CHAPTER 24

They walked slowly across the asphalt parking lot with its gridwork of spray-painted yellow lines. Tonight, Ralph knew, most of these spaces would be filled. Come, look, listen, be seen… and, most important, show your city and a whole watching country beyond it that you cannot be intimidated by the Charlie Pickerings of the world.

Even the minority kept away by fear would be replaced by the morbidly curious.

As they approached the racetrack, they also approached the edge of the deathbag. It was thicker here, and Ralph could see slow, swirling movement, as if the deathbag were made up of tiny specks of charred matter. It looked a bit like the air over an open incinerator, shimmering with heat and fragments of burnt paper.

And he could hear two sounds, one overlaying the other. The top one was a silvery sighing. The wind might make a sound like that, Ralph thought, if it learned how to weep. It was a creepy sound, but the one beneath it was actively unpleasant-a slobbery chewing noise, as if a gigantic toothless mouth were ingesting large amounts of soft food somewhere close by.

Lois stopped as they approached the deathbag’s dark, particle-flecked skin and turned frightened, apologetic eyes up to Ralph.

When she spoke, it was in a little girl’s voice: “I don’t think I can go through that.” She paused, struggled, and at last brought out the rest. “It’s alive, you know. The whole thing. It sees them”-Lois jerked a thumb back over her shoulder to indicate both the people in the parking lot and the news crews closer in to the building-and that’s bad, but it also sees us, and that’s worse… because it knows that we see it. It doesn’t like being seen. Felt, maybe, but not seen.

Now the lower-pitched sound-the slobbery eating soundseemed almost to be articulating words, and the longer Ralph listened, the more sure he became that that was actually the case.

[Geddout-Fuck off Beedit “Ralph,” Lois whispered. “Do you hear it?”

[Hatechew. Killyew. Eeechew.] He nodded and took her by the elbow again. “Come on, Lois.”

“Come-? Where?”

“Down, All the way.”

For a moment she only looked at him, not understanding; then the light dawned and she nodded. Ralph felt the blink happen inside him-a little stronger than the eyelash-flutter of a few moments ago-and suddenly the day around him cleared. The swirling, foggy barrier ahead of them melted away and was gone. Nevertheless, they closed their eyes and held their breath as they approached the place where they knew the edge of the deathbag lay.

Ralph felt Lois’s hand tighten on his as she hurried through the invisible barrier, and as he passed through himself, a dark node of tangled memories-the slow death of his wife, the loss of a favorite dog as a child, the sight of Bill McGovern leaning over with one hand pressed against his chest-seemed to first lightly surround his mind and then clamp down on it like a cruel hand. His ears filled with that silvery sobbing sound, so constant and so chillingly vacuous; the weeping voice of a congenital idiot.

Then they were through.

As soon as they had passed beneath the wooden arch on the far side of the parking lot (WE’re OFF TO THE RACES AT BASSEY PARK! was printed along its curve), Ralph drew Lois over to a bench and made her sit down, although she insisted vehemently that she was just fine.

“Good, but I need a second or two to get myself back together.”

She brushed a lock of hair off his temple and planted a gentle kiss in the hollow beneath. “Take all the time you need, dear heart.”

That turned out to be about five minutes. When he felt reasonably confident that he could stand up without coming unlocked at the knees, Ralph took her hand again and they stood up together.

“Did you find it, Ralph? Did you find as trail?”

He nodded. “In order to see it, we have to go up about two jumps.

I tried going up just enough to see the auras at first, because that doesn’t seem to speed everything up, but it didn’t work. It has to be a little more than that.”

“All right.”

“But we have to be careful. Because when we can see-”

“We can be seen. Yes. We can’t lose track of the time, either.”

“Absolutely not. Are you ready?”

“Almost. I think I need another kiss first. just a little one will do.”

Smiling, he gave it to her.

“Now I’m ready.”

“Okay-here we go.”

Blink!

The reddish splotches of spoor led them across the packed-dirt area where the midway stood during County Fair week, then to the racetrack, where the pacers ran from May to September. Lois stood at the chest-high slat fence for a moment, glanced around to make sure the grandstand was empty, and then boosted herself up. She moved with the sweet litheness of a young girl at first, but once she had swung a leg over the top and straddled the fence, she paused. On her face was an expression of mingled surprise and dismay.

