Twilight Eyes Page 46

When I turned to them and approached the cage, their gazes shifted from the bodies on the floor to the gun. They were precisely as curious about it as they had been about the motionless condition of their parents—wary, perhaps, but not afraid.

I shot the first one in the head.

The two remaining freaks flung themselves back from the bars and flew frenziedly this way and that, shrieking with considerably more volume and emotion than they had shrieked before, seeking a place to hide. Moronic children they might be—even worse than morons: idiots living in a dim world where cause and effect did not exist—but they were smart enough to understand death. l required four more shots to finish them, though it was easy. Too easy. Usually I took pleasure in killing goblins, but I did not have a taste for this slaughter. They were pathetic creatures—no doubt deadly but stupid and not a match for me. Besides, shooting caged adversaries who could not fight back . . . well, it seemed like something a goblin would do and was an act unworthy of a man.

Bundled in their coats, scarves, and boots, Rya and Cathy Osborn returned. Each carried a galvanized bucket that was two-thirds full of gasoline, and they descended the cellar steps with exaggerated care, trying not to spill any of the contents on themselves.

They glanced at the three dead freaks in the cage—and quickly looked away.

Abruptly I was overcome by the urgent feeling that we had stayed in the house too long and that every passing minute brought us closer to discovery by other goblins.

“Let’s get it done with,” Rya whispered, and by that whisper—for which there was no apparent need—she clearly indicated that her apprehension was growing as well.

I took Cathy’s bucket and threw the contents into the cell, liberally splashing the corpses.

As Rya and Cathy retreated to the first floor, taking with them the still-burning oil lamp that had rested on the altar, I poured the second bucketful of gasoline across the cellar floor. Gasping for breath and getting only fumes, I went upstairs, where the women were waiting for me in the kitchen.

Rya held the oil lamp toward me.

“I’ve got gasoline on my hands,” I said, hurrying to the kitchen sink to wash.

Less than a minute later, having scrubbed away the danger of instant self-immolation but acutely aware that we were standing atop a bomb, I accepted the lamp and returned to the cellar steps. Fumes rose in suffocating waves. Afraid that the high concentration of vapors was nearly rich enough to explode when exposed to the flame, I did not hesitate but pitched the glass lamp to the bottom of the stairs.

The copper-tinted sphere struck the concrete and shattered. The flaming wick set fire to the spilled and spreading oil, which gave up a peacock-blue flame, and the burning oil ignited the gasoline. A terrible blaze roared to life below. A blast of heat swept up the stairs, so fierce that for a moment I thought it must have set my hair afire as I staggered backward into the kitchen.

Rya and Cathy had already retreated to the back porch. I swiftly followed them. We ran around the house, past the patrol car that was parked near the front porch, and down the half-mile-long driveway.

Even before we reached the perimeter of the forest that encircled the property, we saw firelight reflected on the snow around us. When we looked back, flames had already erupted out of the cellar, through the floor, into the downstairs. The windows glimmered like the orange eyes in a jack-o’-lantern. Then the panes of glass exploded with sharp sounds that carried well on the cold night air.

Now the wind would quickly whip the flames to every gable, to the peak of the roof. The blaze would be so intense that the bodies in the basement would be reduced to ashes and bones. With a little luck, the authorities—goblins every one—might think the fire had been accidental. They might forgo an in-depth investigation that would turn up bullet-shattered bones and other proof of foul play. Even if they were suspicious and found what they looked for, we would have a day or two before the search for goblin killers began.

Nearer the house, the sparkling snow appeared to be stained with blood. Farther away, yellow-orange light and enormous strange shadows writhed, curled, leapt, squirmed, and shimmered across winter’s calcimine mantle.

The first battle of the new war. And we had won.

We turned away from the house and hurried along the drive, into the tunnel formed by overhanging evergreen boughs. The firelight did not reach that far, but though darkness closed in with a vengeance and reduced visibility nearly to zero, we slowed only slightly. From our journey in to the house, we knew there were no major obstacles along the way. Although we ran blindly, we enjoyed at least a small measure of confidence that we would not break our legs in unexpected ditches or be knocked flat by barrier chains meant to keep out intruders.

