Devore was mad, all right, mad as a hatter, and he couldn't have caught me at a worse, weaker, more terrified moment. And I think that everything from that moment on was almost pre-ordained. From there to the terrible storm they still talk about in this part of the world, it all came down like a rockslide.
I felt fine the rest of Friday afternoon ¡ª my talk with Bonnie left a lot of questions unanswered, but it had been a tonic just the same. I made a vegetable stir-fry (atonement for my latest plunge into the Fry-O-Lator at the Village Cafe) and ate it while I watched the evening news. On the other side of the lake the sun was sliding down toward the mountains and flooding the living room with gold. When Tom Brokaw closed up shop, I decided to take a walk north along The Street ¡ª I'd go as far as I could and still be assured of getting home by dark, and as I went I'd think about the things Bill Dean and Bonnie Amudson had told me. I'd think about them the way I sometimes walked and thought about plot-snags in whatever I was working on.
I walked down the railroad-tie steps, still feeling perfectly fine (confused, but fine), started off along The Street, then paused to look at the Green Lady. Even with the evening sun shining fully upon her, it was hard to see her for what she actually was ¡ª just a birch tree with a half-dead pine standing behind it, one branch of the latter making a pointing arm. It was as if the Green Lady were saying go north, young man, go north. Well, I wasn't exactly young, but I could go north, all right. For awhile, at least.
Yet I stood a moment longer, uneasily studying the face I could see in the bushes, not liking the way the little shake of breeze seemed to make what was nearly a mouth sneer and grin. I think perhaps I started to feel a little bad then, was too preoccupied to notice it. I set off north, wondering what, exactly, Jo might have written . . . for by then I was starting to believe she might have written something, after all. Why else had I found my old typewriter in her studio? I would go through the place, I decided. I would go through it carefully and . . .
help im drown
The voice came from the woods, the water, from myself. A wave of lightheadedness passed through my thoughts, lifting and scattering them like leaves in a breeze. I stopped. All at once I had never felt so bad, so blighted, in my life. My chest was tight. My stomach folded in on itself like a cold flower. My eyes filled with chilly water that was nothing like tears, and I knew what was coming. No, I tried to say, but the word wouldn't come out.
My mouth filled with the cold taste of lakewater instead, all those dark minerals, and suddenly the trees were shimmering before my eyes as if I were looking up at them through clear liquid, and the pressure on my chest had become dreadfully localized and taken the shapes of hands. They were holding me down.
'Won't it stop doing that?' someone asked ¡ª almost cried. There was no one on The Street but me, yet I heard that voice clearly. 'Won't it ever stop doing that?'
What came next was no outer voice but alien thoughts in my own head. They beat against the walls of my skull like moths trapped inside a light-fixture . . . or inside a Japanese lantern.
help I'm drown
help I'm drown
blue-cap man say git me
blue-cap man say dassn't let me ramble
help I'm drown
lost my berries they on the path
he holdin me
he face shimmer n look bad
lemme up lemme up 0 sweet Jesus lemme up
oxen free allee allee oxen free? PLEASE
OXEN FREE you go on and stop now ALLEE OXEN FREE
she scream my name
she scream it so LOUD
I bent forward in an utter panic, opened my mouth, and from my gaping, straining mouth there poured a cold flood of . . .
Nothing at all.
The horror of it passed and yet it didn't pass. I still felt terribly sick to my stomach, as if I had eaten something to which my body had taken a violent offense, some kind of ant-powder or maybe a killer mushroom, the kind Jo's fungi guides pictured inside red borders. I staggered forward half a dozen steps, gagging dryly from a throat which still believed it was wet. There was another birch where the bank dropped to the lake, arching its white belly gracefully over the water as if to see its reflection by evening's flattering light. I grabbed it like a drunk grabbing a lamp-post.
The pressure in my chest began to ease, but it left an ache as real as rain. I hung against the tree, heart fluttering, and suddenly I became aware that something stank ¡ª an evil, polluted smell worse than a clogged septic pool which has simmered all summer under the blazing sun. With it was a sense of some hideous presence giving off that odor, something which should have been dead and wasn't.
