They hadn’t gone far when something very strange and rather frightening happened. For a moment the world bled white in front of them. The doors to the rooms ranged along the hall, barely visible in this bright white haze, expanded to the size of warehouse loading bays.
The corridor itself seemed to simultaneously elongate and grow taller.
Ralph felt the bottom go out of his stomach the way it often had back when he was a teenager, and a frequent customer on the Dust Devil roller coaster at Old Orchard Beach. He heard Lois moan, and she squeezed his hand with panicky tightness.
The whiteout lasted only a second, and when the colors swarmed back into the world, they were brighter and crisper than they had been a moment before. Normal perspective returned, but objects looked thicker, somehow. The auras were still there, but they appeared both thinner and paler-pastel coronas instead of spraypainted primary colors. At the same time Ralph realized he could see every crack and pore in the Sheetrocked wall to his left… and then he realized he could see the pipes, wires, and insulation behind the walls, if he wanted to; all he had to do was look.
Oh my God, he thought. Is this really happening? Can this really, be happening?
Sounds were everywhere: hushed bells, a toilet being flushed, muted laughter. Sounds a person normally took for granted, as part of everyday life, but not now. Not here. Like the visible reality of things, the sounds seemed to have an extraordinarily sensuous texture, like thin overlapping scallops of silk and steel.
Nor were all the sounds ordinary; there were a great many exotic ones weaving their way through the mix. He heard a fly buzzing deep in a heating duct. The fine-grain sandpaper sound of a nurse adjusting her pantyhose in the staff bathroom. Beating hearts. Circulating blood. The soft tidal flow of respiration. Each sound was perfect on its own; fitted into the others, they made a beautiful and complicated auditory ballet-a hidden Swan Lake of gurgling stomachs, humming power outlets, hurricane hairdryers, whispering wheels on hospital gurneys.
Ralph could hear a TV at the end of the hall beyond the nurses’ station. It was coming from Room 340, where Mr. Thomas Wren, a kidney patient, was watching Kirk Douglas and Lana Turner in The Bad and the Beautiful. “If you team up with me, baby, we’ll turn this town on its ear,” Kirk was saying, and Ralph knew from the aura which surrounded the words that Mr. Douglas had been suffering a toothache on the day that particular scene was filmed. Nor was that all; he knew he could go (higher? deeper? wider?) if he wanted. Ralph most definitely did not want. This was the forest of Arden, and a man could get lost in its thickets.
Or eaten by tigers.
[“Jesus It’s another level-it must be, Lois A whole other level [“I know.
[“Are you okay with this?” [“I think I am, Ralph… are you?”] [“I guess so, for now… but if the bottom drops out again, I don’t know. Come on.”] But before they could begin following the green-gold tracks again, Bill McGovern and a man Ralph didn’t know came out of Room 313. They were in deep conversation.
Lois turned a horror-struck face toward Ralph.
[“Oh, o.” Oh God, no! Do you see, Ralph? Do you see?”] Ralph gripped her hand more tightly. He saw, all right. McGovern’s friend was surrounded by a plum-colored aura. It didn’t look especially healthy, but Ralph didn’t think the man was seriously ill, either; it was just a lot of chronic stuff like rheumatism and kidney gravel. A balloon-string of the same mottled purple shade rose from the top of the man’s aura, wavering hesitantly back and forth like a diver’s air-hose in a mild current.
McGovern’s aura, however, was totally black. The stump of what had once been a balloon-string jutted stiffly up from it. The thunderstruck baby’s balloon-string had been short but healthy; what they were looking at now was the decaying remnant of a crude amputation. Ralph had a momentary image, so strong it was almost a hallucination, of McGovern’s eyes first bulging and then popping out of their sockets, knocked loose by a flood of black bugs. He had to close his own eyes for a moment to keep from screaming, and when he opened them again, Lois was no longer at his side.
McGovern and his friend were walking in the direction of the nurses’ station, probably bound for the water-fountain. Lois was in hot pusuit, trotting up the corridor, bosom heaving, Her aura flashed with twizzling pinkish sparks that looked like neon-flavored asterisks.
Ralph bolted after her. He didn’t know what would happen if she caught McGovern’s attention, and didn’t really want to find out. He thought he was probably going to, however.
[“Lois.” Lois, don’t do that.” She ignored him.
[“Bill, stop! You have to listen to me.” Something’s wrong with you./’,] McGovern paid no attention to her; he was talking about Bob Polhurst’s manuscript, Later That Summer. “Best damned book on the Civil War I ever read,” he told the man inside the plum-colored aura, “but when I suggested that he publish, he told me that was out of the question. Can you believe it? A possible Pulitzer Prize winner, but-” [“Lois, come back! Don’t go near him."’] [“Bill.” Bill! B-“I Lois reached McGovern just before Ralph was able to reach her.
She put out her hand to grab his shoulder. Ralph saw her fingers plunge into the murk which surrounded him… and then slide into him.
Her aura changed at once, from a gray-blue shot with those pinkish sparks to a red as bright as the side of a fire engine. jagged flocks of black shot through it like clouds of tiny swarming insects. Lois screamed and pulled her hand back. The expression on her face was a mixture of terror and loathing. She held her hand up in front of her eyes and screamed again, although Ralph could see nothing on it.
Narrow black stripes were now whirring giddily around the outer edges of her aura; to Ralph they looked like planetary orbits marked on a map of the solar system. She turned to flee. Ralph grabbed her by the upper arms and she beat at him blindly.
