She shook her head. She looked around the tavern. She could see the barely checked panic in people who, minutes ago, had been talking strategy, tactics, and the possibility of survival. Now they believed the mirror. They expected to die horribly, and soon.
“I’m scared,” she said. “I’ve been handling this pretty well so far…but I’m starting to lose it.”
Neil put his arms around her. He always knew when to say nothing.
Molly trembled against him. She listened to his heart. Steady Neil.
When her heart had begun to time itself to his slower beat, he guided her into the booth and sat across from her.
This table had no candles, and she was grateful for the shadows. She didn’t want anyone but Neil to see her tears. She prided herself on her toughness, her resilience.
Maybe honest pride didn’t matter anymore, but for reasons she couldn’t put into words, she thought it mattered more than ever.
Neil said, “Before we can figure out what to do, maybe we’ve got to ask ourselves what we know.”
“Less and less.”
With irony, he repeated the Eliot quote: “‘All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance.’”
The booth benches featured open space under the seats. Molly tucked her legs back—and thought of the missing doll.
In the brief darkness between the loss of public power and the lighting of the candles, the doll could have crawled into this booth, under her seat. Eyeless but all-seeing. Tongueless mouth filled with the breathless silence of a stalking predator.
She resisted the urge to scramble out of the booth and search under it with a flashlight. To do so would be to succumb to the most childish of fears, after which she would find it more difficult to summon the courage to face the real and more serious terrors that surely were coming.
It was just a doll. And if she should feel a small hand on her ankle, it would be only the hand of a doll, no matter how demonically animated, just the hand of a doll.
She wiped at her damp cheeks. “Are they really taking our world from us?”
“The evidence says so.”
“Or is that just the way we’re reading the evidence?”
“I don’t see how else to interpret it.”
“Neither do I. That thing in the janitor’s closet…” She shuddered.
She could still feel the airborne titan overhead, and now when she turned her attention to the ceiling, she could sense the vessel’s movement, too, as it progressed southward through the storm. She seemed to be increasingly sensitized to it.
“But fast-track terraforming is Derek’s theory,” she said, “and I don’t trust him.”
“What is it with Derek?” Neil asked. “Why did he act like that with you?”
“I don’t know.”
“You said maybe Render wasn’t only Render.”
“And I still don’t know what I mean by that.”
“Is Derek really Derek but not only Derek?”
“For sure, there’s something wrong with him.”
Rubbing the nape of his neck with one hand, he said, “I’m back to the alien-parasite movies.”
“Then why haven’t they burrowed into all of us? Why aren’t we all controlled?”
“Maybe we will be soon.”
She shook her head. “Life isn’t science fiction.”
“Submarines, nuclear weapons, television, computers, satellite communications, organ transplants—it was all the stuff of science fiction before it was reality. And the biggest sci-fi theme of all is alien contact.”
“But with the power to change a world—why the psychological warfare? They could just crush us like ants, which they seem to be doing anyway, in the cities if not here.”
“You mean the doll, the mirror.”
“And Harry Corrigan, and this T. S. Eliot weirdness. If they can replace our entire environment with theirs, scour away human civilization in days or weeks, eradicate it more efficiently than a seven-continent nuclear war, they wouldn’t bother to screw with our minds like this.”
Remembering the doll as it had stared at the ceiling just before it mutilated itself, Molly glanced up again and wondered if increased sensitivity to the storm-sailing leviathan would open her mind to its influence. Perhaps, eventually robbed of her free will, she would mimic the doll and gouge out her eyes.
“We aren’t already dead because they have some sort of use for us,” she suddenly realized.
“I can imagine several….”
“So can I,” he said.
“None of them good.”
“Remember the movie The Matrix?”
“Forget movies. That’s the way they want us to think, that’s how we’re being guided to think. But this is nothing like any movie ever made.”
She watched Vince Hoyt talking animatedly to a man she didn’t know. Unwanted, into her mind came an image from the mirror: the coach with the top of his skull gone.
