Conner Nilsen did not leave his property often. At least — not anymore. But that didn’t matter. Even though he lived on Haskell Lake, twenty-four miles from the nearest town, Rockville, and had to go in often to buy bread and milk and toilet paper and fishing lures, it didn’t matter. Not since he had met his new friends.
It had been a week now — no, two weeks. Or was it a week? Who knew? Not Conner. A month?
It didn’t matter anymore.
He had found the fungus … three days before he met his friends? It was hard to tell.
The stuff had been growing, just a small patch of it, no larger than his thumb, on the edge of the television set. Right next to the screen.
He noticed because the TV was turned on. It had been broken for eight years. Now it was on.
Well, not really on. There was just static, a lot of static, and faintly, very faintly, a shape. Who knew what. Who cared.
The static was quite quiet — in fact, he barely heard it. It was like the fungus — too small to really notice it. But day by day, the static grew louder. He could not turn off the TV, or adjust the volume. The shape behind the static grew clearer. Now it looked like a silhouette. Of what, he couldn’t tell. As the sound of the static and the figure’s clarity grew, so did the fungus.
Now, the reddish fuzz blanketed every wall of his modest cabin and every surface within it. Except for the TV screen. But who cared? Not Conner. And not his friends.
The friend’s didn’t care at all. On the third day after the fungus started, they began to talk to Conner from behind that grey, rippling veil.
And, Oh! How they loved to talk!
They would babble on, in voices, voices, so many voices for hours and hours! And oh how Conner loved to listen to them. He had been lonely in the cabin — just him, an old man, and Haskell Lake — all alone in the northwoods. But now! Now was different. He loved his friends, so, so dearly. He loved to hear them talk in their strange and terrible voices, speaking without real words of worlds cold and lonely, nestled in the harsh glare of a million foreign stars. At first, he had been afraid of those voices. They came from the TV, yes — that he knew — but they were not in the TV. He heard them in his head, but they were not in his head. They were somewhere else.
At first he had tried to run, tried to break the TV when he heard his friends (before he knew they were indeed his friends). But he could not smash it in, he could not shatter that static veil over the dead TV screen. He tried, but he couldn’t. They wouldn’t let him.
Conner had tried to leave, but his truck would not start. He had gas, and the old Ford had been repaired a month ago. Every appliance in the vehicle was dead — save the radio. The radio had been broken longer than the TV — he had spilled coffee on it. But the voices came out of the radio, still drifting through the static, telling him to stay, stay, stay…
So he stayed. What choice did he have? Maybe they would go away.
But of course, they didn’t, and he grew to love those sighing voices and their chilling laughter that would echo through the silent house in the odd hours of the night. He grew to love his friends.
That’s why he had built the pyramid for them. His friends had threatened a whole assortment of unpleasant things — and he had seen these terrors on his eyelids when he went to sleep — but there was no need to threaten. He loved his friends. He would do anything for them. The request for the pyramid — or whatever it was — had come … how long ago? Conner couldn’t say. He knew it was the same day his tooth had fallen out — a perfectly healthy tooth — and in its place he had felt the fungus that now enveloped the living room like a plush crimson carpet. The stuff was in its mouth. But the friends told him not to worry, hush hush, not to worry, and then they had told him about the pyramid. He had been so wrapped up in pleasing his friends with the thing that he barely noticed when his hair — thick, despite his age — began to fall away too.
In its place grew the fungus.
Conner Nilsen had worked for days and nights he could not remember — everything was a blur of activity, and, ever louder, the static and the voices of his friends. Now the pyramid was done. It sat in the front yard, by the Lake – eight feet long and wide, and eight feet high. He had cobbled it together from God knew what — his friends had told him what to use. Yes to the lawn mower deck, no to the picture frame, yes to the boat hull, and so on and so forth, yes to this and no to that, seemingly without rhyme or reason. But Conner didn’t worry. His friends knew what they were doing.
At the pointed top of the pyramid was an empty slot — about a foot wide and deep. Countless wires from varying appliances — the phone, the toaster, the copper strands inside his heating blanket, and who knew what else — snaked into, from, and around the slot. What would fill it, Conner did not know. His friends would tell him when they were ready to come for a visit. This they had told him. How badly he wanted to meet them. “How long must I wait?” he asked.
Not much longer, they told him. Hush hush, not much longer.
Meanwhile, the fungus grew inside the car to, covering the seats and the roof and the windshield in a thick swathe of crimson. Everything except the broken radio, which had been stripped of its remaining wires and electricals completely for the pyramid and was now little more than a plastic shell with a dial. Inside that radio, the voices continued their babble, louder than ever before.
Today, at last, was the day. It was time to fill the socket and complete the pyramid. His friends told him from the TV. By now, the sound of the static had reached an unbearable volume, but to Conner, it was the loveliest sound he had ever heard. It was the sound of his friends.
