[“You saw them in the mirror, didn’t you, Lois?”] [“Yes, and it made me angry… hut I don’t think I was really surprised, not down deep.
[“Because you knew.”] [“Yes. I guess I did. maybe from when we first saw Atropos wearing Bill’s hat. I just kept it… you know… in the hack of my mind.
She was looking at him carefully, assessingly.
[“Never mind my earrings right now-what happened down there.) How did you get away?”] Ralph was afraid if she looked at him in that careful way for too long, she would see too much. He also had an idea that if he didn’t get moving soon, he might never move again; his weariness was now so large it was like some great encrusted object-a long-sunken ocean liner, perhaps-lying inside him, calling to him, trying to drag him down. He got to his feet. He couldn’t allow eitherof them to be dragged down, not now. The news the sky told wasn’t as bad as it could have been, but it was bad enough-it was six o’clock at least. All over Derry, people who didn’t give a shit one way or the other about the abortion issue (the vast majority, in other words) were sitting down to hot dinners. At the Civic Center the doors would now be open; 10-K TV lights would be bathing them, and Minicams would be transmitting live shots of early-arriving pro-choice advocates driving past Dan Dalton and his sign-waving Friends of Life. Not far from here, people were chanting that old Ed Deepneau favorite, the one that went Hey, hey, Susan Day, how many kids did you kill today?
Whatever he and Lois did, they would have to do it in the next sixty to ninety minutes. The clock was ticking.
[“Come on, Lois. We have to get moving.
[“Are we going back to the Civic Center?”] [“No, not to start with. I think that to start with, we ought to… Ralph discovered that he simply couldn’t wait to hear what he had to say. Where did he think they ought to go to start with? Back to Derry Home? The Red Apple? His house? Where did you go when you needed to find a couple of well-meaning but far from allknowing fellows who had gotten you and your few close friends into a world of hurt and trouble? Or could you reasonably expect them to find you?
They might not want to find you, sweetheart. In fact, they might actually be hiding from You.
[“Ralph, are you sure you reHe suddenly thought of Rosalie, and knew.
[“The park, Lois. Strawford Park. That’s where we have to go.
But we need to make a stop on the way.”] He led her along the Cyclone fence, and soon they heard the lazy sound of interwoven voices.
Ralph could smell roasting hotdogs as well, and after the fetid stench of Atropos’s den, the smell was ambrosial. A minute or two later, he and Lois stepped to the edge of the little picnic area near Runway 3.
Dorrance was there, standing at the heart of his amazing, multicolored aura and watching as a light plane drifted down toward the runway. Behind him Faye Chapin and Don Veazie were sitting at one of the picnic tables with a chessboard between them and a half finished bottle of Blue Nun near to hand. Stan and Georgina Eberly were drinking beer and twiddling forks with hotdogs impaled upon them in the heat-shimmer-to Ralph that shimmer was a strangely dry pink, like coral-colored sand-above the picnic area’s barbecue pit.
For a moment Ralph simply stood where he was, struck dumb by their beauty-the ephemeral, powerful beauty that was, he supposed, what Short-Time life was mostly about. A snatch of song, something at least twenty-five years old, occurred to him: We are stardust, we are golden.
Dorrance’s aura was different-fabulously different-but even the most prosaic of the others glittered like rare and infinitely desirable gemstones.
[“Oh, Ralph, do you see? Do you see how beautiful they are?”] [“Yes. “I
[“What a shame they don’t know.”’]
But was it? In light of all that had happened, Ralph wasn’t so sure.
And he had an idea-a vague but strong intuition he could never have put into words-that perhaps real beauty was something unrecognized by the conscious self, a work that was always in progress, a thing of being rather than seeing.
“Come on, dumbwit, make your move,” a voice said. Ralph jerked, first thinking the voice was speaking to him, but it was Faye, talking to Don Veazie. “You’re slower’n old creepin Jesus-.”
“Never mind,” Don said. “I’m thinking.”
“Think till hell freezes over, Slick, and it’s still gonna be mate in six moves.”
