MAIN STREET, DESPERATION/REGULATOR TIME
As on their previous run, the vans appear like phantoms, only this time it’s not mist from which they appear but blowing desert dust that shines like lame in the glow of Old Mr Cowpoke Moon.
Cassie’s pink Dream Floater comes first, with Candy behind the wheel in his pinned-back cavalry hat and Cassie herself sitting beside him. On the roof, the Valentine-heart radar dish is turning briskly. Like a sign on a whorehouse roof, Johnny Marinville might have said had he seen it, but he does not; he is lying on the floor of the Carvers” kitchen next to Old Doc with his hands laced together over the top of his head and his eyes squeezed tightly shut; on his face is the expression of a man who expects Armageddon, and soon.
Dream Floater does not swing on to Desperation’s dusty Main Street from Hyacinth; Hyacinth is gone. Where it once ran there is now nothing but hardpan desert, almost featureless… as the sky overhead in this direction is almost completely starless. It’s as if, when His eye turned south to the wastes beyond this tiny huddle of buildings, the Creator had lost most of His divine inspiration.
Dream Floater’s stubby wings are extended, its wheels partially retracted; it cuts through the air about three feet above the wheel-ruts of the street. Its engine pulses steadily. As it passes The Lady Day on the corner, its firing port irises open. Laura DeMott from The Regulators leans out. In her delicate white hands is not her Derringer but a shotgun. Just a double-barrelled shotgun, but when she fires it, the report is as loud as a detonating backpack missile. The report is followed by a short, high-pitched wail, and then the front of the saloon explodes. The batwing doors fly up, for a moment fluttering madly and looking like real wings. There’s an instant of flicker across what remains of the saloon’s front, almost like a heatwave, and for that one instant, anyone who had been looking would have seen the E-Z Stop behind the burning Lady Day like a ghost-building or a double exposure, the convenience store also half-demolished and also burning.
Behind Dream Floater comes Tracker Arrow, and behind Tracker Arrow comes Freedom. Freedom’s polarized windshield slides down again. Major Pike, a good Canopalean gone bad, is currently behind the wheel of Bounty’s van, but the Confederate uniform and pinned-back hat are gone (Candy has the hat on now; the regulators are always trading accessories and bits of uniform back and forth, it’s part of the fun). The Major is wearing his iridescent MotoKops uniform again, and without a hat, his blond Mohawk “do shows to good advantage. Sitting beside him in the nav-pit is the grizzled trapper type Johnny spotted earlier: Sergeant Mathis, Jeb Murdock’s chief aide after the beating and capture of Captain Candell.
Collie Entragian’s house has been replaced by the Two Sisters Millinery, where can be found The Finest in Ladies” Fashions. Serge leans out, draws a bead on the storefront with his shotgun, and yanks the triggers. There is another shattering double crash, and again that long, wailing shriek, as of a bomb falling dead-center-true down the gravity-well toward its target.
“Make it stop!” Susi screams. “Oh please someone MAKE IT STOP!”
The top half of Two Sisters seems to lift off in a storm of boards and shingles and glass and nails. Again there is that flicker, almost as quick as a hummingbird’s wing, and in it Entragian’s house may be glimpsed, even Gary Ripton’s bike and plastic-covered body may be glimpsed, shimmering like the mirages they have now become. Then the house is gone and it’s the Two Sisters (where in The Regulators we first see Laura DeMott, saloon lass with a heart of gold, surreptitiously buying cloth for a church dress) again, with half its roof gone and all its windows blown in.
From the badlands (sagebrush and huge tumbled boulders of cartoon roundness) north of Poplar Street, where Bear Street now isn’t, the silver Rooty-Toot Power Wagon appears. Rooty is behind the wheel, his eyes flashing on and off like traffic lights; Little Joe Cartwright is in the seat next to him, devil-may-care grin on his face, a shotgun chrome-plated with futuristic swoops and doodads in his hands. Directly behind Rooty-Toot comes the Justice Wagon, and behind Justice there appears a humming electric nightmare. In the bonelight of the moon, the Meatwagon looks wrapped in black silk. No Face is in the steering-pit. Countess Lili is in the nav-pit, her sexy eyes gleaming in her ashy vampire-maiden’s face. Jeb Murdock is above them, in the Doom Turret. In the prime shooting-station.
Because he is the meanest.
And so the final Power Wagon assault begins, with three vans swinging into the Force Corridor from the north and three more from the south. Hideously amplified shotgun blasts shake the air; the whistling passage of the shells thrown from the muzzles of those guns sounds like a flock of banshees. The Cattlemen’s Hotel (formerly the Soderson house) is shivered backward on its foundations; the left side first slumps, then actually crumples, spitting off dry boards and wooden shingles. The house north of it-a wattle-and-daub construction Brad Josephson would never have recognized as his own lovingly maintained split-level-seems to explode outward in all directions, shooting jagged chunks of wood and slabs of dried mud into the air.
On the other side of the street, the false front of Worrell’s Market amp; Mercantile (once Tom Billingsley’s house; the corpses of the Sodersons lie in an aisle of big round bags, all labelled disintegrates under a series of rifle shots from the Justice Wagon-each arriving round as loud as a mortar shell. Colonel Henry is driving; poked out of the firing trap and doing the shooting is Chuck Connors, also known as The Rifleman. His son is right next to him, grinning from ear to ear. “Good shootin, Paw!” he exclaims as smoking boards from the false front ignite the decade’s worth of trash and dust that has been hiding behind it. Soon the entire building will be on fire.
“Thanks, son,” Lucas McCain says, and turns his missile-firing Winchester on to Lushan’s Chinese Laundry. Lushan’s, once the home of Peter and Mary Jackson, has been pretty well bashed about already by Rooty-Toot, but that doesn’t deter The Rifleman. His son joins in, firing a pistol. It’s a small one, but every round from it sounds like a bazooka shell, just the same.
At the end of the run, a haze of gunsmoke hangs over Main Street. Several of the houses on the west side of the street-the adobe hacienda where the Gellers once lived, the log cabin where the Reeds hung their assorted hats, the wattle-and-daub Brad and Belinda once called home-have been almost totally destroyed. The Cattlemen’s is still standing-more or less-and so is the Two Sisters on the east side, but the Mercantile will soon join the Owl (formerly the Hobart place) as so much ash in the wind.
Only one house on the east side of the street remains as it was before the regulators came: the Carver place. There are bullet-holes in the siding and broken windows from the previous assault, but on this run it has been completely untouched.
Dream Floater, Tracker Arrow, and Freedom have reached the north end of what used to be Poplar Street’s two-forty block. Rooty-Toot, Justice, and the Meatwagon have reached the south end. The firing slackens, then ceases entirely. The people in the Carver house can hear the crackle of fire from the other side of the fence-the Market amp; Mercantile they still think of as Old Doc’s bungalow-but otherwise there is a deep quiet that lies like balm against their ringing ears. In it, the survivors cautiously raise their heads.
“Is it over, do you think?” Steve asks, in the tone of someone who doesn’t want to come right out and say it wasn’t as bad as he thought… but who is thinking it.
“We ought to-” Johnny begins.
“I hear it again!” Kim Geller cries from the living room. Her voice is high, shivering on the edge of hysteria, but the rest of them have no reason not to believe her; she is closest to the street, after all. “That awful humming! Make it stop!” She rushes through the door into the kitchen, her eyes bulging and crazed. “Make it stop!”
