Tucked away in the foothills, surrounded by pine forests, loaded with kids who still play outside, Millwood is the small town everyone knows. The local deputies grapple with petty vandalism and local drunks. The local teachers know the name of every kid in town. For Heather Bradley, it's a place that keeps her family safe and their lives in order; her biggest worries are the daily grind of her job and the kids coming home late. She doesn't know that unfathomable forces are set to converge on her town and thrust their neat lives into darkness, but when her oldest son Stuart opens a one-sided door in the woods and a black cloud pours out, the Bradleys and their whole town find themselves locked in a desperate struggle for survival. As the chaos grows and the nature of the real threat emerges, the only question becomes whether or not come morning the town will exist at all.
"Andrew Najberg, with dashes of John Carpenter, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Kathe Koja, has prepared a sumptuous, slow-burn, supernatural horror feast in The Mobius Door fit to satiate any connoisseur’s ravenous desire for the darker dimension of existence. At the heart of this novel, however, is the question: how can anyone be human when the impossibly vast universe (multiverse?) constantly threatens to devour us whole?"
~ Andrew Farkas, author of The Great Indoorsman: Essays, The Big Red Herring, and Sunsphere
Percy didn’t know how long he waited for the cab. Calling an Uber would have been quicker, but he’d never trusted the concept and he’d known a couple folk who’d been ripped off. Percy paced up and down the sidewalk, passing the row of ornamental fir trees in giant concrete pots and biting his nails to the quick. Occasionally, he’d pause and simply gaze out across the parking lot. The lights were coming on as the storm thickened. The light pollution lit up the thunderhead’s underbelly.
Flashes of the accident kept rushing through Percy’s mind, as did images of the young boy with his mouth bloodied. Percy paused and forced himself to appreciate that he hadn’t taken the lives of the two boys, or more seriously injured them. It didn’t matter to him that the car was parked in the middle of the road. It wouldn’t have mattered if Heather Bradley had driven head-on into him. He’d played a part in the accident; if someone had died, he didn’t know if he could’ve lived with himself.
He kept getting so wrapped up in his thoughts that he didn’t consider how menacing the storm brewing overhead appeared. He didn’t notice that the hot wind contained some oddly cold threads and a fetid tinge. He didn’t even notice when the cab pulled up to the curb in front of him. The driver had rolled down the window.
“You the one who called a cab?” the driver said.
Percy snapped out of his near trance and nodded.
“Ayuh,” he muttered. “That’s right.”
Millwood being a pretty small and—by New England standards—friendly place, the driver offered him shotgun, but Percy declined, electing instead to dump himself into the back seat like a sack of broken clocks. Percy immediately realized that his feet, despite the well-worn comfort of his battered penny loafers, hurt like the dickens. He spent a lot of time standing in his classroom, but he figured that standing around waiting for the police, waiting to know how injured the child was, waiting to get ahold of insurance, etc. was just harder standing. He closed the door, buckled his seatbelt, mumbled his address, and off they went.
The cab came to a sudden stop twenty feet later, lurching Percy forward. Percy adjusted his belt and frowned as he heard a voice outside through the still open driver’s window. It repeated one word, gruffly.
Percy twisted in his seat until he saw an old man in a navy polo shuffling a tarnished walker with tennis ball feet towards the cab. Exertion flushed the man’s face, and he stopped his awkward clomping to wipe sweat from his brow three times. The old man gasped for breath as he blundered to a stop besides the driver’s door. Sweat drenched the man’s shirt down the chest and under both arms. Poor man, Percy thought, having to rush in his condition.
“Sorry…to…chase…you…down,” the man panted. “Can…I…share…the…ride?”
The driver thrust a thumb to the backseat.
“Up to him,” he said.
The old man looked expectantly to Percy. Percy sighed. If this were Boston, it’d be perfectly polite to say no. However, Millwood didn’t have many proper cabs, and if the others were busy, the wait could be long. Percy had to figure that an older fellow like that would vastly prefer not to wait.
