She took Little Buddy by the hand and followed her husband across the office.
One of the graysuits held another door open for her.
TESTING ROOM A.
“Where’s Mr. Cochran?” she asked.
“He said eight o’clock,” Buddy reminded her.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” said Little Buddy.
She let go of her son’s hand and accosted the graysuit. “Hey, where is everybody?”
The graysuit said nothing.
The door opened not into a laboratory but into a spacious living room. Wordlessly the Kupfers were ushered inside.
Betty relaxed a notch.
The room was a gaily-decorated version of the living quarters found in any typical mail-order catalogue of home furnishings in America. Shag carpeting. A plush sofa upholstered in an extravagant floral design of distinctive taste. An overstuffed chair to match. Color-coordinated drapes of a complementary tropical fruit print. And lemon-yellow walls to boost the spirits of any family gathering.
And, of course, the reassuring eye of a console television set, positioned conveniently for communal after-dinner viewing pleasure.
Both adults were handed pencils, paper and clipboards.
Betty flounced down on the sofa.
Buddy took up the position most familiar to him, which was the easy chair.
Little Buddy explored the room with blasé restlessness, tweaking the lampshade, testing the legs of the end table with a playful kick, handling the plastic knickknacks and kitsch figurines set out to complete the decor.
None of them noticed the graysuit outside, his emotionless eyes noting their responses with perfect impartiality through the chickenwire-glass observation inset in the heavy door.
Buddy was grateful for the momentary comfort. He loosened his ventilated shoes and took a load off.
“Well, I guess Mr. Cochran will be along,” he said resignedly, as he said most everything when no one else was around to hear.
Betty plumped up a decorator pillow and leaned across the virgules of the upholstery. “I don’t like those guys,” she confided. “They give me the creeps.”
She tucked her legs up under her full skirt and draped herself as gracefully as possible against the armrest.
“I have to go to the bathroom!” whined Little Buddy.
He gave up on the model locomotive atop the TV set. He scampered to the door, all the while playing at stamping down the pile of the carpet. It was the latest synthetic blend and bounced back fresh and erect with hardly any lag time. He gave the doorknob an impatient yank.
It would not open.
“Relax a minute, willya?” Here in this reassuring setting, Buddy Senior reverted to the role he had practiced to perfection, that of the put-upon breadwinner who is seldom granted a moment’s peace. “Mr. Cochran’s gonna come and everything will be just fine!”
His hand opened and closed on the floral print armrest as his autonomic nervous system sought a cold one to go with his after-dinner TV.
Betty unsnagged the bra strap under her Butterick blouse. “You think he’s going to give you some more money?” She sounded hopeful and dubious in the same breath, not an insignificant feat.
“Naw. He just wants my opinion about some commericals or something.”
“I’m bored,” declared Little Buddy. He slithered behind the sofa and drew back the curtains.
There was no exit through the mock window, only a ribbed backdrop of gray steel plating.
Buddy sank into reflection. “I still can’t figure out why they won’t take my orders for next year.”
Little Buddy slouched over to the TV set. He twisted the ON control.
It didn’t work.
“You know how I like to plan ahead,” said Buddy. “It just seems like they’re not interested at all.”
“Maybe they’re not gonna have Halloween next year,” suggested Betty.
“Haw haw haw,” said Buddy sarcastically. “Very funny.” He checked his watch, re-centered his buttocks with some discomfort on the cushion. “Where is he?”
Outside the door, the graysuit received a signal.
He exposed a control panel in the wall and touched a switch.
The TV set popped on.
Little Buddy homed in to a spot on the shag carpet.
The screen snowed over with static, then rolled through a blizzard before locking on a close-up of three ecstatic, apple-cheeked children.
“HAPPY HAPPY HALLOWEEN, HALLOWEEN, HALLOWEEN . . . !”
Buddy picked up his pencil without enthusiasm. He winced. “Aw, this is the same old stuff . . .”
“HAP-PY HAP-PY HAL-LO-WEEN, SIL-VER SHAM-ROCK!”
