The Hollow Chapter Sixteen

HE THOUGHT ABOUT GETTING DRUNK. HE COULD call Gage, who'd sit and drink coffee or club soda, bitching only for form, and spend the evening in some bar getting steadily shit-faced. Cal would go, too; he had only to ask. That's what friends were for, being the company misery loved.

Or he could just pick up the beer-maybe a bottle of Jack for a change of pace-take it to Cal's and get his drunk on there.

But he knew he wouldn't do either of those things. Planning to get drunk took all the fun out of it. He preferred it to be a happy accident. Work, Fox decided, was a better option than getting deliberately trashed.

He had enough to keep him occupied for the rest of the day, particularly at the easy pace he liked to work. Handling the office on his own for an afternoon added the perk of giving him time and space to brood. Fox considered brooding an inalienable human right, unless it dragged out more than three hours, at which point it became childish indulgence.

Did she really think he'd crossed some line and gone behind her back? That he tried to manipulate, bully, or pressure? Manipulation wasn't beyond him, he admitted, but that just hadn't been the case with this. Knowing her, he'd believed she'd appreciate having some facts, projected figures, the steps, stages compiled in an orderly fashion. He'd equated handing them to her on the same level as handing her a bouquet of daffodils.

Just a little something he'd picked up because he was thinking about her.

He stood in the center of his office, juggling the three balls as he walked back over it all in his mind. He'd wanted to show her the building, the space, the possibilities. And yeah, he'd wanted to see her eyes light up as she saw them, as she opened herself to them. That had been strategy, not manipulation. Jesus, it wasn't like he'd signed a lease for her, or applied for a loan, a business license. He'd just taken the time to find out what it would take for her to do those things.

But there was one thing he hadn't factored into that strategy. He'd never considered that she wasn't considering staying in the Hollow. Staying with him.

He dropped one of the balls, managed to snag it on the bounce. Setting himself, he started the circle again.

If he'd made a mistake it was in assuming she loved him, that she intended to stay. He'd never questioned, not seriously-her conviction matched his-that there would be something to stay for, something to build on, after the week of July seventh. He believed he'd felt those things from her, but he had to accept now those feelings and needs were just a reflection of his own.

That wasn't just a bitter pill to swallow, but the kind that caught in your throat and choked you for a while before you managed to work it down. But like it or not, he thought, a guy had to take his medicine.

She wasn't required to feel what he felt or want what he wanted. God knew he'd been raised to respect, even require, individuality. It was better to know if she didn't share his feelings, his wants, better to deal with the reality rather than the fantasy. That was another nasty pill, as he'd had a beauty of a fantasy going.

Her smart, fashionable shop a couple blocks up from his office, Fox mused as he dropped the balls back in his drawer. Maybe grabbing lunch together a couple times a week. Scouting for a house in town, like that old place on the corner of Main and Redbud. Or a place a little ways out, if she liked that better. But an old house they could put their mark on together. Something with a yard for kids and dogs and a garden.

Something in a town that was safe and whole, and no longer threatened. A porch swing-he had a fondness for them.

And that was the problem, wasn't it? he admitted, walking to the window to study the distant roll of the mountains. All that was what he wanted, what he hoped for. All that couldn't be if it didn't mesh with her wants and hopes and visions.

So he'd swallow that, too. They had today to get through, and all the others until Hawkins Hollow was clean. Futures were just that-the tomorrow. Maybe the foundation for them couldn't and shouldn't be built when the ground was still unsettled.

Priorities, O'Dell, he reminded himself, and sat back at his desk. He pulled up his own files on the journals to begin picking through his notes.

And the first spider crawled out of his keyboard.

It bit the back of his hand, striking quickly before he could jerk back. The pain was instant and amazing, a vicious ice-pick jab that dug fire under the skin. As he shoved away, they poured out like black water, from the keys, from the drawers.

And they grew.

LAYLA WALKED INTO THE HOUSE WITH HER SYSTEM still reeling. Escape, that's what she'd done. Fox had given her the out, and she leaped at it. Walk away, don't deal with this now.

He loved her. Had she known it? Had she slipped that knowledge into a neat file, tucked it away until it was more convenient or more sensible to examine it?

He loved her. He wanted her to stay. More, he wanted her to commit to him, to the town. To herself, Layla admitted. In his Fox-like way, he'd laid it all out for her, presented it to her in a way he'd believed she'd appreciate.