Shortly we reached the main road and, turning north, soon came to the station wagon. Rya drove. Cathy sat up front. I sat in back with the police revolver in my lap, half expecting goblins to appear and stop us, fully prepared to blow them away if they did.

Miles later I could still hear (in memory) the eerie oscillating cries of the three misbegotten goblin children.

We took Cathy to a gas station and accompanied her and the serviceman back to her car. He quickly determined that her battery was dead, a situation for which he had come prepared. He’d put a suitable new battery in his Dodge truck before leaving the station. He was able to install it right there at the side of the highway, in the more than adequate light of a portable work lamp that plugged into the cigarette lighter of his truck.

When Cathy’s Pontiac was running again, when the serviceman had been paid and had gone, she glanced at Rya and me, then lowered her haunted gaze to the frozen earth at her feet. Pushed by the bitter wind, white clouds of exhaust vapor billowed toward the front of the car. “What the hell happens now?” she said shakily.

“You were on your way to New York,” I said.

She laughed without humor. “I might as well have been on my way to the moon.”

A pickup and a gleaming new Cadillac passed by. The drivers glanced at us.

“Let’s get in the car,” Rya said, shivering. “We’ll be warm in there.”

We would also be less conspicuous.

Cathy got behind the wheel, turned sideways so I could see her profile from the backseat. Rya sat up front with her.

“I can’t just go on with my life as if nothing had happened,” Cathy said.

“But you must,” Rya said gently yet forcefully. “That’s really what life’s about—going on as if nothing has happened. And you certainly can’t appoint yourself savior of the world, can’t go around with a megaphone shouting that demons are passing for ordinary people and are walking among us. Everyone would think you’d just gone crazy. Everyone except the goblins.”

“And they’d deal with you damn quick,” I said.

Cathy nodded. “I know . . . I know.” She was silent for a moment, then said plaintively, “But . . . how can I go back to New York, back to Barnard, not knowing which ones are goblins? How can I trust anyone ever again? How can I dare to marry anyone, not really knowing what he is? Maybe he’ll want to marry me just to torture me, to have his own private plaything. You know what I mean, Slim—the way your uncle married your aunt and then brought grief to your whole family. How can I have friends, real friends, with whom I can be open, direct, and truthful? Do you see? It’s worse for me than for you, because I don’t have your ability to see the goblins. I can’t tell the difference between them and us, so I have to assume everyone’s a goblin; that’s the only safe thing to do. You can see them, separate them from our kind, so you aren’t alone; but I’ll have to be alone, always alone, totally alone, utterly and forever alone, because trusting in anyone could be the end of me. Alone . . . What kind of life will that be?”

When she outlined her plight, it seemed obvious, yet until now I had not realized what a terrible box she was in. And no way out of that box, as far as I could see.

Rya looked at me from the front seat.

I shrugged, not casually but with frustration and a certain amount of misery.

Cathy Osborn sighed and shuddered, torn between despair and terror—two emotions that were difficult to contain simultaneously, since the latter presupposes hope while the former denies it.

After a moment more of silence Cathy said, “I might as well pick up a megaphone and start trying to save the world, even if they do put me in a madhouse, because I’ll wind up there, anyway. I mean . . . day after day, wondering who around me is one of them, always needing to be suspicious—in time that’ll take a toll. And not a lot of time, either. I’ll crack fast, ’cause I’m an extrovert by nature; I need contact with people. So before long I really will be a raving paranoid, ready for the asylum. Then they’ll lock me up. And don’t you figure there’re bound to be a lot of goblins on the staff of any institution like that, where people are locked up and helpless and easy game?”

“Yes,” Rya said, evidently thinking of the orphanage she had endured. “Yes.”

“I can’t go back. I can’t live like I’d have to live.”

“There is a way,” I said.

Cathy turned her head and looked at me, more with disbelief than with hope.

“There is a place,” I said.

“Of course,” Rya said.

“Sombra Brothers,” I said.

And Rya explained: “The carnival.”

“Become a carny?” Cathy asked, amazed.

