Standing at the top of the stairwell with Molly, sharing her reluctance to enter that narrow flight, Neil wondered, “What was he shooting at—ghosts?”
She shook her head. “It wasn’t any ghost that tore the bedroom door off its hinges.”
“But what could walk through shotgun fire unscathed?”
“I don’t know. And maybe I don’t want to find out.” Molly turned away from the back stairs. “Let’s get out of here.”
They retraced the route they had taken from the front stairs, and as they were stepping around the fallen door in the hall outside the master bedroom, the lights flickered and went out.
WINDOWLESS, THE HALLWAY LACKED EVEN the unearthly glow of the luminous rain. Here ruled the absolute black of corridors in death dreams, of final resting places underground.
Still learning the necessary tactics to weather doomsday, Molly had unthinkingly left her flashlight in the Explorer.
In this blind domain rose a rustle separate from the susurrant chorus of the rain, a rustle like the unfurling, flexing, furling of featherless, membranous wings. She insisted to herself that it must be the sound of Neil searching his raincoat.
The sudden beam of his flashlight proved her right. She let out her pent-up breath.
The gloom in the hallway seemed not like ordinary darkness, subject to the laws of physics, but like Darkness Visible, the sooty essence of a palpable evil. The light carved a swath less revealing than she would have liked, and when the beam moved, the murk returned in eager leaps and swoops.
They negotiated the fallen door, but had gone only a few steps farther when a presence in the surrounding shadows recited a line by one of her favorite poets, T. S. Eliot.
“I think we are in rats’ alley—”
He spoke in a stage whisper, not in a shout, but somehow the words carried through the insistent tattoo of the rain, and Molly recognized the voice of Harry Corrigan, dead Harry, who had done to himself what a thug had done to his wife for the gain of only two hundred dollars.
Whipping, darting, arcing, the flashlight beam probed left, right, behind them. No one.
Neil passed the flashlight to Molly, freeing both of his hands for the shotgun.
Wielding light and handgun, she aimed the pistol with the beam. A half-open door to a guest bedroom on her right. The barely cracked door of a study to her left. Another door: a flare of porcelain in a bathroom beyond.
Harry or the grotesquery that had been Harry, or the thing that pretended to be Harry, might lurk in any of the three rooms. Or in none of them.
And now came the line from “The Waste Land” that in fact followed the one already spoken:
“—Where the dead men lost their bones.”
Molly couldn’t deduce the voice’s point of origin. The words twisted around her with serpentine deception, seeming to arise from first one side, then from another.
Her galloping heart stampeded, knocking so hard against her ribs that it seemed fire must have flared in her blood as surely as iron-shod hooves would have struck sparks from cobblestones.
First the palm of her right hand, then the checked grip of the pistol grew slick with sweat.
The stubborn dark, the cloying dark, the inadequate light, doors to both sides poised as tensely as the spring-loaded lids of pop-up toys, and forty feet to the head of the stairs.
Near the stairs, a figure stepped out of a doorway or out of a wall, or through a portal between worlds; she couldn’t tell which and was prepared to believe anything.
The jittering light first revealed his shoes, the cuffs of his corduroy pants.
On the floor in his splattered bathroom, Harry had slumped in flannel shirt and corduroy pants. Corduroy of precisely this tan shade.
Molly’s knees weakened at the prospect of seeing again the hollow-pumpkin head, the empty sockets of the jack-o’-lantern eyes, the teeth broken jagged by the bucking barrel of the 12-gauge.
Yet what she wanted to see and what her determined hand intended to show her were different things. She raised the flashlight to his knees, belt buckle, flannel shirt, grizzled chin….
Mercifully, Neil stepped past her, fired his shotgun, pumped a new round into the breach as the funhouse figure blew back, reeled back, into shadows. He said urgently, “Go, Molly, go, get out.”
The concussion had rung off the hallway walls; and still the echo tolled through surrounding rooms, through rooms below, as if the house were a many-chambered bell.
The unthinkable was there in the darkness between her and the stairs, just a lunge away from her: the dripping thing, the hangman, the eternal Footman, the Stranger who comes to everyone’s door sooner or later, and knocks and knocks and will not go away, now here for her in the impossible form of dead Harry, her lost friend.
