Silvia ran laughing through the night brightness, between the roses and cosmos and Shasta daisies, down the gravel path and beyond the heaps of sweet-tasting grass swept from the lawns. Stars, caught in pools of water, glittered everywhere, as she brushed through them to the slope beyond the brick wall. Cedars supported the sky and ignored the slim shape squeezing past, her brown hair flying, her eyes flashing.
"Wait for me," Rick complained, as he cautiously threaded his way after her, along the half familiar path. Silvia danced on without stopping. "Slow down!" he shouted angrily.
"Can't -- we're late." Without warning, Silvia appeared in front of him, blocking the path. "Empty your pockets," she gasped, her gray eyes sparkling. "Throw away all metal. You know they can't stand metal."
Rick searched his pockets. In his overcoat were two dimes and a fifty-cent piece. "Do these count?"
"Yes!" Silvia snatched the coins and threw them into the dark heaps of calla lilies. The bits of metal hissed into the moist depths and were gone. "Anything else?" She caught hold of his arm anxiously. "They're already on their way. Anything else, Rick?"
"Just my watch." Rick pulled his wrist away as Silvia's wild fingers snatched for the watch. "That's not going in the bushes."
"Then lay it on the sundial -- or the wall. Or in a hollow tree." Silvia raced off again. Her excited, rapturous voice danced back to him. "Throw away your cigarette case. And your keys, your belt buckle -- everything metal. You know how they hate metal. Hurry, we're late!"
Rick followed sullenly after her. "All right, witch."
Silvia snapped at him furiously from the darkness. "Don't say that! It isn't true. You've been listening to my sisters and my mother and --"
Her words were drowned out by the sound. Distant flapping, a long way off, like vast leaves rustling in a winter storm. The night sky was alive with the frantic poundings; they were coming very quickly this time. They were too greedy, too desperately eager to wait. Flickers of fear touched the man and he ran to catch up with Silvia.
Silvia was a tiny column of green skirt and blouse in the center of the thrashing mass. She was pushing them away with one arm and trying to manage the faucet with the other. The churning activity of wings and bodies twisted her like a reed. For a time she was lost from sight.
"Rick!" she called faintly. "Come here and help!" She pushed them away and struggled up. "They're suffocating me!"
Rick fought his way through the wall of flashing white to the edge of the trough. They were drinking greedily at the blood that spilled from the wooden faucet. He pulled Silvia close against him; she was terrified and trembling. He held her tight until some of the violence and fury around them had died down.
"They're hungry," Silvia gasped feebly.
"You're a little cretin for coming ahead. They can sear you to ash!"
"I know. They can do anything." She shuddered, excited and frightened. "Look at them," she whispered, her voice husky with awe. "Look at the size of them -- their wing-spread. And they're white, Rick. Spotless -- perfect. There's nothing in our world as spotless as that. Great and clean and wonderful."
"They certainly wanted the lamb's blood."
Silvia's soft hair blew against his face as the wings fluttered on all sides. They were leaving now, roaring up into the sky. Not up, really -- away. Back to their own world whence they had scented the blood. But it was not only the blood -- they had come because of Silvia. She had attracted them.
The girl's gray eyes were wide. She reached up towards the rising white creatures. One of them swooped close. Grass and flowers sizzled as blinding white flames roared in a brief fountain. Rick scrambled away. The flaming figure hovered momentarily over Silvia and then there was a hollow pop. The last of the white-winged giants was gone. The air, the ground, gradually cooled into darkness and silence.
"I'm sorry," Silvia whispered.
"Don't do it again," Rick managed. He was numb with shock. "It isn't safe."
"Sometimes I forget. I'm sorry, Rick. I didn't mean to draw them so close." She tried to smile. "I haven't been that careless in months. Not since that other time, when I first brought you out here." The avid, wild look slid across her face. "Did you see him? Power and flames! And he didn't even touch us. He just -- looked at us. That was all. And everything's burned up, all around."
Rick grabbed hold of her. "Listen," he grated. "You mustn't call them again. It's wrong. This isn't their world."
"It's not wrong -- it's beautiful."
"It's not safe!" His fingers dug into her flesh until she gasped. "Stop tempting them down here!"
Silvia laughed hysterically. She pulled away from him, out into the blasted circle that the horde of angels had seared behind them as they rose into the sky. "I can't help it," she cried. "I belong with them. They're my family, my people. Generations of them, back into the past."
"What do you mean?"
"They're my ancestors. And some day I'll join them."
"You are a little witch!" Rick shouted furiously.
"No," Silvia answered. "Not a witch, Rick. Don't you see? I'm a saint."
The kitchen was warm and bright. Silvia plugged in the Silex and got a big red can of coffee down from the cupboards over the sink. "You mustn't listen to them," she said, as she set out plates and cups and got cream from the refrigerator. "You know they don't understand. Look at them in there."
Silvia's mother and her sisters, Betty Lou and Jean, stood huddled together in the living room, fearful and alert, watching the young couple in the kitchen. Walter Everett was standing by the fireplace, his face blank, remote.
