They’re laughing as they walk to the parking lot. There isn’t enough parking along Main Street, where most of the shops are; this overflow lot handles quite a bit of traffic on the weekends, but today it’s nearly empty. Lucas hugs a huge plastic bag to his chest. It bumps rhythmically across his knees as he walks, but he can’t hold it any higher, and he won’t let go of it. It has socks and underwear in it, but it also holds a few precious toys. The household is doing well right now, and Hal has some idea of what the kid left behind. It’s just not fair, when you’re six.
“And den Drake says, “What pillow?” Hal dissolves into laughter, remembering the look on the older man’s face, and Grace shakes her head and chuckles. He loves to watch her laugh. It makes her face crinkle up totally contrary to the way it usually sits. It makes him think that she’s not used to smiling, to laughing. In a few hours the sun would start to set — maybe he could take her out in the pirogue and they could watch the sun set out on the water, with the herons catching fish, and the swallows swooping and diving around them, catching bugs. But it’s not likely. He’s been gone for a few hours already. When he gets home there’s sure to be some emergency waiting for him, neighbors fussing at each other, some harried mother who’s run out of food, one of the zoomorphs being harassed by the police for daring to go into town. It’s always something.
Then his head snaps up, exactly like a stallion scenting predator. Some primitive part of his brain screams “DANGER!” in bright red letters. The breeze off the river carries bug-stench. Just then he spots the bugs in the parking lot. They are heading right towards Grace’s son.
One step, two, and he grips Lucas, turns him around, says in his ear, “Run ta dah truck, fast,” and another step to Grace, gets her turned round onto her feet, “Run, save dat boy,” and then the third step is shorter and the fourth shorter yet and then he’s roaring, tusks snapping, flinging his arms out, drawing as much attention as he can.
He suspects Grace may be the only one in earshot who can understand him, with a mouthful of wicked long teeth, yelling, “Bugs, bugs, bugs–warning–get help, bug warning–” wailing it out loud and clear, in the way that people at Pen’s house have learned to do.
His fist clips the first bug, sends it flying backward into the others, and then his other fist hits bugshelled abdomen with a solid whanging! impact that jars up his shoulder bones.
Something impacts on his first arm as it swings away, clips into the meat of his forearm, and shocks him with the acid bite of it. He swings his head around, blurred, struggling for some sense of where they are, and it doesn’t matter, anywhere he swings there’s a bug to hit. He’s getting punched back, too, and sometimes he twists and snaps off things that are stuck too deeply in him, and all the pain does is to enrage him further.
He finds there’s a broken shard of bug shell gripped in one horny fist, and he’s stabbing it into bugs as fast as he can yank it out, ripping tusks through meat that reeks of bug juice poisonous enough to kill him slowly by itself if he gets too much of it in him. He spits, spits again, keeps spitting it out.
There’s an ease in his thick furry body that he’s never had before. His shoulders feel broader, his arms reach further, things that used to be tight and restricted can loosen and stretch to give him a little extra inch or three of reach. And sometimes that’s what makes the difference when you’re fencing with the stabbity crab-arms of these goddamn bugs.
Then he’s following the bugs, they’ve got their backs to him, trying to evade his grabs, and he catches the last one–it’s one of those goddamn tall mantid things, God he hates those even worse than the runners–he breaks its back across a tree, which just seems like swamp justice to him. It kind of explodes, but he knew it would, he’s tossed the thorax away in time. He knows he’s not supposed to kill them if he can avoid it, but he can’t remember why. A fight like this has strictest of rules: rule number one is, hit first; rule number two is, don’t be there; and rule number three is, don’t lose your footing. All the force he can bring to bear comes up through him from his soles flat on the ground, gripping with his knobbly long toes, throwing punches with every bit of muscle fiber he has.
But something’s changed in him; there’s a new lightness, a sense of balance when he has to duck and weave, when he does see it coming. He can’t say his eyesight is any better, but he notices things better. He roars, turns, glares around among the trees, can’t remember where he was.
That’s when somebody brave who’s followed him from the parking lot points a shotgun in his face, and says, in a piping frightened little voice, “Put yer hands up, monster!”
Hal just leans forward, opens his mouth, and roars at them.
They drop the gun and run away.
“Goddamn, where were you when I needed help?” Hal mumbles past his tusks. He blinks around. Shit, has he been chasing bugs into the woods for hours? He hurts. Things are dribbling down his legs. He knows better than to look down at himself. That never leads to good things. Instead, he sighs, and he turns himself ponderously around, and he starts following the charging elephant path of destruction. God he hates those mantid-type bugs. He chased that one a good quarter mile, in his bare feet, and the bug itself running lame with both crab-arms broken off. He knows to break those damn arms first, that’s how they aim those god-cursed energy weapons packed into the thorax. Sonuvabitches. He grumbles and swears and picks bug-fragments absently-mindedly out of his body as he goes, casting the bits aside like annoying splinters. He’d kill for a beer. Something. Okay, something stronger. A lot stronger. His head is killing him already, squinting up into the late afternoon sun.