Don poured some wine into a paper cup and rolled his eyes. “oh boogersnot! “he cried. “I didn’t realize I was playin chess with Boris Spassky! I thought it was just plain old Faye Chapin! I apologize all to hell and gone!”
“That’s a riot, Don. An act like that, you could take it on the road and make a million dollars. You won’t have to wait long to do it, either-you can start just six moves from now.”
“Ain’t you smart,” Don said. “You just don’t know when to-”
“Hush.” Georgina Eberly said in a sharp tone. “What was that?
It sounded like something blew up!”
“That” was Lois, sucking a flood of vibrant rainforest green from Georgina’s aura.
Ralph raised his right hand, curled it into a tube around his lips, and began to inhale a similar stream of bright blue light from Stan Eberly’s aura. He felt fresh energy fill him at once; it was as if fluorescent lights were going on in his brain. But that vast sunken ship, which was really no more or less than four months’ worth of mostly sleepless nights, was still there, and still trying to suck him down to the place where it was.
The decision was still right there, too-not yet made one way or the other, but only deferred.
Stan was also looking around. No matter how much of his aura Ralph took (and he had drawn off a great deal, it seemed to him), the source remained as densely bright as ever. Apparently what they had been told about the all-but-endless reservoirs of energy surrounding each human being had been the exact, literal truth.
“Well,” Stan said, “I did hear something-”
“I didn’t,” Faye said.
“Coss not, you’re deaf as dirt,” Stan replied. “Stop interruptin for just one minute, can’tcha? I started to say it wasn’t a fuel-tank, because there ain’t no fire or smoke. Can’t be that Don farted, either, cause there ain’t no squirrels droppin dead out of the trees with their fur burnt off. I guess it musta been one of those big Air National Guard trucks backfirin. Don’t worry, darling, I’ll pertect ya.”
“Pertect this,” Georgina said, slapping one hand into the crook of her elbow and curling her fist at him. She was smiling, however.
“Oh boy,” Faye said. “Take a peek at Old Dor.”
They all looked at Dorrance, who was smiling and waving in the direction of the Harris Avenue Extension.
“Who do you see there, old fella?” Don Veazie asked with a grin.
“Ralph and Lois,” Dorrance said, smiling radiantly. “I see Ralph and Lois. They just came out from under the old tree!”
“Yep,” Stan said. He shaded his eyes, then pointed directly at them.
This delivered a wallop to Ralph’s nervous system which only abated when he realized Stan was just pointing where Dorrance was waving. “And look! There’s Glenn Miller coming out right behind em!
Goddam! “Georgia threw an elbow and Stan stepped away nimbly, grinning.
[“Hello, Ralph! Hello, Lois.”’] [“Dorrance! We’re going to Strawford Park! Is that right?”] Dorrance, grinning happily: [“I don’t know, it’s all Long-Time business now, and I’m through with it. I’m going back home soon and read Walt Whitman. It’s going to be a windy night, and Whitman’s always best when the wind blows.”] Lois, sounding nearly frantic: [“Dorrance, help us!”] Doris grin faltered, and he looked at her solemnly.
[“I can’t. It’s passed out of my hands. Whatever’s done will have to be done by you and Ralph now.”] “Ugh,” Georgina said. “I hate it when he stares that way. You could almost believe he really does see someone.” She picked up her long-handled barbecue fork and began to toast her hbtdog again.
“Has anybody seen Ralph and Lois, by the way?”
“No,” Don said.
“They’re shacked up in one of those X-rated motels down the coast with a case of beer and a bottle of Johnson’s Baby Oil,” Stan said.
“The giant-economy-size bottle. I toldia that yesterday.”
“Filthy old man,” Georgina said, this time throwing the elbow with a little more force and a lot more accuracy.
Ralph: [“Dorrance, can’t you give us any help at all? At least tell us if we’re on the right track?”] For a moment he was sure Dor was going to reply. Then there was a buzzing, approaching drone from overhead and the old man looked up. His daffy, beautiful smile resurfaced. “Look!” he cried.
