Ed had always been a practical man, when he saw something was wrong he tried to correct it. Then one day he saw it hanging in the town square.
Five o’clock Ed Loyce washed up, tossed on his hat and coat, got his car out and headed across town toward his TV sales store. He was tired. His back and shoulders ached from digging dirt out of the basement and wheeling it into the back yard. But for a forty-year-old man he had done okay. Janet could get a new vase with the money he had saved; and he liked the idea of repairing the foundations himself!
It was getting dark. The setting sun cast long rays over the scurrying commuters, tired and grim-faced, women loaded down with bundles and packages, students swarming home from the university, mixing with clerks and businessmen and drab secretaries. He stopped his Packard for a red light and then started it up again. The store had been open without him; he’d arrive just in time to spell the help for dinner, go over the records of the day, maybe even close a couple of sales himself. He drove slowly past the small square of green in the center of the street, the town park. There were no parking places in front of LOYCE TV SALES AND SERVICE. He cursed under his breath and swung the car in a U-turn. Again he passed the little square of green with its lonely drinking fountain and bench and single lamppost.
From the lamppost something was hanging. A shapeless dark bundle, swinging a little with the wind. Like a dummy of some sort. Loyce rolled down his window and peered out. What the hell was it? A display of some kind? Sometimes the Chamber of Commerce put up displays in the square.
Again he made a U-turn and brought his car around. He passed the park and concentrated on the dark bundle. It wasn’t a dummy. And if it was a display it was a strange kind. The hackles on his neck rose and he swallowed uneasily. Sweat slid out on his face and hands.
It was a body. A human body.
“Look at it!” Loyce snapped. “Come on out here!”
Don Fergusson came slowly out of the store, buttoning his pin-stripe coat with dignity. “This is a big deal, Ed. I can’t just leave the guy standing there.”
“See it?” Ed pointed into the gathering gloom. The lamppost jutted up against the sky--the post and the bundle swinging from it. “There it is. How the hell long has it been there?” His voice rose excitedly. “What’s wrong with everybody? They just walk on past!”
Don Fergusson lit a cigarette slowly. “Take it easy, old man. There must be a good reason, or it wouldn’t be there.”
“A reason! What kind of a reason?”
Fergusson shrugged. “Like the time the Traffic Safety Council put that wrecked Buick there. Some sort of civic thing. How would I know?”
Jack Potter from the shoe shop joined them. “What’s up, boys?”
“There’s a body hanging from the lamppost,” Loyce said. “I’m going to call the cops.”
“They must know about it,” Potter said. “Or otherwise it wouldn’t be there.”
“I got to get back in.” Fergusson headed back into the store. “Business before pleasure.”
Loyce began to get hysterical. “You see it? You see it hanging there? A man’s body! A dead man!”
“Sure, Ed. I saw it this afternoon when I went out for coffee.”
“You mean it’s been there all afternoon?”
“Sure. What’s the matter?” Potter glanced at his watch. “Have to run. See you later, Ed.”
Potter hurried off, joining the flow of people moving along the sidewalk. Men and women, passing by the park. A few glanced up curiously at the dark bundle--and then went on. Nobody stopped. Nobody paid any attention.
“I’m going nuts,” Loyce whispered. He made his way to the curb and crossed out into traffic, among the cars. Horns honked angrily at him. He gained the curb and stepped up onto the little square of green.
The man had been middle-aged. His clothing was ripped and torn, a gray suit, splashed and caked with dried mud. A stranger. Loyce had never seen him before. Not a local man. His face was partly turned, away, and in the evening wind he spun a little, turning gently, silently. His skin was gouged and cut. Red gashes, deep scratches of congealed blood. A pair of steel-rimmed glasses hung from one ear, dangling foolishly. His eyes bulged. His mouth was open, tongue thick and ugly blue.
“For Heaven’s sake,” Loyce muttered, sickened. He pushed down his nausea and made his way back to the sidewalk. He was shaking all over, with revulsion--and fear.
