Swan song, p.1
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Swan Song
Chapter 1

BOOK ONE

The Point of No Return

One

July 16

10:27 P. M. Eastern Daylight Time

Washington, D. C.

Once upon a time we had a love affair with fire, the president of the United States thought as the match that he'd just struck to light his pipe flared beneath his fingers.

He stared into it, mesmerized by its color - and as the fire grew he had the vision of a tower of flame a thousand feet tall, whirling across the country he loved, torching cities and towns, turning rivers to steam, ripping across the ruins of heartland farms and casting the ashes of seventy million human beings into a black sky. He watched with dreadful fascination as the flame crawled up the match, and he realized that there, on a tiny scale, was the power of both creation and destruction; it could cook food, illuminate the darkness, melt iron and sear human flesh. Something that resembled a small, unblinking scarlet eye opened in the center of the flame, and he wanted to scream. He had awakened at two in the morning from a nightmare of holocaust; he'd begun crying and couldn't stop, and the first lady had tried to calm him, but he just kept shaking and sobbing like a child. He'd sat in the Oval Office until dawn, going over the maps and top-security reports again and again, but they all said the same thing: First Strike.

The fire burned his fingers. He shook the match out and dropped it into the ashtray embossed with the presidential seal in front of him. The thin thread of smoke began to curl up toward the vent of the air-filtration system.

"Siri" someone said. He looked up, saw a group of strangers sitting in the Situations Room with him, saw the high-resolution computer map of the world on the screen before him, the array of telephones and video screens set in a semicircle around him like the cockpit of a jet fighter, and he wished to God that someone else could sit in his seat, that he was still just a senator and he didn't know the truth about the world. "Siri"

He ran his hand across his forehead. His skin felt clammy. Fine time to be coming down with the flu, he thought, and he almost laughed at the absurdity of it. The president gets no sick days, he thought, because a president's not supposed to be sick. He tried to focus on who at the oval table was speaking to him; they were all watching him - the vice-president, nervous and sly; admiral Narramore, ramrod-straight in his uniform with a chestful of service decorations; General Sinclair, crusty and alert, his eyes like two bits of blue glass in his hard-seamed face; Secretary of Defense Hannan, who looked as kindly as anyone's old grandfather but who was known as "Iron Hans" by both the press corps and his associates; General Chivington, the ranking authority on Soviet military strength; Chief of Staff Bergholz, crewcut and crisp in his ubiquitous dark blue pin-striped suit; and various other military officials and advisors.

"Yesi" the president asked Bergholz.

Hannan reached for a glass of water, sipped from it and said, "Siri I was asking if you wanted me to go on. " He tapped the page of the open report from which he'd been reading.

"Oh. " My pipe's gone out, he thought. Didn't I just light iti He looked at the burned match in the ashtray, couldn't remember how it had gotten there. For an instant he saw John Wayne's face in his mind, a scene from some old black-and-white movie he'd seen as a kid; the Duke was saying something about the point of no return. "Yes," the president said. "Go on. "

Hannan glanced quickly around the table at the others. They all had copies of the report before them, as well as stacks of other Eyes Only coded reports fresh off the NORaD and SaC communications wires. "Less than three hours ago," Hannan continued, "our last operating SKY EYE recon satellite was dazzled as it moved into position over Chatyrka, U. S. S. R. We lost all our optical sensors and cameras, and again - as in the case of the other six SKY EYEs - we feel this one was destroyed by a land-based laser, probably operating from a point near Magadan. Twenty minutes after SKY EYE 7 was blinded, we used our Malmstrom aFB laser to dazzle a Soviet recon satellite as it came over Canada. By our calculations, that still leaves them two recon eyes available, one currently over the northern Pacific and a second over the Iran-Iraq border. NaSa's trying to repair SKY EYEs 2 and 3, but the others are space junk. What all this means, sir, is that as of approximately three hours ago, Eastern Daylight Time" - Hannan looked up at the digital clock on the Situation Room's gray concrete wall - "we went blind. The last recon photos were taken at 1830 hours over Jelgava. " He switched on a microphone attached to the console before him and said, "SKY EYE recon 7-16, please. "

There was a pause of three seconds as the information computer found the required data. On the large wall screen, the map of the world went dark and was replaced by a high-altitude satellite photograph showing the sweep of a dense Soviet forest. at the center of the picture was a cluster of pinheads linked together by the tiny lines of roadways. "Enlarge twelve," Hannan said, the picture reflected in his horn-rimmed eyeglasses.

The photograph was enlarged twelve times, until finally the hundreds of intercontinental ballistic missile silos were as clear as if the Situations Room wall screen was a plate glass window. On the roads were trucks, their tires throwing up dust, and even soldiers were visible near the missile installation's concrete bunkers and radar dishes. "as you can see," Hannan went on in the calm, slightly detached voice of his previous profession - teaching military history and economics at Yale - "they're getting ready for something. Probably bringing in more radar gear and arming those warheads, is my guess. We count two hundred and sixty-three silos in that installation alone, probably housing over six hundred warheads. Two minutes later, the SKY EYE was blinded. But this picture only reinforces what we already know: the Soviets have gone to a high level of readiness, and they don't want us seeing the new equipment they're bringing in. Which brings us to General Chivington's report. Generali"

Chivington broke the seal on a green folder in front of him, and the others did the same. Inside were pages of documents, graphs and charts. "Gentlemen," he said in a gravelly voice, "the Soviet war machine has mobilized to within fifteen percent of capacity in the last nine months. I don't have to tell you about afghanistan, South america or the Persian Gulf, but I'd like to direct your attention to the document marked Double 6 Double 3. That's a graph showing the amount of supplies being funneled into the Russian Civil Defense System, and you can see for yourselves how it's jumped in the last two months. Our Soviet sources tell us that more than forty percent of their urban population has now either moved outside the cities or taken up residence inside the fallout shelters. . . "

While Chivington talked on about Soviet Civil Defense the president's mind went back eight months to the final terrible days of afghanistan, with its nerve gas warfare and tactical nuclear strikes. and one week after the fall of afghanistan, a twelve-and-a-half-kiloton nuclear device had exploded in a Beirut apartment building, turning that tortured city into a moonscape of radioactive rubble. almost half the population was killed outright. a variety of terrorist groups had gleefully claimed responsibility, promising more lightning bolts from allah.

With the detonation of that bomb, a Pandora's box of terrors had been opened.

On the fourteenth of March, India had attacked Pakistan with chemical weapons. Pakistan retaliated by a missile strike on the city of Jaipur. Three Indian nuclear missiles had leveled Karachi, and the war was deadlocked in the wastes of the Thar Desert.

On the second of april, Iran had unleashed a rain of Soviet-supplied nuclear missiles on Iraq, and american forces had been sucked into the maelstrom as they fought to hold back the Iranians. Soviet and american jets had battled over the Persian Gulf, and the entire region was primed to blow.

Border wars had rippled across North and South africa. The smallest of countries were depleting their treasuries to buy chemical and nuclear weapons from arms brokers. alliances changed overnight, some due to military pressure and others to snipers' bullets.

Less than twelve miles off Key West, a trigger-happy american F-18 fighter pilot had sent an air-to-surface missile into the side of a disabled Russian submarine on the fourth day of May. Cuban-based Russian Floggers had come screaming over the horizon, shooting down the first pilot and two others of a squadron that arrived as backup.

Nine days later, a Soviet and an american submarine had collided during a game of cat-and-mouse in the arctic. Two days after that, the radars of the Canadian Distant Early Warning line had picked up the blips of twenty incoming aircraft; all western United States air force bases had gone to red alert, but the intruders turned and escaped before contact.