Oh stop, allee allee oxen free, I'll do anything only stop, I tried to say, and still nothing came out. Then it was gone. I could smell nothing but the lake and the woods . . . but I could see something: a boy in the lake, a little drowned dark boy lying on his back. His cheeks were puffed out. His mouth hung slackly open. His eyes were as white as the eyes of a statue.
My mouth filled with the unmerciful iron of the lake again. Help me, lemme up, help I'm drown. I leaned out, screaming inside my head, screaming down at the dead face, and I realized I was looking up at myself, looking up through the rose-shimmer of sunset water at a white man in blue jeans and a yellow polo shirt holding onto a trembling, birch and trying to scream, his liquid face in motion, his eyes momentarily blotted out by the passage of a small perch coursing after a tasty bug, I was both the dark boy and the white man, drowned in the water and drowning in the air, is this right, is this what's happening, tap once for yes twice for no.
I retched nothing but a single runner of spit, and, impossibly, a fish jumped at it. They'll jump at almost anything at sunset; something in the dying light must make them crazy. The fish hit the water again about seven feet from the bank, spanking out a circular silver ripple, and it was gone ¡ª the taste in my mouth, the horrible smell, the shimmering drowned face of the Negro child ¡ª a Negro, that was how he would have thought of himself whose name had almost surely been Tidwell.
I looked to my right and saw a gray forehead of rock poking out of the mulch. I thought, There, right there, and as if in confirmation, that horrible putrescent smell puffed at me again, seemingly from the ground.
I closed my eyes, still hanging onto the birch for dear life, feeling weak and sick and ill, and that was when Max Devore, that madman, spoke from behind me. 'Say there, whoremaster, where's your whore?'
I turned and there he was, with Rogette Whitmore by his side. It was the only time I ever met him, but once was enough. Believe me, once was more than enough.
His wheelchair hardly looked like a wheelchair at all. What it looked like was a motorcycle sidecar crossed with a lunar lander. Half a dozen chrome wheels ran along both sides. Bigger wheels ¡ª four of them, I think ¡ª ran in a row across the back. None looked to be exactly on the same level, and I realized each was tied into its own suspension-bed. Devore would have a smooth ride over ground a lot rougher than The Street. Above the back wheels was an enclosed engine compartment. Hiding Devore's legs was a fiberglass nacelle, black with red pinstriping, that would not have looked out of place on a racing car. Implanted in the center of it was a gadget that looked like my DSS satellite dish . . . some sort of computerized avoidance system, I guessed. Maybe even an autopilot. The armrests were wide and covered with controls. Holstered on the left side of this machine was a green oxygen tank four feet long. A hose went to a clear plastic accordion tube; the accordion tube led to a mask which rested in Devore's lap. It made me think of the old guy's Stenomask. Coming on the heels of what had just happened, I might have considered this Tom Clancyish vehicle a hallucination, except for the bumper-sticker on the nacelle, below the dish. I BLEED DODGER BLUE, it said.
This evening the woman I had seen outside The Sunset Bar at Warrington's was wearing a white blouse with long sleeves and black pants so tapered they made her legs look like sheathed swords. Her narrow face and hollow cheeks made her resemble Edvard Munch's screamer more than ever. Her white hair hung around her face in a lank cowl. Her lips were painted so brightly red she seemed to be bleeding from the mouth.
She was old and she was ugly, but she was a prize compared to Mattie's father-in-law. Scrawny, blue-lipped, the skin around his eyes and the corners of his mouth a dark exploded purple, he looked like something an archeologist might find in the burial room of a pyramid, surrounded by his stuffed wives and pets, bedizened with his favorite jewels. A few wisps of white hair still clung to his scaly skull; more tufts sprang from enormous ears which seemed to have melted like wax sculptures left out in the sun. He was wearing white cotton pants and a billowy blue shirt. Add a little black beret and he would have looked like a French artist from the nineteenth century at the end of a very long life.