“Get down, Mom!” Susi calls, but she herself does not stir from beside Dave Reed, who is lying with one arm around her and his hand (the one his creepy mother can’t see from where she is) against her breast. Susi doesn’t mind his hand a bit; would mind, in fact, if he took it away. Her terror and her almost maternal concern for the surviving twin have combined to make her really horny for the first time in her life. All she really wants right now is to be with David in a place where they can take their pants off without being noticed.
Kim ignores her daughter. She goes to Audrey, grabs her by her hair, yanks her head back. “Make him stop it!” she shouts into Audrey’s pale face. “He’s your kin, you brought him here, NOW MAKE HIM STOP!”
Belinda Josephson moves fast; she’s up from where she’s been lying, she’s across the room, and she has Kim Geller’s free arm twisted up behind her back almost before Brad can blink.
“Ow!” Kim screams, immediately letting go of Audrey’s hair. “Ow, let go! Let go, you black bi-”
Belinda has taken all the tiresome racist shit she intends to for one day. She yanks Kirn’s arm up even further before she can finish. Susi’s mom, who supports the Girl Scouts and never sends the Cancer Society lady away empty-handed, shrieks like a factory whistle at quitting time. Then Belinda turns her, hips her, and sends her flying back into the living room. Kim crashes into a wall. All around her more Hummel figures tumble to their doom.
“There,” Belinda says in a businesslike voice. “She had that coming. I don’t have to put up with that kind of-”
“Never mind,” Johnny says. The humming is louder now, louder than it has ever been: a steady, cycling beat like the sound of a huge electric transformer. “Get down, Bee. Right now. Everybody. Steve, Cynthia? Cover those children!” Then he looks, almost apologetically, at Seth Garin’s aunt. “Can you make him stop, Aud?”
She shakes her head. “It’s not him. Not now. It’s Tak.” Before she puts her head back down, she sees Cammie Reed looking at her, and there is something in that dry glance that frightens her more than all of Kirn Geller’s shouting and hair-pulling. It’s a serious look. No hysteria, only flat murder.
Who would Cammie murder, though? Her? Seth? Both? Audrey doesn’t know. She only knows she cannot tell the others what she did before leaving, that simple thing that might solve so much-if. If the window of time she’s hoping for opens; if she does the right thing when it does. She can’t tell them there’s hope, because if Tak is able to reach out and catch hold of their thoughts, all hopes will fail.
The thrumming grows louder. On Main Street, the Power Wagons are rolling again. Dream Floater, Tracker Arrow, and Freedom are closer to the Carver house and reach it first. They park in line, the red Tracker Arrow with Snake Hunter behind the wheel in the middle, blocking the driveway where the lord of the manor is lying dead (and looking much the worse for wear by this time). The other three-Rooty-Toot, Justice, and Meatwagon-come up from the south end of the street and lengthen the line of vehicles.
The Carver house (it is, perhaps ironically, a ranch-style home) is now entirely blocked off by Power Wagons. From the firing pit of Dream Floater, Laura DeMott trains her shotgun on the smashed picture window; from the firing pit of Tracker Arrow, Hoss Cartwright and a very young Glint Eastwood-he is Rowdy Yates of Rawhide in this incarnation, as a matter of fact-have also got the house covered. Jeb Murdock stands in the Doom Turret of the Meatwagon with two shotguns, each sawed off four inches above the cocked triggers, the butts propped against the wishbones of his hips. He is grinning widely, his face that of Rory Calhoun in his prime.
Roof trapdoors bang open. Cowboys and aliens fill the remaining shooting-points.
“Gosh, Paw, looks like a damn turkey-shoot!” Mark McCain cries, and then utters a shrill laugh.
“SHUT UP, ROOTY!” they all chorus, and the laugh becomes general.
At the sound of that laughter, something inside of Kim Geller, something which has only been badly bent up to now, finally snaps. She gets to her feet in the living room and marches to the screen door beyond which Debbie Ross still lies. Kirn’s sneakers grit through the broken china shards of Pie Carver’s prized Hummels. The sound of the cycling motors out front-that weird beat-beat-beat, like some sort of electric heart-is driving her insane. Still, it’s easier to focus on that than it is to think about how that uppity nigger woman first almost broke her arm and then threw her into the other room as if she were a sack of laundry, or something.
The others are unaware she’s left until they hear her voice, querulous and shrill: “You get out of here! You just stop it and get out of here right now\ The police are already on their way, you know!”
At the sound of that voice, Susi forgets all about how nice it is to have Dave Reed touching her breast, and how she’d like to help him forget the death of his brother by taking him upstairs and balling him until his liver explodes. “Mummy!” she gasps, and starts to get up.
Dave hauls her back down, then clamps an arm around her waist to make completely sure she doesn’t get up again. He has lost his brother, and he feels like that’s enough for one day.
Come on, come on, come on, Audrey thinks… except she guesses it’s actually a prayer. Her eyes are squeezed so tightly shut she can see exploding red dots behind the lids, and her hands are clamped into fists, the ragged remains of her nails digging into her palms. Come on, go to work the way you’re supposed to, do your job, get started-
“Kick in,” she whispers, unaware she’s speaking out loud. Johnny, who has raised his head at the sound of Kirn’s voice, now looks at Audrey. “Kick in, can’t you? For Christ’s sake, kick in!”
What are you talking about?” he asks, but she doesn’t answer.
Outside, Kim moves down the walk toward the Power Wagons, which are parked at the curb. This is the only place along the former Poplar Street where there is any curb left.
“I’m giving you a chance,” she says, her eyes drifting from one weirdo to the next. Some are dressed in ridiculous outer-space masks, and the one behind the wheel of the lunch-wagon thingy is actually wearing a whole-body robot costume. It makes him look like an oversized version of R2D2 in the Star Wars movies. Others look like refugees from a class in Western line-dancing. A few even seem familiar… but this is no time to be distracted by such foolish ideas.
“I’m giving you a chance,” she repeats, coming to a stop just above the place where the Carvers” cement walk joins the remaining strip of Poplar Street sidewalk. “Go while you still can. Otherwise-”
The slide door of the Freedom van opens, and Sheriff Streeter steps out. His star gleams a dull moonlit silver on the left flap of his vest. He looks up at Jeb Murdock-old enemy, new ally-in the Doom Turret of the Meatwagon.
“Well, Streeter?” Murdock says. “What do you think?”
“I think you should take the yappy bitch,” Streeter says with a smile, and both of Murdock’s sawed-offs explode with noise and white fire. At one moment Kim Geller is standing at the end of the Carvers” walk; at the next she’s entirely gone. No; not quite gone. Her sneakers are still there, and her feet are still inside them.
A split-second later, something that could be a bucket of dark, silty water but isn’t hits the front of the Carver house. Then, with the sound of the twin shotgun blasts still rolling away, Streeter screams: “Shoot! Shoot, goddammit! Wipe them off the map!”
“Get down!” Johnny shouts again, knowing it will do no good; the house is going to disappear like a child’s sand-castle before a tidal wave, and they are going to disappear with it.
The regulators begin firing, and it’s like nothing Johnny ever heard in Vietnam. This, he thinks, is what it must have been like to be in the trenches at Ypres, or in Dresden thirty years or so later. The noise is incredible, a ground-zero concatenation of KA-POW and KA-BAM, and although he feels he should be immediately deafened (or perhaps killed outright by raw decibels alone), Johnny is still able to hear the sounds of the house being blown apart all around them: bursting boards, breaking windows, china figurines exploding like targets in a shooting gallery, the brittle spatter of thrown laths. Very faintly, he can also hear people screaming. The bitter tang of gunsmoke fills his nostrils. Something unseen but huge passes through the kitchen above them, screaming as it goes, and suddenly much of the kitchen’s rear wall is just rubble fanned across the backyard and floating on the surface of the Kmart pool.
