CHAPTER 26

Atropos’s smile shone out, full of repulsive triumph, and full ofFull of fear. He caught You flat-footed, he’s got his scalpel to Lois’s balloon-string and his ban around her throat, but He’s still scared to death. Why?

[Come on! Quit wasting time, shithead. Give me the ring!] Ralph reached slowly into his watchpocket and grasped the ring, wondering why Atropos hadn’t killed Lois outright. Surely he didn’t intend to let her-to let either of them-go.

He’s afraid I might hammer him with another one of those telepathic karate-chops. And that’s just for starters. I think He’s also afraid of screwing up. Afraid of the thing-the entity-that’s running him.

Afraid of the Crimson King. You’re scare of the boss, aren’t you, “/-l filthy little friend?

He held the ring up between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand and peeked through it again.

[“Come and get it, why don’t you? Don’t be shy.”

Atropos’s face knotted with rage. The expression twisted his nervy, gloating grin into a cartoon scowl.

[I’ll kill her, Shorts, didn’t you hear me? Is that what you want?] Ralph slowly and deliberately raised his left hand. He made a sawing gesture in the air with it, and was gratified to see Atropos wince when the edge of the palm turned momentarily toward him.

[“If you even nick her with that blade, I’ll hit you so hard you’ll need a pocket-knife to dig your teeth out of the wall. And that’s a promise.” [just give me the ring, Shorts.] They can’t lie, Ralph thought suddenly. I can’t remember if I was actually told that or just intuited it, but I’m sure it’s true-they can’t lie. I can, though.

[“I’ll tell you what, Mr. A. -promise me it’s a push and I’ll give it to you.”] Atropos gave him a narrow look in which doubt and suspicion were mingled.

[A push? What do you mean, a push?] [“Ralph, no.”’] He glanced at her, then back at Atropos. He raised his left hand to scratch his cheek without considering how the gesture would look to the little bald doctor. The scalpel was pressed against Lois’s balloon-string again in a trice, this time hard enough to dent it and create a dark splotch at the point of contact. It looked like a bloodblister. Great beads of sweat stood out on Atropos’s brow, and when he spoke, his voice was a panicky shriek.

[Don’t you go throwing any of your cut-rate thunderbolts at me!

The woman dies if you do.”] Ralph lowered his hand in a hurry, then put both of them behind his back like a penitent child. Ed’s wedding ring was still folded into his hand, and now, almost without thinking about it, he tucked it into the back pocket of his pants. It was only then that he was completely sure he didn’t mean to give up the ring.

Even if it cost Lois her life-both of them their lives-he didn’t mean to give them the ring.

But perhaps it wouldn’t come to that.

“A push means we both walk away, Mr. A.-I give you the ring, you give me back my lady-friend. All you have to do is promise not to hurt her. What do you say?”] [“No, Ralph, no.”’] What Atropos said was nothing. His eyes glittered at Ralph with leary, hateful impotence.

If ever in his long life he’d wished for the ability to lie, Ralph supposed he must be wishing for it at that moment. All it would take was Okay, it’s a deal, and the ball would be right back in Ralph’s court. But he couldn’t say that, because he couldn’t do that.

He knows he’s in a nasty corner, Ralph thought. It really doesn’t matter if he cuts her cord or lets her go-he must think I mean to flash-fry him in either case, and he’s not wrong.

How much damage can you actually do to him, sweetheart? Carolyn asked doubtfully from the place she kept inside his head. How much juice have you got left after cutting open the deathbag around the wedding ring?

The answer, unfortunately was not much. Maybe enough to singe his bald head, but probably not enough to saut amp; it. And Then Ralph saw something he didn’t like: the edge-of-panic quality in Atropos’s grin was being replaced by cautious confidence. And he felt those mad eyes crawling avidly over him-his face, his body, but mostly his aura.

Ralph had a sudden clear vision of a mechanic using a dipstick to find out how much oil was left in an automobile crankcase.

Do something, Lois begged him with her eyes. Please, Ralph.