McGovern and his friend, meanwhile, continued their placid amble up the hall to the drinking fountain, completely unaware of the shrieking, struggling woman not ten feet behind them. “When I asked Bob why he wouldn’t publish the book,” McGovern was continuing, “he said that I of all people should understand his reasons.
I told him…”
Lois drowned him out, shrieking like a firebell.
[“Quit it, Lois.” Quit it right now!!
Whatever happened to you is over now.” It’s over and you’re all right.” But Lois continued to struggle, dinning those inarticulate screams into his head, trying to tell him how awful it had been, how he’d been rotting, that there were things inside him, eating him alive, and that was bad enough, but it wasn’t the worst. Those things were around, she said, they were bad, and they had known she was there.
[“Lois, you’re with me You’re with me and it’s all right.” One of her flying fists clipped the side of his jaw and Ralph saw stars. He understood that they had passed to a plane of reality where physical contact with others was impossible-hadn’t he seen Lois’s hand pass directly into McGovern, like the hand of a ghost?-but they were obviously still real enough to each other; he had the bruised jaw to prove it.
He slipped his arms around her and hugged her against him, imprisoning her fists between her breasts and his chest. Her cries however, continued to rant and blast in his head, He locked his hands together between her shoulderblades and squeezed.
He felt the power leap out of him again, as it had that morning, only this time it felt entirely different. Blue light spilled through Lois’s turbulent red-black aura, soothing it. Her struggles slowed and then ceased. they felt her draw a shuddering breath. Above and around her, the blue glow was expanding and fading. The black bands disappeared from her aura, one after the other, from the bottom to top, and then that alarming shade of infected red also began to fade. She put her head against his arm. sorry, Ralph-I went nuclear again, didn’t I?”] That’s The trouble.”
“I suppose so, but ever mind. You’re okay now, that’s the important thing.”] [“If ’ you knew how horrible that was-… touching the thing “You put it across very well, Lois.
She glanced down the corridor, where McGovern’s friend was now getting a drink. McGovern lounged against the wall next to him, talking about how the Exalted amp; Revered Bob Polhurst had always done the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle in ink.
“He used to tell me that wasn’t pride but optimism,” McGovern said, and the deathbag swirled sluggishly around him as he spoke, flowing in and out of his mouth and between the fingers of his gesturing, eloquent hand.
[“We can’t help him, can we, Ralph? There’s not a thing in the world we can do.”] Ralph gave her a brief, strong hug. Her aura, he saw, had entirely returned to normal.
McGovern and his friend were walking back down the corridor toward them. Acting on impulse, Ralph disengaged himself from Lois and stepped directly in front of Mr. Plum, who was listening to McGovern hold forth on the tragedy of old age and nodding in the right places.
[“Ralph, don’t do that.”] [“It’s okay, don’t worry.”
But all at once he wasn’t so sure it was okay. He might have stepped back, given another second. Before he could, however, Mr. Plum glanced unseeingly into his face and walked right through him.
The sensation that swept through Ralph’s body at his passage was Perfectly familiar; it was the pins-and-needles feeling one gets when a sleeping limb starts to wake up. For one moment his aura and Mr. Plum’s mingled, and Ralph knew everything about the man that there was to know, including the dreams he’d had in his mother’s womb.
Mr. Plum stopped short.
“Something wrong?” McGovern asked.
“I guess not, but… did you hear a bang someplace? Like a firecracker, or a car backfire?”
“Can’t say I did, but my hearing isn’t what it used to be.”
McGovern chuckled. “If something did blow up, I certainly hope it wasn’t in one of the radiation labs.”
“I don’t hear anything now. Probably just my imagination.” They turned into Bob Polhurst’s room.
Ralph thought, Mrs. Perrine said it sounded like a gunshot.
Lois’s friend thought there was a bug on her, maybe biting her. just a difference in touch, maybe, the way different piano-players have different touches. Either way, they feel it when we mess with them.
They may not know what it is, but they sure do feel it.
Lois took his hand and led him to the door of Room 313. They stood in the hall, looking in as McGovern seated himself in a plastic contour chair at the foot of the bed. There were at least eight people crammed into the room and Ralph couldn’t see Bob Polhurst clearly, but he could see one thing: although he was deep within his own deathbag, Polhurst’s balloon-string was still intact. It was as filthy as a rusty exhaust pipe, peeling in some places and cracked in others… but it was still intact. He turned to Lois.
[“These people may have longer to wait than they think.
Lois nodded, then pointed down at the greeny-gold footprintsthe white-man tracks. They bypassed 313, Ralph saw, but turned in at the next doorway-315, jimmy V."s room.
He and Lois walked up together and stood looking in. jimmy V. had three visitors, and the one sitting beside the bed thought he was all alone. That one was Faye Chapin, idly looking through the dOLiblc stack of get-well cards on jimmy’s bedside table.
The other two were the little bald doctors Ralph had seen for the first time on May Locher’s stoop. They stood at the foot of Jimmy V."s bed, solemn in their clean white tunics, and now that he stood close to them, Ralph could see that there were worlds of character in those unlined, almost identical faces; it just wasn’t the sort of thing one could see through a pair of binoculars-or maybe not until you slid up the ladder of perception a little way. Most of it was in the eyes, which were dark, pupilless, and flecked with deep golden glints. Those eyes shone with intelligence and lively awareness. Their auras gleamed and flashed around them like the robes of emperors…
… or perhaps of Centurions on a visit of state.
They looked over at Ralph and Lois, who stood holding hands in the doorway like children who have lost their way in a fairy-tale wood, and smiled at them.
