There were two concrete pylons topped with lanterns and wrapped in strings of blue Christmas lights; they flanked the narrow dirt path off to the left of the car, seeming incongruous against the backdrop of close, moss-hung trees whose forms were starting to turn black in the twilight.
“I’m guessing this is probably it,” Evie said, folding up the directions she had printed out as Jonah turned the Honda and steered it between the pylons.
After about five hundred yards, the path opened out into a clearing where cars were parked helter-skelter around a cluster of buildings that included a small barn, a glassed-in greenhouse, and an aluminum-sided garage that housed a riding lawnmower.
“It looks like they started without us,” Finn said from the back seat, for the two-story main house was ablaze with light, and even from inside the car the three of them could hear intermittent laughter and the unmistakable cadence of the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York,” the only Christmas song Evie had ever been able to stomach.
“You’re lucky we came at all,” she said, smiling as she glanced across at her husband in the driver’s seat. “Jonah’s been sick as a dog since yesterday.”
“Oh, I’ll make it,” Jonah said, though even by the dim glow of the dashboard panel he looked peaked. “It’s just a virus or something.”
He nosed the car onto an empty patch of ground next to a fenced-in garden, then killed the engine. He sat there for a moment as though collecting his waning strength for some arduous task ahead. “Well,” he finally announced, “happy holidays and so forth. Finn, could you grab that little bag behind Evie’s seat? I’m going to get the pie and stuff out of the back. Did you remember that other present, Ev, the baby one?”
“Yes, dear,” Evie laughed, getting out of the car and smoothing her plain black dress over her thighs. “It’s behind the food, I’ll get it.”
Between the three of them, the various casseroles and desserts and sleekly wrapped gifts were conveyed from the car’s hatchback to the front of the house in the woods, where a silhouette was already framed in the doorway, waiting for them. As they approached, the silhouette resolved itself into the figure of Ben Loomis, one of their humble hosts.
“I hope we’re not late,” Evie said, for she had taken the lead in their march up the flower-lined drive.
Ben waved a hand at her as he relieved her of some of her burden. “Christ, the others have only been here about fifteen minutes at the most. They’ve already gone through half the booze, though, so you’d better get in there. Hi Finn, hi Jonah.”
Before another quarter hour had passed, the three of them were ensconced in the small but cozy house, drinks in hand. Jonah had only requested a half glass of wine, and made a quick circuit of the room, wishing everyone a happy holiday, explaining his illness and his wish to refrain from infecting others; then he retreated to a chair in the corner of the living room, casting an apologetic glance at his wife.
Evie smiled reassuringly at him, her own wine glass filled to brimming. She and Finn stood near the fireplace, which was festooned with plastic holly and red candles, but contained no roaring Christmas fire; the winter had been unseasonably warm, even for Florida, so Ben (or someone) had simply poked the television into the grate and cued up a DVD of a burning Yule log, flickering on a continuous loop.
It was only a small party, but a raucous one; the Pogues had given way to some punk Christmas compilation that someone had brought, and the liquor was still flowing freely. Evie glanced at Jonah again; he had leaned back in his chair, the level of wine in his glass no lower than it had been at first pour. His eyes were closed, but he was still awake, for an amused smile played on his lips and his head bobbed in time with the music. Evie felt bad for bringing him to the party. It wasn’t only because he was sick, but also because this wasn’t even his crowd. They were all old college friends from the theater department at UF, and other than Finn, who had ended up working for the same company as Evie, Jonah barely knew them.
“I can’t believe Ben and Mel wanted to live way out here,” said Finn, taking a liberal slug of his drink.
Evie grinned. “Oh come on, it’s not way out here. Why, there’s a bait shop cum strip club not five miles up the track.”
“Yeah, I think I saw Leatherface waving to us from the porch as we passed that,” Finn said, and they both erupted in snickers.
“I think I can guess what you two are laughing at.” Melanie, Ben’s wife of two years, had approached across the living room and was looking at them with mock disapproval. Her pregnancy, which aside from Christmas was the main point of the celebration, was far enough advanced that her belly made a hard shiny sphere of the midriff of her red satin dress. She leaned forward across her bulk and kissed their cheeks in turn.
“You look phenomenal, Mel,” Evie said.
