On the far side of town, an orange glow rose from a pit where the fire in one branch of the mine maze had burned close enough to the surface to precipitate a sudden subsidence. There the seething subterranean inferno was exposed, where otherwise it remained hidden under the untenanted houses and the heat-cracked streets.
"Is he down there?" Celeste asked, as though Joey might be able to sense clairvoyantly the presence of their faceless enemy.
The fitful precognitive flashes he had experienced thus far were beyond his control, however, and far too enigmatic to serve as a map to the lair of the killer. Besides, he suspected that the whole point of his being allowed to replay this night was to give him the chance to succeed or fail, to do right or do wrong, drawing only on the depth of his own wisdom, judgment, and courage. Coal Valley was his testing ground. No guardian angel was going to whisper instructions in his ear—or step between him and a razor-sharp knife flashing out of shadows.
"He could've driven straight through town without stopping," Joey said. "Could've gone to Black Hollow Highway and maybe from there to the turnpike. That's the route I usually took back to college. But ... I think he's down there, somewhere down there. Waiting."
"He waited for me after he turned off the county route onto Coal Valley Road. Just stopped on the roadway and waited to see if I was going to follow him."
"Why would he do that?"
Joey suspected that he knew the answer. He sensed suppressed, sharp-toothed knowledge swimming like a shark in the lightless sea of his subconscious, but he couldn't entice it to surface. It would soar out of the murky depths and come for him when he was least expecting
"Sooner or later we'll find out," he said.
He knew in his bones that confrontation was inevitable. They were captured by the fierce gravity of a black hole, pulled toward an inescapable and crushing truth.
On the far side of Coal Valley, the glow at the open pit pulsed brighter than before. Streams of white and red sparks spewed out of the earth, like great swarms of fireflies, expelled with such force that they rose at least a hundred feet into the heavy rain before being quenched.
Fearful that a fluttering in his belly could quickly grow into a paralyzing weakness, Joey switched off the dome light, steered the Mustang back onto Coal Valley Road, and drove toward the desolate village below.
"We'll go straight to my house," Celeste said.
"I don't know if we should."
"It might not be a good idea."
"We'll be safe there with my folks."
"The idea isn't just to get safe."
"What is the idea?"
"To keep you alive."
"And to stop him."
"Stop him? The killer?"
"It makes sense. I mean, how can there be any redemption if I knowingly turn my back on evil and walk away from it? Saving you has to be only half of what I need to do. Stopping him is the other half."
"This is getting too mystical again. When do we call in the exorcist, start spritzing holy water?"
"It is what it is. I can't help that."
"Listen, Joey, here's what makes sense. My dad has a gun cabinet full of hunting rifles, a shotgun. That's what we need."
"But what if going to your house draws him there? Otherwise maybe your parents wouldn't be in danger from him, wouldn't ever encounter him."
"Shit, this is deeply crazy," she said. "And you better believe, I don't use the word 'shit' often or lightly."
"Principal's daughter," he said.
"By the way, a little while ago, what you said about yourself—it isn't true."
"Huh? What did I say?"
"You're not nerdy."
"I'm a regular Olivia Newton-John," she said self-mockingly.
"And you've got a good heart—too good to want to change your own fate and ensure your future at the cost of your parents' lives."
For a moment she was silent in the roar of the sanctifying rain. Then she said, "No. God, no, I don't want that. But it would take so little time to get into the house, open the gun cabinet in the den, and load up."
"Everything we do tonight, every decision we make, has heavy consequences. The same thing would be true if this was an ordinary night, without all this weirdness. That's something I once forgot—that there are always moral consequences—and I paid a heavy price for forgetting. Tonight it's truer than ever."
As they descended the last of the long slope and drew near the edge of town, Celeste said, "So what are we supposed to do—just cruise around, stay on the move, wait for that avalanche you talked about to hit us?"
"Play it as it lays."
"But how does it lay?" she asked with considerable frustration.
"We'll see. Show me your hands."
She switched on the flashlight and revealed one palm, then the other.
