Chapter Five

Paul and Helen Mallard could not have asked for a finer day on which to celebrate the fifth birthday of their daughter, Brittany: lots of sunshine; pleasantly warm; birds singing in the trees. This was Brittany's first true birthday party, in the sense that the spritely towheaded girl had actually played a significant role in planning it; for her two previous parties, Helen had drawn up a few invitations to friends with same-aged or similarly-aged children and invited them over to the house for an afternoon of refreshments. This time, though, Brittany had invited over two dozen children a number Paul found extraordinary and even a bit daunting, but Helen had assured him that, with all the other mothers present, it would not be difficult to supervise. Plus, tiny stomachs would require only tiny pieces of cake, nothing like having to feed adults.

The location was different too: the site of Brittany's party today was the large public park in a section of town that had only come into being in the great housing boom of the early twenty-first century. The area had been a magnet for young professional couples like Paul and Helen—both of whom were in their early thirties and worked for the county government, with Brittany being the first of their three planned children—and they had quickly befriended many other families of similar size and interests. The housing boom, of course, had eventually become a bust and most such families were deep underwater on their mortgages, but for the most part folks here were in no great hurry to sell out. If you had to be trapped in a particular neighborhood, the consensus view held, this one was a pretty good choice.

The park—which boasted playground equipment, a two-mile track, and a large multi-use athletic field, among other taxpayer-funded amenities—had been carved out of a vast tract of timberland, all pine, once owned by a large paper company that had kindly donated the property. Brittany's celebration was ongoing under a pavilion at the edge of the athletic field.

-o-

It was picture time. Paul Mallard—thin, blond, bespectacled with his thick glasses and slightly nervous manner—was keen to get some quality photographs taken of Brittany for the family album. Holding his brand-new Nikon camera to his chest with one hand, he motioned to slender, brunette Helen with the other, loudly cleared his throat.

Helen, who had been chatting with the mother of a girl in attendance, glanced over at him. "Now…?" she squeaked. Her face reflected trepidation.

"Just a few," Paul assured her, "not many."

He sympathized with Helen. He knew she didn't like to have her picture taken, and he understood why: she blinked in so many of them, maybe most. He'd once joked with her that if he had a nickel for every photograph of Helen, going all the way back to childhood, with a big smile on her face and her eyes tightly shut, the two of them could retire—but only once, as Helen had failed to see the humor.

Anyway, this was about Brittany, who thankfully had not manifested her mother's aversion to flash bulbs. Paul had the whole thing mapped out: three rounds of pictures, the first of which would be Brittany and Helen standing together, followed by a second of Brittany unwrapping her gifts, and a third of what Paul referred to as "candid shots," in which he would stealthily prowl around the edges of the revelry, snapping shots of Brittany in various stages of delight as she and her friends made first use of all her new gifts.

Helen meekly went over to Brittany, who was at the center of a cluster of little girls, and touched her shoulder. "Darling," she said. "Come with me for a minute. Daddy wants to take some pictures."

"But I don't want to," Brittany whined.

Helen's grip became firmer. "Daddy really wants to get some pictures of you. It won't take long, I promise." Under her breath, she mumbled, "It had better not anyway."

"All right," Brittany grumbled, allowing her mother to lead her away.

"Okay, girls," said an ecstatic Paul. "Let's get you two with the field behind you."

Helen and Brittany arranged themselves in front of the field. Paul looked at them through the lens of the camera. Then he shook his head.

"Too much light," he said. "Come in a little closer, okay?"

The two Mallard ladies did as ordered. "Paul," Helen began, "it doesn't have to be perfect."

"Yes it does," Paul disagreed, a slight edge in his voice. "Just humor me here, okay?"

Helen sighed. She had always thought that she, as the wife and mother, would be the one committed to memorializing these kinds of occasions. But she had nothing on Paul, who embraced the little rituals of home and hearth with an enthusiasm that verged on obsession at times. The man had to photograph everything. Somewhere in the house there were a couple of pictures of Brittany while in potty training, seated primly on her little blue plastic toilet. The pictures contained an appalled Helen in the corner, trying to shoo him out before he could take any more of them.

"Oh, come on," he had complained at the time. "This is a rite of passage! We have to preserve this!"

In those pictures, remarkably enough, Helen's eyes were open—and horrified.

But Helen tolerated this trait in Paul. He had come from a broken home and had lived in the households of two different stepfathers before he was fifteen years old. One of those men was a drunk, while the other was an abusive drunk. He wanted his daughter's childhood to be as perfect as his had been flawed, and Helen loved him for that. But, boy, could he be irritating at times like these.

"All right now," Paul said, holding up the camera. "Say cheese!"

"Toe cheese!" Brittany cried.

Paul snapped a picture, and then glanced down at the image on the camera. Crap! Helen had blinked.

"Helen," he began.

But his wife already knew. "I had my eyes closed, didn't I?"

Paul nodded. "Better take some more."

"Maybe I just shouldn't be in the picture at all," Helen suggested. "Let me take it instead. You come over here and stand with Brittany."

"No, no," Paul said. "We'll just do it again. No problem."

