As I take two steps closer to the bed and line up the first of what I hope will be six head shots, steadying my hands and my aim with considerable effort, Hiskott throws his last trick at me, and it is his best yet. I don’t know how he learned my real name, how he discovered what wound of mine has never healed and never will. Maybe he has a way to go online, to search for the truth of me as did Jolie’s new friend Ed. He does not try to crawl into my head as before but with tremendous mental power casts into my mind the most beautiful face I’ve ever known, Stormy Llewellyn as she lived and breathed.
I am rocked backward a step by such a vivid image of my girl flaring through my mind’s eye. It seems a desecration of her memory even to think about her in this disgusting hole, but round two of his assault is worse. He imagines her as she might have looked a few days after death, with the lividity and bloat of a corpse, and he throws that picture at me, which almost drops me to my knees.
If he could move quickly, I might be dead even as my knees go weak at the sight of Stormy’s face corrupted. But he is sliding off the bed with sluglike sloth, and he makes the mistake of blasting more images at me of Stormy in advanced stages of decomposition, so grievous and dispiriting that they jolt me to the realization that Stormy was cremated within a day of death. She was pure, and she was purified by fire, and nothing that feeds on the dead ever fed on her or ever will.
Six hollow-point copper-jacketed cartridges from a .38 revolver can take apart a dragon’s head with finality, especially when each is fired from closer range than the one before it, the last with the muzzle pressed against the hateful skull.
That would have been the end of it, if I had but remembered that due to the fact that its nerves will fire for a while after death, a beheaded snake can still thrash as vigorously as one that is alive.
As anyone knows who has seen a headless snake lash away the ghost of life that still inhabits its mortal coils, the decapitated body seems to whip more dramatically than it ever could have done when it was part of a complete creature. The same is true of the Hiskott-alien hybrid. In bed, he was a flaccid mass of obscene love knots, writhing as lazily as worms in cold earth; but with his brains blown out, he is the crazed colossal squid from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and he seems to be not one great length of scaly muscle but instead a nest of powerful tentacles whipping in a destructive frenzy.
The transformation occurs with the sixth and final gunshot, when his impossibly tangled body untangles with an eruption of energy that might have been stored in it for the past five years. I am swept off my feet, though not in a romantic sense, and thrown all the way back to the door by which I entered. I crash just short of the threshold, rapping my head on the hardwood floor, a blow that no doubt does more damage to the floor than to my skull, though for a moment my vision swims.
I’m seeing double for a couple of seconds, but when my vision clears, it seems that the big room is filled almost wall to wall with a furious snake seeking pieces of its shattered head to puzzle back together and live again. Great muscled coils snap the thick posts of the canopy bed as though they are made of balsa wood. Lamps fly and shatter, red brocade draperies are torn from windows to flare and fan as if the decapitated serpent is both bullfighter and bull, and those cascades of bones that slope to the ceiling in some corners are slung in every direction in rattling barrages of skeletal fragments.
Before I might be knocked unconscious by a ham bone, which seems so apt as to be inevitable, I scramble across the threshold, into the upstairs hall, and thrust to my feet.
To be certain beyond a doubt that this extraterrestrial anaconda will eventually spasm into a final stillness, as would any snake of this world, I need to bear witness. But I can do that safely from the midfloor landing of the stairs and return for visual confirmation after this furious thrashing ceases.
As I turn toward the stairs, I am more than dismayed to see the third of Hiskott’s caped and horned servants ascending after having escaped the cellar. It is as quick and agile as the beast in the library, springing toward me with murderous intent, and I am without a handgun.
Just then, the headless stump of the Hiskott hybrid surges out of the bedroom, its six arms grasping blindly, like something that Francisco Goya, Hieronymus Bosch, Henry Fuseli, and Salvador Dalí might have painted in collaboration after eating too many oysters followed by a night of heavy drinking. The questing hands seize the servant thing. The serpent uncoils into the hallway and coils again around the creature it has snared, crushing the life out of it as the greedy hands tear off its head.
I retreat to the farther end of the hallway to watch the death throes of Harmony Corner’s tyrannical ruler. After a minute or so, the dramatic flailing subsides, the great thick length of the serpent ravels down upon itself in pale folds, like a deflated fire hose, and lies shuddering, twitching, until no trace current remains in its neural pathways.
