Authors: Daryl Gregory
MT. PROSPECT, ILLINOIS, TODAY
There were six candles on the cake. The boy scrunched himself tighter into his seat at the patio table, hugging himself to contain his excitement. He held his breath as his mother used the big grill igniter to light the candles one by one. It was windy, and she had to light some of the candles twice.
They sang to him: his mother, his big brother, and his brother’s wife. The boy, whose body was that of a grown man with a baritone voice to match, didn’t sing along. He had trouble with words. He could say “Mom” and “Lew” and “no.” His doctor, Dr. Aaron, said that more words would come back in time. She was sure the temper tantrums would settle down too. They’d learned some of the things that could set him off: he didn’t like small spaces; he couldn’t stand tight clothes; he didn’t like the dark. He slept with the lights on, and once when the fuses blew during a thunderstorm and the house went black he screamed and screamed.
“Go for it, my man,” Lew said. The boy blew out all the candles at once, and they all clapped.
The boy pushed his chair back from the glass table, scraping metal legs along the cement. He drew up his long knees and sat squinting in the sunlight. He wore blue shorts and a Spider-Man T-shirt.
His mother cut the cake—an ice cream cake, vanilla and chocolate both—and levered thick wedges onto paper plates.
“The big one’s for you,” Lew said. The boy gripped the white plastic fork and pushed it against the cake. It was hot and humid, nearly 90 degrees, but the cake had been in the freezer all night and was rock solid.
Amra leaned over him. “Do you want me to cut it into pieces for you?”
He shook his head. He adjusted his grip on the fork and jabbed it in, breaking a tine. He frowned. “Go easy, Del,” Amra said. “I’ll go get some silverware.”
The boy picked the plastic out of the cake, then licked the ice cream from his fingers. Lew said to his mother, “I thought later we’d go miniature golfing? I’ve got some time before we have to get back.”
The boy jabbed again, shaking the table. He’d smeared ice cream up his hand and forearm. His mother put a hand on his shoulder. “Del, that’s not—”
He swung down. The fork snapped in half and his fist smashed into the cake, splattering ice cream. His mother said, “That’s enough!”
The boy angrily threw himself back in the chair, legs kicking.
He didn’t know his own strength. His foot caught the underside of the glass table, flipped it up, sending cake and plates and cups flying. The edge of the table struck the cement and cracked, loud as a gunshot.
The boy’s chair tipped over backward, onto the grass. The boy jumped up, already crying. He ran pell-mell for the back of the yard, toward the wooden fence that shouldn’t have been there. He jumped, reached with his too-long arms over the top, and swung one oversized leg over. He rolled over, scraping his chest on the fence posts, and fell to the other side.
He lay sprawled on a strip of grass at the edge of a two-lane road. Beyond the road, the field he used to play in was gone. Low brick buildings and parking lots and tidy lawns covered everything. A paved bicycle path wound between the buildings, leading toward the line of trees where the creek used to be. He got to his feet and plunged into the street.
A car came out of nowhere. Brakes squealed. He kept going, too scared to look back.
Once into the trees he found that the creek was still there. He ran along its edge, stumbling in and out of it, soaking his gym shoes. He slowed, looking for his old hiding spots, but everything was smaller than it should have been.
He sat at the edge of the water, not caring if he got muddy. He tried to stop crying. Gnats swarmed his face.
He heard them calling for him, somewhere above him. He crawled up the bank and wormed his way into the undergrowth. He pressed himself into the bushiest bush, the branches scraping at his arms and back. A few feet in front of his face was the back of a park bench, the walking path a few feet beyond that.
A minute later they walked past his hiding place. “I’ll check the playground,” he heard his mother say. The woman who said she was his mother. Overnight, they’d changed more than the park. His mother replaced by a gray-haired woman. His brother turned into a giant. And his father—they’d told him his father was dead.
He watched them split up, disappear between the buildings. Still he didn’t move. Gnats flicked across bare legs. He itched all over. But he stayed hidden.
A short, chubby man sat down on the bench, his back to the boy. The man took off his baseball cap and ran a hand across his scalp. He was bald on top, frizzy around the sides, like Bozo. Next to him on the bench was a bag like a big purse.
“You can come out now,” the man said without turning around. “The coast is clear.”
The boy didn’t move.
“Or you can stay there.”
The boy poked his head out, looked left and right. No one else in sight. He crawled forward on his elbows. He tried to stand and slipped.
The bald man got up and extended a hand. The boy took it and got to his feet. The man was smiling at him, but it was a sad kind of smile.
The boy jerked back, recognizing him. He made a noise like a choked scream. The bald man still had his arm. The boy closed his free hand into a fist and swung, catching the man across the temple.
“Hey!” the bald man said. He stepped back and covered his ears with his arms. The boy came after him, swinging with both fists now. He struck again and again, hammering at him.
The bald man didn’t try to strike back. Eventually he dropped his arms and let the boy flail at him without obstruction. The blows turned the man’s ears bright red, drew blood from his nose. He stood there, silently absorbing the punishment.
