Cold Fire Page 39


His love for her could not be subverted by this alien force, no matter how strong it was.


But how did she know that? She was engaging in wishful thinking.


For all she knew, The Enemy's powers of mental control were so awesome that it could reach into her brain right now and tell her to drown herself in the pond, and she would do as told.


She remembered Norman Rink. The Atlanta convenience store. Jim had pumped eight rounds from a shotgun into the guy, blasting at him again and again, long after he was dead.


Lub-dub-DUB, lub-dub-DUB. . .


Still far away.


Jim groaned softly.


She moved away from the window again, intent on waking him, and almost called out his name, before she realized that The Enemy might be in him already. Dreams are doorways. She didn't have a clue as to what The Friend meant by that, or if it was anything more than stage dressing like the bells. But maybe what it had meant was that The Enemy could enter the dreamer's dream and thus the dreamer's mind. Maybe this time The Enemy did not intend to materialize from the wall but from Jim, in the person of Jim, in total control of Jim, just for a murderous little lark.


Lub-dub-DUB, !ub-dub-DUB, lub-dub-DUB. . .


A little louder, a little closer? Holly felt that she was losing her mind. Paranoid, schizoid, flat-out crazy. No better than The Friend and his other half She was frantically trying to understand a totally alien consciousness, and the more she pondered the possibilities, the stranger and more varied the possibilities became. In an infinite universe, anything can happen, any nightmare can be made flesh. In an infinite universe, life was therefore essentially the same as a dream. Contemplation of that under the stress of a life-or-death situation, was guaranteed to drive you bugshit.


Lub-dub-DUB, lub-dub-DUB. . .


She could not move.


She could only wait.


The tripartite beat faded again.


Letting her breath out in a rush, she backed up against the wall beside the window, less afraid of the limestone now than she was of Jim Ironheart. She wondered if it was all right to wake him when the threenote heartbeat was not audible. Maybe The Enemy was only in his dream -and therefore in him-when that triple thud could be heard.


Afraid to act and afraid not to act, she glanced down at the tablet in her hand. Some of the pages had fallen shut, and she was no longer looking at the HE LOVES YOU HOLLY/HE WILL KILL YOU HOLLY litany.


Before her eyes, instead, was the list of people who had been saved by Jim, along with The Friend's grandiose explanations of their importance.


She saw "Steven Aimes" and realized at once that he was the only one on the list whose fate The Friend had not vocalized during one or another of their conversations last night. She remembered him because he was the only older person on the list, fifty-seven. She read the words under his name, and the chill that had touched her nape earlier was nothing compared to the spike of ice that drove through it now and pierced her spine.


Steven Aimes had not been saved because he would father a child who would be a great diplomat or a great artist or a great healer. He had not been saved because he would make an enduring contribution to the welfare of mankind. The reason for his salvation was expressed in just eleven words, the most horrifying eleven words that Holly had ever read or hoped to read: BECAUSE HE LOOKS LIKE MY FATHER WHOM I FAILED TO SAVE.


Not "like Jim 's father" which The Friend would have said. Not "whom he failed to save," as the alien would surely have put it MY FATHER. I FAILED. MY. I.


The infinite universe just kept expanding, and now an entirely new possibility presented itself to her, revealed in the telling words about Steven Aimes. No starship rested under the pond. No alien had been in hiding on the farm for ten thousand years, ten years, or ten days. The Friend and The Enemy were real enough: they were thirds, not halves, of the same personality, three in one entity, an entity with enormous and wonderful and terrifying powers, an entity both godlike and yet as human as Holly was. Jim Ironheart. Who had been shattered by tragedy when he was ten years old. Who had painstakingly put himself together again with the help of a complex fantasy about star-traveling gods. Who was as insane and dangerous as he was sane and loving.


She did not understand where he had gotten the power that he so obviously possessed, or why he was not aware whatsoever that the power was within him rather than coming from some imaginary alien presence.


The realization that he was everything, that the end and beginning of this mystery lay solely in him and not beneath the pond, raised more questions than it answered. She didn't understand how such a thing could be true, but she knew it was, at last, the truth. Later, if she survived, she might have the time to seek a better understanding.


Lub-dub-DUB, lub-dub-DUB. . .


Closer but not close.


Holly held her breath, waiting for the sound to get louder.