“Maybe they don’t have a use for all of us,” she said, “but certainly for some of us. We’ve been targeted, not for death but for manipulation. That stuff with the doll and the bar mirror—everyone saw it, but maybe it was only meant to influence you and me.”
“Maybe only you,” he said. “Derek came to you. Render came to you. Harry Corrigan came to you. None of them to me.”
Molly rebelled at the thought that their individual destinies might differ radically, and that therefore their paths must sooner or later diverge. “I don’t know what it means, but it means something that we were the only ones not reflected in that mirror.”
“Not the only ones,” he corrected. “The kids weren’t there, either.”
The six children now stood together near the booth in which they had previously been seated. If earlier they had exhibited some spirit of adventure, it had given way entirely to fear. They appeared to be ready to bolt at the slightest provocation.
Acting on instinct and with natural purpose, the dogs gravitated where they were needed most. While six canines still roamed the room, three—a golden retriever, a German shepherd, and a black-and-tan mutt with the build of a boxer but with the shaggy face of a Scottish terrier—had gathered around the children to soothe troubled hearts as dogs have always done, and no doubt to defend their young charges against any threat.
Watching the kids and the dogs, Molly again felt enlightenment teasing her from just beyond the open fields of conscious thought, a shapeless shape moving in the shadowy woods of the subconscious, both enticing and disturbing.
“Besides the children,” she asked Neil, “who else didn’t cast a reflection in the mirror?”
“I don’t know. It all happened so fast, there wasn’t time for a head count. Maybe a couple others. Or maybe just the eight of us—you, me, the kids.”
The soundless throbbing in the bones, the blood, the lymph, pulses sympathetic to the rhythms of the magnetic engines powering the behemoth overhead, began to subside.
She sensed the great weight and the malevolent shadow passing off them as the vast ship moved south, and to avoid despondency, she dared not think about the hordes of inhuman creatures that must be aboard it and the cruel irresistible power it represented.
Throughout the tavern, candle flames swelled brighter, as if their light had been oppressed in much the way that the tides of the seas are managed by the phases of the moon.
Molly’s mind seemed to function more quickly and clearly, too. She perceived purpose where before she had seen nothing but mists of confusion.
Working it out step by step, she said to Neil, “What is Render, my father?”
“What do you mean?”
“What one word defines the essence of him?”
“Psychopath,” Neil said.
“That’s a distraction from the truth.”
“Murderer,” he said.
As Neil spoke, a dog came to their table—the German shepherd that had stood with the group of kids. It stared intently at Molly.
She sat up straighter in the booth as her immediate future, previously all murk and mystery, began to clarify. “Yes—Render’s a child murderer. And what am I?”
“To me—everything,” he said. “To the world—a writer.”
“I love you,” she said, “and what we’ve had together. It doesn’t get better. But if this is the last night of the world, if I’ve no more living left to define myself, then I’m defined forever by the best and worst things I’ve ever done.”
Frowning, Neil followed half a step behind in her series of conclusions. “The best…you saved the lives of those school kids.”
“He murders children. Once…I saved a few.”
With an anxious whine, the German shepherd drew her attention.
She had thought that the dog wandered to their booth with no more purpose than to explore that section of the floor and to cadge tidbits from them if they had any food to share.
Its gaze was unusually intense, however, and more than intense: strange, compelling.
She considered how the dogs, en masse, had reacted to her when she had first arrived in the tavern. They had seemed to be watching her surreptitiously ever since.
“Neil, we’ve been thinking pretty much only about ourselves, how to survive. That leaves us with nothing to do but find a hidey-hole, hunker down, and wait.”
He understood: “You’ve never lived that way—passive, just waiting for what’s next.”
“Neither have you. There are children tonight, in this chaos, who aren’t being given the shelter and protection they need, they deserve.” She was relieved to have a purpose, to be suddenly filled with the urgency of meaningful commitment.
“And if we can’t save them?” Neil wondered.
Ears pricked, head cocked, the dog turned to Neil.