Melanie threw back her head and preened. “Yes, just like a radiant hippopotamus. And don’t think flattery is going to make me forget that you were casting aspersions on our Laura Ingalls experience out here.”
“I’m curious, Mel,” Finn said, drawing his thick eyebrows together in faux seriousness. “Have you started hearing banjos, perhaps?”
Melanie laughed in spite of herself. “Put a sock in it, Finn, or we’re not going to feed you. Come on, it’s all on the table.” She looked over at Evie’s husband. “Jonah? Are you going to eat with us or do you fear you might vomit on the honey ham?”
Jonah’s eyes remained closed, but a grin split his pale face. “I’ll be all right. I’m getting up right now.”
They all moved toward the table and took their places where their names appeared on glittery red cards. Evie was between Jonah and Finn; Ben sat at the foot of the table and Melanie at the head. There were also two other couples, Andrew and James, and Gail and Robert. Evie hadn’t seen them for almost three years, but they all looked much the same as they had at graduation; they were still young and vibrant and almost unreal in the candlelight.
Ben cleared his throat, then smirked when several others at the table cleared their throats in imitation of him. “Okay, okay. You know I’m not a big formal speech guy, but I just want to thank all of you for driving out here to Deliverance country to celebrate the holiday and the impending continuation of my genetic line. May I be worthy of the beautiful Melanie and whatever creature she may produce.” He raised his glass. “Salut. Pardon my French.”
Everyone raised their glasses in turn, their eyes shining with mirth and conviviality, then they fell to with the comfortable casualness of a group used to breaking bread together, amid chewing and reaching and statements like, “What’s under this tin foil, does it bite?” and “I made one with nuts and one without because I remembered Robert’s problem.”
Evie helped herself to turkey and potatoes and some of the green bean casserole Finn had made. She looked at Jonah’s plate and saw that it contained a single strip of pink ham swimming in a bloody pool of cranberry sauce. Her gaze flickered up at his face and asked the unspoken question, Are you sure you’re all right? And just as wordlessly he answered, Yes. Don’t worry about me. Evie wasn’t worried exactly; Jonah did look better under the warm glow of the dining room chandelier, but not a great deal better.
Once everyone had eaten their fill and started probing into the desserts, and once Melanie had brought fresh coffee out from the kitchen and poured everyone a big steaming cup, Ben looked around the table, his eyes glittering, his papery palms rubbing against one another in anticipation.
“Do any of you know what this patch of land used to be called?” he asked.
No one did, but they all knew the tone and magic of the start of one of Ben’s stories, so they all settled in, turning their bodies almost imperceptibly toward him.
“Back in 1900 or somewhere around there, this place was just a farm in the middle of this huge wilderness, totally surrounded by a swamp.”
“So, just like now, then,” Andrew said.
“You know better than to interrupt me when I’m drunk and pontificating,” Ben said, pointing at Andrew with a waggling finger. “Anyway, just a farm in the middle of nowhere. I don’t think it had a name at first, but after a while people started calling it Birchfire.”
“Tell them why it was called that, Ben.” Melanie was leaning across the table toward him, at least as close as her belly would allow.
“I’m going to tell them, bun in the oven. Now, Birch was the last name of the farmer who lived here, and his wife’s last name too, obviously. The fire part comes from the fact that old Birch built this big old weird-looking incinerator on the property, and he was always burning things in it.”
“Wait a minute, how would anyone know that? I thought you said there was no one else around.” Gail held a forkful of pecan pie topped with whipped cream halfway to her mouth.
“Dammit, whose story is this?” Ben said, and the table boiled over into giggles. When the tipsy laughter had subsided, Ben leaned in again, lowering his voice into a scary Vincent Price register. “People could smell the burning for miles around. They all said it smelled like the fires of Hell, with just a touch of smoldering flesh.”
“For a little added spice,” Finn interjected.
Ben went on, ignoring him. “The word kind of got around that Birch and his wife were maybe up to some foul deeds, murder or some type of witchcraft. So a few of the old timers along the outer edge of the swamp, they decided to bring their guns and investigate.”
Night had fallen fully outside, a complete country darkness with no ambient glow from street lights or other houses, a darkness like a black curtain. Evie could see all of them sitting around the table, reflected back at her from the black windows, faces smirking but rapt and almost pagan.