Lub-dub-DUB, lub-dub-DUB. . .


Jim shifted in his sleep. He snorted softly and smacked his lips, just like any ordinary dreamer.


But he was three personalities in one, and at least two of them possessed incredible power, and at least one of them was deadly. And it was coming.


Lub-dub-DUB. . .


Holly pressed back against the limestone. Her heart was pounding so hard that it seemed to have hammered her throat half shut; she had trouble swallowing.


The tripartite beat faded.


Silence.


She moved along the curved wall. Easy little steps. Sideways.


Toward the timbered, ironbound door. She eased away from the wall just far enough to reach out and snare her purse by its straps.


The closer she gut to the head of the stairs, the more certain she became that the door was going to slam shut before she reached it, that Jim was going to sit up and turn to her. His blue eyes would not be beautiful but cold, as she had twice glimpsed them, filled with rage but cold.


She reached the door, eased through it backward onto the first step, not wanting to take her eyes off Jim. But if she tried to back down those narrow stairs without a handrail, she would fall, break an arm or leg.


So she turned away from the high room and hurried toward the bottom as quickly as she dared, as quietly as she could.


Though the velvety-gray morning light outlined the windows, the lower chamber was treacherously dark. She had no flashlight, only the extra edge of an adrenaline rush. Unable to remember if any rubble was stacked along the wall that might set up a clatter when she knocked it over, she moved slowly along that limestone curve, her back to it, edging sideways again.


The antechamber archway was somewhere ahead on her right. When she looked to her left, she could barely see the foot of the stairs down which she had just descended.


Feeling the wall ahead of her with her right hand, she discovered the corner. She stepped through the archway and into the antechamber.


Though that space had been blind-dark last night, it was dimly lit now by the pale post-dawn glow that lay beyond the open outside door.


The morning was overcast. Pleasantly cool for August.


The pond was still and gray.


Morning insects issued a thin, almost inaudible background buzz, like faint static on a radio with the volume turned nearly off She hurried to the Ford and stealthily opened the door.


Another panic hit her as she thought of the keys. Then she felt them in a pocket of her jeans, where she had slipped them last night after using the bathroom at the farmhouse. One key for the farmhouse, one key for his house in Laguna Niguel, two keys for the car, all on a simple brass-bead chain.


She threw the purse and tablet into the back seat and got behind the wheel, but didn't close the door for fear the sound would wake him.


She was not home free yet. He might burst out of the windmill, The Enemy in charge of him, leap across the short expanse of gravel, and drag her from the car.


Her hands shook as she fumbled with the keys. She had trouble inserting the right one in the ignition. But then she got it in, twisted it, put her foot on the accelerator, and almost sobbed with relief when the engine turned over with a roar.


She yanked the door shut, threw the Ford in reverse, and backed along the gravel path that circled the pond. The wheels spun up a hail of gravel, which rattled against the back of the car as she reversed into it.


When she reached the area between the barn and the house, where she could turn around and head out of the driveway front-first, she jammed on the brakes instead. She stared at the windmill, which was now on the far side of the water.


She had nowhere to run. Wherever she went, he would find her. He could see the future, at least to some extent, if not as vividly or in as much detail as The Friend had claimed. He could transform drywall into a monstrous living organism, change limestone into a transparent substance filled with whirling light, project a beast of hideous design into her dreams and into the doorway of her motel, track her, find her, trap her.


He had drawn her into his mad fantasy and most likely still wanted her to play out her role in it. The Friend in Jim-and Jim himself might let her go. But the third personality-the murderous part of him, The Enemy-would want her blood. Maybe she would be fortunate, and maybe the two benign thirds of him would prevent the other third from taking control and coming after her. But she doubted it. Besides, she could not spend the rest of her life waiting for a wall to bulge outward unexpectedly, form into a mouth, and bite her hand off And there was one other problem.


She could not abandon him. He needed her.


Part THREE From childhood s hour I have not been As others were I have not seen As others saw.


Alone, F,Edgar ALLAN POE Vzbratzons in a wzre.


Ice crystals in a beatzng heart.


Cold fire.


A mind s frzgzdzty: frozen steel, dark rage morbzdity.


Cold fire Defense against a cruel life death and strzfe: Cold fire.


-that. HOOK OF counted SOHROWS


THE REST OF AUGUST 29


Holly sat in the Ford, staring at the old windmill, scared and exhilarated.


