Page 34

Opening the passenger door of the truck, a couple of feet from Chrissie's hiding place, Sarah said, "You'll catch your death, Ed."

"You think I'm some delicate violet?" he asked playfully as he opened the driver's door and got into the truck.

"I think you're a withered old dandelion."

He laughed. "You didn't think so last night."

"Yes, I did. But you're my withered old dandelion, and I don't want YOU to just blow away on the wind."

One door slammed shut, then the other.

Certain that they could not see her, Chrissie pulled back the burlap, exposing her head. She pinched her nose and breathed through her mouth until the tickling in her sinuses subsided.

As Ed Eulane started the truck, let the engine idle a moment, then reversed out of the garage, Chrissie could hear them talking in the cab at her back. She couldn't make out everything they were saying, but they still seemed to be bantering with each other.

Cold rain struck her face, and she immediately pulled her head under the tarps again, leaving just a narrow opening by which a little fresh air might reach her. If she sneezed while in transit, the sound of the rain and the rumble of the truck's engine would cover it.

Thinking about the conversation she had overheard in the garage and listening to Mr. Eulane laughing now in the cab, Chrissie thought she could trust them. If they were aliens, they wouldn't be making dumb jokes and lovey talk. Maybe they would if they were putting on a show for non-aliens, trying to convince the world that they were still Ed and Sarah Eulane, but not when they were in private. When aliens were together without unconverted humans nearby, they probably talked about … well, planets they had sacked, the weather on Mars, the price of flying-saucer fuel, and recipes for serving human beings. Who knew? But surely they didn't talk as the Eulanes were talking.

On the other hand …

Maybe these aliens had only taken control of Ed and Sarah Eulane during the night, and maybe they were not yet comfortable in their human roles. Maybe they were practicing being human in private so they could pass for human in public. Sure as the devil, if Chrissie revealed herself, they'd probably sprout tentacles and lobster pincers from their chests and either eat her alive, without condiments, or freeze-dry her and mount her on a plaque and take her to their home world to hang on their den wall, or pop her brain out of her skull and plug it into their spaceship and use it as a cheap control mechanism for their inflight coffeemaker.

In the middle of an alien invasion, you could give your trust only with reluctance and considerable deliberation. She decided to stick to her original plan.

The fifty-pound, plastic sacks of fertilizer and mulch and snail bait, piled on both sides of her burlap niche, protected her from some rain, but enough reached her to soak the upper layers of tarps. She was relatively dry and toasty warm when they set out, but soon she was saturated with grass-scented rainwater, cold to the bone.

She peeked out repeatedly to determine where they were. When she saw that they were turning off the county route onto Ocean Avenue, she peeled back the soggy burlap and crawled out of her hiding place.

The wall of the truck cab featured a window, so the Eulanes would see her if they turned and looked back. Mr. Eulane might even see her in the rearview mirror of she didn't keep very low. But she had to get to the rear of the truck and be ready to jump off when they passed Our Lady of Mercy.

On her hands and knees, she moved between—and over—the supplies and gardening equipment. When she reached the tailgate, she huddled there, head down, shivering and miserable in the rain.

They crossed Shasta Way, the first intersection at the edge of town, and headed down through the business district of Ocean Avenue. They were only about four blocks from the church.

Chrissie was surprised that no people were on the sidewalks and that no cars traveled the streets. It was early—she checked her watch, 7:03—but not so early that everyone would still be home in bed. She supposed the weather also had something to do with the town's deserted look; no one was going to be out and about in that mess unless he absolutely had to be.

There was another possibility Maybe the aliens had taken over such a large percentage of the people in Moonlight Cove that they no longer felt it necessary to enact the charade of daily life; with complete conquest only hours away, all their efforts were bent on seeking the last of the unpossessed. That was too unsettling to think about.

When they were one block from Our Lady of Mercy, Chrissie climbed onto the white-board tailgate. She swung one leg over the top, then the other leg, and clung to the outside of the gate with both hands, her feet on the rear bumper. She could see the backs of the Eulanes' heads through the rear window of the cab, and if they turned her way—or if Mr. Eulane glanced at his rearview mirror—she'd be seen.

She kept expecting to be spotted by a pedestrian who would yell, "Hey, you, hanging on that truck, are you nuts?" But there were no pedestrians, and they reached the next intersection without incident.

