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BILLY LURCHED OUT OF BED . . .
. . . and ripped the buds from his ears as he staggered to the bedroom door. He was on autopilot, his body reacting to his mother hollering "Dad!" again and again while his brain tried to process that he wasn’t still sleeping. He’d been dreaming the sort of dream that felt like it was really happening. The images were already fading—the threads had begun unraveling as soon as his mom had started screaming—but one memory remained: the man in white.
The Ice Cream Man, Billy thought muddily as he opened his door, the Ice Cream Man’s going to let me ride the white horse . . .
His mother raced down the hallway, screaming for her father. "Dad! Dad, where are you? Martin! Come out!"
Billy had to shout to get her attention. "Did Gramps get out again?"
"I don’t know," she said too fast. "He might have, or he could be here in the house somewhere, there’s so many places he could be if he jimmied the locks and . . . oh God, the kitchen cabinet!" She bolted down the hallway, banking the corner and heading for the kitchen.
Billy’s heartbeat thundered in his throat, his ears, behind his eyes. Here we go again, he thought bleakly, even as patted down his pockets to make sure he still had his keys and phone. The last time Gramps had been alone, he’d almost set the house on fire. When Billy had gotten the matches away from him, his grandfather had slugged him in the eye. The rest of the night, Gramps had screeched at Billy, calling him horrible names and threatening to kill him.
"It’s not him," his mom had told Billy all that night, the next morning, the next week. "It’s the Alzheimer’s talking, not him." As if that magically made everything better.
Billy locked his bedroom door and joined his mom in the kitchen. She was tugging on the cabinet under the sink, testing the child-safety lock. It was still on, so his grandfather couldn’t have gotten into the drain cleaner. Billy asked, "Any doors open?"
His mom didn’t answer. She was still pulling at the cabinet door, fixated on it, as if breaking the lock would somehow produce Gramps.
Billy tried the back door, but it was locked tight. Same with the door to the garage. But the front door, the one masked by the wall poster of a bookcase, was slightly ajar—the same poster that usually hid the door also camouflaged how the door hadn’t been completely closed.
Gritting his teeth, Billy called out, "Front door!" And then he raced outside, looking around for any sign of his grandfather. "Gramps!" he yelled, then switched to cries of "Martin! Martin Walker! Can you hear me?" His voice echoed back at him like music.
That was when he realized the block was oddly quiet. Usually, midafternoon on a weekday, cars streamed up and down the street; on a warm afternoon like today, kids should be hanging out, riding bikes or skateboards. But today, the street was barren. Dead.
No, not quite. Down at the end of the block, a guy was playing a guitar.
Thank God, Billy thought, racing down the sidewalk. When Gramps escaped the house, he tended to walk a straight line, so there was a good chance he’d gone right by the street musician. The guitarist was blond and lean, doing the grunger thing like he’d sprung out of a Seattle 1990s brochure. Not bad at the guitar, either. The musician started singing as Billy approached—a familiar tune, but Billy couldn’t quite place it. He stumbled to a halt in front of the guitarist’s open case, which was lying open on the pavement and sparkled with coins reflecting the sunlight.
Pennies. All of the coins were pennies. Billy thought that was both odd and, for some reason, strangely appropriate.
"Years and years I’ve roamed," the blond guitarist sang.
That had to be a good omen. "Hey," Billy said, huffing from his sprint. "Did you see an old man walk this way?"
The guitarist stopped singing, but his fingers kept strumming, keeping the tune alive. He smiled lazily. "What, walking hunched over and gasping for breath? Nope. But I did see a man wander past not even five minutes ago."
Billy blinked, absorbed both the joke and the information, then asked, "Did he keep going straight?" He pointed farther down the street.
"Thanks," said Billy, then reached in his pocket for some change, just a small tip to thank the guy. But before he could toss the money into the guitar case, the musician grabbed his arm. Billy was stunned by the contact, and even more by the strength and chill of the guitarist’s fingers. It felt like frozen branches had wrapped around his wrist.
"No need for that," said the musician.
Billy stammered, "Wanted to thank you."
The guitarist kept smiling, but now there was an edge to it. "Then give thanks instead of coin, William Ballard. Otherwise, you’ll get what you pay for, and there’s no time."
Shocked speechless, Billy couldn’t ask how the musician knew his name.
"You have only three minutes before your grandfather causes a rather messy accident," said the guitarist. His blue eyes glinted wickedly in the sunlight. "He’s walking in the street, and the driver’s about to text his girlfriend."
Billy’s mouth worked silently, gaping like a fish suffocating in air.
"Go," commanded the guitarist, releasing Billy’s wrist. "Less than three minutes now. You’d better run."
The pale horse shook its head, as if shaking away a fly.
"What?" said Death. "It was just a little friendly advice."
The horse snorted.
Death smiled at his steed. "You’re just annoyed that he didn’t see you."
If the horse had a comment, the steed kept it to itself.
Still smiling, Death began to play the guitar once more.
