IN THE MORNING, QUINN PRESSED AN EAR AGAINST the door to Layla's room. Since she heard the muted sounds of the Today show, she gave the door a knuckle rap. "It's Quinn," she added, in case Layla was still jumpy.
Layla opened the door in a pretty damn cute pair of purple-and-white-striped pajama pants and a purple sleep tank. There was color in her cheeks, and her quiet green eyes had the clarity that told Quinn she'd been awake awhile.
"I'm about to head out to Cal's. Mind if I come in a minute?"
"No." She stepped back. "I was trying to figure out what I'm supposed to do with myself today."
"You can come with me if you want."
"Into the woods? Not quite ready for that, thanks. You know..." Layla switched off the TV before dropping into a chair. "I was thinking about the wimp statement you made last night. I've never been a wimp, but it occurred to me as I was huddled in bed with the shades drawn and this stupid chair under the doorknob that I've never had anything happen that tested that before. My life's been pretty normal."
"You came here, and you're still here. So I'm thinking that puts you pretty low on the wimp scale. How'd you sleep?"
"Good. Once I got there, good. No dreams, no visitations, no bumps in the night. So, of course, now I'm wondering why."
"No dreams for me either." Quinn glanced around the room. Layla's bed was a sleigh style and the color scheme was muted greens and creams. "We could theorize that your room here's a safe zone, but that's off because mine isn't, and it's two doors down. It could be that whatever it is just took the night off. Maybe needed to recharge some expended energy."
"You've got my cell number, Cal's, Fox's. We've got yours. We're-connected. I wanted to let you know that the diner across the street, figuring you're not going to try the dining room here again, has a nice breakfast."
"I'm thinking I might try room service, and start on the books that you gave me last night. I didn't want to try them for bedtime reading."
"Wise. Okay. If you head out, it's a nice town. Some cute little shops, a little museum I haven't had time to explore so can't give you a rating, and there's always the Bowl-a-Rama."
A hint of a smile appeared around Layla's mouth. "Is there?"
"It's Cal's family's place. Interesting, and it feels like the hub of the town. So, I'll look you up when I get back?"
"Okay. Quinn?" Layla added as Quinn reached for the door. "Wimp scale or not, I'm not sure I'd still be here if I hadn't run into you."
"I know how you feel. I'll see you later."
C AL WAS WAITING FOR HER WHEN SHE DROVE UP. He stepped out, started down the steps, the dog wandering behind him, as she got out of the car. He took a scan, starting with her feet. Good, sturdy hiking boots that showed some scars and wear, faded jeans, tough jacket in I'm-Not-a-Deer red, and a multistriped scarf that matched the cloche-style cap on her head. Silly hat, he mused, that was unaccountably appealing on her.
In any case, he decided she knew what to wear on a hike through the winter woods.
"Do I pass muster, Sergeant?"
"Yeah." He came down the rest of the steps. "Let's start this off with me saying I was off base by a couple inches last night. I haven't completely resolved dealing with you, and now there's another person in the mix, another unknown. When you live with this as long as I have, part of you gets used to it, and other parts just get edgier. Especially when you're into the seventh year. So, I'll apologize, if you need it."
"Well. Wind, sails sucked out. Okay, I can't be pissed off after that or it's just bitchy instead of righteous. So let me say this. Before I came here, this was an idea for a book, a job I enjoy on a level some might consider twisted, and that I consider vastly fascinating. Now, it's more personal. While I can appreciate you being somewhat edgy, and somewhat proprietary, I'm bringing something important to the table. Experience and objectivity. And guts. I've got some impressive guts."
"So, we're going to do this thing?"
"Yeah, we're going to do it."
She gave the dog who came over to lean on her a rub. "Is Lump seeing us off on our adventure?"
"He's coming. He likes to walk in the woods when the mood strikes. And if he's had enough, he'll just lie down and sleep until he's in the mood to walk back home again."
"Strikes me as a sensible attitude." She picked up a small pack, hitched it on, then drew her tape recorder out of her pocket. It was attached to the pocket with a small clamp. "I'm going to want to record observations, and whatever you tell me. Okay with that?"
"Yeah." He'd given it a lot of thought overnight. "I'm okay with that."
"Then I'm ready when you are, Tonto."
"Trail's going to be sloppy," he said as they started toward the woods. "Given that, from this point it'll take about two hours-a little more depending-to reach the clearing."
"I'm in no hurry."
