CHAPTER 6

Summer slipped away as it does in Maine, almost unnoticed.

Ralph’s premature waking continued, and by the time the fall colors had begun to burn in the trees along Harris Avenue, he was opening his eyes around two-fifteen each morning. That was lousy, but he had his appointment with James Roy Hong to look forward to and there had been no repeat of the weird fireworks show he had been treated to after his first meeting with Joe Wyzer. There were occasional flickers around the edges of things, but Ralph found that if he squeezed his eyes shilt and counted to five, the flickers were gone when he opened them again.

Well… usually gone.

Susan Day’s speech was scheduled for Friday, the eighth of October, and as September drew toward its conclusion, the protests and the public abortion-on-demand debate sharpened and began to focus more and more on her appearance. Ralph saw Ed on the TV news many times, sometimes in the company of Dan Dalton but more and more frequently on his own, speaking swiftly, cogently, and often with that little gleam of humor not only in his eyes but in his voice.

People liked him, and The Friends of Life was apparently attracting the large membership to which Daily Bread, its political progenitor, had only been able to aspire. There were no more doll-throwing parties or other violent demonstrations, but there were plenty of marches and counter-marches, plenty of name-calling and fistshaking and angry letters to the editor. Preachers promised damnation; teachers urged moderation and education; half a dozen young women calling themselves The Gay Lesbo Babes for Jesus were arrested for parading in front of The First Baptist Church of Derry with signs which read GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY BODY. A nameless policeman was quoted in the Derry News as saying that he hoped Susan Day would come down with the flu or something and have to cancel her appearance.

Ralph received no further communications from Ed, but on September twenty-first he received a postcard from Helen with fourteen jubilant words scrawled across the back: “Hooray, aj’oh.f Derry Public Library.”

I start next month! See you soon-Helen.”

Feeling more cheered than he had since the night Helen had called him from the hospital, Ralph went downstairs to show the card to McGovern, but the door of the downstairs apartment was shut and locked.

Lois, then… except that Lois was also gone, probably off to one of her card-parties or maybe downtown shopping for yarn and plotting another afghan.

Mildly chagrined and musing on how the people you most wanted to share good news with were hardly ever around when you were all but bursting with it, Ralph wandered down to Strawford Park.

And it was there that he found Bill McGovern, sitting on a bench near the softball field and crying.

Crying was perhaps too strong a word; leaking might have been better.

McGovern sat with a handkerchief sticking out of one gnarled fist, watching a mother and her young son play roll-toss along the first-base line of the diamond where the last big softball event of the season-the Intramural City Tournament-had concluded just two days before.

Every now and then he would raise the fist with the handkerchief in it to his face and swipe at his eyes. Ralph, who had never seen McGovern weep-not even at Carolyn’s funeral-loitered near the playground for a few moments, wondering if he should approach McGovern or just go back the way he had come.

At last he gathered up his courage and walked over to the park bench.”

“Lo, Bill,” he said.

McGovern looked up with eyes that were red, watery, and a trifle embarrassed. He wiped them again and tried a smile. “Hi, Ralph. You caught me snivelling. Sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Ralph said, sitting down. “I’ve done my share of it. What’s wrong?” McGovern shrugged, then dabbed at his eyes again. “Nothing much. I’m suffering the effects of a paradox, that’s all.”

“What paradox is that?”

“Something good is happening to one of my oldest friends-the man who hired me for my first teaching position, in fact. He’s dying.” Ralph raised his eyebrows but said nothing. “He’s got pneumonia. His niece will probably haul him off to the hospital today or tomorrow, and they’ll put him on a ventilator, at least for awhile, but he’s almost certainly dying. I’ll celebrate his death when it comes, and I suppose it’s that more than anything else that’s depressing the shit out of me.”

McGovern paused. “You don’t understand a thing I’m saying, do you?”

“Nope,” Ralph said. “But that’s all right.” McGovern looked into his face, did a doubletake, then snorted. The sound was harsh and thick with his tears, but Ralph thought it was a real laugh just the same, and risked a small return smile. “Did I say something funny?”

“No,” McGovern said, and clapped him lightly on the shoulder. “I was just looking at your face, so earnest and sincere-you’re really an open book, Ralph-and thinking how much I like you. Sometimes I wish I could be you.”

“Not at three in the morning, you wouldn’t,” Ralph said quietly. McGovern sighed and nodded. “The insomnia.”

“That’s right. The insomnia.”

“I’m sorry I laughed, but-”

“No apology necessary, Bill.”

“-but please believe me when I say it was an admz’riing laugh.”

“Who’s your friend, and why’s it a good thing that he’s dying?”

Ralph asked. He already had a guess as to what lay at the root of McGovern’s paradox; he was not quite as goodheartedly dense as Bill sometimes seemed to think.

“His name’s Bob Polhurst, and his pneumonia is good news because he’s suffered from Alzheimer’s since the summer of ’88.”

It was what Ralph had thought… although AIDS had crossed his mind, as well. He wondered if that would shock McGovern, and felt a small ripple of amusement at the idea. Then he looked at the man and felt ashamed of his amusement. He knew that when it came to gloom McGovern was at least a semi-pro, but he didn’t believe that made his obvious grief over his old friend any less genuine.

“Bob was head of the History Department at Derry High from 1948, when he couldn’t have been more than twenty-five, until 1981 or ’82. He was a great teacher, one of those fiercely bright people you sometimes find out in the sticks, hiding their lights under bushels. They usually end up heading their departments and running half a dozen extra-curricular activities on the side because they simply don’t know how to say no. Bob sure didn’t.”

The mother was now leading her little boy past them and toward the little snackbar that would be closing up for the season very soon now.

The kid’s face had an extraordinary translucence, a beauty that was enhanced by the rose-colored aura Ralph saw revolving about his head and moving across his small, lively face in calm waves.

“Can we go home, Mommy?” he asked. “I want to use my PlayDoh now. I want to make the Clay Family.”

“Let’s get something to eat first, big boy-’kay? Mommy’s hungry.