“They crept onto the farm one night, with their guns and lanterns, after the Birches were asleep. And right away they knew that horrible smell was coming from that strange incinerator contraption out behind the barn. So they all went up to it and raised their lanterns and had a look inside.”
Everyone at the table was silent now, their half-eaten desserts still on the plates in front of them, their coffee growing cold. The only sound was the occasional susurrus of wind through the thicket of trees outside, the droning whirr of crickets.
Ben had paused in his story for so long that the silence began to feel as enormously pregnant as Melanie’s womb, and even then he let it hang over the table a little longer, milking the suspense for all it was worth. It was a talent that had served him well on the stage, was still serving him well, if the reviews in the theater magazines were to be believed.
At last he spoke, his eyes like twin candle flames shining from puddles of black oil. “At first they couldn’t tell exactly what it was they were looking at. A lot of it was just ash, or twisted black shapes. But then they started poking around in there, and by the light of the lanterns they finally figured out what old farmer Birch had been burning.”
“Tell them what it was, Ben.” Melanie’s pretty round face was taut with the pleasure of the tale he was telling. In school Mel had always taken great delight in the morbid, and Evie was strangely comforted that even her impending motherhood had not changed her.
“Fetuses,” Ben said, drawing his head back and raising his eyebrows. “But not just regular fetuses. They were almost human. But then again…not…quite.”
James snorted laughter, but abruptly stopped when his boyfriend Andrew poked him in the ribs.
“When they saw the remains of all those burned…things…then the men knew for sure what they were up against.”
“Which was what, exactly?” Finn said, inadvertently whispering to match Ben’s tone.
“There’s an old Seminole legend,” Melanie said, picking up the story as smoothly as if she had rehearsed it, “about a creature that lives in these woods. No one has ever really seen it, but sometimes people could hear it in the woods at night, something very big moving very slowly and steadily, almost dragging itself through the undergrowth. Every now and again someone would catch a glimpse of something through the trees, something huge and shiny wet, and white like something that lived underground and never saw the sun. A fat white slimy thing, like a larva.”
Robert curled his lip in disgust. “Where do you guys come up with this stuff?”
“Please hold all questions until the end of the story,” Melanie said, again as if she had rehearsed; it occurred to Evie that Mel might have been practicing this shtick for weeks, eager to tell them this tale. Indeed, it might have been the whole point of the party, Christmas and baby be damned.
“They called it Hatki Táàte. It means White Father or Pale Sire,” Mel said, a quivering smile teasing the corners of her mouth. “It was said to propagate itself by choosing human women to carry its offspring.”
“Is there something you’re trying to tell us, Mel?” Finn said, glancing at her belly.
She flashed him a smirk. “That was where Birch’s wife came in,” she said. “Anyway, the men knew there was nothing they could do to help the Birches except release them from their horrible suffering.”
Ben drained the last of his wine from the glass. “They put the farm to the torch,” he said. “With Birch and his wife still inside.”
“And then it really was a Birchfire,” Mel said, the perfect capper to the performance, the cherry on top of the sundae. “Anyone want more coffee?”
The tension dissipated from around the table like air being released from a balloon, and soon the wine and nerves were giving rise to laughter and conversation that seemed a little louder than it needed to be. After Mel had retreated into the kitchen, Evie turned to Ben. “What kind of bullshit story was that?” she said with a grin.
He raised his hand. “Every word of it is true, I swear to Wikipedia.” He offered her the wine bottle, and at first she shook her head, but then she relented. It was a party, after all. She was pretty buzzed, but it was a pleasant buzz.
“The incinerator thing is still there, you know.” Ben wasn’t looking at her, concentrating on pouring the wine without spilling it.
Evie’s eyes widened. “What? We didn’t see anything like that when we drove up.”
“It’s behind the barn, like I said in the story. We built our barn where the Birch one used to be.”
Evie cocked an eyebrow. “How come the vigilantes didn’t burn that too?”
“Oh, they tried to,” Ben said. “Flames kept going out. Damnedest thing.” He grinned wickedly at her. “After Mel opens her presents maybe we can all go outside and see it.”