[“Lois? Are you all right?”]

[“Yes, fine. it’s my darned old underwear.” I guess I’ve lost weight, because it just won It stay where it belongs! For gosh sakes-I”] Ralph realized he could see not just the frilly hem of Lois’s slip but three or four inches of pink nylon. He stifled a grin as she sat astride the broad plank top of the fence, yanking at the fabric.

He thought of telling her she looked cuter than kitten-britches and decided that might not be such a good idea.

[“Turn your back while I get this damned slip freed, Ralph. An wipe the smirk off your face while you’re at it.”] He turned his back on her and looked at the Civic Center. If there had been a smirk on his face (he thought it more likely that she had seen one in his aura), the sight of that dark, slowly swirling deathbag took care of it in a hurry.

[“Lois, you might be happier if you just took it off.”]

[“Pardon me all to heck and back, Ralph Roberts, but I wasn’l raised to take off my underwear and leave it lying around on race tracks, and if you ever knew a girl who did do things like that, I hope it was before you met Carolyn. I only wish I had a-“I Vague image of a gleaming steel safety-pin in Ralph’s head.

[“I don’t suppose you have one, do you, Ralph?”] He shook his head and sent back an image of his own: sand running through an hourglass.

[“All right, all right, I get the message. I think I’ve fixed it so it’ll hold together at least a little longer. You can turn around now.”] He did. She was letting herself down the other side of the board fence, and doing it with easy confidence, but her aura had paled considerably, and Ralph could see dark circles under her eyes again.

The Revolt of the Foundation Garments had been quelled, however, at least for the time being.

Ralph boosted himself up, swung a leg over the fence, and dropped down on the other side. He liked the way doing it felt-it seemed to wake old, long memories in his bones.

[“We’re going to need to power up again before long, Lois.”] Lois, nodding wearily: [“I know. Come on, let’s go.”

They followed the trail across the racetrack, climbed another board fence on the other side, then descended a brushy, overgrown slope to Neibolt Street. Ralph saw Lois grimly holding her slip up through the skirt of her dress as they struggled down the hill, thought again about asking if she wouldn’t be happier just ditching the damned thing, and decided again to mind his own business. If it became enough of a problem to her, she would do it without any further advice on the subject from him.

Ralph’s greatest worry-that Atropos’s trail would simply peter out on them-initially proved groundless. The dim pink blotches led directly down the crumbling, patched surface of Neibolt Street, between paintless tenements that should have been demolished years ago, Tattered laundry flapped on sagging lines; dirty children with snotty noses watched them pass from dusty front yards. A beautiful tow-headed boy of about three gave Ralph and Lois a deeply suspicious look from his front step, then grabbed his crotch with one hand and used the other to flash them the bird.

Neibolt Street dead-ended at the old trainyards, and here Ralph and Lois momentarily lost the track. They stood by one of the sawhorses blocking off an ancient rectangular cellar-hole-all that remained of the old passenger depot-and looked around at a big semicircle of waste ground. Rusty-red siding tracks glowered from deep within tangles of sunflowers and thorny weeds; shards from a hundred broken bottles twinkled in the afternoon sun. Spray-painted in hot-pink letters across the splintery side of the old diesel shed were the words SUZY SUCKT MY BIG FAT ONE. This sentimental declaration stood within a border of dancing swastikas.

Ralph: [“Where the hell did it go?”] [“Down there, Ralph-see?”] She was pointing along what had been the main line until 1963, the only line until 1983, and was now just another pair of rusty, overgrown steel tracks on the way to nowhere. Even most of the ties were gone, burned as evening campfires either by local winos or by wigs passing through on their way to the potato fields of Aroostook County or the apple orchards and fishing smacks of the maritimes on one of the few remaining crossties, Ralph saw splashes of pink spoor. They looked fresher than the ones they had followed down Neibolt Street. to He stared along the half-hidden course of the tracks, trying recall. If memory served, this line skirted the Municipal Golf Course on its way back to… well, on its way back to the west side. Ralph thought this must be the same set of defunct tracks which ran along the edge of the airport and past the picnic area where Faye Chap’ in might even now be brooding over the seedings in the upcoming Runway 3 Classic.

It’s all been one big loop, he thought. It’s taken us damned near three days, but I think in the end we’re going to be right back where we started… not Eden, but Harris Avenue.

