It was late in the afternoon, and the silence surrounding the town of Peaksville and the merciless warmth of the summer sun made it seem as though it had always been late afternoon. Days were like that here; every hour seemed endless and isolated, the Platonic ideal of 3:47 pm in a small Ohio town. Or, to be more strictly accurate, a small town that used to be in Ohio.
The monster was out at the end of the yard, swinging on the wide wooden gate. His overalls were clean and his bowl-cut hair immaculately brushed despite the dust he kicked up as he played; he liked things around him to be neat and tidy, so they were. But he was getting bored now with climbing on the fence, and no one had come walking along the road by the Fremont house for quite some time.
He'd woken up that morning with the feeling that something was going to happen, and that nameless worry was still twisting in his stomach. As he pushed off the ground again, the monster looked back towards the house, but saw only Aunt Amy, amiable and vacant, fanning herself on the porch in her wicker rocking chair.
When he returned to face outwards, there was someone approaching from the direction of the fields. He squinted: it was a boy, or perhaps a young man, in grubby jeans and t-shirt, with a too-long corona of golden hair glinting through the dust that surrounded him. At his ankles, a small mongrel dog dashed from side to side of the dirt road, chasing grasshoppers and inspecting dry patches of grass, but despite the apparent ever-present danger never quite tripping or slowing down his master's easy stride. The monster frowned at the dog. He didn't recognize it, and he knew all the dogs in town. It was a few moments later that he realized he didn't know the boy either.
"Hullo," said the inexplicable arrival. Which wasn't how the word 'howdy' was supposed to be said. The monster jumped down and stood clutching the gate.
"I don't know you."
"No," the boy said, with a grin which could have meant almost anything. "'Cos you wouldn't, would you? I'm Adam. And this is Dog."
The monster eyed the creature. He didn't like dogs; the bold ones put their ears back and growled whenever he came near, while the fearful ones ran away. There weren't many of the bold ones left in Peaksville. The monster didn't like things that didn't like him.
But this dog seemed postively uninterested. It sat and wagged its bedraggled tail in the dirt, panting a little in the heat, and looked up hopefully at something Adam was holding in one hand.
"Dog's a funny name," said the monster cautiously. There was a little too much here that was unidentifiable. The creamy-white top of whatever it was in the new boy's hand seemed to be trickling down over the tannish part, and the monster wondered if this was cause for concern.
Adam shrugged. "It's what he is." He took note of the dribble, now streaking over the back of his hand, and licked it off with an air of great concentration.
Another lick. "Pralines and Cream." Noting that the monster still looked unenlightened, he went on, "It's ice cream. Flavour number seventeen. I like it but it makes me thirsty."
"I want to try it," decided the monster. Adam held the ice cream cone through the gate, and after one false try which resulted in melted ice cream on the monster's nose, he bit off a mouthful. It was soft, and so cold it made his teeth ache, and more buttery-sweet than anything he'd ever tasted. He swallowed, and nearly choked on a pecan piece.
After Adam had helped him by smacking his back a few times, the monster got his breath back and said, "I like you. You should come back to my house, if you're thirsty. My mother will make us lemonade."
Adam professed himself agreeable, and the monster swung the gate open and then went running ahead in a pelter towards the house. "Mommy, mommy, look!"
"What is it, Anthony? Did you do something?" came a woman's voice from inside. "Whatever it is, I bet it's real good..." Mrs. Fremont, thin, smiling, and terrified, came hastily onto the porch, carrying a pitcher of lemonade. She dropped it as she caught sight of Adam, and it shattered at her feet.
The monster frowned at the shards. "Why'd you do that? I wanted lemonade. Adam wanted lemonade too! That was bad."
"Oh, I s'pect she made more, though," said Adam easily.
The monster stomped through the door. Another pitcher sat on the kitchen counter, wooden spoon and sugar sitting alongside.
Mrs. Fremont bent over and picked up the shattered glass with shaking hands. "It's...it's real good there was extra lemonade," she said, and Adam stooped gallantly to help, one handed.
"He's a new person!" said the monster, returned to the porch to see what was keeping them. "Oh, never mind that. Come on in already." The glass disappeared, though the puddle remained; Mrs. Fremont rushed over it to the kitchen cupboard, taking down glasses for the lemonade. Said the monster, happily, as Adam scuffed his feet on the mat and entered, "I've never had a new person before."
