Greg knew his thinking was impaired. He was halfway back to his father’s house, with Annie in the passenger seat nursing two doggy bags. And it meant that he was also going to have to run her back into town later. She might have some vague plan about staying over, but if she did, this was the worst possible way to go about it.
“It’s real close to the road now,” Annie told him. “I saw on the news there was one in Florida, marching through some sugar plantation. It was on track to go between two of the houses on the farm, but the alien budded about three days before. Split into two. The two of them set off on different directions, one heading for each house. Craziness.”
Greg watched the thing as they drew nearer. There were still cars parked on the shoulder. It was definitely closer to the highway than when he’d arrived.
“Nobody tried to stop them?” he said.
“Sure. There was footage of a farmhand with some kind of sugar machine, kind of like a bulldozer, trying to push one of them to the side. Even the budded ones are too big to budge. Their tendrils dig down deep. And the army and all what have you, they’re busy with the really big ones.”
Greg swung the car into his father’s driveway and pulled up near the old pickup and stopped. His father was on the veranda with the telescope. Greg climbed out and walked over.
“Company,” his father said.
“You remember Annie?” Greg said. “I brought her over to talk some sense into you.”
“Hey,” Annie said. “I brought wings.” She held up the bag.
“Wings.” Greg’s father smiled down at her. “I could go for some wings. You bet.”
“They’re just leftovers, really.”
“I’m not fussy.”
Inside his father arranged the wings on a plate and nuked them. In moments they were crispy hot again. “So,” he said, setting the plate on the table. “Going to talk some sense into me, huh? People have been trying that for decades.”
Annie laughed. She took one of the wings, and his father took one too. Greg just sat. He didn’t like the way his father looked at Annie. Not quite a leer, but it was at least flirtatious. He was too old and sick to behave like that.
“I figure you’ve got plenty more life in you,” Annie said. “I don’t understand this attachment to the land. There was a whole long period that you didn’t even live here.”
“That’s right. And there’s two things. First, what I’ve got is terminal. I don’t have plenty more life in me. Unless I let them experiment and, you know, quite frankly I don’t have the energy for that.”
“Experiment?” Greg said. “There are other treatments?”
His father nodded towards him. “That’s part of it too. My son here is always looking for other ways around it. I call it guilt. He feels bad because he doesn’t get out her often enough to see me. Thinks if he can talk me into living a few years longer then he’ll make a promise to himself that he’ll come out more often. He might even move out here. If he could make a go of his acting lark, then he might just be able to live around here someplace and have himself flown into Hollywood for a couple of weeks’ worth of shooting, then fly back to chop wood and tend the flowers.”
“Except there won’t be any flowers anyway, will there?” Greg wanted to deflect from the whole acting thing. What actor wouldn’t want to be able to take offers instead of occasional extra or speaking-extra roles? He was lucky to have a fall back career in accounts. What his father was talking about was the stuff of dreams.
“You’re still acting?” Annie said. She reached over and slapped his wrist with a greasy hand. “Oh, that’s oily. Sorry.”
“Got it.” His father stood and retrieved a roll of paper towels, passing them over.
“Yes,” Greg said. He tore off a towel and wiped his wrist. “I’m still doing some acting. A few commercials and extra roles.”
“You never mentioned it at dinner. You should have.”
Greg balled up the towel. “Yeah. I kind of wish it was like Dad says, you know, in demand. But it’s not.”
“Saw him on television just a week or two back,” his father said. “On one of those crime scene programs.”
“Well, really? See, Greg, you just got a whole lot more interesting.”
Greg managed a smile. Nobody spoke for a moment, then his father said, “That thing is going to mow right through the whole flower garden. It might just leave one of the corners, but really, it’s wider than the yard. Coming in at an angle, but it’s going to go right through the middle. I got the measurements from the cops, and I read up about how fast they grow. Not much, but it will be something over two hundred yards across at the base when it clanks and chuffs its way over my property. It will bowl the house right down and munch it up.”
“You could get away,” Annie said. “See some of the country maybe. There’s still plenty out there. And you must have friends still in San Francisco you could visit with. Take a trip. If you come back in a couple of weeks it will all be over and the rehabilitation crews will be working things back up to normal.”
His father shook his head. He took another wing. “These are good. For reheats.”
“We could go house hunting, then,” Annie said. “Look around for another place. There’s got to be somewhe-”
“Dad, please,” Greg said. “Just let us come up with alternatives.”
