11

An idea is like a cold germ: sooner or later someone always catches it. The Joint Chiefs had already caught this one; it had been kicked around at several of the meetings attended by Barbie’s old boss, Colonel James O. Cox. Sooner or later someone in The Mill was bound to be infected by the same idea, and it wasn’t entirely surprising that the someone should turn out to be Rory Dinsmore, who was by far the sharpest tool in the Dinsmore family box (“I don’t know where he gets it from,” Shelley Dinsmore said when Rory brought home his first all-As rank card… and she said it in a voice more worried than proud). If he’d lived in town—and if he’d had a computer, which he did not—Rory would undoubtedly have been a part of Scarecrow Joe McClatchey’s posse.

Rory had been forbidden to attend the carnival/prayer meeting/demonstration; instead of eating weird hotdogs and helping with the car-park operation, he was ordered by his father to stay at home and feed the cows. When that was done, he was to grease their udders with Bag Balm, a job he hated. “And once you got those teats nice and shiny,” his father said, “you can sweep the barns and bust up some haybales.”

He was being punished for approaching the Dome yesterday after his father had expressly forbidden it. And actually knocking on it, for God’s sake. Appealing to his mother, which often worked, did no good this time. “You could have been killed,” Shelley said. “Also, your dad says you mouthed off.”

“Just told em the cook’s name!” Rory protested, and for that his father once more had gone upside his head while Ollie looked on with smug and silent approval.

“You’re too smart for your own good,” Alden said.

Safely behind his father’s back, Ollie had stuck out his tongue. Shelley saw, however… and went upside Ollie ’s head. She did not, however, forbid him the pleasures and excitements of that after-noon’s makeshift fair.

“And you leave that goddam go-cart alone,” Alden said, pointing to the ATV parked in the shade between dairy barns 1 and 2. “You need to move hay, you carry it. It’ll build you up a little.” Shortly thereafter, the dim Dinsmores went off together, walking across the field toward Romeo’s tent. The bright one was left behind with a hayfork and a jar of Bag Balm as big as a flowerpot.

Rory went about his chores glumly but thoroughly; his racing mind sometimes got him in trouble, but he was a good son for all that, and the idea of ditching punishment-chores never crossed his mind. At first nothing crossed his mind. He was in that mostly empty-headed state of grace which is sometimes such fertile soil; it’s the ground from which our brightest dreams and biggest ideas (both the good and the spectacularly bad) suddenly burst forth, often full-blown. Yet there is always a chain of association.

As Rory began sweeping barn 1’s main aisle (he would save the hateful udder-greasing for last, he reckoned), he heard a rapid poppowpam that could only be a string of firecrackers. They sounded a little like gunshots. This made him think of his father’s.30-.30 rifle, which was propped in the front closet. The boys were forbidden to touch it except under strict supervision—while shooting at targets, or in hunting season—but it wasn’t locked up and the ammo was on the shelf above it.

And the idea came. Rory thought: I could blow a hole in that thing. Maybe pop it. He had an image, bright and clear, of touching a match to the side of a balloon.

He dropped the broom and ran for the house. Like many bright people (especially bright children), inspiration rather than consideration was his strong suit. If his older brother had had such an idea (unlikely), Ollie would have thought: If a plane couldn’t bust through it, or a pulp-truck going full tilt, what chance does a bullet have? He might also have reasoned: I’m in dutch already for disobeying, and this is disobedience raised to the ninth power.

Well… no, Ollie probably wouldn’t have thought that. Ollie’s mathematical abilities had topped out at simple multiplication.

Rory, however, was already taking college-track algebra, and knocking it dead. If asked how a bullet could accomplish what a truck or an airplane hadn’t, he would have said the impact effect of a Winchester Elite XP3 would be far greater than either. It stood to reason. For one thing, the velocity would be greater. For another, the impact itself would be concentrated upon the point of a 180-grain bullet. He was sure it would work. It had the unquestionable elegance of an algebraic equation.

Rory saw his smiling (but of course modest) face on the front page of USA Today ; being interviewed on Nightly News with Brian Williams ; sitting on a flower-bedecked float in a parade in his honor, with Prom Queen–type girls surrounding him (probably in strapless gowns, but possibly in bathing suits) as he waved to the crowd and confetti floated down in drifts. He would be THE BOY WHO SAVED CHESTER’S MILL!

