CHAPTER 13

“Lois?” To Ralph’s own ears, his voice seemed to be an echo winding down a long, deep canyon. “Lois, do you see that?”

“I don’t-” Her voice broke off. “Did the wind blow that bathroom door open? It didn’t, did it? Is someone there? Is that why the dog’s making that racket?”

Rosalie backed slowly away from the bald man, her ragged ears laid back, her muzzle wrinkled to expose teeth so badly eroded that they were not much more menacing than hard rubber pegs. She uttered a cracked volley of barks, then began to whine desperately.

“Yes! Don’t you see him, Lois? Look! He’s right there.i”

Ralph got to his feet. Lois got up with him, shielding her eyes with one hand. She peered down the slope with desperate intensity, “I see a shimmer, that’s all. Like the air over an incinerator.”

“I told you to leave her alone.” Ralph shouted down the hill.

“Quit it! Get the hell out!”

The bald man looked in Ralph’s direction, but there was no surprise in the glance this time; it was casual, dismissive. He raised the middle finger of his right hand, flicked it at Ralph in the ancient salute, then bared his own teeth-much sharper and much more menacing than Rosalie’s-in a silent laugh.

Rosalie cringed as the little man in the dirty smock began to walk toward her again, then actually raised a paw and put it on her own head, a cartoonish gesture that should have been funny and was horribly expressive of her terror instead.

“What can’t I see, Ralph?” Lois moaned. “I see something, but-”

“Get AWAYfrom her.” Ralph shouted, and raised his hand in that karate-chop gesture again. The hand inside-the hand which earlier had produced that wedge of tight blue light-still felt like an unloaded gun, however, and this time the bald doc seemed to know it. He glanced in Ralph’s direction and offered a small, jeering wave.

[Aw, quit it, Shorts-sit back, shut up, and enjoy the show.] The creature at the foot of the hill returned his attention to Rosalie, who sat huddled at the base of an old pine. The tree was emitting a thin green fog from the cracks in its bark. The bald doctor bent over Rosalie, one hand outstretched in a gesture of solicitude that went very badly with the scalpel curled into his left fist.

Rosalie whined… then stretched her neck forward and humbly licked the bald creature’s palm.

Ralph looked down at his own hands, sensing something in them, not the power he’d had before, nothing like that, but something.

Suddenly there were snaps of clear white light dancing just above his nails. It was as if his fingers had been turned into sparkplugs.

Lois was grabbing frantically at him now. “What’s wrong with the dog? Ralph, what’s wrong with it?”

With no thought about what he was doing or why, Ralph put his hands over Lois’s eyes, like someone playing Guess Who with a loved one. His fingers flashed a momentary white so bright it was almost blinding. Must be the white they’re always talking about in the detergent commercials, he thought.

Lois screamed. Her hands flew to his wrists, clamped on them, then loosened. “My God, Ralph, what did you do to me?”

He took his hands away and saw a glowing figure-eight surrOLinding her eyes; it was as if she had just taken off a pair of goggles which had been dipped in confectioners’ sugar. The white began to dim almost as soon as his hands were gone… except…

It’s not dimming, he thought. It’s sinking in.

“Never mind,” he said, and pointed. “Look!”

The widening of her eyes told him what he needed to know.

Doc #3, completely unmoved by Rosalie’s desperate effort to make friends, shoved her muzzle aside with the hand holding the scalpel, He seized the old bandanna hanging around her neck in his other hand and yanked her head up. Rosalie howled miserably. Slobber ran back along the sides of her face. The bald man voiced a scabrous chuckle that made Ralph’s flesh crawl.

[“Hi! Leave off! Leave off teasing that dog.t”l The bald man’s head snapped around. The grin ran off his face and he snarled at Lois, sounding a little like a dog himself, [Yahh, go fuck Yourself, You fat old Short-Time cunt. Dog’s mine, just like I already told your limpdick boyfriend!] The bald man had let go of the blue bandanna when Lois shouted at him, and Rosalie was now cringing back against the pine again, her eyes rolling, curds of foam dripping from the sides of her muzzle.

Ralph had never seen such a completely terrified creature in his life.

“Run!” Ralph screamed. “Get away.”, She seemed not to hear him, and after a moment Ralph realized she wasn’t hearing him, because Rosalie was no longer entirely there.