Yes, Johnny thinks. This is it, this is the end. And maybe that is just as well.
But then a strange thing begins to happen. The shooting doesn’t stop, but it begins to diminish, as if someone is turning down the volume control. This isn’t just true of the gunshots themselves, but of the screaming sound the shells make as they pass overhead. And it happens fast. Less than ten seconds after he first notices the diminution-and it might be more like five-the sounds are gone entirely. So is the queer, humming beat of the Power Wagons” engines.
They raise their heads and look around at each other. In the pantry, Cynthia sees that she and Steve are both as white as ghosts. She raises her arm and blows. Powder puffs up from her skin.
“Flour,” she says.
Steve rakes through his long hair and holds an unsteady hand out to her. There’s a cluster of shiny black things in the palm. “Flour’s not so bad,” he says. “I got olives.”
She thinks she’ll begin to laugh, but before she can, an amazing and totally unexpected thing happens.
Seth’s Place/Seth’s Time
Of all the passages he has dug for himself during the reign of Tak-Tak the Thief, Tak the Cruel, Tak the Despot-this is the longest. He has, in a way, re-created his own version of Rattlesnake Number One. The shaft goes deep into some black earth which he supposes is himself, then rises again toward the surface like a hope. At the end of it is a door of iron bands. He doesn’t try to open it, but not for fear he will find it locked. Quite the opposite. This is a door he must not touch until he is completely ready; once through it, there will never be any coming back.
He prays it goes where he thinks it does.
Enough light comes through the cracks between the door’s iron lengths to illuminate the place where he stands. There are pictures on the strange, fleshy walls; one a group portrait of his family with him sitting between his brother and sister, one a photo of him standing between Aunt Audrey and Uncle Herb on the lawn of this house. They are smiling. Seth, as always, is solemn, distant, not quite there. There is also a photograph of Allen Symes, standing beside (and dwarfed by) one of Miss Mo’s treads. Mr Symes is wearing his Deep Earth hardhat and grinning. No such photograph as this exists, but that doesn’t matter. This is Seth’s place, Seth’s time, Seth’s mind, and he decorates it as he likes. Not so long ago, there would have been pictures of the MotoKops and the characters from The Regulators hung, not just here, but all along the length of the tunnel. No longer. They have lost their charm for him.
I outgrew them, he thinks, and that is the truth of it. Autistic or not, only eight or not, he has gotten too old for shoot-'em-up Westerns and Saturday-morning cartoons. He suddenly understands that this is almost certainly the bottom truth, and one Tak would never understand: he outgrew them. He has the Cassie Styles figure in his pocket (when he needs a pocket he just imagines one; it’s handy) because he still loves her a little, but otherwise? No. The only question is whether or not he can escape them, sweet fantasies which might have been laced with poison all along.
And the time has come to find that out.
Beside the photo of Allen Symes, a little shelf just out of the wall. Seth has seen and admired the shelves in the Carver hallway, each dedicated to its own Hummel figure, and this one was created with those in mind. Enough light seeps through the cracks in the door to see what’s on it-not a Hummel shepherd or milkmaid but a red PlaySkool telephone.
He picks it up and spins out two-four-eight on the plastic phone’s rotary dial. It’s the Carvers” house number. In his ear the toy phone rings… rings… rings. But is it ringing on the other end? Does she hear it? Do any of them hear it?
“Come on,” he whispers. He is entirely aware and alert; in this deep-inside place he’s no more autistic than Steve Ames or Belinda Josephson or Johnny Marinville… is, in fact, something of a genius.
A frightened genius, right now.
“Come on… please, Aunt Audrey, please hear… please answer…”
Because time is short, and the time is now.
Main Street, Desperation/Regulator Time
The telephone in the Carver living room begins to ring, and as if this is some kind of signal aimed directly at his deepest and most delicate neural centers, Johnny Marinville’s unique ability to see and sequence breaks down for the first time in his life. His perspective shivers like the shapes in a kaleidoscope when the tube is twirled, then falls apart in prisms and bright shards. If this is how the rest of the world sees and experiences during times of stress, he thinks, it’s no wonder people make so many bad decisions when the heat is on. He doesn’t like experiencing things this way. It’s like having a high fever and seeing half a dozen people standing around your bed. You know that four of them are actually there… but which four? Susi Geller is crying and screaming her mother’s name. The Carver kids are both awake again, of course; Ellen, her capacity to endure in relative stoicism finally gone, seems to be having a kind of emotional convulsion, screaming at the top of her lungs and pounding Steve’s back as he tries to embrace and comfort her. And Ralphie wants to whale on his big sister! “Stop huggin Margrit!” he storms at Steve as Cynthia attempts to restrain him. “Stop huggin Margrit the Maggot! She shoulda give me all the candybar! She shoulda give me ALLLLL of it'n none a this would happen!” Brad starts for the living room-to answer the phone, presumably-and Audrey grabs his arm. “No,” she says, and then, with a kind of surreal politeness: “It’s for me.” And Susi is on her feet now, Susi is running down the hall toward the front door to see what’s happened to her mother (a very unwise idea, in Johnny’s humble opinion). Dave Reed tries to restrain her again and this time can’t, so he follows her instead, calling her name. Johnny expects the boy’s mother to restrain him, but Cammie lets him go while from out back coyotes that look like no coyotes which ever existed on God’s earth lift their crooked snouts and sing mad love songs to the moon.
All of this at once, swirling like litter caught in a cyclone.
He’s on his feet without even realizing it, following Brad and Belinda into the living room, which looks as if the Green Giant stomped through it in a snit. The kids are still shrieking from the pantry, and Susi is howling from the end of the entry hall. Welcome to the wonderful world of stereophonic hysteria, Johnny thinks.
Audrey, meanwhile, is looking for the phone, which is no longer on its little table beside the couch. The little table itself is no longer beside the couch, in fact; it’s in a far corner, split in half. The phone lies beside it in a strew of broken glass. It’s off the hook, the handset lying as far from the base as the cord will allow, but it’s still ringing.
“Mind the glass, Aud,” Johnny says sharply as she crosses to it.
Tom Billingsley goes to the jagged hole in the west wall where the picture window used to be, stepping over the smoking and exploded ruins of the TV in order to get there. “They’re gone,” he says. “The vans.” He pauses, then adds: “Unfortunately, Poplar Street’s gone, too. It looks like Deadwood, South Dakota out there. Right around the time Jack McCall shot Wild Bill Hickok in the back.”
Audrey picks up the telephone. Behind them, Ralphie Carver is now shrieking: “I hate you, Margrit the Maggot! Make Mummy and Daddy come back or I’ll hate you forever! I hate you, Margrit the Maggot!” Beyond Audrey, Johnny can see Susi’s struggles to get away from Dave Reed subsiding; he is hugging her out of horror and toward tears with a patience that, given the circumstances, Johnny can only admire.
“Hello?” Audrey says. She listens, her pale face tense and solemn. “Yes,” she says. “Yes, I will. Right away. I… “She listens some more, and this time her eyes lift to Johnny Marinville’s face. “Yes, all right, just him. Seth? I love you.”
She doesn’t hang the telephone up, simply drops it. Why not? Johnny traces its connection-wire and sees that the concussion which tore apart the table and flung the phone into the corner has also pulled the jack out of the wall.
