CAL DID WHAT HE THOUGHT OF AS THE PASS-OFF to his father. Since the meetings and the morning and afternoon league games were over and there was no party or event scheduled, the lanes were empty but for a couple of old-timers having a practice game on lane one.
The arcade was buzzing, as it tended to between the last school bell and the dinner hour. But Cy Hudson was running herd there, and Holly Lappins manned the front desk. Jake and Sara worked the grill and fountain, which would start hopping in another hour.
Everything, everyone was in its place, so Cal could sit with his father at the end of the counter over a cup of coffee before he headed for home, and his dad took over the center for the night.
They could sit quietly for a while, too. Quiet was his father's way. Not that Jim Hawkins didn't like to socialize. He seemed to like crowds as much as his alone time, remembered names, faces, and could and would converse on any subject, including politics and religion. The fact that he could do so without pissing anyone off was, in Cal's opinion, one of his finest skills.
His sandy-colored hair had gone a pure and bright silver over the last few years, and was trimmed every two weeks at the local barbershop. He rarely altered his uniform of khakis, Rockports, and oxford shirts on workdays.
Some would have called Jim Hawkins habitual, even boring. Cal called him reliable.
"Having a good month so far," Jim said in his take-your-time drawl. He took his coffee sweet and light, and by his wife's decree, cut off the caffeine at six p.m. sharp. "Kind of weather we've been having, you never know if people are going to burrow in, or get cabin fever so bad they want to be anywhere but home."
"It was a good idea, running the three-game special for February."
"I get one now and again." Jim smiled, lines fanning out and deepening around his eyes. "So do you. Your mom's wishing you'd come by, have dinner some night soon."
"Sure. I'll give her a call."
"Heard from Jen yesterday."
"How's she doing?"
"Fine enough to flaunt that it was seventy-four in San Diego. Rosie's learning to write her letters, and the baby's getting another tooth. Jen said she'd send us pictures."
Cal heard the wistfulness. "You and Mom should take another trip out there."
"Maybe, maybe in a month or two. We're heading to Baltimore on Sunday to see Marly and her brood. I saw your great-gran today. She told me she had a nice chat with that writer who's in town."
"Gran talked with Quinn?"
"In the library. She liked the girl. Likes the idea of this book, too."
"And how about you?"
Jim shook his head, contemplated as Sara drew off Cokes for a couple of teenagers taking a break from the arcade. "I don't know what I think, Cal, that's the plain truth. I ask myself what good's it going to do to have somebody-and an outsider at that-write all this down so people can read about it. I tell myself that what happened before won't happen again-"
"I know that's not true, or most likely not true."
For a moment Jim just listened to the voices from the boys at the other end of the counter, the way they joked and poked at each other. He knew those boys, he thought. He knew their parents. If life worked as it ought to work, he'd know their wives and kids one day.
Hadn't he joked and poked at his own friends here once upon a time, over fountain Cokes and fries? Hadn't his own children run tame through this place? Now his girls were married and gone, with families of their own. And his boy was a man, sitting with worry in his eyes over problems too big to be understood.
"You have to prepare for it to happen again," Jim continued. "But for most of us, it all hazes up, it just hazes up so you can barely remember what did happen. Not you, I know. It's clear for you, and I wish that wasn't so. I guess if you believe this writer can help find the answers, I'm behind you on that."
"I don't know what I believe. I haven't worked it out yet."
"You will. Well. I'm going to go check on Cy. Some of the evening rollers'll be coming in before long, wanting a bite before they suit up."
He pushed away from the counter, took a long look around. He heard the echoes of his boyhood, and the shouts of his children. He saw his son, gangly with youth, sitting at the counter with the two boys Jim knew were the same as brothers to him.
"We've got a good place here, Cal. It's worth working for. Worth fighting to hold it steady."
Jim gave Cal a pat on the shoulder, then strolled away.
Not just the center, Cal thought. His father had meant the town. And Cal was afraid that holding it steady this time was going to be one hell of a battle.
