The sun burned down relentlessly. Cradling his injured arm, Billy saw that he'd misjudged the distance to that range of mountains. They'd been walking for over thirty minutes, and still the cactus-covered foothills seemed at least another half-mile away. The mountains were boulder-strewn ridges of tortured earth, red rock shimmering in rising heat waves. He could see a few scattered caves, though; there were maybe twelve, most of them little more than shallow cracks. He was losing liquid in rivulets, his head pounding from the deadly weight of the sun. His feet, bruised and cut by the rough desert pavement, were leaving bloody prints.
Wayne staggered, about to pass out. His nose was bleeding again, the liquid attracting a horde of flies. His face felt like a sheet of hot metal, and as he lifted his gaze toward the sky his single eye saw the two vultures that were circling overhead. One for each of them, he thought, and almost giggled. One would get the dark meat, one would get the white. They were going to die out here. It would be soon, and it was no use to keep walking. They might as well just lie down right here and let the vultures go to work. He lagged behind Billy, then abruptly sat down.
Billy turned and stopped. "Get up."
"No. I'm hurting too much. It's too hot." He sucked in a lungful of searing air, and the pain in his side flared. He watched as Billy stepped back toward him. "Want me to heal you?" he asked, and grinned. "Want me to lay my hands on you and make you all right? Take a number."
"We don't have much farther to go. Come on."
He shook his head. "I'm burned out. There's nothing left." Wayne's eyes closed. "The snake's won," he said. "It's killed the eagle. …"
"What? What snake and eagle?"
"I see them in a dream, fighting. The snake bit the eagle, bit it right in the heart, and pulled it down from the sky."
Billy remembered how his eagle had clamped its beak down on the snake's head, how in his dream it seemed to be winning. "The eagle's smoke?" he said. "And the snake's fire?"
Wayne's eyes snapped open, his head cocked to one side. "How'd you know that?"
"What I told you on the plane, about your mother," Billy said, "was true. You have to believe me. There's still time for you to be strong; there's still time for the eagle to win."
Sweat dripped off Wayne's chin, making a dark puddle on the ground. "I always wanted to fly. But somehow I . . . always ended up crawling. I wish I'd known more about her. And about you, too. Maybe things would've been different. Go on, now. Leave me alone."
But Billy was looking out across the desert, toward the haze of black smoke where the Challenger lay. He saw the figure approaching, now about a hundred yards away. The mottled, bloated body waddled toward them, legs pumping in a frantic hurry.
Wayne peered over his shoulder, his vision blurring in and out. "Krepsin," he said hoarsely. "He's not dead. …"
The body was moving in a jerky pantomime of life; with each step, the head joggled from side to side as if the neck had been snapped. Its shoes stirred up puffs of dust. The shattered left shoulder made the arm swing like a fleshy pendulum.
No, Billy thought; that's not Krepsin. That's something wearing Krepsin's flesh, something hurrying now to catch them before they reached the foothills.
"Wait for me, boys!" the thing roared, a rasping voice forced through Krepsin's dead vocal cords. "I've got a present for you! Look, it's something shiny!" The thing bellowed and snorted, and swung its right hand in a quick arc. Billy saw sunlight glint off a metal object. "Wayne? Billy? Wait for me right there! I'm coming!"
The shape changer, Billy knew. Only now it wasn't playing games, wasn't shifting masks to confuse him and Wayne. It was wearing human flesh, muscle, and sinew; it was tracking them down, gobbling and snorting with glee. And in that form, Billy realized, no mental tricks were needed; it would tear them to pieces. "Get up, Wayne. Hurry."
Wayne rose to his feet, wincing from the pain. Then he and Billy were hobbling away, trying to put distance between them and the thing. It shouted, "YOU CAN'T RUN! THERE'S NOWHERE TO HIDE!" It tried to break into a run too, but the lumbering unwieldy legs collapsed and the shape changer fell to the ground. Sputtering with rage, it forced itself up again and moved onward.
The heat quickly slowed Billy and Wayne down. The behemoth stalked after them, keeping a steady pace.
"WAYNE!" the shape changer shouted. "He's trying to trick you! He's a demon, the son of Satan! He's trying to mix up your head! Can't you see me? I'm alive!"
"No," Wayne whispered, "you're dead . . . you're dead . . . you're …"
The voice changed, became feminine and softly seductive. "Wayne? I'm waiting for you at the lake! Want to go swimmin'? Don't run away, Wayne! Wait for me!" And then, thunderously, "I'LL KILL YOU, YOU LITTLE FUCK!"
"Don't listen!" Billy said.
"Billy?" the thing called out. "Do you know who you're trying to help? He had them kill your mother, Billy. Know how it was done? They cut her throat. They cut it right to the spine. Then your pretty little Hawthorne house was set on fire so everything would be ashes! He wanted to have you killed, too! Oh, he dreamed of killing you! GO ON, ASK HIM!"
