Cold Fire Page 42


Jim looked around the pharmacy, wondering where it would come from, which route of escape might be blocked and which might remain open. He was swinging between tentative acceptance of Holly's theory and rejection of it, and right now, he was sure she had to be wrong. It wasn't a force inside him. It was entirely a separate being, just as The Friend was. It was an evil alien, just as The Friend was good, and it could go anywhere, come out of anything, at any second, and it was coming, he knew it was coming, it wanted to kill them all.


"Well," Handahl said, "when he was a kid, Jamie used to come in here -it was my dad's store then-and buy those old pulp magazines with robots, monsters, and scanty-clad women on the covers. He used to talk a lot about how we'd put men on the moon someday, and everyone thought he was a little strange for that, but I guess he was right after all.


Didn't surprise me when I heard he'd given up being an accountant, found a showhiz wife, and was making his living doing a mentalist act.”


"Mentalist act?" Holly said, glancing at Jim. "I thought your dad was an accountant, your mom was an actress.”


"They were," he said thinly. "That's what they were-before they put together the act.”


He had almost forgotten about the act, which surprised him. How could he have forgotten the act? He had all the photographs from the tours, so many of them on his walls; he looked at them everyday, yet he'd pretty much forgotten that they had been taken during travels between performances.


It was coming very fast now.


Close. It was very close.


He wanted to warn Holly. He couldn't speak.


Something seemed to have stolen his tongue, locked his jaws.


It was coming.


It didn't want him to warn her. It wanted to take her by surprise.


Arranging the last of the counter displays, Handahl said, "It was a tragedy, what happened to them, all right. Jim, when you first came to town to stay with your grandfolks, you were so withdrawn, nobody could get two words out of you.”


Holly was watching Jim rather than Handahl.


She seemed to sense that he was in grave distress.


"Second year, after Lena died," Handahl said, "Jim pretty much clammed up altogether, totally mute, like he was never going to talk another word as long as he lived. You remember that, Jim?" In astonishment, Holly turned to Jim and said, "Your grandmother died the second year you were here, when you were only eleven?" I told her five years ago, Jim thought. Why did I tell her five years ago when the truth is twenty-four? It was coming.


He sensed it.


Coming.


The Enemy.


He said, "Excuse me, gotta get some fresh air." He hurried outside and stood by the car, gasping for breath.


Looking back, he discovered that Holly had not followed him. He could see her through a pharmacy window, talking to Handahl.


It was coming.


Holly, don't talk to him, Jim thought. Don't listen to him, get out of there.


It was coming.


Leaning against the car, he thought: the only reason I fear Corbett Handahl is because he knows more about my life in Svenborg than I remember myself Lub-dub-DUB.


It was here.


Handahl stared curiously after Jim.


Holly said, "I think he's never gotten over what happened to his parents . . . or to Lena.”


Handahl nodded. "Who could get over a horrible thing like that? He was such a nice little kid, it broke your heart." Before Holly could ask anything more about Lena, Handahl said, "Are you two moving into the farmhouse?" "No. Just staying for a couple of days.”


"None of my business, really, but it's a shame that land isn't being farmed.”


"Well, Jim's not a farmer himself," she said, "and with nobody willing to buy the place-" "Nobody willing to buy it? Why, young lady, they'd stand twenty deep to buy it if Jim would put it on the market.”


She blinked at him.


He went on: "You have a real good artesian well on that property, which means you always have water in a county that's usually short of it." He leaned against the granite counter and folded his arms across his chest.


"The way it works-when that big old pond is full up, the weight of all that water puts pressure on the natural wellhead and slows the inflow of new water. But you start pumping it out of there to irrigate crops, and the flow picks up, and the pond is pretty much always full, like the magic pitcher in that old fairytale." He tilted his head and squinted at her. "Jim tell you he couldn't sell it?" "Well, I assumed-" "Tell you what," Handahl said, "maybe that man of yours is more sentimental than I'd thought. Maybe he doesn't want to sell the farm because it has too many memories for him.”


"Maybe," she said. "But there're bad as well as good memories out there.”


"You're right about that.”