"Listen to me," Rick said. "You have this power to attract them. You mean you're not -- isn't Walter your real father?"
"Oh, yes -- of course he is. I'm completely human. Don't I look human?"
"But you're the only one who has the power."
"I'm not physically different," Silvia said thoughtfully. "I have the ability to see, that's all. Others have had it before me -- saints, martyrs. When I was a child, my mother read to me about St. Bernadette. Remember where her cave was? Near a hospital. They were hovering there and she saw one of them."
"But the blood! It's grotesque. There never was anything like that."
"Oh, yes. The blood draws them, lamb's blood especially. They hover over battlefields. Valkyries -- carrying off the dead to Valhalla. That's why saints and martyrs cut and mutilate themselves. You know where I got the idea?"
Silvia fastened a little apron around her waist and filled the Silex with coffee. "When I was nine years old, I read of it in Homer, in the Odyssey. Ulysses dug a trench in the ground and filled it with blood to attract the spirits. The shades from the netherworld."
"That's right," Rick admitted reluctantly. "I remember."
"The ghosts of people who died. They had lived once. Everybody lives here, then dies and goes there." Her face glowed. "We're all going to have wings! We're all going to fly. We'll all be filled with fire and power. We won't be worms any more."
"Worms! That's what you always call me."
"Of course you're a worm. We're all worms -- grubby worms creeping over the crust of the Earth, through dust and dirt."
"Why should blood bring them?"
"Because it's life and they're attracted by life. Blood is uisge beatha -- the water of life."
"Blood means death! A trough of spilled blood..."
"It's not death. When you see a caterpillar crawl into its cocoon, do you think it's dying?"
Walter Everett was standing in the doorway. He stood listening to his daughter, his face dark. "One day," he said hoarsely, "they're going to grab her and carry her off. She wants to go with them. She's waiting for that day."
"You see?" Silvia said to Rick. "He doesn't understand either." She shut off the Silex and poured coffee. "Coffee for you?" she asked her father.
"No," Everett said.
"Silvia," Rick said, as if speaking to a child, "if you went away with them, you know you couldn't come back to us."
"We all have to cross sooner or later. It's all part of our life."
"But you're only nineteen," Rick pleaded. "You're young and healthy and beautiful. And our marriage -- what about our marriage?" He half rose from the table. "Silvia, you've got to stop this!"
"I can't stop it. I was seven when I saw them first." Silvia stood by the sink, gripping the Silex, a faraway look in her eyes. "Remember, Daddy? We were living back in Chicago. It was winter. I fell, walking home from school." She held up a slim arm. "See the scar? I fell and cut myself on the gravel and slush. I came home crying -- it was sleeting and the wind was howling around me. My arm was bleeding and my mitten was soaked with blood. And then I looked up and saw them."
There was silence.
"They want you," Everett said wretchedly. "They're flies -- bluebottles, hovering around, waiting for you. Calling you to come along with them."
"Why not?" Silvia's gray eyes were shining and her cheeks radiated joy and anticipation. "You've seen them, Daddy. You know what it means. Transfiguration -- from clay into gods!"
Rick left the kitchen. In the living-room, the two sisters stood together, curious and uneasy. Mrs. Everett stood by herself, her face granite-hard, eyes bleak behind her steel-rimmed glasses. She turned away as Rick passed them.
"What happened out there?" Betty Lou asked him in a taut whisper. She was fifteen, skinny and plain, hollow cheeked, with mousy, sand-colored hair. "Silvia never lets us come out with her."
"Nothing happened," Rick answered.
Anger stirred the girl's barren face. "That's not true. You were both out in the garden, in the dark, and --"
"Don't talk to him!" her mother snapped. She yanked the two girls away and shot Rick a glare of hatred and misery. Then she turned quickly from him.
Rick opened the door to the basement and switched on the light. He descended slowly into the cold, damp room of concrete and dirt, with its unwinking yellow light hanging from the dust-covered wires overhead.
In one corner loomed the big floor furnace with its mammoth hot air pipes. Beside it stood the water heater and discarded bundles, boxes of books, newspapers and old furniture, thick with dust, encrusted with strings of spider webs.
At the far end were the washing machine and spin dryer. And Silvia's pump and refrigeration system.
From the work bench Rick selected a hammer and two heavy pipe wrenches. He was moving towards the elaborate tanks and pipes when Silvia appeared abruptly at the top of the stairs, her coffee cup in one hand.
She hurried quickly down to him. "What are you doing down here?" she asked, studying him intently. "Why that hammer and those two wrenches?"
Rick dropped the tools back onto the bench. "I thought maybe this could be solved on the spot."
Silvia moved between him and the tanks. "I thought you understood. They've always been a part of my life. When I brought you with me the first time, you seemed to see what --"
"I don't want to lose you," Rick said harshly, "to anybody or anything -- in this world or any other. I'm not going to give you up."
"It's not giving me up!" Her eyes narrowed. "You came down here to destroy and break everything. The moment I'm not looking you'll smash all this, won't you?"
Fear replaced anger on the girl's face. "Do you want me to be chained here? I have to go on -- I'm through with this part of the journey. I've stayed here long enough."
