CHAPTER 20

We are old-timers, each of us holds a locked razor.

–Robert Lowel,l “Walking in the Blue”

There was only one conversational exchange between them as the Oldsmobile rolled up Hospital Drive, and it was a brief one. “Ralph?” He glanced over at her, then quickly back at the road. That clacking sound under the hood had begun again, but Lois hadn’t mentioned it yet. He hoped she wasn’t going to do so now. “I think I know where he is. Ed, I mean. I was pretty sure, even up on the roof, that I recognized that ramshackle old building they showed us.”

“What is it? And where?”

“It’s an airplane garage. A whatdoyoucallit. Hangar.”

“Oh my God,” Ralph said. “Coastal Air, on the Bar Harbor Road? “Lois nodded. “They have charter flights, seaplane rides, things like that.

One Saturday when we were out for a drive, Mr. Chasse went in and asked a man who worked there how much he’d charge to take us for a sightseeing hop over the islands.

The man said forty dollars, which was much more than we could have afforded to spend on something like that, and in the summer I’m sure the man would’ve stuck to his guns, but it was only April, and Mr. Chasse was able to dicker him down to twenty. I thought that was still too much to spend on a ride that didn’t even last an hour, but I’m glad we went. It was scary, but it was beautiful.”

“Like the auras,” Ralph said.

“Yes, like…” Her voice wavered. Ralph looked over and saw tears trickling down her plump cheeks. like the auras.”

“Don’t cry, Lois.”

She found a Kleenex in her purse and wiped her eyes. “I can’t help it, That Japanese word on the card means kamikaze, doesn’t it, Ralph? Divine Wind.” She paused, lips trembling. “Suicide pilot.”

Ralph nodded. He was gripping the wheel very tightly. “Yes,” he said. “That’s what it means. Suicide pilot.”

Route 33-known as Newport Avenue in town-passed within four blocks of Harris Avenue, but Ralph had absolutely no intention of breaking their long fast over on the west side. The reason was as simple as it was compelling: he and Lois couldn’t afford to be seen by any of their old friends, not looking fifteen or twenty years younger than they had on Monday.

Had any of those old friends reported them missing to the police yet?

Ralph knew it was possible, but felt he could reasonably hope that so far they had escaped much notice and concern, at least from his circle; Faye and the rest of the folks who hung out in the picnic area near the Extension would be in too much of a dither over the passing of not just one Old Crock colleague but a pair of them to spend much time wondering about where Ralph Roberts had gotten his skinny old ass off to.

Both Bill and jimmy could have been waked, funeralled, and buried by now, he thought. we’ve got time for breakfast, Ralph, find a place as quick as you can-I’m so hungry I could eat a horse with the hide still on!”

They were almost a mile west of the hospital now-far enough away to allow Ralph to feel reasonably safe-and he saw the Derry Diner up ahead. As he signalled and turned into the parking lot, he realized he hadn’t been here since Carol had gotten sick… a year at least, maybe more.

“Here we are,” he told Lois. “And we’re not just going to eat, we’re going to eat all we can. We may not get another chance today.”

She grinned like a schoolkid. “You’ve just put your finger on one of my great talents, Ralph.” She wriggled a little on the seat.

“Also, I have to spend a penny.”

Ralph nodded. No food since Tuesday, and no bathroom stops, either. Lois could spend her penny; he intended to pop into the men’s room and let go of a couple of dollars.

“Come on,” he said, turning off the motor and silencing that troublesome clacking under the hood. “First the bathroom, then the foodquake.”

On the way to the door she told him (speaking in a voice Ralph found just a trifle too casual) that she didn’t think either Mina or Simone would have reported her missing, at least not yet. When Ralph turned his head to ask her why, he was amazed and amused to see she was blushing rosy-red.

“They both know I’ve had a crush on you for years.”

“Are you kidding?”

“Of course not,” she said, sounding a bit put out. “Carolyn knew too. Some women would have minded, but she understood how harmless it was. How harmless I was. She was such a dear, Ralph.”

“Yes. She was.”

“Anyway, they’ll probably assume that we’ve… you know “Gone off on a little French leave?”

