Swan song, p.23
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       Swan Song, p.23

           Robert McCammon
 
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Chapter 23

 

  "I don't think there's anything Swan can do for your son," Josh said. "She's not a doctor. "

  "It's not that. Ben's fine. I thank God that stuff cracked open, because he could barely draw a breath. It's just that - " He looked at Swan again. "He's different," Caidin said softly. "Please, come see him. It won't take very long. "

  The need in the man's face moved her. She nodded, and they followed him along the street, into an alley past the charred ruins of Jackson Bowen's church and back through a maze of shacks, smaller shanties, piles of human waste and debris and even cardboard boxes that some people had fastened together to huddle in.

  They waded through a muddy, ankle-deep pool and then went up a pair of wooden steps into a shack that was even smaller and draftier than Glory's. It only had one room, and as insulation old newspaper and magazine pages had been nailed up all over the walls until there was no space not covered by yellowed headlines, type and pictures from a dead world.

  Caidin's wife, her face sallow in the light of the room's single lantern, held a sleeping infant in her thin arms. a boy about nine or ten years old, frail and frightened-looking, clutched at his mother's legs and tried to hide when the strangers entered. The room held a couch with broken springs, an old crank-operated washing machine, and an electric stove - an antique, Josh thought - in which chips of wood, embers and trash yielded a cheerless fire and little warmth. a wooden chair sat next to a pile of mattresses on the floor, where the eldest Caidin boy lay under a coarse brown blanket.

  Swan approached the mattresses and looked down into the boy's face. Pieces of the Job's Mask lay like broken gray pottery around his head, and she could see the slick, jellylike stuff clinging to the inside of the fragments.

  The boy, his face white and his blue eyes still bright from fever, tried to sit up, but he was too weak. He pushed thick, dark hair back from his forehead. "You're her, aren't youi" he asked. "The girl who started the corn growingi"

  "Yes. "

  "That's really great. You can use corn a lot of different ways. "

  "I guess so. " Swan examined the boy's features; his skin was smooth and flawless, almost luminescent in the lantern's light. He had a strong, square jawline and a thin-bridged nose that was slightly sharp at the end. Overall, he was a handsome boy, and Swan knew he would grow up to be a handsome man, if he survived. She couldn't understand what Caidin had wanted her to see.

  "Sure!" This time the boy did sit up, his eyes glittering and excited. "You can fry it and boil it, make muffins and cakes, even squeeze oil out of it. You can make whiskey from it, too. I know all about it, because I did a science project on corn back at my elementary school in Iowa. I won first prize at the state fair. " He paused, and then he touched the left side of his face with a trembling hand. "What's happened to mei"

  She looked over at Caidin, who motioned for her, Josh and Sister to follow him outside.

  as Swan started to turn away from the mattresses a headline on a newspaper plastered to the wall caught her eye:

  aRMS TaLKS CRaSH aS 'STaR WaRS' GETS a-OK. There was a photograph of important-looking men in suits and ties, smiling and lifting their hands in some kind of victory celebration. She didn't know what it was all about, because none of those men were familiar to her. They looked like very satisfied men, and their clothes looked clean and new, and their hair was perfectly in place. all of them were cleanshaven, and Swan wondered if any of them had ever squatted down over a bucket to use the bathroom.

  Then she went out to join the others.

  "Your son's a fine-looking boy," Sister was telling Caidin. "You ought to be glad. "

  "I am glad. I'm thankful to God that stuff's off his face. But that's not the point. "

  "Okay. What isi"

  "That's not my son's face. at least. . . that's not what he used to look like before he got that damned stuff on him. "

  "Swan's face was burned when the bombs hit," Josh said. "She doesn't look like she did then, either. "

  "My son wasn't disfigured on the seventeenth of July," Caidin replied calmly. "He was hardly hurt at all. He's always been a good, fine boy, and his mother and I love him very much, but. . . Ben was born with birth defects. He had a red birthmark that covered the entire left side of his face. The doctors called it a port-wine stain. and his jaw was malformed. We had a specialist operate on him in Cedar Rapids, but the problem was so severe that. . . there wasn't much to hope for. Still, Ben's always had guts. He wanted to go to a regular school and be treated like anybody else, no better and no worse. " He looked at Swan. "The color of his hair and eyes are the same as they always were. The shape of his face is the same. But the birthmark's gone, and his jaw isn't deformed anymore, and. . . " He trailed off, shaking his head.

  "and whati" Sister prompted.

  He hesitated, trying to find the words, and then he lifted his gaze to hers. "I used to tell him that real beauty is deeper than skin. I used to tell him that real beauty is what's inside, in the heart and soul. " a tear trickled down Caidin's right cheek. "Now Ben. . . looks like I always knew he did, deep down inside. I think that now. . . the face of his soul is showing through. " His own visage was stretched between laughing and crying. "Is that a crazy thing to thinki"

  "No," Sister answered. "I think it's a wonderful thing. He's a handsome boy. "

  "always was," Caidin said, and this time he let himself smile.

  The man returned to his family, and the others walked back through the muddy maze to the road. They were quiet, each occupied by private thoughts: Josh and Sister reflecting on Caidin's story, wondering if and when their own Job's Masks might reach the point where they began to crack - and what might be revealed underneath; and Swan remembering something that Leona Skelton had told her a long time ago: "Everybody's got two faces, child - the outside face and the inside face. a face under the face, y'see. It's your true face, and if it was flipped to the outside, you'd show the world what kind of person you are. "

  "Flipped to the outsidei" Swan recalled asking. "Howi"

  and Leona had smiled. "Well, God hasn't figured a way to do that yet. But He will. . . "

  "The face of his soul is showing through," Mr. Caidin had said.