And so after the food and drink had been cleared away, Evie found herself sitting in a chair by the fireplace, listening to the howls of laughter as Mel opened the wildly inappropriate baby gifts everyone had brought, including a pacifier with vampire fangs and a tiny black t-shirt bearing the slogan, “They shake me.” Evie laughed too, but she couldn’t stop thinking about Ben’s crazy story, wondering if that infernal barbecue was really still out there in the inky blackness beyond the windows, standing there as a mute testament to a cursed madness.
Once Mel had torn through her pile of gifts and more wine had been consumed, Ben suggested the whole party should drive out to town to see some Christmas parade with fireworks, and most everyone agreed immediately and began squabbling about who was still sober enough to pilot Ben’s ancient Chevy Suburban.
Evie glanced over at Jonah, who still looked like death warmed up, and then over at Finn, who was looking at her with a strange intensity that she had been noticing a lot in the past few months.
“You don’t mind if I go ahead and crash early, do you?” Jonah was stretched out on the loveseat, his shoes abandoned on the rug. “I’m still not feeling very well.”
Ben looked down at him, drunkenly stern. “If you must be a complete and utter killjoy, then by all means. We gave you the first bedroom at the top of the stairs, if you want an actual bed to die in.”
Jonah smiled weakly. “Thanks. I might take you up on that.”
“I guess I’ll stay here with him,” Evie said. “In case he needs anything.” She knew he probably wouldn’t; he would likely just fall asleep until midmorning.
“I’ll stay too,” Finn said, a little too quickly. “No offense, but watching the world’s most inbred Christmas parade doesn’t sound like a way to spend an evening.”
“Oh, I see, us country folks aren’t good enough for you latte-sipping urban types,” Ben sniffed. “That’s fine. Eat my food, drink my booze, ogle my pregnant wife and mock me. Go ahead.”
Finn laughed, and Evie took Ben by the arm. “I want to see that oven thing,” she said, quietly enough that Jonah wouldn’t hear. “Have you got a flashlight?”
Ben looked at her for a second as if he had no idea what she was talking about. “Oh. Oh yeah, I forgot about that. There’s a flashlight in the cabinet over the stove, but be careful if you go out there. The woods are full of snakes and bears and who knows what else.”
“I’ll be careful.” She turned and saw Finn watching her, a bright glitter in his eyes.
After the inebriated party had left, the roar of the Suburban’s engine quieting the crickets as it faded into the distance, Evie and Finn, both slightly wobbling on their feet, managed to pack Jonah upstairs and get him settled under the dull red counterpane in the spare bedroom. He smiled vaguely in their direction, then slipped into sleep, his partially blocked sinuses turning his breathing into the rooting snuffle of a warthog. Evie quietly closed the bedroom door and followed Finn down the stairs.
“You’re really going out there to see that thing?” Finn was watching her as she stood on her tiptoes and poked through the upper cabinets.
“You’re coming too, hero,” she answered, glancing over her shoulder at him. “That way when a bear comes it can eat you while I run away.”
“Ha ha.” He crossed his arms and tilted his head to one side. “Ben’s probably full of shit, you know. There’s nothing out there.”
Evie found the flashlight and flicked it on and off a few times in Finn’s face. “I guess we’ll see about that. Don’t make me call you a chicken.”
The night had gone pleasantly cool, the air just crisp enough to cause sharp tingles on the tips of their noses and fingers. The ground floor of the main house was still brightly lit, and for a while Finn and Evie were able to remain in the charmed golden glow, even as the woods closed in around them.
The barn was a small, neat structure of freshly-painted blue wood, really a barn only in name. Behind it lay a cone of shadow that stretched all the way to the tree line, a dead zone where almost nothing was visible. The crickets had resumed their chirping, and somewhere close by Evie could hear the lap of water against a bank. There were also other forest sounds punctuating the relative stillness; the occasional hoot of an owl, the faraway rustle of underbrush as some nocturnal animal went about its business. Evie’s skin prickled slightly from the chill as well as from anticipation. She turned on the flashlight.
In its feeble glow, she could pick out the edge of Ben and Mel’s vegetable garden, and an off-white cylindrical shape that might have been a water pump. The dark forms of cars were pressed in all around, oppressive as the trees, and Evie was slightly disturbed that it took more than a few minutes before she could identify Jonah’s Honda; the night was rendering the familiar ambiguous. She could hear Finn breathing very close beside her, his footfalls as loud as rifle shots.
