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PART III THE AMERICAN WEST:LEGENDARY SHADOWS Chapter Fifteen

1

Even in the boozy, druggy days, Johnny Marinville's recall had been pretty relentless. In 1986, while riding in the back seat of Sean Hutter's so-called Party-mobile (Sean had been doing the Friday-night East Hampton rounds with Johnny and three others in the big old '65 Caddy), he had been involved in a fatal accident. Sean, who had been too drunk to walk, let alone drive, had rolled the Partymobile over twice, trying to make the turn from Eggamoggin Lane onto Route B without slowing down. The girl sitting next to Hutter had been killed. Sean's spine had been pulverized. The only Party-mobile he ran these days was a motorized Cadding wheel-chair, the kind you steered with your chin. The others had suffered minor injuries; Johnny had considered himself lucky to get off with a bruised spleen and a broken foot. But the thing was, he was the only one who remembered what had happened. Johnny found this so curious that he had questioned the survivors carefully, even Sean, who kept crying and telling him to go away (Johnny hadn't obliged until he'd gotten what he wanted; what the hell, he figured, Sean owed him). Patti Nickerson said she had a vague memory of Sean saying Hold on, we're going for a ride just before it happened, but that was it. With the others, recall simply stopped short of the accident and then picked up again at some point after it, as if their memories had been squirted with some amnesia-producing ink. Sean himself claimed to remember nothing after getting out of the shower that afternoon and wiping the steam off the mirror so he could see to shave. After that, he said, everything was black until he'd awakened in the hospital. He might have been lying about that, but Johnny didn't think so. Yet he himself remembered everything. Sean hadn't said Hold on, we're going for a ride; he had said Hang on, we're going wide. And laughing as he said it. He went on laughing even when the Partymobile had started to roll. Johnny remembered Patti screaming "My hair! Oh shit, my hair!," and how she had landed on his crotch with a ball-numbing thud when the car went over. He remembered Bruno Gartner bellowing. And the sound of the Partymobile's collapsing roof driving Rachel Timorov's head down into her neck, splitting her skull open like a bone flower. A tight crunching sound it had been, the sound you hear in your head when you smash an icecube between your teeth. He remembered shit. He knew that was part of being a writer, but he didn't know if it was nature or nurture, cause or effect. He supposed it didn't matter. The thing was, he remembered shit even when it was as confusing as the final thirty seconds of a big fireworks display. Stuff that overlapped seemed to automatically separate and fall into line even as it was happening, like iron filings lining up under the pull of a magnet. Until the night Sean Hutter had rolled his Party-mobile, Johnny had never wished for anything different. He had never wished for anything different since . . . until now. Right now a little ink squirted into the old memory cells might be just fine.

He saw splinters jump from the jamb of the projection-booth door and land in Cynthia's hair when Audrey fired the pistol. He felt one of the slugs drone past his right ear. He saw Steve, down on one knee but apparently okay, bat away the revolver when the woman hucked it at him. She lifted her upper lip, snarled at Steve like a cornered dog, then turned back and clamped her hands around the kid's throat again.

Go on! Johnny shouted at himself. Go on and help him! Like you did before, when you shot the cat!

But he couldn't. He could see everything, but he couldn't move.

Things began to overlap then, but his mind insisted on sequencing them, neatening them, giving them a coherent shape, like a narrative. He saw Steve leap at Audrey, telling her to quit it, to let the boy go, cupping her neck with one hand and grabbing her wrists with the other. At this same moment, Johnny was slammed past the skinny girl and into the room with the force of a stuntman shot from a cannon. It was Ralph, of course, hitting him from behind and bawling his son's name at the top of his lungs.

Johnny flew out over the two-step drop, knees bent, convinced he was going to sustain multiple fractures at the very least, convinced that the boy was dying or already dead, convinced that Audrey Wyler's mind had snapped under the strain and she had fallen under the delusion that David Carver was either the cop or a minion of the cop . . . and all the time his eyes went on recording and his brain kept on receiving the images and stonng them. He saw the way Audrey's muscular legs were spread, the material of her skirt strained taut between them. He also saw he was going to touch down near her.

He landed on one foot, like a skater who has forgotten his skates. His knee buckled. He let it, throwing himself forward into the woman, grabbing her hair. She pulled her head back and snapped at his fingers. At the same instant (except Johnny's mind insisted it was the next instant, even now wanting to reduce this madness to something coherent, a narrative which would flow in train), Steve tore her hands away from the kid's throat. Johnny saw the white marks of her palms and fingers there, and then his momentum was carrying him by. She missed biting him, which was the good news, but he missed his grip on her hair, which was the bad.

She voiced a guttural cry as he collided with the wall. His left arm shot out through one of the projection-slots up to the shoulder, and for one awful moment he was sure that the rest of him was going to follow it - out, down, goodbye. It was impossible, the hole was nowhere near big enough for that, but he thought it anyway.

At this same moment (his mind once more insisting it was the next moment, the next thing, the new sentence) Ralph Carver yelled: "Get your hands off my boy, bitch!"

Johnny retrieved his arm and turned around, putting his back to the wall. He saw Steve and Ralph drag the screaming woman off David. He saw the boy collapse against the wall and slide slowly down it, the marks on his throat standing out brutally. He saw Cynthia come down the steps and into the room, trying to look everywhere at once.

"Grab the kid, boss!" Steve panted. He was struggling with Audrey, one hand still clamped on her wrists and the other now around her waist. She bucked under him like a canyon mustang. "Grab him and get him out of h - "

Audrey screamed and pulled free. When Ralph made a clumsy attempt to get his arms around her neck and put her in a headlock, she shoved the heel of one hand under his chin and pushed him back. She retreated a step, saw David, and snarled again, her lips drawing away from her teeth. She made a move to go in his direction and Ralph said, "Touch him again and I'll kill you. Promise."

