Swan song, p.22
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       Swan Song, p.22

           Robert McCammon
 
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Chapter 22

 

  "Well," Macklin said, "sometimes it's good to sleep alone. You get more rest that way, don't youi" He opened a filigreed silver box that sat atop his desk. In it were about twenty precious cigarettes - not soggy butts or rerolled chewing tobacco, but the real thing. He offered the box to her, and she immediately took a cigarette. "Take another," he urged. She took two more. Macklin pushed a pack of matches across the desktop to her, and she lit up the first cigarette and inhaled it like true oxygen.

  "Remember when we bluffed our way into herei" he asked her. "You, me and Rolandi Remember when we bargained with Freddie Kempkai"

  "Yeah. " She'd wished a thousand times that she still had a supply of cocaine and uppers, but that stuff was hard to come by these days. "I do. "

  "I trust you, Sheila. You and Roland are about the only ones I can trust. " He pulled his right arm toward him and cradled it against his chest. "That's because we know each other so well. People who've been through so much together should trust each other. " His gaze lifted from Sheila's face. He looked at the Shadow Soldier, who was standing behind her chair, just at the edge of the darkness. His eye shifted back to her again. "Have you been entertaining many officers latelyi"

  "a few. "

  "How about Captain Hewlitti Sergeant Oldfieldi Lieutenant Vanni any of thosei"

  "I guess. " She shrugged, and her mouth curled into a faint smile through the haze of smoke. "They come and go. "

  "I've heard things," Macklin said. "It seems that some of my officers - I don't know who - aren't very pleased with the way I'm running the army of Excellence. They think we should plant roots, start a settlement of our own. They don't understand why we're moving east, or why we have to stamp out the mark of Cam. They can't see the grand scheme, Sheila. Especially the young ones - like Hewlitt and Vann. I made them officers against my better judgment. I should have waited to see what they were made of. Well, I know now. I believe they want to take my command away from me. "

  She was silent. Tonight there would be no screwing, just one of the colonel's sessions of raving. But that was fine with Sheila; at least Rudy couldn't find her here.

  "Look at this," he said, and he turned one of the maps that he'd been working on toward her. It was an old, creased and stained map of the United States, torn from an atlas. The names of the states had been marked through, and large areas were outlined heavily in pencil. Substitute names had been scrawled in: "Summerland" for the area of Florida, Georgia, alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana; "Industrial Park" for Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee; "Port Complex" for the Carolinas and Virginia; "Military Training" for the southwest, and also for Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. The Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming were marked "Prison area. "

  and across the entire map Macklin had written "aOE - america of Enlightenment. "

  "This is the grand scheme," he told her. "But to make it come true, we have to destroy the people who don't think like us. We have to wipe out the mark of Cain. " He turned the map around and grazed the nails across it. "We have to stamp it out so we can forget what happened and put it behind us. But we've got to get ready for the Russians, too! They're going to be dropping paratroopers and landing invasion barges. They think we're dead and finished, but they're wrong. " He leaned forward, the nails digging into the scarred desktop. "We'll pay them back. We'll pay the bastards back a thousand times!"

  He blinked. The Shadow Soldier was smiling thinly, his face streaked with camouflage paint under the brow of his helmet. Macklin's heart was hammering, and he had to wait for it to settle down before he could speak again. "They don't see the grand scheme," he said quietly. "The aOE has almost five thousand soldiers now. We have to move to survive, and we have to take what we need. We're not farmers - we're warriors! That's why I need you, Sheila. "

  "Need mei For whati"

  "You get around. You hear things. You know most of the other RLs. I want you to find out whom I can trust among my officers - and who needs to be disposed of. Like I say, I don't trust Hewlitt, Oldfield or Vann, but it's nothing I can prove before a court-martial. and the cancer might run deep, very deep. They think that just because of this" - and he touched the black leather mask - "I'm not fit for command anymore. But this isn't the mark of Cain. This is different. This'll go away when the air gets clean again and the sun comes out. The mark of Cain won't go away until we destroy it. " He angled his head to one side, watching her carefully. "For every name you can put on an execution list - and verify - I'll give you a carton of cigarettes and two bottles of liquor. How about iti"

  It was a generous offer. She already had a name in mind; it started with an L and ended with a Y. But she didn't know if Lawry was loyal or not. anyway, she sure would like to see him in front of a firing squad - but only if she could smash his brains out first. She was about to answer when someone knocked at the door.

  "Coloneli" It was Roland Croninger's voice. "I've got a couple of presents for you. "

  Macklin strode to the door and opened it. Outside, illuminated by the firelight, was the armored truck that Captain Croninger and the others had gone out in. and chained to the rear fender were two men, both bloody and battered, one on his knees and the other standing straight and staring defiantly.

  "We found them about twelve miles east, along Highway 6," Roland said. He was wearing his long coat, with the hood pulled up over his head. an automatic rifle was slung over his shoulder, and at his waist was a holstered . 45. The dirty bandages still covered most of his face, but growths protruded like gnarled knuckles through spaces between them. The firelight burned red in the lenses of his goggles. "There were four of them at first. They wanted to fight. Captain Braden bought it; we brought back his clothes and guns. anyway, that's what left of them. " Roland's growth-knotted lips parted in a slick smile. "We decided to see if they could keep up with the truck. "

  "Have you questioned themi"

  "No, sir. We were saving that. "

  Macklin walked past him, down the carved staircase. Roland followed, and Sheila Fontana watched from the doorway.

