Cold Fire Page 44


Better not, she thought, or you'll have two bleeding shins.


But as she went through the front door, she wondered if a jolt of pain would work a second time.


In the paneled foyer, a sign announced NONFICTION SECOND FLOOR. An arrow pointed to a staircase on her right.


The foyer funneled into a first-floor hallway off which lay two large rooms. Both were filled with bookshelves. The chamber on the left also contained reading tables with chairs and a large oak desk.


The woman at the desk was a good advertisement for country living flawless complexion, lustrous chestnut hair, clear hazel eyes. She looked thirty-five but was probably twelve years older.


The nameplate in front Of her said ELOISE GLYNN.


Yesterday, when Holly had wanted to come into the library to see if the much-admired Mrs. Glynn was there, Jim had insisted that she would be retired, that she had been "quite old" twenty-five years ago, when in fact she obviously had been fresh out of college and starting her first job.


By comparison with previous discoveries, this was only a minor surprise.


Jim hadn't wanted Holly to come into the library yesterday, so he'd simply lied. And from the look on his face now, it was clear that Elois Glynn's youth was no surprise to him either; he had known, yesterday, that he was not telling the truth, though perhaps he had not understood why he was lying.


The librarian did not recognize Jim. Either he had been one of those kids who left little impression or, more likely, he had been telling the truth when he'd said he had not been to the library since he'd left for college eighteen years ago.


Eloise Glynn had the bouncy manner and attitude of a girls' sports coach that Holly remembered from high school. "Willott?" she said in answer to Holly's question. "Oh, yes, we've got a truckload of Willott" She bounced up from her chair. "I can show you right where he's at.”


She came around her desk, stepping briskly, and led Holly and Jim across the hall to the other large room. "He was local, as I'm sure you know.


Died a decade ago, but two-thirds of his books are still in print." She stopped in front of the young-adult section and made a sweeping gesture with one hand to indicate two three-foot shelves of Willott titles. "He was a productive man, Artie Willott, so busy that beavers hung their heads in shame when he walked by.”


She grinned at Holly, and it was infectious. Holly grinned back at him "We're looking for The Black Windmill.”


"That's one of his most popular titles, never met a kid didn't love it, Mrs. Glynn plucked the book off the shelf almost without looking to where it was, handed it to Holly. "This for your kid?" "Actually for me. I read about it on the plaque over in Tivoli Gardens.


"I've read the book," Jim said. "But she's curious.”


With Jim, Holly returned to the main room and sat at the table f from the desk. With the book between them, they read the first two chapters.


She kept touching him-his hand, shoulder, knee-gentling him.


Somehow she had to hold him together long enough for him to learn the truth and be healed by it, and the only glue she could think of was love. She had convinced herself that each small expression of love-each touch, smile, affectionate look or word-was a bonding agent that prevented him from shattering completely.


The novel was well and engagingly written. But what it revealed about Jim Ironheart's life was so astonishing that Holly began to skim and spot read, whispering passages to him, urgently seeking the next startling revelation.


The lead character was named Jim, not Ironheart but Jamison. Jim Jamison lived on a farm that had a pond and an old windmill. The mill was supposedly haunted, but after witnessing a number of spooky incidents, Jim discovered that an alien presence, not a spirit, was quartered in a spacecraft under the pond and was manifesting itself in the mill. It revealed itself to Jim as a soft light that glowed within the mill walls.


Communication between Jim and the alien was achieved with the use of two lined, yellow tablets---one for Jim's questions, and one for the alien's answers, which appeared as if by magic. According to the extraterrestrial, it was a being of pure energy and was on earth "TO OBSERVE, TO STUDY, TO HELP MANKIND." It referred to itself as THE FRIEND.


Marking her place with a finger, Holly flipped through the rest of the book to see if The Friend continued to use the awkward tablets for communication all the way to the end. It did. In the story on which Jim Ironheart had based his fantasy, the alien never vocalized.


"Which is why you doubted that your alien could vocalize and why you resisted my suggestion that we refuse to play along with the tablet system.”


Jim was beyond denial now. He stared at the book with wonder.


His response gave Holly hope for him. In the cemetery, he had been in such distress, his eyes so cold and bleak, that she had begun to doubt if, indeed, he could turn his phenomenal power inward to heal himself And in the park, for one terrible moment, she had thought that his fragile shell of sanity would crack and spill the yolk of madness.


