I welcome author Barbara Custer today with her excerpt of Dark Side of the Moon. Now I'll have Pink Floyd in my head all day!
Six days after her mother’s funeral, a crash jarred Becky out of a restless sleep. The Mylar balloons, cradled around her cheeks like soft, invisible hands, blocked her view. She shoved them aside and saw her mother standing in the doorway against silver puddles of moonlight. The crash came from her banging open the door.
Her mother stood there, a skeletal figure, still wearing her pink satin gown. Its sequins glimmered. Wisps of gray hair crowned her skull; her chin jutted whitely. “Becky, get up,” she said, her neck tendons creaking. “I’ve got to show you something.”
Becky glanced toward Steve. He was a vague hump under their quilt, asleep. No nightmares or insomnia troubled him, God bless him. She looked back at her mother, who was dead and yet not dead. Why...what did she want?
“We have unfinished business,” her mother said.
It’s only a nightmare, Becky told herself. But she felt compelled to get out of bed; Mom’s eyes were on her.
She slipped from under the covers and swung her feet onto the floor. The powder blue rug felt soft as a kitten’s paw. The balloons whispered behind her. The dream seemed so real; she told herself to keep a safe distance. She did not want a walking corpse to touch her, even if it was her mother.
But she did follow. They crossed the hallway into the living room. She felt cold caresses from her balloon tree by the closet. “Put on your coat and boots,” her mother said. “It’s cold outside.”
“Sure.” Nostalgia crept in. She thought about the times she used to take Mom shopping. Her throat constricted. She struggled for the next breath. “I’d better get my keys.”
“We’re walking. After you hear and see what I’ve got to show you, you won’t be in any condition to drive.”
The warm feeling fled. Stark terror filled the hollow places in her body. She halted.
“You need to know,” her mother added, “because you’re going to have a baby.”
Pregnant? She didn’t think so. Although no symptoms troubled her, Dr. Fitzpatrick had found abnormalities in her blood that he couldn’t explain, even after she got a bone marrow aspiration. Because Mom suffered so much grief from her husband, Fitzpatrick went along with her request to hold further testing on Becky. He advised Becky against having children and prescribed the pill. During the last few months, she and Steve had been discussing plans to adopt.
Her stomach cringed at the absolute terror that filled her. Her mother’s limbs were cold cobwebs of bone and discolored skin, but Becky couldn’t resist the urgency in her eyes. She slipped into her winter clothes and followed her mother out to the porch.
She didn’t like this dream one bit. The softness in her rug, the caresses from her balloons, the wind sweeping the narrow street, the jingle of keys in her coat pocket. Once off the porch, her boots crunched over dead branches. Another little detail that made this nightmare seem real.
“Don’t you wonder why gruesome murders are happening in our city? Harry’s so-called friends say people from outer space killed these people. They’re right.”
Space aliens? Never mind. I’m only dreaming.
A small tree branch poked Becky’s right shoulder, and she winced. Up ahead, her mother glided like a shadow, her feet not making a sound. They were approaching a fork. The right fork led to Preacher’s Corner; the left fork to...oh, my God, this is real.
“The universe is strange,” her mother said. “Most extraterrestrials want to learn about us, but some act as predators. Thaddeus will go out of his way to help someone, but he’s made a lot of enemies.”
Uh, oh, here it comes. The truth about Thaddeus.
After taking the left fork, they took a straight path deeper in the woods. The ground dissolved into a cold, gelatinous solution under her feet, grabbing and holding with ugly sucking noises. Her feet slipped. She grabbed the branches to steady herself.
She kept telling herself she was dreaming.
They arrived at a clearing. The moonlight illuminated a patchy profusion of weeds surrounded by chain-link fencing. Nicholas and his school chums used to play baseball here until something—Becky didn’t recall what—had gone sour. Her mother stopped at a gate overgrown with barren vines. The gate squealed. Becky followed her mother through the tangled weeds. She heard the faraway drone of cars on Convent Way, and water splashing below her feet.
Water? How did she know it was water?
Her mother stopped before a manhole cover and pried the lid. It came up with grating sounds. The full moon sailed from behind the stringy clouds, illuminating a ladder. Its rungs disappeared into a pitch-dark abyss. Becky trembled with a horror that she couldn’t understand.
Her mother looked at her with solemn eyes. “You are frightened. I love you dearly, but you need to make educated decisions about your child.”
“I’m not...” Becky’s voice died in her throat. She cleared her throat and tried again. “Tell me about Thaddeus.”
“He called his breed Kryszka. They look human, but they’ve got pointed teeth and red eyes. We met after George and I had our worst fight. George broke three ribs and cut me, Becky.” She pitched her voice to a soothing low murmur. “Thaddeus brought me to his clinic to treat my injuries.”
“What clinic?” Becky fought the dread that threatened to swallow her. “What is Thaddeus’ real name? Why didn’t you go to a hospital?”
“I did, but the clerk there gave me a hard time about money. Thaddeus happened to be there…I think he was observing human interaction. He offered to treat me without charge and make the beatings stop. I was hurting so bad, I might have said yes to the Devil himself.
“I couldn’t pronounce his real name, so he let me call him Thaddeus. He was very gentle with me. Loneliness blinded me to our differences, and God help me, Becky, we had an affair. I loved him, but I still had Nicholas to consider. He was only five. I contemplated an abortion; but I didn’t want to add murder to my sins.”
Now, pity crept in with the fear, and Becky longed to hold her mother and make everything all right. She cupped her hand against her mouth. Her cheeks felt cool. “Are you saying that I am part extra-terrestrial?”
“You’ve got the Kryszka physique and telekinesis, but you inherited my love for the Lord. Sending me money, looking out for your students and Harry...you remind me of myself when I was young.”
Her mother climbed down the ladder now, her skeletal face grim in the moonlight. Becky’s mind began to slip. Her thoughts were a yammering cycle of you’ve got to scream yourself awake, it doesn’t matter if you wake Steve, scream yourself awake...
Becky tried to work up a scream, but only a thin whisper of air came.
She bent over the opening. The manhole, wide enough to accommodate two adults, was pipe-dark. A stench of rotting tomatoes wafted from the gloom.
“Come down here, Becky.” Her mother’s voice was a thin whisper. “You need to see for yourself.”
“I don’t want to,” Becky protested, but her limbs moved, one after the other, and carried her down the ladder. She stood beside her mother, knee-deep in mud, one hand leaning against a paneled door. Her fingers glided over smooth metal.
“This door is a gate to their underground city,” her mother said. “The Kryszka use mind over matter to open it. I think you can open it with yours, Becky.”
“Underground…what?” Never mind, she’d do anything to end this nightmare. She concentrated. The panel rolled open like a gaping, toothless mouth.
At first what looked like a red, gauzy curtain obscured her surroundings. Its rancid smell made her eyes water. As the haze cleared, Becky made out buildings—it looked like ten, lined with portholes and illuminated by pinkish lights overhead. Splotches of dried maroon mud crusted the grass surrounding the buildings. The buildings looked like someone spray-painted them with purple and gray glitter. As she watched, two more portholes opened across the front of one structure. Glassy fluid oozed down the opening, forming a pane. The slanted roof of that building reached toward the lights.
The mud puddles stretched, widening to the right, where an immense spider web hung over a pool of crimson liquid. Bodies dangled from its thick white strands, blood dripping into the pool, some half-eaten, and others alive. A metal harness bound each person, looping around the waist and under both arms so that the body lolled forward in a half-bow. The live prisoners thrashed at their ties. Harsh wind carried the stench of carrion and rattled the skeletons on the web.