Still surveying the tavern, the minikin cycled through some of the contents of its phrase bank: “I love you…baby’s sleepy…nighty-night…my tummy hurts…diaper wet…Mommy, sing for baby…baby likes your song…I will be good, Mommy…I’m hungry…baby needs pudding…yum-yum, all gone…”
The doll fell silent. Tipping its head back, it gazed at the ceiling, as if it felt the behemoth passing in the rainy night.
Indeed, something in the doll’s attitude—the c**k of its head, the slight forward lean of its body, the unnerving intensity of its glass eyes—gave rise in Molly to the thought that it was not merely aware of the leviathan above but was also in communion with it.
Lowering its head, shifting its gaze to those in the tavern once more, the doll said, “Diaper…diaper…diaper.” Then it dropped the second syllable: “Di…di…di….”
Someone said, “Shut the damn thing up,” and someone else said, “Wait, let’s see.”
“Sing\sing…sing,” said the doll, then shortened the word to just the suffix, “…ing…ing…ing.” A pause. Then the combined form: “Dying…dying…dying…”
Looking around, Molly saw faces as pale as her own must be.
Lee Ling watched, one fist to her mouth, biting on her knuckles, and her husband, Norman, stood with his shotgun cradled across his arm, as if he wished he could do something with it.
The doll declared, “Dying hurts,” and although it had no source of power to facilitate such animation, it raised its right hand to its mouth, as if in imitation of Lee Ling.
The articulated shoulder and elbow joints might have allowed the minikin’s arm to bend as it did. Its molded rubber hands were not jointed, however, and should not have been able to commit the self-mutilation that followed.
Reaching between its hinged lips, the doll pinched its pink vinyl tongue and tore it out.
Up went the left hand, which clawed at the left socket, pried out the semispherical eye, and dropped it on the bar, where it bounced, blue and blinkless, along the mahogany, and spent its final energy in a short-lived blind spin.
“All your babies,” the doll said, in a cracked cadence that resulted from cobbling words together from various phrases on its voice chip, out of context, “all your babies will die.”
“ALL YOUR BABIES WILL DIE.”
On the repetition of that threat, Molly looked toward the children gathered at the far side of the room. All were on their feet, craning their necks. She wished that they could be spared this psychological warfare, if that was in fact the purpose of the puppeteer behind this bizarre performance.
The doll sat one-eyed, working a finger of its right hand in the empty socket in the manner of a swimmer trying to drain a water block in an ear.
If wet gray wormlike forms had burst in frenzied wriggling from the gouged socket, Molly would not have been surprised.
“All your babies will die.”
The weight of those five words, seemingly a promise of human extinction, pressed as heavily on her as the maximum density of the hovering mystery above Black Lake that, with the rhythmic throb of its engines or its heart, compressed her lungs, oppressed her spirit.
The doll’s right hand rose to the right socket, tore loose the second orb. Always sightless since the day of manufacture, it had now double-blinded itself.
“All your babies, your babies, your babies will die.”
His choking rage expressed in a throttled curse, Norman Ling stepped to the bar, raising his shotgun.
“Norman, God’s sake, no shooting here!” warned Russell Tewkes, the tavern owner.
As the eye fell from the rubbery hand, the sorcery enlivening the figure seemed to subside in power or even to vacate it entirely. The doll sagged, slumped backward on the bar, and lay still, its eyeless gaze turned toward the ceiling, the night, and the gods of the storm.
Pale with fear, hard-faced with anger, Tewkes used one cupped hand to sweep the torn vinyl tongue and the two glass eyes off the bar into a trash can.
As the taverner next reached for the doll, someone cried out, “Russ, behind you!”
Revealing that his nerves were trigger wires, Tewkes turned with snap-quick torque that belied the apparent ponderousness of his beer-barrel body, fisting his hands as if to defend, in classic barroom style, against any looming threat.
At first Molly didn’t see what had inspired the warning.
Then Tewkes declared, “That’s not going to be me. Like hell it is.”
A mirror ran the length of the long bar. Tewkes stared at his reflection, in which the right side of his face was crushed.
In spite of his declaration, half convinced by the testimony of the mirror, Tewkes raised one hand to his face to reassure himself that a catastrophe had not already befallen him. In the reflection, his hand looked twisted, mangled.