At last the farthest reach of the flashlight beam splashed across a misshapen pile of blacker shadow, and Evie’s heartbeat quickened in time with her pace. Finn fell behind for a moment and then she heard him trotting to catch up, whispering, “Is that it?” into her ear and sounding as though he was screaming.
The incinerator was nothing particular to look at; it was really no more than a hastily assembled pile of flat stones a bit taller than a person, with a raggedy almost-square opening about three-quarters of the way up from the bottom. A few of the topmost stones looked broken off or missing, and even in the negligible illumination from the flashlight Evie could see the harsh blackening along part of the surface, exactly as if the structure had once caught fire. It even still had a bare whiff of a burnt smell about it, a dusty black smell, dry and sharp, but underneath that Evie thought she could smell something else, something wet and secretive.
“Guess Ben was telling the truth after all,” Finn muttered under his breath, and Evie wanted to tell him to be quiet, but she was too distracted by the feel of his body heat, practically pressed up against her left side, and the soft whuff of his breath on her cheek.
Leaning forward, she shined the flashlight into the opening and peered inside. It was black as a hellmouth in there, and the secret wet smell was more pronounced, so much so that her nose wrinkled involuntarily. The hole seemed to go deeper into the structure than it had first appeared, though in the darkness it was impossible to see any remnants of what had once been burned there. Ben’s story notwithstanding, it had probably been nothing more nefarious than a few pork ribs, but still…
Evie straightened up again, noticing as she did that Finn seemed very close now, the wine-and-cologne scent of him nearly drowning out the damp/burned smell from the incinerator. Evie realized she was more than a little drunk, and with this realization came a sudden, crystalline revelation, an understanding of Finn’s closeness, his intense stares at the party, the strange way he had been looking at her at work for the past few months. Maybe she’d been too wrapped up in her life with Jonah to see it, but now she did.
“Well,” Finn said, still keeping his voice low, as if not to disturb the pagan gods of the forest, “was it all you hoped it would be and more?”
She turned the flashlight beam into his face, and he squinted but didn’t look away from her. “Finn…” she said, and she wasn’t sure what words she had planned to say after that, but as it happened it didn’t matter because at that moment he kissed her, somewhat hesitantly, his soft lips tasting of grapes and icing sugar. Then he pulled back, his eyes almost comically wide as if they were shocked at what the lower half of his face had done under their lax surveillance.
They stared at each other for a moment, Finn’s features still bathed in the shaky partial glow of the flashlight, their breathing gone ragged as if they’d both been running. Evie felt something very strange come over her, perhaps only the shock of the situation mixed with the potent effects of the wine, but perhaps something else as well. For some reason she flashed on Jonah and his pitiful sick-snores as he lay in the guest room upstairs, and she suddenly thought of things about him that she’d never consciously thought before, like the way one eye drooped when he looked at her, the way he hummed between his teeth when he was nervous, the way he always pulled stupid faces when they were making love, as if he could never quite take the endeavor seriously. She felt distantly guilty for thinking these things, but the impressions nevertheless came to her in a hot wave of emotion that also carried with it the sudden appreciation of the pale sloping angles of Finn’s face, the way his dark hair fell in just-so wisps across his forehead, the way his silver-green eyes considered her with open longing, the sweet/animal smell of him overpowering her better judgment, short-circuiting her rational brain and plugging straight into the reptilian.
With no further consideration, she touched the side of his face with her free hand and leaned in, pressing her lips against his, hard. She could feel their heartbeats tripping in crazy jazz-improv rhythms as their bodies met.
When she backed off a seeming eternity later, she felt as though she might lose her balance, and steadied herself by placing her hand on the lip of the incinerator’s opening. The burned stone felt powdery and yet oddly slick beneath her fingers.
Finn’s gaze dropped. “I didn’t mean for that to happen,” he said, his voice almost muffled, as if they were facing each other in a fabric bag.
Evie willed her heart to stop racing, breathed slowly through her nose. “It’s all right. I think we’re both a little drunk.” That wasn’t all it was, of course, but normalcy had to be restored, the incident closed off from external reality.
“Yeah, I guess we are.” The green of his eyes seemed to darken, the green of the surrounding forest at twilight, but then the illusion passed. “Did you see what you wanted to see?”