"Don't look back," Billy told Wayne; his voice was choked with conflicting emotions.
They reached the foothills and began climbing. The terrain grew rockier and steeper. Behind them, the shape changer muttered and shouted and babbled, swinging its weapon back and forth with malicious glee. They climbed over sharp-edged boulders, the breath of pain hissing from between their teeth. They were slowing down as their strength burned away, but the shape changer was gaining ground. Black, stomach-wrenching pain hit Billy as his injured arm grazed an outcrop of rock, but he clenched his teeth to contain the scream. In another few moments their progress was slowed to a crawl; they left sweat stains wherever they touched, and bloody prints where Billy's feet had gripped rock. The caves were above them, less than fifty feet away over a torturous trail of jagged stone. Wayne looked back, saw the bloated thing grinning thirty feet or so beneath them as it clambered up. He recognized the weapon on its right hand.
"Running out of steam, boys?" the walking corpse called out, showing its mangled teeth.
Billy reached up with his good hand to climb onto a ledge. His feet slipped on loose stones, and he almost tumbled down, but then Wayne was pushing him up from below. He crawled upward, onto the ledge about six feet wide and exposed to burning sunlight. A large cave was twenty feet above, but his strength was gone. He lay panting with pain as Wayne crawled up beside him.
Wayne tried to drag Billy the rest of the way, but he was too weak to go more than a few feet. Sweat burned into his eye, blinding him for a few seconds; when he cleared his vision, Krepsin's dead face was rising over the ledge.
Wayne let go of Billy and kicked out at the thing. Bone cracked in the corpse's neck, and watery blood gushed from the nose, but it was still pulling itself onto the ledge. Wayne kicked out again, but the shape changer's arm swung to stop the blow. The razored weapon slashed into Wayne's ankle, scraping the bone. Wayne fell onto his injured ribs, curled up, and lay still with blood pooling under his leg.
"Two very naughty boys," the shape changer whispered as it rose on Krepsin's legs. "They must be punished."
Billy was transfixed with fear, too weak to even try to crawl away. The shape changer had them now. His Mystery Walk – and Wayne's, too – would end here, on a scorched slab of rock a hundred feet above the Mexican desert.
"You won't steal the food from my table anymore, you whelp." It lumbered forward, bloodied head lolling. "I'm going to take my time with you, I'm going to enjoy this. You remember what I told you, a long time ago? In that bitch's smokehouse? I said I'd be seeing you again. Oh, it's worked out just fine, hasn't it? The little ghost boy is about to see what Death is like from the other side; and I'll keep you screaming for a long, long time: . . ." It grinned, ready to feast on more agony, already drawing on Billy's fear to make itself stronger It swelled with the terror and evil it had drawn from the dead men in the jet.
The shape changer gripped Billy's hair and thrust his head back, glaring into the boy's eyes. "First, a scalp," it whispered, raising its arm. "A scalp from an Indian."
And then Wayne grabbed the corpse's chin from behind, wrenching its head backward.
Jagged edges of bone ripped through the throat with a noise like tearing cloth. The immense football-shaped head was jammed backward, the shape changer's eyes were blinded by the sun. The head, now separated from the spine, hung back like a sack of flesh; the shape changer couldn't see. It turned upon Wayne, flailing blindly with the razored knuckles.
Wayne ducked the first blow, trying to balance on his good leg, but a backhanded swipe laid his cheek open and he staggered toward the edge. The shape changer danced with rage, striking at empty air, coming closer and closer to Wayne. Then Krepsin's corpse found him and they grappled, Wayne's hand closing around the thing's right wrist, trying with the last of his strength to hold back the razors. They were balanced on the edge, the shape changer unable to see forward, the ruined head hanging back over the corpse's shoulder.
Wayne lost his grip. The razors glinted, the swollen hand burying itself in Wayne's stomach.
Wayne caught his breath, felt warmth oozing down his legs. His vision hazed, but his brain was clear and for the first time in his life he knew what had to be done. The shape changer was making croaking sounds of triumph through Krepsin's ripped throat. Its hand twisted, driving the razors deeper into Wayne's stomach.
"NO!" Billy shouted, and tried to rise. He'd seen the death aura flare around Wayne; it undulated, shimmering a deep purplish black. Blood was streaming from Wayne's stomach, his face quickly bleaching.
But there was no fear in his unswollen eye. It caught Billy's gaze, locked, and then quickly shifted back to the struggling shape changer. This was the thing that had taunted him all along, that had tricked him by taking his daddy's form . . . and the form of a young brunette girl who'd never really existed at all, except in his own head. The hot pain that shot through his body was thawing rusted, cobwebbed gears in bis brain. He wasn't afraid.
He could still learn to fly, he realized. Yes. There was still time to kill the snake!