What he'd done, Layla thought, was scare her to death. Her own shop? That was just one of the airy little dreams she'd enjoyed playing with years before. One she'd let go-almost. Hawkins Hollow? Her commitment there was to save it, and to-even though it sounded pretentious-fulfill her destiny. Anything beyond that was too hard to see. And Fox?

He was the most beautiful man she'd ever known. Hardly a wonder she was reeling.

She stepped into the office where Quinn and Cybil worked on dueling keyboards.

"Fox is in love with me."

Her fingers still flying, Quinn didn't bother to look up. "Bulletin!"

"If you knew, why didn't I?" Layla demanded.

"Because you've been too worried about being in love with him." Cybil's fingers paused after another click of the mouse. "But the rest of us have been watching the little hearts circling over your heads for weeks. Aren't you home early?"

"Yeah. I think we had a fight." Layla leaned against the doorjamb, rubbed her shoulder as if it ached.

Something ached, she realized, but it was too deep to reach.

"It didn't seem like a fight, except I was annoyed, among other things. He took me up to the building where the gift shop used to be. It's cleared out now. Then he started talking about potential, how I should open a boutique there, and-"

"What a great idea." Quinn stopped now, beamed enthusiasm over Layla like sunbeams over a meadow. "Speaking as someone who's going to be living here, I'll be your best customer. Urban fashion in small-town America. I'm already there."

"I can't open a shop here."


"Because... Do you have any idea what's involved in starting up a business, opening a retail store, even a small one?"

"No." Quinn replied. "You would, and I imagine Fox does, on the legal front. I'd help. I love a project. Would there be buying trips? Can you get it for me wholesale?"

"Q, take a breath," Cybil advised. "The big hurdle isn't the logistics, is it, Layla?"

"They're a hurdle, a big one. But... God, can we be realistic, just the three of us, right now? There might not be a town after July. Or there might be a town that, after a week of violence and destruction and death, settles down for the next seven years. If I could even think about starting my own business with everything else we have to think about, I'd have to be out of my mind to consider having one here at Demon Central."

"Cal has one. He's not out of his mind."

"I'm sorry, Quinn, I didn't mean-"

"No, that's okay. I'm pointing that out because people do have businesses here, and homes here. Otherwise, there's no real point to any of what we're doing. But if it's not right for you, then it's not."

Layla threw out her arms. "How can I know? Oh, he apparently thinks he knows. He's already talked to Jim Hawkins about renting me the building, talked to the bank about a start-up loan."

"Oops," Cybil murmured.

"He has a file for me on it. And okay, okay, to be fair, he didn't go to Mr. Hawkins or the bank about me, specifically. He just got basic information and figures. Projections."

"I take back the oops. Sorry, sweetie, that sounds like a man who just wanted to give you the answers to questions you'd have if this was appealing to you." Considering, Cybil tucked her legs up in the lotus position. "I'll happily reinstate the oops, even add a 'screw him' if you tell me he tried to shove it down your throat and got pissy about it."

"No." Trapped by logic, Layla let out a huge sigh. "I guess I was the one who got pissy, but it all just blindsided me. He said he was in love with me, and he wanted me to be happy, to have what I wanted. He thought my own place was something I wanted. That he was, that a life with him was."

"If it's not, if he's not, you have to tell him straight," Quinn said after a long moment. "Or I'll be forced to aim Cybil's 'screw you' in your direction. He doesn't deserve to be left dangling."

"How can I tell him what I don't know?" Layla stepped out, walked to her own room and closed the door.

"Tougher for her than you," Cybil commented. "You always made up your heart in a snap, Q. Or your mind. Sometimes both agreed. If not, you bounced. That's your way. With you and Cal, it all clicked. The idea of marrying the guy, staying here, it's a pretty easy slide for you."

"I love the guy. Where we live isn't as important to me as living together."

"And your keyboard fits anywhere. If you need to pop off somewhere for a story, Cal's going to be easy with that. The big change here for you, Quinn, is being in love and settling down. Those aren't the only big changes for Layla."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. I'd like-and it's not just because I've got stars in my eyes-I'd like to see the two of them work it out. And for purely selfish reasons, I'd love to have Layla stay. But if she decided it's not for her, then it's not. I should go get ice cream."

"Of course you should."