Lois laughed. “Something like that.”

“Would you like to go off on a little French leave, Lois?”

She stood on tiptoe and nibbled briefly at his earlobe. “If we get out of this alive, you just ask me.”

He kissed the corner of her mouth before pushing open the door.

“You can count on it, lady.”

They made for the bathrooms, and when Ralph rejoined her, Lois looked both thoughtful and a little shaken. “I can’t believe it’s me,” she said in a low voice. “I mean, I must have spent at least two minutes staring at myself in the mirror, and I still can’t believe it, The crow’s-feet around my eyes are all gone, and Ralph… my hair.

… “Those dark Spanish eyes of hers looked up at him, filled with brilliance and wonder. “And you.” My God, I doubt if you looked this good when you were forty.”

“I didn’t, but you should have seen me when I was thirty. I was an a imal.” She giggled. “Come on, fool, let’s sit down and murder some calories.

“Lois?

She glanced up from the menu she’d plucked from a little collection of them filed between the salt and pepper shakers.

“When I was in the bathroom, I tried to make the auras come back.

This time I couldn’t do it.”

“Why would you want to, Ralph?”

He shrugged, not wanting to tell her about the feeling of paranoia that had dropped over him as he stood at the basin in the little bathroom, washing his hands and looking into his own strangely young face in the water-spotted mirror. It had suddenly occurred to him that he might not be alone in there. Worse, Lois might not be alone next door in the women’s room. Atropos might be creeping up behind her, completely unseen, diamond-cluster earrings glittering from his tiny lobes… scalpel outstretched…

Then, instead of Lois’s earrings or McGovern’s Panama, his mind’s eye had conjured the jumprope Atropos had been using when Ralph had spotted him

(three-six-nine lion the goose drank wine)

in the vacant lot between the bakery and the tanning salon, the jumprope which had once been the prized possession of a little girl who had stumbled during a game of apartment-tag, fallen out of a second-story window, and died of a broken neck (what a dreadful accident, she had her whole life ahead of her, if there’s a God why does He let things like that happen, and so on and so on, not to mention blah-blah-blah).

He had told himself to stop it, that things were bad enough without his indulging in gruesome fantasies of Atropos slashing Lois’s balloon-string, but it didn’t help much… mostly because he knew Atropos might really be here with them in the restaurant, and Atropos could do anything to them he liked. Anything at all.

Lois reached across the table and touched the back of his hand.

“Don’t worry. The colors will come back. They always do.”

“I suppose.” He took a menu of his own, opened it, and cast an eye down the breakfast bill of fare. His initial impression was that he wanted one of everything.

“The first time you saw Ed acting crazy, he was coming out of the Derry Airport,” Lois said. “Now we know why. He was taking flying lessons, wasn’t he?”

“Of course. While Trig was giving me a lift back to Harris Avenue, he even mentioned that you need a pass to come out that way, through the service gate. He asked me if I knew how Ed had gotten one, and I said I didn’t. Now I do. They must give them to all the General Aviation flying students.”

“Do you think Helen knew about his hobby?” Lois asked, “She probably didn’t, did she?”

“I’m sure she didn’t. I’ll bet he switched over to Coastal Air right after he ran into the guy from West Side Gardeners, too. That little episode could have convinced him he was losing control, and he might do well to move his lessons a little farther away from home.”

“Or maybe it was Atropos who convinced him,” Lois said bleakly.

“Atropos or someone from even higher up.”

Ralph didn’t care for the idea, but it felt right, just the same, Entities, he thought, and shivered. The Crimson King.

“They’re dancing him around like a puppet on a string, aren’t they?” Lois asked.

“Atropos, you mean?”

“No. Atropos is a nasty little bugger, but otherwise I think he’s not much different from Mr. C. and Mr. L.-low-level help, maybe only a step above unskilled labor in the grand scheme of things.”

“Janitors.”

“Well, yes, maybe,” Lois agreed. “Janitors and gofers. Atropos is probably the one who’s done most of the actual work on Ed, and I’d bet a cookie it’s work he loves, but I’d bet my house that his orders come from higher up. Does that sound more or less on the beam to you?”

