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"So you maybe know where this is going.”


"Maybe.”


The unseen birds began to screech again. The residents at the television set turned the sound off and looked around, trying to identify the source of the squealing.


Holly looked toward the courtyard window. No birds there. But she knew why their cries made the hair stand up on the back of her neck: they were somehow connected with Jim. She remembered the way he had looked up at them in the graveyard and how he had studied them in the sky during the drive to Solvang.


" , Jamie, our son, was like his mother, Hen said as if he did not even hear the birds. "He just sometimes knew things. Fact is, he was a little more gifted than Lena. And after Jamie had been married to Cara for a while, when she got pregnant, Lena just one day up and said, The baby's going to be special, he's going to be a real mage.'" "Mage?" "Country talk for someone with a power, with something special about him the way Lena had something special and Jamie, too. Only she meant real special. So Jim was born, and by the time he was four. . .


well, he was doing things. Like once he touched my pocket comb, which I'd bought at the local barbershop here, and he started talking about things that were in the shop, though he'd never been in there in his life 'cause he lived with Jamie and Cara down in Los Angeles.”


He paused and took a few deep breaths. The slur in his voice had begun to thicken. His right eyelid drooped. Talking seemed to tire him as if it were a physical labor.


A male nurse with a flashlight was at the fireplace. He was squinting up into the flue, past the cracks around the damper, trying to see if any birds were trapped up in there.


The shrieking was now overlaid by the frenzied flapping of wings.


"Jimmy would touch an item and know where it'd been, bits and pieces about who owned it. Not everything about them, mind you. He just knew whatever he knew, that was it. Maybe he'd touch a personal item of yours and know the names of your parents, what you did for a living.


Then he'd touch a personal item from someone else and only know where they'd gone to school, names of their children. Always different things, he couldn't control it. But he always came up with something when he tried.”


The nurse, trailed by three patients offering advice, had moved away from the fireplace and was frowning up at the air-conditioning vents.


The quarrelsome sound of birds still echoed through the room.


"Let's go out to the courtyard," Holly said, getting up.


"Wait," Henry said with some distress, "let me finish this, let me tell you.”


Jim, for God's sake, Holly thought, hold on another minute, just another minute or two.


Reluctantly she sat down.


Henry said, "Jim's specialness was a family secret, like Lena's and Jamie's. We didn't want the world to know, come snooping around, call us freaks and God knows what. But Cara, she always wanted so bad to be in show business. Jamie worked down there at Warner Brothers, which was where'd he'd met her, and he wanted what Cara wanted. They decided they could form an act with Jimmy, call him the boy-wonder mentalist, but nobody would ever suspect he really had a power. They played it as a trick, lots of winking at the audience, daring them to figure out just how it was all donùwhen all the time it was real. They made a good living at it, too, and it was good for them as a family, kept them together every day.


They'd been so close before the act, but they were closer than ever after they went on the road. No parents ever loved their child more than they loved Jim---or ever got more love given back to them.


They were so close. . . it was impossible to think of them ever being apart.”


Blackbirds streaked across the bleak sky.


Sitting on the redwood bench, Jim stared up at them.


They almost vanished into the eastern clouds, then turned sharply and came back.


For a while they kited overhead.


Those dark, jagged forms against the seared sky composed an image that might have come from some poem by Edgar Allan Poe. As a kid he'd had a passion for Poe and had memorized all of the more macabre pieces of his poetry. Morbidity had its fascination.


The bird shrieks suddenly stopped. The resulting quiet was a blessing, but Holly was, oddly, more frightened by the cessation of the cries than she had been by the eerie sound of them.


"And the power grew," Henry Ironheart said softly, thickly. He shifted in his wheelchair, and his right side resisted settling into a new position.


For the first time he showed some frustration at the limitations of his stroke-altered body. "By the time Jim was six, you could put a penny on the table, and he could move it just by wanting it to move, slide it back and forth, make it stand on end. By the time he was eight, he could pitch it in the air, float it there. By the time he was ten, he could do the same with a quarter, a phonograph record, a cake tin. It was the most amazing thing you ever saw.”