Now! he thought. Do it now!
And he twisted himself off the ledge, taking Krepsin's corpse with him.
Billy heard the shape changer's mangled roar, and then they were gone.
The air was bright and blue and whistled around Wayne's ears. He was falling toward the surface of water, there in the Fayette Public Swimming Pool, and everything was all right. He had finally gathered the courage to soar from the Tower, and no one was laughing at him anymore. The water shimmered beneath him, coming up fast. He closed his eyes and saw the fighting shapes, the smoke-eagle and the fire-serpent. The eagle was mortally wounded, but it was still strong; it dug its claws into the reptile and gripped the burning spade-shaped head in its beak. With a triumphant cry, the eagle beat its tattered wings toward the sky and lifted the writhing snake up . . . higher, and higher, and higher, until the snake crisped into ashes and whirled away on the bright currents of air.
He would be all right now. He'd done the best he could, and he was ready to soar.
Billy heard them hit. Rocks cascaded down the mountainside, and then there was a long silence but for the noise of sliding grit. He crawled painfully toward the edge and peered over.
Wayne lay on his stomach forty feet below, his arms outstretched. Fifteen feet beyond him, Krepsin's corpse had exploded like a gasbag on impact with a truck-sized boulder.
Something dark and leprous rose like a mist from Krepsin, moving slowly toward Wayne's body.
"Get away from him!" Billy shouted. "GET AWAY!"
The wraith picked and probed at Wayne. But Billy had seen the twisted angle of Wayne's head, the torn ankle and a protrusion of bone through the other leg. For the shape changer, the body was useless. The mist rose, took on the murky appearance of the huge boarlike beast. Its red eyes blinked; it was stunned and confused, unable to strike physically at Billy again. Within it, Billy saw roiling ectoplasm – a spectral hand clawing at the air, a football-shaped head with an open, silently screaming mouth, another face that might have been Niles's mirroring shock and agony. The forms churned, slowly losing their clarity – as if they were being digested in the belly of the beast.
"You've lost," Billy said. "Now run. Hide. RUN!"
The thing glowered at him for a moment, clutching its clawed arms around its stomach; the souls it had snatched writhed in soundless pain.
It looked down at Wayne's broken body, and its hideous face rippled with a snarl of hatred and frustration. The boy had escaped, was now far beyond the shape changer's control. The thing began to fade, taking its prizes with it. Before it had drifted away completely it glared up toward Billy and said, "There'll be a next time." But the voice – a mixture of Krepsin's, Niles's and Dorn's – was weaker, and carried an undercurrent of what might have been fear.
"I'll be ready," he replied, but the thing had already gone, leaving a slight turbulence of dust and grit.
The air settled. The sun baked down, and the vultures began to gather.
Billy waited, his head bowed with concentration. He was certain that Wayne was gone. Wayne had found the tunnel, and was now on a different kind of Mystery Walk. He wanted to bury the body, but the rocks that had slid down over it would keep the vultures away for a while, and he knew he was too weak to climb down and then back again. He said a silent prayer for Wayne. The air was clear and untroubled. After another few minutes Billy crawled away and painfully climbed to the large cave just above.
There was no water, but the shade was deep and cool. Lizards scurried over the rocky floor, chasing small beetles. Billy crouched in a corner, ripped off the rags of his shirt, and fashioned a sling for his arm – not much, but it would serve to keep the bones from moving. He was full of fever, his head pounding with heat; if he didn't find liquid soon, he knew, he was going to die. He could let go; it would be easy to curl up and die, and so much pain would be avoided, but he knew his mother wouldn't want that. He didn't want it. He and Wayne had come so far from Hawthorne, both over twisted and treacherous ground – their paths had split early, their Mystery Walks leading them in such different directions, but at the end they'd faced the shape changer together. And Wayne had been stronger than the evil thing that had toyed with him for so long.
The fever was burning Billy dry. He was getting chills now, and he knew that must be a bad sign. He closed his eyes, concentrating on Bonnie, waiting for him in Chicago. He tumbled into sleep, escaping fever and thirst.
"Billy?" someone said quietly.
He stirred and forced his eyes open.
There was a figure standing in the cave entrance, silhouetted against harsh white sunlight. It was a little boy, Billy realized, but he couldn't see the face. A little boy? he thought. Out here? No, no; he was dreaming – hallucinating. The little boy wore a clean shirt and trousers, not a spot of dust or drip of sweat on him.
"Who's that?" Billy asked, his tongue so swollen he could hardly speak. "I can't see what you look like."
"It's me! You remember, don't you, Billy? It's me from a long time ago! We used to play together! Remember?"
"Who? I don't know you." The shape changer, he thought, and went cold. "Get away from me."
"I'm not trying to trick you. Honest. I want to help you, if I can. But you've got to help yourself, too. You can't lie there too much longer. You'll die."
