He stood in snow almost to his knees, wearing street shoes, no boots, and he felt as if he must start moving immediately or freeze to the ground. He looked around the clearing, hoping for inspiration, for a twinge of intuition, but at last he chose a direction at random and headed to his left, searching for a deer trail or other natural course that would provide him a passage through the forest. His entire left side from neck to waist throbbed with pain. He hoped that the bullet, in passing through him, had torn no arteries and that the rate of blood loss was slow enough to allow him at least to reach Laura and see her face, the face he loved, one last time before he died.
The one-year anniversary of Danny's death fell on a Tuesday, and although Chris did not mention the significance of the date, he was aware of it. The boy was unusually quiet. He spent most of that somber day playing silently with his Masters of the Universe action figures in the family room, which was the kind of play ordinarily characterized by vocal imitations of laser weapons, clashing swords, and spaceship engines. Later he sprawled on his bed in his room, reading comic books. He resisted Laura's every effort to draw him out of his self-imposed isolation, which was probably for the best; any attempt she made to be cheerful would have been transparent, and he would have been further depressed by the perception that she was also struggling mightily to turn her thoughts away from their grievous loss.
Thelma, who had called only days before to report the good news that she had decided to marry Jason Gaines, called again at seven-fifteen that evening, just to chat, as if she were unaware of the importance of the date. Laura took the call in her office, where she was still struggling with the bile-black book that had occupied her for the past year.
“Hey, Shane, guess what? I met Paul McCartney”! He was in LA to negotiate a recording contract, and we were at the same parts Friday night. When I first saw him, he was stuffing an hors d'oeuvre in his mouth, he said hello, he had crumbs on his lip, and he was gorgeous. He said he'd seen my movies, thought I was very good, and we talked-you believe this?-we must've chatted twenty minutes, and gradually the strangest thing happened."
“You discovered that you'd undressed him while you were talking.”
“Well, he still looks very good, you know, still that cherub face we swooned over twenty years ago but marked now by experience tres sophisticated and with an extremely appealing touch of sadness about his eyes, and he was enormously amusing and charming. At first maybe I did want to tear his clothes off, yeah, and live out the fantasy at last. But then the longer we talked, the less he seemed like a god, the more he seemed like a person, and in minutes, Shane, the myth evaporated, and he was just this very nice, attractive, middle-aged man. Now what do you make of that?”
“What am I supposed to make of it?”
“I don't know,” Thelma said. “I'm a little disturbed. Shouldn't a living legend continue to awe you longer than twenty minutes after you meet him? I mean, I've met lots of stars by now, and none of them have remained godlike, but this was McCartney.”
“Well, if you want my opinion, his swift loss of mythological stature says nothing negative about him, but it says plenty positive about you. You've achieved a new maturity, Ackerson.”
“Does this mean I've got to give up watching old Three Stooges movies every Saturday morning?”
“The Stooges are permitted, but food fights are definitely a thing of the past for you.”
By the time Thelma hung up at ten minutes till eight, Laura was feeling slightly better, so she switched from the bile-black book to the tale about Sir Tommy Toad. She had written only two sentences of the children's story when the night beyond the windows was lit by a bolt of lightning bright enough to spark dire thoughts of nuclear holocaust. The subsequent thunderclap shook the house from roof to foundation, as if a wrecker's ball had slammed into one of the walls. She came to her feet with a start, so surprised that she did not even hit the “save” key on the computer. A second bolt seared the night, making the windows as luminous as television screens, and the thunder that followed was louder than the first explosion.
She turned and saw Chris standing in the doorway. “It's okay,” she said. He ran to her. She sat in the spring-backed armchair and pulled him onto her lap. “It's all right. Don't be afraid, honey.”
“But it's not raining,” he said. “Why's it booming like that if it's not raining?”
Outside, an incredible series of lightning bolts and overlapping thunderclaps continued for nearly a minute, then subsided. The power of the event had been so great, Laura was able to imagine in the morning they would find the broken sky lying about in huge chunks like fragments of a giant eggshell.