Something about this sent a twinge through Mrs. Fremont's over-tuned nerves. Anthony didn't like new things. He hated new things, sent them away or did worse to them.
But it would be hard to dislike this boy, she could see that. He was standing at the table smiling at her from behind the dwindling ice cream cone, and his face was as friendly and open as the morning sun. It wasn't an expression anyone had worn towards anyone in her family for a long time.
"Ice cream." Amy had gotten up from her rocking chair, and stood framed in the doorway, her face a map of puzzled memory. "Why, I haven't had ice cream since..."
Mrs. Fremont cut in, desperate and falsely bright. "Well now, it sure is good to see a new face. You...you don't sound like you're from around here. Adam, did you say?"
"Adam Young." He didn't append a 'ma'am' as a boy from Peaksville would have done, but there was nothing remotely disrespectful in his tone. It was just...cheery. And relaxed, somehow, in a way that was almost as unfamiliar to Mrs. Fremont as his accent. "I live in Lower Tadfield. That's in England," he added.
"England..." she said. She'd hardly remembered it existed. If it still did exist, if anything existed past the nothingness that surrounded the town.
"The bus driver thought I was mad, askin' to be set out in the middle of nowhere," said Adam. "An' Pep wanted to come along, but I reckoned after Warlock an' the thumpin' she gave him I'd better come alone."
Mrs. Fremont tried to look as though she'd understood a word of that, and searched her memory for questions used for people from out of town. She hazarded, "Have you got family you've come to see?"
"No." He was still smiling. "I mean, the fact that they're not family's sort of the whole problem, really. But I don't mind. Brian an' Wens' have been on about the States and drivin' from one end to th' other for ages, an' I thought we'd better all come and I could take care of a few things left over." He crunched a bite out of the ice cream cone, mediatively. "They're still at the motel in Canton, Brian and Wensleydale. They're s'posed to meet Pep and me with the car this evenin', but they're prolly still arguin' about Brian gettin' takeaway hamburgers from Burger Lord or somethin'."
"Canton. I was born in Canton." Feeling her son's eyes switch to her, she hastened to pour the lemonade. "But I'm real happy I came to Peaksville, real happy."
Adam sipped his lemonade politely before popping the end of the cone in his mouth. "I bet."
"I can turn a rat inside out," volunteered the monster from the kitchen chair where he sat, dangling his legs. He was feeling a little left out. "I can make it eat itself all up, from the tail on up, till it turns itself inside out. Do you want me to find a rat?"
"No," said Adam.
Mrs. Fremont made an involuntary noise, and the boy cocked his head and looked between the monster and his mother. "You din't seem like you'd ever had ice cream before."
"Oh," said Mrs. Fremont, looking down, and smoothing her apron. "Well, you see...you see, Anthony wished away all the machines. And it was good that he did that, real good that he did that, only...there ain't been no ice cream. No ice, even, not for years."
Adam raised one golden eyebrow. "Doesn't sound very good to me."
"Amy, now, what are you doing just standing in the doorway letting flies inside?" asked a man's voice from outside. "Why don't you..." Mr. Fremont paused as he came through the door, and his red hearty face went slack as he stared at Adam, leaning against the kitchen table.
"Adam's here on a...a visit, dear," said Mrs. Fremont.
After a long beat, Mr. Fremont said, lost, "It's...good that he's here, it's real good."
"I s'pect Anthony wished away the thesaurus, too," said Adam into his glass. The Fremonts blinked.
The monster, impatient, insisted, "He's from someplace else! And he's got a dog." He scowled at Dog, out on the porch lapping up the spilt lemonade. "I like him anyway."
Adam rolled his eyes and Mr. Fremont said, "Well, that's...that's real good, Anthony. That's just fine." Realizing his battered straw hat was still on his head, Mr. Fremont took it off and then waved it uncertainly in the air. "Well now, Adam. Are you...are you here visiting family?"
"You like me, too, don't you?" asked the monster. He was looking now at Adam, who met his gaze steadily.
There was a hideous pause.
"I'm...I'm sure Adam doesn't mean that," managed Mrs. Fremont.
"You don't like me?" said the monster, too baffled to be angry.
Mrs. Fremont stumbled over and knelt beside the monster's chair and began to rub his shoulder. "Of course he likes you, Anthony, everyone likes you. Why, everyone just loves you."