"Maybe I will."
"But why? You've come a long way, Billy. You've . . . you've grown up. You helped me once, a long time ago."
"I want to sleep. Whatever you are, leave me alone. You can't hurt me anymore."
"I don't want to. I . . . know how bad it can be. It can be real bad here, but you can't give up. You can never give up, and you're not ready … not yet." The little boy watched him for a moment, his head cocked to one side in a way that Billy thought was familiar. Was it . . . no, no not him. . . .
"Leave here when it gets dark," the little boy said. "But watch how the sun goes down, so you can figure out which way is due west. That's the direction you've got to walk, right where the sun sets. There are others trying to help you, too, but sometimes it's not easy. You still think I'm trying to fool you, don't you? I'm not, I promise. You've got to start walking when it gets dark. It's going to be hard, but you have to keep going. Okay?"
"No. I'm staying right here until someone finds me."
"Go away. Leave me alone."
"They won't," he said quickly. "You're a long way from where people are, Billy. You have to get out of here."
"Go away. Leave me alone."
"No; first you have to say you will. Okay?"
Billy closed his eyes. It was the shape changer, he knew, trying to make him lose himself in the desert. Trying to make him walk in the wrong direction and away from where the villages were.
"Do it, Billy. West, okay? Okay?"
The last plea hung in the air. When he opened his eyes again, he saw the cave entrance was empty. The fever was making him hear and see things. No, it was best to stay right here where he was cool and safe, where someone would eventually find the jet's wreckage. Surely someone would see the smoke!
But there was something lying in the palm of his right hand. He stared at it, his heart beating rapidly.
It was a piece of coal that had been covered with shellac so that the black wouldn't rub off.
He stood up, hobbling to the entrance. There were no prints but his own bloody ones in the dust. The fierce heat forced him back into the shadow, where he sat down again and clenched the coal tightly in his fist. Had he had the coal with him all the time? No, no; it had been left in Chicago, two thousand miles away. Hadn't it? He couldn't remember through the fire in his head. He put the coal in his pocket and waited for the sun to sink.
In deep blue twilight, Billy carefully descended over the rocks to where Wayne and Krepsin's corpses lay sprawled. A flurry of vultures sailed away; they'd already feasted on much of Krepsin. They'd been working on Wayne's back and legs, but hadn't marked the face yet. Billy took Wayne's shoes and squeezed his swollen feet into them. He sat for a few moments beside Wayne, then he arranged rocks over the body to keep the vultures away awhile longer.
He began walking westward; he stopped once to look back over his shoulder, where his brother's body lay. But his brother was gone, and there was no reason to mourn his passage to the other side. He wished he'd known more about Wayne, that they could've learned to understand each other. That they could've been friends, instead of two young men who'd walked separately, each seeking some kind of answer to the forces that had taken over their lives.
Billy left his brother's corpse, and went on.
He alternated walking and resting all through the long, chilly night. His feet were bleeding again, his broken wrist swollen to twice its size, but he had to keep going. Just before dawn, when he was exhausted and staggering, he climbed a small hill and came upon a squatter's cabin. The place was falling in, but inside there was a dirty mattress on the floor; on a table were plates with green-molded food not fit to touch, much less eat. But there was a coffee pot, too, and something faintly sloshed inside when Billy picked it up. He eagerly poured a few drops into the palm of his hand; the water was slimy and green and alive with bacteria. He took one of the plates outside, scraped it clean with coarse sand, and then brought it back in. He tore a square of his pants leg off and stretched it over the plate, then carefully poured the water through the cloth to catch the bigger clumps of green growth. What remained at the bottom of the plate – barely three swallows, brackish and stagnant – was quickly tipped into Billy's mouth. He wet his face with the damp cloth, and then he slept for several hours on the filthy mattress.
When he awakened, bright swords of sunlight pierced gaping holes in the rotting walls around him. He was feverish and very weak, his legs cramped into knots. His arm was a burning, leaden weight, the wound oozing yellow fluids. He shut his mind to the pain, and concentrated on Bonnie. He would show Hawthorne to her, and he wanted to see Lamesa, and he wanted to know everything about her from the day she was born. He hung her face up in his mind like a picture. He would get back to her.
He stepped outside the cabin and was jolted by a sudden shock.
About three or four miles away, sitting right in the middle of brown sand desert, was a large lake. It was surrounded by motels and restaurants with high signs that could be seen from the highway that passed about a half-mile from the cabin. There were cars and dune buggies on the road, and out on the lake Billy could see a sleek red speedboat pulling a water-skier. Palm trees waved in the streets of some resort town built around a desert spring. The entire scene shimmered in the heat waves; Billy stood motionless, expecting the whole thing to vanish suddenly.
