CHAPTER 30

Just before the explosion came, Susan Day, standing in a hot white spotlight at the front of the Civic Center and now living through the last few seconds of her fabulous, provocative life, was saying: “I haven’t come to Derry to heal you, hector you, or to incite you, but to mourn with you-this is a situation which has passed far beyond political considerations. There is no right in violence, nor refuge in self-righteousness. I am here to ask that you put your positions and your rhetoric aside and help each other find a way to help each other.

To turn away from the attractions of-” The high windows lining the south side of the auditorium suddenly lit up with a brilliant white glare and then blew inward.

The Cherokee missed the Hoodsie wagon, but that didn’t save it.

The plane took one final half-turn in the air and then screwed itself into the parking lot about twenty-five feet from the fence where, earlier that day, Lois had paused to yank up her troublesome halfslip. The wings snapped off. The cockpit made a quick and violent journey back through the passenger section. The fuselage blew out with the fury of a bottle of champagne in a microwave oven. Glass flew.

The tail bent over the Cherokee’s body like the stinger of a dying scorpion and impaled itself in the roof of a Dodge van with the words PROTECT WOMEN’s IPJGHT TO CHOOSE! stencilled on the side. There was a bright and bitter crunch-clang that sounded like a dropped pile of scrap iron.

“Holy shi-” one of the cops posted on the edge of the parking lot began, and then the C-4 inside the cardboard box flew free like a big gray glob of phlegm and struck the remains of the instrument panel where several “hot” wires rammed into it like hypo needles.

The plastique exploded with an ear-crunching thud, flash-frying the Bassey Park racetrack and turning the parking lot into a hurricane of white light and shrapnel. John Leydecker, who had been standing under the Civic Center’s cement canopy-and talking to a State cop, was thrown through one of the open doors and all the way across the lobby.

He struck the far wall and fell unconscious into the shattered glass from the harness-racing trophy case. At that, he was luckier than the man with whom he had been standing; the State cop was thrown into the post between two of the open doors and chopped in half.

The ranks of cars actually shielded the Civic Center from the worst of the hammering, concussive blow, but that blessing would only be counted later. Inside, over two thousand people at first sat stunned, unsure of what they should do and even more unsure of what most of them had just seen: America’s most famous feminist decapitated by a jagged chunk of flying glass. Her head went flying into the sixth row like some strange white bowling ball with a blonde wig pasted on it.

They didn’t erupt into panic until the lights went out.

Seventy-one people were killed in the trampling, panicked rush to the exits, and the next day’s Derry News would trumpet the event with a forty-eight-point scare headline, calling it a terrible tragedy.

Ralph Roberts could have told them that, all things considered, they had gotten off lucky. Very lucky, indeed.

Halfway up the north balcony, a woman named Sonia Danville-a woman with the bruises of the last beating any man would ever give her still fading from her face-sat with her arms around the shoulders of her son, Patrick. Patrick’s McDonald’s poster, showing Ronald and Mayor McCheese and the Hamburglar dancing the BootScootin’ Boogie just outside a drive-thru window, was on his lap, but he had hardly done more than color the golden arches before turning the poster over to the blank side. It wasn’t that he had lost interest; it was just that he’d had an idea for a picture of his own, and it had come, as such ideas often did to him, with the force of a compulsion.

He had spent most of the day thinking about what had happened in the cellar at High Ridge-the smoke, the heat, the frightened women, and the two angels that had come to save them-but his splendid idea banished these disturbing thoughts, and he fell to work with silent enthusiasm. Soon Patrick felt almost as if he were living in the world he was drawing with his Crayolas.

He was an amazingly competent artist already, only four years old or not (“My little genius,” Sonia sometimes called him), and his picture was much better than the color-it-in poster on the other side of the sheet. What he had managed before the lights went out was work a gifted first-year art student might have been proud of. In the middle of the poster-sheet, a tower of dark, soot-colored stone rose into a blue sky dotted with fat white clouds. Surrounding it was a field of roses so red they almost seemed to clamor aloud. Standing off to one side was a man dressed in faded bluejeans. A pair of gunbelts crossed his flat middle; a holster hung below each hip. At the very top of the tower, a man in a red robe was looking down at the gunfighter with an expression of mingled hate and fear. His hands, which were curled over the parapet, also appeared to be red.

Sonia had been mesmerized by the presence of Susan Day, who was sitting behind the lectern and listening to her introduction, but she had happened to glance down at her son’s picture just before the introduction ended. She had known for two years that Patrick was what the child psychologists called a prodigy, and she sometimes told herself she had gotten used to his sophisticated drawings and the Play-Doli sculptures he called the Clay Family. Perhaps she even had, to some degree, but this particular picture gave her a strange, deep chill that she could not entirely dismiss as emotional fallout from her long and stressful day.

“Who’s that?” she asked, tapping the tiny figure peering jealously down from the top of the dark tower.

“Him’s the Red King,” Patrick said.

“Oh, the Red King, I see. And who’s this man with the guns?”

As he opened his mouth to answer, Roberta Harper, the woman at the podium, lifted her left arm (there was a black mourning band on it) toward the woman sitting behind her. “My friends, His. Susan Day.i” she cried, and Patrick Danville’s answer to his mother’s second question was lost in the rising storm of applause: Him’s name is Roland, Mama. I dream about him, sometimes.

He’s a King, too.

Now the two of them sat in the dark with their ears ringing, and two thoughts ran through Sonia’s mind like rats chasing each other on a treadmill: Won’t this day ever end, I knew I shouldn’t have brought him, won’t this day ever end, I knew I shouldn’t have brought him, won’t this day”Mommy, you’re scrunching my picture!” Patrick said. He sounded a little out of breath, and Sonia realized she must be scrunching him, too. She eased up a little. A tattered skein of screams, shouts, and babbled questions came from the dark pit below them, where the people rich enough to pony up fifteen-dollar “donations” had been seated in folding chairs. A rough howl of pain cut through this babble, making Sonia jump in her seat.

The thudding crump which had followed the initial explosion had pressed in painfully on their ears and shaken the building. The blasts which were still going on-cars exploding like firecrackers in the parking lot-sounded small and inconsequential in comparison, but Sonia felt Patrick flinch against her with each one.

“Stay calm, Pat,” she told him. “Something bad’s happened, but I think it happened outside.” Because her eyes had been drawn to the bright glare in the windows, Sonia had mercifully missed seeing her heroine’s head leaving her shoulders, but she knew that somehow lightning had struck in the same place.

(shouldn’t have brought him, shouldn’t have brought him) and that at least some of the people below them were panicking.

If she panicked, she and Young Rembrandt were going to be in serious trouble.

But I’m not going to. I didn’t get out of that deathbox this morning just to panic now. I’ll be goddamned if I will.

She reached down and took one of Patrick’s hands-the one that wasn’t clutching his picture. It was very cold.

“Do you think the angels will come to save us again, Mama?” he asked in a voice that quivered slightly.

“Nah,” she said. “I think this time we better do it ourselves.

But we can do that. I mean, we’re all right now, aren’t we?”

“Yes,” he said, but then slumped against her. She had a terrible moment when she was sure he had fainted and she’d have to carry him from the Civic Center in her arms, but then he straightened up again.

“My books was on the floor,” he said. “I didn’t want to leave without my books, especially the one about the boy who can’t take off his hat.

Are we leaving, Mama?”

“Yes. As soon as people stop running around. There’ll be lights in the halls, ones that run on batteries, even though the ones in here are out. When I say, we’re going to get up and walk-walk-up the steps to the door. I’m not going to carry you, but I’m going to walk right behind you with both my hands on your shoulders. Do you understand, Pat?”

“Yes, Mama.” No questions. No blubbering. just his books, thrust into her hands for safekeeping. He held onto the picture himself.

She gave him a quick hug and kissed his cheek.

They waited in their seats five minutes by her slow count to three hundred. She sensed that most of their immediate neighbors were gone before she got to a hundred and fifty, but she made herself wait. She could now see a little, enough for her to believe that something was burning fiercely outside, but on the far side of the building. That was very lucky. She could hear the warble-wail of approaching police cars, ambulances, and fire-trucks.

Sonia got to her feet. “Come on. Keep right in front of me.”

Pat Danville stepped into the aisle with his mother’s hands pressed firmly down on his shoulders. He led her up the steps toward the dim yellow lights which marked the north balcony corridor, stopping only once as the dark shape of a running man hurtled toward them.

His mother’s hands tightened on his shoulders as she yanked him aside.

“Goddam right-to-lifers!” the running man cried, “Fucking selfrighteous turds I’d like to kill them all!”

Then he was gone and Pat began walking up the stairs again. She felt a calmness in him now, a centered lack of fear, that touched her heart with love, and with some queer darkness, as well. He was so different, her son, so special… but the world did not love people like that, The world tried to root them out, like tares from a garden.

They emerged at last into the corridor. A few deeply shocked people wandered back and forth, eyes dazed and mouths agape, like zombies in a horror movie. Sonia hardly glanced at them, just got Pat moving toward the stairs. Three minutes later they exited into the fireshot night perfectly unscathed, and upon all the levels of the universe, matters both Random and Purposeful resumed their ordained courses. Worlds which had trembled for a moment in their orbits now steadied, and in one of those worlds, in a desert that was the apotheosis of all deserts, a man named Roland turned over in his bedroll and slept easily once again beneath the alien constellations.

Across town, in Strawford Park, the door of the Portosan marked MEN blew open. Lois Chasse and Ralph Roberts came flying out backward in a haze of smoke, clutching each other. From within came the sound of the Cherokee hitting and then the plastique exploding. There was a flash of white light and the toilet’s blue walls bulged outward, as if some giant had hammered them with his fists.

A second later they heard the explosion all over again; this time it came rolling across the open air. The second version was fainter, but somehow more real.

Lois’s feet stuttered and she thumped to the grass of the lower hillside with a cry which was partly relief. Ralph landed beside her, then pushed himself up to a sitting position. He stared unbelievingly at the Civic Center, where a fist of fire was now clenched on the horizon. A purple lump the size of a doorknob was rising on his forehead, where Ed had hit him. His left side still throbbed, but he thought maybe the ribs in there were only sprung, not broken.

[“Lois, are you all right?” She looked at him uncomprehendingly for a moment, then began to feel at her face and neck and shoulders.

There was something so perfectly, sweetly Our Lois about this examination that Ralph laughed. He couldn’t help it. Lois smiled tentatively back at him.

[“I think I’m fine. In fact, I’m quite sure I am.”] [“What were you doing there? You could have been killed.”’] Lois, appearing somewhat rejuvenated (Ralph guessed that the handy wino had had something to do with that) looked him in the eye.