  The soldiers who stood around the two men parted to make way for Colonel Macklin. He stood face to face with the prisoner who refused to fall in defeat, even though the man's knees were shredded and he had a bullet wound in his left shoulder. "What's your namei" Macklin asked him.

  The man closed his eyes. "The Savior is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside still waters, He restoreth my - "

  Macklin interrupted him with a swipe of the nail-studded palm across the side of his face.

  The man dropped to his knees, his slashed face lowered to the ground.

  Macklin prodded the second man in the side with his boot. "You. Up. "

  "My legs. Please. Oh, God. . . my legs. "

  "Get up!"

  The prisoner struggled to his feet. Blood streamed down both his legs. He looked at Macklin through horrified, dazed eyes. "Please," he begged. "Give me something for the pain. . . please. . . "

  "You give me information first. What's your namei"

  The man blinked. "Brother Gary," he said. "Gary Cates. "

  "That's good, Gary. " Macklin patted his shoulder with his left hand. "Now: Where were you goingi"

  "Don't tell him anything!" the man on the ground shouted. "Don't tell the heathen!"

  "You want to be a good boy, don't you, Garyi" Macklin asked, his masked face about four inches away from Cates's. "You want something to take your mind off the pain, don't youi Tell me what I want to know. "

  "Don't. . . don't. . . " the other man sobbed.

  "It's over for you," Macklin stated. "It's finished. There's no need to make things more difficult than they have to be. Isn't that right, Garyi I'll ask you once more: Where were you goingi"

  Cates hunched his shoulders, as if afraid he might be struck down from above. He shivered, and then he said, "We were. . . trying to catch up wi
th them. Brother Ray got shot. He couldn't make it on his own. I didn't want to leave him. Brother Nick's eyes were burned, and he was blind. The Savior says to leave the wounded. . . but they were my friends. "

  "The Saviori Who's thati"

  "Him. The Savior. The true Lord and Master. He leads the american allegiance. That's who we were trying to catch up with. "

  "No. . . " the other man said. "Please. . . don't tell. . . "

  "The american allegiance," Macklin repeated. He'd heard of them before, from wanderers who'd joined the aOE's fold. They were led, as he understood it, by an ex-minister from California who had had a cable television program. Macklin had been looking forward to meeting him. "So he calls himself the Saviori How many are traveling with him, and where are they headedi"

  The fallen man sat up on his knees and began shrieking crazily, "The Savior is my shepherd, I shall not want! He maketh me to lie down in green pas - " He heard the click of Roland's . 45 as its barrel pressed against his skull.

  Roland did not hesitate. He squeezed the trigger.

  The noise of the gun made Sheila jump. The man toppled over.

  "Garyi" Macklin asked. Cates was staring down at the corpse, his eyes wide and one corner of his mouth twitching in a hysterical grin. "How many are traveling with the Savior, and where are they headedi"

  "Uh. . . uh. . . uh," Cates stammered. "Uh. . . uh. . . three thousand," he managed to say. "Maybe four. I don't know for sure. "

  "They have armored vehiclesi" Roland inquired. "automatic weaponsi Grenadesi"

  "all those. We found an army supply center up in South Dakota. There were trucks, armored cars, machine guns, flamethrowers, grenades. . . everything, for the taking. Even. . . six tanks and crates of heavy ammunition. "

  Colonel Macklin and Roland looked at each other. The same thought flashed through their minds: Six tanks and crates of heavy ammunition.

  "What kind of tanksi" The blood was pounding through Macklin's veins.

  "I don't know. Big tanks, with big guns. But one of them wouldn't run right from the first. We left three others, because they broke down and the mechanics couldn't get them started again. "

  "So they've still got twoi"

  Cates nodded. He lowered his head in shame, could feel the Savior's eyes burning on the back of his neck. The Savior had three commandments: Disobey and Die; To Kill Is Merciful; and Love Me.

  "all right, Gary. " Macklin traced the other man's jawline with his finger. "Where are they goingi" Cates mumbled something, and Macklin wrenched his head up. "I didn't hear you. "

  Cates's gaze skittered to the . 45 Roland was holding, then back to the black-masked face with its single, cold blue eye. "To West Virginia," he said. "They're going to West Virginia. a place called Warwick Mountain. I don't know exactly where it is. "

  "West Virginiai Why therei"

  "Because - " He trembled; he could feel the man with the bandaged face and the . 45 just aching to kill him. "If I tell you, will you let me livei" he asked Macklin.

  "We won't kill you," the colonel promised. "Tell me, Gary. Tell me. "

  "They're going to West Virginia. . . because God lives there," the other man said, and his face folded with agony at betraying the Savior. "God lives on top of Warwick Mountain. Brother Timothy saw God up there, a long time ago. God showed him the black box and the silver key and told him how the world will end. and now Brother Timothy's leading the Savior to find God. "

  Macklin paused for a few seconds. Then he laughed out loud, its sound like the grunting of an animal. When he'd stopped laughing, he grasped the collar of Cates's shirt with his left hand and pressed the nails of his right against the man's cheek. "You're not among crazy religious fanatics now, my friend. You're among warriors. So stop the bullshitting and tell me the truth. Now. "

  "I swear it! I swear it!" Tears rolled from Cates's eyes and through the grime on his face. "God lives on Warwick Mountain! Brother Timothy's leading the Savior to find him! I swear it!"

  "Let me have him," Roland said.

  There was a moment of silence. Macklin stared into Gary Cates's eyes and then drew his right hand away. Little dots of blood were rising from the man's cheek.