  "But He will. . . "

  ". . . face of his soul. . . "

  "But He will. . . "

  "Truck's comin' in!"

  "Truck's comin'!"

  approaching along the road was a pickup truck, its sides and hood pitted with rust. It was coming at a crawl, and around it surged a tide of people, hollering and laughing. Josh imagined it had been a long time since most of them had seen a car or truck that still actually ran. He put his hand on Swan's shoulder, and Sister stood behind them on the roadside as the truck rumbled toward them.

  "Here she is, mister!" a boy shouted, scrambling up onto the front fender and hood. "She's right here!"

  The truck came to a stop, trailing a wake of people. Its engine sputtered, popped and backfired, but the vehicle might have been a shiny new Cadillac from the way folks were rubbing the rust-eaten metal. The driver, a florid-faced man wearing a red baseball cap and clenching the stub of a real cigar between his teeth, looked warily out his window at the excited crowd, as if he wasn't quite sure what kind of madhouse he'd driven into.

  "Swan's right here, mister!" the boy on the hood said, pointing at her. He was talking to the man on the passenger side.

  The passenger's door opened, and a man with curly white hair and a long, untrimmed beard leaned out, craning his neck to see who the boy was pointing to. His dark brown eyes, set in a tough, wrinkled old face, searched the crowd. "Wherei" he asked. "I don't see her!"

  But Josh knew who the man had come to find. He raised his arm and said, "Swan's over here, Sly. "

  Sylvester Moody recognized the huge wrestler from the Travelin' Show - and realized with a start exactly why he'd worn that black ski mask. His gaze moved to the girl who stood beside Josh, a
nd for a moment he could not speak. "Sweet dancin' Jesus!" he finally exclaimed, as he stepped out of the truck.

  He hesitated, still not sure it was her, glanced at Josh and saw him nod. "Your face," Sly said. "It's all. . . healed up!"

  "It happened a few nights ago," Swan told him. "and I think other people are starting to heal up, too. "

  If the wind had been blowing any harder, he might have keeled flat over. "You're beautiful," he said. "Oh, Lord. . . you're beautiful!" He turned toward the truck, and his voice quavered: "Bill! This here's the girl! This is Swan!" Bill McHenry, Sly's nearest neighbor and owner of the truck, cautiously opened his door and got out.

  "We had a hell of a time on that road!" Sly complained. "One more bump and my ass would've busted! Lucky we brought along extra go-juice, or we'da been walkin' the last twenty miles!" He glanced around for someone else. "Where's the cowboyi"

  "We buried Rusty a few days ago," Josh said. "He's in a field not too far from here. "

  "Oh. " Sly frowned. "Well, I'm sorry to hear that. I'm awful sorry. He seemed like a decent fella. "

  "He was. " Josh tilted his head, peering at the truck. "What are you doing herei"

  "I knew you folks were goin' to Mary's Rest. That's where you said you were headed when you left my place. I decided to come visit. "

  "Whyi It's at least fifty miles of bad road between here and your house!"

  "Don't my achin' ass know it! God a'mighty, I'd like to sit on a nice soft pillow. " He rubbed his sore rump.

  "It's no pleasure trip, that's for sure," Josh agreed. "But you knew that before you started. You didn't say why you came all that way. "

  "No. " His eyes sparkled. "I don't reckon I did. " He gazed at the shacks of Mary's Rest. "Lord, is this a town or a toileti What's that awful smelli"

  "You stay around long enough, you'll get used to it. "

  "Well, I'm just here for one day. One day's all I need to pay my debt. "

  "Debti What debti"

  "What I owe Swan, and you for bringin' Swan to my door. Throw it back, Bill!"

  and Bill McHenry, who'd gone around to the rear of the truck, pulled back a canvas tarpaulin that covered the truck's bed.

  It was piled full of small red apples, perhaps two hundred or more of them.

  at the sight of the apples, there was a collective gasp that went back like a wave over the gathered onlookers. The smell of fresh apples sweetened the air. Sly started laughing, laughing fit to bust, and then he climbed up into the truck's bed and picked up a shovel that was lying there.

  "I brought you some apples from my tree, Swan!" Sly yelled, his face split by a smile. "Where do you want 'emi"

  She didn't know what to say. She'd never seen so many apples outside of a supermarket before. They were bright red, and each one about the size of a boy's fist. She just stood staring at them, and she figured she must look like a dumb fool - but then she knew where she wanted the apples to go. "Out there," she said, and she pointed to the people crowding around the tailgate.

  Sly nodded. "Yes ma'am," he said, and then he dug the shovel into the pile of apples and let them fly over the heads of the crowd.

  apples rained from the sky, and the starving people of Mary's Rest snatched them as they fell. apples bounced off their heads, shoulders and backs, but no one cared; there was a roar of voices as other people ran from the alleys and shacks to grab an apple, and they were dancing in the showers of apples, capering and hollering and clapping their hands. Sly Moody's shovel kept working as more and more people came flooding out of the alleys, but there was no fighting for the precious delicacies. Everyone was too intent on getting an apple, and as Sly Moody kept throwing them into the air the pile hardly seemed to have been dented. Sly grinned deliriously, and he wanted to tell Swan that two days before he'd awakened to find his tree burdened down with hundreds of apples, the branches dragging on the ground. and as soon as those were picked there were already new buds bursting open, and the whole incredibly short cycle was going to be repeated. It was the most amazing, miraculous thing he'd ever seen in his life, and that single tree looked healthy enough to produce hundreds more apples - maybe thousands. He and Carla had already filled their buckets to overflowing.