“Your mother’s here,” his father said. He tore a strip of flesh from the wing and chewed.
“My mother? What?”
Taking a paper towel, his father wiped his face. “Her ashes.”
Greg shook his head. “San Francisco bay. We scattered them off the ferry.” He choked up a little. Getting up he went to the fridge and grabbed a beer, taking a swallow. “I can’t tell you how hard that was. My mother. Knowing it’s what she would have wanted, but it was all I could do just to not break down in a howling mess.”
His father made that half-nod, half-shake of his head again. “Pine and newspaper ashes. Some burned and broken up chicken bones to give it texture.”
“Pine? Why would you do that? We had the urn, it was a ceremony. It was a celebration of her life and now you’re telling me that it was wood ashes and chicken bones?” Greg felt like taking the plate of wings and hurling at his father. Why would the man deceive him like that?
“She belonged here,” his father said. “And if I tried to explain that to you, all that you would have done would be try to talk me out of it. Like you’re trying to talk me out of staying put right now.”
“You’re dead right,” Greg said. “She loved San Francisco. She’d been happy there.”
“She died there.”
“And that’s why it was fine for her to stay there. Her ashes, I mean.”
His father didn’t say anything for a moment. Now it felt like everything Greg could do not to walk out. He could just get in the car and go. Drive back to the airport, fly back to Hoboken and never have to deal with any of this again. Let the monster alien chew up his father and then enjoy spending whatever was left of the estate.
“I’m sure your father meant well,” Annie said.
“Meant…” Greg trailed off. He didn’t know what to think.
“If you’d just calm down for a minute,” his father said. “I could tell you that you’re right, she loved San Francisco. We both did. It was like a second honeymoon for us. An extended honeymoon, even though the both of us were working.”
“Working vacation,” Annie said.
“Thank you. And she shouldn’t have died. We would have come back here anyway, to retire and collect on those pensions. Except that she died and that just caved San Francisco in for me. It’s like a blot on the coast there. I can’t ever go back.”
“Oh,” Annie said.
Greg saw what his father meant, then. “And you would have had to go back to visit her ashes.”
“Sounds weird, huh? Creepy. Since they would have been long ago washed out to sea. But I would have had to go out there, just to go on the ferry, just to talk with her. To her. And can you imagine how I’d feel flying in to the airport at South San Francisco, coming over the bottom end of the bay, seeing all the places we’d been.”
“It could have been a kind of celebration of her,” Greg said.
His father smiled. “Maybe. Call me a coward.”
“So where is she?” Annie said. “Interred at Regal Place Cemetery?”
Greg knew, in that instant, but he waited for his father to say.
“She’s in the garden. Scattered all through the flowers.” His father managed a weak smile. “She’s fertilizer.”
“Oh,” Annie said. She glanced back at Greg. “That’s why he can’t leave.”
“Or leave that thing to devour the whole garden.”
His father swallowed. His smile had gone and his face had become downcast and bleak.
“You mean to be with her, like that?” Greg said.
“Inside the monster?” Annie said.
His father nodded, the motion barely noticeable. “Call me crazy,” he whispered.
No one said anything for a moment. From out on the highway, Greg heard the sound of a cop siren, just a couple of pulses. More people fooling with the leviathan.
“Anyway,” his father said, pushing back from the table. “Now that you’ve found out all my secrets, I’m going to turn in. You two should do the same.” The man looked frail and old, as if he’d aged through the course of conversation at an accelerated rate. He walked, almost a shuffle, by Greg and put his hand on his son’s shoulder. “I’m sorry for the deception,” the old man said, and continued on to the stairs.
Annie sat watching after him. She let a moment pass, then looked at Greg. “You doing okay there?” She stood. “Lots to take in all at once.”
“Guess I should be getting back, really,” she said.
“I guess. I’ll run you into town.” Greg blinked and refocused. “It was nice to see you again. Like this.”
“Yes. Likewise. If you decide to follow your father’s plan there, you know, and move back so you can fly off to your shoots, you should look me up again.”
A part of Greg wanted to flirt back, but he just fumbled for the car keys and headed for the door.
In the dim suffuse light from the Garnet Hill streetlamps miles off, the flowers glowed with a vibrant ethereal shimmer. Greg imagined his mother’s ghost lying in wait, taking care of the flowers.
