Twilight Eyes Page 59

All things considered, when the human heart is fully explored and basic motivations understood, it is not the prospect of your own death that scares you most, that fills you to bursting with fear. Really, it’s not. Think about it. What frightens us more, what reduces us to blubbering terror, are the deaths of those we love. The prospect of your own death, while not welcome, can be borne, for there is no suffering and pain once death has come. But when you lose the ones you love, your suffering lives on until you descend into your own grave. Mothers, fathers, wives and husbands, sons and daughters, friends—they are taken from you all your life, and the pain of loss and loneliness that their passing leaves within you is a more profound suffering than the brief flare of pain and the fear of the unknown that accompanies your own death.

Fear of losing Rya drove me through those tunnels with greater determination than I would have possessed if I had been concerned only about my own survival. For the next few hours I ceased to be aware of pain, sore muscles, and exhaustion. Although my mind and heart blazed with emotions, my body was a cool machine, moving tirelessly forward, sometimes humming along in well-oiled precision, sometimes clanking and thumping and grinding forward, but always moving without complaint, without feeling. I carried her in my arms as I might have carried a small child, and her weight seemed less than that of the child’s doll. When I came to a vertical shaft, I wasted no time pondering how to raise her to the next level of the maze. I simply stripped off my ski jacket and hers; then, with a strength that would have tested a real machine, I tore those sturdy garments along all their tightly sewn seams, tore them even where they did not have seams, until I had reduced them to strips of tough, quilted fabric. Knotting those strips together, I fashioned a sling that fitted under her arms and through her crotch, plus a double-strand fourteen-foot-long towline looped at the upper end. As I climbed the shaft I hauled her after me. I ascended at a slant, my feet against the rungs on one side, my back against the opposite wall. The loop of the double towline was over my chest, and my arms were straight down, with one hand pulling on each of the lines to keep from taking all the weight of her on my breastbone. I was careful not to bump her head against the walls or against the corrupted iron rungs, gentling her along, easy, easy. That was a feat of strength, balance, and coordination that later seemed phenomenal but, at the time, was achieved with no thought of its difficulty.

We had taken seven hours to make the journey into the mines, but that had been when we were both fit. Going back out was certain to require a day or more, perhaps two days.

We had no food, but that would be okay. We could live a day or two without eating.

(I did not give a single thought to how my energy level would be sustained without food. My lack of concern did not arise from a conviction that my adrenaline-pumped body would not fail me. No, I simply was unable to think of such things, for my mind was churning with emotions—fear, love—and had no time for practicalities. The practicalities were being taken care of by the machine-body, which was programmed, an automaton, and which required no thinking to perform its duties.)

However, in time I did think about water, for the body cannot function without water as easily as without food. Water is the oil of the human machine, and without it, breakdowns quickly ensue. The thermos of orange juice had fallen from Rya’s grasp when the goblin had leapt on her from the wall of the mine, and later I had shaken it to see if it had broken; the rattling of the shattered glass liner had made it unnecessary for me to open the container and look inside. Now all we had to drink was the water puddled shallowly in some of the tunnels. It was often scum-covered, and it probably tasted of coal and mold and worse, but I could no more taste it than I could feel pain. From time to time I put Rya down long enough to crouch at some stagnant pool, skim the slime off the surface, and scoop up a drink with my hands. Sometimes I held Rya, pulled her mouth open, and fed her water out of one cupped hand. She did not stir, but as the water trickled down her throat I was encouraged to see those muscles contract and relax again with involuntary swallowing.

A miracle is an event measured in moments: a fleeting glimpse of God manifested in some mundane aspect of the physical world, a brief flow of blood from the stigmata of a statue of Christ, a tear or three spilling from the sightless eyes of an image of the Virgin Mary, the whirling sky at Fatima. My miracle of strength endured for hours, but it could not last forever. I remember falling to my knees, getting up, going on, falling again, nearly dropping Rya that time, deciding I should take a rest for her sake if not my own, just a short rest to gather my strength—and then I slept.

When I awoke, I was feverish.

And Rya was as motionless and silent as before.

The tide of her breath still ebbed and flowed. Her heart still beat, though I thought her pulse seemed weaker than it had been.

I had left the flashlight on when I had dozed off. Now it was dim, dying.

Cursing my stupidity, I withdrew the spare light from the long utility pocket in my pant leg, switched it on, and put the dead flash in the pocket.