But he had held together, and now his curiosity seemed to be overcoming his fear.


Mrs. Glynn had gone off to work in the stacks. No other patrons had come in to browse.


Holly returned to the story, skim-reading. At the midpoint of the tale, just after Jim Jamison and the alien had their second encounter, the ET explained that it was an entity that lived "IN ALL ASPECTS OF TIME" could perceive the future, and wanted to save the life of a man who was fated to die.


"I'll be damned," Jim said softly.


Without warning, a vision burst in Holly's mind with such force and brilliance that the library vanished for a moment and her inner world became the only reality: she saw herself na*ed and nailed to a wall in an obscene parody of a crucifix, blood streaming from her hands and feet (a voice whispering: die, die, die), and she opened her mouth to scream but, instead of sound, swarms of cockroaches poured out between her lips, and she realized she was already dead (die die die), her putrid innards crawling with pests and vermin The hateful phantasm flickered off the screen of her mind as suddenly as it had appeared, and she snapped back into the library with a jolt.


"Holly?" Jim was looking at her worriedly.


A part of him had sent the vision to her, no question about that.


But the Jim she was looking at now was not the Jim who had done it. The dark child within him, The Enemy, hate-filled and murderous, was striking at her with a new weapon.


She said, "It's okay. It's all right.”


But she didn't feel all right. The vision had left her nauseous and somewhat disoriented.


She had to struggle to refocus on The Black Windmill: The man Jim Jamison had to save, The Friend explained, was a candidate for the United States Presidency, soon to pass through Jim's hometown, where he was going to be assassinated. The alien wanted him to live, instead, because "HE IS GOING TO BE A GREAT STATESMAN AND PEACEMAKER WHO WILL SAVE THE WORLD FROM A GREAT WAR." Because it had to keep its presence on earth a secret, The Friend wanted to work through Jim Jamison to thwart the assassins: "YOU WILL THROW HIM A LIFE LINE, JIM.”


The novel did not include an evil alien. The Enemy had been entirely Jim Ironheart's embellishment, an embodiment of his own rage and self hatred, which he had needed to separate from himself and control.


With a crackle of inner static, another vision burst across her mindscreen, so intense that it blotted out the real world: she was in a coffin, dead but somehow still in possession of all her senses; she could feel worms churning in her (die, die, die, die), could smell the vile stench of her own decaying body, could see her rotted face reflected on the inside of the con lid as if it was lit and mirrored.


She raised skeletal fists and beat on the lid, heard the blows reverberating into the yards of compacted earth above her The library again.


"Holly, for God's sake, what's happening?" "Nothing.”


"Holly?" "Nothing," she said, sensing that it would be a mistake to admit that The Enemy was rattling her.


She finished skimming The Black Windmill: At the end of the novel, when Jim Jamison had saved the future president, The Friend had subsided into quiescence under the pond, instructing Jim to forget that their encounter had ever taken place, and to remember only that he had saved the politician on his own initiative. If a repressed memory of the alien ever surfaced in Jim's mind, he was told that he would "REMEMBER ME ONLY AS A DREAM, AN ENTITY IN A DREAM YOU ONCE HAD." When the alien light faded out of the wall for the last time, the messages on the tablet vanished, leaving no trace of the contact.


Holly closed the book.


She and Jim sat for a while, staring at the dustjacket.


Around her, thousands of times and places, people and worlds, from Mars to Egypt to Yoknapatawpha County, were closed up in the bindings of books like the shine trapped under the tarnished veneer of a brass lamp.


She could almost feel them waiting to dazzle with the first turn of a page, come alive with brilliant colors and pungent odors and delicious aromas, with laughter and sobbing and cries and whispers.


Books were packaged dreams.


"Dreams are doorways," she told Jim, "and the story in any novel is a kind of dream. Through Arthur Willott's dream of alien contact and adventure, you found a doorway out of your despair, an escape from a crushing sense of having failed your mother and father." He had been unrelievedly pale since she had shown him the tablet with The Friend's answers. HE LOVES YOU HOLLY/HE WILL KILL YOU HOLLY. Now some color had returned to his face. His eyes were still ghost-ridden, and worry clung to him like shadows to the night, but he seemed to be feeling his way toward an accommodation with all the lies that were his life.