But he didn’t know what to do. He was completely out of ideas Atropos’s smile took on a gloating, nasty edge.

[You’re unloaded, Short Stuff, ain’tcha? Gee, that’s sad.] [“Hurt her and you’ll find out, you sawed-off piece of shit.

Atropos’s grin went on widening.

[You couldn’t give a rat a hotfoot with what you’ve got left. Why don’t you just be a good boy and hand over the ring before I-”] [“Oh, you bastard.”’] It was Lois. She was no longer looking at Ralph; she was looking across the room, into the mirror where Atropos no doubt checked the fit and tilt of his latest fashion accents-Rosalie’s bandanna, say, or Bill McGovern’s Panama. Her eyes were wide and full of fury, and Ralph knew exactly what she was seeing.

[“Those are MINE, you rotten little thief!” She shoved violently backward, using her greater weight to slam Atropos against the side of the archway. A startled grunt escaped him. The hand holding the scalpel flew upward; the blade dug dry scales of dirt from the wall.

Lois turned toward him, her face knotted in an angry snarl-a look so un-Our Lois that McGovern might have fainted in shock at the sight of it. Her hands clawed at the sides of his face, reaching for his ears.

One of her fingers dug into, his cheek. Atropos yapped like a dog whose paw has been stepped on, then grabbed her by the waist again and whirled her back around.

He turned the scalpel’s blade inward, getting ready to slash.

Ralph shook the forefinger of his right hand at it in a scolding gesture. A flash of light so pallid it was almost invisible shot out from the nail and struck the scalpel’s tip, momentarily knocking it away from Lois’s balloon-string. And that was all there was; Ralph sensed that his personal armory was now empty.

Atropos bared his teeth at him from over Lois’s shoulder as she bucked and twisted in his arms. She was not trying to get away, either; she was trying to turn and attack him. Her feet flailed out as she threw all her weight against him again, trying to squash him against the wall behind them, and without having the slightest idea of what he meant to do, Ralph lunged forward and dropped to his knees with his hands out. He looked like a manic suitor making strenuous marriage proposal, and one of Lois’s thrashing feet came close to kicking him in the throat. He snatched at the hem of her slip and it came free in a slithery little rush of pink nylon. Meanwhile, Lois was still yelling.

[“Miserable little thief! Here’s something for you! How do -you like it?”] Atropos uttered a squeal of pain, and when Ralph looked up, he saw that Lois had buried her teeth in his right wrist. His left hand, the one holding the scalpel, flailed blindly at her balloon-string, missing it by less than an inch. Ralph sprang to his feet and, still with no clear idea of what he was doing, pulled Lois’s pink half-slip over Atropos’s slashing hand… and his head.

[“Get away from him, Lois! Run!”] She spat out the small white hand and stumbled toward the barrelhead table in the center of the room, wiping Atropos’s blood from her mouth with atavistic loathing.

… but the dominant expression on her face was still one of anger.

Atropos himself, for the moment just a bawling, writhing shape under the pink half-slip, groped after her with his free hand, Ralph slapped it away and shoved him back against the side of the archway.

[“No you don’t, my friend-not at all.”] [Let me go! Let me go, you bastard You can’t do this!] And the weirdest thing of all is that he really believes that, Ralph thought. He’s had it his own way for so long that He’s completely forgotten what Short-Timers can do.

I can fix that, I think. Ralph remembered how Atropos had slashed Rosalie’s balloon string after the dog had licked his hand, and his hatred for this strutting, leering, complacently insane creature suddenly exploded in his head like a rotten-green roadflare. He grabbed one side of Lois’s slip and twisted his fist twice around it in a savage winding up gesture, pung it so tight that Atropos’s features stood out in a pink nylon deathmask.