He went straight home where most of the snow had melted off the shrubs and stones. Part of him had wanted to hunt Quinn down, pump out of her what she and his great-grandmother had talked about. Better to wait, he thought as he jingled his keys, better to wait then ease it out of her the next day. When they went to the Pagan Stone.
He glanced toward the woods where trees and shadows held pockets and rivers of snow, where he knew the path would be muddy from the melt.
Was it in there now, gathering itself? Had it somehow found a way to strike outside the Seven? Maybe, maybe, but not tonight. He didn't feel it tonight. And he always did.
Still, he couldn't deny he felt less exposed when he was inside the house, after he'd put on lights to push away the gloom.
He went through to the back door, opened it, and gave a whistle.
Lump took his time as Lump was wont to do. But the dog eased his way out of the doghouse and even stirred up the energy for a couple of tail wags before he moseyed across the backyard to the bottom of the deck stairs.
He gave a doggie sigh before clumping up the short flight. Then he leaned his whole body against Cal.
And that, Cal thought, was love. That was welcome home, how ya doing, in Lump's world.
He crouched down to stroke and ruffle the fur, to scratch between the floppy ears while Lump gazed at him soulfully. "How's it going? Get all your work done? What do you say we have a beer?"
They went inside together. Cal filled the dog bowl from the bin of chow while Lump sat politely, though Cal assumed a large portion of his dog's manners was sheer laziness. When the bowl was set in front of him, Lump ate slowly, and with absolute focus on the task at hand.
Cal pulled a beer out of the fridge and popped the top. Leaning back on the counter he took that first long swallow that signaled the end of the workday.
"Got some serious shit on my mind, Lump. Don't know what to do about it, think about it. Should I have found a way to stop Quinn from coming here? Not sure that would've worked since she seems to go where the hell she wants, but I could've played it different. Laughed it off, or pushed it higher, so the whole thing came off as bogus. Played it straight, so far, and I don't know where that's going to lead."
He heard the front door open, then Fox shouted, "Yo!" Fox came in carrying a bucket of chicken and a large white takeout bag. "Got tub-o-cluck, got fries. Want beer."
After dumping the food on the table, Fox pulled out a beer. "Your summons was pretty abrupt, son. I might've had a hot date tonight."
"You haven't had a hot date in two months."
"I'm storing it up." After the first swig, Fox shrugged off his coat, tossed it over a chair. "What's the deal?"
"Tell you while we eat."
As he'd been too brainwashed by his mother to fall back on the single-man's friend of paper plates, Cal set out two of stoneware in dull blue. They sat down to fried chicken and potatoes with Lump-as the only thing that lured the dog from food was more food-caging fries by leaning against Cal's knee or Fox's.
He told Fox everything, from the wall of fire, through Quinn's dream, and up to the conversation she'd had with his great-grandmother.
"Seeing an awful lot of the fucker for February," Fox mused. "That's never happened before. Did you dream last night?"
"Me, too. Mine was a replay of the first time, the first summer. Only we didn't get to the school in time, and it wasn't just Miss Lister inside. It was everybody." He scrubbed a hand over his face before taking a long pull of beer. "Everybody in town, my family, yours, all inside. Trapped, beating on the windows, screaming, their faces at the windows while the place burned." He offered Lump another fry, and his eyes were as dark and soulful as the dog's. "Didn't happen that way, thank Christ. But it felt like it did. You know how that goes."
"Yeah." Cal let out a breath. "Yeah, I know how that goes. Mine was from that same summer, and we were all riding our bikes through town the way we did. Buildings were burned out, windows broken, cars wrecked and smoking. Bodies everywhere."
"It didn't happen that way," Fox repeated. "We're not ten anymore, and we're not going to let it happen that way."
"I've been asking myself how long we can do this, Fox. How long can we hold it back as much as we do? This time, the next. Three more times? How many more times are we going to watch people we know, people we see most every day turn? Go crazy, go mean. Hurt each other, hurt themselves?"
"As long as it takes."
Cal shoved his plate aside. "Not good enough."
"It's all we've got, for now."
"It's like a virus, an infection, passing from one person to another. Where's the goddamn antidote?"