"Why?" asked Adam.
Even poor Amy was staring at him now, aghast.
"Because...because Anthony's a good boy," said Mr. Fremont. His voice was quavering. "Isn't he a good boy? He's such a good boy!"
"You actually like bein' talked to like that, do you?" Adam looked past the adults, his blue gaze unmoving on the monster's small face. "The way people talk to a dog they think's goin' to bite 'em?"
"I don't like dogs," said the monster, trembling. "I don't think I like you much either."
Adam took another swallow of lemonade, and then set the glass down on the table behind him.
"I think you're bad. I think your dog's bad. I could make him better. I think he'd be better if he were on fire!" The monster's arm went out, finger pointed at the mongrel now sniffing the doormat, and his eyes flew wide. Mrs. Fremont clutched her skirt and backed into a corner.
Dog sneezed, and then trotted inside to join his master. "I think he's better the way he is," said Adam, looking at the smaller boy. There was something almost pitying in his expression now. The slanting light from the far window caught on his inclined head, and for a moment Mrs. Fremont thought she saw the curls glow.
"You..." She whispered. "You're..."
The boy over at her, and he ran a self-conscious hand through his hair. "No. I'm not...what it is you're thinkin' I might be."
"You're bad!" cried Anthony shrilly. "You're a bad boy! I don't know why I ever thought you were good! I want you to go away. Go away to the cornfield, right now!"
Adam sighed and, turning back, told him patiently, "It's no good when they're like that."
"Yes it is! I don't like it when people think bad things about me!"
"It doesn't make it better to mess them around." Adam waved his hand to indicate Amy, Anthony's parents lost in speechless horror.
"Yes it does!"
"I know how it is." And the pitying expression was back, mingled with an odd sort of embarrassment. "An' I reckon it's harder for you, since you've never been any other way. I'm sorry," he said. "But it's stupid like this. An' I'm not havin' it any more."
Adam was looking down at the floor, the well-scrubbed kitchen floor of Anthony's house, Anthony's home, on Anthony's own ground. But it was Adam's ground really. It was, always and ultimately, Adam's ground.
All across town, driveways were surprised to find themselves paved, containing cars of models never seen before in Peaksville. A refrigerator appeared next to Mrs. Fremont, who staggered away from it. Telephone wires appeared, ran from abandoned pole to pole and house to house like snakes striking.
"Sweet fancy Moses," said Mr. Fremont, watching it all, forgetting half a decade of Anthony not liking people to cuss.
"'M not that either," said Adam. This was greeted with a general lack of hilarity, but he hadn't really expected anyone else to get the joke.
"Anthony?" said Aunt Amy, suddenly. She was frowning at the kitchen floor, and her voice had lost the querulous tone it had carried for years. "Anthony Fremont, did you spill something and track it all over your mother's nice clean floor?"
Adam took one look at the little boy's face and told the grownups, "It'd be a good idea if you went and talked in the other room."
"But what's..." Mrs. Fremont passed a hand over her mouth.
"It doesn't matter," he told them again, firmly. "Go on."
The adults shuffled out, and left the kitchen filled with awkward silence. The boys heard their footsteps in the hall, muffled on the carpet, the slow puzzled murmur of their voices in the living room. After a minute or two, someone decided the best solution was to put on a record, and the opening notes of Perry Como's For the Young At Heart drifted out to the kitchen. Anthony wailed.
"Dry up," said Adam uncomfortably, and handed him a dishtowel.
There was another long pause, in which the Adversary, Destroyer of Kings, Angel of the Bottomless Pit, Great Beast That Is Called Dragon, Prince of This World, Father of Lies, Spawn of Satan, and Lord of Darkness looked up at the ceiling and hunched his shoulders, shifting his weight from foot to foot, and the erstwhile monster sobbed and attempted a few times, rather inefficiently, to blow his nose into a dishtowel. "I don't like it when things change," he said at last, into the soft flour-sack cloth.
"Well, they do, an' that's one of the things that shouldn't change. " With great conviction, "An' you'd better believe it could be lots worse. Lots an' lots worse."
Anthony looked down at his feet with swollen, blotchy eyes. "They don't like me."
"Why should they?" said Adam simply. "I made it so they don't remember. I had to, it was the only way it'd work. An' it wasn't all that easy, actually, there was all newspapers an' birth certificates an' that. But they..."