He began to walk toward the mirage. On the highway a dune buggy swerved to avoid him, blasting its horn. He walked slowly down the center, being passed by cars and motorcycles and dune buggies. Some of the cars were hauling speedboats, and kids were hanging out the windows. The lake glittered like liquid gold in the strong sunlight.
Billy stood in the center of the highway and started laughing. He couldn't stop, even though his jaw was aching and he was so weak he was about to fall on his face. He was still laughing when a Mexican police officer on a motorcycle pulled up beside him and shouted something that included the word loco.
They'd rented a brown Gremlin at the Birmingham airport, using Bonnie's driver's license, and had driven the two-hour trip to Fayette under a gray late-December sky. The southern winter had set in, a wave of cold air and rain had rolled down from the northwest scattering brown leaves before it. Christmas was two days away.
They passed a large sign, punctured by .22 bulletholes, that said WELCOME TO FAYETTE! HOME OF LITTLE WAYNE FALCONER, THE SOUTH'S GREATEST EVANGELIST! The second line, Billy saw, was being allowed to weather away. It would not be repainted. Home for Wayne's body was now a meticulously kept cemetery near the Falconer estate; he'd been buried next to his daddy, and there were always fresh flowers on the grave.
"I've never seen so many hills," Bonnie said. She'd noticed him wince, as if from an old injury, as they'd passed the sign. "Lamesa's about as flat as a flapjack. Are we gettin' near?"
"We'll be there in a few minutes. It's just past Fayette." There were still dark hollows under his eyes, and he needed to gain five or six pounds so his face would fill out, but he was doing much better. He'd been able to walk without crutches for the first time just a week before. There were a few lost weeks in which Billy had faded in and out, his body fighting against massive infection. His jaw was wired and was healing well, as was his left arm in its thick elbow cast. Dr. Hillburn had been straight with him: the doctors didn't know why he hadn't died out in that desert. The injuries he'd received in the crash had been severe enough to begin with, but the exposure and the infection from his broken wrist should have finished him off.
Dr Hillburn hadn't replied when Billy told her that he had died, but had been sent back from the other side. And those people had been right, Billy said; it was beautiful over there. But he planned on sticking around here for a while longer, if Dr. Hillburn didn't mind.
Dr. Hillburn had smiled and said she didn't mind at all.
Later, Billy had asked about his mother. Dr. Hillburn confirmed what Billy already knew: Ramona Creekmore had died in a house fire of indeterminate origin. The cabin was almost a total ruin.
He'd told Bonnie fragments of what had happened in Mexico, but she knew it was hard for him to talk about it. She didn't want to push him; if and when he was ready to tell her, she would be there to listen.
Now they were passing through Fayette, and Hawthorne was only fifteen miles away.
Billy had turned twenty-one while still in a semiconscious state in the hospital. He was different now, he knew, from the person who'd left Hawthorne that first time to join Dr. Mirakle's Ghost Show. He saw his direction more clearly, and he was secure with his own place in the world. He'd fought his way, he realized, through a rite of passage that had begun when he'd stepped down into the dark Booker basement a long time ago; he was strong now, strong in his heart, and he knew that in his life the eagle was winning.
His Mystery Walk was pulling him onward, out into the world.
But first, before he could walk forward – to the University of California, Duke University, or even to Oxford in England, where parapsychologists had been studying the Alcott Tape and were eager to get Billy into their death survival research programs – he had to look back over his shoulder. There were good-byes to be said, both to people and to places.
The Gremlin rounded a bend, and Billy saw the old weather-beaten high-school building with its brick gym addition. There was a large, ragged scar in the football field, as if grass wouldn't grow where the bonfire had exploded.
Billy touched Bonnie's arm and asked her to stop.
The parking lot was empty, all the students out for Christmas holidays. Billy rolled down his window and stared out at the football field, his eyes dark with the memory of May Night.
"Something bad happened here, didn't it?" Bonnie asked.
"Yes. Very bad."
"What was it?"
"A lot of kids got hurt. Some of them were killed." He ran his gaze along the new fence, remembering the pain of his hands being ripped as the shock wave blustered past. He waited for a few minutes, listening to the sigh of wind out on the field. Pines swayed in the distance, and clouds seemed to skim the hills.
"They're gone," he said. "There's nothing here. Thank God. Okay. I'm ready to go."
They drove on, following the road into Hawthorne. When Billy saw the tangle of black timbers and the standing chimney where his house had once stood, his heart sank. The field was overgrown, the scarecrow sagging, everything gone to ruin. He didn't ask Bonnie to slow down, though, until they'd almost reached the lot where the decaying hulk of the Booker house had stood.
The rubble had been cleared away, and now a trailer sat on the property. It was there to stay, sitting on concrete supports sunken into the earth. A Christmas tree stood in a front window, white lights blinking. A little boy – who looked not at all like Will Booker – sat outside, roughhousing with a big brown dog that was trying to lick him in the face. The boy saw the Gremlin and waved. Billy waved back. There was warmth surrounding that trailer, and he hoped the people who lived there were happy. Hawthorne's "murder house" was long gone.