The words that came to Percy’s mind were, “Fucking hell,” but his mouth said, “Yeah, that’ll be fine.”
He hoped his tone hadn’t crossed the line into rudeness. The driver put the vehicle in park and got out to help stow the man’s walker in the trunk. Percy assumed the old man would take shotgun, but instead, he plopped heavily into the back seat as well. The man smelled a bit like mothballs, liniment, hand sanitizer, and something musty that Percy couldn’t quite finger.
Immediately, he reached over to Percy and offered a handshake. Though he wasn’t the biggest fan of coming into contact with folks—his mom’s hypochondria had rubbed off on him a little—he shook the man’s hand lightly, immediately noting the roughness of his skin. He clearly used his hands a lot. As their palms parted, Percy refrained from wincing when he saw how yellowed and damaged the man’s fingernails were. Was that stuff communicable? He would need to Google it.
“Which part of town you live in?” the old man said. His voice might have been strong once, but it crackled as though something were in his throat, and his breath smelled like an open trashcan.
“Out off Exit 6,” Percy said, trying to face front, away from the breath, as discreetly as possible.
“Ah, Coney Park way,” the old man said. “Live near thereabouts myself.”
“Yup,” Percy said. He felt bad about ignoring an old man’s attempts at conversation. The man was probably lonely, maybe stressed by whatever brought him to the hospital, but Percy’s day had been long. He also found himself off-put by the man’s unexpected intrusion into what he’d hoped would be a quiet ride home. Once he got home, he’d need to focus on tending to his mom until her nighttime meds, and by then he’d probably just pass out himself.
Besides, a bit of spittle hung at the corner of the man’s lips—a rather large bead of it actually. For some reason, Percy felt that even in quick glances he could see it with extraordinary clarity and resolution. Within that bead of liquid, thin little black worms floated. It was patently impossible for him to actually see it, but the idea ingrained itself. His palm felt itchy, like those same worms were burrowing into the pads of his palm where they’d brushed against the man’s callouses. Silence reigned for a moment as the cab pulled out of the parking lot.
“Looks like you’ve had a long day,” the old man said.
“Yup,” Percy said, though in his exhaustion it came out sounding more like “yuh.” Then, he added, “Course, anyone getting a ride out of the hospital probably had a long day.”
“That’d make sense,” the old man laughed. Percy noticed that both his bicuspids were brown. Then the man said, “You aren’t contagious or something? Do I need to break out the sanitizer and scour my hands?”
“Not sick, had an accident,” Percy said, a bit startled that the man was concerned about touching him. However, he let that slide and attempted to preempt the obvious follow-up question, “and I’m not the one who was hurt.”
“Better them than you,” the old man said. “Am I right?”
“It was a little kid,” Percy said.
The old man whistled through his teeth. A bubble of what looked like chewing tobacco juice swelled and popped in an instant.
“Brutal,” the old man said. “You didn’t kill him, did you?”
“Think I’d be in jail,” Percy said.
“Damn straight. You’d belong there. Accident or not, you’d have ruined a family. Hell, I’d have a mind to kill you myself. Twenty years or more back, a cousin of mine up in Bangor drove right into a kid on a big silver bicycle, broke both the kid’s legs and dislocated a shoulder. Me and my brother beat him within an inch of his life and left him by the curb when he told us.”
“Wow,” Percy said, flat as a five-hour open soda. He wanted to press himself backwards against the door.
Hell, he kind of wanted to hop out of the cab at the next intersection. Unfortunately, Percy noticed they were already getting to the edge of the town center, and by the next stoplight they’d be close enough to home that it didn’t matter.
“Course, it was a different era then,” the old man said, scratching his upper arm. Slivers of dead skin sloughed off under his fingernails and fell to the cab’s leather. “Folks didn’t think too much about family beating the bejesus out of family. Bet we could’a killed the prick and had a 50/50 chance of getting off on the grounds that he simply had it coming.”
“Yeah, times have changed,” Percy said, no longer wanting any part of the conversation. He just wanted to sit there and stew over whether or not he was going to get sued.