[“I may be old-fashioned, Ralph, but if you think I’m going to spend the next twenty years or so far’ntting and fluttering like the heroine’s best friend in those Regency romances my friend was always reading, you better pick another woman to chum around with.”] He gaped for a moment, then pulled her to her feet and hugged her. Lois hugged back. She was incredibly warm, incredibly there, Ralph reflected for a moment on the similarities between loneliness and insomnia-how they were both insidious, cumulative, and divisive, the friends of despair and the enemies of love-and then he pushed those thoughts aside and kissed her.

Clotho and Lachesis, who had been standing at the top of the hill and looking as anxious as workmen who have wagered their Christmas bonuses on a prizefight underdog, now rushed down to where Ralph and Lois stood with their foreheads once more pressed together, looking into each other’s eyes like lovestruck teenagers.

From the far side of the Barrens, the sound of sirens rose like voices heard in uneasy dreams. The pillar of fire which marked the grave of Ed Deepneau’s obsession was now too bright to look at without squinting. Ralph could hear the faint sound of cars exploding, and he thought of his car, sitting abandoned somewhere out in the williwags.

He decided that was okay. He was too old to drive.

Clotho: [Are you both all right?]

Ralph: [“We’re fine, Lois reeled me in. She saved my life.”]

Lachesis: [yes. We saw her go in. It was very brave.] Also very perplexing, right, Mr. L.? Ralph thought. You saw it and you admire it… but I don’t think you have any idea of how or why she could bring herself to do it. I think that, to you and your friend, the concept Of rescue must seem almost as foreign as the idea of love.

For the first time, Ralph felt a kind of pity for the little bald doctors, and understood the central irony of their lives: they were aware that the Short-Timers whose existences they had been sent to prune lived powerful inner lives, but they did not in the least comprehend the reality of those lives, the emotions which drove them, which of the actions-sometimes noble, sometimes foolish suited-Mr. C. and Mr. L. had studied their Short-Time charges as certain rich but timid Englishmen had studied the maps brought back by the explorers of the Victorian Age, explorers who had in many cases been funded by these same rich but timid men. With their clipped nails and soft fingers the philanthropists had traced paper rivers upon which they would never ride and paper jungles through which they would never safari. They lived in fearful perplexity and passed it off as imagination.

Clotho and Lachesis had drafted them, and had used them with a certain crude effectiveness, hut they understood neither the joy of risk nor the sorrow of loss-the best they had been able to manage in the way of emotion was a nagging fear that Ralph and Lois would try to take on the Crimson King’s pet research chemist directly and be swatted like elderly flies for their pains. The little bald doctors lived long lives, but Ralph suspected that, brilliant dragonfly auras notwithstanding, they were gray lives. He looked at their unlined, oddly childish faces from the safe haven of Lois’s arms and remembered how terrified of them he had been when he had first seen them coming out of May Locher’s house in the early hours of the morning. Terror, he had since discovered, could not survive mere acquaintanceship, let alone knowledge, and now he had some of both.

Clotho and Lachesis returned his gaze with an uneasiness Ralph found he had absolutely no urge to allay. It seemed very right to him, somehow, that they should feel the way they were feeling.

Ralph: [“Yes, she’s very brave and I love her very much and I think we’ll make each other very happy until-“] He broke off, and Lois stirred in his arms. He realized with a mixture of amusement and relief that she had been half-asleep.

[“Until what, Ralph?”] [“Until you name it. I guess that there’s always an until when you’re a Short-Timer, and maybe that’s okay.”] Lachesis: [Well, I guess this is goodbye.] Ralph grinned in spite of himself, reminded of The Lone Ranger radio program, where almost every episode had ended with some version of that line. He reached out toward Lachesis and was sourly amused to see the little man recoil from him.

Ralph: [“Wait a minute… let’s not be so hasty, fellas.] Clotho, with a tinge of apprehension: [Is something wrong?] [“I don’t think so, but after getting popped in the head, popped in the ribs, and damned near roasted alive, I think I have a right to make sure that it’s really over. Is it? Is your boy safe?”] Clotho, smiling and clearly relieved: [Yes. Can’t you feel it?

Eighteen years from now,. just before his death, the boy is going to save the lives of two men who would otherwise die… and one of those men must of die, if the balance between the Random and the Purpose is to be maintained.] Lois: [“Never mind all that. I just want to know if we can go back to being regular Short-Timers again.”] Lachesis: [Not only can, Lois, but must. If you and Ralph were to stay up here much longer, you wouldn’t be able to go back down.] Ralph felt Lois press more tightly against him.

[“I wouldn’t like that.”] Clotho and Lachesis turned toward each other and a subtle, perplexed glance-How could anybody not like it up here? their eyes asked-passed between them before they turned back to Ralph and Lois.

Lachesis: [We really must be going. I’m sorry, but-Ralph: [“Hold on, neighbors-you’re not going anywhere yet.”] They looked at him apprehensively while Ralph slowly pushed up the sleeve of his sweater-the cuff was now stiff with some fluid, perhaps catfish ichor, that he found he did not want to think about-and showed them the white, knotted line of scar on his forearm.

[“Put away the constipated looks, guys. I just want to remind you that you gave me your word. Don’t forget that part of it.] Clotho, with obvious relief: [You can depend on it, Ralph. What was your weapon is now our bond. The promise will not be forgotten-Ralph was beginning to believe it really was over. And, crazy as it seemed, part of him regretted it. Now it was real life-life as it went on on the floors below this level-that seemed almost like a mirage, and he understood what Lachesis had meant when he told them that they would never be able to return to their normal lives if they stayed up here much longer.

Lachesis: [We really must go. Fare you well, Ralph and Lois. We will never forget the service you have rendered us.] Ralph: [“Did we ever have a choice? Did we really?”] Lachesis, very softly: [We told you so, didn’t we? For Short-Timers there is always a choice. We find that frightening… but we also find it beautiful.] Ralph: [“Say-do you fellows ever shake hands?”] Clotho and Lachesis glanced at each other, startled, and Ralph sensed some quick dialogue flashing between them in a kind of telepathic shorthand. When they looked back at Ralph, they wore identical nervous smiles-the smiles of teenage boys who have decided that if they can’t find enough courage to ride the big rollercoaster at the amusement park this summer, they will never truly be men.

Clotho: [We have observed this custom many times, of course, but no-we have never shaken hands.] Ralph looked at Lois and saw she was smiling… but he thought he saw a shimmer of tears in her eyes, as well.

He offered his hand to Lachesis first, because Mr. L. seemed marginally less jumpy than his colleague.

[“Put ’er there, Mr. L. “I Lachesis looked at Ralph’s hand for so long that Ralph began to think he wasn’t going to be able to actually do it, although he clearly wanted to. Then, timidly, he put out his own small hand and allowed Ralph’s larger one to close over it. There was a tingling vibration in Ralph’s flesh as their auras first mingled, then merged… and in that merging he saw a series of swift, beautiful silver patterns. They reminded him of the Japanese characters on Ed’s scarf.

He pumped Lachesis’s hand twice, slowly and formally, then released it. Lachesis’s look of apprehension had been replaced by a large goony smile. He turned to his partner.

[His force is almost completely unguarded during this ceremoni.”

felt it.” It’s quite wonderful.ll Clotho inched his own hand out to meet Ralph’s, and in the instant before they touched, Mr. C. closed his eyes like a man expecting a painful injection.

Lachesis, meanwhile, was shaking hands with Lois and grinning like a vaudeville hoofer taking an encore.

Clotho appeared to steel himself, then seized Ralph’s hand. He flagged it once, firmly. Ralph grinned.

[“Take her easy, Mr. C.] Clotho withdrew his hand. He seemed to be searching for the proper response.

[Thank you, Ralph. I will take her any way I can get her.

Correct?] Ralph burst out laughing. Clotho, now turning to shake hands with Lois, gave him a puzzled smile, and Ralph clapped him on the back.

[“You got it right, Mr. C. -absolutely right-“He slipped his arm around Lois and gave the little bald doctors a final curious look.

[“I’ll be seeing you fellows again, won’t I?”] Clotho: [Yes, Ralph.] Ralph: [“Well, that’s fine. About seventy years from now would be good for me” why don’t you boys)just put it down on your calendar?”] They responded with the smiles of politicians, which didn’t surprise him much. Ralph gave them a little bow, then put his arms around Lois’s shoulders and watched as Mr, C. and Mr. L. walked slowly down the hill. Lachesis opened the door of the slightly warped Portosan marked MEN; Clotho stood in the open doorway of WOMEN.

Lachesis smiled and waved. Clotho lifted the long-bladed scissors in a queer sort of salute.

Ralph and Lois waved back.

The bald doctors stepped inside and closed the doors.

Lois wiped her streaming eyes and turned to Ralph.

[“Is that it? It is, isn’t it?”] Ralph nodded.

[“What do we do now?”] He held out his arm.

[“May I see you home, madam?”]

Smiling, she clasped his forearm just below the elbow.

[“Thank you, sir. You may.”] They left Strawford Park that way, returning to the Short-Time level as they came out on Harris Avenue, slipping back down to their normal place in the scheme of things with no fuss or botherwithout, in fact, even being aware they were doing it until it was done.

Derry groaned with panic and sweated with excitement. Sirens wailed, people shouted from second-storey windows to friends on the sidewalks below, and on every street-corner people had clustered to watch the fire on the other side of the valle, Ralph and Lois paid no attention to the tumult and hooraw. They walked slowly up Up-Mile Hill, increasingly aware of their exhaustion; it seemed to come piling into them like softly thrown bags of sand. The pool of white light marking the Red Apple Store’s parking lot seemed an impossible distance away, although Ralph knew it was only three blocks, and short ones, at that.

To make matters worse, the temperature had dropped a good fifteen degrees since that morning, the wind was blowing hard, and neither of them was dressed for the weather. Ralph suspected this might be the leading edge of autumn’s first big gale, and that in Derry, Indian summer was over.

Faye Chapin, Don Veazie, and Stan Eberly came hurrying do-,n the hill toward them, obviously bound for Strawford Park. The fieldglasses Old Dor sometimes used to watch planes taxi, land, and take off were bouncing around Faye’s neck. With Don, who was balding and heavyset, in the middle, their resemblance to a more famous trio was inescapable.

The Three Stooges of the Apocalypse, Ralph thought, and grinned.

“Ralph!” Faye exclaimed. He was breathing fast, almost panting.

The wind blew his hair into his eyes and he raked it back impatiently.

“Goddam Civic Center blew up! Someone bombed it from a light plane! We heard there’s a thousand people dead “I heard about the same,” Ralph agreed gravely. “In fact, Lois and I have just been down at the park, having a look. You can see straight across the valley from there, you know.”

“Christ, I know that, I’ve lived here all my damn life, haven’t I?

Where do you think we’re going? Come on back with us!”

“Lois and I were just headed up to her house to see what they’ve got about it on TV. Maybe we’ll join you later.”

