Darkness Under the Sun (Novella) by Dean Koontz
I was Death, harvesting lives. I knew my destiny was epic. Yet I killed one at a time, one at a time, one at a time. If my killing spree had been music—and it was music to me—you could rightly call it the simplest folk song. But I had set out to create a symphony of death, an immortal opera of terror.
Then an unexpected encounter suddenly led me to understand that to fulfill my promise, to unleash my full potential, to compose truly memorable crescendos of destruction, I must kill entire families, use them first as I wished and then slaughter them. In killing any family, I was killing my own, which deserved to die.
Inspiration can come from surprising sources. A child showed me the way.
—from the journal of Alton Turner Blackwood
A WEEK BEFORE HIS ELEVENTH BIRTHDAY, WHEN Howie Dugley climbed to the roof of the former Boswell’s Emporium to watch normal people doing all kinds of ordinary things along Maple Street, he saw the monster for the first time.
Howie’s family lived only two blocks from the building in which Boswell’s had formerly done business. He could get there by crossing the cemetery beside St. Anthony’s Church and then following a cobbled alleyway that seldom had traffic. Huge scarlet oaks, glossy green now in mid-June, shaded the graveyard. Howie liked the trees. They lived longer than people, and they seemed wise to him, wiser than people would ever be, because they had seen so much and they had nothing to do but think about what they had seen and then grow ever bigger. He wished he could just sit under them for a while or even climb them, climb up into the quiet wisdom of the trees. But that was too risky. That would be asking to have his butt kicked. He got plenty of butt-kicking without asking for it.
As he made his way through the cemetery, in addition to all the tree shadows, headstones and monuments provided some cover. He wore a baseball cap, kept his head down, and was prepared to avert the left side of his face from anyone he might encounter—and to run if he spotted any of the usual goons.
Nine months earlier, Boswell’s moved into a new building a block north of its former quarters. The old brick structure would in time be remodeled for some new business; but that work hadn’t begun yet.
Along the bottom of the back wall were five French windows, each two feet high and three long, which looked into the basement of the emporium. They had been opened from time to time to ventilate that lower space, to prevent mildew, in the days before air-conditioning and dehumidifiers. All five seemed to be locked, but when Howie pushed hard on the middle one, the corroded piano hinge along the top moved with a dry grinding noise. He slid feetfirst through the opening, into the gloomy cellar, and then reached high to press the window shut.
Clipped to his belt was a small flashlight, which he used to navigate the former storerooms of the vacant basement. The narrow beam picked out his path, but it did little to brighten the musty chambers through which he passed. Menaces unknown appeared to creep and quiver in the darkness around him, but those phantoms were nothing more than shadows shuddering away from the traveling light and billowing back after it passed. Howie wasn’t afraid of darkness. He had learned young that the dangers in bright daylight were worse than anything that might wait in the dark, that the bogeyman could have a kind face and a winning smile.
The elevator no longer worked. He climbed stairs to the fourth floor and then ascended a final flight, steeper and narrower than those before it. These last stairs led into the lid-service room, which was a kind of shed on the flat roof of the building. Here were stored snow shovels, push brooms, other tools, and products that the maintenance staff required.
Although Howie always engaged the deadbolt on the outer door when departing the roof, he found it unlocked. Apparently, he had forgotten the bolt on his previous visit. He opened the door and stepped out into sunshine, facing east toward the alley.
Paved with gray ceramic tiles, the roof didn’t lie perfectly flat. A slight pitch in it allowed water to drain toward scuppers along the parapet. That perimeter wall came waist high to a grown man, higher to Howie. Every three feet, there was an eighteen-inch-wide crenellation like in a castle wall where archers would stand to defend against barbarians.
Howie doubted that barbarians had ever attacked Boswell’s, which was only a small department store, or that Boswell’s had employed archers or steely-eyed gunmen to defend the place. They had designed the brick parapet with crenellations just for looks, for the style, but it was nonetheless cool. No structure in town stood taller than the old Boswell building, not even the new Boswell building. Howie could kneel at one of the crenellations, lean into it, and peer down at people on Maple Street, watch them going in and out of stores and restaurants, and imagine what his life might be like if he weren’t so different from them.
When he rounded the lid-service shed, he saw a sentinel sitting sideways to the parapet, gazing down into the heart of town through one of the crenellations. Although Howie had stepped quietly onto the roof, the sentry turned his head to see who had joined him, and it was then that the boy realized he shared the roof with a monster.
For a moment, about thirty feet apart, they were dead still as they stared at each other. In spite of his surprise, Howie sensed something familiar about the encounter, as though he had dreamed it once and had forgotten the dream, or as if he had known subconsciously, clairvoyantly, that one day it would occur. Other boys might have run, but Howie didn’t run anymore because he knew running could get you killed. Step by slow step, the boy closed the distance between them to fifteen feet before stopping with his face half turned away, studying the stranger mostly with his right eye.