He heard the sawmill's high whine as they approached the cluster of grocery store, gas station, and barbershop. A couple of farmers sat outside the gas station, watching with interest to see if the Gremlin would pull in. Someone was loading a sack of groceries into a pickup truck. A television flickered from within Curtis Peel's barbershop, and Billy saw figures sitting around the red glow of the old heater Life was going on in Hawthorne at its own slow, steady pace. The world had touched it – there was a poster on a telephone pole that said NOW HIRING QUALIFIED LABOR. APPLY AT THE CHATHAM PERSONNEL OFFICE. WE ARE AN EQUAL OPPORTUNITY EMPLOYER – but the essence of life, easy and unhurried, would never totally change. Maybe that was for the best, Billy thought; it was comforting to know that some places in the world remained the same, though the people living in them grew and matured and learned from their mistakes.
"Would you stop here?" Billy asked, motioning to the curb near Peel's barbershop. "I want to go in there for a minute. Want to come with me?"
"That's why I'm here," she replied.
When Billy opened the barbershop door, the three men sitting around the heater looked up from their television show – "Let's Make a Deal" – and froze. Curtis Peel's mouth dropped open. Old Hiram Keller, as tough as leather, simply blinked, then returned his attention to Monty Hall. The third man, younger than the others, with curly brownish blond hair and a plump-cheeked face tinted red by the heater, leaned forward as if he were staring at a mirage.
"Damn my eyes!" Peel said, and stood up. "Is that . . . Billy Creekmore?"
"That's right." He stood tensed, ready for anything. He'd recognized the younger man, and saw Duke Leighton's eyes narrow.
"Well, I'll be a . . ." And suddenly Peel's face broke into a grin. He came forward, clapped Billy on the shoulder, and then, embarrassed by his own ebullience, stepped back a pace. "Uh … we didn't expect to see you back, after … I mean, we . . ."
"I know what you mean. I want you to meet my friend, Bonnie Hailey. This is Curtis Peel. That's Hiram Keller, and Duke Leighton."
"Howdy," Hiram said without looking up.
"I didn't figure you'd recognize me, Billy." Duke patted his bulging beer-belly. "I guess I've changed a lot. You have, too. You look like you've been in an accident."
They were silent for a long moment. Then Curtis said, "Hey! You two young folks want a Coke? I've got some in the back, just as cold as they can be! No? Weather's turned for the worse, I hear. Supposed to get a hard freeze tonight. Listen, y'all take a chair and make yourself – "
"We're not staying," Billy told him. "I've come to visit the cemetery."
"Oh. Yeah. Well . . . Billy, that was a bad thing. A real terrible thing. The fire burned everything up so fast, and the wind was bad that night too. I . . . I'm sorry."
"So am I."
Peel turned and stared into Bonnie's face for a few seconds, seemingly entranced by her eyes. He smiled uncertainly, then looked back at Billy. "You need a haircut, Bill. Come on, get in the chair here and we'll fix you up. On the house, okay? I recall you used to like the smell of Vitalis. You still do?"
"No," he said, and smiled slightly at Peel's willingness to please. "Afraid not." He was aware of Leighton's unyielding gaze on him, and he felt anger begin to simmer.
"Well . . ." Peel nervously cleared his throat. "Most everybody's heard about you, Bill. You're a celebrity. I mean, I don't rightly understand what you've been up to and all, but . . . look here." He stepped next to the shelves of hair tonic, shampoo, and pomades and pointed to something mounted on the wall; he smiled proudly, and Billy saw it was a bulletin board. It was covered with newspaper clippings about the "Mystery Medium," and the Alcott tape, and pictures of Billy. "See here, Bill? I've been keepin' them. People come in here to read 'em all the time. You're a real celebrity hereabouts! And look up there on the wall. Recognize that?" He'd motioned to a framed needlepoint picture of an owl sitting on a tree limb; the features were a bright mixture of colors, the eyes so sharp and lifelike they followed you around the room. Billy recognized his mother's handiwork. "Fella from Montgomery came through here about a month ago, offered me a hundred dollars for it," Curtis said. He swelled his chest proudly. "I said no. I said it was done by a local artist, and you couldn't put any price on something done with as much feeling as that's got in it. Didn't I say that, Hiram?"
"I've got another one at home. It shows a mountain and a lake, and an eagle flying way up far in the sky. I think it's the prettiest thing I've ever seen. See, I've put this one where I can look at it all the time!"