“Okay, we-jeepers-creepers, Ralph, what’d you do milo your head?

“For a moment Ralph drew a blank-what had he done to his head?-and then, in an instant of nightmarish recall, he saw Ed’s snarling mouth and mad eyes. Oh no, don’t, Ed had screamed at him.

You’ll spoil everything.

“We were running to get a better look and Ralph ran into a tree,” Lois said. “He’s lucky not to be in the hospital.”

Don laughed at that, but in the half-distracted manner of a fellow who has bigger fish to fry. Faye wasn’t paying attention to them at all. Stan Eberly was, however, and Stan didn’t laugh. He was looking at them with close, puzzled curiosity.

“Lois,” he said.

“What?”

“Did you know you’ve got a sneaker tied to your wrist?”

She looked down at it. Ralph looked down at it. Then Lois looked up and gave Stan a dazzling, eye-frying smile. “Yes!” she said.

“It’s an interesting look, isn’t it? Sort of a… a life-sized charm bracelet!”

“Yeah,” Stan said. “Sure.” But he wasn’t looking at the sneaker anymore; now he was looking at Lois’s face. Ralph wondered how in hell they were going to explain how they looked tomorrow, when there were no shadows between the streetlights to hide them.

“Come on!” Faye cried impatiently. “Let’s get going!”

They hurried off (Stan gave them one last doubtful glance over his shoulder as they went). Ralph listened after them, almost expecting Don Veazie to give out a nyuck-nyuck or two.

“Boy, that sounded so dumb,” Lois said, “but I had to say something, didn’t I?”

“You did fine.”

“Well, when I open my mouth, something always seems to fall out,” she said. “It’s one of my two great talents, the other being the ability to clean out an entire Whitman’s Sampler during a two-hour TV movie.” She untied Helen’s sneaker and looked at it. “She’s safe, isn’t she?”

“Yes,” Ralph agreed, and reached for the sneaker. As he did, he realized he already had something in his left hand. The fingers had been clamped down so long that they were creaky and reluctant to open.

When they finally did, he saw the marks of his nails pressed into the flesh of his palm. The first thing he was aware of was that, while his own wedding ring was still in its accustomed place, Ed’s was gone.

It had seemed a perfect fit, but apparently it had slipped off his finger at some point during the last half an hour, just the same, Maybe not, a voice whispered, and Ralph was amused to realize that it wasn’t Carolyn’s this time. This time the voice in his had belonged to Bill McGovern. Maybe it just disappeared. You know, poof But he didn’t think so. He had an idea that Ed’s wedding band might have been invested with powers that hadn’t necessarily died with Ed. The Ring Bilbo Baggins had found and reluctantly given up to his grandson, Frodo, had had a way of going where it wanted to… and when. Perhaps Ed’s ring wasn’t all that different.

Before he could consider this idea further, Lois traded Helen’s sneaker for the thing in his hand: a small stiff crumple of paper. She smoothed it out and looked at it. Her curiosity slowly changed to solemnity.

“I remember this picture, “she said. “The big one was on the mantel in their living room, in a fancy gold frame. It had pride of place.”

Ralph nodded. “This must have been the one he carried in his wallet.

It was taped to the instrument panel of the plane. Until I took it, he was beating me, and not even breathing hard while he did it. Grabbing his picture was all I could think of to do. When I did, his focus switched from the Civic Center to them. The last thing I heard him say was ’Give them back, they’re mine.”

“And was he talking to you when he said it?”

Ralph stuck the sneaker into his back pocket and shook his head.

“Nope. Don’t think so.”

“Helen was at the Civic Center tonight, wasn’t she?”

“Yes.” Ralph thought of how she had looked out at High Ridge -her pale face and smoke-reddened, watering eyes. If they stop us now, they win, she’d said. Don’t you see that?

And now he did see.

He took the picture from Lois’s hand, crumpled it up again, and walked over to the litter-basket which stood on the corner of Harris Avenue and Kossuth Lane. “We’ll get another picture of them somesometime, one we can keep on our own mantel.

Something not quite so formal. This one, though… I don’t want it.”

He tossed the little ball of paper at the litter-basket, an easy shot, two feet at the most, but the wind picked that moment to gust and the crumpled photo of Helen and Natalie which had been taped above the altimeter of Ed’s plane flew away on its cold breath. The two of them watched it whirl up into the sky, almost hypnotized. It was Lois who looked away first. She glanced at Ralph with a trace of a smile curving her lips.

“Did I hear a backhand proposal of marriage from you, or am I just tired?” she asked.

He opened his mouth to reply and another gust of wind struck them, this one so hard it made them both wince their eyes shut.

When he opened his, Lois had already started up the hill again.

“Anything’s possible, Lois,” he said. “I know that now.”

Five minutes later, Lois’s key rattled in the lock of her front door.

She led Ralph inside and shut it firmly behind them, closing out the windy, contentious night. He followed her into the living room and would have stopped there, but Lois never hesitated. Still holding his hand, not quite pulling him along (but perhaps meaning to do so if he began to lag), she showed him into her bedroom.

He looked at her. Lois looked calmly back… and suddenly he felt the blink happen again. He watched her aura bloom around her like a gray rose. It was still diminished, but it was already coming back, re-knitting itself, healing itself.

[“Lois, are you sure this is what you want?”] [“Of course it I’s.”

Did you think I was going to give you a pat on the head and send you home after all we’ve been through?” Suddenly she smiled-a wickedly mischievous smile.

[“Besides, Ralph-do you really feel like getting up to dickens tonight? Tell me the truth. Better still, don’t flatter me.”] He considered it, then laughed and drew her into his arms. Her mouth was sweet and slightly moist, like the skin of a ripe peach, That kiss seemed to tingle through his entire body, but the sensation was most concentrated in his mouth, where it felt almost like an electric shock.

When their lips parted, he felt more excited than ever… but he also felt queerly drained.

[“What if I say I do, Lois? What if I say I do want to get up to dickens?” She stood back and looked at him critically, as if trying to decide whether he meant what he said or if it was just the usual male bluff and brag. At the same time her hands went to the buttons of her dress. As she began to slip them free, Ralph noticed a wonderful thing: she looked younger again. Not forty by any stretch of the imagination, but surely no more than fifty… and a young fifty. It had been the kiss, of course, and the really amusing thing was he didn’t think she had the slightest idea that she had added a helping of Ralph to her earlier helping of wino. And what was wrong with that?

She finished her inspection, leaned forward, and kissed his cheek, [“I think that there’ll be plenty of time for getting up to dickens later, Ralph-tonight’sfor sleeping.”] He supposed she was right. Five minutes ago he had been more than willing-he had always loved the act of physical love, and it had been a long time. For now, however, the spark was gone. Ralph didn’t regret that in the least. He knew, after all, where it had gone.

[“Okay, Lois-tonight’s for sleeping.

She went into the bathroom and the shower went on. A few minutes later, Ralph heard her brushing her teeth. It was nice to know she still had them. During the ten minutes she was gone he managed to do a certain amount of undressing, although his throbbing ribs made it slow work. He finally succeeded in wriggling McGovern’s sweater off and pushing out of his shoes. His shirt came next, and he was fumbling ineffectually with the buckle of his belt when Lois came out with her hair tied back and her face shining.

Ralph was stunned by her beauty, and suddenly felt much too big and stupid (not to mention old) for his own good. She was wearing a long rose-colored silk nightgown and he could smell the lotion she had used on her hands. It was a good smell.

“Let me do that,” she said, and had his belt unbuckled before he could say much, one way or the other. There was nothing erotic about it; she moved with the efficiency of a woman who had often helped her husband dress and undress during the last year of his life.

“We’re down again,” he said. “This time I didn’t even feel it happening.”

“I did, while I was in the shower. I was glad, actually.

Trying to wash your hair through an aura is very distracting.”

The wind gusted outside, shaking the house and blowing a long, shivering note across the mouth of a downspout. They looked toward the window, and although he was back down on the SbortTime level, Ralph was suddenly sure that Lois was sharing his own thought: Atropos was out there somewhere right now, no doubt disappointed by the way things had gone but by no means crushed, bloody but unbowed, down but not out.

From now on they can call him Old One-Ear, Ralph thought, and shivered. He imagined Atropos swinging erratically through the scared, excited populace of the city like a rogue asteroid, peering and hiding, stealing souvenirs and slashing balloon-strings… taking solace in his work, in other words. ing Ralph found it almost impossible to believe that he had been sitt’ f that creature and slashing at him with his own scalpel not on top so very long ago. How did I ever find the courage?

he wondered, but he supposed he knew. The diamond earrings the little monster had been wearing had provided most of it. Did Atropos know those earrings had been his biggest mistake? Probably not. In his way, Doc #3 had proved even more ignorant of Short-Time motivations than Clotho and Lachesis.

He turned to Lois and ras ed her hands. “I lost your earrings again.

This time they’re gone for good, I think. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t apologize. They were already lost, remember? And I’m not worried about Harold and Jan anymore, because now I’ve got a friend to help me when people don’t treat me right, or when I just get scared. Don’t I?”

“Yes. You most certainly do.”

She kissed him, ugged him tightly, and kissed him again. Lois had apparently not forgotten a single thing she’d ever learned about kissing, and it seemed to Ralph that she’d learned quite a lot. “Go on and hop in the shower.” He started to say that he thought he’d fall asleep the moment he got his head under a stream of warm water, but then she added something which changed his mind in a hurry: “Don’t take offense, but there’s a funny smell on you, especially on your hands.

It’s the way my brother Vic used to smell after he’d spent the day cleaning fish.”

Ralph was in the shower two minutes later, and in soapsuds up to his elbows.

10 Only When he came out, Lois was buried beneath two puffy quilts her face showed, and that was visible only from the nose up. Ralph crossed the room quickly, wearing only his undershorts and painfully conscious of his spindly legs and potbelly.

He tossed back the covers and slid in quickly, gasping a little as the cool sheets slid along his warm skin.

Lois slipped over to his side of the bed at once and put her arms around him. He put his face in her hair and let himself relax against her. It was very good, being with Lois under the quilts while the wind shrieked and gusted outside, sometimes hard enough to rattle the storm windows in their frames. It was, in fact, heaven.

“Thank God there’s a man in my bed,” Lois said sleepily.

“Thank God it’s me,” Ralph replied, and she laughed.

“Are your ribs okay? Do you want me to find you an aspirin”

“Nope. I’m sure they’ll hurt again in the morning, but right now the hot water seems to have loosened everything up.” The subject of what might or might not happen in the morning raised a question in his mind-one that had probably been waiting there all along.

“Lois?”

“Mmmmm?”

In his mind’s eye Ralph could see himself snapping awake in the dark, deeply tired but not at all sleepy (it was surely one of the world’s cruelest paradoxes), as the numbers on the digital clock turned wearily over from 3:47 a.m. to 3:48. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dark night of the soul, when every hour was long enough to build the Great Pyramid of Cheops.