Betty sat forward. “No, this one’s different.”
“No, it’s not, it’s not . . .”
He rolled his eyes melodramatically as the same Silver Shamrock version of “London Bridge” played out a second chorus. Thus diverted, his eyes were snared by something high in the corner, mounted against the ceiling.
“Look at that,” he said. “A TV camera, by gosh. They don’t leave you alone for a minute, do they?”
“They probably want to get our reactions,” said Betty, primping self-consciously.
“Shh!” said Little Buddy. “I’m listening!”
“Watched a lot of TV in my time,” said Buddy. “But this’ll be the first time it ever watched me . . .”
“TIME! IT’S TIME! ALL THOSE LUCKY KIDS WITH SILVER SHAMROCK MASKS—AND THIS MEANS YOU—GATHER ’ROUND!”
“Don’t get too close,” Betty said to her son. “You’ll ruin your eyes, honey.”
But the boy was shaking out his Silver Shamrock pumpkin and dragging it on over his head. He stretched the nose and found the eye holes.
The announcer’s Irish brogue chanted on.
“AND NOW, WATCH THE MAGIC PUMPKIN! WATCH!”
The screen was taken up corner-to-corner by a vivid two-dimensional pumpkin graphic. Electric orange against a neutral background. Extreme close-up, with broad sawtooth mouth and triangular eyes.
There was a high-voltage crackle in the back of the set as the screen went black.
Not blank. Black.
“Now what is this?” said Buddy. “They screwed up the commercial.”
The pumpkin flashed back on the screen.
Then the pumpkin.
“I think this whole thing is a big joke,” said Betty.
The flashing alternated faster and faster so that the pumpkin’s afterimage remained while the background changed. Black through the eye holes, then white. Black, white. The pumpkin shimmered and seemed to lift off the screen.
As the room strobed with bright and dark frames, Little Buddy’s hands crept up to his mask.
“Little Buddy?” said Betty.
The stroboscopic effect speeded up until the room was blazing under a machine-gun assault of orange phosphor.
The shamrock button on the back of Little Buddy’s mask became activated.
It glowed red-hot.
The boy lurched back from the set, clutching the mask. A strangled moan came from beneath the mouth holes as he attempted to remove it.
Betty stood up in shock as the boy pitched forward headfirst onto the carpet.
Little Buddy kicked and tried to raise himself.
His pumpkin head melted.
The orange rubber wrinkled and ran like dissolving flesh, uncovering his eyes. They were two blood-red orbs.
His parents were both on their feet.
But it was too late.
The mask hole which was his mouth tore open in a rictus.
A wiry appendage poked forth. Covered with bristles. It hooked to the carpet and pulled another appendage out after it.
Another. And another.
It was a spider the size of a black hand.
Betty released a half-scream, half-whimper and fell upon her son.
The spider sprang to her face.
She shrieked in horror as it stung her again and again.
Buddy had to do something. He dove down onto his wife, covering her. But already she was twitching into paralysis.
Then, out of Little Buddy’s throat came the writhing extension of something long and impossibly thick, sheathed in slime, like a swollen, blackened tongue.
As it forked the air and unveiled its dripping fangs, Buddy inserted his arms under his son in an attempt to turn him over, to lift him away. But the fangs sank deep into his leg, cutting through his trousers and burying their needle-sharp injections to the bone.
His legs numbed and collapsed under him.
Little Buddy fell back, mask and face crumbling as one into the discoloring carpet.
Like a cripple Buddy tried to stand. He could not. He confronted the camera in the corner, tears streaming down his face.
“Damn you, Cochran! Liar! Murderer! Damn you to hell! Damn you . . .!”
He was pulled down with the rest of his family.
As the defiled head of his only son opened like the doorway to another dimension and spewed forth darkness and decay.