Evie had almost forgotten about the incinerator, poised there beside her, supporting her wobbling legs. “Yeah, I guess I —”
And then there was a strange sound from the wood, not a loud sound but somehow undergirded, more felt than heard. Finn looked at her, his eyes round, and Evie’s heart wheezed to maximum capacity again, threatening to burst through her chest. The sound came again, a low dragging sound, a belly-crawling sound. Evie first thought of a big gator crawling out of the swamp, its scaly hide shimmering black in the moonlight, but what she really thought of, in the part of her mind where her consciousness would not go, was a blind white wet thing pulling itself through the fallen leaves with its pulse-pink appendages like segmented beetle legs. The air temperature seemed to have plunged fifteen degrees, and she shuddered.
“Let’s get back to the house.” Finn was clearly frightened, his pale face gone paler still in the silent-movie flicker of the flashlight she still held in her trembling hand.
“Yeah.” Evie loosened her grip on the incinerator opening, but for a moment it seemed that her hand was reluctant to let go; it felt like there was a twenty-pound dumbbell at the end of her arm. I shouldn’t drink so much, it’s making me stupid, she thought, though that was just the innocuous mask over the face of her real thoughts, and she yanked her hand away with such force that she nearly toppled to the ground; would have, in fact, had Finn not clumsily caught her.
“Right. Sorry.” The darkness around her was spinning a little now, the stars overhead like white streaks spiraling into a drain. She pointed the flashlight in the direction she thought the house lay in, though the barn was evidently blocking her view of it because she could see nothing but shadows on top of shadows. “Come on,” she whispered, comforted by the warmth of Finn’s body beside her. He gripped her free hand, but then pulled away with a sharp cry of disgust.
“What—” she said, and then she felt it, a small damp weight on the back of her hand, ticklish and taunting, and she brought her hand into the circle of light and saw a plump white caterpillar or maggot crawling around there on her skin as if looking for a place to burrow into, its tiny stub legs moving in disturbing synchrony. With a screamy exhale she flung her hand backwards, back toward the incinerator where the creature had probably emerged from, the incinerator she could no longer see. She felt the weight of the thing separate from her flesh, and even though she could hear the fat plop as it landed in the underbrush behind the barn, the sensation of it crawling there on the back of her hand remained, seeming to spread up her arms and neck to her face like a fast-acting rash, and it was all she could do to keep from dropping the flashlight and falling to the ground, howling and scratching at herself until her skin was flayed raw.
“Give me the flashlight, Ev.” Finn’s unsteady voice came stuttering out of the darkness, and after a moment she felt his fingers prying it loose from her death-grip, and then his hand wrapped itself around her uncontaminated one and pulled her forward, and though the night was sightless, disorienting, she let herself be led, trailing behind the guttering flashlight beam as it shined upon nothing.
It might have been a minute or an hour when they arrived back at the house with its obscenely illuminated windows, and as they stumbled across the threshold, moving from the brisk swirling chill of the outdoors to the gently heated interior, Evie felt a surge of nausea and staggered on her feet, certain she would vomit. She dropped Finn’s hand and leaned forward over her knees, but nothing came, though a slick of cold sweat had broken out all over her skin. She was either very drunk or had caught whatever Jonah had. Finn was standing over her, the lit flashlight forgotten in his hand, and he was asking her if she was all right, but she could only register his voice at a distance, a crackling radio signal from a faraway satellite.
At last she straightened, still feeling sick but beginning to get on top of it. The hand the caterpillar had touched still felt diseased, leprous, and almost without realizing it she let it hang motionless by her side, a useless appendage. With her other hand she signaled to Finn, telling him she was okay, telling him to back off a little. He did, but only a step or two. Without taking his eyes off her, he flipped the switch on the flashlight and set it down on the kitchen counter.
She opened her mouth experimentally, feeling the nausea return for a moment and then pass before she ventured to speak. “What the fuck just happened?”
Finn combed his fingers through his hair. “I’m getting another drink. You want one?” He turned toward the refrigerator.
She watched him as he poked among the bottles and then poured himself a generous slug of whiskey, his hand shaking slightly. He looked different somehow, his profile sharper, his pale skin fragile like a ceramic figurine. He had a strange, electric aura about him that had not been there before.