Hiram suddenly stirred and regarded the picture. "Fine work," he said, lighting his corncob pipe and sticking it in his grizzled face. "You'd go a far piece to find anything finer, I'll tell you that." He cocked his head and looked at Billy. "Your mother was full of magic, boy. She was a damned fine woman, and it took us a long time to realize it. Any woman who could run a farm like she did, and make pictures like that, and never complain 'bout her lot in life . . . well, I remember that night at the tent revival. Maybe we didn't want to hear what she said, but she had guts, boy. Looks like you've got your share too." He motioned with his pipe toward the bulletin board.
"What . . . ?" Billy managed to say. He was stunned, and he felt hot tears in his eyes. "You mean you …"
Duke Leighton started to rise. His gaze was baleful in the red light. When he stood erect, his back was hunched over; with his first step, Billy saw that he walked with a terrible limp, much worse than his father's. As he approached Billy, Duke seemed to grow smaller and paler and thinner He saw Billy staring and stood in front of him, his lower lip trembling. "It happened just after you left. I was ridin' in the car with my dad. He was … he was drinking pretty heavily. He'd taken to drinkin' a lot since Mom died. Anyway, he . . . the car was going too fast, and we went off the trestle bridge. I just got cut up, but my dad was dead by the time the ambulance came." His face was set and grim. "About a week later, Coy Granger came to see me, and he said he'd seen my dad standing at the side of the road, right at the trestle bridge where the car had gone off. . . ."
"Saw him myself," Hiram said quietly. "Plain as day. Plain as I can see you."
"My dad . . . couldn't leave." Duke's voice cracked, his eyes swimming. "I saw him, and I called out to him, and he looked like he was tryin' to answer but he … he couldn't speak. His . . . throat was crushed in the wreck, and he strangled to death. And when I tried to touch him, I felt so cold. Then he was gone, just faded away in an instant." He looked helplessly at Bonnie, then back to Billy again. "Who else could I go to?" he asked. "I had to help my dad!"
"And my mother freed him?"
"I saw her do it." Hiram puffed out a wreath of blue smoke. "We all did. She stood right there on the trestle bridge and opened up her arms, and we all saw Ralph Leighton with our own eyes." He set his jaw and grunted. "Damnedest thing I ever saw. And Ralph just . . . disappeared, just kinda eased away, I guess. Ramona fell down, and she had to be helped home. …"
"My wife stayed the night with her," Peel said. "She took care of her."
Duke wiped his face with a sleeve. "Sorry. I didn't mean to . . . act like a fool. I never believed in such a thing as spirits until I saw my own father standin' there, trying to call out to me. . . ."
"Sheer guts," Hiram said. "She did it in front of everybody who cared to watch. Oh, at first some laughed. But after it was over and done . . . wasn't nobody laughin' no more."
"I bought this picture from her soon after that," Peel said. "She didn't want to take the money. Said she had no need for it. But I made her take it. The very next night . . . well, that fire was so fast and windblown it was over before we knew it."
"I didn't know." Billy looked at all of them in turn. "She never wrote me about what happened on the trestle bridge."
"Maybe she figured you had your own worries." Hiram relit his pipe, clenched it between his teeth, and watched the game show again.
"I'm sorry about your father," Billy said.
"Yeah. Well, things hadn't been too good between me and him for a long time. He took me down to the Marine recruiting station in Tuscaloosa right after high school. I never went to college like I was supposed to. I went to 'Nam – another kind of college, I guess. I got into demolition, but I guess you heard. That's funny, huh? Me, in demolition?" He tried to smile, but his face was too loose and weary, his eyes too haunted.
Duke stared at him for a long moment. "You . . . you don't know, do you? Well, why would you? I came back from 'Nam in seventy-one with a shot-up hip and a Purple Heart. Then what I'd done kept eatin' at me, so . . . I went to the sheriff and told him. I served my time – one year on a two-year sentence. I've just been out since October. But I want you to know, Billy, that it was never my idea. I wasn't the one who came up with the idea. . . ."
"The fireworks," Duke said quietly. "I thought you knew; I thought everybody knew. I was one of the boys who put all those fireworks in the bonfire. It was . . . supposed to be a joke. Just a joke. I thought it'd make pretty colors. I thought people would laugh. I swear, I never knew it would blow up like that. My dad found out about it, and he shipped me off to the Marines damned fast. I can't ever forget that night, Billy. I don't sleep too good. I can still, y'know, hear the sounds they made. Billy, you'd . . . you'd know if any of them were still there, wouldn't you? I mean, you could tell, and you could help them?"
"They're gone," he replied. "I'm sure of it."
But Duke shook his head. "Oh, no they're not. Oh, no." He opened his eyes and tapped a finger against his skull. "They're all still in here, every one of them who died that night. You can't help me, can you?"
"I didn't think so. I served my time, got out on good behavior. My dad pretended I was away, workin' in Georgia. Well …" He moved past Bonnie and took his hat off the rack on the wall. It was a gas-station cap. "I'd best get back to work. The gas won't pump itself. I thought you knew about all that, Billy. I surely did."