On the sixteenth of May, all american air bases had gone to Defcon One, with a corresponding move by the Soviets within two hours. adding to the tension that day was the detonation of a nuclear device in the Fiat complex in Milan, Italy, the action claimed by a Communist terrorist group called The Red Star of Freedom.

Incidents between surface ships, submarines and aircraft had continued through May and June in the North atlantic and North Pacific. american air bases had gone to Defcon Two when a cruiser had exploded and sank, cause unknown, thirty nautical miles off the coast of Oregon. Sightings of Soviet submarines in territorial waters increased dramatically, and american submarines were sent to test the Russian defenses. The activity at Soviet ICBM installations was recorded by SKY EYE satellites before they were blinded by lasers, and the president knew the Soviets saw the activity at U. S. bases before their own spy satellites were dazzled blind.

On the thirtieth of June of the "Grim Summer," as the newsmagazines were calling it, a cruise ship called the Tropic Panorama, carrying seven hundred passengers between Hawaii and San Francisco, had radioed that they were being stalked by an unidentified submarine.

That had been the final message of the Tropic Panorama.

From that day on, american naval vessels had patrolled the Pacific with nuclear missiles armed and ready for launch.

The president remembered the movie: The High and the Mighty, about an airplane in distress and about to crash. The pilot was John Wayne, and the Duke had told the crew about the point of no return - a line beyond which the plane could not turn back, but had to keep going forward, whatever the result. The president's mind had been on the point of no return a lot lately; he'd dreamed he was at the controls of a disabled plane, flying over a dark and forbidding ocean, searching for the lights of land. But the controls were shattered, and the plane kept dropping lower and lower while the screams of the passengers rang in his mind.

I want to be a child again, he thought as the other men at the table looked at him. Dear God, I don't want to be at the controls anymore!

General Chivington had finished his report. The president said, "Thank you," though he wasn't sure exactly what Chivington had said. He felt the eyes of those men on him, waiting for him to speak, to move, to do anything. He was in his late forties, dark-haired and ruggedly handsome; he had been a pilot himself, had flown the NaSa shuttle Olympian and been one of the first to walk in space wearing a jet pack. Contemplating the great cloud-streaked orb of the Earth, he'd been moved to tears, and his emotional radio transmission of "I think I know how God must feel, Houston" had done more than anything to win him the presidency.

But he'd inherited the mistakes of the generations of presidents before him, and he'd been ridiculously naive about the world on the eve of the twenty-first century.

The economy, after a resurgence in the mid-eighties, had tumbled out of control. The crime rate was staggering, the prisons packed slaughterhouses. Hundreds of thousands of homeless people - "The Ragtag Nation," as the New York Times called them - roamed the streets of america, unable to afford shelter or cope mentally with the pressures of a runaway world. The "Star Wars" military program that had cost billions of dollars had proven to be a disaster, because it was realized too late that machines could only work as well as humans, and the complexity of the orbital platforms boggled the mind and broke the budget. The arms brokers had fed a crude, unstable nuclear technology to Third World nations and mad-dog leaders thirsting for power in the seductive and precarious global arena. Twelve-kiloton bombs, roughly the strength of the device that had decimated Hiroshima, were now as common as hand grenades and could be carried in a briefcase. The renewed riots in Poland and the Warsaw street fighting the previous winter had chilled United States-Soviet relations to below zero, quickly followed by the collapse and national disgrace of the CIa plot to assassinate Polish Liberation leaders.

We are on the edge of the point of no return, the president thought, and he felt an awful urge to laugh, but he concentrated on keeping his lips tightly sealed. His mind was grappling with an intricate web of reports and opinions that led to a terrible conclusion: the Soviet Union was preparing a first strike that would utterly destroy the United States of america.

"Siri" Hannan broke the uneasy silence. "admiral Narramore has the next report. admirali"

another folder was unsealed. admiral Narramore, a gaunt, wiry-looking man in his mid-sixties, began to go over the classified data: "at 1912 hours, British recon helicopters off the guided missile destroyer Fife dropped sonobuoys that verified the presence of six unidentified submarines seventy-three miles north of Bermuda, bearing three hundred degrees. If those subs are closing on the northeastern coast, they're already within strike range of New York City, Newport News, air bases on the eastern seaboard, the White House and the Pentagon. " He gazed across the table at the president, his eyes smoky gray under thick white brows. The White House was fifty feet above their heads. "If six were picked up," he said, "you can rely on the fact that Ivan's got at least three times that many out there. They can deliver several hundred warheads within five to nine minutes of launch. " He turned the page. "as of an hour ago, the twelve Delta II-class Soviet subs two hundred and sixty miles northwest of San Francisco were still holding their position. "

The president felt dazed, as if this all were a waking dream. Think! he told himself. Damn you, think! "Where are our submarines, admirali" he heard himself ask, in what might have been a stranger's voice.

Narramore called up another computer map on the wall screen. It displayed a line of blinking dots about two hundred miles northeast of Murmansk, U. S. S. R. Calling up a second map brought the Baltic Sea onto the screen, and another deployment of nuclear subs northwest of Riga. a third map showed the Russian east coast, a line of submarines in position in the Bering Sea between alaska and the Soviet mainland. "We've got Ivan in an iron ring," Narramore said. "Give us the word and we'll sink anything that tries to break through. "

"I think the picture's very clear. " Hannan's voice was quiet and firm. "We've got to back the Soviets off. "

The president was silent, trying to put together logical thoughts. The palms of his hands were sweating. "What. . . if they're not planning a first strikei What if they believe we arei If we show force, might it not push them over the edgei"

Hannan took a cigarette from a silver case and lit it. again the president's eyes were drawn to the flame. "Sir," Hannan replied softly, as if speaking to a retarded child, "if the Soviets respect anything, it's force. You know that as well as every man in this room, especially since the Persian Gulf incident. They want territory, and they're prepared to destroy us and to take their share of casualties to get it. Hell, their economy is worse than ours! They're going to keep pushing us until we either break or strike - and if we delay until we break, God help us. "

"No. " The president shook his head. They'd been over this many times, and the idea sickened him. "No. We will not deliver a first strike. "

"The Soviets," Hannan continued patiently, "understand the diplomacy of the fist. I'm not saying I think we should destroy the Soviet Union. But I do believe - fervently - that now is the time to tell them, and decisively, that we'll not be pushed, and we won't let their nuclear submarines sit off our shores waiting for launch codes!"

The president stared at his hands. The knot of his tie felt like a hangman's noose, and there was sweat under his arms and at the small of his back. "Meaning whati" he asked.

"Meaning we intercept those goddamned submarines immediately. We destroy them if they won't turn back. We go to Defcon Three at all air bases and ICBM installations. " Hannan looked quickly around the table to judge who stood with him. Only the vice-president glanced away, but Hannan knew he was a weak man and his opinion carried no weight. "We intercept any Soviet nuclear vessel leaving Riga, Murmansk or Vladivostok. We take control of the sea again - and if that means limited nuclear contact, then so be it. "

"Blockade," the president said. "Wouldn't that make them more eager to fighti"

"Siri" General Sinclair spoke in a folksy, down-home Virginia drawl. "I think the reasonin' goes like this: Ivan's got to believe we'll risk our asses to blow him to hell and back. and to be honest, sir, I don't think there's a man jack here who'll sit still and let Ivan throw a shitload of SLBMs at us without gettin' our own knock in. No matter what the casualty toll. " He leaned forward, his piercing stare directed at the president. "I can put SaC and NORaD on Defcon Three within two minutes of your okay. I can send a squadron of B-1s right up to Ivan's back door within one hour. Just kinda give him a gentle prod, y'see. "

"But. . . they'll think we're attacking!"

