Yet another story by John A. Knouse
Emma stirred in her bed in response to a noise, a really LOUD noise but did not wake. Her dreams of being chased by a satyr simply took a new turn as the satyr inexplicably exploded in mid-leap.
Waking in the morning, she toddled to the kitchen and retrieved the can of ground coffee from the cupboard, noticing with disgust the liver spots and wrinkles on her extended wrist. How the hell did I get so old, she wondered. She wondered this every morning. And often othertimes. She made her coffee and sat to drink the first cup before getting back up to make and eat her oatmeal.
Breakfast finished, she wondered what old Mrs. Grant next door was up to. Leona Grant was all of three years older than Emma, so she was, indeed in Emma’s view, old. Emma dressed herself and toddled over to the house next door which seemed quiet, but then it always was quiet there. With neighborhood kids in school, the only background noise was the stream across the road, after which the small Gomblatz Dingle neighborhood was named. Who Gomblatz was, nobody knew, but dingle was an old Scots word for a small stream.
She rang the bell and got no answer, although she could swear she heard some stirrings from within the house. Well, maybe they’re just busy right now, she thought to herself, and maybe I’ll try again later. And she found herself wistfully wishing that she had someone to be busy with. She had once, but he’d been in the ground now these past fourteen years.
She tried again about three hours later, just before lunch, though the house still seemed dark. It was a fairly bright day, so they might not have any lights on. Again there was no answer, but again she could swear that she heard some odd noises from within the house. And they seemed closer. They had no pets, so if they were out, nothing should be stirring inside. She went back home and tried calling on the phone, but there was no answer.
She made her meager lunch of a cucumber sandwich, but it filled her. Time was that she’d have a big lunch – eating anything that wasn’t nailed down. She hated being old, but she feared the alternative far more. And she’d be damned if she’d be some old cat lady. She didn’t want anything animate that she had to tend to. After lunch, she went out back to do some leisurely gardening before her nap. She was sitting on her pad, pulling up the intrusive and quite rude pigweed from an iris bed when she looked up at the Grant’s house and noticed there was a hole in the roof she’d never noticed before. It was a small hole, in the back, hear the eave. I’ll have to mention that to old Mrs. Grant when I see her, she thought, and again went next door and rang the bell.
There still was no answer, but she thought she heard scraping noises near the door. It was a solid front door, so she could see nothing inside. She looked through a few ground-floor windows, but could see nothing except what appeared to be something lying in the front hallway, dimly seen from a side window of the living room. She began to worry. What if that was old Mrs. Grant, or even Mr. Grant, fallen? But both of them would have had to fall or whatever, since one would be taking care of the other.
She again felt a pang that there was nobody to discover her were something to happen. Her children lived far away. A phone call from one of them was an event that made her day. Visits were a cause of weeks of preparation, but they were almost as scarce as hen’s teeth.
She tried the doors, both front and back, and they were locked. Their car was not in the driveway, where it most often was, but they also sometimes put it in the windowless garage, so she knew not whether it was present or no.
She toddled back to her house and picked up the phone. Who am I calling, she wondered, and put the phone down to riffle through the phone book. Ah, the police, she thought, and found their number and dialed it. She did not feel qualified as a citizen to use the 911 emergency number as she could not certify that it was an emergency. She had called the 911 number once, and only once, when a water pipe had leaked in the front yard of the vacant house two doors down and the gutter was awash in the seepage. The 911 operator had chewed her out for using the line for a non-emergency, so she was chary of its use.
The police were skeptical.
“You say the house is locked up?” the male person on the line asked.
“Yes,” she said. “And I think I heard noises inside. And I think there was something on the floor.”
“Mam,” the person said, “Since there are two of them, I wouldn’t worry. They could be away. Or they could want some privacy. Let’s wait and see.”
As Emma hung up, she thought, he’s just humoring me. Probably thinks they want privacy from ME. Probably thinks I’m an old busybody.
