Twilight Eyes Page 9

Sitting in the armchair, barefoot, one leg straight out in front of her and the other bent, Rya was the essence of a young man’s dreams. She wore white shorts and a pale yellow T-shirt. Her bare legs were well tanned, with slender ankles, lovely calves, smooth brown knees, and taut thighs. I wanted to slide my hands up those legs and feel the firm musculature of those thighs. Instead I put my hands in the change apron, so she wouldn’t see them shaking. Her T-shirt, slightly damp in the August heat, clung alluringly to her full breasts, and I could see her ni**les through the thin cotton.

Rya and Irma made quite a contrast, genetic glory and genetic chaos, opposite end-rungs on the ladder of biological fantasy. Rya Raines was the epitome of human female physicality, perfection of line and form, the dream made real, nature’s promise and intention fulfilled. But Irma was a reminder that, for all its intricate mechanisms and millennia of practice, nature seldom succeeded in the task that God had given it: Bring them forth in my image. If nature was a divine invention, a God-inspired mechanism, as my grandma used to say it was, then why didn’t He come back and repair the damned thing? Obviously it was a machine with real potential, as witness Rya Raines.

“You look seventeen,” the dwarf woman said, “but damned if you act or feel like it.”

Not knowing what to say, I said only, “Well...”

“You may be seventeen, but you’re a man, all right. I think I’ll tell Bob Weyland you’re too much a man for Tina, for sure. There’s a toughness in you.”

“Something . . . dark,” Rya said.

“Yes,” Irma said. “Something dark. That too.”

They were curious, but they were also carnies, and while they didn’t mind telling me what I was like, they could never bring themselves to ask about me without my invitation.

Irma left, and at the kitchen table I counted out the receipts for Rya. She said the take was twenty percent higher than average, paid me a day’s wages in cash, and gave me thirty percent of the twenty percent increase, which seemed more than fair to me, since I had not expected to share in the improved profits until I had been around a couple weeks.

By the time we finished the accounting, I took off the change apron without embarrassment, for the erection it had been concealing was now gone. She was standing right beside me at the table, and I could still see the inadequately draped contours of her beautiful breasts, and her face still took my breath away, but the racing engine of my libido had decelerated to a sluggish idle in response to her businesslike attitude and her intransigent coolness.

I told her that Jelly Jordan had asked me to do a job for him tomorrow, that I didn’t know when I’d be available to run the high-striker, but she already knew that.

She said, “When you’ve done whatever Jelly needs you for, go to the high-striker and relieve Marco, the fella who handled it during your break today. He’ll be running it while you’re away.”

I thanked her for my pay, for the opportunity to prove myself, and she made no response whatsoever, so I turned and went awkwardly to the door.

Then: “Slim?”

I stopped, turned to her again. “Yeah?”

She stood with her hands on her hips, a scowl on her face, eyes narrowed, forbiddingly defiant, and I thought she was going to chew me out about something, but she said, “Welcome aboard.” I don’t think that she even knew how defiant she looked—or that she knew how to look any other way.

“Thanks,” I said. “Feels good to have a ship under me.”

Clairvoyantly, I sensed an appealing tenderness in her, a special vulnerability beneath the armor that she had evolved as protection from the world. What I had told Jelly was true; I did indeed feel there was a sensitive woman beyond the hard-bitten Amazon image in which she hid. But as I stood in the doorway and looked back at her, where she posed defiantly beside the dining table that was piled with money, I sensed something else as well, a sadness that I had not been aware of before. It was a profound, well-concealed, and abiding melancholy. Even as vague and undefined as those psychic emanations were, they moved me deeply, and I wanted to return to her and put my arms around her, not with the slightest sexual intent but to comfort her and perhaps to draw off some of her mysterious anguish.

I did not go to her, did not take her in my arms, for I knew my motives would be misunderstood. Hell, I figured she would knee me in the crotch, give me the bum’s rush out the door, push me down the metal steps, send me sprawling on the ground, and fire me.

“You keep doing this well at the high-striker,” she said, “you won’t be stuck there long. I’ll move you up to something better.”

“I’ll do my best.”

Moving toward the armchair, where she’d been when I first entered, she said, “I’ll be buying another concession or two during the next year. Big concessions. I’ll need reliable people to help me run them.”