“Okay.”

There was a hook-shaped scar across the bridge of the boy’s nose, and here the rosy glow of his aura deepened to scarlet.

Fell out of his crib when he was eight months old, Ralph thought.

Reaching for the butterflies on the mobile his Mom hung from the ceiling. It scared her to death when she ran in and saw all the blood,she thought the poor kid was dying. Patrick, that’s his name.

She calls him Pat. He’s named after his grandfather, and-he closed his eyes tightly for a moment. His stomach was fluttering lightly just below his Adam’s apple and he was suddenly sure he was going to vomit.

“Ralph?” McGovern asked. “Are you all right?”

He opened his eyes. No aura, rose-colored or otherwise; just a mother and son heading over to the snackbar for a cold drink, and there was no way, absolutely no way that he could tell she didn’t want to take Pat home because Pat’s father was drinking again after almost six months on the wagon, and when he drank he got meanStop it, for God’s sake stop it.

“I’m okay,” he told McGovern. “Got a speck in my eye is all. Go on.

Finish telling me about your friend.”

“Not much to tell. He was a genius, but over the years I’ve become convinced that genius is a vastly overrated commodity. I think this country is full of geniuses, guys and gals so bright they make your average card-carrying MENSA member look like Fucko the Clown. And I think that most of them are teachers, living and working in small-town obscurity because that’s the way they like it. It was certainly the way Bob Polhurst liked it.

“He saw into people in a way that seemed scary to me… at first, anyway. After awhile you found out you didn’t have to be scared, because Bob was kind, but at first he inspired a sense of dread. You sometimes wondered if it was an ordinary pair of eyes he was using to look at you, or some kind of X-ray machine.”

At the snackbar, the woman was bending down with a small paper cup of soda. The kid reached up for it with both hands, grinning, and took it. He drank thirstily. The rosy glow pulsed briefly into existence around him again as he did, and Ralph knew he had been right: the kid’s name was Patrick, and his mother didn’t want to take him home. There was no way he could know such things, but he did just the same.

“In those days,” McGovern said, “if you were from central Maine and not one hundred percent heterosexual, you tried like hell to pass for it. That was the only choice there was, outside of moving to Greenwich Village and wearing a beret and spending Saturday nights in the kind of jazz clubs where they used to applaud by snapping their fingers. Back then, the idea of ’coming out of the closet’ was ridiculous. For most of us the closet was all there was. Unless you wanted a pack of liquored-up fraternity boys sitting on you in an alley and trying to pull your face off, the world was your closet.”

Pat finished his drink and tossed his paper cup on the ground.

His mother told him to pick it up and put it in the litter basket, a task he performed with immense good cheer. Then she took his hand and they began to walk slowly out of the park.

Ralph watched them go with a feeling of trepidation, hoping the woman’s fears and worries would turn out to be unjustified, fearing that they wouldn’t be.

“When I applied for a job in the Derry High History Department-this was in 1951 -I was fresh from two years teaching in the sticks, way to hell and gone in Lubec, and I figured if I could get along up there with no questions being asked, I could get along anywhere. But Bob took one look at me-hell, inside me-with those X-ray eyes of his and just knew. And he wasn’t shy, either.

“If I decide to offer you this job and you decide to take it, Mr.

McGovern, may I be assured that there will never be so much as an iota of trouble over the matter of your sexual preference?”

“Sexual preference, Ralph! Man oh man! I’d never even dreai ed of such a phrase before that day, but it came sliding out of his month slicker than a ball-bearing coated with Crisco. I started to get up on my high horse, tell him I didn’t have the slightest idea what he was talking about but I resented the hell out of it just the same-on general principles, you might say-and then I took another look at him and decided to save my energy. I might have fooled some people up in Lubec, but I wasn’t fooling Bob Polhurst. He wasn’t thirty himself yet, probably hadn’t been south of Kittery more than a dozen times in his whole life, but he knew everything that mattered about me, and all it had taken him to find it out was one twenty-minute interview.

“’No, sir, not an iota,” I said, just as meek as Mary’s little lamb.”

McGovern dabbed at his eyes with the handkerchief again, but Ralph had an idea that this time the gesture was mostly theatrical.

“In the twenty-three years before I went off to teach at Derry Community College, Bob taught me everything I know about teaching history and playing chess. He was a brilliant player… he certainly would have given that windbag Faye Chapin some hard bark to chew on, I can tell you that. I only beat him once, and that was after the Alzheimer’s started to take hold.

I never played him again after that.

“And there were other things. He never forgot a joke. He never forgot the birthdays or anniversaries of the people who were close to him-he didn’t send cards or give gifts, but he always offered congratulations and good wishes, and no one ever doubted his sincerity.

He published over sixty articles on teaching history and on the Civil War, which was his specialty. In 1967 and 1968 he wrote a book called Later That Summer, about what happened in the months following Gettysburg. He let me read the manuscript ten years ago, and I think it’s the best book on the Civil War I’ve ever read-the only one that even comes close is a novel called The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara. Bob wouldn’t hear of publishing it, though. When I asked him why, he said that I of all people should understand his reasons.”

McGovern paused briefly, looking out across the park, which was filled with green-gold light and black interlacings of shadow which moved and shifted with each breath of wind.

“He said he had a fear of exposure.”

“Okay,” Ralph said. “I get it.”

“Maybe this sums him up best of all: he used to do the big Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle in ink. I poked him about that once-accused him of hubris. He gave me a grin and said, ’There’s a big difference between pride and optimism, Bill-I’m an optimist, that’s all.”

“Anyway, you get the picture. A kind man, a good teacher, a brilliant mind. His specialty was the Civil War, and now he doesn’t even know what a civil war is, let alone who won ours. Hell, he doesn’t even know his own name, and at some point soon-the sooner the better, actually-he’s going to die without any idea that he ever lived.”

