From out of the west, shattering windows, smashing through clapboard and wall studs and old wood paneling and stations of the cross, the Mustang exploded into the church, headlights unlit but engine screaming, horn suddenly blaring, tires popping like balloons as the floor splintered under them, driving forward with tremendous power, plowing into the pews, unstoppable. Those benches cracked free of their moorings, tilted up, slammed into one another—pews and kneelers erupting and crashing together and piling one atop the next in a cresting wave of wood, in a geometry of penitence—and still the Mustang surged forward, engine racing, gears grinding, trumpeting as it came.
Joey fell to the floor in the center aisle and shielded his head with his folded arms, certain that he was going to die in the tsunami of pews. He was even more certain that Celeste would die, whether crushed to death now or, later, after being nailed to the floor or to the wall by P.J. Joey had utterly failed her, failed himself. Following the storm of broken glass, the ,hail of plaster, the avalanche of wood, there would be a rain of blood. Over the roar of the Mustang, over the banshee horn, over the crack-split-shatter of wood, over the ringing of falling glass, over the ominous creak of sagging ceiling beams, he heard one special sound separate and eerily distinct from all others, and instantly he knew what it was: the bronze clatter and thud of the crucifix dropping off the back wall of the sanctuary.
THE COLD WIND WAS IN THE CHURCH NOW, SNIFFING AND PANTING, LIKE a pack of dogs through the ruins.
Joey lay facedown under a stack of tumbled pews and shattered wall beams, and although he felt no pain, he was afraid that his legs were crushed. When he dared to move, however, he discovered that he was neither injured nor pinned in place.
The rubble was a multitiered, three-dimensional maze. Joey was forced to crawl, writhe, and squirm through it as though he were a rat-seeking ferret exploring the depths of an ancient timberfall.
Shingles, laths, and chunks of other debris still dropped out of the demolished wall and from the damaged ceiling, clattering into the wreckage. The wind played the narrow twisting passages in the destruction as though they were flutes, piping an eerie, tuneless music. But the car engine had died.
After wriggling through an especially cramped space between slabs of prayer-polished oak, Joey came to the front wheel of the Mustang. The tire was flat, and the fender had crumpled around it like paper.
From the undercarriage, greenish antifreeze drizzled like dragon's blood. The radiator had burst.
He squeezed farther along the side of the car. Just past the driver's door, he reached a place where he was able to stand up between the vehicle and the surrounding rubble.
He hoped to see his brother dead in the Mustang, the shaft of the steering wheel driven through his chest by the impact or his body pitched halfway through the windshield. But the driver's door was open just wide enough to allow escape, and P.J. was gone.
"Celeste!" Joey shouted.
PT would be looking for her.
He smelled gasoline. The fuel tank had burst.
The surrounding pews and slabs of wood paneling and sheared-off two-by-fours had tilted up higher than the car. He couldn't see much of the church.
Joey levered himself onto the roof of the Mustang. He rose to his feet, turning his back to the damaged wall and the rain-slashed night.
St. Thomas's was filled with strange light and swarming shadows. Some ceiling bulbs were still on, but others were out. Toward the rear of the church, showers of white-gold-blue sparks cascaded from a damaged overhead fixture.
In the sanctuary, the candles had toppled when the building had been shaken by the impact of the hurtling car. The sheets on the altar platform were afire.
Shuttling, weaving shadows made a fabric of confusion, but one among them moved with a linear purpose that snapped Joey's attention to it. Coming off the ambulatory onto the presbytery was P.J. He was carrying Celeste. She was unconscious, cradled in his arms, head tilted back, tender throat exposed, black hair trailing almost to the floor.
For an instant, Joey couldn't breathe.
Then he was gasping.
He plunged off the roof of the Mustang onto the crumpled hood and clambered up from the car onto the surrounding jumble of pews and beams and buckled wallboard. The wreckage shifted under him, threatening to open and swallow him in a maw of wickedly splintered boards and twisted nails, but he kept moving, wobbling and lurching, arms spread like those of a lumberjack trying to maintain his balance in a logrolling contest.
At the three altar steps, P.J. ascended.
The back wall of the sanctuary, without crucifix, crawled with images of fire.
Joey jumped down from the pile of rubble into an open space in front of the sanctuary railing.