  "I'll take good care of him. " Roland holstered his . 45. "I'll make him forget that pain in his legs. Then we'll have a nice talk. "

  "Yes. " Macklin nodded. "I think that's a good idea. "

  "Unshackle him," Roland told the soldiers. They obeyed at once. His eyes gleamed with excitement behind the goggles. He was a happy young man. It was a hard life, yes, and sometimes he wished for a Pepsi and a Baby Ruth candy bar, or he craved a hot shower and then a good late-night war movie on TV - but those were all things that belonged to a past life. He was Sir Roland now, and he lived to serve the King in this never-ending game of King's Knight. He missed his computer, though; that was the only really bad thing about not having electricity. and sometimes he had a strange dream in which he seemed to be in an underground maze, at the King's side, and in that maze there were two tunnel trolls - a man and a woman - who had familiar faces. Their faces disturbed him and always brought him awake in a cold sweat. But those faces were not real; they were just dreams, and Roland was always able to go back to sleep again. He could sleep like the dead when his mind was clear.

  "Help him walk," Roland ordered two of the soldiers. "This way," he said, and he led them in the direction of the black trailer.

  Macklin prodded the corpse at his feet. "Clean it up," he told one of the guards, and then he stood facing the eastern horizon. The american allegiance couldn't be very far ahead of them - maybe only twenty or thirty miles. They'd be loaded down with supplies from what had been a thriving community at Sutton. and they had plenty of guns, ammunition - and two tanks.

  We can catch them, Macklin thought. We can catch them and take what they have. and I'll grind the Savior's face under my boot. Because nothing can stand before the army of Excellence, and nothing can stop the grand scheme.

  "God lives on Warwick Mountain," the man had said. "God showed him the black box and the silver key and told him how the world will end. "

  The crazy religious fanatics had to be destroyed. There was no room for their kind in the grand scheme.

  He turned back toward the trailer. Sheila Fontana was standing in the doorway, and suddenly Macklin realized that all this excitement had given him an erection. It was a good erection, too. It promised to stay around awhile. He walked up the carved staircase with its bannister of demon faces, entered the trailer and shut the door.

  Sixty-eight

  "Sister! Sister, wake up!"

  She opened her eyes and saw a figure standing over her. For a few seconds she didn't know where she was, and she instinctively tightened her grip around the leather satchel. Then she remembered: She was in Glory Bowen's shack, and she'd dozed off in the warmth of the stove. The last thing she recalled was listening to someone playing a flute at the bonfire outside.

  Glory had awakened her. "Josh wants you!" she told Sister in a frightened voice. "Hurry! Somethin's happenin' to Swan!"

  Sister stood up. Nearby, Paul had heard and was getting to his feet where he'd been sleeping on the floor. They followed Glory into the next room, where they saw Josh leaning over Swan. aaron stood watching, wide-eyed, and holding onto the dowsing rod.

  "What is iti" Sister asked.

  "Her fever! She's burning up!" Josh took a cloth from a pail of melted snow and wrung it out. He began to rub the cold cloth over Swan's neck and arms, and he could swear he saw steam swirling up through the golden lamplight. He was afraid her entire body might suddenly hit the point of ignition and explode. "We've got to get her fever down!"

  Paul touched Swan's arm and quickly drew his hand back as if he'd placed it against the stove's grate. "My God! How long's she been like thisi"

  "I don't know. She had a fever when I checked her about an hour ago, but it wasn't nearly this high!" He put the c
loth into the cold water again, and this time he applied it to Swan's flesh without wringing it out. Swan trembled violently; her head thrashed back and forth, and she made a low, terrible moaning.

  "She's dyin', Josh!" aaron yelled. There were tears in his eyes. "Don't let her die!"

  Josh put his hands into the cold water and rubbed it over Swan's burning skin. She was so hot inside, so terribly hot. He didn't know what to do, and he looked up at Sister. "Please," he said. "Help me save her!"

  "Get her outside!" Sister was already reaching for Swan to help carry her. "We can cover her with snow!"

  Josh put his arms underneath Swan and started to lift her. Swan thrashed, and her rebandaged hands clawed at the air. He got her up in his arms and supported her head against his shoulder. The heat radiating through her Job's Mask almost seared his skin.

  He'd taken two strides when Swan cried out, shuddered and went limp.

  Josh felt the fever break. Felt the terrible heat leave her body as if someone had opened the door of an oven right in his face. Felt it rise like a shroud of steam and cling to the ceiling a foot above his head.

  She lay motionless in his arms, and Sister thought, She's dead. Oh, my God. . . Swan is dead.

  Josh's knees almost buckled. "Swan!" he said, and his voice cracked. Her long, frail body was cooling. a tear almost burned him blind, and he released a sob that shook his bones.

  Carefully, tenderly, he laid her down on the bed again. She lay like a crushed flower, her arms and legs asprawl.

  Josh was afraid to pick up her wrist and feel for a pulse. afraid that this time the spark of life would be gone. But he did. Couldn't feel anything. He lowered his head for a few seconds. "Oh, no," he whispered. "Oh, no. I think she's - "

  There was a faint tremor beneath his fingers.

  and another. Then a third and a fourth - getting stronger.

  He looked up at Swan's face. Her body shivered - and then there was an eerie noise that sounded like hard, dried clay cracking apart.

  "Her. . . face," Paul whispered, standing at the foot of the bed.

  a hairline crack crept along the Job's Mask.