"Not everyone's affected," Fox reminded him. "There has to be a reason for that."
"We've never found it."
"No, so maybe you were right. Maybe we do need fresh eyes, an outsider, objectivity we just don't have. Are you still planning to take Quinn to the stone tomorrow?"
"If I don't, she'll go anyway. So yeah, it's better I'm there."
"You want me? I can cancel some stuff."
"I can handle it." Had to handle it.
QUINN STUDIED THE MENU IN THE HOTEL'S ALMOST empty dining room. She'd considered getting some takeout and eating in her room over her laptop, but she fell too easily into that habit, she knew. And to write about a town, she had to experience the town, and couldn't do that closed up in her pretty room eating a cold-cut sub.
She wanted a glass of wine, something chilly with a subtle zip. The hotel's cellar was more extensive than she'd expected, but she didn't want a whole bottle. She was frowning over the selections offered by the glass when Miss Fabulous Red Bag stepped in.
She'd changed into black pants, Quinn noted, and a cashmere sweater in two tissue-thin layers of deep blue under pale. The hair was great, she decided, pin straight with those jagged ends just past chin length. What Quinn knew would look messy on her came off fresh and stylish on the brunette.
Quinn debated catching her eye, trying a wave. She could ask Red Purse to join her for dinner. After all, who didn't hate to eat alone? Then she could pump her dinner companion for the really important details. Like where she got that bag.
Even as she charged up her smile, Quinn saw it.
It slithered across the glossy planks of the oak floor, leaving a hideous trail of bloody ooze behind it. At first she thought snake, then slug, then could barely think at all as she watched it slide up the legs of a table where an attractive young couple were enjoying cocktails by candlelight.
Its body, thick as a truck tire, mottled red over black, wound its way over the table, leaving that ugly smear on the snowy linen while the couple laughed and flirted.
A waitress walked briskly in, stepped in and through the sludge on the floor, to serve the couple their appetizers.
Quinn swore she could hear the table creak under its weight.
And its eyes when they met hers were the eyes of the boy, the red gleam in them bright and somehow amused. Then it began to wiggle wetly down the skirt of the tablecloth, and toward the brunette.
The woman stood frozen in place, her face bone white. Quinn pushed to her feet and, ignoring the surprised look from the waitress, leaped over the ugly path. She gripped the brunette's arm, pulled her out of the dining room.
"You saw it, too," Quinn said in a whisper. "You saw that thing. Let's get out of here."
"What? What?" The brunette cast shocked glances over her shoulder as she and Quinn stumbled for the door. "You saw it?"
"Sluggy, red-eyed, very nasty wake. Jesus. Jesus." She gulped in the raw February air on the hotel's porch. "They didn't see it, but you did. I did. Why is that? Fuck if I know, but I have an idea who might. That's my car right there. Let's go. Let's just go."
The brunette didn't say another word until they were in the car and Quinn was squealing away from the curb. "Who the hell are you?"
"Quinn. Quinn Black. I'm a writer, mostly on the spooky. Of which there is a surplus in this town. Who are you?"
"Layla Darnell. What is this place?"
"That's what I want to find out. I don't know if it's nice to meet you or not, Layla, under the circumstances."
"Same here. Where are we going?"
"To the source, or one of them." Quinn glanced over, saw Layla was still pale, still shaky. Who could blame her? "What are you doing in Hawkins Hollow?"
"I'm damned if I know, but I think I've decided to cut my visit short."
"Understandable. Nice bag, by the way."
Layla worked up a wan smile. "Thanks."
"Nearly there. Okay, you don't know why you're here, so where did you come from?"
"I knew it. It's the polish. Do you love it?"
"Ah." Layla combed her fingers through her hair as she swiveled to look back. "Most of the time. I manage a boutique in SoHo. Did. Do. I don't know that anymore either."
Nearly there, Quinn thought again. Let's keep calm. "I bet you get great discounts."
"Yeah, part of the perks. Have you seen anything like that before. Like that thing?"
"Yeah. Have you?"
"Not when I was awake. I'm not crazy," Layla stated. "Or I am, and so are you."