Her voice betrayed a mild distaste at which I took no offense—and which, I knew, Rya also understood. The straight world is always anxious to affirm the illusion that its society is the only right one; therefore it labels those in the carnival as drifters, social outcasts, misfits, and probably thieves, every one of them. We, like real Gypsies with Romany blood, are held in universally low esteem. One simply does not acquire two or three prestigious university degrees, a deep knowledge of the arts, only to blithely throw over a thriving academic career in favor of the carnival life.

I did not gild the future that such a decision would assure for Cathy Osborn. I put it bluntly, wanting her to have all the facts before making up her mind: “You’d have to give up the teaching you love, the academic life, the career you’ve worked so hard to build. You’d have to come into a world almost as alien to yours as ancient China. You’d keep finding yourself acting like a straight, talking like a mark, so the other carnies would be suspicious of you, and you’d need a year or more to win their complete confidence. Your friends and relatives wouldn’t understand, not ever. You’d become a black sheep, an object of pity and scorn and endless speculation. You might even break your parents’ hearts.”

“Yeah,” Rya said, “but you can join Sombra Brothers and be sure that there are no goblins among your neighbors and your friends. Too many of us in the carnival are outcasts because we can see the goblins and therefore need a refuge. When one of them comes among us, other than as a mark spending money, we deal with it quickly and quietly. So you’d be safe.”

“As safe as anyone ever is in this life,” I said.

“And you could earn your way, working for Slim and me to start.”

I said, “Eventually you could put aside enough money to have a couple of concessions of your own.”

“Yeah,” Rya said. “You’d make bigger bucks than teaching; that’s for sure. And in time . . . well, you’ll pretty much forget the straight world you came from. It’ll begin to seem like a very long-ago place, even like a dream, and a bad dream.” She reached out and put a hand on Cathy’s arm, reassuring her, woman-to-woman. “I promise you, when you’ve become a real carny, the outside will seem awful bleak to you, and you’ll wonder how you ever got along out there and why you ever thought it was preferable to the world of the road show.”

Cathy bit her lower lip. She said, “Oh, God . . .”

We could not give her old life back to her so we gave her the only thing we could give just then: time. Time to think. Time to adapt.

A few cars passed us. Not many. It was late. The night was deep—and cold. Most people were home by their fires or in bed.

“God, I just don’t know,” Cathy said tremulously, wearily, indecisively.

The crystallized exhaust vapors plumed along the window. For a moment as I looked through the glass, I could see only those swirling mists, silvery and swift, in which spectral faces seemed continuously to form and dissolve and quickly reform, peering hungrily at me.

At that moment, Gibtown, Joel and Laura Tuck, and my other carny friends seemed far away, farther than Florida, farther than the dark side of the moon.

“I’m lost, confused, afraid,” Cathy said. “I don’t know what to do. I just don’t know.”

Considering the terrifying ordeal she had endured that evening, considering that she had not gone entirely to pieces as most people would have done, considering that she had in fact quickly recovered from her shock once Rya and I had dispatched the goblins that were tormenting her, I figured she was someone who ought to be on our side, in the carnival with us. She was no meek professor; she possessed unusual strength, uncommon courage, and we could always use more people of strong mind and heart—especially if we eventually continued and widened the war against the goblins. I sensed that Rya felt the same way as I did and that she was praying that Cathy Osborn would join us.

“I just . . . don’t know....”

Two of the three bedrooms in our rented house were furnished, and Cathy stayed the night in one of them. She could not bear either to drive on to New York City or to abandon her career and her current life on such short notice, regardless of the compelling reasons for doing exactly that. “By morning I’ll make up my mind,” she promised.

Her room was farther along the second-floor hallway from ours. She insisted that we leave the doors open on both chambers, so we would be able to hear one another in the night if one of us called for help.

I assured her that the goblins did not know we were among them.

“They have no reason to come here tonight,” Rya said soothingly.

We did not tell her that this house was owned by Klaus Orkenwold, or that he was the new sheriff in Yontsdown, or that he was a goblin, or that he had tortured and slaughtered three people in the basement.

Nevertheless, in spite of what we told her and chose not to tell her, Cathy remained worried, edgy. She insisted on a night-light, which we rigged for her by draping one of her dark blouses over the shade of a nightstand lamp.

When we left her, I felt really bad, inadequate—as if we were abandoning a child to the mercy of the thing that lived under the bed or the monster that hid in the closet.

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