1 IT WAS AN EVENING LIKE ANY OTHER IN THE SMALL TOWN
of Santa Rosa, except for the fact that Gene Brennick’s fingerprints were falling off. He’d been eating a cinnamon Pop-Tart when the skin on his thumb unrolled like loose string and landed in the kitchen sink. “That’s weird,” he said, and then popped his earphones into his ears. Weirder stuff had happened to him. Just yesterday he’d been swallowed by a giant plant that lived behind the old watertreatment plant and called itself Eddie.
Gene sat on the steps of his front porch, alone. Even with all the lights on he was easy to miss. His short, thin frame was perfect for squeezing into out-of-the-way spaces, and his helmet of jet-black hair blended into most shadows. The only way to spot him was to look for the ears, two pale white orbs that stuck out from the sides of his head like a pair of raw mushrooms.
Eyes closed, Gene strummed an air guitar as passionately as if it were real. He imagined that he was onstage, jamming in the front of his imaginary band, which he sometimes called Galactic Hammer and sometimes called the Gene Brennick University of Funk. Bobbing his head, he whispered along to the music blasting through his earphones, a song only he could hear.
As Gene’s cell phone beeped for 6:00 p.m., a tall figure approached from the sidewalk. It moved slowly up the front walk to the house, long legs sticking slightly out at the sides like a cowboy’s. Hair stuck up in sharp spikes from the shadowy head. This was not a hairstyle. It was most likely the result of many nights without sleep and of pulling one’s hair in frustration.
Gene didn’t notice any of this. He was too busy totally destroying the guitar solo from Sonic Chimp’s hit single “Don’t Touch Applesauce.”
Finishing a riff, Gene opened his eyes. Standing over him was his best friend Vince Haskell.
Gene jolted with surprise, then, popping the earphones out of his ears, he whammed Vince’s toes with his fist. “Don’t do
Vince smiled. He had a nice smile, a nice face all around, but he was tall and gawky. His mom had trouble
buying clothes for him because his arms and legs were unnaturally long. Whenever he wore pants, the cuffs rode up two or three inches above his socks. “It’s kind of hard to resist when you’re rocking,” he said, scratching his nest of brown curls.
Gene glared at Vince as he put away his iPod and got to his feet. “Let’s go. We’re late again
. Because of you.”
Vince followed, but a few steps behind. “Well, I do have a geometry test tomorrow,” he said. “We
have a geometry test tomorrow. Do we really have to do this now? Couldn’t we do it on a weekend?”
“Listen,” said Gene, patting Vince on the back. “You’ll do fine on the test. You’re a great writer.”
Vince raised an eyebrow. “Last time I checked, geometry was mostly numbers. Not so much the writing.”
Gene walked to the driveway and picked up his bike. “I’ll take your word for it,” he said. “I’m failing both geometry and
English.” Pushing off, he coasted down the driveway and into the darkened street. As usual, Vince hurried to keep up.
Gene and Vince wrote articles for a newsletter called the Globe
, which the two of them had started earlier that year. It was a cheap publication, one they printed themselves on
the backs of old science worksheets to save money. They handed it out for free at school and left bundles of it in several other locations around Santa Rosa.
The boys may have been only fourteen years old, but they were the most respected and talented writing team on the newsletter. That was because they were the only
writing team on the newsletter. Their staff consisted of Gene, Vince, and three other students who just so happened to be their friends. The boys had once put an advertisement in the Globe
for more reporters, but since no one else in school believed their reporting, no one ever applied.
“Remind me why we do this,” asked Vince, puffing as he pedaled. “I haven’t slept in, like, three days. I’ve been up every night writing the San Diego Dwarf story.”
“That’s an important story!” said Gene. “What we do is a public service. People need to know.”
Vince frowned. “Well, sleep definitely helps with grades. Want to know what I got on the last pop quiz?”
“What pop quiz?” Gene asked as he left the road to avoid a puddle of pink goop oozing from a paper cup.
pop quiz,” said Vince. “I got a four out of ten. On the question ‘Water consists of what two elements?’ I said, ‘Hydrogen and ranch dressing.’”
“And what are the right answers?” asked Gene.
“I have no idea,” said Vince, “and that’s my point. I would have known if I’d actually had some time to study.”