  Every time Sly's shovel tossed the apples there was a roar of whooping and laughing. The crowd surged in all directions as apples bounced off them and rolled on the ground. Swan, Sister and Josh were jostled and pushed apart, and suddenly Swan felt herself being carried along with the crowd's momentum like a reed in a river. "Swan!" she heard Sister shout, but she was already at least thirty feet from Sister, and Josh was doing his best to plow through the people without hurting anyone.

  an apple hit Swan's shoulder, fell to the ground in front of her and rolled a few feet. She bent to pick it up before she was swept away again, and as her fingers closed on it someone in a pair of scuffed brown boots stepped to within three feet of her.

  She felt cold. a gnawing, bone-aching cold.

  and she knew who it was.

  Her heart hammered. Panic skittered up her spine. The man in the brown boots did not move, and people were not jostling him; they avoided him, as if repelled by the cold. apples continued to fall to the ground, and the crowd surged, but nobody picked up the apples that lay between Swan and the man who watched her.

  Her first, almost overwhelming impulse was to cry for help from Josh or Sister - but she knew he expected that. as soon as she stood up and opened her mouth, the burning hand would be on her throat.

  She didn't know exactly what she was going to do, but she was so scared she was about to wet herself. and then she clenched her teeth and slowly, gracefully, stood up with the apple gripped in her hand. She looked at him, because she wanted to see the face of the man with the scarlet eye.

  He was wearing the mask of a skinny black man, wearing jeans and a Boston Celtics T-shirt under an olive-green coat. a red scarf was wrapped around his neck, and his piercing, terrible eyes were pale amber.

  Their stares locked, and Swan saw a silver tooth flash in the front of his mouth when he grinned.

  Sister was too far away. Josh was still fighting the crowd. The man with the scarlet eye stood three feet away, and to Swan it seemed that everyone was swirling around them in nightmarish slow motion, that she and the man stood alone in a trance of time. She knew she must decide her own fate, because there was no one else to help her.

  and she was aware of something else in the eyes of the mask he was wearing, something beyond the cold, lizardlike sheen of evil, something deeper. . . and almost human. She remembered seeing the same thing in the eyes of Uncle Tommy the night he'd crushed her flowers, back in the Kansas trailer park seven years ago; it was something wandering and longing, forever locked away from the light and maddened like a tiger in a dark cage. It was dumb arrogance and bastard pride, stupidity and rage stoked to atomic power. But it was something of a little boy, too, wailing and lost.

  Swan knew him. Knew what he'd done and what he would do. and in that moment of knowledge she lifted her arm, reached out her hand toward him - and offered him the apple.

  "I forgive you," she said.

  His grin went crooked, like the reflection in a mirror abruptly shattered.

  He blinked uncertainly, and in his eyes Swan saw fire and savagery, a core of pain past human suffering and so furious that it almost ripped her own heart to shreds. He was a scream wrapped up in straw, a little, weak, vicious thing gnashing inside a monstrous faiade. She saw what he was made of, and she knew him very well.

  "Take it," she told him, and her heart was beating wildly, but she knew he'd be on her at the first smell of fear. "It's time. "

  The grin faded. His eyes ticked from her face to the apple and back again like a deadly metronome.

  "Take it," she urged, the blood pounding so hard in her head she couldn't hear herself.

  He stared into her eyes - and Swan felt him probe her mind like a f
reezing ice pick. Little cuts here and there, and then a dark examination of her memories. It was as if every moment of her life was being invaded, picked up and soiled with dirty hands, tossed aside. But she kept her gaze steady and strong, and she would not retreat before him.

  The apple snagged his attention again, and the cold ice pick jabbing within Swan's mind ceased. She saw his eyes glaze over and his mouth open, and from that mouth crawled a green fly that weakly spun around her head and fell into the mud.

  His hand began to rise. Slowly, very slowly.

  Swan didn't look at it, but she sensed it rising like the head of a cobra. She was waiting for it to burst into flame. But it did not.

  His fingers strained for the apple.

  and Swan saw that his hand was trembling.

  He almost took it.

  almost.

  His other hand shot out and grabbed his own wrist, wrenched his arm back and pinned the offending hand underneath his chin. He made a gasping, moaning noise that sounded like wind through the battlements of Hell's castles, and his eyes almost bulged from his skull. He shrank backward from Swan, his teeth gritted in a snarl, and for an instant he lost control: one eye bleached to blue, and white pigment streaked across the ebony flesh. a second mouth, full of shiny white nubs, gaped like a scar across his right cheekbone.

  In his eyes was hatred and fury and longing for what could never be.

  He turned and fled, and with his first running stride the trance of time broke and the crowd was whirling around Swan again, grabbing up the last of the apples. Josh was just a few feet away, trying to get through to protect her. But it was all right now, she knew. She needed no more protection.

  Someone else plucked the apple from her hand.

  She looked into Robin's face.

  "I hope this one's for me," he said, and he smiled before he bit into it.

  He ran through the muddy alleys of Mary's Rest with his hand trapped beneath his chin, and where he was going he didn't know. The hand tensed and shivered, as if trying to fight free with a will of its own. Dogs scattered out of his path, and then he tripped over debris and went down in the mud, got up and staggered on again.

  and if anyone had seen his face, they would have witnessed a thousand transformations.

  Too late! he screamed inwardly. Too late! Too late!

  He'd planned to set her afire, right there in the midst of them, and laugh as he watched her dance. But he'd looked into her eyes and seen forgiveness, and he could not stand up to such a thing. Forgiveness, even for him.

  He'd started to take the apple; for a brief instant, he'd wanted it, like taking the first step along a dark corridor that led back to light. But then the rage and pain had flared within him, and he'd felt the very walls of the universe warp and the wheels of time start to clog and lock. Too late! Too late!

