As they waited, Travis’s stories about his mother revealed a woman of exceptional character, determined and indomitable, self-effacing and self-sacrificing, a woman with an inexhaustible capacity to love. Although the boy, in the manner of boys everywhere, would not say that he loved her with every fiber of his heart, the truth that he adored her was evident in everything he said about her.
But the longer they waited, the less Travis talked. Eventually, the question became not when Grace Ahern would come home but if she would show up at all.
“She wouldn’t go straight to the hospital,” the boy insisted. “She feels stale after working all day at school. That’s what she says—stale. She takes a quick shower. She gets to the hospital about six.”
She was already far behind the schedule that the boy attributed to her, but when Travis wanted to wait another ten minutes, Bryce said, “We can wait as long as you like. All night if you want.”
After that, they maintained their watch in silence, as if Travis feared that speaking of his mother would jinx her and him, that only by a stoic silence could he earn the sight of her again.
The boy’s anxiety became as manifest as the chill that coiled ever tighter as the night wore on.
Minute by minute, Bryce was overcome by a growing sympathy of such tenderness that it risked becoming pity, and he didn’t want to pity Travis Ahern because pity supposed that the mother must be already lost, like the screaming victims in the hospital basement.
In the silence, Nummy waited for the ceiling to creak but he also listened hard for any sound of Mr. Lyss searching downstairs for something he could use to burn the cocoons. Mr. Lyss wasn’t usually a quiet person, but now he was as quiet as a sneaky cat. No footsteps, no doors opening and closing, no bad words being said because he was having trouble finding what he wanted …
Maybe the problem wasn’t that Mr. Lyss couldn’t find what he wanted. Maybe instead the problem could be that something that wanted Mr. Lyss had found him. Maybe downstairs hung a cocoon that smelled a little bit like Mr. Lyss’s bad teeth.
Maybe three outer-space things spun these giant cocoons around themselves, the way caterpillars spun themselves up inside their own silk to become butterflies. But maybe instead the thing that spun the cocoons wasn’t in any of them, and it was creeping around the house and spinning more cocoons with its babies inside, and none of them pretty like a butterfly.
This was for sure what Grandmama meant when she said too much thinking led to too much worrying.
Although he seemed to have been gone a long time, Mr. Lyss still wasn’t making any noise downstairs, but suddenly some noise came from one of the cocoons or maybe from all of them. At first Nummy thought the things in the cocoons were whispering to one another, but then he realized this was a slithery sound, like a lot of snakes might be sliding around inside the sacks.
You would think that so much slithering would make the sacks bulge and ripple, but they didn’t. They just hung there, looking wet though Mr. Lyss said they weren’t.
Nummy stood very near the bedroom door, and he wanted to back across the threshold into the hallway, putting a little more space between himself and the cocoons. But he knew that once he went as far as the hallway, he would run for the stairs. If he ran for the stairs, that was when Mr. Lyss would finally return with his long gun, and Nummy didn’t want his head blown off and used like a basketball.
Finally, he couldn’t bear listening to the slithery sounds any longer, and he said to the cocoons, “Stop scaring me. I don’t want to be here, I have to be here, so just stop.”
To his surprise, they stopped.
For a moment, Nummy felt good that they stopped slithering when he told them to, because maybe they didn’t really mean to scare him in the first place and were sorry. But then he realized that if they stopped slithering when he told them to, they were listening to him, which meant they knew he was here in the room with them. Most of the time he was watching them, he told himself they were just cocoons, they weren’t aware of him. But they were.
Footsteps on the stairs turned out to be Mr. Lyss, which by now was the last thing Nummy was expecting.
“Are your pants still dry?” Mr. Lyss asked.
“Yes, sir. But they was slithering.”
“Your pants were slithering?”
“The things in the cocoons. Lots of slithery sounds, but the sacks they didn’t bulge or nothing.”
Mr. Lyss carried a two-gallon red can like people used to keep gasoline for their lawn mowers. He also carried a little basket with some smaller cans in it.
“Where’s your long gun?” Nummy asked.
“By the front door. I don’t think it’s smart to use a shotgun for this. Split the sack, and who knows how many things might come squirming out of it, maybe too many to shoot them all.” He put the basket on the floor beside Nummy. “Don’t drink any of that.”