  It ran across where her forehead would be, zigzagging back over the nose, then down along the left cheek to the jawline. The single crack began to widen, became a fissure that gave birth to more cracks. Parts of the Job's Mask began to peel and flake off, like pieces of a huge scab that had finally healed over a deep and hideous wound.

  Swan's pulse was wild. Josh let go of her wrist and stepped back, his eye so wide it looked about to burst from the surface of his own mask.

  Sister said, "Oh - "

  " - Lord," Glory finished. She grabbed aaron, hugging him against her hip and putting a hand over his face to shield his eyes. He brushed it away.

  The Job's Mask continued to break apart with quick little popping and crackling noises. Swan lay still except for the rapid rise and fall of her breathing. Josh started to touch her again but did not - because the Job's Mask suddenly cracked into two halves and fell away from Swan's face.

  No one moved. Paul released his breath. Sister was too stunned to do anything but stare.

  Swan was still breathing. Josh reached up, took the lantern from its wall hook and held it over Swan's head.

  She had no face. Down amid the cracked, clayey fragments of Job's Mask, Swan's features had been wiped white and smooth as candle wax, except for two small nostril holes and a slit over her mouth. With a trembling hand, Josh ran his fingers across where her right cheek should be. They came away coated with a slick, whitish substance that had the consistency of petroleum jelly. and underneath the jellylike stuff was a glimpse of pale, faintly pink flesh.

  "Sister," he said quickly, "will you hold thisi" He gave her the lantern, and she saw what was in the cavity and almost swooned. "Hold it steady, now," he said as he took the cloth from the bucket of snow water. Then, slowly and carefully, he began to clean the jelly away.

  "My God!" Josh's voice shook. "Look at this! Look!"

  Glory and Paul came forward to see, and aaron stood on his tiptoes.

  Sister saw. She picked aside a fragment of the Job's Mask and touched a lock of Swan's hair. It was darkened by the slick jelly that covered it, but it shone with deep gold and red highlights. It was the most beautiful hair she'd ever seen, and it was growing strong and thick from Swan's scalp.

  "aaron!" Josh said. "Go get anna and Gene! Hurry!" The boy darted out. as Josh continued to clean the film away Swan's features began to emerge.

  and then he looked down at her face and touched her forehead. Her fever was gone, and her temperature felt near normal. Her eyes were still closed, but she was breathing just fine, and Josh decided to let her sleep.

  "What the hell's the ruckusi" anna McClay asked as she came in.

  "This," Josh said softly, and he stepped back so anna could see.

  She stopped as if she'd hit a wall, and the eyes in her tough old face filled with tears.

  Sixty-nine

  "Here y'go, fellas! Breakfast time!"

  Robin Oakes snorted with disinterest as anna McClay brought a pot of soup and some bowls out on the front porch. He and the three other young highwaymen had spent the night sleeping by the bonfire, along with six or seven other people who were keeping watch on Glory's shack. It was another dark, cold morning, and small flakes of snow were whirling before the wind.

  "Well, come on!" anna urged. "You want breakfast or noti"

  Robin stood up, his muscles stiff, and walked past the horse that was tied to the porch's support post. Two blankets were laid across Mule's back and shoulders, and he was close enough to the warmth of the bonfire that he was in no danger of frostbite. The other boys followed Robin, and a few other people stirred and came over to be fed as well.

  anna ladled the soup out into a bowl for him. He wrinkled his nose. "This junk againi Didn't we have this for dinneri"

  "Sure did. You'll have it for lunch, too, so you'd better like it. "

  Robin restrained the urge to throw the stuff out on the ground. He knew it was made of boiled roots, with a few shreds of good old wholesome rat meat. Now even the food in the orphanage cafeteria seemed like it had been manna from Heaven, and he would have walked to China if he knew he could get a Burger King Whopper there. He moved out of the chow line so the next person could get his dose, tilted the bowl to his mouth and drank. He'd had a miserable night, jumpy and restless, and had finally grabbed a few hours of sleep in spite of an old man who'd sat by the fire playing a flute. Robin would have thrown a boot at him, but some of the others seemed to actually enjoy that dumb music, and Robin had seen the old man's face glow in the firelight as he trilled notes into the air. Robin remembered what heavy metal had used to sound like: crashing, strutting guitar chords and a thunder of drums as if the world was about to blow up. That used to be his kind of music - but it dawned on him that the world really had blown up. Maybe it was time for peace now, he thought. Peace in action, words and music, too.

  Damn! he told himself. I must be getting old!

  He had awakened once, sometime in the night. He'd sat up, stiff and cranky, to find a warmer place, when he'd seen the man standing over on the other side of the fire. Just standing there, his dirty coat sweeping around him in the wind, and staring at Glory's shack. Robin didn't remember what the man's face had looked like, but the man had prowled slowly through the sleeping figures, approaching to within twenty feet of the shack's porch. anna and Gene sat on the steps, armed with rifles and guarding the door, but they were talking to each other and didn't pay any attention. Robin recalled that Gene had shivered and drawn his collar up around his neck, and anna had blown into her hands as if caught by a sudden, sneaking chill.

  The man had turned and walked purposefully away. It was the stride of a man who had things to do and places to go. and maybe that was why Robin remembered him. But then Robin had shifted his position, laid his head bac
k down and slept until awakened by cold bits of snow on his eyelids.

  "When do we get our guns backi" he asked her.

  "Not until Josh says so. "

  "Listen, lady! Nobody takes my gun away from me! I want it back!"