"We're not crazy, which is what crazy people tend to say, so you'll just have to take my word." She swung onto Cal's lane, and aimed the car over the little bridge toward the house where lights-thank God-glowed in the windows.
"Whose house is this?" Layla gripped the front edge of her seat. "Who lives here?"
"Caleb Hawkins. His ancestors founded the town. He's okay. He knows about what we saw."
"It's a long story, with a lot of holes in it. And now you're thinking, what am I doing in this car with a complete stranger who's telling me to go into this house pretty much in the middle of nowhere."
Layla took firm hold on the short strap of her bag, as if she might use it as a weapon. "The thought's crossed."
"Your instinct put you in the car with me, Layla. Maybe you could follow along with that for the next step. Plus, it's cold. We didn't bring our coats."
"All right. Yes, all right." With a bracing breath, Layla opened the door, and with Quinn walked toward the house. "Nice place. If you like isolated houses in the woods."
"Culture shock for the New Yorker."
"I grew up in Altoona, Pennsylvania."
"No kidding. Philadelphia. We're practically neighbors." Quinn knocked briskly on the door, then just opened the door and called in, "Cal!"
She was halfway across the living room when he hurried in. "Quinn? What?" Spotted Layla. "Hello. What?"
"Who's here?" Quinn demanded. "I saw another car in the drive."
"Fox. What's going on?"
"The bonus-round question." She sniffed. "Do I smell fried chicken? Is there food? Layla-this is Layla Darnell; Layla, Cal Hawkins-Layla and I haven't had dinner."
She moved right by him, and walked toward the kitchen.
"I'm sorry, I think, to bust in on you," Layla began. It passed through her mind that he didn't look like a serial killer. But then again, how would she know? "I don't know what's happening, or why I'm here. I've had a confusing few days."
"Okay. Well, come on back."
Quinn already had a drumstick in her hand, and was taking a swig of Cal's beer. "Layla Darnell, Fox O'Dell. I'm not really in the mood for beer," she said to Cal. "I was about to order some wine when Layla and I were disgustingly interrupted. Got any?"
"Is it decent? If you run to jug or twist caps, I'll stick with beer."
"I've got some damn decent wine." He yanked a plate out, pushed it at her. "Use a plate."
"He's completely Sally about things like that," Fox told her. He'd risen, and pulled out a chair. "You look a little shaken up-Layla, right? Why don't you sit down?"
She just couldn't believe psycho killers sat around a pretty kitchen eating bucket chicken and debating wine over beer. "Why don't I? I'm probably not really here." She sat, dropped her head in her hands. "I'm probably in some padded room imagining all this."
"Imagining all what?" Fox asked.
"Why don't I take it?" Quinn glanced at Layla as Cal got out wineglasses. "Then you can fill in as much of your own backstory as you want."
"Fine. That's fine."
"Layla checked into the hotel this morning. She's from New York. Just a bit ago, I was in the hotel dining room, considering ordering the green salad and the haddock, along with a nice glass of white. Layla was just coming in, I assume, to have her own dinner. I was going to ask you to join me, by the way."
"Oh. Ah, that's nice."
"Before I could issue the invite, what I'd describe as a sluglike creature thicker than my aunt Christine's thigh and about four feet in length oozed its way across the dining room, up over the table where a couple happily continued their dining foreplay, then oozed down again, leaving a revolting smear of God-knows-what behind it. She saw it."
"It looked at me. It looked right at me," Layla whispered.
"Don't be stingy with the wine, Cal." Quinn stepped over to rub a hand on Layla's shoulder. "We were the only ones who saw it, and no longer wishing to dine at the hotel, and believing Layla felt the same, we booked. And I'm now screwing my caloric intake for the day with this drumstick."
"You're awfully...blithe. Thanks." Layla accepted the wineglass Cal offered, then drank half the contents at one go.
"Not really. Defense mechanism. So here we are, and I want to know if either of you have ever seen anything like I just described."
There was a moment of silence, then Cal picked up his beer, drank. "We've seen a lot of things. The bigger question for me is, why are you seeing them, and part two, why are you seeing them now?"