According to my wristwatch, it was seven o’clock, and I assumed that was seven o’clock Monday night. However, for all I knew, it might have been Tuesday morning. I had no way of judging how long I had struggled through the mines with Rya or how long I had slept.

I found water for us.

I picked her up again. After that intermission I willed the miracle to continue, and it did. However, the power that flowed into me was so much less than before that I thought God had gone elsewhere, leaving my support to one of His lesser angels whose sinews were not nearly as impressive as those of his Master. My ability to block out pain and weariness was diminished. I lumbered along in an admirably robotic indifference for considerable distance, but from time to time I became aware of pains so severe that I made a thin whining sound and even, on a couple of occasions, screamed. Now and then, the aching in my tortured muscles and bones became apparent to me, and I had to block that awareness. Rya no longer always seemed as light as a doll, and sometimes I could have sworn she weighed a thousand pounds.

I passed the skeleton of the dog. I kept looking back at it uneasily because my fevered mind was filled with images of being pursued by that pile of canine bones.

Phasing in and out of consciousness as if I were a moth darting from flame to darkness to flame again, I frequently found myself in conditions and positions that scared the hell out of me. More than once I rose out of my inner blackness and discovered that I was kneeling over Rya, weeping uncontrollably. Each time I thought her dead, but each time I found a pulse—thready, perhaps, but a pulse. Spluttering and choking, I awoke facedown in a puddle of water from which I had been drinking. Sometimes I returned to awareness and found that I had kept walking with her in my arms but had gone past one of the white arrows, a couple of hundred feet or more into the wrong passageway; whereupon, I had to turn and find my way back to the correct path in the maze.

I was hot. Burning up. It was a dry, parching heat, and I felt the way Slick Eddy had looked back in Gibtown: like ancient parchment, like Egyptian sands, crisp and juiceless.

For a while I looked at my watch regularly, but eventually I did not bother with it anymore. It was of no use and no comfort to me. I could not tell what portion of the day the watch referred to; I didn’t know if it was morning or evening, night or perhaps mid-afternoon. I didn’t know which day it was, either, although I assumed it must be late Monday or early Tuesday.

I staggered past the rust-welded heap of long abandoned mining equipment that, by chance, formed a crude, alien figure with horned head, spiked chest, and bladed spine. I was more than half convinced that its corroded head had turned as I moved by, that its iron mouth had slipped open farther, that one hand had moved. Much later, in other tunnels, I imagined I could hear it coming after me, clanking and scraping along with great patience, not able to match my pace but convinced that it would catch me by sheer perseverance, which it probably would because my own pace was declining steadily.

I was not always sure when I was awake and when I was dreaming. Sometimes, carrying or lifting or cautiously pulling Rya along the crumbling passageways, I thought I was in a nightmare and that all would be well in a moment when I woke. But, of course, I was already awake and living the nightmare.

From the flame of consciousness to the darkness of insensibility, swooping mothlike between the two, I grew inexorably weaker, fuzzy-headed, and very much hotter. I woke and was sitting against the rock wall of a tunnel, holding Rya in my arms, soaked with sweat. My hair was plastered to my head, and my eyes stung from the salty rivulets that streamed off my forehead and temples. Perspiration dripped from my brow, from my nose, ears, chin, and jawline. I seemed to have gone for a swim in my clothes. I was hotter than I’d ever been while lying on the beach in Florida, yet the heat came entirely from within me; I had a furnace in me, a blazing sun trapped within my rib cage.

When next I regained consciousness, I was still hot, fiercely hot, yet I was shivering uncontrollably, hot and cold at the same time. The sweat was near the boiling point when it burst from me, but then it seemed instantly to freeze on my skin.

I tried to turn my mind away from my own misery, tried to focus on Rya and regain the miraculous strength and stamina that I had lost. Examining her, I could no longer find a pulse in her temples, throat, or wrist. Her skin seemed colder than before. When I frantically lifted one of her eyelids, I thought something was different about the eye beneath, a terrible emptiness. “Oh no,” I said, and I felt for the pulse again—”No, no, Rya, please, no”—but still I could not find any heartbeat. “Goddamn it, no!” I held her against me, held her tighter, as if I could prevent Death from prying her out of my embrace. I rocked her like a baby, and I crooned to her, and I told her she would be fine, just fine, that we would lie on beaches again, that we would make love again and laugh, that we would be together for a long, long time.

