The Return: Midnight (Chapter 18)

After breakfast Matt went online to find two stores, neither in Fel 's Church, that had the amount of clay Mrs. Flowers said she'd need and that said they'd deliver. But after that there was the matter of driving away from the boardinghouse and by the last lonely remains of where the Old Wood had been.

He drove by the little thicket where Shinichi often came like a demonic Pied Piper with the possessed children shuffling behind him – the place where Sheriff Mossberg had gone after them and hadn't come out. Where, later, protected by magical wards on Post-it Notes, he and Tyrone Alpert had pul ed out a bare, chewed femur.

Today, he figured the only way to get past the thicket was to work his wheezing junk car up by stages, and it was actual y going over sixty when he flew by the thicket, even managing to hit the turn perfectly. No trees fel on him, no swarms of foot-long bugs.

He whispered "Whoa,"in relief and headed for home. He dreaded that – but simply driving through Fel 's Church was so horrible it glued his tongue to the top of his mouth. It looked – this pretty, innocent little town where he had grown up – as if it were one of those neighborhoods you saw on TV or on the Internet that had been bombed, or something. And whether it was bombs or disasterous fires, one house in four was simply rubble. A few were half-rubble, with police tape enclosing them, which meant that whatever had happened had happened early enough for the police to care – or dare.

Around the burned-out bits the vegetation flourished strangely: a decorative bush from one house grown so as to be halfway across a neighbor's grass. Vines dipping from one tree to another, to another, as if this were some ancient jungle.

His home was right in the middle of a long block of houses ful of kids – and in summer, when grandchildren inevitably came to visit, there were even more kids. Matt just hoped that that part of summer vacation was done…but would Shinichi and Misao let the youngsters go home? Matt had no idea. And, if they went home, would they keep spreading the disease in their own hometowns? Where did it stop?

Driving down his block, though, Matt saw nothing hideous.

There were kids playing out on the front lawns, or the sidewalks, crouching over marbles, hanging out in the trees.

There was no single overt thing that he could put his finger on There was no single overt thing that he could put his finger on that was weird.

He was Stilluneasy. But he'd reached his house now, the one with a grand old oak tree shading the porch, so he had to get out. He coasted to a stop just under the tree and parked by the sidewalk. He grabbed a large laundry bag from the backseat. He'd been accumulating dirty clothes for a couple of weeks at the boardinghouse and it hadn't seemed fair to ask Mrs. Flowers to wash them.

As he got out of the car, pul ing the bag out with him, he was just in time to hear the birdsong stop.

For a moment after it did, he wondered what was wrong. He knew that something was missing, cut short. It made the air heavier. It even seemed to change the smel of the grass.

Then he realized. Every bird, including the raucous crows that lived in the oak trees, had gone silent.

All at once.

Matt felt a twisting in his bel y as he looked up and around.

There were two kids in the oak tree right beside his car. His mind was Stillstubbornly trying to hang on to: Children.

Playing. Okay. His body was smarter. His hand was already in his pocket, pul ing out a pad of Post-it Notes: the flimsy bits of paper that usual y stopped evil magic cold.

Matt hoped Meredith would remember to ask Isobel's mother for more amulets. He was running low, and…

…and there were two kids playing in the old oak tree. Except they weren't. They were staring at him. One boy was hanging upside down by his knees and the other was gobbling something…out of a garbage bag.

The hanging kid was staring at him with strangely acute eyes. "Have you ever wondered what it's like to be dead?"he asked.

And now the head of the gobbling boy came up, thick bright red al around his mouth. Bright red –  –  blood. And…whatever was in the garbage bag was moving. Kicking. Thrashing weakly. Trying to get away.

A wave of nausea washed over Matt. Acid hit his throat. He was going to puke. The gobbling kid was staring at him with stony black-as-a-pit eyes. The hanging kid was smiling.

Then, as if stirred by a hot breath of wind, Matt felt the fine hairs on the back of his neck stand up. It wasn't just the birds that had gone quiet. Everything had. No child's voice was raised in argument or song or speech.

He whirled around and saw why. They were staring at him.

Every single kid on the block was silently watching him. Then, with a chil ing precision, as he turned back to look at the boys in the tree, al the others came toward him.

Except they weren't walking.

They were creeping. Lizard-fashion. That's why some of them had seemed to be playing with marbles on the sidewalk. They were al moving in the same way, bel ies close to the ground, elbows up, hands like forepaws, knees splaying to the side.

Now he could taste bile. He looked the other way down the street and found another group creeping. Grinning unnatural grins. It was as if someone was pul ing their cheeks from behind them, pul ing them hard, so that their grins almost broke their faces in half.