A middle-aged man in a University of Maine tee-shirt and a pair of ragged bluejeans came shuffling through the playground, carrying a crumpled paper shopping bag under one arm. He stopped beside the snackbar to examine the contents of the waste-barrel, hoping for a returnable or two. As he bent over, Ralph saw the dark green envelope which surrounded him and the lighter green balloon-string which rose, wavering, from the crown of his head. And suddenly he was too tired to close his eyes, too tired to wish it away.

He turned to McGovern and said, “Ever since last month I’ve been seeing stuff that-”

“I ness I’m in mourning,” McGovern said, giving his eyes another theatrical wipe, “although I don’t know if it’s for Bob or for me. Isn’t that a hoot? But if you could have seen how bright he was in those days… how goddam scary-bright…”

“Bill? You see that guy over there by the snackbar? The one rooting through the trash barrel? I see-”

“Yeah, those guys are all over the place now,” McGovern said, giving the wino (who had found two empty Budweiser cans and tucked them into his bag) a cursory glance before turning to Ralph again. “I hate being old-I guess maybe that’s all it really comes down to. I mean big-time.”

The wino approached their bench in a bent-kneed shuffle, the breeze heralding his arrival with a smell which was not English Leather. His aura-a sprightly and energetic green that made Ralph think of Saint Patrick’s Day decorations-went oddly with his subservient posture and sickly grin.

“Say, you guys! How you doon?”

“We’ve been better,” McGovern said, hoisting the satiric eyebrow, “and I expect we’ll be better again once you shove off.”

The wino looked at McGovern uncertainly, seemed to decide he was a lost cause, and shifted his gaze to Ralph. “You got a bittl spare change, mister? I gotta get to Dexter. My uncle call me out dere at the Shelter on Neibolt Street, say I can have my old job back at the mill, but only if I-”

“Get lost, chum,” McGovern said.

The wino gave him a brief, anxious glance, and then his bloodshot brown eyes rolled back to Ralph again. “Dass a good job, you know?

I could have it back, but only if I get dere today. Dere’s a bus-” Ralph reached into his pocket, found a quarter and a dime, and dropped them into the outstretched hand. The wino grinned. The aura surrounding him brightened, then suddenly disappeared. Ralph found that a great relief.

“Hey, great! Thank you, mister!”

“Don’t mention it,” Ralph said.

The wino lurched off in the direction of the Shop in Save, where such brands as Night Train, Old Duke, and Silver Satin were always on sale.

Oh shit, Ralph, would it hurt you to be a little charitable in your head, as well? he asked himself. Go another half a mile in that directt’on, you come to the bus station.

True, but Ralph had lived long enough to know there was a world of difference between charitable thinking and illusions. If the wino with the dark-green aura was going to the bus station, then Ralph was going to Washington to be Secretary of State.

“You shouldn’t do that, Ralph,” McGovern said reprovingly. “It just encourages them.”

“I suppose,” Ralph said wearily.

“What were you saying when we were so rudely interrupted?”

The idea of telling McGovern about the auras now seemed an incredibly bad one, and he could not for the life of him imagine how he had gotten so close to doing it. The insomnia, of course-that was the only answer. It had done a number on his judgement as well as on his short-term memory and sense of perception.

“That I got something in the mail this morning,” Ralph said. “I thought it might cheer you up.” He passed Helen’s postcard over to McGovern, who read it and then reread it. The second time through, his long, horsey face broke into a broad grin. The combination of relief and honest pleasure in that expression made Ralph forgive McGovern his self-indulgent bathos at once. It was easy to forget that Bill could be generous as well as pompous.

“Say, this is great, isn’t it? A job!”

“It sure is. Want to celebrate with some lunch? There’s a nice little diner two doors down from the Rite Aid-Day Break, Sun Down, it’s called. Maybe a little ferny, but-”

“Thanks, but I promised Bob’s niece I’d go over and sit with him awhile. Of course he doesn’t have the slightest idea of who I am, but that doesn’t matter, because I know who he is. You can see?”

“Yep,” Ralph said. “A raincheck, then?”

“You got it.” McGovern scanned the message on the postcard again, still grinning. “This is the berries-the absolute berries!”

Ralph laughed at this winsome old expression. “I thought so, too.”

“I would have bet you five bucks she was going to walk right back into her marriage to that weirdo, and pushing the baby in front of her in its damn stroller… but I would have been glad to lose the money.

I suppose that sounds crazy.”

“A little,” Ralph said, but only because he knew it was what McGovern expected to hear. What he really thought was that Bill McGovern had just summed up his own character and world-view more succinctly than Ralph ever could have done himself.

“Nice to know someone’s getting better instead of worse, huh?”

“You bet.”

“Has Lois seen that yet?”

Ralph shook his head. “She’s not home. I’ll show it to her when I see her, though.”

“You do that. Are you sleeping any better, Ralph?”

“I’m doing okay, I guess.”

“Good. You look a little better. A little stronger. We can’t give in, Ralph, that’s the important thing.

Am I right?”

“I guess you are,” Ralph said, and sighed. “I guess you are, at that.”

Two days later Ralph sat at his kitchen table, slowly eating a bowl of bran flakes he didn’t really want (but supposed in some vague way to be good for him) and looking at the front page of the Derry News. He had skimmed the lead story quickly, but it was the photo that kept drawing his eye back; it seemed to express all the bad feelings he had been living with ever the last month without really explaining any of them.

Ralph thought the headline over the photograph-WOMANCARE DEMONSTRATION SPARKS VIOLENCE-didn’t reflect the story which followed, but that didn’t surprise him; he had been reading the News for years and had gotten used to its biases, which included a firm anti-abortion stance. Still, the paper had been careful to distance itself from The Friends of Life in that day’s tut-tut, now-you-boysjust-stop-it editorial, and Ralph wasn’t surprised. The Friends had gathered in the parking lot adjacent to both WomanCare and Derry Home Hospital, waiting for a group of about two hundred pro-choice marchers who were walking across town from the Civic Center. Most of the marchers were carrying signs with pictures of Susan Day and the slogan CHOICE, NOT FEAR on them.