The man’s short greasy hair lay in snarls that looked so much like tangled spiders that Howie wouldn’t have been surprised if some of them abruptly twitched, came apart from one another, and crawled to different places on his misshapen skull. His eyebrows were thick and bristly, but his face seemed to be as beardless as a boy’s; in some places his skin appeared too pink, in other places ghostly pale, and everywhere as smooth and unnatural as the poreless plastic skin of a doll. Under the stony shelf of a crude brow, his deep-set eyes glimmered, black and alert like those of a crow, and his nose was a fierce beak. The proportions of the man’s face were wrong, the bones too sharp in some places, too thick and blunt in others. His upper lip was thin and colorless, his lower lip purple and too fat, the teeth yellow, crooked.
“Don’t be afraid,” the stranger said, and his voice was deep and raspy like the voices of movie monsters. “There’s no reason to be afraid. I’m not what I appear to be.”
Closing to within ten feet of the man before halting again, in the grip of wonder, as though he had encountered a magical being, Howie said, “Where did you come from? What’re you doing here?”
“Is this your roof then? Am I trespassing?”
“Not my roof,” Howie said.
“Well, so I guess we’re both trespassing.”
“I guess we are.”
Even though the man was sitting, Howie could see that he was tall, maybe six and a half feet, as thin as a scarecrow but strong. Huge hands. Bony wrists like the cumbersome joints of old machines. Long arms. His shoulder blades weren’t formed properly, straining against his khaki shirt, so he looked hunchbacked.
“Don’t be afraid,” the man repeated. “My name’s Alton Turner Blackwood. I wouldn’t tell a person my name if I meant him any harm.”
After a hesitation, Howie half surprised himself when he turned his head to fully face Mr. Blackwood and took off his baseball cap. “Don’t you be afraid, either.”
Mr. Blackwood studied the left side of Howie’s face, noticed his three-fingered left hand and stared at that a moment, and then said, “Listen here, boy—if there was such a thing as a world-cup scare-’em contest with seven judges, I’d beat you seven votes to nothing.”
“Maybe five to two,” Howie said.
“You’re either flattering yourself something terrible or being polite to me. It would be seven to zero, and don’t you insult my intelligence by trying to argue the point. I’m going to do for you my ultimate freak-’em-out face, and then you tell me honestly whether you’d get a single vote.”
Mr. Blackwood’s scariest face was a big grin, and it proved to be such a fearsome sight that Howie gasped and shrank back a step. His reaction made Mr. Blackwood laugh, and that laughing face looked even more terrible than the grin.
Although the man’s laughter was an ugly sound, like the gasp and gurgle of a half-plugged drain, his good-natured self-mockery made him appealing.
After a moment, Howie smiled and said, “All right, you win. I wouldn’t get a single vote.”
“So you’re an honest boy, after all. I knew you were, and good for you.”
Howie put on his cap again and went to the crenellation that was two away from the one where Mr. Blackwood sat, which left seven or eight feet between them.
“What’s your name then?” Mr. Blackwood asked.
“Howie. Howie Dugley. My middle name’s Mabry, but I never use it. That’s asking for trouble. What’re you doing up here?”
With a gesture, Mr. Blackwood indicated the street below. “Just watching the parade.”
“There’s no parade.”
“There’s always a parade, Howie. When it’s something you can’t ever join but only watch, then it’s a parade.”
Howie stared down at the street, down there where people were just being people, unaware that they were watched and envied, and then he looked at Mr. Blackwood again. “What happened to you?”
“Birth happened to me. Birth defects. I came into the world like this. Birth and death—it’s hard to say which is worse. Of course when I came into the world, I wasn’t so big as I am now, but even uglier in my infant form, so they say. I’m guessing … with you, it was fire of some kind.”
“Some kind,” Howie acknowledged.
“When did it happen?”
“I was five. Almost six years ago.”
“You must’ve had a few surgeries.”
“Eleven. The last was two years ago.”
“I’m sorry—I mean, how it must have hurt.”
Howie shrugged as if the pain hadn’t been anything even though for a while it had been everything. “It wasn’t your fault.”
Mr. Blackwood shook his head sympathetically. “Well, medicine, you know—they’re always making progress. Someday, they’ll be able to do a lot better by you.”
The longer Howie listened to the rough voice, the less it seemed like that of a movie monster and the more it sounded like the voice of a cartoon bear or something.
“You had surgeries?” Howie asked.
“Nope. Don’t want any, either. I’ve got a thing about knives.”
“You’re scared of being cut on?”
“Not scared,” Mr. Blackwood said. “I just have this thing about knives. You come up here often?”
Howie shrugged. “Sometimes.”