Page 48


And evenings, too. Sometimes we'd get up in the middle of the night to use the john, and we'd see a light out there in the mill, two or three or four o'clock in the morning. And you wouldn't be in your room.”


Henry paused more often. He wasn't tired. He just didn't want to dig into this part of the long-buried past.


"If it was the middle of the night, we'd go out there to the mill and bring you in, either me or Lena. And you'd be telling us about The Friend in the mill. You started spooking us, we didn't know what to do . . . so I guess. . . we didn't do anything. Anyway, that night . . .


the night she died. . . a storm was coming up-" Holly recalled the dream:. . . a fresh wind blows as she hurries along the gravel path .


. .


"-and Lena didn't wake me. She went out there by herself and up at the high room". . . she climbs the limestone stairs. . .


"-pretty good thunderstorm, but I used to be able to sleep through anything-". . . the heavens flash as she passes the stairwell window, and through the glass she sees an object in the pond below. . .


"-I guess, Jim, you was just doing what we always found you doing out there at night, reading that book by candlelight". . . inhuman sounds from above quicken her heart, and she climbs to the high room, afraid, but also curious and concerned for Jim. . .


"-a crash of thunder finally woke me-". . . she reaches the top of the stairs and sees him standing, hands fisted )7 at his sides, a yellow candle in a blue dish on the floor, a book beside the candle. ..


"-I realized Lena was gone, looked out the bedroom window, and saw that dim light in the mill". the boy turns to her and cries out, I'm scared help me the walls, the walls! . . .


"-and I couldn't believe my eyes because the sails of the mill were turning, and even in those days the sails hadn't turned in ten or fifteen years, been frozen up-". she sees an amber light within the walls, the sour shades of pus and bile; the limestone bulges, and she realizes something is impossibly alive in the stone. . .


"-but they were spinning like airplane propellers, so I pulled on my pants, and hurried downstairs-". . . with fear but also with perverse excitement, the boy says, It's coming and nobody can stop it! . . .


"-I grabbed a flashlight and ran out into the rain-". . . the curve of mortared blocks splits like the spongy membrane of an insect's egg; taking shape from a core of foul muck, where limestone should have been, is the embodiment of the boy's black rage at the world and its injustice, his self hatred made flesh, his own death-wish given a vicious and brutal form so solid that it is an entity itself, quite separate from him. . .


"-I reached the mill, couldn't believe how those old sails were spinning, whoosh, whoosh, whoosh!" Holly's dream had ended there, but her imagination too easily supplied a version of what might have happened thereafter. Horrified at the materialization of The Enemy, stunned that the boy's wild tales of aliens in the mill were true, Lena had stumbled backward and fallen down the winding stone stairs, unable to arrest her fall because there was no handrail at which to grab.


Somewhere along the way she broke her neck.


"-went inside the mill. . . found her at the bottom of the stairs all busted up, neck twisted. . . dead.”


Henry paused for the first time in a while and swallowed hard. He had not looked at Holly once throughout his account of that stormy night, only at Jim's bowed head. With less of a slur in his voice, as if it were vitally important to him to tell the rest of it as clearly as he could, he said: "I went up the steps and found you in the high room, Jimmy. Do you remember that? Sitting by the candle, holding the book in your hands so tight it couldn't be taken from you till hours later.


You wouldn't speak.”


The old man's voice quavered now. "God forgive me, but all I could think about was Lena being dead, my dear Lena gone, and you being such a strange child all year, and still strange even at that moment, with your book, refusing to talk to me. I guess. . . I guess I went a little mad right then, for a while. I thought you might've pushed her, Jimmy. I thought you might've been in one of your. . . upsets. . . and maybe you pushed her.”


As if it had become too much for him to address himself to his grandson any longer, Henry shifted his gaze to Holly. "That year after Atlanta, he'd been a strange boy. . . almost like a boy we didn't know. He was quiet, like I said, but there was rage in him, too, a fury like no child should ever have. It sometimes scared us. The only time he ever showed it was in his sleep. . . dreaming. . . we'd hear him screeching, and we'd go down the hall to his room. . . and he'd be kicking and punching at the mattress, the pillows, clawing at the sheets, furious, taking it all out on something in his dreams, and we'd have to wake him.”


