Read More ...
Ghost In the Shell 2.0 (2008)

The Stand:BOOK II--Part 2#

By: Stephen King

Chapter 52

In the early hours of the morning, Mother Abagail lay sleepless in her bed. She was trying to pray.

She got up without making a light and knelt down in her white cotton nightgown. She pressed her forehead to her Bible, which was open to the Acts of the Apostles. The conversion of dour old Saul on the Damascus road. He had been blinded by the light, and on the Damascus road the scales had fallen from his eyes. Acts was the last book in the Bible where doctrine was backed up by miracles, and what were miracles but the divine hand of God at work upon the earth?

And oh, there were scales on her eyes and would they ever be shaken free?

The only sounds in the room were the faint hiss of the oil lamp, the tick of her windup Westclox, and her low, muttering voice.

“Show me my sin, Lord. I don’t know. I know I’ve gone and missed something You meant for me to see. I can’t sleep, I can’t take a crap, and I don’t feel You, Lord. I feel like I’m prayin into a dead phone, and this is a bad time for that to happen. How have I offended Thee? I’m listenin, Lord. Listenin for the still, small voice in my heart.”

And she did listen. She put her arthritis-bunched fingers over her eyes and leaned forward even farther and tried to clear her mind. But all was dark there, dark like her skin, dark like the fallow earth that waits for the good seed.

Please my Lord, my Lord, please my Lord —

But the image that rose was of a lonely stretch of dirt road in a sea of corn. There was a woman with a gunnysack full of freshly killed chickens. And the weasels came. They darted forward and made snatches at the bag. They could smell the blood—the old blood of sin and the fresh blood of sacrifice. She heard the old woman raise her voice to God, but her tone was weak and whining, a petulant voice, not begging humbly that God’s will be done, whatever her place in that will’s scheme of things might be, but demanding that God save her so she could finish the work… her work… as if she knew the Mind of God and could suborn His will to hers. The weasels grew bolder still; the croker sack began to fray as they twitched and pulled it. Her fingers were too old, too weak. And when the chickens were gone the weasels would still be hungry and they would come for her. Yes. They would—

And then the weasels were scattering, they had run squeaking into the night, leaving the contents of the sack half-devoured, and she thought exultantly: God has saved me after all! Praise His Name! God has saved His good and faithful servant.

Not God, old woman. Me.

In her vision, she turned, fear leaping hotly into her throat with a taste like fresh copper. And there, shouldering its way out of the corn like a ragged silver ghost, was a huge Rocky Mountain timberwolf, its jaws hanging open in a sardonic grin, its eyes burning. There was a beaten silver collar around its thick neck, a thing of handsome, barbarous beauty, and from it dangled a small stone of blackest jet… and in the center was a small red flaw, like an eye. Or a key.

She crossed herself and forked the sign of the evil eye at this dreadful apparition, but its jaws only grinned wider, and between them lolled the naked pink muscle of its tongue.

I’m coming for you, Mother. Not now, but soon. We’ll run you like dogs run deer, I am all the things you think, but I’m more. I’m the magic man. I’m the man who speaks for the latter age. Your own people know me best, Mother. They call me John the Conqueror.

Go! Lave me in the name of the Lord God Almighty!

But she was so terrified! Not for the people around her, which were represented in her dream by the chickens in the sack, but for herself. She was afraid in her soul, afraid for her soul.

Your God has no power over me, Mother. His vessel is weak.

No! Not true! My strength is the strength of ten, I shall mount up with wings as eagles —

But the wolf only grinned and drew closer. She shrank from its breath, which was heavy and savage. This was the terror at noonday and the terror which flieth at midnight, and she was afraid. She was in her extremity of fear. And the wolf, still grinning, began to speak in two voices, asking and then answering itself.

“Who brought water from the rock when we were thirsty? ”

“I did,” the wolf answered in a petulant, half-crowing, half-cowering voice.

“Who saved us when we did faint? ” asked the grinning wolf, its muzzle now only bare inches from her, its breath that of a living abattoir.

“I did,” the wolf whined, drawing closer still, its grinning muzzle full of sharp death, its eyes red and haughty. “Oh fall down and praise my name, I am the bringer of water in the desert, praise my name, I am the good and faithful servant who brings water in the desert, and my name is also the name of my Master —”

The mouth of the wolf opened wide to swallow her.

“… my name,” she muttered. “Praise my name, praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise Him ye creatures here below…”

She raised her head and looked around the room in a kind of stupor. Her Bible had fallen to the floor. There was dawnlight in the eastward-facing window.

“O my Lord!” she cried in a great and quavering voice.

Who brought water from the rock when we were thirsty?

Was that it? Dear God, was that it? Was that why the scales had covered her eyes, making her blind to the things she should know?

Bitter tears began to fall from her eyes and she got slowly and painfully to her feet and walked to the window. Arthritis jabbed blunt darning needles into the joints of her hips and knees.

She looked out and knew what she had to do now.

She went back to the closet and pulled the white cotton nightgown over her head. She dropped it on the floor. Now she stood naked, revealing a body so lapped with wrinkles that it might have been the bed of time’s great river.

“Thy will be done,” she said, and began to dress.

An hour later she was walking slowly west on Mapleton Avenue toward the wooded tangles and narrow-throated defiles beyond town.

Stu was at the power plant with Nick when Glen burst in. Without preamble he said, “Mother Abagail. She’s gone.”

Nick looked at him sharply.

“What are you talking about?” Stu asked, at the same time drawing Glen away from the crew wrapping copper wire on one of the blown turbines.

Glen nodded. He had ridden a bike the five miles out here, and he was still trying to catch his breath.

“I went over to tell her a little about the meeting last night, and to play her the tape, if she wanted to hear it. I wanted her to know about Tom, because I was uneasy about the whole idea… what Frannie had to say kind of worked on me in the wee hours, I guess. I wanted to do it early because Ralph said there’s another two parties coming in today and you know she likes to greet them. I went over around eight-thirty. She didn’t answer my knock, so I went on in. I thought if she was asleep I’d just leave… but I wanted to make sure she wasn’t… wasn’t dead or anything… she’s so old.”

Nick’s gaze never left Glen’s lips.

“But she wasn’t there at all. And I found this on her pillow.” He handed them a paper towel. Written on it in large and trembling strokes was this message:

I must be gone a bit now. I’ve sinned and presumed to know the Mind of God. My sin has been PRIDE, and He wants me to find my place in His work again.

I will be with you again soon if it is God’s will.

Abby Freemantle

“I’ll be a son of a bitch,” Stu said. “What do we do now? What do you think, Nick?”

Nick took the note and read it again. He handed it back to Glen. The fierceness had died out of his face and he only looked sad.

“I guess we’ll have to move up that meeting to tonight,” Glen said.

Nick shook his head. He took out his pad, wrote, tore it off, and handed it to Glen. Stu read it over his shoulder.

“Man proposes, God disposes. Mother A. was fond of that one, used to quote it frequently. Glen, you yourself said she was other-directed; God or her own mind or her delusions or whatever. What’s to coo? She’s gone. We can’t change it.”

“But the uproar—” Stu began.

“Sure, there’s going to be an uproar,” Glen said. “Nick, shouldn’t we at least have a meeting of the committee and discuss it?”

Nick jotted, “What purpose? Why have a meeting that can’t accomplish anything?”

“Well, we could get up a search-party. She can’t have gone far.”

Nick double-circled the phrase Man proposes, God disposes. Below it he wrote, “If you found her, how would you bring her back? Chains?”

“Jesus, no!” Stu exclaimed. “But we can’t just let her wander around, Nick! She’s got some crazy idea she’s offended God. What if she feels like she has to go off into the frigging wilderness, like some Old Testament guy?”

Nick wrote, “I’m almost positive that’s just what she’s done.”

“Well, there you go!”

Glen put a hand on Stu’s arm. “Slow down a minute, East Texas. Let’s look at the implications of this.”

“To hell with the implications! I don’t see no implications in leaving an old woman to wander around day n night until she dies of exposure!”

“She is not just any old woman. She is Mother Abagail and around here she’s the Pope. If the Pope decides he has to walk to Jerusalem, do you argue with him if you’re a good Catholic?”