  But he needed no one and nothing to survive, he told himself. He had endured and would endure, and this was his party now. He had always walked alone. always walked alone. always walked -

  a scream echoed from the edge of Mary's Rest, and those who heard it thought it sounded like someone being flayed alive.

  But most of the people were busy collecting apples, shouting and laughing as they ate, and they did not hear.

  Seventy-one

  a ring of torches lit the night, burning around the perimeter of a huge parking lot fifteen miles south of the ruins of Lincoln, Nebraska. at the center of the parking lot was a complex of brick buildings connected by sheltered walkways, and with skylights and ventilators set in their flat roofs. In the side of one of the buildings that faced Highway 77 South were rusted metal letters that read GREENBRI R SHOP IN MaLL.

  On the western edge of the parking lot, a Jeep's lights flashed twice. about twenty seconds later, there was an answering double flash of headlights from a pickup truck with an armored windshield, parked near one of the entrances to the mall.

  "There's the signal," Roland Croninger said. "Let's go. " Judd Lawry drove the Jeep slowly across the parking lot, aiming at the headlights that grew closer as the pickup truck approached. The tires jarred roughly over bricks, pieces of metal, old bones and other debris that littered the snow-slick concrete. In the seat behind Roland was a soldier with an automatic rifle, and Lawry wore a . 38 in a shoulder holster, but Roland was unarmed. He watched the range between the two vehicles steadily decrease. Both the Jeep and the truck were flying white pieces of doth from their radio antennas.

  "They'll never let you out of there alive," Lawry said, almost casually. He glanced quickly over at Captain Croninger's bandage-wrapped face, cowled by the hood of his coat. "Why'd you volunteer for thisi"

  The cowled face slowly swiveled toward Lawry. "I like excitement. "

  "Yeah. Well, you're about to get it. . . sir. " Lawry negotiated the Jeep past the hulk of a burned-out car and tapped the brakes. The pickup truck was about fifty feet away and beginning to slow down. The vehicles stopped thirty feet apart.

  There was no movement from the truck. "We're waiting!" Roland shouted out his window, the breath steaming through his gnarled lips.

  The seconds ticked past with no response. and then the passenger door opened and a blond man wearing a dark blue parka, brown trousers and boots got out. He stepped a few paces away from the door and leveled a shotgun at the Jeep's windshield.

  "Steady," Roland cautioned as Lawry started to reach for his . 38.

  another man got out of the truck and stood beside the first. He was slight and had close-cropped dark hair, and he lifted his hands to show he was unarmed. "Okay!" the one with the shotgun shouted, getting edgy. "Let's make the trade!"

  Roland was afraid. But he'd learned long before how to push the child Roland away and summon forth the Sir Roland in himself: the adventurer in service to the King, the King's will be done, amen. His palms were wet inside his black gloves, but he opened the door and got out.

  The soldier with the automatic rifle followed him and stood off to the side a few feet, aiming at the other armed man.

  Roland glanced back at Lawry, making sure the fool wasn't going to fuck this up, and then he began walking to the truck. The dark-haired man started walking to the Jeep, his eyes darting and nervous. The two figures passed, neither one looking at the other, and the man with the shotgun grabbed Roland's arm about the same time as the aOE soldier pushed his captive against the Jeep's side.

  Roland was made to lean against the truck, spread his arms and legs and submit to a search. When it was over, the man spun him around and pressed the snout of the shotgun underneath his chin. "What's wrong with your facei" the man demanded. "What's under those bandagesi"

  "I was burned pretty bad," Roland answered. "That's all. "

  "I don't like it!" The man had lank, thinning blond hair and fierce blue eyes, like a maniac surfer-boy. "Imperfection is Satan's work, praise the Savior!"

  "The trade's been done," Roland said. The american allegiance hostage was already being shoved into the Jeep. "The Savior's waiting for me. "

  The man paused, jittery and uncertain. and then Lawry began to back the Jeep up, clinching the deal. Roland didn't know if that was smart or stupid.

  "Get in!" The american allegiance soldier hustled him into the truck's cab, where Roland sat squeezed between him and the heavyset, black-bearded driver. The truck veered across the parking lot and turned back toward the mall.

  Through the narrow view slit in the armored windshield, Roland saw the headlights pick out more vehicles protecting the american allegiance's fortress: an armored truck with BRINK'S still barely legible on its side, a Jeep with a mounted machine gun in the rear seat, a tractor-trailer rig with dozens of gunports - each showing a rifle or machine gun barrel - cut into the long metal trailer; a postman's truck with a metal mesh turret on top; more cars and trucks, and then the vehicle that put a lump like a hen's egg in Roland's throat - a low-slung, wicked-looking tank covered with multicolored
graffiti that said things like THE LOVE BUG and THE SaVIOR LIVES! The tank's main cannon, Roland noted, was aimed in the general direction of Colonel Macklin's airstream trailer, where the King was now incapacitated, suffering from a fever that had struck him down the previous night.

  The truck passed between the tank and another armored car, went over the curb and continued up a ramp for the handicapped, entering the mall through the dark, open space where glass doors had once been. The headlights illuminated a wide central mall area, with stores on either side that had been looted and wrecked a long time before. Soldiers with rifles, pistols and shotguns waved the truck on, and hundreds of lanterns were burning in the central corridor and in the stores, casting a flickering orange glow - like the light at a Halloween party - throughout the building. and Roland saw hundreds of tents set up as well, cramped into every possible space except for a path along which the truck traveled. Roland realized that the whole american allegiance had set up camp inside the shopping mall, and as the truck turned into a larger, skylighted atrium he heard singing and saw the glare of a fire.