Across his lap was a cane of some black wood. Snugged over the end was a bright red bicycle grip. The fingers grasping it looked powerful, but they were going as black as the cane itself. His circulation was failing, and I couldn't imagine what his feet and his lower legs must look like.
'Whore run off and left you, has she?'
I tried to say something. A croak came out of my mouth, nothing more. I was still holding the birch. I let go of it and tried to straighten up, but my legs were still weak and I had to grab it again.
He nudged a silver toggle switch and the chair came ten feet closer, halving the distance between us. The sound it made was a silky whisper; watching it was like watching an evil magic carpet. Its many wheels rose and fell independent of one another and flashed in the declining sun, which had begun to take on a reddish cast. And as he came closer, I felt the sense of the man. His body was rotting out from under him, but the force around him was undeniable and daunting, like an electrical storm. The woman paced beside him, regarding me with silent amusement. Her eyes were pinkish. I assumed then that they were gray and had picked up a bit of the coming sunset, but I think now she was an albino.
'I always liked a whore,' he said. He drew the word out, making it horrrrrrr. 'Didn't I, Rogette?'
'Yes, sir,' she said. 'In their place.'
'Sometimes their place was on my face!' he cried with a kind of insane perkiness, as if she had contradicted him. 'Where is she, young man? Whose face is she sitting on right now? I wonder. That smart lawyer you found? Oh, I know all about him, right down to the Unsatisfactory Conduct he got in the third grade. I make it my business to know things. It's the secret of my success.'
With an enormous effort, I straightened up. 'What are you doing here?'
'Having a constitutional, same as you. And no law against it, is there?
The Street belongs to anyone who wants to use it. You haven't been here long, young whoremaster, but surely you've been here long enough to know that. It's our version of the town common, where good pups and vile dogs may walk side-by-side.'
Once more using the hand not bunched around the red bicycle grip, he picked up the oxygen mask, sucked deeply, then dropped it back in his lap. He grinned ¡ª an unspeakable grin of complicity that revealed gums the color of iodine.
'She good? That little horrrrrr of yours? She must be good to have kept my son prisoner in that nasty little trailer where she lives. And then along comes you even before the worms had finished with my boy's eyes. Does her cunt suck?'
Rogette Whitmore threw back her head and laughed. The sound was like the scream of a rabbit caught in an owl's talons, and my flesh crawled. I had an idea she was as crazy as he was. Thank God they were old. 'You struck a nerve there, Max,' she said.
'What do you want?' I took a breath . . . and caught a taste of that putrescence again. I gagged. I didn't want to, but I couldn't help it.
Devore straightened in his chair and breathed deeply, as if to mock me. In that moment he looked like Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now, striding along the beach and telling the world how much he loved the smell of napalm in the morning. His grin widened. 'Lovely place, just here, isn't it? A cozy spot to stop and think, wouldn't you say?' He looked around. 'This is where it happened, all right. Ayuh.'
'Where the boy drowned.'
I thought Whitmore's smile looked momentarily uneasy at that. Devore didn't. He clutched for his translucent oxygen mask with an old man's overwide grip, fingers that grope rather than reach. I could see little bubbles of mucus clinging to the inside. He sucked deep again, put it down again.
'Thirty or more folks have drowned in this lake, and that's just the ones they know about,' he said. 'What's one boy, more or less?'
'I don't get it. Were there two Tidwell boys who died here? The one that got blood-poisoning and the one ¡ª '
'Do you care about your soul, Mr. Noonan? Your immortal soul? God's butterfly caught in a cocoon of flesh that will soon stink like mine?'
I said nothing. The strangeness of what had happened before he arrived was passing. What replaced it was his incredible personal magnetism. I have never in my life felt so much raw force. There was nothing supernatural about it, either, and raw is exactly the right word. I might have run. Under other circumstances, I'm sure I would have. It certainly wasn't bravery that kept me where I was; my legs still felt rubbery, and I was afraid I might fall down.