She thought about conferring with someone else in the neighborhood. Problem was, she didn’t really know anyone else in the neighborhood. And if she went up to someone else’s door, they surely WOULD think she was a meddling old busybody. She remembered the attitudes of the young towards the old. She had been young once – she was sure of it, even if it seemed as remote as the planet Jupiter.
She sighed and turned on the television. She was too awake to take her nap. She watched soap operas on into the evening, when she finally toddled off to bed.
In the morning, she drank her first cup of coffee and was making her oatmeal when she looked out the window at the Grant house next door. It was a gray, overcast day, unlike yesterday. She dropped the spoon. There was something stirring in the upstairs window, something very unnatural-looking. It looked like it was roiling or some such. That isn’t right, she thought.
She immediately went back next door and rang the bell again, worry temporarily overruling her sense of caution. This time, she could certify on a stack of Bibles that there were odd noises, and right in the front hall, and right up against the front door, scraping and writhing noises. This isn’t right, she thought desperately, and, involuntarily backed away from the door. She turned and fled in terror – well, as fast as she could flee, which wasn’t exactly going to establish any records – to the safety of her own house, and punched the police number back into the phone.
“If you think this is an emergency, why don’t you call the 911 number?” she was asked by the person on the other end, this time a truculent female.
“I was told not to,” Emma mumbled. “But I’m telling you, there is something in that house, and it isn’t natural, and I don’t know what it is. They don’t answer their door and they don’t answer their phone, and there’s something going on!”
“All right, we’ll send a car,” her truculence responded. “It will be a while.”
Emma thanked her and hung up. She had been feeling completely alone and abandoned, and she felt marginally better that someone else would soon be here. Or maybe not so soon, but surely they would be here.
The patrol car didn’t arrive until well after lunch. By this time, Emma had been peering out her kitchen window at the house, not daring to venture outdoors again. There was definitely something against that upstairs window, a LOT of something, and not just that window. It looked like some kind of grayish-brown vine maybe, and there seemed to be traces of it at other windows.
She could see the police car pull up from the window, so she left the house with the psychological support of their presence.
“Are you the lady who called?” the officer asked, getting out of the passenger side.
“Yes, it’s me,” she said. “Come look at the side windows.”
“Why, what’s going on?”
“I don’t KNOW!” she wailed, “but it’s very unnatural! You have to see it.”
The two police followed her into the side yard and looked up at the windows.
“What is that?” the driver, the shorter, plumper one, asked.
“I don’t KNOW!” she wailed.
“That window’s moving!” the taller cop said.
And it was. In fact, it burst open, not like it was supposed to, but it burst apart as if there was a great deal of pressure behind it. The three backed up in apprehension, Emma in frank, stark fear. Something was wriggling out of the window, dropping to the ground, and hanging there, twisting and writhing, trying to REACH them, but they were a little too far away.
“Good God!” the shorter cop said.
“I’m calling in,” the taller one said. “This ain’t right. I don’t know what the hell’s going on, but it ain’t right.”
By now they had reached the sidewalk, and the thing, the vines or whatever, the fleshy tentacular things with protruberances hanging out the window, were twitching in their direction. The taller cop was on the radio, requesting the fire department and backup.
Emma could hear him. “I don’t KNOW what it is,” the cop was saying. “All I know is it ain’t right. Come on, cut me a break!”
Another cop car came along in another quarter-hour, but it wasn’t using its siren.
“Now what is this?” the driver, closest to them, was asking jokingly through his open window, then he caught sight of the vine thing. “Oh, my God!” he said and shoved the car in park and they both got out.
“The damn thing’s gotten longer since we’ve been here, and it’s acting like it wants us,” the first taller cop said to the two new cops, one black, one a woman.
“Like it wants you?” the woman cop said, skeptically.
‘Yeah, LOOK at it.”
She did just that, walking up towards it, but as it lunged for her, just out of range, she backed up hurriedly. “Oh my God,” she said, “That’s not RIGHT.“
The fire truck eased into the street, now totally clogging it. The firemen strolled up towards the group.
