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"I'd like to have a few minutes to talk with you about something if I could.”


"Jesus, Henry," the man in the polo shirt said, "she's less than half your age!" "He always was an old pervert," said the guy in the bow tie.


"Oh, get a life, Stewart," Thelma said, speaking to Mr. Bow Tie.


"Henry's a gentleman, and he's never been anything else.”


"Jesus, Henry, you're gonna be married for sure before you get out of this room today!" "Which you certainly won't be, George," Thelma continued. "And as far as I'm concerned"-she winked-"if it's Henry, marriage doesn't have to be part of it.”


They all roared at that, and Holly said, "I can see I'm going to be aced out of this one.”


George said, "Thelma gets what she's after more often than not.”


Noticing that Stewart had gathered the cards up and was shuffling the deck, Holly said, "I don't mean to interrupt your game.”


"Oh, don't worry yourself," Henry said. His words were slightly slurred as a result of his stroke, but he was quite intelligible.


"We'll just take a bathroom break.”


"At our age," George said, "if we didn't coordinate our bathroom breaks, there'd never be more than two of us at the card table at any one time!" The others wheeled away, and Holly pulled up a chair to sit near Henry Ironheart.


He was not the vital-looking, square-faced man she had seen in the photograph on the living-room wall of the farmhouse last evening, and without help Holly might not have recognized him. His stroke had left his right side weak, though not paralyzed, and a lot of the time he held that arm curled against his chest, the way an injured animal might favor a paw.


He had lost a lot of weight and was no longer a burly man. His face was not gaunt but nearly so, though his skin had good color; the facial muscles on the right side were unnaturally relaxed, allowing his features to droop a little.


His appearance, combined with the slur that thickened every word b spoke, might have sent Holly into a depression over the inevitable direction of every human life-if not for his eyes, which revealed an unbowed soul. And his conversation, though slowed somewhat by his impediment, was that of a bright and humorous man who would not give the fates the satisfaction of his despair; his treacherous body was to be cursed, if at all, in private.


"I'm a friend of Jim's," she told him.


He made a lopsided "O" of his mouth, which she decided was an expression of surprise. At first he did not seem to know what to say, but then he asked, "How is Jim?" Deciding to opt for the truth, she said, "Not so good, Henry. He's a very troubled man.”


He looked away from her, at the pile of poker chips on the table.


"Yes," he said softly.


Holly had half expected him to be a child-abusing monster who had been at least in part responsible for Jim's withdrawal from reality. He seemed anything but that.


"Henry, I wanted to meet you, talk to you, because Jim and I are more than friends. I love him, and he's said that he loves me, and it's my hope that we're going to be together a long, long time.”


To her surprise, tears brimmed up and slipped from Henry's eyes, forming bright beads in the soft folds of his aged face.


She said, "I'm sorry, have I upset you?" "No, no, good lord, no," he said, wiping at his eyes with his left hand.


"Excuse me for being an old fool.”


"I can tell you're anything but that.”


"It's just, I never thought. . . Well, I figured Jim was going to spend his life alone.”


"Why did you think that?" "Well. . .”


He seemed distressed at having to say anything negative about his grandson, completely dispelling her lingering expectations that he would be a tyrant of some kind.


Holly helped him. "He does have a way of keeping people at arm's length. Is that what you mean?" Nodding, he said, "Even me. I've loved him with all my heart, all these years, and I know he loves me in his way, though he's always had real trouble showing it, and he could never say it." As Holly was about to ask him a question, he suddenly shook his head violently and wrenched his distorted face into an expression of anguish so severe that for an instant she thought he was having another stroke. "It's not all him.


God knows it's not." The slur in his voice thickened when he grew more emotional.


"I've got to face it-part of the distance between us is me, my fault, the blame I put on him that I never should've.”


"Blame?" "For Lena.”


A shadow of fear passed across her heart and induced a quiver of angina-like pain.


She glanced at the window that looked out on a corner of the courtyard.


It was not the corner to which Jim had gone. She wondered where he was, how he was. . . who he was.


"For Lena? I don't understand," she said, though she was afraid that she did.