'I'm going to give you one chance to save your soul,' Devore said. He raised a bony finger to illustrate the concept of one. 'Go away, my fine whoremaster. Right now, in the clothes you stand up in. Don't bother to pack a bag, don't even stop to make sure you turned off the stoveburners. Go. Leave the whore and leave the whorelet.'
'Leave them to you.'
'Ayuh, to me. I'll do the things that need to be done. Souls are for liberal arts majors, Noonan. I was an engineer.'
'Go fuck yourself.'
Rogette Whitmore made that screaming-rabbit sound again. The old man sat in his chair, head lowered, grinning sallowly up at me and looking like something raised from the dead. 'Are you sure you want to be the one, Noonan? It doesn't matter to her, you know ¡ª you or me, it's all the same to her.'
'I don't know what you're talking about.'
I drew another deep breath, and this time the air tasted all right. I took a step away from the birch, and my legs were all right, too. 'And I don't care. You're never getting Kyra. Never in what remains of your scaly life. I'll never see that happen.'
'Pal, you'll see plenty,' Devore said, grinning and showing me his iodine gums. 'Before July's done, you'll likely have seen so much you'll wish you'd ripped the living eyes out of your head in June.'
'I'm going home. Let me pass.'
'Go home then, how could I stop you?' he asked. 'The Street belongs to everyone.' He groped the oxygen mask out of his lap again and took another healthy pull. He dropped it into his lap and settled his left hand on the arm of his Buck Rogers wheelchair.
I stepped toward him, and almost before I knew what was happening, he ran the wheelchair at me. He could have hit me and hurt me quite badly ¡ª broken one or both of my legs, I don't doubt ¡ª but he stopped just short. I leaped back, but only because he allowed me to. I was aware that Whitmore was laughing again.
'What's the matter, Noonan?'
'Get out of my way. I'm warning you.'
'Whore made you jumpy, has she?'
I started to my left, meaning to go by him on that side, but in a flash he had turned the chair, shot it forward, and cut me off.
'Get out of the TR, Noonan. I'm giving you good ad ¡ª ' I broke to the right, this time on the lake side, and would have slipped by him quite neatly except for the fist, very small and hard, that hammered the left side of my face. The white-haired bitch was wearing a ring, and the stone cut me behind the ear. I felt the sting and the warm flow of blood. I pivoted, stuck out both hands, and pushed her. She fell to the needle-carpeted path with a squawk of surprised outrage. At the next instant something clouted me on the back of the head. A momentary orange glow lit up my sight. I staggered backward in what felt like slow motion, waving my arms, and Devore came into view again. He was slued around in his wheelchair, scaly head thrust forward, the cane he'd hit me with still upraised. If he had been ten years younger, I believe he would have fractured my skull instead of just creating that momentary orange light.
I ran into my old friend the birch tree. I raised my hand to my ear and looked unbelievingly at the blood on the tips of my fingers. My head ached from the blow he had fetched me.
Whitmore was struggling to her feet, brushing pine needles from her slacks and looking at me with a furious smile. Her cheeks had filled in with a thin pink flush. Her too-red lips were pulled back to show small teeth. In the light of the setting sun her eyes looked as if they were burning.
'Get out of my way,' I said, but my voice sounded small and weak.
'No,' Devore said, and laid the black barrel of his cane on the nacelle that curved over the front of his chair. Now I could see the little boy who had been determined to have the sled no matter how badly he cut his hands getting it. I could see him very clearly. 'No, you whore-fucking sissy. I won't.'
He shoved the silver toggle switch again and the wheelchair rushed silently at me. If I had stayed where I was, he would have run me through with his cane as surely as any evil duke was ever run through in an Alexandre Dumas story. He probably would have crushed the fragile bones in his right hand and torn his right arm clean out of its socket in the collision, but this man had never cared about such things; he left cost-counting to the little people. If I had hesitated out of shock or incredulity, he would have killed me, I'm sure of it. Instead, I rolled to my left. My sneakers slid on the needle-slippery embankment for a moment. Then they lost contact with the earth and I was falling.