[Hello, woman.] That was Doc #1. He was holding the scissors in his right hand.
The blades were very long, and the points looked very sharp.
Doc #2 took a step toward them and made a funny little half-bow.
[Hello, man. We’ve bee waiting for you.] Ralph felt Lois’s hand tighten on his own, then loosen as she decided they were in no immediate danger. She took a small step forward, looking from Doc #1 to Doc #2 and then back to #1 again, [“Who are you?”] Doc #1 crossed his arms over his small chest. The long blades of’ his scissors lay the entire length of his white-clad left forearm.
[We don’t have names, not the same as Short-Timers do-but you call us after the fates in the story this man has already told you. That these names originally belonged to women means little to us, since we are creatures with no sexual dimension. I will be Clotho, although I spin no thread, and my colleague and old friend will be Lachesis, although he shakes no rods and has never thrown the coins.
Come in, both of you-please!] They came in and stood warily between the visitor’s chair and the bed. Ralph didn’t think the docs meant them any harm-for now, at least-but he still didn’t want to get too close. Their auras, so bright and fabulous compared to those of ordinary people, intimidated him, and he could see from Lois’s wide eyes and half-open mouth that she felt the same. She sensed him looking at her, turned toward him, and tried to smile. My Lois, Ralph thought. He put an arm around her shoulders and hugged her briefly.
Lachesis: [We’ve given you our names-names you may use, at any rate,-won’t you give us yours?] Lois: [“You mean you don’t already know? Pardon me, but I find that hard to believe.”] Lachesis: [We could know, but choose not to. We like to observe the rules of common Short-Time politeness wherever we can. We find them lovely, for they are passed on by your kind from large hand to small and create the illusion of long lives.] [“I don’t understand.”] Ralph didn’t, either, and wasn’t sure he wanted to. He found something faintly patronizing in the tone of the one who called himself Lachesis, something that reminded him of McGovern when he was in a mood to lecture or pontificate.
Lachesis: [It doesn’t matter. We felt sure you would come. We know that -you were watching us on Monday morning, man, at the borne of I At this point there was a queer overlapping in Lachesis’s speech.
He seemed to say two things at exactly the same time, the terms rolling together like a snake with its own tail in its mouth: [May Locher. [the finished woman.] Lois took a hesitant step forward.
[“My name is Lois Chasse. My friend I’s Ralph Roberts. And now that we’ve all been properly introduced, maybe you two fellows will tell us what’s going on around here.”] Lachesis: [There is another to be named!
Clotho: [Ralph Roberts has already named him.] Lois looked at Ralph, who was nodding his head.
[“They’re talking about Doc #3. Right, guys?”] Clotho and Lachesis nodded. They were wearing identical approving smiles. Ralph supposed he should have been flattered, but he wasn’t. Instead he was afraid, and very angry-they had been neatly manipulated, every step down the line. This was no chance meeting; it had been a setup from the word go. Clotho and Lachesis, just a couple of little bald doctors with time on their hands, standing around in Jimmy V."s room waiting for the Short-Timers to arrive, ho-hum.
Ralph glanced over at Faye and saw he had taken a book called 50 Classic Chess Problems out of his back pocket. He was reading and picking his nose in ruminative fashion as he did so. After a few preliminary explorations, Faye dove deep and hooked a big one. He examined it, then parked it on the underside of the bedside table.
Ralph looked away, embarrassed, and a saying of his grandmother’s Popped into his mind: Peek not through a keyhole, lest ye be vexed.
He had lived to be seventy without fully understanding that; at last he thought he did. Meanwhile, another question had occurred to him.
[“Why doesn’t Faye see us? Why didn’t Bill and his friend see us, for that matter? And how could that man walk right through me? Or did I just imagine that?”] Clotho smiled.
[You didn’t imagine it. Try to think of life as a kind of building Ralph-what you would call a skyscraper.] Except that wasn’t quite what Clotho was thinking of, Ralph discovered. For one flickering moment he seemed to catch an ’ image from the mind of the other one he found both exciting and disturbing: an enormous tower constructed of dark and sooty stone, standing in a field of red roses.
Slit windows twisted up its sides in a brooding spiral.
Then it was gone.
[You and Lois and all the other Short-Time creatures live on the first two floors of this structure. Of course there are elevators-no, Ralph thought. Not in the tower I saw in your mind, my little friend.
In that building-if such a building actually exists-there are no elevators, only a narrow staircase festooned with cobwebs and doorways leading to God knows what.
Lachesis was looking at him with a strange, almost suspicious curiosity, and Ralph decided he didn’t much care for that look. He turned back to Clotho and motioned for him to go on.
Clotho: [As I was saying, there are elevators, but Short-Timers are not allowed to use them under ordinary circumstances. You are not
[ready] [prepared] --I The last explanation was clearly the best, but it danced away from Ralph just before he could grasp it. He looked at Lois, who shook her head, and then back at Clotho and Lachesis again. He was beginning to feel angrier than ever. All the long, endless nights sitting in the wing-chair and waiting for dawn; all the days he’d spent feeling like a ghost inside his own skin; the inability to remember a sentence unless he read it three times; the phone numbers, once carried in his head, which he now had to look up A memory came then, one which simultaneously summed up and justified the anger he felt as he looked at these bald creatures with Iding, their darkly golden eyes and almost blinding auras. He saw himself peering into the cupboard over his kitchen counter, looking for the powdered soup his tired, overstrained mind insisted must be in there someplace -He saw himself poking, pausing, then poking some more.