"They're only dark bruises now," he told her. "No bleeding. We're doing something right."
The car hit a narrow band of subsidence in the pavement, not a deep pit with flames at the bottom, just a shallow swale about two yards wide, although it was rough enough to jolt them, make the car springs creak, scrape the muffler, and spring open the door on the glove box, which evidently had not been closed tightly.
The flapping door startled Celeste, and she swung the flashlight toward it. The beam flared off a curve of clear glass in that small compartment. A jar. Four or five inches tall, three to four inches in diameter. Once it might have contained pickles or peanut butter. The label had been removed. It was filled with a liquid now, which was made opaque by the glimmering reflections of the flashlight beam, and in the liquid floated something peculiar, not quite identifiable, but nevertheless alarming.
"What's this?" she asked, reaching into the glove box without hesitation but with a palpable dread, compelled against her better judgment, just as Joey was, to have a closer look.
She withdrew the jar.
Held it up.
Floating in pink-tinted fluid was a pair of blue eyes.
GRAVEL RATTLED AGAINST THE UNDERCARRIAGE, THE MUSTANG THUMPED across a depression, and Joey tore his gaze from the jar in time to see a mailbox disintegrate on contact with the front bumper. The car churned across the lawn of the first house in Coal Valley and came to a stop just inches before plowing into the front porch.
Instantly he was cast into a memory from the first time that he had lived through this night, when he had failed to take the turnoff to Coal Valley:
... driving the Mustang recklessly fast on the interstate, in a night full of rain and sleet, in a frenzy to escape, as though a demon were in pursuit of him, torn up about something, alternately cursing God and praying to Him. His stomach is acidic, churning. There's a roll of Tums in the glove box. Holding the wheel with one hand, he leans to the right, punches the latch release, and the door in the dashboard drops open. He reaches into that small compartment, feeling for the roll of antacid—and he finds the jar. Smooth and cool. He can't figure what it is. He doesn't keep a jar of anything in there. He takes it out, The headlights of an oncoming big rig, on the far side of the divided highway, throw enough light into the car for him to see the contents of the jar. Eyes. Either he jerks the wheel reflexively or the tires hydroplane on the slick pavement, because suddenly the Mustang is totally out of control, sliding, spinning. The signpost. A terrible crash. His head smacks against the window, safety glass shattering into a gummy mass but cutting him nonetheless. Rebounding from the steel signpost, slamming into the guardrail. Stopped. He forces open the damaged door and scrambles out into the storm. He has to get rid of the jar, dear Jesus, get rid of it before someone stops to help him. Not much traffic in this killing weather, but surely someone will be a good Samaritan when that is the last thing he needs. He's lost the jar. No. He can't have lost the jar. He feels around frantically in the car: the floor in front of the driver's seat. Cool glass. Intact. The lid still screwed on tight. Thank God, thank God. He runs with it past the front of the car to the guardrail. Beyond is wild land, an open field full of tall weeds. With all the strength he can muster, he hurls the jar far into the darkness. And then time passes and he finds himself still standing on the verge of the highway, not sure what he's doing there, confused. Sleet stings his exposed face and hands. He's got a fierce headache. He touches his forehead, finds the cut. He needs medical attention. Maybe stitches. There's an exit one mile ahead. He knows the town. He can find the hospital. No Samaritan has stopped. It's that kind of world these days. When he gets back into the battered Mustang, he is relieved to discover that it's still operable and that the damaged fender isn't binding against the front tire. He's going to be all right. He's going to be all right.
Sitting in front of the Coal Valley house, with pieces of the mangled mailbox scattered across the lawn behind him, Joey realized that when he'd driven away from the crash scene on the interstate twenty years ago, he had forgotten about the jar and the eyes. Either the head injury had resulted in selective amnesia—or he'd willed himself to forget. He was overcome by the sick feeling that the explanation involved more of the latter than the former, that his moral courage—not his physiology—had failed him.