“Come on,” Audrey says to him. “We’re going across the street, Mr Marinville. Just the two of us. Everyone else stays here.”
“But-” Brad begins.
“No arguments, no time,” she tells him. “We have to go right now. Johnny, are you ready?”
“Should I get the gun they brought from next door? It’s in the kitchen.”
“A gun wouldn’t do any good. Come on.”
She holds out her hand. Her face is set and sure… except for her eyes. They are terrified, pleading with him not to make her do this thing, whatever it is, on her own. Johnny takes the offered hand, his feet shuffling through rubble and broken glass. Her skin is cold, and her knuckles feel slightly swollen under his fingers. It’s the hand the little monster made her hit herself with, he thinks.
They go out the living room’s lower entrance and past the teenagers, who stand silently hugging each other. Johnny pushes open the screen door and lets Audrey precede him out and over the body of Debbie Ross. The front of the house, the stoop, and the dead girl’s back are splattered with the remains of Kim Geller-streaks and daubs and lumps that look black in the light of the moon-but neither of them mentions this. Ahead, beyond the walk and the short section of curb where the Power Wagons no longer stand, is a broad and deeply rutted dirt street. A breath of breeze touches the side of Johnny’s face-it carries a smoky smell with it and a tumbleweed goes bouncing by, as if on a hidden spring. To Johnny it looks straight out of a Max Fleischer cartoon, but that doesn’t surprise him. That is where they are, isn’t it? In a kind of cartoon? Give me a lever and I’ll move the world, Archimedes said; the thing across the street probably would have agreed. Of course, it was only a single block of Poplar Street it had wanted to move, and given the lever of Seth Garin’s fantasies to pry with, it had accomplished that without much trouble.
Whatever may await them, there is a certain relief just in being out of the house and away from the noise.
The stoop of the Wyler house looks about the same, but that’s all. The rest is now a long, low building made of logs. Hitching posts are ranged along the front. Smoke puffs from the stone chimney in spite of the night’s warmth. “Looks like a bunkhouse,” he says.
Audrey nods. “The bunkhouse at the Ponderosa.”
Why did they go away, Audrey? Seth’s regulators and future cops? What made them go away?”
“In at least one way, Tak’s like the villain in a Grimms “fairy-tale,” she says, leading him into the street. Dust puffs up from beneath their shoes. The wheelruts are dry and as hard as iron. “It has an Achilles heel, something you’d never suspect if you hadn’t lived with it as long as I have. It hates to be in Seth when Seth moves his bowels. I don’t know if it’s some weird kind of aesthetic thing or a psychological phobia, or maybe even a physical fact of its existence-the way we can’t help flinching if someone makes like to punch us, for instance-and I don’t care.”
“How sure of this are you?” he asks. They have reached the other side of the broad Main Street now. Johnny looks both ways and sees no vans; just massed, rocky badlands to the right and emptiness-a kind of uncreation-to the left.
“Very,” she says grimly. The cement walk leading up to 247 Poplar has become a flagstone path. Halfway up it, Johnny sees the broken-off rowel of some rangehand’s spur glinting in the moonlight. “Seth has told me-I hear him in my head sometimes.”
“Uh-huh, I guess. And when Seth talks on that level, he has no mental problems whatever. On that level he’s so bright it’s scary.”
“But are you completely sure it was Seth talking to you? And even if it was, are you sure Tak was letting him tell the truth?”
She stops halfway to the bunkhouse door. She is still holding one of his hands; now she takes the other, turning him to face her.
“Listen, because there’s only time for me to say this once and no time at all for you to ask questions. Sometimes when Seth talks to me, he lets Tak listen in… because, I think, that way Tak believes it hears all our mental conversations. It doesn’t, though.” She sees him start to speak and squeezes his hands to shut him up. “And I know Tak leaves him when he moves his bowels. It doesn’t just go deep, it comes out of him. I’ve seen it happen. It comes out of his eyes.”
“Out of his eyes,” Johnny whispers, fascinated and horrified and a little awed.
“I’m telling you because I want you to know it if you see it,” she says. “Dancing red dots, like embers from a campfire. Okay?”
“Christ,” Johnny mutters, then: “Okay.”
“Seth loves chocolate milk,” Audrey says, pulling him into motion again. “The kind you make with Hershey’s syrup. And Tak loves what Seth loves… to a fault, I guess you could say.”
“You put Ex-Lax in it, didn’t you?” Johnny asks. Tou put Ex-Lax in his chocolate milk.” He almost feels like joining the coyotes in a good howl at the moon. Only he’d be howling with laughter. Life’s more surrealistic possibilities never exhaust themselves, it seems; their one chance to survive this is a summer-camp stunt on a level with snipe hunts and short-sheeting the counsellor’s bed.
“Seth told me what to do and I did it,” she says. “Now come on. While he’s still crapping his brains out. While there’s still time. We’ve got to grab him and just run. Get him out of Tak’s range before it can get back inside him. We can do it, too. Its range is short. We’ll go down the hill. You carry him. And I’ll bet that before we even get to where the store used to be, we’re going to see one big fucking change in our environment. Just remember, the key is to be quick. Once we get started, no hesitation or pulling up allowed.”
She reaches for the door and Johnny restrains her. She stares at him with a mixture of fear and fury.
“Did you hear me say we had to go right now?”
“Yes, but there’s one question you have to answer, Aud.”
They’re being watched anxiously from across the street. Belinda Josephson breaks away from the little cluster doing the watching and goes back into the kitchen to see how Steve and Cynthia are making out with the little kids. Not bad, it appears. Ellen is sniffling but otherwise under control again, and Ralphie seems to have blown himself out, like a hurricane that moves inland. Belinda glances briefly around the empty kitchen, which is now open to the backyard, then turns to go back down the hall to the others. She takes a single step, then pauses. A narrow vertical crease-Bee’s thought-line, her husband calls it-appears in the center of her forehead. It’s not entirely dark down there by the screen door, there’s moonlight… and these are her neighbors, of course. It’s not very hard to tell them apart. Brad is easy to identify because he’s her closest neighbor, so close she’s been able to reach out and nudge him in the night for twenty-five years. Dave and Susi are easy because they’re still hugging. Old Doc is easy because he’s so thin. But Cammie isn’t easy. Cammie isn’t easy because Cammie isn’t there. Not here in the kitchen, either. Has she gone upstairs or stepped outside through the hole in the kitchen wall? Maybe. And-
“You two!” she calls into the pantry, suddenly afraid.
What?” Steve asks, sounding a bit impatient. In truth he feels a little impatient. They’re finally getting the kids soothed down, and if this woman screws that up, he thinks he will brain her with the first pot or pan he can lay grip to.
“Mrs Reed’s gone,” Bee says. “And she took that rifle with her. Was it empty? Come on, make me happy. Say it was empty.”
“I don’t think so,” Steve says reluctantly.
“Shit-fire and save matches,” Belinda says.
Cynthia is looking at her from around one of Ralphie’s slumped should ers, her eyes widening in alarm. “Have we got a problem here?” she asks.
“We might,” Bee says.
Tak’s Place/Tak’s Time
In the den where it has spent so many happy hours-at the breast of Seth Garin’s captive imagination, one might say-Tak waits and listens. On the Zenith’s screen, black-and-white cowboys dressed in ghostly gear ride across a desert landscape. Their passage is silent. Discorporeal now that it is out of Seth, Tak has muted the TV with the best remote control of all-its own mind.
