Lindsey never showed Hatch—or anyone else—a canvas in progress, withholding even a glimpse of it until the final brush stroke had been applied. Though she was evidently near completion of the current painting, she was still working on it, and Hatch was surprised that she didn't even twitch when Regina went around to the front of the easel to have a look. He decided that no kid, just because she had a cute nose and some freckles, was going to be accorded a privilege he was denied, so he also walked boldly around the easel to take a peek.
It was a stunning piece of work. The background was a field of stars, and superimposed over it was the transparent face of an ethereally beautiful young boy. Not just any boy. Their Jimmy. When he was alive she had painted him a few times, but never since his death—until now. It was an idealized Jimmy of such perfection that his face might have been that of an angel. His loving eyes were turned upward, toward a warm light that rained down upon him from beyond the top of the canvas, and his expression was more profound than joy. Rapture. In the foreground, as the focus of the work, floated a black rose, not transparent like the face, rendered in such sensuous detail that Hatch could almost feel the velvety texture of each plush petal. The green skin of the stem was moist with a cool dew, and the thorns were portrayed with such piercingly sharp points that he half believed they would prick like real thorns if touched. A single drop of blood glistened on one of the black petals. Somehow Lindsey had imbued the floating rose with an aura of preternatural power, so it drew the eye, demanded attention, almost mesmeric in its effect. Yet the boy did not look down at the rose; he gazed up at the radiant object only he could see, the implication being that, as powerful as the rose might be, it was of no interest whatsoever when compared to the source of the light above.
From the day of Jimmy's death until Hatch's resuscitation, Lindsey had refused to take solace from any god who would create a world with death in it. He recalled a priest suggesting prayer as a route to acceptance and psychological healing, and Lindsey's response had been cold and dismissive: Prayer never works. Expect no miracles, Father. The dead stay dead, and the living only wait to join them. Something had changed in her now. The black rose in the painting was death. Yet it had no power over Jimmy. He had gone beyond death, and it meant nothing to him. He was rising above it. And by being able to conceive of the painting and bring it off so flawlessly, Lindsey had found a way to say goodbye to the boy at last, goodbye without regrets, goodbye without bitterness, goodbye with love and with a startling new acceptance of the need for belief in something more than a life that ended always in a cold, black hole in the ground.
“It's so beautiful,” Regina said with genuine awe. “Scary in a way, I don't know why … scary … but so beautiful.”
Hatch looked up from the painting, met Lindsey's eyes, tried to say something, but could not speak. Since his resuscitation, there had been a rebirth of Lindsey's heart as well as his own, and they had confronted the mistake they had made by losing five years to grief. But on some fundamental level, they had not accepted that life could ever be as sweet as it had been before that one small death; they had not really let Jimmy go. Now, meeting Lindsey's eyes, he knew that she had finally embraced hope again without reservation. The full weight of his little boy's death fell upon Hatch as it had not in years, because if Lindsey could make peace with God, he must do so as well. He tried to speak again, could not, looked again at the painting, realized he was going to cry, and left the room.
He didn't know where he was going. Without quite remembering taking any step along the route, he went downstairs, into the den that they had offered to Regina as a bedroom, opened the French doors, and stepped into the rose garden at the side of the house.
In the warm, late-afternoon sun, the roses were red, white, yellow, pink, and the shade of peach skins, some only buds and some as big as saucers, but not one of them black. The air was full of their enchanting fragrance.
With the taste of salt in the corners of his mouth, he reached out with both hands toward the nearest rose-laden bush, intending to touch the flowers, but his hands stopped short of them. With his arms thus forming a cradle, he suddenly could feel a weight draped across them. In reality, nothing was in his arms, but the burden he felt was no mystery; he remembered, as if it had been an hour ago, how the body of his cancer-wasted son had felt.
In the final moments before death's hateful visitation, he had pulled the wires and tubes from Jim, had lifted him off the sweat-soaked hospital bed, and had sat in a chair by the window, holding him close and murmuring to him until the pale, parted lips drew no more breath. Until his own death, Hatch would remember precisely the weight of the wasted boy in his arms, the sharpness of bones with so little flesh left to pad them, the awful dry heat pouring off skin translucent with sickness, the heart-rending fragility.
He felt all that now, in his empty arms, there in the rose garden.
When he looked up at the summer sky, he said, “Why?” as if there were Someone to answer. “He was so small,” Hatch said. “He was so damned small.”