"Got a theory."
Cal turned to Fox. "Such as?"
"Connections. You said yourself there had to be some connection for Quinn to see it, to have the dream-"
"Dreams." Layla's head came up. "You've had dreams?"
"And so, apparently, have you," Fox continued. "So we'll connect Layla. Figuring out how they're connected may take a while, but let's just go with the hypothesis that they are, and say, what if. What if, due to this connection, due to Quinn, then Layla being in the Hollow, particularly during the seventh year, gives it some kind of psychic boost? Gives it the juice to manifest?"
"That's not bad," Cal replied.
"I'd say it's damn good." Quinn cocked her head as she considered. "Energy. Most paranormal activity stems from energy. The energy the...well, entity or entities, the actions, the emotions thereof, leave behind, and the energy of the people within its sphere, let's say. And we could speculate that this psychic energy has built over time, strengthened, so that now, with the addition of other connected energies, it's able to push out into our reality, to some extent, outside of its traditional time frame."
"What in God's name are you people talking about?" Layla demanded.
"We'll get to that, I promise." Quinn offered her a bolstering smile. "Why don't you eat something, settle the nerves?"
"I think it's going to be a while before food holds any appeal for me."
"Mr. Slug slimed right over the bread bowl," Quinn explained. "It was pretty damn gross. Sadly, nothing puts me off food." She snagged a couple of cold fries. "So, if we run with Fox's theory, where is its counterpoint? The good to its bad, the white to its dark. All my research on this points to both sides."
"Maybe it can't pull out yet, or it's hanging back."
"Or the two of you connect to the dark, and not the light," Cal added.
Quinn narrowed her eyes at him, with something glinting between her lashes. Then she shrugged. "Insulting, but unarguable at this time. Except for the fact that, logically, if we were more a weight on the bad side, why is said bad side trying to scare the living daylights out of us?"
"Good point," Cal conceded.
"I want some answers."
Quinn nodded at Layla. "I bet you do."
"I want some serious, sensible answers."
"Thumbnail: The town includes an area in the woods known as the Pagan Stone. Bad stuff happened there. Gods, demons, blood, death, fire. I'm going to lend you a couple of books on the subject. Centuries pass, then something opened it up again. Since nineteen eighty-seven, for seven nights in July, every seventh year, it comes out to play. It's mean, it's ugly, and it's powerful. We're getting a preview."
Gratefully, Layla held out her glass for more wine as she studied Quinn. "Why haven't I ever heard of this? Or this place?"
"There have been some books, some articles, some reports-but most of them hit somewhere between alien abductions and sightings of Bigfoot," Quinn explained. "There's never been a serious, thorough, fully researched account published. That's going to be my job."
"All right. Say I believe all this, and I'm not sure I'm not just having the mother of all hallucinations, why you, and you?" she said to Fox and Cal. "Where do you come in?"
"Because we're the ones who opened it," Fox told her. "Cal, me, and a friend who's currently absent. Twenty-one years ago this July."
"But you'd have been kids. You'd have had to have been-"
"Ten," Cal confirmed. "We share a birthday. It was our tenth birthday. Now, we showed some of ours. How about seeing some of yours. Why did you come here?"
"Fair enough." Layla took another slow sip of her wine. Whether it was that or the brightly lit kitchen with a dog snoring under the table or just having a group of strangers who were likely to believe what she was about to tell them, her nerves were steadier.
"I've been having dreams for the last several nights. Nightmares or night terrors. Sometimes I'd wake up in my bed, sometimes I'd wake up trying to get out the door of my apartment. You said blood and fire. There was both in the dreams, and a kind of altar in a clearing in the woods. I think it was stone. And there was water, too. Black water. I was drowning in it. I was captain of the swim team in high school, and I was drowning."
She shuddered, took another breath. "I was afraid to sleep. I thought I heard voices even when I wasn't asleep. I couldn't understand them, but I'd be at work, doing my job, or stopping by the dry cleaners on the way home, and these voices would just fill my head. I thought I was having a breakdown. But why? Then I thought maybe I had a brain tumor. I even thought about making an appointment with a neurologist. Then last night, I took a sleeping pill. Maybe I could just drug my way out of it. But it came, and in the dream something was in bed with me."