Why? Who was the man? Why was he hanging there? What did it mean?
And--why didn’t anybody notice?
He bumped into a small man hurrying along the sidewalk. “Watch it!” the man grated, “Oh, it’s you, Ed.”
Ed nodded dazedly. “Hello, Jenkins.”
“What’s the matter?” The stationery clerk caught Ed’s arm. “You look sick.”
“The body. There in the park.”
“Sure, Ed.” Jenkins led him into the alcove of LOYCE TV SALES AND SERVICE. “Take it easy.”
Margaret Henderson from the jewelry store joined them. “Something wrong?”
“Ed’s not feeling well.”
Loyce yanked himself free. “How can you stand here? Don’t you see it? For God’s sake--”
“What’s he talking about?” Margaret asked nervously.
“The body!” Ed shouted. “The body hanging there!”
More people collected. “Is he sick? It’s Ed Loyce. You okay, Ed?”
“The body!” Loyce screamed, struggling to get past them. Hands caught at him. He tore loose. “Let me go! The police! Get the police!”
“Better get a doctor!”
“He must be sick.”
Loyce fought his way through the people. He stumbled and half fell. Through a blur he saw rows of faces, curious, concerned, anxious. Men and women halting to see what the disturbance was. He fought past them toward his store. He could see Fergusson inside talking to a man, showing him an Emerson TV set. Pete Foley in the back at the service counter, setting up a new Philco. Loyce shouted at them frantically. His voice was lost in the roar of traffic and the murmur around him.
“Do something!” he screamed. “Don’t stand there! Do something! Something’s wrong! Something’s happened! Things are going on!”
The crowd melted respectfully for the two heavy-set cops moving efficiently toward Loyce.
“Name?” the cop with the notebook murmured.
“Loyce.” He mopped his forehead wearily. “Edward C. Loyce. Listen to me. Back there--”
“Address?” the cop demanded. The police car moved swiftly through traffic, shooting among the cars and buses. Loyce sagged against the seat, exhausted and confused. He took a deep shuddering breath.
“1368 Hurst Road.”
“That’s here in Pikeville?”
“That’s right.” Loyce pulled himself up with a violent effort. “Listen to me. Back there. In the square. Hanging from the lamppost--”
“Where were you today?” the cop behind the wheel demanded.
“Where?” Loyce echoed.
“You weren’t in your shop, were you?”
“No.” He shook his head. “No, I was home. Down in the basement.”
“In the basement?”
“Digging. A new foundation. Getting out the dirt to pour a cement frame. Why? What has that to do with--”
“Was anybody else down there with you?”
“No. My wife was downtown. My kids were at school.” Loyce looked from one heavy-set cop to the other. Hope flicked across his face, wild hope. “You mean because I was down there I missed--the explanation? I didn’t get in on it? Like everybody else?”
After a pause the cop with the notebook said: “That’s right. You missed the explanation.”
“Then it’s official? The body--it’s supposed to be hanging there?”
“It’s supposed to be hanging there. For everybody to see.”
Ed Loyce grinned weakly. “Good Lord. I guess I sort of went off the deep end. I thought maybe something had happened. You know, something like the Ku Klux Klan. Some kind of violence. Communists or Fascists taking over.” He wiped his face with his breast-pocket handkerchief, his hands shaking. “I’m glad to know it’s on the level.”
“It’s on the level.” The police car was getting near the Hall of Justice. The sun had set. The streets were gloomy and dark. The lights had not yet come on.
“I feel better,” Loyce said. “I was pretty excited there, for a minute. I guess I got all stirred up. Now that I understand, there’s no need to take me in, is there?”
The two cops said nothing.
“I should be back at my store. The boys haven’t had dinner. I’m all right, now. No more trouble. Is there any need of--”
“This won’t take long,” the cop behind the wheel interrupted. “A short process. Only a few minutes.”