But Gene had already moved on. “Someday people are going to find out that aliens like Hip-Hop Sasquatch and Wolf Boy are real. And from that day on, my friend, no one will ever make fun of us again.”
Vince smiled and shook his head. “I’ll believe that when it happens,” he said. “I’m pretty sure they’re just going to keep treating us like weirdos.”
“We are not
weirdos,” said Gene, flashing his friend a stern look. “Now let’s go interview Mold Man.”
Jumping a speed bump, one after the other, the boys passed the crooked sign for Lodestone State Park, and then turned a sharp left. Above them a low-hanging canopy of trees swayed gently in the evening breeze. It seemed to swallow them up as they rolled down the long, lonely road into the forest. The only sound was the whir of their gears, the scrunch of the tires on the gravelly asphalt.
It was almost completely dark when they reached the parking lot, which lay empty but for a park ranger’s dusty old truck. A thick layer of fog floated a few inches above the ground, swirling, twisting, spreading, as if it had a mind of its own. Gene and Vince rode over to the farthest corner of
the lot, where the map of the hiking trails stood on posts beside an overstuffed trash barrel. A dirt path wound away into the trees and disappeared. High up on a lamppost, a single lightbulb burned like a star.
“Creepy,” said Vince as he came to a stop with a shower of gravel.
“It makes sense that he’d live here,” said Gene, pulling alongside. “Only weirdos would ever come all the way out to the state park.”
“Exactly,” said Vince as he parked his bike.
“Knock it off,” said Gene.
Somewhere in the forest, in the fog, something moved loudly through the underbrush. “Are you boys going to talk all night?” said a strange, low voice. “My favorite reality TV show starts in ten minutes.”
Out from the shadows stepped an alien, a real live extraterrestrial being from another planet. Of course, it was the third one Gene and Vince had seen that week. So they weren’t too impressed.
Mold Man resembled neither mold nor man but rather someone made entirely of bumpy green balloon animals. Stretched over his body was a see-through jumpsuit that seemed to be made out of plastic, like a full-body poncho. This included a helmet and face mask. Inside the upper
part of the helmet was a small blue bulb that bathed the man’s entire body in an otherworldly light.
“Blue raider,” said Gene, using the code word. He raised one hand, something he’d seen people do in movies when they approached an alien they didn’t know. It was supposed to mean, “I come in peace,” but most of the time the aliens pulled out laser guns and turned a couple of minivans into toast.
Mold Man nodded when he heard the code word and took a step forward. “You know Fred?” he asked. His voice fuzzed through the little metal speaker on the front of his face mask. It made him sound like someone taking your order at a fast-food drive-through window.
“He’s my cousin,” answered Gene.
“Cousins are nice,” said Mold Man. He turned to Vince. “Is he your cousin too?”
“Um, no,” said Vince. “But I like him.”
“Works for me,” said Mold Man.
Looking around suspiciously, the bumpy green guy took a pack of Super Blast chewing gum from a pocket of his jumpsuit. He opened a tiny trapdoor on the side of his helmet and popped in a piece. Then, closing the hatch again, he began to chew. “Did anyone follow you?” he asked.
“No,” said Gene. They hadn’t seen a single car since they left his house.
“Good,” said Mold Man. Then he reconsidered. “Unless it was a cute girl,” he added. “I never get to meet any girls.”
“What’s with the awesome outfit?” asked Vince, pulling out his notebook. “Are you unable to breathe without it? Does it protect you from our sun? Is it comfortable?”
“I have to be in UV light twenty-four/seven,” said Mold Man, “or my body starts growing spores from planet Porkus. They itch, and that’s not the half of it.”
“Whoa,” murmured Vince, writing as fast as he could. “So, Mold Man, what do you do for fun?”
Mold Man rolled his big eyes. “Don’t call me Mold Man,” he said.
Gene hummed, tapping his finger against his chin. “A few of us were actually wondering about that. So is it Mold Boy
or Mold Man
“It’s Alan, moron,” snapped Mold Man. “I have a name just like everyone else.”
“Alan Moron is not a name like anyone else,” said Gene, writing.
“Do you have any hobbies?” asked Vince.
“I like online poker.”