"No, seriously. She's bummed out. She needs girlfriends and ice cream. As soon as I finish this up, I'm going to walk over and buy some. No, I'll go now, and walk around the block a few times first so I can eat my share without guilt."

"Get some pistachio," Cybil called out as Quinn left the room.

Quinn stopped by Layla's room, tapped on the door, eased it open. "Sorry if I was harsh."

"You weren't. You gave me more to think about."

"While you're thinking, I'm going out for some exercise. On the way back, I'm picking up ice cream. Cybil wants pistachio. What's your poison?"

"Cookie dough."

"Got you covered."

When the door closed, Layla pushed at her hair. A little caloric bliss was just the ticket. Ice cream and friends. She might as well complete the trio of comfort with a hot shower and cozy clothes.

She undressed, then chose cotton pants and her softest sweatshirt. In her robe, she decided what the hell, and opted to give herself a facial before the shower.

How many women in town would actually shop in a place stocked as she'd want to stock a boutique? How many, she thought as she cleansed, exfoliated, would really support that sort of business, instead of heading straight out to the mall? Even if the Hollow was just a normal small town, how could she afford to invest so much-time, money, emotion, hope-into something logic told her would probably fail within two years?

Applying the masque, she toyed with the idea of colors, layout. Curtained off dressing rooms? Absolutely not. It was just like a man to suggest that women felt comfortable stripping down behind a sheet of fabric in a public place.

Walls and doors. Had to be secure, private, and something the customer could lock from the inside.

And damn him for making her speculate about dressing rooms.

I'm completely in love with you.

Layla closed her eyes. Even now, hearing him say those words in her head made her heart do a long, slow roll.

But she hadn't been able to say the words back to him, hadn't been able to respond. Because they hadn't been standing in an old building full of character in a normal small town. They'd been standing in one that had been battered and bruised, in a town that was cursed. Wasn't that the word for it? And at any time, it all could go up in flames.

Better to take one cautious step at a time, to tell him it would be best for both of them-for all of them-to go on just as they were. It was, most essentially, a matter of getting through.

In the shower, she let the water soothe. She'd make it up to him. Maybe she wasn't sure what she wanted, or what she dared to wish for. But she knew she loved him. Maybe that could be enough to get them through.

As she lifted her face to the spray, the snake began its silent slither out of the drain.

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QUINN STARTED OFF WITH A POWER WALK BECAUSE it made her feel righteous. It wasn't a hardship to do the extra stint of exercise-not with ice cream at the end of it, and with spring stirring all around. Daffodils and hyacinths, she thought, swinging her arms to kick up her heart rate. Blooming trees and grass starting to green up.

It was a damn pretty town, and Cybil was right. It had been easy for her to slide into the idea of living there. She liked the old houses, the covered porches, the sloping lawns as the ground rose. She liked, being a sociable sort, coming to know so many people by name.

She turned at a corner, kept up the steady pace. Pistachio and cookie dough, she thought. And she might go for the fudge ripple, and screw the healthy, balanced dinner idea. Her friend needed ice cream and girl vibes. Who was she to count the calories?

She paused a moment, frowned at the houses on the corners. Hadn't she already passed this corner? She could've sworn... shaking her head, she picked up her pace again, turned, and in moments found herself back at the exact same spot.

A trickle of fear worked down her spine. Deliberately, she turned the opposite way, kicked up to a jog. There was the same corner, the same houses. She ran straight, only to arrive at the same spot, as if the street itself shifted its position to taunt her. Even when she tried to run to one of the houses, call for help, her feet were somehow back on the sidewalk again, back on that same corner.

When the dark dropped on her, she ran full out, chased by her own panic.

IN THE BOWLING CENTER, CAL STOOD BESIDE HIS father, hands on hips as they watched the new (reconditioned) automatic scoring systems being installed.

"It's going to be great."

"Hope you're right." Jim puffed out his cheeks. "Big expense."

"Gotta spend it to make it."

They'd had to close the lanes for the day, but the arcade and the grill were both open. Cal's idea there had been to have anyone who came in get a look at the process-the progress.

"Computers run everything. I know how that sounds," Jim muttered before Cal could speak. "It sounds like my old man crabbing when I finally talked him into going with automatic pin setters instead of having a couple guys back there putting it up by hand."

"You were right."

"Yeah, I was right. I couldn't help but be right." Jim tucked his hands into the pockets of his traditional khakis. "I guess you're feeling the same way about this."