“I hope it’s short,” Loyce muttered. The car slowed down for a stoplight. “I guess I sort of disturbed the peace. Funny, getting excited like that and--”
Loyce yanked the door open. He sprawled out into the street and rolled to his feet. Cars were moving all around him, gaining speed as the light changed. Loyce leaped onto the curb and raced among the people, burrowing into the swarming crowds. Behind him he heard sounds, shouts, people running.
They weren’t cops. He had realized that right away. He knew every cop in Pikeville. A man couldn’t own a store, operate a business in a small town for twenty-five years without getting to know all the cops.
They weren’t cops--and there hadn’t been any explanation. Potter, Fergusson, Jenkins, none of them knew why it was there. They didn’t know--and they didn’t care. That was the strange part.
Loyce ducked into a hardware store. He raced toward the back, past the startled clerks and customers, into the shipping room and through the back door. He tripped over a garbage can and ran up a flight of concrete steps. He climbed over a fence and jumped down on the other side, gasping and panting.
There was no sound behind him. He had got away.
He was at the entrance of an alley, dark and strewn with boards and ruined boxes and tires. He could see the street at the far end. A street light wavered and came on. Men and women. Stores. Neon signs. Cars.
And to his right--the police station.
He was close, terribly close. Past the loading platform of a grocery store rose the white concrete side of the Hall of Justice. Barred windows. The police antenna. A great concrete wall rising up in the darkness. A bad place for him to be near. He was too close. He had to keep moving, get farther away from them.
Loyce moved cautiously down the alley. Beyond the police station was the City Hall, the old-fashioned yellow structure of wood and gilded brass and broad cement steps. He could see the endless rows of offices, dark windows, the cedars and beds of flowers on each side of the entrance.
Above the City Hall was a patch of darkness, a cone of gloom denser than the surrounding night. A prism of black that spread out and was lost into the sky.
He listened. Good God, he could hear something. Something that made him struggle frantically to close his ears, his mind, to shut out the sound. A buzzing. A distant, muted hum like a great swarm of bees.
Loyce gazed up, rigid with horror. The splotch of darkness, hanging over the City Hall. Darkness so thick it seemed almost solid. _In the vortex something moved._ Flickering shapes. Things, descending from the sky, pausing momentarily above the City Hall, fluttering over it in a dense swarm and then dropping silently onto the roof.
Shapes. Fluttering shapes from the sky. From the crack of darkness that hung above him.
He was seeing--them.
For a long time Loyce watched, crouched behind a sagging fence in a pool of scummy water.
They were landing. Coming down in groups, landing on the roof of the City Hall and disappearing inside. They had wings. Like giant insects of some kind. They flew and fluttered and came to rest--and then crawled crab-fashion, sideways, across the roof and into the building.
He was sickened. And fascinated. Cold night wind blew around him and he shuddered. He was tired, dazed with shock. On the front steps of the City Hall were men, standing here and there. Groups of men coming out of the building and halting for a moment before going on.
Were there more of them?
It didn’t seem possible. What he saw descending from the black chasm weren’t men. They were alien--from some other world, some other dimension. Sliding through this slit, this break in the shell of the universe. Entering through this gap, winged insects from another realm of being.
On the steps of the City Hall a group of men broke up. A few moved toward a waiting car. One of the remaining shapes started to re-enter the City Hall. It changed its mind and turned to follow the others.
Loyce closed his eyes in horror. His senses reeled. He hung on tight, clutching at the sagging fence. The shape, the man-shape, had abruptly fluttered up and flapped after the others. It flew to the sidewalk and came to rest among them.
Pseudo-men. Imitation men. Insects with ability to disguise themselves as men. Like other insects familiar to Earth. Protective coloration. Mimicry.
Loyce pulled himself away. He got slowly to his feet. It was night. The alley was totally dark. But maybe they could see in the dark. Maybe darkness made no difference to them.
He left the alley cautiously and moved out onto the street. Men and women flowed past, but not so many, now. At the bus-stops stood waiting groups. A huge bus lumbered along the street, its lights flashing in the evening gloom.