“Sure have,” the old man said. “They’ve gotten dark and they’re going to get darker.”
Like this conversation, Percy’s inner monologue shouted. The man may have said something else, but Percy figured rudeness be damned—the man was making him seriously uncomfortable. He focused his attention out the window. The downtown gave way to birch and spruce lined roads, mailboxes and driveways that slowed in frequency like a sound wave lowering in pitch. He found himself locked onto the way the scrub grass bristled along the crumbling edge of the asphalt, the barely visible yellow line having half crumbled away with it. Winter cold had gnawed at it slow and steady. One day, left untended, the whole road would be nothing but broken and irregular black chunks intertwined with weeds and wildflowers.
The old man made several comments during this time. He never seemed bothered that Percy didn’t respond, so Percy didn’t intend to start. Instead, he grew increasingly focused on the approaching site of the accident. Would there be a stopped car half on the shoulder? The glittering crystal confetti of shattered reflective brake light covers? A dread grew in Percy’s stomach that there would be another car stopped in the road, maybe with a baby, and the cabby would get distracted by something messed up the old man said and…
The feeling of dread in Percy’s stomach crystalized into a frigid ball.
When they got to Percy’s house, the old man would see exactly where Percy lived. Sure, the man looked 80 years old and had a walker, but did he have a gun? Percy knew full well he had no capability at fighting—and that someone focused on nothing but an intent to harm was terrifyingly dangerous to even a trained fighter.
Minutes later, the cab coasted to a stop with a slight brake whine. The driver said nothing, just pointed to the meter. It struck Percy for the first time that the driver hadn’t spoken the whole ride—he hadn’t even asked the old man for a destination.
Oh Jesus, Percy thought as he stepped out with the cab between him and his home, and dug his wallet out. The driver rolled down his window. He prayed that he’d maybe tuned out the old man saying where he was headed.
The old man opened his door and Percy felt his whole spine go like ice.
Then the trunk popped and Percy wanted to laugh at himself. Was he really afraid of a man with a walker?
The cabby seemed in quite a hurry to get that walker out though, and he was back in the cab putting it in drive in a heartbeat. The bluster of motion was so purposeful and abrupt that it wasn’t until the cab was pulling away that Percy realized he was still holding out a couple twenty-dollar bills.
For a moment, for Percy, time paused. Beyond the old man and his walker, lay Percy’s home—the safety it promised. Even if the man knew where it was, doors locked. Easier to keep someone out than to defend oneself in the open. He gazed desperately up the walk that cut through a yard full of overgrown grass littered with bristly weeds, between garden beds clustered with tangled bushes, and up cracked concrete steps to the front door of a Cape Cod whose siding was more peel than paint, whose windows were clouded with muck, and whose roof sported mismatched shingles because he’d had to patch leaks, but the company that made the original shingles had gone under years ago. Percy hadn’t chosen the house. He had inherited it after his father passed. Percy had met the prospect with more dread than excitement, and the only reasons he went through with it was because it was “what came next,” and he thought maybe he could sell the property after fixing it up a bit.
Now, he desperately wished to set foot inside it again.
The old man hawked a terrific loogie and spat into the road gutter. In the middle of the lump of discolored phlegm that struck pavement sat a pitted tooth.
It struck Percy that the old man didn’t really look so old anymore. He stood behind the walker, but he wasn’t actually putting any weight on it. His skin looked not so much wrinkled but rather leathery and scarred. The cab, having made a U-turn down the road, sped past back towards town. Percy turned halfway in slow motion, or at least it felt like slow motion. He wanted to holler after the cab for it to stop, for it to take him somewhere, anywhere, away from here, away from the man who stood directly between himself and home.
He didn’t know how to feel when the front door of his home opened, and his mother shuffled into the frame.
The man with the walker slowly looked over his shoulder to the porch, then craned his head back to Percy. He was smiling broad enough to show several missing teeth and black gums. The width of a cab still stood between the two men, but Percy could smell the man’s fetid breath.
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