I thought of my mother’s subtle but paranormal ability to blend various herbs into healing brews and poultices. The same herbs had no medicinal value when others blended them. The healing power was in my mom, not in the powdered leaves and bark and berries and roots and flowers with which she worked. All of us in the Stanfeuss family had some special gift, strange chromosomes welded here and there in the genetic chain. If my mother could heal, why couldn’t I, damn it? Why was I cursed with Twilight Eyes when God could have blessed me as easily with healing hands? Why was I doomed only to see goblins and oncoming disaster, visions of death and disaster? If my mother could heal, why couldn’t I? And since I was unquestionably the most gifted of anyone in the Stanfeuss family, why couldn’t I heal the sick even better than my mom could?

Holding Rya’s body tightly, rocking her as one might rock a baby, I willed her to live. I insisted that Death depart. I argued with that dark specter, tried humoring him, cajoling him, then did my best with reason and logic, then begged, but begging soon turned to bitter argument; finally I was threatening him, as if there was anything with which Death could be threatened. Crazy. I was crazy. Out of my mind with fever, yes, but also insane with grief. Through my hands and arms I attempted to convey the life within me into her, strove to pour it out of me and into her as I might pour water from a pitcher to a glass. In my mind I formed an image of her alive and smiling, then gritted my teeth and clenched my jaws and held my breath and willed that mental image to become a reality, strained so hard at the bizarre task that I passed out again.

Thereafter, fever and grief and exhaustion conspired to carry me deeper into the kingdom of incoherence where I reigned. Sometimes I found myself trying to heal her, and sometimes I was singing softly to her—mostly old Buddy Holly tunes, the lyrics strangely twisted by delirium. Sometimes I babbled out lines of dialogue from the old Thin Man movies with William Powell and Myrna Loy, which we both liked so much, and sometimes the dialogue was remembered bits and pieces of things we had said to each other in moments of tenderness, in love. I alternately raged at God and blessed Him, bitterly accused Him of cosmic sadism one moment and, seconds later, weepingly reminded Him of His reputation for mercy. I ranted and raved, keened and cooed, prayed and cursed, sweated and shivered, but mostly I wept. I recall thinking that my tears might heal her and bring her back. Madness.

Considering the copious flow of tears and sweat, it seemed only a matter of time until I shriveled up, turned to dust, and blew away. But at that moment such an end was immensely appealing. Just turn to dust and blow away, disperse, as if I had never existed.

I was unable to get up and move any farther, though I traveled in the many dreams that came to me when I dozed. In Oregon I sat in the kitchen of the Stanfeuss house and ate a slice of my mother’s home-baked apple pie while she smiled down at me and while my sisters told me how good it was to have me back and how happy I would be to see my father again when—very soon now—I joined him in the peace of the hereafter. On a carnival midway, under a blue sky, I went to the high-striker to introduce myself to Miss Rya Raines and ask for a job, but the woman who owned the high-striker was someone else, someone I had never seen before, and she said she had never heard of Rya Raines, that such a person as Rya Raines had never existed, that I must be confused, and in fear and panic I hurried around the carnival from one concession to another, looking for Rya, but no one had ever heard of her, no one, no one. And in Gibtown I sat in a kitchen, drinking beer with Joel and Laura Tuck, and there were other carnies crowded around, including Jelly Jordan, who was no longer dead, and when I leapt up and put my arms around him and hugged him with sheer joy, the fat man told me that I should not be surprised, that dying was not the end, that I should look over there by the sink, and when I looked I saw my father and my cousin Kerry sipping apple cider and grinning at me, and they both said, “Hello, Carl, you’re looking good, kid,” and Joel Tuck said—

“Good Christ, boy, how did you even get this far? Look at that shoulder wound.”

“Looks like a bite,” Horton Bluett said, leaning in close with a flashlight.

“Blood on his sides here,” Joel Tuck said worriedly.

And Horton said, “This here leg of his pants is soaked with blood too.”

Somehow the dream had shifted to the mine shaft in which I sat, Rya in my arms. All the other dream people had vanished except for Joel and Horton.

And Luke Bendingo. He appeared between Joel and Horton. “H-Hang on, S-S-Slim. We’ll g-g-get you home. Just you hang in th-th-there.”

They tried to take Rya out of my arms, and that was intolerable even if it was just a dream, so I fought them. But I did not have much strength and could not resist them for long. They took her from me. With the sweet burden of her removed, I was without purpose, and I slumped, rag-limp, weeping.

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