Because we know it is there, danger in an obvious place---on a battlefield, say---is often far less of a threat than it is on a quiet street in a small town. For example, on a street deep in America where three little boys rode interlocking figure eights on their bicycles, and on a sweet May evening, too, any danger would be a surprise. And a great and terrible danger---impossible.
Not all of the boys were in danger. In fact, two of them were as profoundly safe as anybody else in Madison, Wisconsin on the scented evening of May 21, 1977. The third boy, however, was not so lucky. Not nearly.
Because of something buried deeply in his genes, he was of more than normal interest to someone that is supposed not to exist, but does exist---in fact, is master of this earth.
It was too bad for this child---in fact, tragic---because these creatures---if they could even be called that---caused phenomenal trauma, scarring trauma...to those of their victims who lived.
Play ended with the last of the sun, and lights glowed on the porches of Woody Lane, as one by one the boys of the lane retired.
Danny rode a little longer, and was watched by Burly, the dog of Mr. Ehmer. Soon Mr. Ehmer himself came across his lawn. His pipe glowed as he drew on it, and he said, “Say there, Danny, you want to come night fishin’ with me and your Uncle Frank? We’ve been getting some good’uns all this week.”
Danny was a lonely child, saddled with an alcoholic mother and a violent father, so he welcomed these chances to be away from the tensions of home. He could take his sleeping bag and unroll it in the bottom of the boat, and if his line jerked it would wake him up. But not tonight. “I got scouts real early,” he said, “gotta get up.”
Mr. Ehmer leaned back on his heels. “You’re turnin’ down fishin’?”
“Gotta be at the park at nine. That means seven-thirty mass.”
“Well, yes it does. It does at that.” He drew on the pipe again. “We get a sturgeon, we’ll name ‘im for you.” He laughed then, a gentle rustle in his throat, in the first gusts of the wind that rises with the moon. He left Danny to go down the dark of Woody Lane alone, pushing the pedals of his Raleigh as hard as he could, not wanting to look up at the darkening sky again, not daring to look behind him.
As he parked his bike and ran up to the lit back door, he was flooded with relief as he hopped on the doorstep and went into the lighted kitchen. He smelled the lingering odor of fried chicken, felt hungry but knew there was none left in the house. He went into the living room.
He didn’t stay long. Love Boat was like a religion with Mom and Dad, and then came Fantasy Island. He’d rather be in his room with the Batman he’d bought from Ron Bloom for twenty cents.
At the same moment a few miles away, Katelyn Burns, who adored Love Boat, watched and received advice from her mother about painting her toenails. Very red, and use a polish that hardens slowly. They last longer, chip less, good on the toes. Next week school was out and she wanted---had---to paint her toenails for Beach Day.
A magnetism of whispers that Joyce assumed were her own thoughts had drawn her to Madison, Wisconsin, and to this shabby apartment near the water. An easy place, Madison, the thoughts whispered to her, for a divorcee to find a man. An easy place, they most certainly did not tell her, from which to steal a child, carry her out and take her far, so that when her screams started, there would be none to hear her but the night wind. And so it would be this night, after the Love Boat sailed away and silence filled the house.
As Saturday evening ended, the moon rode over houses that, one by one, became dark. Madison slept in peace, then, as the hours wore past midnight.
Sometime after three, Danny Callaghan became aware of a change around him, enough of a change to draw him out of sleep. He opened his eyes---and saw nothing but stars. For a moment, he thought he’d gone night fishing after all. Then he realized he was still in bed and the stars were coming from his own home planetarium, bought from Edmund Scientific for nine dollars. It was a dark blue plastic sphere with a light in it. The plastic was dotted with pinholes in the pattern of the night sky, and when you turned out the lights and turned the planetarium on, magic happened: the heavens appeared all around you.
He hadn’t turned the planetarium on, though, and that fact made the acid of fear rise in his throat. He opened his mouth to call for his dad, but there was no sound, just a puff of breath. As the stars crossed his face, twisting along his nose and across his eyes, his tears flowed in helpless silence.
The only sounds were the humming of the planetarium’s motor and the breeze fluttering the front-yard oak. Dan sat up on the bedside. Like a man buttoning his coat for a journey, he buttoned his pajama top, until all four big buttons were neatly closed. A thought whispered to him, “Stand up, look out the window...” He clutched the bedsheets with both hands. The old oak shook its leaves at him, and the thoughts whispered, “Come on...come on.”
Then he knew that his toes had touched the floor, and he was up in the flowing stars. Then he floated to the window. As he moved closer, he saw it sliding open. Then he went faster and moved through it. He tried to grab the sash as he passed, but missed. Then he was moving through the limbs of the oak that stood in their front yard, struggling and grabbing at them.
He got his arms around one, but his body turned upward until his feet were pointing at the sky. He held on with all his might, but the pull got stronger and stronger. “Dad,” he yelled as he was dislodged and drawn into the sky.
He heard a dog raise a howl, and saw an owl below him, her wings glowing in the moonlight, her voice swept away by the wind.
He rose screaming and struggling, running in the air, clawing at emptiness. Far below him, moonlight danced on Lake Monona’s baby waves. And then he was among the night clouds, and he flew in their canyons and soared across their hills, and heard their baby thunder muttering.
The wonder of it silenced his screams at last, but not the tears that poured down his face, or the trembling gasp that came when he slowly passed across the top of a cloud and saw, so very far below, the silver lake and the dots of light that were Madison. He closed his eyes and covered his face with his hands as he moved up toward what looked like a silver island in the sky.
The island had a round opening in it, dark and black.
Then Danny was through the round opening. He stopped in the air, then fell to a floor. Opening his eyes, he found himself in darkness, but not absolute darkness. Moonlight sifted in the opening. Far below, he could see the pinpricks of light that marked fishing boats on the lake’s surface.
A cold sorrow enveloped him. Now, here, he remembered this from before. He did not want the little doctors to touch him ever again. He knew, also, that they would, and soon. He thought of jumping back out through the opening, but what would happen then? He went closer to it, leaned out as far as he dared. “MR. EHMERS! UNCLE FRANK! HELP ME! PLEASE, UNCLE FRANK!”
A rustling sound. He cringed closer to the edge, wishing he dared jump through. A voice whispered, soft: “Hello?”
He backed away from the form. He could see white---a white face, loose white clothes.
“Help me,” the form said.
It was a girl, he could see that now, could hear it in her voice. She was standing on the far side of the opening in the floor, her face glowing in the faint moonlight that slanted in.
“Are you from Madison?” she asked. Her voice trembled.
“Yeah. I’m Danny Callaghan.”
“I’m Katelyn Burns. I never saw anybody else here before.”
“Where are we?”
“I’m not sure.”
“‘Cause when I come here I remember I was here before, but then when I go home I don’t remember anymore.” She lowered her head. Her voice dropped to a hesitant murmur. “Do they take your clothes off, too?”
His face grew hot. He clutched his own shoulders. “Uh-huh.”
“They do stuff to me that’s weird.”
“Some kind of operations.”
Her eyes flashed. “Yes, but this isn’t a hospital!”
As the two children came together and held each other, they were watched by cold and careful eyes.
The embrace between the children extended, the girl in her chemise, the boy in his pajamas stained with yesterday’s oatmeal. It had nothing to do with sex, they were too young. They were like two little birds stolen from the nest, trying to find some safety where there was none.
“If we dive down to the lake, would that work? Instead of just jumping?” Dan asked Katelyn.
“I don’t know. Maybe not.”
“I’ve got a diving merit badge. I’m going to try,” he said.
Copyright © 2006 by Whitley Strieber