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It was a long walk from the phone booth out on the highway, and the sun had gone down before the old man got home. That didn't bother him. He knew the pines far better than most men know their own backyards. If anything scared him, it was not going home through the woods: it was being home in his lonely house.
He paused at the creek to drink, using his cupped hand. The water was stained by submerged cedars, and by daylight it would have been the color of weak tea. The old man believed that drinking this water all his life had enabled him to reach the age of seventy-five in such good shape. He liked to ask strangers to guess his age. They always fell short of the mark, often by as many as twenty years.
He removed his boots to wade the creek, lacing them together and draping them around his neck. He didn't bother to put them on again when he had gained the opposite bank. He had been bitten by rattlesnakes four times, but never in this part of the woods; and the snakes had never bitten him without excellent reason. Their venom was one of the many unlikely products of the pines that he could sell for cash.
He sensed that it was going to rain tonight. That was good. It didn't seem to like the rain. Once when it was making a determined effort to get into his house, a sudden shower had apparently discouraged it.
The old man liked to drink more than water, but he had made a point of staying cold sober at night since the thing had taken notice of him. Maybe, with rain coming, he could treat himself to a good old-fashioned drunk. He needed one.
A light breeze was carrying his scent to the house before him, but he wasn'tgetting the expected welcome. He stopped to listen for a minute. He realized with annoyance that he was being timid about calling out loud in what he considered his own woods, so he filled his lungs with air and yelled lustily: "Pete! Sammy! Hey, boys, I'm home!"
Nothing. His heart sank. Too smart to fight the thing, as King and Zeke had on the first night, but too brave to run off, as the other dogs had done during the past two weeks, Pete and Sammy had been the last ones left. He hoped that they'd run away, but he doubted it.
He wished now that he had carried his gun out to the highway with him. Buckshot seemed to frighten it, although not enough to keep it from coming back.
The old man didn't like guns. He carried one only when it was needed for a specific purpose. His two boys had been crazy about guns. They'd met some German boys, who had probably been equally crazy about them, at a place in Italy called Cassino, and the result had done nobody any good. Him, least of all. He'd advised them to stay home, but they'd rejected his advice with harsh words, because it had been a universally popular war.
"Crazy old man!" he snarled at himself, because he considered it a symptom of senility to think about the past. When he drank, he sometimes couldn't help thinking about Gregory and Michael, and about Caroline, who had died bringing Michael into the world. Then he had to drink more.
Maybe he was crazy. Maybe the sights he'd seen and the things he'd heard were products of his imagination. Maybe the dogs had run off because he'd beaten them in a drunken rage, or forgotten to feed them. After all, he hadn't seen much. The thing had a way of finding corners to sneak around where no comers existed, shortcuts to take where there were no shortcuts. His best look at it had been confusing. He hadn't realized how confusing until he'd tried to describe it to his friend, who had laughingly compared it to a giant weasel. It hadn't been like that at all.
No. It wasn't his imagination. He'd found what was left of King and Zeke, and he sure as hell hadn't done that to them, drunk or sober. He blacked out sometimes, yes; he sometimes got confused; but he knew himself well enough to be certain he hadn't done that.
The newspaper fellow he'd called on the telephone made him doubt himself. He'd listened politely, he'd said he would send somebody out to talk about it, but the old man knew what it sounded like when somebody was humoring a loony.
Paradoxically, the renewed conviction that he was sane and that there really was something dangerous and unfamiliar in his native pines gave him courage. He walked forward into the clearing and toward the dim bulk of his low, rambling house.
"I'm home, you black devil," he called. "I don't know why you're making such a fuss over some smelly old bone and gristle, but here it is. Maybe it was just the dogs you wanted all along, huh? They had some meat on them. Not much, but some."
He went inside and lit a kerosene lamp, filling the cluttered room with a steady, orange glow. He was careful to tie up the rawhide thong that served as his lock. The one encouraging thing about the intruder was its ignorance: it didn't seem to understand how doors or windows worked. But it was very curious about them, and that was not encouraging.
