Trix had one shoe on and the other one in her right hand as she hurried past him to the door.
“Wait,” Jim said.
“For what?” Trix asked, spinning on him, eyes wide with fear.
More glass shattered downstairs, and Jim pictured the shelves of hard liquor behind the bar being smashed to the floor. There’d been a big mirror there as well. He glanced at the window, wishing there was a fire escape out there so they could go down and survey the fracas from outside.
“Weapons,” he said. “We’re not going down there empty-handed.”
Trix put on her other shoe. “There’s an iron on the top shelf in the bathroom.”
Jim picked up the heavy crystal lamp from the bedside table, pulled off the shade, and yanked the cord out of the wall. He glanced at Trix and nodded for her to go ahead, and she turned the knob and swung the door inward.
Out in the corridor, Jim went for the door that led downstairs to the bar. Trix raced into the bathroom and emerged holding the iron Peter O’Brien had probably used for years to take the wrinkles out of his clothes. It seemed all too mundane a detail to exist in the same reality as the shouting and the noises of destruction from below.
A roar of pain rose from the bar, becoming a scream. The pounding stopped in a violent splintering of wood, and Peter O’Brien’s voice fell silent.
Trix slipped up beside Jim, reaching out to stop him from opening the door. “What the hell are we doing?” she whispered.
She didn’t need to explain. Jim wondered the same thing. From the sound of it, whatever was going on downstairs wasn’t some simple bar fight.
“He’s our best chance of finding them!” Jim whispered back.
Trix nervously licked her lips, then nodded.
Jim tore the door open and burst through it, running down the stairs, wielding the crystal lamp like a club. Trix came right behind him. He had a moment to wonder if she was thinking what he was thinking—that they were batshit crazy, that these were piss-poor weapons—and then the silence in the bar was broken by a human voice. It might have been O’Brien’s, but the big Irishman sounded very small now. “Don’t,” the voice pleaded. “You’ll destroy it all.”
As they hit the curve in the stairwell, the words were punctuated with a terrible crash. Jim leaped the last few steps—there was no door, only an archway leading into the bar—and as he stepped into O’Brien’s, music started to play. Flogging Molly’s “Cruel Mistress.” He knew it well.
“Jesus,” Trix whispered as she stepped into the bar behind him.
The place was a ruin of overturned tables, broken chairs, and shattered glass, but Jim only got a glimpse of the wreckage—and the blood on the brass bar rail—before he noticed something shift near the huge square saw-toothed space where the plate-glass front window had once been. A figure stood amid the shattered glass, the puzzle of partially painted fragments that had once spelled out O’BRIEN’S in green and gold among them. Taller than a man, it was nevertheless shaped like one. A silver shadow, it seemed to have simply appeared there, standing atop the debris.
No. It was there, he thought. You just didn’t see it at first.
“What are they?” Trix asked, her voice a fearful rasp.
Jim blinked, and he saw that she was right. Beyond the demolished front of the bar, two more of the wraiths stood out in the street, faceless silhouettes who seemed somehow still to be looking at him and Trix. Shadows fell upon the smooth slopes of their faces, suggesting eyes and mouth where there were none, only minor ridges that hinted at noses. They were the memories of men, all personality torn away.
Fear clenched at his gut, but Jim took two steps toward the thing still inside the bar, feeling the weight of the crystal lamp in his hand. “Who the hell are you?” he asked, though he thought that Trix’s what was indeed a better question.
In the distance, sirens wailed, coming nearer. Jim held his breath. For the first time since he had fled a high school keg party where weed and coke had been in plentiful supply, he feared the arrival of the police. In this world, he and Trix didn’t even exist. They were the ultimate illegal aliens.
“Why did you do this?” Trix shouted at them.
The music from the jukebox changed to the Von Bondies’ “C’mon, C’mon,” and Jim glanced toward the source and nearly retched. Peter O’Brien’s lower torso and legs stuck out from beneath the heavy machinery, its glass case spiderwebbed with cracks but somehow not caved in.
“Jim!” Trix cried.
