Mystery Walk

Chapter 8

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SIX

May Night

24

They had driven in silence since leaving the house. John Creekmore watched the road unwinding before him in the yellow glare of the headlights; he was purposely keeping their speed ten miles per hour below the limit. "You sure you want to do this?" he asked, finally, without looking at his son. "I can turn the car around on the next dirt road."

"I want to go," Billy said. He was wearing a spotless but tightly fitting dark suit, a starched white shirt, and a bright paisley tie.

"Your choice. I've said all I can, I guess." His face was set and grim; he looked much the same as he had when he'd stepped out of the house one morning last week and had seen the scarecrow dummy hanging by its neck from an oak-tree limb. It was wrapped with used toilet paper Ever since that evening Billy had gone up to the sawmill with Lamar Chatham the air had been ugly; Chatham had gone around telling everybody with ears what had happened, and the story soon became embellished and distorted to the point that it was said Billy was in command of the demons that infested the mill. John knew all of that was ridiculous, but he wasn't given the chance to explain; when he'd last gone over to Curtis Peel's to play checkers, the other men had frozen him out, talking and looking right through him as if he were invisible. Less than ten minutes after he'd gotten there, they'd all decided they'd had enough and left, but John had seen them later, sitting on the benches in front of Lee Sayre's hardware store; Sayre was with them, the center of attention, and Ralph Leighton was grinning like a hyena. "Did your mother put you up to this?" John asked suddenly.

"No sir."

"Don't you know who's gonna be there, son? Just about everybody in the junior and senior classes, and a lot of their folks too! And everybody knows!" He tried to concentrate on his driving as the road snaked to the left. Fayette County High wasn't far now, just a mile or so ahead. "You ever ask anybody to go with you?"

Billy shook his head. He'd gathered the courage to call out Melissa's name in the hallway one day; when she'd turned toward him, Billy had seen her pretty face blanch. She'd hurried away as if he were offering her poison.

"Then I don't see why you want to go."

"It's May Night. It's the school dance. That's why."

John grunted. "No, that's not all of it, is it? I think you want to go because you want to prove something." He flicked a glance at the boy.

"I want to go to May Night, that's all."

He's stubborn as a deaf mule, John thought, and he's got a hell of a lot of guts, I'll say that for him. Billy was different, stronger-willed, somehow, and much more intense. Looking into his eyes was like seeing a thunderstorm on the horizon, and you didn't know which way the storm would turn or how fast it was moving.

"You may think you're not different," John said quietly, "but you're wrong. Lord knows I've prayed over you, Billy, and over your mother too. I've prayed until my head aches. But the Lord isn't gonna change you, son, not until you turn away from this . . . this black belief."

Billy was silent for a moment. The lights of Fayette brightened the sky before them. "I don't understand it," he said. "Maybe I never will, and maybe I'm not supposed to. But I think that part of Mr. Patterson was in that mill, Dad; it was a scared and hurt part, and too confused to know what to – "

"You don't know what you're talkin' about!" John snapped.

"Yes I do, Dad." The strength of his voice frightened John. "I helped Mr Patterson. I know I did."

John felt the quick, hot urge to strike his son across the face. Seventeen or not, the boy had no right to dispute his father's word. In John's way of thinking the boy was like a corrupting tarbaby, and John was afraid some of that evil tar might fix itself to him, too.

The county high school stood just outside the Fayette city limits. It was a large, two-storied red brick building that had gone up in the early forties and had survived, like a defiant dinosaur, the ravages of weather, vandalism, and county-education budget cuts. A gymnasium had been built off to the side in the mid-fifties, a square brick structure with a band of louvered windows beneath the slate roof. Outside the gym was a fenced-in football field, home to the Fayette County High Bulldogs. The parking lot held a varied assortment of vehicles, from rusted-out pickups to spit-shined sports cars. The school building itself was dark, but a few bright streamers of light shot out through the gym's open windows, and in the air there was the growl of a bass guitar and the high notes of laughter.

John slowed the car to a halt. "I guess this is the place. You sure you want to go through with it?"

"Yes sir."

"You don't have to, you know."

"I do have to."

"Ask me, you're lettin' yourself in for misery." But then Billy was opening the door, and John knew his mind was set. "What time do you want me to come for you?"

"Ten o'clock?"

"Nine-thirty," John said. He fixed his son with a hard gaze. "When you go through them doors, you're on your own. Anything happens to you in there, I can't help. You got your money?"

Billy felt in his pocket for the couple of dollars he'd brought along. "Yes sir. Don't worry, there are chaperones inside."

"Well," John said, "I guess I'll go on, then. Anybody says something to you that don't set well, you just remember . . . you're a Creekmore, and you can be proud of that." Billy shut the door and started to walk away, but John leaned toward the open window and said, "You look real good, son." And then, before the boy could respond, he was driving away across the lot.