“Yes. We’ll probably never know exactly how nuts he was before this started, or exactly when Atropos cut his balloon-string, but the thing I’m most curious about at this moment is pretty mundane. I’d like to know how in the hell he went Charlie Pickering’s ball and how he paid for his damned flying lessons.”

Before Lois could reply, a waitress approached them, digging an order-pad and a ballpoint pen out of the pocket of her apron. “Hell-) you guys”

“I’d like a cheese and mushroom omelet,” Ralph said.

“Uh-huh.” She switched her cud from one side of her jaw to the other. “Two-egg or three-egg, lion?”

“Four, if that’s okay.”

She raised her eyebrows slightly and jotted on the pad. “Okay by me if it’s okay by you. Anything with that?”

“Yes, please. A glass of o.j large, an order of bacon, an order of sausage, and an order of home fries. Better make that a double order of home fries.” He paused, thinking, then grinned. “Oh, and do you have any Danish left?”

“I think I might have one cheese and one apple.” She glanced up at him. “You a little hungry, lion?”

“Feel like I haven’t eaten for a week,” Ralph said. “I’ll have the cheese Danish. And coffee to start. Lots of black coffee, Did you get all that?”

“Oh, I got it, lion. I just want to see what you look like when you leave.” She looked at Lois. “How ’bout you, ma’am?”

Lois smiled sweetly. “I’ll have what he’s having. Bon,” Ralph looked past the retreating waitress to the clock on the wall.

It was only ten past seven, and that was good. They could be out at Barrett’s Orchards in less than half an hour, and with their mental lasers trained on Gretchen Tillbury, it was possible that the Susan Day speech could be called off-aborted, if you liked-as early as 9:00 a.m.

Yet instead of relief he felt relentless, gnawing anxiety. It was like having an itch in a place your fingers cannot quite reach.

“All right,” he said. “Let’s put it together. I think we can assume that Ed’s been concerned about abortion for a long time, that he’s probably been a pro-life supporter for years. Then he starts to lose sleep… hear voices

… see little bald men

“Well, one in particular Ralph agreed. “Atropos becomes his guru, filling him in on the Crimson King, the Centurions, the whole nine yards. When Ed talked to me about King Herod-”

“-he was thinking about Susan Day,” Lois finished. “Atropos has been… what do they say on TV?… psyching him up. Turning him into a guided missile.

Where did Ed get that scarf, do you think?”

“Atropos,” Ralph said. “Atropos has got a lot of stuff like that, I’ll bet.”

“And what do you suppose he’s got in the plane he’ll be flying tonight?” Lois’s voice was trembling. “Explosives or poison gas?”

“Explosives would seem the more likely bet if he really is planning to get everyone; a strong wind could create problems for him if it’s gas.” Ralph took a sip of his water and was interested to see that his hand was not quite steady. “On the other hand, we don’t know what goodies he might have been cooking up in his laboratory, do we?”

“No,” Lois said in a small voice.

Ralph put his water-glass down. “What he’s planning to use doesn’t interest me very much.”

“What does?”

The waitress came back with fresh coffee, and the smell alone seemed to light up Ralph’s nerves like neon. He and Lois grabbed their cups and began to sip as soon as she had started away. The coffee was strong and hot enough to burn Ralph’s lips, but it was heaven. When he set his cup back in its saucer again, it was halfempty and there was a very warm place in his midsection, as if he had swallowed a live ember.

Lois was looking at him somberly over the rim of her own cup.

“What interests me,” Ralph told her, “is us. You said Atropos has turned Ed into a guided missile. That’s right; that’s exactly what he’s done. World War II kamikaze pilots were. Hitler had his V-2s; Hirohito had his Divine Wind. The disturbing thing is that Clotho and Lachesis have done the same thing to us. We’ve been loaded up with a lot of special powers and programmed to fly out to High Ridge in my Oldsmobile and stop Susan Day. I’d just like to know why.”

“But we do know,” she protested. “If we don’t step in, Ed Deepneau is going to commit suicide tonight during that woman’s speech and take two thousand people with him.”