“He did the right thing,” Annie said, slipping out onto the veranda.
Headlights. A car was coming up the road.
“I know,” Greg said. “I even know why he didn’t tell me, but it still hurts.” He glanced at her. He felt raw at his father’s lie.
“Company,” Annie said as the headlight beams swung across them, the car turning into the long driveway.
The car swept up between the flowers, adding a stark, practical light across the plantation. As the vehicle pulled in behind the Camaro, Greg saw it was a police cruiser. The lights shut off, leaving him with flashing afterimages.
“Dale,” Annie said. She stepped down past Greg and walked across.
Greg followed. A tall cop stepped out and adjusted his hat. “Hi Annie,” he called. “Hope you’re not heading back into town tonight.”
She glanced over her shoulder. “We were just leaving.”
“Sorry, they’ve closed the highway.”
“Closed it?” Annie said, at the same time as Greg said, “Who?”
Dale sighed. “National Guard. It was planned for the morning but they moved it up. They’ve put out people at the intersections back a ways, and they’ve roped off the highway.” Dale lifted off his hat and scratched his head. “At least three days, they said.”
“Three days?” Annie said.
Greg understood. It took the alien monster a day to travel its own length.
Dale looked back at the highway and put his hat on. “It’ll take thirty hours to get across the road, then they’ve got to assess the road bed and begin rehabilitation. Apparently they chew up roads pretty bad. Lots of mineralization in the concrete and the underlayers.” He sighed again, and came around the car. “If you’re going back into town, you’ll have to go around Grace Road and through Cobblestone.”
“Some detour,” Greg said.
“Yep. You know, on the freeways, they lay a new temporary road a thousand yards out.”
“Gotta keep traffic moving,” Annie said.
Dale smiled. He looked up over their shoulders. “Mr. Winden.”
“Deputy,” Greg’s father said.
“Still can’t convince you to leave?”
“Doctors give me six months, six months ago. At best. One of them said four. Where am I going to go?”
“Six months,” Dale said. “You could get in a lot of golf.”
“All Downhill. Slow and painful.”
“And the morphine,” Greg said. His father nodded, thin-lipped.
“Still,” Dale said. “Some nice places for sale out along Campbells Road. Good acreage.”
“Might take a look. How much you think I’ll get for this place?”
“Dad,” Greg said.
“Government’s taking care of that,” Dale said. “But, I know. Already you explained it to me, and I understand. But officially I’ve got to at least try to talk you into leaving.”
“But you don’t have to forcibly remove me?”
“Not at this point. Justice in town might have other ideas.”
“I talked to Benny too. His wife died of something like my nasty disease here. She didn’t even last the three months.”
“You could just take it upon yourself,” Greg said to Dale. “Isn’t that something you do? Evictions?”
“Boy, I sure don’t want to go back to those days.” Dale huffed out. “If there was a court order, then I could act on it, but there’s nothing.”
“And there won’t be one,” Greg’s father said.
“Anyway,” Dale said. “You’ll excuse me, I’ve got other folk to see along the highway. G’night Mr. Winden. Greg, well, nice to see you. Good luck with talking some sense into him. Annie.” Dale touched his hat and got back into the car. He started it, backed around, then nosed out along the driveway.
“Well,” Annie said. “Guess I’d better have a sleepover.”
“You’re welcome to stay, of course,” Greg’s father said.
“I can still run you in,” Greg said.
“Nah. I’m bushed. It’s a forty-five minute drive, then you’d have to drive back. Unless you wanted to stay over.” She winked.
“Oh, please,” his father said. He turned and went back inside. “To think I was going to make up the couch,” he muttered. “Saves on laundry.” The door closed after him.
Greg opened his mouth, shut it again. “I’ll take the couch,” he said.
“You better.” She turned for the house and took his hand as they walked up. “I enjoyed tonight,” she said. “I mean, except for the whole giant alien monster bearing down on your family homestead, but, you know, your company.”
“Likewise,” he said, unable to muster anything better. He liked Annie, still. He was surprised at how attracted he was to her. She’d lost that youthful sparkle, and slimness, but she’d gained something else. She’d grown up, but was still playful. “I think I could learn a thing or two from you.”
She gave his hand a squeeze and released. Up on the veranda, she stopped and looked out across the flowers. “So beautiful,” she said. “A pity.”
Greg moved a little closer. “Yeah. I’ll miss the place.”