"Can't you wait?" Rick demanded furiously. He couldn't keep the ragged edge of despair out of his voice. "Doesn't it come soon enough anyhow?"
Silvia shrugged and turned away, her arms folded, her red lips tight together. "You want to be a worm always. A fuzzy, little creeping caterpillar."
"I want you."
"You can't have me!" She whirled angrily. "I don't have any time to waste with this."
"You have higher things in mind," Rick said savagely.
"Of course." She softened a little. "I'm sorry, Rick. Remember Icarus? You want to fly, too. I know it."
"In my time."
"Why not now? Why wait? You're afraid." She slid lithely away from him, cunning twisting her red lips. "Rick, I want to show you something. Promise me first -- you won't tell anybody."
"What is it?"
"Promise?" She put her hand to his mouth. "I have to be careful. It cost a lot of money. Nobody knows about it. It's what they do in China -- everything goes towards it."
"I'm curious," Rick said. Uneasiness flicked at him. "Show it to me."
Trembling with excitement, Silvia disappeared behind the huge lumbering refrigerator, back into the darkness behind the web of frost-hard freezing coils. He could hear her tugging and pulling at something. Scraping sounds, sounds of something large being dragged out.
"See?" Silvia gasped. "Give me a hand, Rick. It's heavy. Hardwood and brass -- and metal lined. It's hand-stained and polished. And the carving -- see the carving! Isn't it beautiful?"
"What is it?" Rick demanded huskily.
"It's my cocoon," Silvia said simply. She settled down in a contented heap on the floor, and rested her head happily against the polished oak coffin.
Rick grabbed her by the arm and dragged her to her feet. "You can't sit with that coffin, down here in the basement with --" He broke off. "What's the matter?"
Silvia's face was twisting with pain. She backed away from him and put her finger quickly to her mouth. "I cut myself -- when you pulled me up -- on a nail or something." A thin trickle of blood oozed down her fingers. She groped in her pocket for a handkerchief.
"Let me see it." He moved towards her, but she avoided him. "Is it bad?" he demanded.
"Stay away from me," Silvia whispered.
"What's wrong? Let me see it!"
"Rick," Silvia said in a low intense voice, "get some water and adhesive tape. As quickly as possible!" She was trying to keep down her rising terror. "I have to stop the bleeding."
"Upstairs?" He moved awkwardly away. "It doesn't look too bad. Why don't you..."
"Hurry." The girl's voice was suddenly bleak with fear. "Rick, hurry!"
Confused, he ran a few steps.
Silvia's terror poured after him. "No, it's too late," she called thinly. "Don't come back -- keep away from me. It's my own fault. I trained them to come. Keep away! I'm sorry, Rick. Oh --" Her voice was lost to him, as the wall of the basement burst and shattered. A cloud of luminous white forced its way through and blazed out into the basement.
It was Silvia they were after. She ran a few hesitant steps towards Rick, halted uncertainly, then the white mass of bodies and wings settled around her. She shrieked once. Then a violent explosion blasted the basement into a shimmering dance of furnace heat.
He was thrown to the floor. The cement was hot and dry -- the whole basement crackled with heat. Windows shattered as pulsing white shapes pushed out again. Smoke and flames licked up the walls. The ceiling sagged and rained plaster down.
Rick struggled to his feet. The furious activity was dying away. The basement was a littered chaos. All surfaces were scorched black, seared and crusted with smoking ash. Splintered wood, torn cloth and broken concrete were strewn everywhere. The furnace and washing machine were in ruins. The elaborate pumping and refrigeration system -- now were a glittering mass of slag. One whole wall had been twisted aside. Plaster was rubbled over everything.
Silvia was a twisted heap, arms and legs doubled grotesquely. Shriveled, carbonized remains of fire-scorched ash, settling in a vague mound. What had been left were charred fragments, a brittle burned-out husk.
It was a dark night, cold and intense. A few stars glittered like ice from above his head. A faint, dank wind stirred through the dripping calla lilies and whipped gravel up in a frigid mist along the path between the black roses.
He crouched for a long time, listening and watching. Behind the cedars, the big house loomed against the sky. At the bottom of the slope a few cars slithered along the highway. Otherwise, there was no sound. Ahead of him jutted the squat outline of the porcelain trough and the pipe that had carried blood from the refrigerator in the basement. The trough was empty and dry, except for a few leaves that had fallen in it.
Rick took a deep breath of thin night air and held it. Then he got stiffly to his feet. He scanned the sky, but saw no movement. They were there, though, watching and waiting -- dim shadows, echoing into the legendary past, a line of god-figures.
He picked up the heavy gallon drums, dragged them to the trough and poured blood from a New Jersey abattoir, cheap-grade steer refuse, thick and clotted. It splashed against his clothes and he backed away nervously. But nothing stirred in the air above. The garden was silent, drenched with night fog and darkness.
He stood beside the trough, waiting and wondering if they were coming. They had come for Silvia, not merely for the blood. Without her there was no attraction but the raw food. He carried the empty metal cans over to the bushes and kicked them down the slope. He searched his pockets carefully, to make sure there was no metal in them.