Her breath trembled out this time. "Not my bed, but somewhere else. A small room, a small hot room with a tiny window. I was someone else. I can't explain it, really."
"You're doing fine," Quinn assured her.
"It was happening to me, but I wasn't me. I had long hair, and the shape of my body, it was different. I was wearing a long nightgown. I know because it...it pulled it up. It was touching me. It was cold, it was so cold. I couldn't scream, I couldn't fight, even when it raped me. It was inside me, but I couldn't see, I couldn't move. I felt it, all of it, as if it were happening, but I couldn't stop it."
She wasn't aware of the tears until Fox pressed a napkin into her hand. "Thanks. When it was over, when it was gone, there was a voice in my head. Just one voice this time, and it calmed me, it made me warm again and took away the pain. It said: 'Hawkins Hollow.'"
"Layla, were you raped?" Fox spoke very quietly. "When you came out of the dream, was there any sign you'd been raped?"
"No." She pressed her lips together, kept her gaze on his face. His eyes were golden brown, and full of compassion. "I woke up in my own bed, and I made myself go...check. There was nothing. It hurt me, so there would've been bruises, there would've been marks, but there was nothing. It was early in the morning, not quite four in the morning, and I kept thinking Hawkins Hollow. So I packed, and I took a cab out to the airport to rent a car. Then I drove here. I've never been here."
She paused to look at Quinn now, at Cal. "I've never heard of Hawkins Hollow that I can remember, but I knew what roads to take. I knew how to get here, and how to get to the hotel. I checked in this morning, went up to the room they gave me, and I slept like the dead until nearly six. When I walked into the dining room and saw that thing, I thought I was still asleep. Dreaming again."
"It's a wonder you didn't bolt," Quinn commented.
Layla sent her an exhausted look. "To where?"
"There's that." Quinn put a hand on Layla's shoulder, rubbing gently as she spoke. "I think we all need as much information as there is to be had, from every source there is. I think, from this point, it's share and share alike, one for goddamn all and all for goddamn one. You don't like that," she said with a nod toward Cal, "but I think you're going to have to get used to it."
"You've been in this for days. Fox and I have lived with it for years. Lived in it. So, don't put on your badge and call yourself captain yet, Blondie."
"Living in it for twenty-one years gives you certain advantages. But you haven't figured it out, you haven't stopped it or even identified it, as far as I can tell, in your twenty-one-year experience. So loosen up."
"You poked at my ninety-seven-year-old great-grandmother today."
"Oh, bull. Your remarkable and fascinating ninety-seven-year-old great-grandmother came up to where I was researching in the library, sat down, and had a conversation with me of her own free will. There was no poking. My keen observation skills tell me you didn't inherit your tight-ass tendencies from her."
"Kids, kids." Fox held up a hand. "Tense situation, agreed, but we're all on the same side, or are on the same side potentially. So chill. Cal, Quinn makes a good point, and it bears consideration. At the same time, Quinn, you've been in the Hollow a couple of days, and Layla less than that. You're going to have to be patient, and accept the fact that some areas of information are more sensitive than others, and may take time to be offered. Even if we start with what can and has been corroborated or documented-"
"What are you, a lawyer?" Layla asked.
"Figures," she said under her breath.
"Let's just table this," Cal suggested. "Let's let it sit, so we can all think about it for the night. I said I'd take you to the Pagan Stone tomorrow, and I will. Let's see how it goes."
"Are you two all right at the hotel? You can stay here if you're not easy about going back."
The fact that he'd offered had Quinn's hackles smoothing down again. "We're not wimps, are we, Layla?"
"I wouldn't have said I was a few days ago. Now, I'm not so sure. But I'll be all right at the hotel." In fact, she wanted to go back, crawl into that big, soft bed and pull the covers over her head. "I slept better there than I have all week, so that's something."
Quinn decided she'd wait until they were back before she advised Layla to lower all the shades, and maybe leave a light burning.