“Yeah,” Ralph said, “and we’re going to do whatever we can to stop him, Lois, don’t worry about that.”

He finished his coffee and set the cup down again. His stomach was fully awake now, and raving for food. “I could no more stand aside and let Ed kill those people than I could stand in one place and not duck if someone threw a baseball at my head. It’s just that we never got a chance to read the fine print at the bottom of the contract, and that scares me.” He hesitated a moment. “It also pisses me off.”

“What are you talking about?”

“About being played for a couple of patsies. We know why were going to try and stop Susan Day’s speech; we can’t stand the thought of a lunatic killing a couple of thousand innocent people.

But we don’t know why they want us to do it. That’s the part that scares me.”

“We have a chance to save two thousand lives,” she said. “Are you telling me that’s enough for us but not for them?”

“That’s what I’m telling you. I don’t think numbers impress these fellows very much; they clean us up not just by the tens or hundreds of thousands but by the millions. And they’re used to seeing the Random or the Purpose swat us in job lots.”

“Disasters like the fire at the Cocoanut Grove,” Lois said. “Or the flood here in Derry eight years ago.”

“Yes, but even things like that are pretty small beans compared to what can and does go on in the world every year. The Flood of ’85 here in Derry killed two hundred and twenty people, something like that, but last spring there was a flood in Pakistan that killed thirty-five hundred, and the last big earthquake in Turkey killed over four thousand. And how about that nuclear reactor accident in Russia? I read someplace that you can put the floor on that one at seventy thousand dead. That’s a lot of Panama hats and jumpropes and pairs of… of eyeglasses, Lois.” He was horrified at how close he had come to saying pairs of earrings.

“Don’t,” she said, and shuddered.

“I don’t like thinking about it any more than you do,” he said, “but we have to, if only because those two guys were so goddam anxious to keep us from doing just that. Do you see what I’m getting at yet?

You must. Big tragedies have always been a part of the Random; why is this so different?”

“I don’t know,” said Lois, but it was important enough for them to draft us, and I have an idea that was a pretty big step.”

Ralph nodded. He could feel the caffeine hitting him now, jiving up his head, his fingers the tiniest bit. “I’m sure it was. Now think back to the hospital roof. Did you ever in your entire life hear two guys explain so much without explaining anything?”

“I don’t get what you mean,” Lois said, but her face suggested something else: that she didn’t want to get what he meant.

“What I mean goes back to one central idea: maybe they can’t lie.

Suppose they can’t. If you have certain information you don’t want to give out but you can’t tell a lie, what do you do?”

“Keep dancing away from the danger zone,” Lois said. “Or’ zones.

“Bingo. And isn’t that what they did?”

“Well,” she said, “I guess it was a dance, all right, but I thought you did a fair amount of leading, Ralph. In fact, I was impressed by all the questions you asked. I think I spent most of the time we were on that roof just trying to convince myself it was all really happening.”

“Sure, I asked questions, lots of them, but He stopped, not sure how to express the concept in his head, a concept which seemed simultaneously complex and baby-simple to him. He made another effort to go up a little, searching inside his head for that sensation of blink, knowing that if he could reach her mind, he could show her a picture that would be crystal clear. Nothing happened, and he drummed his fingers on the tablecloth in frustration.

“I was just as amazed as you were,” he said finally. “If my amazement came out as questions, it’s because men-those from my generation, anyway-are taught that it’s very bad form to ooh and aah.

That’s for women who are picking out the drapes.”

“Sexist.” She smiled as she said it, but it was a smile Ralph couldn’t return. He was remembering Barbie Richards. If Ralph had moved toward her, she would almost certainly have pushed the alarm button beneath her desk, but she had allowed Lois to approach because she had swallowed a little too much of the old sister-sister sister crap.

“Yes,” he said quietly, “I’m sexist, I’m old-fashioned, and sometimes it gets me in trouble.”

“Ralph, I didn’t mean-”

“I know what you meant, and it’s okay. What I’m trying to get across to you is that I was as amazed… as knocked out… as you were. So I asked questions, so what? Were they good questions-? Useful questions?”

“I guess not, huh?”