He saw the expression on his face-a look of distant perplexity that could easily have been mistaken for mild mental retardation but which was really simple exhaustion. Then he saw himself drop his hands and simply stand there, as if he expected the packet to jump out on its own.
Not until now, at this moment and at this memory, did he realize how totally horrible the last few months had been. Looking back at them was like looking into a wasteland painted in desolate maroons and grays.
[“So you took us onto the elevator… or maybe that wasn’t good enough for the likes of us and you just trotted us up the fire stairs.
Got us acclimated a little at a time so we wouldn’t strip our gears completely, I imagine. And it was easy. All you had to do was rob us of our sleep until we were half-crazy. Lois’s son and daughter-in-law want to put her in a theme-park for geriatrics, did you know that?
And my friend Bill McGovern thinks I’m ready for juniper Hill.
Meanwhile, you little angels-”] Clotho offered just a trace of his former wide smile.
[We’re no angels, Ralph.] [“Ralph, please don’t shout at them.”] Yes, he had been shouting, and at least some of it seemed to have gotten through to Faye; he had closed his chess book, stopped picking his nose, and was now sitting bolt-upright in his chair, looking uneasily about the room.
Ralph looked from Clotho (who took a step backward, losing what was left of his smile) to Lachesis.
“Your friend says you’re not angels. So here are they -?
Playing poker six or eight floors farther up? And I suppose God’s in the penthouse and the devil’s stoking coal in the boiler-room. “I No reply. Clotho and Lachesis glanced doubtfully at each other.
Lois plucked at Ralph’s sleeve, but he ignored her.
[“So what are we supposed to do, guys? Track down your little bald version of Hannibal Lecter and take his scalpel away? Well, fuck you.”
] Ralph would have turned on his heel and walked out then (he had seen a lot of movies, and he knew a good exit-line when he heard one), but Lois burst into shocked, frightened tears, and that held him where he was. The look of bewildered reproach in her eyes made him regret his outburst at least a little. He slipped his arm back around Lois’s shoulders, and looked at the two bald men defiantly.
They exchanged another glance and something-some communication just above his and Lois’s ability to hear or understandpassed between them. When Lachesis turned to them again, he was smiling… but his eyes were grave.
[I hear your anger, Ralph, but it is not justified. You do not believe that now, but perhaps you may. For the time being, we must set your questions and our answers-such answers as we may give-aside.] [“Why?” I [Because the time of severing has come for this man, Watch closely, that you may learn and know.] Clotho stepped to the left side of the bed. Lachesis approached from the right, walking through Faye Chapin as he went. Faye bent over, afflicted with a sudden coughing-fit, and then opened his book of chess problems again as it eased.
[“Ralph, I can’t watch this I can’t watch them do it.f"I But Ralph thought she would. He thought they both would. He held her tighter as Clotho and Lachesis bent over Jimmy V.
Their faces were lit with love and caring and gentleness; they made Ralph think of the faces he had once seen in a Rembrandt painting-the Night Watch, he thought it had been called. Their auras mingled and overlapped above jimmy’s chest, and suddenly the man in the bed opened his eyes. He looked through the two little bald doctors at the ceiling for a moment, his expression vague and puzzled, and then his gaze shifted toward the door and he smiled.
“Hey! Look who’s here!” Jimmy V. exclaimed. His voice was rusty and choked, but Ralph could still hear his South Boston wiseguy accent, where here came out heah. Faye jumped. The hook of chess problems tumbled out of his lap and fell on the floor. He leaned over and took jimmy’s hand, but jimmy ignored him and kept looking across the room at Ralph and Lois. “It’s Ralph Roberts!
And Paul Chasse’s wife widdim! Say, Ralphie, do you remember the day we tried to get into that tent revival so we could hear em sing ’Amazing Grace’?”
[“I remember, jimmy,”] Jimmy appeared to smile, and then his eyes slipped closed again.
Lachesis placed his hands against the dying man’s cheeks and moved his head a bit, like a barber getting ready to shave a customer. At the same moment Clotho leaned even closer, opened his scissors, and slid them forward so that the long blades held jimmy V."s black balloon-string. As Clotho closed the scissors, Lachesis leaned forward and kissed jimmy’s forehead.
[Go in peace, friend.] There was a small, unimportant snick!
sound. The segment of the balloon-string above the scissors drifted up toward the ceiling and disappeared. The deathbag in which Jimmy V. lay turned a momciitary bright white, then winked out of existence just as Rosalie’s had done earlier that evening. jimmy opened his eyes again and looked at Faye. fie started to smile, Ralph thought, and then his gaze turned fixed and distant. The dimples which had begun to form at the corners of his mouth smoothed out.
“Jimmy?” Faye shook jimmy V."s shoulder, running his hand through
Lachesis’s side to do it. “You all right, jimmy?… Oh shit.”
Faye got up and left the room, not quite running.
Clotho: [Do you see and understand that what we do, we do with love an respect? That we are, in fact, the physicians of last resort?
It is vital to our dealings with you, Ralph and Lois, that you understand that”]. [“Yes.”] [“Yes.”] Ralph hadn’t intended to agree with anything either one of them said, but that phrase-the physicians of last resort-sliced cleanly and effortlessly through his anger. It felt true. They had freed jimmy V. from a world where there was nothing left for him but pain.
Yes, they had undoubtedly stood in Room 317 with Ralph on a sleety afternoon some seven months ago and given Carolyn the same release.