Then, just as the blade of the scalpel popped through the fabric and began to cut it open, Ralph whirled Atropos around, using the slip as a man might use a sling to whirl a stone, and sent him flying across the archway. The damage might have been less if Atropos had fallen, but he didn’t; his feet knocked against each other but never quite crossed. He hit the rock facing of the archway with a thud, voiced a muffled scream of pain, and dropped to his knees. Spots of blood bloomed on Lois’s half-slip like flower-petals. The scalpel had disappeared back through the slit it had made in the cloth, Ralph sprang after Atropos just as it reappeared and lengthened the original cut, freeing the bald creature’s staring, bewildered face. His nose was bleeding; so were his forehead and right temple. Before he could begin to get up, Ralph grabbed the slippery pink bulges that were his shoulders.

[Stop it I’m warning you, Shorts! I’ll make you sorry you were ever bo-] Ralph ignored this pointless bluster and slammed Atropos forward, hard. The midget’s arms were still tangled in the slip and he caught the floor with nothing but face. His shriek was part amazement, mostly pain. Incredibly, Ralph felt Lois in the back of his mind, telling him that enough was enough, not to really hurt himnot to hurt the pint-sized psychotic who had just tried to kill her.

Atropos attempted to roll over. Ralph kneedropped him in the middle of the back and knocked him flat again.

[“Don’t move, friend. I like you just the way you are.”] He looked up at Lois, and saw that her amazing fury had departed as suddenly as it had come-like some freak weather phenomenon.

A tornado, perhaps, that touches down out of a clear blue sky, rips the top off a barn, and then disappears again. She was pointing at Atropos.

The nasty little thief has got my earrings, Ralph. [“He’s got my earrings. He’s wearing them!”] [“I know. I saw.”] One snarling side of Atropos’s face poked out of the slit in the nylon like the face of the world’s ugliest baby at the moment of its birth. Ralph could feel the muscles of the small creature’s back trembling beneath his pinioning knee, and he remembered an old proverb he’d read somewhere.

… maybe at the end of a Salad a teabag string: He who takes a tiger by the tail dare not let go. Now, in this unlikely den beneath the ground and feeling like a character in a fairy-tale concocted by a lunatic, Ralph thought he had achieved a sort of divine understanding of that proverb. Through a combination of Lois’s sudden rage and plain old shitass luck, he had wound up at least temporarily on top of the scuzzy little fuck-The questionand a fairly pressing one, at that-was what to do next.

The hand holding the scalpel lashed up, but the stroke was both weak and blind. Ralph avoided it easily. Sobbing and cursing, not afraid even now but clearly hurting and all but consumed with impotent rage, Atropos flailed up at him again.

[Let me up, you overgrown Short-Time bastard! Silly old white-hair, ugly wrinkle-face!] [“I look a little better than that just lately, my friend. Haven’t you noticed! [Asshole Stupid Short-Time asshole. I’ll make you sorry I’ll make you so sorry.”] Well, Ralph thought, at least he’s not begging. I almost would have expected him to start begging by now.

Atropos continued to flail weakly with the scalpel. Ralph ducked two or three of these strokes easily, then slid one hand toward the throat of the creature lying beneath him.

[“Ralph.” No.” Don’t.”’] He shook his head at her, not knowing if he was expressing annoyance, reassurance, or both. He touched Atropos’s skin, and felt him shudder. The bald doc uttered a choked cry of revulsion, and Ralph knew exactly how he felt. It was sickening for both of them, but he didn’t take his hand away. Instead, he tried to close it around Atropos’s throat and wasn’t very surprised to find he couldn’t do it.

Still, hadn’t Lachesis said that only Short-Timers could oppose the will of Atropos? He thought so. The question was, how?

Beneath him, Atropos laughed nastily.

[“Please, Ralph. Please just get my earrings and we’ll go.”] Atropos rolled his eyes in her direction, then looked back at Ralph.

[Did you think you could kill me, Shorts? Well, guess again.] No, he hadn’t thought it, but he’d needed to find out for sure.

[Life’s a bitch, ain’t it, Shorts? Why don’t you just give me back the ring? I’m going to get it sooner or later, I guarantee you that.] “Fuck you, you little weasel.”] Tough talk, but talk was cheap.

The most pressing question was still unanswered: What the hell was he supposed to do with this monster?