“Goddammit, it’s not the same thing and you know it!”

“Yes, it is the same thing. It is. At least, that’s how the people in the Free Zone are going to see it. Stu, are you prepared to say for sure that God didn’t tell her to go out into the bushes?”

“No-oo… but…”

Nick had been writing and now he showed the paper to Stu, who had to puzzle out some of the words. Nick’s handwriting was usually impeccable, but this was hurried, perhaps impatient.

“Stu, this changes nothing, except that it will probably hurt the Free Zone’s morale. Not even sure that will happen. People aren’t going to scatter just because she’s gone. It does mean we won’t have to clear our plans with her right now. Maybe that’s best.”

“I’m going crazy,” Stu said. “Sometimes we talk about her as an obstacle to get around, like she was a roadblock. Sometimes you talk about her like she was the Pope, and she couldn’t do anything wrong if she wanted to. And it just so happens that I like her. What do you want, Nicky? Someone stumbling over her body this fall in one of those box canyons west of town? You want us to leave her out there so she can make a… a holy meal for the crows?”

“Stu,” Glen said gently. “It was her decision to go.”

“Oh, god-damn, what a mess,” Stu said.

By noon, the news of Mother Abagail’s disappearance had swept the community. As Nick had predicted, the general feeling was more one of unhappy resignation than alarm. The sense of the community was that she must have gone off to “pray for guidance,” so she could help them pick the right path to follow at the mass meeting on the eighteenth.

“I don’t want to blaspheme by calling her God,” Glen said over a scratch lunch in the park, “but she is a sort of God-by-proxy. You can measure the strength of any society’s faith by seeing how much that faith weakens when its empiric object is removed.”

“Run that one by me again.”

“When Moses smashed the golden calf, the Israelites stopped worshipping it. When a flood inundated the temple of Baal, the Malachites decided Baal wasn’t such a hot god anyway. But Jesus has been out to lunch for two thousand years, and people not only still follow his teachings, they live and die believing he’ll come back eventually, and it will be business as usual when he does. That’s the way the Free Zone feels about Mother Abagail. These people are perfectly certain she is going to come back. Have you talked to them?”

“Yeah,” Stu said. “I can’t believe it. There’s an old woman wandering around out there and everyone says ho-hum, I wonder if she’ll bring back the Ten Commandments on stone tablets in time for the meeting.”

“Maybe she will,” Glen said somberly. “Anyway, not everyone is saying ho-hum. Ralph Brentner is practically tearing his hair out by the roots.”

“Good for Ralph.” He looked at Glen closely. “What about you, baldy? Where are you in all of this?”

“I wish you wouldn’t call me that. It’s not at all dignified. But I’ll tell you… it’s a little bit funny. Ole East Texas turns out to be a lot more immune from the Godspell she’s cast over this community than the agnostic old bear sociologist. I think she’ll be back. Somehow I just do. What does Frannie think?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t seen her at all this morning. For all I know she’s out there eating locusts and wild honey with Mother Abagail.” He stared at the Flatirons, rising high in the blue haze of early afternoon. “Jesus, Glen, I hope that old lady is all right.”

Fran didn’t even know Mother Abagail was gone. She had spent the morning at the library, reading up on gardening. Nor was she the only student. She saw two or three people with books on farming, a bespectacled young man of about twenty-five poring over a book called Seven Independent Power Sources for Your Home, and a pretty blond girl of about fourteen with a battered paperback titled 600 Simple Recipes.

She left the library around noon and strolled down to Walnut Street. She was halfway home when she met Shirley Hammett, the older woman that had been traveling with Dayna, Susan, and Patty Kroger. Shirley had improved strikingly since then. Now she looked like a brisk and pretty matron-about-town.

She stopped and greeted Fran. “When do you think she’ll be back? I’ve been asking everybody. If this town had a newspaper, I’d write it up for the People Poll. Like, ‘What do you think of Senator Bunghole’s stand on oil depletion?’ That sort of thing.”

“When will who be back?”

“Mother Abagail, of course. Where have you been, girl, cold storage?”

“What is all this?” Frannie asked, alarmed. “What’s happened?”

“That’s just it. Nobody really knows.” And Shirley told Fran what had been going on while Fran had been at the library.

“She just… left?” Frannie asked, frowning.

“Yes. Of course she’ll be back,” Shirley added confidently. “The note said so.”

“ ‘If it is God’s will?’”

“That’s just a manner of speaking, I’m sure,” Shirley said, and looked at Fran with a touch of coldness.

“Well… I hope so. Thanks for telling me, Shirley. Are you still having headaches?”

“Oh no. They’re all gone now. I’ll be voting for you, Fran.”

“Hmmm?” Her mind was far away, chasing this new information, and for a moment she hadn’t the slightest idea what Shirley could be talking about.

“For the permanent committee!”

“Oh. Well, thanks. I’m not even sure I want the job.”

“You’ll do fine. You and Susy both. Got to get going, Fran. See you.”

They parted. Fran hurried toward the apartment, wanting to see if Stu knew anything else. Coming so soon after their meeting last night, the old woman’s disappearance struck her around her heart with a kind of superstitious dread. She didn’t like not being able to pass on their major decisions—like the one to send people west—to Mother Abagail for judgment. With her gone, Fran felt too much of the responsibility on her own shoulders.

When she got home the apartment was empty. She had missed Stu by about fifteen minutes. The note under the sugarbowl said simply: “Back by 9:30. I’m with Ralph and Harold. No worry. Stu.”

Ralph and Harold? she thought, and felt a sudden twinge of dread that had nothing to do with Mother Abagail. Now why should I be afraid for Stu? My God, if Harold tried to do something… well, something funny… Stu would tear him apart. Unless… unless Harold sneaked up behind him or something and…

She clutched at her elbows, feeling cold, wondering what Stu could be doing with Ralph and Harold.

Back by 9:30.

God, that seemed a long time away.

She stood in the kitchen a moment longer, frowning down at her knapsack, which she had put on the counter.

I’m with Ralph and Harold.

So Harold’s little house on outer Arapahoe would be deserted until nine-thirty tonight. Unless, of course, they were there, and if they were, she could join them and satisfy her curiosity. She could bike out there in no time. If no one was there, she might find something that would set her mind at rest… or… but she wouldn’t let herself think about that.

Set your mind at rest? the interior voice nagged. Or just make it crazier? Suppose you DO find something funny? What then? What will you do about it?

She didn’t know. She didn’t, in fact, have the least tiny smidgen of an idea.

No worry. Stu.

But there was worry. That thumbprint in her diary meant there was worry. Because a man who would steal your diary and pilfer your thoughts was a man without much principle or scruple. A man like that might creep up behind someone he hated and give a push off a high place. Or use a rock. Or a knife. Or a gun.

No worry. Stu.

But if Harold did a thing like that, he would be through in Boulder. What could he do then?

But Fran knew what then. She didn’t know if Harold was the sort of man she had hypothesized—not yet, not for sure—but she knew in her heart that there was a place for people like that now. Oh yes indeedy.

She put her knapsack back on with quick little jerks and went out the door. Three minutes later she was biking up Broadway toward Arapahoe in the bright afternoon sunshine, thinking: They’ll be right in Harold’s living room, drinking coffee and talking about Mother Abagail and everybody will be fine. Just fine.

But Harold’s small house was dark, deserted… and locked.

That in itself was something of a freak in Boulder. In the old days you locked up when you went out so no one would steal your TV, stereo, your wife’s jewels. But now the stereos and TVs were free, much good they would do you with no juice to run them, and as for jewels, you could go to Denver and pick up a sackful any old time.

Why do you lock your door, Harold, when everything’s free? Because nobody is as afraid of robbery as a thief? Could that be it?

She was no lockpicker. She had resigned herself to leaving when it occurred to her to try the cellar windows. They were set just above ground level, opaque with dirt. The first one she tried slid open sideways on its track, giving way grudgingly and sifting dirt down onto the basement floor.

Fran looked around, but the world was quiet. No one except Harold had settled in this far out on Arapahoe as yet. That was odd, too. Harold could grin until his face cracked and slap people on the back and pass the time of day with folks, he could and did gladly offer his help whenever it was asked for and sometimes when it wasn’t, he could and did make people like him—and it was a fact that he was highly regarded in Boulder. But where he had chosen to live… that was something else, now wasn’t it? That displayed a slightly different aspect of Harold’s view of society and his place in it… maybe. Or maybe he just liked the quiet.