"They all hate me, all of them. They'll be mean to me."
Adam regarded him. After a moment, he made a face. He was still a soft touch for tears. "Come here."
Anthony crept over, eyes still on the floor as though expecting it to disappear as well. Adam guided the child's head up with one hand, and with the other pressed his thumb against the small forehead, just between Anthony's eyes. The boy felt nothing, only the ordinary warmth of another person's touch. He remembered once, when he was very, very young and his parents hadn't quite figured things out yet, the feeling of his mother checking his temperature. It was a little like that. After a moment, Adam let him go.
Anthony looked around the room. There was a metal box sitting on the counter - a toaster, Anthony remembered, you put bread in and it comes out toast - and its shiny surface threw back his reflection. Where Adam's thumb had pressed was a stain, red and smooth, like a birthmark.
"I won't make people like you," said Adam. "They don't remember, not really, but they might not like you much anyway, 'cos I couldn't keep them still who they were without leavin' some bits in. You might want to think about movin' someplace else, once you get older." He took a breath, as though this thought had hurt him unexpectedly, and let it out slowly. "But they won't hurt you."
Anthony snuffled. "Are you sure?"
"I told you so, din't I?" Adam said, exasperated. "Now. What's this cornfield thing, then?"
The little boy stared at him, baffled, and Adam rolled his eyes. "You get cross with people and you send them there, right? Where is it?"
Anthony opened and closed his mouth a few times, and then said, "I don't know."
"You don't know?"
"I don't know!" Anthony stamped his foot, near tears again. "Mommy said I got lost once in a field, but I don't know where. I don't know where they go! They just go away!"
"Oh cor blimey," said Adam. He looked over at Anthony's foot, raised to stamp again. "And less of that, now."
Anthony lowered his foot obediently. He watched as Adam glared at the ground for a while, and finally sighed. "Well, there's still twenty-two flavours of ice cream to go. Seems to me there's still lots of stuff we haven't seen. You ought to be glad there's so many flavours, though."
Anthony scuffed the side of his shoe against the table leg, and looked up. "How many flavors are there?"
And Adam grinned at him, straightened, and whistled for Dog. "Find out yourself."
It was night, now, and the dark rows of earth between the standing corn were lit only by the stars. In the autumn there would be dry stalks to burn for a campfire, but it was still summer and they were grateful for the warm nights and ripe corn. They'd found a pie just after sunset, left out on the edge of the field, and a loaf of bread the more recent arrivals stared at hard before identifying as store-bought. They were grateful for the food that was left, too; the dogs kept themselves fed catching gophers and field mice, but there were the children going hungry, and that was bad by anyone's reckoning. They told each other at least they knew they were safe out here, and sometimes Ellie Crawford, who used to sew a ragdoll for every girl born in Peaksville, would twist the broad green leaves of the corn into a human shape, and leave it as an offering at the edge of the field.
Little Susie Fredericks had been given a corn-dolly too, and a few of the grownups were watching her dance it to a hummed tune, when they caught sight of lights bobbing out in the distance. Susie was hushed, and her brother gestured for frantically; they waited hudded together, their half-whispers giving way to acute silence. As the lights drew closer, they found they could make out a voice, low and monotonous.
"...Many cultures have stories of Others, mirror tribes or civilizations existing separately but alongside their own, conceived of as having greater ties to nature and the unknown, who must be propitiated by nightly gifts of food. It's been suggested that these traditions have their source in the collective memory of extinct hominid species that may have coexisted with our ancestors, but what if they're something else, something more foreign to humanity? What if they..."
"What is it?"
The woman's voice again, aggravated and quite close. "I stepped in a gopher hole."
A snort. "Why do you wear shoes like that, anyway? It's not like I mind you having short little legs. Well, unless we're running for our lives, but then the heels don't speed you up, do th...?"
A brilliant light was shone directly on them, and a few of the adults jumped to their feet, standing in front of the children and brandishing such tools as they'd made from stray twigs and broken bottles. As their eyes adjusted, they saw through the afterimage two figures before them, staring. The smaller, redhaired one...the woman, they realized...held a gun ready in one hand and the light in the other; as they watched, scarcely daring to breathe, the lanky male figure took out a badge that read "FBI" and raised it solemnly, in a pledge.
"We come in peace."