She ran behind the wildly leaping light, toward the inconstant light, toward the polished mahogany newel post marking the way down, and she didn’t look to her left, where the resurrected neighbor had fallen backward into shadows.
It must have risen, moved, approached, because Neil fired again. The flare from the muzzle chased a flurry of shadows, like a flock of bats, through the hallway.
Molly reached the stairs, which seemed markedly steeper in the descent than they had been in the ascent. Flashlight in one hand, pistol in the other, she was not able to clutch at the railing, but owed her balance to sheer luck. She plunged down steps as unforgiving as ice-crusted ladder rungs, headlong, stumbling, flailing her arms, and landed, staggered, on both feet in the foyer, in a billow of raincoat.
The front door stood open. As a third shotgun blast rocked the house, she fled those dry rooms for the questionable sanctuary of the radiant storm.
She hadn’t pulled up her hood. Torrents of rain washed her face, her hair, and a trickle at once found its way down the nape of her neck, under her collar, along her spine, into the cleft of buttocks, as if it were the questing finger of a violator taking advantage of a moment of vulnerability.
She sloshed across the flooded turnaround, to the driver’s door of the Explorer. Soft lumpish objects bumped against her boots.
The flashlight revealed dead birds—twenty, thirty, forty, more—beaks cracked in silent cries, eyes glassy, bobbing in the silvered pool, as if they had been drowned in flight and washed down from the flooded sky.
Neil rushed out of the house, toward the idling SUV. Nothing pursued him, at least not immediately.
Climbing behind the wheel of the Explorer, Molly dropped the flashlight in the console cup-holder, put the pistol between her legs, and released the hand brake.
With the Remington smelling of hot steel and expended gunpowder, Neil came aboard as Molly shifted out of park. He pulled his door shut after they had begun to roll.
Out of the feathered pool, up the driveway that appeared to be paved in the glistening black-and-silver scales of serpents, to the county road, they escaped that haunted precinct of the cataclysm and drove into another.
IN THIS NIAGARA, ON PAVEMENT AS SLICK AS A bobsled chute, speed was worse than folly; speed equaled madness. Nevertheless, Molly drove too fast, eager to reach town.
Here and there, weak and sodden tree branches cracked loose, fell to the roadway. Layered veils of rain obscured the way ahead, and often she couldn’t see obstacles until she was nearly upon them.
Cold terror made of her an expert driver, and a keen survival instinct improved her judgment, honed her reaction time to a split-second edge. She piloted the Explorer through a slalom course of storm debris, wheeling into every slide, jolting through chuckholes that made the steering wheel stutter in her hands, powering out of a near stall when a flooded swale in the pavement proved to be deeper than it looked.
When she saw a gnarled, clawlike evergreen limb too late to avoid it, those broken fingers of pine tore at the undercarriage, scratched, scraped, knocked, as though some living creature were determined to get at them through the floorboards. The branch got hung up on the rear axle, rapping noisily for a quarter of a mile before it finally splintered and fell away.
Chastened, Molly eased up on the accelerator. For the next quarter of a mile, she glanced repeatedly at the fuel gauge, worried that the gas tank might have been punctured.
The indicator needle held steady just below the FULL mark. No instrument-panel lights appeared to indicate falling oil pressure or a loss of any other vital fluid. Her luck had held.
At this slower speed, less intently focused on her driving, she could think more clearly about the grisly episode at the Corrigan place. No matter how hard she mulled it over, however, she could not understand it.
“What was that, damn, what happened back there?” she asked, recognizing a scared-girl note in her voice, neither surprised nor embarrassed to hear her words strung on a tremor.
“Can’t get my mind around it,” Neil admitted.
“Harry was dead.”
“Brains all over the bathroom.”
“That’s a memory maybe even Alzheimer’s couldn’t erase.”
“So how could he be up on his feet again?”
“But he did, he was. Neil, for God’s sake, I mean, what does something like that have to do with Mars?”
“Or wherever they’re from—the other side of the Milky Way, another galaxy, the end of the universe.”
“I don’t know,” he said.
“This isn’t like ETs in the movies.”
“’Cause this isn’t the movies.”
“Doesn’t seem to be real life, either. The real world runs on logic.”