Over the years, Silvia had nourished their habit of coming. Now she was on the other side. Did that mean they wouldn't come? Somewhere in the damp bushes something rustled. An animal or a bird?
In the trough the blood glistened, heavy and dull, like old lead. It was their time to come, but nothing stirred the great trees above. He picked out the rows of nodding black roses, the gravel path down which he and Silvia had run -- violently he shut out the recent memory of her flashing eyes and deep red lips. The highway beyond the slope -- the empty, deserted garden -- the silent house in which her family huddled and waited. After a time, there was a dull, swishing sound. He tensed, but it was only a diesel truck lumbering along the highway, headlights blazing.
He stood grimly, his feet apart, his heels dug into the soft black ground. He wasn't leaving. He was staying there until they came. He wanted her back -- at any cost.
Overhead, foggy webs of moisture drifted across the moon. The sky was a vast barren plain, without life or warmth. The deathly cold of deep space, away from suns and living things. He gazed up until his neck ached. Cold stars, sliding in and out of the matted layer of fog. Was there anything else? Didn't they want to come, or weren't they interested in him? It had been Silvia who had interested them -- now they had her.
Behind him there was a movement without sound. He sensed it and started to turn, but suddenly, on all sides, the trees and undergrowth shifted. Like cardboard props they wavered and ran together, blending dully in the night shadows. Something moved through them, rapidly, silently, then was gone.
They had come. He could feel them. They had shut off their power and flame. Cold, indifferent statues, rising among the trees, dwarfing the cedars -- remote from him and his world, attracted by curiosity and mild habit.
"Silvia," he said clearly. "Which are you?"
There was no response. Perhaps she wasn't among them. He felt foolish. A vague flicker of white drifted past the trough, hovered momentarily and then went on without stopping. The air above the trough vibrated, then died into immobility, as another giant inspected briefly and withdrew.
Panic breathed through him. They were leaving again, receding back into their own world. The trough had been rejected; they weren't interested.
"Wait," he muttered thickly.
Some of the white shadows lingered. He approached them slowly, wary of their flickering immensity. If one of them touched him, he would sizzle briefly and puff into a dark heap of ash. A few feet away he halted.
"You know what I want," he said. "I want her back. She shouldn't have been taken yet."
"You were too greedy," he said. "You did the wrong thing. She was going to come over to you, eventually. She had it all worked out."
The dark fog rustled. Among the trees the flickering shapes stirred and pulsed, responsive to his voice. "True," came a detached impersonal sound. The sound drifted around him, from tree to tree, without location or direction. It was swept off by the night wind to die into dim echoes.
Relief settled over him. They had paused -- they were aware of him -- listening to what he had to say.
"You think it's right?" he demanded. "She had a long life here. We were to marry, have children."
There was no answer, but he was conscious of a growing tension. He listened intently, but he couldn't make out anything. Presently he realized a struggle was taking place, a conflict among them. The tension grew -- more shapes flickered -- the clouds, the icy stars, were obscured by the vast presence swelling around him.
"Rick!" A voice spoke close by. Wavering, drifting back into the dim regions of the trees and dripping plants. He could hardly hear it -- the words were gone as soon as they were spoken. "Rick -- help me get back."
"Where are you?" He couldn't locate her. "What can I do?"
"I don't know." Her voice was wild with bewilderment and pain. "I don't understand. Something went wrong. They must have thought I-wanted to come right away. I didn't!"
"I know," Rick said. "It was an accident."
"They were waiting. The cocoon, the trough -- but it was too soon." Her terror came across to him, from the vague distances of another universe. "Rick, I've changed my mind. I want to come back."
"It's not as simple as that."
"I know. Rick, time is different on this side. I've been gone so long -- your world seems to creep along. It's been years, hasn't it?"
"One week," Rick said.
"It was their fault. You don't blame me, do you? They know they did the wrong thing. Those who did it have been punished, but that doesn't help me." Misery and panic distorted her voice so he could hardly understand her. "How can I come back?"
"Don't they know?"
"They say it can't be done." Her voice trembled. "They say they destroyed the clay part -- it was incinerated. There's nothing for me to go back to."
Rick took a deep breath. "Make them find some other way. It's up to them. Don't they have the power? They took you over too soon -- they must send you back. It's their responsibility."
The white shapes shifted uneasily. The conflict rose sharply; they couldn't agree. Rick warily moved back a few paces.
"They say it's dangerous," Silvia's voice came from no particular spot. "They say it was attempted once." She tried to control her voice. "The nexus between this world and yours is unstable. There are vast amounts of free-floating energy. The power we -- on this side -- have isn't really our own. It's a universal energy, tapped and controlled."
"Why can't they..."
"This is a higher continuum. There's a natural process of energy from lower to higher regions. But the reverse process is risky. The blood -- it's a sort of guide to follow -- a bright marker."
"Like moths around a light bulb," Rick said bitterly.