  She smiled at him indulgently. "You'll get it. When Josh says so. "

  "Hey, anna!" aaron called from a little further down the road. He was playing with Crybaby. "Can you come see the magic nowi"

  "Later!" she replied, and she went back to ladling out the root and rat meat concoction. She even began to whistle as she worked - one of her favorite tunes, "Bali Ha'i" from South Pacific.

  Robin knew there was no way to get his rifle back except to storm the shack. Neither he nor the other boys had been allowed inside since they'd gotten there, and Robin was getting pissed. "What the hell are you so happy abouti" he snapped.

  "Because," she answered, "this is a great and glorious morning. So glorious that not even a punk like you can get under my skin. Seei" and she flashed him a quick grin that showed all of her front teeth.

  "What's so great and glorious about iti" He flung out the rest of his soup. "Looks about the same to me - dark and cold. " But he'd noted that her eyes were different; they were clear and excited. "What's going oni"

  Sister came outside, with the leather satchel that never left her. She drew in a breath of cold air to clear her head, because she'd been up and watching over Swan, along with the others, since well before dawn. "Can I help youi" she asked anna.

  "Naw, I got it. That's the last one. " She ladled soup into the final bowl. all but Robin had returned to the bonfire to eat their meals. "How is shei"

  "Still the same. " Sister stretched and heard her old joints pop and click. "She's breathing fine, and her fever's gone - but she's still the same. "

  "What's going oni" Robin demanded.

  anna took his empty bowl from him and dropped it into the pot. "When Josh wants you to know, he'll tell you. and everybody else, too. "

  Robin looked at Sister. "What's wrong with Swani" he asked in a quieter voice.

  Sister glanced quickly at anna, then back to the young man. He was awaiting an answer, and she thought he deserved one. "She's. . . changed. "

  "Changedi Into whati a frogi" He smiled, but Sister didn't return it, and he let the smile slip away. "Why don't I get to see heri I'm not going to attack her or anything. Besides, I'm the one who saw her and the big dude in that glass thing. If it wasn't for me, you wouldn't be here. Doesn't that make me rate anythingi"

  anna said, "When Josh says you - "

  "I'm not talking to you, Big Mama!" Robin interrupted, and his cool, level gaze bored right into her skull. She flinched just a fraction, then returned his stare full-force. "I don't give a damn what Josh says or wants," he continued, unshaken. "I should be able to see Swan. " He motioned to the leather satchel. "I know you believe that glass ring guided you here," he told Sister. "Well, did you ever stop to think that maybe it guided me here, tooi"

  That idea gave her food for thought. He might be right. Besides herself, he was the only person who'd seen a vision of Swan in the depths of the glass circle.

  "How about iti" he asked.

  "all right," she decided. "Come on. "

  "Hey! Don't you think we ought to ask Josh firsti"

  "No. It's okay. " She went to the door and opened it.

  "Why don't you comb that hairi" anna told him as he came up the steps. "It looks like a freakin' bird's nest!"

  He smiled sourly at her. "Why don't you grow some hairi Like on your face. " and then he walked past Sister and into the shack.

  Before she went in, Sister asked anna if Gene and Zachial had found the cripple in the child's red wagon. anna said they hadn't reported back yet, that they'd been gone for about two hours and that she was getting worried about them. "What do you want with himi" she asked. "He's crazy in the head, is all. "

  "Maybe so. and maybe he's crazy like a fox, too. " and then Sister entered the shack while the other woman went to collect the empty soup bowls.

  "Hey, anna!" aaron called. "Will you come see the magic nowi"

  Inside the shack, Paul had shown an interest in the printing press and had taken some of it apart, and he and Glory were cleaning the gears and rollers with ashes. She looked warily at Robin as he walked to the stove and warmed his hands, but Paul said, "He's all right," and she returned to work.

  Sister motioned for Robin to follow. They started into the next room, but Josh's bulk suddenly blocked the doorway. "What's he doing in herei"

  "I invited him. I told him he could see Swan. "

  "She's still asleep. Either she was awfully exhausted, or. . . there's something still wrong with her. " He angled his head so his eye was aimed at Robin. "I don't think it's a good idea for him to go in. "

  "Come on, man! What's the big mysteryi I just want to see what she looks like, that's all!"

  Josh ignored him but did not move from the doorway. He turned his attention to Sister. "aren't Gene and Zachial back yeti"

  "No. anna says she's getting worried. I am, too. "

  Josh grunted. He, too, was deeply concerned. Sister had told him about the man with the flaming hand in the Forty-second Street theater, and about her meeting with Doyle Halland in New Jersey. She'd told him about the man who was bicycling on the Pennsylvania highway with a pack of wolves jogging at his heels, and who'd just missed her at the rescue station of Homewood. He could change his face and his body, too, she'd said. He could appear to be anyone, even a cripple. That would be a good disguise, she'd told Josh, because who would expect that a crippled man was as dangerous as a mad dog among sheepi What she couldn't figure out, though, was how he'd tracked her down. Had he decided to settle here and been waiting for her or for somebody who might have seen the glass ringi anna had said that Mr. Welcome had only been there a couple of days, but then again he could have been living in Mary's Rest in any number of disguises. However and whenever he'd arrived, Mr. Welcome had to be found, and Gene and Zachial had gone looking for him armed to the teeth.

  "He was here," Josh remembered Swan saying. "The man with the scarlet eye. "

  "Should we send somebody to find themi" Sister asked.