“What is it?” Nummy asked.
“A couple different kinds of paint thinners, some lamp oil, and charcoal starter.” He handed Nummy a box of matches. “Hold these.”
“Why would I drink that junk?”
“I don’t know,” Mr. Lyss said, screwing the cap off the spout on the gasoline can. “Could be you’re a secret degenerate boozer, you’ll drink anything that’s got a kick to it, and I just haven’t known you long enough to see it.”
“I’m no boozer. That there’s an insult.”
“I didn’t mean it that way,” Mr. Lyss said as he moved among the cocoons, holding the can high, pouring the gasoline all over them so they dripped on the floor. “I was just looking out for you.”
Right away the slithery sounds started again.
“They don’t like you doing that,” Nummy said.
“You can’t be sure. Maybe they’re the degenerate boozers you’re not, and they’re all excited by the smell, they think it’s cocktail time.”
The cocoons hung all around Mr. Lyss, and he turned from one to the other, saying, “Cheers,” as he raised the gasoline can to them.
The sacks bulged and rippled now like they hadn’t done before, and Nummy said, “You better get out of there.”
“I suspect you’re right,” Mr. Lyss said, but he took time to pour out what was left in the can.
The ceiling creaked louder than before, and there was the sound of wood cracking.
Certain that this was like one of those movies where people are eaten alive and nothing nice ever happens, Nummy closed his eyes. But he opened them at once because with his eyes closed he wouldn’t know if something might be coming to eat him, too.
The air was full of fumes. Nummy had to turn his head away from the cocoons, toward the door, to get any breath at all.
Mr. Lyss seemed to be breathing with no trouble. He dropped onto one knee beside the basket. One at a time, he removed the caps from the paint thinner, the charcoal starter, and the lamp oil, and he tossed each can on the carpet under the cocoons, where the contents gurgled out of them.
The fumes were worse than ever.
“I got some gas on my hands, Peaches. I’m a little leery about striking a match. You do the honors.”
“You want me to light up a match?”
“You know how, don’t you?”
“Sure, I know how.”
“Then better do it before the air’s so full of fumes it goes off like a bomb.”
Nummy slid open the box and selected a wooden match. He closed the box—you always close before striking—and scraped the match on the rough paper side. He only had to strike it twice to light it.
“There,” he said, showing it to Mr. Lyss.
On the creaking ceiling, the plaster began to crack between the knotty-pine beams.
Mr. Lyss said, “Now throw the match where the carpet’s wet.”
“You’re really sure?”
“I’m very sure. Throw it now.”
“Once I throw it, we can’t never undo what we done.”
“No, we can’t,” Mr. Lyss agreed. “That’s the way life is. Now throw it before you burn your fingers.”
Nummy threw the match, it landed on the carpet, and—whoosh!—flames jumped from the floor to the sacks. Suddenly the bedroom was bright and hot, and the things in the cocoons went crazy.
Some plaster fell down, Nummy saw one of the burning cocoons begin to split open, and then Mr. Lyss had him by the coat and was pulling him into the hallway, telling him to run.
Nummy didn’t need to be told to run, not the way that he needed to be told to throw the wooden match, because he’d been wanting to run from the moment they saw the cocoons. He went down the stairs so fast he almost fell, but when he stumbled, he bounced off the wall, and somehow the bounce got him balanced again, and he made it all the way to the bottom still on his feet.
When Nummy looked up the stairs, he saw Mr. Lyss plunging toward him, and on the second floor, a big burning something staggered out of the bedroom. Nummy couldn’t say whether it was a bug like Mr. Lyss thought or more of a walking snake, because it was a not-finished thing that hadn’t been in the cocoon long enough, just dark shapes changing inside whirling fire.
A walking snake would have been more interesting and maybe even scarier than a bug, but either way, Mr. Lyss didn’t care about what was behind him, only about getting out of the house. He shouted, “Go, go, go!” as he grabbed his long gun from where he’d stood it against a wall.
Nummy hurried out the front door, into the night, across the porch, down the steps, and onto the lawn, where he stopped and turned to see what would happen next.
Mr. Lyss stopped next to Nummy and faced the house, holding the long gun in two hands.
Fire swelled bright in the upstairs. A window exploded, glass rained down on the porch roof, and Nummy thought something was coming out after them. But another window exploded, and he thought maybe it was just the heat that did it. Fire crawled on the roof now, and fire came downstairs, too, and there was thick smoke.
Mr. Lyss lowered the gun and said, “Good riddance to them. Come on, Peaches.”
Side by side they walked the narrow lane out to the mailbox, which was painted pretty with the words SADDLE UP WITH JESUS, though Nummy couldn’t read them and had to trust Mr. Lyss’s say-so that they were any kind of words at all.
Mr. Lyss held the long gun at his right side, pointed at the ground, so people in passing cars couldn’t see it. They turned right and followed a sidewalk overhung by pines that smelled better than the smoke.
The air was cold and clear. Nummy breathed through his open mouth until he blew away the last of the taste of gasoline fumes.
“I don’t hear no sirens yet,” he said.
“If the firemen in this hickville are anything like the cops, they’ll let it burn to the ground.”
Rattling the box in his hand, Nummy said, “I still got them matches. You want me to keep them?”
“Give them to me,” Mr. Lyss said, and he tucked them away in a pocket of Poor Fred’s coat.
They walked in silence for a minute or two, and then Nummy said, “We burned down a preacher’s house.”
“Yes, we did.”
“Can you go to Hell for that?”
“Under the circumstances,” Mr. Lyss said, “you shouldn’t even have to go to jail for it.”
Cars passed in the street, but none of them was a police car. Besides, there were no streetlamps in this block, and it was dark under the pines.
“Some day, huh?” Nummy said.
“Quite a day,” Mr. Lyss agreed.
“I’m never going to jail again for my own protection.”
“That’s a damn good idea.”
“I just thought.”
“We didn’t leave no I-owe-you.”
“Nowhere to leave it with the house burnt down.”
“You could leave it on the driveway under a rock.”
“I’m not going back there tonight,” Mr. Lyss said.
“I guess not.”
“Anyway, I don’t have a pen or any notepaper.”
“We’ll have to buy us some,” Nummy said.
“I’ll put that on my to-do list for tomorrow.”
They walked a little farther before Nummy said, “Now what?”
“We leave this town and never look back.”
“How do we leave it?”
“Find some transportation.”
“How do we do that?”
“We steal a car.”
Nummy said, “Here we go again.”
At the unmarked warehouse, the sectional bay door rolled up, and one of the spotless blue-and-white trucks drove out. As before, two men occupied the cab. Exiting the warehouse parking lot, the truck turned left.
From his position across the street, Deucalion took one step away from the Dumpster. His second step brought him into the enclosed cargo hold of the moving truck, where he stood swaying in harmony with the vehicle.
To other eyes, this space might have been pitch-black; to Deucalion, it was dim, shadowy, but not a blind hole. He saw at once that nothing had been loaded for delivery. This suggested that the truck must be making pickups along its route and delivering something to the warehouse.
What appeared to be benches were bolted to both long walls. The implications of this were disturbing.
He sat on a bench and waited. If the men up front had been talking, he would have heard their muffled voices, but they were quiet. Unlike most workingmen whose jobs involved a lot of driving, they didn’t listen to music, either, or to talk radio. They might as well have been deaf and mute.
They braked to a full stop several times, but they didn’t switch off the engine, and after each pause they began to roll again. Stop signs and traffic lights.
When eventually the truck stopped and the driver killed the engine, Deucalion rose to his feet. He reached with one hand toward the ceiling and, thanks to his gift, was in the next instant lying on his back on the roof, his feet toward the driver’s cab.
Overhead hung the starless sky, stuffed with winter batting full of unshed snow.
The driver and his assistant got out of the cab. One of them closed his door, but the other left his standing open.
A moment later, they unbolted and opened the cargo-box doors at the back.
Deucalion turned onto his stomach and saw a three-story building behind the truck. From one corner projected a lighted sign: the symbol of the telephone company.
He listened to three low voices, of which at least one must have been that of the driver. They seemed to be intent on doing their business with the utmost discretion, and Deucalion could make out nothing of what they said.