“An old Grumman Yellow Bird! And a beauty!” He jogged to the chainlink fence to watch the small yellow plane land, turning his back to them.
Ralph took Lois’s arm and tried to smile himself. It was hard going-he thought he had never felt quite so frightened and confused in his entire life-but he gave it the old college try.
[“Come on, dear. Let’s go.”] Ralph remembered thinking-this while they’d been making their way along the abandoned rail-line which had eventually taken them back to the airport-that walking was not exactly what they were doing; it had seemed more like gliding. They went from the picnic area at the end of Runway 3 back to Strawford Park in that same fashion, only the glide was faster and more pronounced now. It was like being carried along by an invisible conveyor belt.
As an experiment, he stopped walking. The houses and storefronts continued to flow mildly past. He looked down at his feet to make sure, and yes, they were completely still. It seemed the sidewalk was moving, not him.
Here came Mr. Dugan, head of the Derry Trust’s Loan Department, decked out in his customary three-piece suit and rimless eyeglasses.
As always, he looked to Ralph like the only man in the history of the world to be born without an asshole. He had once rejected Ralph’s application for a Bill-Payer loan, which, Ralph supposed, might account for a few of his negative feelings about the man. Now he saw that Dugan’s aura was the dull, uniform gray of a corridor in a VA hospital, and Ralph decided that didn’t surprise him much. He held his nose like a man forced to swim across a polluted canal and passed directly through the banker. Dugan did not so much as twitch.
That was sort of amusing, but when Ralph glanced at Lois, his amusement faded in a hurry. He saw the worry on her face, and the questions she wanted to ask. Questions to which he had no satisfactory answers.
Ahead was Strawford Park. As Ralph looked, the streetlights came on suddenly. The little playground where he and McGovern-Lois too, more often than not-had stood watching the children play was almost deserted. Two junior-high kids were sitting side by side on the swings, smoking cigarettes and talking, but the mothers and toddlers who came here during the daylight hours were all gone now.
Ralph thought of McGovern-of his ceaseless, morbid chatter and his self-pity, so hard to see when you first got to know him, so hard to miss once you’d been around him for awhile, both of them lightened and somehow turned into something better by his irreverent wit and his surprising, impulsive acts of kindness-and felt deep sadness steal over him. Short-Timers might be stardust, and they might be golden as well, but when they were gone they were as gone as the mothers and babies who made brief playtime visits here on sunny summer afternoons.
[“Ralph, what are we doing here? The deathbag’s over the Civic Center, not Strawford Park.”’] Ralph guided her to the park bench where he had found her several centuries ago, crying over the argument she’d had with her son and daughter-in-law… and over her lost earrings.
Down the hill, the two Portosans glimmered in the deepening twilight.
Ralph closed his eyes. I am going mad, he thought, and I’m headed there on the express rather than the local. Which is it going to be?
The lady… or the tiger?
[“Ralph, we have to do something. Those lives… those thousands of lives… “I In the darkness behind his closed lids, Ralph saw someone coming out of the Red Apple Store. A figure in dark corduroy pants and a Red Sox cap. Soon the terrible thing would start to happen again, and because Ralph didn’t want to see it, he opened his eyes and looked at the woman beside him.
[“Every life is important, Lois, wouldn’t you agree? Every single one.”] He didn’t know what she saw in his aura, but it clearly terrified her.
[“What happened down there after I left? What did he do or say to you? Tell me, Ralph.” You tell me.”’] So which was it going to be?
The one or the many? The lady or the tiger? If he didn’t choose soon, the choice would be taken out of his hands by nothing more than the simple passage of time. So which one? Which?
“Neither… or both,” he said hoarsely, unaware in his terrible agitation that he was speaking aloud, and on several different levels at once. “I won’t choose one or the other. I won’t. Do you hear me?”
He leaped up from the bench, looking around wildly.
“Do you hear me?” he shouted. “I reject this choice! I will have BOTH or I will have NEITHER!”
On one of the paths north of them, a wino who had been poking through a trash-barrel, searching for returnable cans and bottles, took one look at Ralph, then turned and ran. What he had seen was a man who appeared to be on fire.