In the bathroom adjacent to the kitchen, it can hear the boy. The boy is making the low, piggy grunting sounds Tak has come to associate with its elimination function. For Tak, even the sounds are revolting, and the act itself, with its cramping and its sensations of sliding, helpless exit, is hideous. Even vomiting is better-it’s quick, at least, up the throat and gone.
Now it knows what the woman did to him: drugged the milk with something to bring on not just a single act of elimination but shivering convulsions of it. How much did she give him? A huge wallop, from the way Seth felt just before Tak fled, and now it understands everything.
It flickers in a dark upper corner of the room-Tak the Cruel, Tak the Despot-like a little cluster of disembodied bicycle taillights that pulse and revolve around each other. It can’t hear Aunt Audrey and Marinville even with the TV sound off, but it knows they’re there, outside the front door. When they finally stop talking and come in, it will kill them-the man first, and simply to replenish the energy it has expended (being out of the boy’s body is particularly depleting), Seth’s aunt for what she has tried to do. It will feed on her as well, and she will die slowly, by her own hand.
The boy’s punishment for trying to stand against Tak will be to watch it happen.
Yet Tak respects Seth; he has been a worthy opponent. (How could any vessel capable of containing Tak not be?) Since the wino came yesterday, Tak and the boy have been playing a nervy game of stud poker, just like Laura and Jeb Murdoch in The Regulators. Now everything is in the pot and all but the final hole cards are face-up on the table. When they are flipped, Tak knows it will win. Of course it will win. Its opponent is only a child, after all, no matter how brilliant the lower courses of his intellect may be, and in the end the child has believed just a little more than is healthy for him. It knew Seth had planned to drive it temporarily out of his body, and although the exact method was a surprise (a very unpleasant one), even that much knowledge is more than Seth knew it had. But there is something else, as well.
Seth doesn’t believe Tak can re-enter him while he is performing the disgusting act for which the little room adjacent to the kitchen has been set aside.
Seth is wrong. Tak can re-enter. It will be unpleasant-painful, even-but it can reenter. And how does it know that Seth hasn’t seen this final card, as he has seen some of the others Tak has held, even in spite of its best efforts to hide them?
Because he has called his beloved auntie back to the house to help him get away.
And when his beloved auntie finally stops hesitating out there on the stoop and comes in, she’ll be… well…
The red lights in the shadows swirl faster, excited by the idea.
Main Street, Desperation/Regulator Time
“Did you hear me say we had to go right now?”
Johnny nods. Neither of them sees Cammie Reed cross the street from the adobe church that used to be Johnny Marinville’s suburban retreat to the remains of the wattle-and-daub that used to be Brad and Belinda’s house. She’s got her head down and the.30-.06 in one hand.
“Yes, but there’s still that one question I have, Aud.”
“What?” she nearly screams. “For God’s sake, what?”
“Can it jump to someone else? To you or me, for instance?”
A look of what might be relief appears briefly on her face.
“How can you be sure? Did Seth tell you?”
He thinks for a moment she won’t answer this, and not simply because she wants to get to the boy while he’s still on the jakes. He at first mistakes her look for embarrassment, then sees it’s deeper; not embarrassment but shame.
“Seth didn’t tell me,” she says. “I know because it tried to get into Herb. So it could… you know… have me.”
“It wanted to make love to you,” he says.
“Love?” she says, her voice barely under control. “No. Oh, no. Tak understands nothing about love, cares nothing about love. It wanted to fuck me, that’s all. When it discovered it couldn’t use Herb to do that, it killed him.” Tears are running down her face now. “It doesn’t give up easily when it wants something, you know. What it did to him… well, imagine what would happen to one of little Ralphie Carver’s shoes if you tried to get it on your big grownup’s foot. If you just kept jamming it and shoving it, harder and harder, oblivious of the pain, oblivious of what you were doing to it in your obsession to wear it, walk in it…”
“All right,” he says. He looks down toward the bottom of the hill, almost expecting to see the vans coming back, but there is nothing. He looks up the street and sees more nothing; Cammie is standing out of sight in the shadow of the precariously leaning Cattlemen’s Hotel. “I get the message.”
“Then can we go in? Or do you even intend to go in? Have you lost your nerve?”
“No,” he says, and sighs.
There’s an old-fashioned iron thumb-latch on the bunkhouse door, but when he tries to grasp it, his thumb goes straight through. Below it, appearing like something floating up through dirty water, is a plain old suburban doorknob. When Johnny grasps it, a suburban door forms around it, first overlying the planks and iron bands, then replacing them. The knob turns and the door opens on a dark room that smells as stale as dirty laundry. The moonlight floods in, and what Johnny sees makes him think of stories he’s read in the papers from time to time, the ones about elderly recluse millionaires who spend the last years of their lives in single rooms, stacking up books and magazines, collecting pets, shooting Demerol, eating meals out of cans.
“Quick, hurry,” she says. “He’ll be in the downstairs bathroom. It’s off the kitchen.”
She moves past him, taking his hand as she does, and leads him into the living room. There are no stacked books and magazines, but the sense of reclusion and insanity grows rather than lessens as they advance. The floor is tacky with spilled food and soda; there is an underlying sour smell of clabbered milk; the walls have been scribbled over with crayon drawings that are frightening in their primitive preoccupation with bloodshed and death. They remind him of a novel he read not so long ago, a book called Blood Meridian.
Movement flickers to his left. He turns that way, heart speeding up, adrenaline dumping into his bloodstream, but there are no gun-toting cowboys or sinister aliens, not even an attacking little kid with a knife. It’s only a shimmer of reflected light. From the TV, he assumes, although there’s no sound.
“No,” she whispers, “don’t go in there.”
She leads him toward the doorway straight ahead. Light shines through it, printing a bright oblong on to the food-encrusted carpet. Electricity may not yet have been invented along the rest of what used to be Poplar Street, but there’s still plenty here.
Now Johnny can hear grunting sounds, interspersed with mildly labored breathing. Sounds as human-and as instantly recognizable-as snoring, sneezing, wheezing, whistling. Someone going to the toilet. Doing number two, as they used to say when they were kids. A grade-school couplet comes to mind: Mother gives me lemonade, around the corner fudge is made. Whoa, Johnny thinks, that one’s right up there with little bitty baby Smitty.
As they enter the kitchen and he looks around, it occurs to Johnny that perhaps the good folk of Poplar Street deserve what’s happening to them. She’s been living like this for God knows how long and we never knew, he thinks. We’re her neighbors, we all sent her flowers when her husband ate the end of his gun, most of us went to his funeral (Johnny himself had been in California, talking to a convention of children’s librarians), but we never knew.
The counter jostles with jars, discarded packaging, empty glasses, and soft-drink cans. Many of the latter have become antfarms. He sees the Tupperware pitcher with the remains of the doctored chocolate milk in it, and the crust of Tak’s bologna-and-cheese sandwich beside it. The sink is stacked with dirty dishes. Beside the dish drainer, a plastic bottle of detergent which might have been purchased when Herb Wyler was still alive lies overturned. Around its nozzle is a long-congealed puddle of green dishgoo. On the table are more stacks of dirty dishes, a squeeze-bottle of mustard, sprays of crumbs (there’s a Van Halen cassette lying in one of these), an aerosol can of whipped cream, two bottles of catsup, one mostly empty and one mostly full, open pizza boxes littered with crusts, bread-wrappers, Twinkies wrappers, and a Doritos bag pulled down over an empty Pepsi bottle like a weird condom. There are also piles and piles of comic books. All those that Johnny can see are issues of Marvel’s MotoKops 2200 serie s. Spilled Sugar Pops are scattered across the cover of an issue which shows Cassie Styles and Snake Hunter standing hip-deep in a swamp and firing their stun-pistols at Countess Lili Marsh, who is attacking on what could be a jet-powered motorscooter. BAYOU BLAST! the title screams. In the far corner of the room is a heap of bulging plastic garbage bags, none secured with ties, most oozing ant-infested swill. All the cans seem to bear the smiling face of Chef Boyardee. The stove is covered with pots encrusted with the Chefs orange sauce. On top of the fridge, a bizarre crowning touch, is an old plastic statuette of Roy Rogers mounted on the faithful Trigger. Johnny knows without having to ask that it was a present to Seth from his uncle, something perhaps remembered from the days of Herb Wyler’s own youth and patiently hunted out of a dust-covered attic carton.