The marchers’ idea was to gather supporters as they went, like a snowball rolling downhill. At WomanCare there would be a short rally-intended to pump people up for the coming Susan Day speech-followed by refreshments, The rally never happened. As the pro-choice marchers approached the parking lot, the Friends of Life people rushed out and blocked the road, holding their own signs (MURDER IS MURDER, SUSAN DAY STAY AWAY, STEP THE SLAU(,1

“1’1-:R OF THE INNOCENTS) in front of them like shields.

The marchers had been escorted by police, but no one had been prepared for the speed with which the heckling and angry words escalated into kicks and punches. It had begun with One Of The Friends of Life recognizing her own daughter among the pro-choice people. The older woman had dropped her sign and charged the younger. The daughter’s boyfriend had caught the older woman and tried to restrain her. When Mom opened his face with her fingernails, the young man had thrown her to the ground. That had ignited a ten-minute melee and provoked more than thirty arrests, split roughly half and half between the two groups.

The picture on the front page of this morning’s News featured Hamilton Davenport and Dan Dalton. The photographer had caught Davenport in a snarl which was entirely unlike his usual look of calm self-satisfaction. one fist was raised over his head in a primitive gesture of triumph. Facing him-and wearing Ham’s CHOICE, NOT FEAR sign around the top of his head like a surreal cardboard halo was The Friends of Life’s grandfromage. Dalton’s eyes were dazed, his mouth slack. The high-contrast black-and-white photo made the blood flowing from his nostrils look like chocolate sauce.

Ralph would look away from this for awhile, try to concentrate on finishing his cereal, and then he would remember the day last summer when he had first seen one of the pseudo-“wanted” posters that were now pasted up all over Derry-the day he had nearly fainted outside Strawford Park. Mostly it was their faces his mind fixed on: Davenport’s full of angry intensity as he peered into the dusty show window of Secondhand Rose, Secondhand Clothes, Dalton’s wearing a small, disdainful smile that seemed to suggest that an ape like Hamilton Davenport could not be expected to understand the higher morality of the abortion issue, and they both knew it.

Ralph would think of those two expressions and the distance between the men who wore them, and after awhile his dismayed eyes would wander back to the news photo. Two men stood close behind Dalton, both carrying pro-life signs and watching the confrontation intently. Ralph didn’t recognize the skinny man with the hornrimmed glasses and the cloud of receding gray hair, but he knew the man beside him. It was Ed Deepneau. Yet in this context, Ed seemed almost not to matter. What drew Ralph-and frightened him-were the faces of the two men who had done business next door to each other on Lower Witcham Street for years-Davenport with his cavernan’s snarl and clenched fist, Dalton with his dazed eyes and bloody nose.

He thought, If you’re not careful with your passions, this is where they get you. But this is where things had better stop, because”Because if those two had had guns, they’d’ve shot each other,” he muttered, and at that moment the doorbell rang-the one down on the front porch. Ralph got up, looked at the picture again, and felt a kind of vertigo sweep through him. With it came an odd, dismal surety: it was Ed down there, and God knew what he might want.

Don’t answer it then, Ralph!

He stood by the kitchen table for a long undecided moment, wishing bitterly that he could cut through the fog that seemed to have taken up permanent residence in his head this year. Then the doorbell chimed again and he found he had decided. It didn’t matter if that was Saddam Hussein down there; this was his place, and he wasn’t going to cower in it like a whipped cur.

Ralph crossed the living room, opened the door to the hall, and went down the shadowy front stairs.

Halfway down he relaxed a little. The top half of the door which gave on the front porch was composed of heavy glass panes. They distorted the view, but not so much that Ralph could not see that his two visitors were both women. He guessed at once who one of them must be and hurried the rest of the way down, running one hand lightly over the bannister. He threw the door open and there was Helen Deepneau with a tote-bag (BABY FIRST-AID STATION was printed on the side) slung over one shoulder and Natalie peering over the other, her eyes as bright as the eyes of a cartoon mouse.

Helen was smiling hopefully and a little nervously.

Natalie’s face suddenly lit up and she began to bounce up and down in the Papoose carrier Helen was wearing, waving her arms excitedly in Ralph’s direction.

She remembers me, Ralph thought. How about that. And as he reached out and let one of the waving hands grasp his right index finger, his eyes flooded with tears.

“Ralph?” Helen asked. “Are you okay?”

He smiled, nodded, stepped forward, and hugged her. He felt Helen lock her own arms around his neck. For a moment he was dizzy with the smell of her perfume, mingled with the milky smell of healthy baby, and then she gave his ear a dazzling smack and let him go.

“You are okay, aren’t you?” she asked. There were tears in her eyes, too, but Ralph barely noticed them; he was too busy taking inventory, wanting to make sure that no signs of the beating remained.

So far as he could see, none did. She looked flawless.

“Better right now than in weeks,” he said. “You are such a sight for sore eyes. You too, Nat.” He kissed the small, chubby hand that was still wrapped around his finger, and was not entirely surprised to see the ghostly gray-blue lip-print his mouth left behind. It faded almost as soon as he had noted it and he hugged Helen again, mostly to make sure that she was really there.

“Dear Ralph,” she murmured in his ear. “Dear, sweet Ralph.”

He felt a stirring in his groin, apparently brought on by the combination of her light perfume and the gentle puffs her words made against the cup of his ear… and then he remembered another voice in his ear. Ed’s voice. I called about your mouth, Ralph. It’s trying to get you in trouble.

Ralph let her go and held her at arm’s length, still smiling.

“You’re a sight for sore eyes, Helen. I’ll be damned if you’re not.”

“You are, too. I’d like you to meet a friend of mine. Ralph Roberts, Gretchen Tillbury. Gretchen, Ralph.”

Ralph turned toward the other woman and took his first good look at her as he carefully folded his large, gnarled hand over her slim white one. She was the kind of woman that made a man (even one who had left his sixties behind) want to stand up straight and suck in his gut.

