“God have mercy on us,” Neil said, for he had been schooled by Jesuits.
Letting off the brake, driving once more, Molly refrained from praying for mercy because her faith had been sullied by primitive superstition: She feared that perverse fate would deny her what she asked for, and give her only what she did not request.
Yet, as was her nature, she still had hope. Her heart clenched like a fist around a nugget of hope; and if not as much as a nugget, then at least a pebble; and if not a pebble, a grain. But around a single grain of sand, an oyster builds a pearl.
Rain. Rain. Rain.
THE SECOND ABANDONED VEHICLE, A LINCOLN Navigator, stood in the northbound lane, facing the Explorer as it traveled southbound. The engine was idling, as had been the case with the Infiniti, and none of the tires was flat, suggesting that the SUV had in no way failed its driver.
The headlights were doused, but the emergency flashers flung off rhythmic flares, with stroboscopic effect, so that the million tongues of rain appeared to stutter, stutter in their fall.
On the Infiniti, three of four doors had stood open, but in this case only one. The rear door on the driver’s side admitted rain and offered a view of the backseat illuminated by the Lincoln’s interior lights.
“Neil, my God.”
Molly braked, stopped, as Neil said, “What?”
The smeared glass in her door, the blurring rain, and the metronomic dazzle of the flashers all combined to deceive the eye, yet Molly knew what she saw, and knew what she must do.
“There’s a child,” she said, shifting the Explorer into park. “A baby.”
“On the backseat of that Navigator,” she said, and threw open her door.
If the rain was toxic, she had been poisoned beyond the hope of antidote when they had fled Harry Corrigan’s house. Another dose could do no worse injury than the damage she had already sustained.
As if the rain were warmer than it was, the beaten blacktop sweated oil and made slick the path beneath her feet.
Molly slipped, slid, almost went down. Regaining her balance, she was gripped by the conviction that something watched her, some creature in hiding, and that if she had fallen, the nameless thing would have slithered out of the wet gloom, would have seized her in cruel jaws, and in an instant would have carried her off the pavement, over the crest of the ridge, into trees and weeds and brambles, down into the thorny belly of the night.
Reaching the open door of the Navigator, she discovered that the abandoned child—not an infant but a barefoot little girl in pink pedal pushers and a yellow T-shirt—was a large doll, only a couple of inches shorter than two feet. Its chubby jointed arms were extended as if in supplication or in hope of an embrace.
Molly looked into the front seat, then into the cargo space at the back of the SUV. No one.
The child to whom the doll belonged had gone wherever her parents had gone. To shelter, perhaps.
And what is the most enduring place of shelter if not death?
Rebelling against that thought, Molly pressed through the rain to the back of the Navigator.
Neil called worriedly to her. She turned and saw that he had gotten out of the Explorer and stood, shotgun in both hands, giving her cover.
Although she couldn’t quite hear his words, she knew that he wanted her to get behind the wheel once more and drive them into town.
Shaking her head, she went around behind the Navigator and then to the passenger’s side. She wanted to be sure that the child, the owner of the doll, had not crouched behind the vehicle, hiding from whatever menace might come along the highway, from whatever evil might have taken her parents.
No child huddled there. Nor under the SUV, either, when Molly dropped to her knees and searched that low space.
The shoulder of the road was narrow. Spalled-off asphalt and gravel and the sparkling shards of tossed-away bottles and the bright aluminum ring-pulls from uncounted beverage cans dimly reflected the luminous rain, a meaningless mosaic in an unstable bed of mud.
When Molly rose to her feet again, she thought that the woods, already crowding the highway before she dropped to her hands and knees, had grown closer while her back was turned. The saturated boughs of the looming evergreens hung like sodden vestments—capes and robes, cassocks and chasubles.
Unseen but acutely felt, alert observers watched her from the hooded cowls of those pines, creatures less ordinary than owls and raccoons, and less clean.
Frightened but sensing that a show of fear would invite attack, she did not at once retreat. Instead, she rubbed her muddied hands together, rinsing them in the downpour, though she would not feel clean again until she could wash off the rain itself.