She wriggled in the window, getting her blouse dirty, and dropped to the floor. Now the cellar window was on a level with her eyes. She was no more a gymnast than she was a lockpicker, and she would have to stand on something to get back out.

Fran looked around. The basement had been finished off into a playroom/rumpus room. The kind of thing her own dad had always talked about but never quite got around to doing, she thought with a little pang of sadness. The walls were knotty pine with quadraphonic speakers embedded in them, there was an Armstrong suspended ceiling overhead, a large case filled with jigsaw puzzles and books, an electric train set, a slotcar racing set. There was also an air-hockey game on which Harold had indifferently set a case of Coke. It had been the kids’ room, and posters dotted the walls—the biggest, now old and frayed, showed George Bush coming out of a church in Harlem, hands raised high, a big grin on his face. The caption, in huge red letters, said: YOU DON’T WANT TO LAY NO BOOGIE-WOOGIE ON THE KING OF ROCK AND ROLL!

She suddenly felt sadder than she had since… well, since she couldn’t remember, to tell the truth. She had been through shocks, and fear, and outright terror, and a perfect numbing savagery of grief, but this deep and aching sadness was something new. With it came a sudden wave of homesickness for Ogunquit, for the ocean, for the good Maine hills and pines. For no reason at all she suddenly thought of Gus, the parking lot attendant at the Ogunquit public beach, and for a moment she thought her heart would break with loss and sorrow. What was she doing here, poised between the plains and the mountains that broke the country in two? It wasn’t her place. She didn’t belong here.

One sob escaped her and it sounded so terrified and lonely that she clapped both hands over her mouth for the second time that day. No more, Frannie old kid old sock. You don’t get over anything this big so quickly. A little at a time. If you have to have a cry, have it later, not here in Harold Lauder’s basement. Business first.

She walked past the poster on her way to the stairs, and a bitter little smile crossed her face as she passed George Bush’s grinning and tirelessly cheerful face. They sure laid some boogie-woogie on you, she thought. Someone did, anyhow.

As she got to the top of the cellar stairs, she became certain that the door would be locked, but it opened easily. The kitchen was neat and shipshape, the luncheon dishes done up and drying in the drainer, the little Coleman gas stove washed off and sparkling… but a greasy smell of frying still hung in the air, like a ghost of Harold’s old self, the Harold who had introduced himself into this part of her life by motoring up to her house behind the wheel of Roy Brannigan’s Cadillac as she was burying her father.

Sure would be in a fix if Harold picked right now to come back, she thought. The idea made her look suddenly over her shoulder. She half expected to see Harold standing by the door which led into the living room, grinning at her. There was no one there, but her heart had begun to knock unpleasantly against her ribcage.

There was nothing in the kitchen, so she went into the living room.

It was dark, so dark it made her uneasy. Harold not only kept his doors locked, he kept his shades pulled. Again she felt as if she were witnessing an unconscious outward manifestation of Harold’s personality. Why would anyone keep their shades pulled down in a small city where that was the way the living came to know and mark the houses of the dead?

The living room, like the kitchen, was astringently neat, but the furniture was stodgy and a little seedy-looking. The room’s nicest feature was the fireplace, a huge stone job with a hearth wide enough to sit on. She did sit down for a moment, looking around thoughtfully. As she shifted, she felt a loose hearthstone under her fanny, and she was about to get up and look at it when someone knocked on the door.

Fear drifted down on her like a smothering weight of feathers. She was paralyzed with sudden terror. Her breath stopped, and she would not be aware until later that she had wet herself a little.

The knock came again, half a dozen quick, firm raps.

My God, she thought. The shades are down at least, thank heaven for that.

That thought was followed by a sudden cold certainty that she had left her bike out where anyone could see it. Had she? She tried desperately to think, but for a long moment she could summon nothing to mind except a babble of gibberish that was unsettlingly familiar: Before removing the mote from thy neighbor’s eye, remove the pie from thine own —

The knock came again, and a woman’s voice: “Anybody home?”

Fran sat stockstill. She suddenly remembered that she had parked her bike around back, under Harold’s clothesline. Not visible from the front of the house. But if Harold’s visitor decided to try the back door—

The knob of the front door—Frannie could see it down the short length of hall—began to turn back and forth in frustrated half-circles.

Whoever she is, I hope she’s no better at locks than I am, Frannie thought, and then had to squeeze both hands over her mouth to stop an insane bray of laughter. That was when she looked down at her cotton slacks and saw how badly she had been frightened. At least she didn’t scare the shit out of me, Fran thought. At least, not yet. The laughter bubbled up again, hysterical and frightened, just below the surface.

Then, with an indescribable sense of relief, she heard footfalls clicking away from the door and down Harold’s concrete path.

What Fran did next she did with no conscious decision at all. She ran quietly down the hall to the front door and put her eye to the small crack between the shade and the edge of the window. She saw a woman with long dark hair that was streaked with white. She climbed onto a small Vespa motorscooter that was parked at the curb. As the motor burped into life, she tossed her hair back and clipped it.

It’s the Cross woman—the one who came over with Larry Underwood! Does she know Harold?

Then Nadine had the scooter in gear. She started off with a little jerk and was soon out of sight. Fran uttered a huge sigh, and her legs turned to water. She opened her mouth to let out the laugh that had been bubbling below the surface, knowing already how it would sound—shaky and relieved. Instead, she burst into tears.

Five minutes later, too nervous now to search any further, she was boosting herself back through the cellar window from the seat of a wicker chair she had pulled over. Once out, she was able to push the chair far enough so that it wouldn’t be obvious someone had used it to climb out. It was still out of position, but people rarely noticed things like that… and it didn’t look as if Harold used the basement at all, except to store his Coca-Cola.

She reclosed the window and got her bike. She still felt weak and stunned and a little nauseated from her scare. At least my pants are drying, she thought. Next time you go housebreaking, Frances Rebecca, remember to wear your continence pants.

She pedaled out of Harold’s yard and left Arapahoe as soon as she could, coming back to the downtown area on Canyon Boulevard. She was back in her own apartment fifteen minutes later.

The place was utterly silent.

She opened her diary and looked down at the muddy chocolate fingerprint and wondered where Stu was.

She wondered if Harold was with him.

Oh Stu please come home. I need you.

After lunch, Stu had left Glen and had come home. He had been sitting blankly in the living room, wondering where Mother Abagail was and also wondering if Nick and Glen could possibly be right about just letting the matter be, when there was a knock.

“Stu?” Ralph Brentner called. “Hello, Stu, you home?”

Harold Lauder was with him. Harold’s smile was muted today but not entirely gone; he looked like a jolly mourner trying to be serious for the graveside service.

Ralph, heartsick over Mother Abagail’s disappearance, had met Harold half an hour ago, Harold being on his way home after helping with a water-hauling party at Boulder Creek. Ralph liked Harold, who always seemed to have time to listen and commiserate with whoever had a sad tale to tell… and Harold never seemed to want anything in return. Ralph had poured out the whole story of Mother Abagail’s disappearance, including his fears that she might suffer a heart attack or break one of her brittle bones or die of exposure if she stayed out overnight.

“And you know it showers just about every damn afternoon,” Ralph finished as Stu poured coffee. “If she gets soaked, she’d be sure to take a cold. Then what? Pneumonia, I guess.”

“What can we do about it?” Stu asked them. “We can’t force her to come back if she doesn’t want to.”

“Well, no,” Ralph conceded. “But Harold had a real good idea.”

Stu’s eyes shifted. “How you doing, Harold?”

“Pretty good. You?”

“Fine.”

“And Fran? You watching out for her?” Harold’s eyes didn’t waver from Stu’s, and they kept their slightly humorous, pleasant light, but Stu had a momentary feeling that Harold’s smiling eyes were like sunshine on the water of Brakeman’s Quarry back home—the water looked so pleasant, but it went down and down to black depths where the sun had never reached, and four boys had lost their lives in pleasant-looking Brakeman’s Quarry over the years.