Ah, fuck this, Johnny thought, and snatched the boy up. He was warm and limp and heavy in his arms. Johnny's back, already outraged by nearly a continent's worth of motorcycling, gave a warning twinge.

Audrey glanced at Ralph, as if daring him to try and make good on his promise, then tensed to leap at Johnny. Before she could, Steve was on her once more. He grabbed her around the waist again, then pivoted on his heels, the two of them face to face. She was uttering a long and continuous caterwauling that made Johnny's fillings ache.

Halfway through his second spin, Steve let her go. Audrey flew backward like a stone cast out of a sling, her feet stuttering on the floor, still caterwauling. Cynthia, who was behind her, dropped to her hands and knees with the speed of a born playground survivor. Audrey collided with her shin-high and went over backward, sprawling on the lighter-colored rectangle where the second projector had rested. She stared up at them through the tumble of her hair, momentarily dazed.

"Get him out of here, boss!" Steve waved his hand at the steps leading up to the projection-booth door. "There's something wrong with her, she's like the animals!"

What do you mean, like them? Johnny thought. She fucking well is one. He heard what Steve was telling him, but he didn't start toward the door. Once again he seemed incapable of movement.

Audrey scrambled to her feet, sliding up the corner of the room. Her upper lip was still rising and falling in a jagged snarl, eyes moving from Johnny and the unconscious boy cradled in his arms to Ralph, and then to Cynthia, who had now also gotten to her feet and was pressing against Steve's side. Johnny thought briefly and longingly of the Rossi shotgun and the Ruger .44. Both were in the lobby, leaning against the ticket-booth. The booth had offered a good view of the street, but it had been easier to leave the guns outside it, given the limited space. And neither he nor Ralph had thought to bring them up here He now believed that one of the scariest lessons this nightmare had to offer was how lethally unprepared for survival they all were. Yet they had survived. Most of them, anyway. So far.

"Tak ah lah!"

The woman spoke in a voice that was both frightening and powerful, nothing like her earlier one, her storytelling voice - that one had been low and often hesitant. To Johnny, this one seemed only a step or two above a dog's bark. And was she laughing? He thought that at least part of her was. And what of that strange, swimming darkness just below the surface of her skin? Was he really seeing that?

"Mm! Mm! Mm en tow!"

Cynthia cast a bewildered glance at Steve. "What's she saying?" Steve shook his head. She looked at Johnny.

"It's the cop's language," he said. He cast his peculiarly efficient recollection back to the moment when the cop had apparently sicced a buzzard on him. "Timoh!" he snapped at Audrey Wyler. "Candy-latch!"

That wasn't quite right, but it must have at least been close; Audrey recoiled, and for a moment there was a very human look of surprise on her face. Then the lip lifted again, and the lunatic smile reappeared in her eyes.

"What did you say to her?" Cynthia asked Johnny.

"I have no idea."

"Boss, you gotta get the kid out. Now."

Johnny took a step backward, meaning to do just that Audrey reached into the pocket of her dress as he did and brought it out curled around a fistful of something. She stared at him - only at him, now, John Edward Marinville, Distinguished Novelist and Extraordinary Thinker - with her snarling beast's eyes. She held her hand out, wrist up "Can tah!" she cried . . . laughed. "Can tah, can tak' What you take is what you are! Of course! Can tah, can tak, mi tow! Take this! So tah!"

When she opened her hand and showed him her offering, the emotional weather inside his head changed at once . . . and yet he still saw everything and sequenced it, just as he had when Sean Hutter's goddamned Party-mobile had rolled over. He had kept on recording everything then, when he had been sure he was going to die, and he went on recording everything now, when he was suddenly consumed with hate for the boy in his arms and overwhelmed by a desire to put something - his motorcycle key would do nicely-into the interfering little prayboy's throat and open him like a can of beer.

He thought at first that there were three odd-looking charms lying on her open palm - the sort of thing girls sometimes wore dangling from their bracelets. But they were too big, too heavy. Not charms but carvings, stone carvings, each about two inches long. One was a snake. The second was a buzzard with one wing chipped off. Mad, bilging eyes stared out at him from beneath its bald dome. The third was a rat on its hind legs. They all looked pitted and ancient.

"Can tah!" she screamed. "Can tah, can tak, kill the boy, kill him now, kill him!"

Steve stepped forward. With her attention and concentration fully fixed on Johnny, she saw him only at the last instant. He slapped the stones from her hand and they flew into the corner of the room. One - it was the snake - broke in two. Audrey screamed with horror and vexation.

The murderous fury which had come over Johnny's mind dissipated but didn't depart completely. He could feel his eyes wanting to turn toward the corner, where the carvings lay. Waiting for him. All he had to do was pick them up.

"Get him the fuck out of here!" Steve yelled. Audrey lunged for the carvings. Steve seized her arm and yanked her back. Her skin was darkening and sagging. Johnny thought that the process which had changed her was now trying to reverse itself . . , without much success. She was what? Shrinking'? Diminishing? He didn't know the right word, but -

"GET HIM OUT!" Steve yelled again, and smacked

Johnny on the shoulder. That woke him up. He began to turn and then Ralph was there. He had snatched David from Johnny's arms almost before Johnny knew it was happening. Ralph bounded up the stairs, clumsy but powerful, and was gone from the projection-booth without a single look back.

Audrey saw him go. She howled - it was despair Johnny heard in that howl now - and lunged for the stones again. Steve yanked her back. There was a peculiar ripping sound as Audrey's right arm pulled off at the shoulder. Steve was left holding it in his hand like the drumstick of an overcooked chicken.