"But I—"

"Okay, then." He brought the camera back up to his face. "Everybody say cheese!"

He snapped several additional pictures in rapid succession. Surely, he thought, the laws of mathematics guaranteed Helen would have her eyes open in at least of them.

This being done, he once more studied the images on his camera. He was pleased by what he saw.

"You did it, Helen," he announced, looking up. "Congratulations."

Helen clapped her hands together. "I didn't blink this time?"

"In one you did—but for you that's amazing."

"Thanks," his wife said sourly.

"Mama, can I go back to my party now?" Brittany asked.

"Sure, honey. Sorry we kept you so long."

Paul had gotten a total of five pictures, of which four had Helen with her eyes open, and could therefore be used.

Only…what was that in the sky behind them?

The same tiny black dot appeared in each photograph, just over the heads of his wife and daughter. He hadn't noticed anything while he was taking the pictures, but then again he'd been so preoccupied with Helen's eyes it was probably no surprise.

Paul lowered his camera, scanned the blue sky.

Something was there, all right. The dot hadn't been caused by some flaw in the internal workings of his camera, as he thought at first; it represented a real object, and that object, unidentifiable from this distance, was coming their way, though not quickly. Instead it seemed to be traveling languidly on the gentle summer breeze, like a balloon that had just enough helium to make it buoyant, yet needed air currents to lift it.

Behind Paul the children were chattering and squealing and laughing; however, he could no longer hear them. He knew only the feel of that summer breeze on his cheeks, the odd coldness on the back of his neck, and the drumming of his increasingly anxious heart. Something about the airborne object filled him with dread.

The wind died suddenly; in tandem, the object began to sink onto the field. On its present trajectory, it would land right in the middle.

Paul took a small step forward, not because he wanted to but because he felt he should.

"Paul…?" Helen said from the rear of him. "Are you okay?"

"Keep everyone here, Helen," he whispered, not looking back at her. "I'm going to go see what that is."

"See what…?" But Helen didn't finish her question, for she saw then what Paul was seeing: a strange, misshapen thing slowly descending to the center of the field, maybe fifty yards away, and lingering there.

Paul, screwing up his courage, started toward it in earnest.

"Paul, wait," Helen urged, trying to keep her voice down so the children wouldn't hear. "Don't."

"I'm just going to go check and see what it is," he told her. "Don't worry. It's probably nothing."

Helen may have said something else, but it didn't register with Paul. As he approached the fallen object, which had now come to rest on the ground, he was able to make out a few more features.

It was the approximate shape of a grotesquely overweight human being, with arms and legs. Because it lolled on its side and was turned away from him, Paul could not see a face, but he was pretty sure it had some sort of head, which led him to conclude initially this was a dummy—and a Plus-Sized dummy, at that. It was dressed in a flannel shirt and blue jeans, but the shirt was split down the back; the jeans had ripped apart as well, revealing a pair of tightly-stretched plaid boxer shorts underneath—as if the clothes in which the dummy was dressed had suddenly become too small for it.

But that was absurd, and within ten feet of his quarry Paul thought he had the whole thing figured out anyway. A couple of weird kids, probably teenagers, had made a kind of flying scarecrow just for kicks. They had found some old torn up clothes, stuffed a bunch of helium-filled balloons inside, and maybe found a burlap sack or something to be the head, and then let their bizarre creation fly off to amuse, unnerve, or terrify people in the surrounding area.

Yeah, that's the ticket, thought Paul.

Only, once he was right on top the supposed scarecrow, Paul discovered that its head was no burlap sack. He might have dismissed the dark hair as a wig, but that was real skin on the back of the neck.

Paul's throat went dry.

The wind rose again now: swiftly, violently. A single gust ripped the supposed dummy from the ground, hurled it at Paul. The young father did not have time to turn around, let alone run away, before it collided with him.

The hideousness of the thing alone was not enough to make Paul scream. It was the hideousness of the thing plus his realization that it had once been a living man. Paul fell onto his back, the camera soaring into space, then clack-clack-clacking onto the soft dark earth nearby. He cried out as the monstrosity lingered over him, its ugly and somehow pathetic form framed by the sunlight that had once seemed so lovely, but which now revealed the stuff of nightmare in loving detail. The eyes had sunk back so far into the head they were barely visible anymore; the cheeks, throat, chest, and belly had swollen to an extent far greater than Paul would have thought possible without bursting; and the mouth, no doubt as a consequence of the swelling, had been reduced to a tiny black sliver in middle of a salt-and-pepper beard, though it was open enough to allow a tiny stream of yellow fluid to dribble out, some of which trickled onto Paul's face. In a blind panic, the young man kicked out at the weightless, lifeless, sightless body, and, so scorned, it spun away from him. Then he scrambled to his feet and raced back to the party, crying out for his wife and daughter and all the parents and children present to leave now, get out of here, only vaguely aware as he ran that he had wet his pants.

Behind him the floating corpse of a man named Hal Farris was once more drawn into the air…

Maybe all this shouldn't have come as a surprise. Paul and Helen Mallard had wanted their daughter to have a memorable birthday party. It seemed that the Fates, very graciously, had obliged them.