He froze on the path, bit his lip, and closed his eyes. A tear slipped down his left cheek. He was going insane. That was it. He knew he was completely losing his mind.
Slowly, Thomas Randall turned. In the middle of the path behind him was a tree. But not a tree. Not like the other things that grew in the park. For one thing, it was not rooted into the path, but stood upon its powerful roots. The tree bent over slightly so that the eyes cut in its bark could look down upon him, its branches and leaves blotting out the sun above. It was Broadbough, the captain of the Forest Rangers.
"Our Boy," it said solemnly, "you must come back to Strangewood. If you do not, your son will surely die."
With a shriek, Thomas crumpled to the path and lay there sobbing until a young couple jogged by. The man stayed with him while the woman went for help. After a while, the man was able to get him to his feet and begin to walk along the path. But he was forced to lead Thomas by the elbow until they were out onto the rolling lawn of Central Park.
Thomas would not open his eyes until he was away from the trees.
The hospital cafeteria was relatively deserted when Emily slid into a chair near the row of windows on the far wall. She dumped her purse onto the chair next to her and set down the paper cup of chicken broth she'd gotten from a machine that dispensed the brew in the same way it would coffee or cocoa. It was much too salty, and it scalded her tongue, but Emily loved it because it reminded her of her childhood.
It was perverse, in a way. Her grandfather had died of cancer fifteen years earlier, a horrid, debilitating experience for all those who had loved him. But she fondly recalled the chicken broth she'd get from a vending machine for a quarter. This wasn't exactly the same, but the taste was pretty close. If anything, this was even saltier.
The urge to return to Nathan's room rose up and she quashed it immediately. Without short breaks like this one, the little room would quickly become unbearable, so she forced herself to sit there and sip at the broth and stare out the window onto the lawn where the oak trees threw long afternoon shadows. Someone laughed and Emily turned to see a pair of nurses walking to a table with trays encumbered with little more than salads and coffee. She recognized one of the nurses — Nancy, she thought her name was — and offered the woman a polite nod. The nurse smiled kindly, and Emily wondered what was in her mind: Ah, there's the poor woman whose son went off the deep end, disappeared into his own head — I'd die if anything like that happened to my . . .
Emily winced, turned away, looked back out the window as the day slowly died. That was a path she was unwilling to walk down. She didn't even know if Nurse Nancy had any kids, for starters. And as far as sympathy was concerned, she'd rather have help. She didn't need any assistance in feeling sorry for herself.
A soft trilling sound interrupted her, and Emily was grateful. She didn't like where her mind was going. As the chatty nurses glanced her way, she withdrew her cellular phone from inside her purse, flipped it open, and said, "Thomas?"
"Sorry, but no," a woman's voice said.
For a moment, Emily didn't know who it was. She hadn't heard the voice in close to a year, after all. Then it hit her.
"Francesca," she said. "Thanks for returning my call."
"I was a little surprised to hear from you, Emmy," Thomas's agent said. "But I'm glad, as well. I'm getting a little worried about Thomas. But first, look . . . how's Nathan?"
Emily frowned. "He's the same. But what about Thomas? Have you talked to him? He was supposed to be here almost two hours ago. I've left half a dozen messages for him, but . . . well, that's why I called you."
"I saw him this morning. He seemed pretty scattered."
"He was going to see a therapist today," Emily said, though she worried that she might be revealing more than Thomas would like.
"I'm glad," Francesca replied. "I don't want to sound cold, Em, but he needs a little perspective. He may end up queering this whole Fox deal if he doesn't start paying attention. I know it isn't his number one priority, but you're talking about an investment in the future, y'know?"
Emily raised an eyebrow. "Fox deal?"
Silence. Then a sigh. "Ah, shit. I shouldn't be talking to you about this stuff. You guys both have Nathan to deal with, but that doesn't mean you're not still divorced. I'm speaking out of school, here."
"Not at all, Francesca," Emily insisted. "Thomas and I have been really good about not playing that game so many couples get into when they split. And now, with this . . ."
She didn't want to talk about it.
"Listen, if you hear from him, please tell him to call me right away. It's my night to stay with Nathan, so if he's not coming back tonight, that's okay. But I'm worried about him. He's . . . been a little on edge lately."