The bald doctor had done something to her already-had pulled her at least partway out of ordinary reality like a farmer using his tractor and a length of chain to pull a stump.

Ralph tried once more, anyway.

[“Run, Rosalie.” Run away.”’] This time her laid-back ears cocked forward and her head began to turn in Ralph’s direction. He didn’t know if she would have obeyed him or not, because the bald man renewed his hold on the bandanna before she could even begin to move. He yanked her head up again.

“He’s going to kill it!” Lois screamed. “He’s going to cut its throat with that thing he has! Don’t let him, Ralph! Make him stop!”

“I can’t! Maybe you can! Shoot him! Shoot your hand at him!”

She looked at him, not understanding. Ralph made frantic woodchopping gestures with his right hand, but before Lois could respond, Rosalie gave a dreadful lost howl. The bald doc raised the scalpel and brought it down, but it wasn’t Rosalie’s throat he cut.

He cut her balloon-string.

A thread emerged from each of Rosalie’s nostrils and floated upward.

They twined together about six inches above her snout, making a delicate pigtail, and it was at this point that Baldy #3’s scalpel did its work. Ralph watched, frozen with horror, as the severed pigtail rose into the sky like the string of a released helium balloon. It was unravelling as it went. He thought it would tangle in the branches of the old pine, but it didn’t. When the ascending balloon-string finally did meet one of the branches, it simply passed through.

Of course, Ralph thought. The same way this guy’s buddies walked through May Locher’s locked front door after they finished doing the same thing to her.

This idea was followed by a thought too simple and gruesomely logical not to be believed: not space-aliens, not little bald doctors, but Centurions. Ed Deepneau’s Centurions. They didn’t look like the Roman solders you saw in tin-pants epics like Spartacus and Ben Hur, true, but they had to be Centurions… didn’t they?

Sixteen or twenty feet above the ground, Rosalie’s balloon-string simply faded away to nothingness.

Ralph looked back down in time to see the bald dwarf pull the faded blue bandanna off over the dog’s head and then push hr down at the base of the tree. Ralph looked at her more closely and felt all his flesh shrink closer to his bones. His dream of Carolyn recurred with cruel intensity, and he found himself struggling to bottle up a shriek of terror.

Right, that’s right, Ralph, don’t scream. You don’t Want to do that because once you start, you might not be able to stop-you might just go on doing it until your throat bursts. Remember Lois, because she’s in this now, too. Remember Lois and don’t start screaming.

I Ah, but it was hard not to, because e the dream-bugs which had come spewing out of Carolyn’s head were now pouring from Rosalie’s nostrils in writhing black streams.

Those aren’t bugs. I don’t know What they are, but they are not bugs.

No, not bugs-just another kind of aura. Nightmarish black stuff, neither liquid nor gas, was pumping out of Rosalie with each exhaled breath. It did not float away but instead began to surround her in slow, nasty coils of anti-light. That blackness should have hidden her from view, but it didn’t. Ralph could see her pleading, terrified eyes as the darkness gathered around her head and then began to ooze down her back and sides and legs, It was a deathbag, a real deathbag this time, and he was chilled as Rosalie, her balloon-string now cut, wove it relentlessly about herself like a Poisonous placental sac.

This metaphor triggered the voice of Ed Deepneau inside his head, Ed saying that the Centurions were ripping babies from the wombs of their mothers and taking them away in covered trucks.

Ever onder what was under most of those tarps? Ed had asked.

Doc #3 stood grinning down at Rosalie. Then he untied the knot in her bandanna and put it around his own neck, tying it in a loose knot, making it look like a bohemian artist’s necktie. This done, he looked up at Ralph and Lois with an expression of loathsome complacency.

There his look said. I took care of my business after all, and there wasn’t a damned thing you could do about it, was there?

[“Do something, Ralph! Please do something Make him stop!”] Too late for that, but maybe not too late to send him packing before he could enjoy the sight of Rosalie dropping dead at the foot of the tree.

He was pretty sure Lois couldn’t produce a karate-chop of blue light as he had done, but maybe she could do something else.

Yes-she can shoot him in her own way.

He didn’t know why he was so sure of that, but suddenly he was.

He grabbed Lois by the shoulders to make her look at him, then raised his right hand. He cocked his thumb and pointed his forefinger at the bald man. He looked like a small child playing cops and robbers.

Lois responded with a look of dismay and incomprehension.