"If they send me back and something goes wrong --" She broke off and then continued, "If they make a mistake, I might be lost between the two regions. I might be absorbed by the free energy. It seems to be partly alive. It's not understood. Remember Prometheus and the fire..."
"I see," Rick said, as calmly as he could.
"Darling, if they try to send me back, I'll have to find some shape to enter. You see, I don't exactly have a shape any more. There's no real material form on this side. What you see, the wings and the whiteness, are not really there. If I succeeded in making the trip back to your side..."
"You'd have to mold something," Rick said.
"I'd have to take something there -- something of clay. I'd have to enter it and reshape it. As He did a long time ago, when the original form was put on your world."
"If they did it once, they can do it again."
"The One who did that is gone. He passed on upward." There was unhappy irony in her voice. "There are regions beyond this. The ladder doesn't stop here. Nobody knows where it ends, it just seems to keep on going up and up. World after world."
"Who decides about you?" Rick demanded.
"It's up to me," Silvia said faintly. "They say, if I want to take the chance, they'll try it."
"What do you think you'll do?" he asked.
"I'm afraid. What if something goes wrong? You haven't seen it, the region between. The possibilities there are incredible -- they terrify me. He was the only one with enough courage. Everyone else has been afraid."
"It was their fault. They have to take responsibility."
"They know that." Silvia hesitated miserably. "Rick, darling, please tell me what to do."
Silence. Then her voice, thin and pathetic. "All right, Rick. If you think that's the right thing."
"It is," he said firmly. He forced his mind not to think, not to picture or imagine anything. He had to have her back. "Tell them to get started now. Tell them --"
A deafening crack of heat burst in front of him. He was lifted up and tossed into a flaming sea of pure energy. They were leaving and the scalding lake of sheer power bellowed and thundered around him. For a split second he thought he glimpsed Silvia, her hands reaching imploringly towards him.
Then the fire cooled and he lay blinded in dripping, night-moistened darkness. Alone in the silence.
Walter Everett was helping him up. "You damn fool!" he was saying, again and again. "You shouldn't have brought them back. They've got enough from us."
Then he was in the big, warm living room. Mrs. Everett stood silently in front of him, her face hard and expressionless. The two daughters hovered anxiously around him, fluttering and curious, eyes wide with morbid fascination.
"I'll be all right," Rick muttered. His clothing was charred and blacked. He rubbed black ash from his face. Bits of dried grass stuck to his hair -- they had seared a circle around him as they'd ascended. He lay back against the couch and closed his eyes. When he opened them, Betty Lou Everett was forcing a glass of water into his hands.
"Thanks," he muttered.
"You should never have gone out there," Walter Everett repeated. "Why? Why'd you do it? You know what happened to her. You want the same thing to happen to you?"
"I want her back," Rick said quietly.
"Are you mad? You can't get her back. She's gone." His lips twitched convulsively. "You saw her."
Betty Lou was gazing at Rick intently. "What happened out there?" she demanded. "You saw her."
Rick got heavily to his feet and left the living room. In the kitchen he emptied the water in the sink and poured himself a drink. While he was leaning wearily against the sink, Betty Lou appeared in the doorway.
"What do you want?" Rick demanded.
The girl's face was flushed an unhealthy red. "I know something happened out there. You were feeding them, weren't you?" She advanced towards him. "You're trying to get her back?"
"That's right," Rick said.
Betty Lou giggled nervously. "But you can't. She's dead -- her body's been cremated -- I saw it." Her face worked excitedly. "Daddy always said that something bad would happen to her, and it did." She leaned close to Rick. "She was a witch! She got what she deserved!"
"She's coming back," Rick said.
"No!" Panic stirred the girl's drab features. "She can't come back. She's dead -- like she always said -- worm into butterfly -- she's a butterfly!"
"Go inside," Rick said.
"You can't order me around," Betty Lou answered. Her voice rose hysterically. "This is my house. We don't want you around here any more. Daddy's going to tell you. He doesn't want you and I don't want you and my mother and sister..."
The change came without warning. Like a film gone dead, Betty Lou froze, her mouth half open, one arm raised, her words dead on her tongue. She was suspended, an instantly lifeless thing raised off the floor, as if caught between two slides of glass. A vacant insect, without speech or sound, inert and hollow. Not dead, but abruptly thinned back to primordial inanimacy.
Into the captured shell filtered new potency and being. It settled over her, a rainbow of life that poured into place eagerly -- like hot fluid -- into every part of her. The girl stumbled and moaned; her body jerked violently and pitched against the wall. A china teacup tumbled from an overhead shelf and smashed on the floor. The girl retreated numbly, one hand to her mouth, her eyes wide with pain and shock.
"Oh!" she gasped. "I cut myself." She shook her head and gazed up mutely at him, appealing to him. "On a nail or something."
"Silvia!" He caught hold of her and dragged her to her feet, away from the wall. It was her arm he gripped, warm and full and mature. Stunned gray eyes, brown hair, quivering breasts -- she was now as she had been those last moments in the basement.
"Let's see it," he said. He tore her hand from her mouth and shakily examined her finger. There was no cut, only a thin white line rapidly dimming. "It's all right, honey. You're all right. There's nothing wrong with you!"