“Where’s the fire?” the big fireman asked. He was grinning, seeming to think it was a great joke.
A driver slammed on his brakes, not able to pass on the street. He could be seen, muttering, as he angrily turned around and went the other way.
The shorter officer, closest to the house, said “I think–“ He was cut off as the vine thing made a desperate lunge and stabbed into the back of his neck. His eyes bulged and froth came from his mouth as the vine contracted and he was dragged back to the house. The taller cop grabbed his legs and tried to pull him free, but it was useless. The victim was rapidly being reeled in even as shorter vines tried to reach the new meat, who desperately lunged back on the lawn to try to evade its grasp, and barely succeeded.
“Now what the fuck do you think, you fucking asshole!” he screamed at the big fireman as he ran to the sidewalk. “He’s gone, George is fucking gone, you fucking look at that, you FUCKING LOOK AT THAT!”
The vines had all turned to the cop’s body and were digging in. George was moving in bizarre ways, looking like there was boiling inside of him as the vines were digging in. Within a minute, there was hardly a trace of him to be seen through the vines.
“Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck” the fireman with a mustache was muttering, frozen in fear.
“Get back get back get back,” the black cop was saying to them, backing off himself, his arms spread wide.
A few passersby had stopped to gawk but were now all running to a very safe distance, even as other people were coming up to see what the fuss was.
The woman cop ran to her cop car and, fumbling, turned on the lights then got on the radio “The army! The army! OR SOMETHING!” she screamed.
“That goddam vine grew while we were watching it,” the tall cop, muttered, in terrified awe. “If fucking GREW.”
By now Emma had retreated to her own front porch. She did not go in her house because she knew she would not be safe there anymore. She didn’t know where to go as she watched the safety personnel desperately screaming at each other and trying to figure out what to do, all the while other vines were pulling themselves free and inching towards them, towards the street. And they seemed to be growing more rapidly, fueled by the fresh meat. In fact, one had already reached halfway across the front lawn.
The tall cop started shooting at the vines. Most of the bullets missed, but the ones that hit each caused a spray of brownish liquid from the wounds, and the vines writhed as if in pain. The other two cops started shooting at the vines as well.
The black fireman ran up with a large fire extinguisher and sprayed the vines at a distance. This also seemed to disturb the vines, but the response was to lunge even more violently towards him, and he backed up in fear. He eyed the guns of the cops, obviously wishing for one in his own hand.
The cops were now all out of ammo. One of them grabbed a taser from his belt and held it out, but obviously was too afraid to move in close enough to try it.
Screaming sirens were approaching as more cops and more fire trucks came to the scene. It was soon a Babel of safety personnel, all roiling in useless, ineffective activity other than erecting barricades on the street at the corners.
By now, the scene had attracted almost every civilian from blocks around. Some of the firemen and some of the cops were working to keep them back, out of danger’s way.
Emma was still watching from her front porch. The vines seemed less interested in her than they had been. She wasn’t sure whether it was because they thought her too far away or because there was so much more young, plumper meat so close. There was even more beyond the barricades that had been placed, the whole neighborhood, in fact, now turned out to find out what was going on.
The crowd was surging forward, trying to see what was going on, oblivious to the deathly horror that was yearning for them. The fireman trying to restrain the more eager of them was forced to back up, and dozens of people were treated to the sight of a vine slashing into his back, invading his body, and dragging him back even as the tip of the vine was roiling within him. Green foam was pouring from his mouth. Now there was not a person eager to come forward. They were all retreating rapidly.
Two helicopters had arrived and were flying overhead. Emma was still on her front porch, shivering from fear in the warm day. Everyone was well backed up, giving the house a wide berth. The vines by now, fed by a total of four human bodies, were able to reach almost to the street. Emma figured that to be that big, they must have rooted into the house somehow or into the ground below it and was feeding on other stuff than just people, but it seemed to need people to complete its nutritional profile.
Military vehicles arrived. National Guard, apparently. It was too soon for anyone to arrive from any military base. They started going door-to-door, evacuating the neighborhood. Emma was one of the first to go.