And yes, they went about their work with love and respect-any doubts he might have had on that score had been laid to rest when Lachesis kissed jimmy V."s forehead. But did love and respect give them the right to put him-and Lois, too-through hell and then send them after a supernatural being that had gone off the rails Did it give them the right to even dream that two ordinary people, neither of them young anymore, could deal with such a creature?
Lachesis: [Let us move on from this place. It’s going to fill up with people, and we need to talk.]
[“Do we have any choice?”]
[There is always a choice.”] came back quickly, colored with overtones Of surprise.
Their answers [)’es, of colirve.”
Clotho and Lachesis walked toward the door; Ralph and Lois shrank back to let them pass. The auras of the little bald doctors swept over them for a moment, however, and Ralph registered the taste and texture: the taste of sweet apples, the texture of light bark.
As they left, side by side, speaking gravely and respectfully to each other, Faye came back in, now accompanied by a pair of nurses.
These newcomers passed through Lachesis and Clotho, then through Ralph and Lois, without slowing or seeming to notice anything untoward.
In the hall outside, life went on at its usual muted pace. No buzzers went off, no lights flashed, no orderlies came sprinting down the hallway, pushing the crash-wagon ahead of them, No one cried “Stat!” over the loudspeaker. Death was too common a visitor here for such things. Ralph guessed that it was not welcome, even under such circumstances as these, but it was familiar and accepted. He also guessed that jimmy V. would have been happy enough with his exit from the third floor of Derry Home-he had done it with no fuss or bother, and he hadn’t had to show anyone either his driver’s license or his Blue Cross Major Medical card. He had died with the dignity that simple, expected things often hold. One or two moments of consciousness, accompanied by a slightly wider perception of what was going on around him, and then poof. Pack up all my care and woe, blackbird, bye-bye.
They joined the bald docs in the hallway outside Bob Polhurst’s room.
Through the open door, they could see the deathwatch continuing around the old teacher’s bed.
Lois: [“The man closest to the bed is Bill McGover, a friciil o. ours. There’s something wrong withe him. Something awful. If we do what you want, could you-?”] But Lachesis and Clotho were shaking their heads in unison.
Clotho: [Nothing can be changed.] Yes, Ralph thought. Dorrance knew: done-bun-can’the-undone.
Lois: [“When will it happen?”] Clotho: [your friend belongs to the other, to the third. To the one Ralph has already named Atropos. But Atropos could tell you the exact hour of the man’s death no more than we could. He cannot even tell whom he will take next. Atropos is an agent of the Random.] This phrase sent a chill through Ralph’s heart.
Lachesis: [But this is no place for us to talk. Come.] Lachesis took one of Clotho’s hands, then held out his free hand to Ralph. At the same time, Clotho reached toward Lois. She hesitated, then looked at Ralph.
Ralph, in his turn, looked grimly at Lachesis.
[“You better not hurt her.”] [Neither of you will be hurt, Ralph.
Take my hand.] I’m a stranger in paradise, Ralph’s mind finished.
Then he sighed through his teeth, nodded to Lois, and gripped Lachesis’s outstretched hand. That shock of recognition, as deep and pleasant as an unexpected encounter with an old and valued friend, washed over him again, Apples and bark; memories of orchards he had walked through as a kid. He was somehow aware, without actually seeing it, that his aura had changed color and become-at least for a little while-the gold-flecked green of Clotho and Lachesis.
Lois took Clotho’s hand, inhaled a sharp little gasp over her teeth, then smiled hesitantly.
Clotho: [Complete the circle, Ralph and Lois. Don’t be afraid.
All is well. Boy, do I ever disagree with that, Ralph thought, but when Lois reached for his hand, he grasped her fingers. The taste of apples and the texture of dry bark was joined by some dark and unknown spice. Ralph inhaled its aroma deeply and then smiled at Lois.
She smiled back-no hesitation in that smile-and Ralph felt a dim, far off confusion. How could you be afraid? How could you even hesitate when what they brought felt this good and seemed this right-, I empathize, Ralph, but hesitate am,way, a voice counselled.
[“Ralph? Ralph."’] She sounded alarmed and giddy at the same time. Ralph looked around just in time to see the top of the door of Room 315 descending past her shoulders… except it wasn’t the door going down; it was Lois going up. All of them going up, still holding hands in a circle.
Ralph had just gotten this through his head when momentary darkness, sharp as a knife-edge, crossed his vision like a shadow thrown by the slat of a venetian blind. He had a brief glimpse of narrow pipes that were probably part of the hospital’s sprinkler system, surrounded by tufted pink pads of insulation. Then he was looking down a long tiled corridor. A gurney cart was rolling straight at his head… which, he suddenly realized, had surfaced like a periscope in one of the fourth-floor corridors.
He heard Lois cry out and felt her grip on his hand tighten.
Ralph closed his eyes instinctively and waited for the approaching gurney to flatten his skull.
Clotho: [Be calm! Please, be calm.” Remember that these things exist on a different level of reality from the one where you are now.”
Ralph opened his eyes. The gurney was gone, although he could hear its receding wheels. The sound was coming from behind him now.
The gurney, like McGovern’s friend, had passed right through him.
The four of them were now levitating slowly into the corridor of what had to be the pediatrics wing-fairy-tale creatures pranced and gambolled up and down the walls, and characters from Disney’s Aladdin and The Little mermaid were decaled onto the windows of a large, brightly lighted play area. A doctor and a nurse strolled to ward them, discussing a case. I “-further tests seem but only if we can make at least ninety percent sure that-” The doctor walked through Ralph and as he did Ralph understood that he had started smoking again on the sly after five years off the weed and was feeling guilty as hell about it. Then they were gone.