“Maybe no one can save anyone anymore,” Neil continued, “not with the whole world lost.”
The dog whined at him as it had whined at Molly.
Intrigued by the shepherd’s attitude and behavior, she wondered if something extraordinary might be happening; but then the dog padded away, weaving through the crowd, soon out of sight.
“If we can’t save them,” she said, “then we’ll try to spare them from what pain and terror we can. We’ve got to put ourselves between them and whatever’s coming.”
He glanced at the six children.
Molly said, “I don’t mean them. Their parents are here, and the group is big enough to protect them about as well as anyone can be protected in these circumstances. But how many kids are out there in town? Not teenagers. I mean, younger kids, small and vulnerable. One hundred? Two hundred?”
“Maybe that many. Maybe even more.”
“How many of them have parents who are dealing with this the way Derek and his crowd are dealing with it—getting drunk and worse, leaving their kids afraid and undefended?”
“But we don’t know most of the people in town,” Neil said. “There are—what?—maybe four hundred or even five hundred houses, and we don’t know which families have kids. It’ll take hours and hours, maybe a full day, for just the two of us to go door-to-door. We don’t have that much time left.”
“All right. So maybe we can get a few of these people to help us,” Molly said.
Neil looked doubtful. “They’ve got their own agendas.”
Weaving among the tables and the milling residents of Black Lake, the German shepherd returned. In its mouth, the dog held a red rose, which it brought to Molly.
She couldn’t imagine where it had found a rose in the tavern. She hadn’t noticed any floral arrangements.
The dog seemed to want her to take the flower.
“You’ve got a suitor,” Neil said.
Inevitably, she thought of her father murdering the boy in the rose garden. His voice snaked through her memory in sinuous coils of words: I buried his little disposable camera at the foot of a rosebush. It was the Cardinal Mindszenty rose, so named because of its glorious robe-red color.
At first inclined to suspect a connection between Render and the dog, Molly hesitated to accept the rose.
Then she looked into the shepherd’s eyes and saw what is to be seen in every dog’s eyes if it has not been broken by a cruel master: trust, strength without arrogance, a desire to give and receive affection—and an honesty so pure that deception, if contemplated, cannot be perpetrated.
The shepherd wagged its tail.
Molly pinched the stem of the rose, and the animal unlocked its teeth to surrender the fragrant bloom.
As she took the flower, Molly saw evidence of a thorn prick, a spot of blood on the dog’s tongue.
She thought at once of Render—although not as he had appeared this night, rather as he had raged maniacally in that third-grade classroom twenty years previously—and not of Michael Render only or even primarily, but also of one of his victims, a girl named Rebecca Rose, with shaggy blond hair and blue eyes, who died that afternoon in Molly’s arms.
Rebecca Rose. A shy girl with a faint lisp. Her last words, whispered in delirium, apparently a meaningless delusion: Molly…there’s a dog. So pretty…how he shines.
Now the shepherd watched Molly. In his eyes were mysteries to rival any others in this momentous night of enigmas, puzzles, and perplexities.
On a rose thorn, his blood.
Rose of forgetfulness, brought to her by the dog, became the Rose of memory, cut down so young.
By the c**k of his head, the shepherd seemed to question whether Molly Sloan—sensible Molly, she with the strong mainspring wound tight, she who always lived less in the moment than in the future, she who strived toward meticulously planned goals and was prudent in all things except her writing, she who avoided drama in her life but poured it out upon the page—could understand the intentions of a flower-bearing Sphinx, this rebus on four paws, which wanted so urgently to be properly read and understood.
The rose trembled in her hand, and a loose petal fell, like a sanguinary drop, to the tabletop.
And the dog waited. And the dog watched. And the dog smiled.
In a night of dark wonder and extraordinary events, this was a moment no less important but of a different character from all that had come before it.
Her heart raced. Her thoughts quickened, too, perhaps eventually toward a breathtaking revelation, but first through blind alleys of dead-end speculation.
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