"The point is that they'll know we're not afraid. " Hannan tapped a stalk of ash into his ashtray. "If that's crazy, okay. But by God, the Russians respect insanity more than they respect fear! If we let them bring nuclear missiles to bear on our coastlines without lifting a finger, we're signing a death warrant for the United States of america!"

The president closed his eyes. Jerked them open again. He had seen burning cities and charred black things that had once been human beings. With an effort he said, "I don't. . . I don't want to be the man who starts World War Three. Can you understand thati"

"It's already started," Sinclair spoke up. "Hell, the whole damned world's at war, and everybody's waitin' for either Ivan or us to give the knockout punch. Maybe the whole future of the world depends on who's willin' to be the craziest! I agree with Hans; if we don't make a move right soon, a mighty hard rain's gonna fall on our tin roof. "

"They'll back off," Narramore said flatly. "They've backed off before. If we send hunter-killer groups after those subs and blow them out of the water, they'll know where the line's drawn. So: Do we sit and wait, or do we show them our musclei"

"Siri" Hannan prodded. He glanced again at the clock, which showed fifty-eight minutes after ten. "I think the decision belongs to you now. "

I don't want it! he almost shouted. He needed time, needed to go to Camp David or off on one of those long fishing trips he had enjoyed as a senator. But now there was no more time. His hands were gripped before him. His face felt so tight he feared it would crack and fall to pieces like a mask, and he wouldn't want to see what lay underneath. When he looked up, the watching and powerful men were still there, and his senses seemed to whirl away from him.

The decision. The decision had to be made. Right now.

"Yes. " The word had never sounded so terrible before. "all right. We go to" - he paused, drew a deep breath - "we go to Defcon Three. admiral, alert your task forces. General Sinclair, I don't want those B-1s over one inch of Russian territory. Is that cleari"

"My crews could walk that line in their sleep. "

"Punch your codes. "

Sinclair went to work on the keyboard console before him, then lifted his telephone to make the voice authorization to Strategic air Command in Omaha and the North american air Defense fortress in Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado. admiral Narramore picked up the phone that instantly put him in touch with Naval Operations at the Pentagon. Within minutes there would be heightened activity at the country's air and naval bases. The Defcon Three codes would hum through the wires, and yet another check would be carried out on radar equipment, sensors, monitors, computers and hundreds of other pieces of high-tech military hardware, as well as the dozens of Cruise missiles and thousands of nuclear warheads hidden in silos across the Midwest from Montana to Kansas.

The president was numb. The decision was made. Chief of Staff Bergholz adjourned the meeting and came over to grasp the president's shoulder and say what a good, solid decision it was. as the military advisors and officials left the Situations Room and moved to the elevator in the outside hallway the president sat alone. His pipe was cold, and he did not care to relight it.

"Siri"

He jumped, turning his head toward the voice. Hannan stood beside the door. "are you all righti"

"a-OK. " The president smiled wanly. a memory of his glory days as an astronaut had just flashed by. "No. Jesus Christ, I don't know. I think I am. "

"You made the correct decision. We both know that. The Soviets have to realize we're not afraid. "

"I am afraid, Hans! I'm damned afraid!"

"So am I. So is everyone, but we must not be ruled by fear. " He approached the table and paged through some of the folders. In a few minutes, a young CIa man would be in to shred all the documents. "I think you'd better send Julianne and Cory to the Basement tonight, as soon as they can pack. We'll work out something with the press. "

The president nodded. The Basement was an underground shelter in Delaware where the first lady, the president's seventeen-year-old son, ranking cabinet members and staff people would - they hoped - be protected from all but a direct hit by a one-megaton nuclear warhead. Since news of the carefully constructed Basement had leaked to the public several years before, such underground shelters had started appearing all over the country, some dug into old mines and others into mountains. The "survivalist" business was booming as never before.

"There's a subject we need to talk about," Hannan said. The president could see his own face, weary and hollow-eyed, reflected in the man's glasses. "Talons. "

"It's not time for that yet. " His stomach had knotted. "Not nearly time. "

"Yes. It is time. I think you'd be safer in the airborne Command Center. One of the first targets would be the roof of the White House. I'm going to send Paula to the Basement, and, as you know, you have the authority to send whomever else you want there. But I'd like to join you in the airborne Center, if I may. "

"Yes. Of course. I want you with me. "

"and," Hannan continued, "there'll be an air Force officer aboard with a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist. Do you know your codesi"

"I know them. " Those particular codes were among the first things he'd learned after taking office. an iron band of tension gripped the back of his neck. "But. . . I won't have to use them, will I, Hansi" he asked, almost pleadingly.

"Most likely not. But if you do - if you do - I want you to remember that by then the america we love will be dead, and no invader has ever, or will ever, set foot on american earth. " He reached out and squeezed the president's shoulder in a grandfatherly gesture. "Righti"

"The point of no return," the president said, his eyes glazed and distant.

"Whati"

"We're about to cross the point of no return. Maybe we already have. Maybe it's way too late to turn back. God help us, Hans; we're flying in the dark, and we don't know where the hell we're going. "

"We'll figure it out when we get there. We always have before. "

"Hansi" The president's voice was as soft as a child's. "If. . . if you were God. . . would you destroy this worldi"

Hannan didn't respond for a moment. Then, "I suppose. . . I'd wait and watch. If I were God, I mean. "

"Wait and watch for whati"

"To find out who wins. The good guys or the bad guys. "

"Is there a difference anymorei"

Hannan paused. He started to answer, and then he realized he could not. "I'll get the elevator," he said, and he walked out of the Situations Room.

The president unclasped his hands. The overhead lights sparkled on the cuff links he always wore, embossed with the seal of the president of the United States.

"I'm a-OK," he said to himself. "all systems go. "

Something broke inside him, and he almost cried. He wanted to go home, but home was a long, long way from this chair.

"Siri" Hannan called him.

Moving as slowly and stiffly as an elderly man, the president stood up and went out to face the future.

Two

11:19 P. M. Eastern Daylight Time

New York City

Whack!

She felt somebody kick the side of her cardboard box, and she stirred and hugged her canvas bag closer. She was tired and wanted to rest. a girl needs her beauty sleep, she thought, and she closed her eyes again.

"I said get outta there!"

Hands grabbed her ankles and hauled her roughly out of the box onto the pavement. as she came out she shouted in indignation and started kicking wildly. "You bastard sonofa-bitching bastard lemme alone you bastard!"

"Shit, lookit that!" said one of the two figures standing above her, outlined in red neon from the sign of a Vietnamese takeout restaurant across West Thirty-sixth Street. "He's a woman!"

The other man, who'd grabbed her ankles above her dirty sneakers and hauled her out, growled in a darker, meaner voice, "Woman or not, I'm gonna stomp her ass. "

She sat up, the canvas bag holding her worldly belongings clutched close to her chest. In the red wash of neon, her square-jawed, sturdy face was deeply lined and streaked with street grime. Her eyes, sunken in violet-tinged hollows, were a pale, watery blue and glinted with both fear and anger. On her head she wore a blue cap that she'd found the day before in a split-open garbage bag. Her outfit consisted of a dirty gray printed short-sleeved blouse and a baggy pair of brown men's trousers with patched knees. She was a big-boned, fleshy woman, and her stomach and hips strained against the coarse material of her trousers; her clothes, as well as the canvas duffel bag she carried, had come from a kindly minister at the Salvation army. Under the cap, her gray-streaked brown hair hung untidily around her shoulders, parts of it chopped off here and there where she'd taken scissors to it. Stuffed into her canvas bag was a melange of objects: a roll of fishing line, a tattered bright orange sweater, a pair of cowboy boots with both heels broken off, a dented mess tray, paper cups and plastic eating utensils, a year-old copy of Cosmopolitan, a length of chain, several packages of Juicy Fruit chewing gum and other items buried in the bag that even she'd forgotten were there. as the two men stared at her - one with menacing intent - she clutched the bag tighter. Her left eye and cheekbone were bruised and swollen, and her ribs hurt where she'd been pushed down a flight of stairs by another indigent woman at the Christian Shelter three days before. She'd picked herself off the floor, stalked up the stairs and knocked two teeth out of the woman's head with a roundhouse right.