As she stood there and watched him drink, she wanted to ask again what had happened out there, and the question had traveled most of the way up her larynx when suddenly Jonah snored upstairs, an impossibly loud, strangled intake of breath, and Evie nearly screamed.
Finn was staring at her now, ringed green eyes watery with alcohol. “I’m sorry,” he said huskily.
“There was something out there.” She hadn’t known she was going to say it, but once she had she knew it was the truth. She cast an apprehensive glance toward the windows, through which she could see nothing at all.
“It was nothing. An alligator. We’re drunk.” The air around him seemed to be buzzing, and Evie could feel the creeping spread of the worm-sickness pulsing in time with the signal.
“Shouldn’t the others be back by now?” It seemed very late to her, closer to dawn than twilight, though she couldn’t see the clock from where she stood.
“We weren’t out there that long,” Finn said, but he looked uncertain, and seemed reluctant to look at his watch, as though confirming the time might make concrete the whole experience, fix it in the continuum of actual events.
“I should check on Jonah,” she said. She didn’t really want to, didn’t want his sleeping, oblivious form to silently judge her for her transgressions, but she felt it was her duty.
“Ev.” Finn stepped forward and put his hand on her arm, the one so far unaffected; and still the contact made the nausea rise again, made her taste something sharp like ozone in the back of her throat. She swallowed hard and met his gaze as he said, “Stay with me tonight.”
For a long moment she didn’t register what he had said; the nerves where the larva’s feet had touched had spread and branched and touched other nerves, and now she felt herself filling with intercrossing wet strings that tied themselves in slimy knots around her organs, slipping into crevices and roosting there, nestling, bursting, growing. Under this onslaught Finn’s request seemed trivial, idiotic, and yet…
At last understanding filtered through and allowed her to formulate a response. “I can’t. They’ll all be coming back. Everyone will know.” Even as she said it she wondered if Ben and beautiful pregnant Mel and any of the others would ever be coming back, if they had just driven off into the woods as though leaving a stage set, as if they had never existed at all. Perhaps they had heard a sly dragging whisper through the underbrush, caught a glimpse of sickening sunless white in the rearview mirror, huge and deliberate and gaining, right before…
“It touched me,” she said, and then she looked at Finn, startled, as though the voice had come from someone else; it felt as though it had, like some other thing had lodged in her gullet and was controlling her body like a ventriloquist controlled a dummy.
Finn stared hard at her, his brows furrowing with worry. “What? It was just a caterpillar or something, Ev, Jesus. You’re drunk. You should get some sleep. Forget what I just said. Come on, let’s go check on Jonah.”
She looked at him again, feeling time stretch thin as spider silk, but then she went, forcing her alien body to move her reeling mind forward. Finn was right behind her, his hand hovering just inches from her elbow, quivering to touch her, but refraining.
The upstairs hallway was dark save for the soft yellow glow of a single wall sconce that pushed shifting shadows into the corners. The door to the room Jonah slept in was slightly ajar, as they had left it earlier, and Evie pushed it in with her hand, glimpsing the silhouette of her husband’s sleeping form, outlined in moonlight from the window. She couldn’t hear him breathing now and she wondered if he might be dead; or worse might be lying there watching her, keeping very still so that he could pounce on her when she approached. It was a bizarre notion, and she shook her head as if to dislodge it.
“Are you going to be all right?” Finn was still not touching her, but he leaned very close to her as he spoke.
“Yes.” Even to her own ears her voice sounded distant, disembodied.
“I’m going to bed. I’ll be just across the hall if you need me.” His eyes were hooded in the dimness, appearing as two holes with bright yellow sparks within.
She nodded, then pushed the room door wider and stepped over the threshold. Finn hesitated; she could feel his gaze boring into her, exciting the larval molecules that were now infesting her entire body, appropriating it for their own purpose. Then Finn said, “Good night,” awkwardly, and turned away from her, disappearing into the cavern of his own room, though he left the door half open.
Evie closed her own door, cutting off the world outside, containing what was inside the room, inside of her. The moonlight was sufficient for her to make her way across the room without stumbling, though she gave the bed supporting Jonah’s sleeping body a wide berth, still partially convinced that he was staring at her, was able to detect the scent of betrayal and contamination upon her.