Having fished spare shells from his raincoat pockets, Neil reloaded the shotgun. He didn’t fumble the ammunition. His hands were steady.
Never in her memory had his hands been otherwise, or his mind, or his heart. Steady Neil.
“So where’s the logic?” Molly asked. “I don’t see it.”
Half as big as pineapples, two objects dropped from overhead, bounced off the hood of the Explorer.
Molly braked before she realized they were pine cones. They resembled hand grenades as they ricocheted off the windshield and arced away into the night.
“Parasites,” Neil said.
She brought the Explorer to a full stop, half on the road, half on the graveled shoulder. “Parasites?”
“They might be parasites,” he said, “these things from the far end of the universe or the dark side of the moon, or wherever they’re from. Parasites—that’s an old theme in science fiction, isn’t it?”
“Intelligent parasites, capable of infecting a host body and controlling it as if it were a puppet.”
“What host body?”
“Anything, any species. In this case, Harry’s corpse.”
“You call that logic?”
“But how does this parasite—I don’t care if it’s smarter than the entire membership of Mensa combined—how does it control a host that’s blown out its brains?”
“The corpse still has a jointed skeleton, musculature, intact nerve pathways below the brainpan,” he said. “Maybe the parasite plugs into all that and can manipulate the host, brain or no brain.”
Her anxiety ebbed just enough to allow for a small amazement. “You sure don’t sound like a guy who was schooled by Jesuits.”
“Oh, but I do. They value nimbleness of thought, imagination, and open-mindedness.”
“And evidently they watch old Star Trek episodes too much. The parasite theory doesn’t qualify as logic in my book.”
For a moment, Neil studied the dripping, silvered forest, which darkled to a black void in the distance. With evident uneasiness, he surveyed the rain-washed county road ahead and behind them.
“Let’s keep moving,” he said. “I think we’re more vulnerable when we’re sitting still like this.”
BY VIRTUE OF ITS EXTRAORDINARY VOLUME, its numbing roar, and its fearsome spectacle, the ceaseless rain inspired curious psychological reactions. The monotony of the phenomenon and its oppressive force had the power to depress and disorient.
As she drove slowly across the storm-swept western ridge line above Black Lake, toward the town of the same name, Molly Sloan was able to resist depression and disorientation. But she felt that something essential in herself was gradually being washed away.
Not hope. She would never lose hope; like calcium, hope was part of the structure of her bones.
The certainty of purpose that characterized her approach to life seemed, however, to be less firm than usual, turning soggy under the influence of this deluge, so quickly washed thin and bleached of its former intensity.
She didn’t know where she was going, other than to town, or why, other than to seek sanctuary with neighbors. She had always planned her life not a month ahead, not even just a year ahead, but a decade or more in advance, setting goals and striving ever toward them. Now she was unable to see as far as the coming dawn, and without a clear purpose, without a long-term plan, she felt adrift.
She wanted to survive, of course. But survival had never before been enough for her, and it wasn’t enough now. To be motivated, she needed a more profound purpose and greater meaning.
Pages crystallizing into chapters, chapters accreting into books: The story-painting, spell-casting, truth-telling work of a novelist had seemed to be a lifelong purpose. Her mother had taught her that talent is a gift from God, that a writer has a sacred obligation to her Creator to explore the gift with energy and diligence, to polish it, to use it to brighten the landscape of her readers’ hearts.
In her haste to pack food, weapons, and other essentials for whatever perilous journey might be ahead of them, Molly had forgotten to bring her laptop. She had always written on a computer; she didn’t know if her talent would flow as easily, or at all, from the point of a pen.
Besides, she had brought no pen, no pencil. She hadn’t included any paper in her provisions, either, only the pages of her current, unfinished manuscript.
Perhaps purpose and meaning and ambitious plans would elude her until she better understood the current situation and, based on more hard facts than she now possessed, could begin to imagine what future might await them.
If understanding was to be achieved, questions needed to be answered.
Although driving at only ten miles per hour through the dismal downpour, she didn’t look away from the road when she said to Neil, “Why T. S. Eliot?”
“What do you mean?”
“What Harry…the thing that used to be Harry…what it said to me. ‘I think we are in rats’ alley, Where the dead men lost their bones.’”
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