Joel Miller got home late. He pulled his beat-up Chevy pick-up into the driveway, turned off the engine and sat for a moment, exhausted, under a full moon in the dead of a Texas night. He grabbed the keys from the ignition and looked glumly at the dark house before him: a two-story tract home on a half-acre lot with wood-siding. A rocking chair sat on the narrow porch by the front door. He grunted, opened the truck door and climbed out. It was another red-letter day at the job site. The crew was now down to five and was six weeks behind. And the client, now at the end of his rope, was threatening lawsuits.
As he walked heavily to the front door, his cell phone rang. He glanced down, saw the number and cursed to himself. More problems. It didn't seem this day would ever end. He shook his head as he flipped it open. "For chrissake. What now?"
It was his brother Tommy.
"Just got off the phone with Lance," Tommy sighed. "Whatever's going around, apparently he's got it too."
"So," Joel said, his blood pressure rising. "No tile guy."
"No tile guy," his brother confirmed.
"That's just..." He was on the verge of swearing, but didn't have the energy. Instead, he fumbled with the keys in his hand. "This whole job's going south, Tommy. And the goddamn contractor is nowhere to be found."
"If he's sick, he's sick. Not much you can do -"
Joel opened the door to his house and stepped inside. "Tommy. Tommy," he interrupted. "He is the contractor." He caught his temperature rising and lowered his voice. "He is the contractor, okay? I can't lose this job."
"What is it about 'sick' you don't understand?"
Joel caught a glimpse of the ten year-old asleep on the sofa. "I understand."
"Look. I'll call around, find someone."
"Lets talk about this in the morning, okay?" He flipped the switch by the door. The girl stirred as a soft glow of light filled the den.
"Hell, maybe I'll do it. How far along was he?"
"We'll talk about it in the morning."
"All right," Joel said. "Goodnight." He flipped the phone off and tossed the keys on the coffee table.
Yawning, the young girl sat up on one elbow. "Hey," she said, squinting up at him.
"Scoot," was all he could muster. She made room for him and he let his body collapse into the leather cushions.
"Fun day at work?"
Joel took a long look at her. She was in her plaid, thread-bare pajama bottoms and had one tee-shirt over another. Leather bracelets encircled her wrist and she wore a choker with beads around her neck. Her name was Sarah and she had a style all her own. Wheat-colored hair like her mother's which she preferred to keep short, an aversion to make-up, to boys, and especially dresses.
But that wonderful Texas drawl of hers? That was all Joel.
Her father gave her a sideways glance. "What are you still doing up?" He propped his head upright with tired fingers. "It's late."
"Oh crud what time is it?" She spun around and looked at the clock on the wall above the sofa.
Joel knew what time it was without lifting a muscle. "It's way past your bedtime," he told her.
"But it's still today," she stated plainly, as if it were an indisputable fact. She always had a way of spinning things to her advantage, a trait she definitely didn't pick up from him.
With a burst of ten year-old energy, she scrambled to the far end of the sofa and reached for something hidden in the shadows.
Joel had a vague idea what was coming. "Honey, please not right now. I do not have the energy for this."
Ignoring his plea, Sarah popped up and confronted him with an outstretched arm. "Here."
In her hand was a square gray box.
"What's this?" Joel reached out and took it from her.
"Your birthday," Sarah replied, again stating the obvious.
He opened the box. An overwhelming sense of appreciation swept over him and he struggled hard to contain it.
"You kept complaining about your broken watch, so I figured, you know..." She ended the sentence with a shrug.
He removed the watch and sat the box down on the coffee table. He was too exhausted to handle the feelings that threatened to reveal themselves, and so to avoid them, he focused on fastening the watch to his wrist.
"You like it?"
The truth was he loved it. But hard knocks had taught Joel to keep his emotions at arm's length, and so the protective shield went up. He tapped the watch face and - making a face - said, "Honey, this is nice, but..."
"What?" There was a trace of panic in her voice.
He held the watch up to his ear. "It's nice but, I think it's stuck. It's..." He made a helpless shrug.
Instantly Sarah panicked. "No, no, no..." She grabbed his wrist as her face went pale. A second passed... a second she noted by the ticking of the hand on Joel's watch, and her color returned.