“Say, you guys! How you doon?”

It was a voice Ralph almost thought he recognized, and that feeling was reinforced by his first look at the man it came from. He was standing behind them, at the point where the Neibolt Street sidewalk finally gave up the ghost. He looked fifty or so, but Ralph guessed he might actually be five or even ten years younger than that.

He was wearing a sweatshirt and old ragged jeans. The aura surrounding him was as green as a glass of Saint Patrick’s Day beer.

That was finally what turned the trick for Ralph. It was the wino who had approached him and Bill on the day he had found Bill in Strawford Park, bawling over his old pal Bob Polhurst… who, as it had turned out, had outlived him. Life was funnier than Groucho Marx sometimes.

A queer sense of fatalism was creeping over Ralph, and with it an intuitive understanding of the forces which now surrounded them.

It was one he could have done without. ’It hardly mattered if those forces were beneficent or malign, Random or Purpose; they were gigantic, that was what mattered, and they made the things Clotho and Lachesis had said about choice and free will seem like a joke.

He felt as if he and Lois were roped to the spokes of a gigantic wheel-a wheel which kept rolling them back to where they had come from even as it took them deeper and deeper into this horrible tunnel.

“You got a bitta the old spare change, mister?”

Ralph slid down a little so the wino would be sure to hear him when he talked.

“I’ll bet your uncle called you from Dexter,” Ralph said. “Told you you could have your old job back at the mill…

. but only if you got there today. Is that about right?”

The wino blinked at him in cautious surprise. “Well… yeah.

Sumpin like that.” He felt for the story-one he probably believed in more fully than anyone he told it to these days-and found its tattered thread again. “Dass a good job, you know? And I could have it back. There’s a Bangor n Aroostook bus at two o’clock, but the fare’s five-fifty and so far I got only toon a quarter. -.”

“Seventy-six cents is what you’ve got,” Lois said. “Two quarters, two dimes, one nickel, and a penny. But considering how much you drink, your aura looks extremely healthy, I’ll say that much for you.

You must have the constitution of an ox.”

The wino gave her a puzzled look, then took a step backward and wiped his nose with the palm of one hand.

“Don’t worry,” Ralph reassured him, “my wife sees auras everywhere. She’s a very spiritual person.”

“Izzat so, now?”

,Uh-huh. She’s also very generous, and I think she’ll do quite a bit better by you than a little spare change. Won’t you, Alice?”

“He’ll just drink it up,” she said. “There’s no job in Dexter.”

“No, probably not,” Ralph said, fixing her with his eyes, “but his aura does look extremely healthy. Extremely.”

“You kinda got your own spiritual side, I guess,” the wino said.

His eyes were still shifting cautiously back and forth between Ralph and Lois, but there was a guarded flicker of hope in them.

“You know, that’s true,” Ralph said. “And just lately it’s really come to the fore.” He pursed his lips as if an interesting thought had just occurred to him, and inhaled. A bright green ray shot out of the panhandler’s aura, crossed the ten feet separating him from Ralph and Lois, and entered Ralph’s mouth. The taste was clear and at once identifiable: Boone’s Farm Apple Wine. It was rough and lowdown, but sort of pleasant, just the same-it had a workingman’s sparkle to it.

With the taste came that sense of returning strength, which was good, and a sharp-edged clarity of thought that was even better.

Lois, meanwhile, was holding out a twenty-dollar bill. The wino didn’t immediately see it, however; he was scowling up into the sky.

At that instant, another bright green ray quilled out of his aura.

It shot across the weedy clearing beside the cellar-hole like a brilliant flashlight beam and into Lois’s mouth and nose. The bill in her hand shook briefly.

[“Oh, God, that’s so good.”’]

“Goddam jet-jockeys from Charleston Air Force Base!” the wino cried disapprovingly. “They ain’t s’pored to boom the sound-barrier till they get out over the ocean! I damn near wet my-” His eye fell on the bill between Lois’s fingers, and his scowl deepened. “Sa-aay, what kind of joke you think you pullin here? I ain’t stupid, you know.

Maybe I like a drink every now n then, but that don’t make me stupid.”

Give it time, Ralph thought. It will.

“No one thinks you’re stupid,” Lois said, “and it’s no joke.

Take the money, sir.”