Ralph looked down just in time to see his feet emerge from the tiled floor. He turned to Lois, smiling tentatively.
[“It sure beats the elevator, doesn’t it?”] She nodded. Her grip on his hand was still very tight.
They rose through the fifth floor, surfaced in a doctor’s lounge on the sixth (two doctors-the full-sized kind-present, one watching an old F Troop rerun and the other snoring on the hia’eous Swedish Modern sofa), and then they were on the roof.
The night was clear, moonless, gorgeous. Stars glittered across the arc of the sky in an extravagant, misty sprawl of light. The wind was blowing hard, and he thought of Mrs. Perrine saying Indian summer was over, he could mark her words, Ralph could hear the wind but not feel it… although he had an idea he could feel it, if he wanted to.
It was just a matter of concentrating in the right way…
Even as this thought came, he sensed some minor, momentary change in his body, something that felt like a blink. Suddenly his hair was blowing back from his forehead, and he could hear his pants cuffs flapping around his shins. He shivered. Mrs. Perrine’s back had been right about the weather changing. Ralph gave another interior blink and the push of the wind was gone. He looked over at Lachesis.
[“Can I let go of your hand now?” Lachesis nodded and dropped his own grip. Clotho released Lois’s hand. Ralph looked across town to the west and saw the pulsing blue runway lights of the airport. Beyond them was the gridwork of orange arc sodiums that marked Cape Green, one of the new housing developments on the far side of the Barrens.
And someplace, in the sprinkle of lights just east of the airport, was Harris Avenue.
[“It’s beautiful, isn’t it, Ralph?”] He nodded and thought that standing there and seeing the city spread out in the dark like this was worth everything he had been through since the insomnia had started.
Everything and then some, But that wasn’t a thought he entirely trusted.
He turned to Lachesis and Clotho.
[“All right, explain. Who are you, who is he, and what do you want us to do?”] The two bald docs were standing between two rapidly turning heat ventilators which were spraying brownish-purple fans of effluent into the air. They glanced nervously at each other, and Lachesis gave Clotho an almost imperceptible nod. Clotho stepped forward, looked from Ralph to Lois, and seemed to gather his thoughts.
[Very well. First, you must understand that the things which are happening, while unexpected and distressing, are not precisely unnatural.
My colleague and I do what we were made to do,-Atropos does what he was made to do,-and you, my Short-Time friends, will do what you were made to do.] Ralph favored him with a bright, bitter smile, [“There goes.freedom of choice, I guess.”] Lachesis: [You mustn’t think so! It’s simply that what you call freedom of choice is part of what we call ka, the great heel of believing.
Lois: [“We see as through a glass darkly… is that what ’You mean?”] Clotho, smiling his somehow youthful smile: [The Bible, I belier,l(.
And a very good lea-of putting it.] Ralph: [“Also pretty convenient for guys like you, bul I(,is puss 0/1 that for otv. We have a saying that isn’t from the Bible, gentlemen, but it’s a pretty good one, just the same.-Don’t gild the lilly. I hope you’ll keep it in mind.”] Ralph had an idea, however, that that might be a little too much to ask.
Clotho began to speak then, and he went on for a fair length of time.
Ralph had no idea how long, exactly, because time was different on this level-compressed, somehow. At times there were no words at all in what he said; verbal terms were replaced with simple bright images like those in a child’s rebus puzzle. Ralph supposed this was telepathy, and thus pretty amazing, but while it was happening it felt as natural as breath.
Sometimes both words and images were lost, interrupted by puzzling breaks -in communication. Yet even then Ralph was usually able to get some idea of what Clotho was trying to convey, and he had an idea Lois was understanding what was hidden in those lapses even more clearly than he was himself.
[First know that there are only four constants in that area of existence where your lives and ours, the lives of the -[overlap.
These four constants are Life, Death, the Purpose, and the Random. All these words have meaning for you, but you now have a slightly different concept of Life and Death, do you not?
Ralph and Lois nodded hesitantly.
[Lachesis and I are agents of Death. This makes us figures of dread to most Short-Timers,-even those who pretend to accept its lid oar fiction are usually afraid-I pictures the are sometimes shott,n (is i e skeleton or a hooded figure ttihose face ca of be see Clotho put his tiny hands on his white-clad shoulders and pretended to shudder. The burlesque was good enough to make Ralph grin.
[But we are not only agents of death, Ralph and Lois, we are also agents of the Purpose. And now you must listen closely, for I would not be misunderstood. There are those of your kind who feel that everything happens by design, and there are those who feel all events are simply a matter of luck or chance. The truth is that life is both random and on purpose, although not in equal measure. Life is like] Here Clotho formed a circle with his arms, like a small child trying to show the shape of the earth, and within it Ralph saw a brilliant and evocative image: thousands (or perhaps it was millions) of playing cards fanned out in a flickering rainbow of hearts and spades and clubs and diamonds. He also saw a great many jokers in this huge pack; not so many as to make up a suit of their own, but clearly a lot more, proportionally speaking, than the two or three found in the usual deck.
Every one of them was grinning, and every one was wearing a battered Panama with a crescent bitten out of the brim.
Every one carried a rusty scalpel, Ralph looked at Clotho with widening eyes. Clotho nodded.
Lois. I don’t know exactly what you saw, but I know you saw what it was trying to convey. Lois? What about you?] Lois, who loved playing cards, nodded palely.