“Come on, Grandma,” said a husky young black guardsman, not unkindly. “We’ll get you to a motel where you’ll be safe.”
“Just let me get a few things,” Emma said.
“Make it quick.”
They took her to a nice enough motel, out on the commercial strip a few miles away. It was a nice enough room, and there were two restaurants within easy walking distance, even for Emma. But she’d brought a few foodstuffs and she sat glued to the television. By now, it was news dominating the local stations.
By evening, the entire neighborhood had been evacuated, but the vines were now out in the street, it appeared. Were they rooting into the ground as well as eating people and Lord knew what inside the house? Were they burrowing into the refrigerator as well, seeking out frozen animal flesh? Were they scouring the pantry, penetrating cans of Spam? She shuddered at the thought.
She was still afraid, as well. Though she was several miles from home, an uncomfortable position to begin with, she had visions of the thing reaching out for her even here.
Evening came with apparently no new progress. They’d tried some military surplus flamethrower equipment the fire department had kicking around, and it seemed to work somewhat, but the personnel couldn’t – or didn’t dare – to seem to get close enough for it to be highly effective. Emma couldn’t blame them. At least there was no fifth victim – yet. Of course, everyone was assuming (correctly) that the vines had feasted on the Grants next door, first.
Emma lay down but couldn’t sleep. Toward dawn, she finally snoozed, only to be terrorized by a dream in which the satyr was pursuing her, but his member turned into one of the vines, then did his arms and legs and tongue, and they were reaching for her, ready to penetrate – and she woke up with a start.
After getting a cup of too-strong coffee and some kind of breakfast roll next door, she tried calling her daughter in California, and was surprised to reach her.
“Where are you, Ma?” her daughter, Jola, screeched. “I’ve been calling everywhere, trying to find you. What in God’s name is going on out there?”
“It ain’t in no name of God,” Emma said. She dredged up a dim memory from her youth. “Unless it’s Cthulhu.”
“Well, you better come on out here,” Jola continued screeching in that irritating voice. “I’ll set it up for you. So you’ll be safe.”
“I’m quite safe right here,” Emma said. None of her children had ever before asked her to live with them, and she was going to be consigned to damnation before she’d let go of her pride now.
Jola tried a few more entreaties, then said, “Well, you call me every day to know that you’re okay. I’ll call my brothers and let them know.”
“Okay, hon,” Emma said. And hung up. She turned on the TV and, of course, there was nothing on it but the news. It seemed that some damn fool civilian during the night had managed to breach the perimeter, apparently high on drugs or something, and had deliberately let the vine eat it. People are so completely crazy, Emma thought. The announcer said, and this was just a little too coincidental and much too creepy, that the civilian, a woman, had screamed the name “Cthulhu!” just as the vines took her.
Then a scientist was interviewed, some kind of zeeno-biologist, it sounded like. Emma had never heard the word before. Then they flashed it on the screen. Xenobiologist, it said. He was talking about the vines, said it was some kind of alien life form that had come into Earth as some kind of capsule, and crashed through the Grants’ roof.
“You can see the hole that’s the entry point,” he said. “Satellite imagery confirms that the hole was not there the day before this started. Whatever it was had to be highly heat-resistant, and quite hard, to go through the roof that way – and it had to be incredibly tough to survive the impact. Whatever it was, with its kinetic energy, it had to penetrate not only the roof but the floors below, and buried itself in the dirt of the crawlspace. Of course, the force of penetrating the house and its interior did absorb much of that energy. But we infer that it probably does root into the ground, in order to have gained enough energy, nutrients and water to have grown enough to have reached the inhabitants of the house. The alternative explanation is that after it landed, it was fully mobile and dug itself out of the hole and traveled upstairs. Since we cannot gain entry to the house, under the circumstances, we just don’t know. But it seems to be rooting into the yard on the outside of the house.”