"It's going to streamline the business, and increase it. It's going to pay for itself in the long run."

"Well, we're in it now, so we'll see how it goes. And damn it, that sounds like my old man, too."

With a laugh, Cal patted Jim's shoulder. "I've got to take Lump out for a walk, Grandpa. You want to come along?"

"No. I'll stay here, scowl some and complain about newfangled ways."

"I'll be back in a few minutes."

Amused, Cal went up to get Lump. The dog enjoyed going out when they were in town, but was filled with sorrow at the sight of the leash. It gleamed out of his eyes as Cal clipped it to his collar.

"Don't be such a baby. It's the law, pal. I know and you know you're not going to do anything stupid, but the law's the law. Or do you want me to have to come up to the pen and bail you out?"

Lump walked, head lowered like a prisoner of war, as they went down the back stairs, and out. Since they'd had this routine for a while, Cal knew the dog would perk up, as much as Lump ever perked, after the first few minutes.

He kept his eyes on the dog, waiting for the moment of acceptance as they started around the building. Unless they were walking to Quinn's, Lump preferred his leg-stretching along Main Street, where Larry at the barbershop would wander out as they passed, and give Lump a biscuit and a rub.

Cal waited patiently while Lump lifted his leg and peed lavishly on the trunk of the big oak between the buildings, then let the dog lead him out to the sidewalk on Main.

There, Cal's heart slammed into his throat.

Scarred and broken asphalt marred the street; charred bricks heaved out of the sidewalk. The rest of the town was gone, leveled into rubble. And the rubble still smoked. Blackened, splintered trees lay like maimed soldiers on jagged shards of glass and blood-smeared stone. Scorched to ruin, the grass of the Square and its cheerful spring plantings steamed. Bodies, or the horrible remnants of them, scattered over the ground, hung obscenely from the torn trees.

Beside him, Lump quivered, then sat on his haunches, lifted his head, and howled. Still holding the leash, Cal ran to the entrance of the bowling center, yanked at the door. But the door refused him. There was no sound, within or without, but his pounding fists and frantic calls.

When his hands were bloody from the beating, he ran, the dog galloping beside him. He had to get to Quinn.

GAGE WASN'T SURE WHY HE'D COME BY. HE'D BEEN itchy at home-well, at Cal's. Home was wherever he stayed long enough to bother to unpack his bag. He started to knock, then shrugging, just opened the unlocked door of the rental house. His concession to the inhabitants was to call out.

"Anybody home?"

He heard the footsteps, knew they were Cybil's before she appeared at the top of the stairs. "I'm anybody." She started down. "What brings you by before happy hour?"

She had her hair scooped back at the nape-all that thick, curling black-as she was prone to do when working. Her feet were bare. Even wearing faded jeans and a sweater, she managed to look like stylish royalty.

It was a hell of a knack, in Gage's opinion. "I had a conversation with Professor Litz, the demon expert in Europe. I told him about the idea of a blood ritual. He's against it."

"Sounds like a sensible man." She angled her head. "Come on back. You can have what's probably your tenth cup of coffee of the day, and I'll have some tea while you tell me his very sensible reasons."

"His first, and most emphatic echoed something you said." Gage followed her into the kitchen. "We could let something out we aren't prepared for. Something worse, or stronger, simply because of the ritual."

"I agree." She put the kettle on, and while it heated, started to measure for a fresh pot of coffee. "Which makes it essential not to rush into it. To gather all information possible first, and to proceed with great care."

"So you're voting to do it."

"I am, or I'm leaning that way, once we're as protected as possible. Aren't you?"

"I figure the odds at fifty-fifty, and that's good enough."

"Maybe, but I'm hoping to weigh them a little heavier in our favor first." She lifted a hand, pressed it against her eye. "I've been..."

"What is it?"

"Maybe I've been at the monitor too long today. My eyes are tired." She reached up to open the cupboard for cups, missed the handle by inches. "My eyes are... Oh God. I can't see. I can't see."

"Hold on. Here, let me look." When he took her shoulders to turn her, she gripped his arm.

"I can't see anything. It's all gray. Everything's gray."

He turned her around, bit off his own sharp intake of breath. Her eyes, those exotic gypsy eyes, were filmed over white.

"Let's sit you down. It's a trick. It's just another trick. It's not real, Cybil."