  Perhaps one thousand people were jammed into the atrium, clapping their hands rhythmically, singing and swaying around a large campfire, the smoke whirling up through the skylight's broken glass. almost all of them had rifles slung over their shoulders, and Roland knew that one reason the Savior had invited an aOE officer here was to display his weapons and troops. But the reason Roland had accepted the courier's invitation was to find a weak spot in the Savior's fortress.

  The truck did not enter the atrium, but continued along another corridor that branched off from it, again lined with looted stores now filled with tents, drums of gasoline and oil, what looked like cases of canned food and bottled water, clothes, weapons and other supplies. The truck stopped in front of a store, and the blond man with the shotgun got out and motioned for Roland to follow. Roland saw the broken fragments of a sign that had once said B. DaLTON BOOKSELLERS over the entrance before he walked into the store.

  Three lanterns burned on the cashier's desk, where both registers had been battered into junk. The walls of the store were scorched, and Roland's boots crunched over the skeletons of charred books. Not a volume remained on the shelves or display tables; everything had been piled up and set afire. More lanterns glowed back at the store's information desk, and the man with the shotgun pushed Roland toward the closed door of the stockroom, where another american allegiance soldier with an automatic rifle stood at attention. as Roland approached, the soldier lowered his rifle and clicked the safety off. "Halt," he said. Roland stopped.

  The soldier rapped on the door.

  a short, bald man with narrow, foxlike features peered out. He smiled warmly. "Hello, there! He's almost ready to see you. He wants to know your name. "

  "Roland Croninger. "

  The man pulled his head back into the room and closed the door again. Then, abruptly, it opened, and the bald man asked, "are you Jewishi"

  "No. " and then the hood of Roland's coat was yanked back.

  "Look!" the man with the shotgun said. "Tell him they sent us somebody with a disease!"

  "Oh. Oh, dear. " The other one looked fretfully at Roland's bandaged face. "What's wrong with you, Rolandi"

  "I was burned, back on the seven - "

  "He's a fork-tongued liar, Brother Norman!" The shotgun's barrel pressed against the hard growths on Roland's skull. "He's got the Satan Leprosy!"

  Brother Norman frowned and made a clicking sound of sympathy with his lips. "Wait one minute," he said, and again he disappeared into the stockroom. He returned, approached Roland and said, "Open your mouth, please. "

  "Whati"

  The shotgun nudged his skull. "Do it. "

  Roland did. Brother Norman smiled. "That's good. Now stick out your tongue. My, my, I believe you need a new toothbrush!" He placed a small silver crucifix on Roland's tongue. "Now keep that inside your mouth for a few seconds, all righti Don't swallow it!"

  Roland drew the crucifix in on his tongue and closed his mouth. Brother Norman smiled cheerfully. "That crucifix was blessed by the Savior," he explained. "It's very special. If you have corruption in you, the crucifix will be black when you open your mouth again. and if it is black, Brother Edward will blow your brains out. "

  Roland's eyes widened momentarily behind the goggles.

  Perhaps forty seconds crept by. "Open up!" Brother Norman announced in a merry voice.

  Roland opened his mouth, slowly stuck his tongue out and watched the other man's face for a reaction.

  "Guess what," Brother Norman said. He took the crucifix from Roland's tongue and held it up. It was still bright silver. "You passed! The Savior will see you now. "

  Brother Edward gave Roland's skull a final shove for good measure, and Roland followed Brother Norman into the stockroom. Sweat was trickling down Roland's sides, but his mind was calm and detached.

  Illuminated by lamplight, a man with brushed-back, wavy gray hair sat in a chair before a table, being attended to by another man and a young woman. There were two or three other people in the room, all standing back beyond the light's edge.

  "Hello, Roland," the gray-haired man in the chair said gently, a smile twisting the left side of his mouth; he was holding his head very still, and Roland could only see his left profile - a high, aristocratic forehead, a strong and hawklike nose, a straight gray brow over a clear azure eye, cleanshaven cheek and jaw and a chin as powerful as a mallet. Roland thought he was probably in his late fifties, but the Savior seemed in robust health, and his face was unmarred. He was wearing a pin-striped suit with a vest and a blue tie, and he looked ready to preach before the cameras on one of his cable TV telecasts - but on closer observation Roland saw well-worn patches here and there at stress points on the coat, and leather pads had been sewn onto the knees. The Savior was wearing hiking boots. around his neck, dangling down in front of his vest, were maybe twelve or fifteen silver and gold crucifixes on chains, some of them studded with precious stones. The Savior's sturdy hands were decorated with half a dozen glittering diamond rings.

  The man and young woman attending him were working on his face with pencils and powder applicators. Roland saw an open make-up case on the table.

  The Savior lifted his head slightly so the woman could powder his neck. "I'm going before my people in about five minutes, Roland. They're singing for me right now. They have voices like angels, don't theyi" Roland didn't answer, and the Savior smiled faintly. "How long has it been since you've heard musici"

  "I make my own," Roland replied.

  The Savior tilted his head to the right as the man penciled his eyebrow. "I like to look my best," he said. "There's no excuse for a shabby appearance, not even in this day and age. I like for my people to look at me and see confidence. and confidence is a good thing, isn't iti It means you're strong, and you can deal with the traps Satan lays for you. Oh, Satan's very busy these days, Roland - yes, he is!" He folded his hands in his lap. "Of course, Satan has many faces, many names - and one of those names might be Roland. Is iti"

  "No. "

  "Well, Satan's a liar, so what did I expecti" He laughed, and the others laughed, too. When he was through laughing, he let the woman rub rouge onto his left cheek. "all right, Satan - I mean, Roland - tell me what you want. and tell me why you and your army of demons have been following us for the last two days, and why you've now encircled us. If I knew anything about military tactics, I might think you were about to lay siege. I wouldn't like to think that. It might disturb me, thinking of all the poor demons who were about to die for their Master. Speak, Satan!" His voice snapped like a whip, and everybody in the room jumped but Roland.