Beyond the fridge is a half-open door, casting its own wedge of light out on to the filthy linoleum. The door’s angle isn’t too severe for Johnny to be able to read the sign on it:
EMPLOYEES MUST WASH HANDS AFTER USING THE LAVATORY (AND CUSTOMERS SHOULD)
“Seth!” Audrey stage-whispers, dropping Johnny’s hand and rushing for the bathroom door. Johnny follows her.
From behind them, spots of dancing red light stream out of the den’s arched doorway like meteor debris; they flash across the dark living room toward the kitchen. Even as they do, Cammie Reed steps through the door from outside. She has the gun in both hands now, and as she stands looking around the dim living room, she slips her right index finger inside the trigger-guard and nestles it against the trigger. She is hesitant, not sure where to go next. Her eye is drawn to the flicker of reflected TV-light from the den, her ear by the sound of people moving in the kitchen. The voice in her head, the one demanding revenge for Jimmy, has fallen silent, and she isn’t sure which way to go. Her eye registers a brief strobe of red light, but her mind does nothing with the input; it is totally preoccupied with the question of how she should go on. Marinville and Wyler are in the kitchen, she’s sure of that, but is the killer brat in there with them? She glances doubtfully toward the TV flicker again. No sound, but maybe autistic children watch it with the sound off.
She has to be sure, that’s the thing. There are probably just a couple of rounds left in the.30-.06… and they likely won’t give her a chance to pull the trigger more than once or twice, anyway. She wishes the voice would speak up again, tell her what to do.
And then it does.
Across the street, on the cement path between the Carvers” front door and the sidewalk,
Cynthia has seen Cammie go into the Wyler house. Her eyes widen. Before she can say anything, Steve nudges her sharply. She looks at him and sees he’s got a finger to his lips. In his other hand he’s got a knife from the Carvers” kitchen rack.
“Come on,” he murmurs.
“You’re not going to use that, are you?”
“I hope I don’t have to,” he says. “Are you coming?”
She nods and follows. As they step off the curb and into Tak’s version of the Old West, a confusion of shrieks and shouts commences from inside the Wyler house. Get out of him, Cynthia hears, something like that, anyway, then more stuff she can’t even begin to decipher. Most or all of it seems to be coming from the Wyler woman, although she hears a scream from Cammie Reed (“Put it down'? Is that what she’s screaming?) and a hoarse cry that likely comes from Marinville. Then, two whipcracking rifle shots and a scream of either agony or extreme horror. Cynthia can’t tell which, isn’t sure she wants to know.
Nevertheless, by the time she and Steve reach the far side of Desperation’s Main Street, both of them are running.
Seth’s Place/Seth’s Time
Now. It all comes down to now.
He turns away from the shelf with the PlaySkool phone on it. Built into the other side of the passage’s wall is a small control panel, very similar to the ones built into the nav-pits of the Power Wagons. Jutting from it is a row of seven switches, each turned up to the position marked ON. Above each switch, a small green telltale glows in the gloom. This panel wasn’t here when Seth reached the end of the passage, only the pictures of his two families, the picture of Mr Symes, and the telephone. But this is Seth’s place, Seth’s time, and it’s like the pockets in his shorts: he can add pretty much whatever he wants to add, and whenever he wants to do it.
Seth reaches toward the panel with a hand that trembles slightly. In the movies and on TV, the characters never seem afraid, and when Paw Cartwright has to act to save the Ponderosa, he always knows just what to do. Lucas McCain, Rowdy Yates, and Sheriff Streeter are never unsure of themselves. But Seth is. Plenty unsure. The end of the game is now, and he’s terrified of making an irrevocable mistake. For now he still knows what’s going on upstairs (this is how he thinks of Tak’s world now, as upstairs), but if he turns these switches-
There’s no time to reconsider, though. Audrey is in the bath room. Audrey is rushing for the little boy sitting on the toilet with his underpants dangling from one grimy ankle, the little boy who is-for the time being, at least-just a wax dummy with lungs that breathe and a heart that beats, a human machine deserted by both its ghosts. She kneels before him and sweeps him into her arms. She begins to cover his face with kisses, unmindful of anything else-the room, the circumstances, Marinville standing behind her in the doorway.
And now Seth senses the red swarm that is Tak flashing across the kitchen like a stream of supernatural bees, and it has to be now, yes, has to be.
His hand reaches the panel and he begins snapping the switches down. The green telltales above them wink out; red telltales below them wink on. With each flicked switch, his knowledge of what’s going on upstairs dims out more. He is not turning off the senses of the wax dummy his aunt is now covering with kisses, he’s not sure he could do that if he wanted to, but he can block them off… and he is.
Finally there’s nothing left but his mind. It will have to be enough. With his hand pressing down on the switches he has just turned so they cannot fly back up, Seth reaches out to Aunt Audrey, praying he can still find her in all this dark.
The Wyler House/Regulator Time
At the instant Audrey sweeps the boy off the toilet and into her arms, something blasts by Johnny Marinville, something which feels simultaneously as hot as a fever and as cold as frog-jelly. His head fills with a swirl of garish red light that makes him think of honkytonk neon and country music. When it clears, his ability to see everything and sequence even overlapping events has been restored. It’s as if the thing that passed him administered some sort of electroshock. That, and a sickly flush across his thoughts that feels like slime.
As Audrey rises with Seth in her arms (the Underoos slip off his foot and he is entirely naked now), Johnny sees that swirl of avid light swing around the boy’s head like a corona around the head of baby Jesus in an old painting. Then, like a swarm of termites, it settles, coating his cheeks, his ears, his sweaty hair. It crams into his open glazed eyes and lights his teeth scarlet.
“No!” Audrey shrieks. “Get out of him! Get OUT, you bastard!”
She leaps for the bathroom door with the boy in her arms. Seth’s head seems to be burning. Johnny reaches out-for her? Seth? both? He doesn’t know and it doesn’t matter because she bursts past him into the filthy kitchen, shrieking and clawing at the dancing swarm of light around Seth’s head. Her hand slides uselessly through the red stuff. As she and the boy pass him, Johnny’s head is filled with a horrible machine-like buzzing sound. He screams, clapping his hands to his ears. It is only for a moment, as Audrey bolts by, but it is a moment which seems all but eternal, just the same. How can there be any boy left under that sound? he wonders. How in God’s name can there be anything left under that sound?
“Let him GO!” she shrieks. “Let him GO, cocksucker, let him GO!”
Then the kitchen doorway is no longer empty. Cammie Reed is standing there with the.30-.06 in her hands.
Tak’s Place/Tak’s Time
When it reaches Seth and finds all its usual ways in blocked, its rather indulgent respect for the boy’s abilities breaks down for the first time since it sensed Seth’s extraordinary mind passing by and called out to that mind with all of its strength. What replaces the indulgence first is realization; anger follows in its wake.
