew louder.
It was the boy, of course, having another nightmare.
Forrester sat up and drew a hand across his forehead. His palm came away damp. Good Lord, he was shaking. He drew in a deep breath and silently repeated the mantra that had kept him—barely—sane the past four months.
It's all right. It's over. It's over.
He grew calmer and lifted an edge of the curtain over his bed to peer outside at the darkness. Across the street the houses were all unlit, a reassuring sight that meant the inhabitants were asleep, that all was as it had been before. He did his best to forget that only one block away, where the pie-shaped swath of destruction tapered to a sharp point, the blackened skeletons of as-yet-unrebuilt homes remained in silent testimony to the horror that had occurred there.
He let the curtain drop. Poor Harrison was still wailing; Forrester threw back the blankets and winced as his bare feet made contact with the cold terrazzo floor. No time to find his slippers—he crossed the shadowy hall between his and Harrison's rooms in four large strides. The child's door stayed open at night. Plugged into a wall outlet, a plastic Bozo night-light provided an inordinate amount of illumination. Inside, on the bed, Harrison cowered in a small, quivering mound under his blanket.