On the altar, P.J. dropped Celeste onto the burning sheets, as though she were not a persona special and needed person—but only an armful of trash.
"No!" Joey shouted, leaping across the sanctuary railing, stumbling into the curving ambulatory that would take him around the choir and up to the high altar.
Her raincoat caught fire. He saw the flames leap hungrily from that new fuel.
Her hair. Her hair!
Stung by the flames, she regained consciousness and screamed.
Rounding the ambulatory, reaching the presbytery walkway, Joey saw P.J. standing over Celeste, on the burning sheets, oblivious of the fire around his feet, hunched like some round-backed beast, the hammer in one hand and raised high to strike.
With his heart knocking as loud as Death's fist on a door, Joey crossed the presbytery, toward the altar steps.
The hammer arced down.
Her cry of terror. Heart piercing. Cut off by the sound of the steel hammer crushing her skull.
A bleat of misery tore free of Joey as he reached the foot of the altar steps.
P.J. whipped around. "Little brother." He was grinning. Eyes adance with reflections of fire. Face blistered by water burns. He triumphantly raised the blood-wet hammer. "Now let's nail her down."
Something fluttered across Joey's vision. No. Nor across. The flutter wasn't anything in the church, nothing real. Behind his eyes. Like a darting shadow of wings on rippled, sun-spangled water.
Everything had changed.
The fire was gone.
So was P.J.
The crucifix hung on the back wall again. The candles were all upright, the makeshift altar cloth unburned.
Celeste grabbed him by the shoulder, spun him, seized the lapels of his denim jacket.
He gasped in surprise.
She said, "You're running out of time, Joey. Not much time left to believe."
He heard himself say, "I believe—"
"Not in what matters," she interrupted.
She let go of him and vaulted over the presbytery balustrade into the choir enclosure, landing solidly on both feet.
There was as yet no ragged breach in the west wall. The Mustang had not yet exploded into the church.
Joey had been thrown back in time again. Not twenty years as before. Only a minute. Two minutes at most.
A chance to save her.
Running to the sanctuary gate, she shouted, "Come touch the floor, Joey, touch where the water spilled, see whether it's hot enough for steam, hurry!"
Joey put a hand on the balustrade, ready to vault across it and go after her.
No. Do it right this time. Last chance. Do it right.
Celeste shoved through the sanctuary gate.
Over the incessant drumming of the rain on the roof, another sound arose. An escalating roar. The Mustang.
With a terrifying conviction that he was wasting precious seconds and that this replay was running faster than the original event, Joey snatched the 20-gauge shotgun from the presbytery floor.
Celeste hurried into the center aisle.
He shouted frantically—"Get out of the way! The car!"—as he hurtled over the balustrade with the shotgun in one hand.
She was halfway down the aisle, as she had been the first time. She turned, as before. Her face was slick with sweat. Like a ceramic glaze. Glistening with candlelight. The face of a saint. A martyr.
The roar of the Mustang swelled.
Puzzled, she half turned toward the windows, raising her hands.
In her delicate palms were hideous wounds. Black holes thick with blood.
"Run!" he shouted, but she froze where she was.
This time he didn't even reach the sanctuary railing before the Mustang slammed through the west wall of the church. A tidal wave of glass and wood and plaster and broken pews crested before the running-horse hood ornament, washed back along both fenders, until the car was all but hidden in the debris.
A length of board, spinning like a martial-arts weapon, whistled through the air, hit Celeste, and knocked her to the floor more than halfway down the center aisle—which was something that Joey hadn't been able to see from his previous vantage point, the first time that he had lived through the crash.
With a double bang of blowing tires, the car came to a halt in steepled rubble, and even above the clatter of the last tumbling pews, Joey heard the curiously separate and distinct clank of the bronze crucifix falling off the back wall of the sanctuary.
Instead of lying half trapped under the destruction in the nave, as before, he was still in the sanctuary, untouched by anything other than the cloud of pale dust that the incoming wind swept out of the ruins. And this time he was armed.
Chambering a shell in the 20-gauge Remington, he kicked through the sanctuary gate.
The wreckage was still settling, and debris was falling from the corner of the roof that had sagged inward when the supports had been knocked from under it. The amount of residual noise was greater than it had seemed to Joey when he had been lying under the ruins, but then he had been half dazed.