2

Audrey seemed unaware of what had happened to her. One-armed, the right side of her dress now dark-ening with blood, she made for the carvings, gibbering in that strange language. Steve was frozen in place, looking at what he held - a lightly freckled human arm with a Casio watch on the wrist. The boss was equally frozen. If it hadn't been for Cynthia, Steve later thought, Audrey would have gotten to the carvings again. God knew what would have happened if she had; even when she had been obviously focusing the power of the stones on the boss, Steve had felt the backwash. There had been nothing sexual about it this time. This time it had been about murder and nothing else.

Before Audrey could fall on her knees in the corner and grab her toys, Cynthia kicked them deftly away, sending them skittering along the wall with the cutouts in it. Audrey howled again, and this time a spray of blood came out of her mouth along with the sound. She turned her head to them, and Steve staggered backward, actually raising a hand, as if to block the sight of her from his vision.

Audrey's formerly pretty face now drooped from the front of her skull in sweating wrinkles. Her staring eye-balls hung from widening sockets. Her skin was blackening and splitting. Yet none of this was the worst; the worst came as Steve dropped the hideously warm thing he was holding and she lurched to her feet.

"I'm very sorry," she said, and in her choked and failing voice Steve heard a real woman, not this decaying monstrosity. "I never meant to hurt anyone. Don't touch the can tahs. Whatever else you do, don't touch the can tabs!"

Steve looked at Cynthia. She stared back, and he could read her mind in her wide eyes: I touched one. Twice. How lucky I was.

Very, Steve thought. I think you were very lucky. I think we both were.

Audrey staggered toward them and away from the pitted gray stones. Steve could smell a rich odor of blood and decay. He reached out but couldn't bring himself to actually put a restraining hand on her shoulder, even though she was headed for the stairs and the hallway headed in the direction Ralph had taken his boy. He couldn't bring himself to do it because he knew his fingers would sink in.

Now he could hear a plopping, pattering sound as parts of her began to liquefy and fall off in a kind of flesh rain. She mounted the steps and lurched out through the door. Cynthia looked up at Steve for a moment, her faced pinched and white. He put his arm around her waist and followed Johnny up the stairs.

Audrey made it about halfway down the short but steep flight of stairs leading to the second-floor hall, then fell. The sound of her inside her blood-soaked dress was grisly-a splashing sound, almost. Yet she was still alive. She began to crawl, her hair hanging in strings, mercifully obscuring most of her dangling face. At the far end, by the stairs leading down to the lobby, Ralph stood with David in his arms, staring at the oncoming creature.

"Shoot her!" Johnny roared. "For God's sake, somebody shoot her!"

"Can't," Steve said. "No guns up here but the kid's, and that one's empty."

"Ralph, get downstairs with David," Johnny said. He started carefully down the hail. "Get down before . . .

But the thing which had been Audrey Wyler had no further interest in David, it seemed. It reached the arched entrance to the balcony, then crawled through it. Almost at once the support timbers, dried out by the desert climate and dined upon by generations of termites, began to groan. Steve hurried after Johnny, his arm still around

Cynthia. Ralph came toward them from the other end of the hall. They met just in time to see the thing in the soaked dress reach the balcony railing. Audrey had crawled over the mostly deflated sex-doll, leaving a broad streak of blood and less identifiable fluids across its plastic midsection. Frieda' s pursed mouth might have been expressing outrage at such treatment.

What remained of Audrey Wyler was still clutching the railing, still attempting to pull itself up enough to dive over the side when the supports let go and the balcony tore away from the wall with a large, dusty roar. At first it slipped outward on a level, like a tray or a floating platform, tearing away boards from the edge of the hallway and forcing Steve and the others back as the old carpet first tore open and then gaped like a seismic fault. Laths snapped; nails squealed as they divorced the boards to which they had been wedded. Then, at last, the balcony began to tilt. Audrey tumbled over the side. For just a moment Steve saw her feet sticking out of the dust, and then she was gone. A moment later and the balcony was gone, too, falling like a stone and hitting the seats below with a tremendous crash. Dust boiled up in a miniature mushroom cloud.

"David!" Steve shouted. "What about David? Is he alive?"

"I don't know," Ralph said. He looked at them with dazed and teary eyes. "I'm sure he was when I brought him out of the projection-booth, but now I don't know. I can't feel him breathing at all."

3

ALL the doors leading into the auditorium had been chocked open, and the lobby was hazed with dust from the fallen balcony. They carried David over to one of the street-doors, where a draft from the outside pushed the worst of the drifting dust away.

"Put him down," Cynthia said. She was trying to think what to do next - hell, what to do first - but her thoughts kept junking up on her. "And lay him straight. Let's turn his airways into freeways."

Ralph looked at her hopefully as he and Steve lowered David to the threadbare carpet. "Do you know anything about . .. this?"

"Depends on what you mean," she said. "Some first aid-including artificial respiration - from when I was back at Daughters and Sisters, yeah. But if you're asking if I know anything about ladies who turn into homicidal maniacs and then decay, no."

"He's all I got, miss," Ralph said. "All that's left of my family."

Cynthia closed her eyes and bent toward David. What she felt relieved her enormously - the faint but clear touch of breath on her face. "He's alive. I can feel him breathing." She looked up at Ralph and smiled. "I'm not surprised you couldn't. Your face is swelled up like an inner tube."

"Yeah. Maybe that was it. But mostly I was just so afraid    He tried to smile back at her and failed. He let out a gusty sigh and groped backward to lean against the boarded-over candy counter.

"I'm going to help him now," Cynthia said. She looked down at the boy's pale face and closed eyes. "I'm just going to help you along, David. Speed things up. Let me help you, okay? Let me help you."

She turned his head gently to one side, wincing at the fingermarks on his neck. In the auditorium, a hanging piece of the balcony gave up the ghost and fell with a crash. The others looked that way, but Cynthia's concentration remained on David. She used the fingers of her left hand to open his mouth, leaned forward, and gently pinched his nostrils shut with her right hand. Then she put her mouth on his and exhaled. His chest rose more steeply, then settled as she released his nose and pulled away from him. She bent to one side and spoke into his ear in a low voice. "Come back to us, David. We need you. And you need us."