Ralph grabbed her hand and stripped off her glove.

[“You! You, Lois.” She got the idea, raised her own hand, extended her forefinger, and made the child’s shooting gesture: Pow!

Pow!

Two compact lozenge shapes, their gray-blue shade identical to Lois’s aura but much brighter, flew from the end of her finger and streaked down the hill.

Doc #3 screeched and leaped upward, fisted hands held at shoulder-height, the heels of his black shoes clipping against his buttocks, as the first of these “bullets” went under him. It struck the ground, rebounded like a flat stone skipped across the surface of a pond, and hit the Portosan marked WOMEN. For a moment the entire front of it glowed fiercely, as the window of the Burry-Burry had done.

The second blue-gray pellet clipped the baldy’s left hip and ricocheted up into the sky. He screamed-a high, chattery sound that seemed to twist like a worm in the middle of Ralph’s head. Ralph raised his hands to his ears even though it could do no good, and saw Lois doing the same thing, He felt sure that if that scream went on for long, it would burst his head open just as surely as high C shatters fine crystal.

Doc #3 fell to the needle-carpeted ground beside Rosalie and rolled back and forth, howling and holding his hip the way a small child will hold the place he banged when he tumbled off his tricycle.

After a few moments of this, his cries began to diminish and he scrambled to his feet. His eyes blazed at them from below the white expanse of his brow. Bill’s Panama was tilted far back on his head now, and the left side of his smock was black and smoking.

[I’ll get you I’ll get you both! Goddam interfering Short-Timed fucks! I’ll GET YOU BOTH.” He whirled and bounded down the path which led to the playground and the tennis courts, running in big flying leaps like an astronaut on the moon. Lois’s shot didn’t appear to have done any real damage, judging by his speed afoot.

Lois seized Ralph’s shoulder and shook him. As she did, the auras began to fade again.

“The children! It’s going to-” She was fading out, and that seemed to make perfect sense, because he suddenly saw that Lois wasn’t really talking at all, only staring at him fixedly with her dark eyes as she clutched his shoulder.

“I can’t hear you!” he yelled. “Lois, I can’t hear you!”

“What’s wrong, are you deaf? It’s going toward the playground!

Toward the children! We can’t let it hurt the children-!”

Ralph let out a deep, shuddering sigh. “It won’t.”

“How can you be sure?”

“I don’t know. I just am.”

“I shot it.” She turned her finger toward her face, for a moment looking like a woman who mimes suicide. “I shot it with my finger.”

“Uh-huh. It stung him, too. Hard, from the way he looked.”

“I can’t see the colors anymore, Ralph.”

He nodded. “They come and go, like radio stations at night.”

“I don’t know how I feel… I don’t even know how I want to feel!” She wailed this last, and Ralph folded her into his arms. In spite of everything that was going on in his life right now, one fact registered very clearly: it was wonderful to be holding a woman again.

“That’s okay,” he told her, and pressed his face against the top of her head. Her hair smelled sweet, with none of the underlying murk of beauty-shop chemicals he’d gotten used to in Carolyn’s hair over the last ten or fifteen years of their life together. “Let go of it for now, okay?”

She looked at him. He could no longer see the faint mist drifting across her pupils, but felt sure it was still there. And besides, they were very pretty eyes even without the extra added attraction.

“What’s it for, Ralph? Do you know what it’s for?”

He shook his head. His mind was whirling with igsaw pieceshats, docs, bugs, protest signs, dolls that exploded in splatters of fake blood-that would not fit together. And for the time being, at least, the thing that seemed to recur with the most resonance was Old Doris nonsense saying: Done-bun-can’the-undone.

Ralph had an idea that was nothing but the truth.

A sad little whine came to his ears and Ralph looked down the hill.

Rosalie was lying at the base of the big pine, trying to get up.

Ralph could no longer see the black bag around her, but he was sure it was still there.

“Oh Ralph, the poor thing! What can we do?”

There was nothing they could do. Ralph was sure of it. He took Lois’s right hand in both of his and waited for Rosalie to lie back and die.

