Blood Brothers (Chapter Five)
IT WASN'T AS RIDICULOUS AS SHE'D ASSUMED IT would be. Silly, yes, but she had plenty of room for silly.
The balls were mottled black-the small ones without the three holes. The job was to heave it down the long polished alley toward the red-necked pins he called Duck Pins.
He watched as she walked up to the foul line, swung back, and did the heave.
The ball bounced a couple of times before it toppled into the gutter.
"Okay." She turned, tossed back her hair. "Your turn."
"You get two more balls per frame."
He shot her the quick grin. "Let's work on your delivery and follow-through, then we'll tackle approach." He walked toward her with another ball as he spoke. He handed her the ball. "Hold it with both hands," he instructed as he turned her around to face the pins. "Now you want to take a step forward with your left foot, bend your knees like you were doing a squat, but bend over from the waist."
He was snuggled up right behind her now, his front sort of bowing over her back. She tipped her face around to meet his eyes.
"You use this routine to hit on women, right?"
"Absolutely. Eighty-five percent success ratio. You're going to want to aim for the front pin. You can worry about the pockets and the sweet spot later. Now you're just going to bring your right arm back, then sweep it forward with your fingers aimed at the front pin. Let the ball go, following your fingers."
"Hmm." But she tried it. This time the ball didn't bounce straight into the gutter, but actually stayed on the lane long enough to bump down the two pins on the far right.
Since the woman in the next lane, who had to be sixty if she was a day, slid gracefully to the foul line, released, and knocked down seven pins, Quinn didn't feel like celebrating.
"Two balls, two pins. I don't think that earns my bootie dance."
"Since I'm looking forward to your bootie dance, I'll help you do better yet. More from your shoulder down this time. Nice perfume," he added before he walked back to get her another ball.
"Thanks." Stride, bend, swing, release, she thought. And actually managed to knock down the end pin on the other side of the alley.
"Overcompensated." He hit the reset button. The grate came down, pins were swept off with a lot of clattering, and another full triangle thudded into place.
"She knocked them all down." Quinn gave a head nod toward the woman in the next lane who'd taken her seat. "She didn't seem all that excited."
"Mrs. Keefafer? Bowls twice a week, and has become jaded. On the outside. Inside, believe me, she's doing her bootie dance."
"If you say so."
He adjusted Quinn's shoulders, shifted her hips. And yeah, she could see why he had such a high success rate with this routine. Eventually, after countless attempts, she was able to take down multiple pins that took odd bites out of the triangle.
There was a wall of noise, the low thunder of balls rolling, the sharp clatter of pins, hoots and cheers from bowlers and onlookers, the bright bells of a pinball machine.
She smelled beer and wax, and the gooey orange cheese-a personal favorite-from the nachos someone munched on in the next lane.
Timeless, all-American, she mused, absently drafting an article on the experience. Centuries-old sport-she'd need to research that part-to good, clean, family fun.
She thought she had the hang of it, more or less, though she was shallow enough to throw a deliberate gutter ball here and there so Cal would adjust her stance.
As he did, she considered changing the angle of the article from family fun to the sexiness of bowling. The idea made her grin as she took her position.
Then it happened. She released the ball and it rolled down the center of the alley. Surprised, she took a step back. Then another with her arms going up to clamp on the sides of her head.
Something tingled in her belly as her heartbeat sped up.
"Oh. Oh. Look! It's going to-"
There was a satisfying crack and crash as ball slapped pins and pins tumbled in all directions. Bumping into each other, rolling, spinning, until the last fell with a slow, drunken sway.
"Well, my God!" She actually bounced on the toes of her rented shoes. "Did you see that? Did you-" And when she spun around, a look of stunned delight on her face, he was grinning at her.
"Son of a bitch," she muttered. "I owe you ten bucks."
"You learn fast. Want to try an approach?"
She wandered back toward him. "I believe I'm…spent. But I may come by some evening for lesson number two."
"Happy to oblige." Sitting hip-to-hip, they changed shoes. "I'll walk you back to the hotel."
He got his coat, and on the way out shot a wave at the skinny young guy behind the shoe rental counter. "Back in ten."
"Quiet," she said the minute they stepped outside. "Just listen to all that quiet."
"The noise is part of the fun and the quiet after part of the reward."
"Did you ever want to do anything else, or did you grow up with a burning desire to manage a bowling alley?"