She breathed deep into his mouth again, and said, "Come back to us, David," as he exhaled a mixture of his air and hers. She looked into his face. His unassisted breathing was a little stronger now, she thought, and she could see his eyeballs moving beneath his blue-tinged lids, but he showed no signs of waking up.

"Come back to us, David. Come back."

Johnny looked around, blinking like someone just back from the further reaches of his thoughts. Where's Mary  You don't suppose the goddam balcony fell on her, do you?"

"Why would it have?" Steve asked. "She was with the old guy."

'And you think she's still with the old guy? After all the yelling? After the goddam balcony fell off the goddam wall?"

"You've got a point," Steve said.

"Here we go again," Johnny said, "I knew it. Come on, I guess we better go look for her."

Cynthia took no notice. She knelt with her face in front of David's, searching it earnestly with her eyes. "I dunno where you are, kid, but get your ass back here. It's time to saddle up and get out of Dodge."

Johnny picked up the shotgun and the rifle. He handed the latter to Ralph. "Stay here with your boy and the young lady," he said. "We'll be back."

"Yeah? What if you're not?"

Johnny looked at him uncertainly for a moment, then broke into a sunny grin. "Burn the documents, trash the radio, and swallow your death capsule."

"Huh?"

"How the fuck should 1 know? Use your judgement. I can tell you this much, Ralph: as soon as we've collected Ms. Jackson, we're totally historical. Come on, Steve Down the far lefthand aisle, unless you've an urge to climb Mount Balcony."

Ralph watched them through the door, then turned back to Cynthia and his son. "What's wrong with David, do you have any idea? Did that bitch choke him into a coma? He had a friend who was in a coma once, David did. He came out of it - it was a miracle, everyone said - but I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy. Is that what's wrong with him, do you think?"

"I don't think he's unconscious at all, let alone in a coma. Do you see the way his eyelids are moving? It's more like he's asleep and dreaming. . . or in a trance."

She looked up at him. Their eyes met for a moment, and then Ralph knelt down across from her. He brushed his son's hair off his brow and then kissed him gently between the eyes, where the skin was puckered in a faint frown. "Come back, David," he said. "Please come back."

David breathed quietly through pursed lips. Behind his bruised eyelids, his eyes moved and moved.

4

In the men's room they found one dead cougar, its head mostly blown off, and one dead veterinarian with his eyes open. In the ladies' room, they found nothing. . . or so it seemed to Steve.

"Shine your light back over there," Johnny told him. When Steve retrained the flashlight on the window he said, "No, not the window. The floor underneath it."

Steve dropped the beam and ran it along half a dozen beer-bottles standing against the wall just to the right of the window.

"The doc's booby-trap," Johnny said. "Not broken but neatly set aside. Interesting."

"I didn't even notice they were gone from the window-ledge. That's good on you, boss."

"Come on over here." Johnny crossed to the window, held it up, peeked out, then moved aside enough for Steve to join him. "Cast your mind back to your arrival at this bucolic palace of dreams, Steven. What's the last thing you did before sliding all the way into this room? Can you remember?"

Steve nodded. "Sure. We stacked two crates to make it easier to climb in the window. I pushed the top one off, because I figured if the cop came back here and saw them piled up that way, it would be like a pointing arrow."

"Right. But what do you see now?"

Steve used his flashlight, although he didn't really need to; the wind had died almost completely, and all but the most errant skims of dust had dropped. There was even a scantling of moon.

"They're stacked again," he said, and turned to Johnny with an alarmed look. "Oh shit! Entragian came while we were occupied with David. Came and    took her was how he meant to finish, but he saw the boss shaking his head and stopped.

"That's not what this says." Johnny took the flashlight and ran it along the row of bottles again. "Not smashed set neatly aside in a row. Who did that? Audrey? No she went the other way - after David. Billingsley? Not possible, considering the shape he was in before he died. That leaves Mary, but would she have done it for the cop?"

"I doubt it," Steve said.

"Me too. I think that if the cop had shown up back here she would have come running to us, screaming bloody murder. And why the stacked crates? I've got some personal experience of Collie Entragian; he's six - six at least, probably more. He wouldn't have needed a step up to get in the window. To me those stacked crates suggest either LL. a shorter person, a ruse to get Mary into a position where she could be grabbed, or maybe both. I could be over-deducing, I suppose, but - "

"So there could be more of them. More like Audrey."

"Maybe, but I don't think you can conclude that out of what we see here. I just don't think she would have put those beer-bottles aside for any stranger. Not even a bawling little kid. You know? I think she would have come to get us."

Steve took the flashlight and shone it on Billingsley' s tile fish, so joyful and funky here in the dark. He wasn't surprised to find that he no longer liked it much. Now it was like laughter in a haunted house, or a clown at midnight. He snapped the light off.

"What are you thinking, boss?"

"Don't call me that anymore, Steve. I never liked it that much to begin with."

"All right. What are you thinking, Johnny?"

Johnny looked around to make sure they were still alone. His face, dominated by his swelled and leaning nose, looked both tired and intent. As he shook out another three aspirin and dry-swallowed them, Steve realized an amazing thing: Marinville looked younger. In spite of everything he'd been through, he looked younger.

He swallowed again, grimacing at the taste of the old pills, and said: "David's mom."

"What?"

"It could have been. Take a second. Think about it. You'll see how pretty it is, in a ghastly kind of way."

Steve did. And saw how completely it made sense of the situation. He didn't know where Audrey Wyler's story had parted company from the truth, but he did know that at some point she had been gotten to . . . changed by the stones she had called the can tahs. Changed? Afflicted with a kind of horrible, degenerative rabies. What had happened to her could have happened to Ellen Carver, as well.