Matt noticed something else. Suddenly they'd stopped, and while he stared at them, they stayed Still. Perfectly Still, staring back at him. But when he looked away, he saw the creeping figures out of the corner of his eye.

He didn't have enough Post-it Notes for al of them.

You can't run away from this. It sounded like an outside voice in his head. Telepathy. But maybe that was because Matt's head had turned into a roiling red cloud, floating upward.

Fortunately, his body heard it and suddenly he was up on the back of his car, and had grabbed the hanging kid. For a moment he had a helpless impulse to let go of the boy. The kid Stillstared at him but with eerie, uncanny eyes that were half rol ed back in his head. Instead of dropping him, Matt slapped a Post-It Note on the boy's forehead, swinging him at the same time to sit on the back of the car.

A pause and then wailing. The kid must be fourteen at least, but about thirty seconds after the Ban Against Evil (pocket-size) was smacked on him he was sobbing real kid sobs.

As one, the crawling kids let out a hiss. It was like a giant steam engine. Hsssssssssssssssssssssss.

They began to breathe in and out very fast, as if working up to some new state. Their creeping slowed to a crawl. But they were breathing so hard Matt could see their sides hol ow and fil .

As Matt turned to look at one group of them, they froze, except for the unnatural breathing. But he could feel the ones behind him getting closer.

By now Matt's heart was pounding in his ears. He could fight a group of them – but not with a group on his back. Some of them looked only ten or eleven. Some looked almost his age.

Some were girls, for God's sake. Matt remembered what possessed girls had done the last time he'd met them and felt violent revulsion.

But he knew that looking up at the gobbling kid was going to make him sicker. He could hear smacking, chewing sounds – and he could hear a thin little whistle of helpless pain and weak struggling against the bag.

He whirled quickly again, to keep off the other side of crawlers, and then made himself look up. With a quiet crackle, the garbage bag fel away when he grabbed it but the kid held on to what was in –

Oh my God. He's eating a baby! A baby! A –

He yanked the kid out of the tree and his hand automatical y slapped a Post-It onto the boy's back. And then – then, thank God, he saw the fur. It wasn't a baby. It was too smal to be a baby, even a newborn. But it was eaten.

The kid raised his bloody face to Matt's, and Matt saw that it was Cole Reece, Cole who was only thirteen and lived right next door. Matt hadn't even recognized him before.

Cole's mouth was wide open in horror now, and his eyes were bulging out of his head with terror and sorrow, and tears and snot were streaming down his face.

"He made me eat Toby,"he started in a whisper that became a scream. "He made me eat my guinea pig! He made me –  why why why did he do that? I ATE TOBY!"

He threw up al over Matt's shoes. Blood-red vomit.

Merciful death for the animal. Quick, Matt thought. But this was the hardest thing he'd ever tried to do. How to do it – a hard stomp on the creature's head? He couldn't. He had to try something else first.

Matt peeled off a Post-It Note and put it, trying not to look, on the fur. And just like that it was over. The guinea pig went slack. The spel had undone whatever had been keeping it alive up to this point.

There was blood and puke on Matt's hands, but he made himself turn to Cole. Cole had his eyes shut tight and little choking sounds came from him.

Something in Matt snapped.

"You want some of this?"he shouted, holding out the Post-it pad as if it were the revolver he'd left with Mrs. Flowers. He whirled again, shouting, "You want some? How about you?

You, Josh?"He was recognizing faces now. "You, Madison?

How 'bout you, Bryn? Bring it on! You all bring it on! BRING IT – "

Something touched his shoulder. He spun, Post-it Note ready. Then he stopped short and relief bubbled up in him like Evian water at some fancy restaurant. He was staring right into the face of Dr. Alpert, Fel 's Church's own country doctor. She had her SUV parked beside his car, in the middle of the street. Behind her, protecting her back, was Tyrone, who was going to be next year's quarterback at Robert E. Lee High. His sister, a sophomore-to-be, was trying to get out of the SUV too, but she stopped when Tyrone saw her.

"Jayneela!" he roared in a voice only the Tyre-minator could produce. "You get back in and buckle up! You know what Mom said! You do it now!"

Matt found himself clutching at Dr. Alpert's chocolate brown hands. He knew she was a good woman, and a good caretaker, who had adopted her daughter's young children when their divorced mother had died of cancer. Maybe she would help him, too. He began babbling. "Oh, God, I've gotta get my mom out. My mom lives here alone. And I have to get her away from here."He knew he was sweating. He hoped he wasn't crying.

"Okay, Matt,"the doctor said in her husky voice. "I'm getting my own family out this afternoon. We're going to stay with relatives in West Virginia. She's welcome to come."