Whatever it is, you won’t be able to do it with Lois standing there and watching you, a cold voice that was not quite Carolyn’s advised him. She was fine when she was pissed off, but she’s not pissed off now. She’s too tenderhearted for whatever’s going to happen next, Ralph. You have to get her out of here.

He turned toward Lois. Her eyes were half-closed. She looked ready to crumple at the base of the archway and go to sleep.

[“Lois, I want you to get out of here. Right now. Go up the stairs and wait for me under the tree.] The scalpel flashed up again, and this time it almost sliced off the end of Ralph’s nose. He recoiled, and his knee slid on nylon. Atropos gave a mighty heave and came within a whisker of rolling out from under. At the last second, Ralph shoved the little man’s head flat again with the heel of his hand-that, it seemed, was allowed by the rules-and replanted his knee.

[owww! Owww! Stop it! You’re killing me!]

Ralph ignored him and looked at Lois.

[“Go on, Lois! Go on up! I’ll be there as soon as I can.”’]

[“I don’t think I can climb out on my own-I’m too tired.”] [“Yes, you can. You have to, and you can.”] Atropos subsided again-for the moment, at least-a small, gasping engine under Ralph’s knee. But that was a long way from being enough. Time was passing topside, passing fast, and right now time was the real enemy, not Ed Deepneau.

[“My earrings-“I [“I’ll bring them when I come’ Lois. I promise.

Making what looked like a supreme effort, Lois straightened and looked solemnly at Ralph.

[“You shouldn’t hurt him, Ralph, not if you don’t have to. It’s not Christian. “I No, not at all Christian, a capering little creature deep inside Ralph’s head agreed. Not Christian, but still…

I can’t wait to get started.

[“Go on, Lois. Leave him to me.”] She looked at him sadly.

[“It wouldn’t do me any good to ask you to promise not to hurt him, would it?”]

He thought about it, then shook his head.

[“No, but I’ll promise you this much: it won’t be any harder than he makes it. Is that good enough?”]

Lois considered carefully, then nodded.

[“Yes, I think that will do. And maybe I can make it back up, if I take it slow and easy… but what about you?”] [“I’ll be fine. Wait for me under the tree.

[“All right, Ralph.”] He watched her cross the filthy room, Helen’s sneaker bobbing from one wrist. She ducked beneath the arch between the apartment and the stairway and slowly started up. Ralph waited until her feet had disappeared from view, then turned back to Atropos.

[“Well, Chumley, here we are-two oldpals reunited. What should we do? Should we play? You like to play, don’t you?”] Atropos immediately renewed his struggles, simultaneously waving his scalpel above his head and trying to buck Ralph off.

[Quit it! Get your hands off me, you old faggot.”

Atropos thrashed so wildly that kneeling on him now was like kneeling on a snake. Ralph ignored the yelling, the bucking, and the blindly waving scalpel. Atropos’s whole head was now sticking out of the slip, which made things a lot easier. He grabbed Lois’s earrings and tugged.

They stayed where they were but earned him a hearty, pained scream from Atropos. Ralph leaned forward, smiling a little.

[“For pierced ears, aren’t they, pal?”] [Yes.” Yes, goddammit.”

[“To quote you, life’s a bitch, ain’t it?”] Ralph seized the earrings again and ripped them free. There were two small fans of blood as the minute holes in the lobes of Atropos’s ears became flaps.

The bald man’s scream was as sharp as a new drillbit. Ralph felt an uneasy mixture of pity and contempt.

Little bastard’s used to burtz’ g other people, but not being hurt himself Maybe he’s never been hurt himself Well say hello to how the other half lives, pal.

[Stop it. Stop it.” You can’t do this to me.”

[“I’ve got a ewsflash for you, buddy… I am doing it. Now why don’t you Just get with the program?”] [What do you think you’re going to accomplish by this, Shorts? It’ll happen anyway, you know. All those people at the Civic Center going to go bye-bye, and taking the ring won’t stop it.] Don’t I know it, Ralph thought.