Henry paused and looked away from Holly, down at his bent right hand, which lay half useless in his lap. Jim's fist, under Holly's hand, remained vise-tight.


"You never struck out at Lena or me, Jimmy, you was a good boy, never gave us that kind of trouble. But in the mill that night, I grabbed you and shook you, Jimmy, tried to make you admit how you'd pushed her down the stairs. There was no excuse for what I did, how I behaved. . .


except I was grief crazy over Jamie and Cara, and now over Lena, everyone dying around me, and there was only you, and you were so strange, so strange and locked up in yourself that you scared me, so I turned on you when I should have been taking you in my arms.


Turned on you that night. . .


and didn't realize what I'd done until a lot of years later. . .


too late.”


The birds were in a tighter circle now. Directly overhead.


"Don't," she said softly to Jim. "Please don't.”


Until Jim responded, Holly could not know if these revelations were for better or worse. If he had blamed himself for his grandma's death merely because Henry had instilled the guilt in him, then he would get past this. If he blamed himself because Lena had come into the high room, had seen The Enemy materializing from the wall, and had stumbled backward down the stairs in terror, he might still overcome the past.


But if The Enemy had torn itself free of the wall and pushed her. . .


"I treated you like a murderer for the next six years, until you went away to school," Henry said. "When you was gone. . . well, in time, I started to think about it with a clearer head, and I knew what I'd done.


You'd had nowhere to turn for comfort. Your mom and dad were gone, your grandma. You went into town to get books, but you couldn't join in with other kids because that little Zacca bastard, Ned Zacca, he was twice your size and wouldn't ever let you alone. You had no peace except in books. I tried to call you, but you wouldn't take the calls. I wrote but I think you never read the letters.”


Jim sat unmoving.


Henry Ironheart shifted his attention to Holly. "He came back at last when I had my stroke. He sat beside me when I was in intensive care. I couldn't speak right, couldn't say what I tried to say, the wrong words kept coming out, making no sense-" "Aphasia," Holly said.


"A result of the stroke.”


Henry nodded. "Once, hooked up to all those machines, I tried to tell him what I'd known for almost thirteen years-that he wasn't a killer and that I'd been cruel to him." New tears flooded his eyes.


"But when it came out, it wasn't right at all, not what I meant, and he misunderstood it thought I'd called him a murderer and was afraid of him. He left, and now's the first I've seen him since. More than four years.”


Jim sat with his head bowed.


Hands fisted.


What had he remembered of that night in the mill, the part that no one but him could know? Holly got up from the bench, unable to endure the wait for Jim's reaction. She stood there, with no idea where to go. At last she sat down again.


She put her hand over his fist, as before.


She looked up.


More birds. Maybe thirty of them now.


"I'm afraid," Jim said, but that was all.


"After that night," Henry said, "he never went into the mill again, never mentioned The Friend or the Willott book. And at first I thought it was good he turned away from that obsession. . . he seemed less strange. But later I've wondered. . . maybe he lost the one comfort he had. " "I'm afraid to remember," Jim said.


She knew what he meant: only one last long-hidden memory waited to be revealed. Whether his grandmother had died by accident. Or whether The Enemy had killed her. Whether he, as The Enemy, had killed her.


Unable to stare at Jim's bowed head a moment longer, unable to bear Henry Ironheart's wretched look of guilt and fragile hope, Holly glanced up at the birds again-and saw them coming. More than thirty of them now, dark knives slicing down through the somber sky, still high up but coming straight toward the courtyard.


"Jim, no!" Henry looked up.


Jim lifted his face, too, but not to see what was coming. He knew what was coming. He raised his face as if to offer his eyes to their sharp beaks and frenzied claws.


Holly leaped to her feet, making herself a more prominent target than he was. "Jim, face it, remember it, for Christ's sake!" She could hear the shrieks of the swift-descending birds.


"Even if The Enemy did it," she said, pulling Jim's upturned face to her breast, shielding him, "you can get past that somehow, you can go on.”


Henry Ironheart cried out in shock, and the birds burst over Holly, flapping and squirming against her, swooping away, then more of them fluttering and scraping, trying to get past her and at Jim's face, at his eyes.


after all, manifesting itself in a whole new way, and The Enemy hated her as much as it hated Jim.