“You’ll miss your Dad.” She turned to him and he could smell her hair. Apples. “Even though you don’t get out much, it still changes the world. No matter what. You become an orphan and it’s like curtains being drawn. You lose your backup plan. You can’t just phone up and say ‘listen, Mom, I’m stuck here and I can’t figure out what to do’.”
He was about to say that he never phoned his father like that, but realized that he did understand what she meant. He felt like he was looking over the top of a fence and could see the desert beyond. It would be weird to have his father gone. In the morning he would talk to him. One last run at getting him to come out East.
“Whoops,” Annie said, touching his arm. “You disappeared.” She moved to the door. “I’m going to turn in.”
“Oh,” he said, feeling his hand tingle where she’d been squeezing. Somehow he’d missed a moment. “I… have you got… things for the night? I mean, you know, whatever…”
“Ah, you’re cute. Yes, I’m fine. I’ve got my handbag. Just show me where the spare room is, and the shower.”
Greg followed her inside, wondering if she was prepared because she’d always intended staying the night. He led her upstairs and showed her his old room, and the bathroom.
“Of course,” she said, “I’ve been here before.”
“Twenty years ago,” he said. “And as I recal you didn’t stay over that time.”
“See you in the morning,” she said, and closed him out of his room.
Downstairs, Greg grabbed another beer and went out to the yard on his own. He walked along the flower rows, the pollen scent drenching his nasal passages.
Near the far corner, he crouched to the soil and scooped up a handful. It was damp and thick. The kind of soil his father would have been proud of: well-maintained, composted and turned. He could hear sounds from out at the highway. People calling, and the mechanical clankings and buzzings. The National Guard working on their roadblock. There were lights too, a hazy glow rising up from over at the highway.
Greg let the soil crumble through his fingers, unable to escape the thought of his mother’s particles in there. Finishing the beer, he headed back for the house. The light was still on up in his bedroom. Annie, preparing for bed.
He went to the rental and got in, setting the empty beer into a cup holder. He sat behind the wheel for a moment, feeling just a little light-headed from the beers and the evening.
It was an odd sensation, imagining his father dying in a day or two. Intentionally.
The man didn’t seem that unwell, really. He was walking around the house just fine, not shuffling too much, not complaining of aches and pains. He seemed as fit as anyone his age.
Greg sniffed and wiped his eyes.
Reaching down, he thumbed the Camaro’s starter. The engine thrummed and he pushed the accelerator, spinning the car around. Greg sped out along the driveway. He bumped onto the tarmac and accelerated. It only took a minute to reach the cordon. Hefty orange and white plastic barriers blocked the highway. The pieces looked like oversize bricks from a child’s toy. There were army trucks too, and police vehicles. Someone had set up some stands with bright halogen lights beaming back towards town.
The wurm just caught the edges of the light. In the evening shade it seemed more menacing and mountain-like than earlier when the kids had been fooling with it. In the dim reflection Greg imagined that he could see it moving.
It was only twenty or thirty yards from the highway now. There were people all around, mostly in police and army uniforms. Some of the cops were out of county. He saw some of them with real cameras, taking photos of the creature.
Greg parked, got out and walked to the cordon. The highway had been cleared for a good half a mile and he could see another barrier down there. More vehicles and people. Some people were walking around ahead of the thing. Someone was marking the road with pulses from a spray can.
No one seemed to be bothered by his presence, so Greg leapt the barrier and walked along closer to the alien. He whispered to his earset and took a few photos himself.
This is the thing that will destroy my family home, he thought. The thing that will ingest my mother’s ashes.
And, if his father had his way, it would ingest him too.
“Hey,” someone shouted. “You can’t be in here.”
Greg kept walking, taking more pictures as he went. His feet crunched over the gravel shoulder and then he was in the grass before the fence.
“What’s he doing?” More people were noticing.
“Get him out of there.”
Greg started moving faster, the grass blades whispering against his jeans. He reached the fence and flipped himself over. A couple more steps and he was practically in front of the thing.
He’d never been so close to one. He could see how the boy had been able to climb up it. The surface was a mass of lumpy projections and indentations. The shapes almost formed diagrams or pictures. Patterns, at least, with whorls and buttons of decreasing size turning around to form what could be rills running down from the top.
It was, he knew, only partly mechanical. The organic parts of it created functional machine parts similar to how his own body had once grown bones and teeth.