You should see what he can do at thirty-five, Holly thought.


"They never used any of that in their act," Henry said, "they just stuck to the mentalism, taking personal items from members of the audience, so Jim could tell them things about themselves that just, you know, astonished them. Jamie and Cara figured to include some of his levitations eventually, but they just hadn't figured out how to do it yet without giving the truth away. Then they went to the Dixie Duck down in Atlanta. . .


and that was the end of everything.”


Not the end of everything. It was the end of one thing, the dark beginning of another.


She realized why the absence of the birds' screams was more disturbing than the sound itself The cries had been like the hiss of a sparking fuse as it burned down toward an explosive charge. As long as she could hear the sound, the explosion was still preventable.


"And that's why I figure Jim thought he should've been able to save them," Henry said. "Because he could do those little things with his mind, float and move things, he thought he should've been able maybe to jam the bullets in that crazy man's gun, freeze the trigger, lock the safety in place, something, something. . .”


"Could he have done that?" "Yeah, maybe. But he was just a scared little boy. To do those things with pennies and records and cake tins, he had to concentrate.


No time to concentrate when the bullets started flying that day.”


Holly remembered the murderous sound: chuda-chuda-chuduchuda. . .


"So when we brought him back from Atlanta, he would hardly talk, just a word or two now and then. Wouldn't meet your eyes. Something died in him when Jamie and Cara died, and we could never bring it back again, no matter how much we loved him and how hard we tried. His power died, too. Or seemed to. He never did one of his tricks again, and after a lot of years it was sometimes hard to believe he'd ever done those strange things when he was little.”


In spite of his good spirits, Henry Ironheart had looked every one of his eighty years. Now he appeared to be far older, ancient.


He said, "Jimmy was so strange after Atlanta, so unreachable and full of rage. . . sometimes it was possible to love him and still be a little afraid of him. Later, God forgive me, I suspected him of. " "I know," Holly said.


His slack features tightened, and he looked sharply at her.


Your wife, she said. "Lena. The way she died.”


More thickly than usual, he said, "You know so much.”


"Too much," she said. "Which is funny. Because all my life I've known too little.”


Henry looked down at his culpable hands again. "How could I believe that a boy of ten, even a disturbed boy, could've shoved her down the mill stairs when he loved her so much? Too many years Later, I saw that I'd been so damned cruel to him, so unfeeling, so damned stupid. By then, he wouldn't give me the chance to apologize for what I'd done. .


what I'd thought. After he left for college, he never came back. Not once in more than thirteen years, until I had my stroke.”


He came back once, Holly thought, nineteen years after Lena's death, to face up to it and put flowers on her grave.


Henry said, "If there was some way I could explain to him, if he'd ust give me one chance. . " "He's here now," Holly said, getting up again.


The weight of fear that pulled on the old man's face made him appear even more gaunt than he had been. "Here?" "He's come to give you that chance," was all that Holly could say.


"Do you want me to take you to him?" The blackbirds were flocking. Eight of them had gathered now in the sky above, circling.


Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door To the real birds above, Jim whispered," Quoth the Raven, Never more." He heard a soft rhythmic creaking, as of a wheel going around and around, and footsteps. When he looked up, he saw Holly pushing his wheelchair-bound grandfather along the walkway toward the bench.


Eighteen years had passed since he had gone away to school, and he had seen Henry only once before in all this time. Initially, there had been a few telephone calls, but soon Jim stopped making those and, eventually, stopped accepting them as well. When letters came, he threw them away unopened. He remembered all of that now-and he was beginning to remember why.


He began to rise. His legs would not support him. He remained on the bench.


Holly parked the wheelchair facing Jim, then sat beside him. "How you doing?" Nodding dumbly, he glanced up at the birds circling against the ashen clouds, rather than face his grandfather.


The old man could not look at Jim, either. He studied the beds of flowers intently, as if he had been in a great rush to get outside and have a look at those blooms and nothing else.


Holly knew this was not going to be easy. She was sympathetic toward each of the men and wanted to do her best to bring them together at last.