She was very tall, perhaps six feet, and she was blonde, but that wasn’t it. There was something else-something that was like a smell, or a vibration, or (an aura) yes, all right, like an aura. She was, quite simply, a woman you couldn’t not look at, couldn’t not think about, couldn’t not speculate about.

Ralph remembered Helen’s telling him that Gretchen’s husband had cut her leg open with a kitchen knife and left her to bleed to death.

He wondered how any man could do such a thing; how any man could touch a creature such as this with anything but awe.

Also a little lust, maybe, once he got beyond the “She walks in beauty like the night” stage. And just by the way, Ralph, this might be a really good time to reel your eyes back into their sockets.

“Very pleased to meet you,” he said, letting go of her hand.

“Helen told me about how you came to see her in the hospital.

Thank you for helping her.”

“Helen was a pleasure to help,” Gretchen said, and gave him a dazzling smile. “She’s the kind of woman that makes it all worthwhile, actually… but I have an idea you already know that.”

“I guess I might at that,” Ralph said. “Have you got time for a cup of coffee? Please say yes.”

Gretchen glanced at Helen, who nodded.

“That would be fine,” Helen said. “Because… well.

“This isn’t entirely a social call, is it?” Ralph asked, looking from Helen to Gretchen Tillbury and then back to Helen again.

“No,” Helen said. “There’s something we need to talk to you about, Ralph.”

As soon as they had reached the top of the gloomy front stairs, Natalie began to wriggle impatiently around in the Papoose carrier and to talk in that imperious baby pig Latin that would all too soon be replaced by actual words.

“Can I hold her?” Ralph asked.

“All right,” Helen said. “If she cries, I’ll take her right back.

Promise.”

“Deal.”

But the Exalted amp; Revered Baby didn’t cry. As soon as Ralph had hoisted her out of the Papoose, she slung an arm companionably around his neck and cozied her bottom into the crook of his right arm as if it were her own private easy-chair.

“Wow,” Gretchen said. “I’m impressed.”

“Bug!” Natalie said, seizing Ralph’s lower lip and pulling it out like a windowshade. “Ganna-wig! Andoo-sis!”

“I think she just said something about the Andrews Sisters,” Ralph said. Helen threw her head back and laughed her hearty laugh, the one that seemed to come all the way up from her heels. Ralph didn’t realize how much he had missed it until he heard it.

Natalie let Ralph’s lower lip snap back as he led them into the kitchen, the sunniest room of the house at this time of day. He saw Helen looking around curiously as he turned on the Bunn, and realized she hadn’t been here for a long time. Too long. She picked up the picture of Carolyn that stood on the kitchen table and looked at it closely, a little smile playing about the corners of her lips. The sun lit the tips of her hair, which had been cropped short, making a kind of corona around her head, and Ralph had a sudden revelation: he loved Helen in large part because Carolyn had loved herthey had both been allowed into the deeper ranges of Carolyn’s heart and mind.

“She was so pretty,” Helen murmured. “Wasn’t she, Ralph?”

“Yes,” he said, putting out cups (and being careful to set them beyond the reach of Natalie’s restless, interested hands). “That was taken just a month or two before the headaches started. I suppose it’s eccentric to keep a framed studio portrait on the kitchen table in front of the sugar-bowl, but this is the room where I seem to spend most of my time lately, so…”

“I think it’s a lovely place for it,” Gretchen said. Her voice was low, sweetly husky. Ralph thought, If she’d been the one to whisper in my ear, I bet the old trouser-mouse would have done a little more than Just turn over in its sleep.

“I do, too,” Helen said. She gave him a fragile, not-quite-eyecontact smile, then slipped the pink tote-bag off her shoulder and set it on the counter. Natalie began to gabble impatiently and hold her hands out again as soon as she saw the plastic shell of the Playtex Nurser. Ralph had a vivid but mercifully brief flash of memory: Helen staggering toward the Red Apple, one eye puffed shut, her cheek lashed with beads of blood, carrying Nat on one hip, the way a teenager might carry a textbook.

“Want to give it a try, old fella?” Helen asked. Her smile had strengthened a little and she was meeting his eye again.

“Sure, why not? But the coffee-”

“I’ll take care of the coffee, Daddy-O,” Gretchen said. “Made a million cups in my time. Is there half-and-half?”

“In the fridge.” Ralph sat down at the table, letting Natalie rest the back of her head in the hollow of his shoulder and grasp the bottle with her tiny, fascinating hands. This she did with complete assurance, guiding the nipple into her mouth and beginning to suck at once. Ralph grinned up at Helen and pretended not to see that she had begun to cry a little again. “They learn fast, don’t they?”

“Yes,” she said, and pulled a paper towel off the roll mounted on the wall by the sink. She wiped her eyes with it. “I can’t get over how easy she is with you, Ralph-she wasn’t that way before, was she?”

“I don’t really remember,” he lied. She hadn’t been. Not standoffish, no, but a long way from this comfortable.

“Keep pushing up on the plastic liner inside the bottle, okay?

Otherwise she’ll swallow a lot of air and get all gassy.”

“Roger.” He glanced over at Gretchen. “Doing okay?”

“Fine. How do you take it, Ralph?”

“Just in a cup’s fine.”

She laughed and put the cup on the table out of Natalie’s reach.

When she sat down and crossed her legs, Ralph checked-he was helpless not to. When he looked up again, Gretchen was wearing a small, ironic smile.

What the hell, Ralph thought. No goat like an old goat, I guess.

Even an old goat that can’t manage much more than two or two and a half hours’ worth of sleep a night.

“Tell me about your job,” he said as Helen sat down and sipped her coffee.

“Well, I think they ought to make Mike Hanlon’s birthday a national holiday-does that tell you anything?”

“A little, yes,” Ralph said, smiling.

“I was all but positive I’d have to leave Derry. I sent away for applications to libraries as far south as Portsmouth, but I felt sick doing it. I’m going on thirty-one and I’ve only lived here for six of those years, but Derry feels like home-I can’t explain it, but it’s the truth.”