Buddy Kupfer wept impotently, pounding his fist into the carpet which now crawled with the unspeakable malformations of nature’s underside. His fist rose in a last spastic gesture of defiance as his physical body and the family he had created, the substance of his life and the world of his choice, all he had lived and worked for and the only dream he had ever known degenerated before his eyes into a churning, formless mass of unleashed chaos.
Then there was only the sound of two long, pale hands clapping.
Conal Cochran clasped his manicured hands to his breast and said with quavering voice, “Lovely! Lovely! Doesn’t it simply surpass one’s wildest dreams?”
Challis could no longer look at the screen. His eyes blurred and a terrible agony clutched his heart.
“Children,” said Challis, his words slurring. “All the children . . .”
“Yes,” hissed Cochran, “the children! A plague is on them. Now think of that—in fifty million homes!”
“Sacrifices,” said Challis. His cheeks were burning and his body quaked. Strong black-gloved hands restrained him. “To what pagan god, Cochran? For what purpose?”
“God? What a quaint word! I am speaking to you of our way, the one way, the old way, as it was done long before your unshorn carpenter from Galilee chose to destroy himself on that rude cross. Do you know anything about Halloween, Doctor?”
“I do now,” said Challis. His arms nearly broke as he strained forward.
“Tsk, tsk, my good man! Ignorance is such a convenient excuse for self-righteousness. No, of course you don’t know. How could you? You’ve thought no further than that strange custom of letting your children dress themselves in morbid costumes and go begging for handouts.”
He extended his arms to give audience to the entire chamber. As if the technicians and graysuits could hear and understand his words. But he had not bothered to program them for such a function. He was himself his own best audience.
Now he spoke to the far reaches of the hall, to the prehistoric stone monolith rather than to its custodial minions, who continued their chipping, multiplying the icon to spread its body across the land.
“It was the start of the new year in our old Celtic lands. We would wait in our houses made of turf. The barriers were down, you see, between the real and the unreal. The dead might look in, sit by our bit of fire. It was our glorious festival of Samhain. The last great one was three thousand years ago . . .”
His eyes glazed with rapture, mirroring some previously unspoken memory. He continued in a faraway voice.
“The hills ran with the blood of countless animals . . . and countless children . . .”
“I don’t want to hear this,” said Challis.
“Oh, but you really should. It was part of our world, our craft.”
“Your term. To us it was a way of controlling our world. The only way. As it is once again.”
Cochran glowered at the television equipment, the high-tech products which surrounded him.
“All this has failed you and your kind, hasn’t it, Doctor? You can’t predict with certainty any event in your world, not even the rudimentary workings of your own bodies. Isn’t that so?”
“We try,” said Challis. “We’re getting better at it all the time.”
“But will time wait for you? I think not. Even my ancestors were left behind by the machinations of history. They had the power. But they lacked one ingredient: the harnessing and storing of that power. Which, ironically, is what you and yours have now provided.
“Times have not really changed, my friend. The quest for control remains a constant. And now it’s time again. In the end, we don’t decide these things, you know. We are but a part of the great plan. Today the planets are in alignment, the moon is in syzygy, and it’s time. That’s all.”
Cochran snapped his fingers. A gray suit held out three masks.
“Which one? Ah, I think this one will suit you perfectly. It becomes you. It will become you, you know.”
He selected the painted skull and pulled it over Challis’s head like a hood.
“Tell me one thing first,” said Challis. “Why children?”
“Do I need a reason? Oh, I could tell you that they are the easiest prey—and they are, you know. People nowadays no longer listen to them. They provide the easiest entry, the path of least resistance. What better reason, from a purely pragmatic view? But they are such irritating little creatures, don’t you agree? You know that you do, deep down. They are as noisy as wretched sheep and twice as dirty, given to us from out of the filthiest part of woman. And you know what happens to dirty little lambs, don’t you, Doctor? They are invariably given over to the slaughter.”
“I want to see Ellie.”
Cochran jerked the mask down. He laughed crookedly. “Oh, you will, Doctor, I promise you, you will!”
He lowered the mask all the way and snapped his fingers again.
“Take him away."