New to him was a self-satisfied air approaching smugness. And the intense focus of a predator. The dark amusement in his voice. A glimmer of wicked merriment in his eyes.
Twenty years in the care of psychiatrists had resulted in the maturation of his raw anger into sociopathic contempt and psychotic glee; the wine of rage had become a more sophisticated, well-aged venom.
“And now my questions,” he said. That smile again. Almost a smirk. “Is your mother still dead?”
Molly couldn’t grasp Render’s purpose in coming here. If he had meant to harm her, he could have struck her from behind instead of announcing his presence.
“Does anyone still read the dumb slut’s books?”
Unreality chased surreality, round and round. Why would he travel so far only to tell the story of the strangled boy when he knew that Molly could not loathe him more than she already loathed him, or to disparage her mother when he knew that she would dismiss his slurs and insults with contempt?
“Are any of her books even in print? She was as bad a writer as she was a bad hump.”
His taunting seemed designed to goad Molly into shooting him, but that made no sense. His matchless arrogance and his capacity for cruelty surely meant that he was incapable of grief or guilt. His passion was homicidal, not suicidal.
“Are any of your books in print, sweetheart? After tonight, what does it matter that you’ve written anything? Or that you’ve existed at all? You’re a failed writer, a barren woman, an empty hole. Dark, dark, dark—they all go into the dark. You, too. And soon. To avoid the horrors that are coming, have you thought about turning that pistol on yourself?”
She sensed that he was about to slip out through the open window. “Don’t try to leave,” she warned.
He raised his eyebrows. “What—you think you can ring up the sanitarium and they’ll quick send out some white-coat types with a straitjacket? The gates are open, sweetheart. Don’t you realize what’s happened? The gates are open. There’s no authority anymore. It’s dog eat dog, and every man a beast.”
When he stooped to the window, the curious spell that he had cast over her was broken by his clear intent to leave.
She moved toward him. “No. Damn you, stop.”
That grin again: sardonic, full of appetite and devoid of humor. “You know the story of the flood, the ark, the animals loaded two by two—all that Old Testament bullshit. But do you know why? Why the world had to end, why the judgment, the big flush, and then a whole new start?”
“Get away from the window.”
“It’s pertinent, sweetheart. You did the right thing once, but now your head is stuffed with twenty years of learning, which means doubts and equivocations and confusions. Now you can either shoot me in the back—again—or suck on that pistol and blow your own brains out.”
Render ducked his head, hunched under the raised sash, and slid across the sill, as Molly shouted, “Neil!”
The outer rest-room door slammed open, and Neil rushed into the room as Molly reached the open window. “What’s happening?”
Stooping to the window, one hand on the wet sill, pistol ready in the other, she said, “We can’t just let him go.”
She leaned out of the window, head in the rain, and looked left along the alleyway, then right: the night, the storm, the suspicion of monstrosities growing nearby in secret shadows, and Render already gone.
“The corpse you planted last year in your garden, Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?”
—T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land
AT THE BAR AGAIN, WHEN MOLLY DISCOVERED that strong coffee was available, she ordered a mug of it. Hot, black, thick, fragrant, it had the power, if anything did, to wake her from this dream if she were dreaming.
From the table of the tosspots, Derek waved at her. She ignored him.
Neil took coffee with her, suggesting answers to some of the things that puzzled her, though he had none of substance for the questions that were the most profound and therefore most urgent.
“So he recognized us when we passed him on the ridge road,” she said. “But how did he find us here?”
“The Explorer’s parked out front. He recognized it.”
“If he didn’t come to kill me, why did he come?”
“From what you’ve said, it sounded like he was…throwing down a challenge to you.”
“Challenging me to what—kill him? What sense does that make?”
“None,” Neil admitted.
“He called me a barren woman. How could he know?”
“There’s ways he could’ve found out we don’t have kids.”
“But how could he know that we’ve tried so hard for seven years and that…I can’t.”
“He couldn’t know.”
“But he did.”
“He was just guessing,” Neil said.
“No. He knew, all right. He knew. He stuck the knife in exactly where it would hurt the most. The crude bastard called me ‘an empty hole.’”