"They're gone," Billy said as he reached the door "You don't have to keep them inside you anymore."
"Yes I do," Duke said, and then he opened the door – the little bell over it tinkled merrily – and he was gone.
"We were wrong about your mother," Peel said. "All of us were wrong. It wasn't evil. It never was, was it?"
Billy shook his head; his eyes were watering, and Bonnie pressed close to his side to support him.
"Terrible thing about that Falconer boy. Heard he died in a plane crash in Mexico, of all places. God only knows what he was doin' down there. I heard he went off the deep end, just gave up everything. …"
"Not everything," Billy said. "Just the things that didn't matter."
"Nothing." He looked again at the needlepoint owl. It was a beautiful picture, and would be seen by a lot of people. He couldn't think of a better place for it to be hanging.
Peel touched his shoulder. "Bill, I've got a fine idea! Why don't you and the little lady join my family and me for dinner tonight? I'll call her, and I guarantee you the finest fried-chicken dinner you ever put in your mouth! All right?"
"You got room at that table for me?" Hiram asked.
"Maybe we do. What the hell . . . sure. We got room for everybody! Okay, Bill? How about it?"
He smiled, glanced at Bonnie, and then nodded. "We'd like that very much."
"Fine! Let me get on the horn right now!"
"Curtis," Billy said as he moved to the phone, "I'm going to see my mother. She is in the cemetery isn't she?"
"Oh. Yes, she is. Don't you worry about a thing. We took care of her real good, Bill. You'll see."
"We'll be back." They walked to the door, and as Billy opened it he heard Peel say over the phone, "Ma? You're gonna have a real celebrity over tonight! Guess who's …"
"Sheer guts," Hiram granted.
Fifteen minutes later, Billy was standing with Bonnie beside his mother's grave. His father was buried a few feet away. Pine needles covered the ground, and the chill wind whispered softly through the trees. Billy could smell pine sap: the aroma of life, waiting to burst free in April.
A stone marker had been planted at the head of Ramona's grave. It was fine cut, simple but proud. It gave her name, her date of birth and death, and underneath that, in expertly etched block letters: DAUGHTER OF HAWTHORNE.
Billy put his arm around Bonnie. His mother wasn't here, he knew; her body was, returning now to the earth as all bodies must, but her soul – that part of her that had made her very special – was somewhere else, still carrying on her Mystery Walk. And his would go on too, from this place and moment. He would meet the shape changer again, because it was part of the Evil that lived in the world, but he knew now that, though it couldn't be totally destroyed, it could be bested. The eagle could win over the snake. Courage could win over fear.
A few tough stalks of goldenrod grew in the brush a few feet from Ramona's grave. Billy picked some, scattering the yellow wild flowers over the earth. "Flowers for the dead," he said, "and for the living." He gave Bonnie the remaining stalk, and saw her strange and beautiful eyes shine.
They stood together, as the clouds moved overhead in a slow and graceful panorama of white and gray. Snow flurries began to spin before the wind, clinging to their hair and eyelashes, and Billy remembered the infant step of his Mystery Walk – when he and his father had left the cabin to walk in the snow and had passed the Booker house. Now he had someone else to walk beside – someone who could understand him and believe in him, as much as he in her.
"I knew you'd come back," Bonnie said. "I knew it. You left the piece of coal, and I didn't think you'd leave without it. I kept it by my bed all the time, until one morning when I woke up and it wasn't there. I had a dream that night. . . ."
"You," she replied. "And me, too. We were . . . together, and we were old. We were tired, but it was a good tired, like you've done a hard day's work and you know you'll have a peaceful sleep. I don't know where we were, but we were sitting in the sun and we could see the ocean. We were holding hands." She shrugged, a blush creeping across her freckled cheeks. "I don't know, but . . . after that dream, I knew you'd be all right. I knew you'd come back. Funny, huh?"
"It's the first dream I ever had that I wasn't afraid of," Bonnie said.
It was time to go. They walked down the hill to the car and got in. His Mystery Walk was about to carry him – and possibly Bonnie as well – far away from Hawthorne, he realized. Life and Death were part of the same puzzle, part of the same strange and miraculous process of growth. He hoped someday to work in the parapsychology labs himself, to go to school, to study as much as he could; he wanted to help others understand that Death wasn't an ending, and that Life itself was a wonderful mystery full of chances and challenges.
"Have you ever wanted to see England?" he asked her.
He smiled faintly. "Dr. Hillburn told me there are supposed to be more haunted houses in England than in any country on earth."
They drove away from the cemetery. Billy looked back over his shoulder, through the snow's thin white curtain, until the marble marker was out of sight. So much to be done! he thought. So much to be learned!
Billy turned his attention to the road that stretched out ahead, out of Hawthorne and into the world. And he would carry with him his mother's words of courage:
No fear.READ MORE >>