“Well, maybe I didn’t start out so badly. As I remember, the first thing I asked when we finally made it to the roof was who they were and what they wanted. They slipped those questions with a lot of philosophical blather, but I imagine they got a little sweaty on the backs of their necks for awhile, just the same.

Next we got all that background on the Purpose and the Random-fascinating, but nothing we exactly needed in order to drive out to High Ridge and persuade Gretchen Tillbury to cancel Susan Day’s speech. Hell, we would have done better-saved time-getting the road-directions from them that we ended up getting from Simone’s niece.”

Lois looked startled. “That’s true, isn’t it?”

“Yeah. And all the time we were talking, time was flying by the way it does when you go up a couple of levels. They were watching it fly, too, you can believe that. They were timing the whole scene so that when they finished telling us the things we did need to know, there would be no time left to ask the questions they didn’t want to answer. I think they wanted to leave us with the idea that this whole thing was a public service, that saving all those lives is what it’s all about, but they couldn’t come right out and say so, because-”

“Because that would be a lie, and maybe they can’t lie.”

“Right. Maybe they can’t lie.”

“So what do they want, Ralph?” He shook his head. “I don’t have a clue, Lois. Not even a hint.” She finished her own coffee, set the cup carefully back down in its saucer, studied her fingertips for a moment, then looked up at him. Again he was forcibly struck by her beauty-almost levelled by it. “They were good,” she said. “They are good. I felt that very strongly.

Didn’t you?”

“Yes,” he said, almost reluctantly. Of course he had felt it. They were everything Atropos was not.

“And you’re going to try to stop Ed regardless-you said you could no more not try than you could not try to duck a baseball someone chucked at your head. Isn’t that so?”

“Yes,” he said, more reluctantly still.

“Then you should let the rest of it go,” she said calmly, meeting his blue eyes with her dark ones. “It’s just taking up space inside your head, Ralph. Making clutter.”

He saw the truth of what she said, but still doubted if he could simply open his hand and let that part of it fly free. May I be you had to live to be seventy before you could fully appreciate how hard it was to escape your upbringing. He was a man whose education on how to be a man had begun before Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, and he was still a prisoner of a generation that had listened to H. V.

Kaltenborn and the Andrews Sisters on the radio-a generation of men that believed in moonlight cocktails and walking a mile for a Camel. Such an upbringing almost negated such nice moral questions as who was working for the good and who was working for the bad; the important thing was not to let the bullies kick sand in your face. Not to be led by the nose.

Is that so? Carolyn asked, coolly amused. How fascinating. But let me be the first to let you in on a little secret, Ralph: that’s crap. it was crap back before Glenn Miller disappeared over the horizon an it’s crap now. The idea that a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do, now… there might be a little truth to that, even in this day and age, It’s a long walk back to Eden in any case, isn’t it, sweetheart?

Yes. A very long walk back to Eden.

“What are you smiling about, Ralph?”

He was saved the need to reply by the arrival of the waitress and a huge tray of food. He noticed for the first time that there was a button pinned to the frill of her apron. LIFE IS NOT A CHOICE, it read.

“Are you going to the rally at the Civic Center tonight?” Ralph asked her.

“I’ll be there,” she said, setting her tray down on the unoccupied table next to theirs in order to free her hands.

“Outside.

Carrying a sign. Walking roundy-round.”

“Are you a Friend of Life?” Lois asked as the waitress began to deal out omelets and side-dishes.

“Am I livin?” the waitress asked.

“Yes, you certainly appear to be,” Lois said politely.

“Well, I guess that makes me a Friend of Life, doesn’t it?

Killing something that could someday write a great poem or invent a drug that cures AIDS or cancer, in my book that’s just flat wrong.

So I’ll wave my sign around and make sure the Norma Kamali feminists and Volvo liberals can see that the word on it is MURDER.

They hate that word. They don’t use it at their cocktail parties and fundraisers.

You folks need ketchup?”

“No,” Ralph said. He could not take his eyes off her. A faint green glow had begun to spread around her-it almost seemed to come wisping up from her pores. The auras were coming back, cycling up to full brilliance.

