The powerful blast took P.J. in the belly and chest, lifted him off his feet, spun him all the way around. He stumbled and went to his knees still facing Joey, folding his arms around his torso, bending forward, hugging himself as though to prevent his buckshot-riddled intestines from spilling out.

If Joey could have lifted his arms, he would have picked up the shotgun and fired again. He would have emptied the magazine. But his muscles would no longer even so much as twitch. His hands wouldn't even flop convulsively at his sides. He suspected that he was paralyzed from the neck down.

The rumble under the church grew louder.

Thin exhalations of sulfurous steam rose through cracks in the mortar between the flooring stones.

P.J. slowly raised his head, revealing a face that was hideously contorted in agony, eyes wide with shock, mouth stretched in a silent scream. He gagged, retched, choked rackingly. A phlegmy gurgle in his throat suddenly became a violent series of disgorging spasms. From his mouth gushed not rich arterial blood but a grotesque silver vomit, a stream of small glittering coins that rang onto the floor, as though he were a human slot machine.

Repulsed, astonished, stone-cold terrified, Joey looked up from the silver hoard as P.J. spat out one last coin and broke into a grin that could have been no more malevolent if it had been on the bare-bone face of Death himself. He unfolded his arms from his blasted torso and held his pale hands out in the manner of a magician saying Presto!, and although his clothes had been torn by the buckshot, he seemed to have suffered no wounds at all.

Joey knew that he must be dying, hallucinating, more than halfway to the Other Side and out of his head with pain. The delirium tremens of death made the crawling walls of a drunkard's nightmares seem amusing by contrast.

He screamed at Celeste to wake up, to run, but the warnings were only whispers that even he could barely hear.

The quaking, steaming floor abruptly cracked the width of the room. Along that jagged line, thin spears of fierce orange light stabbed up from the realm below. Mortar crumbled into the burning mine. Stones broke loose and tumbled out of sight. The overhead timbers cracked, and the cellar walls shook. The fissure in the floor rapidly widened to an inch, two inches, six inches, a foot, two feet, filling the room with blinding light, providing a glimpse of white-hot mine walls below, separating Joey from P.J. and Celeste.

Over the groans and skreeks of the shaken church, over the roar of the fire below and the thunder of subsidence, P.J. said, "Better say goodbye to the bitch, altar boy." He shoved Celeste into the blaze beneath Coal Valley, into volcanic heat and molten anthracite and instant death.

Ah, no! No! Please, God, no, no, please, no, not her, not her. Me, but not her. I'm self-pitying, arrogant, weak, blind to the truth, too ignorant to know what a second chance means, and I deserve whatever happens to me, but not her, not her in all her beauty, not her in all her kindness, not her!

A flutter. Behind Joey's eyes.

A flutter like the feathery shadows of many wings taking flight across a mysterious, great sphere of light.

Everything had changed.

He was uninjured. Free of pain. On his feet.

He was upstairs in the church.


The Mustang had already crashed through the wall. P.J. already had Celeste.

Time had been wound backward but not far enough to give him an opportunity to think through his predicament. Only a couple of minutes remained until the subsidence would hit, not a second to waste.

Joey knew beyond doubt that this was his last chance, that the next spiral of events would not be rewound to bring him back to any moment of fatal error. The next damnation he earned would be his to keep. So there must be no errors this time, no mistakes, no failure to believe.

He was running between two rows of pews toward the side aisle along the east wall of the nave.

In the sanctuary at the front of the church, a slouching figure hunched along the ambulatory, through the dervish reflections of the altar fire above. It was P.J. He was carrying Celeste.

Joey reached the side aisle and raced forward along the unbroken panes of rain-beaten glass toward the sanctuary railing. He threw down the shotgun. He had no faith in it any more.

P.J. disappeared with Celeste through the door to the sacristy, slamming it behind him.

Joey vaulted over the sanctuary railing, followed the ambulatory to the sacristy door, but didn't stop there. He continued to the presbytery, to the altar stairs, to the altar platform, sidled around the overturned candles and the burning sheets, and went to the back wall of the sanctuary.

The crucifix had been shaken off its nail when the Mustang had crashed into the church. It lay facedown on the floor.

Joey picked up the bronze figure on the wooden cross and rushed back to the sacristy door. Locked.

The previous time, he'd blown it open with one round from the Remington. Now he considered returning to the nave to retrieve the discarded weapon.