As he spoke, the burden was heavier than it had ever been in that hospital room, a thousand tons in his empty arms, maybe because he still didn't want to free himself of it as much as he thought he did. But then a strange thing happened—the weight in his arms slowly diminished, and the invisible body of his son seemed to float out of his embrace, as if the flesh had been transmuted entirely to spirit at long last, as if Jim had no need of comforting or consolation any more.
Hatch lowered his arms.
Maybe from now on the bittersweet memory of a child lost would be only the sweet memory of a child loved. And maybe, henceforth, it would not be a memory so heavy that it oppressed the heart.
He stood among the roses.
The day was warm. The late-afternoon light was golden.
The sky was perfectly clear—and utterly mysterious.
Regina asked if she could have some of Lindsey's paintings in her room, and she sounded sincere. They chose three. Together they hammered in picture hooks and hung the paintings where she wanted them—along with a foot-tall crucifix she had brought from her room at the orphanage.
As they worked, Lindsey said, “How about dinner at a really super pizza parlor I know?”
“Yeah!” the girl said enthusiastically. “I love pizza.”
“They make it with a nice thick crust, lots of cheese.”
“Cut thin, but lots of it.”
“Sure, why not. Though you're sure this isn't getting to be a pretty revolting pizza for a vegetarian like you?”
Regina blushed. “Oh, that. I was such a little shit that day. Oh, Jeez, sorry. I mean, such a smartass. I mean, such a jerk.”
“That's okay,” Lindsey said. “We all behave like jerks now and then.”
“You don't. Mr. Harrison doesn't.”
“Oh, just wait.” Standing on a stepstool in front of the wall opposite the bed, Lindsey pounded in a nail for a picture hook. Regina was holding the painting for her. As she took it from the girl to hang it, Lindsey said, “Listen, will you do me a favor at dinner tonight?”
“I know it's still awkward for you, this new arrangement. You don't really feel at home and probably won't for a long time—”
“Oh, it's very nice here,” the girl protested.
Lindsey slipped the wire over the picture hook and adjusted the painting until it hung straight. Then she sat down on the stepstool, which just about brought her and the girl eye to eye. She took hold of both of Regina's hands, the normal one and the different one. “You're right—it's very nice here. But you and I both know that's not the same as home. I wasn't going to push you on this. I was going to let you take your time, but … Even if it seems a little premature to you, do you think tonight at dinner you could stop calling us Mr. and Mrs. Harrison? Especially Hatch. It would be very important to him, just now, if you could at least call him Hatch.”
The girl lowered her eyes to their interlocked hands. “Well, I guess … sure … that would be okay.”
“And you know what? I realize this is asking more than it's fair to ask yet, before you really know him that well. But do you know what would be the best thing in the world for him right now?”
The girl was still staring at their hands. “What?”
“If somehow you could find it in your heart to call him Dad. Don't say yes or no just now. Think about it. But it would be a wonderful thing for you to do for him, for reasons I don't have time to explain right here. And I promise you this, Regina—he is a good man. He will do anything for you, put his life on the line for you if it ever came to that, and never ask for anything. He'd be upset if he knew I was even asking you for this. But all I'm asking, really, is for you to think about it.”
After a long silence, the girl looked up from their linked hands and nodded. “Okay. I'll think about it.”
“Thank you, Regina.” She got up from the stepstool. “Now let's hang that last painting.”
Lindsey measured, penciled a spot on the wall, and nailed in a picture hook.
When Regina handed over the painting, she said, “It's just that all my life … there's never been anyone I called Mom or Dad. It's a very new thing.”
Lindsey smiled. “I understand, honey. I really do. And so will Hatch if it takes time.”
In the blazing Haunted House, as the cries for help and the screams of agony swelled louder, a strange object appeared in the firelight. A single rose. A black rose. It floated as if an unseen magician was levitating it. Vassago had never encountered anything more beautiful in the world of the living, in the world of the dead, or in the realm of dreams. It shimmered before him, its petals so smooth and soft that they seemed to have been cut from swatches of the night sky unspoiled by stars. The thorns were exquisitely sharp, needles of glass. The green stem had the oiled sheen of a serpent's skin. One petal held a single drop of blood. The rose faded from his dream, but later it returned—and with it the woman named Lindsey and the auburn-haired girl with the soft-gray eyes. Vassago yearned to possess all three: the black rose, the woman, and the girl with the gray eyes.