“Do you think we’ll sleep through?” he asked her.

“Yes,” she said unhesitatingly. “I think we’ll sleep just fine.”

A moment later, Lois was doing just that.

Ralph stayed awake for perhaps five minutes longer, holding her in his arms, smelling the wonderful interwoven scents rising from her warm skin, luxuriating in the smooth, sensuous glide of the silk under his hands, marvelling at where he was even more than the events which had brought him here. He was filled with some deep and simple emotion, one he recognized but could not immediately name, perhaps because it had been gone from his life too long.

The wind gusted and moaned outside, producing that hollow hooting sound over the top of the drainpipe again-like the world’s biggest Nirvana Boy blowing over the mouth of the world’s biggest pop-bottle-and it occurred to Ralph that maybe nothing in life was better than lying deep in a soft bed with a sleeping woman in your arms while the fall wind screamed outside your safe haven.

Except there was something better-one thing, at least-and that was the feeling of falling asleep, of going gently into that good night, slipping out into the currents of unknowing the way a canoe slips away from a dock and slides into the current of a wide, slow river on a bright summer day.

Of all the things which make up our Short-Time lives, sleep is surely the best, Ralph thought.

The wind gusted again outside (the sound of it now seeming to come from a great distance) and as he felt the tug of that great river take him, he was finally able to identify the emotion he had been feeling ever since Lois had put her arms around him and fallen asleep as easily and as trustingly as a child. It went under many different names-peace, serenity, fulfillment-but now, as the wind blew and Lois made some dark sound of sleeping contentment far back in her throat, it seemed to Ralph that it was one of those rare things which are krown but essentially unnameable: a texture, an aura, perhaps a whole level of being in that column of existence. It was the smooth russet color of rest; it was the silence which follows the completion of some arduous but necessary task.

When the wind gusted again, bringing the sound of distant sirens with it, Ralph didn’t hear it. He was asleep. Once he dreamed that he got up to use the bathroom, and he supposed that might not have been a dream. At another time he dreamed that he and Lois made slow, sweet love, and that might not have been a dream, either. If there were other dreams or moments of waking, he did not remember them, and this time there was no snapping awake at three or four o’clock in the morning. They slept-sometimes apart but mostly together-until just past seven o’clock on Saturday evening; about twenty-two hours, all told.

Lois made them breakfast at sunset-splendidly puffy waffles, bacon, home fries. While she cooked, Ralph tried to flex that muscle buried deep in his mind-to create that sensation of blink, He couldn’t do it. When Lois tried, she was also unable, although Ralph could have sworn that just for a moment she flickered, and he could see the stove right through her.

“Just as well, she said, bringing their plates to the table.

“I suppose,” Ralph agreed, but he still felt as he would have if he had lost the ring Carolyn had given him instead of the one he had taken from Atropos-as if some small but essential object had gone rolling out of his life with a wink and a gleam. harder to believe what he did know. There was the scar between the elbow and wrist of his right arm, of course, but he even began to wonder if that wasn’t something he had acquired long ago, during those years of his life when there had been no white in his hair and he had still believed, deep in his heart, that old age was a myth, or a dream, or a thing reserved for people not as special as he was.

Following two more nights of sound, unbroken sleep, the auras had begun to fade, as well. By the following week they were gone, and Ralph began to wonder if perhaps the whole thing hadn’t been some strange dream. He knew that wasn’t so, but it became harder and Winding the Deathwatch Glancing over my shoulder I see its shape and so move forward, as someone in the woods at night might hear the sound of approaching feet and stop to listen; then, instead of silence he hears some creature trying to be silent.

What else can he do but run? Rushing blindly down the path, stumbling, struck in the face by sticks; the other ever closer, yet not really hurrying or out of breath, teasing its kill.

-Stephen Dobyns, “Pursuit”

If I had some wings, I’d fly you all around;

If I had some money, I’d buy you the goddam town;

If I had the strength, then maybe I coulda pulled you through;

If I had a lantern, I’d light the way for you, If I had a lantern, I’d light the way for you.

-Michael McDermott, “Lantern”

On January 2, 1994, Lois Chasse became Lois Roberts.

Her son, Harold, gave her away. Harold’s wife did not attend the ceremony; she was up in Bangor with what Ralph considered a highly suspect case of bronchitis. He kept his suspicions to himself, however, being far from disappointed at Jan Chasse’s failure to appear.

The groom’s best man was Detective John Leydecker, who still wore a cast on his right arm but otherwise showed no signs of the assignment which had nearly killed him. He had spent four days in a coma, but Leydecker knew how lucky he was; in addition to the State Trooper who had been standing beside him at the time of the explosion, six cops had died, two of them members of Leydecker’s handpicked team.

The bride’s maid of honor was her friend Simone Castonguav, and at the reception, the first toast was made by a fellow who liked to say he used to be Joe Wyze but was now older and Wyzer. Trigger Vachon delivered a fractured but heartfelt follow-up, concluding with the wish that “Dese two people gonna live to a hunnert and fifty and never know a day of the rheumatiz or constipations!”

When Ralph and Lois left the reception hall, their hair still full of rice thrown for the most part by Faye Chapin and the rest of the Harris Avenue Old Crocks, an old man with a book in his hand and a fine cloud of white hair floating around his head came walking up to them.

He had a wide smile on his face.

“Congratulations, Ralph,” he said. “Congratulations, Lois.”

“Thanks, Dor,” Ralph said.

“We missed you,” Lois told him. “Didn’t you get your invitation?

Faye said he’d give it to you.”

“Oh, he gave it to me. Yes, oh yes, he did, but I don’t go to those things if they’re inside. Too stuffy. Funerals are even worse.

Here, this is for you. I didn’t wrap it, because the arthritis is in my fingers too bad for stuff like that now.”

Ralph took it. It was a book of poems called Concurring Beasts.

The poet’s name, Stephen Dobyns, gave him a funny little chill, but he wasn’t quite sure why.

4 “Thanks,” he told Dorrance.

“Not as good as some of his later work, but good. Dobyns is very good.”

“We’ll read them to each other on our honeymoon,” Lois said.

“That’s a good time to read poetry,” Dorrance said. “Maybe the best time. I’m sure you’ll be very happy together.”

He started off, then looked back.

“You did a great thing. The Long-Timers are very pleased.”

He walked away.

Lois looked at Ralph. “What was he talking about? Do you know?

“Ralph shook his head. He didn’t, not for sure, although he felt as if he should know. The scar on his arm had begun to tingle as it 7 sometimes did, a feeling which was almost like a deep-seated itch.

“Long-Timers,” she mused. “Maybe he meant us, Ralph-after all, we’re hardly spring chickens these days, are we?”

“That’s probably just what he did mean,” Ralph agreed, but he knew better… and her eyes said that, somewhere deep down, so did she.

On that same day, and just as Ralph and Lois were saying their I do’s, a certain wino with a bright green aura-one who actually did have an uncle in Dexter, although the uncle hadn’t seen this the’erdo-well nephew for five years or more-was tramping across Strawford Park, slitting his eyes against the formidable glare of sun on snow. He was looking for returnable cans and bottles. Enough to buy a pint of whiskey would be great, but a pint of Night Train wine would do.

Not far from the Portosan marked MEN, he saw a bright gleam of metal.

It was probably just the sun reflecting off a bottle-cap, but such things needed to be checked out. It might be a dime… although to the wino, it actually seemed to have a goldy sort of gleam. It”Holy Judas!” he cried, snatching up the wedding ring which lay mysteriously on top of the snow. It was a broad band, almost certainly gold. He tilted it to read the engraving on the inside:

HD-ED 8-5-87.

A pint? Hell, no. This little baby was going to secure him a quart.

Several quarts. Possibly a week’s worth of quarts.

Hurrying across the intersection of Witcham and.fackson, the one where Ralph Roberts had once almost fainted, the wino never saw him put on his brakes, but the bus struck a patch of ice.

The wino never knew what hit him. At one moment he was debating between Old Crow and Old Grand-Dad; at the next he had passed into the darkness which awaits us all. The ring rolled down the gutter and disappeared into a sewer grate, and there it remained for a long, long time. But not forever. In Derry, things that disappear into the sewer system have a way-an often unpleasant one-of turning up.

Ralph and Lois didn’t live happily ever after.

There really are no evers in the Short-Time world, happy or otherwise, a fact which Clotho and Lachesis undoubtedly knew well.

They did live happily for quite some time, though. Neither of them liked to come right out and say these were the happiest years of all, because both remembered their first partners in marriage with love and affection, but in their hearts, both did consider them the happiest. Ralph wasn’t sure that autumn love was the richest love, but he came firmly to believe that it was the kindest, and the most fulfilling.

Our LoiS, he often said, and laughed. Lois pretended to be irritated at this, but pretending was all it ever was; she saw the look in his eyes when he said it.

On their first Christmas Morning as man and wife (they had moved into Lois’s tidy little house and put his own white rhino up for sale), Lois gave him a beagle puppy.” Do you like her?” she asked apprehensively.

“I almost didn’t get her, Dear Abby says you should never give pets as presents, but she looked so sweet in the petshop window… and so sad… if you don’t like her, or don’t 756 want to spend the rest of the winter trying to housebreak a puppy, just say so. We’ll find someone-”

“Lois,” he said, giving his eyebrow what he hoped was that that special Bill McGovern lift, you’re babbling.”

“I am?”

“You am. It’s something you do when you’re nervous, but you can stop being nervous right now. I’m crazy ’bout dis lady.” Nor was that an exaggeration; he fell in love with the black-and-tan beagle bitch almost at once.

“What will you name her?” Lois asked. “Any idea?”

“Sure,” Ralph said. “Rosalie.”

The next four years were happy ones for Helen and Nat Deepneau, as well.

They lived frugally in an apartment on the east side of town for awhile, getting along on Helen’s librarian’s salary but not doing much more than that. The little Cape Cod up the street from Ralph’s place had sold, but that money had gone to pay outstanding bills. Then, in June of 1994, Helen received an insurance windfall… only the wind that blew it her way was fohn Leydecker.

The Great Eastern Insurance Company had originally refused to pay off on Ed Deepneau’s life insurance policy, claiming he had taken his own life. Then, after a great deal of harrumphing and muttering under their corporate breath, they had offered a substantial settlement.

They were persuaded to do this by a poker-buddy of John Leydecker’s named Howard Hayman. When he wasn’t playing lowball, five-card stud, and three-card draw, Hayman was a laxvyer who employed lunching on insurance companies.

Leydecker had re-met Helen at Ralph and Lois’s in February of 1994, had fallen head over heels in fascination with her (“It was never quite love,” he told Ralph and Lois later, “which was probably just as well, considering how things turned out”), and had introduced her to Hayman because he thought the insurance company was trying to screw her. “He was not suicidal,” Leydecker said, and stuck to that long after Helen had handed him his hat and shown him the door.