Billy walked to the gym. His nerves were jangling, his muscles knotted up; he was ready for the unexpected. The gates to the football field were open, and Billy could see the huge mound of bits and pieces of wood – probably waste from the sawmill, he realized – that would be ignited later in the evening for the traditional May Night bonfire; then the ashes would be spread over the field before summer tilling and the replanting of grass for next season. From the gym's open doors came the tinny sounds of electric guitars playing "Alley Cat"; a large blue-and-gold poster hung across the front of the gym, and read may night! junior-senior sockhop! 2.50 admission! with the drawing of a stocky bulldog dressed in football gear.

He paid his admission to a pretty dark-haired girl who sat at a desk just inside the gym. Golden and blue streamers crisscrossed the exposed metal rafters, and at the ceiling's center hung a large mirrored globe that cast reflected shards of light over the dancing mob. Papier-mache planets painted in Day-Glo colors dangled on wires, high enough not to be yanked down but low enough to be stirred by the crowd's motion. On the brick wall behind the bandstand, where a group with the legend purple tree stenciled across the bass drumhead began to hammer out "Pipeline," was a large banner proclaiming seniors '69 welcome the age of aquarius!

A chaperone, a thin geometry teacher named Edwards, materialized out of the crowd and pointed at Billy's feet. "Shoes off if you're going to stay on the floor. Otherwise, you go up into the bleachers." He motioned toward a sea of shoes scattered in a corner, and Billy took off his dusty loafers. How all those shoes would ever get back to their owners was a mystery, he thought as he placed his shoes with the others. He stood against the wall, underneath a stretched-tight American flag, and watched as the dancers Boog-a-looed and Ponied and Monkeyed to strident electric chords. Almost everyone had a date, he saw; the few boys who'd come stag – fat, or with terminal acne – sat up in the green-painted bleachers. Chaperones paced the dance floor. A glued-together couple passed Billy in search of their shoes, and he could smell the distinct aroma of moonshine.

"Well, well," someone said. "Is that Billy Creekmore standing over there by his lonesome?"

Billy looked to one side and saw Mr Leighton leaning against the wall several feet away, wearing a checked coat and a shirt open at the collar; his crew cut looked as sharp as a bed of nails. "Where's your date, Billy?"

"I came stag."

"Oh? Didn't you ask anybody? Well, I guess that's your own business. How's your momma doin'? Ain't seen her in a month of Sundays."

"She's fine."

"Lots of pretty girls here tonight," Leighton said in a silk-smooth voice. His grin stopped south of his eyes, and in them Billy saw a cunning kind of anger. " 'Course, all of them have dates. Sure a shame you don't have a pretty girl to dance with, maybe cuddle up to after the dance is over. My boy's out there with his girl. You know Duke, don't you?"

"Yes sir." Everyone knew Duke Leighton, the senior-class cutup; Duke was a year older than Billy, but he'd failed the eighth grade. He'd been an All-American linebacker for the Bulldogs two seasons in a row, and had won a football scholarship to Auburn.

"He's goin' with Cindy Lewis," Leighton said. "She's head cheerleader at Indian Hills High." The rich kids' school, Billy knew.

"You ought to know a lot of people here, Billy. Lot of people know you."

Leighton's voice was getting louder, as if he were pretending to shout over the music, but the shout was exaggerated. Billy noticed uneasily that he was being watched by some of the kids who hung around the edge of the dance floor; and he saw some of them whispering to each other.

"Yep!" Leighton said, very loudly. "Everybody knows Billy Creekmore! Heard you had a job up at the sawmill for a while, ain't that right? Huh?"

He didn't reply; he could feel people watching, and he shifted his position uneasily. To his horror, he realized there was a small hole in his left sock.

"What'd you do up there for the Chathams, Billy? Kinda sweep the place up? Did you do an Indian dance, or . . ." Billy turned away and started walking, but Leighton hurried after him and grasped his sleeve. "Why don't you show everybody your Indian dance, Billy? Hey! Who wants to see an Indian dance?"

Billy said, in a quiet and dangerous voice, "Let go of my arm, Mr Leighton."

"What're you gonna do?" the man sneered. "Put a curse on me?"

Billy looked into his fierce, unreasoning glare and decided to play this game his way. He leaned closer to Leighton, until their faces were only a few inches apart, and he whispered, "Yes. I'll make your legs rot off to stumps. I'll make your hair catch fire. I'll make frogs grow in your fat belly."

Leighton's hand fell away, and he wiped his fingers on his trousers. "Sure you will. Yeah, sure. You listen to me, boy. Nobody wants you here. Nobody wants you in this school, or in this town. One damned witch is e – " He stopped suddenly, because Billy's eyes had flared. He stepped back a few paces, mashing down shoes. "Why don't you just get the hell out of here?"