"You're in my box," the dark-voiced man said. He was tall and skinny, wearing only a pair of blue jeans, his chest shining with sweat. His face was bearded, his eyes filled with shadow. The second man, shorter and heavier, wore a sweaty T-shirt and green army surplus pants pocked with cigarette burns. He had oily dark hair, and he kept scratching his crotch. The first man prodded her in the side with the toe of his boot, and she winced at the pain to her ribs. "You deaf, bitchi I said you're in my fuckin' box!"

The cardboard box in which she'd been sleeping lay on its side amid a sea of oozing garbage bags, a symptom of the garbage strike that had clogged Manhattan's streets and gutters for over two weeks. In the suffocating heat of one-hundred-degree days and ninety-degree nights, the bags had swollen and exploded. Rats were having festival days, and mountains of garbage lay uncollected, blocking off traffic on some streets.

She looked dazedly up at the two men, the contents of a half bottle of Red Dagger percolating in her stomach. Her last meal had been the remnants of chicken bones and the scrapings from a discarded TV dinner. "Huhi"

"My box!" the bearded man shouted in her face. "This is my place! You crazy or somethin'i"

"She don't have no sense," the other one said. "She's crazy as hell. "

"Ugly as hell, too. Hey, whatcha got in that bagi Lemme see!" He grabbed at it and yanked, but the woman emitted a loud howl and refused to give it up, her eyes wide and terrified. "You got some money in therei Somethin' to drinki Give it here, bitch!" The man almost tore it from her arms, but she whimpered and hung on. Red light sparked off an ornament around her neck - a small, cheap crucifix attached to a necklace made of linked gemclips.

"Hey!" the second man said. "Looky there! I know who she is! I seen her panhandlin' on Forty-second Street. She thinks she's a damned saint, always preachin' to people. They call her Sister Creep. "

"Yeahi Well, maybe we can pawn us that trinket, then. " He reached to tear the crucifix off her neck, but she turned her head away. The man grabbed the back of her neck, snarled and balled up his other hand to strike her.

"Please!" she begged, about to sob. "Please don't hurt me! I got somethin' for you!" She started rummaging through the bag.

"Get it out, and hurry! I oughta bust your head for sleepin' in my box. " He let her head go, but he kept his fist poised and ready.

She made little weak whimpering noises as she searched. "Somewhere in here," she muttered. "Got it somewhere. "

"Put it right here!" He thrust his palm at her. "and maybe I won't kick your ass. "

Her hand closed around what she was looking for. "Found it," she said. "Sure did. "

"Well, put it here!"

"Okay," the woman replied; the whimpering was gone, and her voice was as tough as sunbaked leather. With one blurred, smooth motion she withdrew a straight razor, flicked it open with a snap of her wrist and slashed it hard across the bearded man's open hand.

Blood jetted from the gash. The man's face went white. He gripped his wrist; his mouth contorted into an O, and then the scream came out like the sound of a strangling cat. at once the woman was on her stocky legs, holding the canvas bag in front of her like a shield and swiping again at the two men, who tumbled back into each other, slipped on the garbage-slimed pavement and went down. The bearded man, blood streaming down his hand, came up holding a piece of wood studded with rusty nails; his eyes gleamed with rage. "I'll show you!" he screamed. "I'll show you right now!"

He swung at her, but she ducked under the blow and slashed at him with the razor. He staggered back again and stood looking dumbly at the line of blood that leaked from his chest.

Sister Creep didn't pause; she turned and ran - almost slipping in a pool of ooze, but regaining her balance - with the shouts of the two men ringing out behind her. "Gonna get you!" the bearded one warned. "I'll find you, bitch! You just wait!"

She didn't. She kept going, her sneakers slapping the pavement, until she came to a barrier of a thousand split-open garbage bags. She crawled over it, taking the time to pick up a few interesting items, like a broken salt shaker and a soggy copy of National Geographic, and stuff them into her bag. Then she was over the barrier, and she kept walking, the breath still rasping in her lungs and her body trembling. That had been close, she thought. The demons almost got me! But glory be to Jesus, and when he arrives in his flying saucer from the planet Jupiter I'll be there on the golden shore to kiss his hand!

She stood on the corner of Thirty-eighth and Seventh avenue, catching her breath and watching the traffic pass like a stampeding herd of cattle. The yellow haze of garbage fumes and automobile exhaust stirred like the stagnant matter atop a pond, and the wet heat pressed in on Sister Creep; beads of sweat broke and ran down her face. Her clothes were damp; she wished she had some deodorant, but the last of the Secret was gone. She looked around at the faces of strangers, daubed the color of wounds in the glare of pulsing neon. She didn't know where she was going, and she hardly remembered where she'd been. But she knew she couldn't stand on this corner all night; standing out in the open, she'd realized a long time ago, brought the demon X rays jabbing at your head, trying to scramble your brains. She began walking north, her head ducked and her shoulders hunched, in the direction of Central Park.

Her nerves were jangling from her experience with the two heathen who'd tried to rob her. Sin was everywhere! she thought. In the ground, in the air, in the water - nothing but rank, black and evil sin! and it was in people's faces, too, oh, yes! You could see the sin creeping over people's faces, hooding their eyes and making their mouths go crooked. It was the world and the demons that were making innocent people crazy, she knew. Never before had the demons been so busy, or so greedy for innocent souls.

She thought of the magic place, way over on Fifth avenue, and her hard, worried frown softened. She often went there to look at the beautiful things in the windows; the delicate objects displayed there had the power to soothe her soul, and even though the guard at the door wouldn't let her pass she was content to just stand outside and stare. She recalled a glass angel in the window once - a powerful figure: the angel's long hair was swept back like holy, glittering fire, and her wings were about to unfold from a strong, sleek body. and in that angel's beautiful face the eyes shone with multicolored, wonderful lights. Sister Creep had journeyed to look at that angel every day for a month, until they replaced it with a glass whale leaping from a stormy blue-green glass sea. Of course, there were other places with treasures along Fifth avenue, and Sister knew their names - Saks, Fortunoff's, Cartier, Gucci, Tiffany - but she was drawn to the sculptures on display at the Steuben Glass shop, the magic place of soul-soothing dreams, where the silken sheen of polished glass under soft lights made her think how lovely Heaven was going to be.

Somebody jostled her back to reality. She blinked in the hot shout of neon. Nearby a sign announced Girls! Live Girls! - would men want dead onesi she wondered - and a movie marquee advertised Born Erect. The signs pulsed from every niche and doorway: Sex Books! Sex aids! Boom Boxes! Martial arts Weapons! a thunder of bass-heavy music came from a bar's doorway, and other pounding, discordant rhythms strutted from speakers set up over a strip of bookstores, bars, strip shows and porno theaters. at almost eleven-thirty, Forty-second Street near the rim of Times Square was a parade of humanity. a young Hispanic boy near Sister Creep held up his hands and shouted, "Coke! Poppers! Crack! Right here!" Not far away, a rival drug seller opened his coat to show the plastic bags he was carrying; he yelled, "Getcha high, you're gonna fly! Do it deep, cheap cheap cheap!"