Which was what frightened The Enemy in him. And made it desperate.


Mrs. Glynn had returned from the stacks. She was working at her desk.


Lowering her voice even further, Holly said to Jim, "But why would you hold yourself to blame for the traffic accident that killed them? And how could any kid that age have such a tremendously heavy sense of responsibility?" He shook his head. "I don't know.”


Remembering what Corbett Handahl had told her, Holly put a hand on Jim's knee and said, "Think, honey. Did the accident happen when they were on the road with this mentalist act of theirs?" He hesitated, frowned. "Yes. . . on the road.”


"You traveled with them, didn't you?" He nodded.


Recalling the photograph of his mother in a glittery gown, Jim and his father in tuxedos, Holly said, "You were part of the act.”


Some of his memories apparently were rising like the rings of light had risen in the pond. The play of emotions in his face could not have been faked; he was genuinely astonished to be moving out of a life of darkness.


Holly felt her own excitement growing with his. She said, "What did you do in the act?" "It was. . . a form of stage magic. My mom would take objects from people in the audience. My dad would work with me, and we would.


. .


I would hold the objects and pretend to have psychic impressions, tell the people things about themselves that I couldn't know.”


"Pretend?" she asked.


He blinked. "Maybe not. It's so strange. . . how little I remember even when I try.”


"It wasn't a trick. You could really do it. That's why your folks put together the act in the first place. You were a gifted child.”


He ran his fingers down the Bro Dart-protected jacket of The Black Windmill. "But. . .”


"But?" "There's so much I still don't understand. . . .”


"Oh, me too, kiddo. But we're getting closer, and I have to believe that's a good thing.”


A shadow, cast from within, stole across his face again.


Not wanting to see him slip back into a darker mood, Holly said, "Come on." She picked up the book and took it to the librarian's desk.


Jim followed her.


The energetic Mrs. Glynn was drawing on posterboard with a rainbow of colored pencils and magic markers. The colorful images were of wellrendered boys and girls dressed as spacemen, spelunkers, sailors, acrobats, and jungle explorers. She had penciled in but not yet colored the message: THIS IS A LIBRARY. KIDS AND ADVENTURERS WELCOME.


ALL OTHERS STAY OUT! "Nice," Holly said sincerely, indicating the poster. "You really put yourself into this job.”


"Keeps me out of barrooms," Mrs. Glynn said, with a grin that made it clear why any kid would like her.


Holly said, "My fiance here has spoken so highly of you. Maybe you don't remember him after twenty-five years.”


Mrs. Glynn looked speculatively at Jim.


He said, "I'm Jim Ironheart, Mrs. Glynn.”


"Of course I remember you! You were the most special little boy.”


She got up, leaned across the desk, and insisted on getting a hug from Jim.


Releasing him, turning to Holly, she said, "So you're going to be marrying my Jimmy. That's wonderful! A lot of kids have passed through here since I've been running the place, even for a town this small, and I can't pretend I'd remember all of them. But Jimmy was special. He was a very special boy.”


Holly heard, again, how Jim had had an insatiable appetite for fantasy fiction, how he'd been so terribly quiet his first year in town, and how he'd been totally mute during his second year, after the sudden death of his grandmother.


Holly seized that opening: "You know, Mrs. Glynn, one of the reasons Jim brought me back here was to see if we might like to live in the farmhouse, at least for a while-" "It's a nicer town than it looks," Mrs. Glynn said. "You'd be happy here, I'll guarantee it. In fact, let me issue you a couple of library cards!" She sat down and pulled open a desk drawer.


As the librarian withdrew two cards from the drawer and picked up a pen, Holly said, "Well, the thing is. . . there're as many bad memories for him as good, and Lena's death is one of the worst.”


"And the thing is," Jim picked up, "I was only ten when she died-well almost eleven-and I guess maybe I made myself forget some of what happened. I'm not too clear on how she died, the details, and I was wondering if you remember. . .”


Holly decided that he might make a decent interviewer after all.


Mrs Glynn said, "I can't say I recall the details of it. And I guess nobody'll ever know what on earth she was doing out in that old mill in the middle of the night. Henry, your grandpa, said she sometimes went there just to get away from things. It was peaceful and cool, a place she could do a little knitting and sort of meditate. And, of course, in those days it wasn't quite the ruin it's become. Still.

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