"Family fun center," he corrected. "We have an arcade-pinball, skee-ball, video games, and a section for kids under six. We do private parties-birthday parties, bachelor parties, wedding receptions-"
"Sure. Bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, anniversaries, corporate parties."
Definitely meat for an article, she realized. "A lot of arms on one body."
"You could say that."
"So why aren't you married and raising the next generation of Bowl-a-Rama kingpins, pun intended."
"Love has eluded me."
Despite the biting cold, it was pleasant to walk beside a man who naturally fit his stride to hers, to watch the clouds of their breath puff out, then merge together before the wind tore them to nothing.
He had an easy way about him and killer eyes, so there were worse things than feeling her toes go numb with cold in boots she knew were more stylish than practical.
"Are you going to be around if I think of some pertinent question to ask you tomorrow?"
"'Round and about," he told her. "I can give you my cell phone number if-"
"Wait." She dug into her bag and came out with her own phone. Still walking, she punched a few keys. "Shoot."
He rattled it off. "I'm aroused by a woman who not only immediately finds what she's looking for in the mysterious depths of her purse, but who can skillfully operate electronic devices."
"Is that a sexist remark?"
"No. My mother always knows where everything is, but is still defeated by the universal remote. My sister Jen can operate anything from a six-speed to a wireless mouse, but can never find anything without a twenty-minute hunt, and my other sister, Marly, can't find anything, ever, and gets intimidated by her electric can opener. And here you are, stirring me up by being able to do both."
"I've always been a siren." She tucked her phone back in her bag as they turned to the steps leading to the long front porch of the hotel. "Thanks for the escort."
There was one of those beats; she recognized it. Both of them wondering, did they shake hands, just turn and go, or give in to curiosity and lean into a kiss.
"Let's stay to the safe road for now," she decided. "I admit, I like the look of your mouth, but moving on that's bound to tangle things up before I really get started on what brought me here."
"It's a damn shame you're right about that." He dipped his hands into his pockets. "So I'll just say good night. I'll wait, make sure you get inside."
"Good night." She walked up the steps to the door, eased it open. Then glanced back to see him standing, hands still in his pockets, with the old-fashioned streetlight spotlighting him.
Oh, yeah, she thought, it was a damn shame.
"See you soon."
He waited until the door shut behind her, then taking a couple of steps, studied the windows of the second and third floor. She'd said her window faced Main Street, but he wasn't sure what level she was on.
After a few moments, a light flashed on in a second-floor window, telling him Quinn was safe in her room.
He turned and had taken two steps when he saw the boy. He stood on the sidewalk half a block down. He wore no coat, no hat, no protection against the bite of wind. The long stream of his hair didn't stir in it.
His eyes gleamed, eerily red, as his lips peeled back in a snarl.
Cal heard the sound inside his head while ice balled in his belly.
Not real, he told himself. Not yet. A projection only, like in the dreams. But even in the dreams, it could hurt you or make you think you were hurt.
"Go back where you came from, you bastard." Cal spoke clearly, and as calmly as his shaken nerves would allow. "It's not your time yet."
When it is, I'll devour you, all of you, and everything you hold precious.
The lips didn't move with the words, but stayed frozen in that feral snarl.
"We'll see who feels the bite this round." Cal took another step forward.
And the fire erupted. It spewed out of the wide brick sidewalk, fumed across the street in a wall of wild red. Before he could register that there was no heat, no burn, Cal had already stumbled back, thrown up his hands.
The laughter rang in his head, as wild as the flames. Then both snapped off.
The street was quiet, the brick and buildings unmarred. Tricks up his sleeve, Cal reminded himself. Lots of tricks up his sleeve.
He made himself stride forward, through where the false fire had run. There was a strong acrid odor that puffed then vanished like the vapor of his own breath. In that instant he recognized it.
UPSTAIRS IN THE ROOM THAT MADE HER BLISSFULLY happy with its four-poster bed and fluffy white duvet, Quinn sat at the pretty desk with its curved legs and polished surface writing up the day's notes, data, and impressions on her laptop.
She loved that there were fresh flowers in the room, and a little blue bowl of artfully arranged fresh fruit. The bath held a deep and delightful claw-foot tub and a snowy white pedestal sink. There were thick, generous towels, two bars of soap, and rather stylish minibottles of shampoo, body cream, and bath gel.