I realized she did not want me to go. Not that she was attracted to me; not that I was irresistible or anything like that. Rya Raines simply did not want to be alone right now. Usually, yes. But not right now. She would have tried to hold on to her guest no matter who it had been. I did not act upon my perception of her loneliness, for I also sensed that she was not aware of how obvious it was; if she realized that her carefully drawn mask of tough self-reliance was temporarily transparent, she would be embarrassed. And angry. And, of course, she would take her anger out on me.

So all I said was, “Well, I hope I’ll never disappoint.” And I smiled, nodded, and said, “See you tomorrow.” And I went out the door.

She did not call to me. In my postadolescent, always horny, immature, unabashedly romantic heart of hearts, I hoped that she would speak, that when I turned I would find her there in the trailer doorway, breathtakingly backlit, that she would say—softly, softly—something unimaginably seductive, and that I would take her to bed for a night of unrestrained passion. In real life nothing ever works out that way.

At the bottom of the steps, I did turn and look back, and I did see her, and she was looking after me, but she was still inside, where she had settled again into the armchair. She presented such a stunningly erotic picture that for a moment I could not have moved even if I had known a goblin was bearing down on me with murder in its eyes. Her bare legs were stretched out in front of her and slightly spread, and the light from the reading lamp gave her supple skin an oiled sheen. The downfall of light left shadows beneath her breasts, which emphasized the enticing shape of them. Her slender arms, her delicate throat, her faultless face, her auburn-blond hair—all glowed, glorious and golden. She was not merely revealed and lovingly caressed by the light; rather she seemed to be the source of the light, as if she—instead of the lamp—were the radiant object. Night had come, but the sun had not left her.

I turned away from the open door and, heart pounding, took three steps into the night, along the avenue between the trailers, but stopped in shock as I saw Rya Raines appear in the darkness before me. This Rya was dressed in jeans and a soiled blouse. She was at first a wavery, watery image, colorless, like a film projected on a rippling black sheet. Within a second or two, however, she acquired a solidity indistinguishable from reality, though she was most definitely not real. This Rya was not erotic, either; her face was ghastly pale, and blood trickled from one corner of her voluptuous mouth. I saw that her blouse was not dirty but bloodstained. Her neck, shoulders, chest, and belly were dark with blood. In a moth-wing voice, each word fluttering softly from her blood-damp lips, she said, “Dying, dying . . . don’t let me die...”

“No,” I said, speaking even more quietly than the apparition, and I stupidly stepped forward to embrace and comfort the vision of Rya with a grace and swift responsiveness that had eluded me when it had been the real woman seeking comfort. “No. I won’t let you die.”

With the inconstancy of a figure in a dream, she was suddenly no longer there. The night was empty.

I stumbled through the muggy air where she had been.

I fell to my knees and hung my head.

I stayed that way for a while.

I did not want to accept the message of the vision. But I could not escape it.

Had I come three thousand miles, had I obligingly allowed destiny to choose a new home for me, had I begun to make new friends only to see them all destroyed in some unguessable cataclysm?

If only I could foresee the danger, then I could warn Rya and Jelly and anyone else who might be a potential victim, and if I could convince them of my powers, they could take steps to avoid death. But though I made myself as receptive as possible, I could not obtain even a hint of the nature of the oncoming disaster.

I just knew it involved the goblins.

I was nauseous with anticipation of losses to come.

After kneeling in the dust and dry grass for uncounted minutes, I struggled to my feet. No one had seen or heard me. Rya had not come to the door of her trailer, had not looked out. I was alone in moonlight and cricket-song. I could not stand up straight; my stomach roiled and cramped. More lights had gone off while I had been inside, and still others winked out as I watched. Someone was making a late meal of eggs and onions, and the night was redolent with a sublime fragrance that would ordinarily have made me hungry but which, in my current condition, only increased my queasiness. Shaky, I set out for the trailer where I had been assigned a bed.

The morning had dawned with hope, and when I had returned to the carnival from the locker room under the grandstand, the place had seemed bright and filled with promise. But just as darkness had come to the midway a short time ago, so it came to me now, poured over me, through me, and filled me up.

When I had almost reached my trailer, I became aware of eyes upon me, although no one was in sight. From behind, under, or within one of the many trailers, someone was watching, and I was more than half certain it was he who had carried off the goblin’s corpse from the Dodgem Car pavilion and had later spied on me from an unknown corner of the night-mantled midway.