After a minute the boy stopped, panting.
The bald man turned his head and spat a dollop of blood. “I deserved that,” he said. “And more.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. His golf shirt was streaked with red. Both cheeks looked bruised, and one ear seemed pulpy and red as a tomato. “I don’t know how I’ll make it up to Bertram, though.”
The boy glared at him.
“All done?” the man said.
The boy slapped him across the cheek, hard enough to turn his head.
The man rubbed his jaw. “Okay then.” He walked back to the bench and sat down. The boy remained standing, tensed to run.
“I won’t bother you again,” the man said. “I promise. I just wanted to tell you that you never have to worry about…me. I’m going to keep the other demons away from you too. Kind of a guardian angel.”
The boy said nothing.
“Maybe someday we’ll be able to keep all the demons away.” He touched a finger to his nose. It had stopped bleeding. “I’m working with a woman and some other people. We’re contacting scientists. I don’t think you’d understand right now if I tried to explain, but we’re…trying to shut the door that the demons use.”
A distant shout: “Del!” The old man and the boy turned together. A tall, bearded figure waved from the other end of the park. He moved toward them in a jerky half-run.
“I should be going,” the bald man said. He stood, retrieved his cap from the ground, and pulled it on. “Oh, and I brought you something.” He handed the boy a thin package wrapped in foil paper. “Happy birthday, Del.”
He walked briskly away. In a moment he disappeared around the corner of a building.
Lew reached the boy. He breathed heavily, his face bright with sweat. “Hey man, we’re looking all over for you,” he said. “Who were you talking to—did he bother you? Did he do anything to you?”
The boy shook his head.
“Okay, good.” He studied the spot where the man had disappeared, then looked down at the boy and noticed the present in his hand. “What do you got there? Did that guy give this to you?”
The boy handed it to him. Waited. Lew pulled off the wrapping paper. “Fuck,” he said. It was a comic book. He studied the cover for a long moment, then looked up at the spot where the man in the ball cap had disappeared. Gone.
The boy took the book from his hand. The cover showed a man in goggles shooting a bulky gun. He flipped it open, frowning.
“That’s RADAR Man,” Lew said. His voice sounded strained. Then he cleared his throat and said, “Don’t worry, I’ll read it to you. And there’s a ton of comics in the basement. They’re all yours.”
The boy took his brother’s hand, and they started walking back, the boy holding the comic open in his other hand as they walked.
“We gotta get you cleaned up, man,” Lew said. “But you know nobody’s mad at you, right? It was totally an accident.” The boy nodded absently. He was looking at the comic book. “And let’s not tell the Cyclops that I swore in front of you. She would so kill me.”
The comment made in chapter 5 by “Valis” on the difference between fantasy and science fiction was taken from Philip K. Dick’s essay “My Definition of Science Fiction,” which appeared in
The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick, Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings,
edited by Lawrence Sutin. That book also reprinted a drawing from Dick’s
that I adapted for the Rapturist symbol in chapter 4.
The first-time novelist owes thanks to almost everyone he’s ever met. A novelist who’s written a pop culture mash-up like this one is also indebted to almost every book he’s ever read, starting with the comics of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. Thank you for teaching me to read, gentlemen. This book also owes much to the stories of H. P. Lovecraft and the novels of A. E. Van Vogt (pronounced “A. E.”) and Philip K. Dick.
Kathy Bieschke and Gary Delafield were, as always, my first, best, and toughest readers. Andrew Tisbert and Elizabeth Delafield saw later drafts and kept me on track. My thanks as well to the many friends (including several more Delafields) who read the manuscript; to my children, Emma and Ian Gregory, who weren’t allowed to read it; and to my sisters, Robin Somerfield and Lisa Johnson, who were simply thankful they weren’t in it.
Several wise professionals guided me through the last mile of the publishing process. Gordon Van Gelder offered well-timed words of advice and a door-opening e-mail. Christine Cohen pushed the book into exactly the right hands. The deft copyediting of Sona Vogel and Deanna Hoak saved me from several embarrassments. My thanks to them all, and especially to my editor, Fleetwood Robbins. He understood the book from the beginning yet saw how it could be more true to itself.
Finally, my deepest thanks go to Darrell and Thelma Gregory, who never turned down their odd son no matter how many times he showed up at the checkout counter holding another comic or paperback. Mom, I’m sorry this book has so many curse words.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
DARYL GREGORY’s short stories have appeared in
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s,
several year’s-best anthologies, and other fine venues. In 2005 he received the
Readers’ Award for the novelette “Second Person, Present Tense.” He lives with his wife and two children in State College, Pennsylvania, where he writes both fiction and web code.
is his first novel.
Pandemonium is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
A Del Rey Books Trade Paperback Original Copyright © 2008 by Daryl Gregory All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Del Rey Books, an imprint of The Random House
Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
is a registered trademark and the Del Rey colophon is a trademark of Random House, Inc.
Book design by Casey Hampton