It has been wrong, it seems-Seth has known all along that Tak can re-enter, even during evacuation. Has known and has successfully hidden that knowledge, the way a clever gambler will hide an extra ace up his sleeve. In the end, though, not even that matters; it will get in anyway. There is no way the boy can keep it out. There will be no seige here; Seth Garin is his home now, and he will not be held out of his home.
As the woman carries Seth’s body past the writer and into the kitchen, Tak assaults the boy’s eyes, the ports of entry closest to that wonderful brain, and begins shoving at them like a burly cop shoving at a door being held by a weak man. It knows a moment of utterly uncharacteristic panic when at first nothing happens-it is like pushing against a brick wall. Then the bricks begin to soften and give way. Triumph flashes up in its cold mind. Soon… another moment… two, at most…
Seth’s Place/Seth’s Time
Under his hand, two of the switches are moving up. Even when he redoubles his efforts to hold them down, he can feel them straining under his hand like something alive. The telltales are still red, but not for much longer. Tak is right about one thing: however the two of them may stack up in the matter of wits, Seth is no longer a match for Tak’s raw strength. Once, maybe. At the beginning. No more. Still, if he’s right, that may not matter. If he is right, and if he is lucky.
He glances toward the PlaySkool phone-what Aunt Audrey calls the Tak-phone-longingly for a moment, but of course he doesn’t need a telephone, not really; it was always just a symbol, something concrete to help the telepathy flow more easily between them, as the switches and telltales are simply tools to help him concentrate his will. And telepathy isn’t Seth’s concern here, anyway. If telepathy were all the two of them could share, this would be futile.
Under his hand, the switches move stubbornly upward, driven by Tak’s primitive force, Tak’s primitive will. For a moment the red telltales beneath them flicker out and the green ones above them flicker on. Seth feels a terrible machine-like buzzing in his head, trying to overwhelm his thoughts; for a moment his inner vision is blurred by swirling crimson light in which embers flick and stutter.
Seth pushes the switches down with all his strength. The green lights go off. The red ones come back on. For the moment, anyway.
The time is now, there is only one down-card left in the game, and now Seth Garin turns it up.
The Wyler House/Johnny’s Time
In a way it is like being caught in another barrage from the regulators, only this time what Johnny feels cutting past him are thoughts instead of bullets. But weren’t they always thoughts, really?
The first one goes to Cammie Reed, standing in the kitchen doorway with the gun in her hands:
–Now! Do it now!
The second goes to Audrey Wyler, who recoils as if slapped and suddenly stops clawing at the spectral red miasma around Seth’s head:
–Now, Aunt Audrey! The time is now!
And the last one, a terrible inhuman roar that fills Johnny’s head and wipes out everything else:
-NO, YOU LITTLE BASTARD! NO, YOU CAN’T!
No, Johnny thinks, he can’t. He never could. Then he raises his eyes to Cammie Reed’s
face. Her eyes bulge from their sockets; her lips are stretched in a dry and terrible smile. But she can.
Tak’s Place/Tak’s Time
It has perhaps three seconds, while the woman with the gun calls out, to realize it has been outplayed. How it has been outplayed. A few seconds of incredulity in which to wonder how that could happen after all the millennia it has spent trapped in the dark, thinking and planning. Then, even as it begins to realize that Seth isn’t really inside the body it has been trying to re-enter, the woman in the doorway opens fire.
The Wyler House/Johnny’s Time
Cammie is no longer sure that she is acting of her own free will, but it doesn’t matter; if her will was free, this is still what she would do. The Wyler woma n is holding the monstrous brat curled naked in her arms like an oversized baby, its shanks painted with shit instead of blood and afterbirth. Holding it like a shield. Cammie could almost laugh at the idea.
“Put it down!” Cammie screams, but instead of putting Seth down, Audrey lifts him higher against her breast, as if in defiance. Still smiling her dry, vicious smile, her eyes appearing to start out of their sockets (Johnny will tell himself later that was an optical illusion, surely it was), Cammie centers the rifle on the child.
“No Cammie don’t!” Johnny cries, and then she fires. The first shot takes eight-year-old Seth Garin, who is still shivering helplessly with bowel cramps, in the temple and blows the top of his head off, spattering his aunt’s weirdly serene face with blood, hair, and bits of scalp. The slug drives all the way through his brain and exits the far side of his skull, where it enters Audrey’s left breast. By then, however, it is too spent to do any further serious damage. It’s the second shot that does that, catching her in the throat as she staggers back under the force of the first one. Her butt hits the overloaded kitchen table. Piled dishes fall off and shatter on the floor.
She turns to Johnny, the bloody child still in her arms, and Johnny sees an astonishing thing: she looks happy. Cammie screams as Audrey goes down, perhaps in triumph, perhaps in horror at what she has done.
Audrey somehow keeps her grip on Seth even as she dies. And as she falls, the uneasy red thing rises from the remains of Seth’s face like a caul. It swirls in the air above the filthy linoleum, bright scarlet bits orbiting each other like electrons.
Johnny and Cammie Reed face each other through this redness for he doesn’t know how long-they are frozen, it seems-until someone screams: “Oh shit! Oh shit, why’d you do that, you numb bitch?”
Johnny sees Steve and Cynthia come forward through the darkened living room until they’re standing just behind Cammie. Cynthia springs forward, grabs Cammie by the arm, and shakes her. “Bitch! Stupid murdering cunt, what did you think, this would bring your kid back? Didn’t you ever go to fucking SCHOOL?”
Cammie seems not to hear. She is looking at the spinning red thing with wide, unblinking eyes, as if hypnotized… and it is looking back at her. Johnny doesn’t know how he can know this, but he does. And suddenly it launches itself at her like a comet… or Snake Hunter’s red Tracker Arrow on a Power Wagon assault.
He had asked Audrey if Tak could jump to someone else. She had said no, she was sure it coudn’t, but what if she had been wrong? What if Tak had fooled her? If it had-
“Look out!” he shouts at Cynthia. “Get back from her!”
Little Miss Tu-Tone Hair only stares at him, uncomprehending, from over Cammie’s shoulder. Steve doesn’t look as if he understands, either, but he reacts to the unmistakable panic in Johnny’s voice and yanks Cynthia back.
The swirling red specks divide in two. For a moment Tak’s exterior form looks to Johnny like the sort of fork they used to toast marshmallows on back when they were teenagers, sitting around driftwood beach fires at Savin Rock. Only the tines of this fork plunge themselves directly into Cammie Reed’s bulging eyes.
They glow a brilliant red, swell even further outward, then explode from their sockets. The grin on Cammie’s face stretches so wide that her lips split open and begin to stream blood down her chin. The eyeless thing staggers forward, dropping the empty rifle and holding its hands out. They clutch blindly at the air. Johnny thinks he has never seen anything in his life so simultaneously weak and predatory.
“Tak,” it proclaims in a guttural voice which is nothing like Cammie’s. “Tak ah wan! Tak ah lah! Mi him en tow!” There is a pause. Then, in a grinding, inhuman voice Johnny knows he will hear in nightmares until the end of his life, the eyeless thing says: “I know you all. I’ll find you all. I’ll hunt you down. Tak! Mi him, en tow!”
Its skull begins to swell outward then; what remains of Cammie’s head begins to look like a monster mushroom cap. Johnny hears a tearing sound like ripping paper and realizes it is the scant flesh over her skull pulling apart. The clotted sockets of her eyes stretch out long, turning into slits; the swelling skull pulls her nose up into a snout with long, lozenge-shaped nostrils.