Instead she curled up in the overstuffed chair near the window, drawing her knees up to her chest. Jonah remained still, but now she thought she could discern a very faint whispering sound that might have been his breathing, and she fancied she could see two white pinpricks in the darkness where his eyes would have been, regarding her from the shadows as Finn’s had.
Evie placed her fingers across her stomach and pushed inward, ever so slightly. Yes, she thought she could feel it there, a shifting something that was not of her body, the seed of the interloper. She closed her eyes, and for a moment she was outside in the crisp, pine-scented air again, her hand clutching the concrete lip of the strange furnace, Finn’s green eyes enormous in her vision, his lips pressed into hers. That was how it had fooled her, she realized, that white-fleshed dweller in the woods; it had used the form of her dearest friend to impart its hellish progeny, to make her its vessel. It had chosen her, seduced her. She felt a fluttering beneath her fingers, deep inside her belly, and then she was sure that the flesh there began to swell. She almost called out for Finn, but how could she trust him, after what he had done, after what he had conveyed to her? What if he appeared at the door and she could see it behind his eyes, the white fleshy form of the thing, watching her, mocking her? And of course Jonah would be no help either; Jonah, ostensibly ill, ostensibly sleeping, but really lying there a few feet from her, watching her too through the sharp twinkles that had once been his eyes. He knew what she had done; knew and judged.
Her belly stretched larger, enough that her interlocked fingers began to pull apart, and she shuddered at the feel of the parasitic weight and the squirming movements of the creature, drawing her knees even closer to her torso in the hope that she could crush it in its stolen incubator. But it seemed that this only made the creature push back harder against her, and she cried out in pain, though she at least had enough presence of mind to jam her fist into her mouth to suppress the sound, to keep Finn from coming, to keep Jonah from feeling the satisfaction.
Suddenly the room was awash with light from the window, and outside a great rumbling sound arose like the combined roar of all the hybrid demon-children emerging from the ground, bent on revenge. They were coming for her, she knew that — all of those twisted, burned bodies squirming and mewling through the undergrowth, followed by their sire, larval father, conqueror worm. She couldn’t let herself be tricked again, breached again. She couldn’t end up like Mrs. Birch, not if she could do something to prevent it.
The bright light from the window was extinguished, but Evie barely noticed as she bolted from her chair, the creature growing huge inside her and threatening to burst from her belly. Distantly, she heard a creak of bedsprings, and her husband’s sleep-thickened voice saying her name, but she was already at the bedroom door and out in the hallway; and then Finn’s startled face appeared in her peripheral vision as he poked his head out from his own room, intoning, “Evie, wait,” but she was past him and down the stairs. She heard him following, panicked footfalls not far behind, but she ran on regardless.
Fire would cleanse, she thought, the same fire that had destroyed the beast’s former children would also destroy the one she carried, and destroy her with it, shatter the vessel. As she ran through the kitchen her gaze fell on the red candle lighter that had been used to light the candles at dinner, an eternity ago, and she snatched it up in a fluid motion, trying to ignore the crawling and gnawing of the furious spawn inside her body. Finn shouted her name again, somewhere, but it was nothing to do with her now. Cool air slapped her in the face as she tore open the back door and streaked out into the night.
Other voices reached her ears then, calling to her, crying out in alarm. It occurred to her that the voices were familiar somehow, but they belonged to a life she no longer knew; they called for a person that was no longer her, but simply the shell and puppet of a controlling monstrosity. It was dark as she ran for the barn and what lay beyond it, but she was surefooted and did not stumble; perhaps the touch of the creature had given her something of its night-born essence.
The furnace loomed ahead, almost seeming to glow with all the cleansing blazes of the past, and Evie almost thought she could see the hideous offspring there, hundreds strong, writhing and shrieking in the flames. The vision nearly made her stop and turn back, but she knew she had to do this; she could not allow it to get started again. She heard rustling in the leaves and fallen pine needles, as of a thousand insect legs, and she knew the thing was bearing down on her. It would have to be done quickly.
She reached the furnace and placed her hand, the one that had first been contaminated by the evil, on the lip of the opening. When she flicked the candle lighter to life the tiny orange light seemed to illuminate the world, and out of the corner of her eye she thought she saw something massive, tall as treetops, white and glistening wet in the glow. Its shadow fell across her.
She pressed the flame to her flesh and waited for it to purify her.