The interview kept on for a while, and the media person – of course a blonde woman – asked a few more questions, some semi-intelligent and a few more quite vapid. The xenobiologist answered as best he could, though Emma though he looked as if he were becoming annoyed.
He further explained that they had no idea of its internal chemistry or otherwise of its nature, but that it was obviously a carbon-and-water-based life-form. He also said that it had been inferred that it breathed oxygen.
After the interview, the scene flashed to the site of the occurrence. The vines were now completely blocking the street, and had penetrated the houses on all sides of it. The army had now arrived in force. There were several large pieces of tracked equipment that had pulled up to the perimeter of the area, close enough that the vines could touch them, but they could not penetrate the armor.
At a command, all these vehicles began spewing huge flames, burning the vines. The vines writhed and squirmed, but the telephoto lens of the camera allowed Emma to see that they were burning and dying. As they burned every piece of the vine to cinders, the vehicles gradually moved in. There were just too few of them, however, and when one had advanced just a little too far, vines came in from the side and, as the viewing audience watched in horror, managed to grip the edge of the vehicle’s door and rip it off – and take the two soldiers inside. Emma had to toddle to the bathroom and throw up.
When she came back, the flamethrowers had backed off, except for the one that had been penetrated. The camera zoomed back and now Emma could see that other activity was happening in the vicinity. Some sort of barriers were being erected around the block, and crossing the street in front of the Grants’ house into the woods there. They appeared to be clear, framed plastic. That will never stop that damn thing, thought Emma.
The blond with the microphone then was interviewing an army guy with birds on his collar. “We’re erecting a containment structure,” the colonel explained. “We’re going to completely seal off the area then pump in a mix of gases under pressure, including nitrogen, methane and carbon monoxide, based on the theory that it utilizes oxygen, since it does not appear to photosynthesize. We’ll judge its response.”
The blond asked him, “Why not just pump in pure carbon monoxide?”
“We can’t generate it fast enough. We have to use other gases to create enough gas volume – and we can’t use too much methane, or it’ll become too explosive. We’ll find out if it works.”
“Why don’t you just drop bombs?”
“Because that’s an absolute last resort. Dropping bombs would create a wasteland of this neighborhood. Doing so not only would destroy many people’s homes, but could cause a disastrous wildfire, as well as causing a lot of environmental consequences.”
Through the rest of the day, the flamethrowers were cautiously burning around the edges of the vines’ perimeter. There were apparently hundreds of vines now, splaying out every direction. The flamethrowers were far more careful now not to be in reach of the vines, but the vines were regrowing as fast as they could be burned.
By the end of the day, they had dropped the top pieces on the structure by helicopter and had secured them, and they were pumping in the gas. The vines could be seen, barely, but still discernible, and they appeared to be deflating. The colonel had explained that they would leave it like that for three days then re-evaluate. It would take a full day just to exchange all the air inside.
And they were an agonizing three days for Emma. Would she ever get her house back? She had no idea. She sat glued to the set, except for lurching out to one restaurant or another to meet her meager intake needs. What the TV showed was that the vines were lying limp, drooping, and inert.
She spent her nights restless, dreaming terrible dreams of death and destruction, mixed with her sexual metaphors. Awakening, she felt that she’d never want a man near her again because of the associations.
On the third day, a soldier wearing heavy body armor under a decontamination suit and breathing mask ventured in. He poked the nearest tentacle from a safe distance with a long stick, and failed to elicit a response. He then moved in, and carefully positioned a reinforced glass jar under the top of it, and using a machete, chopped it off. The tentacle barely stirred. He quickly sealed the jar and took it outside.
As he exited, a sudden gust of wind caught the door to the structure and pinned it back, blowing inside. As it briefly blew on the vines, they began stirring.
The blonde was back. “As you can see,” she informed the television audience via her microphone, “The thing is still alive.” This was following a taped reply of the incident. “Officials tell us they have a sample of the organism that is safely sealed away, and they are examining it. However, they clearly have not killed it.”
She turned to the same colonel. “Sir, what now?”