“As best I can,” he said. “What’s your thought, Harold?”

“Well, look. I see Nick’s point. Glen’s, too. They recognize that the Free Zone sees Mother Abagail as a theocratic symbol… and they’re pretty close to speaking for the Zone now, aren’t they?”

Stu sipped his coffee. “What do you mean, ‘theocratic symbol’?”

“I’d call it an earthly symbol of a covenant made with God,” Harold said, and his eyes veiled a little. “Like Holy Communion  , or the Sacred Cows of India.”

Stu kindled a little at that. “Yeah, pretty good. Those cows… they let em walk the streets and cause traffic jams, right? They can go in and out of the stores, or decide to leave town altogether.”

“Yes,” Harold agreed. “But most of those cows are sick, Stu. They’re always near the point of starvation. Some are tubercular. And all because they’re an aggregate symbol. The people are convinced God will take care of them, just as our people are convinced God will take care of Mother Abagail. But I have my own doubts about a God that says it’s right to let a poor dumb cow wander around in pain.”

Ralph looked momentarily uncomfortable, and Stu knew what he was feeling. He felt it himself, and it gave him a way to measure how he felt about Mother Abagail himself. He felt that Harold was edging into blasphemy.

“Anyway,” Harold said briskly, dismissing the Sacred Cows of India, “we can’t change the way people feel about her—”

“And wouldn’t want to,” Ralph added quickly.

“Right!” Harold exclaimed. “After all, she brought us together, and not exactly by shortwave, either. My idea was that we mount our trusty cycles and spend the afternoon reconnoitering the west side of Boulder. If we stay fairly close, we can keep in touch with each other by walkie-talkie.”

Stu was nodding. This was the sort of thing he had wanted to do all along. Sacred Cows or not, God or not, it just wasn’t right to leave her to wander around on her own. That didn’t have anything to do with religion; something like that was just callous disregard.

“And if we find her,” Harold said, “we can ask her if she wants anything.”

“Like a ride back to town,” Ralph chipped in.

“At least we can keep tabs on her,” Harold said.

“Okay,” Stu said. “I think it’s a helluva good idea, Harold. Just let me leave a note for Fran.”

But as he scribbled the note, he kept feeling an urge to look back over his shoulder at Harold—to see what Harold was doing while Stu wasn’t looking, and what expression might be in Harold’s eyes.

Harold had asked for and gotten the twisting stretch of road between Boulder and Nederland, because he considered it to be the least likely area. He didn’t think he could walk from Boulder to Nederland in one day, let alone that crazy old cunt. But it made a pleasant ride and gave him a chance to think.

Now, at a quarter to seven, he was on his way back. His Honda was parked in a rest area and he was sitting at a picnic table, having a Coke and a few Slim Jims. The walkie-talkie that hung over the Honda’s handlebars with its antenna at full extension crackled faintly with Ralph Brentner’s voice. They were short-range radios only, and Ralph was somewhere up on Flagstaff Mountain.

“… Sunrise Amphitheater… no sign of her… storm’s over up here.”

Then Stu’s voice, stronger and closer. He was in Chautauqua Park, only four miles from Harold’s location. “Say again, Ralph.”

Ralph’s voice came back, really bellowing. Maybe he would give himself a stroke. That would be a lovely way to end the day. “No sign of her up here! I’m going down before it gets dark! Over!”

“Ten-four,” Stu said, sounding discouraged. “Harold, you there?” Harold got up, wiping Slim Jim grease on his jeans. “Harold? Calling Harold Lauder! You copy, Harold?”

Harold pointed his middle finger—yer fuckfinger, as the high school Neanderthals back in Ogunquit had called it—at the walkie-talkie; then he depressed the talk button and said pleasantly, but with just the right note of discouragement: “I’m here. I was off to one side… thought I saw something down in the ditch. It was just an old jacket. Over.”

“Yeah, okay. Why don’t you come down to Chautauqua, Harold? We’ll wait there for Ralph.”

Love to give orders, don’t you, suckhole? I might have something for you. Yes, I just might.

“Harold, you copy?”

“Yes. Sorry, Stu, I was woolgathering. I can be there in fifteen minutes.”

“You copying this, Ralph? ” Stu bellowed, making Harold wince. He gave Stu’s voice the finger again, grinning furtively as he did so. Copy this, you Wild West motherfucker.

“Roger, you’ll be at Chautauqua Park,” Ralph’s voice came faintly through the roar of static. “I’m on my way. Over and out.”

“I’m on my way, too,” Harold said. “Over and out.”

He turned off the walkie-talkie, collapsed the antenna, and hung the radio on the handlebars again, but he sat astride the Honda for a moment without operating the kickstarter. He was wearing an army surplus flak jacket; the heavy padding was good when you were riding a cycle above six thousand feet, even in August. But the jacket served another purpose. It had a great many zippered pockets and in one of these was a Smith & Wesson .38. Harold took the pistol out and turned it over and over in his hands. It was fully loaded and it was heavy in his hands, as if it realized its purposes were grave ones: death, destruction, assassination.

Tonight?

Why not?

He had initiated this expedition on the chance that he might be alone with Stu long enough to do it. Now it looked as though he was going to have that chance, at Chautauqua Park, in less than fifteen minutes. But the trip had served another purpose, as well.

He hadn’t meant to go all the way to Nederland, a miserable little town nestled high above Boulder, a town whose only claim to fame was that Patty Hearst had once allegedly stayed there during her time as a fugitive. But as he drove up and up, the Honda purring smoothly between his legs, the air as cold as a blunt razorblade against his face, something had happened.

If you put a magnet on one end of a table and a steel slug on the other, nothing happens. If you move the slug closer to the magnet in slow increments of distance (he held this image in his mind for a moment, savoring it, reminding himself to put it in his diary when he entered tonight), a time will come when the shove you give the slug seems to propel it farther than it should. The slug stops, but it seems to do so reluctantly, as if it has come alive, and part of its liveliness is a resentment of the physical law which deals with inertia. Another little push or two and you can almost—or perhaps even actually—see the slug trembling on the table, seeming to jitter and vibrate slightly, like one of those Mexican jumping beans you can buy in novelty shops, the ones which look like knuckle-sized knots of wood but which actually have a live worm inside. One more push and the balance between friction/inertia and the attraction of the magnet begins to tip the other way. The slug, wholly alive now, moves on its own, faster and faster, until it finally smacks into the magnet and sticks there.

Horrible, fascinating process.

When the world had ended this June, the force of magnetism had still not been understood, although Harold thought (his mind had never been of the rational-scientific bent) that the physicists who studied such things thought it was intimately entwined with the phenomenon of gravity, and that gravity was the keystone of the universe.

On his way to Nederland, moving west, moving up, feeling the air grow chillier, seeing the thunderheads slowly piling up around the still-higher peaks far beyond Nederland, Harold had felt that process begin in himself. He was approaching the point of balance… and not far beyond that, he would reach the point of shift. He was the steel slug just that distance from the magnet where a little push sends it farther than the force imparted would do under more ordinary circumstances. He could feel the jittering in himself.

It was the closest thing to a holy experience that he had ever had. The young reject the holy, because to accept it means to accept the eventual death of all empiric objects, and Harold also rejected it. The old woman was some sort of psychic, he had thought, and so was Flagg, the dark man. They were human radio stations, and no more. Their real power would lie in societies that coalesced around their signals, which were so different one from the other. So he had thought.

But parked on his cycle at the end of Nederland’s cheesy main street with the Honda’s neutral light glowing like a cat’s eye, listening to the winterwhine of the wind in the pines and the aspens, he had felt something more than mere magnetic attraction. He had felt a stupendous, irrational power coming out of the West, an attraction so great that he felt to closely contemplate it now would be to go mad. He felt that, if he ventured much farther out on the arm of balance, any self-will would be lost. He would go just as he was, emptyhanded.

And for that, although he could not be blamed, the dark man would kill him.

So he had turned away feeling the cold relief of a presuicidal man coming away from a long period of regarding a long drop. But he could go tonight, if he liked. Yes, he could kill Redman with a single bullet fired at pointblank range. Then just stay put, stay cool until the Oklahoma sodbuster showed up. Another shot to the temple. No one would take alarm at the gunshots; game was plentiful, and lots of people had taken to banging away at the deer that wandered down into town.