Loyce moved forward. He pushed his way among those waiting and when the bus halted he boarded it and took a seat in the rear, by the door. A moment later the bus moved into life and rumbled down the street.
Loyce relaxed a little. He studied the people around him. Dulled, tired faces. People going home from work. Quite ordinary faces. None of them paid any attention to him. All sat quietly, sunk down in their seats, jiggling with the motion of the bus.
The man sitting next to him unfolded a newspaper. He began to read the sports section, his lips moving. An ordinary man. Blue suit. Tie. A businessman, or a salesman. On his way home to his wife and family.
Across the aisle a young woman, perhaps twenty. Dark eyes and hair, a package on her lap. Nylons and heels. Red coat and white angora sweater. Gazing absently ahead of her.
A high school boy in jeans and black jacket.
A great triple-chinned woman with an immense shopping bag loaded with packages and parcels. Her thick face dim with weariness.
Ordinary people. The kind that rode the bus every evening. Going home to their families. To dinner.
Going home--with their minds dead. Controlled, filmed over with the mask of an alien being that had appeared and taken possession of them, their town, their lives. Himself, too. Except that he happened to be deep in his cellar instead of in the store. Somehow, he had been overlooked. They had missed him. Their control wasn’t perfect, foolproof.
Maybe there were others.
Hope flickered in Loyce. They weren’t omnipotent. They had made a mistake, not got control of him. Their net, their field of control, had passed over him. He had emerged from his cellar as he had gone down. Apparently their power-zone was limited.
A few seats down the aisle a man was watching him. Loyce broke off his chain of thought. A slender man, with dark hair and a small mustache. Well-dressed, brown suit and shiny shoes. A book between his small hands. He was watching Loyce, studying him intently. He turned quickly away.
Loyce tensed. One of them? Or--another they had missed?
The man was watching him again. Small dark eyes, alive and clever. Shrewd. A man too shrewd for them--or one of the things itself, an alien insect from beyond.
The bus halted. An elderly man got on slowly and dropped his token into the box. He moved down the aisle and took a seat opposite Loyce.
The elderly man caught the sharp-eyed man’s gaze. For a split second something passed between them.
A look rich with meaning.
Loyce got to his feet. The bus was moving. He ran to the door. One step down into the well. He yanked the emergency door release. The rubber door swung open.
“Hey!” the driver shouted, jamming on the brakes. “What the hell--”
Loyce squirmed through. The bus was slowing down. Houses on all sides. A residential district, lawns and tall apartment buildings. Behind him, the bright-eyed man had leaped up. The elderly man was also on his feet. They were coming after him.
Loyce leaped. He hit the pavement with terrific force and rolled against the curb. Pain lapped over him. Pain and a vast tide of blackness. Desperately, he fought it off. He struggled to his knees and then slid down again. The bus had stopped. People were getting off.
Loyce groped around. His fingers closed over something. A rock, lying in the gutter. He crawled to his feet, grunting with pain. A shape loomed before him. A man, the bright-eyed man with the book.
Loyce kicked. The man gasped and fell. Loyce brought the rock down. The man screamed and tried to roll away. “Stop! For God’s sake listen--”
He struck again. A hideous crunching sound. The man’s voice cut off and dissolved in a bubbling wail. Loyce scrambled up and back. The others were there, now. All around him. He ran, awkwardly, down the sidewalk, up a driveway. None of them followed him. They had stopped and were bending over the inert body of the man with the book, the bright-eyed man who had come after him.
Had he made a mistake?
But it was too late to worry about that. He had to get out--away from them. Out of Pikeville, beyond the crack of darkness, the rent between their world and his.
“Ed!” Janet Loyce backed away nervously. “What is it? What--”
Ed Loyce slammed the door behind him and came into the living room. “Pull down the shades. Quick.”
Janet moved toward the window. “But--”
“Do as I say. Who else is here besides you?”
“Nobody. Just the twins. They’re upstairs in their room. What’s happened? You look so strange. Why are you home?”