Gasps of recognition and thin cries of horror arose from others in the tavern as they realized that Tewkes was not the only one among them whose reflection purported to be a preview of his mortal fate. In the mirror, they saw their friends, saw their neighbors, sought themselves—and in every instance were presented with a cadaver, each the victim of extreme violence.
The lower jaw had been torn from Tucker Madison’s face. The deputy’s upper teeth bit air.
In reflection, Vince Hoyt’s Roman-emperor head lacked the top of its skull, and the phantom Vince pointed out of the mirror, at the real Vince, with an arm that terminated in bristling bone below the elbow.
Here stood a gnarled burnt mass that had once been a man, still smoking, grinning not with humor or menace, but because his teeth had been revealed in dental-chart explicitness when his lips had been seared away.
Molly knew that she shouldn’t look for herself in this gruesome mural. If it was a glimpse of unavoidable destiny, it would foster despondency. If it was a lie, the image of her death-corrupted face and body would nevertheless fester in memory, diminishing her will to action, compromising her survival instinct.
Morbid curiosity may be integral to the human genome: In spite of her better judgment, she looked anyway.
In the premonitory mirror, in that other tavern of the standing dead, Molly Sloan did not exist. Where she should have been, there was only vacancy. Behind that vacancy stood the ripped and grisly reflection of the man stationed at her back on this side of the looking glass.
Earlier in the night, in her bedroom vanity mirror, where she had glimpsed a future version of that chamber jungled with vines and mold and fungus, she had seen her reflection; she had not appeared therein as a corpse or in any way distorted, but entirely as she looked in reality.
Now, with dread, she sought Neil’s reflection. When she found that he also had no place in that back-bar panorama of animated cadavers, she didn’t know whether she should be relieved by their lack of representation or should assume that it meant their fate involved something worse than the decapitation, amputation, and mutilation visited upon the others.
She glanced at him beside her, in the flesh. Their eyes met, and she knew that he had recognized the absence of their reflections and, like her, was confused about the meaning of it.
The lights failed. Absolute darkness flourished.
This time, no doubt, the loss of power would be permanent.
Prepared for this eventuality, eight, then ten, then perhaps twenty of the gathered citizens switched on flashlights. Sabers of light slashed the darkness.
Many of the beams found the mirror, perhaps evidence of a collective fear that the grotesque Others on the far side of the silvered glass had in the blackness stepped through to this world. The dazzle made it impossible to see the current reflection.
Someone threw a beer bottle. The long mirror shattered, and the fragments rang to the floor in a cascade of ominous notes.
Although the mirror was his property, and though it broke around his feet in a surf of dangerous shards, Russell Tewkes didn’t object.
In the sweep and clash of flashlight beams, in the flares from falling silvered fragments, Molly noticed something that strummed yet another arpeggio of terror from her taut nerves.
The eyeless, tongueless doll had a moment ago been recumbent on the bar. In the brief but total blackness, it had disappeared.
IN ANTICIPATION OF THE LOSS OF POWER, groups of candles had been placed on all the tables as well as at various points along the bar. Matches flared, wicks caught flame, and flashlights were extinguished as warm golden light shimmered across faces pale and dark, leafed the mahogany walls, and throbbed in nimbuses across the ceiling.
With the welcome return of light, a memory flared, and for a moment Molly stood transfixed in consideration of it.
Neil said something to her, but she was more in the recent past than in the present, crouching in the janitorial closet, watching the self-repairing fungus knit shut its surface membrane. And listening to Derek Sawtelle…
She surveyed the nervous crowd for the professor.
When Neil put a hand on her shoulder and gently shook her to get her attention, she said, “What the hell’s going on? What’s the truth here, or is there any truth at all?”
She saw Derek across the room, he was staring at her—and smiling as though he knew what she must be thinking. Then he turned from her and spoke to one of his companions.
“Come on,” she said to Neil, and led him toward Derek.
With only a few exceptions, the occupants of the tavern were on their feet, milling around, sharing reactions and reassurances, too shaken to sit down.
