"Okay," he said, "so we're on foot. No big deal. It's a small town anyway. Who's closer—the Dolans or the Bimmers?"
"John and Beth Bimmer."
"And his mother."
She nodded. "Hannah. Sweet old lady."
"Let's hope we're not too late," Joey said.
"P.J. can't have had time to come here from the church ahead of us, cut the phone line, wait around to disable the car, and still go after anyone."
Nevertheless, they hurried through the slush in the street. On that treacherous pavement, however, they didn't dare to run as fast as they would have liked.
They had gone only half a block when the subterranean rumble began again, markedly louder than before, building swiftly until the ground quivered under them—as though no boats plied the River Styx any more, leaving the transport of all souls to deep-running, clamorous railroads. As before, the noise lasted no more than half a minute, with no catastrophic surface eruption of the seething fires below.
The Bimmers lived on North Avenue, which wasn't half grand enough to be called an avenue. The pavement was severely cracked and buckled as though from a great and incessant pressure below. Even in the gloom, the once-white houses appeared too drab—as if they were not merely in need of a fresh coat of paint but were all heavily mottled with soot. Some of the evergreens were deformed, stunted; others were dead. At least North Avenue was on the north side of town: across Coal Valley Road from the Baker house and one block farther east.
Six-foot-tall vent pipes, spaced about sixty feet on center and encircled by high chain-link safety barriers, lined one side of the street. From those flues, out of realms below, arose gray plumes of smoke like processions of fugitive ghosts, which were torn into rags by the wind and exorcised by the rain, leaving behind only a stink like that of hot tar.
The two-story Bimmer residence was curiously narrow for its lot, built to the compressed horizontal dimensions of a row house in a downtown neighborhood in some industrial city like Altoona or Johnstown. It appeared taller than it actually was—and forbidding.
Lights were on downstairs.
As he and Celeste climbed the porch steps, Joey heard music inside, and a tinny laugh track. Television.
He pulled open the aluminum-and-glass storm door and knocked on the wood door behind it.
In the house, the phantom studio audience laughed uproariously and a lighthearted tinkle of piano music further cued the folks at home that they were supposed to be amused.
After the briefest hesitation, Joey knocked again, harder and longer.
"Hold your horses," someone called from inside.
Relieved, Celeste exhaled explosively. "They're okay."
The man who opened the door—evidently John Bimmer—was about fifty-five, shiny bald on top with a Friar Tuck fringe of hair. His beer belly overhung his pants. The bags under his eyes, his drooping jowls, and his rubbery features made him appear as friendly and comfortable as an old hound dog.
Joey was holding the shotgun down at his side, safely aimed at the porch floor, and Bimmer didn't immediately see it. "You're an impatient young fella, ain't you?" he said affably. Then he spotted Celeste and broke into a wide smile. "Hey, missy, that lemon meringue pie you brought by yesterday was every bit of a first-rate job."
Celeste said, "Mr. Bimmer, we—"
"First rate," he repeated, interrupting her. He was wearing an unbuttoned flannel shirt, a white T-shirt, and tan pants held up by suspenders, and he patted the bulge of his belly to emphasize how good the pie had been. "Why, I even let Beth and Ma take a smell of that beauty before I ate it all myself?"
The night echoed with a hard crack, as if the wind had snapped off a big tree branch somewhere nearby, but it was not a branch and had nothing to do with the wind, because simultaneously with the sound, arterial blood brightened the front of John Bimmer's T-shirt. His engaging smile turned strange as he was half lifted off his feet and thrown backward by the power of the shot.
Joey shoved Celeste through the open doorway and to the living-room floor. He scrambled after her, dropped beside her, rolled onto his back, and kicked the front door shut hard enough to rattle a pair of pictures—John Kennedy, Pope John XXIII—and a bronze crucifix on the wall above the sofa.
Bimmer had been thrown backward with such force that he wasn't even lying in their way, which meant that the caliber of the weapon was big, damn big, a deer rifle, maybe even bigger than that, a lot of punch. Probably hollow-point cartridges too.