As far as he was able to discern, the destruction had fallen into precisely the same patterns as before. The Mustang still could not be approached easily or directly. He could see only sections of it through gaps in the ruins.
He had to do it right this time. No mistakes. Finish him off.
Toting the gun, Joey climbed onto the precariously stacked pews. They creaked and groaned, wobbled and shuddered, treacherous beneath him. Wary of protruding nails and glass daggers, he nevertheless clambered quickly across upturned benches, splintered window frames, cracked two-by-fours, and slabs of wallboard, reaching the car much faster than when he'd had to snake his way to it from the bottom of the rubble.
Even as he jumped down from a pew onto the Mustang's hood, he fired a round from the shotgun into the pitch-dark interior of the car. He wasn't well balanced, and the recoil nearly knocked him off his feet, but he stayed upright, pumped the Remington, fired again, and a third time, filled with savage judgmental glee, confident that P.J. could not have lived through that storm of buckshot.
The three shots were thunderous, and in the fading echo of the third, he heard a movement behind him that didn't sound like merely another settling noise, that seemed to be more purposeful. It was impossible that P.J. could have gotten out of the car before Joey had arrived this time, impossible that he could have both gotten out and circled around behind. Joey started to turn, looking back and up—and beheld the impossible from the corner of his eye. P.J. was right there, coming down on him, descending the precarious woodpile with daunting agility, swinging a length of two-by-four.
The flat of the heavy club struck Joey hard along the right temple. He fell onto the car hood, losing his grip on the shotgun, instinctively rolling away from his assailant, drawing his knees up and tucking his head down in the fetal position. The second blow smashed the ribs along his left side and drove all the breath out of him. Wheezing for air, getting none, he rolled again. The third blow landed on his back, and a scintillant pain coruscated along his spine. He rolled through the shot-out windshield, over the dashboard, into the front seat of the dark Mustang, and from there dropped into a far deeper, more profound blackness.
When he came around, rising out of a cloistered inner space of softly scurrying midnight spiders, he was certain that he'd been unconscious for only a few seconds, surely less than a minute. He was still struggling mightily to breathe. Sharp pain in his ribs. The taste of his own blood.
Sliding through gummy safety glass and buckshot, Joey pulled himself behind the steering wheel. He pushed the door open as far as the embracing rubble would allow, but that was far enough to get out into the October wind and the flickering light.
Toward the narthex and the overturned holy-water font, sparks cascaded from a ceiling fixture.
In the other direction, orange reflections of fire and shadows of flames slithered up the back wall of the sacristy, but he couldn't see the blaze itself through the encircling ruins.
Having taken the first blow from the two-by-four on the right side of his head, he had little vision in that eye. Blurred shapes throbbed and swarmed among twinkling phantom lights.
He smelled gasoline.
He dragged-levered-kicked himself onto the roof of the Mustang. He was too dizzy to get all the way to his feet. On his knees, he surveyed the church.
With his left eye, he could see P.J. ascending the altar steps with Celeste unconscious in his arms.
The candles had toppled. The altar cloth was afire.
Joey heard someone cursing, then realized that he was listening to his own voice. He was cursing himself.
Cruelly dropping Celeste onto the seething altar platform, P.J. Snatched up the hammer.
Joey heard sobbing where there had been cursing, and devastating pain detonated along his left side, through his broken ribs.
The hammer. Raised high.
Stung to wakefulness by the fire, Celeste screamed.
From the altar platform, P.J. peered across the church, toward the Mustang, toward Joey, and his eyes were filled with jack-o'-lantern light.
The hammer crashed down.
A flutter. Behind Joey's eyes. Like a darting shadow of wings on rippled, sun-spangled water. Like the flight of angels half seen at the periphery of vision.
Everything had changed.
His ribs were no longer broken.
His vision was clear.
He had not yet been beaten by his brother.
One more chance.
Surely it would be the last.
And he hadn't been cast backward in time as far as he had been before. His window of opportunity was narrower than ever, giving him less time to think; his chances of altering their fate were poor, because now he didn't have leeway for even a small error in judgment. The Mustang had already rammed into the church, the high altar was burning, and Joey was already scrambling across the steepled rubble, jumping down onto the hood of the car, squeezing the trigger on the Remington.