Steve suddenly found himself hoping Mary Jackson was dead. That was awful, but in a case like this, dead might be better, mightn't it? Better than being under the spell of the can tahs. Better than what apparently hap-pened when the can tahs were taken away.

"What do we do now?" he asked.

"Get out of this town. By any means possible."

"All right. If David's still unconscious, we'll carry him. Let's do it."

They started back to the lobby.

5

David Carver walked down Anderson Avenue past West Wentworth Middle School. Written on the side of the school-building in yellow spray-paint were the words IN THESE SILENCES SOMETHING MAY RISE. Then he turned an Ohio corner and began walking down Bear Street. That was pretty funny, since Bear Street and the Bear Street Woods were nine big suburban blocks from the junior high, but that's the way things worked in dreams. Soon he would wake up in his own bedroom and the whole thing would fall apart, anyway.

Ahead of him were three bikes in the middle of the street. They had been turned upside down, and their wheels were spinning in the air.

"And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, I have dreamed a dream," someone said, "and I have heard say of thee, that thou canst understand a dream to interpret it."

David looked across the street and saw Reverend Martin. He was drunk and he needed a shave. In one hand he held a bottle of Seagram's Seven whiskey. Between his feet was a yellow puddle of puke. David could barely stand to look at him. His eyes were empty and dead.

"And Joseph answered Pharaoh, saying, It is not in me:

God shall give Pharaoh an answer of peace." Reverend Martin toasted him with the bottle and then drank. "Go get em," he said. "Now we're going to discover if you know where Moses was when the lights went out."

David walked on. He thought of turning around; then a queer but strangely persuasive idea came to him: if he did turn around, he would see the mummy tottering after him in a cloud of ancient wrappings and spices.

He walked a little faster.

As he passed the bikes in the street, he noted that one of the turning wheels made a piercing and unpleasant sound:

Reek-reek-reek. It made him think of the weathervane on top of Bud's Suds, the leprechaun with the pot of gold under his arm. The one in Desperation! I'm in Desperation, and this is a dream! I fell asleep while I was trying to pray, I'm upstairs in the. old movie theater!

"There shall arise among you a prophet, and a dreamer of dreams," someone said.

David looked across the Street and saw a dead cat - a cougar - hanging from a speed-limit sign. The cougar had a human head. Audrey Wyler's head. Her eyes rolled at him tiredly and he thought she was trying to smile. "But if he should say to you, Let us seek other gods, you shalt not hearken unto him."

He looked away, grimacing, and here, on his own side of Bear Street, was sweet Pie standing on the porch of his friend Brian's house (Brian's house had never been on Bear Street before, but now the rules had apparently changed). She was holding Melissa Sweetheart clasped in her arms. "He was Mr. Big Boogeyman after all," she said. "You know that now, don't you?"

"Yes. I know, Pie."

"Walk a little faster, David. Mr. Big Boogeyman's after you."

The desert-smell of wrappings and old spices was stronger in his nose now, and David walked faster still. Up ahead was the break in the bushes which marked the entrance to the Ho Chi Minh Trail. There had never been anything there before but the occasional hopscotch grid or KATHI LOVES RUSSELL chalked on the sidewalk, but today the entrance to the path was guarded by an ancient stone statue, one much too big to be a can tah, little god; this was a can tak, big god. It was a jackal with a cocked head, an open, snarling mouth, and buggy cartoon eyes that were full of fury. One of its ears had been either chipped away or eroded away. The tongue in its mouth was not a tongue at all but a human head - Collie Entragian's head, Smokey Bear hat and all.

"Fear me and turn aside from this path," the cop in the mouth of the jackal said as David approached. "Mi tow, can de lach: fear the unformed. There are other gods than yours - can tah, can tak. You know I speak the truth."

"Yes, but my God is strong," David said in a conversational voice. He reached into the jackal's open mouth and seized its psychotic tongue. He heard Entragian scream - and felt it, a scream that vibrated against his palm like a joy-buzzer. A moment later, the jackal's entire head exploded in a soundless shardless flash of light. What remained was a stone hulk that stopped short at the shoulders.

He walked down the path, aware that he was glimpsing plants he had never seen anywhere in Ohio before spiny cactuses and drum cactuses, winter fat, squaw tea, Russian thistle . . , also known as tumbleweed. From the bushes at the side of the path stepped his mother. Her face was black and wrinkled, an ancient bag of dough. Her eyes drooped. The sight of her in this state filled him with sorrow and horror.

"Yes, yes, your God is strong," she said, "no argument there. But look what he's done to me. Is this strength worth admiring? Is this a God worth having?" She held her hands out to him, displaying her rotting palms.

"God didn't do that," David said, and began to cry. "The policeman did it!"

"But God let it happen," she countered, and one of her eyeballs dropped out of her head. "The same God who let Entragian push Kirsten downstairs and then hang her body on a hook for you to find. What God is this? Turn aside from him and embrace mine. Mine is at least honest about his cruelty."

But this whole conversation - not just the petitioning but the haughty, threatening tone of it - was so foreign to David's memory of his mother that he began to walk forward again. Had to walk forward again. The mummy was behind him, and the mummy was slow, yes, but he reckoned that this was one of the ways in which the mummy caught up with his victims: by using his ancient Egyptian magic to put obstacles in their path.

"Stay away from me!" the rotting mother-thing screamed. "Stay away or I'll turn you to stone in the mouth of a god! You'll be can tah in can tak!"

"You can't do that," David said patiently, "and you're not my mother. My mother's with my sister, in heaven, with God."