“Atropos is the joker in the deck-that’s what you mean, [He is n get of the Ra dom. We, Lachesis and I, serve that other force, the one zebich accounts for most events in both individual lives and in life’s wider stream. On the lour level of the building, Ralph and Lois over-the creature is a Short-time creature, and has an appointment with death the same say that a child pops out of its / other’s womb with a sign around its neck reading (:[T (:ORD ( amp; 84 I’L"IIR,, I I MONT’/ 1,, 46 3 D,A I-SIR,";, 4 MINUTES, AND 21 SECONDS";. That idea is ridiculous.
Yet time passages are usually set, and as both of you have seen, one of the many functions the Short-Time aura serves is as a clock.] Lois stirred, and as Ralph turned to look at her, he saw an amazing thing: the sky overhead was growing pale. He guessed it must be one in the morning. They had arrived at the hospital at around nine o’clock on Tuesday evening, and now all at once it was Wednesday, October 6th.
Ralph had heard of time flying, but this was ridiculous.
Lois: [“Your]job is what we call natural death, isn’t it?”]
Her aura flickered with confused, incomplete images. A man (the late Mr. Chasse, Ralph was quite sure) lying in an oxygen tent. jimmy V. opening his eyes to look at Ralph and Lois in the instant before Clotho cut his balloon-string. The obituary page from the Derry News, peppered with photographs, most not much bigger than postage stamps, of the weekly harvest from the local hospitals and nursing homes.
Both Clotho and Lachesis shook their heads.
Lachesis: [There is no such thing as natural death, not really.
Our,lob is purposeful death. We take the old and the sick, but we take other… as well. just yesterday, for instance, we took a young man of twenty-eight. A carpenter. Two Short-Time weeks ago, befell from a scaffold and fractured his skull. During those two weeks his aura was] Ralph got a fractured image of a thunderstruck aura like the one which had surrounded the baby in the elevator.
Clotho: [At last the change came-the turning of the aura. We knew it would come, but not when it would come. When it did, tte ivent to him and sent him on.]
[“Sent him on to where?”
It was Lois who asked the question, broaching the touchy subject of the afterlife almost by accident. Ralph grabbed for his mental safety belt, almost hoping for one of those peculiar blanks, but when their overlapped answers came, they were perfectly clear.
Clotho: [To everywhere Lachesis: to other worlds than these, Ralph felt a mixture of relief and disappointment.
[“That sounds very poetic, but I think that it means-correct me if I’m wrong-Is that the afterlife is as much a mystery to you guys as it is to us.”] Lachesis, sounding a bit stiff: [On another occasion we might have time to discuss such things, but not now-as you have no doubt already noticed, time passes faster on this level of the building. Ralph looked around and saw the morning had already brightened considerably.
Clotho, smiling: [Not at all-we enljoy your questions, and find them refreshing. Curiosity exists everywhere along life’s continuum, but nowhere is it as abundant as here. But what you call the afterlife has no place in the four constants-Life an Death, the Random and the Purpose-which concern us now.
[The approach of almost every death which serves the Purpose takes a course with which we are very familiar. The auras of those who will die Purposeful deaths turn gray as the time of nishling approaches.
This gray deepens steadily to black. We are called when the aura [and we come exactly as you saw last night.
We give release to those who suffer, peace to those in terror, rest to those who cannot find rest.
Most Purposeful deaths are expected, even welcomed, but not all.
We are sometimes called to take men, women, an children who are in the best of health… yet their auras turn suddenly and their time of ri ishing has come.] Ralph remembered the young man in the sleeveless Celtics jersey!
he’d seen bopping into the Red Apple yesterday afternoon. they had been the picture of health and vitality… except for the slick-the slick surrounding him, that was. of Ralph opened his mouth, perhaps to mention the (or to ask about his fate), then closed it again. The sun was directly overhead now, and a bizarre certainty suddenly came to him: that he and Lois had become the subject of lecherous discussion in the secret city of the Old Crocks.
Anybody seen em?… No?… Think they run off together?.
Eloped, maybe?… Naw, not at their age, but they might be shacked up… I dunno if Ralphie’s got any live rounds left in the old ammo dump, but she’s always looked like a hot ticket to me…
Yeah, walks like she knows what to do with it, don’t she?
The image of his oversized rustbucket waiting patiently behind one of the ivy-covered units of the Derry Cabins while the springs boinged and sproinged salaciously inside came to Ralph, and he grinned. He couldn’t help it. A moment later the alarming idea that he might be broadcasting his thoughts on his aura came to him, and he slammed the door on the picture at once. Yet wasn’t Lois looking at him with a certain amused speculation?
Ralph turned his attention hastily back to Clotho.
[Atropos serves the Random. Not all deaths of the sort Short-Timers call “senseless” and “unnecessary” and “tragic” are his work, but most are. When a dozen old men and women die in a fire at a retirement hotel, the chances are good that Atropos has been there, taking souvenirs and cutting cords. When an infant dies in his crib for no apparent reason, the cause, more often than not, is Atropos and his rusty scalpel. When a dog-yes, even a dog, for the destinies of almost all living things in the Short-Time world fall among either the Random or the Purpose-I’s run over in the road because the driver of the car that hit him picked the wrong moment to glance at him watch-” Lois: [“Is that what happened to Rosalie?”] Clotho: [Atropos is what happened to Rosalie. Ralph’s friend Joe Wyzer was only what we call “fulfilling circumstance.”] is young man Lachesis: And Atropos is also what happened to lollrer, Cl, late Mr. McGovern.] Lois looked the way Ralph felt: dismayed but not really surprised. it was now late afternoon, perhaps as many as eighteen Short-Time hours had passed since they had last seen Bill, and Ralph had known the man’s time was extremely short even last night, Lois, who had inadvertently put her hand inside him, probably knew it even better.
