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There were three of them: Brian Horner and Scott Bowman in the front, Jake Laking in the back. Scott was driving. It was 5:35 A.M. In the east a flat arc of crimson widened like a sleepy eye. The driver's-side window was rolled all the way down, and from time to time Scott leaned his face into the cool rush of air. He was beginning to have some real difficulty concentrating on the road, which was slick from an earlier drizzle.
"Come on, Jake," Scott said in weary exasperation. "I'm beat, half-pissed, and I sure as Christ shouldn't be driving. So where are we, huh?"
An inebriated cackle drifted up from the back seat of the Volkswagen Beetle. The interior light was snapped on and a map of the southeastern New England states was wrestled noisily open.
"I haven't got a clue," Jake said after a considering pause. Jake was in charge of navigation -- or, at least, he was supposed to be. They had turned north off I-90 just outside of Boston in the hopes of finding a campground or a cheap motel, but that had been well over two hours ago. "Lost, I guess." He cackled again.
"That's great," Scott said, hammering the wheel with the butt of one hand. Beside him, Brian slouched in a drunken drowse. "That's just great!"
"Lighten up," Jake replied sharply, the good humor gone from his voice. "Who gives a shit where we are? We're boogyin', right?" He reached into the hip pocket of his wash-faded Levi's and produced a flattened plastic Baggie. "Besides, I've got a bit of a treat in store." He wagged the thing in the air next to Scott's right ear.
"What's that?" Scott asked warily,trying to see whatever it was in the rearview mirror. His eyes shifted back to the narrow roadway in time to correct for a tight, unmarked turn.
"I purchased this little number in that bar back in Boston," Jake said with a slur. "A few toots of this particular herb and you won't give a damn where you are."
"Dope?!" Scott exploded. "That tears it, man. I thought you gave that up in high school. You know what color of shit we'd be in if we got caught with that stuff in the car? We're in the States now, dickhead. This isn't Canada. We'd lose our spots in medical school, and that would be the least of it."
Scott shook his head, partly in disgust, but mostly in an effort to clear his vision. He'd had more to drink than he was accustomed to, and now his alertness was dwindling dangerously. The interstate had been okay, the kind of wide, unbending strip you could navigate pretty much on autopilot. But wherever they were now, he needed every ounce of concentration he could muster. The road was unlit and winding, really treacherous in places.
An awkward silence settled in the car. Only Brian, his hulking, linebacker's body shifting slackly in the shotgun seat, was oblivious of its weight. Jake couldn't see the harm in a little combustible cheer. They were getting it on, celebrating their acceptance into medical school. That had been the point of the trip in the first place -- that and visiting the universities each of them had been admitted to.
But it was Scott's car, and Scott was the serious one.
They rolled on. To Scott, the winding rural road seemed endless. There had been no signs of habitation in almost an hour, and the only roadsign had been so badly buckshot it was illegible. At this point all he wanted to do was stop someplace quiet and sleep it off.
In the back seat Jake lit up. Scott could hear him inhaling and then stifling a cough. After a moment the joint's glowing tip stitched like a firefly across the rearview mirror. Then it was under Scott's nose.
Scott pushed it away. "I'm driving," he said flatly, and the joint vanished into the back again.
The weed made Scott nervous. He had worked too hard and too long to lose it all over something as juvenile as a bag of grass. Banking into another curve, he marveled at the paradox that was Jake Laking. Moody, brilliant beyond anyone Scott had previously encountered, Jake could regress without warning into the kind of redneck yo-yo you'd expect to find haunting the strip joints by night and the welfare lines by day.
In the back seat Jake broke into a chorus of his old high school song.
"Yellow and blue, yellow and blue,
What we want we always do..."
The road jagged hard to the left. As Scott eased into the curve, the headlights flickered off a badly canted roadsign.
"Old Burwash Road," he said, reading the sign aloud. "See if you can find it on the map."
The happy minstrel in the back ignored him. Brian grunted awake from his stupor.
Genuinely angry now, Scott glared into the rearview mirror. He was about to chew Jake out when Brian shouted, "Heads up!" and seized the wheel, cranking it hard to the right.
Scott looked out in time to see a kitten dart onto the blacktop from the tall grass bordering the roadway. Tail straight up, eyes flicking back an eerie red reflex from the glare of the oncoming headlights, its tawny body froze in the middle of the lane and waited for the killing impact. Shoving Brian's hand away, Scott continued the rightward veer, edging the starboard wheels into the loose dirt of the shoulder and just missing the terror-stricken animal. The dirt caught and held, tugging at the car like a giant hand.