"Leave me alone," Billy said, and walked away. His heart was pounding. The Purple Tree was playing "Double Shot," and the crowd was going wild.

Billy walked around the gym to a booth that sold Cokes and corndogs. He bought a Coke, drank it down, and was about to throw the crumpled cup into a trashcan when fingers grazed his cheek. He turned around; there was a short, shrill scream and four figures backed away from him. A girl said, her voice brimming with delicious terror, "I touched him, Terry! I really touched him!" There was a chorus of braying laughter, and someone off to the side asked, "Talked to any ghosts lately, Creekmore?"

He ducked his head down and pushed past a boy in a Bulldog letter jacket; his face flamed, and he knew that coming to this dance, that trying to pretend he was just like the others and could fit in after all, had been an awful mistake. There was nothing to do now but to try to get out of here, to withdraw from people yet again. Suddenly someone shoved him from the rear, and he almost went down; when he turned he saw perhaps eight or nine grinning faces, and a couple of boys with clenched fists. He knew they wanted to fight so they could show off in front of their girls, so he backed away from them and then started across the packed dance floor, twisting through a human maze of gyrating bodies. A heavyset boy with a mop of dark hair pushed his girl friend into Billy; she let out a mouselike squeak when she looked up into his face, and then the boy pulled her away to let her cower in his arms.

They're using me to scare their girl friends, Billy thought, like I was a horror movie at the drive-in! Rather than angering him, that realization struck him as being funny. He grinned and said, "Boo!" at the next girl whose boyfriend thrust her forward; she almost went gray with shock, and then the people who recognized him – people he saw every day in the high-school halls – were moving out of his way, making a path for him to get through. He laughed and bent over like a hunchback, letting his arms dangle, and moved along the human corridor like a lurching ape. Give 'em a show! he thought. That's what they want! Girls screamed, and even their protective boyfriends edged away. Now he was getting more attention than the Purple Tree, and he knew he was making a damned fool of himself but he wanted to turn around on them the fearful image they had of him; he wanted to rub it in and let them see how stupid it was to be afraid. He grimaced like a ghoul, reaching out toward a girl whose boyfriend slapped his hands away and then backed into the crowd; he danced and jerked his head as if he'd been struck by the palsy, and now he heard people laughing and he knew he was about to break through . . . just about to break through –

And then he abruptly stopped, a cold chill running through him. He was facing Melissa Pettus, radiant in a pink dress and with pink ribbons in her long flowing hair; she was pressed close to a boy named Hank Orr, and she was cowering away from Billy.

Billy stared at her, and slowly straightened up. "You don't have to be afraid," he said, but his voice was lost in the bass-boom as the Purple Tree started to play "Down in the Boondocks."

Something wet hit him in the face and streamed into his eyes. He couldn't see for a few seconds, and from off to one side he heard a snort of laughter. When Billy had cleared his eyes, he saw Duke Leighton grinning several feet away; the boy was bulky, already getting fat. A slim red-haired girl clung to one arm, and his other hand held a plastic watergun.

And then Billy could smell the reek of beer rising off of himself, and he realized that Leighton had filled that gun with beer instead of water, it was one of his many practical and sometimes cruel jokes. Now if a chaperone happened to get a whiff of Billy's clothes, Billy would be immediately thrown out. He reeked like a shithouse on a hot summer night.

"Want some more, Spookie?" Leighton called out, to a chorus of laughter. He grinned slickly, as his father had.

Anger surged within Billy. At once he propelled himself forward, shoving through several couples to get at Leighton. The other boy laughed and sprayed him in the eyes again, and then someone edged out a foot and Billy tripped over it, sprawling on the gym floor. He struggled to his feet, half blinded with beer, and a hand caught roughly at his shoulder; he spun to strike at his attacker.

It was a chaperone, a short and stocky history teacher named Kitchens; the man grabbed bis shoulder again and shook him. "No fighting, mister!" he said.

"I'm not! Leighton's trying to start trouble!"

Kitchens stood at least two inches shorter than Billy, but he was a large-shouldered man with a deep chest and a crew cut that was a holdover from his Marine days. His small dark eyes, glanced toward Duke Leighton, who was standing in a protective circle of football buddies. "What about it, Duke?"

The other boy raised empty hands in a gesture of innocence, and Billy knew the watergun had been passed to safety. "I was just mindin' my own business, and old Spookie wanted to fight."

"That's a damned lie! He's got – "

Kitchens leaned toward him. "I smell liquor on you, mister! Where you keepin' it, in your car?"

"No, I'm not drinking! I was …"

"I saw him with a flask, Mr Kitchens!" someone said through the crowd, and Billy was almost certain it was Hank Orr's voice. "Throw him out!"

Kitchens said, "Come on, mister," and started pulling Billy toward the door "You rule-breakers got to learn some respect!"