Lois stood up and grasped his face between her hands.
[“Ralph, what is it? Who is it? Me? You? Because if it’s me, if you’re holding back because of me, I don’t want-”] He took a deep, steadying breath and then put his forehead against hers, looking into her eyes.
[“It’s not you, Lois, and not me. If it was either of us, I might be able to choose. But it’s not, and I’ll be goddamned if I’m going to be a pawn anymore.”]
He shook her loose and took a step away from her. His aura flashed out so brilliantly that she had to raise her hand in front of her eyes; it was as if he were somehow exploding. And when his voice came, it reverberated in her head like thunder.
“CLOTHO. LACHESIS COME TO ME, DAMMIT, AND COME NOW”] He took two or three more steps and stood looking down the hill.
The two junior-high-school boys sitting on the swings were looking up at him with identical expressions of startled fear. They were up and gone the moment Ralph’s eyes lit on them, running flat-out toward the lights of Witcham Street like a couple of deer, leaving their cigarettes to smolder in the foot-ditches beneath the swings.
He was burning like an electric arc, and suddenly all the strength ran out of Lois’s legs like water. She took one step backward and collapsed onto the park bench. Her head was whirling, her heart full of terror, and below everything was that vast exhaustion. Ralph saw it as a sunken ship; Lois saw it as a pit around which she was forced to walk in a gradually tightening spiral, a pit into which she must eventually fall.
[“CLOTHO. LACHESIS LAST CHANCE I MEAN IT!”] For a moment nothing happened, and then the doors of the Portosans at the foot of the hill opened in perfect unison. Clotho stepped from the one marked MEN, Lachesis from the one marked WOMEN. Their auras, the brilliant green-gold of summer dragonflies, glimmered in the ashy light of day’s end. They moved together until their auras overlapped, then walked slowly toward the top of the hill that way, with their white-clad shoulders almost touching. They looked like a pair of frightened children.
Ralph turned to Lois. His aura still blazed and burned.
[“Yes, Ralph.”] She let him get partway down the hill, then gathered her courage and called after him.
[“But I’ll try to stop Ed if you won’t. I mean it.
Of course she did, and his heart responded to her bravery… but she didn’t know what he knew. Hadn’t seen what he had seen.
He looked back at her for a moment, then walked down to where the two little bald doctors looked at him with their luminous, frightened eyes.
Lachesis, nervously: [We didn’t lie to you-we didn’t.] Clotho, even more nervously (if that was possible): [Deepneau is on his way.
You have to stop him, Ralph-you have to at least try.] The fact is I don’t have to do anything, and your faces show it, he thought. Then he turned to Lachesis, and was gratified to see the small bald man flinch from his gaze and drop his dark, pupilless eyes.
[“Is that so? When we were on the hospital roof you told us to stay away from Ed, Mr. L. You were very emphatic about that.] Lachesis shifted uncomfortably and fidgeted with his hands.
El… that is to say we… we can be wrong. This time we were.] Except Ralph knew that wrong wasn’t the best word for what they had been; self-deceived would be better. He wanted to scold them for it-to tell the truth, he wanted to scold them for getting him into this shitting mess in the first place-and found he couldn’t.
Because, according to Old Dor, even their self-deception had served the Purpose; the side-trip to High Ridge had for some reason not been a side-trip at all. He didn’t understand why or how that was, but he intended to find out, if finding out was possible.
[“Let’s forget that part of it for the time being, gentlemen, and talk about why all this is happening. If you want help from me and Lois, I
think you better tell me.] They looked at each other with their big, frightened eyes, then back at Ralph.
Lachesis: [Ralph, do you doubt that all those people are really going to die? Because if you do-] [“No, but I’m tired of having them waved in my face. If an earthquake that served the Purpose happened to be scheduled for this area and the butcher’s bill came to ten thousand instead of just two thousand and change, you’d never even bat an eye, would you? So what’s so special about this situation? Tell me!”] Clotho: [Ralph, we don’t make the rules any more than you do. We thought you understood that.] Ralph sighed.