In a blue bathrobe and a crown of pink hair curlers, Bimmer's wife rose from an armchair in front of the television, even as the door was slamming shut, stunned into silence but only for an instant. When she saw her husband's vest of blood and the two shotguns, she reached the logical but incorrect conclusion. Screaming, she turned away from them.
"Get down!" Joey shouted, and Celeste cried out, "Beth, stay down!"
Unheeding, in a blind panic, heading toward the back of the house, Beth Bimmer crossed in front of a window. It imploded with an incongruously merry, bell-like ringing of shattering glass. She took a shot in the temple, which snapped her head to the side so hard that it might also have broken her neck, and as the phantom audience on the television laughed uproariously, she crashed to the living-room floor in front of a birdlike elderly woman in a yellow sweatsuit, who was sitting on the sofa.
The older woman had to be Hannah, Bimmer's mother, but she had no time to grieve for her son and daughter-in-law, because two of the next three shots were generous destiny's gifts for her, pumped through the same window but delivered without the merry-bell music of breaking glass, killing her where she sat, as she reached for her hickory cane with one palsied hand, before either Joey or Celeste could even cry out to her.
It was late October of 1975, and the Vietnam War had ended back in April, but Joey felt as if he were in one of those Asian battle zones that had filled the television news when he was growing up. The sudden, senseless death might have shocked him into immobility and fatal indecision—except that he was actually a forty-year-old man in a twenty-year-old body, and those additional twenty years of experience had been gained during a time when sudden, senseless violence had grown commonplace. As a product of the latter decades of the millennium, he could cope reasonably well in the midst of gunfire and random slaughter.
The living room was filled with light, making easy targets of him and Celeste, so he rolled onto his side and fired the 20-gauge Remington at a brass floor lamp with a fringed shade. The roar of the shotgun in that confined space was deafening, but he pumped a fresh shell into the breech and fired at one of the end-table lamps flanking the sofa, then pumped it again and took out the lamp on the other end table.
Understanding Joey's intent, Celeste fired one round into the television screen, silencing the sitcom. The burnt-powder stench of gunfire was immediately overlaid with the hot, astringent odor of ruined electronics.
"Stay low, under the windows," Joey instructed. In the ear-stunning aftermath of the shotgun fire, he sounded as though he were speaking through a woolen winter scarf, but even though his voice was muffled, he could hear the tremor of fear in it. He was a child of the premillennium follies, steeled to the savagery of his fellow human beings, but he nevertheless felt as though he might wet his pants. "Follow the walls to a doorway, any doorway, just get out of the room."
Crawling frantically along the floor in the darkness, dragging the shotgun by its strap, Joey wondered what role he was supposed to serve in his brother's nightmare tableau. If Celeste's parents returned to town and stepped into P.J.'s gun sights, locals would provide all twelve bodies needed for the creation of his demented bit of theater. But he must have a use in mind for Joey too. After all, he had raced to catch up with the Mustang on the county route, swung onto Coal Valley Road, and paused tauntingly, daring Joey to follow. Although he perpetrated atrocities that any normal person would call acts of madness, P.J. didn't otherwise behave irrationally. Even within his homicidal fantasies, he operated with an appreciation for structure and purpose, however grotesque they might be.
In the Bimmers' kitchen, the light in the oven clock cast a soft green glow that barely illuminated the room—but even that was bright enough to make most of the details visible and to keep Joey close to the floor.
Two windows. One over the sink. The other beside the breakfast table. Both had side-panel curtains and, better yet, vinyl roll-up blinds that were drawn halfway down.
Cautiously rising to his feet at the side of the breakfast table, with his back pressed to the wall, he reached out and pulled that blind all the way over the glass.
Breathing hard, both from exertion and fear, he was bizarrely convinced that P.J. had circled the house and was now directly behind him, outside, with only the wall between them. In spite of the wind and rain, maybe P.J. could track him by his loud breathing and would shoot him through the wall to which his back was pressed. The moment passed, and the shot in the spine didn't come, and his terror abated somewhat.
Although he would have preferred that Celeste remain on the floor, below any possible line of fire, she risked a bullet in the arm by drawing the blind at the sink window.