It was ten to seven now. He could waste them both by seven-thirty. Fran would not raise the alarm until ten-thirty or later, and by then he could be well away, working his way west on his Honda, with his ledger in his knapsack. But it wouldn’t happen if he just sat here on his bike, letting time pass.

The Honda started on the second kick. It was a good bike. Harold smiled. Harold grinned. Harold positively radiated good cheer. He drove off toward Chautauqua Park.

Dusk was starting to close down when Stu heard Harold’s bike coming into the park. A moment later he saw the Honda’s headlamp flashing in and out between the trees that lined the climbing sweep of the drive. Then he could see Harold’s helmeted head turning right and left, looking for him.

Stu, who was sitting on the edge of a rock barbecue pit, waved and shouted. After a minute Harold saw him, waved back, and began to putt over in second gear.

After the afternoon the three of them had put in, Stu felt considerably better about Harold… better than he ever had, in fact. Harold’s idea had been a damn good one even if it hadn’t panned out. And Harold had insisted on taking the Nederland road… must have been pretty cold in spite of his heavy jacket. As he pulled up, Stu saw that Harold’s perpetual grin looked more like a grimace; his face was strained and too white. Disappointed that things hadn’t worked out better, Stu guessed. He felt a sudden flush of guilt at the way he and Frannie had treated Harold, as if his constant grin and his overfriendly way with people was some kind of camouflage. Had they ever really considered the idea that the guy might just be trying to turn over a new leaf, that he might be going at it a little strangely just because he had never tried to do such a thing before? Stu didn’t guess they had.

“Nothing at all, huh?” he asked Harold, jumping nimbly down from the top of the barbecue pit.

“De nada,” Harold said. The grin reappeared, but it was automatic, without strength, like a rictus. His face still looked strange and deadly pale. His hands were stuffed in the pockets of his jacket.

“Never mind. It was a good idea. For all we know, she’s back in her house right now. If not, we can look again tomorrow.”

“That might be like looking for a body.”

Stu sighed. “Maybe… yeah, maybe. Why don’t you come back to supper with me, Harold?”

“What?” Harold seemed to flinch back in the gathering gloom under the trees. His grin looked more strained than ever.

“Supper,” Stu said patiently. “Look, Frannie’d be glad to see you, too. That’s no shit. She really would.”

“Well, maybe,” Harold said, still looking uncomfortable. “But I’m… well, I had a thing for her, you know. Maybe it’s best if we… just let it go for now. Nothing personal. The two of you go well together. I know that.” His smile shone forth with renewed sincerity. It was infectious; Stu answered it.

“Your choice, Harold. But the door’s open, anytime.”

“Thanks.”

“No, I got to thank you,” Stu said seriously.

Harold blinked. “Me?”

“For helping us hunt when everybody else decided to let nature take her course. Even if it didn’t come to nothing. Will you shake with me?” Stu put his hand out. Harold stared at it blankly for a moment, and Stu didn’t think his gesture was going to be accepted. Then Harold took his right hand out of his jacket pocket—it seemed to catch on something, the zipper, maybe—and shook Stu’s hand briefly. Harold’s hand was warm and a little sweaty.

Stu stepped in front of him, looking down the drive. “Ralph should be here by now. I hope he didn’t have an accident coming down that frigging mountain. He… there he is now.”

Stu walked out to the side of the road; a second headlamp was now flashing up the drive and playing hide-and-seek through the screening trees.

“Yes, that’s him,” Harold said in an odd flat voice behind Stu.

“Someone with him, too.”

“Wh-what?”

“There.” Stu pointed to a second motorcycle headlamp behind the first.

“Oh.” That queerly flat voice again. It caused Stu to turn around.

“You okay, Harold?”

“Just tired.”

The second vehicle belonged to Glen Bateman; it was a low-power moped, the closest to a motorcycle that he would come, and it made Nadine’s Vespa look like a Harley. Behind Ralph, Nick Andros was riding pillion. Nick had an invitation for all of them to come back to the house he and Ralph shared to have coffee and/or brandy. Stu agreed but Harold begged off, still looking strained and tired.

He’s so goddam disappointed, Stu thought, and reflected that it was not only the first sympathy he had probably ever felt for Harold, but also that it was long overdue. He renewed Nick’s invitation himself, but Harold only shook his head and told Stu he was shot for the day. He guessed he would go home and get some sleep.

By the time he got home, Harold was shaking so badly he could barely get his key in the front door. When he did get the door open, he darted in as if he suspected a maniac might be creeping up the walk behind him. He slammed the door, turned the lock, shot the bolt. Then he leaned against the door for a moment with his head back and his eyes shut, feeling on the verge of hysterical tears. When he had a grip on himself again, he felt his way down the hall to the living room and lit all three gas lanterns. The room became bright, and bright was better.

He sat down in his favorite chair and closed his eyes. When his heartbeat had slowed a little he went to the hearth, removed the loose stone, and removed his LEDGER. It soothed him. A ledger was where you kept track of debts owed, bills outstanding, accumulating interest. It was where you finally put paid to all accounts.

He sat back down, flipped to the place where he had stopped, hesitated, then wrote: “August 14, 1990.” He wrote for nearly an hour and a half, his pen dashing back and forth line after line, page after page. His face as he wrote was by turns savagely amused and dully righteous, terrified and joyous, hurt and grinning. When he was finished, he read what he had written (“These are my letters to the world / which never wrote to me… ”) while he absently massaged his aching right hand.

He replaced the ledger and the covering stone. He was calm; he had written it all out of him; he had translated his terror and his fury to the page and his resolve remained strong. That was good. Sometimes the act of writing things down made him feel more jittery, and those were the times he knew he had written falsely, or without the effort required to hone the dull edge of truth to an edge where it would cut—where it would bring blood. But tonight he could put the book back with a calm and serene mind. The rage and fear and frustration had been safely transferred into the book, with a rock to hold it down while he slept.

Harold ran up one of his shades and looked out into the silent street. Looking up at the Flatirons he thought calmly about how close he had come to just going ahead anyway, just hauling out the .38 and trying to mow down all four of them. That would have fixed their reeking sanctimonious ad hoc committee. When he had finished with them they wouldn’t even have had a fucking quorum left.

But at the last moment some fraying cord of sanity had held instead of giving way. He had been able to let go of the gun and shake the betraying cracker’s hand. How, he would never know, but thank God he had. The mark of genius is its ability to bide—and so he would.

He was sleepy now; it had been a long and eventful day.

Unbuttoning his shirt, Harold turned out two of the three gaslamps, and picked up the last to take into his bedroom. As he went through into the kitchen he stopped, frozen.

The door to the basement was standing open.

He went to it, holding the lamp aloft, and went down the first three steps. Fear came into his heart, driving the calmness out.

“Who’s here?” he called. No answer. He could see the air-hockey table. The posters. In the far corner, a set of gaily striped croquet mallets sat in their rack.

He went down another three steps. “Is someone here?”

No; he felt there was not. But that did not allay his fear.

He went the rest of the way down and held the lamp high above his head; across the room a monstrous shadow-Harold, as huge and black as the ape in the Rue Morgue, did likewise.

Was there something on the floor over there? Yes. There was.

He crossed behind the slotcar track to beneath the window where Fran had entered. On the floor was a spill of light brown grit. Harold set the light down beside the spill. In the center of it, as clear as a fingerprint, was the track of a sneaker or tennis shoe… not a waffle or zigzag pattern, but groups of circles and lines. He stared at it, burning it into his mind, and then kicked the dust into a light cloud, destroying the mark. His face was the face of a living waxwork in the light of the Coleman lamp.

“You’ll pay!” Harold cried softly. “Whichever one of you it was, you’ll pay! Yes you will! Yes you will!”

He climbed the stairs again and went through his house from end to end, looking for any other signs of defilation. He found none. He ended in the living room, not sleepy at all now. He was just concluding that someone—a kid, maybe—had broken in out of curiosity, when the thought of his LEDGER exploded in his mind like a flare in a midnight sky. The break-in motive was so clear, so awful, that he had nearly overlooked it completely.