But as she clung to him, shuddering, he felt himself fade away.

He stood in the dull and dingy apartment he'd once shared with his father over the bowling alley. The smells struck him with violent memory. Whiskey, tobacco, sweat, unwashed sheets and dishes.

There was the old couch with the frayed arms, and the folding chair with the duct-taped X over the torn seat. The lamp was on, the pole lamp beside the couch. But that had been broken, Gage thought. Years ago, that had been broken when he'd shoved his father back. When he'd finally been big enough, strong enough to use his fists.

No, Gage thought. No, I won't be here again. He walked to the door, grabbed the knob. It wouldn't budge, no matter how he turned, how he pulled. And in shock he looked at the hand on the knob, and saw the hand of a child.

Out the window then, he told himself as sweat slid down his back. It wouldn't be the first time he'd escaped that way. Fighting the urge to run, he went into his old room- unmade bed, a scatter of school books, single dresser, single lamp. Nothing showing. Any treasures-comics, candy, toys-he'd hid away, out of sight.

The window refused to open. When he was desperate enough to try, the glass in it wouldn't break. Whirling around, he looked for escape, and saw himself in the mirror over the dresser. Small, dark, thin as a rail. And terrified.

A lie. Another lie. He wasn't that boy now, he told himself. Wasn't that helpless boy of seven or eight. He was a man, full grown.

But when he heard the door slam open, when he heard the stumbling tread of his drunken father, it was the boy who trembled.

FOX BEAT AND KICKED AT THE SPIDERS. THEY covered his desk now, spilled in a waterfall from the edge to the floor. They leaped on him, hungrily bit. Where they bit, their poison burned, and the flesh swelled and broke like rotted fruit.

His mind couldn't cool, couldn't steady, not with dozens of them crawling up his legs, down his shirt. He stomped them into the floor, into the rug, while his breath whistled out between gritted teeth. The pocket doors he'd left open slammed shut. As he backed against them, the windows ran black with spiders.

He shook like a man in a fever, but he shut his eyes, ordered himself to control his breathing. As they crawled and clawed and bit, as they covered him he wanted to give in and scream.

I've seen worse than this, he told himself. His heart pounded, hammer to anvil, as he struggled for some level of calm. Sure, I've seen worse. I've had worse, you fucker. Just a bunch of spiders. I'd call the exterminator tomorrow except they're not real, you asshole. I can wait you out. I can wait till you run out of juice.

The sheer rage inside him won over the fear and disgust until he could bring his heart rate down. "Play all the games you want, you bastard. We won't be playing when we come for you. This time, we'll end you."

He felt the rush of cold that burned as bright as the bites.

You will die screaming.

Don't count on it, Fox thought, gathering himself. Don't you fucking count on it. He grabbed one of the spiders on his arm, crushed it in his fist. Let the blood and pus run like fire through his fingers.

They dropped from him, first one, then another. It was they who screamed as they died. With his swollen hands, Fox pushed open the doors. And now he ran. Not for himself, but for Layla. One of the screams inside his head was hers.

As he ran, he bled; as he bled, he healed.

He cut through buildings, leaped fences, sprinted across yards. He saw Quinn standing in the middle of the street, shaking.

"I'm lost. I'm lost. I don't know what to do. I can't get home."

He grabbed her hand, dragged her with him.

"It's the same place. It's always the same place. I can't-"

"Shut it down," he snapped at her. "Shut everything down."

"I don't know how long. I don't even know how long I've been... Cal!"

She jerked away from Fox, and whatever she had left, she pulled into her, and ran to where Cal stood with his howling dog.

"It's gone, it's all gone." He caught Quinn in his arms, pressed his face to her neck. "I thought you were gone. I couldn't find you."

"It's lies." Fox shoved Cal back. "It's lies. My God, can't you hear her screaming?"

He hurtled across the street, up it, then burst into the rental house. Charging up the stairs he felt his fear tearing at him as the spiders had torn at his flesh. Her screaming stopped. But its echo led him to her, had him shoving open the bathroom door where she lay naked and unconscious on the floor.

In the kitchen, Cybil cried out when she heard the front door slam open. She threw her arms up, took a blind step forward. The gray wavered, thinned. And she sobbed as her vision cleared. She saw Gage, only Gage, pale as a sheet, staring back at her. When she threw herself into his arms, he caught her, and held her as much for himself as for her.

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