"It seems unforgivable to me now, what I did, what I allowed myself to think." He paused, looking not at her but through her now, toward a distant time and place. "But he was just so strange in those days, not the child he had been. Before you can even hope to understand what I did, you have to know that, after Atlanta, he was so very strange, all locked up inside.”


Immediately Holly thought of Sam and Emily Newsome, whose lives Jim had saved in an Atlanta convenience store-and Norman Rink, into whom he had pumped eight rounds from a shotgun in a blind rage. But Henry obviously was not talking about a recent event in Atlanta; he was referring to some previous incident, much further in the past.


"You don't know about Atlanta?" he asked, reacting to her evident mystification.


A queer sound chittered through the room, alarming Holly. For an instant she could not identify the noise, then realized it was several birds shrieking the way they did when protecting their nests. No birds were in the room, and she supposed their cries were echoing down the fireplace chimney from the roof Just birds. Their chatter faded.


She turned to Henry Ironheart again. "Atlanta? No, I guess I don't know about that.”


"I didn't think you did. I'd be surprised if he talked about it; even to you, even if he loves you. He just doesn't talk about it.”


"What happened in Atlanta?" "It was a place called the Dixie Duck-" "Oh, my God," she whispered. She had been there in the dream.


"Then you do know some of it," he said. His eyes were pools of sorrow.


She felt her face crumple in grief, not for Jim's parents, whom she had never known, and not even for Henry, who presumably had loved them, but for Jim. "Oh, my God." And then she couldn't say any more because her words backed up behind her own tears.


Henry reached out to her with one liver-spotted hand, and she took it, held it, waiting until she could speak again.


At the other end of the room, bells were ringing, horns blaring, on the TV game show.


No traffic accident had killed Jim's parents.


That story was his way of avoiding a recounting of the terrible truth.


She had known. She had known, and refused to know.


Her latest dream had not been a warning prophecy but another memory that Jim had projected into her mind as they had both slept. She had not been herself in the dream. She had been Jim. Just as she had been Lena in a dream two nights ago. If a mirror had given her a look at her face, she would have seen Jim's countenance instead of her own, as she had seen Lena's in the windmill window. The horror of the blood-drenched restaurant returned to her now in vivid images that she could not block from memory, and she shuddered violently.


She looked toward the window, the courtyard, frightened for him.


"They were performing for a week at a club in Atlanta," Henry said.


"They went out for lunch to Jimmy's favorite place, which he remembered from the last time they'd played Atlanta.”


Voice trembling, Holly said, "Who was the gunman?" "Just a nut. That's what made it so hard. No meaning to it. Just a crazy man.”


"How many people died?" "A lot.”


"How many, Henry?" "Twenty-four.”


She thought of young Jim Ironheart in that holocaust, scrambling for his life through the shattered bodies of the other customers, the room filled with cries of pain and terror, reeking with the stench of blood and vomit, bile and urine from the slaughtered corpses. She heard the heavy sound of the automatic weapon again, chuda-chuda-chuda-chuda-chuda-chuda, and the please-please-please-please of the terrified young waitress. Even as a dream, it had been almost beyond endurance, all the random horror of existence and all the cruelty of humankind boiled down to one devastating experience, a savage ordeal from which full psychological recovery, even for an adult, would take a lifetime of struggle. For a ten-year-old boy, recovery might seem impossible, reality intolerable, denial necessary, and fantasy the only tool with which to hold on to a shred of sanity.


"Jimmy was the only survivor," Henry said. "If the police had gotten there a few seconds later, Jimmy wouldn't have made it either.


They shot the man down." Henry's grip tightened slightly on Holly's hand. "They found Jim in a corner, in Jamie's lap, in his daddy's lap, his daddy's arms, all covered with. . . with his daddy's blood.”


Holly remembered the end of the dream -the crazyman is coming straight at her, knocking tables and chairs aside, so she scrambles away and into a corner, on top of a dead body, and the crazyman is coming closer, closer, raising his gun, she can't bear to look at him the way the waitress looked at him and then died, so she turns her face to the corpse -and she remembered awakening with a jolt, gagging in revulsion.