There’s quite a lot of bugs fallen together along the spattered, scuffed, torn woods near the parking lot. Hal blinks. Who the hell ripped up a sapling and swung it around to closeline four bugs on the neck? They sprawl in a heap, heads lolling, and human-looking enough still to make him start to cry. Oh god, somebody’s gramma was trying to stab him with crab arms, and he killed her, how pathetic is that?
He didn’t remember any of that.
Then he’s standing at the edge of the paving, looking sadly at a crumpled little car, with a bug smashed into the hood and another into the roof, bug bodies smashed almost in half by more sapling blows. Okay, maybe it wasn’t a sapling, as such, it was about four inches thick. But not an actual tree, either.
Just as this is no longer a car.
Hal sighs, scoops the bug remains off the car, pitches them out into the trees with the rest. Give it three days and there won’t be much left to show what they were, given how damp this part of the woods are, and how fast the fungi will attack the bug corpses. It’s better than letting civilians mess with stuff like that, trying to haul off the car for scrap or something. It strikes him as funny that the mundanes carry on with their lives, parting out cars and arguing over taxes and things like that, while the bugs try to kidnap Lucas and Grace. He looks up, squinting. If he changes back to human right now, the wounds may throw him into shock. The goblin form can shrug off forces that would have cut the smart little human boy to bits.
He staggers around when a stream of cold water splashes over him, splats into his nose and eyes and down his shoulders and chest. It makes him start shaking with chill. Somebody is talking, murmurs that sound oddly far away, a woman’s voice urging him to turn around, and he realizes it’s certainly not bugs trying to hose all that goddamn poison juice off him as soon as they can.
The acrid reek of bug stings his nose, but then there’s a different scent, a human scent, the best scent. “Nothing quite as dangerous as a scared redneck with a shotgun,” Grace quips, “and I diverted two before you scared that last one off. Where the hell do these guys appear from?”
“Dunno.” Hal shrugs. It’s the swamp. Sometimes stuff seems to pop into existence and pop out just as quickly out here.
“You okay, sweetheart?” Hal can feel her gentle hands on him, throwing the blanket she’s found under the bench seat in his truck over his shoulders when she sees he’s shivering. Her hands urge him into the back of the truck.
“Lucas?” he rasps.
“Luc is fine. I stashed him under the seat in the truck when you distracted the bugs.”
Hal starts to shake a little harder, thinking of how the bugs might have shredded the boy, the same way that he shredded that bug that looked like a grandma. Tears start to leak down his face again. God, these things were people once. Ahhh, god. He could have shredded Lucas himself, caught in the middle of things, when he can’t see well enough in his fury to distinguish anybody, all he has is the swinging and the stink of bug in his nostrils.
Grace slides as close to him as she can, folds the blanket closer, wraps both arms around his bulky body, and lets him cry. “Go ahead, Hal, it’s okay to cry, it’s okay…” She murmurs little comforts to him. He dodges away when she tries to kiss him; “Bug Juice” he says placatingly, and she nods. He smells no fear, just sadness and concern.
“Mister Two Horses?” Lucas’s bright voice, and Hal is noticing how clear sounds are. How had he never realized the acute hearing of this form? Lucas’s sneakers on the steps of the truck as he descends are clear as bells. “Oh, wow,” Lucas says. “What are you?” And there is no fear in Lucas either, only a sort of technical curiosity, as if this garbled, half-formed shape is nothing more than some odd pair of shoes that Hal is wearing right now. “Those are are way cool teeth!” He tips his head and considers. “They look like this warthog from Africa that I saw on the Discovery Channel.”
“Don’t touch, Luc, Mister Two Horses probably has bug yuck all over his tusks still.”
“You drive?” Hal says through all that razor-sharp weaponry. “I don’ want to turn back. After I wash alla way.” He can hear himself say “worsh,” the malformed words.
“Yeah, we better get out of here and get that bug poison off of you. Lucas, hop in the cab and put your seat belt on, okay?” Grace carefully pulls the blanket closer over the goblin arms, kisses his watery forehead, and hops out of the truck bed. Dead bugs in the bushes, not a real good thing to have to explain. She seems to get that.
Grace pulls out of the parking lot, quick, but not too quick, and he grunts as he starts to roll in the truck bed. Dammit. He shoves the blanket under him, gets his feet planted wide, and his hands as well, and rides on all spraddled fours, swaying with the motion.
“Is it okay if I call Mister Two Horses Uncle Hal, Mom?” he can hear Lucas ask. Hal makes a note to tell the boy yes. Hopefully the Goblin will remember to tell the human when he makes his change back.