After being faced with a suit in which Howard Hayman threatened to make Great Eastern look like Snidely Whiplash tying Little a Nell to the railroad tracks, Helen had received a check for seventy thousand dollars. In the late fall of 1994 she had used most of this money to build a house on Harris Avenue, just three doors up from her old place and right across from Harriet Bennigan’s.

“I was never really happy on the east side,” she told Lois one day in November of that year. They were on their way back from the park, and Natalie had been sitting slumped and fast asleep in her stroller, her presence little more than a p k os 1 in n e-tip and a fog of cold breath below a large ski-hat which Lois had knitted herself. “I used to dream about Harris Avenue. Isn’t that crazy?”

“I don’t think dreams are ever crazy,” Lois replied.

Helen and John Leydecker dated for most of that summer, but neither Ralph nor Lois was particularly surprised when the courtship abruptly ended after Labor Day, or when Helen began to wear a discreet pink triangle pin on her prim, high-necked librarian’s blouses.

Perhaps they were not surprised because they were old enough to have seen everything at least once, or perhaps on some deep level they were still glimpsing the auras which surround thinls.

I creating a bright gateway opening on a secret city of hidden meanings, concealed motives, and camouflaged agendas.

Ralph and Lois babysat Natalie frequently after Helen moved back to Harris Avenue, and they enjoyed these stints tremendously. Nat was the child their marriage might have produced if it had happened thirty years sooner, and the coldest, most overcast winter day warmed and brightened when Natalie came toddling in, looking like a midget version of the Goodyear blimp in her pink quilted snowsuit with the mittens hanging from the cuffs, and yelled exuberantly: “Hi, I miss! I come to bizzit you!”

In June of 1995, Helen bought a reconditioned Volvo. On the back she put a sticker which read A WOMAN NEEDS A MAN LIKE A FISH NEEDS A BICYCLE. This sentiment did not particularly surprise Ralph, either, but glimpsing that sticker always made him feel unhappy. He sometimes thought Ed’s meanest legacy to his widow was summed up in its brittle, not-quite-funny sentiment, aind when he saw it, Ralph often remembered how Ed had looked on that summer afternoon when he had walked up from the Red Apple Store to confront him. How Ed had been sitting, shirtless, in the spray thrown by the sprinkler. How there had been a drop of blood on one lens of his glasses. How he had leaned forward, looking at Ralph with his earnest, intelligent eyes, and said that once stupidity reached a certain level, it became hard to live with.

And after that, stuff started to ha sometimes think. just what stuff was something he could no longer remember, though, and probably that was just as well. But his lapse of memory (if that was what it was) did not change his belief that Helen had been cheated in some obscure fashion… that some bad-tempered fate had tied a can to her tail, and she didn’t even know it.

A month after Helen bought her Volvo, Faye Chapin suffered a heart-attack while drafting a preliminary list of seeds for that fall’s Runway 3 Classic. He was taken to Derry Home Hospital, where he died seven hours later. Ralph visited him shortly before the end, and when he saw the numbers on the door-315-a fierce sense of deja vu washed over him. At first he thought it was because Carolyn had finished her last illness jus up the hall, and then he remembered that jimmy V. had died in this very room. He and Lois had visited jimmy just before the end, and Ralph thought jimmy had recognized them both, although he couldn’t be sure; his memories of the time when he had first begun to really notice Lois were mixed up and hazy in his mind. He supposed some of that was love, and probably some of it had to do with getting on in years, but probably most of it had been the insomnia-he’d gone through a really bad patch of that in the months after Carolyn’s death, although it had eventually cured itself, as such things sometimes did.

Still, it seemed to him that something ([hello woman hello man we’ve been waiting for you]) far out of the ordinary had happened in this room, and as he took Faye’s dry, strengthless hand and smiled into Faye’s frightened, confused eyes, a strange thought came to him: They’re standing right over there in the corner and watching us.

He looked over. There was no one at all in the corner, of course, but for a moment… for just a moment…

Life in the years between 1993 and 1998 went on as life in places like Derry always does: the buds of April became the brittle, blowing leaves of October; Christmas trees were brought into homes in midDecember and hauled off in the backs of Dumpsters with strands of tinsel still hanging sadly from their boughs during the first week of January; babies came in through the in door and old folks went out through the out door. Sometimes people in the prime of their lives went out through the out door, too.

In Derry there were five years of haircuts and permanents, storms and senior proms, coffee and cigarettes, steak dinners at Parker’s Cove and hotdogs at the Little League field. Girls and boys fell in love, drunks fell out of cars, short skirts fell out of favor. People reshingled their roofs and repaved their driveways. Old bums were voted out of office; new bums were voted in. It was life, often unsatisfying, frequently cruel, usually boring, sometimes beautiful, once in awhile exhilarating. The fundamental things continued to apply as time went by.

In the early fall of 1996, Ralph became convinced he had colon cancer, He had begun to see more than trace amounts of blood in his stool, and when he finally went to see Dr. Pickard or. Litchfield’s cheerful, rumpled replacement), he did so with visions of hospital beds and chemotherapy IV-drips dancing bleakly in his head.

Instead of cancer, the problem turned out to be a hemorrhoid which had, in Dr. Pickard’s memorable phrase, “popped its top.” He wrote Ralph a prescription for suppositories, which Ralph took to the Rite Aid down the street. Joe Wyzer read it, then grinned cheerfully at Ralph. “Lousy,” he said, “but it beats the hell out of colon cancer, don’t you think?”

repliee stiffly. MY mind,” Ralph One da dury ing the winter of 1997, Lois took it into her head to slide dow her favorite hill in Strawford Park on Nat Deepneau’ n plastic flying-saucer sled. She went down “fstern a Pig in a greaseds chute” (this was Don Veazie’s phrase; he just happened to be there that day, watching the actio) and crashed into the side of the Portosan marked WOMEN. She sprained her knee and twisted her back, and although Ralph knew he had no business doing so-it was unsympathetic, to say the least-he laughed hilariously most of the way to the emergency room. The fact that Lois was also howling with laughter despite the pain did nothing to help Ralph regain control.

He laughed until tears poured from his eyes and he thought he might have a stroke. She had just looked so goddamned Our LOIS going down the hill on that thing, spinning around and around with her legs crossed like one of those yogis from the mysterious East, and she had almost knocked the Portosan over when she hit it. She was completely recovered by the time spring rolled around, although that knee always ached on rainy nights and she did get tired of Don Veazie asking, almost every time he saw her, if she’d slid into any shithouses lately. -first life, going on as it always does-which is to say mostly between the lines and outside the margins. It’s what happens while we’re making other plans, according exceptionally going to some sage or other, and if life was od to Ralph Roberts during those years, itlmight have been because he had no other plans to make. He maintained friendships with Toe Wyzer and during those years was his lohn Leydecker, but his best friend Is wife. They went almost everywhere together, had no secrets, and fought so seldom one might just as well have said never. He also had Rosalie the beagle, the rocker that had once been Mr. Chasse’s and was now his, and almost daily visits from Natalie (who had begun calling them Ralph and Lois instead of Wall and Roiss, a change neither of them found to be an improvement). And he was healthy, which was maybe the best thing of all. It was just life, full of Short-Time rewards and setbacks, and Ralph lived it with’enjoyment and serenity until mid-March of 1998, when he awoke one morning, glanced at the digital clock beside his bed, and saw it was 5:49 a.m.

He lay quietly beside Lois, not wanting to disturb her by getting up, and wondering what had awakened him.

You know what, Ralph.

No I don’t.

Yes, you do. Listen.

So he listened. He listened very carefully. And after awhile he began to hear it in the walls: the low, soft ticking of the deathwatch.

Ralph awoke at 5:47 the following morning, and at 5:44 the morning after that. His sleep was whittled away, minute by minute, as winter slowly loosened its grip on Derry and allowed spring to find its way back in. By May he was hearing the tick of the deathwatch everywhere, but understood it was all coming from one place and simply projecting itself, as a good ventriloquist can project his voice. Before, it had been coming from Carolyn. Now it was coming from him.

He felt none of the terror that had gripped him when he’d been so sure he had developed cancer, and none of the desperation he vaguely remembered from his previous bout of insomnia. He tired more easily and began to find it more difficult to concentrate and remember even simple things, but he accepted What was happening calmly.

“Are you sleeping all right, Ralph?” Lois asked him one day.

“You’re getting these big dark circles under your eyes.”

“It’s the dope I take,” Ralph said.

“Very funny, you old poop.”

He took her in his arms and hugged her. “Don’t worry about me, sweetheart-I’m getting all the sleep I need.”

He awoke one morning a week later at 4:02 a.m. with a line of deep heat throbbing in his arm-throbbing in perfect sync with the sound of the deathwatch, which was, of course, nothing more or less than the beat of his own heart. But this new thing wasn’t his heart, or at least Ralph didn’t think it was; it felt as if an electric filament had been embedded in the flesh of his forearm.

It’s the scar, he thought, and then: No, it’s the promise. The time of the promise is almost here.

What promise, Ralph? What promise? He didn’t know.

One day in early June, Helen and Nat blew in to visit and tell Ralph and Lois about the trip they had taken to Boston with “Aunt Melanie, a bank teller with whom Helen had become close friends.

Helen and Aunt Melanie had gone to some sort of feminist convention while Natalie networked with about a billion new kids in the day-care center, and then Aunt Melanie had left to do some more feminist things in New York and Washington. Helen and Nat had stayed on in Boston for a couple of days, just sightseein “We went to see a movie cartoon,” Natalie said. “It was about animals in the woods.

They talked!” She pronounced this last word with Shakespearian grandiosity-talked.

“Movies where animals talk are neat, aren’t they?” Lois asked.

“Yes! Also I got this new dress!”

“And a very pretty dress it is,” Lois said.

Helen was looking at Ralph. “Are you okay, old chum? You look pale, and you haven’t said boo.”

“Never better,” he said. “I was just thinking how cute you two look in those caps. Did you get them at Fenway Park?”

Both Helen and Nat were wearing Boston Red Sox caps. These were common enough in New England during warm weather (“common as catdirt,” Lois would have said), but the sight of them on the heads of these two people filled Ralph with some deep, resonant feeling… and it was tied to a specific image, one he did, at least, understand: the front of the Red Apple Store. Helen, meantime, had taken off her hat and was examining it. “Yes,” she said. “We went, but we only stayed for three innings.

Men hitting balls and catching balls. I guess I just don’t have much patience for men and their balls these days… but we like our nifty Bosox hats, don’t we, Natalie?”