"You okay?" he asked, when they eased back to the floor and met again in the center of the kitchen, staying on their knees in spite of having secured the two windows.
"They're all dead, aren't they?" she whispered bleakly.
"I've known them all my life."
"Beth used to baby-sit me when I was little."
The eerie green glow from the oven clock made the Bimmer kitchen shimmer as though it were underwater or had passed through a veil into an unnatural realm outside the flow of real time and ordinary events. But the quality of the light alone could not provide him with blessed detachment and his gut remained knotted with tension; his throat was so constricted that he could barely swallow.
Fumbling spare shells from his pockets, dropping them through his shaky fingers, Joey said softly, "It's my fault."
"No, it's not. He knew where they were, where to find them. He knows who's still left in town and where they live. We didn't lead him here. He'd have come on his own anyway."
The dropped shells rolled away from him as he tried to recover them. His fingers were half numb, and his hands were shaking so badly that he gave up trying to reload until he calmed down.
Joey was surprised that his heart could still beat. It felt like cold iron in his chest.
They listened to the deadly night, alert for the stealthy sound of a door slowly easing open or the telltale clink of broken glass underfoot.
Eventually he said, "Back home, earlier, when I found the body in the trunk of his car, if I'd called the sheriff then and there, none of these people would be dead now."
"You can't blame yourself for that."
"Who the hell else should I blame?" He was instantly ashamed that he had responded so harshly. When he spoke again, his voice was bitter and remorseful, but his anger was directed at himself, not at her. "I knew the right thing to do, and I didn't do it."
"Listen," she said, finding one of his hands in the green gloom, holding it tightly, "that's not what I meant when I said you couldn't blame yourself. Think about it, Joey. Not calling the sheriff—you made that mistake twenty years ago, but you didn't make it tonight because your second chance didn't begin with P.J. at the house today, didn't begin with the finding of the body. It began only when you reached Coal Valley Road. Right?"
"You weren't given a second chance to turn him in to the sheriff earlier."
"But twenty years ago I should've—"
"That's history. Terrible history, and you'll have to live with that part of it. But now all that matters is what happens from here on. Nothing counts except how you chose—and continue to choose—to handle things after you took the right highway tonight."
"Haven't handled them well so far, have I? Three people dead."
"Three people who would've died anyway," she argued, "who probably did die the first time you lived through this night. It's horrible, it's painful, but it looks as if that part of it was meant to be, and there's no changing it."
Sinking deeper into anguish, Joey said, "Then what's the point of being given a second chance if it isn't to save these people?"
"You might be able to save others before the night is through."
"But why not all of them? I'm screwing up again."
"Stop beating yourself up. It's not for you to decide how many people you can save, how much you can change destiny. In fact, maybe the purpose of being given a second chance wasn't to save anyone in Coal Valley."
"Maybe not even me. Maybe I can't be saved either."
Her words left him speechless. She sounded as though she could accept the possibility of her own death with equanimity—while for Joey, the thought of failing her was like a hammer blow to the heart.
She said, "It may turn out that the only thing you can really accomplish tonight is to stop P.J. from going on from here. Stop him from committing twenty more years of murder. Maybe that's the only thing expected of you, Joey. Not saving me. Not saving anyone. Just stopping P.J. from doing even worse than what he'll do tonight. Maybe that's all God wants from you."
"There's no God here. No God in Coal Valley tonight."
She squeezed his hand, digging her fingernails into his flesh. "How can you say that?"
"Go look at the people in the living room."
"How can a god of mercy let people die like that?"
"Smarter people than us have tried to answer the same question."
"But that doesn't mean there isn't an answer," she said with rising anger and impatience. "Joey, if God didn't give you the chance to relive this night, then who did?"
"I don't know," he said miserably.
"You think maybe it was Rod Serling, and now you're stuck in the Twilight Zone?" she asked scornfully,
"No, of course not."
"Maybe it was just ... just an anomaly of physics. A random fold in time. An energy wave. Inexplicable and meaningless. I don't know. How the hell could I know?"