I hit the water awkwardly and much too close to the bank. My left foot struck a submerged root and twisted. The pain was huge, something that felt like a thunderclap sounds. I opened my mouth to scream and the lake poured in ¡ª that cold metallic dark taste, this time for real. I coughed it out and sneezed it out and floundered away from where I had landed, thinking The boy, the dead boy's down here, what if he reaches up and grabs me?
I turned over on my back, still flailing and coughing, very aware of my jeans clinging clammily to my legs and crotch, thinking absurdly about my wallet ¡ª I didn't care about the credit cards or driver's license, but I had two good snapshots of Jo in there, and they would be ruined.
Devore had almost run himself over the embankment, I saw, and for a moment I thought he still might go. The front of his chair jutted over the place where I had fallen (I could see the short tracks of my sneakers just to the left of the bitch's partially exposed roots), and although the forward wheels were still grounded, the crumbly earth was running out from beneath them in dry little avalanches that rolled down the slope and pit-a-patted into the water, creating interlocking ripple patterns. Whitmore was clinging to the back of the chair, yanking on it, but it was much too heavy for her; if Devore was to be saved, he would have to save himself. Standing waist-deep in the lake with my clothes floating around me, I rooted for him to go over.
The purplish claw of his left hand recaptured the silver toggle switch after several attempts. One finger hooked it backward, and the chair reversed away from the embankment with a final shower of stones and dirt. Whitmore leaped prankishly to one side to keep her feet from being run over.
Devore fiddled some more with his controls, turned the chair to face me where I stood in the water, some seven feet out from the overhanging birch, and then nudged the chair forward until he was on the edge of The Street but safely away from the drop off. Whitmore had turned away from us entirely; she was bent over with her butt poking in my direction. If I thought about her at all, and I can't remember that I did, I suppose I thought she was getting her breath back.
Devore appeared to be in the best shape of the three of us, not even needing a hit from the oxygen mask sitting in his lap. The late light was full in his face, making him look like a half-rotted jack-o'-lantern which has been soaked with gas and set on fire.
'Enjoying your swim?' he asked, and laughed.
I looked around, hoping to see a strolling couple or perhaps a fisherman looking for a place where he could wet his line one more time before dark . . . and yet at the same time I hoped I'd see no one. I was angry, hurt, and scared. Most of all I was embarrassed. I had been dunked in the lake by a man of eighty-five . . . a man who showed every sign of hanging around and making sport of me.
I began wading to my right ¡ª south, back toward my house. The water was about waist-deep, cool and almost refreshing now that I was used to it. My sneakers squelched over rocks and submerged tree-branches. The ankle I'd twisted still hurt, but it was supporting me. Whether it would continue to once I got out of the lake was another question.
Devore twiddled his controls some more. The chair pivoted and came rolling slowly along The Street, keeping pace with me easily.
'I didn't introduce you properly to Rogette, did I?' he said. 'She was quite an athlete in college, you know. Softball and field hockey were her specialties, and she's held onto at least some of her skills. Rogette, demonstrate your skills for this young man.'
Whitmore passed the slowly moving wheelchair on the left. For a moment she was blocked out by it. When I could see her again, I could also see what she was holding. She hadn't been bent over to get her breath.
Smiling, she strode to the edge of the embankment with her left arm curled against her midriff, cradling the rocks she had picked up from the edge of the path. She selected a chunk roughly the size of a golfball, drew her hand back to her ear, and threw it at me. Hard. It whizzed by my left temple and splashed into the water behind me.
'Hey!' I shouted, more startled than afraid. Even after everything that had preceded it, I couldn't believe this was happening.
'What's wrong with you, Rogette?' Devore asked chidingly. 'You never used to throw like a girl. Get him!'
The second rock passed two inches over my head. The third was a potential tooth-smasher. I batted it away with an angry, fearful shout, not noticing until later that it had bruised my palm. At the moment I was only aware of her hateful, smiling face ¡ª the face of a woman who has plunked down two dollars in a carny shooting-pitch and means to win the big stuffed teddybear even if she has to blast away all night.