“Well, the alien isn’t dead. Obviously. We can keep it restrained with this atmosphere, but we can’t kill it, it appears. It seems to just go dormant. So we’re going to go with fire. It’s far too dangerous for us to do anything else. We’ll use high-temperature incendiaries.”
Emma shrank back. There would be no going home. All her chotchkes, all her knickknacks, were to be no more, and her garden would be roasted. She knew that the vine was now in most of the houses in the block; they’d have to burn down every one. Which happened the following day.
Personnel evacuated the neighborhood and jets came through, firing missiles into the neighborhood. Every house was individually targeted, again and again. This was quite a spectacle on the TV, and every station on cable was showing it, at least in part. An entire city block billowing with flames. Inevitably, much of the rest of the neighborhood went up, as well. Several hundred people were made homeless, but were promised compensation.
Emma didn’t know what would become of her. She was becoming too afraid to stay by herself, and she was ever more frail. Her children had called her in the past few days – now they had her number in the motel – more than they had in the past few years. They all suggested the same thing, since she didn’t want to leave the town where she’d lived her entire life: a retirement home. She became resigned to the idea, and allowed her son, Ben, to come and arrange it all. Her former neighborhood was nothing but charred cinders, and she owned nothing tangible except for the few items of clothing and what-not she’d brought with her. She still had her bank account, her monthly check, and her few investments; the catastrophe at least hadn’t taken those away from her. But it was going to be permanent financial decline for her to be housed in any retirement center. So it would be.
She had been living there for a week, during which time the army, scientists, and other personnel had scoured the ashes for any clues. There had been a report on the piece of tentacle that had been recovered. They had dissected it in isolation suits in a pure-nitrogen atmosphere, and had determined that it had a circulatory system and a nervous system, but what kinds of things were at its core were completely unknown. What was known that, after dissecting it, it was still alive. Even tiny parts, once exposed to air, began to spontaneously change, growing into tiny entities that squirmed in their glass cages, apparently looking for greater sustenance. They were growing one very carefully, after storing the others then in liquid nitrogen. This, of course, was in a highly secure and dedicated facility. Even the isolation suits were burned daily after use.
Emma saw another xenobiologist – there could actually be more than one of them in the world? – this time a woman, expounding on the home ecology of the entity. She remarked that there must be other organisms with successful defense mechanisms against the viney thing on its home planet, or it never could have evolved to this extent. She refused to comment on what level of intelligence it might possess. However smart it may be, though, anything it knew or thought had to be based either on experience or instinct.
Her other son, Walt, came to visit her and agreed to take her to see the old neighborhood. “Ma,” he’d said, “There’s nothing to see there. It would be a waste of time.” But she insisted, so off they went.
The neighborhood had been cordoned off, but by now, two months after the conflagration, it was again open. Cindered construction had been scraped away and landfilled, and new construction was now a’building. Outlying residents with still-intact homes were back, ensconced in domestic tranquillity.
Walt pulled up to the curb where her house had been. Although there were virtually no landmarks left in the neighborhood, Emma knew just how far it was from the nearest corner. She had paced it off often enough in her neighborhood walks.
They got out of the car and walked across the front lawn, what was left of it. She saw a man come down the sidewalk, kind of chunky and middle-aged and tweedy.
“Afternoon,” he said. “This was really something, wasn’t it?”
“You said it,” said Walt.
“This was my house,” wailed Emma. “It’s gone forever.”
“This used to be the family farm,” the stranger said. “The old Gomblatz farm.”
“So you’re a Gomblatz? That’s really a name?” Emma asked.
“Yes, it’s really a name,” he said. “Mine is Thayer Gomblatz.” Walt shook hands with him but Emma turned away, sorrowing over her lost life.
Thayer Gomblatz suddenly emitted a sharp shriek. “Fuck, that hurt!” he yelled, looking down at his foot. And he saw, and Walt saw, and Emma saw – a fleshy tendril extruded from the soil, penetrating through his leather shoe directly into his foot. And all around her, she saw tentative protrusions of tiny tendrils coming up through the ground.