Billy knew it was pointless to struggle, and maybe it was for the best that he get kicked out of the May Night dance.

"I ought to take you to the boys' adviser, that's what I ought to do," Kitchens was saying. "Drinking and fighting is a bad combination."

Billy looked back and caught the reflection of light off Melissa Pettus's hair; Hank Orr had his arm around her waist, and was pulling her toward the dance floor.

"Come on, pick out your shoes and get out of here!"

Billy stopped, resisting the man's tugging. He had seen – or thought he'd seen – something that had driven a freezing nail of dread into his stomach. He blinked, wishing he wouldn't see it, but yet, there it was, right there, right there. . . .

A shimmering black haze hung around Hank Orr and Melissa Pettus. It undulated, throwing off ugly pinpoints of purplish light. He heard himself moan, and Kitchens stopped speaking to stare at him. Billy had seen the black aura glittering around another couple who were walking on the edge of the dance floor; he saw it again, from the corner of his eye: it was enveloping a senior girl named Sandra Falkner, who was doing the Jerk with her boyfriend. Panic roiled in Billy's stomach; he wildly looked around, sure of impending disaster. The black aura glittered around a biology teacher named Mrs. Carson. A very weak aura, more purple than black, undulated around a senior football player named Ous Tompkins. He saw it yet again, clinging to a fat boy who was sitting up in the bleachers eating a corndog.

"Oh God," Billy breathed. "No . . . no . . ."

"Come on," Kitchens said, more uncertainly. He let go of the boy and stepped back, because the boy suddenly looked as if he might throw up. "Find your shoes and get out."

"They're going to die," Billy whispered hoarsely. "I can see . . . Death in this place. . ."

"Are you drunk, mister? What's wrong with you?"

"Can't you see it?" Billy took a faltering few steps toward the crowd. "Can't anybody else see it?"

"Shoes or not, you're getting your ass out of here!" Kitchens grasped his arm to shove him toward the door, but the boy broke free with an amazing strength and then he ran toward the dance floor, sliding in his socks. He pushed through the throng hanging around the floor, almost slipping on a spilled Coke, then he was through them and reaching for Melissa Pettus, reaching through the black haze to touch and warn her that Death was very hear. She jerked away from him and screamed. Hank Orr stepped in his way, purplish black tendrils glittering around his body, and brought his fist up in a quick arc that snapped Billy's head back. Billy staggered and fell, hearing the shout "FIGHT! FIGHT!" ringing in his ears. A forest of legs crowded around, but Purple Tree kept on playing "Rolling on the River."

"Get up!" Hank Orr said, standing over him. "Come on, you . . . freak! I'll stomp your ass!"

"Wait . . . wait," Billy said. His head was filled with stars, exploding novas and planets. "The black aura … I see it . . . you've got to get – "

"FIGHT! FIGHT!" someone yelled gleefully. The Purple Tree stopped in midchord. Shouts and laughter echoed through the gym.

"You're going to die!" Billy wailed, and the blood drained out of Orr's face. He raised his fists as if to protect himself, but he didn't dare touch Billy Creekmore again. "You . . . and Melissa . . . and Sandra Falkner . . . and …" There was a sudden stunned silence except for kids whooping and laughing on the other side of the gym. Billy started to rise to his feet, his lower lip swelling like a balloon, but then the crowd parted and the boys' adviser, Mr Marbury, came through like a steam engine, smoke swirling from the bowl of the pipe clenched between his teeth.

Close in his wake was Mr Kitchens. Marbury hauled Billy up with a hand clamped at the back of his neck, and bellowed "OUT!" He shoved Billy so fast the boy was sliding across the floor, through the throng, and past the scattered shoes toward the door.

"He's drunk as a skunk!" Kitchens was saying. "Picking fights all over the place!"

"I know this boy. He's a troublemaker. Drinkin', huh? Where'd you get the booze?"

Billy tried his best to shake free, but then he was propelled through the door and Marbury spun him around. "I asked you a question, Creekmore!"

"No! I'm not . . . drunk. . . ."He could hardly talk because his lip was swelling so fast. Bells still pealed in his head. "Not drunk! Something's gonna happen! I saw it . . . saw the black aura! …"

"Saw what? I've had a gutful of you, boy! You smell like you've been swimmin' in booze! I ought to suspend you on the spot!"

"No . . . please . . . listen to me! I don't know what's going to happen, but . . ."

"I do!" Marbury said. "You're gonna stay out of that gym! And come Monday mornin' I'm gonna have a long talk with your parents! Go on, now! If you want to drink and fight, it'll be somewhere else!" He shoved Billy backward. Faces peered out, watching and smirking; one of them belonged to Ralph Leighton. Marbury turned and stalked to the door, then faced Billy again. "I said get out of here!"

"How about my shoes?"

"We'll mail 'em to you!" Marbury said, and then he vanished within the gym.

