Robert R. McCammon's "Best Friends"

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"He's hemorrhaging!" Jack stood up so fast his chair crashed over. "Eric, call the emergency room!"

Cawthorn ran out to get to the telephone at Bobby Crisp's desk. Jack crossed the room to the boy's side, saw Tim hitching as if he couldn't draw a breath. Two more lines of blood oozed from around the left eye, which was being forced out of its socket by a tremendous inner pressure. The boy gasped, made a hoarse moaning sound, and Jack struggled to loosen the straitjacket's straps but the body began to writhe and jerk with such force that he couldn't find the buckles.

Kay was on her feet, and Jack said, "Help me get this off him!" but she hesitated; the images of the mangled corpses in those photographs were still too fresh. At that moment Gil Moon came in, saw what was happening and tried to hold the boy from thrashing. Jack got one of the heavy straps undone, and now blood was dripping from around the boy's eye and running out his nostrils, his mouth strained open in a soundless cry of agony.

Tim's tongue protruded from his mouth. It rotated around, and Tim's body shuddered so fiercely even Gil's burly hands couldn't keep him still. Jack's fingers pulled at the second buckle—and suddenly the boy's left eye shot from its socket in a spray of gore and flew across the room. It hit the wall and drooled down like a broken egg, and Kay's knees almost folded.

"Hold him! Hold him!" Jack shouted. The boy's face rippled, and there came the sound of facial bones popping and cracking like the timbers of an old house giving way. His cranium bulged, his forehead swelling as if threatening explosion.

Cawthorn and Bobby returned to the room. The doctor's face was bleached white, and Bobby pushed Jack aside to get at the last buckle.

"Emergency's on the way up!" Cawthorn croaked. "My God ... my God . . . what's happening to him?"

Jack shook his head. He realized he had some of Tim Clausen's blood on his shirt, and the dark socket of the boy's ruined eye looked as if it went right down into the wet depths of the brain. The other eye seemed to be fixed on him—a cold, knowing stare. Jack stepped back to give Gil and Bobby room to work.

The boy's tongue emerged another inch, seemed to be questing in the air. And then, as the tongue continued to strain from the mouth, there was a sound of flesh tearing loose. The tongue emerged two more inches—and its color was a mottled greenish-gray, covered with sharp glass-like spikes.

The attendants recoiled. Tim's body shuddered, the single eye staring. The head and face were changing shape, as if being hammered from within.

"Oh . . . Jesus," Bobby whispered, retreating.

Something writhed behind Tim Clausen's swollen forehead. The spiky tongue continued to slide out, inch after awful inch, and twined itself around the boy's neck. His face was gray, smeared with blood at nostrils and lips and empty eyehole. His temples pulsed and bulged, and the left side of his face shifted with a firecracker noise of popping bones. A thread of scarlet zigzagged across his pressured skull; the fissure widened, wetly, and part of his cranium began to lift up like a trap door being forced open.

Kay made a choking sound. Cawthorn's back thumped against the wall.

Dazed and horrified. Jack saw a scuttling in the dark hole where the left eye had been. The hole stretched wider, with a splitting of tissues, and from it reached a gnarled gray hand about the size of an infant's, except it had three fingers and three sharp silver talons and was attached to a leathery arm that rippled with hard piano-wire muscles.

The boy's mouth had been forced open so far the jaws were about to break. From the mouth emerged spike-covered buttocks, following its attached tail that had once been—or had appeared to be—a human tongue. A little mottled gray-green thing with spiky skin and short piston-like legs was backing out of Tim Clausen's mouth, fighting free from the bloody lips as surely as new birth. And now the creature on the end of that muscular little arm was pushing itself out too, through the grotesque cavity that used to be Tim Clausen's eyesocket, and Jack was face-to-face with a scaly bald head the size of a man's fist and the color of spoiled meat. Its other arm appeared, and now a thorny pair of shoulders, the body pushing with fierce energy and its flat bulldog nostrils flared and spouting spray. Its slanted Chinese eyes were topaz, beautiful and deadly.

Gil was jabbering, making noise but no sense. The bald head racheted toward him, and as its mouth grinned with eager anticipation—like a kid presented with a roomful of pizzas, Jack thought crazily—the close-packed teeth glinted like broken razors.

And something began to crawl from the top of the boy's skull that almost stopped Jack's laboring heart. Kay felt a scream pressing at her throat, but it would not come out. A spidery thing, gleaming and iridescent, its six-legged form all sinews and angles, pushed its way from the skull's gaping trapdoor. Mounted on a four-inch stalk of tough tissue was a head framed with a metallic mass of what might have been hair, except it was made of tangled concertina wire, honed to skin-slicing sharpness. The face was ivory—a woman's face, the visage of a blood-drained beauty. Beneath silver brows her eyes were white, and as they gazed upon Jack and the body struggled out the creature's pale lips stretched into a smile and showed fangs of saw-edged diamonds.

Cawthorn broke, began laughing and wailing as he slid down to the floor. Out in the corridor, the buzzer shrilled; the emergency staff had arrived, but there was no one to unlock the door on this side.