Other sellers shouted at the cars that slowly drove along Forty-second. Girls in halter tops, jeans, hot pants or leather slacks hung around the doors of the bookstores and theaters or motioned for the drivers to pull over; some did, and Sister Creep watched the young girls being swept away into the night by strangers. The noise was almost deafening, and across the street in front of a peep show two young black men were grappling on the sidewalk, surrounded by a ring of others who laughed and urged them on to a higher level of violence. The burning hemp aroma of pot floated through the air, the incense of escape. "Switchblades!" another vendor yelled. "Blades right here!"

Sister Creep moved on, her gaze warily ticking back and forth. She knew this street, this den of demons; she had come to preach here many times. But the preaching never did any good, and her voice was drowned out in the thunder of music and the shouting of people with something to sell. She stumbled across the body of a black man sprawled across the pavement; his eyes were open, and blood had pooled from his nostrils. She kept going, bumping into people, being shoved and cursed at, and the neon glare all but blinded her. Her mouth opened, and she shouted, "Save your souls! The end is near! God have mercy on your souls!"

But no one even looked at her. Sister Creep plunged into the swirl of bodies, and suddenly an old, gnarled man with vomit on the front of his shirt was in her face; he cursed at her and grabbed for her bag, yanking several items out of it arid running before she could get a good swing at him. "You're goin' to Hell, you sonofabitch!" she shrieked - and then a wave of freezing cold gnawed at her bones and she flinched. The image of an onrushing freight train bearing down on her streaked through her mind.

She did not see who hit her, she simply sensed that she was about to be hit. a hard, bony shoulder thrust her aside as easily as if her body had turned to straw, and in the second of contact an indelible picture was seared into her brain: a mountain of broken, charred dolls - no, not dolls, she realized as she was flung toward the street; dolls had no insides to burst through their rib cages, no brains to ooze from their ears, no teeth to grimace in the frozen rictus of the dead. She hit the curb and a cab swerved to avoid her, the driver shouting and leaning on his horn. She was all right, just the wind knocked out of her and her hurt side throbbing, and she struggled to her feet to see who'd hit her such a blow, but no one was paying her any attention. Still, Sister Creep's teeth chattered from the cold that clung to her, there on the hottest night of midsummer, and she felt her arm for what she knew would be a black bruise where that bastard had collided with her. "You heathen shitass!" she yelled at nobody in particular, but the vision of a mountain of smoldering corpses lingered behind her eyes and a claw of fear clutched at her stomach. Who had that been, passing on the sidewalk, she wondered. What kind of monster dressed in human skini She saw the marquee of a theater before her, advertising a double feature of The Face of Death, Part Four and Mondo Bizarro. Walking closer, she saw that the poster for Face of Death, Part Four promised Scenes From The autopsy Table! Car Wreck Victims! Death By Fire! Uncut and Uncensored!

a chill lingered in the air around the closed door of the theater. Come In! a sign said on the door. We're air Conditioned! But it was more than the air conditioner, she decided. This was a dank, sinister chill: the chill of shadows where poison toadstools grow, their ruddy colors beckoning a child to come, come take a taste of candy.

It was fading now, dissipating in the sultry heat. Sister Creep stood in front of that door, and though she knew that sweet Jesus was her mission and sweet Jesus would protect her, she knew also that she wouldn't set foot inside that theater for a full bottle of Red Dagger - not even two full bottles!

She backed away from the door, bumped into somebody who cursed and shoved her aside, and then she started walking again - where, she didn't know, nor did she care. Her cheeks burned with shame. She had been afraid, she told herself, even though sweet holy Jesus stood at her side. She had been afraid to look evil in the face, and she had sinned yet again.

Two blocks past the forbidding theater, she saw a black kid toss a beer bottle into the midst of some overflowing garbage cans set back in the doorway of a crumbling building. She pretended to be searching for something in her bag until he'd passed, and then she stepped into that doorway and started looking for the bottle, her throat parched for a sip, a drop, of liquid.

Rats squealed and scurried away over her hands, but she didn't mind them; she saw rats every day, and much bigger ones than these. One of them perched on the edge of a can and squealed at her with furious indignation. She tossed a cast-off tennis shoe at it, and the thing fled.

The smell of the garbage was putrid, the smell of meat that had long since gone bad. She found the beer bottle, and in the murky light she rejoiced to see that a few drops remained. She quickly tilted it to her lips, her tongue struggling into the bottle for the tang of beer. Heedless of the chattering rats, she sat down with her back to the rough brick wall. as she put her hand to the ground to steady herself she touched something damp and soft. She looked to her side; but when she realized what it was, she put her hand to her mouth to stifle a scream.

It had been wrapped up in a few pages of newspaper, but the rats had chewed that away. Then they had gone to work on the flesh. Sister Creep couldn't tell how old it was, or whether it was a boy or a girl, but its eyes were half open in the tiny face, as if the infant lay on the edge of sweet slumber. It was nude; someone had tossed it into the heap of garbage cans and bags and sweltering filth as if it were a broken toy.

"Oh," she whispered, and she thought of a rainswept highway and a spinning blue light. She heard a man's voice saying, "Let me have her now, lady. You've got to let me have her. "

Sister Creep picked up the dead infant and began to rock it in her arms. From the distance came the pounding of mindless music and the calls of the vendors on Forty-second Street, and Sister Creep crooned in a strangled voice, "Hushabye, hushabye, little baby don't you cry. . . " She couldn't remember the rest of it.

The blue light spinning, and the man's voice floating through time and distance: "Give her to me, lady. The ambulance is coming. "

"No," Sister Creep whispered. Her eyes were wide and staring, and a tear trickled down her cheek. "No, I won't. . . let. . . her go. . . "

She pressed the infant against her shoulder, and the tiny head lolled. The body was cold. around Sister Creep, the rats chattered and squealed with frustration.

"Oh God," she heard herself say. and then she lifted her head toward a slice of sky and felt her face contort, and the anger flooded out of her as she screamed, "Where are youi" Her voice echoed off along the street and was drowned by the merry commerce a couple of blocks away. Sweet Jesus is late, she thought. He's late, late, late for a very important date, date, date! She began to giggle hysterically and cry at the same time, until what came from her throat sounded like the moaning of a wounded animal.

It was a long time before she realized that she had to move on, and she could not take the infant with her. She wrapped it carefully in the bright orange sweater from her bag, and then she lowered it into one of the garbage cans and piled as much as she could on top of it. a large gray rat came close to her, baring its teeth, and she hit it square with the empty beer bottle.

She couldn't find the strength to stand, and she crawled out of the doorway with her head bowed and the hot tears of shame, disgust and rage coursing down her face. I can't go on, she told herself. I can't live in this dark world anymore! Dear sweet Jesus, come down in your flying saucer and take me with you! She leaned her forehead against the sidewalk, and she wanted to be dead and in Heaven where all the sin was blotted clean.

Something clinked to the sidewalk, ringing like notes of music. She looked up; her eyes were blurred and swollen from crying, but she saw someone walking away from her. The figure turned the corner and was gone.

Sister Creep saw that several coins lay on the pavement a few feet away - three quarters, two dunes and a nickel. Somebody had thought she was panhandling, she realized. Her arm darted out, and she scooped up the coins before anybody else could get them.

She sat up, trying to think what she should do. She felt sick and weak and tired, and she feared lying out on the street in the open. Have to find a place to hide, she decided. Find a place to dig myself a hole and hide.