Ralph: [“When did it happen? How long after we saw him?”] Lachesis: [Not long. While he was leaving the hospital. I’m sorry for your loss, and for giving you the news in such clumsy fashion.
We speak to Short-Timers so infrequently that we forget how, I didn’t mean to hurt you, Ralph and Lois.] Lois told him it was all right, that she quite understood, but tears were trickling down her cheeks, and Ralph felt them burning in his own eyes. The idea that Bill could be gone-that the little shithead in the dirty smock had gotten him-was hard to grasp. Was he to believe McGovern would never hoist that satiric, bristly eyebrow of his again? Never bitch about how cruddy it was to get old again-?
Impossible, He turned suddenly to Clotho.
[“Show us.”] Clotho, surprised, almost dithering: [I… I don’t think-] Ralph: [“Seeing is believing to us Short-Time schmoes. Didn’t you guys ever hear that one?”] Lois spoke up unexpectedly.
[“Yes-show us. But only enough so we can know it and accept it.
Try not to make us feel any worse than we already do.”] Clotho and Lachesis looked at each other, then seemed to shrug without actually moving their narrow shoulders. Lachesis flicked the first two fingers of his right hand upward, creating a blue-green peacock’s fan of light.
In it Ralph saw a small, eerily perfect representation of the I.C.U. corridor. A nurse pushing a pharmacy cart came into this arc and crossed it. At the far side of the viewing area, she actually seemed to curve for a moment before passing out of view.
Lois, delighted in spite of the circumstances: [“It’s like watching a movie in a soapbubble!” Now McGovern and Mr. Plum stepped out of Bob Polhurst’s room. McGovern had put on. an old Derry High letter sweater and his friend was zipping up a jacket; they were clearly giving up the deathwatch for another night. McGovern was walking slowly, lagging behind Mr. Plum. Ralph could see that his downstairs neighbor and sometime friend didn’t look good at all.
He felt Lois’s hand slip onto his upper arm and grip hard. He put his hand over hers.
Halfway to the elevator, McGovern stopped, braced himself against the wall with one hand, and lowered his head. He looked like a totally blown runner at the end of a marathon. For a moment Mr. Plum went on walking. Ralph could see his mouth moving and thought, He doesn’t know he’s talking to thin air-not yet, at least.
Suddenly Ralph didn’t want to see any more.
Inside the blue-green arc, McGovern put one hand to his chest.
The other went to his throat and began to rub, as if he were checking for wattles. Ralph couldn’t tell for sure, but he thought his downstairs neighbor’s eyes looked frightened. He remembered the grimace of hate on Doc #3’s face when he realized a Short-Timer had presumed to step into his business with one of the local strays. What had he said?
[I’ll fuck you over, Shorts. I’ll fuck you over big-time. And I’ll fuck your friends over. Do you get me?] A terrible idea, almost a certainty, dawned in Ralph’s mind as he watched Bill McGovern crumple slowly to the floor.
Lois: [“Make it go away-please make it go away!” She buried her face against Ralph’s shoulder. Clotho and Lachesis exchanged uneasy looks, and Ralph realized he had already begun to revise his mental picture of them as omniscient and all-poNN,erfLil.
They might be supernatural creatures, but Dr. Joyce Brothers then, were not. He had an idea they weren’t much shakes at predicting the future, either; fellows with really efficient crystal balls probably wouldn’t have a look like that in their entire repertoire. they’re feeling their way along, just like the rest of us, Ralph thought, and he felt a certain reluctant sympathy for Mr. C. and Mr. L.
The blue-green arc of light floating in front of Lachesis-and the images trapped inside it-suddenly disappeared, Clotho, sounding defensive: [Please remember that it was your choice to see, Ralph and Lois. We did not show you that milli gli.] Ralph barely heard this.
His terrible idea was still developing, like a photograph one does not wish to see but cannot turn away from.
He was thinking of Bill’s hat… Rosalie’s faded blue bandanna. and Lois’s missing diamond earrings.
[I’ll fuck your friends over, Shorts-do you get me? I hope so.
I most certainly do.] He looked from Clotho to Lachesis, his sympathy for them disappearing. What replaced it was a dull pulse of anger.
Lachesis had said there was no such thing as accidental death, and that included McGovern’s. Ralph had no doubt that Atropos had taken McGovern when he had for one simple reason: he’d wanted to hurt Ralph, to punish Ralph for messing into… what had Dorrance called it.Long-time business.
Old Dor had suggested he not do that-a good policy, no doubt, but he, Ralph, had really had no choice… because these two bald half-pints had messed in with him. They had, in a very real sense, gotten Bill McGovern killed.
Clotho and Lachesis saw his anger and took a step backward although they seemed to do it without actually moving their feet), their faces becoming more uneasy than ever.
[“You two are the reason Bill McGovern’s dead. That’s the truth of it, isn’t it?”] Clotho: [Please… if you’ll just let us finish explaiming-I Lois was staring at Ralph, worried and scared.
[“Ralph? What’s wrong? Why are you angry?”] [“Don’t you get it?
This little setup of theirs cost Bill McGovern his life. We’re here because Atropos has either done something these guys don’t like or is getting ready to-“] Lachesis: [You’re jumping to conclusions, Ralph-” [“-but there’s one very basic problem: he knows we see him!
Atropos KNOWS we see him!” Lois’s eyes widened with terror… and with understanding.