The bum tried to hold onto his suspicious glower, but after another close look at Lois (and a quick side-glance at Ralph), it was overwhelmed by a large and winning smile. He stepped toward Lois, putting out his hand to take the money, which he had earned without even knowing it.

Lois raised her hand just before he could close his fingers on the bill. “Just mind you get something to eat as well as something to drink. And you might ask yourself if you’re happy with the way you’re living.”

“You’re absolutely right!” the wino cried enthusiastically. His eyes never left the bill between Lois’s fingers. “Absolutely, ma’am!

They got a program other side of the river, detox and rehab, you know.

I’m thinking about it. I really am. I think about it every damn day.”

But his eyes were still tacked to the twenty, and he was almost drooling. Lois gave Ralph a brief, doubtful look, then shrugged and let the bill pass from her fingers to his. “Thanks! Thanks, lady!”

His eyes shifted to Ralph. “Dis lady a real princess! I jus hope you know dat!”

“As a matter of fact, I do,”

Ralph favored Lois with a fond glance. he said.

Half an hour later, the two of them were walking between the rusty steel rails as they curved gently past the Municipal Golf Course… except they had drifted up a little higher above the Short-Time world after their meeting with the wino (perhaps because he had been a little high himself), and walking was not exactly what they were doing.

There was little or no effort involved, for one thing, and although their feet were moving, to Ralph it felt more like gliding than walking. Nor was he entirely sure they were visible to the Short-Time world; squirrels hopped unconcernedly about their feet, busy gathering supplies for the winter ahead, and once he saw Lois duck sharply as a wren almost parted her hair. The bird veered to the left and upward, as if realizing only at the last moment that there was a human in its flight-pattern. The golfers didn’t pay them any mind, either. Ralph’s opinion of golfers was that they were self-absorbed to the point of obsession, but he thought this lack of interest extreme, even SO. If he had seen a couple of neatly dressed adults strolling along a defunct GS amp;WM spur-line in the middle of the day, he thought he might have taken a brief time-out to try and think guess what they were up to and where they might be going.

I’d be especially curious about why the lady kept on muttering “Stay where you are, you darned old thing” and hitching at her skirt, Ralph thought, and grinned. But the golfers didn’t even spare them a glance, although a foursome bound for the ninth hole passed close enough so that Ralph could hear them worrying over a developing softness in the bond market. The idea that he and Lois had become invisible again-or at least very dim-began to seem more and more plausible to Ralph. Plausible… and worrisome. Time goes faster when you’re high, Old Dor had said.

The trail became fresher as they went west, and Ralph liked the drips and splashes which made it up less and less. Where the goop had fallen on the steel rails, it had eaten away the rust like corrosive acid. The weeds it had fallen on were black and dead-even the hardiest of them had died. As Ralph and Lois passed Derry Mum’s third green and entered a tangle of scrawny trees and undergrowth, Lois tugged at his sleeve. She pointed ahead. Large splotches of Atropos’s spoor gleamed like sick paint on the trunks of the trees now pressing in close to the tracks, and there were pools of it in some of the sunken dips between the old rads-places where crossties had once been, Ralph supposed.

[“We’re getting close to where he lives, Ralph.”] [“Yes. “I [“If he comes back and finds us in his place, what will we do?”] Ralph shrugged. He didn’t know, and wasn’t sure he cared. Let the forces that were moving them around like pawns on a chessboard-the ones Mr. C. and Mr.

L. had called the Higher Purpose-worry about that. If Atropos showed up, Ralph would try to yank out the little bald bugger’s tongue and strangle him with it.

And if that upset somebody’s applecart, too goddam bad. He couldn’t take responsibility for grand plans and Long-Time business; his job now was to watch out for Lois, who was at risk, and try to stop the carnage that was going to occur not far from here in just a few hours. And who knew? He might even find a little extra time along the way which he could use to try and protect his own partially rejuvenated hide. This was the stuff he had to do, and if the nasty little fuck got in Ralph’s way, one of them was going down. If that didn’t fit in with the big boys’ plans, tough titty.

Lois was picking most of this up from his aura-he could read that in her own when she touched his arm and he turned to look at her.

[“What does that mean, Ralph? That you’ll try to kill him if he gets in our way?”] He considered this, then nodded.

[“Yeah-that’s exactly what it means.”] She thought about it, then nodded.