  "I'm Captain Roland Croninger of the army of Excellence. Colonel James Macklin is my superior officer. We want your gasoline, oil, food and weapons. If you give those to us within six hours, we'll withdraw and leave you in peace. "

  "You mean leave us in pieces, don't
youi" The Savior grinned and almost turned his face toward Roland, but the woman was powdering his forehead. "The army of Excellence. I think I've heard of you. I thought you were in Colorado. "

  "We moved. "

  "Well, I guess that's what armies do, isn't iti Oh, we've met 'armies' before," he said, slurring the word with disgust. "Some of them wore little uniforms and had little pop-guns, and all of them crumpled like paper dolls. No army can stand before the Savior, Roland. You go back and tell your 'superior officer' that. Tell him I'll say a prayer for both your souls. "

  Roland was about to be dismissed. He decided to try another tactic. "Who are you going to pray toi The god on top of Warwick Mountaini"

  There was silence. The two make-up artists froze, and both of them looked at Roland. He could hear the Savior's breathing in the quiet.

  "Brother Gary's joined us," Roland continued calmly. "He's told us everything - where you're going and why. " Under Roland's persuasion in the black trailer, Gary Cates had repeated his tale of God living atop Warwick Mountain, West Virginia, and something about a black box and a silver key that could decide whether the earth lived or died. Even the grinding wheel hadn't changed the man's story. True to his word, Macklin had spared Brother Gary's life, and Brother Gary had been skinned and hung by his ankles from a flagpole in front of Sutton's post office.

  The silence stretched. Finally, the Savior said softly, "I don't know any Brother Gary. "

  "He knows you. He told us how many soldiers you have. He told us about the two tanks. I've seen one of them, and I guess the other is around back somewhere. Brother Gary's a real fountain of information! He told us about Brother Timothy leading you to Warwick Mountain to find God. " Roland smiled, showing bad teeth between the folds of his bandages. "But God's closer than West Virginia. Much closer. He's right out there, and he's going to blast you to Hell in six hours if we don't get what we want. "

  The Savior was sitting very still. Roland saw him tremble. Saw the left side of his mouth twitch and his left eye begin to bulge, as if shoved forward by a volcanic pressure.

  The Savior shoved the two make-up artists aside. His head swiveled toward Roland - and Roland saw both sides of his face.

  The left side was perfect, brightened by rouge and smoothed with powder. The right side was a nightmare of scar tissue, the flesh gouged out by a terrible wound and the eye white and dead as a river pebble.

  The Savior's living eye fixed on Roland like Judgment Hour, and as he stood up he grabbed the chair and flung it across the room. He advanced on Roland, the little crucifixes jingling around his neck, and lifted his fist.

  Roland stood his ground.

  They stared at each other, and there was a great, empty silence like that before the clash of an irresistible force and an immovable object.

  "Saviori" a voice spoke. "He's a fool, and he's trying to bait you. "

  The Savior wavered. His eye blinked, and Roland could see the wheels turning in his head, trying to connect and make sense of things again.

  a figure stepped out of the gloom to Roland's right. It was a tall, frail-looking man in his late twenties with slicked-back black hair and wire-rimmed glasses over deep-socketed brown eyes. a burn scar zigzagged like a lightning bolt from his forehead to the back of his skull, and along its route the hair had turned white. "Don't touch him, Savior," the man urged quietly. "They have Brother Kenneth. "

  "Brother Kennethi" The Savior shook his head, uncomprehending.

  "You sent Brother Kenneth as a trade for this man. Brother Kenneth is a good mechanic. We don't want him harmed, do wei"

  "Brother Kenneth," the Savior repeated. "a good mechanic. Yes. He's a good mechanic. "

  "It's almost time for you to go on," the man said. "They're singing for you. "

  "Yes. Singing. For me. " The Savior looked up at his fist, hanging in the air; he opened it and let his arm fall back to his side. Then he stood staring at the floor, the left corner of his mouth twitching in an on-again, off-again grin.

  "Dear me, dear me!" Brother Norman fretted. "Let's finish the job now, kiddies! He's on presently, and we want him to look confident!"

  a couple of other people emerged from the shadows, took the Savior's arms and turned him around like a marionette so the make-up artists could finish.

  "You're a foolish, stupid heathen," the man with the eyeglasses said to Roland. "You must want to die very much. "

  "We'll see who lives and dies when six hours are up. "

  "God is on Warwick Mountain. He lives up near the top, where the coal mines are. I've seen him. I've touched him. My name is Brother Timothy. "

  "Good for you. "

  "You can go with us, if you like. You can join us and go to find God and learn how the wicked will die at the final hour. He'll still be there, waiting for us. I know he will. "

  "When's the final hour going to bei"

  Brother Timothy smiled. "That only God knows. But he showed me how the fire will rain from Heaven, and in that rain even Noah's ark would drown. In the final hour all the imperfection and wickedness will be washed clean, and the world will be fresh and new again. "

  "Right," Roland said.

  "Yes. It is right. I stayed with God for seven days and seven nights, up on Warwick Mountain, and he taught me the prayer that he will speak at the final hour. " Brother Timothy closed his eyes, smiling beatifically, and began to recite: "Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks, the lady of situations. Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel, and here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card, which is blank, is something he carries on his back which I am forbidden to see. I do not find The Hanged Man. Fear death by water. " and when he opened his eyes they glistened with tears.

  "Get that Satan out of here!" the Savior croaked. "Get him out!"

  "Six hours," Roland said, but in his mind the prayer for the final hour echoed like the memory of a funeral bell.