When the creature has been completely still for five minutes, I am brave enough to approach it, although not foolish enough to make a disparaging remark about my vanquished enemy. Modern movies don’t contain a lot of truth. But this one lesson I’ve learned from them has proved to be as true as anything in my curious life: When you stand over the dead monster and, full of bravado, make a wisecrack, the monster will rise up, not dead after all, and make a last furious assault. In half of those movies, it kills one of the few remaining survivors. As I am the only survivor present, I figure that a single wisecrack cuts in half my chances of getting out of this house alive. If I am the equivalent of Tom Cruise, I will surely exit unscathed. If I am the equivalent of Harry Dean Stanton or Paul Reiser or Wayne Knight, which I figure is far closer to the truth, then I’m well advised to keep my mouth shut and tread lightly.
I try to find places to step between the coils, but sometimes I have to step on them and clamber across them. I hold my tongue, keep my balance, and leave behind pale mounds of snake flesh that would be a feast for a roc, the giant bird of Arabian myth that eats snakes—among other things. The way events have been unfolding in the Corner, there’s every reason to suppose a roc—or a flock of them—might be in the neighborhood.
As I’m pretty sure that the Jeep Grand Cherokee is not in any condition to be driven out of the house, I leave by the front door. In the distance, the smoke is lifting. Through the haze, I can see the fire trucks, streams of water arcing.
In the front yard stand Jolie’s parents, Bill and Ardys Harmony, and three other people whom I don’t know but who must be, I assume, members of the family. From their hopeful yet wary expressions, I can only conclude that they have felt Hiskott disconnect his open line to their minds.
As I reach the head of the steps, something in a pocket of my jeans squirms vigorously, and I cry out in alarm, because baby snakes can be as venomous as adults. Those on the lawn cry out, as well, and take a step backward. Fishing the thing from my pocket, I smile sheepishly and say, “Just the cell phone.”
I take the call. It’s Ed.
Some of the fields are black with veins of gray ashes, but no buildings have been lost to the fire I set. When the wind blows away the last lingering wisps of smoke, the odor of burnt things is less sour than I expect, rather like a campfire smell.
Sawhorses are placed at the entrance to the Corner, bearing hand-lettered signs that declare CLOSED 24 HOURS FOR FIRE CLEANUP.
Tomorrow, heavy equipment will come to remove the eighteen-wheeler from the meadow.
The family’s tow truck has been brought down from the service station, and the Grand Cherokee has been hauled to the grove of oaks in which the three vehicles that once belonged to Hiskott’s servants are hidden.
Among them, the Harmony family has six of those three-gallon emergency-supply containers of gasoline. Once filled at the station, they are lined up on the porch of the residence that Hiskott took for his own.
In the afternoon, after the breeze dies out, after we shut down the electric supply at the breaker box and cut off the propane feed, Bill Harmony and I enter the house. Starting on the top floor, we pour gasoline in strategic places, especially over the remains of the hybrids. I keep Bill out of the kitchen, so that he will not see the small skeleton in the pantry.
The lights don’t work in the reeking cellar, and I choose not to descend into that gloom with a flashlight. I empty the sixth can down the steps, into that sinister darkness. The gasoline fumes are overwhelming. The house is a bomb waiting for the fuse to be lit.
The family has used its half-size tanker truck, the white rig with HARMONY CORNER in big red letters, to hose down the six houses below the one that we will burn. Refilled, it stands ready nearby to keep this new fire from spreading to the unburned fields.
We set the house alight an hour before sunset. At night, the conflagration would be more visible from the Coast Highway, and some traveler would be more likely to report it to authorities.
Annamaria and I gather with the family to watch. Thirty-six of them are present, including Jolie, who has returned from Fort Wyvern. The flames are satisfying, and I use Purvis Beamer’s smartphone to send video of the blaze to Ed.
No one cheers the fire. Indeed, they watch mostly in silence, and if the atmosphere of the event is like anything else, it is most like an hour in church.
When the house is smouldering ruins and the embers have been watered down, we all gather on the beach, where picnic tables and folding chairs have been set up for dinner. The air is cool enough for sweaters and jackets, but everyone agrees that the beach is the best place for this first meal of their new freedom.