Instead of that, she gave a whole-body lurch that sent her so strongly to her feet that she almost toppled over the other way. She stood still for a moment, her head held so low her muzzle was almost on the ground, and then sneezed three or four times, With that out of the way, she shook herself and looked up at Ralph and Lois. She yapped at them once, a short, brisk sound. To Ralph it sounded as if she were telling them to quit worrying. Then she turned and made off through a little grove of pine trees toward the park’s lower entrance. Before Ralph lost sight of her, she had achieved the limping yet insouciant trot which was her trademark. The hum leg was no better than it had been before Doc #3’s interference, but it seemed no worse. Clearly old but seemingly a long way from dead (just like the rest of the Harris Avenue Old Crocks, Ralph thought), she disappeared into the trees.

“I thought that thing was going to kill her,” Lois said. “In fact, I thought it had killed her.”

“Me too,” Ralph said.

“Ralph, did all that really happen? It did, didn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“The balloon-strings… do you think they’re lifelines?”

He nodded slowly. “Yes. Like umbilical cords. And Rosalie.

He thought back to his first real experience with the auras, of how he’d stood outside the Rite Aid with his back to the blue mailbox and his jaw hanging down almost to his breastbone. Of the sixty or seventy people he had observed before the auras faded again, only a few had been walking inside the dark envelopes he now thought of as deathbags, and the one Rosalie had knitted around herself just now had been blacker by far than any he had seen that day. Still, those people in the parking lot whose auras had been dingy-dark had invariably looked unwell… like Rosalie, whose aura had been the color of old sweat-socks even before Baldy #3 started messing with her.

Maybe he Just hurried up what may otherwise be a perfectly natural process, he thought.

“Ralph?” Lois asked. “What about Rosalie?”

“I think my old friend Rosalie is living on borrowed time now,” Ralph said.

Lois considered this, looking down the hill and into the sun-dusty grove where Rosalie had disappeared. At last she turned to Ralph ’ “That midget with the scalpel was one of the men you saw again coming out of May Locher’s house, wasn’t he?”

“No. Those were two other ones.”

“Have you seen more?”

“No.”

“Do you think there are more?”

“I don’t know.”

He had an idea that next she’d ask if Ralph had noticed that the creature had been wearing Bill’s Panama, but she didn’t. Ralph supposed it was possible she hadn’t recognized it. Too much weirdness swirling around, and besides, there hadn’t been a chunk bitten out of the brim the last time she’d seen Bill wearing it. Retired history teachers just aren’t the hat-biting type, he reflected, and grinned.

“This has been quite a morning, Ralph.” Lois met his gaze frankly,?

eye to eye. “I think we need to talk about this, don’t you I really need to know what’s going on.”

Ralph remembered this morning-a thousand years ago, now-walking back down the street from the picnic area, running over his short list of acquaintances, trying to decide whom he should talk to.

He had crossed Lois off that mental list on the grounds that she might gossip to her girlfriends, and he was now embarrassed by that facile judgement, which had been based more on McGovern’s picture of Lois than on his own. It turned out that the only person Lois had spoken to about the auras before today was the one person she should have been able to trust to keep her secret.

He nodded at her. “You’re right. We need to talk.”

“Would you like to come back to my house for a little late lunch?

I make a pretty mean stir-fry for an old gal who can’t keep track of her earrings,”

“I’d love to. I’ll tell you what I know, but it’s going to take awhile.

When I talked to Bill this morning, I gave him the Reader’s Digest version.

“So,” Lois said. “The fight was about chess, was it?”

“Well, maybe not,” Ralph said, smiling down at his hands.

“Maybe it was actually more like the fight you had with your son and your daughter-in-law. And I didn’t even tell him the craziest parts.”

“But you’ll tell me?”

“Yes,” he said, and started to get up. “I’ll bet you’re a hell of a good cook, too, In fact-” He stopped suddenly and clapped one hand to his chest. He sat back down on the bench, heavily, his eyes wide and his mouth ajar.

“Ralph? Are you all right?”

Her alarmed voice seemed to be coming from a great distance. In his mind’s eye he was seeing Baldy #3 again, standing between the Burry-Burry and the apartment house next door. Baldy #3 trying to get Rosalie to cross Harris Avenue so he could cut her balloon-string.

He’d failed then, but he’d gotten the job done (I was gonna play with her before the morning was out.

Maybe the fact that Bill McGovern isn’t the hat-biting type wasn’t the only reason Lot’s didn’t notice whose hat Baldy #3 was wearing, Ralph old buddy. Maybe she didn’t notice because she didn’t want to notice. Maybe there are a couple of pieces here that fit together, and if you’re right about that, the implications are wide-ranging. You see that, don’t you.)