[“You’re weaseling again, and not wasting anybody’s time but your own.] Clotho, uneasily: [All right, perhaps the picture we gave you wasn’t completely clear, but time was short and we were frightened.
And you must see that, regardless of all else, those people will die if you can’t stop Ed Deepneau!] [“Never mind all of them for now,I only want to know about one of them-the one who belongs to the Purpose and can’t be handed overjust because some undesignated pisher comes along with a headful of loose screws and a planeful of explosive.
Who is it You feel you can’t give up to the Random? Who? It’s Day, isn’t it? Susan Day.] Lachesis: [No. Susan Day is part of the Random.
She is none of our concern, none of our worry.] [“Who, then?”
Clotho and Lachesis exchanged another glance. Clotho nodded slightly, and then they both turned back to Ralph.
Once again Lachesis flicked the first two fingers of his right hand upward, creating that peacock’s fan of light. It wasn’t McGovern Ralph saw this time, but a little boy with blond hair cut in bangs across his forehead and a hook-shaped scar across the bridge of his nose. Ralph placed him at once-the kid from the basement of High Ridge, the one with the bruised mother. The one who had called him and Lois angels.
And a little child shall lead them, he thought, utterly flabbergasted.
Oh my God. He looked disbelievingly at Clotho and Lachesis.
[“Am I understanding? All this has been about that one little boy?”] He expected more waffling, but the reply from Clotho was simple and direct: [Yes, Ralph.] Lachesis: [He’s at the Civic Center now. His mother, whose life you and Lois also saved this morning, got a call from her babysitter less than an hour ago, saying she’d cut herself badly on a piece of glass and wouldn’t be able to take care of the boy tonight after all. By then it was too late to find another sitter, of course, and this woman has been determined for weeks to see Susan Day… to shake her hand, even give her a hug, if possible. She idolizes the Day woman.] Ralph, who remembered the fading bruises on her face, supposed that was an idolatry he could understand. He understood something else even better: the babysitter’s cut hand had been no accident. Something was determined to place the little boy with the shaggy blond bangs and the smoke-reddened eyes at the Civic Center, and was willing to move heaven and earth to do it. His mother had taken him not because she was a bad parent, but because she was as subject to human nature as anyone else. She hadn’t wanted to miss her one chance at seeing Susan Day, that was all.
No, it’s not all, Ralph thought. She also took him because she thought it would be safe, with Pickering and his Daily Bread crackpots all dead. it must have seemed to her that the worst she’d have to protect her son from tonight would be a bunch of sign-waving pro-lifers, that lightning couldn’t possibly strike her and her son twice on the same day.
Ralph had been gazing off toward Witcham Street. Now he turned back to Clotho and Lachesis.
[“You’re sure he’s there? Positive?” Clotho: [Yes. Sitting in the upper north balcony next to his mother with a McDonald’s poster to color and some storybooks. Would it surprise you to know that one of the stories is The Five Hundred Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins?]
Ralph shook his head. At this point, nothing would surprise him.
Lachesis: [It’s the north side of the Civic Center that Deepneau’s plane will strike. This little boy will be killed instantly if steps are not taken to prevent it… and that can’t be allowed to happen.
This boy must not die before his scheduled time.] Lachesis was looking earnestly at Ralph. The fan of blue-green light between his fingers had disappeared.
[We can’t go on talking like this, Ralph-he’s already in the air, less than a hundred miles from here. Soon it will be too late to stop him. That made Ralph feel frantic, but he held his place just the same.
Frantic, after all, was how they wanted him to feel. How they wanted both of them to feel.
[“I’m telling you that none of that matters until I understand what the stakes are. I won’t let it matter.”] Clotho: [Listen, then.