He ran to the hearth, pulled up the stone, and ripped the LEDGER from its place. For the first time it came completely home to him how dangerous the book was. If someone found it, everything was over. He of all people should know that; hadn’t all of this begun because of Fran’s diary?

The LEDGER. The footprint. Did the latter mean the former had been discovered? Of course not. But how to be sure? There was no way, that was the pure and hellish truth of the matter.

He replaced the hearthstone and took the LEDGER into his bedroom with him. He put it under his pillow along with his Smith & Wesson revolver, thinking he should burn it, knowing he never could. The best writing he had ever done in his life was between its covers, the only writing that had ever come as a result of belief and personal commitment.

He lay down, resigned to a sleepless night, his mind running restlessly over possible hiding places. Under a loose board? In the back of a cupboard? Could he perhaps pull the old purloined letter trick, and leave it boldly on one of the bookshelves, a volume among many other volumes, flanked by a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book on one side and a copy of The Total Woman on the other? No—that was too bold; he would never be able to leave the house and have peace. What about a safety-deposit box at the bank? No, that wouldn’t do—he wanted it with him, where he could look at it.

At last he did begin to drift off, and his mind, freed by oncoming sleep, drifted along with no conscious guidance, a pinball in slow motion. He thought: It’s got to be hidden, that’s the thing… if Frannie had hidden hers better… if I hadn’t read what she really thought of me… her hypocrisy… if she had…

Harold sat bolt upright in bed, a little cry in his mouth, his eyes wide.

He sat like that for a long time, and after a while he began to shiver. Did she know? Had it been Fran’s footprint? Diaries… journals… ledgers…

At last he lay down again, but it was a long time before he slept. He kept wondering if Fran Goldsmith regularly wore a pair of tennis shoes or sneakers. And if she did, what did the pattern on their soles look like?

Patterns of soles, patterns of souls. When he did sleep, his dreams were uneasy and more than once he cried out miserably in the dark, as if to ward off things that had already been let in forever.

Stu let himself in at quarter past nine. Fran was curled up on the double bed, wearing one of his shirts—it came almost to her knees—and reading a book titled Fifty Friendly Plants. She got up when he came in.

“Where have you been? I was worried!”

Stu explained Harold’s idea that they hunt for Mother Abagail so they could at least keep an eye on her. He didn’t mention Sacred Cows. Unbuttoning his shirt, he finished: “We would have taken you along, kiddo, but you were nowhere to be found.”

“I was at the library,” she said, watching as he took off his shirt and slipped it into the net laundry bag hanging from the back of the door. He was quite hairy, chest and back, and she found herself thinking that, until she met Stu, she had always found hairy men mildly repulsive. She supposed her relief at having him back was making her a little silly in the head.

Harold had read her diary, she knew that now. She had been terribly afraid that Harold might connive to get Stu alone and… well, do something to him. But why now, today, just when she had found out? If Harold had let the sleeping dog lie this long, wasn’t it more logical to assume that he didn’t want to wake the dog up at all? And wasn’t it just as possible that by reading her diary Harold had seen the futility of his constant chase after her? Coming on top of the news that Mother Abagail had disappeared, she had been in a ripe mood to see ill omens in chicken entrails, but the fact was, it had simply been her diary Harold had read, not a confession to the crimes of the world. And if she told Stu what she had found out, she would succeed only in looking silly and maybe getting him pissed at Harold… and probably at herself as well for being so silly in the first place.

“No sign of her at all, Stu?”

“Nope.”

“How did Harold seem?”

Stu was taking off his pants. “Pretty well racked. Sorry his idea didn’t pan out better. I invited him to supper whenever he wanted to come. I hope that’s okay by you. You know, I really think I could get to like that sucker. You never could have convinced me of that the day I met you two in New Hampshire. Was it wrong to invite him?”

“No,” she said, after a considering pause. “No, I’d like to be on good terms with Harold.” I’m sitting home thinking that Harold might be planning to blow his head off, she thought, and Stu’s inviting him to dinner. Talk about your cases of the pregnant-woman vapors!

Stu said, “If Mother Abagail doesn’t show up by daylight, I thought I’d ask Harold if he wanted to go out again with me.”

“I’d like to go, too,” Fran said quickly. “And there are a few others around here who aren’t totally convinced that she’s being fed by the ravens. Dick Vollman’s one. Larry Underwood’s another.”

“Okay, fine,” he said, and joined her on the bed. “Say, what are you wearing under that shirt?”

“A big strong man like yourself should be able to find that out without my help,” Fran said primly.

It turned out to be nothing.

The next day’s search-party started out modestly at eight o’clock with half a dozen searchers—Stu, Fran, Harold, Dick Vollman, Larry Underwood, and Lucy Swann. By noon the party had swelled to twenty, and by dusk (accompanied by the usual brief spat of ram and lightning in the foothills) there were better than fifty people combing the brush west of Boulder, splashing through streams, hunting up and down canyons, and stepping all over each other’s CB transmissions.

A strange mood of resigned dread had gradually replaced yesterday’s acceptance. Despite the powerful force of the dreams that accorded Mother Abagail a semidivine status in the Zone, most of the people had been through enough to be realists about survival: The old woman was well past a hundred, and she had been out all night on her own. And now a second night was coming on.

The fellow who had struggled across the country from Louisiana to Boulder with a party of twelve summed it up perfectly. He had come in with his people at noon the day before. When told that Mother Abagail was gone, this man, Norman Kellogg by name, threw his Astros baseball cap on the ground and said, “Ain’t that my fucking luck… who you got hunting her up?”

Charlie Impening, who had more or less become the Zone’s resident doomcrier (he had been the one to pass the cheerful news about snow in September), began to suggest to people that if Mother Abagail had bugged out, maybe that was a sign for all of them to bug out. After all, Boulder was just too damn close. Too close to what? Never mind, you know what it’s too close to, and New York or Boston would make Mavis Impening’s boy Charlie feel a whole hell of a lot safer. He had no takers. People were tired and ready to sit. If it got cold and there was no heat, they might move, but not before. They were healing. Impening was asked politely if he planned to go alone. Impening said he believed he would wait until a few more people had seen the daylight. Glen Bateman was heard to opine that Charlie Impening would make a hell of a poor Moses.

“Resigned dread” was as far as the community’s feelings went, Glen Bateman believed, because they were still rationally minded people in spite of all the dreams, in spite of their deep-seated dread concerning whatever might be going on west of the Rockies. Superstition, like true love, needs time to grow and reflect upon itself. When you finish a barn, he told Nick and Stu and Fran after darkness had put an end to the search for the night, you hang a horseshoe ends up over the door to keep the luck in. But if one of the nails falls out and the horseshoe swings points down, you don’t abandon the barn.

“The day may come when we or our children may abandon the barn if the horseshoe spills the luck out, but that’s years away. Right now all we feel is a little strange and lost. And that will pass, I think. If Mother Abagail is dead—and God knows I hope she isn’t—it probably couldn’t have come at a better time for the mental health of this community.”

Nick wrote, “But if she was meant as a check for our Adversary, his opposite number, someone put here to keep the scales in balance…”

“Yes, I know,” Glen said gloomily. “I know. The days when the horseshoe didn’t matter may really be passing… or already gone. Believe me, I know.”

Frannie said: “You don’t really think our grandchildren are going to be superstitious natives, do you, Glen? Burning witches and spitting through their fingers for luck?”

“I can’t read the future, Fran,” Glen said, and in the lamplight his face looked old and worn—the face, perhaps, of a failed magician. “I couldn’t even properly see the effect Mother Abagail was having on the community until Stu pointed it out to me that night on Flagstaff Mountain. But I do know this: We’re all in this town because of two events. The superflu we can charge off to the stupidity of the human race. It doesn’t matter if we did it or the Russians, or the Latvians. Who emptied the beaker loses importance beside the general truth: At the end of all rationalism, the mass grave. The laws of physics, the laws of biology, the axioms of mathematics, they’re all part of the deathtrip, because we are what we are. If it hadn’t been Captain Trips, it would have been something else. The fashion was to blame it on ‘technology,’ but ‘technology’ is the trunk of the tree, not the roots. The roots are rationalism, and I would define that word so: ‘Rationalism is the idea we can ever understand anything about the state of being.’ It’s a deathtrip. It always has been. So you can charge the superflu off to rationalism if you want. But the other reason we’re here is the dreams, and the dreams are irrational. We’ve agreed not to talk about that simple fact while we’re in committee, but we’re not in committee now. So I’ll say what we all know is true: We’re here under the fiat of powers we don’t understand. For me, that means we may be beginning to accept—only subconsciously now, and with plenty of slips backward due to culture lag—a different definition of existence. The idea that we can never understand anything about the state of being. And if rationalism is a deathtrip, then ir rationalism might very well be a lifetrip… at least unless it proves otherwise.”