“Ralph? What’s wrong?”

He saw the dwarf snatching a bite from the brim of the Panama and then clapping it back on his head. Heard him saying he guessed he would have to play with Ralph instead.

But not just me. Me and my friends, he said. Me and my asshole friends.

Now, thinking back on it, he saw something else, as well. He saw the sun striking splinters of fire from the lobes of Doc #3’s ears as he-or it-chomped into the brim of McGovern’s hat. The memory was too clear to deny, and so were those implications.

Those wide-ranging implications.

Take it easy-you don’t know a thing for sure, and the funny-farm is just over the horizon, my friend. I think you need to remember that, maybe use it as an anchor. I don’t care if Lois is also seeing all this stuff or not. The other men in the white coats, not the pint-sized baldies but the muscular guys with the butterfly nets and the Thorazine shots, can show up at any time. Any old time at all.

But still.

Still.

“Ralph! Jesus Christ, talk to me!” Lois was shaking him now and shaking hard, like a wife trying to rouse a husband who is going to be late for work.

He looked around at her and tried to manufacture a smile. It felt false from the inside but must have looked all right to Lois, because she relaxed. A little, anyway. “Sorry,” he said. “For a few seconds there it all just sort of… you know, ganged up on me.”

“Don’t you scare me like that! The way you grabbed your chest, my God!”

“I’m fine,” Ralph said, and forced his false smile even wider. He felt like a kid pulling a wad of Silly Putty, seeing how far he could stretch it before it thinned enough to tear. “And if you’re still cookin, I’m still eatin.”

Three-six-nine, bon, the goose drank wine.

Lois took a close look at him and then relaxed. “Good. That would be fun. I haven’t cooked for anyone but Simone and Minathey’re my girlfriends, you know-in a long time.” Then she laughed. “Except that isn’t what I mean, That isn’t why it would t)e, you know, fun.”

“What do you mean?”

“That I haven’t cooked for a man in a long time. I hope I haven’t forgotten how.”

“Well, there was the day Bill and I came in to watch the DeNx,s with you-we had macaroni and cheese. It was good, too.”

She made a dismissive gesture. “Reheated. Not the same.”

The monkey chewed tobacco on the streetcar line. The line broke.

Smiling wider than ever. Waiting for the rips to start. “I’M sure you haven’t forgotten how, Lois.”

“Mr. Chasse had a very hearty appetite, All sorts of hearty appetites, in fact. But then he started having his liver trouble, and…”

She sighed, then reached for Ralph’s arm and took it with a mixture of timidity and resolution he found completely endearing, “Now is the mind. I’m tired of snivelling and moaning about the past. I’ll leave that to Bill. Let’s go.”

He stood up, linked his arm through hers, and walked her down the hill and toward the lower entrance to the park. Lois beamed blindingly at the young mothers in the playground as she and Ralph passed them.

Ralph was glad for the distraction. He could tell himself to withhold judgement, he could remind himself over and over again that he didn’t know enough about what was happening to him and Lois to even kid himself that he could think logically about it, but he kept jumping at that conclusion anyway. The conclusion felt right to his heart, and he had already come a long way toward believing that, in the world of ose to identical.

I don’t know about the other two, but #3 is one crazy medic… and he takes souvenirs. Takes them the way some of the crazies In Vietnam took ears.

That Lois’s daughter-in-law had given in to an evil impulse, scooping the diamond earrings from the china dish and putting them in the pocket of her jeans, he had no doubt. But Janet Chasse no longer had them; even now she was no doubt reproaching herself bitterly for having lost them and wondering why she had ever taken them in the first place.

Ralph knew the shrimp with the scalpel had McGovern’s hat even if Lois had failed to recognize it, and they had both seen him take Rosalie’s bandanna. What Ralph had realized as he started to get up from the bench was that those splinters of light he had seen reflected from the bald creature’s earlobes almost certainly meant that Doc #3 had Lois’s earrings, as well.

The late Mr. Chasse’s rocking chair stood on faded linoleum by the door to the back porch. Lois led Ralph to it and admonished him to “stay out from underfoot. Ralph thought this was an assignment he could handle. Strong light, mid-afternoon light, fell across his lap as he sat and rocked. Ralph wasn’t sure how it had gotten so late so fast, but somehow it had. Maybe I fell asleep, he thought. Maybe I’m asleep right now, and dreaming all this. He watched as Lois took down a wok (definitely hobbit-sized) from an overhead cupboard.

