In A Half World Of Terror, Page 2Stephen King
The second feature was just drawing to the climax when an usher came down the aisle.
He was stopping at every row and looked peeved. Finally, he stopped at ours. He swept the flashlight down the row and asked* "Mr. Gerad? Daniel Gerad?"
"Yes" I asked, feeling guilt and fear run through me. "There's a gentleman on the phone, sir. He says it's a matter of life or death."
Vicki gave me a startled look and I followed the usher hurriedly. That let out the police. I mentally took stock of my only remaining relatives. Aunt Polly, Grandma Phibbs and my great-uncle Charlie. They were all healthy as far as I knew.
You could have knocked me over with a feather when I picked up the telephone and heard Rankin's voice.
He spoke rapidly and a raw note of fear was in his voice. "Get out here, right now! We need – "
There were sounds of a a scuffle, a muffled scream, then a click and the empty dial tone.
I hung, up and hurried back for Vicki. "Come on," I said.
She followed without questioning me. At first I wanted to drive her back to the motel but the muffled scream made me decide that this was an emergency. I didn’t like either Rankin or Weinbaum, but I knew I would have to help them.
We took off.
"What is it?" Vicki asked anxiously as I stamped on the go-pedal and let the car unwind.
"Look," I said, "something tells me that you've got your secrets about your guardian. I've got some of my own. Please, don’t ask." She didn't say another word.
I took possession of the passing lane. The speedometer climbed from seventy-five to eighty-five, kept rising and trembled on the verge of ninety. I pulled into the turnoff on two wheels and the car bounced, clung and exploded up the road.
Grim and gaunt against the overcast sky, I could see the house. I pulled the car to a stop and was out in a second.
"Wait here," I cried over my shoulder to Vicki.
There was a light on in the laboratory and I flung the door open. It was empty but ransacked. The place was a mess of broken test tubes, smashed apparatus, and, yes, bloodstains that trailed through the half-open door that led to the darkened garage. Then I noticed the green liquid that was flowing over the floor in sticky rivulets. For the first time I noticed that one of the several sheeted tanks had been broken. I walked over to the other three. The lights inside them were off and the sheets that draped them let by no hint of what might have been under them - or, for that matter, what was under them.
I had no time to see. I didn't like the looks of blood, still fresh and uncoagulated, that led out of the front door into the garage. I swung open the door and entered the garage. It was dark and I didn't know where the light switch was. I cursed myself for not bringing the flashlight that was in the glove compartment. I advanced a few steps and realized that there was a cold draft blowing against my face. I advanced toward it.
The light from the lab threw a golden shaft of light along the garage floor, but it was next to nothing, in the Styngan blackness of the garage. All my childish fears of the dark returned. Once again I entered the realms of terror that only a child can know. I realized that the shadow that leered at me from out of the dark might not be dispelled by bright light.
Suddenly, my right foot went down. I realized that the draft was coming from a stairway I had almost fallen down. For a moment I debated, then turned and hurried back through the lab and out to the car.
Vicki pounced on me as soon as I opened the door. "Danny, what are you doing here?"
Her tone of voice made me look at her. In the sickly yellow glow of the light her face was terrified.
"I'm working here," I said shortly.
''At first I didn't realize where we were," she said softly. I was only here once before.
"You’ve been here?" I exclaimed. "When? '"Why?"
"One night," she said quietly "I brought Uncle David his lunch. He forgot it."
The name rang a bell. She saw me grasping for it. "My guardian," she said. "Perhaps I’d better tell you the whole story. Probably, you know that people don't get appointed guardians when they drink. Well, Uncle David didn't always do those things. When my mother and father were killed in a train-wreck four years ago, my Uncle David was the kindest person you could imgine. The court appointed him my guardian until I came of ago, with my complete support."
For a moment she was quiet, living in memories and the expression that flitted rapidly through her eyes was not pretty. Then she went on.
"Two years ago the company be was working for as a night watchman folded up and my uncle was out of a job. He was out of work for almost half a year. We were getting desperate, with
only unemployment checks to feed us and college looming up for me. Then he got a job. It was a good paying one and it brought in fabulous sums. I used to joke with him about the banks be robbed. One night he looked at me and said, 'Not banks.'"
I felt fear and guilt tap me on the shoulder with cold fingers. Vicki went on.
"He started to get mean. He started bringing home whisky and getting drunk. The times I asked him about his job he evaded me. One night he told me point-blank to mind my own business."