He turned, raising the lamp, thinking he had to defend himself, but she hadn’t shouted because they were under attack. She’d yelled in surprise.
The wraiths were gone.
“Did you see which way they went?” Jim asked, taking a few steps toward the front of the bar, glass crunching underfoot.
Trix didn’t move. “I’m not sure they went anywhere.”
Jim glanced over his shoulder at her. “What?”
She gestured with the iron. “They just … moved. First the one inside. Like it took a step and just … walked out of the world. Then the others went, too. How the hell do we know they’re really gone?”
Jim stared at the spot on the partially painted glass fragments where the first wraith had been standing. He moved to the left, trying to look at the space from different angles, but saw nothing. His heart pounded in his chest, full of fear of something he couldn’t see.
The sirens grew louder. A dog barked. Inside the bar, liquor dripped from broken bottles and beer from busted taps. The smell of it filled the place. A cold weight settled on his heart. This might not be his Boston, but it was not make-believe. This was a real city, with ordinary people who lived ordinary lives. He would have given anything to be one of them again—anything but the family he had lost. They were worth any sacrifice. “Screw it,” he said, dropping the crystal lamp, which broke apart when it hit the floor.
He walked toward O’Brien’s broken body. The racks of liquor bottles behind the bar had been decimated. Half of the mirror had fallen away, and the rest clung to the wall like the blade of a guillotine. The brass bar rail was bent and smeared with O’Brien’s blood, and red splashes of his life dotted the wooden floor.
“What now?” Trix said, and he heard a thunk behind him as she cast aside the iron. The optimism she had been trying so hard to project had been forgotten. “Jim, we’ve got to get out of here. We can’t afford to be questioned by the cops.”
“We’re going,” Jim said. But he made no move to leave. Instead, he moved closer to the Oracle of this Irish Boston, picturing Peter O’Brien’s face, still hearing the amiable bear of a man’s voice in his head. A couple of hours, that was all he had said he needed, and then he would have tracked down Jenny and Holly. How many years, even decades, had this man been the Oracle? And then within an hour or two of them showing up he was dead.
Oh, you bitch, Jim had heard him say, and he looked around for the letter, keen to see what it had contained.
O’Brien’s legs shifted.
“Jesus!” Jim shouted, staggering backward.
“Did he just move?” Trix asked, freaking out.
“Definitely,” Jim said.
O’Brien shifted again. His skull and upper chest had been crushed beneath the jukebox. No way could he survive that. Almost as if Jim had wished him dead, O’Brien’s legs settled and went still, and he knew that what they had just seen had been the man’s final throes.
Trix grabbed his arm. “Jim. We have to go!”
He nodded, backing away. Together they hurried to the door, only to find it locked from the inside. The wraiths had come in through the plate-glass window, with its painted letters and stylized shamrock. Jim unlocked the door and tugged it open, and he and Trix slipped out of the bar.
Along the street, the first police car sped around the corner.
“Don’t run,” Trix snapped.
Taking his hand, she led him away from the bar as though they were lovers out for a stroll. But Jim saw faces at windows, and people standing on the opposite sidewalk—it must be near last call by now, but they had spilled out of Dwyer’s New Dublin Pub just up the street—and already fingers were being pointed. Some of the spectators were shouting questions at them. A couple of them, wearing Boston Celtics basketball jerseys, started crossing the street.
“We waited too long,” Jim said, knowing that every moment they weren’t spending trying to find Jenny and Holly, the trail was getting that much colder.
Trix squeezed his hand. “Okay. Now we run.”
And that was when the earthquake hit.
Trix put her hands out as if learning to surf. The street bucked hard beneath their feet, then harder still. This was no mere tremor. Panicked people flooded from Dwyer’s New Dublin, across the street. The ground lurched up and then dropped, again and again, as though some wicked toddler had made it his toy and intended to shake it until it broke. The police car skidded to a halt, slewing sideways as a rift opened in the pavement.