Five minutes later, savory smells began to fill the kitchen.

“I told you I’d cook for you someday,” Lois said, adding vegetables from the fridge crisper and spices from one of the overhead cabinets. “That was the same day I gave you and Bill the leftover macaroni and cheese. Do you remember?”

“I believe I do,” Ralph said, smiling.

“There’s a jug of fresh cider in the milk-box on the front porchcider always keeps best outside. Would you get it? You can pour out, too. My good glasses are in the cupboard over the sink, the one I can’t reach without dragging over a chair. You’re tall enough to do without the chair, I judge. What are you, Ralph, about six-two?”

“Six-three. At least I was; I guess maybe I’ve lost an inch or two in the last ten years. Your spine settles, or something. And you don’t have to go putting on the dog just for me. Honest.”

She looked at him levelly, hands on hips, the spoon with which she had been stirring the contents of the wok jutting from one of them.

Her severity was offset by a trace of a smile. “I said my good glasses, Ralph Roberts, not my best glasses.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, grinning, then added: “From the way that smells, I guess you still remember how to cook for a man.”

“The proof of the pudding is in the eating,” Lois replied, but Ralph thought she looked pleased as she turned back to the wok.

The food was good, and they didn’t talk about what had happened in the park as they applied themselves to it. Ralph’s appetite had become uncertain, out more often than in, since his insomnia had really begun to bite, but today he ate heartily and chased Lois’s spicy stir-fry with three glasses of apple cider (hoping uneasily as he finished the last one that the rest of the day’s activities wouldn’t take him too far from a toilet). When they had finished, Lois got up, went to the sink, and began to draw hot water for dishes. As she did, she resumed their earlier conversation as if it were a half-finished piece of knitting which had been temporarily laid aside for some other, more pressing, chore.

“What did you do to me?” she asked him. “What did you do to make the colors come back?”

“I don’t know.”

“It was as if I was on the edge of that world, and when you put your hands over my eyes, you pushed me into it.”

He nodded, remembering how she’d looked in the first few seconds after he’d removed his hands-as if she’d just taken off a pair of goggles which had been dipped in powdered sugar. “It was pure instinct. And you’re right, it is like a world. I keep thinking of it just that way, as the world of auras.”

“It’s wonderful, isn’t it? I mean, it’s scary, and when it first started to happen to me-back in late July or early August, this was-I was sure I was going crazy, but even then I liked it, too. I couldn’t help liking it.”

Ralph gazed at her, startled. Had he once upon a time thought of Lois as transparent? Gossipy? Unable to keep a secret?

No, I’m afraid it is a little more than that, old buddy.)’On thought she was shallow. You saw her pretty much through Bill’s eyes, as a matter of fact: as “Our Lois.” No less… but not much more.

“What?” she asked, a little uneasily. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

“You’ve been seeing these auras since summer? That long?”

“Yes-brighter and brighter. Also more often. That’s why I finally went to see the tattletale. Did I really shoot that thing with my finger, Ralph? The more time goes by, the less I can believe that part of it.”

“You did. I did something like it myself shortly before I ran into you.”

He told her about his earlier confrontation with Doc #3, and about how he had banished the dwarf… temporarily, at least, He raised his hand to his shoulder and brought it swiftly down. “That’s all I did-like a kid pretending to be Chuck Norris or Steven Seagal.

But it sent this incredible bolt of blue light at him, and he scurried in a hurry. Which was probably for the best, because I couldn’t have done it again. I don’t know how I did that, either.

Could you have shot your finger again?”

Lois giggled, turned toward him, and cocked her finger in his general direction. “Want to find out? Kapow! Kablam!”

“Don’t point dat ding at me, lady,” Ralph told her. He smiled as he said it, but wasn’t entirely sure he was joking.

Lois lowered her finger and squirted joy into the sink. As she began to stir the water around with one hand, puffing up the suds, she asked what Ralph thought of as the Big Questions: “Where did this power come from, Ralph? And what’s it for?”

He shook his head as he got up and walked over to the dish drainer. “I don’t know and I don’t know.

How’s that for helpful?

Where do you keep your dish-wipers, Lois?”