"Rick, I was over there." Her voice was husky and faint. "They came and dragged me across with them." She shuddered violently. "Rick, am I actually back?"
He crushed her tight. "Completely back."
"It was so long. I was over there a century. Endless ages. I thought --" Suddenly she pulled away. "Rick..."
"What is it?"
Silvia's face was wild with fear. "There's something wrong."
"There's nothing wrong. You've come back home and that's all that matters."
Silvia retreated from him. "But they took a living form, didn't they? Not discarded clay. They don't have the power, Rick. They altered His work instead." Her voice rose in panic. "A mistake -- they should have known better than to alter the balance. It's unstable and none of them can control the..."
Rick blocked the doorway. "Stop talking like that!" he said fiercely. "It's worth it -- anything's worth it. If they set things out of balance, it's their own fault."
"We can't turn it back!" Her voice rose shrilly, thin and hard, like drawn wire. "We've set it in motion, started the waves lapping out. The balance He set up is altered."
"Come on, darling," Rick said. "Let's go and sit in the living room with your family. You'll feel better. You'll have to try to recover from this."
They approached the three seated figures, two on the couch, one in the traight chair by the fireplace. The figures sat motionless, their faces blank, their bodies limp and waxen, dulled forms that did not respond as the couple entered the room.
Rick halted, uncomprehending. Walter Everett was slumped forward, newspaper in one hand, slippers on his feet; his pipe was still smoking in the deep ashtray on the arm of his chair. Mrs. Everett sat with a lapful of sewing, her face grim and stern, but strangely vague. An unformed face, as if the material were melting and running together. Jean sat huddled in a shapeless heap, a ball of clay wadded up, more formless each moment.
Abruptly Jean collapsed. Her arms fell loose beside her. Her head sagged. Her body, her arms and legs filled out. Her features altered rapidly. Her clothing changed. Colors flowed in her hair, her eyes, her skin. The waxen pallor was gone.
Pressing her fingers to her lips she gazed up at Rick mutely. She blinked and her eyes focused. "Oh," she gasped. Her lips moved awkwardly; the voice was faint and uneven, like a poor soundtrack. She struggled up jerkily, with uncoordinated movements that propelled her stiffly to her feet and towards him -- one awkward step at a time -- like a wire dummy.
"Rick, I cut myself," she said. "On a nail or something."
What had been Mrs. Everett stirred. Shapeless and vague, it made dull sounds and flopped grotesquely. Gradually it hardened and shaped itself. "My finger," its voice gasped feebly. Like mirror echoes dimming off into darkness, the third figure in the easy chair took up the words. Soon, they were all of them repeating the phrase, four fingers, their lips moving in unison.
"My finger. I cut myself, Rick."
Parrot reflections, receding mimicries of words and movement. And the settling shapes were familiar in every detail. Again and again, repeated around him, twice on the couch, in the easy chair, close beside him -- so close he could hear her breath and see her trembling lips.
"What is it?" the Silvia beside him asked.
On the couch one Silvia resumed its sewing -- she was sewing methodically, absorbed in her work. In the deep chair another took up its newspapers, its pipe and continued reading. One huddled, nervous and afraid. The one beside him followed as he retreated to the door. She was panting with uncertainty, her gray eyes wide, her nostrils flaring.
He pulled the door open and made his way out onto the dark porch. Machine-like, he felt his way down the steps, through the pools of night collected everywhere, toward the driveway. In the yellow square of light behind him, Silvia was outlined, peering unhappily after him. And behind her, the other figures, identical, pure repetitions, nodding over their tasks.
He found his coupe and pulled out onto the road.
Gloomy trees and houses flashed past. He wondered how far it would go. Lapping waves spreading out -- a widening circle as the imbalance spread.
He turned onto the main highway; there were soon more cars around him. He tried to see into them, but they moved too swiftly. The car ahead was a red Plymouth. A heavyset man in a blue business suit was driving, laughing merrily with the woman beside him. He pulled his own coupe up close behind the Plymouth and followed it. The man flashed gold teeth, grinned, waved his plump hands. The girl was dark-haired, pretty. She smiled at the man, adjusted her white gloves, smoothed down her hair, then rolled up the window on her side.
He lost the Plymouth. A heavy diesel truck cut in between them. Desperately he swerved around the truck and nosed in beyond the swift-moving red sedan. Presently it passed him and, for a moment, the two occupants were clearly framed. The girl resembled Silvia. The same delicate line of her small chin -- the same deep lips, parting slightly when she smiled -- the same slender arms and hands. It was Silvia. The Plymouth turned off and there was no other car ahead of him.
He drove for hours through the heavy night darkness. The gas gauge dropped lower and lower. Ahead of him dismal rolling countryside spread out, blank fields between towns and unwinking stars suspended in the bleak sky. Once, a cluster of red and yellow lights gleamed. An intersection -- filling stations and a big neon sign. He drove on past it.