In addition to that, the figure behind the static had grown clearer. It was closer now, much closer, and he could see that it was humanoid, but by no stretch of the imagination was it human.
It was, however, his friends. Or at least one of them. This he knew.
The friends told him, in their awful, beautiful voices, to take the truck and go into town.
But, he told them, the truck would not work, so he could not go into town, and would have to walk.
Too slow! Too slow! The voices screamed.
A bolt of pain shot through his head, and he felt the fungus in his mouth throb as the stuff on his head tightened against his skull. Never had his friends hurt him before, and he almost cried out in pain and alarm. Then the pain was gone.
Foolish foolish, his friends shrieked with impatience. The truck will start. Now go!
Obediently, lovingly, Conner went out to the truck. He had removed most of the engine block for the pyramid, but, regardless, the truck was running. He had to heave the fungus off the windshield with a snow scraper in order to see the road. Hurry, hurry! His friends urged. There is no time to waste. Hurry!
On the way to town, Conner asked his friends why they had hurt him.
Hush hush, they soothed through the mangled radio. We didn’t mean to, we love you. We are eager, very eager to visit you.
When will you come?
The friends told Conner what he needed was at Mike’s Hardware and Goods.
3000 batteries, they said.
So parked the engineless truck outside of Mike’s and went in.
“Heya, Nilsen!” Mike called from inside his office, behind the counter. Conner tried to move his hand to wave, but the friends wouldn’t let him.
Hurry, hurry, hurry!
So he didn’t stop to wave. He didn’t need Mike. He had his new friends.
Into the battery aisle. Overhead, the lights flickered like strobes.
“Sorry about those damn lights,” Mike called from the back room. “Been actin’ like that for nearly a week. Can’t even call the ‘lectrician to come fix ‘em ‘cause the phone line’s good as dead.” Conner barely heard. He (or was it the friends? It was hard to tell where he ended and the friends began. They were a blur now) swept his arm along the shelf. Batteries fell into the shopping cart in heaps.
More, more! Cried the friends.
Soon, the shelves in the aisle were bare and the cart was heaped almost as high as Conner’s shoulders with batteries.
The cart was heavy, but he
wheeled it over to the front desk without a problem.
No no no no NO NO NO!
The friends yelled inside his head.
“I hafta pay,” Conner said aloud.
“He won’t let me leave if I don’t pay,” Conner said slowly. It was hard to talk, the fungus coated his mouth so thickly. Just then, Mike emerged from his office. The stout redneck greeted him with a warm smile.
“Well, howdy there, Nilsen! It’s been a while since you’ve come over to this ne—”
Mike stopped when he saw the batteries. A look of puzzlement crossed his face, and he glanced warily from the cart to Conner. Then, Mike’s eyes lighted upon the top of Conner’s head, and the crimson fungus that covered it. His mouth dropped open, and he took a step sideways.
stared back with dead eyes. Then he felt the fungus tighten again around his skull, and he could feel himself inside Mike’s mind, inside his brain, like a tumor.
A crimson tumor.
He could hear Mike’s heartbeat in his ears, and the odd whispers as Mike’s thoughts intertwined and passed his by. Mike spoke, and Conner could hear it from not only the man’s mouth, but his conscience. The voice was shaky — afraid.
“Now, hang on one second sir, I just … I just need to go back and g-get … something.” He jerked his thumb towards the back office, before turning and hurrying — no, running — off behind the counter.
But Conner knew better. He could see the phone on the office desk, and the gun in the drawer, a handgun with a gleaming silver barrel, and he could feel the phone buttons under Mike’s fingers as he dialed for the police.
Conner thought to run, but overpowering all his thoughts were his friends. They spoke two words:
And as the fungus surged tighter around Conner’s head, he pushed his mind against the dull confines of Mike’s brain, and felt Mike’s thoughts stumble, and slip away.
A scream echoed from the back room, but Conner had already left Mike’s Hardware and Goods.
It would be almost eighteen hours before anyone ventured inside Mike’s, as Conner had thought to flip the door sign to read ‘Sorry, We’re Closed’ as he left.
And if that unfortunate shopper chose to wander into the back office, in search of Mike, they would find him.
His corpse would be lying as it had fallen, beside the desk. With morbid fascination, they might note through their shock that his head had literally imploded — destroyed from the inside, not out. And, thriving in the blood pooled on the cheap white tiles would be — as thick and soft (if that visitor dared to touch it) as a carpet, the crimson fungus.
Whatever human regret or guilt Conner had thought of killing Mike was drowned out by the clamor of the friends. As the daylight faded, they guided his hands, and he
wound wires and wrapped cords around, between, inside the 3000 batteries. He had to work outside now — the static from the TV inside the house was so loud, the noise was nearly incapacitating. It was late at night (he could not say what time exactly) when he hauled the mass of wires and batteries down to the pyramid. The lake glittered, dark and silent. The watery light of the pale moon shone dimly through the clouds. No birds called, no insects clamored. Only the wind sighed through the trees.