Billy looked at Mr Kitchens, who stood a few feet away from him and who now began edging toward the door. "They're going to die," he told the man. "I tried to warn them. They won't listen."

"You come back in the gym again, mister, and I might help the boys clean your clock." Kitchens glared at him for a few seconds, then went into the gym.

Billy stood in the darkness, weaving on his feet. He shouted, "THEY'RE GOING TO DIE!" and in another few seconds someone closed the gym door. He staggered to it and hammered on the metal; he could feel the bass-drum vibrations of Purple Tree knocking back, and he knew everybody was dancing and having a good time again. I can't stop it, he told himself; whatever it is, I can't stop it! But I have to keep trying! If he couldn't get back inside, he'd stop them when they came out; he walked away from the gym on weak, rubbery legs and sat down on a curb facing the parking lot. He could see the vague shapes of people huddled in their cars, and moonlight glanced off an upturned bottle in the backseat of a spiffy red Chevy. He wanted to sob and scream, but he gritted his teeth together and held everything inside.

Within fifteen minutes he heard shouting and laughter from the football field, and he stood up to see what was happening. Kids were leaving the gym to congregate around the mound of timber; a couple of the chaperones were dousing the wood with gasoline, and the bonfire was about to be lighted. People chased each other around the field like wild stallions, and some of the girls started doing impromptu Bulldogs cheers. Billy stood at the fence, his hands gripped into the metal mesh. A lighter sparked, and the flame touched the gasoline-soaked wood at several places around the base; the wood, most of it rough kindling, caught quickly. Fire gnawed toward the top of the pile. More students were coming out to ring the bonfire as the flames grew brighter; the heap was about twelve or thirteen feet tall, Billy saw, and some practical joker had set a chair on top of it. Sparks danced into the sky. As Billy watched, some of the kids linked hands and started to sing Fayette County High's alma mater:

Nestled in the quiet valley

Home we love and always will;

Stands our revered alma mater

Below the woodland and the hills . . .

The bonfire was growing into a huge finger of flame. Billy leaned against the fence, rubbing his swollen lip. In the quick orange spray of sparks from a wet piece of wood Billy saw Melissa Pettus and Hank Orr, holding hands and standing near the bonfire's base. The aura around them had turned blacker still, and seemed to be spreading out its dark, twisting tentacles. He saw Sandra Falkner's face, brushed with orange light, as she stood looking up toward the bonfire's crest. She was almost cocooned in the black aura. Gus Tompkins was standing to her left, and back about ten feet.

Billy's fingers clenched the fence as the cold realization struck him: they were all out here now, all the kids who were enveloped by the ugly aura, and most of them were standing closest to the fire. The blackness seemed to be reaching toward itself, connecting, drawing all the victims together.

A red glow pulsated at the bonfire's center. The chair collapsed, to a scattering of applause and whoops.

. . . We give thanks for all God's blessings.

Underneath his crowning sky;

Home of learning and of friendship,

Our alma mater, Fayette County . . .

"GET AWAY FROM THE FIRE!" Billy screamed.

The bonfire heaved, as if something were growing within it. Suddenly there were several ear-cracking pops that stopped all laughter. From the fire's center exploded three multicolored streaks of light that shot in different directions over the field.

Roman candles, Billy thought. How did Roman candles get inside the. . . ?

But then there was an earth-shuddering whummmmmp! and the entire mound of flaming timbers exploded from within. Billy had time to see jagged shards of wood flying like knives before a hot shock wave hit him like a brick wall, flinging him to the ground so hard the breath burst from his lungs. The earth shook again, and again; the air was filling with whistlings and shrieks, human and fireworks noises.

Billy sat up, his head ringing, his face scorched with heat; he numbly realized his hands were bleeding, and he'd left most of their skin in the fence's mesh. Caught all along the fence were shards of wood that could've sliced through him like butcher knives. Roman candles shot across the field, a golden flower of sparks opened up high in the air, M-80s hammered at the sky, purple and blue and green fireworks zigzagged from the center of the bonfire's rubble. People were running, screaming, rolling on the ground in agony. Kids with their hair and clothes on fire were dancing now to a new and hideous rhythm, others were staggering around like sleepwalkers. Billy stood up; a rain of cinders was falling, and the air stank of black powder. He saw a boy crawling away from the still-exploding bonfire, and then Billy was running toward the center of the field to help. He grasped the boy's blackened shirt and hauled him away several yards as Roman candles rocketed overhead. A girl was screaming for her mother, over and over again, and when Billy grabbed her hand to pull her away from the mound of fire her skin came off like a glove; she moaned and passed out.

A green pinwheel whistled toward Billy's face; as he ducked it he smelled his hair burn. A red star exploded in the sky, washing the field with bloody light. The chilling shriek of the Civil Defense air-raid siren began whooping from atop the high school, cutting through the night like a clarion of disaster.