Atropos was still panting, but he had stopped thrashing. Ralph felt able to look away from him for a moment and send his eyes on a quick tour of the room. He supposed what he was really looking for was inspiration-even a small bolt would do.

[“Can I make a suggestion, Mr. A.? As your new little pal and playmate? I know you)re busy, but you ought to find time to do something about this place. I’m not talking about getting it in House Beautiful or anything like that, but sheesh. What a sty.”’] Atropos, simultaneously sulky and wary: [Do you think I give a fuck what you think, Shorts?] He could only think of one way to proceed. He didn’t like it, but he was going to go ahead, just the same. He had to go ahead; there was a picture in his mind that guaranteed it. It was a picture of Ed Deepneau flying toward Derry from the coast in a light plane, one with either a crate of high explosive or a tank of nerve-gas stowed in the nose.

[“What can I do with you, Mr. A.? Any ideas?”] The response was immediate and unequivocal.

[Let me go. That’s the answer. The only answer. I’ll leave you alone, both of You. Leave you for the Purpose. You’ll live another ten years.

Hell, maybe another twenty, it’s not impossible. All you and the little lady have to do is butt out. Go home. And when the big bang comes watch it on the TV news.

Ralph tried to sound as if he were honestly considering this.

“And you’d leave us alone? You’d promise to leave us alone?

[“Yes.”

Atropos’s face had taken on a hopeful look, and Ralph could sec the first traces of an aura springing up around the little creep. It was the same low and nasty red as the pulsing glow which lit the apartment.

[“Do you know something, Mr. A.?”]

Atropos, looking more hopeful than ever: [No, what?] Ralph shot one hand forward, grabbed Atropos’s left wrist, and twisted it hard.

Atropos shrieked in agony. His fingers loosened on the handle of the scalpel, and Ralph plucked it free with the ease of a veteran pickpocket lifting a wallet.

“I believe you.”] [Give it back.” Give it back.” Give it back!

Give it-I In his hysteria, Atropos might have gone on shrieking this for hours, so Ralph put a stop to it in the most direct way he knew.

He leaned forward and slashed a shallow vertical cut down the back of the big bald head poking out of the hole in Lois’s half-slip. No invisible hand tried to repel him, and his own hand moved with no trouble at all. Blood-a shocking amount of it-welled out of the line-cut. The aura around Atropos had now gone to the dark and baleful red of an infected wound.

He shrieked again.

Ralph rocked forward and spoke chummily into his ear.

[“Maybe I can’t kill you, but I can certainly fuck you up, can’t I?

And I don’t need to be loaded with psychic juice to do it, either.

This little honey will do just fine. “He used the scalpel to cross the first cut he’d made, making a lower-case t on the back of Atropos’s head. Atropos shrieked and began to flail wildly. Ralph was disgusted to discover that part of him-the capering gremlin-was enjoying this enormously. you want me to go on cutting you, go on struggling.

If you want me to stop, then you stop.”] Atropos became still at once.

[“Okay. Now I’m going to ask you a few questions. I think you’ll find it in your best interest to answer them.”] [Ask me anything Whatever you want! just don’t cut me anymore.”] [“That’s a pretty good attitude, pally, but I think there’s always room for improvement, don’t you? Let’s see. “Ralph sliced down again, this time opening a long gash in the side of Atropos’s skull. A flap of skin peeled loose like badly glued wallpaper. Atropos howled. Ralph felt a cramp of revulsion in the pit of his stomach and was actually relieved… but when he spoke/thought at Atropos, he took great pains not to let that feeling show.

[“Okay, that’s my motivational lecture, Doc. If I have to repeat it, you’ll need Krazy Glue to keep the top of your head from flying off in a high wind. Do you understand me?”]

[Yes! Yes!]

[“And do you believe me?”]

[Yes! Rotten old white-hair, YES!]

[“Okay, that’s good. Here’s my question, Mr. A.: If you make a promise, are you bound by it?”] Atropos was slow in answering, an encouraging sign. Ralph laid the flat of the scalpel’s blade against his cheek to hurry him up. He was rewarded with another scream and instant cooperation.

