He put his hand to Barbara’s face. Her breath feathered his palm. She seemed to be all right. He could feel her eyes moving under her lids, dreaming Dickens.
Glancing back at Whispering Pines, he saw that no one had yet evacuated through the west-wing exit.
He rolled Barbara’s bed aside.
On the ground, Steve was twitching, saying, “Unnn, unnn, unnn,” in a bad imitation of an epileptic fit.
Billy zapped him again with the Taser, then pocketed it.
He grabbed the freak by his belt, by the collar of his shirt, hauled him off the blacktop. He didn’t think he had the strength to lift and shove Zillis into the back of the ambulance, but panic flushed him with adrenaline.
The knuckles of the freak’s right hand rapped uncontrollably against the floor of the ambulance, as did the back of his skull.
Billy slammed the door, seized the foot rail of Barbara’s bed, and pushed her toward Whispering Pines.
When he was less than ten feet from the door, it opened, and an orderly appeared, leading a patient in a walker.
“This is my wife,” Billy said. “I got her out. Will you look after her while I help some others?”
“It’s covered,” the orderly assured him. “I better get her a safe distance if there’s fire.”
Urging the man in the walker to keep pace with him, the orderly pushed Barbara away from the building but also away from the waiting ambulance. When Billy got behind the wheel and pulled the driver’s door shut, he heard the freak drumming his heels against something and making strangled noises that might have been fractured curses.
Billy didn’t know how long the effect of a Tasering lasted. Maybe he was wrong to pray for convulsions, but he did.
He found the brake release, the gear shift, and he pulled around to the front of the building. He parked beside his Explorer.
People were coming out of the building, into the parking lot. They were too busy to wonder about him.
He transferred the cooler with the severed hands to the ambulance and then got away from there. He went two blocks before he could locate the switch for the emergency beacons and the siren.
By the time he passed the fire trucks, coming out from Vineyard Hills, the ambulance was in full flash and voice.
He figured the more he called attention to himself, the less suspicious he appeared. He broke every speed limit going through the northeast end of town, and turned due east on the state route that led to the Olsen house. When he was two miles out of town, with vineyards to both sides of the road, he heard the freak muttering more coherently and banging around back there, evidently trying to get up.
Billy pulled to the shoulder of the road, parked, but left the beacons flashing. He climbed between the seats, into the back.
On his knees, clutching the bracketed oxygen cylinder, Zillis wanted badly to get to his feet. His eyes were bright, like those of a coyote at night. Billy zapped him again, and Zillis flopped, twitched, but a Taser wasn’t a deadly weapon.
If he shot the freak, blood might spray over all the life-support equipment, an ungodly mess. And evidence.
On the wheeled stretcher were two thin foam pillows. Billy grabbed both. Flat on his back, rolling his head from side to side, Zillis had no muscle control whatsoever.
Billy dropped on his chest with both knees, driving the breath out of him, cracking more than one of his ribs, and shoved the pillows over his face. Although the freak fought for life, he fought ineffectively. Billy almost couldn’t finish it. He made himself think about Judith Kesselman, her lively eyes, her elfin smile, and he wondered if Zillis had shoved a spear-point iron stave into her, whether he had cut off the top of her skull while she was alive and handed it to her as a drinking cup. Then it was over.
Sobbing but not for Zillis, he climbed once more behind the steering wheel. He drove onto the highway.
Two miles from the turnoff to the Olsen place, Billy killed the emergency beacons and the siren. He slowed below the speed limit.
Because the alarm at Whispering Pines had been false, the fire-department crew would not linger. By the time he eventually returned the ambulance, the staff parking lot would be deserted again.
He had left his power screwdriver at home. He was pretty sure that Lanny owned one. He would borrow it. Lanny wouldn’t care.
As he reached the house, he saw the sickle moon, a little thicker this night than last, and the silver blade perhaps somewhat sharper.
All year, the valley is home to rock doves and to band-tailed pigeons, to the song sparrow and to the even more musical dark-eyed junco. The long-winged, long-tailed falcons known as American kestrels also stay the year. Their distinctive plumage is bright and cheerful. Their shrill, clear call sounds like killy-killy-killy-killy, which should not be pleasing to the ear, but is.
Billy bought a new refrigerator. And a microwave.
He knocked down a wall, combining his study with the living room because he had plans to use the space differently from the way it had been used before.
After choosing a cheerful butter-yellow color, he repainted every room. He threw out the carpets and furniture, and purchased everything new, because he didn’t know where the redhead might have been sitting or lying when she had been strangled or otherwise dispatched.
He considered razing the house and rebuilding, but he realized that houses are not haunted. We are haunted, and regardless of the architecture with which we surround ourselves, our ghosts stay with us until we ourselves are ghosts. When he was not at work on the house or behind the bar at the tavern, he sat in the room at Whispering Pines or on his front porch, reading the novels of Charles Dickens, the better to know where Barbara lived.
With the coming of autumn, the wood-pewees move on from the valley, and their pee-didip, pee-didip is not heard until spring. Most of the willow flycatchers migrate as well, although a few may adapt and linger.
By autumn, Valis remained big news, especially in the tabloids and on those TV shows that tricked up carnival-freak show huckstering to pass for investigative journalism. They would feed on him for a year at least, like flickers feed on the larvae in noisy acorns, though Nature had not given them the imperative that she had given to the flickers.