Staggering under the weight of the ‘capstone’, Conner tripped on something heavy and soft, and nearly fell down the gentle embankment towards the lakeshore. He stopped to wipe his brow (which was now home to several strands of the fungus, snaking down from his hairline) and examine what had tripped him.
It was a beaver, and it was stone cold dead.
Conner would have looked longer, if only to rest, but he
righted himself, shifted the capstone in his hands, and continued toward the pyramid. A stepladder leaned against it. He could not remember putting the ladder there, but…
It was only when he stood before the pyramid, as silent as the lake and the beaver, that he
allowed himself to rest. The voices had grown quiet, but Conner could feel their anticipation, their excitement. He knew what to do.
Climbing the ladder, and perching the capstone carefully, ever so carefully, against the rim of the socket, he leaned over, and then slowly, gently, lowered the capstone, until it touched the bottom of the socket…
Conner leapt back, falling from and howling in pain. He lay writhing on the grass, and blinked away tears as he inspected his hands. His palms, which had gripped the capstone, were burned raw and red. Above him, the pyramid exploded in light, and a single, blinding ray shot from the capstone into the dark sky. The clouds parted around it as it hurtled skyward, as if it was poison.
At the same time, every window in the house shattered, and he heard a coughing snap as the TV speakers gave out. The static was silent, but the pyramid roared like an ungodly machine. Inside the house, the figure in the TV pulsed crimson, before the screen shattered and melted.
As if an invisible cord had been unplugged, the pyramid was silent and dark once again.
As was the rest of the world. There was only silence … echoing, deafening silence.
Conner lay dazed on the ground, the pain in his palms forgotten. The friends had ceased their chattering, but in their place was joy — sheer, overwhelming joy.
They were coming.
Why? Because he had called them — yes! He had called, and the friends had answered.
THEY ARE COMING!
But in calling them, he had made a pact, a union, a bond as immortal and eternal as time itself. He was one with his friends.
WE ARE COMING!
And, as if in sync with this revelation, thunder echoed from within the great, swirling hole
(—not a hole but a window)
(—not a window but an EYE)
the pyramid had opened in the clouds.
But with that, the feeling dissipated. It was totally gone — in its place was a cold dread.
A great cawing and crowing rent the air with deafening suddenness, and birds erupted from the forest, taking to the skies. Conner gazed in awe — by God, every bird from Haskell Lake to Rockville must have taken flight!
They swirled and wheeled under the hole
above the lake, a mass so thick it seemed solid. And then, first slowly, but them in droves, faster and faster and faster, they dropped dead from the sky.
Feathered corpses splashed into the still waters like so many copper pennies in a fountain.
On his left, a deer ran from the woods, frothing at the mouth, its eyes wild. It was followed by two, three, five, eleven — dozens of deer sprinted past Conner, their chests heaving in desperate exertion. They reached the shores of the lake, and, skittering on the wet rocks, fell dead, as if mowed down by invisible bullets. Blood trickled from their nostrils and the corners of their eyes, and Conner vaguely realized they had all died from massive internal hemorrhaging. Soon, the corpses were piled like sandbags on a bulwark, and the beach rocks were slick with gore.
Conner sat up and rubbed his battered head — the moss fell off in dry clumps — it, too, was dead.
What had caused such wild fury, such insanity, such death?
He had called, and they had answered, oh God, oh yes, oh God they were coming they were COMING THEY WERE—
Thunder echoed once more.
The lake began to writhe furiously, the water foaming and frothing, the black bird corpses on its surface like an oil slick, agitated by some unseen hand.
Cold terror gripped Conner’s heart — not fear, not worry, not angst — terror. The kind of horror you feel when the world is dark, and shadows dance, and no birds call and thunder echoes in the west, and outside the window a wolf — but maybe not a wolf — no something more, something so ancient and angry and HUNGRY howled with the thunder.
Conner felt this now, and he tried to run.
The thunder echoed again, but this time it was not a single peal, it was a constant, awful thrumming, groaning, wailing, and the lake writhed and the hole
Oh, he tried to run, but he could not move. And so he watched, with indescribable horror as lightning flashed again, again, again, it then it was the color of the fungus, it was RED, RED RED—
And so he watched as something — a craft, a ship, a messenger from a place so distant and cold that lay in slumber under the light of a thousand foreign stars, that had flown through nebulae and centuries of howling darkness, until it had found a beacon, found a signal, found him — lowered itself from the hole in the clouds.
And so what could Conner do but watch as his fingernails fell off and his skin cracked and burned red and as the grass withered and as the lake boiled and the trees snapped and burst into flames, and he screamed into the air that screamed around him.
Because they had come.
The Friends had come.
Luke Dykowski is a freshman from Wisconsin. In addition to writing, he enjoys cross country skiing, marching band, geography, and spending time with his (terrestrial) friends. This is his first published work.