I drew one Glock. Bullets didn’t faze this thing. I drew the other Glock. Forget Clint Eastwood. Two-Gun Odd is in town. Yeah, right. I holstered both weapons.
The doors began to close, and I was so grateful that I wanted to kiss them, except that the very idea of a kiss had been rendered icky for the foreseeable future.
Crouched atop its victim, the senoculus raised its mouth from the dead man’s face. A little cloud of vapor, reminiscent of that which had been wafting from the open champagne bottles, floated in its open mouth, enwrapping its hideous tongue. When thin ribbons of that mist began to slip away between the demon’s lips, it abruptly sucked them back, closed its mouth, and swallowed. As it looked at me through the gap between the closing doors, its six eyes were clouded, perhaps with ecstasy, but suddenly they cleared, and the thing threw itself at the doors—too late.
With a sigh and hiss indicating that it was moved from below by a hydraulic ram rather than by hoist cables and counterweights, the elevator started down. Relieved, I closed my eyes, savoring the motion and the sound of descent.
Elisha Graves Otis, who had built the first fully safe elevator in the United States, in a five-story department store in New York City, had probably not lingered in our world when he died in 1861. But if one day his spirit came around to seek my assistance, I would knock myself out to help him cross over to the Other Side.
Maybe the car traveled half the way to the ground floor before coming to a halt.
When I opened my eyes, I stood in the center of a smooth gray cube. The position indicator, now just a flat gray shape above the doors, lacked numbers. The car-station panel beside the doors still offered floor-selection buttons, but none of them had a number on it. I was not in an elevator any longer, but in the half-formed idea of an elevator, in Elsewhere.
Nevertheless, I pressed what had been the ground-floor button. Pressed and pressed it. But it had no give to it, no action. None of the other buttons functioned, either.
The idea of stairs is a lot more useful than the idea of an elevator. As I had proved more than once, you can get from here to there on the idea of stairs, but the idea of an elevator is about as useful as the idea of an ice-cream sundae.
Overhead, the light-diffuser panels were gone, as were the fluorescent tubes that had once been behind them. The ceiling was smooth and gray, unmarked even by the outline of the top-exit door that had once been in the center of that space.
A kind of claustrophobia overcame me, made worse by worry for the children. Boo would guide them, yes, but Boo’s bite had no effect on living people, and the dead do not bark any more than they talk. I had left the kids with no protection other than words—I am not yours, you may not touch me—words that had seemed to mean something when I’d said them, but which I realized now were no more useful to them than was a would-be protector of the innocent who allowed himself to be trapped in the idea of an elevator.
At that moment, I knew one of the seventeen would die, perhaps more than one, perhaps all of them. If I succeeded to any degree this night, it would be but a partial success—with an intolerable element of failure, as on that awful day at the mall in Pico Mundo. The more certain I became of this, the smaller the elevator seemed to be and the more intensely claustrophobia wrapped its suffocating fabric around me.
I pressed on the walls and pried at the doors, to no avail. I almost shouted, though if anyone remained in this particular piece of Elsewhere, it would be the senoculus, which already knew where I was and which would not answer my shout with kind assistance. When I realized that I was circling the gray cube as if I were a frightened rat in a cage, I halted, leaned against a wall, clasped my head in my hands and tried to deny the claustrophobia and the fear for the children that exacerbated it, tried to clear my mind and think.
Three realities. The world into which I was born. The blasted black wasteland. Elsewhere.
Our world, a material realm, allowed us to apply the laws of physics and thermodynamics and other knowledge to shape tools, build machines, and use all the riches of nature to provide ourselves with the comforts of civilization, one of which was the leisure to ponder the meaning of our existence. I knew the systems and rules of our world, more or less how it worked and mostly why.
The world of the wasteland, a spiritual realm, call it Hell or what you will, was dark and mean, without grace, populated by spirits that thrived on hatred and pain, that were denied meaning—or had denied it to themselves—that wanted nothing but the destruction of our world, which they might one day achieve through their surrogates among us, and the destruction of themselves, which they would never achieve. If I thought about all of this long enough, I would be able to imagine in pretty accurate detail the systems and rules of their world, how it worked and mostly why.