Instead, he reared back and kicked the door as hard as he could, kicked it again, kicked, kicked. The stop molding cracked on the other side, a little play came into the door, he kicked it again, and yet again, was rewarded by a twang of metal, by splintering wood. He kicked it once more. The lock sprang, the stop molding shattered, the door flew open, and he went into the sacristy.

The cellar door.

The wooden stairs.

Because he'd had to batter down the door, Joey was now behind schedule. He was arriving at this point later in the replay than he had the first time. His brother's serpentine shadow had already slithered out of the moon-yellow light below and was nowhere to be seen. P.J. was farther into the labyrinthine cellar than before. With Celeste.

Joey started to descend the stairs two at a time, then realized that caution was still required. By discarding the gun and taking up the crucifix, he had altered the future that would unfold from this point on. Previously, he had reached the final chamber in the cellar before encountering P.J., but this time his brother might be waiting elsewhere along the way. He clutched the stair railing with one hand and continued downward with circumspection.

Such heat. An oven.

The smell of hot lime from the concrete. Hot stone baking in the walls.

In the first room, the jittering shadow of the frenzied spider spiraled ceaselessly on the floor.

Warily crossing toward the archway, Joey searched the long, deep coffers between the ceiling timbers for something other than spiders.

By the time he reached the second room, a railroad rumble had arisen under St. Thomas's.

As he stepped into the third chamber, the ominous sound swelled and was accompanied by tremors in the floor.

No time for caution.

No time for mistakes either.

He gripped the crucifix tightly in his right hand, held it out in front of him: Professor Von Helsing in the castle of the count.

Overhead. Shadows. Only shadows.

Room by room to the final archway.

Celeste lay unconscious under the single lightbulb.

The village-rocking subsidence hit, the church shook, and Joey was thrown through the archway into the final chamber just as the stone floor cracked open. Blades of orange light slashed out of the tunnel below. The fault in the floor widened as mortar disintegrated and stones broke loose, creating a more formidable gap between him and Celeste.

P.J. seemed to have vanished.

Stepping under the ceiling coffer that lay just this side of the fissure, standing with the brink of the raging mine fire to his right, Joey peered up expectantly into the recess between the rough timbers. P.J. was there as before, scuttling toward him, spider quick and spider agile, defying gravity, weirder than ever in the seething firelight. He shrieked, twitched with an arachnid spasm, and flung himself down at his prey.

Joey had no more Twilight Zone explanations to fall back upon, no more quirks of quantum physics, no more Star Trek time warps or energy waves, no more relatively polite monsters from the X-Files that might be taken out with a shotgun, not even any more complex Freudian analyses. There was only the real thing now, the foul and ancient thing, purest evil, the greatest fear of so many other centuries, millennia, here now swooping at him, shrieking hatred, reeking of sulfur, dark devourer of souls, eater of hope: only the fundamentals now, only a beast so primal that believing in it was difficult even when face to face with it. Joey cast out all doubt, however, overcame all cynicism, shed the supposed sophistication of the postmodern age, raised the crucifix in both hands, and thrust it out in front of him.

The top of the crucifix was blunt, not pointed, but it impaled P.J. when he slammed into it. Impaled, however, he was not stopped. He

fell into Joey and drove him backward. They staggered, stumbled, stayed on their feet, but teetered on the edge of the fiery gulf.

P.J. got one hand around Joey's throat. His fingers were as powerful as the jaws of a motorized vise, as shiny and hard as the carapace of

a dung beetle. His yellow eyes reminded Joey of the mongrel dog that he'd seen only that morning on the front porch of his dad's house.

When P.J. spoke, black blood bubbled on his lips: "Altar boy."

In the inferno below, an expansive pocket of toxic gases burst from confinement and exploded, shimmering incandescently. A white ball of flame spun out of the cellar floor, engulfed them, igniting P.J.'s clothes and hair, scorching away his skin in an instant. He released Joey, lost his balance, and with the crucifix embedded in his chest, he dropped through the steadily widening fissure into the old mine tunnel, folding the cape of fire around his body and taking it with him.

Although Joey had been immersed in the flames, he was unharmed. His clothes were not even singed.

He didn't need to ask Rod Setting or Captain Kirk or the ever logical Mr. Spock or anyone else to explain his miraculous escape from injury.

The merciless subterranean light blazed so fiercely that he couldn't see much even when he squinted, but he was sure that his brother fell an immeasurably greater distance than merely to the floor of an old tunnel, farther even than any vertical shaft in any coal mine could have possibly bored into the earth. His body was a frenzied spiky darkness that spiraled down like a spider's shadow, jittering down and around, jittering around and down, around and down and away.