“You don’t have to explain it, Helen. I think home’s just one of those things that happens to a person, like their complexion or the color of their eyes.”

Gretchen was nodding. “Yes,” she said. “Just like that.”

“Mike called Monday and told me the assistant’s position in the Children’s Library had opened up. I could hardly believe it. I mean, I’ve been walking around all week just pinching myself. Haven’t I, Gretchen?”

“Well, you’ve been very happy,” Gretchen said, and that’s been very good to see.”

She smiled at Helen, and for Ralph that smile was a revelation.

He suddenly understood that he could look at Gretchen Tillbury all he wanted, and it wouldn’t make any difference. If the only man in this room had been Tom Cruise, it still would have made no difference.

He wondered if Helen knew, and then scolded himself for his foolishness. Helen was many things, but stupid wasn’t one of them.

“When do you start?” he asked her.

“Columbus Day week,” she said. “The twelfth. Afternoons and evenings. The salary’s not exactly a king’s ransom, but it’ll be enough to keep us through the winter no matter how the… the rest of my situation works out. Isn’t it great, Ralph?”

“Yes,” he said. “Very great.”

The baby had drunk half the bottle and now showed signs of losing interest. The nipple popped halfway out of her mouth, and a little rill of milk ran down from the corner of her lips toward her chin.

Ralph reached to wipe it away, and his fingers left a series of delicate gray-blue lines in the air.

Baby Natalie snatched at them, then laughed as they dissolved in her fist. Ralph’s breath caught in his throat.

She sees. The baby sees what I see, That’s nuts, Ralph. That’s nuts and you know it.

Except he knew no such thing. He had just seen it-had seen Nat try to grab the aural contrails his fingers left behind.

“Ralph?” Helen asked. “Are you all right?”

“Sure.” He looked up and saw that Helen was now surrounded by a luxurious ivory-colored aura. It had the satiny look of an expensive slip. The balloon-string floating up from it was an identical shade of ivory, and as broad and flat as the ribbon on a wedding present. The aura surrounding Gretchen Tillbury was a dark orange shading to yellow at the edges. “Will you be moving back into the house?”

Helen and Gretchen exchanged another of those glances, but Ralph barely noticed. He didn’t need to observe their faces or gestures or body language to read their feelings, he discovered; he only had to look at their auras. The lemony tints at the edges of Gretchen’s now darkened, so that the whole was a uniform orange.

Helen’s, meanwhile, simultaneously pulled in and brightened until it was hard to look at. Helen was afraid to go back. Gretchen knew it, and was infuriated by it.

And her own helplessness, Ralph thought. That infuriates her even more.

“I’m going to stay at High Ridge awhile longer,” Helen was saying.

“Maybe until winter. Nat and I will move back into town eventually, I imagine, but the house is going up for sale. If someone actuilly buys it-and with the real estate market the way it is that looks like a pretty big question mark-the money goes into an escrow account.

That account will be divided according to the decree. You know-the divorce decree.”

Her lower lip was trembling. Her aura had grown still tighter; it now fit her body almost like a second skin, and Ralph could see minute red flashes skimming through it. They looked like sparks dancing over an incinerator. He reached out across the table, took her hand, squeezed it. She smiled at him gratefully.

“You’re telling me two things,” he said. “That you’re going ahead with the divorce and that you’re still scared of him.”

“She’s been regularly battered and abused for the last two years of her marriage,” Gretchen said. “Of course she’s still scared of him.”

She spoke quietly, calmly, reasonably, but looking at her aura now was like looking through the small isinglass window you used to find in the doors of coal-furnaces.

He looked down at the baby and saw her now surrounded in her own gauzy, brilliant cloud of wedding-satin. It was smaller than her mother’s, but otherwise identical… like her blue eyes and auburn hair. Natalie’s balloon-string rose from the top of her head in a pure white ribbon that floated all the way to the ceiling and then actually coiled there in an ethereal heap beside the light-fixture. When a breath of breeze puffed in through the open window by the stove, he saw the wide white band belly and ripple. He glanced up and saw Helen’s and Gretchen’s balloon-strings were also rippling.

And if I could see my own, it would be doing the same thing, he thought. It’s real-whatever that two-and-two-make-four part of my mind may think, the auras are real. They’re real and I’m seeing them.

He waited for the inevitable demurral, but this time none came.

“I feel like I’m spending most of my time in an emotional washingmachine these days,” Helen said. “My mom’s mad at me… she’s done everything but call me a quitter outright. and sometimes I feel like a quitter… ashamed…”

“You have nothing to be ashamed of,” Ralph said. He glanced up at Natalie’s balloon-string again, wavering in the breeze. It was beautiful, but he felt no urge to touch it; some deep instinct told him that might be dangerous for both of them.

“I guess I know that,” Helen said, “but girls go through a lot of indoctrination. It’s like, ’Here’s your Barbie, here’s your Ken, here’s your Hostess Play Kitchen. Learn well, because when the real stuff comes along it’ll be your job to take care of it, and if any of it gets broken, you’ll get the blame.” And I think I could have gone down the line with that-I really do. Except no one told me that in some marriages Ken goes nuts. Does that sound self-indulgent?”

“No. That’s pretty much what happened, so far as I can see.”

Helen laughed-a jagged, bitter, guilty sound. “Don’t try to tell my mother that. She refuses to believe Ed ever did anything more than give me a husbandly swat on the fanny once in awhile… just to get me moving in the right direction again if I happened to slip off-course.

She thinks I imagined the rest. She doesn’t come right out and say it, but I hear it in her voice every time we talk on the phone.”

“I don’t think you imagined it,” Ralph said, “I saw you, remember?

And I was there when you begged me not to call the police.”

He felt his thigh squeezed beneath the table and looked up, startled.

Gretchen Tillbury gave him a very slight nod and another squeeze-this one more emphatic, “Yes,” Helen said. “You were there, weren’t you?” She smiled a little, which was good, but what was happening to her aura was better-those tiny red flickers were fading, and the aura itself was spreading out again.