I was too stunned and despairing to care. I went to my trailer and to bed.

The trailer had a small kitchen, living room, one bath, and two bedrooms. In each bedroom were two beds. My roommate was a guy named Barney Quadlow, a roughie, very big and slow-witted, perfectly content to drift through life, giving not a thought to what would happen to him when he was too old to heave and tote equipment, confident that the carnival would take care of him—which it would. I had met him earlier, and we had talked, though not long. I did not know him well, but he seemed amiable enough, and when I had probed at him with my sixth sense, I had discovered a personality more placid than any I had ever before encountered.

I suspected that the goblin I had killed at the Dodgem Car pavilion was a roughie, like Barney, which would explain why no great fuss had been raised when he had turned up missing. Roughies were not the most dependable employees; many of them had wanderlust, and sometimes not even the carnival moved around enough for them, so they just split.

Barney was asleep, breathing deeply, and I was careful not to wake him. I stripped to my underwear, folded my clothes, put them on a chair, and stretched out on my bed, on top of the sheets. The window was open, and a mild breeze found its way into the room, but the night was very warm.

I did not expect to sleep. Sometimes, however, despair can be like weariness, a weight dragging on the mind, and in a surprisingly short time, no more than a minute, that weight pulled me down into a welcome oblivion.

In the cemetery-still, graveyard-dark middle of the night, I came half awake and thought I saw a hulking figure standing in the bedroom doorway. No lights were on. The trailer was filled with multilayered shadows, all different shades of black, so I could not see who stood there. Reluctant to wake up, I told myself that it was Barney Quadlow, coming from—or going to—the bathroom, but the looming figure neither departed nor entered, merely stood there, watching. Besides, I could hear Barney’s deep and rhythmic breathing from the adjacent bed. So I told myself that it was one of the other two men who shared the trailer . . . but I had met them, as well, and neither was this large. Then, besotted and befuddled by sleep, I decided that it must be Death, the Grim Reaper himself, come to collect my life. Instead of bolting up in panic, I closed my eyes and drifted off again. Mere death did not frighten me; in the bleak mood that had accompanied me into sleep and had informed my dim dreams, I was not particularly averse to a visit from Death—if, indeed, that was who he was.

I returned to Oregon. That was the only means by which I dared go home again. In dreams.

After four and a half hours of sleep, which was a long rest for me, I was wide-awake at six-fifteen, Friday morning. Barney still slept, as did the others in the next room. Gray light, like dust, sifted in through the window. The figure in the doorway was gone—if it had ever been there.

I got up and quietly retrieved a clean T-shirt, briefs, and a pair of socks from the backpack, which I had stowed in the closet yesterday. Sticky, grimy, pleasurably anticipating a shower, I put those items of clothes in one of my boots, picked up the boots, turned to the chair to pick up my jeans, and saw two slips of white paper lying on the denim. I could not remember putting them there, and I could not read them easily in the gray light, so I tucked them in one hand, picked up my jeans as well, and went silently down the hall to the bathroom. In there I closed the door, switched on the light, and put down the boots and jeans.

I peered at one slip of paper. Then the other.

The ominous figure in the doorway had not been an illusion or a figment of my imagination, after all. He had left two items he thought might be of interest to me.

They were free passes of the kind that Sombra Brothers issued by the bucketful to swill-seeking local authorities and VIPs in every town where the carnival played.

The first was for a ride on the Dodgem Cars.

The second was for the Ferris wheel.

Chapter eight


Established on coal fields that were now depleted, sustained by a single steel mill and a regional railroad yard, steadily decaying but not yet quite aware of the inevitability of its decline, the small city of Yontsdown (population 22,450, according to the welcome sign at the edge of the city limits), in mostly mountainous Yontsdown County, Pennsylvania, was the next stop on the Sombra Brothers tour. When the current engagement was concluded, Saturday night, the midway would be torn down, packed up, and carted a hundred miles across the state, to the Yontsdown County Fairgrounds. The miners, mill workers, and rail-yard employees were accustomed to evenings and weekends structured around either the TV set, local bars, or one of the three Catholic churches that were always holding socials and dances and covered-dish suppers, and they would receive the carnival just as eagerly as the farmers had done at the previous stop.

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