Counseling herself that the hostile presences she sensed in the forest were only figments of her imagination, but knowing that her counsel was a lie, she continued unhurriedly around the Navigator, returning to the driver’s side with a nonchalance that was pure performance.
Before retreating to the Explorer, she snatched the doll from the backseat of the Lincoln. Its shaggy blond hair, blue eyes, and sweet smile reminded her of a child who had died in her arms a long time ago.
Rebecca Rose, her name had been. She was a shy girl who spoke with the faintest lisp.
Her last words, whispered in delirium and making no apparent sense, had been, “Molly…there’s a dog. So pretty…how he shines.” For the first time in her life, there at the end of it, she had not lisped at all.
Having failed to save Rebecca, Molly saved this rough image of her, and when Neil got in the Explorer after her, she gave him the doll for safekeeping.
She said, “We might encounter the girl and her parents on the road into town.”
Neil did not remind her that the Navigator had been traveling in the opposite direction when abandoned. He knew that she recognized this as clearly as he did.
She said, “It’ll be nice to have the doll to give her. I’m sure she didn’t intend to leave it behind.”
Intellectually, she knew that the war of the worlds, if indeed it had begun, would not spare children.
Emotionally, however, she refused to acknowledge that no degree of innocence could guarantee immunity in a plague of genocide.
On one rainy afternoon long ago, Molly had saved some children and been unable to save others. But if the fine grain of hope in her heart were to be the foundation of a pearl, she must believe that no child would ever again suffer in her presence and that those who came under her care would be safe, protected, until she herself died defending them.
As the Explorer rolled forward and they resumed their journey into town, Neil said, “It’s a beautiful doll. She’ll be happy to see it again.”
Molly loved him for always understanding precisely what words she needed to hear. He knew what motivated her at all times and in all circumstances, even in these.
THEY HAD NOT DRIVEN FAR FROM THE ABANDONED Navigator when Molly realized belatedly that the rain had been imbued with less scent than at any time since she’d stepped onto the porch among the coyotes. The underlying semenlike odor had faded altogether, and the mélange of other fragrances had been only a fraction as intense as they were at the Corrigan house.
Neil confirmed her observation. “Yeah. And it’s also not quite as radiant.”
The goblin night still appeared to stream with Christmas tinsel; however, the rain was a few lumens dimmer than it had been earlier, though it fell in undiminished volume.
Perhaps these changing conditions should have given Molly heart. Instead they troubled her. Evidently the first phase of this strange war was drawing to an end. The second would soon begin.
“I half remember,” Neil said, “your Mr. Eliot wrote something famous about doomsday.”
“Yeah. He said we’ve become hollow men, stuffed men, heads filled with straw, no convictions or higher purpose…and for hollow men, the world will end not with a bang but a whimper.”
Leaning forward in his seat, squinting up toward the drowned sky, Neil said, “I don’t know about you, but I’m expecting the bang.”
Just a minute later, how the world would end, with what noise and degree of violence, suddenly concerned Molly less than she would have imagined possible. The sight of a hiker, walking at a brisk pace in the northbound lane, turned her thoughts away from planetary catastrophe to the more intimate cataclysm that had changed her life at the age of eight and had shaped it every day thereafter.
You couldn’t accurately call him a mere pedestrian. There were no sidewalks along the county road, no encouragement whatsoever for anyone to travel the ridge line on foot. Besides, he walked with a determined stride, with the purpose of an enthusiast.
Molly first thought he must be one of those who calculated that if he walked often enough and far enough, and never dared to eat a spoon of ice cream, he would live forever—barring, of course, the threats that self-denial could not affect, such as runaway trucks, crashing airplanes, and alien invasions.
In utter disregard of the weather, he wore no rain gear. His pale-gray slacks and matching shirt, suggestive of a uniform, were soaked.
He must have been miserable, but he soldiered on, his pace hardly if at all affected by sodden clothes and other discomforts. Indeed, because poor visibility and caution and a fear of what she might find in town caused Molly to hold the Explorer to little more than coasting speed, the hiker seemed to be walking north almost as fast as the Explorer cruised south.