“Is your job mold related?”
“I’m an accountant.”
“Does mold feel good, or is it annoying?”
“It’s annoying. I can’t touch anyone. I have to wear this suit all the time; during the day it’s totally see-through, as you can see, so I can’t go out much in public. Kissing girls isn’t even an option for me.”
“It’s not an option for me either,” Gene said with a sigh as he snapped some photos with his cell phone camera.
“Who are some of your alien friends?” asked Vince, turning a page of his notebook.
Mold Man held up his hands. “Why don’t you just slow down, kid?” he said as he blew a big pink bubble and popped it with his tongue. “Don’t just ask the obvious questions. What kind of story do you want to write on me? Not something like that fluff piece you wrote about Calamari Girl, I hope. Because that kind of celebrity magazine junk isn’t what I’m interested in.”
“You saw that article?” asked Gene with a grin.
“Sure I saw it,” said Mold Man, blowing another big bubble. “I’m not totally clueless out here.” Suddenly the gum bubble burst, coating the inside of his helmet with pink. “Crud,” he groaned.
Opening the helmet’s small hatch, he tried to stick one
hand inside and scrape away at the big splat of gunk. It didn’t work. He managed only to spread it around even more so that the whole inside was streaked pink.
Just then a horn honked far away in the direction of Highway 10, and Gene turned to search the road. He saw nothing. Mold Man froze to listen, his arm bent at a strange angle, his knuckles smearing strawberry-flavored gum into his eyebrows. “Are you sure no one followed you?” he murmured, his voice filled with static.
“Pretty sure,” said Vince.
Then a sound became clear. It was a car engine revving, and soon the crush of gravel underneath tires could be heard down the long, lonely road behind them.
Mold Man tried to yank his hand free of his helmet but didn’t seem able to do so. The sleeve of his suit had snagged on a screw. So instead of pointing, he jerked his body forward to show Gene where he meant him to look. “If you weren’t followed, then who’s that?” He wiggled around again, bobbing his head toward a black SUV that pulled into the parking lot with its headlights bouncing.
“Calm down,” said Gene. “I bet it’s just some kids from Fulton Junior High.”
“Don’t tell me to calm down!” shouted Mold Man,
backing away into the bushes. “You’re not being hunted! It’s not your friends who are getting rounded up!”
“Who’s getting rounded up?” asked Gene, wide-eyed.
“The San Diego dwarf,” said Mold Man.
“I just met her!” gasped Vince.
“Tried calling her lately?” asked Mold Man.
Vince’s mouth went dry. “She hasn’t called me back.”
“They got her, that’s why,” said Mold Man, nodding knowingly. “Pie Face, Window Brain, they got them too.”
“Why?” asked Gene.
want to take us back,” said Mold Man in a grim whisper. “And word on the street is they’ve sent someone from the Salplex Constellation, someone really
“What do you mean really scary?” Gene said as he looked up from his pad. Mold Man replied by stepping back farther into the bushes.
Vince closed his notebook. “Maybe we should go,” he said to Gene. “I don’t want to get him into trouble or anything.”
Gene grabbed Vince’s hand before he could put the notebook away. “This is good, man. The more people see him
, the more people believe us
“He said the government’s after him, plus the dude from Saucepan,” said Vince.
“Salplex,” corrected Gene. “Why do I always have to be the one to keep us on the big stories? Don’t chicken out!” He slapped the notebook against his friend’s chest.
Unfortunately, when the boys turned back around, they found that Mold Man had made his escape. The strange alien was sprinting as fast as he could across the darkened state park, one arm pumping and the other cocked up at a weird angle, the hand trapped an inch from his face.
“Come back!” called Gene, hurrying to catch up. “You’re tomorrow’s headline!”
“Go away!” barked Mold Man, looking over one shoulder. Then he ran into a drinking fountain. “Ugh!”
It was tough for him to get back to his feet with one arm. But after a few seconds of flailing around like a spider with a few of its legs torn off, he was gone again.
With Mold Man enjoying a good lead, Gene and Vince followed him across the outskirts of the state park. They crossed a tennis court spotted with murky black puddles. They crisscrossed a playground where two teenagers sat on a pair of swings, kissing. They passed the lake and the boathouse, which superstitious kids claimed were haunted by the ghost of a camp counselor who had been eaten by a tortoise. Finally, they cut through a stable full of sleeping horses, avoiding landmines of manure at every turn.
