“We could just run,” Trix said, but she could already see the folly in that. She hated the idea, and winced when it flashed across her mind … but Jenny might be too far gone already. Running would do them no good. They had to act now.
Jim turned, eyes closing as he tried to separate himself from the No-Face Man Sally had put inside of him, but then Jennifer shouted, a wail of emotion rather than words. It said so much. Her eyes were full of pain and denial and anger, and the way she looked at Anne, it seemed the two of them had come to some instant, silent agreement. No, Jim thought, because he knew some of what that look meant. Part of it was good-bye. “Jennifer,” he warned.
“I didn’t get to have a family,” Jennifer said, anguish pouring out of her. “But she does. It’s the life I wished for. One of us has to have it.”
Jim started toward her, nearly swimming through the strange atmosphere of the In-Between. Jennifer grasped one of Jenny’s waving hands in both of her own, then grimaced and closed her eyes, writhing slowly even as Jenny flipped and thrashed. A gush of darkness flowed from Jennifer’s eyes and ears, forming quickly alongside her, an echo of her following a heartbeat behind.
“Jennifer,” Jim said, but there was nothing else to say. He could object and push her away, try to break her bond with his poor dying wife. Or he could help.
He went to them, reaching out, trying to remember what he’d seen Sally doing less than an hour before and half a world away. And it took only a second’s hesitation before he reached out to the shadow stuff oozing from Jennifer and forming a shape next to her that he recognized so well. He curled his hands in the No-Face Man’s stuff, a cool, slick porridge that seemed to tug at every hair on his hand and arm, smoothing against his skin in a sickly, almost sensuous way. Then he thrust his handful down at Jenny and pressed it against her face.
Even though her eyes were closed, he could see the change. Her eyeballs rolled behind their lids, seeing things he had no wish to see but hoped he could ask her about one day. Her skin heaved in movements that her body could never perform by itself, no matter how terrible her fit. He pushed harder, then grabbed another handful and another, and suddenly Jenny stopped moving.
Frozen, arms held out in a crucifixion pose, she opened her eyes and her jaw fell, and she spewed something rotten and black into the shivering mist. It came with a scream, and Jim stumbled back, trying but failing to pull Jennifer with him.
“Jim!” Trix shouted, but she was very far away.
Jennifer’s No-Face Man was still emerging, and now it was completing on its own what Jim had begun—flowing into Jenny, expunging the dreadful, dark thing that had made its home there. It gushed like hot tar, a torrent of dried blood, a flood of dead flies, foulness erupting from every orifice and dispersing to the strange air of this In-Between place. When he took in a breath, Jim heaved at the stench and tasted vileness on his tongue.
“Jim!” Trix shouted again.
Driving it out, Jim thought, barely understanding, yet finding hope once again. Jenny looked so slight beneath and behind what was happening, her naked form assaulted and reduced, and he had touched every part of her, loved every inch, and now he was determined that he would do so again.
Jennifer still clasped her hand, bending forward slowly until she went to her knees beside her naked other self.
“Jim, something’s happening!” Trix shouted.
I know, Jim thought, but something in her voice made him turn around. And Trix and Anne were looking away from Jenny and Jennifer.
In the distance, the looming shape of a building wavered in and out of focus. There was a violence about the huge, slow movement that took his breath away, a malevolence that he was certain had not been there previously, and before he could discern exactly what was happening, Trix made it clear. “Something’s here. And it sees us,” she said.
“No,” Anne said, and she looked past Jim. “Something sees Jennifer.”
“Not camouflaged anymore,” Jim said, realizing what Jennifer had done for Jenny and for him. He went to them both, gathering his wife to him with one arm and Jennifer with the other.
“Jim,” Jenny whispered. She was shaking from shock, but when she met his eyes he knew that she was almost completely herself. She looked at Jennifer, concern overcoming her shock.
“Come on,” Jim said. He tried to pull them both up, and then Trix and Anne were there to help, hauling Jenny to her feet. Trix hugged her and waved away her confusion.