  "Whati" He came back from his thoughts.

  "Gene and Zachial. Should we start looking for themi"

  "No, not yet. " He'd wanted to go with them, but Glory had grasped his sleeve and said he needed to stay near Swan. She knows what he is, Josh had thought. and maybe she was trying to save his life, too. "The man with the scarlet eye," he said softly.

  "Huhi" Robin frowned, not knowing if he'd heard correctly.

  "That's what Swan calls him. " He did not tell the boy that the lettering on that particular tarot card had read THE DEVIL.

  "Riiiight," Robin scoffed. "You two must have some strong medicine stashed around here, big dude. "

  "I wish. " Josh decided that Robin was okay - a little rough around the edges, of course, but wasn't everybody these daysi "I'm going to get a cup of coffee. You can go in, but you can only stay for two minutes. Understandi" He waited until the boy nodded, and then he went to the front room. The entrance to where Swan lay sleeping was unblocked.

  But Robin hesitated. His palms were clammy. By the lamplight, he could make out a figure lying on the cot. a blanket was pulled up to her chin, but her face was averted, and he couldn't see it.

  "Go on," Sister told him.

  I'm scared shitless! he realized. "What did you mean, 'she's changed'i Is she. . . y'know. . . messed upi"

  "Go in and see for yourself. "

  His feet refused to budge. "She's pretty important, isn't shei I mean, if she made the corn start growing again, she must really be somebody special. Righti"

  "You'd better go in. You're wasting your two minutes. " She gave him a shove, and he entered the bedroom. Sister followed him.

  Robin walked to the side of the bed. He was a
s nervous as if he was about to get his hands whacked by one of the nuns for throwing spitballs.

  He saw a spill of golden hair on the patchwork pillow. It shone in the lamplight like newly mown hay, but it was flecked here and there with hints of red.

  His knees bumped the edge of the bed. He was entranced by that hair. He'd forgotten what clean hair looked like.

  and then she shifted position under the blanket and turned onto her back, and Robin saw her face.

  She was still sleeping, her features peaceful. Her hair flowed back like a mane from her high, unlined forehead, and streaks of red coursed through the hair at her temples like flames in a yellow field. She had an oval-shaped face, and she was. . . yes, Robin thought. Yes. She was beautiful. The most beautiful girl he'd ever seen.

  Reddish-blond brows made crescents over her closed eyes. She had a straight, elegant nose and sharp cheekbones, and in her chin was a small star-shaped cleft. Her skin was very pale, almost translucent; its hue reminded Robin of what the moon had looked like on a clear summer night in the world that used to be.

  Robin's gaze wandered over her face - but timidly, like someone exploring a lovely garden where there is no path. He wondered what she'd look like awake, what color her eyes would be, what her voice would sound like, how her lips would move. His eyes couldn't get enough of her. She looked like the daughter of a marriage between ice and fire.

  Wake up, he thought. Please wake up.

  She lay sleeping and still.

  But something awakened within himself.

  Wake up. Wake up, Swan, he wished. Her eyes remained closed.

  a voice jarred his rapture. "Josh! Glory! Come out here and look at this!" It was that old bat anna, he realized. Calling from the front door.

  He returned his attention to Swan.

  "Let me see what's going on," Sister said. "I'll be right back. " She left the room, but Robin had hardly heard her.

  He reached out to touch Swan's cheek but stopped himself. He didn't feel clean enough to touch her. His clothes were tattered and stiff with sweat and grime, and his hands were dirty. anna was right about his hair looking like a bird's nest. Why the hell had he ever wanted to braid feathers and bones in his hairi he wondered. It had been something to do, he guessed, and at the time he'd thought it was pretty cool. Now he just felt dumb.

  "Wake up, Swan," he whispered. There was still no response. a fly suddenly dropped down, hovering above her face, and Robin snatched it in his fist and crushed it against his leg because a filthy thing like that had no business in here with her. The insect stung his skin just a little bit, but he barely noticed.

  He stood staring down at her face and thinking of all the things he'd ever heard about love. Man! he thought. The guys sure would howl if they could see me right now!

  But she was so beautiful that he thought his heart might crack.

  Sister would be back at any second. If he was going to do what he yearned to, he would have to do it fast.

  "Wake up," he whispered again, and when she still didn't move he lowered his head and lightly kissed the corner of her mouth.

  The warmth of her lips under his own shocked him, and he caught the aroma of her skin like a faint breeze through a peach orchard. His heart was hammering like a heavy metal drumbeat, but he let the kiss linger. and linger. and linger.

  Then he ended it, scared to death that Sister or one of the others would barge in. That big dude would boot him so high and far he could hitch a ride on a satellite, if any of those were still up th -

  Swan moved. Robin was sure of it. Something had moved - an eyebrow, the corner of her mouth, maybe a twitch of the cheek or jaw. He leaned over her, his face only a few inches from hers.

  Her eyes opened without warning.

  He was so startled he jerked his head back, as if she were a statue coming to life. Her eyes were dark blue, flecked with red and gold, and their colors made him think of the glass ring. She sat up, one hand fluttering to her lips where the kiss had lingered, and then Robin saw her pale cheeks bloom vivid pink.

  She lifted her right hand, and before Robin could think to duck, a stinging slap was delivered to the side of his face.