His thick dark hair was plastered to his skull. He kept his head down, the better to net each wet breath from the vertical ocean.
As the Explorer closed on him, the hiker looked up, across the two-lane blacktop.
Even through the blur of the storm, his features were bold and clean. He would have seemed movie-star handsome to Molly if she hadn’t known that the mind behind that charming face was monstrous, corrupt, and cunning.
The hiker was Michael Render. Her father. The murderer.
She hadn’t seen him face-to-face in almost twenty years.
At once she looked away from him, less because she worried that he would know her than because, even at this distance, she feared the power of his eyes, the magnetism of his gaze, the vortex of his personality.
“What the hell?” Neil said, shocked, turning around in his seat to look out the tailgate window as Molly accelerated. “He’s supposed to be locked up.”
Her husband’s instant confirmation of the man’s identity prevented Molly from taking refuge in the hope that her imagination had run away with her and that the hiker was in fact a stranger with only a vague resemblance to Render.
Usually, she thought of him not as her father but only by his surname, which as a girl she had dropped in favor of her mother’s maiden name. When occasionally he appeared in her dreams, he had no name, but the skull was visible beneath his skin, and his hands were scythes, and in his broad grin, his teeth were broken tombstones.
She worried, “Did he…”
“What? Recognize you?”
“You think he did?”
“I don’t know.”
“We recognized him.”
“Because of the headlights. Harder for him to see you.”
“Has he changed directions, is he coming behind us now?”
“He’s just standing there, I think. I can’t really tell. He’s almost out of sight.”
“It’s all right.”
“The hell it is,” she said sharply. “You know where he was going.”
“What else would he be doing out here?” she asked. “He was going to our place. He was coming for me.”
“He doesn’t know where you live.”
“Somehow he found out.”
She shuddered when she realized what would have happened if they had chosen to ride out this storm at the house, mistaking home for security.
“I can’t see him anymore,” Neil said. “I think…he continued north, the way he was going.”
In the rearview mirror, Molly saw only falling rain and clouds of backspray from the tires.
With a successful plea of insanity skillfully supported by a clever attorney, Render had avoided prison. He had spent the last twenty years in a series of mental institutions. The first had been a maximum-security facility, but with each transfer, he had moved to a less restrictive environment, and been allowed more amenities.
Therapy and medications had helped him take slow steady steps out of his mental darkness. So the psychiatrists said, though their reports were written in circumlocutions and obfuscatory jargon meant to conceal that their conclusions were mere opinions unsupported by facts.
They claimed that he’d come to regret his actions, which by their way of thinking merited more relaxed living conditions and more frequent therapy sessions. If eventually he progressed from regret to remorse, he might then be viewed as rehabilitated and, under certain circumstances, might even be judged to have been cured.
The previous summer, his case had come up for mandatory review. The evaluating psychiatrists differed in their analyses of Render’s condition. One recommended that he be released under supervision, but two opposed that recommendation, and he was remanded to the care of mental-health authorities for an additional two years.
“What’ve the idiots done?” Molly wondered, and in her agitation, she accelerated too much.
She half believed that the rearview mirror would sooner rather than later reveal Render in the backspray, running after her with inhuman balance and agility, with superhuman speed.
“If they’ve let him loose,” she said, “the crazy bastards are as sick as he is.”
“We don’t know what’s happening beyond these mountains, out in the wider world,” Neil reminded her, “except that everything seems to be falling apart, breaking down. Not every last crewman on every sinking ship stays at his post.”
“Every man for himself,” Molly said. “We’ve come to that now—if we haven’t always been there.”
The pavement was greasy with oil, water. She felt the tires skating, but could not find the courage to slow down. Then gnawing tread bit blacktop, found purchase, and the four-wheel drive staved off a slide.
Neil said, “This latest institution he was transferred to…It’s not exactly a stone-cell, steel-door, straitjacket sort of place.”
A short bitter laugh escaped her. “Television in every room. Porn on demand, for its therapeutic value. High tea every afternoon, croquet on the south lawn. Maid service for those who promise, under penalty of the most severe disapproval, not to rape and kill the maids.”
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