“Sir. Please come back this side of the fence.”
Those rills were the joins between the parts. The exterior was formed of overlapping or abutting plates. It wasn’t just an exo-skeleton: they were organic but still substantially machine-like inside too. In Africa they’d been dissecting some of the ones they’d managed to kill.
He stepped closer, reaching up towards the skin.
“Sir, you need to step away from the alien.”
If only there was a real and practical way to divert it. What would a cornfield matter? Or some pasture? But his father’s garden? His mother’s ashes?
He thought he could hear it munching its way across the soil. A quiet, moist, but grating sound, barely audible over the background hum of crickets.
Greg slipped down to his knees. He hung his head. If he could kneel here and block the thing he would.
There was an under-resourced program involving explosives experts boring through the top of the aliens and blowing them up from inside. But they were still learning, and sometimes the thing didn’t just die, it budded and the problem multiplied.
It felt so unfair. All of Nebraska to cross and the thing chose his father’s place to aim for.
Greg felt strong hands on his arms, hauling him up. “Come on mister, you can’t be here.”
“My father’s house,” Greg said. But he didn’t resist, just let them pull him back towards the fence. They let him go and he turned to face them. A pair of cops, silhouetted in the halogens.
“Am I under arrest?”
“I sure would like to do that,” the taller one said. He inclined his head. “Have you been drinking sir?”
Greg shrugged. “Coupla’ beers.” Wouldn’t that be something? Go home with a DUI.
The cop shifted his hat back a little. “You’re Allan Winden’s boy? Grant?”
“Yeah. Sorry about your Dad’s place. Nothing I can do about it. Wish there was, but it’s all I can do to keep people away from it.”
“Case in point,” Greg said.
“Yeah. You going to get out of here, all peaceful and quiet? I’m plenty busy right now.”
Greg nodded. The cops stepped back and headed for their cars. Greg went to the barrier and clambered over. He got back into the Camaro and drove slowly to the house.
When he pulled up, Annie was sitting on the veranda, feet down on the top step.
“Hi you,” she said as he got out. “Little late night drive?”
He glanced at the driveway, still not sure what he’d achieved by getting out. Perhaps just to see the thing. Perhaps hoping that it had stopped.
It all felt too weird.
“I went out to look at it,” he said. “It’s practically on the highway.” He looked back across the flowers and trees towards the glow from the cordon. “It’ll be here in the morning, I guess.”
“Come back in. It’s getting cold.”
Greg pushed off the car and walked over. Annie stood as he came up. Her eyes sparkled with reflected light from the halogens. “You look like an angel,” he said.
“You’ve been drinking.” But she stepped down to the path in front of him, looking up into his eyes.
“Like I told the cop, just a couple of beers.”
She smiled and shivered. It wasn’t that cold. He liked her smile and he found himself bending to kiss her. She responded. She tasted of minty toothpaste and beer and apples. He wondered how he tasted. Probably just of beer. He pulled back.
“I guess we can talk more in the morning,” she said in a whisper.
He kissed her again. She pressed into him. It lasted longer this time. She felt soft in his arms. Her hair smelled of apples still. Shampoo, he thought.
This time she pulled away. “This is nice,” she said, “but you’re not really here.”
He nodded. She was right. “How am I going to get him out of the place?”
“Let’s talk about it in the morning.”
Greg realized he was holding her hand and he gave it a squeeze. She smiled. “I’m thirty-seven, not a teenager. I’m not going to bed with you.” She glanced up at the house. “Especially not with your father in the next room.”
“We don’t have to rush,” he told her. He started into the house, still holding her hand, still surprised.
“You live in Hoboken,” she said. “I live in Garnet Hill.”
“You’d like Hoboken. Lots of industry. Plenty of airports looking for people to come work for them.”
“See you think you’re funny, but that’s hardly ‘not rushing’ things.”
“Ribbing you.” He closed the front door behind them, glimpsing the lights from the highway as the door clicked into place. “I’m considering coming back here anyway. Didn’t we talk about that?” But all he could really think about was the approaching monster and his father upstairs not willing to shift.
“Ribbing you back.”
“Yeah.” He turned from the door and she was already partway up the stairs, grinning. “See you in the morning then,” he said.
Her grin widened. “Yeah.” And she went up the stairs.
He didn’t expect to sleep, really, but woke, surprised to find sunlight creeping across his face through the living room windows. He was on the fold-out sofa.