Her thoughts seemed muddled, maybe because she’d had too little sleep or because this night had been filled with too much event to process. The coffee hadn’t clarified her mind yet, and perhaps even a pot of it wouldn’t bring her thinking up to speed.
“Funny but…I’m glad now we didn’t have children,” Neil said. “I couldn’t handle being unable to protect them from all this.”
His left hand rested on the bar. She covered it with her right. He had such strong hands but had used them all his life in gentle pursuits.
“He quoted T. S. Eliot,” she said, coming now to the thing that most mystified and most disturbed her.
“Are we back at Harry Corrigan’s place?”
“No. I mean Render. He said ‘between the idea and the reality’ and later ‘between the desire and the spasm.’ They were wrapped up in his other crazy rantings, but they’re lines from ‘The Hollow Men.’”
“He could know Eliot is one of your favorites.”
“How could he know?”
Neil considered a moment but had no answer.
“Just before he left, he said ‘Dark, dark, dark—they all go into the dark,’ which is more Eliot. The thing that used to be Harry Corrigan…and now Render.”
She sensed that she was circling an elusive insight that, once seized and opened, would unfold into a stunning revelation.
“That lurching, head-shot Harry Corrigan wasn’t really Harry,” she said. “So I wonder…was my father, in the rest room, really my father?”
“What do you mean?”
“Or maybe he was really Render…but not only Render.”
“I’m still chasing you and losing ground.”
“I don’t know what I mean, either. Or maybe I know down on a subconscious level, where I can’t get my hands around it…because right now, the hairs are quivering on the back of my neck.”
Too little sleep, too little coffee, too much terror. Layered veils of weariness and confusion hid the truth from her if in fact she was close to any truth at all.
Deputy Tucker Madison, chief strategist of those who were determined to resist the taking of their town and their world, joined Molly and Neil at the bar.
“A few of us are remaining here in case new recruits show up,” he informed them, “but most of us are forming task groups and heading out. One squad to inspect the bank and find ways to better fortify it. Another to truck food out of the market before it floods. A third to procure more weapons from Powers’ Gun Shop. Are you with us?”
Molly thought of the yellow-spotted black fungus squirming with repulsive inner life, growing rapidly in the janitorial closet, the harbinger of a new world, a changed world, and even if no other choice might be as sensible as to fortify the bank and hunker down, the effort seemed futile.
“We’re with you,” Neil assured Tucker. “But there’s this…situation we have to deal with first.”
Molly glanced across the room at Derek Sawtelle and his group of fugitives from reality. Just as she feared before submitting to his macabre little show-and-tell, he had been an agent of despair.
“We’ll meet you at the bank in a little while,” Molly told Tucker.
Futility is always in the eye of the beholder. Her fate was in her own hands. With hope, all things were possible.
That was what she had always believed. Until tonight, however, she had operated automatically on that philosophy and had not found it necessary to remind herself of it or to argue herself into that conviction.
Derek hadn’t been the only agent of despair she’d encountered in the past few hours. The first had been whatever entity controlled the corpse of Harry Corrigan.
The third had been Render. What reason could he have had for his bizarre performance if not to leave her shaken, frightened, and despairing?
Once more, she felt that enlightenment lay within her reach, waited just around the next turn in the twisty coils of logical deduction.
With a start, Neil put down his mug so hard that coffee slopped onto the bar. “Here it comes again.”
For a moment, Molly didn’t know what he meant—and then she felt the heavy, rhythmic pulses of pressure that were not accompanied by sound, that had no visible effect on anything in the tavern, but that undeniably surged through her, throbbing in the bone, an afflux and a reflux in the blood, the flesh, as if the ghost tides of a long-dead sea pulled at the race memory in her cells, reminding her of life before land.
Earlier in the night, at their house, she had not been aware of this phenomenon at all until Neil had spoken of it. Even after he had drawn her attention to it, she hadn’t felt it a fraction as strongly as she did now.