"Like his grandmother dying," she noodged, trying to get him back on that subject. "That was-" A rattling sound interrupted her. She turned and saw bottles of shampoo, hairspray, vitamins, and cold medicines jiggling on their shelves.


"Earthquake," Handahl said, looking up worriedly at the ceiling, as if he thought it might tumble in on them.


The containers rattled more violently than ever, and Holly knew they were disturbed by something worse than an earthquake. She was being warned not to ask Handahl any more questions.


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


The cozy world of the quaint pharmacy started coming apart. The bottles exploded off the shelves, straight at her. She swung away, drew her arms over her head. The containers hammered her, flew past her and pelted Handahl. The humidor, which stood behind the counter, was vibrating. Instinctively Holly dropped to the floor. Even as she went down, the glass door of that case blew outward. Glass shrapnel cut the air where she had been standing. She scrambled toward the exit as glittering shards rained to the floor. Behind her the heavy cash register crashed off the granite counter, missing her by inches, barely sparing her a broken spine.


Before the walls could begin to blister and pulse and bring forth an alien form, she reached the door, fled through the newsstand, and went into the street, leaving Handahl in what he no doubt assumed was earthquake rubble.


The tripartite beat was throbbing up from the brick walkway beneath her feet.


She found Jim leaning against the car, shuddering and white-faced, with the expression of a man standing on a precipice, peering into a gulf longing to jump. He did not respond to her when she said his name.


He seemed on the verge of surrendering to the dark force that he'd held within -and nurtured-all these years and that now wanted its freedom.


She jerked him away from the car, put her arms around him, held him tight, tighter, repeating his name, expecting the sidewalk to erupt in geysers of brick, expecting to be seized by serrated pincers, tentacles, or cold damp hands of inhuman design. But the triple-thud heartbeat faded, and after a while Jim raised his arms and put them around her.


The Enemy had passed.


But it was only a temporary reprieve.


Svenborg Memorial Park was adjacent to Tivoli Gardens. The cemetery was separated from the park by a spearpoint wrought-iron fence and a mix of trees-mostly white cedars and spreading California Peppers.


Jim drove slowly along the service road that looped through the graveyard. "Here." He pulled to the side and stopped.


When he got out of the Ford, he felt almost as claustrophobic as he had in the pharmacy, even though he was standing in the open air.


The slatedark sky seemed to press down toward the gray granite monuments, while those rectangles and squares and spires strained up like the knobs of ancient time-stained bones half buried in the earth.


In that dreary light, the grass looked gray-green. The trees were gray-green, too, and seemed to loom precariously, as if about to topple on him.


Going around the car to Holly's side, he pointed north. "There.”


She took his hand. He was grateful to her for that.


Together they walked to his grandparents' grave site. It was on a slight rise in the generally flat cemetery: A single rectangular granite marker served both plots.


Jim's heart was beating hard, and he had difficulty swallowing.


Her name was chiseled into the right-hand side of the monument.


LENA LOUISE IRONHEART.


Reluctantly he looked at the dates of her birth and death. She had been fifty-three when she died. And she had been dead twenty-four years.


This must be what it felt like to have been brainwashed, to have had one's memory painted over, false memories air-brushed into the blanks His past seemed like a fogbound landscape revealed only by the eerie and inconstant luminescent face of a cloud-shrouded moon. He suddenly could not see back through the years with the same clarity he had enjoyed an hour ago, and he could not trust the reality of what he still did see; clear recollections might prove to be nothing more than tricks of fog and shadow when he was forced to confront them closely.


Disoriented and afraid, he held fast to Holly's hand.


"Why did you lie to me about this, why did you say five years?" she asked gently.


"I didn't lie. At least. . . I didn't realize I was lying." He stared at the granite as if its polished surface was a window into the past, and he struggled to remember. "I can recall waking up one morning and knowing that my grandmother was dead. Five years ago. I was living in the apartment then, down in Irvine." He listened to his own voice as if it belonged to someone else, and the haunted tone of it gave him a chill. "I dressed. . .


drove north. . . bought flowers in town. . . then came here. . .


.”


After a while, when he did not continue, Holly said, "Do you remember a funeral that day?" "No.”


"Other mourners?" "No.”