No, he thought. Not spreading out. Loosening. Relaxing.

Helen got up and came around the table.

“Nat’s bailing out on you-better let me take her.”

Ralph looked down and saw Nat looking across the room with heavy, fascinated eyes. He followed her gaze and saw the little vase standing on the windowsill beside the sink. He had filled it with fall flowers less than two hours ago and now a low green mist was sizzling off the stems and surrounding the blooms with a faint, misty glow.

I’m watching them breathe their last, Ralph thought. Oh my God, I’m never going to pick another flower in my life. I promise.

Helen took the baby gently from his arms. Nat went tractably enough, although her eyes never left the sizzling flowers as her mother went back around the table, sat down, and nestled her in the crook of her arm.

Gretchen tapped the face of her watch lightly. “If we’re going to make that meeting at noon-”

“Yes, of course,” Helen said, a little apologetically. “We’re on the official Susan Day Welcoming Committee,” she told Ralph, “and in this case that’s not quite as junior League as it sounds. Our main job really isn’t to welcome her but to help protect her.”

“Is that going to be a problem, do you think?”

“It’ll be tense, let’s put it that way,” Gretchen said. “She’s got half a dozen of her own security people, and they’ve been sending us turn-around faxes of all the Derry-related threats she’s received.

It’s standard operating procedure with them-she’s been in a lot of people’s faces for a lot of years. They’re keeping us in the picture, but they’re also making sure we understand that, because we’re the inviting group, her safety is WomanCare’s responsibility as well as theirs.” Ralph opened his mouth to ask if there had been many threats, but he supposed he already knew the answer to that question.

He’d lived in Derry for seventy years, off and on, and he knew it was a dangerous machine-there were a lot of sharp points and cutting edges just below the surface. That was true of a lot of cities, of course, but in Derry there had always seemed to be an extra dimension to the ugliness. Helen had called it home, and it was his home, tool butHe found himself remembering something which had happened almost ten years ago, shortly after the annual Canal Days Festival had ended.

Three boys had thrown an unassuming and inoffensive young gay man named Adrian Mellon into the Kenduskeag after repeatedly biting and stabbing him; it was rumored they had stood there on the bridge behind the Falcon Tavern and watched him die.

They’d told the police they hadn’t liked the hat he was wearing.

That was also Derry, and only a fool would ignore the fact.

As if this memory had led him to it (perhaps it had), Ralph looked at the photo on the front page of today’s paper again-Ham Davenport with his upraised fist, Dan Dalton with his bloody nose and dazed eyes, wearing Ham’s sign on his head.

“How many threats?” he asked. “Over a dozen?”

“Ah(out thirty,” Gretchen said. “Of those, her security people take half a dozen seriously. Two are threats to blow up the Civic Center if she doesn’t cancel. Hey-this is a real honey-it’s from someone who says he’s got a Big Squirt water-gun filled with battery acid. ’If I make a direct hit, not even your dyke friends will be able to look at you without throwing up,” that one says.”

“Nice,” Ralph said, ’It brings us to the point, anyway,” Gretchen said. She rummaged in her bag, brought out a small can with a red top, and put it on the table. “A little present from all your grateful friends at WomanCare.”

Ralph picked the can up. On one side was a picture of a woman spraying a cloud of gas at a man wearing a slouch hat and a Beagle Boys-type eye-mask. On the other was a single word in bright red capital letters:

BODYGUARD.

“What is this?” he asked, shocked in spite of himself. “Mace?”

“No,” Gretchen said. “Mace is a risky proposition in Maine, legally speaking. This stuff is much milder… but if you give somebody a faceful, they won’t even think of hassling you for at least a couple of minutes. It numbs the skin, irritates the eyes, and causes nausea.”

Ralph took the cap off the can, looked at the red aerosol nozzle beneath, then replaced the cap. “Good Christ, woman, why would I want to lug around a can of this stuff?”

“Because you’ve been officially designated a Centurion,” Gretchen said.

“A what?” Ralph asked.

“A Centurion,” Helen repeated. Nat was fast asleep in her arms, and Ralph realized the auras were gone again. “It’s what The Friends of Life call their major enemies-the ringleaders of the opposition.”

“Okay,” Ralph said, “I’ve got it now. Ed talked about people he called Centurions on the day he… assaulted you. He talked about a lot of things that day, though, and all of them were crazy-”

“Yes, Ed’s at the bottom of it, and he is crazy,” Helen said. “We don’t think he’s mentioned this Centurion business except to a small inner circle-people who are almost as gonzo as he is. The rest of The Friends of Life… I don’t think they have any idea. I mean, did you? Until last month, did you have any idea that he was crazy?”

Ralph shook his head.

“Hawking Labs finally fired him,” Helen said. “Yesterday. They held onto him as long as they could-he’s great at what he does, and they had a lot invested in him-but in the end they had to let him go.

Three months’ severance pay in lieu of notice… not bad for a guy who beats up his wife and throws dolls loaded with fake blood at the windows of the local women’s clinic.” She tapped the newspaper.

“This last demonstration was the final straw. It’s the third or fourth time he’s been arrested since he got involved with The Friends of Life.”

“You have someone inside, don’t you?” Ralph said. “That’s how you know all this.”

Gretchen smiled. “We’re not the only ones who’ve got someone at least partway inside; we have a running joke that there really are no Friends of Life, just a bunch of double agents. Derry P.D.”s got someone; the State Police do, too. And those are just the ones our… our person… knows about. Hell, the FBI could be monitoring them, as well. The Friends of Life are eminently infiltratable, Ralph, because they’re convinced that, deep down, everyone is on their side.

But we believe that our person is the only one who’s gotten in toward the middle, and this person says that Dan Dalton is just the tail Ed Deepneau wags.”