Perhaps these throbbings were akin to magnetic pulses produced by colossal engines of unimaginable size, based on a technology as incomprehensible to her as the internal-combustion engine would be incomprehensible to any tent-dwelling native wandering the cityless plains of America a thousand years before the birth of Christ.
She looked at her wristwatch. The hour hand spun toward next year, while the minute hand whirled perhaps sixty times faster toward last year, as if to rob time of its power and to encourage those with timepieces to consider the moment, and to realize that it is all they ever have.
Throughout the tavern, a palpable anxiety had drawn people to their feet. They, too, consulted their watches if they had them, or looked toward the Coors clock on the back wall.
With the mysterious pulses came the impression of a looming mass in transit through the rain: Neil’s mountain descending, Lee Ling’s falling moon.
“Coming in from the north,” Neil said.
He continued to be more sensitive than Molly to the nuances of this phenomenon.
Others, too, had sensed the point of approach. Several among the drunkards, the peace lovers, the fence-sitters, and the fighters—none of whom had yet left on their various missions of resistance—also faced north, staring at the ceiling at that end of the room.
Conversation had ceased. No glassware clinked.
Most of the dogs gazed up, as well, but still a few sniffed the floor, their instinct for danger blunted by their fascination with the scents of old beer and food stains.
“Bigger than I thought before,” Neil whispered. “Bigger than any mountain or three mountains. And low. Very low. Maybe just…ten feet above the highest treetops.”
“Death,” Molly heard herself say, surprised by her own voice, but she sensed, by virtue of a gift more profound than instinct, that the word she spoke was not adequate and that the traveler in the storm was something both more impossible and less mysterious than she had heretofore imagined.
Toward the front of the tavern, a child began to weep. Her sobs were thick and miserable, but so rhythmic that they seemed false, and strange.
ALTHOUGH THE UNSEEN ENIGMA, CHARTING its course of conquest through the night sea overhead, compelled attention as nothing before in Molly’s experience, the crying of the child grew so eerie that her gaze, and others, settled from the ceiling to the source of that misery.
The crying was not that of a child, after all, but arose from the doll that Molly had snatched from the backseat of the abandoned Lincoln Navigator on the ridge road.
It lay facedown on the bar where she had left it. The head was turned toward the room, eyes closed. From its open mouth issued the bawl and boohoo that were among the sounds and words recorded on its voice chip.
Molly was reminded of the music boxes in their bedroom. The waltzing porcelain figurines. The carousel horse turning, turning.
In her mind’s eye, she also saw the twitching cadaver that had been Harry Corrigan. Dead Harry quoting Eliot through broken teeth, out of a blasted mouth that no longer had a roof.
She realized that the corpse-as-marionette was just a different category of the same effect that animated the music-box figures and caused the doll to sob. To the unknown masters of this night, the dead were toys, and the living.
As Molly was about to turn her attention to the ceiling once more, one of the dogs growled softly, and then another. They were watching the doll.
That plastic-and-rubber baby was equipped with flexible joints but featured no batteries—yet it moved. Turned onto its side. Lifted its head off the bar.
Everyone present had seen the impossible this night, and more than once. They had been inoculated against easy astonishment, and they at first regarded this development with more curiosity than fear or wonder.
If the two dogs had not continued to growl low in their throats and bare their teeth, some in the tavern might have looked away, less concerned about this strangeness than about the unknown leviathan plying the currents of the night above Black Lake.
Then the doll stopped crying and levered itself into a sitting position, its legs hanging over the edge of the bar, its arms at its sides. The eyes opened. The head turned.
Injection-molded, machine-made, glued and stitched and painted, this minikin in pink pedal pushers and yellow T-shirt was blind, of course, yet its eyes moved left and right and left again, surveying the people gathered in the tavern as though it could see them with perfect clarity.
In a childlike voice, it said, “Hungry. Eat.”
Logic wasn’t taxed by the argument that those two words would have been included in the vocabulary on the toy’s voice chip.
Yet when the doll spoke, those onlookers standing nearest to it backed away.
Molly moved closer to Neil.
“Hungry. Eat,” the doll repeated.
The mouth was hinged at the corners. When the doll spoke, its lips moved, revealing a small pink tongue.
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