Her gaze came to rest on the stairs across Forty-second Street that descended into the subway.

She'd slept in the subway before; she knew the cops would run her out of the station or, worse, haul her off yet again to the shelter. But she knew also that the subway held a warren of maintenance tunnels and unfinished passageways that snaked off from the main routes and went deep beneath Manhattan. So deep that none of the demons in human skin could find her, and she could curl up in the darkness and forget. Her hand clenched the money; it was enough to get her through the turnstile, and then she could lose herself from the sinful world that sweet Jesus had shunned.

Sister Creep stood up, crossed Forty-second Street and descended into the underground world.

Three

10:22 P. M. Central Daylight Time

Concordia, Kansas

"Kill him, Johnny!"

"Tear him to pieces!"

"Pull off his arm and beat him to death with it!"

The rafters of the hot, smoky Concordia High School gymnasium rang with the combined yelling of over four hundred people, and at the gym's center two men - one black, one white - battled in a wrestling ring. at the moment, the white wrestler - a local boy named Johnny Lee Richwine - had the monster known as Black Frankenstein against the ropes and was battering him with judo chops as the crowd shouted for blood. But Black Frankenstein, who stood six feet four, weighed over three hundred pounds and wore an ebony mask covered with red leather "scars" and rubber "bolts," stuck out his mountainous chest; he gave a thunderous roar and grabbed Johnny Lee Richwine's hand in midair, then twisted the trapped hand until the young man was forced to his knees. Black Frankenstein growled and kicked him with a size thirteen boot in the side of the head, knocking him sprawling across the canvas.

The referee was scrambling around ineffectually, and as he stuck a warning finger in Black Frankenstein's face the monster shoved him aside as easily as flicking a grasshopper; Black Frankenstein stood over the fallen boy and thumped his chest, his head going around and around like a maniac's as the crowd screamed with rage. Crumpled Coke cups and popcorn bags began to rain into the ring. "You dumb geeks!" Black Frankenstein shouted, in a bass boom that carried over the noise of the crowd. "Watch what I do to your hometown boy!"

The monster gleefully stomped on Johnny Lee Richwine's ribs. The young man contorted, his face showing deepest agony, while the referee tried to pull Black Frankenstein away. With one shove, the monster threw the referee into the turnbuckle, where he sagged to his knees. Now the crowd was on its feet, paper cups and ice flying, and the local policemen who'd signed on for wrestling arena duty stood nervously around the ring. "Wanna see some Kansas farmboy bloodi" Black Frankenstein bellowed as he lifted his boot to crush his opponent's skull.

But Johnny snapped to life; he grabbed the monster's ankle and threw him off balance, then kicked his other leg out from under him. His thick arms windmilling, Black Frankenstein hit the mat with a force that made the floor shake, and the crowd's noise almost ripped the roof off.

Black Frankenstein cowered on his knees, his hands up and pleading for mercy as the young man advanced on him. Then Johnny turned to help the injured referee, and as the crowd shrieked Black Frankenstein bounded up and rushed Johnny from behind, his huge hands clasped together to deliver a hammerblow.

The frenzied screaming of the fans made Johnny Lee Richwine whirl around at the last instant, and he kicked the monster in the roll of fat around his midsection. The noise of air expelled from Black Frankenstein's lungs sounded like a steamboat whistle; he staggered around the ring with drunken, mincing steps, trying to escape his fate.

Johnny Lee Richwine caught him, bent and lifted Black Frankenstein's body on his shoulders for an airplane spin. The fans hushed for a second as all that weight left the mat, then began to shout again when Johnny started twirling the monster in the air. Black Frankenstein bawled like a baby being spanked.

There was a noise like a pistol shot. Johnny Lee Richwine cried out and began to topple to the mat. Leg's busted, the man who was called Black Frankenstein had time to register before he flung himself off the young man's shoulders. He knew very well the sound of popping bones; he'd been against the boy's trying an airplane spin, but Johnny had wanted to impress the home folks. Black Frankenstein slammed into the mat on his side, and when he sat up he saw the young hometown wrestler lying a few feet away, grasping at his knee and moaning, this time in genuine pain.

The referee was on his feet, not knowing what to do. Black Frankenstein was supposed to be stretched out, and Johnny Lee Richwine was supposed to win this main event; that's how the script went, and everything had gone just fine in the run-through.

Black Frankenstein got up. He knew the boy was hurting bad, but he had to stay in character. Lifting his arms over his head, he strutted across the ring in a torrent of cups and popcorn bags, and as he neared the stunned referee he said in a quiet voice very much different from his villainous ranting, "Disqualify me and get that kid to a doctor!"

"Huhi"

"Do it now!"

The referee, a local man who ran a hardware store in nearby Belleville, finally made a crisscrossed waving motion that meant disqualification for Black Frankenstein. The huge wrestler made a show of jumping up and down with rage for a minute as the audience hooted and cursed at him, and then he stepped quickly out of the ring to be escorted to his dressing room by a phalanx of policemen. On that long walk, he suffered popcorn in his face, a pelting of ice and spitballs, and obscene gestures from children and senior citizens alike. He had a special fear of grandmotherly old ladies, because one had attacked him with a hat pin a year before in Waycross, Georgia, and tried to boot him in the genitals for good measure.

In his "dressing room," which was a bench and locker in the football squad room, he stretched as many of the kinks out of his muscles as he could. Some of the aches and pains were permanent, and his shoulders felt as tight as chunks of petrified wood. He unlaced his leather mask and looked at himself in the little cracked mirror that hung inside his locker.

He could hardly be called handsome. His hair was shaven right to the skull to allow the mask a good fit, his face marked by the scars of many ring accidents. He remembered exactly where each of those scars had come from - a miscalculated turnbuckle blow in Birmingham, a chair swung too convincingly in Winston-Salem, an impact with the edge of the ring in Sioux Falls, a meeting with a concrete floor in San antonio. Mistakes in timing caused real injuries in professional wrestling. Johnny Lee Richwine hadn't been balanced well enough to support the weight, and his leg had paid for it. He felt bad about it, but there was nothing he could do. The show must go on.

He was thirty-five years old, and the last ten years of his life had been spent on the wrestling circuit, following the highways and county roads between city auditoriums, high school gyms and country fairs. He was known in Kentucky as Lightningbolt Jones, in Illinois as Brickhouse Perkins, and in a dozen states by similar fearsome aliases. His real name was Joshua Hutchins, and tonight he was a long way from his home in Mobile, alabama.

His broad, flat nose had been broken three times and looked it; the last time, he hadn't even bothered to get it set. Under thick black brows, his eyes were deeply set and the pale gray of woodsmoke. another small scar looped around the point of his chin like an upside-down question mark, and the hard lines and angles of his face made him resemble a war-weary african king. He was large to the point of being freakish, a curiosity that people stared at when he walked the streets. Ridges of muscle bulged in his arms, shoulders and legs, but his stomach was dissolving to flab - the result of too many boxes of glazed doughnuts consumed in lonely motel rooms - but even carrying a spare truck tire of fat around his midsection, Josh Hutchins moved with grace and power, giving the impression of a tightly coiled spring about to burst free. It was what remained of the explosive force he'd commanded when he was a linebacker for the New Orleans Saints, many years and a world ago.

Josh showered and soaped the sweat off. Tomorrow night he was due to wrestle in Garden City, Kansas, which would be a long, dusty trek across the state. and a hot trip, too, because the air conditioner in his car had broken down a few days earlier, and he couldn't afford to get it fixed. His next paycheck would come at the end of the week, in Kansas City, where he was to participate in a seven-man free-for-all. He got out of the shower, dried off and dressed. as he was putting his gear away the match's promoter came in to tell him that Johnny Lee Richwine had been taken to the hospital and that he'd be okay, but that Josh should be careful leaving the gym because the hometown folks could get a little rough. Josh thanked the man in his quiet voice, zipped up his traveling bag and said goodnight.