"Oh ha ha," she said, pushing his arm away. She stretched out on the sofa away from him.
"Where'd you get the money for this?"
"Drugs," she said over her shoulder. "I sell hardcore drugs."
"Oh good." He settled into the sofa and grabbed the remote. "You can start helping out with the mortgage then."
She snorted. "You wish."
After over an hour of flipping channels, decompressing from an entire day spent putting band-aids on a sinking ship, Joel switched off the television. His worries had eased, thanks to the midnight marathon episodes of real-life lumberjacks, but a few concerns still bubbled to the surface. His earlier joke to Sarah about helping out with the mortgage had a kernel of truth. He was behind on the mortgage, not to the point of imminent foreclosure, but being behind on the house payment was never a good thing.
And this business with the construction crew was troublesome. Never before had he encountered so many setbacks related to crews not showing up. A typical nail-bender like himself knows you only get paid if you do the work. Construction workers ain't salaried and they ain't protected by the union. If a guy called in sick, you could bet your ass he's laid out at home and coughing up a lung. One, two guys on a crew sick? He guessed it was possible.
But five? Six? No, there had to be something else going on. Something serious.
If you listened to the news, with its tendency to exaggerate everything, you'd think the world was coming to an end. Skyrocket admittance to hospitals, people dropping at bus stops, in check-out lines, the post-office. There was even a local story of a woman who passed out behind the wheel of her SUV and careened into a bus load of school children. Thank God the kids weren't hurt, but Jesus...
And there were other news articles lurking in between the headlines of the flu epidemic. These were much more troublesome and so Joel steered his attention away from them, but you couldn't get some of them out of your head, like "mass-hysteria" and "brutal family slaying" and the worst: "man kills wife before feasting on family dog."
Christ, he thought, watching the scrawl at the bottom of the screen before flipping the television off for good. What in the world is going on?
He looked at Sarah sleeping peacefully beside him and he fought for some comforting thoughts, thoughts to replace the troubling images swirling in his head. Tomorrow was Friday, thank God, and that meant the weekend was near. He was looking forward to Sarah's soccer game in the afternoon - she was the team's star performer. Watching her shine on the field would do a lot to alleviate the worries from his shoulders.
He struggled to his feet, scooped Sarah up in his arms and carried her off to bed.
After Joel put Sarah to bed, he trudged back downstairs to complete his nightly routine: turning off the lights and locking up the house. It was well after one in the morning, a little later than usual - but what the hell - it was his birthday. First, he turned off the t.v. with the remote and tossed it onto the sofa. Next, he made sure the front door was locked, then went to the kitchen to check the sliding glass door there, followed by the one in his office before heading back up to bed.
As he reached the glass doors in his office, his eyes caught sight of a shadow moving about in the darkness. He put his face close to the glass and squinted. Someone was rummaging through the bed of his 1972 El Camino, which was parked just a few short yards from the house.
Joel unlocked the door and slid it open. The car sat facing the house where behind it stood a wooden toolshed, the doors unlocked. He stuck his head through the opened door and called out, "Hey! Can I help you with something?"
Whoever it was jumped in fear. Joel slipped through the doorway and as he approached, he realized the shadowy figure was none other than Gordon Cooper, his next-door neighbor. Gordon was an average-sized man in his early fifties with an easy-going disposition. He was wearing a blue golf shirt and black slacks, his uniform as a salesman at the Ford dealership in the city. Upon seeing Joel, Gordon's face filled with relief.
"God," Gordon said, his face pale. "You scared the crapola outta me."
Joel glanced at his watch. "Kinda late, ain't it?"
"Didn't mean to alarm you, neighbor. Just, uh, Millie, well she's gone and locked herself in the bedroom and," he chuckled and shook his head, "she won't open the goddamn door."
Joel put a work boot on the fender of his El Camino and the car moaned under his weight. He rested his elbows on the tailgate. "Y'all have a fight or something?"
"No. No, nothing like that. I called her from work and told her I was gonna be home late, she said fine, and when I got home the door to the bedroom was locked. I thought she might've laid down with the baby. I tapped on the door, but she won't answer."
"You sure she's home?"