Instead of boring, mass-produced posters, the art on the walls were original paintings and photos, which the discreet note on the desk identified as works by local artists available at Artful, a shop on South Main.
The room was full of homey welcoming touches, and provided high-speed Internet access. She made a note to reserve the same room after her initial week was up, for the return trips she planned in April, then again in July.
She'd accomplished quite a bit on her first day, which was a travel day on top of it. She'd met two of the three focal players, had an appointment to hike to the Pagan Stone. She'd gotten a feel for the town, on the surface in any case. And had, she believed, a personal experience with the manifestation of an unidentified (as yet) force.
And she had the bare bones for a bowling article that should work for her friends at Detour.
Not bad, especially when you added in she'd dined sensibly on the grilled chicken salad in the hotel dining room, had not given in to temptation and inhaled an entire pizza but had limited herself to half a slice. And she'd bowled a strike.
On the personal downside, she supposed, as she shut down to prepare for bed, she'd also resisted the temptation to lock lips with the very appealing Caleb Hawkins.
Wasn't she all professional and unsatisfied?
Once she'd changed into her bedtime flannel pants and T-shirt, she nagged herself into doing fifteen minutes of pilates (okay, ten), then fifteen of yoga, before burrowing under the fabulous duvet with her small forest of down pillows.
She took her current book off the nightstand, burrowed into that as well until her eyes began to droop.
Just past midnight, she marked the novel, switched off the lamp, and snuggled into her happy nest.
As was her habit, she was asleep in a finger snap.
Quinn recognized the dream as a dream. Always, she enjoyed the sensation of the disjointed, carnival world of dreamscapes. It was, for her, like having some crazy adventure without any physical exertion. So when she found herself on a crooked path through a thick wood where the moonshine silvered the leaves and the curling fog rippled along the ground, a part of her mind thought: Oh boy! Here we go.
She thought she heard chanting, a kind of hoarse and desperate whisper, but the words themselves were indiscernible.
The air felt like silk, so soft, as she waded through the pools of fog. The chanting continued, drawing her toward it. A single word seemed to fly out of that moonstruck night, and the word was bestia.
She heard it over and over as she followed the crooked path through the silken air and the silver-laced trees. She felt a sexual pull, a heat and reaching in the belly toward whatever, whoever called out in the night.
Twice, then three times, the air seemed to whisper. Beatus. The murmur of that warmed her skin. In the dream, she quickened her steps.
Out of the moon-drenched trees swam a black owl, its great wings stirring a storm in that soft air, chilling it until she shivered. And was, even in the dream, afraid.
With that cold wind stirring, she saw, stretched across the path, a golden fawn. The blood from its slit throat drenched the ground so it gleamed wet and black in the night.
Her heart squeezed with pity. So young, so sweet, she thought as she made herself approach it. Who could have done such a thing?
For a moment, the dead, staring eyes of the fawn cleared, shone as gold as its hind. It looked at her with such sorrow, such wisdom, tears gathered in her throat.
The voice came now, not through the whipped air, but in her mind. The single word: devoveo.
Then the trees were bare but for the ice that sheathed trunk and branch, and the silver moonlight turned gray. The path had turned, or she had, so now she faced a small pond. The water was black as ink, as if any light the sky pushed down was sucked into its depths and smothered there.
Beside the pond was a young woman in a long brown dress. Her hair was chopped short, with the strings and tufts of it sticking out wildly. Beside the black pond she bent to fill the pockets of her brown dress with stones.
Hello! Quinn called out. What are you doing?
The girl only continued to fill her pockets. As Quinn walked closer, she saw the girl's eyes were full of tears, and of madness.
Crap. You don't want to do that. You don't want to go Virginia Woolf. Wait. Just wait. Talk to me.
The girl turned her head, and for one shocked moment, Quinn saw the face as her own. He doesn't know everything, the mad girl said. He didn't know you.
She threw out her arms, and her slight body, weighed heavy with her cache of stones, tipped, tipped, tipped until it met the black water. The pond swallowed it like a waiting mouth.
Quinn leaped-what else could she do? Her body braced for the shock of cold as she filled her lungs with air.
There was a flash of light, a roar that might have been thunder or something alive and hungry. She was on her knees in a clearing where a stone rose out of the earth like an altar. Fire spewed around her, above her, through her, but she felt none of its heat.
Through the flames she saw two shapes, one black, one white, grappling like mad animals. With a terrible rending sound, the earth opened up, and like the waiting mouth of the pond, swallowed everything.