If she'd had time to look into the face of the corpse, she would have seen Jim's father.


The avian shriek shrilled through the recreation room again. It was louder this time. A couple of the ambulatory residents went to the fireplace to see if any birds were caught behind the damper in the chimney.


"In his daddy's blood," Henry repeated softly. It was clear that, even after all these years, the consideration of that moment was intolerably painful to him.


The boy had not only been in his dead father's arms but surely had known that his mother lay dead among the ruins, and that he was orphaned, alone.


Jim sat on a redwood bench in the Fair Haven courtyard. He was alone.


For a day late in August, when the seasonal drought should have been at its peak, the sky was unusually heavy with unshed moisture, yet it looked like an inverted bowl of ashes. Mixes of late-summer flowers, cascading from planting beds onto the wide concrete walkways, were missing half their color without the enhancement of sunshine. The trees shivered as if chilled by the mild August breeze.


Something was coming. Something bad was coming.


He clung to Holly's theory, told himself that nothing would come unless he caused it to appear. He only had to control himself, and they would all survive.


But he still felt it coming.


Something.


He heard the screaky cries of birds.


The birds had fallen silent, After a while Holly let go of Henry Ironheart's hand, took some Kleenex from her purse, blew her nose, and blotted her eyes. When she could speak, she said, "He blames himself for what happened to his mom and dad.”


"I know. He always did. He'd never talk about it, but there were ways it showed, how he blamed himself, how he thought he should have saved them.”


"But why? He was only ten years old, a small boy. He couldn't have done anything about a grown man with a submachine gun. For God's sake, how could he feel responsible?" For the moment, the brightness had gone out of Henry's eyes. His poor lopsided face, already pulled down to the right, was pulled down farther by an inexpressible sadness.


At last he said, "I talked to him about it lots of times, took him on my lap and held him and talked about it, like Lena did, too, but he was so much locked in himself, wouldn't open up, wouldn't say why he blamed himself hated himself" Holly looked at her watch.


She had left Jim alone too long.


But she could not interrupt Henry Ironheart in the middle of the revelations that she had come to hear.


"I've thought about it all these long years," Henry continued, "and maybe I figured it out a little. But by the time I started to understand, Jim was grown up, and we'd stopped talking about Atlanta so many years ago.


To be completely honest, we'd stopped talking about everything by then.”


"So what is it you figured out?" Henry put his weak right hand in his strong left and stared down at the gnarled lumps that his knuckles made within his time-thinned skin. From the old man's attitude, Holly sensed that he was not sure he should reveal what he needed and wanted to reveal.


"I love him, Henry.”


He looked up and met her eyes.


She said, "Earlier you said I'd come here to learn about Atlanta because Jim wouldn't talk about it, and in a way you were right. I came to find out a number of things, because he's frozen me out of some areas of his life. He really loves me, Henry, I've no doubt of that, but he's clenched up like a fist, he can't let loose of certain things.


If I'm going to marry him, if it's going to come to that, then I've got to know all about him-or we'll never have a chance to be happy. You can't build a life together on mysteries.”


"Of course, you're right.”


"Tell me why Jim blames himself It's killing him, Henry. If I have any hope of helping him, I've got to know what you know.”


He sighed and made up his mind. "What I've got to say will sound like superstitious nonsense, but it isn't. I'll make it simple and short, 'cause it sounds even screwier if I dress it up at all. My wife, Lena, had a power.


Presentiment, you'd call it, I guess. Not that she could see the future, tell you who would win a horserace or where you'd be a year from now or anything like that. But sometimes. . .


well, you might invite her to a picnic Sunday a week, and without thinking, she'd say it was going to rain like-for-Noah come Sunday a week. And by God it would. Or some neighbor would be pregnant, and Lena would start referring to the baby as either a he' or a she,' when there was no way for her to know which it would be-and she was always right.”


Holly sensed some of the last pieces of the puzzle falling into place.


When Henry gave her a maybe-you-think-I'm-an-old-fool look, she took his bad hand and held it reassuringly.


After studying her a moment, he said, "You've seen something special Jim did, haven't you, something like magic?" "Yes.”

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