"I watched him decay before my very eyes. Then one night he let a name slip — Weinbaum, Steffen Weinbaum. A couple of weeks later he forgot his midnight lunch. I looked up the name in the telephone book and took it out to him. He flew into the most terrible rage I have ever seen."
"In the weeks that followed he was away more and more at this terrible house. One night, when he came home he beat me. I decided to run away. To me, the Uncle David I knew was dead. He caught me - and you came along." She fell silent.
I was shaken right down to my boots. I had a very good idea what Vicki's uncle did for a living. The time Rankin had signed me up coincided with the time Vicki's guardian would have been cracking up. I almost drove away then, despite the wild shambles the lab was in, despite the secret stairway, despite the blood trail on the floor. But then a faraway, thin scream reached us. I thumbed the glove compartment button, and reached in, fumbled around and got the flashlight.
Vicki's hand went to my arm "No, Danny. Please, Don't. l know that there's something terrible going on here. Drive away from it!"
The scream sounded again, this time fainter, and I made up my mind. I grabbed the flashlight. Vicki saw my intention. "All right, I'm coming with you."
"Uh-uh," I said. "You stay here. I've got a feeling that there's something ... loose out there. You stay here."
She unwillingly sat back. I shut the door and ran back to the lab. I didn’t pause, but went back into the garage. The flashlight illuminated the dark hole where the wall had slid away to reveal the staircase. My blood pounding thickly in my temples, I ventured down into it. I counted the steps, shining the flashlight at the featureless walls, at the impenetrable darkness below. "Twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three –"
At thirty, the stairway suddenly became a short passage. I started cautiously along it, wishing that I had a revolver, or even a knife to make me feel a little less naked and vulnerable.
Suddenly a scream, terrible and thick with fear soon sounded in the darkness ahead of me. It was the sound of terror, the sound of a man confronted with something out of the deepest pits of horror. I broke into a run. As I ran I realized that the draft was blowing coldly against my face. I reasoned that the tunnel must come out in the outdoors. I stumbled over something.
It was Rankin, lying in a pool of his own blood, his eyes staring in glazed horror at the ceiling. The back of his head was bashed in.
Ahead of me I heard a pistol shot, a curse, and another scream. I ran on and almost fell on my face as I stumbled over more stairs. I climbed and saw stairs framed vaguely in an opening screened with underbrush above me. I pushed it aside and came upon a startling tableau: a tall figure silhouetted against the sky that could only be Weinbaum, a revolver hanging in his hand, looking down at the shadowed ground. Even the starlight was blotted out a
s the hanging clouds that had parted briefly, closed together again.
He heard me and wheeled quickly, his eyes glazing like red lanterns in the dark.
"Oh, it you Gerad."
"Rankin's dead." I told him.
"I know." he said, "You could have prevented it if you had come a little quicker"
"Now just hold on," I said, becoming angry. "I hurried –"
I was cut off by a sound that has hounded me through nightmares ever since, a hideous mewing sound, like that of some gigantic rat in pain. I saw calculation, fear, and finally decision flicker across Weinbaum’s face in a matter of seconds. I fell back in terror.
"What is it?" I choked.
He casually shone the light down into the pit, for all his affected casualness, I noticed that his eyes were averted by something.
The thing mewed again and I felt another spasm of fear. I craned to see what horror lay in that pit, the horror that made even Weinbaum scream in abject terror. And just before I saw, a horrible wall of terror rose and fell from the vague outline of the house.
Weinbaum jerked his flashlight from the pit and shone it in my face.
"Who was that? Whom did you bring up here?"
But I had my own flashlight trained as I ran through the passage way, Weinbaum close behind. I had recognized the scream. I had heard it before, when a frightened girl almost ran into my car as she fled her maniac of a guardian.
I heard Weinbaum gasp as we entered the lab. The place was swimming in the green, liquid. The other two cases were broken!. I didn’t pause, but ran past the shattered, empty cases and out the door. Weinbaum did not follow me.
The car was empty, the door on the passengers side open. I shone my light over the ground. Here and there were footprints of a girl wearing high heels, a girl who had to be Vicki. The rest of the tracks were blotted out by a monstrous something – I hesitate to call it a track. It was more as if something huge had dragged itself into the woods. Its hugeness was testified, too, as I noticed the broken saplings and crushed underbrush.
I ran back into the lab where Weinbaum was sitting, face pale and drawn, regarding the three shattered empty tanks. The revolver was on the table and I grabbed it and made for the door.
"Where do you think you’re going with that?" he demanded, rising.
"Out to hunt for Vicki," I snarled. "And if she’s hurt or –" I didn't finish.