Every now and again a man or woman comes along whose life will affect not just those about him or her, or even all those who live in the Short-Time world, but those on mani, levels above and below, the Short-Time world-These people are the Great Ones, and their lives always serve the Purpose. If they are taken too soon, everything changes. The scales cease to balance. Can you imagine, for instance, how different the world might be today if Hitler had drowned in the bathtub as a child? You may believe the world would be better for that, but I can tell you that the world would not exist at all If it had happened. Suppose Winston Churchill had died of foodpoisoning before he ever became Prime Minister? Suppose Augustus Caesar had been born dead, strangled on his own umbilical cord? Yet the person we want you to save is of far greater importance than any of these.] [“Dammit, Lois and I already saved this kid once!
Didn’t that close the books, return him to the Purpose?”] Lachesis, patiently: [Yes, but he is not safe from Ed Deepneau, because Deepneau has no designation in either Random or Purpose.
Of all the people on earth, only Deepneau can harm him before his time comes. If Deepneau fails, the boy will be safe again-he will pass his time quietly until his moment comes and he steps upon the stage to play his brief but crucially important part.] [“One life means so much, then?” Lachesis: [Yes. If the child dies, the Tower of all existence will fall, and the consequences of such a fall are beyond -your comprehension.
And beyond ours, as well.] Ralph stared down at his shoes for a moment. His head seemed to weigh a thousand pounds. There was an irony here, one he was able to grasp easily in spite of his weariness.
Atropos had apparently set Ed in motion by inflaming some sort of Messiah complex which might have been pre-existing… a by-product of his undesignated status, perhaps. What Ed didn’t see-and would never believe if told-was that Atropos and his bosses on the upper levels intended to use him not to save the Messiah but to kill him.
He looked up again into the anxious faces of the two little bald doctors.
[“Okay, I don’t know how I’m supposed to stop Ed, but I’ll give it a shot.
Clotho and Lachesis looked at each other and smiled identical (and very human) broad smiles of relief. Ralph raised a cautioning finger.
[“Wait. You haven’t heard all of it.”] Their smiles faded.
“I want something back from you. One life. I’ll trade the life of your four-year-old boy for-“] Lois didn’t hear the end of that; his voice dropped below the range of audibility for a moment, but when she saw first Clotho and then Lachesis begin shaking their heads, her heart sank.
Lachesis: [I understand your distress, and yes, Atropos can certainly do as he threatens. Yet you must surely comprehend that this one life is hardly as important as-Ralph: [“But I think it is, don’t you see? I think it is. What you two guys need to get through your heads is that to me, both lives are equally-”] She lost him again, but had no problem hearing Clotho; in the depth of his distress he was almost wailing.
[But this is different! This boy’s life is different.] Now she heard Ralph clearly, speaking (if speech was what it was) with a fearless, relentless logic that made Lois think of her father.
[“All lives are different. All of them matter or none matters.
That’s only my short-sighted, Short-Time view, of course, but I guess -you boys are stuck with it, since I’m the one with the hammer.
The bottom line, Is this: I’ll trade you, even-up. The life of yours for the life of loise. All ’You have to do is promise, and the deal’s on.”] Lachesis: [Ralph, please.” Please understand that we really must not!] There was a long moment of silence. When Ralph spoke, his voice was soft but still audible. It was, however, the last completely audible thing Lois heard in their conversation.
[“There’s a world of difference between cannot and must not, wouldn’t you say?”] Clotho said something, but Lois caught only an isolated [trade might possibly bel phrase. Lachesis shook his head violently. Ralph replied and Lachesis answered by making a grim little scissoring gesture with his fingers.
Surprisingly, Ralph replied to this with a laugh and a nod.
Clotho put a hand on his colleague’s arm and spoke to him earnestly before turning back to Ralph.
Lois clenched her hands in her lap, willing them to reach some sort of agreement. Any agreement that would keep Ed Deepneau from killing all those people while they just stood here yattering.
Suddenly the side of the hill was illuminated by brilliant white light. At first Lois thought it came down from the sky, but that was only because myth and religion had taught her to believe the sky was the source of all supernatural emanations. In reality, it seemed to come from everywhere-trees, sky, ground, even from herself, streaming out of her aura like ribbons of fog.
There was a voice, then… or rather a Voice. It spoke only four words, but they echoed in Lois’s head like iron bells.