As he neared the information shack at the other end of the park, Mold Man seemed to realize that there was nowhere else to run. He slipped into the public restroom. It was a dead end. Anyone who had ever gone to the bathroom would know this. Apparently, Mold Man didn’t get out very often.
Trying the door, Gene found that it was locked. He signaled Vince. Then he pointed at the small rectangular window high up at the corner of the building. It was unlatched, and a bright yellow light poured out.
Gene walked over to Vince and proceeded to push him to his knees on the grass. “Why do I always have to be the footstool?” complained Vince.
“Because you’re taller,” snapped Gene.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” said Vince.
Climbing up his friend’s back, Gene pushed open the window and reached inside, searching for a handhold. Then, very sloppily, he pulled his body up and through.
He lowered himself down onto a toilet tank in one of the four restroom stalls, and then dropped quietly to the floor. The stall door was covered with scribbled graffiti. Weak fluorescent bulbs buzzed overhead. Pushing open the door, he stepped out of the stall. Above the sinks hung broken mirrors that reflected the sputtering light, throwing strange shadows across the walls.
Out of the corner of his eye, Gene saw a movement in the last stall at the end. Someone was inside. Gene could make him out through the cracks in the closed door.
“He’s here!” hissed Gene. “Move it!”
Scrambling up the side of the building, Vince flopped through the window. In his clumsiness, he failed to look where he was going and ended up with a foot in the toilet. There was a splash and a screech. With a twist of his leg, he tried to tug his foot free of the toilet bowl, only to lose his shoe. He fell to the cement floor, his soaked sock making a squishy sound.
“Way to sneak,” said Gene, rolling his eyes.
Side by side, the boys crept along the restroom wall toward the last stall. “You’re safe in here,” called Gene. “It’s okay to come out. We don’t want to hurt you or anything.”
There was no answer.
“Come on,” added Vince. “I could be doing anything else on a Wednesday night, but I’m not. I’m here in a bathroom with Mold Man
With a bang, the last stall door flew open and struck the wall. Then the green, bumpy stranger stepped out. He pointed the finger of his free hand at Gene and wagged it. His other hand was still lodged tightly in his helmet. “Let me go, please.”
“Tell me about the bad guy from Salplex,” said Gene.
Mold Man kept shaking his finger at them. “It’s a terrible creature, and it wants to bring us back to where we came from. And it hates
humans, doesn’t trust them, thinks our kind should band together to rid the galaxy of all of them.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Gene. “We talk to aliens all the time, and no one has mentioned anyone like that.”
“They’re afraid,” Mold Man said, lowering his voice to a whisper in an attempt to sound spooky. But with a clump of bubble gum hanging from his nose hairs, he didn’t exactly come off as scary. “Strange things are happening.” Then he shrugged. “Besides, you’re just a couple of kids. You have no idea what you’re caught up in. How do I know you’re not working for the other aliens, working for the bad guy?”
“We’re not!” said Gene.
Suddenly, and with a loud grunt, Mold Man freed his hand from his helmet. As he did, there was a metallic crunching sound, and the blue bulb on the inside of his helmet went out. Grinning happily, Mold Man stretched out his arm. He fanned his fingers, flexing them into and out of a fist. “You see that?” he said. “No problem.”
That’s when Mold Man’s green skin grew dark, very
“Uh-oh,” he mumbled. And he began to change.
With a series of popping sounds, large green warts began rising up across his arms and neck. Where there were already bumps on his skin, new bumps appeared. Each one was as big as a golf ball and covered in very short, very fine hair, like fur. In a matter of seconds his whole face was covered in a lumpy layer of alien spores from the planet Porkus 12.
“What’s going on?” asked Vince, writing as fast as he could but also starting to back toward the restroom door.
“My UV light broke,” said Mold Man.
“What can we do?” asked Gene. But the ripping sound of Mold Man’s jumpsuit drowned out his voice. The transparent plastic split down the front like a banana peel, as it could no longer contain the rapidly swelling spores. By now Mold Man had nearly vanished under the growing green bumps. They grew a foot thick over his entire body, making him look like a giant black-and-green marshmallow.