Speaking very slowly, Stu said: “Well, I got my superstitions. I been laughed at for it, but I got em. I know it don’t make any difference if a guy lights two cigarettes on a match or three, but two don’t make me nervous and three does. I don’t walk under ladders and I never care to see a black cat cross my path. But to live with no science… worshipping the sun, maybe… thinking monsters are rolling bowling balls across the sky when it thunders… I can’t say any of that turns me on very much, baldy. Why, it seems like a kind of slavery to me.”

“But suppose those things were true?” Glen said quietly.

“What?”

“Assume that the age of rationalism has passed. I myself am almost positive that it has. It’s come and gone before, you know; it almost left us in the 1960s, the so-called Age of Aquarius, and it took a damn near permanent vacation during the Middle Ages. And suppose… suppose that when rationalism does go, it’s as if a bright dazzle has gone for a while and we could see…” He trailed off, his eyes looking inward.

“See what?” Fran asked.

He raised his eyes to hers; they were gray and strange, seeming to glow with their own inner light.

“Dark magic,” he said softly. “A universe of marvels where water flows uphill and trolls live in the deepest woods and dragons live under the mountains. Bright wonders, white power. ‘Lazarus, come forth.’ Water into wine. And… and just maybe… the casting out of devils.”

He paused, then smiled.

“The lifetrip.”

“And the dark man?” Fran asked quietly.

Glen shrugged. “Mother Abagail calls him the Devil’s Imp. Maybe he’s just the last magician of rational thought, gathering the tools of technology against us. And maybe there’s something more, something much darker. I only know that he is, and I no longer think that sociology or psychology or any other ology will put an end to him. I think only white magic will do that… and our white magician is out there someplace, wandering and alone.” Glen’s voice nearly broke, and he looked down quickly.

Outside there was only dark, and a breeze coming down from the mountains threw a fresh spatter of rain against the glass of Stu and Fran’s living room. Glen was lighting his pipe. Stu had taken a random handful of change from his pocket and was shaking the coins up and down, then opening his hands to see how many had come up heads, how many tails. Nick was making elaborate doodles on the top sheet of his pad, and in his mind he saw the empty streets of Shoyo and heard—yes, heard—a voice whisper: He’s coming for you, mutie. He’s closer now.

After a while Glen and Stu kindled a blaze in the fireplace and they all watched the flames without saying much.

After they were gone, Fran felt low and unhappy. Stu was also in a brown study. He looks tired, she thought. We ought to stay home tomorrow, just stay home and talk to each other and have a nap in the afternoon. We ought to take it easy. She looked at the Coleman gaslamp and wished for electric light instead, bright electric light you got by just flicking a wall switch.

She felt her eyes sting with tears. She told herself angrily not to start, not to add that to their problems, but the part of herself which controlled the waterworks did not seem inclined to listen.

Then, suddenly, Stu brightened. “By golly! I damn near forgot, didn’t I?”

“Forgot what?”

“I’ll show you! Stay right here!” He went out the door and clattered down the hall stairs. She went to the doorway and in a moment she could hear him coming back up. He had something in his hand and it was a… a…

“Stuart Redman, where did you get that?” she asked, happily surprised.

“Folk Arts Music,” he said, grinning.

She picked up the washboard and tilted it this way and that. The gleam of light spilled off its bluing. “Folk—?”

“Down Walnut Street aways.”

“A washboard in a music store?”

“Yeah. There was a helluva good washtub, too, but somebody had already poked a hole through it and turned it into a bass.”

She began to laugh. She put the washboard down on the sofa, came to him, and hugged him tight. His hands came up to her breasts and she hugged him tighter still. “The doctor said give him jug band music,” she whispered.

“Huh?”

She pressed her face against his neck. “It seems to make him feel just fine. That’s what the song says, anyway. Can you make me feel fine, Stu?”

Smiling, he picked her up. “Well,” he said, “I guess I could give it a try.”

At quarter past two the next afternoon, Glen Bateman burst straight into the apartment without knocking. Fran was at Lucy Swann’s house, where the two women were trying to get a sourdough sponge started. Stu was reading a Max Brand Western. He looked up and saw Glen, his face pale and shocked, his eyes wide, and tossed the book on the floor.

“Stu,” Glen said. “Oh, man, Stu. I’m glad you’re here.”

“What’s wrong?” he asked Glen sharply. “Is it… did someone find her?”

“No,” Glen said. He sat down abruptly as if his legs had just given out. “It’s not bad news, it’s good news. But it’s very strange.”

“What? What is?”

“It’s Kojak. I took a nap after lunch and when I got up, Kojak was on the porch, fast asleep. He’s beat to shit, Stu, he looks like he’s been through a Mixmaster with a set of blunt blades, but it’s him.”

“You mean the dog? That Kojak?”

“That’s who I mean.”

“Are you sure?”

“Same dog-tag that says Woodsville, N.H. Same red collar. Same dog. He’s really scrawny, and he’s been fighting. Dick Ellis—Dick was overjoyed to have an animal to work on for a change—he says he’s lost one eye for good. Bad scratches on his sides and belly, some of them infected, but Dick took care of them. Gave him a sedative and taped up his belly. Dick said it looked like he’d tangled with a wolf, maybe more than one. No rabies, anyhow. He’s clean.” Glen shook his head slowly, and two tears spilled down his cheeks. “That damn dog came back to me. I wish to Christ I hadn’t left him behind to come on his own, Stu. That makes me feel so friggin bad.”

“It couldn’t have been done, Glen. Not with the motorcycles.”

“Yes, but… he followed me, Stu. That’s the kind of thing you read about in Star Weekly … Faithful Dog Follows Master Two Thousand Miles. How could he do a thing like that? How?”

“Maybe the same way we did. Dogs dream, you know—sure they do. Didn’t you ever see one lying fast asleep on the kitchen floor, paws twitching away? There was an old guy in Arnette, Vic Palfrey, and he used to say dogs had two dreams, the good dream and the bad one. The good one’s when the paws twitch. The bad one’s the growling dream. Wake a dog up in the middle of the bad dream, the growling dream, and he’s apt to bite you, like as not.”

Glen shook his head in a dazed way. “You’re saying he dreamed —”

“I’m not sayin anything funnier than what you were talking last night,” Stu reproached him.

Glen grinned and nodded. “Oh, I can talk that stuff for hours on end. I’m one of the great all-time bullshitters. It’s when something actually happens.”

“Awake at the lectern and asleep at the switch.”

“Fuck you, East Texas. Want to come over and see my dog?”

“You bet.”

Glen’s house was on Spruce Street, about two blocks from the Boulderado Hotel. The climbing ivy on the porch trellis was mostly dead, as were all the lawns and most of the flowers in Boulder—without daily watering from the city mains, the arid climate had triumphed.

On the porch was a small round table holding up a gin and tonic. (“Ain’t that pretty horrible stuff without ice?” Stu asked, and Glen answered, “You don’t notice much one way or the other after the third one.”) Beside the drink was an ashtray with five pipes in it, copies of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Ball Four, and My Gun Is Quick —all of them open to different places. There was also an open bag of Kraft Cheese Kisses.

Kojak was lying on the porch, his tattered snout laid peacefully on his forepaws. The dog was rack-thin and pitifully chewed, but Stu recognized him, even on short acquaintance. He squatted and began to stroke Kojak’s head. Kojak woke up and looked happily at Stu. In the way that dogs have, he seemed to grin.