His beat-up, six-year-old gray Pontiac was parked in the lot of a twenty-four-hour Food Giant supermarket. He knew from the experience of many slashed tires not to park any nearer the wrestling arena. While he was so close to the market, Josh went inside and emerged a few minutes later with a package of glazed doughnuts, some Oreo cookies and a jug of milk. He drove away, heading south on Highway 81 to the Rest Well Motel.

His room faced the highway, and the rumble of passing trucks sounded like beasts prowling the darkness. He turned on the "Tonight" show, then took off his shirt and smeared Ben Gay on his aching shoulders. It had been a long time since he'd worked out in a gym, though he kept telling himself he was going to start jogging again. His gut was as soft as marshmallow; he knew he could really get hurt there if his opponents didn't pull the kicks and punches. But he decided to worry about that tomorrow - there was always tomorrow - and he put on his bright red pajamas and lay back in bed to consume his snack and watch the tube.

He was halfway through the doughnuts when an NBC News bulletin interrupted the celebrity chatter. a grim-looking newsman came on, with the White House in the background, and he began talking about a "high-priority meeting" the president had just had with the secretary of defense, the armed Forces chief of staff, the vice-president and other advisors, and that sources confirmed the meeting involved both SaC and NORaD. american air bases, the reporter said with urgency in his voice, might be going to a higher level of readiness. More bulletins would break in as the news was available.

"Don't blow up the world till Sunday," Josh said through a mouthful of doughnut. "I've got to collect my paycheck first. "

Every night the newscasts were filled with the facts or rumor of war. Josh watched the broadcasts and read the newspapers whenever he could, and he understood that nations were jealous and paranoid and downright crazy, but he couldn't fathom why sane leaders didn't just pick up their telephones and talk to each other. What was so tough about talkingi

Josh was beginning to believe the whole thing was like professional wrestling: the superpowers put on their masks and stomped around, roaring threats and swinging wildly at each other, but it was a game of macho, strutting bluff. He couldn't imagine what the world would be like after the nuclear bombs fell, but he knew it'd be pretty damned hard to find a box of glazed doughnuts in the ashes, and he surely would miss them.

He had started on the Oreos when he looked at the telephone next to the bed and thought of Rose and the boys. His wife had divorced him after he'd left pro football and become a wrestler, and she had custody of their two sons. She still lived in Mobile; Josh visited them whenever the circuit took him down that way. Rose had a good job as a legal secretary, and the last time Josh had seen her, she'd told him she was engaged to be married to a black attorney at the end of august. Josh missed his sons very much, and sometimes in the arena crowds he glimpsed the faces of boys who reminded him of them, but the faces were always yelling and jeering at him. It didn't pay, he knew, to think too much about people you loved; there was no point in driving the hurt too deep. He wished Rose well; sometimes he longed to call her, but he feared a man would answer.

Well, he thought as he opened another cookie to get at the creamy stuff, I wasn't cut out to be a family man, anyhow. No, sir! I like my freedom too much, and by God, that's just what I've got!

He was tired. His body ached, and tomorrow would be a long day. Maybe he'd call the hospital before he left, find out about Johnny Lee Richwine. The boy would be smarter for what he'd learned tonight.

Josh left the set on because he liked the sound of human voices, and he slowly fell asleep with the package of Oreos balanced on the mound of his stomach. Big day tomorrow, he thought as he drifted off. Gotta be mean and strong again. Then he slept, snoring softly, his dreams filled with the noise of a crowd shouting for his head.

The devotional came on. a minister talked about beating swords into plowshares. Then the "Star Spangled Banner" played over scenes of majestic snow-capped mountains, wide, waving fields of wheat and corn, running streams, verdant forests and mighty cities; it ended with an image of the american flag, stretched out and immobile on a pole sunk into the surface of the moon.

The picture froze, lingered for a few seconds, and then static filled the screen as the local station signed off.

Four

11:48 P. M. Central Daylight Time

Near Wichita, Kansas

They were fighting again.

The little girl squeezed her eyes shut and put the pillow over her head, but the voices came through anyway, muffled and distorted, almost inhuman.

"I'm sick and tired of shit, woman! Get off my back!"

"What am I supposed to doi Just smile when you go out drinkin' and gamblin' away money I earni That money was supposed to go for the rent on this damned trailer and buy us some groceries, and by God you went out and threw it away, just threw it - "

"Get off my fuckin' back, I said! Look at you! You look like a worn-out old whore! I'm sick to death of you hangin' around here givin' me shit all the time!"

"Maybe I oughta do somethin' about that, huhi Maybe I oughta just pack and get my ass out of here!"

"Go on, then! Get out and take that spooky kid with you!"

"I will! Don't you think I won't!"

The argument went back and forth, their voices getting louder and meaner. The little girl had to come up for air, but she kept her eyes tightly closed and filled her mind with her garden, just outside the window of her cramped bedroom. People came from all over the trailer court to see her garden and to comment on how well the flowers were growing. Mrs. Yeager, from next door, said the violets were beautiful, but she'd never known them to bloom so late and in such hot weather. The daffodils, snapdragons and bluebells were growing strong, too, but for a while the little girl had heard them dying. She'd watered them and kneaded the soil with her fingers, and she'd sat amid her garden in the morning sunlight and watched over her flowers with eyes as blue as robin's eggs, and finally the death sounds went away. Now the garden was a healthy blaze of color, and even most of the grass around the trailer was a rich, dark green. Mrs. Yeager's grass was brown, though she hosed it down almost every day; but the little girl had heard it die a long time ago, though she didn't want to make Mrs. Yeager sad by saying so. Maybe it would come back when the rain fell.

a profusion of potted plants filled the bedroom, sitting on cinder block shelves and crowded around the bed. The room held the heady aroma of life, and even a small cactus in a red ceramic pot had sprouted a white flower. The little girl liked to think of her garden and her plants when Tommy and her mother were fighting; she could see the garden in her mind, could visualize all the colors and the petals and feel the earth between her fingers, and those things helped take her away from the voices.

"Don't you touch me!" her mother shouted. "You bastard, don't you dare hit me again!"

"I'll knock you on your ass if I want to!" There was the sound of a struggle, more cursing, followed by the noise of a slap. The little girl flinched, tears wetting her closed blond eyelashes.

Stop fighting! she thought frantically. Please please please stop fighting!

"Get away from me!" Something hit the wall and shattered. The child put her hands over her ears and lay rigidly in bed, about to scream.

There was a light.

a soft light, blinking against her eyelids.

She opened her eyes and sat up.

and there on the window screen across the room was a pulsing mass of light, a pale yellow glow like a thousand tiny birthday candles. The light shifted, like the swirls of an incandescent painting, and as the child stared at it, entranced, the noise of the fighting got quieter and far away. The light reflected in her wide eyes, moved over her heart-shaped face and danced in her shoulder-length blond hair. The entire room was illuminated by the glow of the light-creature that clung to the window screen.

Fireflies, she realized. Hundreds of fireflies clinging to the screen. She had seen them on the window before, but never so many and never all blinking at the same time. They pulsed like stars trying to burn their way through the screen, and as she stared at them she no longer heard the awful voices of her mother and "Uncle" Tommy. The blinking fireflies commanded all her attention, their patterns of light mesmerizing her.