“Hey you.” Annie. She was sitting in an armchair watching him. “Late start.” She was dressed in the same clothes as yesterday. Of course, she’d stayed over.
“What time is it?”
“After nine. I called in sick.”
Greg sat up. His mouth tasted dry and bitter. “Breakfast?”
He was in boxers. He swung his legs out and grabbed his jeans.
“Mmm,” she said. “You’re in good shape for middle-age.”
“Middle-age?” he said. “You mean prime.”
She laughed. “Honey, boys half your age are just coming into their prime. You’re doing okay, but… well, yeah.”
“If I’m doing okay, you’re doing fine,” he said. “Did you just call me ‘honey’?”
She put her hand to her mouth. “Oh.”
The alien, he thought. He pulled on his tee-shirt and went to the front door.
It had crossed already to the edge of the flowers. It towered there like a rock wall. As he watched one of the fence posts snapped off right in front of it.
“I can’t believe they let us sleep here,” Annie said.
“They know how fast it moves.” Greg felt hollow. It was about to begin ingesting the garden. His mother’s ashes.
“Is that Dale?” Annie said.
Greg saw a cop car coming up the driveway again. “I guess they’re going to move us out soon.” He stepped out to the edge of the porch, resting his hands on the rough wood. Again the cruiser stopped in behind Greg’s rental and a cop climbed out. It wasn’t until he took off his hat that Greg realized it was Dale.
“Sorry to coop you up like that last night,” Dale said. “The road’s clear now, you can head on into town. They’ve graded one lane.” He looked back across the garden. “Sure is going to make a mess of this place. It tore up the road in a really nasty way, like it was digging right down into the substrate. Like it was mining.”
“That’s what it does,” Greg said.
“I’m real sorry about your dad’s place, Greg. It’s a shame. I used to come out here just for the smell. So many flowers. Sometimes your dad would let me take a couple of bunches for Estelle.”
“You go ahead and take all you want now,” Greg said. He stepped off the veranda and walked across.
“Oh, no. I didn’t mean to suggest that I should be able to-”
“Nonsense. Look at this thing.” Greg pointed at the alien looming over the edge of the garden. “It’s just going to chew its way across everything.”
“It is at that,” Dale said.
“You should get everyone up here.” Greg wondered why his father hadn’t cut all the flowers beforehand anyway. Looking back up at the house, he saw his father standing is his bedroom window staring out across the field. He took a gulp from a glass of water, then turned away without even seeing Greg.
“Well,” Dale said. “I’m sure the guys would appreciate it.”
Greg looked down from the window and out at the flowers. His mother’s ashes were in there. “You know, I think I made a mistake. I don’t think Dad would want that.”
Dale looked around, eyebrows up. Greg could see him thinking they’ll go to waste.
“It’s a long story. My mother’s ashes. He scattered them through the garden.”
The alien leviathan was already crunching through the flowers. He could hear the little pop-pop-pop of the stiff stems as the it broke them off.
Annie came down and stood between them. She put her hand into Greg’s.
Greg smiled. “But Dale, you should take a few. I mean a decent bunch. Really.”
“Nah, that’s all right.”
The three of them stood just watching the alien approach. Its metal hide glistened in the sun. Greg thought he could smell its oily, organic odor over the flowers. It moved so slowly, but he knew in a few hours it was going to knock down the house. And it would ingest it all. He only had a limited time to convince his father to get out.
“We should move the cars,” Annie said. “Right out to the driveway.”
She was right, he thought. And he should have gotten on to moving the furniture and other things out of the house. Still, a couple of hours and he might be able to get most of the important stuff. He could load up the pickup. “I forgot to clear out the house,” he said.
Dale pushed back from the car. “Need some help?”
“No, I…” Greg trailed off.
“Yeah, he does,” Annie said.
“We just need to move it out of the path, really,” Dale said.
Greg looked at the approaching thing. It was as wide as the property. Coming in at an angle, it was going to take down everything. Not just the house, but the flowers, the trees, the old shed, the cool store out back and his father’s garage. “How wide is it really?” Greg said.
Dale sighed. “Yeah, that’s right. It’s a couple of hundred yards across. As wide as it is high.”
“Let’s get started,” Annie said. “He doesn’t have that much stuff really.”
Greg took another look at the monster, then headed inside. In the living room, there were some old books on a bookcase with a few trophies and souvenirs. In the corner his T.V. was bolted to the wall.