“Did I grow a second head or something while I wasn’t looking?”

the waitress asked. She popped her gum and switched it to the other side of her mouth.

“I was staring, wasn’t I?” Ralph asked. He felt blood heating his cheeks. “Sorry.”

The waitress shrugged her beefy shoulders, setting the upper part of her aura into lazy, fascinating motion. “I try not to get carried away with this stuff, you know? Most days I just do my job and keep my mouth shut. But I ain’t no quitter, either. Do you know how long I’ve been marchin around in front of that brick slaughterin pen, on days hot enough to fry my butt and nights cold enough to freeze it off?”

Ralph and Lois shook their heads.

“Since 1984. Nine long years. You know what gets me the most about the choicers?”

“What?” Lois asked quietly.

“They’re the same people who want to see guns outlawed so people won’t shoot each other with them, the same ones who say the electric chair and the gas chamber are unconstitutional because they’re cruel and unusual punishment. They say those things, then go out and support laws that allow doctors-doctors.-to stick vacUUM tubes into women’s wombs and pull their unborn sons and daughters to pieces. That’s what gets me the most.”

The waitress said all this-it had the feel of a speech she had made many times before-without raising her voice or displaying the slightest outward sign of anger. Ralph only listened with half an ear; most of his attention was fixed on the pale-green aura which surrounded her. Except it wasn’t all pale green. A yellowish-black blotch revolved slowly over her lower right side like a dirty wagon wheel.

Her liver, Ralph thought. Something wrong with her liver.

“You wouldn’t really want anything to happen to Susan Day, would you?” Lois asked, looking at the waitress with troubled eyes.

“You seem like a very nice person, and I’m sure you wouldn’t want that.”

The waitress sighed through her nose, producing two jets of fine green mist. “I ain’t as nice as I look, lion. If God did something to her, I’d be the first wavin my hands around in the air and sayin ’Thy will be done,” believe me. But if you’re talking about some nut, I guess that’s different. Things like that drag us all down, put us on the same level as the people we’re trying to stop. The nuts don’t see it that way, though. They’re the jokers in the deck.”

“Yes,” Ralph said, “Jokers in the deck is just what they are.”

“I guess I really don’t want anything bad to happen to that woman,” the waitress said, “but something could. It really could.

And the way I look at it, if something does, she’s got no one to blame but herself. She’s running with the wolves… and women who run with wolves shouldn’t go acting too surprised if they get bitten.”

Ralph wasn’t sure how much he would want to eat after that, but his appetite turned out to have survived the waitress’s views on abortion and Susan Day quite nicely. The auras helped; food had never tasted this good to him, not even as a teenager, when he’d eaten five and even six meals a day, if he could get them.

Lois matched him bite for bite, at least for awhile. At last she pushed the remains of her home fries and her last two strips of bacon aside. Ralph plugged gamely on down the home stretch alone. He wrapped the last bite of toast around the last bit of sausage, pushed it into his mouth, swallowed, and sat back in his chair with a vast sigh.

“Your aura has gone two shades darker, Ralph. I don’t know if that means you finally got enough to eat or that you’re going to die of indigestion.”

“Could be both,” he said. “You see them again too, huh?”

She nodded.

“You know something?” he asked. “Of all the things in the world, the one I’d like most right now is a nap.” Yes indeed. Now that he was warm and fed, the last four months of largely sleepless nights seemed to have fallen on him like a bag filled with sashweights. His eyelids felt as if they had been dipped in cement.

“I think that would be a bad idea right now,” Lois said, sounding alarmed. “A very bad idea.”

“I suppose so,” Ralph agreed.

Lois started to raise her hand for the check, then lowered it again.

“What about calling your policeman friend?

Leydecker, isn’t that his name? Could he help us? Would he?”

Ralph considered this as carefully as his muzzy head would allow then reluctantly shook his head. “I don’t quite dare try it.

What could we tell him that wouldn’t get us committed? And that’s only part of the problem. If he did get involved… but in the wrong way… he might make things worse instead of better.”

“Okay.” Lois waved to the waitress. “We’re going to ride outing to stop at there with all the windows open, and we’re go’ the Dunkin’ Donuts out in the Old Cape for giant economy-sized coffees. My treat.”