Rushing forward, Billy’s thoughts were a mad jumble as he wondered how the street musician knew his name. Not a musician. A Rider. He’s the Pale Rider and he says Gramps is going to be in an accident, have to hurry, hurry, find Gramps . . .
Lost in his mind’s free flow, Billy sprinted down the street. He was thinking now about his grandfather, of the man who’d read him bedtime stories and chased away any monsters crouching in the closet. Martin Walker had been a bear of a man when Billy was young, a towering presence that had filled the house and made Billy feel safe—
(even after the Ice Cream Man, a voice whispered in the back of Billy’s mind)
—even after his dad had gone away. Without Gramps, he never would have learned to ride a bike, or catch a fish, or so many other things. He vividly remembered the feeling of his grandfather’s calloused fingers over his smaller, softer ones as Gramps taught him how to swing a baseball bat; he heard pride in the memory of his grandfather’s voice, pride and love as Gramps encouraged him and congratulated him every time the bat connected and sent the ball sailing across the sky. Just believe you can do it, Gramps would say. Believe, and stand tall.
He had to find his grandfather. Had to.
You have only three minutes before your grandfather causes a rather messy accident.
How long had Billy been running? A minute? Two? Surely not three. Only three minutes, the guitarist had said, and never mind how the blond man knew that his grandfather would be in an accident; the street musician had declared it, and Billy believed him.
Of course Billy believed him; he was the Pale Rider, and he knew when people were scheduled to die.
Oh my God, Billy thought, wind-tears stinging his eyes, I’m going crazy.
No, he had no time for that. Muscles screaming, chest burning, Billy raced across the neighborhood, his feet slapping the ground in a backbeat to his labored breathing. No air to waste calling his grandfather’s name. No air, no time, no . . .
Up ahead, his grandfather was threading himself between parked cars. Each time he looped around, he wandered into the middle of the street and paused, then continued on, moving to another car and circling it before heading back to the center lane once more. His open jacket flapped around his body like a cape.
His gaze locked on his grandfather’s coat, Billy snarled as rage flooded him, tinting his world red. Didn’t even take off his jacket, he thought, wasn’t home long enough to take off his jacket. Mom was in a hurry and forgot to lock the door and she didn’t even help him out of his jacket and this is her fault!
Fueled with righteous anger, Billy rocketed forward, shouting, "Martin! Martin Walker, please stop!"
The old man froze, then slowly turned his head until he saw Billy. Even halfway down the block, he sensed the tension crackling along his grandfather’s limbs.
Gramps was going to bolt.
Billy forced himself to stop, stumbling his way to a graceless halt. Hands out, imploring, Billy called out, "Mr. Walker, we’ve been worried about you."
His grandfather didn’t move. There was a gleam in his eyes, something caged and frantic.
Billy took a step forward, and then another, keeping his arms out, palms up, showing Gramps that he meant him no harm. "Mom—Jane’s been looking for you."
The name penetrated. The old man cocked his head and asked, "Janey?"
"Yes, Janey." So hard to project his voice and yet keep it soft, unthreatening. Another step, and then another. Walking slowly now, he said, "She needs you, Mr. Walker. Janey needs you. Will you please come with me?"
His grandfather frowned, but he didn’t run. Progress.
Billy took another step, and that’s when he saw the car. It barreled forward, nowhere even close to going thirty—it was doing at least fifty, sixty, a hundred miles an hour, a moss green car gunning for his grandfather.
He launched himself at the old man, whose eyes widened in either fear or fury. Gramps didn’t turn around, didn’t see the pale streak of death careening straight toward him.
With a defiant cry, Billy tackled his grandfather. The two of them flew in a tangle of limbs, the old man screeching and Billy howling, wrapping himself around Gramps to cushion him from the impact. They landed hard against a parked car, a dirty white sedan. The pale green car drove past, veering slightly to the left. Billy caught sight of the driver suddenly looking up. The car straightened and continued going past, going, going . . . gone.
Billy let out a shaky, relieved breath. And that’s when his grandfather punched him in the jaw. "Ow! What—"
"Off!" Gramps punched him again.
"Quit it!" Billy held on to his grandfather with one hand and tried to protect his face with the other. "Gramps, stop!"
The old man snarled, "Off me! Off!"
"Janey," Billy said, trying to be patient even with his heart thundering in his chest. "Janey needs you, Mr. Walker."
The name worked its magic once more: His grandfather’s face softened. "Janey?"
"She’s waiting for you. At home."
"Huh." The old man lowered his fists and stopped pulling away from Billy.
"I’ll take you there, sir. Okay?"
Billy nudged Gramps gently, and together they shuffle-walked the path back to Billy’s house. They paused only twice: The first time was so Billy could maneuver his cell phone out of his back pocket and call his mom to tell her they were headed home, and the second was when they passed a particular corner where a street musician had been playing the guitar and singing about a man who’d sold the world.
Where the guitarist had been, two old pennies shone cheerfully in the afternoon sun.