In that alternate reality, the jar lay hidden in a weedy field, but here it was in Celeste's grip. She had dropped the flashlight and held fast to the jar with both hands, perhaps because she was afraid that the lid would come loose and the contents would spill into her lap. She shoved the container into the glove box and slammed the small door shut.
Gasping, half sobbing, she hugged herself and bent forward in her seat. "Oh, shit, oh, shit, oh, shit," she chanted, using the word no more tightly now than before.
Gripping the steering wheel so tightly that he wouldn't have been surprised if it had broken apart in his hands, Joey was filled with an inner turmoil more violent than the hard shatters of wind-driven rain that broke over the Mustang. He was on the brink of understanding the jar: where it had come from, whose eyes it contained, what it meant, why he had blocked it from memory all these years. But he couldn't quite bring himself to step off that brink into the cold void of truth, perhaps because he knew that he didn't yet possess the strength to face what he would discover at the bottom of the fall.
"I didn't," he said miserably.
Celeste was rocking in her seat, hugging herself, huddled over her crossed arms, making a low, tortured sound.
"I didn't," he repeated.
Slowly she raised her head.
Her eyes were as appealing as ever, suggesting unusual depths of character and knowledge beyond her years, but a new quality informed them as well, something disturbing. Perhaps it was an unsought and unwanted awareness of the human capacity for evil. She still looked like the girl he had picked up only eight or ten miles back along the road—but in a fundamental sense she was not that girl any more, and she could never return to the state of innocence in which she had entered the night. She was not a schoolgirl now, not the shy doe who had blushed when revealing the crush she had on him—and that was unspeakably sad.
He said, "I didn't put the jar there. I didn't put the eyes in the jar. It wasn't me."
"I know," she said simply and with a firm conviction for which he loved her. She glanced at the glove box, then back at him. "You couldn't have. Not you. Not you, Joey, not ever. You aren't capable of anything like that."
Again he teetered on a precipice of revelation, but a tide of anguish washed him back from it rather than over the edge. "They've got to be her eyes."
"The blonde in the plastic tarp."
"Yeah. And I think somehow ... somehow I know who she is, know how she wound up dead with her eyes cut out. But I just can't quite remember."
"Earlier you said that she was more than a vision, more than drunk's hallucination."
"Yeah. For sure. She's a memory. I saw her for real somewhere, sometime." He put one hand to his forehead, gripping his skull so tightly that his hand shook with the effort and the muscles twitched the length of his arm, as if he could pull the forgotten knowledge out of himself.
"Who could have gotten in your car to leave the jar?" she asked.
"I don't know."
"Where were you early in the evening, before you set out to go to college?"
"Home. Asherville. My folks' house. I didn't stop anywhere between there and your Valiant."
"Was the Mustang in the garage?"
"We don't have a garage. It's not ... that kind of house."
"Was it locked?"
"Then anybody could have gotten into your car."
No one had come out of the house in front of them, because it was one of the first properties condemned in Coal Valley, abandoned for months. On the white aluminum siding, someone had spray-painted a big "4" and drawn a circle around it. As red as fresh blood in the Mustang's headlights, the number was not graffiti but an official designation: It meant that the house would be the fourth structure to be torn down when the last citizens of Coal Valley moved out and the demolition crew came in with its bulldozers.
The state and federal bureaucracies had been so inefficient and slow in dealing with the mine fire that it had been allowed to spread relentlessly until its white-hot tributaries lay under the entire valley, whereupon it had grown too far-reaching to be extinguished by anything other than time and nature. With the destruction of the village, however, the authorities clearly intended to be as orderly and speedy as a clockwork military operation.
"We're sitting ducks here," he said.
Without checking Celeste's hands, certain that this immobility had already resulted in a resurgence of the stigmata, he shifted the Mustang into reverse and backed across the lawn to the street. So much rain had fallen that he was worried about getting bogged down in the soft sod, but they reached the blacktop without trouble.
"Where now?" she asked.
"We'll look around town."
"Anything out of the ordinary."
"It's all out of the ordinary."
"We'll know it when we see it."
He cruised slowly along Coal Valley Road, which was the main thoroughfare through town.