The scream ripped from her throat as that maw widened to take her. Clawing, she dragged herself toward the stone, fought to wrap her arms around it.
It broke into three equal parts, sending her tumbling, tumbling into that open, avid mouth.
She woke, huddled on the lovely bed, the linens tangled around her legs as she gripped one of the bedposts as if her life depended on it.
Her breath was an asthmatic's wheeze, and her heart beat so fast and hard it had her head spinning.
A dream, just a dream, she reminded herself, but couldn't force herself-not quite yet-to release her hold on the bedpost.
Clinging to it, she let her cheek rest on the wood, closed her eyes until the shaking had lessened to an occasional quiver.
"Hell of a ride," she mumbled.
The Pagan Stone. That's where she'd been at the end of the dream, she was certain of it. She recognized it from pictures she'd seen. Small wonder she'd have a scary dream about it, about the woods. And the pond…Wasn't there something in her research about a woman drowning in the pond? They'd named it after her. Hester's Pond. No, pool. Hester's Pool.
It all made sense, in dream logic.
Yeah, a hell of a ride, and she'd die happy if she never took another like it.
She glanced at her travel alarm, and saw by its luminous dial it was twenty after three. Three in the morning, she thought, was the dead time, the worst time to be wakeful. So she'd go back to sleep, like a sensible woman. She'd straighten the bed, get herself a nice cool drink of water, then tune out.
She'd had enough jolts and jumps for her first day.
She slid out of bed to tug the sheets and duvet back into some semblance of order, then turned, intending to go to the adjoining bath for a glass of water.
The scream wouldn't sound. It tore through her head like scrabbling claws, but nothing could tear its way out of the hot lock of her throat.
The boy grinned obscenely through the dark window. His face, his hands pressed against the glass bare inches away from her own. She saw its tongue flick out to roll across those sharp, white teeth, and those eyes, gleaming red, seemed as bottomless and hungry as the mouth of earth that had tried to swallow her in her dream.
Her knees wanted to buckle, but she feared if she dropped to the ground it would come crashing through the glass to latch those teeth on her throat like a wild dog.
Instead, she lifted her hand in the ancient sign against evil. "Get away from here," she whispered. "Stay away from me."
It laughed. She heard the horrible, giddy sound of it, saw its shoulders shake with mirth. Then it pushed off the glass into a slow, sinuous somersault. It hung suspended for a moment above the sleeping street. Then it…condensed, was all she could think. It shrank into itself, into a pinpoint of black, and vanished.
Quinn launched herself at the window, yanked the shade down to cover every inch of glass. And lowering to the floor at last, she leaned back against the wall, trembling.
When she thought she could stand, she used the wall as a brace, quick-stepping to the other windows. She was out of breath again by the time all the shades were pulled, and tried to tell herself the room didn't feel like a closed box.
She got the water-she needed it-and gulped down two full glasses. Steadier, she stared at the covered windows.
"Okay, screw you, you little bastard."
Picking up her laptop, she went back to her position on the floor-it just felt safer under the line of the windowsills-and began to type up every detail she remembered from the dream, and from the thing that pressed itself to the night glass.
WHEN SHE WOKE, THE LIGHT WAS A HARD YELLOW line around the cream linen of the shades. And the battery of her laptop was stone dead. Congratulating herself on remembering to back up before she'd curled onto the floor to sleep, she got her creaky self up.
Stupid, of course, she told herself as she tried to stretch out the worst of the stiffness. Stupid not to turn off her machine, then crawl back into that big, cozy bed. But she'd forgotten the first and hadn't even considered the second.
Now, she put the computer back on the pretty desk, plugged it in to recharge the batteries. With some caution-after all, it had been broad daylight when she'd seen the boy the first time-she approached the first window. Eased up the shade.
The sun was lancing down out of a boiled blue sky. On the pavement, on awnings and roofs, a fresh white carpet of snow shimmered.
She spotted a few merchants or their employees busily shoveling sidewalks or porches and steps. Cars putted along the plowed street. She wondered if school had been called or delayed due to the snow.
She wondered if the boy had demon classes that day.
For herself, Quinn decided she was going to treat her abused body to a long soak in the charming tub. Then she'd try Ma's Pantry for breakfast, and see who she could get to talk to her over her fruit and granola about the legends of Hawkins Hollow.