[Yes.” Yes.” Just don’t cut me again! Please don’t cut me again.”

Ralph took the scalpel away. The outline of the blade burned on the little creature’s unlined cheek like a birthmark.

[“Okay, sunshine, listen up. I want you to promise you’ll leave me and Lois alone until the rally at the Civic Center is over. No more chasing, no more slashing, no more bullshit. Promise me that.

[Fuck you.” Take your promise and shove it up your ass.”

Ralph was not put out of temper by this; his smile, in fact, widened.

Because Atropos hadn’t said I won’t, and even more important, Atropos hadn’t said I can’t. He had Just said no. just a little backsliding, in other words, and easily remedied.

Steeling himself, Ralph ran the scalpel straight down the middle of Atropos’s back. The slip split, the dirty white tunic beneath it split, and so did the flesh beneath the tunic. Blood poured out in a sickening flood, and Atropos’s tortured, wailing shriek beat at Ralph’s ears.

He leaned over and murmured into the small ear again, grimacing and avoiding the blood as best he could.

[“I don’t like doing this anymore, Chumley-in fact, about two more cuts and I’m going to throw up again-but I want you to know that I can do it and I’m going to keep on doing it until you either give me the promise I want or until the force that stopped me from choking you stops me again. I think if you wait for that to happen, you’re going to be one hurting unit. So what.do you say? Do you want to promise, or do you want me to peel you like a grape?”] Atropos was blubbering.

It was a nauseating, horrible sound.

[You don’t understand. If you succeed in stopping what’s been started-the chances are slim, but it’s possible that you might-I will be punished by the creature you call the Crimson King.”

Ralph clamped his teeth together and slashed down again, his lips pressed so tightly together that his mouth looked like a long-healed scar. There was a faint tug as the scalpel’s blade slid through gristle, and then Atropos’s left ear tumbled to the floor. Blood poured out of the hole on the side of his bald head, and his scream this time was loud enough to hurt Ralph’s ears.

They’re sure a long way from being gods, aren’t they? Ralph thought.

He felt sick with horror and dismay. The only real difference between them and us is that they live longer and the-v’re a little harder to see, And I guess I’m not much of a soldier-looking at all lhtil blood makes me feel like passing out. shit.

[All right, I promise.” just stop cutting me! No more.” Please, no more.”

[“That’s a start, but you’re going to have to be more specific. I want to hear you say that you promise to stay away from me and Lois an Ed, too, until the rally at the Civic Center is over.”] He expected more wiggling and weaseling, but Atropos surprised him.

[I promise I promise to stay away from You, and from the bitch you’re running around with-I [“Lois. Say her name. Lois.”

[Yeah, yeah, her-Lois Chasse I agree to stay away from her, and Deepneau, too. From all of you, just as long as you don’t cut me anymore. Are you satisfied? Is it good enough, God damn you?] Ralph decided he was satisfied… or as satisfied as any man can be when he is deeply sickened by his own methods and actions. He didn’t believe there were any trapdoors hidden in Atropos’s promise; the little bald man knew he might pay a high price later for giving in now, but in the end that hadn’t been able to offset the pain and terror Ralph had inflicted on him.

[“Yes, Mr. A I think it’s good enough.”]

Ralph sild off his small victim with his stomach rolling and a sensation-it had to be false, didn’t it?-that his throat was opening and closing like the valve of a clam. He looked at the blood-spattered scalpel for a moment, then cocked his arm back and threw it as hard as he could. it flew end-for-end through the arch and disappeared into the storeroom beyond.

Good riddance, Ralph thought. At least I didn’t get much on mlselfike crying.

There’s that. He no longer felt like vomiting. Now he felt I Atropos got slowly to his knees and looked around with the dazed eyes of a man who has survived a killer storm. He saw his ear lying on the floor and picked it up. He turned it over in his small hands and looked at the strands of gristle trailing out from the back side.

Then he looked up at Ralph. His eyes swam with tears of pain and humiliation, but there was something else in them as well-a rage so deep and deadly that Ralph recoiled from it. All his precautions seemed flimsy and foolish in the face of that rage. He took a blundering step backward and pointed at Atropos with an unsteady finger.