And she threw fast. The rocks hailed down around me, some splashing into the ruddy water to my left or right, creating little geysers. I began to backpedal, afraid to turn and swim for it, afraid that she would throw a really big one the minute I did. Still, I had to get out of her range. Devore, meanwhile, was laughing a wheezy old man's laugh, his wretched face crunched in on itself like the face of a malicious apple-doll.
One of her rocks struck me a hard, painful blow on the collarbone and bounced high into the air. I cried out, and she did, too: 'Hai!,' like a karate fighter who's gotten in a good kick.
So much for orderly retreat. I turned, swam for deeper water, and the bitch brained me. The first two rocks she threw after I began to swim seemed to be range-finders. There was a pause when I had time to think I'm doing it, I'm getting beyond her area of . . . and then something hit the back of my head. I felt it and heard it the same way ¡ª it went CLONK!, like something you'd read in a Batman comic.
The surface of the lake went from bright orange to bright red to dark scarlet. Faintly I could hear Devore yelling approval and Whitmore squealing her strange laugh. I took in another mouthful of iron-tasting water and was so dazed I had to remind myself to spit it out, not swallow it. My feet now felt too heavy for swimming, and my goddam sneakers weighed a ton. I put them down to stand up and couldn't find the bottom ¡ª I had gotten beyond my depth. I looked in toward the shore. It was spectacular, blazing in the sunset like stage-scenery lit with bright orange and red gels. I was probably twenty feet out from the shore now. Devore and Whitmore were at the edge of The Street, watching. They looked like Dad and Mom in a Grant Wood painting. Devore was using the mask again, but I could see him grinning inside it. Whitmore was grinning, too.
More water sloshed in my mouth. I spit most of it out, but some went down, making me cough and half-retch. I started to sink below the surface and fought my way back up, not swimming but only splashing wildly, expending nine times the energy I needed to stay afloat. Panic made its first appearance, nibbling through my dazed bewilderment with sharp little rat teeth. I realized I could hear a high, sweet buzzing. How many blows had my poor old head taken? One from Whitmore's fist . . . one from Devore's cane . . . one rock . . . or had it been two?
Christ, I couldn't remember. Get hold of yourself, for God's sake ¡ª you're not going to let him beat you this way, are you? Drown you like that little boy was drowned?
No, not if I could help it.
I trod water and ran my left hand down the back of my head. Not too far above the nape I encountered a goose-egg that was still rising. When I pressed on it the pain made me feel like throwing up and fainting at the same time. Tears rose in my eyes and rolled down my cheeks. There were only traces of blood on the tips of my fingers when I looked at them, but it was hard to tell about cuts when you were in the water.
'You look like a woodchuck caught out in the rain, Noonan!' Now his voice seemed to roll to where I was, as if across a great distance.
'Fuck you!' I called. 'I'll see you in jail for this!'
He looked at Whitmore. She looked back with an identical expression, and they both laughed. If someone had put an Uzi in my hands at that moment, I would have killed them both with no hesitation and then asked for a second clip so I could machine-gun the bodies.
With no Uzi to hand, I began to dogpaddle south, toward my house. They paced me along The Street, he rolling in his whisper-quiet wheelchair, she walking beside him as solemn as a nun and pausing every now and then to pick up a likely-looking rock.
I hadn't swum enough to be tired, but I was. It was mostly shock, I suppose. Finally I tried to draw a breath at the wrong time, swallowed more water, and panicked completely. I began to swim in toward the shore, wanting to get to where I could stand up. Rogette Whitmore began to fire rocks at me immediately, first using the ones she' had lined up between her left arm and her midriff, then those she'd stockpiled in Devore's lap. She was warmed up, she wasn't throwing like a girl anymore, and her aim was deadly. Stones splashed all around me. I batted another away ¡ª a big one that likely would have cut open my forehead if it had hit ¡ª but her follow-up struck my bicep and tore a long scratch there. Enough. I rolled over and swam back out beyond her range, gasping for breath, trying to keep my head up in spite of the growing ache in the back of my neck.