I hurried out into the velvet darkness of the night. Gun in hand, flashlight in the other, I plunged into the woods, following the trail blazed by something that I didn’t want to think about. The vital question that burned in my mind was whether it had Vicki or was still trailing her. If it had her…
My question was answered by a piercing scream not too far away from me.
Faster now, I ran and suddenly burst into a clearing.
Perhaps it is because I want to forget, or perhaps it is only because the nigh was dark and beginning to become foggy, but I can only remember how Vicki caught sight of my flashlight, ran to me, buried her head against my shoulder and sobbed.
A huge shadow moved toward me, mewing horribly, driving me almost mad with terror. Stumblingly, we fled from the horror in the dark, back toward the comforting lights of the lab, away from the unseen terror that lurked in the dark. My fear-crazed brain was putting two and two together and coming up with five.
The three cases had contained three something from the darkest pits of a twisted mind. One had broken loose. Rankin and Weinbaum had been after it. It had killed Rankin, but Weinbaum had trapped it in the concealed pit. The second one was floundering in the woods now and I suddenly remembered that whatever-it-was, was huge and that it had a hard time lifting itself along. Then I realized that it had trapped Vicki in a gully. It had started down – easy enough! But getting up? I was almost positive that it couldn’t.
Two were out of commission. But where was the third? My question was answered very suddenly but a scream from the lab. And … mewing.
We ran up to the lab door and threw it open. It was empty. The screams and the terrible mewing sounds came from the garage. I ran through, and ever since have been glad that Vicki stayed in the lab and was spared the sight that had wakened me from a thousand awful nightmares.
The lab was darkened and all that I could make out was a huge shadow moving sluggishly. And the screams! Screams of terror, the screams of a man faced with a monster from the pits of hell. It mewed horribly and seemed to pant in delight.
My hand moved around for a light switch. There, I found it! Light flooded the room, illuminating a tableau of horror that was the result of the grave thing I had performed, I and the dead uncle.
A huge, white maggot twisted on the garage floor, holding Weinbaum with long suckers, raising him towards its dripping, pink mouth from which horrid mewing sounds came. Veins, red and pulsating, showed under its slimy flesh and millions of squirming tiny maggots - in the blood vessels, in the skin, even forming a huge eye that stared out at me. A huge maggot, made up of hundreds of millions of maggots, the feasters on the dead flesh that Weinbaum had used so freely.
In a half-world of terror I fired the revolver again and again. It mewed and twitched.
Weinbaum screamed something as he was dragged inexorably toward the waiting mouth. Incredibly, I made it out over the hideous sound that the creature was making.
"Fire it! In the name of heaven, fire it!"
Then I saw the sticky pools of green liquid which had trickled over the floor from the laboratory. I fumbled for my lighter, got it and frantically thumbed it. Suddenly I remembered that I had forgotten to put a flint in. I reached for matches, got one and fired the others. I threw the pack just as Weinbaum screamed his last. I saw his body through the translucent skin of the creature, still twitching as thousands of maggots leeched onto it. Retching, I threw the now flaring matches into the green ooze. It was flammable, just as I had thought. It burst into bright flames. The creature was twisted into a horrid ball of pulsing, putrid flesh.
I turned and stumbled out to where Vicki stood, shaking and white faced.
"Come on!" I said, "Let’s get out of here! The whole place is going to go up!"
We ran out to the car and drove away rapidly.
There isn’t too much left to say. I’m sure that you have all read about the fire that swept the residential Belwood District of California, leveling fifteen square miles of woods and residential homes. I couldn't feel too badly about that fire. I realize that hundreds might have been killed by the gigantic maggot-things that Weinbaum and Rankin were breeding. I drove out there after the fire. The whole place was smoldering ruins. There was no discernable remains of the horror that we had battled that final night, and, after some searching, I found a metal cabinet. Inside there were three ledgers.
Once of them was Weinbaum’s diary. I clears up a lot. It revealed that they were experimenting on dead flesh, exposing it to gamma rays. One day they observed a strange thing. The few maggots that had crawled over the flesh were growing, becoming a group. Eventually they grew together, forming three separate large maggots. Perhaps the radioactive bomb had speed up the evolution.
I don’t know.
Furthermore, I don’t want to know.
In a way, I suppose, I assisted in Rankin’s death; the flesh of the body whose grave I had robbed had fed perhaps the very creature that had killed him.
I live with that thought. But I believe that there can be forgiveness. I’m working for it. Or, rather, we’re working for it.
Vicki and I. Together.
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