"Yeah, you can hear her breathing, heavy-like, through the closed door."
"Huh," Joel said, the wheels turning. He was thinking about the baby but didn't say anything.
Gordon nodded at the iron crowbar in his hands. "I thought I'd borrow this to try and jimmy the door open."
Joel reached out and took the crowbar from him. "How 'bout we find something that maybe'll do a little less damage?" He tossed the bar back into the bed where it clanged against chains and rusted saw blades. He looked around a bit before finding what he wanted.
"Here we go," he said, holding up a long thin nail that gleamed in the moonlight. "This oughta do it."
"Ah," said Gordon, smiling with approval. "Perfect."
"C'mon," Joel said. He motioned for Gordon to lead the way. "Let's go have a look."
Just as they passed the fence surrounding Gordon's house, a gunshot rang out in the night. It was some distance off to their left and caused them both to freeze.
"Somebody having a block party they didn't tell us about?" Gordon nervously joked, but Joel could sense the fear in his voice. And, the fact was, Joel felt it too.
Screams followed the gunshot, which followed more gunshots, followed by more screams. "Let's get inside," Joel said, ushering his neighbor to pick up the pace. A growing sense of dread filled him, like the shadows surrounding them as they moved about in the dark.
They hurriedly entered the house through the kitchen door and Joel shut it and locked it behind him. The kitchen was well-lit. Joel looked around and saw a half-dozen used baby bottles in the sink. An opened can of dry formula powder sat tipped over on the counter. Again, dread filled his insides. This wasn't Millie's kitchen, clean and orderly.
"What the hell is going on?" Gordon asked in a panicked voice as he peered out the window into the dark.
"I don't know," Joel said. He felt a disconcerting tug in his chest urging him home, but he resisted. He put a hand on Gordon's shoulder. "Let's go check on that wife of yours."
They walked out of the kitchen and down a dimly lit hallway to where the master bedroom lay. At the entrance of the hallway, the door to the left was open, and Joel saw a strange blue light glowing within. It was Jimmy's room, Gordon's son, a twenty-something whose job in the city required slacks and a tie.
Joel paused at the doorway to take a look. He noted with no particular interest a collection of glass containers scattered throughout the room. They all seemed to have a fungus growing inside them. The strange glow came from a blacklight fluorescent bulb hanging from the ceiling. The room itself seemed like some deep cavernous dwelling; thick spores hung in the air, made oddly visible by the blacklight. Joel reached in and yanked the door shut without thought, driven to action by a primordial survival instinct that defied explanation.
Joel's heart was pumping fast now. His mind struggled to make sense of all he had seen and heard this night - the gunshots, the screams - and now this. Gordon, his mild-mannered neighbor, was masking a growing terror within him, that much was certain. The hairs on Joel's neck had come to stand on end, just like his neighbor's.
"Oh," Gordon said, hearing the door close and seeing the expression on Joel's face. "Jimmy's been bringing those things home from the city in little glass jars to study them. He's says they're some kind of fungus or other."
The fungal growth in Jimmy's room had triggered a connection inside Joel's head. He remembered seeing those orange, finger-like images before, in the headlines of the papers, and on the evening news.
"I'm not sure that's such a good idea," Joel said.
"Yeah. That's what I told him," Gordon shrugged. "Think he listens to me?"
They moved to the end of the hallway, to the closed door of the master bedroom.
"This is it," Gordon said, sucking in a deep breath. Beads of sweat formed over the deep lines in his forehead. He put his ear against the door. "Listen… you can hear Millie breathing inside."
Gordon moved aside to let Joel have a listen. Joel put his ear next to the door - it was surprisingly cold - but just as Gordon had stated, he heard a deep raspy breath inhale and exhale on the other side.
To Joel, it sounded like labored breathing, not from sleep, but not entirely awake either. He fished the nail out of his pocket and paused.
"You think the baby's in there with her?"
As Gordon registered the question, his eyes widened. "He'd better be," he answered, and Joel could tell from the panic on the man's face that he had said the wrong thing.
"I'm sure it's fine," Joel said. He took the nail from his pocket and fished it into the tiny hole of the doorknob, found the catch and popped it open. What Joel saw next would haunt him the rest of his life...