  He staggered back a few feet before he caught himself. His own cheek was reddening now, but he managed a goofy grin. He could think of nothing better to say than "Hi. "

  Swan stared at her hands. Touched her face. Ran her fingers along her nose, across her mouth, felt the ridges of her cheekbones and the line of her jaw. She was shaking and about to cry, and she didn't know who the boy with feathers and bones in his hair was, but she'd hit him because she'd thought he was about to attack her. Everything was confused and crazy, but she had a face again, and she could see clearly through both eyes. She caught a glint of reddish gold from the corner of her eye, and she took a long strand of her own hair between her fingers. She stared at it as if she wasn't sure what the stuff was. The last time she'd had hair, she remembered, was on the day she and her mama had walked into that dusty grocery store in Kansas.

  My hair used to be pale blond, she recalled. Now it was the color of fire.

  "I can see!" she told the boy as tears slid down her smooth cheeks. "I can see again!" Her voice, without the Job's Mask pressing at her mouth and nostrils, was different, too; it was the soft, smoky voice of a girl on the edge of being a woman - and now her voice strained with excitement as she called, "Josh! Josh!"

  Robin ran out to get Sister, with the image of the most beautiful girl he'd ever seen stamped like a cameo into his brain.

  But Sister wasn't in the front room. She was standing at the foot of the porch steps, along with Glory and Paul.

  Josh and anna stood on either side of aaron, about thirty-five feet from the porch and almost dead center in the road.

  aaron was the focus of rapt attention. "Seei" he crowed. "I told you it was magic! You just gotta know how to hold it!"

  The two small branches that jutted off at opposite angles from Crybaby were balanced on the tips of aaron's forefingers. The dowsing rod's other end was going up and down, up and down like the action of a pump. aaron grinned proudly at his magic trick, all eyes and shining teeth, as more people gathered around.

  "I do believe you might've found us a well," Josh said wonderingly.

  "Huhi" aaron asked as Crybaby continued to point the way to fresh water.

  at the steps, Sister felt a hand grip her shoulder. She turned and saw Robin standing there. He was trying to speak, but he was so flustered he couldn't get the words out. She saw the splayed red handprint on his cheek, and she was about to push him aside and run into the shack when Swan came through the doorway, the blanket wrapped around her tall, thin body and her legs as uncertain as a fawn's. She squinted and blinked in the dim gray light.

  Sister could have been knocked over by a snowflake, and then she heard Robin whisper, "Oh," as if he'd been physically struck - and she knew.

  anna looked up from the bobbing dowsing rod. Josh turned around and saw what the others had already seen.

  He took one step, a second and a third, and then he broke into a run that would have bowled even Haystacks Muldoon flat on his back. The people who'd gathered around scrambled out of his way.

  He bounded up the steps, and Swan was already reaching out for him and just about to fall. He swept her off her feet before she tumbled, and he squeezed her to his chest and thought, Thank God, thank God my daughter's come back!

  He sank his deformed head against her shoulder and began to cry - and Swan heard it not as a hurting sound this time, but as a song of new-found Joy.

  TWELVE

  True Faces

  Seventy

  Swan walked amid the rows of green and growing cornstalks as flurries of snow hissed upon the bonfires. Josh and Sister walked on either side of her, and they were flanked by two men with rifles who kept a sharp lookout for bobcats - or any other kind of predator.

&nbs
p; It had been three days since Swan's awakening. Her slender body was warmed by a patchwork coat of many colors that Glory had sewn for her, and her head was protected by a white knit cap, one of dozens of gifts that the grateful people of Mary's Rest left for her on Glory's front porch. She couldn't use all the coats, gloves, pairs of socks and caps that were offered, so the excess clothing went into cardboard boxes to be distributed among those whose clothes were almost worn out.

  Her intense, dark blue eyes with their flecks of red and gold took in the new cornstalks, which were now about four feet tall and beginning to turn a darker green. around the edges of her cap, Swan's hair flowed back like flames. Her skin was still very pale, but her cheeks were reddened by the chill wind; her face was bony, in need of food and filling out, but that would come later. Right now all that occupied her attention was the corn.

  Bonfires burned across the field, and volunteers from Mary's Rest watched around the clock to keep away the bobcats, crows and whatever else might try to destroy the cornstalks. Every so often another group of volunteers would come with buckets and dippers to offer fresh water from the new well that the pickaxes and shovels had hit two days before. The water's taste blossomed the memories of all who sipped it, reminding them of things half forgotten: the smell of clean, cold mountain air; the sweetness of Christmas candy; fine wine that had sat in a bottle for fifty years awaiting appreciation; and dozens of others, each unique and part of a happier life. Water was no longer melted from the radioactive snow, and people were already beginning to feel stronger, their sore throats, headaches and other ailments starting to fade.

  Gene Scully and Zachial Epstein had never returned. Their bodies were still missing, and Sister was certain they were dead. and certain also that "the man with the scarlet eye" was still somewhere in Mary's Rest. Sister kept her leather satchel in a tighter grip than ever, but now she wondered if he'd lost interest in the ring and had shifted his attention to Swan.

  Sister and Josh had talked about what kind of creature the man with the scarlet eye might be. She didn't know if she believed in a horned and fork-tailed Devil, but she knew well enough what Evil was. If he'd searched for them for seven years, that meant he didn't know everything. He might be cunning, and maybe his intuition was razor-sharp, and maybe he could change his face as he pleased and burst people into flame with a touch, but he was flawed and dumb. and maybe his greatest weakness was that he thought himself so damned much smarter than human beings.