[“Remember your promise”] Atropos bared his teeth in a gruesome grin.

The dangling flap of skin on the side of his face swung back and forth like a slack sail, and the raw flesh beneath it oozed and trickled.

[Of course I’ll remember it-how could I forget? In fact, I’d like to make you another. Two for the price of one, you might say.] Atropos made a gesture Ralph remembered well from the hospital roof, spreading the first two fingers of his right hand in a V and then flicking them upward, creating a -red arc in the air. Within it, Ralph saw a human figure. Beyond it, dimly glimpsed, as if seen through a mist of blood, was the Red Apple Store. He started to ask who that was standing in the foreground, on the curb of Harris Avenue… and then, suddenly, he knew. He looked up at Atropos with shocked eyes.

[“Jesus, no.” No, you can’t.”’] The grin on Atropos’s face continued to widen.

[You know, that’s what I kept thinking about you, Short-Time.

Only I was wrong. You are, too. Watch.] Atropos moved his spread fingers slightly wider. Ralph saw someone wearing a Boston Red Sox baseball cap come out of the Red Apple, and this time Ralph knew immediately whom he was looking at. This person called to the one across the street, and then something terrible began to happen. Ralph turned away, sickened, from the bloody arc of the future between Atropos’s small fingers.

But he heard it when it happened.

[The one I showed you-first belongs to the Random Shorts-to me. another words. And here’s my promise to you: if you go on getting in my way, what I’ve just shown you is going to happen. There’s nothing you can do, no warning you can give, that will stop it from happening.

But if you leave off now-if you and the woman simply stand aside and let events take their course-then I will stay my hand.] The vulgarities which formed so large a part of Atropos’s usual discourse had been left behind like a discarded costume, and for the first time Ralph had some clear sense of how truly old and malevolently wise this being was.

[Remember what the junkies say, Shorts.-dying is easy, living is hard. It’s a true saying. If anyone should know, it’s me. So what do you think? Having any second thoughts?] Ralph stood in the filthy chamber with his head down and his fists clenched. Lois’s earrings burned in one of them like small hot coals.

Ed’s ring also seemed to burn against him, and he knew there wasn’t a thing in the world to stop him from taking it out of his pocket and throwing it into the other room after the scalpel. He remembered a story he’d read in school about a thousand years ago.

“The Lady or the Tiger?” it had been called, and now he understood what it was to be given such a terrible power… and such a terrible choice. On the surface it seemed easy enough; what, after all, was one life against two thousand?

But that one life-!

Yet really it isn’t as if anyone would ever have to know, he thought coldly. No one except maybe for Lois… and Lois would accept my decision. Carolyn might not have done, hut they’re very different women.

Yes, but did he have the right?

Atropos also read this in his aura-it was spooky, how much the creature saw.

[Of course you do, Ralph-that’s what these matters of life and death are really about: who has the right. This time it’s you. So what do you say?] [“I don’t know what I say. I don’t know what I think. All I know is that I wish all three of you had LEFT ME THE FUCK ALONE!”] Ralph

Roberts raised his head toward the root-riddled ceiling of Atropos’s den and screamed.

Five minutes later, Ralph’s head poked out of the shadows beneath the old, leaning oak. He saw Lois at once. She was kneeling in front of him, peering anxiously through the tangle of roots at his upturned face. He raised a grimy, blood-streaked hand and she took it firmly, holding him steady as he made his way up the last few stepsgnarled roots that were actually more like ladder-rungs.

Ralph wriggled his way out from under the tree and turned over onto his back, taking the sweet air in great long pulls of breath. The thought air had never in his whole life tasted so good. In spite of everything else, he was enormously grateful to be out. To be free.

[“Ralph? Are you all right?”] He turned her hand over, kissed her palm, then put her earrings where his lips had been.

[“Yes. Fine. These are yours.”] She looked at them curiously, as if she had never seen earrings, these or any others-before, and then put them in her dress pocket.

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