"What a joke!" the rotting thing cried indignantly. Its voice was gargly now, like the cop's voice. It was spitting blood and teeth as it talked. "Heaven's a joke, the kind of thing your Reverend Martin would spiel happily on about for hours, if you kept buying him shots and beers-it's no more real than Tom Billingsley's fishes and horses! You won't tell me you swallowed it, will you? A smart boy like you? Did you? Oh Davey! I don't know whether to laugh or cry!" What she did was smile furiously. "There s no heaven, no afterlife at all . . . not for such as us. Only the gods-can taks, can tahs, can - "

He suddenly realized what this confused sermon was about: holding him here. Holding him so the mummy could catch up and choke him to death. He stepped forward, seized the raving head, and squeezed it between his hands. He surprised himself by laughing as he did it, because it was so much like the stuff the crazy cable-TV preachers did; they grabbed their victims upside the head and bellowed stuff like "Sickness come owwr! Tumors come OWWT! Rheumatiz come owwwT! In the name of  Jeeeesus!" There was another of those soundless flashes, and this time not even the body was left; he was alone on the path again.

He walked on, sorrow working at his heart and mind, thinking of what the mother-thing had said. No heaven, no afterlife at all, not for such as us. That might be true or it might not be; he had no way of knowing. But the thing had also said that God had allowed his mother and sister to be killed, and that was true. . . wasn't it?

Well, maybe. How's a kid supposed to know about stuff like that?

Ahead was the oak tree with the Viet Cong Lookout in it. At the base of the tree was a piece of red-and-silver paper-a 3 Muskies wrapper. David bent over, picked it up, and stuck it in his mouth, sucking the smears of sweet chocolate off the inside with his eyes closed. Take, eat, he heard Reverend Martin say - this was a memory and not a voice, which was something of a relief. This is my body, broken for you and for many. He opened his eyes, fearing he might nevertheless see Reverend Martin's drunken face and dead eyes, but Reverend Martin wasn't there.

David spat the wrapper out and climbed to the Viet Cong Lookout with the sweet taste of chocolate in his mouth. He climbed into the sound of rock-and-roll music.

Someone was sitting cross-legged on the platform and looking out at the Bear Street Woods. His posture was so similar to Brian's - legs crossed, chin propped on the palms of his hands - that for a moment David was sure it was his old friend, only grown to young adulthood. David thought he could handle that. It wouldn't be any stranger than the rotting effigy of his mother or the cougar with Audrey Wyler's head, and a hell of a lot less distressing.

Slung over the young man's shoulder was a radio on a strap. Not a Walkman or a boombox; it looked older than either. There were two circular decals pasted to its leather case, one a yellow smile-guy, the other the peace sign. The music was coming from a small exterior speaker. The sound was tinny but still way cool, hot drums, killer rhythm guitar, and a somehow perfect rock-and-roll vocal: "I was feelin'. . . so bad. . . asked my family doctor just what I had. . ."

"Bri?" he asked, grabbing the bottom of the platform and pulling himself up. "That you?"

The man turned. He was slim, dark-haired under a Yankees baseball cap, wearing jeans, a plain gray tee-shirt, and big reflector shades - David could see his own face in them. He was the first person David had seen in this . . . whatever-it-was . . . that he didn't know. "Brian's not here, David," he said.

"Who are you, then?" If the guy in the reflector sun glasses started to rot or to bleed out like Entragian, David was vacating this tree in a hurry, and never mind the mummy that might be lurking somewhere in the woods below. "This is our place. Mine and Bri's."

"Brian can 't be here," the dark-haired man said pleas antly. "Brian's alive, you see."

"I don't get you." But he was afraid he did.

"What did you tell Marinville when he tried to talk to the coyotes?"

It took David a moment to remember, and that wasn't surprising, because what he'd said hadn't seemed to come from him but through him. "I said not to speak to them in the language of the dead. Except it wasn't really me who - "

The man in the sunglasses waved this off. "The way Marinville tried to speak to the coyotes is sort of the way we're speaking now: si em, tow en can de lach. Do you understand?"

"Yes. 'We speak the language of the unformed.' The language of the dead." David began to shiver. "I'm dead too, then. . . aren't I? I'm dead, too."

"Nope. Wrong. Lose one turn." The man turned up the volume on his radio -

"I said doctor. . . Mr. M.D.. and smiled. "The Rascals," he said. "Felix Cavaliere on vocals. Cool?"

"Yes," David said, and meant it. He felt he could listen to the song all day. It made him think of the beach, and cute girls in two-piece bathing suits.

The man in the Yankees cap listened a moment longer, then turned the radio off. When he did, David saw a ragged scar on the underside of his right wrist, as if at some point he had tried to kill himself. Then it occurred to him that the man might have done a lot more than just try wasn't this a place of the dead?

He suppressed a shiver.

The man took off his Yankees cap, wiped the back of his neck with it, put it back on, and looked at David seriously. "This is the Land of the Dead, but you're an exception. You're special. Very."

"Who are you?"

"It doesn't matter. Just another member of the Young Rascals-Felix Cavaliere Fan Club, if it comes to that," the man said. He looked around, sighed, grimaced a little. "But I'll tell you one thing, young man: it doesn't surprise me at all that the Land of the Dead should turn out to be located in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio." He looked back at David, his faint smile fading. "I guess it's time we got down to business. Time is short. You're going to have a bit of a sore throat when you wake up, by the way, and you may feel disoriented at first; they're moving you to the back of the truck Steve Ames drove into town. They feel a strong urge to vacate The American West-take it any way you want-and I can't say I blame them."

"Why are you here?"

"To make sure you know why you're here, David . . . to begin with, at least. So tell me: why are you here?"

"I don't know what you're - "

"Oh please," the man with the radio said. His mirror shades flashed in the sun. "If you don't, you're in deep shit. Why are you on earth? Why did God make you?"

David looked at him in consternation.

"Come on, come on!" the man said impatiently. "These are easy questions. Why did God make you? Why did God make me? Why did God make anyone?"

"To love and serve him," David said slowly.

"Okay, good. It's a start, anyway. And what is God? What's your experience of the nature of God?"