At a single-pump stand, he pulled the car off the highway, onto the oil-soaked gravel. He climbed out, his shoes crunching the stone underfoot, as he grabbed the gas hose and unscrewed the cap of his car's tank. He had the tank almost full when the door of the drab station building opened and a slim woman in white overalls and navy shirt, with a little cap lost in her brown curls, stepped out.
"Good evening, Rick," she said quietly.
He put back the gas hose. Then he was driving out onto the highway. Had he screwed the cap back on again? He didn't remember. He gained speed. He had gone over a hundred miles. He was nearing the state line.
At a little roadside cafe, warm, yellow light glowed in the chill gloom of early morning. He slowed the car down and parked at the edge of the highway in the deserted parking lot. Bleary-eyed he pushed the door open and entered.
Hot, thick smells of cooking ham and black coffee surrounded him, the comfortable sight of people eating. A jukebox blared in the corner. He threw himself onto a stool and hunched over, his head in his hands. A thin farmer next to him glanced at him curiously and then returned to his newspaper. Two hard-faced women across from him gazed at him momentarily. A handsome youth in denim jacket and jeans was eating red beans and rice, washing it down with steaming coffee from a heavy mug.
"What'll it be?" the pert blonde waitress asked, a pencil behind her ear, her hair tied back in a tight bun. "Looks like you've got some hangover, mister."
He ordered coffee and vegetable soup. Soon he was eating, his hands working automatically. He found himself devouring a ham and cheese sandwich; had he ordered it? The jukebox blared and people came and went. There was a little town sprawled beside the road, set back in some gradual hills. Gray sunlight, cold and sterile, filtered down as morning came. He ate hot apple pie and sat wiping dully at his mouth with a napkin.
The cafe was silent. Outside nothing stirred. An uneasy calm hung over everything. The jukebox had ceased. None of the people at the counter stirred or spoke. An occasional truck roared past, damp and lumbering, windows rolled up tight.
When he looked up, Silvia was standing in front of him. Her arms were folded and she gazed vacantly past him. A bright yellow pencil was behind her ear. Her brown hair was tied back in a hard bun. At the corner others were sitting, other Silvias, dishes in front of them, half dozing or eating, some of them reading. Each the same as the next, except for their clothing.
He made his way back to his parked car. In half an hour he had crossed the state line. Cold, bright sunlight sparkled off dew-moist roofs and pavements as he sped through tiny unfamiliar towns.
Along the shiny morning streets he saw them moving -- early risers, on their way to work. In twos and threes they walked, their heels echoing in sharp silence. At bus stops he saw groups of them collected together. In the houses, rising from their beds, eating breakfast, bathing, dressing, were more of them -- hundreds of them, legions without number. A town of them preparing for the day, resuming their regular tasks, as the circle widened and spread.
He left the town behind. The car slowed under him as his foot slid heavily from the gas pedal. Two of them walked across a level field together. They carried books -- children on their way to school. Repetition, unvarying and identical. A dog circled excitedly after them, unconcerned, his joy untainted.
He drove on. Ahead a city loomed, its stern columns of office buildings sharply outlined against the sky. The streets swarmed with noise and activity as he passed through the main business section. Somewhere, near the center of the city, he overtook the expanding periphery of the circle and emerged beyond. Diversity took the place of the endless figures of Silvia. Gray eyes and , brown hair gave way to countless varieties of men and women, children and adults, of all ages and appearances. He increased his speed and raced out on the far side, onto the wide four-lane highway.
He finally slowed down. He was exhausted. He had driven for hours; his body was shaking with fatigue.
Ahead of him a carrot-haired youth was cheerfully thumbing a ride, a thin bean-pole in brown slacks and light camel's-hair sweater. Rick pulled to a halt and opened the front door. "Hop in," he said.
"Thanks, buddy." The youth hurried to the car and climbed in as Rick gathered speed. He slammed the door and settled gratefully back against the seat. "It was getting hot, standing there."
"How far are you going?" Rick demanded.
"All the way to Chicago." The youth grinned shyly. "Of course, I don't expect you to drive me that far. Anything at all is appreciated." He eyed Rick curiously. "Which way you going?"
"Anywhere," Rick said. "I'll drive you to Chicago."
"It's two hundred miles!"
"Fine," Rick said. He steered over into the left lane and gained speed. "If you want to go to New York, I'll drive you there."
"You feel all right?" The youth moved away uneasily. "I sure appreciate a lift, but..." He hesitated. "I mean, I don't want to take you out of your way."
Rick concentrated on the road ahead, his hands gripping hard around the rim of the wheel. "I'm going fast. I'm not slowing down or stopping."
"You better be careful," the youth warned, in a troubled voice. "I don't want to get in an accident."
"I'll do the worrying."
"But it's dangerous. What if something happens? It's too risky."
"You're wrong," Rick muttered grimly, eyes on the road. "It's worth the risk."
"But if something goes wrong --" The voice broke off uncertainly and then continued, "I might be lost. It would be so easy. It's all so unstable." The voice trembled with worry and fear. "Rick, please..."
Rick whirled. "How do you know my name?"