[IT MAY BE SO.] She saw Clotho, his small face a mask of terror and awe, reach into his back pocket and bring out his scissors. He fumbled and almost dropped them, a nervous blunder that made Lois feel real kinship for him. Then he was holding them up with one handle in each hand and the blades open.
Those four words came again:
[IT MAY BE SO,]
This time they were followed by a glare so bright that for a moment Lois believed she must be blinded. She clapped her hands over her eyes but saw-in the last instant when she could see anything-that the light had centered on the scissors Clotho was holding up like a two-pronged lightning-rod.
There was no refuge from that light; it turned her eyelids and upraised, shielding hands to glass. The glare outlined the bones of her fingers like X-ray pencils as it streamed through her flesh. From somewhere far away she heard a woman who sounded suspiciously like Lois Chasse, screaming at the top of her mental voice: [“Turn it off! God, please turn it off before it kills me!”] And at last, when it seemed to her that she could stand no more, the light did begin to fade. When it was gone-except for a fierce blue afterimage that floated in the new darkness like a pair of phantom scissors-she slowly opened her eyes.
For a moment she continued to see nothing but that brilliant blue cross and thought she had indeed been blinded. Then, as dim as a developing photograph at first, the world began to resurface. She saw Ralph, Clotho, and Lachesis lowering their own hands and peering around with the blind bewilderment of a nest of moles turned up by the blade of a harrow.
Lachesis was looking at the scissors in his colleague’s hands as if he had never seen them before, and Lois was willing to bet he never had seen them as they were now. The blades were still shining, shedding eldritch fairy-glimmers of light in misty droplets.
Lachesis: [Ralph! That was…] She lost the rest of it, but his tone was that of a common peasant who answers a knock at the door of his hut and finds that the Pope has stopped by for a spot of prayer and a little confession.
Clotho was still staring at the blades of the scissors. Ralph was also looking, but at last he lifted his gaze to the bald doctors.
Ralph: [“… the hurt?”] Lachesis, speaking like a man emerging from a deep dream: Yes… won’t last long, but… agony will be intense… change your mind, Ralph?] Lois was suddenly afraid of those shining scissors. She wanted to cry out to Ralph, tell him to never mind his one, to just give them their one, their little boy. She wanted to tell him to do whatever it took to get them to hide those scissors again.
But no words came from either her mouth or her mind.
Ralph: [“… in the least… Just wanted to know what to expect, Clotho: [… ready?… must be…
Tell them no, Ralph! she thought at him. Tell them NO!
Ralph: [“… ready.”] Lachesis: [Understand… terms he has… and the price?] Ralph, impatient now: [“Yes, yes. Can we please just… “I Clotho, with immense gravity: [Very well, Ralph. It may be so.] Lachesis put an arm around Ralph’s shoulders; he and Clotho led him a little farther down the hill, to the place where the younger children started their downhill sled-runs in the winter. There was a small flat area there, circular in shape, about the size of a nightclub stage. When they reached it, Lachesis stopped Ralph, then turned him so he and Clotho were facing each other.
Lois suddenly wanted to shut her eyes and found she couldn’t.
She could only watch and pray that Ralph knew what he was doing.
Clotho murmured to him. Ralph nodded and slipped out of McGovern’s sweater. He folded it and laid it neatly on the leafstrewn grass. When he straightened again, Clotho took his right wrist and held his arm out straight. He then nodded to Lachesis, who unbuttoned the cuff of Ralph’s shirt and rolled the sleeve to the elbow in three quick turns. With that done, Clotho rotated Ralph’s arm so it was wrist-up. The fine tracery of blue veins Just beneath the skin of his forearm was poignantly clear, highlighted in delicate strokes of aura.
All of this was horribly familiar to Lois: it was like watching a patient on a TV doctor-show being prepped for an operation.
Except this wasn’t TV.
Lachesis leaned forward and spoke again. Although she still couldn’t hear the words, Lois knew he was telling Ralph this was his last chance.
Ralph nodded, and although his aura now told her that he was terrified of what was coming, he somehow even managed a smile.