“I guessed that the first time I saw them together on the TV news,” Ralph said, Gretchen got up, gathered the coffee cups, took them over to the sink, and began to rinse them. “I’ve been active in the women’s movement for thirteen years now, and I’ve seen a lot of crazy shit, but I’ve never seen anything like this. He’s got these dopes believing that women in Derry are undergoing involuntary abortions, that half of them haven’t even realized they’re pregnant before the Centurions come in the night and take their babies.”

“Has he told them about the incinerator over in Newport?” Ralph asked. “The one that’s really a baby crematorium?”

Gretchen turned from the sink, her eyes wide. “How did -I,o I know about that?”

“Oh, I got the lowdown from Ed himself, up close and in person.

Starting in July of ’92.” He hesitated for just a moment, then gave them an account of the day he had met Ed out by the airport, and how Ed had accused the man in the pickup of hauling dead babies in the barrels marked WEED-co. Helen listened silently, her eyes growing steadily wider and rounder. “He was going on about the same stuff on the day he beat you up,” Ralph finished, “but he’d embellished it considerably by then.”

“That probably explains why he’s fixated on you,” Gretchen said, “but in a very real sense, the why doesn’t matter. The fact is, he’s given his nuttier friends a list of these so-called Centurions. We don’t know everyone who’s on it, but I am, and Helen is, and Susan Day, of course… and you.” Why me? Ralph almost asked, then recognized it as another pointless question. Maybe Ed had targeted him because he had called the cops after Ed had beaten Helen; more likely it had happened for no understandable reason at all. Ralph remembered reading somewhere that David Berkowitz-also known as the Son of Sam-claimed to have killed on some occasions under instructions from his dog.

“What do you expect them to try?” Ralph asked. “Armed assault, like in a Chuck Norris movie?”

He smiled, but Gretchen did not answer it. “The thing is, we don’t know what they might try,” she said. “The most likely answer is nothing at all. Then again, Ed or one of the others might take it into his head to try and push you out your own kitchen window. The spray is basically nothing but watered-down teargas. A little insurance policy, that’s all.”

“Insurance,” he said thoughtfully.

“You’re in very select company,” Helen said with a wan smile.

“The only other male Centurion on their list-that we know about, anyway-is Mayor Cohen.”

“Did you give him one of these?” Ralph asked, picking up the aerosol can. It looked no more dangerous than the free samples of shaving cream he got in the mail from time to time.

“We didn’t need to,” Gretchen said. She looked at her watch again. Helen saw the gesture and stood up with the sleeping baby in her armg-.

“He’s got a license to carry a concealed weapon.”

“How would you know a thing like that?” Ralph asked.

“We checked the files at City Hall,” she said, and grinned. “Gun permits are a matter of public record.”

“Oh.” A thought occurred to him. “What about Ed? Did you check on him? Does he have one?”

“Nope,” she said. “But guys like Ed don’t necessarily apply for weapons permits once they get past a certain point… you know that, don’t you?”

“Yes,” Ralph replied, also getting up. “I suppose I do. What about you guys? Are you watching out?”

“You bet, Daddy-o. You bet we are.”

He nodded, but wasn’t entirely satisfied. There was a faintly patronizing tone in her voice that he didn’t like, as if the very question were a silly one. But it wasn’t silly, and if she didn’t know that, she and her friends could be in trouble down the line. Bad trouble.

“I hope so,” he said. “I really do. Can I carry Nat downstairs for you, Helen?”

“Better not-you’d wake her.” She looked at him gravely.

“Would you carry that spray for me, Ralph? I can’t stand the thought of you being hurt just because you tried to help me and he’s got some crazy bee in his bonnet.”

“I’ll think about it very seriously. Will that do?”

“I guess it will have to.” She looked at him closely, her eyes searching his face. “You look much better than the last time I saw you-you’re sleeping again, aren’t you?”

He grinned. “Well, to tell you the truth, I’m still having my problems, but I must be getting better, because people keep telling me that.”

She stood on tiptoe and kissed the corner of his mouth. “We’ll be in touch, won’t we? I mean, we’ll stay in touch.”

“I’ll do my part if you’ll do yours, sweetie.”

She smiled. “You can count on that, Ralph-you’re the nicest male

Centurion I know.”

They all laughed at that, so hard that Natalie woke up and looked around at them in sleepy surprise.

After he had seen the women off (I’M PREJUDICED, AND I VOTE!

read the sticker on the rear bumper of Gretchen Tillbury’s Accord fastback), Ralph climbed slowly up to the second floor again.

Weariness dragged at his heels like invisible weights. once in the kitchen he looked first at the vase of flowers, trying to see that strange and gorgeous green mist rising from the stems. Nothing. Then he picked up the aerosol and re-examined the cartoon on the side of the can.

One Menaced Woman, heroically warding off her attacker; one Bad Man, complete with eye-mask and slouch hat. No shades of gray here; just a case of go ahead, punk, make my day.

It occurred to Ralph that Ed’s madness was catching. There were women all over Derry-Gretchen Tillbury and his own sweet Helen among them-walking around with these little spray-cans in their purses, and all the cans really said the same thing: I’m afraid. The bad men in the masks and the slouch hats have arrived in Derry and I’m arra id.

Ralph wanted no part of it. Standing on tiptoe, he put the can of Bodyguard on top of the kitchen cabinet beside the sink, then shrugged into his old gray leather jacket. He would go up to the picnic area near the airport and see if he could find a game of chess.

Lacking that, maybe a few rounds of cribbage.

He paused in the kitchen doorway, looking fixedly at the flowers, trying to make that sizzling green mist come. Nothing happened.

But it was there. You saw it,-Natalie did, too.

But had she? Had she really? Babies were always goggling at stuff, everything amazed them, so how could he know for sure?

“I just do,” he said to the empty apartment. Correct. The green mist rising from the stems of the flowers had been there, all the auras had been there, and…

“And they’re still there,” he said, and did not know if he should be relieved or appalled by the firmness he heard in his own voice, For right now, why don’t you try being neither, sweetheart.p His thought, Carolyn’s voice, good advice.

Ralph locked up his apartment and went out into the Derry of the Old Crocks, looking for a game of chess.

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