“Never mind where I keep my dish-wipers. Go sit down. Please tell me you’re not one of these modern men, Ralph-the ones that are always hugging each other and bawling.”

Ralph laughed and shook his head. “Nope. I was just well trained, that’s all.”

“Okay. As long as you don’t start going on about how sensitive you are. There are some things a girl likes to find out for herself.”

She opened the cupboard under the sink and tossed him a faded but scrupulously clean dishtowel. ’Just dry them and put them on the counter. I’ll put them away myself. While you’re working, you can tell me your story. The unabridged version.”

“You got a deal.”

He was still wondering where to begin when his mouth opened, seemingly of its own accord, and began for him. “When I finally started to get it through my head that Carolyn was going to die, I went for a lot of walks. And one day, while I was out on the Extension.

He told her everything, beginning with his intervention between Ed and the fat man wearing the West Side Gardeners gimme-cap and ending with Bill telling him that he’d better go see his doctor, because at their age mental illness was common, at their age it was common as hell. He had to double back several times to pick up dropped stitches-the way Old Dor had showed up in the middle of his efforts to keep Ed from going at the man from West Side Gardeners, for instance-but he didn’t mind doing that, and Lois didn’t seem to have any trouble keeping his narrative straight, either.

The overall feeling Ralph was conscious of as he wound his way through his tale was a relief so deep it was nearly painful. it was as if someone. had stacked bricks on his heart and mind and he was now removing them, one by one.

By the time he was finished, the dishes were done and they had left the kitchen in favor of the living room with its dozens of framed photographs, presided over by Mr. Chasse from his place on the TV.

“So?” Ralph said. “How much of it do you believe?”

“All of it, of course,” she said, and either did not notice the expression of relief on Ralph’s face or chose to ignore it. “After what we saw this morning-not to mention what you knew about my wonderful daughter-in-law-I can’t very well not believe. That’s my advantage over Bill.”

Not your only one, Ralph thought but didn’t say.

“None of this stuff is coincidental, is it?” she asked him.

Ralph shook his head. “No, I don’t think so.”

“When I was seventeen,” she said, “my mother hired this boy from down the road-Richard Henderson, his name was-to do chores around our place.

There were a lot of boys she could have hired, but she hired Richie because she liked him… and she liked him for me, if you understand what I mean.”

“Of course I do, She was matchmaking.”

“Uh-huh, but at least she wasn’t doing it in a big, gruesome, embarrassing way. Thank God, because I didn’t care a fig for Richie at least not like that. Still, Mother gave it her very best. If I was studying my books at the kitchen table, she’d have him loading the woodbox even though it was May and already hot. if I was feeding the chickens, she’d have Richie cutting side-bay next to the dooryard.

She wanted me to see him around… to get used to him… and if we got to like each other’s company and he asked me to a dance or the town fair, that would have been just fine with her. it was gentle, but it was there. A push. And that’s what this is like.”

“The pushes don’t feel all that gentle to me Ralph said. His hand went nvoluntarily to the place where Charlie Pickering had pricked him with the point of his knife.

“No, of course they don’t. Having a man stick a knife in your ribs like that must have been horrible. Thank God you had that spray can. Do you suppose Old Dor sees the auras, too? That something from that world told him to put the can in your pocket?”

Ralph gave a helpless shrug. What she was suggesting had crossed his mind, but once you got beyond it, the ground really started to slope away. Because if Dorrance had done that, it suggested that some (entity) force or being had known that Ralph would need help. Nor was that all. That force-or being-would also have had to know that (a) Ralph would be going out on Sunday afternoon, that (b) the weather, quite nice up until then, would turn nasty enough to require a jacket, and (c) which jacket he would wear. You were talking, in other words, about something that could foretell the future. The idea that he had been noticed by such a force frankly scared the hell out of him. He recognized that in the case of the aerosol can, at least, the intervention had probably saved his life, but it still scared the hell out of him.

“Maybe,” he said. “Maybe something did use Dorrance as an errand-boy. But why?”

“And what do we do now?” she added.

Ralph could only shake his head.

She glanced up at the clock squeezed in between the picture of the man in the raccoon coat and the young woman who looked ready to say Twenty-three skidoo any old time, then reached for the phone.

“Almost three-thirty! My goodness!”

Ralph touched her hand. “Who are you calling?”