Joey leaped across the fissure in the floor as it cracked wider, and he knelt at Celeste's side.

He lifted her right hand and turned the palm up, then her left hand. No wounds. Not even faint bruises.

When he tried to wake her, she murmured and stirred but didn't regain consciousness.

Substrata of coal, eaten away by years of hidden fires, had left layered cavities under Coal Valley. The weight of the surface world, with all its iron sorrows, at last became too great to be supported by the impaired structures that had once served as its foundations. This section of the valley, if no other, suffered a catastrophic subsidence in which the empty veins of fire-stripped coal imploded, collapsed into one another. The cellar shook, the floor heaved, and the fissure widened in an instant from three to five feet. The upper portion of St. Thomas's was tweaked from a rectangle into a rhomboid; and the wooden walls began to tear loose of the stone substructure to which they had been so long anchored.

As the ceiling sagged dangerously, as plaster fell and beams cracked, Joey scooped Celeste off the floor.

Gasping for breath in the furnace-hot air, blinking through rivers of eye-stinging sweat, he turned to the fissure. It was now six feet across, far too wide to be jumped with the girl in his arms.

Even if he could get across the abyss somehow, he knew that he wouldn't be able to make it all the way back through the cellar chambers to the steps, up to the sacristy, and out of the place before it collapsed.

His heart slammed against his caging ribs. His knees shook not under the weight of the girl but with the hard realization of his own mortality.

They couldn't die like this.

They had come too far, survived too much.

He had done the right thing, and that was what mattered. He had done the right thing, and now, whatever happened, he would not be afraid, not even here in the valley of the shadow of death.

I will fear no evil.

Abruptly the splintering ceiling stopped sagging toward him and pulled up instead, increasing his head room, as the building's superstructure noisily uprooted itself and tipped away from this end of the cellar.

Cold wind howled at his back.

Joey turned to the end wall of the basement and was astonished to see the sill plate wrenching loose of the anchor bolts that had held it to the stone. Jack studs snapped, the sole plate buckled, and all of it rose in an arc through the night as the church slowly tilted up and away from Joey. A wedge-shaped gap had opened between the foundation and the receding wall, through which the storm wind surged down into the exposed cellar. The gap was growing wider as the building tipped backward from him.

A way out.

The cellar wall was still eight feet high. He saw no easy way to scale it. Especially not with Celeste in his arms.

With a thunder of falling stone, the pit widened at his back, and the firestorm raged closer to his heels. Inblown rain steamed off the floor.

His heart raced but not in fear now, only in wonder, as he waited for his destiny to unfold.

Before him, wide cracks opened in the cellar wall, zigzagging along the mortar lines. The shaking ground jarred loose a stone that clattered to the floor, bounced, and knocked painfully against his shin. Here, another stone; there, a third; and a little higher, a fourth, a fifth. The foundation wall retained its integrity, but now it offered handholds.

Joey shifted Celeste, slung her over his left shoulder in a fireman's carry. He climbed out of the suffocating heat into the rain-filled night as the building tilted away, away, away like a giant clipper ship tacking in a strong wind.

He dragged her through sodden grass and thick mud, past the vent pipe from which flames spouted like blood from an arterial tap. Onto the sidewalk. Into the street.

Sitting on the blacktop with Celeste in his arms, holding her tightly

while she began to regain consciousness, Joey watched as the Church

of St. Thomas was torn asunder, as the ruins ignited, and as the burning

walls collapsed into a bright chasm, into far deeper grottoes, and finally

into unknown kingdoms of fire.



LONG PAST MIDNIGHT, AFTER GIVING THEIR STATEMENTS TO DEPUTIES from the county sheriff's department and to the Pennsylvania State Police, Joey and Celeste were driven back to Asherville.

The police had issued a condemnation order for the village of Coal Valley. Saved from P.J. without ever knowing that they had been in danger, the Dolan family had been evacuated.

The bodies of John, Beth, and Hannah Bimmer would be taken to the Devokowski Funeral Home, where Joey's father had so recently rested.

Celeste's parents, waiting in Asherville with the Korshaks for word of poor Beverly's fate, had not only been given the bad news about the murder but had already been informed that they would not be permitted to return to Coal Valley this night and that their daughter would be brought to them. In addition to the church, subsidence had suddenly claimed half a block of homes in another part of town, and the ground was too unstable to risk continued habitation.