“Say, that’s a good dog,” Stu said, feeling a ridiculous lump in his throat. Like a deck of cards swiftly dealt with the faces up, he seemed to see every dog he’d had since his mom had given him Old Spike, when Stu was only five years old. A lot of dogs. Maybe not one for every card in the deck, but still a lot of dogs. A dog was a good thing to have, and so far as he knew, Kojak was the only dog in Boulder. He glanced up at Glen and glanced down quickly. He guessed even old bald sociologists who read three books at a whack didn’t like to get caught leaking around the eyes.

“Good dog,” he repeated, and Kojak thumped his tail against the porch boards, presumably agreeing that he was, indeed, a good dog.

“Going inside for a minute,” Glen said thickly. “Got to use the bathroom.”

“Yeah,” Stu said, not looking up. “Hey, good boy, say, ole Kojak, wasn’t you a good boy? Ain’t you a one?”

Kojak’s tail thumped agreeably.

“Can you roll over? Play dead, boy. Roll over.”

Kojak obediently rolled over on his back, rear legs splayed out, front paws in the air. Stu’s face grew concerned as he ran his hand gently over the stiff white concertina of bandage Dick Ellis had put on. Farther up, he could see red and puffy-looking scratches that undoubtedly deepened to gores under the bandages. Something had been at him, all right, and it hadn’t been some other wandering dog. A dog would have gone for the muzzle or the throat. What had happened to Kojak was the work of something lower than a dog. More sneaking. Wolfpack, maybe, but Stu doubted if Kojak could have gotten away from a pack. Whatever, he had been lucky not to be disemboweled.

The screen banged as Glen came back out on the porch.

“Whatever it was got at him didn’t miss his vitals by much,” Stu said.

“The wounds were deep and he lost a lot of blood,” Glen agreed. “I just can’t get over thinking that I was the one who let him in for that.”

“And Dick said wolves.”

“Wolves or maybe coyotes… but he thought it was unlikely coyotes would have done such a job, and I agree.”

Stu patted Kojak on the rump and Kojak rolled back onto his belly. “How is it almost all the dogs are gone and there’s still enough wolves in one place—and east of the Rockies, at that—to set on a good dog like this?”

“I guess we’ll never know,” Glen said. “Any more than we’ll know why the goddamned plague took the horses but not the cows and most of the people but not us. I’m not even going to think about it. I’m just going to lay in a big supply of Gainesburgers and keep him fed.”

“Yeah.” Stu looked at Kojak, whose eyes had slipped closed. “He’s tore up, but his doings are still intact—I saw that when he rolled over. We could do worse than to keep our eye out for a bitch, you know it?”

“Yes, that’s so,” Glen said thoughtfully. “Want a warm gin and tonic, East Texas?”

“Hell, no. I may never have gone any further than one year of vocational-technical school, but I’m no fucking barbarian. Got a beer?”

“Oh, I think I can scare up a can of Coors. Warm, though.”

“Sold.” He started to follow Glen into the house, then paused with the screen door in his hand to look back at the sleeping dog. “You sleep good, ole boy,” he told the dog. “Good to have you here.”

He and Glen went inside.

But Kojak wasn’t asleep.

He lay somewhere between, where most living things spend a good deal of time when they are hurt badly, but not badly enough to be in the mortal shadow. A deep itch lay in his belly like heat, the itch of healing. Glen would have to spend a good many hours trying to distract him from that itch so he wouldn’t scratch off the bandages, reopen the wounds, and reinfect them. But that was later. Just now Kojak (who still thought of himself occasionally as Big Steve, which had been his original name) was content to drift in the place in between. The wolves had come for him in Nebraska, while he was still sniffing dejectedly around the house on jacklifters in the little town of Hemingford Home. The scent of THE MAN—the feel of THE MAN—had led to this place and then stopped. Where had he gone? Kojak didn’t know. And then the wolves, four of them, had come out of the corn like ragged spirits of the dead. Their eyes blazed at Kojak, and their lips wrinkled back from their teeth to let out the low, ripping growls of their intent. Kojak had retreated before them, growling himself, his paws stiff-out and digging at the dirt of Mother Abagail’s dooryard. To the left hung the tire-swing, casting its depthless round shadow. The lead wolf had attacked just as Kojak’s hindquarters slipped into the shadow cast by the porch. It came in low, going for the belly, and the others followed. Kojak sprang up and over the leader’s snapping muzzle, giving the wolf his underbelly, and as the leader began to bite and scratch, Kojak fastened his own teeth in the wolf’s neck, his teeth sinking deep, letting blood, and the wolf howled and tried to struggle away, its courage suddenly gone. As it pulled away, Kojak’s jaws closed with lightning speed on the wolf’s tender muzzle, and the wolf uttered a howling, abject scream as its nose was laid open to the nostrils and pulled to strings and tatters. It fled yipping with agony, shaking its head crazily from side to side, spraying droplets of blood to the left and right, and in the crude telepathy that all animals of like kind share, Kojak could read its over-and-over thought clearly enough:

(wasps in me o the wasps the wasps in my head wasps are up my head o)

And then the others hit him, one from the left and another from the right like huge blunt bullets, the last of the trio submarining in low, grinning, snapping, ready to pull out his intestines. Kojak had broken to the right, baying hoarsely, wanting to deal with that one first so he could get under the porch. If he could get under the porch he could stand them off, maybe forever. Lying on the porch now he relived the battle in a kind of slow motion: the growls and howls, the strikes and withdrawals, the smell of blood that had gotten into his brain and gradually turned him into a kind of fighting machine, unaware of his own wounds until later. He sent the wolf that had been on his right the way of the first, one of its eyes dead and a huge, gouting, and probably mortal wound in the side of its throat. But the wolf had done its own damage in return; most of it was superficial, but two of the gores were extremely deep, wounds that would heal to hard and twisting scar-tissue like a scrawling lowercase t. Even when he was an old, old dog (and Kojak lived another sixteen years, long after Glen Bateman died), those scars would pain and throb on wet days. He had fought free, had scrambled under the porch, and when one of the two remaining wolves, overcome with bloodlust, tried to wriggle in after him, Kojak sprang on it, pinned it, and ripped its throat out. The other retreated almost to the edge of the corn, whining uneasily. If Kojak had come out to do battle, it would have fled with its tail between its legs. But Kojak didn’t come out, not then. He was done in. He could only lie on his side, panting rapidly and weakly, licking his wounds and growling deep in his chest whenever he saw the shadow of the remaining wolf draw near. Then it was dark, and a misty halfmoon rode the sky over Nebraska. And each time the last wolf heard Kojak alive and presumably still ready to fight, it shied away, whining. Sometime after midnight it left, leaving Kojak alone to see if he would live or die. In the early morning hours he had felt the presence of some other animal, something that terrified him into a series of soft whimpers. It was a thing in the corn, a thing walking in the corn, hunting for him, perhaps. Kojak lay shivering, waiting to see if this thing would find him, this horrible thing that felt like a Man and a Wolf and an Eye, some dark thing like an ancient crocodile in the corn. Some unknown time later, after the moon went down, Kojak felt that it was gone. He fell asleep. He had lain up under the porch for three days, coming out only when hunger and thirst drove him out. There was always a puddle of water gathered below the lip of the handpump in the yard, and in the house there were all sorts of rich scraps, many of them from the meal Mother Abagail had cooked for Nick’s party. When Kojak felt he could go on, he knew where to go. It was not a scent that told him; it was a deep sense of heat that had come out of his own deep and mortal time, a glowing pocket of heat to the west of him. And so he came, limping most of the last five hundred miles on three legs, the pain always gnawing at his belly. From time to time he was able to smell THE MAN, and thus knew he was on the right track. And at last he was here. THE MAN was here. There were no wolves here. Food was here. There was no sense of that dark Thing… the Man with the stink of a wolf and the feel of an Eye that could see you over long miles if it happened to turn your way. For now, things were fine. And so thinking (so far as dogs can think in their careful relating to a world seen almost wholly through feelings), Kojak drifted down deeper, now into real sleep, now into a dream, a good dream of chasing rabbits through the clover and timothy grass that was belly-high and wet with soothing dew. His name was Big Steve. This was the north forty. And oh the rabbits are everywhere this gray and endless morning—

As he dreamed, his paws twitched.

Hot Read

Last Updated

Recommend

Top Books