Before he walked five minutes from the clearing in which he had arrived, Stefan was forced to pause and lean against the thick trunk of a pine whose branches began just above his head. The pain of his wound wrung streams of sweat from him, yet he was shivering in the bitter January cold, too dizzy to stand up, yet terrified of sitting down and falling into an endless sleep. With the drooping boughs :hat mammoth pine overhead and all around, he felt as if he had taken refuge under Death's black robe, from which he might not emerge..
Before putting Chris to bed for the night, she made sundaes for them with coconut-almond ice cream and Hershey's syrup. They ate at the kitchen table, and the boy's depression seemed to have lifted. Perhaps by marking the end of that sad anniversary with such drama, the bizarre weather phenomenon had startled him out of thoughts of death and into the contemplation of wonders. He was filled with talk of the lightning that had crackled down a kite string and into Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory in the old James Whale film, which he'd seen for the first time a week ago, and of the lightning that had frightened Donald Duck in a Disney cartoon, and of the stormy night in 707 Dalmatians during which Cruella DeVille had posed such a dire threat to the title-role puppies.
By the time she tucked him in and kissed him goodnight, he was approaching sleep with a smile-a half smile, at least-rather than with the frown that had weighed upon his face all day. She sat in a chair by the side of his bed until he was fast asleep, though he was no longer afraid and did not require her presence. She stayed simply because she needed to look at him for a while.
She returned to her office at nine-fifteen, but before going to the word processor, she stopped at a window and stared out at the snow-swathed front lawn, at the black ribbon of the graveled driveway leading to the distant state route, and up at the starless night sky. Something about the lightning deeply disturbed her: not that it had been so strange, not that it had been potentially destructive, but that the unprecedented and almost supernatural power of it had been somehow . . . familiar. She seemed to recall having witnessed a similar stormy display on another occasion, but she could not remember when. It was an uncanny feeling, akin to deja vu, and it would not fade.
She went into the master bedroom and checked the security-control panel in her closet to be sure the perimeter alarm covering all the windows and doors was engaged. From beneath the bed, she withdrew the Uzi, which had an extended magazine holding four hundred exotic, lightweight, alloy-jacketed rounds. She took the gun back to her office and put it on the floor by her chair.
She was about to sit down when lightning split the night again, frightening her, and it was followed at once by a crack of thunder she felt in her bones. Another bolt and another and another blazed in the windows like a series of leering, ghostly faces formed of ectoplasmic light.
As the heavens quaked with scintillant shudders, Laura hurried to Chris's room to calm him. To her surprise, though the lightning and thunder were shockingly more violent than they had been previously, the boy was not awakened, perhaps because the din seemed a part of some dream he was having about Dalmation puppies on a stormy night of adventure.
Again, no rain fell.
The lightning and thunder quickly subsided, but her anxiety remained high.
He saw strange ebony shapes in the darkness, things that slipped between the trees and watched him with eyes blacker than their bodies, but though they startled and frightened him, he knew that they were not real, only phantoms spawned by his increasingly disoriented mind. He plodded onward in spite of outer cold, inner heat, prickling pine needles, sharp bramble thorns, icy ground that sometimes tilted out from beneath his feet and sometimes spun like a phonograph turntable. The pain in his chest and shoulder and arm was so intense that he was assailed by delirium images of rats gnawing at his flesh from within his body, though he could not figure how they had gotten in there.
After wandering for at least an hour-it seemed like many hours, even days, but could not have been days because the sun had not risen-he came to the perimeter of the forest and, at the far end of a sloping half acre of snow-mantled lawn, he saw the house. Lights were vaguely visible at the edges of the blind-covered windows.
He stood, disbelieving, at first convinced that the house was no more real than the Stygian figures that had accompanied him through the woods. Then he began moving toward the mirage-in case it wasn't a fever dream, after all.
When he had taken only a few steps, a lash of lightning whipped the night, scarred the sky. The whip cracked repeatedly, and each time a stronger arm seemed to power it.
Stefan's shadow leaped and writhed on the snow around him, though he was temporarily paralyzed by fear. Sometimes he had two shadows because lightning silhouetted him simultaneously from two directions. Already well-trained hunters had followed him on the Lightning Road, determined to stop him before he had a chance to warn Laura.
He looked back at the trees out of which he had come. Under the stroboscopic sky, the evergreens seemed to jump toward him, then back, then toward him again. He saw no hunters there.