When he turned to Clotho and spoke, he did not seem to be seeking reassurance but rather offering a word of comfort, Clotho tried to return Ralph’s smile, but without success.
Lachesis wrapped one hand around Ralph’s wrist, more to steady the arm (or so it seemed to Lois) than to actually hold it immobile.
He reminded her of a nurse attending a patient who must receive a painful injection. Then he looked at his partner with frightened eyes and nodded. Clotho nodded back, took a breath, and then bent over Ralph’s upturned forearm with its ghostly tree of blue veins glowing beneath the skin. He paused for a moment, then slowly opened the jaws of the scissors with which he and his old friend traded life for death.
Lois staggered to her feet and stood swaying back and forth on legs that felt like lumber. She meant to break the paralysis which had locked her in such a cruel silence, to shout at Ralph and tell him to stop-tell him he didn’t know what they meant to do to him.
Except he did. It was in the pallor of his face, his half-closed eyes, his painfully thinned lips. Most of all it was in the blotches of red and black which were flashing across his aura like meteors, and in the aura itself, which had tightened down to a hard blue shell.
Ralph nodded at Clotho, who brought the lower scissor-blade down until it was touching Ralph’s forearm just below the fold of the elbow.
For a moment the skin only dimpled, and then a smooth dark blister of blood formed where the dimple had been. The blade slid into this blister. When Clotho squeezed his fingers, bringing the razor-sharp blades together, the skin on either side of the lengthwise cut snapped back with the suddenness of windowshades-Subcutaneous fat glimmered like melting ice in the fierce blue glow of Ralph’s aura. Lachesis tightened his hold on Ralph’s wrist, but so far as Lois could tell, Ralph did not make even a first instinctive effort to pull back, only lowered his head and clenched his left fist in the air like a man giving a Black Power salute. She could see the cords in his neck standing out like cables. Not a single sound escaped him.
Now that this terrible business was actually begun, Clotho proceeded with a speed which was both brutal and merciful. He cut rapidly down the middle of Ralph’s forearm to his wrist, using the scissors the way a man will to open a parcel which has been heavily taped, guiding the blades with the fingers and bearing down with the thumb. Inside Ralph’s arm, tendons gleamed like cuts of flank steak.
Blood ran in freshets, and there was a fine scarlet spray each time an artery or a vein was severed. Soon fans of backspatter decorated the white tunics of the two small men, making them look more like little doctors than ever.
When his blades had at last severed the Bracelets of Fortune at Ralph’s wrist (the “operation” took less than three seconds but seemed to last forever to Lois), Clotho removed the dripping scissors and handed them to Lachesis. Ralph’s upturned arm had been cut open from elbow to wrist in a dark furrow.
Clotho clamped his hands over this furrow at its point of origination and Lois thought: Now the other one will pick up ralph’s sweater and use it as a tourniquet. But Lachesis made no move to do that; he merely held the scissors and watched.
For a moment the blood went on flowing between Clotho’s grasping fingers, and then it stopped. He slowly drew his hands down Ralph’s arm, and the flesh which emerged from his grip was whole and firm, although seamed with a thick white ridge of scar-tissue.
[Lois… Lo-isssss… I This voice was not coming from inside her head, nor from down the hill; it had come from behind her. A soft voice, almost cajoling.
Atropos? No, not at all. She looked down and saw green and somehow sunken light flowing all around her-it rayed through the spaces between her arms and her body, between her legs, even between her fingers. It rippled her shadow ahead of her, scrawny and somehow twisted, like the shadow of a hanged woman. It caressed her with heatless fingers the color of Spanish moss.
[Turn around, Lo-isss…] At that moment the last thing on earth Lois Chasse wanted to do was turn around and look at the source of that green light.
[Turn around, Lo-isss… see me, Lo-isss… come into the light, Lo-isss… come into the light… see me and come into the light…] It was not a voice which could be disobeyed. Lois turned as slowly as a toy ballerina whose cogs have grown rusty, and her eyes seemed to fill up with Saint Elmo’s fire.
Lois came into the light.