He snatched the rifle from the closet, got the step stool, and pawed a box of XP3s down from the shelf. He stuffed two cartridges into the breech (one for a backup), then raced back outside with the rifle held above his head like a conquering rebelista (but—give him this—he engaged the safety without even thinking about it). The key to the Yamaha ATV he had been forbidden to ride was hanging on the pegboard in barn 1. He held the key fob between his teeth while he strapped the rifle to the back of the ATV with a couple of bungee cords. He wondered if there would be a sound when the Dome popped. He probably should have taken the shooter’s plugs from the top shelf of the closet, but going back for them was unthinkable; he had to do this now.

That’s how it is with big ideas.

He drove the ATV around barn 2, pausing just long enough to size up the crowd in the field. Excited as he was, he knew better than to head for where the Dome crossed the road (and where the smudges of yesterday’s collisions still hung like dirt on an unwashed windowpane). Someone might stop him before he could pop the Dome. Then, instead of being THE BOY WHO SAVED CHESTER’S MILL, he’d likely wind up as THE BOY WHO GREASED COW TITS FOR A YEAR. Yes, and for the first week he’d be doing it in a crouch, his ass too sore to sit down. Someone else would end up getting the credit for his big idea.

So he drove on a diagonal that would bring him to the Dome five hundred yards or so from the tent, marking the place to stop by the crushed spots in the hay. Those, he knew, had been made by falling birds. He saw the soldiers stationed in that area turn toward the oncoming blat of the ATV. He heard shouts of alarm from the fair-and-prayer folks. The hymn-singing came to a discordant halt.

Worst of all, he saw his father waving his dirty John Deere cap at him and bawling, “RORY OH GODDAMMIT YOU STOP!”

Rory was in too deep to stop, and—good son or not—he didn’t want to stop. The ATV struck a hummock and he bounced clear of the seat, holding on with his hands and laughing like a loon. His own Deere cap was spun around backward and he didn’t even remember doing it. The ATV tilted, then decided to stay up. Almost there, now, and one of the fatigues-clad soldiers was also shouting at him to stop.

Rory did, and so suddenly he almost somersaulted over the Yamaha’s handlebars. He forgot to put the darned thing in neutral and it lurched forward, actually striking the Dome before stalling out. Rory heard the crimp of metal and the tinkle of the headlight as it shattered.

The soldiers, afraid of being hit by the ATV (the eye which sees nothing to block an oncoming object triggers powerful instincts), fell off to either side, leaving a nice big hole and sparing Rory the need of telling them to move away from a possible explosive blowout. He wanted to be a hero, but didn’t want to hurt or kill anybody to do it.

He had to hurry. The people closest to his stopping point were the ones in the parking lot and clustered around the Summer Blowout Sale tent, and they were running like hell. His father and brother were among them, both screaming at him to not do whatever he was planning to do.

Rory yanked the rifle free of the bungee cords, socked the butt-plate into his shoulder, and aimed at the invisible barrier five feet above a trio of dead sparrows.

“No, kid, bad idea!” one of the soldiers shouted.

Rory paid him no mind, because it was a good idea. The people from the tent and the parking lot were close, now. Someone—it was Lester Coggins, who ran a lot better than he played guitar—shouted: “In the name of God, son, don’t do that!”

Rory pulled the trigger. No; only tried to. The safety was still on. He looked over his shoulder and saw the tall, thin preacher from the holy-roller church blow past his puffing, red-faced father. Lester’s shirttail was out and flying. His eyes were wide. The cook from Sweetbriar Rose was right behind him. They were no more than sixty yards away now, and the Reverend looked like he was just getting into fourth gear.

Rory thumbed off the safety.

“No, kid, no!” the soldier cried again, simultaneously crouching on his side of the Dome and holding out his splayed hands.

Rory paid no attention. It’s that way with big ideas. He fired.

It was, unfortunately for Rory, a perfect shot. The hi-impact slug struck the Dome dead on, ricocheted, and came back like a rubber ball on a string. Rory felt no immediate pain, but a vast sheet of white light filled his head as the smaller of the slug’s two fragments thumbed out his left eye and lodged in his brain. Blood flew in a spray, then ran through his fingers as he dropped to his knees, clutching his face.

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