Billy grasped the collar of a boy whose shirt had been all but blown off his back, and he screamed, "I TOLD YOU! I TRIED TO WARN YOU!" The boy's face was as pale as marble, and he walked on as if Billy were invisible. Billy looked wildly around, saw June Clark lying on the ground in a fetal curl, Mike Blaylock lying on his back with a shard of wood through his right hand, Annie Ogden on her knees as if praying to the bonfire. Above the screaming, he heard the sound of sirens approaching from Fayette; suddenly his knees gave way and he sat on the black ground as fireworks kept whistling all around him.

Someone staggered out of the haze before him and stood looking down. It was Mr. Kitchens, blood leaking from both his ears. A white spray of sparks exploded behind him, and his face worked as if he were trying very hard to open his mouth. Finally, he said in a hoarse, chilling whisper, "You. . . !"

25

The Creekmores found their son sitting on the floor in a corner of the tense, crowded Fayette County Hospital waiting room. They had heard the Civil Defense siren, and Ramona had sensed tragedy.

Billy's face was heat-swollen, his eyebrows all but singed away. There was a thin blanket draped across his shoulders, and resting in his lap were his bandaged hands. The stark overhead lighting made the Vaseline smeared on his face shine, and his eyes were closed as if he were asleep, removing himself from the noise and tension by sheer willpower alone.

John stood behind his wife, his spine crawling from being stared at by all the other parents. Someone at the high school, where they'd stopped first, had told him that Billy was dead and the boy's body had already been carried away in an ambulance, but Ramona had said no, she'd have known if her son was dead.

"Billy?" Ramona said, in a trembling voice.

The boy's eyes opened painfully. He could hardly see through the swollen slits, and the doctors had told him there were maybe forty wood slivers in his cheeks and forehead but he'd have to wait until the burned kids were treated.

She bent down beside him and hugged him gently, her head leaning against his shoulder. "I'm all right, Mom," Billy said through blistered lips. "Oh God . . . it was so terrible. . . ."

John's face had been gray ever since they'd left the school and had seen those bodies lying under the blankets, the gurneys being pushed along the hallway with burned teenagers on them, parents shrieking and sobbing and clinging to each other for support. The night was filled with ambulance sirens, and the burned-flesh stink floated in the hospital like a brown haze. "Your hands," he said. "What happened?"

"I lost some skin, that's all."

"Dear God, boy!" John's face crumpled like old sandpaper, and he put his hand against the tiled wall to support himself. "Lord God, Lord God I never saw anything like what I saw at that school!"

"How'd it happen, Dad? One minute it was just a bonfire, like every year. Then it all changed."

"I don't know. But all those pieces of wood . . . they cut those kids up, just cut them to ribbons!"

"A man there said I did it," Billy said tonelessly. "He said I was drunk, and I did something to the fire to make it explode."

"That's a damned lie!" John's eyes blazed. "You didn't have a thing to do with it!"

"He said I have Death inside me. Is that right?"

"NO! Who said that to you? Show him to me!"

Billy shook his head. "It doesn't matter now, anyway. It's all over. I just . . . wanted to have fun, Dad. Everybody wanted to have a good time. . . ."

John gripped his son's shoulder, and felt something like deep ice crack inside him. Billy's gaze was strangely dark and blank, as if what had happened had blown all the mysterious fuses in his head. "It's all right," John said. "Thank God you're alive."

"Dad? Was I wrong to go?"

"No. A man goes where he wants to, and he has to go some places he don't want to, as well. I expect you've done a little of both tonight." Farther along the corridor, someone wailed in either pain or sorrow, and John flinched from the sound.

Ramona wiped her eyes on her sleeve and looked at the tiny slivers embedded in Billy's face, some of them dangerously close to having blinded him. She had to ask, though she already suspected the answer "Did you know?"

He nodded. "I tried to tell them, I tried to warn them something was going to happen, but I … I didn't know what it was going to be. Mom, why did it happen? Could I have changed it if I'd done anything different?" Tears slipped down his Vaseline-smeared cheeks.

"I don't know," Ramona replied; an honest answer to a mystery that had plagued her all her life.

There was a sudden commotion over at the far side of the waiting room, where a corridor led to the main doors. Ramona and John both looked up, and saw people thronging around a large, thick-bellied man with gray curly hair and a boy about Billy's age, lean and red-haired. A shock of recognition pierced Ramona. That bitter night at the tent revival replayed itself in her mind – it had never been very far beneath the surface, not in all of seven years. A woman grasped Falconer's hand and kissed it, begging him to pray for her injured daughter; a man in overalls pushed her aside to get to Wayne. For a few seconds there was a shoving melee of shoulders and arms as the parents of hurt and dying kids tried to reach Falconer and his son, to get their attention, to touch them as if they were walking good-luck charms. Falconer let them converge on him, but the boy stepped back in confusion.