Steve Zillis had been linked to Valis. Sightings of the pair—disguised but recognizable—were reported in South America, in Asia, in the more ominous regions of the former Soviet Union.
Lanny Olsen was assumed to be dead but also in some mysterious way a hero. He had not been a detective, merely a deputy, and never before had he been a motivated officer; however, his calls to Ramsey Ozgard, of the Denver PD, indicated that he had reason to suspect Zillis and, in the end, Valis as well. No one could explain why Lanny had not taken his suspicions to a superior. Sheriff Palmer said only that Lanny always had been “a lone wolf who did some of his best work outside the usual channels,” and for some reason no one laughed or asked the sheriff what the hell he was talking about. One theory—popular at the bar—held that Lanny had shot and wounded Valis, but that Steve Zillis had come on scene and murdered Lanny. Then Steve had driven away with Lanny’s body to dispose of it, and with the wounded artist, as well, to nurse him to health in some hideaway, since all legitimate doctors are required to report gunshot wounds.
No one knew in what vehicle Steve had fled, as his own car was in the garage at his house; but obviously he had stolen wheels from someone. He hadn’t taken the motor home because he had never before driven it, and no doubt because he feared that it would attract too much attention once Valis had been reported missing.
Psychologists and criminologists with knowledge of sociopathic behavior argued against the idea that one homicidal psychopath would be inclined selflessly to nurse another homicidal psychopath back to health. The notion of these two monsters behaving with tender-hearted concern toward each other appealed to the press, however, and to the public. If Count Dracula and the Frankenstein monster could be good friends, as they had been in a couple of old films, Zillis might be stirred to minister to his grievously wounded artist mentor.
No one ever noticed that Ralph Cottle had vanished.
Surely the young redhead had been missed, but perhaps she had come from a distant part of the nation and had been snatched on the road while passing through the wine country. If there were stories in some other state
about her disappearance, she was never connected to the Valis affair, and Billy never learned her name.
People go missing every day. The national news media don’t have sufficient space or time to report upon the fall of every sparrow. Although wood-pewees and most willow flycatchers leave with the summer, the common snipe appears when autumn trends toward winter, as does the ruby-crowned kinglet, which has a high, clear, lively song of many phrases.
In those rarefied circles where the simplest thoughts are deep and where even gray has shades of gray, a movement arose to complete the unfinished mural. And burn it as planned. Valis might have been insane, the argument went; but art is art nonetheless, and must be respected.
The burning drew such an enthusiastic crowd of Hells Angels, organized anarchists, and sincere nihilists that Jackie O’Hara closed his doors that weekend. He didn’t want their trade at a family tavern.
By late autumn, Billy quit his bartending job and brought Barbara home. One end of the expanded living room served as both her bedroom and his office. With her quiet company, he found that he could write again. Although Barbara did not require life-support machines, only a pump to supply a steady food drip through the tube in her stomach, Billy initially depended on continuous help from registered nurses. He learned to care for her, however, and after several weeks, he seldom needed a nurse other than at night, when he slept.
He emptied her catheter bag, changed her diapers, cleaned her, bathed her, and was never repulsed. He felt better doing these things for her than he felt when he let strangers do them. In truth, he did not expect that tending to her in this fashion would make her seem more beautiful to him, but that was what happened.
She had saved him once, before she’d been taken from him, and now she saved him again. After the terror, the brutal violence, the murder, she gave him the opportunity to become acquainted with compassion and to find in himself a gentleness that otherwise he might have lost forever.
Strange, how the friends began to visit. Jackie, Ivy, the cooks Ramon and Ben, and Shirley Trueblood. Harry Avarkian often drove up from Napa. They sometimes brought members of their families, as well as friends of theirs who became Billy’s friends. Increasingly, people seemed to enjoy hanging around the Wiles place. They had a crowd on Christmas Day.
By spring, when the wood-pewees and willow flycatchers returned in numbers, Billy had widened the front door and ramped the threshold to accommodate Barbara’s bed on the porch. With an extension cord to keep her food pump working and to allow adjustment of the mattress, she was able to lie in an elevated position, her face to the warm spring breezes. On the porch, he read, sometimes aloud. And listened to the bird songs. And watched her dreaming A Christmas Carol.
That was a good spring, a better summer, a fine autumn, a lovely winter. That was the year when people began to call him Bill instead of Billy, and somehow he didn’t notice until the new name was the common usage. In the spring of the following year, one day when he and Barbara were together on the porch, Bill was reading to himself when she said, “Barn swallows.”
He no longer kept a notebook of the things that she said, for he no longer worried that she was afraid and lost and suffering. She was not lost. When he looked up from his book, he discovered a flock of that very bird, moving as one, describing graceful patterns over the yard beyond the porch. He looked at her and saw that her eyes were open and that she seemed to be watching the swallows.
“They’re more graceful than other swallows,” he said.
“I like them,” she said.
The birds were elegant with their long, slender, pointed wings and their long, deeply forked tails. Their backs were dark blue, their br**sts orange.
“I like them very much,” she said, and closed her eyes.
After holding his breath for a while, he said, “Barbara?”
She did not answer. I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing.
Hope, love, and faith are all in the waiting. Power is not the truth of life; the love of power is the love of death.
The barn swallows flew elsewhere. Bill returned to the book that he had been reading.
What will happen will happen. There is time for miracles until there is no more time, but time has no end.
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