The exhilaration surprised her. Maybe she felt upbeat because for the first time in her life she had found something to which she was willing to commit herself Not a casual commitment, either. Not an until-I-get-bored commitment. She was willing to put her life on the line for this, for Jim and what he could become if he could be healed, for what they could become together.


Even if he had told her she could go, and even if she had felt that his release of her was sincere, she would not have abandoned him.


He was her salvation. And she was his.


The mill stood sentinel against the ashen sky. Jim had not appeared at the door. Perhaps he had not yet awakened.


There were still many mysteries within this mystery, but so much was painfully obvious now. He sometimes failed to save people-like Susie Jawolski's father-because he was not really operating on behalf of an infallible god or a prescient alien; he was acting on his own phenomenal but imperfect visions; he was just a man, special but only a man, and even the best of men had limits. He evidently felt that he had failed his parents somehow. Their deaths weighed heavily on his conscience, and he was trying to redeem himself by saving the lives of others: HE LOOKED LIKE MY FATHER, WHOM I FAILED TO SAVE.


It was now obvious, as well, why The Enemy broke through only when Jim was asleep: he was terrified of that dark aspect of himself, that embodiment of his rage, and he strenuously repressed it when he was awake. At his place in Laguna, The Enemy had materialized in the bedroom while Jim was sleeping and actually had been sustained for a while after Jim had awakened, but when it had crashed through the bathroom ceiling, it had simply evaporated like the lingering dream it was. Dreams are doorways, The Friend had warned, which had been a warning from Jim himself Dreams were doorways, yes, but not for evil, mind-invading alien monsters ; dreams were doorways to the subconscious, and what came out of them was all too human.


She had other pieces of the puzzle, too. She just didn't know how they fit together.


Holly was angry with herself for not having asked the correct questions on Monday, when Jim had finally opened his patio door and let her into his life. He'd insisted that he was only an instrument, that he had no powers of his own. She'd bought it too quickly. She should have probed harder, asked tougher questions. She was as guilty of amateurish interviewing technique as Jim had been when The Friend had first appeared to them.


She had been annoyed by his willingness to accept what The Friend said at face value. Now she understood that he had created The Friend for the same reason that other victims of multiple-personality syndrome generated splinter personalities: to cope in a world that confused and frightened them. Alone and afraid at the age of ten, he had taken refuge in fantasy.


He created The Friend, a magical being, as a source of solace and hope.


When Holly pressed The Friend to explain itself logically, Jim resisted her because her probing threatened a fantasy which he desperately needed to sustain himself For similar reasons of her own, she had not questioned him as toughly as she should have on Monday evening. He was her sustaining dream. He had come into her life like a heroic figure in a dream, saving Billy Jenkins with dreamlike grace and panache. Until she had seen him, she had not realized how much she needed someone like him. And instead of probing deeply at him as any good reporter would have done, she had let him be what he wanted to pretend to be, for she had been reluctant to lose him.


Now their only hope was to press hard for the whole truth. He could not be healed until they understood why this particular and bizarre fantasy of his had evolved and how in the name of God he had developed the superhuman powers to support it.


She sat with her hands on the steering wheel, prepared to act but with no idea what to do. There seemed to be no one to whom she could turn for help. She needed answers that were to be found only in the past or in Jim's subconscious mind, two terrains that at the moment were equally inaccessible.


Then, hit by a thunderbolt of insight, she realized Jim already had given her a set of keys to unlock his remaining mysteries. When they had driven into New Svenborg, he had taken her on a tour of the town which, at the time, seemed like a tactic to delay their arrival at the farm. But she realized now that the tour had contained the most important revelations he had made to her. Each nostalgic landmark was a key to the past and to the remaining mysteries that, once unlocked, would make it possible for her to help him.


He wanted help. A part of him understood that he was sick, trapped in a schizophrenic fantasy, and he wanted out. She just hoped that he would suppress The Enemy until they had time to learn what they needed to know. That darkest splinter of his mind did not want her to succeed; her success would be its death, and to save itself, it would destroy her if it got the chance.


If she and Jim were to have a life together, or any life at all, their future lay in the past, and the past lay in New Svenborg.


She swung the wheel hard right, began to turn around to head out of the driveway to the county road-then stopped. She looked at the windmill again.

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