Ralph smiled. It felt large and dopey and disconnected on his face-almost a drunken smile. “Yes, ma’am.”

When the waitress came over and slid their check facedown in front of him, Ralph noticed that the button reading LIFE IS NOT A CHOICE was no longer pinned to the frill of her apron, “Listen,” she said with an earnestness Ralph found almost painfully touching, “I’m sorry if I offended you folks. You came in for breakfast, not a lecture.”

“You didn’t offend us,” Ralph said. He glanced across the table at Lois, who nodded agreement.

The waitress smiled briefly. “Thanks for saying so, but I still kinda zoomed on you. Any other day I wouldn’ta, but we’re having OLir own rally this afternoon at four, and I’m introducing Mr. Dalton.

They told me I could have three minutes, and I guess that’s about what I gave you.”

“That’s all right,” Lois said, and patted her hand. “Really.”

The waitress’s smile was warmer and more genuine this time, but as she started to turn away, Ralph saw Lois’s pleasant expression falter.

She was looking at the yellow-black blob floating just above the waitress’s right hip.

Ralph pulled out the pen he kept clipped to his breast pocket, turned over his paper placemat, and printed quickly on the back.

When he was done, he took out his wallet and placed a five-dollar bill carefully below what he had written. When the waitress reached for the tip, she would hardly be able to avoid seeing the message.

He picked up the check and flapped it at Lois. “Our first real date and I guess it’ll have to be dutch,” he said. “I’m three bucks short if I leave her the five. Please tell me you’re not broke.”

“Who, the poker queen of Ludlow Grange? Don’t be seely, dollink.”

She handed him a helter-skelter fistful of bills from her purse.

While he sorted through them for what he needed, she read what he had written on the placemat: Madam: You are suffering from reduced liver function and should see your doctor immediately. And I strongly advise you to stay away from the Civic Center tonight.

“Pretty stupid, I know,” Ralph said.

She kissed the tip of his nose. “Trying to help other people is never stupid.”

“Thanks. She won’t believe it, though. She’ll think we were pissed off about her button and her little speech in spite of what we said.

That what I wrote is just our weird way of trying to get our own back on her.”

“Maybe there’s a way to convince her otherwise.”

Lois fixed the waitress-who was standing hipshot by the kitchen pass-through and talking to the short-order cook while she drank a cup of coffee-with a look of dark concentration. As she did, Ralph saw Lois’s normal blue-gray aura deepen in color and draw inward, becoming a kind of body-hugging capsule.

He wasn’t exactly sure what was going on… but he could feel it.

The hairs on the back of his neck stood at attention; his forearms broken out in gooseflesh. She’s coming up, he thought, flipping the switches turning on all the turbines, and doing it on behalf of a woman she never saw before and she’ll probably never see again.

After a moment the waitress felt it, too. She turned to look at them as if she had heard her name called. Lois smiled casually and twiddled her fingers in a small wave, but when she spoke to Ralph, her voice was trembling with effort. “I’ve almost… almost got it.”

“Almost got what?”

“I don’t know. Whatever it is I need. It’ll come in a second.

Her name is Zoe, with two dots over the e. Go pay the check.

Distract her. Try to keep her from looking at me. It makes it harder.”

He did as she asked and was fairly successful in spite of the way Zoe kept trying to look over his shoulder at Lois. The first time she attempted to ring the check into the register, Zoe came up with a total of $234.20. She cleared the numbers with an impatient poke of her finger, and when she looked up at Ralph, her face was pale and her eyes were upset.

“What’s with your wife?” she asked Ralph. “I apologized, didn’t I? So why does she keep looking at me like that?”

Ralph knew Zoe couldn’t see Lois, because he was all but tapdancing in an effort to keep his body between the two of them, but he also knew she was right-Lois was staring.

He attempted to smile. “I don’t know what-”

The waitress jumped and shot a startled, irritated glance back at the short-order cook. “Quit banging those pots around” she shouted, although the only thing Ralph had heard from the kitchen was a radio playing elevator-music. Zoe looked back at Ralph. “Christ, it sounds like VietNam back there. Now if you could just tell your wife it’s not polite to-”

“To stare? She’s not. She’s really not.” Ralph stood aside. Lois had gone to the door and was looking out at the street with her back to them. “See?”