“Yes! “Nat agreed smartly, and when Ralph awoke the next morning at 4:01, the scar throbbed its thin line of heat inside his arm and the deathwatch seemed almost to have gained a voice, one which whispered a strange, foreign-sounding name over and over: Atropos… Atropos…

Atropos-I know that name.

Do you, Ralph? Yes, he was the one with the rusty scalpel and the nasty disposition, the one who called me Shorts, the one who took… took… Took what, Ralph?

He was getting used to these silent discussions; they seemed to come to him on some mental radio band, a pirate frequency that operated only during the little hours, the ones when he lay awake beside his sleeping wife, waiting for the sun to come up.

Took what? Do you remember?

He didn’t expect to; the questions that voice asked him almost always went unanswered, but this time, unexpectedly, an answer came.

Bill McGovern’s hat, of course. Atropos took Bill’s hat, and once I made him so mad he actually took a bite out of the brim.

Who is he? Who is Atropos?

Of this he was not so sure. He only knew that Atropos had something to do with Helen, who now owned a Boston Red Sox cap of which she seemed very fond, and that he had a rusty scalpel.

Soon, thought Ralph Roberts as he lay in the dark, listening to the soft, steady tick of the deathwatch in the walls. I’ll know sooll.

During the third week of that baking-hot June, Ralph began to see the auras again.

As June slipped into July, Ralph found himself bursting into tears often, usually for no discernible reason at all. It was strange; he had no sense of depression or discontent, but sometimes he would look at something-maybe only a bird winging its solitary way across the sky-and his heart would vibrate with sorrow and loss.

It’s almost over, the inside voice said. It no longer belonged to

Carolyn or Bill or even his own younger self, it was all its own now, the voice of a stranger, although not necessarily an unkind one.

That’s why you’re sad, Ralph. It’s perfectly normal to be sad as things start to wind down.

Nothing ’ g’s almost over he cried back. Why should it be? At my last checkup, Dr. Pickard said I was sound as a drum.” I’m fine!

Never better.”

Silence from the voice inside. But it was a knowing silence.

“Okay,” Ralph said out loud one hot afternoon near the end of July. was sitting on a bench not far from the place where the Derry Standpipe had stood until 1985, when the big storm had come along and knocked it down. At the base of the hill, near the birdbath, a young man (a serious birdwatcher, from the binoculars he wore and the thick stack of paperbacks on the grass beside him) was making careful notes in what looked like some sort of journal. “Okay, tell me why it’s almost over. just tell me that.”

There was no immediate answer, but that was all right; Ralph was willing to wait. It had been quite a stroll over here, the day was hot, and he was tired. He was now waking around three-thirty every morning. He had begun taking long walks again, but not in any hope they would help him sleep better or longer; he thought he was making pilgrimages, visiting all his favorite spots in Derry one last time.

Saying goodbyeBecause the time of the promise has almost come, the voice answered, and the scar began to throb with its deep, narrow heat again.

The one that was made to you, and the one you made ’ “return.

“What was it?” he asked, agitated. “Please, if I made a promise, why can’t I remember what it was.mill The serious birdwatcher heard that and looked up the hill. What he saw was a man sitting on a park bench and apparently having a conversation with himself. The corners of the serious birdwatcher’s mouth turned down in disgust and he thought, I hope I die before I get that old. I really do. Then he turned back to the birdbath and began making notes again.

Deep inside Ralph’s head, the clenching sensation-that feeling of blink-suddenly came again, and although he didn’t stir from the bench, Ralph felt himself propelled rapidly upward nonetheless… faster and farther than ever before.

Not at all, the voice said. Once you were much higher than this, Ralph-Lois, too. But you’re getting there. You’ll be ready soon.

The birdwatcher, who lived all unknowing in the center of a gorgeous spun-gold aura, looked around cautiously, perhaps wanting to make sure that the senile old man on the bench at the top of the hill wasn’t creeping up on him with a blunt instrument. What he saw caused the tight, prissy line of his mouth to soften in astonishment. His eyes widened. Ralph observed sudden radiating spokes of indigo in the serious birdwatcher’s aura and realized he was looking at shock.

What’s the matter with him? What does he see?

But that was wrong. It wasn’t what the birdwatcher saw,-it was what he didn’t see. He didn’t see Ralph, because Ralph had gone up high enough to disappear from this level-had become the visual equivalent of a note blown on a dog-whistle.

If they were here now, I could see them easily.

Who, Ralph? If who was here?

Clotho. Lachesis. And Atropos.

All at once the pieces began to fly together in his mind, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that had looked a great deal more complicated than it actually was.

Ralph, whispering: [“Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God.”]

Six days later, Ralph awoke at quarter past three in the morning and knew that the time of the promise had come.

“I think I’ll walk upstreet to the Red Apple and get an ice-cream bar,” Ralph said. It was almost ten o’clock. His heart was beating much too fast, and his thoughts were hard to find under the constant white noise of terror which now filled him. He had never felt less like ice cream in his entire life, but it was a reasonable enough excuse for a trip to the Red Apple; it was the first week of August, and the weatherman had said the mercury would probably top ninety by early afternoon, with thunderstorms to follow in the early evening.

Ralph thought he needn’t worry about the thunderstorms.

A bookcase stood on a spread of newspapers by the kitchen door.

Lois had been painting it barn-red. Now she got to her feet, put her hands into the small of her back, and stretched. Ralph could hear the minute crackling sounds of her spine. “I’ll go with you. My head’Il ache tonight if I don’t get away from that paint for awhile. I don’t know why I wanted to paint on such a muggy day in the first place.”

The last thing on earth Ralph wanted was to be accompanied up to the Red Apple by Lois. “You don’t have to, honey; I’ll bring you back one of those coconut Popsicles you like. I wasn’t even planning on taking Rosalie, it’s so humid. Go sit on the back porch, why don’t you?”

“Any Popsicle you carry back from the store on a day like this will be falling off the stick by the time you get it here,” she said “Come on, let’s go while there’s still shade on this side of the She trailed off. The little smile she’d been wearing slipped off her face.

It was replaced by a look of dismay, and the gray of her aura, which had only darkened slightly during the years Ralph hadn’t been able to see it, now began to glow with flocks of reddish-pink embers.

“Ralph, what’s wrong? What are you really going to do?”

“Nothing,” he said, but the scar was glowing inside his arm and the tick of the deathwatch was everywhere, loud and everywhere. It was telling him he had an appointment to keep. A promise to keep.

“Yes, there is, and it’s been wrong for the last two or three months, maybe longer. I’m a foolish woman-I knew something was happening, but I couldn’t bring myself to look at it dead-on. Because I was afraid. And I was right to be afraid, wasn’t I? I was right.”

“Lois-” She was suddenly crossing the room to him, crossing fast, almost leaping, the old back injury not slowing her down in the least, and before he could stop her, she had seized his right arm and was holding it out, looking at it fixedly.

The scar was glowing a fierce bright red.

Ralph had a moment to hope that it was strictly an aural glow and she wouldn’t be able to see it. Then she looked up, her eyes round and full of terror. Terror, and something else. Ralph thought that something else was recognition.

“Oh my God,” she whispered. “The men in the park. The ones with the funny names… Clothes and Lashes, something like that… and one of them cut you. Oh Ralph, oh my God, what are you supposed to do?”

“Now, Lois, don’t take on-”

“Don’t you dare tell me not to take on.” she shrieked into his face.

“Don’t you dare.” Don’t you DARE.I” Hurry, the interior voice whispered. You don’t have time to stand around and discuss this,somewhere it’s already begun to happen, and the deathwatch you hear may not be ticking just for you.

“I have to go.” He turned and blundered toward the door. In his agitation he did not notice a certain Sherlock Holmesian circumstance attending this scene: a dog which should have barked-a dog which always barked her stern disapproval when voices were raised in this house-but did not. Rosalie was missing from her usual place by the screen door… and the door itself was standing ajar.

Rosalie was the furthest thing from Ralph’s mind at that moment.

He felt knee-deep in molasses, and thought he would be doing well just to make the porch, let alone the Red Apple up the street. His heart thumped and skidded in his chest; his eyes were burning.

“No!” Lois screamed. “No, Ralph, please! Please don’t leave me!” She ran after him, clutched his arm. She was still holding her paintbrush, and the fine red droplets which splattered his shirt looked like blood. Now she was crying, and her expression of utter, abject sorrow nearly broke his heart. He didn’t want to leave her like this; wasn’t sure he could leave her like this.

He turned and took her by her forearms. “Lois, I have to go.”

“You haven’t been sleeping,” she babbled, “I knew that, and I knew it meant something was wrong, but it doesn’t matter, we’ll go away, we can leave right now, this minute, we’ll just take Rosalie and our toothbrushes and go-” He squeezed her arms and she stopped, looking up at him with her wet eyes. Her lips were trembling.

“Lois, listen to me. I have to do this.”

“I lost Paul, I can’t lose you, too!” she wailed. “I couldn’t stand it! Oh Ralph, I couldn’t stand it!”

You’ll be able to, he thought. Short-Timers are a lot tougher that, they look. They have to be.

Ralph felt a couple of tears trickle down his cheeks. He suspected their source was more weariness than grief. If he could make her see that all this changed nothing, only made what he had to do harder…

He held her at arm’s length. The scar on his arm was throbbing more fiercely than ever, and the feeling of time slipping relentlessly away had become overwhelming.

“Walk with me at least partway, if you want,” he said. “Maybe you can even help me do what I have to do. I’ve had my life, Lois, and a fine one it was. But she hasn’t really had anything yet, and I’ll be damned if I’ll let that son of a bitch have her just because He’s got a score to settle with me.”

“What son of a bitch? Ralph, what in the world are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about Natalie Deepneau. She’s supposed to die this morning, only I’m not going to let that happen.”

“Nat? Ralph, why would anyone want to hurt Nat?”

She looked very bewildered, very Our Lois… but wasn’t there something else beneath that daffy exterior? Something careful and calculating? Ralph thought the answer was yes. Ralph had an idea Lois wasn’t half as bewildered as she was pretending to be. She had fooled Bill McGovern for years with that act-him, too, at least part of the time-and this was just another (and rather brilliant) variation of the same old scam.

What she was really trying to do was hold him here. She loved Nat deeply, but to Lois, a choice between her husband and the little girl who lived up the lane was no choice at all. She didn’t consider either age or questions of fairness to have any bearing on the situation.

Ralph was her man, and to Lois, that was all that mattered.

“It won’t work,” he said, not unkindly. He disengaged himself and started for the door again. “I made a promise, and I’m all out of time.”

“Break it, then!” she cried, and the mixture of terror and rage in her voice stunned him. “I don’t remember much about that time, but I remember we got involved with things that almost got us killed, and for reasons we couldn’t even understand. So break it, Ralph!

Better your promise than my heart!”

“And what about the kid? What about Helen, for that matter?

Nat’s all she lives for. Doesn’t Helen deserve something better from me than a broken promise?”