After Hatch freshened up for dinner, while Lindsey finished getting ready in the bathroom, he sat alone on the edge of their bed and read the article by S. Steven Honell in Arts American. He could shrug off virtually any insult to himself, but if someone slammed Lindsey, he always reacted with anger. He couldn't even deal well with reviews of her work that she thought had made valid criticisms. Reading Honell's vicious, snide, and ultimately stupid diatribe dismissing her entire career as “wasted energy,” Hatch grew angrier by the sentence.
As had happened the previous night, his anger erupted into fiery rage with volcanic abruptness. The muscles in his jaws clenched so hard, his teeth ached. The magazine began to shake because his hands were trembling with fury. His vision blurred slightly, as if he were looking at everything through shimmering waves of heat, and he had to blink and squint to make the fuzzy-edged words on the page resolve into readable print.
As when he had been lying in bed last night, he felt as if his anger opened a door and as if something entered him through it, a foul spirit that knew only rage and hate. Or maybe it had been with him all along but sleeping, and his anger had roused it. He was not alone inside his own head. He was aware of another presence, like a spider crawling through the narrow space between the inside of his skull and the surface of his brain.
He tried to put the magazine aside and calm down. But he kept reading because he was not in full possession of himself.
Vassago moved through the Haunted House, untroubled by the hungry fire, because he had planned an escape route. Sometimes he was twelve years old, and sometimes he was twenty. But always his path was lit by human torches, some of whom had collapsed into silent melting heaps upon the smoking floor, some of whom exploded into flames even as he passed them.
In the dream he was carrying a magazine, folded open to an article that angered him and seemed imperative he read. The edges of the pages curled in the heat and threatened to catch fire. Names leaped at him from the pages. Lindsey. Lindsey Sparling. Now he had a last name for her. He felt an urge to toss the magazine aside, slow his breathing, calm down. Instead he stoked his anger, let a sweet flood of rage overwhelm him, and told himself that he must know more. The edges of the magazine pages curled in the heat. Honell. Another name. Steven Honell. Bits of burning debris fell on the article. Steven S. Honell. No. The S first. S. Steven Honell. The paper caught fire. Honell. A writer. A barroom. Silverado Canyon. In his hands, the magazine burst into flames that flashed into his face—
He shed sleep like a fired bullet shedding its brass jacket, and sat up in his dark hideaway. Wide awake. Excited. He knew enough now to find the woman.
One moment rage like a fire swept through Hatch, and the next moment it was extinguished. His jaws relaxed, his tense shoulders sagged, and his hands unclenched so suddenly that he dropped the magazine on the floor between his feet.
He continued to sit on the edge of the bed for a while, stunned and confused. He looked toward the bathroom door, relieved that Lindsey had not walked in on him while he had been … Been what? In his trance? Possessed?
He smelled something peculiar, out of place. Smoke.
He looked at the issue of Arts American on the floor between his feet. Hesitantly, he picked it up. It was still folded open to Honell's article about Lindsey. Although no visible vapors rose from the magazine, the paper exuded the heavy smell of smoke. The odors of burning wood, paper, tar, plastics … and something worse. The edges of the paper were yellow-brown and crisp, as if they had been exposed to almost enough heat to induce spontaneous combustion.
When the knock came at the door, Honell was sitting in a rocking chair by the fireplace. He was drinking Chivas Regal and reading one of his own novels, Miss Culvert, which he had written twenty-five years ago when he was only thirty.
He re-read each of his nine books once a year because he was in perpetual competition with himself, striving to improve as he grew old instead of settling quietly into senescence the way most writers did. Constant betterment was a formidable challenge because he had been awfully good at an early age. Every time he re-read himself, he was surprised to discover that his body of work was considerably more impressive than he remembered it.
Miss Culvert was a fictional treatment of his mother's self-absorbed life in the respectable upper-middle-class society of a downstate Illinois town, an indictment of the self-satisfied and stiflingly bland “culture” of the Midwest. He had really captured the essence of the bitch. Oh, how he had captured her. Reading Miss Culvert, he was reminded of the hurt and horror with which his mother had received the novel on first publication, and he decided that as soon as he had finished the book, he would take down the sequel, Mrs. Towers, which dealt with her marriage to his father, her widowhood, and her second marriage. He remained convinced that the sequel was what had killed her. Officially, it was a heart attack. But cardiac infarction had to be triggered by something, and the timing was satisfyingly concurrent with the release of Mrs. Towers and the media attention it received.