Zoe didn’t reply for several seconds, although she kept looking at Lois. At last she turned back at Ralph. “Sure. I see. Now why don’t you and her just make yourselves scarce?”

“All right-still friends?”

“Whatever you want,” Zoe said, but she wouldn’t look at him. When Ralph rejoined Lois, he saw that her aura had gone back to its former, more diffuse state, but it was much brighter than it had been.

“Still tired, Lois?” he asked her softly. “No. As a matter of fact, I feel fine now. Let’s go.” He started to open the door for her, then stopped. “Got my pen?”

“Gee, no-I guess it’s still on the table.” Ralph went over to pick it up. Below his note, Lois had added a P.S. in rolling Palmer-method script: In 1989 you had a baby and gave him up for adoption. Saint Anne’s, in Providence, R.I. Go and see your doctor before it’s too late, Zoe. No joke. No trick. We know what we’re talking about.

“Oh boy,” Ralph said as he rejoined her. “That’s going to scare the bejesus out of her.”

“If she gets to her doctor before her liver goes belly-up, I don’t care.”

He nodded and they went out.

“Did you get that stuff about her kid when you dipped into her’ aura?” Ralph asked as they crossed the leaf-strewn parking lot. Lois nodded. Beyond the lot, the entire east side of Derry was shimmering with bright, kaleidoscopic light. It was coming back hard now, very hard, that secret light cycling up and up. Ralph reached out and put his hand on the side of his car. Touching it was like tasting a slick, licorice-flavored cough-drop.

“I don’t think I took very much of her… her stuff,” Lois said, “but it was as if I swallowed all of her.”

Ralph remembered something he’d read in a science magazine not long ago. “If every cell in our bodies contains a complete blueprint of how we’re made,” he said, “why shouldn’t every bit of a person’s aura contain a complete blueprint of what we are?”

“That doesn’t sound very scientific, Ralph.”

“I suppose not.”

She squeezed his arm and grinned up at him. “It does sound about right, though.”

He grinned back at her, “You need to take some more, too,” she told him. “it still feels wrong to me-like stealing-but if you don’t, I think you’re going to pass right out on your feet.”

“As soon as I can. Right now all I want to do is get out to High Ridge.” Yet once he got behind the wheel, his hand faltered away from the ignition key almost as soon as he touched it.

“Ralph? What is it?”

“Nothing… everything. I can’t drive like this. I’ll wrap us around a telephone pole or drive us into somebody’s living room,” He looked up at the sky and saw one of those huge birds, this one transparent, roosting atop a satellite dish on the roof of an apartment house across the way. A thin, lemon-colored haze drifted up from its folded prehistoric wings.

Are you seeing a. t? a part of his mind asked doubtfully.

Are you sure of that, Ralph? Are you really, really sure?

I’m seeing it, all right. Fortunately or unfortunately I’m seeing it all… but if there was ever a right time to see such things, this isn’t it.

He concentrated, and felt that interior blink happen deep within his mind. The bird faded away like a ghost-image on a TV screen.

The warmly glowing palette of colors spread out across the morning lost their vibrancy. He went on perceiving that other part of the world long enough to see the colors run into one another, creating the bright gray-blue haze which he’d begun seeing on the day he’d gone into Day Break, Sun Down for coffee and pie with Joe Wyzer, and then that was gone, too. Ralph felt an almost crushing need to curl up, pillow his head on his arm, and go to sleep. He began taking long, slow breaths instead, pulling each one a little deeper into his lungs, and then turned the ignition key. The engine roared into life, accompanied by that clacking sound. It was much louder now.

“What’s that?” Lois asked.

“I don’t know,” Ralph said, but he thought he did-either a tierod or a piston. In either case they would be in trouble if it let go.

At last the sound began to diminish, and Ralph dropped the transmission into Drive. “Just poke me hard if you see me starting to nod off, Lois.”

“You can count on it,” she said. “Now let’s go.”

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