“Let us get this,” Annie said. “You should talk with your father.”
Greg nodded. “Yeah. Thanks.” He looked back at her grim face.
Greg went upstairs. From the landing he could see out the front windows across the yard. The thing seemed to be moving faster. Almost its whole width was across the yard now. In a way he expected to have sightseers in the yard. It was different, he guessed, to the highway. Back there it was obvious to passersby but here it was just another piece of land and old house getting bowled over.
“Dad?” Greg knocked on his father’s door. Usually his father would be up before him and down making breakfast. It wasn’t so early really.
Greg pushed open the door and saw his father laying on his bed. “Dad?” But he knew already that it was too late.
Going across, he saw the empty pharmacy bottle on the side table next to the empty glass of water. He put his hand on his father’s forehead. He wasn’t cold yet, but he was cool.
“Oh, Dad,” Greg said. He sat on the edge of the bed. “You didn’t have to do this.” Greg didn’t know what the bottle had contained, but he didn’t have to. His father wasn’t breathing. The room felt cold and silent. Greg got off the bed and went to the window.
The alien was coming ever closer. An unstoppable force. In the time since he’d gotten up, it had crossed several yards of the property. It mowed the flowers down in slow motion.
He wished again that there was some easy way to stop them. When you looked on a map the aliens seemed like such small things. Their tracks were narrow and their progress slow. In the wider world they were a minor problem. But when you stood in your old childhood home with one of them bearing down on you they didn’t seem so minor. If it had only been a few hundred yards to the left or right it wouldn’t have made any difference. His mother’s ashes would have remained undisturbed, and his father wouldn’t have taken his own life.
Greg gasped, and began crying. He hadn’t meant to, but the tears just came. He leant his forehead up against the window and tasted salt as a drip ran into his mouth.
“Greg?” Annie said from the doorway. “Oh my.”
Greg turned and walked over to her. He didn’t even look at his father.
“But he…” Annie said. She sighed. “We wondered where you’d gotten to. Your father? He’s…”
“It’s what he wanted,” Greg said. He stopped between Annie and the bed. “He knew I wouldn’t let him stay in the house. Dale would have helped me to drag him out.”
“We need to get Dale. We need an ambulance.”
“It’s too late,” Greg said. “He was sick already.”
“Oh, Greg. I’m sorry. Real sorry.” She stepped forwards and hugged him.
Greg put his arms around her and held on. “Yeah. He’s going to join Mom.” His voice broke a little.
He felt Annie nod against his shoulder.
“And literally. When that thing eats the house, it will have already eaten her ashes.” He let Annie go.
She managed a smile. “We still need to get Dale. He needs to know so your Dad doesn’t get listed as missing.”
“Yeah,” Greg looked back at the bed again. His father seemed relaxed. Ready. “It seems so weird, to think that he’ll be ingested by that alien.”
Annie nodded and hugged him again. Greg felt at home in her arms.
They got Dale and he rubbed his chin and hemmed and hawed. “You know,” he said after a few moments. “My condolences.”
“Thanks,” Greg said. “You’re thinking of paperwork, right?”
Dale sighed. “Yeah, I am.”
“And from what you said, he wanted to be here? Wanted to go with the house?”
“Kind of creepy, but if that was his last wish, well, who am I to stand in his way?” Dale adjusted his hat and stepped back out to the hallway. “I don’t know what I’m going to put on the forms.”
“You’ll think of something,” Annie said.
“That I will.” He looked between the two of them and smiled. “I’ll be downstairs grabbing stuff.” He headed off along the hallway.
“Thanks,” Greg said.
Annie hugged him again. “I’ll go help. You should take as long as you need.” She let go and followed Dale downstairs.
Greg watched her go, then looked outside. From where he stood by the door, the whole window was taken up by the distant alien. He wouldn’t be able to take as long as he needed.
Five minutes, he decided. Not long to grieve. His father seemed happy. On the side table Greg saw a piece of paper from a writing pad. He picked it up, but didn’t know if he could read it. His father’s suicide note.
Looking at the body, he knew it was what his father wanted, but to exit like that, so abruptly, and on his own seemed a waste. Greg would have liked a few more minutes to talk with him.
Greg started crying again. “Silly old fool,” he said.
Sorry to do this, the note read, but I know you’d try to talk me out of it or drag me off. Please just leave me here and let me be with Bette.