He thought about lighting the wood stove, but he decided not to. It was late for him. He normally had supper and went to bed at sundown. He drew the pot of stew from the rear of the stove and lifted the lid to sniff it. It still smelled good. He pushed aside the protective layer of congealed grease and spooned himself a bowlful, then brought it back to the table with the last of the bread.
He chewed slowly, wary of buckshot. He still had all of his own teeth, and he didn't want to lose any of them through a stupid accident. He would pull a broken tooth rather than go to a dentist in town who might save it.
He heard a plane roar overhead, most probably a fighter heading for Lakehurst. He was aware of the ironic contrast between the pilot's way of life and his own, between the technology of the plane and that of his house. Thinking about it pleased him. He had chosen his way of life deliberately. There was nothing in it that he didn't understand, nothing his hand touched that he couldn't repair or rebuild from scratch. He was sure that the pilot couldn't say the same. If any one of a million little wires got crossed, he was just a helpless kid, headed for the ground in a very expensive piece of junk.
He smiled as he acknowledged a flaw in his comparison. The fabric covering his table had come from the hull of an airship more than twenty years ago, and there was no way he could replace it. He had been sorry to see the airships go, because the fabric was more durable than anything he could buy or make. He remembered . . .
"The past again," he snorted.
He cleaned the bowl efficiently with a chunk of bread and put it away.
He gnawed on the bread, the last of a batch baked by his friend's wife, and listened for the rain. It didn't come. It would, though. He could safely have a drink. He washed down the bread with clear whiskey from a jar.
He hadn't been concerned about rain in a long time. For -- how long? -- forty years he'd merely accepted it. When it rained he would get wet, secure in the knowledge that he would eventually be dry, and that was all there was to think about it. But he used to worry about it. At Caroline's insistence he had tried farming, but there was altogether too much hard work and worry involved. Living off the pines was like having the key to a supermarket, provided you knew what you were doing. It never ceased to amaze him how little most people knew.
"Oh, Christ," he groaned aloud. "You're back, are you?"
He heard an obscenely eager snuffling. It reminded him of a dog after a groundhog, magnified a hundred times. But he was the groundhog, and this flimsy house wasn't nearly so secure as a deep burrow.
He extinguished the lamp and took his loaded shotgun from its place beside the door. Heavy though it was, it felt inadequate. Anything capable of making such a noise had the bulk of an elephant.
He went on tiptoe to the window, but low clouds made it very dark outside. Something scraped clumsily against the side of the house.
He wasn't terribly afraid. He had lived for a long time with the foreknowledge of a lonely death, and he had pictured it in all of its forms. Worst of all would be a wasting illness, his body stuck full of tubes and needles in some charity ward while bright young nurses cheerily treated him like a retarded child. Best of all would be a fall on a slippery rock, a bite from a particularly venomous rattler, a misstep in a forest fire. If those accidents proved less than fatal, or if he noted the first signs of a wasting illness, he had made up his mind to turn the shotgun on himself. He had already lived four times longer than either of his children.
He thought of turning the gun on himself now. But what a fool he would be if he were misinterpreting what he heard! Perhaps these noises were being caused somehow by malicious youngsters. He had seen many strange-looking kids lately, and--
The house trembled under the impact of a heavy body.
This was intolerable. He had worked hard at making up the rules for his life, and he had stuck to them. Now, suddenly and unjustly, a wild card had been put into play, a force that was inaccessible to his experience or his intelligence or even his senses. He howled with rage.
"Stop it! Stop it, you bastard! Come in here and get me if you want, but show yourself! Let me see what you are!"
Driven nearly mad by the injustice, frustrated by an enemy he couldn't cut or shoot or even see, the old man threw aside his gun and struggled to open the window. He had time for only one scream as the frame and the glass burst inward around him.
Copyright © 2000 by Brian McNaughton