  "Get thee behind me, Satan; get thee behind me, Satan; get thee behind me, Sa - " the Savior intoned, and then Roland was taken out of the stockroom and delivered to Brother Edward again for the return trip.

  Roland impressed everything he saw on his mind to report back to Colonel Macklin. He'd discovered no obviously weak areas, but once he sat down to draw a map of what he'd seen, maybe one would become apparent.

  The ritual of the headlights was repeated. Roland was returned to the Jeep, and again he and Brother Kenneth passed without looking at each other. Then he was in the Jeep and breathing easily once more as Judd Lawry drove toward the fires of the aOE's camp.

  "Have funi" Lawry asked him.

  "Yeah. Get me to the Command Center fast. " I do not find the Hanged Man, Roland thought. God's prayer for the final hour was somehow familiar to him - but it wasn't a prayer. No. It was. . . it was. . .

  There was some kind of activity around the colonel's trailer. The guards were out of formation, and one of them was hammering at the door with the butt of his rifle. Roland leapt out of the Jeep as it slowed down, and he ran toward the trailer. "What's going oni"

  One of the guards hastily saluted. "The colonel's locked himself in, sir! We can't get the door open, and. . . well, you'd better hear it for yourself!"

  Roland went up the steps, pushed the other guard aside and listened.

  The sound of breaking furniture and shattering glass came through the airstream's metal door. Then there was a barely human wailing that sent a shiver creeping up even Roland Croninger's spine.

  "Jesus!" Lawry said, blanching. "There's some kind of animal in there with him!"

  The last time Roland had seen him, the colonel was immobile on his cot and burning up with fever. "Somebody was supposed to be with him at all times!" Roland snapped. "What happenedi"

  "I just stepped out for about five minutes to have a smoke!" the other guard said, and in his eyes was the fearful knowledge that he would have to pay dearly for that cigarette. "It was just five mi
nutes, sir!"

  Roland hammered on the door with his fist. "Colonel! Open up! It's Roland!"

  The noise became a guttural grunting that sounded like a bestial equivalent of sobs. Something else shattered - and then there was silence.

  Roland beat on the door again, stepped back and told the guard to get it open if he had to blast it off its hinges.

  But someone else walked calmly up the steps, and a hand gripping a thin-bladed knife slid toward the door's lock.

  "Mind if I give it a try, Captaini" air whistled through the hole where alvin Mangrim's nose had been.

  Roland detested the sight of him, and also of that damned ugly dwarf who stood jumping up and down a few feet away. But it was worth a shot, and Roland said, "Go ahead. "

  Mangrim inserted the blade into the door's keyhole. He began to twist the knife back and forth, a hair at a time. "If he's got the bolts thrown, this won't do much good," he said. "We'll see. "

  "Just do what you can. "

  "Knives know my name, Captain. They speak to me and tell me what to do. This one's talking to me right now. It says, 'Easy, alvin, real easy does the trick. '" He gently swiveled the blade, and there was a click! as the lock popped open. "Seei"

  The bolts had not been thrown, and the door opened.

  Roland entered the darkened trailer, with Lawry and Mangrim right behind him. "We need some light!" Roland shouted, and the guard who'd sneaked a cigarette popped the flame up on his lighter and gave it to him.

  The front room was a shambles, the map table overthrown and the chair broken to pieces, the rifles pulled off the wall rack and used to shatter lanterns and more furniture. Roland went into the bedroom, which was equally wrecked. Colonel Macklin was not there, but the lighter's flame showed what looked at first like fragments of gray pottery lying all over the sweat-damp pillow. He picked one up and examined it, couldn't quite figure out what it was; but some kind of white jellylike stuff got on his fingers, and Roland flung the thing aside.

  "He's not back here!" Lawry yelled from the other end of the trailer.

  "He's got to be somewhere!" Roland shouted back, and when his voice faded away he heard something.

  The sound of whimpering.

  Coming from the bedroom closet.

  "Coloneli" The whimpering stopped, but Roland could still hear rapid, frightened breathing.

  Roland walked to the closet, put his hand on the knob and started to turn it.

  "Go away, damn you!" a voice thundered from behind the door.

  Roland froze. That voice was a nightmarish mockery of Colonel Macklin's. It sounded as if he'd been gargling with razor blades. "I. . . have to open the door, Colonel. "

  "No. . . no. . . please go away!" Then there was that guttural grunting again, and Roland realized he was crying.

  Roland's spine stiffened. He hated it when the King sounded weak. It wasn't the proper way for a king to behave. a king should never show weakness, never! He twisted the doorknob and pulled the closet door open, holding the lighter up to see what was inside.

  Roland saw and screamed.

  He backpedaled, still screaming, as the beast within the closet - the beast wearing Colonel Macklin's uniform and even the nail-studded hand - crawled out and, grinning crazily, began to stand up.

  The crust of growths was gone from the colonel's face and head, and as Roland retreated across the room he realized the cracked pieces of it were lying over on the pillow.

  Macklin's face had turned inside out. The flesh was bone-white, the nose had collapsed inward; the veins, muscles and knots of cartilage ran on the surface of his face, twitching and quivering as he opened those awful jaws to laugh with a shriek like fingernails on a chalkboard. His teeth had curved into jagged fangs, and his gums were mottled and yellow. The veins on his face were as thick as worms, lacing and intertwining across his bony cheeks, beneath the sockets of his stunned and staring ice-blue eyes, across his forehead and back into his thick, newly grown mat of graying hair. It looked as if the entire outer layer of facial flesh had either been peeled back or rotted away, and exposed was something as close to a living skull as Roland had ever seen.