"I don't want to say." David looked down at his hands, then up at the grave, intent man - the strangely familiar man - in the sunglasses. "I'm scared I'll get in dutch." He hesitated, then dragged out what he was really afraid of:

"I'm scared you're God."

The man uttered a short, rueful laugh. "In a way, that's pretty funny, but never mind. Let's stay focused here. What do you know of the nature of God, David? What is your experience?"

With the greatest reluctance, David said: "God is cruel."

He looked down at his hands again and counted slowly to five. When he had reached it and still hadn't been fried by a lightning-bolt, he looked up again. The man in the jeans and tee-shirt was still grave and intent, but David saw no anger in him.

"That's right, God is cruel. We slow down, the mummy always catches us in the end, and God is cruel. Why is God cruel, David?"

For a moment he didn't answer, and then something Reverend Martin had said came to him - the TV in the corner had been broadcasting a soundless spring-training baseball game that day.

"God's cruelty is refining," he said.

"We're the mine and God is the miner?"

"Well - "

"And all cruelty is good? God is good and cruelty is good?"

"No, hardly any of it's good!" David said. For a single f: horrified second he saw Pie, dangling from the hook on the wall, Pie who walked around ants on the sidewalk because she didn't want to hurt them.

"What is cruelty done for evil?"

"Malice. Who are you, sir?"

"Never mind. Who is the father of malice?"

"The devil . . . or maybe those other gods my mother talked about."

"Never mind can tah and can tak, at least for now. We have bigger fish to fry, so pay attention. What is faith?'

That one was easy. "The substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."

"Yeah. And what is the spiritual state of the faithful?

"Urn. . . love and acceptance. I think."

"And what is the opposite of faith?"

That was tougher - a real hairball, in fact. Like one of those damned reading-achievement tests. Pick a, b, c, or d. Except here you didn't even get the choices. "Disbelief?" he ventured.

"No. Not disbelief but unbelief. The first is natural, the second willful. And when one is in unbelief, David, what is that one's spiritual state?"

He thought about it, then shook his head. "I don't know."

"Yes you do."

He thought about it and realized he did. "The spiritual state of unbelief is desperation."

"Yes. Look down, David!"

He did, and was shocked to see that the Viet Cong Lookout was no longer in the tree. It now floated, like a magic carpet made out of boards, above a vast, blighted countryside. He could see buildings here and there amid rows of gray and listless plants. One was a trailer with a bumper-sticker proclaiming the owner a Snapple-drinkin', Clinton-bashin' son of a bitch; another was the mining Quonset they'd seen on the way into town; another was the Municipal Building; another was Bud's Suds. The grinning leprechaun with the pot of gold under his arm peered out of a dead and strangulated jungle.

"This is the poisoned field," the man in the reflector sunglasses said. "What's gone on here makes Agent Orange look like sugar candy. There will be no sweetening this earth. It must be eradicated sown with salt and plowed under. Do you know why?"

"Because it will spread?"

"No. It can't. Evil is both fragile and stupid, dying soon after the ecosystem it's poisoned."

"Then why - "

"Because it's an affront to God. There is no other reason. Nothing hidden or held back, no fine print. The poisoned field is a perversity and an affront to God. Now look down again."

He did. The buildings had slipped behind them. Now the Viet Cong Lookout floated above a vast pit. From this perspective, it looked like a sore which has rotted through the skin of the earth and into its underlying flesh. The sides sloped inward and downward in neat zigzags like stairs; in a way, looking into this place was like looking into

(walk a little faster)

apyramid turned inside out. There were pines in the hills south of the pit, and some growth high up around the edges, but the pit itself was sterile - not even juniper grew here. On the near side - it would be the north face, David supposed, if the poisoned field was the town of Desperation - these neat setbacks had broken through near the bottom. Where they had been there was now a long slope of stony rubble. At the site of the landslide, and not too far from the broad gravel road leading down from the rim of the pit, there was a black and gaping hole. The sight of it made David profoundly uneasy. It was as if a monster buried in the desert ground had opened one eye. The land-slide surrounding it made him uneasy, too. Because it looked somehow. . . well. . . planned.

At the bottom of the pit, just below the ragged hole, was a parking area filled with ore freighters, diggers, pickup trucks, and tread-equipped vehicles that looked sort of like World War II tanks. Nearby stood a rusty Quonset hut with a stove-stack sticking crooked out of the roof. WELCOME TO RATTLESNAKE #2, read the sign on the door. PROVIDING JOBS AND TAX-DOLLARS TO CENTRAL NEVADA SINCE 1951. Off to the left of the metal building was a squat concrete cube. The sign on this one was briefer:

POWDER MAGAZINE

AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY

Parked between the two buildings was Collie Entra-gian's road-dusty Caprice. The driver's door stood open and the domelight was on, illuminating an interior that looked like an abattoir. On the dash, a plastic bear with a noddy head had been stuck beside the compass.

Then all that was sliding behind them.

'You know this place, don't you, David?"

"Is it the China Pit? It is, isn't it?"

"Yes."

They swooped closer to the side, and David saw that the pit was, in its way, even more desolate than the poisoned field. There were no whole stones or outcrops in the earth, at least not that he could see; everything had been reduced to an awful yellow rubble. Beyond the parking area and the buildings were vast heaps of even more radically crumbled rock, piled on black plastic.

"Those are waste dumps," his guide remarked. "The stuff piled on the plastic is gangue-spoil. But the corn pany's not ready to let it rest, even now. There's more in it, you see . . . gold, silver, molybdenum, platinum. And copper, of course. Mostly it's copper. Deposits so diffuse it's as if they were blown in there like smoke. Mining it used to be uneconomic, but as the world's major deposits of ore and metal are depleted, what used to be uneconomic becomes profitable. The oversized hefty bags are collection pads - the stuff they want precipitates out onto them, and they just scrape it off. It's a leaching process spell it either way and it comes to the same. They'll go on working the ground until all of this, which used to be a mountain almost eight thousand feet high, is just dust in the wind."