It couldn't be this easy. Matt knew he had tears in his eyes now. He refused to blink, though, and let them come down. "I don't know what to say – but if you would – you're an adult, you see. She won't listen to me. She will listen to you. This whole block is infected. This kid Cole – "He couldn't go on.

But Dr. Alpert saw it al in a flash – the animal, the boy with blood on his teeth and his mouth, Stillretching.

Dr. Alpert didn't react. She just had Jayneela throw her a packet of Wet Wipes from the SUV and held the heaving kid with one hand, while vigorously scrubbing his face clean. "Go home,"she told him sternly.

"You have to let the infected ones go,"she said to Matt, with a terrible look in her eyes. "Cruel as it seems, they only pass it on to the few who're Stillwell."Matt started to tel her about the effectiveness of the Post-it Note amulets, but she was already cal ing, "Tyrone! Come over here and you boys bury this poor animal. Then you be ready to move Mrs.

Honeycutt's things into the van. Jayneela, you do what your brother says. I'm going in for a little talk with Mrs. Honeycutt right now."

She didn't raise her voice much. She didn't need to. The Tyre-minator was obeying, backing up to Matt, watching the last of the creeping children that Matt's explosion hadn't scattered.

He's quick, Matt realized. Quicker than me. It's like a game.

As long as you watch them they can't move.

They took turns being the watcher and handling the shovel.

The earth here was hard as rock, heavy with weeds. But somehow they got a hole dug and the work helped them mental y. They buried Toby, and Matt walked around like some foot-dragging monster, trying to get the vomit off his shoes in the grass.

Suddenly beside them there was the noise of a door banging open and Matt ran, ran to his mother, who was trying to heft a huge suitcase, much too heavy for her, through the door.

Matt took it from her and felt himself encompassed in her hug even though she had to stand on tip-toes to do it. "Matt, I can't just leave you – "

"He'l be one of those to get the town out of this mess,"Dr.

Alpert said, overriding her. "He'l clean it up. Now we've got to get out so we don't drag him down. Matt, just so you know, I heard that the McCul oughs are getting out too. Mr. and Mrs.

Sulez don't seem to be going yet, and neither do the Gilbert-Maxwells."She said the last two words with a distinct emphasis.

The Gilbert-Maxwells were Elena's aunt Judith, her husband Robert MaxWell, and Elena's little sister, Margaret. There was no real reason to mention them. But Matt knew why Dr.

Alpert had. She remembered seeing Elena when this whole mess had started. Despite Elena's purification of the woods where Dr. Alpert had been standing, the doctor remembered.

"I'l tel  – Meredith,"Matt said, and looking her in the eyes, he nodded a little, as if to say, I'l tel Elena, too.

"Anything else to carry?"Tyrone asked. He was encumbered by a canary birdcage, with the little bird frantical y beating its wings inside, and a smal er suitcase.

"No, but how can I thank you?"Mrs. Honeycutt said.

"Thanks later – now, everybody in,"said Dr. Alpert. "We are taking off."

Matt hugged his mother and gave her a little push toward the SUV, which had already swal owed the birdcage and smal suitcase.

"Good-bye!"everyone was yel ing. Tyrone stuck his head out of the window to say, "Cal me whenever! I want to help!"

And then they were gone.

Matt could hardly believe it was over; it had happened so fast. He ran inside the open door of his house and got his other pair of running shoes, just in case Mrs. Flowers couldn't fix the smel of the ones he was wearing.

When he burst out of the house again he had to blink. Instead of the white SUV there was a different white car parked beside his. He looked around the block. No children. None at al .

And the birdsong had come back.

There were two men in the car. One was white and one was black and they both were around the age to be concerned fathers. Anyway they had him cut off, the way their car was parked. He had no choice but to go up to them. As soon as he did they both got out of the car, watching him as if he was as dangerous as a kitsune.

The instant they did that, Matt knew he'd made a mistake.

"You're Matthew Jeffrey Honeycutt?"

Matt had no choice but to nod.

"Say yes or no, please."

"Yes."Matt could see inside the white car now. It was a stealth police car, one of those with lights inside, al ready to be fixed outside if the officers wanted to let you in on the secret.

"Matthew Jeffrey Honeycutt, you are under arrest for assault and battery upon Caroline Beula Forbes. You have the right to remain silent. If you give up this right, anything you say can and wil be used against you in a court of law – "

"Didn't you see those kids?"Matt was shouting. "You had to have seen one or two of them! Didn't that mean anything to you?"

"Lean over and put your hands on the front of the car."

"It's going to destroy the whole town! You're helping it!"

"Do you understand these rights – ?"

"Do you understand what is going on in Fel 's Church?"

There was a pause this time. And then, in perfectly even tones, one of the two said, "We're from Ridgemont."