There is, of course, yet another world than these three, the one to which Stormy Llewellyn had gone, but I didn’t need to know the systems and rules of that place, because visionaries and theologians have spent millennia pondering them, and I’d probably be given an orientation booklet when and if I ever arrived there.
So then, Elsewhere…
Elsewhere was neither largely material nor largely spiritual, but an in-between emptiness, not a world in full, merely an unmapped archipelago of reefs, atolls, and islands of which certain people in our world could make wicked use, into which denizens of the wasteland could venture. In this realm, willpower could shape reality to some extent, but at the same time, both those from my world and those from the wasteland had to move about as if walls and doors and stairways mattered. I did not think that any amount of time would be long enough for me to imagine the systems and rules of this eerie place, because it was … essentially so formless. No, not that. Because it was…
A hard metallic shriek and a cracking-buckling noise drew my attention to the ceiling. Even if I had wanted to live in denial, I couldn’t have done so, because as the clamor grew louder, a top-exit panel appeared in the smooth gray ceiling. The idea of an exit. It had been thought into existence not by me but by the senoculus, which was even now, on the second floor, prying open the sliding doors to the shaft, intending to descend by a service ladder. This square on the car ceiling wasn’t the idea of an exit, really, but the idea of an entrance, a trapdoor by which the demon could get at me.
For a moment, I couldn’t understand why it would come after me so indirectly if, with its stronger willpower, it could disable the elevator and halt me between floors. But then I understood that the elevator was at this impasse because our conflicted wills had come to a draw. I wanted the elevator car to descend to the ground floor, from which I might escape into my world, where my enemy could not follow me, and the senoculus wanted the car to return to the second floor, where it could steal everything from me with a kiss, as it had taken life and soul from Mr. Champagne. Its willpower and mine were equally matched.
The senoculus could not will the shaft doors above to open because I was willing them to remain closed, which required it to resort to physical effort. My head hurt.
Suddenly I realized that although this plain-gray cube had none of the fluorescent tubes of the car in the real elevator, in the real building, in my world, it nonetheless had light. The idea of light, all around, without source. The car should be dark. And it would be black as night just as soon as the demon wanted it that way.
With a last bang and clatter, the busy senoculus apparently succeeded in tearing open the shaft doors on the second floor, because bits of debris ticked against the roof of the car.
Darkness enveloped me. The claustrophobia, having abated slightly, surged back full force.
In the elevator in my world, the rungs of the service ladder would be set in the concrete wall of the shaft. Here in Elsewhere, the idea of rungs existed in the idea of a concrete shaft. But the senoculus could climb down to the roof of the car as easily on the idea as on the reality.
EARLIER I ADMITTED THAT, WHEN I WAS IN HIGH school, lingering spirits distracted me from science studies and math, for which I had no great talent, anyway. English and writing were my strengths, and baseball, and frying anything that might taste good, though that last came naturally and didn’t require me to take a class.
The rules of Elsewhere might not have been either a problem of science or math, but figuring them out seemed as daunting to me as mastering trigonometry. I guess that’s what froze my mind there in the idea of an elevator, that and anguish at the thought of the kids not making it out of that building alive. Although I’m pretty much a positive guy, especially considering that I’m always slogging through one crap storm or another, I must admit that my anguish almost segued into despair when darkness fell around me and I knew that the Other Odd, with its look-how-scary-I-am six eyes and its stupid forked tongue, was about to descend the service ladder to pop open this can and spoon me out of it.
Then enlightenment. Suddenly I understood that the idea of light in the car had been my idea, not a kindness extended to me by the senoculus. And the light had gone out because I had realized that the car should be dark.
The instant I reconsidered that hasty thought, the idea of light returned, all around me, issuing from no discernible source.
If the senoculus and I were equally matched in willpower, with the demon insisting that the elevator return to the second floor and me insisting that it continue down to the ground floor, the stalemate did not necessarily mean that the issue must be decided by a physical confrontation. I had no illusions that I would win in hand-to-hand combat against an undying adversary with supernatural strength. Not even Mr. Schwarzenegger could have hoped to win such a battle in the days before he became a governor and went to seed.