"What are those big steps coming down the side of the pit?"

"Benches. They serve as ringroads for heavy equipment around the pit, but their major purpose is to minimize earthslides."

"It doesn't look like it worked very well back there." David hooked a thumb over his shoulder. "Up here, either." They were nearing another area where the look of vast stairs descending into the earth was obliterated by a tilted range of crumbled rock.

"That's a slope failure." The Viet Cong Lookout swooped above the slide area. Beyond it, David saw net-works of black stuff that at first looked like cobwebs. As they drew nearer, he saw that the strands of what looked like cobwebbing were actually PVC pipe.

"Just lately it's been a switchover from rainbirds to emitters." His guide spoke in the tone of one who recites rather than speaks. David had a moment of dj vu, then realized why: the man was repeating what Audrey Wyler had already said. "A few eagles died."

"A few?" David asked, giving Mr. Billingsley's line.

"All right, about forty, in all. No big deal in terms of the species; there's no shortage of eagles in Nevada. Do you see what they replaced the rainbirds with, David? The big pipes are distribution heads - can taks, let's say."

"Big gods."

"Yes! And those little hollow cords that stretch between them like mesh, those are emitters. Can tahs. They drip weak sulfuric acid. It frees the ore . . . and rots the ground. Hang on, David."

The Viet Cong Lookout banked-also like a flying carpet - with David holding onto the edge of the boards to keep from tumbling off. He didn't want to fall onto that terrible gouged ground where nothing grew and streams of brackish fluid flowed down to the plastic collection pads.

They sank into the pit again and passed above the rusty Quonset with the stove-stack, the powder magazine, and the cluster of machinery where the road ended. Up the slope, above the gaping hole, was a wide area pocked with other, much smaller holes. David thought there had to be fifty of them at least, probably more. From each poked a yellow-tipped stick.

"Looks like the world's biggest gopher colony."

"This is a blast-face, and those are blast-holes," his new acquaintance lectured. "The active mining is going on right here. Each of those holes is three feet in diameter and about thirty feet deep. When you're getting ready to shoot, you lower a stick of dynamite with a blasting cap on it to the bottom of each hole. That's the igniter. Then you pour in a couple of wheelbarrows' worth of ANFO- stands for ammonium nitrate and fuel oil. Those assholes who blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City used ANFO. It usually comes in pellets that look like white BBs."

The man in the Yankees cap pointed to the powder magazine.

"Lots of ANFO in there. No dynamite-they used up the last on the day all this started to happen-but plenty of ANFO."

"I don't understand why you're telling me this."

"Never mind, just listen. Do you see the blast-holes?"

"Yes. They look like eyes."

"That's right, holes like eyes. They're sunk into the porphyry, which is crystalline. When the ANFO is detonated, it shatters the rock. The shattered stuff contains the ore. Get it?"

"Yes, I think so."

"That material is trucked away to the leach pads, the distribution heads and emitters - can tah, can tak - are  laid over it, and the rotting process begins. Voil, there you have it, leach-ore mining at its very finest. But see what the last blast-pattern uncovered, David!"

He pointed at the big hole, and David felt an unpleasant, debilitating coldness begin to creep through him. The hole seemed to stare up at him with a kind of idiot invitation.

"What is it?" he whispered, but he supposed he knew. "Rattlesnake Number One. Also known as the China Mine or the China Shaft or the China Drift. The last series of shots uncovered it. To say the crew was surprised would be an understatement, because nobody in the Nevada mining business really believes that old story. By the turn of the century, the Diablo Company was claiming that Number One was simply shut down when the vein played out. But it's been here, David. All along. And now -

"Is it haunted?" David asked, shivering. "It is, isn't it?"

"Oh yes," the man in the Yankees cap said, turning his silvery no-eyes on David. "Yes indeed."

"Whatever you brought me up here for, I don't want to hear it!" David cried. "I want you to take me back! Back to my dad! I hate this! I hate being in the Land of the - "

He broke off as a horrible thought struck him. The Land of the Dead, that was what the man had said. He'd called David an exception. But that meant- "Reverend Martin . . . I saw him on my way to the Woods. Is he. .

The man looked briefly down at his old-fashioned radio, then looked back up again and nodded. "Two days after you left, David."

"Was he drunk?"

"Toward the end he was always drunk. Like Billingsley."

"Was it suicide?"

"No," the man in the Yankees cap said, and put a kindly hand on the back of David's neck. It was warm, not the hand of a dead person. "At least, not conscious suicide. He and his wife went to the beach. They took a picnic. He went in the water too soon after lunch, and swam out too far."

"Take me back," David whispered. "I'm tired of all this death."

"The poisoned field is an affront to God," the man said. "I know it's a bummer, David, but - "

"Then let God clean it up!" David cried. "It's not fair for him to come to me after he killed my mother and my sister-"

"He didn't - "

"I don't care! I don't care! Even if he didn't, he stood aside and let it happen!"

"That's not true, either."

David shut his eyes and clapped his hands to his ears. He didn't want to hear any more. He refused to hear any more. Yet the man's voice came through anyway. It was relentless. He would be able to escape it no more than

Jonah had been able to escape God. God was as relentless as a bloodhound on a fresh scent. And God was cruel.

"Why are you on earth?" The voice seemed to come from inside his head now.

"I don't hear you! I don't hear you!"

"You were put on earth to love God - "

"No!"

" - and serve him."

"No! Fuck God! Fuck his love! Fuck his service!"

"God can't make you do anything you don't want to - "

"Stop it! I won't listen, I won't decide! Do you hear? Do you - "

"Shh-listen!"

Not quite against his will, David listened.
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