When I open the door it makes this eerie creaking noise, which is the last thing I need right now, but I keep at it until it opens the entire way. I keep the rifle aimed inside, ready for any movement. But after a moment of looking inside the garage, I see no trouble and enter.
My heart pounds heavily inside my head as I pan the rifle barrel back and forth. Light shines through the three windows and the slightly opened door, but it’s not enough. Even less here than there was in the cave. Besides, with my mom’s Acura already parked at the far end and the riding mower and snowplow and everything else, Ty could be anywhere.
“Tyler?” I whisper, not certain whether I should say anything at all. “Tyler, are you there?”
I expect no answer, so after a few seconds I’m not surprised to hear none. But then I do hear something, very soft, coming from the cold shadows.
I turn toward the back of the garage. Again, the hair on the back of my neck is standing on end. I can’t place where the voice came from, so I call out my brother’s name again.
The reply is like a whisper, only very different, very wrong. It sounds like my name, slurred on a dead tongue.
“Come out, Tyler.” I walk toward the corner where I heard my brother’s dead voice, my rifle aimed. My father’s aluminum canoe leans against the wall. “Please, Ty, just come—”
The garage door opens.
Not the two large car doors, but the one Ty used to slip inside. Sunlight pours in. A fresh whiff of air hits my nostrils.
I raise the rifle at once, my finger touching the trigger.
Amanda stands in the doorway. She’s looking at me, a mixture of fear and uncertainty spread across her face. “Josh?” she says. “What are you doing with—”
I want to tell her to stop, to leave, but I suddenly have no voice. It doesn’t matter. She takes only three steps inside, her hands held open at her sides as if I might shoot her. It’s all Ty needs. A low moan sounds out from behind the canoe, and then it’s pushed forward on top of me. I nearly drop the rifle as I jump out of the way but manage to keep hold of it and turn to watch just as Ty throws himself on Amanda.
Her screams are loud and piercing, contesting with the growls of my brother. He seems to be hugging her, his arms wrapped tightly around her, but I can see his eyes and the blood as he takes a bite out of the side of her face. She screams again, her eyes meeting mine, and whatever it is that’s been keeping me locked in place for the last few seconds finally breaks.
Keeping the rifle aimed, I rush forward. I grab my brother’s shoulder and try to pull him away, but he snaps at me, like a rabid dog. For a moment I think of Laddie and then shout “GET OFF HER!” as I pull my brother away. He opens himself up only a little, but it’s all I need.
I fire the rifle.
Ty’s chest explodes. His body jerks and he hits the wall, then slides down to the ground.
Amanda has fallen to her knees, crying. She holds her face, which is pouring dark blood. I go immediately to comfort her.
Then I see them.
Two things are wiggling out of the wound in Ty’s chest. At first I think they’re just part of him, like one of his intestines, but then I realize they’re not. Coated in my brother’s blood, they’re thin, maybe one foot long, and once they manage to crawl free of his stomach, they move fast.
Amanda must see them too, because her sobbing turns back into screaming. I don’t know what to do, and in my hesitation those things have moved across the floor toward Amanda. They jump at her, attaching themselves to her skin—one to her leg, the other to her neck. Then she’s up, screaming, trying to shake them off her body. All I can do is stand staring at the shredded skin falling off her face.
“Help me!” she shrieks.
I drop the rifle and go to her. Try to grab the things as they attempt to burrow themselves into her skin. They don’t want to come at first, so I pull harder. She screams even more, and finally I have them in my hands, wiggling crazily.
I stand there for a moment, uncertain what do next. Then a thought comes to me and I turn, start back into the house. As I hurry these two slimy worms continue wiggling in my grasp. I can’t see their features at all, but I can tell they have small, sharp teeth, because I feel them biting into my skin.
I head for the kitchen, straight for the microwave. Once I’m there I open it and throw in the worms, slam the door shut and then turn the knob all the way to the right.
“Smart,” says a voice behind me. I cry out, turning around. Ralph stands in the doorway. He’s in his corduroys and flannel shirt, just like before, except now he’s holding something in each hand.
In one is a handgun; in the other, an ax.
“That’s one way to dispose of them, I guess. But you weren’t smart enough. If you were smarter, you would have told me the truth earlier.”
I stare at him, speechless. Behind me, the microwave hums. I can hear the worms sizzling inside; I can smell their slimy, disgusting flesh.
“And Tyler would still be alive.” There’s a sadness in his voice I’ve never heard before.
“What are you talking about?” I ask, and it’s stupid, it really is, because I seriously think I can act like nothing’s happened.
“The grass,” Ralph says. “You were out there.”
“Amanda,” I whisper, but it has nothing to do with the conversation now; it’s the realization that she’s still in the garage, possibly dying from blood loss.
Ralph nods. “She told me, but I knew before. I knew because of Laddie. I had to kill him for good.”
At once the thought of Amanda dying on the cement floor of the garage is the farthest thing from my mind. I find myself trying to think over Ralph’s words, and none of if makes sense.
“Once the creature’s gotten them, they can’t be killed unless you cut off their head.” He speaks slowly, deliberately, like he’s the fucking expert on whatever the hell’s going on. “You have to understand that. Without the head, the body cannot work, and without a working body, the worms need to find a new host.”
“A new host? Just what does that mea—”
Then suddenly the world explodes in a burst of light and pain, and the only thing I know besides the sudden terror of today is darkness.