  Swan paused in her inspection, then approached one of the smaller cornstalks. Its fronds were still speckled with the dark red spots of blood her hands had shed. She took off one of her gloves and touched the thin stalk, felt the prickling sensation that began at her feet, moved up her legs to her spine, then through her arm and fingers into the plant like a low current of electricity. She'd thought of that sensation as normal ever since she was a child; but now she wondered if her entire body wasn't, in a way, like Crybaby - she was receptive to and drew up power from the battery of the earth and could direct it through her fingers into seeds, trees and plants. Maybe it was a whole lot more, and maybe she could never really understand what it was, but she could close her eyes and see again the wonderful scenes that the glass ring had shown her, and she knew what she must devote the rest of her life to doing.

  at Swan's suggestion, rags and old papers had been bundled around the bases of the stalks, to keep the new roots as warm as possible. The hard dirt had been broken up with shovels and holes dug every four or five feet between the rows; into these holes clean water was poured, and if you listened hard and the wind was still, you could hear the earth gasping as it drank.

  Swan went on, stopping every so often to touch one of the stalks or bend down and knead the dirt between her fingers. It felt like sparks were jumping off her hands. But she was uncomfortable having so many people around her all the time - especially the men with the rifles. It was weird having people watch you and want to touch you and give you the clothes right off their backs. She'd never felt special, and she didn't feel special now, either. Being able to make the corn grow was just something she could do, like Glory could sew the patchwork coat and Paul could make the little printing press work again. Everybody had a talent, and Swan knew that this was hers.

  She walked on a few more feet, and then she knew someone was staring at her.

  She turned her head to look back toward Mary's Rest, and she saw him standing across the field, his shoulder-length brown hair blowing in the wind.

  Sister followed Swan's line of sight and saw him, too. She knew Robin Oakes had been following them all morning, but he wouldn't come any closer. In the past three days he'd declined any offer to enter Glory's shack; he was content to sleep by the bonfire, and Sister noted with interest that he'd cleaned all the feathers and animal bones out of his hair. Sister glanced at Swan and saw her blush before she turned quickly away. Josh was occupied with watching the woods for bobcats, and he didn't notice the little drama. Just like a man, Sister mused. He can't see the forest for the trees.

  "They're doing fine," Swan told Sister, to take her mind off Robin Oakes. Her voice was nervous and a little higher-pitched, and underneath the crust of her Job's Mask, Sister smiled. "The fires are keeping the air warmer out here. I think the corn's doing just fine. "

  "I'm glad to hear it," Sister answered.

  Swan was satisfied. She went around to every bonfire, speaking to the volunteers, finding out if anyone needed to be replaced, if they wanted water or any of the root soup that Glory, anna or one of the other women was always cooking up. She made sure to thank them for helping watch the field and chase the circling crows away. Of course, the crows needed to eat, too, but they'd have to find their own food somewhere else. Swan noticed a teen-age girl who had no gloves, and she gave her her own pair. Dead skin was still flaking off Swan's palms, but otherwise her hands had healed.

  She stopped at the plank of wood that marked Rusty's grave. She still didn't remember anything of that night but her dream of the man with the scarlet eye. There had been no time to tell Rusty what he'd meant to her and how much she'd loved him. She remembered Rusty making red balls appear and disappear as part of the Travelin' Show's magic act and earning an old can of beans or fruit cocktail for his work. The earth had him now, had folded strong arms around him so that he would sleep long and undisturbed. and his magic was still alive - in her, in Josh, and in the green stalks that swayed in the wind with the promise of life yet to be.

  Swan, Josh and Sister walked back across the field, accompanied by the two armed guards. Both Swan and Sister noted that Robin Oakes had already slipped away. and Swan felt a twinge of disappointment.

  Children hopped and jumped around Swan as they continued through the alleys toward Glory's shack. Sister's heart pounded as she watched every alley they passed for a sudden, snakelike movement - and she thought she heard the squeak of red wagon wheels somewhere nearby, but the sound faded, and she wasn't sure if it had been there at all.

  a tall, gaunt man with pale blue keloids burned diagonally across his face was waiting for them, standing at the foot of the steps talking to Paul Thorson. Paul's hands were stained dark brown from the mud and dyes he and Glory were mixing, to be used as ink for the bulletin sheet. There were dozens of people in the street and around the shack who'd come to catch a glimpse of Swan, and they made a path for her as she approached the waiting man.

  Sister stepped between them, tense and ready for anything. But she caught no repulsive, dank wave of cold coming off him - just body odor. His eyes were almost the same color as the keloids. He wore a thin cloth coat, and his head was bare; tufts of black hair stuck up on a burn-scarred scalp.

  "Mr. Caidin's been waiting to see Swan," Paul said. "He's all right. " Sister immediately relaxed, trusting Paul's judgment. "I think you should listen to what he says. "

  Caidin turned his attention to Swan. "My family and I live over there. " He motioned in the dire
ction of the burned-out church. He had a flat Midwestern accent, and his voice was shaky but articulate. "My wife and I have three boys. The oldest is sixteen, and up until this morning he had the same thing on his face that I understand you did. " He nodded toward Josh. "Like that. Those growths. "

  "The Job's Mask," Sister said. "What do you mean, 'up until this morning'i"

  "Ben was running a high fever. He was so weak he could hardly move. and then. . . early this morning. . . it just cracked open. "

  Sister and Swan looked at each other.

  "I heard that yours did the same thing," Caidin continued. "That's why I'm here. I know a lot of people must be wanting to see you, but. . . could you come to my place and look at Beni"

 
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