When I was clear, I trod water and looked in at them. Whitmore had come all the way to the edge of the embankment, wanting to get every foot of distance she could. Hell, every damned inch. Devore was parked behind her in his wheelchair. They were both still grinning, and now their faces were as red as the faces of imps in hell. Red sky at night, sailor's delight. Another twenty minutes and it would be getting dark. Could I keep my head above water for another twenty minutes? I thought so, if I didn't panic again, but not much longer. I thought of drowning in the dark, looking up and seeing Venus just before I went under for the last time, and the panic-rat slashed me with its teeth again. The panic-rat was worse than Rogette and her rocks, much worse.
Maybe not worse than Devore.
I looked both ways along the lakefront, checking The Street wherever it wove out of the trees for a dozen feet or a dozen yards. I didn't care about being embarrassed anymore, but I saw no one.
Dear God, where was everybody? Gone to the Mountain View in Fryeburg for pizza, or the Village Cafe for milkshakes?
'What do you want?' I called in to Devore. 'Do you want me to tell you I'll butt out of your business? Okay, I'll butt out!'
Well, I hadn't expected it to work. Even if I'd been sincere about it, he wouldn't have believed me.
'We just want to see how long you can swim,' Whitmore said, and threw another rock ¡ª -a long, lazy toss that fell about five feet short of where I was.
They mean to kill me, I thought. They really do.
Yes. And what was more, they might well get away with it. A crazy idea, both plausible and implausible at the same time, rose in my mind. I could see Rogette Whitmore tacking a notice to the cOMMUNITY DOIN'S board outside the Lakeview General Store.
TO THE MARTIANS OF TR-90, GREETINGS!
Mr, MAXWELL DEVORE, everyone's favorite Martian, will give each resident of the TR ONE HUNDRED DOLLARS if no one will use The Street on FRIDAY EVENING, THE 17th OF JULY, between the hours of SEVEN and NINE P.M. Keep our 'SUMMER FRIENDS' away, too! And remember: GOOD MARTIANS are like GOOD MONKEYS: they SEE no evil, HEAR no evil, and SPEAK no evil!
I couldn't really believe it, not even in my current situation . . . and yet I almost could. At the very least I had to grant him the luck of the devil.
Tired. My sneakers heavier than ever. I tried to push one of them off and succeeded only in taking in another mouthful of lakewater. They stood watching me, Devore occasionally picking the mask up from his lap and having a revivifying suck.
I couldn't wait until dark. The sun exits in a hurry here in western Maine ¡ª as it does, I guess, in mountain country everywhere ¡ª but the twilights are long and lingering. By the time it got dark enough in the west to move without being seen, the moon would have risen in the east.
I found myself imagining my obituary in the New York Times, the headline reading POPULAR ROMANTIC SUSPENSE NOVELIST DROWNS IN MAINE. Debra Weinstock would provide them with the author photo from the forthcoming Helen's Promise. Harold Oblowski would say all the right things, and he'd also remember to put a modest (but not tiny) death notice in Publishers Weekly. He would go half-and-half with Putnam on it, and ¡ª
I sank, swallowed more water, and spat it out. I began pummelling the lake again and forced myself to stop. From the shore, I could hear Rogette Whitmore's tinkling laughter. You bitch, I thought, you scrawny bi ¡ª
Mike, Jo said.
Her voice was in my head, but it wasn't the one I make when I'm imagining her side of a mental dialogue or when I just miss her and need to whistle her up for awhile. As if to underline this, something splashed to my right, splashed hard. When I looked in that direction I saw no fish, not even a ripple. What I saw instead was our swimming float, anchored about a hundred yards away in the sunset-colored water.
'I can't swim that far, baby,' I croaked.
'Did you say something, Noonan?' Devore called from the shore. He cupped a mocking hand to one of his huge waxlump ears. 'Couldn't quite make it out! You sound all out of breath!' More tinkling laughter from Whitmore. He was Johnny Carson; she was Ed Mcmahon.
You can make it. I'll help you.