“Simone Castonguay. I’d made plans to go over to Ludlow with her and Mina this afternoon -there’s a card-party at the Grangebut I can’t go after all this. I’d lose my shirt.” She laughed, then colored prettily. just a figure of speech.”

Ralph put his hand over hers before she could lift the receiver.

“Go on to your card-party, Lois.”

“Really?” She looked both doubtful and a little disappointed.

“Yes.” He was still unclear about what was going on here, but he sensed that was about to change. Lois had spoken of being pushed, but to Ralph it felt more as if he were being carried, the way a river carries a man in a small boat. But he couldn’t see where he was going; heavy mist shrouded the banks, and now, as the current began to grow swifter, he could hear the rumble of rapids somewhere up ahead.

Still, there are shapes, Ralph. Shapes in the mist.

Yes. Not very comforting ones, either. The), might be trees that only looked like clutching fingers… but on the other hand, they might be clutching fingers trying to look like trees. Until Ralph knew which was the case, he liked the idea of Lois’s being out of town just fine. He had a strong intuition-or perhaps it was only hope masquerading as intuition-that Doc #3 couldn’t follow her to Ludlow, that he might not even be able to follow her across the Barrens to the east side.

You can’t know any such thing, Ralph.

Maybe not, but itfelt right, and he was still convinced that in the world of the auras, feeling and knowing were pretty nearly the same thing. One thing he did know was that Doc #3 hadn’t cut Lois’s balloon-string yet; that Ralph had seen for himself, along with the joyously healthy gray glow of her aura. Yet Ralph could not escape a growing certainty that Doc #3-Crazy Doc-intended to Cut it, and that, no matter how lively Rosalie had looked when she went trotting away from Strawford Park, the severing of that cord was a mortal, murderous act.

Let’s say you’re right, Ralph,-let’s say he can’t get at her this afternoon if she’s playing nickel-in, dime-or-out in Ludlow.

What about tonight? Tomorrow? Next week?

What’s the solution? Does she call up her son and her bitch of a daughter-in-law, tell them she’s changed her mind about Riverview Estates and wants to go there after all?

He didn’t know. But he knew he needed time to think, and he also knew that constructive thinking would be hard to do until he was fairly sure that Lois was safe, at least for awhile.

“Ralph? You’re getting that moogy look again.”

“That what look?”

“Moogy.” She tossed her hair pertly. “That’s a word I made up to describe how Mr. Chasse looked when he was pretending to listen to me but was actually thinking about his coin collection. I know a moogy look when I see one, Ralph. What are you thinking about?”

“I was wondering what time you think you’ll get back from your card-game.”

“That depends.”

“On what?”

“On whether or not we stop at Tubby’s for chocolate frappes.”

She spoke with the air of a woman revealing a secret vice. “Suppose you come straight back.”

“Seven o’clock. Maybe seven-thirty.”

“Call me as soon as you get home. Would you do that?”

“Yes. You want me out of town, don’t you? That’s what that moogy look really means.”

“Well…”

“You think that nasty bald thing means to hurt me, don’t you?”

“I think it’s a possibility.”

“Well, he might hurt you, too!”

“Yes, but…” But so far as I can tell, Lois, he’s not wearing any of my fashion accessories. “But what?”

“I’m going to be okay until you get back, that’s all.” He remembered her deprecating remark about modern men hugging each other and bawling and tried for a masterful frown. “Go play cards and leave this business to me, at least for the time being. That’s an order.”

Carolyn would have either laughed or gotten angry at such comicopera macho posturing. Lois, who belonged to an entirely different school of feminine thought, only nodded and looked grateful to have the decision taken out of her hands. “All right.” She tilted his chin down so she could look directly into his eyes. “Do you know what you’re doing, Ralph?”

“Nope. Not yet, anyway.”

“All right. just as long as you admit it.” She placed a hand on his forearm and a soft, open-mouthed kiss on the corner of his mouth. Ralph felt an entirely welcome prickle of heat in his groin. “I’ll go to Ludlow and win five dollars playing poker with those silly women who are always trying to fill their inside straights. Tonight we’ll talk about what to do next. Okay?”

“Yes.” Her small smile-a thing more in the eyes than of the mouthsuggested that they might do a little more than just talk, if Ralph was bold… and at that moment he felt quite bold, indeed. Not even Mr. Chasse’s stern gaze from his place atop the TV affected that feeling very much.

Contents

Обращение к пользователям