The child's head appeared first, popping out through the curtain of grass like the head of the world's tiniest vaudeville performer. Her body followed, and then she was standing there, not a dozen feet away, rigid with fear as the kitten had been only a heartbeat before. She wore a frilly white dress and polished white shoes and she couldn't have been much older than ten. Her hair was like spun silver, and it riffled prettily in the breeze. Her eyes, round and terrified, locked on Scott's in an unwavering death grip that burned with the same red fire as the kitten's eyes had when it froze in the middle of the road. Pale in the glare of the headlights, she seemed somehow transparent, spectral, unreal.
But the sound she made when the Volkswagen scooped her up, a sound like hailstones pelting tin, was more than real.
It was mortal.
It took only seconds, yet during that catastrophic interval Scott Bowman learned what an arbitrary concept Time really is. Somehow an eternity in the cruelest reaches of hell got crammed into those few seconds, and it never ended.
It just went on and on and on.
The Beetle's low chrome bumper took her just above the knees, folding her onto the steeply sloping hood like a well-hit bowling pin. Her head struck the hood with a metallic thunk, a dull death-sound that would waken Scott from numberless future nightmares. Then she was rolling upward, her slender legs pitched bonelessly to the right, her arms pinwheeling in small, futile circles. Now her face was in front of Scott's, bare inches away, her eyes glazed but still fixed on his even though she was almost certainly already dead.
She's looking at me, he thought wildly, oh, dear God, she's looking right at me!
Then her face struck the windshield with a sharp, wet splintering sound and glass was rocketing inward, glittering shards that stung like angry hornets. There followed an instant when it seemed she would hang there forever, her lifeless eyes peering in at him accusingly. Then she was gone, over the side and down into the pale, receding night.
The car fishtailed twice, first to the left, then to the right, then heeled back onto the blacktop before juddering to a halt across the faded center line. There was a jagged, fist-sized hole in the windshield. Next to it, running off thinly to the left, was a small, almost inconsequential smear of blood. Cool air found its way through that hole and struck Scott's shock-whitened face.
It smelled of slaughter.
He closed his eyes and tried to wind back the clock; a few seconds was all he needed. He would return to the instant the kitten had appeared and run the witless creature over, drive on without sparing it even a single backward glance. Frantic phrases like prayers streaked through his mind, staccato verses directed at any god, pagan or otherwise, who might hear his pleas.
o god let her live please do anything but please let her live i beg of you...
Scott's body trembled convulsively, its every fiber riddled with horror. His fingers went to his chin and found blood, his own blood, running in a rivulet from a pea-sized wound caused by a bullet of flying glass.
a dream let it be a dream...
Slowly he opened his eyes. He didn't look at his friends. He looked instead at the windshield in the desperate hope that it would be intact, that the spiderweb fracture with the fist-sized hole would be gone, that the runny smear of blood would have vanished.
But the hole was there... and the blood.
The harsh clunk of a door.
Low, shocky, overlapping voices.
Then Scott was drifting out of the car, following the hunched figures of his friends, gliding toward that small, crumpled shape in the road. He fell to his knees beside her even as the others shrank away. He was no doctor, not yet, but he knew she was dead just as surely as he knew that a part of him had died along with her. He placed a hand behind her neck and her head lolled slackly toward him. Her eyes were still open, still gazing blankly into his.
"Don't touch her!" Brian cried into the flat morning air. "You could damage her spinal cord!"
"She's dead, you asshole," Jake said coldly.
At the sound of Jake's voice Scott looked up -- and his heart lurched into his throat.
Jake's eyes, usually a soft, pallid green, seemed to emit their own amber light as they swept the roadway in both directions, then shifted to the bordering woods. He stood with his shoulders hunched and his head cocked intently to one side, and for an instant Scott imagined a coiled, predatory cat, scenting danger and preparing to disembowel it.
And in that same instant Scott knew his friend's thoughts, clearly and absolutely.
Because they were his own thoughts, too.
Brian Horner, his huge frame weaving against the indigo sky, stared down dumbly at the child and started to blubber. For him, what had happened was only now beginning to sink in.
Scott turned again to the child and realized she was an albino. It explained the ghostly pallor, the snow-white hair... and those eyes, devoid of pigment, reflecting red in the glare of the headlights.
Her blood was red, too. It was on his hand, tacky and warm, and a pool of it was spreading around her ruined head like some terrible satanic halo.
The world tilted crazily, the darkness that had been so rapidly receding returning, spilling into Scott's vision like fountain ink. There was a voice, harsh and reproachful -- Jake's voice -- and clawed fingers gouging into his shoulder... but the voice seemed far away and hollow, reaching him from the bottom of a dark, dry well.
Now he was falling into that well... down... down... spiraling down.
At the bottom was the child's white face.
And its eyes were on fire.
Copyright © 1990 by Sean Costello