“Later,” she said. “It’ll all have to wait until later.”
“What have you done?” Jim asked Jennifer.
She looked at him, his wife with another personality behind her eyes, and smiled softly. “Saved myself,” she said. “And now I really think we should be running like hell.”
Jim nodded, took hold of Jenny’s hand with his left hand and Jennifer’s with his right, and the five of them ran.
Holly pulled them in, Jim’s love for his daughter strong and warm in the distance. And with his wife next to him again, Jim thought perhaps he would find the strength for anything. He felt no tiredness, though he ran faster than he ever had before. Even his fear was slight and remote, though they were crossing an ocean of nothing, a place between worlds where souls were torn apart. Love had brought him this far, and would take him farther.
But the In-Between was no longer passive.
Whatever had seen Jennifer saw her still, and there were stirrings in the mist. The ground rumbled beneath Jim’s feet whenever he took a step. The air vibrated, as though something huge was moving in the distance. The mist swirled in patterns he did not know, and complex shapes that no mere mist could make.
“Faster!” Jim said, and somehow they increased their speed. Jenny was gasping and panting beside him. She looked exhausted and terrified, but she was taking strength from these people who had come to find her. He knew that expression of grim determination set on her face—she was hiding her discomfort to do what needed to be done. Physically, she was triumphing, but he had no idea how this would scar her.
Together, that’s all that matters, he thought, and the sense of Holly drawing them back was wonderful. But just when he believed it was all going to be all right and that they’d stumble upon the solid Reflection Room at any moment, the ground shook and sent them sprawling.
As he fell, Jim’s instinct took over—he had to reach out to shield his fall, and without thinking he unclasped his left hand and held it out before him. He grunted, rolled, and when he came to a stop he and Jenny were still holding hands.
Six feet away, Jennifer slowly stood and faced what was bearing down upon them.
“Keep still!” Anne said. She and Trix were also still holding hands, standing quickly and backing slowly from the shape in the mist.
“Too late,” Trix said, and Jim knew that she was right. Camouflaged though they might be by bearing the No-Face Men, whatever was coming for them would have seen through their subterfuge. Jennifer stood before them, a bared human soul in this inhuman world, and now the thing would destroy them all.
The thing was a storm, a riot of mist, and as it approached there were hints of something more solid at its center.
“You can go,” Jennifer said. Jim heard her voice clearly, even above the closing chaos.
“No,” he said, but she was not making a suggestion.
“You can go,” she said again, telling them all that she might be their one chance. As Jim looked from Jennifer—standing tall and straight, and as strong as he had ever seen his wife—and toward the approaching thing, he at last began to appreciate the threat it presented.
Because there was a face. And he had seen that face before.
Trix was by his side then, grabbing his left arm. “That’s …!” she said, unable to finish. To his right, Jenny hugged his arm, shaking but standing firm.
“That’s Thomas McGee,” Jim said.
“It doesn’t deserve a name,” Jenny said. Jim wondered what terrible things she had seen out here, but he could not ask her now. Perhaps he never would.
“Who is he?” Anne asked.
“The reason this place is here. He’s the ruination of Boston. The one who splintered it in the first place. I thought he was dead, but instead—”
“He’s in the In-Between,” Trix said.
“No. Can’t you feel it?” Jim said. “I think he is the In-Between.”
Jenny started shouting, because the shape that was McGee was close now, so close Jim thought perhaps it would reach out and sweep them away. As large as a man, the form at the heart of the mist-storm felt a hundred times more solid, as though its gravity was pulling them in.
“You … can … go,” Jennifer said, and she spared Jim one glance over her shoulder. The shadow stuff of the In-Between was pushing itself into her body, beginning the change that would make her a dead thing, an echo.
He would never forget the look in her eye, because it was the last thing he had expected. He’d have recognized fear, or resignation, or even sadness at the cruel tricks fate could play. But what he saw there was unbridled, uncomplicated love.
She went at McGee, and the re-forming man paused for a moment as if surprised.
“Run!” Jim said.