First, she had to burn away the tangled weeds of one last lie that Jim had told her and that, consciously if not subconsciously, he had successfully told himself "There was no traffic accident, honey," she said, putting a hand on his knee. "That isn't how it happened.”


Jim lowered his eyes from the blackbirds and regarded her with nervous expectation. She could see that he longed to know the truth and dreaded hearing it.


"It happened in a restaurant" Jim slowly shook his head in denial.


"-down in Atlanta, Georgia-" He was still shaking his head, but his eyes were widening.


"-you were with them" He stopped denying, and a terrible expression stained his face.


"-it was called the Dixie Duck," she said.


When the memory exploded back to him with pile-driver force, he hunched forward on the bench as if he might vomit, but he did not. He curled his hands into fists on his knees, and his face tightened into a clench er- of pain, and he made small inarticulate sounds that were beyond grief and horror.


and She put an arm around his bent shoulders.


his Henry Ironheart looked at her and said, "Oh, my God," as he began to realize the extremity of denial to which his grandson had been driven.


mad "Oh, my God." As Jim's strangled gasps of pain changed into quiet sobs, few Henry Ironheart looked at the flowers again, then at his aged hands, then away, at his feet on the tilted braces of the wheelchair, everywhere he could think away to look to avoid Jim and Holly, but at last he met Holly's eyes again. "He had therapy," he said, trying hard to expiate his guilt. "We knew he might need therapy. We took him to a psychiatrist in Santa Barbara. Took him i the there several times. We did what we could. But the psychiatrist-Hemp hill, his name was-he said Jim was all right, he said there was no reason to bring him any more, just after six visits, he said Jim was all right.”


Holly said, "What do they ever know? What could Hemphill have done when he didn't really know the boy, didn't love him?" you Henry Ironheart flinched as if she had struck him, though she had not meant her comment to be a condemnation of him.


"No," she said quickly, hoping he would believe her, "what I meant was, there's no mystery why I've gotten farther than Hemphill ever could.


is of It's just because I love him. It's the only thing that ever leads to healing.”


ave a Stroking Jim's hair, she said, "You couldn't have saved them, baby. You didn't have the power then, not like you have it now.


You were lucky to ward get out alive. Believe me, honey, listen and believe me.”


last. For a moment they sat unspeaking, all of them in pain.


Jim Holly noticed more blackbirds had gathered in the sky. Maybe a dozen cess- of them now. She didn't know how Jim was drawing them there-or why -but she knew that he was, and regarded them with growing dread.


She put a hand over one of Jim's hands, encouraging him to relax it.


Though he slowly stopped crying, he kept his fist as tight as a fist of sculpted stone.


To Henry, she said, "Now. This is your chance. Explain why you turned away from him, why you did. . . whatever you did to him.”


Clearing his throat, wiping nervously at his mouth with his weak right hand, Henry spoke at first without looking at either of them.


"Well. . .


you have to know. . . how it was. A few months after he came back from Atlanta, there was this film company in town, shooting a movie-" "The Black Windmill," Holly said.


"Yeah. He was reading all the time. . . ." Henry stopped, closed his , he eyes as if to gather strength. When he opened them, he stared at Jim's of. He bowed head and seemed prepared to meet his eyes if he looked up. "You clench was reading all the time, going through the library shelf by shelf, and because of the film you read the Willott book. For a while it became. . .


hell, I don't know. . . I guess maybe you'd have to say it was an obsession with you, Jim. It was the only thing that brought you out of your shell, talking about that book, so we encouraged you to go watch them shoot the picture. Remember? After a while, you started telling us an alien was in our pond and windmill, just like in the book and movie.


At first we thought you was just play-acting.”


He paused.


The silence lengthened.


About twenty birds in the sky above.


Circling. Silent.


To Henry, Holly said, "Then it began to worry you.”


Henry wiped one shaky hand down his deeply lined face, not so much as if he was trying to scrub away his weariness but as if he was trying to slough off the years and bring that lost time closer. "You spent more and more hours in the mill, Jim. Sometimes you'd be out there all day.

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