"If he calls, I'll tell him."
The conversation lasted less than thirty seconds longer and then Emily snapped the phone shut. She laid it on the Formica table and picked up her quickly cooling broth. Inside, whatever had been mixed with water to invent that concoction had begun to settle down into sediment at the bottom of the cup. Her stomach turned, and Emily set the broth back down on the table.
For a moment, she chewed her lip. Her fingers drummed idly on the table — something close to the old Lone Ranger theme song — and at length she picked up the phone again, flipped it open, and hit the speed dial for Thomas at home.
The machine picked up. "Hi. It's Thomas. You can take it from here."
She counted nine beeps, so there were at least three messages on top of the six she had left. Emily almost hung up; what was the use? But instead, she waited until the end and tried not to sound as worried as she felt.
"Thomas, me again. Look, I just want to know how your appointment went today. I'll be at the hospital all night, and you can try my cell phone if I'm not in the room. I'm . . ."
Emily sighed, almost didn't say it.
"I'm worried about you."
In the living room of his house in Ardsley, Thomas Randall lay on the sofa, his head propped on a pair of green throw pillows. The volume on the answering machine was turned up just enough so he could make out Emily's words. He didn't move. Hadn't moved, in fact, for nearly half an hour. Instead, he simply lay there with the television remote control in hand and idly surfed cable channels.
Eventually, he came across an old episode of The Twilight Zone and paused a moment. He remembered it instantly, one of his favorites. "A Stop at Willoughby," it was called.
The empty prescription bottle that had held his phenobarbital lay on its side on the coffee table. Thomas glanced at it as his hand slipped off his chest and hung loosely down to scrape the carpet. After a moment, the remote dropped from his fingers, but Thomas didn't even notice.
His eyes closed slowly.
* * * * *
The Up-River leveled out and flowed in a straight line across the highest peak of the Bald Mountains. This high, there were no trees, nor even any vegetation. Only the stone and the water that had cut through it ages and ages ago, before there were any stories to tell. The Up-River ran across the mountaintop until it reached a sheer cliff that dropped away down the other side, into the Misty Nothing. A short distance away, a water spout erupted from the ground itself. This was the source of the Up-River. From there, it began the long circuitous route that would bring it round to the peak all over again. For the Up-River coiled around the world like the serpent son of Loki.
Despite the bright and savage sun, the wind blew cold across the stone, chopping the water without mercy. At the edge of the water stood an angry pony, its coat matted with filth, its bones knocking with the chill. A tuft of green feathers, which sprouted from its head, whipped about in the breeze, and it stamped its hooves impatiently.
"Damned dwarf," the pony muttered, thick lips curling back from huge teeth. It stamped again, its deep green tail flitting back and forth across its rump.
The pony's name was Feathertop. This name was one of the things that concerned it greatly, and one of the things that had led it to side with the Jackal Lantern in the current crisis. For Feathertop knew that had not always been his name. Even a horse was smart enough to realize that a mare doesn't just dump a foal and name him Feathertop. The feathers weren't very likely to have been there at birth, and his mother must have had something else in mind in any case.
No, something or someone had named him Feathertop, and it certainly wasn't his mother. But if not her, then who?
The question drove a spike of pain through his head, and he stamped and snorted, then produced a neigh that could be heard even over the whistle of the wind over the rocks and the rambling of the river. It hurt to think about. Feathertop was not at all certain he wanted an answer to that question. In fact, he was rather sure he did not.
But the question had never occurred to him until The Boy had stopped coming. Had stopped caring. And he believed, as the Jackal Lantern did, that Strangewood must have The Boy back at whatever cost. If only to make the question go away.
To make the pain stop.
His fat nostrils opened wider, and Feathertop lifted his head. He'd smelled something, carried along by the breeze. The scent of The Boy, but not The Boy. Not exactly. Accompanying it was the rank body odor of Feathertop's best friend, also known, at times, as “the damned dwarf,” or something significantly more colorful.