“I don’t care what she deserves! What any of them deserve!” she shouted, and then her face crumpled. “Yes, all right, I suppose I do.

But what about us, Ralph? Don’t we count?” Her eyes, those dark and eloquent Spanish eyes of hers, pleaded with him. If he looked into them too long, it would become all too easy to cry it off, so Ralph looked away.

“I mean to do it, honey. Nat’s going to get what you and I have already had-another seventy years or so of days and nights.”

She looked at him helplessly, but made no attempt to stop him again. Instead she began to cry. “Foolish old man!” she whispered.

“Foolish, willful old man!”

“Yes, I suppose,” he said, and lifted her chin. “But I’m a foolish, willful old man of my word. Come with me. I’d like that.”

“All right, Ralph.” She could hardly hear her own voice, and her skin was as cold as clay. Her aura had gone almost completely red.

“What is it? What’s going to happen to her?”

“She’s going to be hit by a green Ford sedan. Unless I take her place, she’s going to be splashed all over Harris Avenue… and Helen’s going to see it happen.”

As they walked up the hill toward the Red Apple (at first Lois kept falling behind, then trotting to catch up, but she quit when she saw she could not slow him with such a simple trick), Ralph told her what little more he could. She had some memory of being under the lightning-struck tree out by the Extension-a memory she had believed, at least until this morning, to be the memory of a dreambut of course she hadn’t been there during Ralph’s final confrontation with Atropos.

Ralph told her of it now-of the random death Atropos intended Natalie to suffer if Ralph continued standing in the way of his plans.

He told her of how he’d extracted a promise from Clotho and Lachesis that Atropos might in this case be overruled, and Nat saved.

“I have an idea that… the decision was made… very near the top of this crazy building… this Tower… they kept talking about.

Maybe… at the very top.” He was panting out the words and his heart was beating more rapidly than ever, but he thought most of that could be attributed to the fast walk and the torrid day; his fear had subsided somewhat. Talking to Lois had done that much.

Now he could see the Red Apple. Mrs. Perrine was at the bus stop half a block farther up, standing straight as a general reviewing troops. Her net shopping bag hung over her arm. There was a bus shelter nearby, and it was shady inside, but Mrs. Perrine stolidly ignored its existence. Even in the dazzling sunlight he could see that her aura was the same West Point gray as it had been on that October evening in 1993. Of Helen and Nat there was as yet no sign.

“Of course I knew who he was, “Esther Perrine later tells the reporter from the Derry News. “Do I look incompetent to you, young man?

Or senile? I’ve known Ralph Roberts for over twenty years. A good man. Not cut from the same cloth as his first wife, of course-Carolynn was a Satterttaite, from the Bangor Satter aites-but a very fine all, just the same. I recognized the driver of that green Ford auto, too, right away. Pete Sullivan delivered my paper for six years, and he did a good job. The new one, the Morrison boy, always throws it in the flowerbeds or up on the porch roof Pete was driving with his mother, on his learner’s permit, I understand. I hope he won’t take on too much about what happened, for he’s a good lad, and it really wasn’t his fault. I saw the whole thing, and I’ll take my oath on it.

“I suppose you think I’m rambling. Don’t bother denying it,-I can read your face just like it was your own newspaper, Never mind, though-I’ve said most of what I have to say. I knew it was Ralph right away, but here’s something you’ll get wrong even if you Put it in your story… which you probably won’t. He came from nowhere to save that little girl.

Esther Perrine fixes the respectfully silent young reporter with a formidable glance-fixes him as a lepidopterist might fix a butterfly on a pin after administering the chloroform.

“I don’t mean it was like he came from nowhere, young man, although I bet that’s what you’ll print.” She leans toward the reporter, her eyes never leaving his face, and says it again. “He came from nowhere to save that little girl Do you follow me?

From nowhere.”

The accident made the front page of the following day’s Derry News.

Esther Perrine was sufficiently colorful in her remarks to warrant a sidebar of her own, and staff photographer Tom Matthews got a picture to go with it that made her look like Ma load in The Grapes Of Wrath.

The headline of the sidebar read: “IT WAS LIKE HE CAME FROM NOWHERE,” WITNESS TO THE TRAGEDY SAYS.

When she read it, Mrs. Perrine was not at all surprised.

“in the end I got what I wanted,” Ralph said, “but only because Clotho and Lachesis-and whoever it is they work for on the upper levels-were desperate to stop Ed.”

“Upper levels? What, upper levels? What building?”

“Never mind. You’ve forgotten, but remembering wouldn’t change anything. The point is just this, Lois: they didn’t want to stop Ed because thousands of people would have died if he’d hit the Civic Center dead-on. They wanted to stop him because there was one person whose life needed to be preserved at any cost… in their reckoning, any”way. When I was finally able to make them see that I felt the same about my kid as they did about theirs, arrangements were made.”

“That’s when they cut you, wasn’t it? And when you made the promise.

The one you used to talk about in your sleep.”

He shot her a wide-eyed, startled, and heartbreakingly boyish glance.

She only looked back.

“Yes,” he said, and wiped his forehead. “I guess so.” The air lay in his lungs like metal shavings. “A life for a life, that was the dealNatalie’s in exchange for mine. And-” [Hell.” Quit trying to wiggle away. Quit it, Rover, or I’ll kick your asshole square.”

Ralph broke off at the sound of that shrill, hectoring, horridly familiar voice-a voice no human being on Harris Avenue but him could hear-and looked across the street.

“Ralph? What-”

“Shhh! right hedge in front of the He pulled her back against the Applebaums’ summer house. He wasn’t doing anything so polite as perspiring now; his whole body was crawling with a stinking sweat as heavy as engine oil, and he could feel every gland in his body dumping a hot load into his blood. His underwear was trying to crawl up into the crack of his ass and disappear. His tongue tasted like a blown fuse.

Lois followed the direction of his gaze. “Rosalie!” she cried.

“Rosalie, you bad dogi What are you doing over there?”

The black-and-tan beagle she had given Ralph on their first Christmas was across the street, standing (except cringing was actually the word for what she was doing) on the sidewalk in front of the house where Helen and Nat had lived until Ed had popped his wig.

For the first time in the years they’d had her, the beagle reminded Lois of Rosalie #1. Rosalie #2 appeared to be all alone over there, but that did not allay Lois’s sudden terror.

Oh, what have I done? she thought. What have I done?

“Rosalie!” she screamed. “Rosalie, get over here!” The dog heard, Lois could see that she did, but she didn’t move.

“Ralph? What’s happening over there?”

“Shhhh!” he said again, and then, just a little farther up the street, unstated Lois saw something which stopped her breath Her last, hope that all this was happening only in Ralph’s head, that it was a kind of flashback to their previous experience, disappeared, because now their dog had company.

Holding a skip-rope looped over her right arm, six-year-old Nat Deepneau came to the end of her walk and looked down the street toward a house she didn’t remember ever living in, toward a lawn where her shirtless father, an undesignated player named Ed Deepneau, had once sat among intersecting rainbows, listening to the Jefferson Airplane as a single spot of blood dried on his John Lennon spectacles. Natalie looked down the street and smiled happily at Rosalie, who was panting and watching her with miserable, frightened eyes.

Atropos doesn’t see me, Ralph thought. He’s concentrating on Rosie… and on Natalie, of course… and he doesn’t see me.

Everything had come around with a sort of hideous perfection.

The house was there, Rosalie was there, and Atropos was there, too, wearing a hat cocked back on his head and looking like a wiseacre news reporter in a 1950s B-picture-something directed by Ida Lupino, perhaps. Only this time it wasn’t a Panama with a bite gone from the brim; this time it was a Boston Red Sox cap and it was too small even for Atropos because the adjustable band in the back had been pulled all the way over to the last hole. It had to be, in order to fit the head of the little girl who owned it.

All we need now is Pete the paperboy and the show would be perfect, Ralph thought. The final scene of Insomnia, or, Short-Time Life on Harris Avenue, a Tragi-Comedy in Three Acts. Everyone takes a how and then exits stage right.

This dog was afraid of Atropos, just as Rosalie #1 had been, and the main reason the little bald doc hadn’t seen Ralph and Lois was that he was trying to keep her from running off before he was ready.

And here came Nat, headed down the sidewalk toward her favorite dog in the whole world, Ralph and Lois’s Rosie. Her jumprope (three-six-nine lion the goose drank wine) was slung over her arm.

She looked impossibly beautiful and impossibly fragile in her sailor shirt and bine shorts. Her pigtails bounced. fast, Ralph thought. Everything Is happening it’s happening too much too fast.

[Not at all, Ralph! You did splendidly five ’wears ago,-’you’ll do splendidly now.] it sounded like Clotho, but there was no time to look.

A green car was coming slowly down Harris Avenue from the direction of the airport, moving with the sort of agonized care which usually meant a driver who was very old or very young. Agonized care or not, it was unquestionably the car; a dirty membrane hung I over it like a shroud.

Life is a wheel, Ralph thought, and it occurred to him that this was not the first time the idea had occurred to him. Sooner or later everything you thought you’d left behind comes around again ’ n-Forgood or ill, it comes around again -n. ortive lunge for freedom, and as Atropos Rosie made another ah yanked her back, losing his hat, Nat knelt before her and patted her “Are you lost, girl? Did you get out by yourself? That’s okay, ’ I’ll take you home.” She gave Rosie a hug, her small arms passing through Atropos’s arms, her small, beautiful face only inches from his ugly, grinning one. Then she got up. “Come on, Rosie! Come on, sugarpie.”

Rosalie started down the sidewalk at Nat’s heel, looking back once at the grinning little man and whining uneasily. On the other side of Harris Avenue, Helen came out of the Red Apple, and the last condition of the vision Atropos had shown Ralph was fulfilled. Helen had a loaf of bread in one hand. Her Red Sox hat was on her head.

Ralph swept Lois into his arms and kissed her fiercely. “I love you with all my heart,” he said. “Remember that, Lois.”

“I know you do,” she said calmly. “And I love you. That’s why I can’t let you do it.”

She seized him around the neck, her arms like bands of iron, and he felt her breasts push against him hard as she drew in all the breath her lungs would hold.

“Go away, you rotten bastard.” she screamed. “I can’t see you, but I know you’re there.” Go away.” Go away and leave us alone.” Natalie stopped dead in her tracks and looked at Lois with wide-eyed surprise. Rosalie stopped beside her, ears pricking.

“Don’t go into the street, Nat.” Lois screamed at her.

“Don’tThen her hands, which had been laced together at the back of Ralph’s neck, were holding nothing; her arms, which had been locked about his shoulders in a deathgrip, were empty.

He was gone like smoke.