The youth was crouched in a heap against the door. His face had a soft, molten look, as if it were losing its shape and sliding together in an unformed mass. "I want to come back," he was saying, from within himself, "but I'm afraid. You haven't seen it -- the region between. It's nothing but energy, Rick. He tapped it a long time ago, but nobody else knows how."
The voice lightened, became clear and treble. The hair faded to a rich brown. Gray, frightened eyes flickered up at Rick. Hands frozen, he hunched over the wheel and forced himself not to move. Gradually he decreased speed and brought the car over into the right-hand lane.
"Are we stopping?" the shape beside him asked. It was Silvia's voice now. Like a new insect, drying in the sun, the shape hardened and locked into firm reality. Silvia struggled up on the seat and peered out. "Where are we? We're between towns."
He jammed on the brakes, reached past her and threw open the door. "Get out!"
Silvia gazed at him uncomprehendingly. "What do you mean?" she faltered. "Rick, what is it? What's wrong?"
"Rick, I don't understand." She slid over a little. Her toes touched the pavement. "Is there something wrong with the car? I thought everything was all right."
He gently shoved her out and slammed the door. The car leaped ahead, out into the stream of mid-morning traffic. Behind him the small, dazed figure was pulling itself up, bewildered and injured. He forced his eyes from the rearview mirror and crushed down the gas pedal with all his weight.
The radio buzzed and clicked in vague static when he snapped it briefly on. He turned the dial and, after a time, a big network station came in. A faint, puzzled voice, a woman's voice. For a time he couldn't make out the words. Then he recognized it and, with a pang of panic, switched the thing off.
Her voice. Murmuring plaintively. Where was the station? Chicago. The circle had already spread that far.
He slowed down. There was no point hurrying. It had already passed him by and gone on. Kansas farms -- sagging stores in little old Mississippi towns -- along the bleak streets of New England manufacturing cities swarms of brown-haired gray-eyed women would be hurrying.
It would cross the ocean. Soon it would take in the whole world. Africa would be strange -- kraals of white-skinned young women, all exactly alike, going about the primitive chores of hunting and fruit-gathering, mashing grain, skinning animals. Building fires and weaving cloth and carefully shaping razor-sharp knives.
In China... he grinned inanely. She'd look strange there, too. In the austere high-collar suit, the almost monastic robe of the young communist cadres. Parade marching up the main streets of Peiping. Row after row of slim-legged full-breasted girls, with heavy Russian-made rifles. Carrying spades, picks, shovels. Columns of cloth-booted soldiers. Fast-moving workers with their precious tools. Reviewed by an identical figure on the elaborate stand overlooking the street, one slender arm raised, her gentle, pretty face expressionless and wooden.
He turned off the highway onto a side road. A moment later he was on his way back, driving slowly, listlessly, the way he had come.
At an intersection a traffic cop waded out through traffic to his car. He sat rigid, hands on the wheel, waiting numbly.
"Rick" she whispered pleadingly as she reached the window. "Isn't everything all right?"
"Sure," he answered dully.
She reached in through the open window and touched him imploringly on the arm. Familiar fingers, red nails, the hand he knew so well, "I want to be with you so badly. Aren't we together again? Aren't I back?"
She shook her head miserably. "I don't understand," she repeated. "I thought it was all right again."
Savagely he put the car into motion and hurtled ahead. The intersection was left behind.
It was afternoon. He was exhausted, riddled with fatigue. He guided the car towards his own town automatically. Along the streets she hurried everywhere, on all sides. She was omnipresent. He came to his apartment building and parked.
The janitor greeted him in the empty hall. Rick identified him by the greasy rag clutched in one hand, the big push-broom, the bucket of wood shavings. "Please," she implored, "tell me what it is, Rick. Please tell me."
He pushed past her, but she caught at him desperately. "Rick, I'm back. Don't you understand? They took me too soon and then they sent me back again. It was a mistake. I won't ever call them again -- that's all in the past." She followed after him, down the hall to the stairs. "I'm never going to call them again."
He climbed the stairs. Silvia hesitated, then settled down on the bottom step in a wretched, unhappy heap, a tiny figure in thick workman's clothing and huge cleated boots.
He unlocked his apartment door and entered.
The late afternoon sky was a deep blue beyond the windows. The roofs of nearby apartment buildings sparkled white in the sun.
His body ached. He wandered clumsily into the bathroom -- it seemed alien and unfamiliar, a difficult place to find. He filled the bowl with hot water, rolled up his sleeves and washed his face and hands in the swirling hot stream. Briefly, he glanced up.
It was a terrified reflection that showed out of the mirror above the bowl, a face, tear-stained and frantic. The face was difficult to catch -- it seemed to waver and slide. Gray eyes, bright with terror. Trembling red mouth, pulse-fluttering throat, soft brown hair. The face gazed out pathetically -- and then the girl at the bowl bent to dry herself.
She turned and moved wearily out of the bathroom into the living room.
Confused, she hesitated, then threw herself onto a chair and closed her eyes, sick with misery and fatigue.
"Rick," she murmured pleadingly. "Try to help me. I'm back, aren't I?" She shook her head, bewildered. "Please, Rick, I thought everything was all right."