"Other flowers on the grave?" "No. All I remember is. . . kneeling at the headstone with the flowers I'd brought for her. . . crying. . . I cried for a long time, couldn't stop crying.”


Passing him on the way to other graves, people had looked at him with sympathy, then with embarrassment as they had realized the extent of his emotional collapse, then with uneasiness as they had seen a grief in him so wild that it made him seem unbalanced. He could even now remember how wild he had felt that day, glaring back at those who stared at him, wanting nothing more than to claw his way down into the earth and pull it over him as if it were a blanket, taking rest in the same hole as his grandmother. But he could not remember why he had felt that way or why he was beginning to feel that way again.


He looked at the date of her death once more-September 25-and he was too frightened now to cry.


"What is it? Tell me," Holly urged.


"That's when I came with the flowers, the only other time I've ever come, the day I remember as the day she died. September twenty-fifth. .


. but five years ago, not twenty-four. It was the nineteenth anniversary of her death. . . but at the time it seemed to me, and always has, that she'd only just then died.”


They were both silent.


Two large blackbirds wheeled across the somber sky, shrieking, and disappeared over the treetops.


Finally Holly said, "Could it be, you denied her death, refused to accept it when it really happened, twenty-four years ago? Maybe you were only able to accept it nineteen years later. . . the day you came here with the flowers. That's why you remember her dying so much more recently than she did. You date her death from the day you finally accepted it.”


He knew at once that she had hit upon the truth, but the answer did not make him feel better. "But Holly, my God, that is madness.”


"No," she said calmly. "It's self defense, part of the same defenses you erected to hide so much of that year when you were ten.”


She paused, took a deep breath, and said, "Jim, how did your grandma die?" "She. . ." He was surprised to realize that he could not recall the cause of Lena Ironheart's death. One more fog-filled blank. "I don't know.”


"I think she died in the mill.”


He looked away from the tombstone, at Holly. He tensed with alarm, although he did not know why. "In the windmill? How? What happened? How can you know?" "The dream I told you about. Climbing the mill stairs, looking through the window at the pond below, and seeing another woman's face reflected in the glass, your grandmother's face.”


"It was only a dream.”


Holly shook her head. "No, I think it was a memory, your memory, which you projected from your sleep into mine.”


His heart fluttered with panic for reasons he could not quite discern.


"How can it have been my memory if I don't have it now?" "You have it.”


He frowned. "No. Nothing like that.”


"It's locked down in your subconscious, where you can access it only when you're dreaming, but it's there, all right.”


If she had told him that the entire cemetery was mounted on a carousel, and that they were slowly spinning around under the bleak gun-metal sky, he would have accepted what she said more easily than he could accept the memory toward which she was leading him. He felt as if he were spinning through light and darkness, light and darkness, fear and rage.


. . .


With great effort, he said, "But in your dream. . . I was in the high room when grandma got there.”


"Yes.”


"And if she died there. . .”


"You witnessed her death.”


He shook his head adamantly. "No. My God, I'd remember that don't you think?" "No. I think that's why you needed nineteen years even to admit to yourself that she died. I think you saw her die, and it was such a shock that it threw you into long-term amnesia, which you overlaid with fantasies, always more fantasies.”


A breeze stirred, and something crackled around his feet. He was sure it was the bony hands of his grandmother clawing out of the earth to seize him, but when he looked down he saw only withered leaves rattling against one another as they blew across the grass.


With each heartbeat now like a fist slamming into a punching bag, Jim turned away from the grave, eager to get back to the car.


Holly put a hand on his arm. "Wait.”


He tore loose of her, almost shoved her away. He glared at her and said, "I want to get out of here.”


Undeterred, she grabbed and halted him again. "Jim, where is your grandfather? Where is he buried?" Jim pointed to the plot beside his grandmother's. "He's there, of course, with her.”


Then he saw the left half of the granite monument. He had been so intently focused on the right half, on the impossible date of his grandmother's death, that he had not noticed what was missing from the left side. His grandfather's name was there, as it should be, engraved at the same time that Lena's had been: HENRY JAMES IRONHEART. And the date Of his birth. But that was all. The date of his death had never been chiseled into the stone.

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