Ramona stood up. A state trooper had come in, trying to settle everybody back down again. Through the mass of people, Ramona's hard gaze met the evangelist's, and Falconer's soft, fleshy face seemed to darken. He came toward her, ignoring the appeals for prayer and for healing. He looked down at Billy, his eyes narrowing, then back into Ramona's face. Wayne stood behind him, wearing jeans and a blue knit shirt with an alligator on the breast pocket. He glanced at Billy and for an instant then-eyes held; then the boy's gaze locked upon Ramona, and she thought she could actually feel the heat of hatred.

"I know you," Falconer said softly. "I remember you, from a long time ago. Creekmore."

"That's right. And I remember you, as well."

"There's been an accident," John told the evangelist. "My boy was there when it happened. His hands are all cut up, and he … he saw terrible things. Will you pray for him?"

Falconer's eyes were locked with Ramona's. He and Wayne had heard about the bonfire explosion on the radio, and had come to the hospital to offer consolation; running into this witch-woman again was the last thing he'd expected, and he feared the influence her presence might have on Wayne. His bulk dwarfed her, but somehow, under her hard and appraising stare, he felt very vulnerable and small.

"Have you brought your boy here to heal?" she asked him.

"No. Only to minister, alongside me."

Ramona turned her attention to the boy, and stepped a pace closer to him. Billy saw her eyes narrow, as if she'd seen something that scared her about Wayne Falconer, something he wasn't able yet to see, perhaps. Wayne said, "What're you looking at?"

"Don't mind her. She's crazy." Falconer took the boy's arm and started to herd him away; suddenly a hollow-eyed man in blue jeans and a T-shirt stood up from his seat and grasped Wayne's hand. "Please," the man said, his voice sad and raspy, "I know who you are and what you can do. I've seen you do it before. Please … my son's hurt bad, they brought him in a little while ago and they don't know if he's gonna . . ." The man clung to Wayne's hand as if he were about to collapse, and his bathrobed wife rose to support him. "I know what you can do," he whispered. "Please . . . save my son's life!"

Billy saw Wayne glance quickly at his father. The man said, "I'll give you money. I've got money, is that what you want? I'll turn to the Lord, I'll go to church every Sunday and I won't drink or gamble no more. But you've got to save him, you can't let those . . . those doctors kill him!"

"We'll pray for him," Falconer said. "What's his name?"

"No! You've got to touch him, to heal him like I've seen you do on television! My son's all burned up, his eyes are all burned!" The man gripped at Falconer's sleeve as other people thronged around. "Please let your boy heal him, I'm begging you!"

"Well just look who's here, everybody!" Falconer suddenly boomed, and pointed toward Ramona. "The Creekmores! Wayne, you know all about them, don't you? The mother's a Godless witch, and the boy calls up demons like he did at a certain sawmill around here! And now here they stand, on the eve of the worst disaster in Fayette history, turning up like bad pennies!"

"Wait," John said. "No, you're wrong, Reverend Falconer. Billy was at the high school, and he got hurt – "

"Hurt? You call that hurt? Look at him, everybody! Why isn't he all burned up, like the son of this poor soul here?" He gripped the man's shoulder. "Why isn't he dyin', like some of your sons and daughters are right this minute? He was out there with the other young people! Why isn't he burned up?"

All eyes turned toward Ramona. She was silent, unprepared for Falconer's attack. But she understood that he was trying to use her and Billy as scapegoats, to avoid explaining why Wayne couldn't go from room to room in this hospital and heal everyone in them.

"I'll tell you why," Falconer said. "Maybe there are forces working behind this woman and boy that are better left alone by Christian folk! Maybe these forces, and God only knows what they are, protected this boy. Maybe they're inside him, and he carries Death and destruction with him like a plague – "

"Stop it!" Ramona said sharply. "Stop trying to hide behind smoke! Boy!" She'd addressed Wayne, and now she moved past the evangelist to face his son. Billy rose painfully to his feet and held onto his father's arm. "Do you know what you're doing, son?" she asked softly, and Billy saw him wince. "If you do have a healing gift, it's not to be used for wealth or power. It can't be part of a show. Don't you understand that by now? If you're pretending to heal folks, you've got to stop giving them false hope. You've got to urge them to see a doctor, and to take their medicines." Her hand came up, and gently touched Wayne's cheekbone.

He suddenly thrust his jaw forward and spat in her face.

"Witch!" he shouted in a strident and frightened voice. "Get away from me!"

John leaped forward, his fists clenched. Instantly two men blocked his way, one of them shoving him back against the wall, the other pinning him there with an arm across his throat. Billy didn't have a chance to fight, for he was facing a knot of desperate and fearful people who wanted to stomp him under their shoes.