Narrowing his eyes, Feathertop saw the small skiff as it crested the mountain and began to float along the river toward the tumble into the Misty Nothing. As the boat drew near, Grumbler paddling furiously to reach the calm swirl near the riverbank, Feathertop noticed immediately the absence of his friend's favored fedora.
It occurred to him that now might not be the time to chastise Grumbler for his tardiness. Not unless he wanted a very large caliber bullet through his equine brain.
He had also noticed something else immediately, however. Something about which he could not stop himself from inquiring. As Grumbler jumped out of the boat into the shallows at the river's edge and dragged the skiff to the bank, Feathertop looked at him anxiously.
"I have the boy," Grumbler said, huffing with effort as he pulled the stern of the boat over the rocky edge of the water.
And Feathertop had seen the boy. It was wonderful news. Though the child was asleep for the moment, it was without a doubt Nathan Randall. The Jackal Lantern would be pleased. But, still . . .
"Where's Gourdon?" Feathertop asked, staring at Grumbler, then glancing momentarily at the inside of the skiff and its captive, before turning anywhere else.
Grumbler grunted and hauled on the skiff. "He lost it. Had to shoot him."
Feathertop snickered. "He was never the ripest gourd in the garden, was he?"
Grumbler turned to stare at him, eyes narrowed angrily. His right hand had strayed beneath his jacket, the tips of his fingers brushing against the grip of one of his Colts.
"It wasn't something I wanted to do, shit-for-brains," Grumbler snapped.
Then the dwarf just shook his head and turned his back on the pony, reaching into the skiff to lift the sleeping boy into his arms. "Swear to God, pony boy, I just don't know about you any more. Sometimes I think your little brain's got as bad a case of vegetable rot as that squash head had. You be careful I don't have to put you down as well."
Grumbler looked down almost lovingly at the boy's sleeping face and then started off across the cold stone of the mountaintop, the harsh sun beating down on his hatless head as the wind ruffled his hair. Feathertop watched him go, the son of The Boy in his arms.
In the distance, across the hard expanse of craggy stone, rose the rock and wood fortress of the Jackal Lantern. When time was young, there had been soil on top of the Bald Mountains, and trees had grown from the soil. Or so the legends had it. All those trees had gone into the construction of the fortress.
Feathertop shivered, and this time it wasn't the wind but the very sight of that edifice that sent that chill rippling down his spine. In every rampart, every gate, every wall, every turret . . . in every damnable stone, the fortress radiated evil. Like the hellish light burning within the Jackal Lantern's overlarge head, evil was a beacon behind the battlements.
The pony had always feared old Jack, but there was nothing to be done for it now. Evil was the only thing The Boy might take note of, the only thing that might bring him back. Good and evil, it was life or death for them all, now.
* * * * *
As she followed Broadway down through Tarrytown and Irvington on her way to her ex-husband's house in Ardsley, Emily began to grow more and more agitated. The radio played harmless and soulless love songs, and they grated on her. Long before she took the turn into the well-groomed family neighborhood where Thomas had moved after the divorce, Emily had turned the radio off.
In the silence of the car, as the last light of day was consumed by the night and the darkness swept over her world, Emily's mind began to race with all the things Thomas had told her. All the things he had seen in his hallucinations.
Her headlights cut the shadows ahead. The streetlamp in front of Thomas's house was out, or had yet to snap on in its preordained obedience. Three houses down, Emily noticed an ache in her fingers and looked down to see how white her knuckles were and how tightly they gripped the steering wheel.
She glanced up.
A black, formless shape rocketed toward her windshield.
Emily screamed, swerved, hit the brakes. But too late. The thing hit the windshield with a wet smack and a crunch that might have been bone but was most certainly glass. The tires squealed.
Heart convulsing painfully in her chest, Emily tried to catch her breath, reached up to her face, and found, to her surprise, that she was crying. Hysteria nearly overcame her, but she fought it back. Her chest hurt, and she wondered how hard she had hit the steering wheel. She remembered the sound of the horn now, and was surprised it had not registered at first.
The far right side of the windshield was now covered with a spiderweb of cracks. Looking at it made Emily feel awfully vulnerable, so she turned her eyes away. With a deep breath, she opened the door and stepped out of the car, looking around to see exactly what it was that had crashed into her.