[“Ralph?” He looked at her, eyebrows raised.

[“If it needs to be done, I’ll help you do it.”] He was absurdly touched by this… and at pains to hide the rest of his thinking from her: that the only reason she was still with him at all was so that he could keep a protective eye on her. That thought led him back toward her earrings, but he pushed the image of them away, not wanting her to see-or even suspect-them in his aura.

Lois’s thoughts, meanwhile, had gone on in a different, marginally safer, direction. without meeting him, he’ll know some[“Even if we get in and out one was there, won’t he? He’ll probably know who it was, too.”] Ralph couldn’t deny it, but didn’t see that it mattered much; their options had been narrowed to just this one, at least temporarily.

They would take it a step at a time and just keep hoping that when the sun came up tomorrow morning, they would be around to see it.

Although, given a choice, I’d probably opt to sleep in, Ralph thought, and a small, wistful grin touched the corners of his mouth.

God, it feels like years since I slept in. His mind flashed from there to Carolyn’s favorite saying, the one about how it was a long walk back to Eden. It seemed to him right now that Eden might simply be sleeping until noon… or maybe a little past.

He took Lois’s hand and they started forward along Atropos’s trail again.

Forty feet east of the Cyclone fence marking the edge of the airport, the rusty tracks petered out. Atropos’s trail pushed on, however, although not for long; Ralph was quite sure he could see the spot where it ended, and the image of the two of them roped to the spokes of a big wheel recurred. If he was right, Atropos’s den was only a stone’s throw from where Ed had run into the fat man with the barrels of fertilizer in the back of his pickup truck.

The wind gusted, bringing them a sick, rotten smell from close by, and, from a little farther away, the voice of Faye Chapin, haranguing someone on his favorite subject: “… what I always say!

Mali-jongg is like chess, chess is like life, so if you can play either of those games-” The wind dropped again. Ralph could still hear Faye’s voice if he strained his ears, but he had lost the individual words. That was all right, though; he had heard the lecture often enough to know pretty much how it went.

[“Ralph, that stink is awful! It’s him, isn’t it?”] He nodded, but didn’t think Lois saw him. She held his hand tightly in hers, looking straight ahead with wide eyes. The splotchy track which had begun at the doors of the Civic Center ended at the base of a drunkenly leaning dead oak tree two hundred feet away. The cause of both the tree’s death and its final leaning position was clear: one side of the venerable relic had been peeled like a banana by a glancing stroke of lightning. The cracks and crenellations and bulges of its gray bark seemed to make the shapes of halfburied, silently screaming faces, and the tree spread its nude branches against the sky like grim ideograms… ones which boreat least in Ralph’s imagination-an uncomfortable resemblance to the Japanese ideograms which meant kamikaze. The bolt which had killed the tree hadn’t succeeded in knocking it over, but it had certainly done its best. The part of its extensive root-system which faced the airport had been yanked right out of the ground. These roots had extended beneath the chainlink fence and pulled a section of it upward and outward in a bell shape that made Ralph think, for the first time in years, of a childhood acquaintance named Charles Engstrom”Don’t you play with Chuckle,” Ralph’s mother used to tell him.

“He’s a dirty boy.” Ralph didn’t know if Chuckle was a dirty boy or not, but he was fruitcrackers, no question about that. Chuckle Engstrom liked to hide behind the tree in his front yard with a long tree-branch which he called his Peekle Wand. When a woman in a full skirt passed, Chuckle would tiptoe after her, extending the Peekie Wand under the hem and then lifting. Quite often he got to check out the color of the woman’s underwear (the color of ladies’ underwear held great fascination for Chuckle) before she realized is what was going on and chased the wildly cackling lad back to his house, threatening to tell his mother. The airport fence, pulled out and up by the old oak’s roots, reminded Ralph of the way the skirts of Chuckle’s victims had looked when he started to raise them with the Peekie Wand.

[“Ralph?”] He looked at her.

[“who is Piggyjuan? And why are you thinking about him now?”

Ralph burst out laughing.

[“Did -you see that in my aura?”] [“I guess so-I don’t really know anymore. Who is he?”] [“Tell you another time. Come on.” He took her hand and they walked slowly toward the oak tree where Atropos’s trail ended, into the thickening odor of wild decay that was his scent.

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