As the lightning faded, he staggered toward the house again. He fell twice, struggled up, kept moving, though he was afraid that if he fell again he would not be able to get to his feet or shout loud enough to be heard.
Staring at the computer screen, trying to think about Sir Tommy Toad and thinking instead of the lightning, Laura suddenly recalled when she previously had seen such a preternaturally stormy sky: the very day on which her father had first told her about Sir Tommy, the day that the junkie had come into the grocery, the day that she had seen her guardian for the first time, that summer of her eighth year.
She sat up straight in her chair.
Her heart began to hammer hard, fast.
Lightning of that unnatural power meant trouble of a specific nature, trouble for her. She could recall no lightning on the day that Danny died or when her guardian appeared in the cemetery during her father's burial service. But with an absolute certainty that she could not explain, she knew that the phenomenon she had witnessed tonight held a terrible meaning for her; it was an omen and not a good one.
She grabbed the Uzi and made a circuit of the upstairs, checking all the windows, looking in on Chris, making sure everything was as it should be. Then she hurried downstairs to inspect those rooms.
As she stepped into the kitchen, something thumped against the back door. With a gasp of surprise and fear, she whirled in that direction, swung the Uzi around, and nearly opened fire.
But it was not the determined sound of someone breaking in. It was an unthreatening thump, barely louder than a knock, repeated twice. She thought she heard a voice, too, weakly calling her name.
She edged to the door and listened for perhaps half a minute.
The door was a high-security model with a steel core sandwiched between two inch-thick slabs of oak, so she was not worried about being shot by a gunman on the other side. Yet she hesitated to move directly to it and peer through the fisheye lens because she feared seeing an eye pressed to the other side, trying to peer in at her. When at last she had the courage for it, the peephole gave her a wide-angled view of the patio, and she saw a man sprawled on the concrete, his arms flung out at his sides, as if he had fallen backward after knocking on the door.
Trap, she thought. Trap, trick.
She switched on the outdoor spotlights and crept to the Levelor-covered window above the built-in writing desk. Cautiously she lifted one of the slats. The man on the concrete patio was her guardian. His shoes and trousers were caked with snow. He wore what appeared to be a white lab coat, the front darkly stained with blood.
As far as she could see, no one was crouched on the patio or on the lawn beyond, but she had to consider the possibility that someone had dumped his body there as a lure to bring her out of the house. Opening the door at night, under these circumstances, was foolhardy.
Nevertheless she could not leave him out there. Not her guardian. Not if he was hurt and dying.
She pressed the alarm bypass button next to the door, disengaged the dead-bolt locks, and reluctantly stepped into the wintry night with the Uzi at the ready. No one shot at her. On the dimly snow-illumined lawn, all the way back to the forest, nothing moved.
She went to her guardian, knelt at his side, and felt for his pulse. He was alive. She peeled back one of his eyelids. He was unconscious. The wound high in the left side of his chest looked bad, though it did not appear to be bleeding at the moment.
Her training with Henry Takahami and her regular exercise program had dramatically increased her strength, but she was not strong enough to lift the wounded man with one arm. She propped the Uzi by the back door and found she could not lift him even with both arms. It seemed dangerous to move a man who was so badly hurt, but more dangerous to leave him in the frigid night, especially when someone was apparently in pursuit of him. She managed to half lift and half drag him into the kitchen, where she stretched him out on the floor. With relief she retrieved the Uzi, relocked the door, and engaged the alarm again.
He was frighteningly pale and cold to the touch, so the immediate necessity was to strip off his shoes and socks, which were crusted with snow. By the time she dealt with his left foot and was unlacing his right shoe, he was mumbling in a strange language, the words too slurred for her to identify the tongue, and in English he muttered about explosives and gates and “phantoms in the trees.”
Though she knew that he was delirious and very likely could not understand her any more than she could understand him, she spoke to him reassuringly: “Easy now, just relax, you'll be all right; as soon as I get your foot out of this block of ice, I'll call a doctor.”
The mention of a doctor brought him briefly out of his confusion. He gripped her arm weakly, fixed her with an intense, fearful gaze. “No doctor. Get out ... got to get out ...”
“You're in no condition to go anywhere,” she told him. “Except by ambulance to a hospital.”