I had supposed that the rules of Elsewhere were impossible to imagine because the place was so formless, independent of the laws of physics and thermodynamics and other systems of my material world. Now, however, my anguish over the children brought me not to despair but to desperation, which is energized despair that compels vigorous action. In my desperation, I grasped a most important possibility: If the senoculus and I were equally matched in willpower, the contest might be decided by which of us was more clever.
Cleverness requires imagination. Evil is not imaginative. It inspires the same transgressions over and over again, with such infinitesimal variation that only the weak-minded are not quickly bored by that way of living. It seeks to destroy, and destruction takes no imagination. Creation takes true imagination, the making of something new and wondrous, whether it’s a song or an iPad, a novel or a new cooking surface more durable than Teflon, a new flavor of ice cream or spacecraft that can travel to the moon. The vibrant imagination of a fry cook with free will should easily trump the weak imagination of a demon anytime, anywhere.
Instead of willing the elevator car to descend the shaft and being resisted by the senoculus willing it to return to the second floor, I imagined the hydraulic ram that raised and lowered the car in the shaft, and once the idea of the ram was clearly in mind, I imagined it suddenly failing, dropping the car in an instant to the ground floor.
Wham! It is a good thing that the fall was only half a story, for otherwise I might have been knocked unconscious or badly injured. But I was only thrown off my feet, and I sprang up at once. The doors flew open before me, as I had imagined they would, and I stepped out of the car, into a hallway.
I remained in Elsewhere, in a smooth gray empty building, but the layout should be the same as in the real building in my world. I was well aware that the senoculus, that kissing fool, would already be sprinting madly for the entrance to the stairs on the second floor; therefore, I ran faster than I had ever run before. I sought the vacant dining room and found it, sought the vacant kitchen and found it, raced to one of the French doors that faced onto the rear terrace, and opened it. I saw that my reasoning had been correct: My world lay beyond the back door; the building still shared a boundary with the wasteland only on the lake side, where sorcery of some kind had invited the one whom they venerated.
Discovering the true and hidden nature of the world had nearly broken me. I hoped with all my heart that whatever more there might be for me to learn, further lessons could be postponed until I had gotten that dinner of cheese meatloaf, steak fries, and coleslaw, and until I felt confident that I had completed this first semester with my sanity intact.
I hurried across the terrace and about twenty feet into the yard before stopping and turning to look back at the house, lodge, witch’s cradle, whatever. Through the windows, I saw not the grayness of Elsewhere, but the warmly lighted house as it had been when I first approached it. Nobody was in the kitchen or visible in other rooms, so they must all be out on the second-floor deck, still waiting for the two Kens to appear with the seventeen sacrifices, although the gong had rung minutes earlier.
Boo and the kids were nowhere to be seen, which must mean they were in the process of making good their escape, if not already off the property.
I resorted to psychic magnetism, picturing Verena Stanhope in my mind’s eye, her ponytail and celadon eyes, and at first I felt nothing, nothing. Nothing. Before I could panic, I realized that perhaps my gift might be failing me because I was demanding to feel something. As crazy as most of us Californians are, it’s nevertheless sometimes true that you have to switch off the motor and go with the flow.
Although the shredding clouds were on the move, it seemed to be the moon that glided into sight, a great round silver ship on a dark but sparkling sea. The moon is very calming, except perhaps for werewolves, and I basked in its light as I took three deep breaths and slowly blew them out.
Suddenly I began to move in the direction that I felt the children might have gone—which turned out to be toward the satanic church where the fourteen ram skulls peered down from high pedestals. I halted after fifty feet, stunned by the prospect that Boo might have led them into that place.
A fourth deep breath, drawn rapidly and blown out hard, cleared my perception, and I realized that they must have followed a route past the church and into the woods beyond. I should stop worrying. In countless true stories, dogs that were lost while on vacation with their families, or that were stolen and taken great distances, found their way home across hundreds of miles of unfamiliar territory. A ghost dog probably had bags and bags of tricks that even the best of living dogs didn’t know. Boo must be aware of Mrs. Edie Fischer, because he had been there at the Salvation Army thrift shop when she had been parked at the curb, waiting for me to return. And if Boo had known where to find me precisely when I needed him to lead the children safely away, he would surely know where to find Mrs. Fischer in her superstretch limousine. If for any reason my ghost dog became lost, Mr. Alfred Hitchcock would probably drop in and show him the way.
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