Atropos looked toward the cry of alarm and saw Ralph and Lois standing on the other side of Harris Avenue. More important, he saw Ralph seeing him. His eyes widened; his lips parted in a hateful snarl. One hand flew to his bald pate-it was crisscrossed with old scars, the remnants of wounds made with his own scalpel-in an instinctive gesture of defense that was five years too late.

[Fuck you, Shorts This little bitch is mine.] Ralph saw Nat, looking at Lois with uncertainty and surprise. He heard Lois shrieking at her, telling her not to go into the street.

Then it was Lachesis he heard, speaking from someplace close by.

[Come up, Ralph.” As far as you can! Quickly.”

He felt the clench in the center of his head, felt that brief swoop of vertigo in his stomach, and suddenly the whole world brightened and filled with color. He half-saw and half-felt Lois’s arms and locked hands collapse inward, through the place where his body had been a moment before, and then he was drawing away from her no, being carried away from her. He felt the pull of something great if there was such a current and understood, in a vague way, that as a Higher Purpose, he had joined it and would soon be swept down river with it.

Natalie and Rosalie were now standing directly in front of the house which ralph had once shared with Bill McGovern before selling out and moving into Lois’s house. Nat glanced doubtfully at Lois, then waved tentatively. “She’s okay, Lois-see, she’s right here.” She patted Rosalie’s head. “I’ll cross her safe, don’t worry.”

Then, as she started into the street, she called to her mother.

“I can’t find my baseball cap! I think somebody stoled it!”

Rosalie was still on the sidewalk. Nat turned to her impatiently.

“Come on, girl!”

The green car was moving in the child’s direction, but very slowly.

It did not at first look like much of a danger to her. Ralph recognized the driver at once, and he did not doubt his senses or suspect he was having a hallucination. In that instant it seemed very right that the approaching sedan should be piloted by his old paperboy.

“Natalie!” Lois screamed. “Natalie, no!”

Atropos darted forward and slapped Rosalie #2 on the rump [Get outta here, mutt! G’wan.” Before I change my mind!] Atropos spared Ralph one final grimacing leer as Rosie yelped and darted into the street… and into the path of the Ford driven by sixteen-year-old Pete Sullivan.

Natalie didn’t see the car; she was looking at Lois, whose face was all red and scary. It had finally occurred to Nat that Lois wasn’t screaming about Rose at all, but something else entirely.

Pete registered the sprinting beagle; it was the little girl he didn’t see. He swerved to avoid Rosalie, a maneuver that ended with the Ford aimed directly at Natalie. Ralph could see two frightened faces behind the windshield as the car veered, and he thought Mrs. SulJI’var was screaming.

Atropos was leaping up and down, doing an obscenely joyful hornpipe.

[Yahh, Short-Time! Silly white-hair. Toldja I’dfix you.]

In slow motion Helen dropped the loaf of bread she was holding.

“Natalie, LOOK OUUUUUUTTT!” she shrieked.

Ralph ran. Again there was that clear sensation of moving by thought alone. And as he closed in on Nat, now diving forward with his hands stretched out, aware of the car looming just beyond her, kicking bright arrows of sun t ’ enough its dark deathbag and into his eyes, he clenched his mind again,, \bringing himself back down to the Short-Time world for the last time.

He fell into a landscape that rang with splintered screams: Helen’s mingled with Lois’s mingled with the ones being made by the tires of the Ford. Weaving its way through them like an outlaw vine was the sound of Atropos’s jeers. Ralph got a brief glimpse of Nat’s wide blue eyes, and then he shoved her in the chest and stomach as hard as he could, sending her flying backward with her hands and feet thrust out in front of her. She landed sitting up in the gutter, bruising her tailbone on the curb but breaking nothing. From some distant place, Ralph heard Atropos squawk in fury and disbelief.

Then two tons of Ford, still travelling at twenty miles an hour, struck Ralph and the soundtrack dropped dead. He was heaved upward and backward in a low, slow arc-it felt slow, anyway, from inside-and went with the Ford’s hood ornament imprinted on his cheek like a tattoo and one broken leg trailing behind him. There was time to see his shadow sliding along the pavement beneath him in a shape like an X; there was time to see a spray of red droplets in the air just above him and to think that Lois must have splattered more paint on him than he had thought at first. And there was time to see Natalie sitting at the side of the street, weeping but all right… and to sense Atropos on the sidewalk behind her, shaking his fists and dancing with rage.

I believe I did pretty damned goodfor an old geezer, Ralph thought, but now I think I could really, do with a nap. in Then he came back to earth with a terrible mortal smack and rolled-skull fracturing, back breaking, lungs punctured by brittle thorns of bone as his ribcage exploded, liver turning to pulp, intestines first coming unanchored and then rupturing.

And nothing hurt.

Nothing at all.

Lois never forgot the awful thud that was the sound of Ralph’s return to Harris Avenue, or the bloody splashmarks he left behind as he cartwheeled to a stop. She wanted to scream but dared not; some deep, true voice told her that if she did that, the combination of shock, horror, and summer heat would send her unconscious to the sidewalk, and when she came to again, Ralph would be beyond her.

She ran instead of screaming, losing one shoe, marginally aware that Pete Sullivan was getting out of the Ford, which had come to rest almost exactly where Joe Wyzer’s car-also a Ford-had come to rest after Joe had hit Rosalie #1 all those years ago. She was also marginally aware that Pete was screaming.

She reached Ralph and fell on her knees beside him, seeing that his shape had somehow been changed by the green Ford, that the body beneath the familiar chino pants and paint-splattered shirt was fundamentally different from the body which had been pressed against hers less than a minute ago. But his eyes were open, and they were bright and aware.

“Ralph?”

“Yes.” His voice was clear and strong, unmarked by either confusion or pain-“Yes, Lois, I hear you.”

She started to put her arms around him and hesitated, thinking about how you weren’t supposed to move people who had been badly injured because you might hurt them even worse or kill them.

Then she looked at him again, at the blood pouring from the sides of his mouth and the way his lower body seemed to have come unhinged from the upper part, and decided it would be impossible to hurt Ralph more than he had been hurt already. She hugged him, leaning close, leaning into the smells of disaster: blood and the sweetsour acetone odor of spent adrenaline on the outrush of his breath, “You did it this time-didn’t you?” Lois asked. She kissed his cheek, his blood-soaked eyebrows, his bloody forehead where the skin had been peeled away from his skull in a flap. She began to cry. “Look at you!

Shirt torn, pants torn… do you think clothes grow on trees?”

“Is he all right?” Helen asked from behind her. Lois didn’t turn around, but she saw the shadows on the street: Helen with her arm around her weeping daughter’s shoulders, and Rosie standing by Helen’s right leg. “He saved Nat’s life and I didn’t even see where he came from. Please, Lois, say he’s all r-” Then the shadows shifted as Helen moved to a place where she could actually see Ralph, and she pulled Nat’s face against her blouse and began to wail.

Lois leaned closer to Ralph, caressing his cheeks with the palms of her hands, wanting to tell him that she had meant to come with him-she had meant to, yes, but in the end he had been too quick for her. In the end he had left her behind.

“Love you, sweetheart,” Ralph said. He reached up and copied her gesture with his own palm. He tried to raise his left hand as well, but it would only lie on the pavement and twitch.

Lois took his hand and kissed it, “Love you, too, Ralph. Always.

So much.”

“I had to do it. You see?”

“Yes.” She didn’t know if she did see, didn’t know if she would ever see… but she knew he was dying. “Yes, I see.”

He sighed harshly-that sweet acetone smell wafted up to her again-and smiled.

“Miz Chasse? Miz Roberts, I mean?” It was Pete, speaking in hitching gasps. “Is Mr. Roberts okay? Please say I didn’t hurt him!

“Stay away, Pete,” she said without turning around. “Ralph is fine.

He just tore his pants and shirt a little… didn’t you, Ralph?”

“Yes,” he said. “You bet. You’ll just have to hosswhip me for-” He broke off and looked to her left. No one was there, but Ralph ’led anyway. “Lachesis!” he said. smi He put out his trembling, blood-grimy right hand, and as Lois,

Helen, and Pete Sullivan watched, it rose and fell twice in the empty air. Ralph’s eyes moved again, this time to the right. Slowly, very slowly, he moved his hand in that direction. When he spoke this time, his voice had begun to fade. “Hi, Clotho. Now remember: this… doesn’t… hurt. Right?” Ralph appeared to listen, and then smiled. “Yep,” he whispered, “any way you can get her.” His hand rose and fell again in the air, then dropped back to his chest.

He looked up at Lois with his fading blue eyes. “Listen,” he said, speaking with great effort. Yet his eyes blazed, would not let hers go. “Every day I woke up next to you was like waking up young and seeing… everything new.” He tried to raise his hand to her cheek again, and could not. “Every day, Lois.”

“It was like that for me, tool Ralph-like waking up young.”

“Lois?”

“What.”

“The ticking,” he said. He swallowed and then said it again, enunciating the words with great effort. “The ticking.”

“What ticking?”

“Never mind, is stopped,” he said, and smiled brilliantly. Then Ralph stopped, too. Clotho and Lachesis stood watching Lois weep over the man who lay dead in the street. In one hand Clotho held his scissors; he raised the other to eye-level and looked at it wonderingly.

It glowed and blazed with Ralph’s aura. Clotho: [He’s here… in here… how wonderful!] Lachesis raised his own right hand. Like Clotho’s left, it looked as if someone had pulled a blue mitten over the normal green-gold aura which swaddled it.

Lachesis: [Yes. He was a wonderful man.] Clotho: [Shall we give him to her?] Lachesis: [Can we?] Clotho: [There’s one way to find out.] They approached Lois. Each placed the hand Ralph had shaken on one side of Lois’s face.

“Mommy!” Natalie Deepneau cried. In her agitation, she had reverted to the patois of her babyhood. “Who those wittle men? Why they touchin Roliss?”

“Shh, honey, Helen said, and buried Nat’s head against her breast again. There were no men, little or otherwise, near Lois Roberts; she was kneeling alone in the street next to the man who had saved her daughter’s life.

Lois looked up suddenly, her eyes wide and surprised, her grief forgotten as a gorgeous feeling of (light blue light) calmness and peace filled her. For a moment Harris Avenue was gone. She was in a dark place filled with the sweet smells of hay and cows, a dark place that was split by a hundred brilliant seams of light. She never forgot the fierce joy that leaped up in her at that moment, nor the sure sense that she was seeing a representation of a universe that Ralph wanted her to see, a universe where there was couldn’t she see it through “Can you ever forgive me?” Pete was sobbing. “Oh my God, can you ever forgive me?”

“Oh yes, I think so,” Lois said calmly.

She passed her hand down Ralph’s face, closing his eyes, and then held his head in her lap and waited for the police to come. To Lois, Ralph looked as if he had gone to sleep. And, she saw, the long white scar on his right forearm was gone, dazzling light behind the darkness the cracks?

September 10, 1990-November 10, 1993

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