“I know what we can do,” said Vince as he stuck his notebook under one arm and whirled around. “We can run
But it was too late. Without his special ultraviolet light and jumpsuit, Mold Man was growing at an alarming speed. One second he was normal-size, and the next he was pressing up against the walls of the restroom. Blobs of him began to push out the window and into the empty stalls, stretching, growing, and throbbing green.
“Come on!” Vince shouted.
“Wait!” shouted Gene. “Get next to him so we can see how big he is.” He shoved Vince into the growing mound of Mold Man and then snapped a picture.
“Hey!” Vince looked horrified as six-inch-thick mold encased his arm, then his shoulder. “Help!” he shouted. Then his head was gone too.
Within a matter of seconds, Vince was completely absorbed. One wiggling leg stuck out from the mossy gunk like the stick of a lollypop.
“Wow.” Gene’s jaw dropped as he snapped more photos.
Mold Man continued to grow. He became so big that the restroom building could no longer hold him, and with a crash the whole thing came apart in an avalanche of cinder blocks. As he grew heavier, he began to roll. As he rolled, he began to gather momentum. And of course, it just so happened that the state park sloped downward. This was
bad news for Gene, who had tried out for the school track-and-field team twice and been cut both times.
Nearly out of breath, Gene raced down the hill to the lake, the growing boulder of mold spinning behind him. As it rolled, the ball absorbed everything it touched. First it took a picnic table. Then it took a couple of Dumpsters and a trail sign. It grew so huge that when it reached the boathouse, the ball sucked up the haunted old shack like it was nothing. Then it crossed the lake—shore to shore—in a single bounce.
At the last second, Gene dove headfirst into the kneedeep muck along the shore, just as Mold Man soared through the sky like an asteroid. The world went black as a wave of lake water sloshed over him. He looked up again in time to see Mold Man bounce his way toward the Interstate.
Now, something the size of Mold Man’s gigantic mold ball cannot last forever. It is bound to encounter something of equal or greater size. When it does, and those two large objects collide, only one of them will be left standing. In the case of the growing orb of spores, the only thing large enough to stop it was the Santa Rosa water tower, which stood just outside the boundary of the state park. Luckily, this is exactly where the mold ball was headed.
With a great bonging noise, Mold Man struck the water tower. The impact shook the ground for a half mile in every direction. People who felt it thought they were experiencing an earthquake. In an explosion of green fuzzy chunks, the mold ball burst. It sent a shower of mushy green goop down into a nearby field, followed by junk that it had picked up along the way—garbage bags, lost shoes, stumps, dogs, and even a rowboat with its oars still attached.
Last was Vince. He somersaulted out of the slimy mess and came to stop in a patch of grass alongside one of the legs of the water tower. Blinking, he took a deep breath and said to himself, “Whoa.”
In the silence of the evening, Vince lay staring at the stars. It was a beautiful night. The grass was soft and smelled faintly of onion. The trees rocked, making a wonderful low groaning noise like the purring of a giant cat. Somewhere far away a car engine revved. Everything was peaceful.
As he lay there, Vince heard footsteps. Gene appeared, limping down the hill covered in mud, his wet shoes making splat sounds with every step.
Vince looked up at Gene and angrily threw a clump of spores in his face. “This kind of thing doesn’t happen
when you’re studying geometry,” he said. “Tell Mold Man bye for me.” Then he got up and limped away toward the far parking lot.
Gene watched him go. Vince was right. They needed to get their bikes and go home. It was seven o’clock. The sun was almost gone. And his mom was expecting him for dinner.
Dusting sticky spores from the front of his pants, Gene looked around. He wanted to check on Mold Man to make sure the strange alien was okay, but he was nowhere to be seen. Gene shrugged, scooped some thick, snotlike mold out of one ear, and followed Vince across the field.
Even if the boys had looked for Mold Man, they wouldn’t have found him. That is because he wasn’t there. As the boys walked back to their bikes, Mold Man was lying tied up in the backseat of a black SUV. It was the same SUV that Gene and Vince had spotted earlier in the parking lot and the same SUV that was now speeding away from the state park on Highway 10.