The brakes squealed as Mr. Eulane slowed for the stop sign.

As the truck came to a stop, Chrissie dropped off the tailgate.

Mr. Eulane turned left on the cross street. He was heading toward Thomas Jefferson Elementary School on Palomino, a few blocks south, where Mrs. Eulane worked and where, on an ordinary Tuesday morning, Chrissie would soon be going to her sixth-grade classroom.

She sprinted across the intersection, splashed through the dirty streaming water in the gutter, and ran up the steps to the front doors of Our Lady of Mercy. A flush of triumph warmed her, for she felt that she had reached sanctuary against all odds.

With one hand on the ornate brass handle of the carved-oak door, she paused to look uphill and down. The windows of shops, offices, and apartments were as frost—blank as cataracted eyes. Smaller trees leaned with the stiff wind, and larger trees shuddered, which was the only movement other than the driving rain. The wind was inconstant, blustery; sometimes it stopped pushing the rain relentlessly eastward and gathered it into funnels, whirling them up Ocean Avenue, so if she squinted her eyes and ignored the chill in the air, she could almost believe that she was standing in a desert ghost town, watching dust devils whirl along its haunted streets.

At the corner beside the church, a police car pulled up to the stop sign. Two men were in it. Neither was looking toward her.

She already suspected that the police were not to be trusted. Pulling open the church door, she quickly slipped inside before they glanced her way.

The moment she stepped into the oak-paneled narthex and drew in a deep breath of the myrrh- and spikenard-scented air, Chrissie felt safe. She stepped through the archway to the nave, dipped her fingers in the holy water that filled the marble font on the right, crossed herself, and moved down the center aisle to the fourth pew from the rear. She genuflected, crossed herself again, and took a seat.

She was concerned about getting water all over the polished oak pew, but there was nothing she could do about that. She was dripping.

Mass was under way. Besides herself, only two of the faithful were present, which seemed to be a scandalously poor turnout, Of course, to the best of her memory, though her folks always attended Sunday Mass, they had brought her to a weekday service only once in her life, many years ago, and she could not be sure that weekday Masses ever drew more worshipers. She suspected, however, that the alien presence—or demons, whatever—in Moonlight Cove was responsible for the low attendance. No doubt space aliens were godless or, worse yet, bowed to some dark deity with a name like Yahgag or Scoghlatt.

She was surprised to see that the priest celebrating Mass, with the assistance of one altarboy, was not Father Castelli. It was the young priest—the curate, they called him—whom the archdiocese had assigned to Father Castelli in August. His name was Father O'Brien. His first name was Tom, and following his rector's lead, he sometimes insisted that parishioners call him Father Tom. He was nice—though not as nice or as wise or as amusing as Father Castelli—but she could no more bring herself to call him Father Tom than she could call the older priest Father Jim. Might as well call the Pope Johnny. Her parents sometimes talked about how much the church had changed, how less formal it had become over the years, and they spoke approvingly of those changes. In her conservative heart, Chrissie wished that she had been born and raised in a time when the Mass had been in Latin, elegant and mysterious, and when the service had not included the downright silly ritual of "giving peace" to worshipers around you. She had gone to Mass at a cathedral in San Francisco once, when they were on vacation, and the service had been a special one, in Latin, conducted according to the old liturgy, and she had loved it. Making ever faster airplanes, improving television from black and white to color, saving lives with better medical technology, junking those clumsy old records for compact discs—all those changes were desirable and good. But there were some things in life that shouldn't change, because it was their changelessness that you loved about them. If you lived in a world of constant, rapid change in all things, where did you turn for stability, for a place of peace and calm and quiet in the middle of all that buzz and clatter? That truth was so evident to Chrissie that she could not understand why grown-ups were not aware of it. Sometimes adults were thick headed.

She sat through only a couple of minutes of the Mass, just long enough to say a prayer and beseech the Blessed Virgin to intercede on her behalf, and to be sure that Father Castelli was not somewhere in the nave—sitting in a pew like an ordinary worshiper, which he did sometimes—or perhaps at one of the confessionals. Then she got up, genuflected, crossed herself, and went back into the narthex, where candle-shaped electric bulbs flickered softly behind the amber-glass panes of two wallmounted lamps. She opened the front door a crack, peeking out at the rain-washed street.

Just then a police car came down Ocean Avenue. It was not the same one she'd seen when she had gone into the church. it was newer, and only one officer was in it. He was driving slowly, scanning the streets as if looking for someone.

As the police cruiser reached the corner on which Our Lady of Mercy stood, another car passed it, coming uphill from the sea. That one wasn't a patrol car but a blue Chevy. Two men were in it, giving everything a slow looking over, peering left and right through the rain, as the policeman was doing. And though the men in the Chevy and the policeman did not wave to each other or signal in any way, Chrissie sensed that they were involved in the same pursuit. The cops had linked up with a civilian posse to search for something, someone.

Me, she thought.

They were looking for her because she knew too much. Because yesterday morning, in the upstairs hall, she had seen the aliens in her parents. Because she was the only obstacle to their conquest of the human race. And maybe because she would taste good if they cooked her up with some Martian potatoes.

Thus far, although she had learned that aliens were taking Possession of some people, she had seen no evidence that they were actually eating others, yet she continued to believe that somewhere, right now, they were snacking on body parts. It just felt right.

When the patrol car and the blue Chevy passed, she pushed the heavy door open another few inches and stuck her head out in the rain. She looked left and right, then again, to be very sure that no one was in sight either in a car or on foot. Satisfied, she stepped outside and dashed east to the corner of the church. After looking both ways on the cross street, she turned the corner and hurried along the side of the church toward the rectory behind it.

The two-story house was all brick with carved granite lintels and a white-painted front porch with scalloped eaves, respectable-looking enough to be the perfect residence for a priest. The old plane trees along the front walk protected her from the rain, but she was already sodden. When she reached the porch and approached the front door, her tennis shoes made squelchingsqueaking noises.

As she was about to put her finger on the doorbell button, she hesitated. She was concerned that she might be walking into an alien lair—an unlikely possibility but one which could not be lightly dismissed. She also realized that Father O'Brien might be saying Mass in order that Father Castelli, a hard worker by nature, could enjoy a rare sleep-in, and she was loath to disturb him if that was the case.

Young Chrissie, she thought, undeniably courageous and clever, was nonetheless too polite for her own good. While standing on the priest's porch, debating the proper etiquette of an early-morning visit, she suddenly was snatched up by slavering, nine-eyed aliens and eaten on the spot. Fortunately she was too dead to hear the way they belched and farted after eating her, for surely her refined sensibilities would have been gravely offended.

She rang the bell. Twice.

A moment later a shadowy and strangely lumpish figure appeared beyond the crackle-finished, diamond-shaped panes in the top half of the door. She almost turned and ran but told herself that the glass was distorting the image and that the figure beyond was not actually grotesque.

Father Castelli opened the door and blinked in surprise when he saw her. He was wearing black slacks, a black shirt, a Roman collar, and a tattered gray cardigan, so he hadn't been fast asleep, thank God. He was a shortish man, about five feet seven, and round but not really fat, with black hair going gray at the temples. Even his proud beak of a nose was not enough to dilute the effect of his otherwise soft features, which gave him a gentle and compassionate appearance.

He blinked again—this was the first time Chrissie had seen him without his glasses—and said, "Chrissie?" He smiled, and she knew that she had done the right thing by coming to him, because his smile was warm and open and loving.

"Whatever brings you here at this hour, in this weather?" He looked past her to the rest of the porch and the walkway beyond. "Where're your parents?"

"Father," she said, not altogether surprised to hear her voice crack, "I have to see you."

His smile wavered. "Is something wrong?"

"Yes, Father. Very wrong. Terribly, awfully wrong."

"Come in, then, come in. You're soaked!" He ushered her into the foyer and closed the door. "Dear girl, what is this all about?"

"Aliens, F-f-father, " she said, as a chill made her stutter.

"Come on back to the kitchen," he said. "It's the warmest room in the house. I was just fixing breakfast."

"I'll ruin the carpet," she said, indicating the oriental runner that lay the length of the hallway, with oak flooring on both sides.

"Oh, don't worry about that. It's an old thing, but it stands up well to abuse. Sort of like me! Would you like some hot cocoa? I was making breakfast, including a big pot of piping hot cocoa."