The float, I realized, might be my only chance ¡ª there wasn't another one on this part of the shore, and it was at least ten yards beyond Whitmore's longest rockshot so far. I began to dogpaddle in that direction, my arms now as leaden as my feet. Each time I felt my head on the verge of going under I paused, treading water, telling myself to take it easy, I was in pretty good shape and doing okay, telling myself that if I didn't panic I'd be all right. The old bitch and the even older bastard resumed pacing me, but they saw where I was headed and the laughter stopped. So did the taunts.
For a long time the swimming float seemed to draw no closer. I told myself that was just because the light was fading, the color of the water draining from red to purple to a near-black that was the color of Devore's gums, but I was able to muster less and less conviction for this idea as my breath shortened and my arms grew heavier.
When I was still thirty yards away a cramp struck my left leg. I rolled sideways like a swamped sailboat, trying to reach the bunched muscle. More water poured down my throat. I tried to cough it out, then retched and went under with my stomach still trying to heave and my fingers still looking for the knotted place above the knee.
I'm really drowning, I thought, strangely calm now that it was happening. This is how it happens, this is it.
Then I felt a hand seize me by the nape of the neck. The pain of having my hair yanked brought me back to reality in a flash ¡ª it was better than an epinephrine injection. I felt another hand clamp around my left leg; there was a brief but terrific sense of heat. The cramp let go and I broke the surface swimming ¡ª really swimming this time, not just dog-paddling, and in what seemed like seconds I was clinging to the ladder on the side of the float, breathing in great, snatching gasps, waiting to see if I was going to be all right or if my heart was going to detonate in my chest like a hand grenade. At last my lungs started to overcome my oxygen debt, and everything began to calm down. I gave it another minute, then climbed out of the water and into what was now the ashes of twilight. I stood facing west for a little while, bent over with my hands on my knees, dripping on the boards. Then I turned around, meaning this time to flip them not just a single bird but that fabled double eagle. There was no one to flip it to. The Street was empty. Devore and Rogette Whitmore were gone.
Maybe they were gone. I'd do well to remember there was a lot of Street I couldn't see. I sat cross-legged on the float until the moon rose, waiting and watching for any movement. Half an hour, I think. Maybe forty-five minutes. I checked my watch, but got no help there; it had shipped some water and stopped at 7:30 P.M. To the other satisfactions Devore owed me I could now add the price of one Timex Indiglo ¡ª that's $29.95, asshole, cough it up.
At last I climbed back down the ladder, slipped into the water, and stroked for shore as quietly as I could. I was rested, my head had stopped aching (although the knot above the nape of my neck still throbbed steadily), and I no longer felt off-balance and incredulous. In some ways, that had been the worst of it ¡ª trying to cope not just with the apparition of the drowned boy, the flying rocks, and the lake, but with the pervasive sense that none of this could be happening, that rich old software moguls did not try to drown novelists who strayed into their line of sight.
Had tonight's adventure been a case of simple straying into Devore's view, though? A coincidental meeting, no more than that? Wasn't it likely he'd been having me watched ever since the Fourth of July . . . maybe from the other side of the lake, by people with high-powered optical equipment? Paranoid bullshit, I would have said . . . at least I would have said it before the two of them almost sank me in Dark Score Lake like a kid's paper boat in a mudpuddle.
I decided I didn't care who might be watching from the other side of the lake. I didn't care if the two of them were still lurking on one of the tree-shielded parts of The Street, either. I swam until I could feel strands of waterweed tickling my ankles and see the crescent of my beach. Then I stood up, wincing at the air, which now felt cold on my skin. I limped to shore, one hand raised to fend off a hail of rocks, but no rocks came. I stood for a moment on The Street, my jeans and polo shirt dripping, looking first one way, then the other. It seemed I had this little part of the world to myself. Last, I looked back at the water, where weak moonlight beat a track from the thumbnail of beach out to the swimming float.
'Thanks, Jo,' I said, then started up the railroad ties to the house. I got about halfway, then had to stop and sit down. I had never been so utterly tired in my whole life.
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