The squatty spike-covered beast was almost out of the boy's mouth. It pulled free, its webbed feet clenching to Tim's face, and swiveled its acorn-shaped head around. The eyes were black and owlish, its face cracked and wrinkled and covered with suppurating sores that might have been Hell's version of acne. Its mouth was a red-rimmed cup, like the suctioning mouth of a leech. The eyes blinked rapidly, a transparent film dropping across them and then lifting as it regarded the humans in the room.

Tim Clausen's head had begun to collapse like a punctured balloon. The bald-headed, muscular thing—Adolf, Jack realized—wrenched its hips loose from the eyesocket; its chest was plated with overlapping scales, and at its groin was a straining red penis and a knotty sac of testicles that pulsed like a bag of hearts. As the creature's leg came free, Tim's mouth released a hiss of air that smelled of blood and brains and decayed matter—an odor of fungus and mold—and in the scabrous sound there might have been a barely-human whisper: "Free."

The boy's face imploded, features running together like wet wax. The spidery metal-haired demon—Mother, Jack knew it could only be—scrabbled onto the boy's shoulder and perched there as Tim's head turned dark as a wart and caved in. What remained of the head—flaccid and rubbery—fell back over the shoulder and hung there like a cape's hood, and whatever Tim Clausen had been was gone.

But the three demons remained.

They were holding him together, Jack thought as he staggered back. He bumped into Kay, and she grasped his arm with panicked strength. After they killed the boy's parents and sister, Jack realized, they were hiding inside him and holding him together like plaster and wire in a mannequin. Shock settled over him, freighting him down. His mind seized like rusted cogs. He heard the insistent call of the buzzer, the emergency crew wanting to get in, and he feared his legs had gone dead. My best friends, the boy had said. I called them. They came.

And here they were. Ready or not.

They were neither hallucinations nor the result of psychotic trance. There was no time to debate the powers of God or the Devil, or whether Hell was a territory or a termite in the house of reason: the demon Tim had named Adolf leaped nimbly through the air at Gil Moon and gripped the man's face with those three-fingered silver claws. Gil bellowed in terror and fell to his knees; the demon's claws were a blur of motion, like a happy machine at work, and as Gil shuddered and screamed and tried to fight the thing off the demon ripped his face away from the skeletal muscles like a flimsy mask. Blood spattered through the air, marking the walls with the same patterns as at the Clausen house. Adolf locked his sinewy legs around Gil Moon's throat, the three toes of the demon's bare feet curling and uncurling with merry passion, and Adolf began to eat the man's shredded face. Gil's bony jaws chattered and moaned, and the demon made greedy grunting noises like a pig burrowing in slop.

Bobby Crisp ran, releasing a shriek that shook the windows. He did not stop to open the door, but almost knocked it off its hinges as he fled into the hallway. Jack gripped Kay's hand, pulling her with him toward the door. Mother's ashen, lustful face followed him; he saw her tongue flicker from the pale-lipped mouth—a black, spear-tipped piece of pseudo-flesh that quivered in the air with a low humming sound. He could feel the tone vibrate in his testicles, and the tingling sensation slowed him a half-step. Kay's scream let go, with a force that rattled her bones; once uncapped, the scream would not stop and kept spilling from her throat. A form leaped at her head. She ducked, lifting an arm to ward it off. The creature Tim had called Frog hopped over her shoulder, its spiky tail tearing cloth from her jacket just above the elbow. A whiplash of pain jarred her scream to a halt and cleared her head, and then Frog had landed on Dr. Cawthorn's scalp. "Don't leave me ... don't leave me," he was babbling, and Jack stopped before he reached the doorway—but in the next instant it was obvious that help was much too late.

Frog leaned forward and attached that gaping leech-mouth to Cawthorn's forehead. The creature's cheeks swelled to twice their size, its tail snaking around and around Cawthorn's throat. Cawthorn gave a gutteral cry of pain, and his head exploded like a tire pumped beyond its limits, brains streaking the walls. Frog squatted on the broken skull, its cheeks becoming concave as it sucked at flowing juices.

Jack pulled Kay out of the room. Up ahead, Bobby Crisp was racing toward the locked security door, shouting for help. He tripped over his own gangly legs and fell heavily to the floor, scrambled up again and limped frantically onward. Now there was a pounding on the other side of the door, and Jack could see faces through the glass inset. Bobby was searching wildly through his ring of keys as Jack and Kay reached him. He tried to force one into the lock, but it wouldn't go. The second key he chose slid in but balked at turning. "Hurry!" Jack urged, and he dared to look over his shoulder.

Mother was scuttling along the hallway toward them, moving about as fast as a prowling cat. Her mouth opened, and she made a piercing shriek like claws scraped across a blackboard. As if in response to her alarm, Frog bounded out of the conference room, its ancient and wrinkled face smeared with Cawthorn's brains.

"Open it!" Jack shouted, and Bobby tried a third key but his hand was shaking so badly he couldn't get it into the lock. It was too large, and would not fit. It dawned on Jack with terrifying force that if Gil had been on door duty, the proper key would still be on the dead man's ring, and Bobby might not have one. He glanced back again, saw Mother about twenty feet away and Frog leaping past her. Adolf strode from the conference room like a two-foot-tall commingling of gnarled man and dragon.