The language of light changed, took on a different, faster rhythm. The little girl remembered a hall of mirrors at the state fair, and how the lights had reflected dazzlingly off the polished glass; now she felt as if she were standing at the center of a thousand lamps, and as the rhythm became faster and faster they seemed to whirl around her with dizzying speed.

They're talking, she thought. Talking in their own language. Talking about something very, very important. . .

"Swan! Honey, wake up!"

. . . talking about something about to happen. . .

"Can't you hear mei"

. . . something bad about to happen. . . real soon. . .

"SWaN!"

Someone was shaking her. For a few seconds she was lost in the hall of mirrors and blinded by the flashing lights. Then she remembered where she was, and she saw the fireflies leaving the window screen, rising up into the night.

"Goddamn bugs all over the winda," she heard Tommy say.

Swan pulled her gaze away from them with an effort that strained her neck. Her mother stood over her, and in the light from the open door Swan could see the purple swelling around her mother's right eye. The woman was thin and haggard, with tangled blond hair showing dark brown roots; she glanced back and forth between her daughter's face and the last of the insects flying off the screen. "What's wrong with youi"

"She's spooky," Tommy said, his thick-shouldered body blocking the doorway. He was stocky and unkempt, with a scraggly brown beard covering his angular jaw, his face thick-jowled and fleshy. He wore a red cap, a T-shirt and overalls. "She's fucked up in the head," he said, and he swigged from a bottle of Miller High Life.

"Mamai" The child was still dazed, the lights blinking behind her eyes.

"Honey, I want you to get up and put your clothes on. We're leavin' this damned dump right now, you hear mei"

"Yes, ma'am. "

"You ain't goin' nowhere," Tommy sneered. "Where you gonna goi"

"as far away as we can get! I was stupid to move in here with you in the first place! Get up now, honey. Put your clothes on. We want to be out of here as soon as we can. "

"You gonna go back to Rick Dawsoni Yeah, you go on! He kicked you out once before, and I picked you up! Go on and let him kick you again!"

She turned toward him and said coldly, "Get out of my way or, so help me God, I'll kill you. "

Tommy's eyes were hooded and dangerous. He drank from the bottle again, licked his lips and then laughed. "Sure!" He stepped back and made an exaggerated sweeping gesture with his arm. "Come on through! You think you're a goddamned queen, come on through!" She looked at her child with a glance that urged her to hurry and walked past him out of the bedroom.

Swan got out of bed and, clad in her nine-year-old-girl-sized Wichita State University nightshirt, hurried to the window and peered outside. The lights of Mrs. Yeager's trailer next door were on, and Swan figured the noise had probably awakened her. Swan looked upward and stared open-mouthed with awe.

The sky was filled with waves of moving, blinking stars. Wheels of light rolled across the darkness over the trailer court, and streaks of yellow fire zigzagged upward into the haze that obscured the moon. Thousands upon thousands of fireflies were passing overhead like galaxies in motion, their signals forming chains of light that stretched from west to east as far as Swan could see. From somewhere in the trailer park a dog began to howl; the noise was picked up by a second dog, then a third, then from other dogs in the subdivision across Highway 15. More lights were going on in the trailers, and people were stepping outside to see what was happening.

"God a'mighty, what a racket!" Tommy was still standing in the doorway. He bellowed, "Shut the fuck up!" and then finished the rest of his beer with one angry gulp. He fixed Swan with a baleful, bleary-eyed gaze. "I'll be glad to get rid of you, kid. Look at this damned room, all these plants and shit! Christ! This is a trailer, not a greenhouse!" He kicked over a pot of geraniums, and Swan flinched. But she stood her ground, her chin uplifted, and waited for him to leave. "Wanna know about your mama, kidi" he asked her slyly. "Wanna know about that bar where she dances on tables and lets men touch her tittiesi"

"Shut up, you bastard!" the woman shouted, and Tommy spun around in time to stop her swing against his forearm. He shoved her away. "Yeah, come on, Darleen! Show that kid what you're made of! Tell her about the men you've been through, and - oh, yeah, tell her all about her daddy! Tell her you were so high on LSD and PCP and God knows what else that you don't even remember the fucker's name!"

Darleen Prescott's face was contorted with anger; years ago she'd been a pretty woman, with strong cheekbones and dark blue eyes that communicated a sexual challenge to any number of men, but now her face was tired and sagging, and deep lines cut across her forehead and around her mouth. She was only thirty-two, but looked at least five years older; she was squeezed into tight blue jeans and wore a yellow cowgirl blouse with spangles on the shoulders. She turned away from Tommy and went into the trailer's "master bedroom," her lizard-skin cowgirl boots clumping on the floor.

"Hey," Tommy said, giggling. "Don't run off mad!"

Swan began to take her clothes out of the dresser drawers, but her mother returned with a suitcase, already full of gaudy outfits and boots, and shoveled as much of Swan's clothes into it as would fit. "We're goin' right now!" she told her daughter. "Come on. "

Swan paused, looking around at the roomful of flowers and plants. No! she thought. I can't leave all my flowers! and my garden! Who'll water my gardeni

Darleen leaned down on the suitcase, pressed it shut and snapped it. Then she grasped Swan's hand and turned to go. Swan had time only to grab her Cookie Monster doll before she was pulled out of the room in her mother's wake.

Tommy followed behind them, a fresh beer in hand. "Yeah, you go on! You'll be back by tomorrow night, Darleen! You just wait and see!"

"I'll wait," she replied, and she pushed through the screen door. Outside, in the steamy night, the howling of dogs floated from all directions. Banners of light streamed across the sky. Darleen glanced up at them but didn't hesitate in her long stride toward the bright red Camaro parked at the curb behind Tommy's souped-up Chevy pickup truck. Darleen threw the suitcase in the back seat and slid under the wheel as Swan, still in her nightshirt, got in the passenger side. "Bastard," Darleen breathed as she fumbled with her keys. "I'll show his ass. "

"Hey, lookit me!" Tommy yelled, and Swan looked. She was horrified to see that he was dancing in her garden, the sharp toes of his boots kicking up clumps of dirt, the heels mashing her flowers dead. She clasped her hands to her ears, because she heard their hurting sounds rising up like the strings of a steel guitar being plucked. Tommy grinned and capered, took off his cap and threw it into the air. a white-hot anger flared within Swan, and she wished Uncle Tommy dead for hurting her garden - but then the flash of anger passed, leaving her feeling sick to her stomach. She saw him clearly for what he was: a fat, balding fool, his only possessions in the world a broken-down trailer and a pickup truck. This was where he would grow old and die without letting anyone love him - because he was afraid, just like her mother was, of getting too close. She saw all that and understood it in a second, and she knew that his pleasure at destroying her garden would end with him, as usual, on his knees in the bathroom over the toilet, and when he was through being sick he would sleep alone and wake up alone. But she could always grow another garden - and she would, in the next place they went to, wherever that was going to be.

She said, "Uncle Tommyi"

He stopped dancing, his mouth leering at her and a curse on his lip.

"I forgive you," Swan said softly, and the man stared at her as if she'd struck him across the face.

But Darleen Prescott shouted, "Fuck you!" at him, and the Camaro's engine fired like the roar of a cannon. Darleen jammed her foot down on the accelerator, laying rubber for thirty feet before the tires caught and rocketed them out of the Highway 15 Trailer Park forever.

"Where are we goingi" Swan asked, cuddling Cookie Monster after the noise of the shrieking tires had faded.

"Well, I figure we'll find us a motel to spend the night in. Then I'll go by the bar in the mornin' and try to get some money from Frankie. " She shrugged. "Maybe he'll give me fifty bucks. Maybe. "

"are you going back to Uncle Tommyi"
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