The waxing moon and many candles provide enough light, because this is only the dark of nature and not to be feared. The waves are low, breaking gently along the coast as if shushing crying children to sleep.
The stars are a grand display that lifts my heart. Considering Project Polaris, I expect those far suns and their distant worlds to seem a little threatening this night, but instead they say to me that the vast universe, like Earth itself, is a place of promise that is no less magnificent for the fact that it is also a field of contest upon which the one struggle was fought, is fought, and will be fought from the beginning of time until time is ended.
Dinner on the beach is less solemn than the vigil at the burning house, but remains a quiet celebration. Many smiles and just a little laughter. This extended family has been through great suffering and humiliation, and the way back to a normal life will not be an easy road.
These are good people, and I make new friends here. They hug a lot, and when they take my hand or lay a hand upon my shoulder, they often are reluctant to let go. But they understand intuitively that they must not embarrass me with gratitude. Although they obviously realize that I have many secrets to keep, they don’t press to know them, but seem satisfied that I should be always a mystery, as are so many things in this life.
After dinner, Jolie and Annamaria and I and the two dogs—Raphael and Boo—walk together along the beach, near the foaming surf, and the girl is quietly enraptured with everything she sees, everything she hears, everything she thinks. Now that the yoke of slavery is lifted from her and from her family, I am able to see more clearly the brilliance, the courage, and the pure heart that form the essence of her. I can imagine the woman she will become, and the world could use uncounted millions like her, though just one will make a difference.
Jolie comes to tears at the thought that we will be leaving in the morning and that we may never see one another again. That such a bond can form in but a day bewilders her, as it delights me, and she is afraid that her life, now recaptured, will prove to be marked more by parting and loss than she can bear. I am, she says, like her new brother, and brothers can’t go away forever. She is a girl who feels things strongly, and though cynics might mock her for that, I never will, as it is perhaps the best of graces: to feel deeply, to care profoundly.
In my bones, I know that I am not long for this world. The life I have led and must lead brings Death and me face-to-face with such regularity that I, as imperfect a man as any other, will sooner or later fail whatever higher power it is that has sent me on this series of missions. Therefore, I can’t lie to Jolie and say we will see each other again in this world.
Annamaria soothes away the girl’s tears as I cannot. She says that each of us has his or her role in life, and if we know ourselves well enough to understand what that role is, we will be happy doing nothing else but what we can do best. She says that I, Odd Thomas, fully understand my role—a statement with which I might argue on some other occasion. She tells Jolie that I am one of those wanderers of legend, who goes where he feels he must and, in the going, finds those who need him, and in finding those who need him, fulfills his destiny. This sounds more grand to me than the truth of my life, but this touch of myth enchants the girl and mellows her sadness with mystery.
Somehow, Annamaria knows that Jolie’s mother, in homeschooling, assigns her many writing assignments of all kinds. She suggests that the girl write down her part of the story in which we have recently been involved and that she mail it to me, care of Ozzie Boone, my writer friend in Pico Mundo, so that when I compose my account of the events in Harmony Corner, I can include Jolie’s point of view. When she hears that I have written a series of memoirs that will not be published in my lifetime, if ever, Jolie is electrified. Although she may never hold a real book of this story in her hand, only someday a copy of my manuscript, she is enchanted by the prospect—and the fact that we will continue to have a connection puts an end to her tears.
As we walk back the way we came, to rejoin the family, Annamaria says, “One thing you must remember when you’re writing, Jolie. If the story you and Odd collaborate on is to be seamless, you should write just as you are, just as you talk, just as you think, and not try for some writerly voice that isn’t yours. What you don’t see that I do is that you and Oddie are in many ways two of a kind. You and he so love the world, in spite of all your suffering, that you are in what some might call a heightened state of consciousness. You and Oddie embrace so much with such great enthusiasm, that one thing reminds you of a dozen others, your mind is here and there and also there at the same time, but you are never scatterbrained, you are focused nonetheless. Look up the word discursive. When you write, keep that word in mind, and then your words and Oddie’s will flow together. Be of the world and in the world and above the world all at once. Be you and only you, which means be you and all the people you have loved, and then Oddie will always be with you as, I know, you will always be with him.”
Annamaria doesn’t seem concerned about drying my tears.
In spite of the chill, no one wants to bring the gathering to an end, but it comes to an end just the same.