Glass shattered all around them. Alarms pealed. Masonry cracked. A fire hydrant less than ten feet from Trix exploded, water spouting upward, showering around them. A piece of the hydrant flew past her head and shattered the rear windshield of a parked car. Jim grabbed her wrist and tugged her back toward O’Brien’s.
“No!” she shouted, but her voice was drowned out by the roar and rumble of the earth.
He tried to tell her something, but all she could make out was “… outside wall!” Still, she understood. In an earthquake, the safest place inside a building was next to an object that might be crushed—a table or bed—and not beneath it. But outside, in a built-up area, curling against a building’s outer wall might prevent them from being injured. Even if the wall fell, it would likely not collapse right down to ground level. And between the fallen wall and what was left of its base, a triangle of life.
Jim tried to pull her toward the building. People screamed. Trix spotted a little yellow dog chasing its tail on the sidewalk up the street. The world continued to buck and crack, so long now that she feared it would never end. A hundred yards along the street, a traffic light toppled onto a swerving minivan, which careened through the front window of a pharmacy.
Beyond where the light had fallen, the three faceless men who had killed O’Brien stood watching her and Jim, motionless, as though the quake could not move them. The moment she noticed them it was as though her perception changed, and she saw others—one standing in front of a hat shop, another crouched on the second-story ledge of an apartment house. The world shook, but the faceless men remained impassive, only watching as Boston tore itself apart … again.
Shit, is that what this is? she wondered. Is it splintering again?
When part of the street gave way, the sewer cracking open like some ravenous maw, Trix decided Jim had a point. She gave in so abruptly that it was she who pulled him back against O’Brien’s. Even the illusion of safety was better than this chaos. A fissure split the sidewalk only feet from where they’d been standing a moment before. Jim held her tight, and Trix pulled him down until they sat, leaning against each other.
The ground heaved up beneath them. Trix struck her head on the masonry; Jim squeezed her hand. The whole world roared, and behind them the ceiling inside O’Brien’s gave way, the second-story apartment crashing down into the ruin of the bar, burying the city’s Oracle in the rubble of his life.
The shaking eased, the ground steadied, but Trix still listed to one side, staggered by the sudden ending of the quake. The street sang to cries of anguish and the pointless blaring of alarms. Fires bloomed in the distance. She heard several dull thumps and wondered whether they were gas-main explosions.
“Is it over?” Trix asked, standing. Jim held her hand, and they both took a shaky step away from the building.
“Careful,” Jim said. “There could be—”
Later, Trix would be sure the next word had been meant to be “aftershocks,” but Jim never had a chance to say it.
It felt like a collision. The sidewalk did not buck this time but instead shifted to the east with such force that they fell, rolling into the street. Trix scraped her right cheek and both arms on the pavement. The explosion tore the sky apart, deafening thunder followed by a roaring cascade that sounded to Trix’s bleeding ears like the whole city coming down around her.
She called Jim’s name and looked up to see him on his hands and knees, trying to rise. Screams that sounded distant were actually coming from Dwyer’s New Dublin. People had been thrown against the jagged fins of plate glass jutting from the frame of the pub’s front window, and a young blond woman hung impaled, staring dumbly at the bloody glass shard sticking out of her chest, her expression not of pain but of sorrow, wondering how and why.
Jim shouted something loud, incoherent—a cry of shock and terror.
Trix sat up and tried to look around. She was shaking, bleeding. A cloud of dust spread across the sky. “What was that, at the end?” she said, barely aware that she was shouting. “Was that a fucking nuke?”
They were both coughing on the dust that roiled in the street. The ground had stopped moving, but Trix didn’t trust it anymore. As she managed to get onto her knees, she kept touching the pavement, expecting to be thrown down again. It took her a few seconds before she realized that Jim hadn’t said anything more. She looked up and saw him standing, staring over the tops of buildings, looking even more frightened and anguished than he had when she had first come to him to ask him about Jenny and Holly’s disappearance.
Trix tried to see what he was looking at. She narrowed her eyes. They stung and watered with the dust, and she wondered what chemicals she was breathing in from the devastation around her.