It was signed, and dated.
“I’m sorry too,” Greg said. He stared at his father for a moment longer, and headed downstairs to help the others.
Later they parked the pickup and other cars out of the Alien’s path. Dale had some confiscated beers in the cruiser’s trunk, and Annie had found some old deck chairs hanging in the back of the garage. After all the lugging and packing the beer tasted great. A toast to his father.
Greg had given Dale the note and Dale thanked him. “Not like a notarized will,” Dale said, “but it will help with the paperwork, thanks.”
Greg didn’t know what to say.
They set the chairs up at the end of the driveway, out of the alien’s path, but with a good view of the house.
“You’re sure you want to watch?” Annie said.
“It seems like the thing to do,” he told her. It did. In a way it was like a funeral. How was watching a house get bulldozed down and ingested so very different from watching a pine box lowered into the ground?
The alien had almost reached the house by now. It was late afternoon. The sun was sending shafts and streaks through the distant thunderclouds. The smell of flowers was almost overpowering as the mechwurm trundled across, throwing out all the pollen and crushing stems and petals. It made for quite a send-off, Greg thought.
Some more people had gathered at the end of the driveway to watch. Dale offered them beers and there were some takers. The alien had moved out of the flowers and was crossing the mown grass around in front of the house.
The thing knocked down the garage. Greg thought it looked like something from a time-lapse photography documentary. The whole structure shifted on its foundations, then tilted and collapsed, one wall lying on the ground. The roof came off and tumbled over the grass. The creeping alien rumbled across it without slowing. The wood made crackling, popping sounds and it was ground up.
“Here.” Dale passed him another beer. Greg waved, declining. It had tasted good, but he wanted to be very clear-headed.
Over the next two hours the alien crept on across the grassy yard. As the front end came up on the veranda Greg got out of his deck chair and walked across to the house. The metal leading edge touched the railing, and Greg put his hand out onto the wood, feeling again the roughness and the layers of paint. He could feel the wood shivering under his hand. The house creaked.
“Greg,” Annie said.
He didn’t turn.
“You should come away,” she said.
He held on a moment longer. Turning, he took her hand and walked back from the house.
The alien loomed up over the place, not so much like a rock wall now, but more like a factory or a refinery. He could hear a snick, snick, snick sound as it moved, and again could smell that oily-organic scent.
The first timbers fell before they’d reached the deck chairs. As with the garage, the house shifted, then tilted. The windows shattered. Some of the frames fell out. The weatherboards burst away, some spinning off into the flowers in the backyard.
“That sure is something,” Dale said.
“Yep,” Greg said. He felt like another beer. It was so extraordinary to watch his home being destroyed this way. He felt sad, but kind of awed at the same time.
As the house went right over, Greg pictured his father tumbling across the room. He hoped that the body wouldn’t drop through the doorway and out the back window.
“Like a slow-motion train wreck,” one of the rubberneckers at the fence line called.
“Hey,” Dale shouted back. “Little respect.”
“Sorry officer,” the man called, but the rubberneckers all laughed.
It took more than an hour for the house to be demolished, and then another hour and a half for the remains to be ground up through the machine alien.
When it was done, the alien heading off through the last of the flowers, Greg stood up from the deck chair. The bulk of the alien still covered the area where the house had been. The sun was setting, though they’d been in the alien’s shadow since it had reached the house. The clouds hung a bloody red over the top of the thing. Annie stood by him and took his hand.
“Well,” Dale said. “I better head back into town. You got a place to stay, Greg? And my condolences again on the loss of your father.”
“Thanks,” Greg said. He kept staring up at the alien. It was a surreal end to things, he thought. A strange farewell to his childhood.
“He can come stay at my place,” Annie said. “Least I could do. And lose that grin, officer. He’s sleeping on the sofa.” But she gave Greg’s hand a squeeze.
“I wouldn’t think otherwise, Annie.” Dale adjusted his hat and got into the cruiser.
“I’m glad you came back,” Annie said as Dale drove off.
“Me too,” Greg said. He squeezed her hand. Despite the destruction and the slow funeral for his father, it seemed right somehow. The remains of both his father and mother now mixed through the spoil the alien would leave behind. Morbid, but right. It would be okay to come back here, he thought. He figured he could still do a lot of is contract accounts by distance anyway.
“Come on,” he said to Annie, “Let’s go get something to eat.”