"Lord Jesus!" Bobby Crisp said as the fourth key engaged the tumblers and turned in the lock. He wrenched the door open—and Frog landed on his shoulder, sharp little talons in the webbed feet digging through his shirt.

He screamed, thrashing at the demon. Jack could smell the reek of Frog's flesh: a musty, cooked-meat odor. Through the open door, two white-uniformed men from the emergency room stood wide-eyed and astonished, a gurney table between them. Rosalee had seen, and so had Mrs. Stewart, and both of them were too stunned to move.

Jack grasped Frog with both hands. It was like touching a live coal, and the spiky tail whipped at him as he tore Frog off Bobby's back. Most of the attendant's shirt and hunks of skin ripped away. Jack's hands were pierced by the spikes on the thing's body, and he threw the demon with all his strength against the opposite wall. It folded into a ball an instant before it hit, its head retracting into its body; it made a wet splatting sound, fell to the floor and immediately reformed itself, poising for another leap.

But Bobby was out the door and so was Kay, and Jack lunged through and slammed the door shut behind him, leaving bloody handprints against the white. There was the wham! of impact as Frog hit the door on the other side. "Lock it! Lock it!" Jack shouted, and Rosalee got her key in and twisted it. The lock shot home, and the door was secured.

Bobby kept running, almost colliding with Mrs. Marion and Dave Chambers. "What's your hurry?" Dave called. Bobby reached the elevator, which the emergency staffers had left open, got in and punched a button. The doors closed and took him down.

"Doris!" Rosalee hollered to Mrs. Marion. "Bring some bandages! Quick!" She grasped Jack's wrists and looked at his palms. There were four or five puncture wounds on each hand, and much of the skin had been scorched raw. The worst of the pain was just now hitting him, and he squeezed his eyes shut and shuddered. "They got Cawthorn and Gil Moon. Tore them up. Three of them. They came out of the boy. Out of the boy's head. Tore them to pieces, just like the boy's family . . ."A wave of dizziness almost overcame him, and Rosalee clamped her husky arms around him as his knees crumpled.

"What . . . what was it?" Mrs. Stewart had seen the beast with the eyes of an owl and the body of a frog, but her mind had sheared away from the sight. She blinked, found herself watching drops of blood fall from the fingers of the red-haired woman's right hand and spatter to the floor. "Oh," she said, dazed. "Oh dear . . . you're hurt . . ."

Kay looked at her hand, realizing only then that Frog's tail had cleaved a furrow across her arm. The pain was bad, but not unbearable. Not considering what might have happened. The image of Cawthorn's exploding head came to her, and she allowed the fretting nurse to guide her along the corridor to a chair without really knowing where she was going or why. One of the emergency staffers broke open a medical kit and started examining Kay's wound, asking her questions about what had happened; she didn't even hear them. The other man swabbed disinfectant on Jack's hands—which sent new pain through him that almost curled his hair—and then helped Rosalee bind them in the bandages Mrs. Marion had brought.

Something crashed against the door. It shivered from the blow.

"Docky?" Margie was standing next to him, her face pallid and her eyes darting with fear. "Docky . . . what's in there?"

Another blow against the door. The floor trembled.

"God Almighty!" the man who'd helped bandage Jack's hands said. "That felt like a sledge hammer!"

"Stay away from the door!" Jack warned. "Everybody! Stay away from it! Rosalee . . . listen . . . we've got to get the patients off the ward! Get them downstairs!"

There was a third impact against the door. The glass inset cracked.

"I told you, didn't I?" Dave Chambers stood in the center of the corridor, calmly smoking a cigarette, his eyes narrowed. "Told you not to go in there. Now look what you've stirred up."

"Hush!" Rosalee snapped at him—and then Mrs. Marion screamed, because the rest of the door's glass inset was smashed out and a small gray claw with three silver talons stretched through, swiping savagely at the air. "Oh . . . Lordy," Rosalee breathed.

Jack watched, helplessly, while Adolf's arm, shoulder and head squeezed through the opening. Margie made a croaking noise. The cigarette dropped from Dave's fingers. The demon struggled to get its hips free, then leaped to the floor and stood there grinning, its baleful topaz eyes full of greedy expectation.

And now Mother was pulling herself through the opening, inch by awful inch, her barbed-wire hair gleaming under the fluorescents.

They're going to kill us all, Jack thought; it was a surprisingly calm realization, as if his mind had been pushed to its limit and would accept no more panic. Everyone on the floor was going to die—and then, most probably, the things would start with the patients on the next floor down as well.

It dawned on him that if a hospital was indeed a universe all its own, then this one had just been claimed for destruction.

Mother got her head through, and the spider's body plopped to the floor beside Adolf.

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Copyright © 1987 by Robert R. McCammon. All rights reserved. This story originally appeared in the anthology Night Visions IV, first published in 1987 by Dark Harvest. Reprinted with permission of the author.
© 2018 Robert McCammon Last updated 8-MAR-2018 12:38:13.91 Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha