Description: For fans of Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Scott Sigler, from a #1 bestselling Kindle author.
An infection that consumes and changes people…
When an alien entity lands in the remote Appalachian Mountains, a clairvoyant psychology professor, a drunken dirt farmer, and a disillusioned tycoon must team up to stop it before the infection spreads.
But with Windshake’s annual spring festival coming, the town is full of visitors, unaware of the unnatural menace creeping toward them from the woods, or that the shambling people with the green, glowing eyes are aching to make contact…
Sylvester Mull cradled his .30-06 in the crook of his left elbow, his trigger hand gripping the wooden stock. He ducked under a low pine branch, one of the few scraps of greenery in the mountains this time of year. He was hunting out of season and wore brown camouflage coveralls, but still felt as exposed as a peacock in a turkey pen. The damned deer seemed to be getting smarter and smarter, or maybe he was just getting dumber.
Last year, he’d only bagged a couple of bucks, a four-pointer and a six-pointer. Not even worth hanging those scraggly-assed sets of horns on the wall down at the Moose Lodge. But he didn’t hunt for the glory of it, like a lot of those beer-bellied Moosers did. He liked to put meat on the table cheap, or free if possible. Of course, they weren’t exactly giving away ammunition these days, what with them damn liberals putting the pressure on the gun industry.
But hunting was only half the reason he lurked in the woods. The joy was in getting away out here on the back side of Bear Claw, where the car exhaust didn’t burn your eyes and the only noise was the northwest wind tangling with the treetops.
Blow on, wind. Just push the ass end of winter right on out of these parts.
The last snows had been late and deep. It might only be his imagination, but he couldn’t remember the weather ever being so bad. Seemed to have gotten worse over the last few years. And them damned geniuses on the news kept on about global warming when any fool could plainly tell it was getting colder.
Used to be, by this time of the year, red buds would be hanging on the tips of the oak and hickory trees and the briars would have little sprigs of bright green leaves up and down their spines. But today, everything was the color of mud and barn stalls, dreary from the rainstorm that had hit the mountains last night. The wind had pushed the storm away, though another sprinkle had started around noon. The first stubborn flowers had poked through the dead leaves, bloodroot, trout lilies, and slim, pale stalks of chickweed. In the protected hollows, mist hung like gun smoke over a battlefield. The mist was easy to hide in, and maybe, if he was lucky, a buck or doe might just pass right under his nose.
Sylvester had built this stand last fall, when the hunting season had about petered out. Dead pine branches stacked against each other, a few logs strung together with twine to hold the mess up, and a little leaf-covered tarp tied overhead to keep him dry. With his brown clothes and hair, he blended with the environment. And he ought to, as many years as he’d hoofed through these woods trying to rustle up some meat. He didn’t wear one of those flaming orange hats that they sold in the sporting goods section down at the Kmart.
That was one of the dumbest things Sylvester had ever heard of. Might as well carry a neon sign that said, Hey, deer, come over here and get blown to hell. Prevented accidents, they said. Well, if a fellow couldn’t tell a man from an animal, he had no business in the woods with a gun anyway.
Sylvester crouched in the stand, his feet hot in his boots, and listened to the forest. Nothing but wind and the soft splash of the rain, but that was okay. Plenty of time to think. Because hunting was timeless, the past pretty much like the present, whether in season or out. He could just as easily have been a brainless caveman waiting to spear a hairy elephant or a space alien with a zapper ray-gun, like in the movies. The hunter and the hunted, that’s what it all came down to.
A bad day of hunting beat the hell out of the best day of work. He’d called in sick down at Bryson’s Feed where he drove a delivery truck, and it wasn’t the first time he’d skipped to go after deer or pheasant or squirrels.
Hell, he had been sick, in a way. Sick of that yackitty-assed wife of his, Peggy, and those snot-nosed brats she’d laid on him, who sat on their sorry asses all day staring bug eyed at them video games. All crowded in the nasty trailer that Peggy was too lazy to clean. Who wouldn’t want to escape from that?
He didn’t escape in beer the way most of his fellow Moosers did, even though the thought was mighty tempting. He only had to look around on a Friday night at those sad-eyed middle-aged losers to remind himself how fast it all went away. Their last good years were draining through their livers, the alcohol fogging their fat heads and blurring their eyesight. He wasn’t even sure why he had joined the Lodge. Probably because you had to own a necktie to get into the Lion’s Club.
Most of his friends belonged to the Lodge. Billy Ray Silas, for one. They’d gone hunting and fishing together for the last twenty years, and once every six months they packed up and headed to the top of Blackstone Mountain for a week-long camping trip. Of course, they spent three days of pump’n’pay at a whorehouse in Titusville before they even unloaded the truck. But Sylvester always brought something back, a good twenty-inch rainbow trout or a ten-point buck, and, once, a black bear.
And when he returned, his lips chapped from the wind, Peggy would be all lovey-dovey and they’d actually get along for a few weeks, doing the horizontal hoedown at least every other night. But that was before he’d found out about Jimmy Morris, his loyal Lodge brother.
Seems Jimmy had been wearing out his sheets whenever Sylvester was gone, riding his wife before Sylvester’s truck exhaust had even dissolved over the driveway. And Peggy must have felt guilty, because after his camping trips, she had been doing all kinds of imaginative bedroom sports. Or maybe Jimmy had just taught an old dog some new tricks.
To hell with them both.
Sylvester felt the comforting weight of the .30-06 across his arm. A good gun was all a body needed, a long, true blue barrel and a worn woodstock. And some deep forest, which was getting harder to find since all the old local families had started selling off their land. Even his old man had peddled off pieces of the Mull birthright. The old farmstead had gone to seed, and if Sylvester ever did inherit a chunk of acreage, it would take years of work to get it yielding again.
Besides, Chester was never going to die at this rate. All that damned moonshine must have mummified the bastard, because he didn’t seem to be slowing down any. Chester didn’t lift a finger around the farm, but he still managed to get down to the Save-a-Ton and load up on TV dinners and chewing tobacco.
The last time Sylvester had visited him, a few weeks back when a late winter snowstorm had melted down enough for the farm road to be passable, the old man had been curled up under a blanket, his dog at his feet, and a jar of rotgut at his elbow, as happy as a rooster in a henhouse.
A twig snapped in the distance, jerking Sylvester out of his reverie. His senses sharpened as if his ears had telescoped out and were swiveling back and forth like secret-agent radar dishes. Leaves shuffled somewhere to his left, about a hundred yards away, just over a ridge.
Must be a big son of a bitch, judging from the racket.
Sylvester peered at the edges of a laurel thicket. A deer couldn’t get through there, the branches were too knotted together. And the top end of the ridge was too steep. Even a mountain buck couldn’t climb those granite boulders that jutted from the earth like gray teeth, especially with rain still soaking the loam beneath the leaves.
So it would have to come around the lower end of the laurel thicket, and Sylvester had a clear line of sight to the spot where it would most likely emerge. Now it was an enemy, as surely as the Japs or Injuns were in a John Wayne movie. It wanted to keep its meat attached to the bones, but Sylvester wanted to field dress it and slice it into steaks. It would die before it even knew it was hunted.
The back of Sylvester’s neck tingled and sweat popped out around his scalp line. It wasn’t a nervous sweat. Sylvester was locked in. This was his reason to roll out of bed in the morning, his dope, his religion. He had something to kill.
Sylvester wasn’t complicated enough to try to understand why he gained so much pleasure from hunting. An anthropologist might have chalked it up to some primordial survival instinct still swirling in the genes at the base of the human backbone even after all these millennia. A psychologist might have decreed that Sylvester was still trying to measure up against the judgments of a harsh father-figure. A Mooser would have said that killing was more fun than a fart in an elevator.
But Sylvester was untroubled by the many facets of the equation. Because the equation was simple: the hunter versus the hunted.
He pressed the gunstock against his cheek and pulled back the safety. It slid smoothly and easily, loose from years of being lovingly oiled. Sylvester aimed down the barrel to the tiny wingtip of the sight and lined the gun up with the spot where the footfalls were headed. He breathed shallowly to hush the roar of his own blood in his ears and to steady his hands.
He saw movement through the drizzle, a quiver of laurel branch, and his finger grew taut on the trigger. He knew the exact degree of pressure he could apply before the hammer fell, and he was halfway there. Then his eyes saw a spot of brown, a more reddish brown than the surrounding dead leaves and tree trunks. His finger notched to about three-quarters.
Another step, just show me the white fur target on your chest, and I’ll park your ass in the deep freezer back home.
And suddenly the animal stepped into the clearing, and Sylvester’s finger was squeezing out the last millimeters of the trigger’s resistance when he saw that it wasn’t a buck that had lurched between the trees.
In that same micro-second, although it seemed to stretch out so long it felt like minutes, Sylvester pushed up with his left hand as the roar of the igniting charge filled his ears. Sylvester’s mind collected several observations in that slow-motion instant: the smell of the gunpowder, harsh and cloying; the slight kick of the gun butt against his shoulder, like that of a baby jackass; the mist lifting as if someone had sucked it up with a king-sized vacuum cleaner; and the sound of the bullet whistling through the treetops overhead, carving a slice in the sky before digging into the mountainside somewhere hundreds of yards away.
The sweat was back on his scalp line, and this time it was nervous sweat. He’d almost shot somebody.
He leaned his rifle against the stand and looked at the figure that stumbled between the trees. Whoever it was didn’t seem to have heard the shot. Sylvester’s hands trembled. He looked down at them as if they were someone else’s.
He stepped from the stand and looked down the ridge. The figure staggered and fell.
Sweet holy hell. I didn’t shoot the son of a bitch, did I?
Tears of panic tried to collect in the corners of his eyes, but he blinked them away. He ran toward the fallen heap of flesh, hopping down the ridge, slipping on the rotten rug of leaves. They’d lock him up, sure as hell. Never give him another hunting license. Kick him out of the Lodge, maybe.
The huddled form was rising, wobbly but still alive. “Praise to Thee,” Sylvester muttered to the wet gray sky, not really giving a good goddamn whether or not anybody was up there to hear him.
He saw that it was a man he’d almost shot, a short man whose dark hair hung in wet mop strings. His back was to Sylvester, but he looked familiar. Those square ears jutting out from under a red ball cap gave him away as surely as if he’d handed Sylvester a picture ID.
“Ralph,” Sylvester hollered, reaching to touch the man on the shoulder.
Ralph Bumgarner was as dumb as a hitching post, but even he knew better than to stagger around in the woods in a deerskin jacket. With a white wool collar to boot. Must be drunker than a Republican judge.
“I almost shot you, you crazy fool,” Sylvester said, and his words almost flew back down his throat.
Because Ralph had turned.
Because Ralph’s eyes were glowing green, the color of lime Jell-O, but shiny, as if a Coleman lantern was burning inside the cavity of his skull.
Because Ralph’s face was ashen, pale, and dead, his flesh bulging against his skin like white mud in a Ziplock baggie.
Because Ralph planted his hands on Sylvester’s shoulders and pulled him closer, and Sylvester’s bones felt as if they had turned to Jell-O themselves, because he couldn’t run.
Because Ralph opened his mouth as if he were going to plant a big soul kiss, and Sylvester got the feeling that there was a lot more to it than homosexual attraction.
Because Ralph’s breath was maggoty and putrid, blowing from the black swamp of his gums, promising a French that was a hundred times ranker than the ones he’d gotten from the Titusville whores.
Because Ralph’s tongue was in his mouth, slick as a slug but with the scaly texture of a dead trout, and a flood of cold slime gushed into Sylvester’s throat.
Because the slime was changing him, joining and separating his cells, breaking him down, altering his metabolism.
Because Sylvester felt himself dying but had a feeling that simply dying and getting it over with would have been the best thing that ever happened.
Because now he was dead.
And ready to hunt.