Falconer's voice raised above the din of shouting. "Hold on now, folks! We don't want any trouble on our hands, do we? We've got enough to concern ourselves with tonight! Leave 'em be!"

Ramona wiped her face with the back of her hand. Her gaze was gentle but full of deep sadness. "I'm sorry for you," she told Wayne, and then turned to Falconer "And for you. How many bodies and souls have you killed in the name of God? How many more will you destroy?"

"You're Godless trash," the evangelist said. "My son carries Life inside him, but yours spreads Death. If I were you, I'd take my trash with me and get out of this county." His eyes glinted like cold diamonds.

"I've said my piece." She took a few steps, stopped, and stared at a man and woman who blocked her path. "Move," she said, and they did. John was shaking, rubbing his throat and glaring at Falconer. "Let's go home," Ramona told her men; she was close to tears, but damned if she'd let any of these people see her cry!

"We gonna just let this filth walk out of here?" someone shouted from the other side of the waiting room.

"Let them go," Falconer said, and the crowd quietened down. "Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord! You'd better pray, witch! You'd better pray real hard!"

Ramona stumbled on her way across the room, and Billy took her weight on his shoulder to lead her out. John kept looking back, afraid of being jumped. Shouts and catcalls followed them all the way. They got in the Olds and drove away, passing ambulances that were bringing dead teen-agers wrapped in black rubber bags.

J.J. Falconer hurried Wayne out of the waiting room before anyone else could stop them. His face was flushed, his breathing rapid, and he motioned Wayne toward a utility room. Amid brooms and mops and cans of detergent, Falconer leaned against a wall and dabbed his face with a handkerchief.

"Are you all right?" Wayne's face was shadowed and grim; a single light bulb hung on a cord just above his head.

"Yeah. It's just … the excitement. Let me get my breath." He sat down on a detergent can. "You handled yourself pretty good out there."

"She scared me, and I didn't want her touching me."

He nodded. "You did real fine. That woman's pure trouble. Well, we'll see what we can do about her. I've got friends in Hawthorne. Yeah, we'll see. . . ."

"I didn't like what she said to me, Dad. It . . . made me hurt to hear her."

"She speaks in Satan's language, trying to trick and confuse you, and make you doubt yourself. Somethin's got to be done about her and that . . . that mongrel of hers. Vic Chatham told me the whole story, about what his brother Lamar saw up at the mill. That boy spoke to the Devil up there, and went wild and almost tore the place apart. Somethin's got to be done about both of them, and soon."

"Dad?" Wayne said after another moment. "Could I . . . could I heal a dying person, if I . . . tried hard enough?"

Falconer carefully folded his damp handkerchief and put it away before answering. "Yes, Wayne. If you tried hard enough, and prayed strong enough, you could. But this hospital is not the proper place to heal."

Wayne frowned. "Why not?"

"Because it's . . . not a house of God, that's why. Healing is only right in a sanctified place, where people have gathered to hear the Lord's Word."

"But . . . people have a need right here."

Falconer smiled darkly and shook his head. "You've got that witch's voice in your head, Wayne. She's confused you, hasn't she? Oh sure, she'd like to see you go from room to room in this hospital, and heal everybody. But that wouldn't be right, because it's God's Will that some of these young people die here tonight. So we let the doctors work on 'em, and do all they can, but we know the mysterious ways of the Lord, don't we?"

"Yes sir."

"That's right." When he stood up, he winced and gingerly touched his chest. The pain was almost gone now, but it had felt like an electric shock. "Now I'm feelin' a bit better. Wayne, I want you to do me a favor. Will you go outside and wait in the car?"

"Wait in the car? Why?"

"These poor folks will expect you to heal if you stay here, so I think it's best if you wait while I pray with them."

"Oh." Wayne was puzzled, and still disturbed by what the witch had said to him. Her dark eyes had seemed to look straight to his soul, and she'd scared the daylights out of him. "Yes sir, I guess that would be best."

"Good. And will you slip around to the side door? If you go back out through that waitin' room, there might be another commotion."

Wayne nodded. The woman's voice echoed in his head: Do you know what you're doing, son? Something within him suddenly seemed to be tottering over a cliff's edge, and he jerked himself back with the savage thought: She's as evil as sin itself, her and the demon boy, and they should both be cast into the Lord's fire! Lord says what? BURN THEM! "We'll get them, won't we, Dad?"

"We'll get 'em," Falconer replied. "Just leave it to me. Come on, I'd best get out there. Remember: out the side way, okay?"

"Yes sir." A low flame of rage was burning inside Wayne. How dare that woman touch him like that! He wished now that he'd struck her across the face, knocked her to her knees for everyone to see. He was still shaking from being so close to them. Their darkness, he knew, was pulling at him, trying to lure him. There would be a next time, he told himself; oh yes, and then . . .

He had the vague beginnings of a headache. He said, "I'm ready now," and followed his father out of the utility room.

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