  He was laughing, and the hideously exposed jaw muscles jerked and quivered. The veins writhed as the pressure of blood filled them up. But as he laughed his eyes swam with tears, and he began to slam his nail-studded hand against the wall again and again, dragging the nails down through the cheap paneling.

  Lawry and Mangrim had entered the room. Lawry stopped short when he saw the monster in Colonel Macklin's clothes, and he reached for his . 38, but Roland grabbed his wrist.

  Mangrim just smiled. "Far out, man!"

  Seventy-two

  Sister was dreaming of the sun. It burned hot in a dazzling blue sky, and she could actually see her shadow again. The sun's royal heat played on her face, settled into the lines and cracks and seeped down through her skin into her bones. Oh, Lord! she thought. It feels so good not to be cold anymore, and to see the blue sky, and your own shadow looking up at you! The summer day promised to be a scorcher, and Sister's face was already sweating, but that was all right, too. To see the sky no longer somber and overcast was one of the happiest moments of her life, and if she had to die she asked God to let it be in sunshine.

  She stretched her arms up toward the sun and cried aloud with joy because the long, terrible winter was finally over.

  Sitting in a chair next to the bed, Paul Thorson thought he heard Sister say something - just a drowsy whisper. He leaned forward, listening, but Sister was silent. The air around her seemed to ripple with heat, though the wind was shrilling outside the shack's walls and the temperature had fallen to well below zero just after dark. That morning, Sister had told Paul that she'd felt weak, but she'd kept going all day until the fever finally struck her down; she'd collapsed on the porch and had been sleeping, fading in and out of delirium, for about six hours.

  In her sleep, though, Sister kept the leather satchel with the glass ring inside locked between her hands, and even Josh couldn't loosen her grip. Paul knew she'd come too far with the glass ring, had watched over it and protected it from harm for too long; she wasn't yet ready to give it up.

  Paul had presumed that finding Swan meant the end of the dreamwalk path. But in the morning he'd watched Sister peer into the depths of the glass, just as she had done before they'd reached Mary's Rest. He'd seen the lights glitter in her eyes, and he knew her stare: The ring had taken her away again, and she was dreamwalking somewhere beyond Paul's realm of senses and imagination. afterward, when Sister had come back - and it was over in about fifteen or twenty seconds - she shook her head and wouldn't talk about it. She had returned the glass circle to the satchel and hadn't looked into it again. But Paul had seen that Sister was troubled, and he knew that this time the dreamwalk path had taken a dark turn.

  "How is shei"

  Swan was standing a few feet behind him, and how long she'd been there he didn't know. "about the same," he said. "as hot as a four-alarm fire. "

  Swan approached the bed. She was familiar by now with the symptoms. In the two days since Sylvester Moody had brought his gift of apples, she and Josh had seen eight other people with Job's Mask who'd drifted into feverish, comalike sleep. When the growths had cracked open from the faces of seven of them, their skin was unmarked, their faces back to - or better than - what they'd been before. But the eighth one had been different.

  It was a man named DeLauren, who lived alone in a small shed on the eastern edge of Mary's Rest. Josh and Swan had been summoned by a neighbor, who'd found DeLauren lying on the shed's dirty floor, unconscious and feverish. Josh had picked the man up and carried him across the shed to his mattress - and Josh's weight had popped open a floorboard. as Josh knelt to press the board back, he'd smelled the odor of decaying flesh and seen something wet and gleaming down in the gloom. He'd reached into the hole and brought up a severed human hand with most of the fing
ers gnawed away.

  and at that moment DeLauren's face had cracked open, revealing something black and reptilian underneath. The man had sat up, screaming, and as he'd realized his hoard of food had been discovered he'd crawled across the floor, snapping at Josh with sharp little fangs. Swan had looked away before the rest of the man's Job's Mask had cracked apart, but Josh had grabbed him by the back of his neck and flung him head first through the door. Their last sight of DeLauren was as he fled toward the woods, clutching his hands to his face.

  There was no way to tell how many bodies had been torn apart and hidden under the shed's floorboards, or who the people had been. DeLauren's shocked neighbor said he'd always been a quiet, soft-spoken man who wouldn't have hurt a fly. at Swan's suggestion, Josh had set fire to the shed and burned it to the ground. On returning to Glory's shack, Josh had spent the better part of an hour scrubbing his hands until he got the slime of DeLauren off his skin.

  Swan touched the Job's Mask that covered the lower half of Sister's face and clung to her skull. It, too, was hot with fever. "What do you think she looks like, deep insidei" Swan asked Paul.

  "Huhi"

  "Her real face is about to show through," Swan said, and her dark blue eyes with their glints of many colors met his own. "That's what's underneath the Job's Mask. The face of a person's soul. "

  Paul scratched his beard. He didn't know what she was talking about, but when she spoke he listened to her, just like everybody else did. Her voice was gentle, but it conveyed a power of thought and command that was far older than her years. Yesterday he'd worked out in the field with some of the others, helping to dig holes and watching Swan plant the apple cores she'd gathered after the big apple-eating festival. She'd explained carefully exactly how deep the holes should be, and how far apart; then, as Josh had followed along behind her with a wheelbarrow full of apple cores, Swan had picked up handfuls of dirt, spat into them, and rubbed the dirt all over each core before placing them in the ground and covering them. and the crazy thing about it was that Swan's presence had made Paul want to work, though digging holes in the cold ground was not his idea of how to spend the day. She'd made him want to dig each hole as precisely as possible, and a single word of praise from her put energy in him like a charge into a weakening battery. He'd watched the others, too, and seen that she had the same effect on them. He believed that she could grow apple trees from each seed-filled core that went into the ground, and he was proud to dig holes for her until Gideon's trumpet blared New Orleans jazz. He believed in her, and if she said that Sister's real face was about to show through, he believed that, too.

 
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