“We can’t just—” Trix began, but he clasped her hand and pulled her after him. There was no time to argue about it now. Later he would tell her, Jennifer did it for us, and if we’d waited there a second longer, her sacrifice would have been in vain. And later still, perhaps he and Trix would share quiet, private moments to go over those events again and again, to see what might have been different. But right then they did not have the luxury of time, and when Jim heard the angry shouts behind them—and then those long, terrible screams that would haunt him for the rest of his life—he did not turn around.
Anne and Jenny screamed as well, and for their final few moments in the In-Between they cried tears of unimaginable loss.
Bursting back through the Reflection Room and feeling the weight of reality realigning around them, Jim risked a look at his wife and the woman who could be her twin. They were reduced by what had happened; something was missing from their eyes. As he felt tears blurring his vision, he wondered whether either of them would ever feel fully alive again.
“Mommy!” Holly shouted as they opened the door. “Mommy!” The little girl ran across the bloodstained room and hugged her mother tight.
“McGee,” Sally said.
“Yes.” Jim nodded. Trix was holding Anne as she sobbed. Sally glanced around, then walked slowly across the room and closed the door. She had seen Jennifer’s absence and accepted it, and Jim couldn’t help hating her for it, just a little. Perhaps that was unfair blame, but right then he had to blame someone.
“Get these fucking things out of us,” Jim said.
“Not yet,” Sally said. She looked at Holly and Jenny hugging and smiled an unbearable smile. It was a look that said, That can never be me, and Jim’s anger at her shifted to grudging pity.
“Why?” Jim asked.
“Because it’s not over.” The Oracle looked at Trix, and Trix looked at Jim.
“Veronica,” Trix said.
“Veronica.” Sally waved them closer, and Jim realized that it was not yet time to rest.
Chapter 16 - Every Dog Has Its Day
IT WAS daytime. Smoke hung over the city, drifting gently westward and tearing the sunlight into veils of gorgeous color. Jim remembered hearing of similar electromagnetic effects in the atmosphere after other earthquakes. He wondered what more this tragedy might have done, but for now he had his family with him, and he really did not care.
They looked like a party of refugees. Jenny wore a pair of pants and a man’s shirt they’d found in a storage room in the library, and she had taken the shoes from the dead woman’s body. Jim had been shocked at that, but Jenny had barely blinked as she sat and put them on. Life, death—their distinction was still strong, but now the space In-Between was vaster than ever before. Holly was tired and bedraggled, Trix and Anne leaned on each other for support, and Sally walked ahead of the small group. Some people recognized her and moved aside, almost as if making way for a queen, but most did not. Most of the others they passed in that blighted city had tragedy of their own to contemplate, and their attention was focused inward.
“Can we … can we get these things out of us now?” Jenny asked, shuddering with revulsion at the presence of the No-Face Man still inside her.
Jim had been wondering the same thing. They were out of the In-Between. They didn’t need the shadow creatures merged with them anymore. But Sally shook her head again, and Jim saw that old wisdom working behind her eyes. “You’ll need them a little while longer,” she said.
“But—” Trix began.
“Please,” Sally said with a tired sigh. “You’ve trusted me this long.”
Holly took her hand. To her, it was clear Sally wasn’t a child at all. At four or five years older, the Oracle was one of the “big kids”—at least in Holly’s eyes. “We trust you, Sally,” Holly told her, and Jim shuddered, because now there was some of that old wisdom in his daughter’s voice, too.
They had another walk ahead of them, in this city where traffic was mainly restricted to emergency vehicles. Not every street was blocked, but there were many more bicycles being used today, and with crowds of people traversing the city in search of something—or perhaps, in some cases, fleeing something—it was a safer bet to walk.
“McGee’s house,” Sally had said. “That’s where she’ll be waiting.”
“Why can’t we just get there through the In-Between?” Anne had asked, shocking Jim, because that was the last place in the world he’d ever want to go again. But Anne’s eyes were filled with a fury he had never before seen in his wife. In his Jenny.