So, Johnny thinks, Audrey was right. Only Seth was able to contain it. Seth or someone like Seth. Someone very special. Because-
As if to finish this thought in the most spectacular fashion imaginable, Cammie Reed’s head explodes. Hot fragments, some still pulsing with life, pelt Johnny’s face.
Screaming, revolted to the point of madness, Johnny wipes at the stuff, using his thumbs to try and clear his eyes. Faintly, the way you hear things when someone at the other end of the line temporarily puts the phone down, he can hear Steve and Cynthia, also screaming. Then blinding light fills up the room, as sudden and shocking as an unexpected slap. Johnny thinks at first it’s an explosion of some sort-the end for all of them. But as his eyes (still burning and salty and full of Cammie’s blood) begin to adjust, he sees it’s not an explosion but daylight-the strong, hazy light of a summer afternoon. Thunder rumbles off in the east, a throaty sound with no real threat in it. The storm is over; it has lit up the Hobart place (that much he’s sure of, because he can smell the smoke), then moved on to play hob with someone else’s life. There’s another sound, though, the one they waited for so eagerly and in vain earlier: the tangled wail of sirens. Police, fire engines, ambulances, maybe the fucking National Guard, for all Johnny knows. Or cares. The sound of sirens doesn’t interest him much at this point.
The storm is over.
Johnny thinks that regulator time is over, too.
He sits down heavily in one of the kitchen chairs and looks at the bodies of Audrey and Seth. They remind him of the senseless dead at Jonestown, in Guyana. Her arms are still around him, and his-poor thin wasted arms, unscratched from a single game of tag or follow-the-leader with other boys his own age-are around her neck.
Johnny wipes blood and bone and lumps of brain from his cheeks with his slick palms and begins to cry.
From Audrey Wyler’s journal:
October 31, 1995
Journal again. Never thought I’d resume, probably never will on a full-time basis, but it can be so comforting.
Seth came to me this morning amp; managed to ask, with a combination of words amp; grunts, if he could go out trick or treating, like the other kids in the neighborhood. There was no sign of Tak, and when he is just Seth, I find him all but impossible to refuse. It isn’t hard for me to remember that Seth’s not the one, responsible for everything that’s happened; it’s quite easy, in fact. In a way, that’s what makes it all so horrible. It seals off all my exits. I don’t suppose anyone else could understand what I mean. I’m not sure I understand myself. But I feel it. Oh God, do I.
I told him okay, I’d take him trick or treating, it would be fun. I said I could probably put together a little cowboy outfit for him, if he’d like that, but if he wanted to go as a MotoKop, we’d have to go out to Payless and buy a store outfit.
He was shaking his head before I’d even finished, big back-and-forth shakes. He didn’t want to go as a cowboy, and not as a MotoKop, either. There was something in the piolence of his headshaking that was close to horror. He might be getting tired of cowboys and police from the future, I think.
I wonder if the other one knows?
Anyway, I asked him what he did want to dress as, if not a cowboy or Snake Hunter or Major Pike. He waved one arm amp; jumped around the room. After a little bit of this pantomime, I realized he was pretending to be in a swordfight.
“A pirate'?” I asked, amp; his whole face lit up in his sweet Seth Garin smile.
“Pi-ut!” he said, then tried harder and said it right: “Pi-rate!”
So I found an old silk kerchief to tie over his head, and gave him a clip-on gold hoop to put in his ear, and unearthed an old pair of Herb’s pj’s for pantaloons. I used elastic bands on the bottoms amp; they belled out just right. With a mascara beard, an eyeliner scar, and an old toy sword (borrowed from Cammie Reed next door, a golden oldie from her twins” younger years), he looked quite fierce. And, when I took him out around four o’clock to “do” our block of Poplar Street and two blocks of Hyacinth, he looked no different than all the other goblins and witches and Barneys and pirates. When we got back he spread out all his candy on the living-room floor (he hasn’t been in the den to watch TV all day, Tak must be sleeping deeply, I wish the bastard was dead but that’s too much to hope for) amp; gloated over it as if it really were a pirate’s treasure. Then he hugged me and kissed my neck. So happy.
Fuck you, Tak. Fuck you.
Fuck you and I hope you die.
March 16, 1996
The last week has been horror, complete horror, Tak in charge almost completely and goosestepping. Dishes everywhere, glasses filmed with chocolate milk, the house a mess. Ants! Christ, ants in March! It looks like a house where lunatics live, and is that so wrong?
My nipples on fire from all the pinching it’s made me do. I know why, of course; it’s angry because it can’t do what it wants with its version of Cassandra Styles. I feed it, I buy the new MotoKops toys it wants (and the comic books, of course, which I must read to it because Seth doesn’t have that skill for it to draw on), but for that other purpose I am useless.
As much of the week as I could, I spent with Jan.
Then, today, while I was trying to clean up a little (mostly I’m too exhausted and dispirited to even try), I broke my mother’s favorite plate, the one with the Currier amp; Ives sledding scene on it. Tak had nothing to do with it; I picked it up off the mantel-shelf in the dining room where I keep it displayed, wanting to give it a little dusting, amp; it simply slipped through my stupid fingers amp; broke on the floor. At first I thought my heart had broken with it. It wasn’t the plate, of course, as much as I have always liked it. All at once it was like it was my life I was looking at instead of an old china plate smashed to shit on the dining-room floor. Cheap symbolism, Peter Jackson from across the street would probably say. Cheap amp; sentimental. Probably true, but when we are in pain we are rarely creative.
I got a plastic garbage bag from the kitchen amp; began picking up the pieces, sobbing all the while I did it. I didn’t even hear the TV go off-Tak amp; Seth had been having a MotoKofs 2200 festival most of the day-but then a, shadow fell over me and I looked up and there he was.
At first I thought it was Tak-Seth has been mostly gone this last week, or lying low-but then I saw the eyes. They both use the same set, you’d think they wouldn’t change, couldn’t, but they do. Seth’s are lighter, and have a range of emotion Tak can never manage.
“I broke my mother’s plate,” I said. “It was all I had of her, and it slipped through my fingers.”
It came on worse than ever then. I put my arms around my knees, put my face down on them, amp; just cried. Seth came closer, put his own arms around my neck, amp; hugged me. Something wonderful happened when he did. I can’t explain it, exactly, but it was so good that it made visiting with Jan at Mohonk seem ordinary in comparison. Tak can make me feel bad-terrible, in fact, as if the whole world is nothing but a ball of mud squirming with worms just like me. Tak likes it when I feel bad. He licks those bad feelings right off my skin, like a kid with a candy cane. I know he does.
This was the opposite… and more. My tears stopped, amp; my feelings of sadness were replaced by such a sense of joy and… not ecstasy, exactly, but like that. Serenity amp; optimism all mixed together, as if everything couldn’t help but turn out all right. As if everything was already all right, amp; I just couldn’t see that in my ordinary state of mind. I was filled up, the way good food fills you up when you’re hungry. I was renewed.
Seth did that. He did it when he hugged me. And he did it, I think (know), in exactly the same way Tak makes me feel the bad things and the sad things. Maroon is what I call it. When Tak wants to, it makes me feel maroon. But it can only do it because it has Seth’s power to draw on. amp; I think that when Seth took away my sadness this afternoon, he was able to do it because he had Tak’s power to draw on. And I don’t think Tak knew he was doing that, or it would have made him stop.
Here’s something that’s never occurred to me until today: Seth may be stronger than Tak knows.