More of the dogs were afoot, as well, following their noses on circuitous paths. Perhaps they were still enchanted by the layers of old food and drink stains on the floor, but Molly wondered if they might not be searching for the vanished doll.
When she reached Derek, he was pouring gin from a bottle into a glass of half-melted ice and slices of lime. He turned to her as though he had been monitoring her with a third eye in the back of his head.
“Molly, Neil, dear friends, I assume that bit of Grand Guignol theater has convinced you that Bacchus and Dionysus are the only gods worth worshiping. Let’s pray that Russell’s stockroom is filled with enough cases to keep us well oiled through the final scene of the final act.”
“Cut the bullshit, Derek,” she said. “You’re not as drunk as you pretend to be. Or if you are, you still have enough of your wits about you to play your role in this.”
“My role?” He looked around, feigning bewilderment. “Are there cameras turning?”
“You know what I mean.”
“No, I’m afraid I don’t. And I doubt very much that you yourself know what you mean.”
He had scored a direct hit. She didn’t know what was happening here; however, she was confident that it was more complex than she had thought, and she smelled deception.
She said, “In the janitorial closet, when we were watching that damn thing repair its wound…I didn’t tumble to it at the time, but you quoted Eliot to me.”
A shadow passed through his eyes, a shadow and a glimmer, like the rutilant scales of something swimming just below the surface of murky water. This glimpse, whatever it was, whatever it meant, was not something you would see in the eyes of a friend.
“Eliot who?” he asked.
“Don’t play games. T. S. Eliot.”
“Never cared much for old T. S. I prefer novelists, as you know, particularly the macho type. T. S. is too much of a gentleman for me, not a line of bullying in his whole body of work.”
“You said to me, ‘All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance.’”
“Did I really?” he asked. If there wasn’t mockery in his voice, it brimmed in his eyes.
“It didn’t entirely flow out of what you said before it,” she remembered, “but I attributed any incoherence to the gin, and didn’t immediately recognize the quote.”
“I wasn’t necessarily quoting, dear lady. Perhaps I am from time to time capable of saying something wise all of my own.”
She wouldn’t let him slip out of it as easily as that. “The following line in Eliot is ‘All our ignorance brings us nearer to death.’”
“Well, that certainly resonates with the situation.”
“Harry Corrigan, my father, you—all quoting Eliot. How are you connected with them? What’s going on here?”
Derek’s smug, sardonic grin was identical to Render’s. “Neil, your lovely wife seems to have cast her lot with conspiracy nuts—the black-helicopter crowd.”
“You spoke those words,” Neil confirmed. “I remember.”
“Be careful, Neil. Paranoia can be contagious. You better grab your own bottle of gin and inoculate yourself.”
“If you think someone’s out to get you, and someone is out to get you,” Molly said, “it’s not paranoia. It’s reality.”
Pointing at the ceiling, indicating the leviathan that they could sense without seeing, feel without hearing, Derek said, “That is reality, Molly, hanging over all our heads. All of us dead, a whole world dead, and no escaping it, nothing to be settled except the hour when the ax falls on the last of us.”
She saw in Derek Sawtelle no fear, no despair, not even the sweet melancholy that he had touted as the ideal retreat from sharper emotions. Instead, in his suddenly feverish eyes and in the points of his Cheshire-Cat smile, she saw triumph, which made no sense at all, but which was apparent nonetheless and unmistakable.
“Now, dear Molly, stop thrashing about for meaning in silly conspiracy theories, and grab what pleasure can be had. The drinks are on the house.”
Frustrated, confused about so much but not about Derek’s barely veiled hostility and lies, Molly turned away from him. She pushed a few steps through the milling crowd before she realized that she didn’t know where to go or what to do next.
She seemed to have no option but to wait for death and embrace it when it came.
NEIL TOOK HER BY THE ARM AND LED HER TO an empty booth along the north wall of the tavern.
She refused to sit. “We’re running out of time.”
“I hear the clock.”
“We’ve got to do something, get ready.”
“All right. But what? How?”
She said, “Maybe the bank is the best idea. Secure the place. Hunker down. At least go out fighting.”
“Then we’ll go there now, with the rest of them.”
“That’s just it. The rest of them. They were all dead…in the mirror. Do they die at the bank? Is that where they get…torn apart like that?”
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