The birds swirled out of the courtyard, back into the sky, gone like so many leaves in a violent updraft.


Henry Ironheart was frightened but unhurt. "Move away," she told him.


"No," he said. He reached helplessly for Jim, who would not reach for him.


When Holly dared look up, she knew that the birds were not finished.


They had only soared to the fringe of the bearded gray clouds, where another score of them had collected. Fifty or sixty now, churning and dark, hungry and quick.


She was aware of people at the windows and sliding glass doors that opened onto the courtyard. Two nurses came through the same slider that she had used when wheeling Henry out to meet Jim.


"Stay back!" she shouted at them, not sure how much danger they might be in.


Jim's rage, while directed at himself and perhaps at God for the very fact of death's existence, might nevertheless spill over and spend itself on the innocent. Her shouted warning must have frightened the nurses, for they retreated and stood in the doorway.


She raised her eyes again. The larger flock was coming.


"Jim," she said urgently, holding his face in both hands, peering into his beautiful blue eyes, icy now with a cold fire of self hatred, "only one more step, only one more thing to remember." Though their eyes were only a few inches apart, she did not believe that he saw her; he seemed to be looking through her as he had earlier in Tivoli Gardens when the burrowing creature had been racing at them.


The descending flock squealed demonically.


"Jim, damn you, what happened to Lena might not be worth suicide!" The rustle-roar of wings filled the day. She pulled Jim's face against her body, and as before he did not struggle when she shielded him, which gave her hope. She bent her head and closed her eyes as tightly as she could.


They came: silken feathers; smooth cold beaks ticking, prying, searching; claws scrabbling gently, then not so gently, but still not drawing blood; swarming around her almost as if they were hungry rats, swirling, darting, fluttering, squirming along her back and legs, between her thighs, up along her torso, trying to get between his face and her bosom, where they could tear and gouge; batting against her head; and always the shrieking, as shrill as the cries of madwomen in a psychopathic fury, screaming in her cars, wordless demands for blood, blood, blood, and then she felt a sharp pain in her arm as one of the flock ripped open her sleeve and pinched skin with it.


"No!" cloud of other birds, a mass of dark bodies and wings, perhaps two hundred of them high overhead.


She glanced at Henry Ironheart. The birds had drawn blood from one of his hands. Having huddled back into his chair during the attack, he now leaned forward again, reached out with one hand, and called Jim's name pleadingly.


Holly looked down into Jim's eyes as he sat on the bench in front of her and still he was not there. He was in the mill, most likely, on the night of the storm, looking at his grandmother just one second before the fall, frozen at that moment in time, unable to advance the memory-film one more frame.


The birds were coming.


They were still far away, just under the cloud cover, but there were so many of them now that the thunder of their wings carried a greater distance. Their shrieks were like the voices of the damned.


"Jim, you can take the path that Larry Kakonis took, you can kill yourself I can't stop you. But if The Enemy doesn't want me any more, if it wants only you, don't think I'm spared. If you die, Jim, I'm dead, too, as good as dead, I'll do what Larry Kakonis did, I'll kill myself, and I'll rot in hell with you if I can't have you anywhere else!" The Enemy of countless parts fell upon her as she pulled Jim's face against her a third time. She didn't hide her own face or close her eyes as before, but stood in that maelstrom of wings and beaks and talons. She looked back into scores of small, glistening, pure-black eyes that circled her unblinking, each as wet and deep as the night reflected on the face of the sea, each as merciless and cruel as the universe itself and as anything in the heart of humankind. She knew that, staring into those eyes, she was staring into a part of Jim, his most secret and darkest part, which she could not reach otherwise, and she said his name. She did not shout, did not scream, did not beg or plead, did not vent her anger or fear, but said his name softly, again and again, with all the tenderness that she felt for him, with all the love she had. They battered against her so hard that pinions snapped, opened their hooked beaks and shrieked in her face, plucked threateningly at her clothes and hair, tugging but not ripping, giving her one last chance to flee. They tried to intimidate her with their eyes, the cold and uncaring eyes of beasts of prey, but she was not intimidated, she just kept repeating his name, then the promise that she loved him, over and over until -they were gone.


They didn't whirl up into the sky, as before. They vanished. One moment the air was filled with them and their fierce cries-but the next moment they were gone as if they had never been.

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