Cal glanced up at the sky. "You will be if the weather turns, or anything holds us up after sundown."
She clicked on her recorder, and hoped she'd been generous enough with her cache of extra tapes and batteries. "Why?"
"Years back people hiked or hunted in this section of the woods routinely. Now they don't. People got lost, turned around, spooked. Some reported hearing what they thought were bear or wolves. We don't have wolves and it's rare for bear to come this far down the mountains. Kids, teens mostly, used to sneak in to swim in Hester's Pool in the summer, or to screw around. Now they don't. People used to say the pool was haunted, it was kind of a local legend. Now, people don't like to talk about it."
"Do you think it's haunted?"
"I know there's something in it. I saw it myself. We'll talk about that once we get to the pool. No point in going into it now."
"All right. Is this the way the three of you came in on your birthday twenty-one years ago?"
"We came in from the east." He gestured. "Track closest to town. This way's shorter, but it would've been a longer ride around for us from town. There wasn't anything...off about it, until we got to the pool."
"Have the three of you been back together since that night?"
"Yeah, we went back. More than once." He glanced toward her. "I can tell you that going back anytime near the Seven isn't an experience I look forward to repeating."
"That's what we call the week in July."
"Tell me more about what happens during the Seven."
It was time to do just that, he thought. To say it straight-out to someone who wanted to know. To someone, maybe, who was part of the answer.
"People in the Hollow get mean, violent, even murderous. They do things they'd never do at any other time. Destroy property, beat the hell out of each other, start fires. Worse."
"Yeah. After the week's up, they don't remember clearly. It's like watching someone come out of a trance, or a long illness. Some of them are never the same. Some of them leave town. And some fix up their shop or their house, and just go on. It doesn't hit everyone, and it doesn't hit those it does all in the same way. The best I can explain is it's like a mass psychotic episode, and it gets stronger each time."
"What about the police?"
Out of habit, Cal reached down, picked up a stick. There was no point in tossing it for Lump, that would only embarrass them both. So he held it down so Lump could take it into his mouth and plod contentedly along.
"Chief Larson was in charge last time. He was a good man, went to school with my father. They were friends. The third night, he locked himself in his office. I think he, some part of him anyway, knew what was happening to him, and didn't want to risk going home to his wife and kids. One of the deputies, guy named Wayne Hawbaker, nephew to Fox's secretary, came in looking for him, needed help. He heard Larson crying in the office. Couldn't get him to come out. By the time Wayne knocked down the door, Larson had shot himself. Wayne's chief of police now. He's a good man, too."
How much loss had he seen? Quinn wondered. How many losses had he suffered since his tenth birthday? And yet he was walking back into these woods, back where it all began for him. She didn't think she'd ever known a braver stand.
"What about the county cops, the state cops?"
"It's like we're cut off for that week." A cardinal winged by, boldly red, carelessly free. "Sometimes people get out, sometimes they get in, but by and large, we're on our own. It's like..." He groped for words. "It's like this veil comes down, and nobody sees, not clearly. Help doesn't come, and after, nobody questions it too closely. Nobody looks straight on at what happened, or why. So it ends up being lore, or Blair Witch stuff. Then it fades off until it happens again."
"You stay, and you look at it straight on."
"It's my town," he said simply.
No, Quinn thought, that was the bravest stand she'd ever known.
"How'd you sleep last night?" he asked her.
"Dreamlessly. So did Layla. You?"
"The same. Always before, once it started, it didn't stop. But then, things are different this time around."
"Because I saw something, and so did Layla."
"That's the big one. And it's never started this early, or this strong." As they walked, he studied her face. "Have you ever had a genealogy done?"
"No. You think we're related back when, or I'm related to someone who was involved in whatever happened at the Pagan Stone way back when?"
"I think, we've always thought, this was about blood." Absently, he glanced at the scar on his wrist. "So far, knowing or sensing that hasn't done any good. Where are your ancestors from?"
"England primarily, some Irish tossed in."
"Mine, too. But then a lot of Americans have English ancestry."
"Maybe I should start researching and find out if there are any Dents or Twisses in my lineage?" She shrugged when he frowned at her. "Your great-grandmother sent me down that path. Have you tried to trace them? Giles Dent and Lazarus Twisse?"
"Yeah. Dent may be an ancestor, if he did indeed father the three sons of Ann Hawkins. There's no record of him. And other than accounts from the time, some old family letters and diaries, no Giles Dent on anything we've dug up. No record of birth, death. Same for Twisse. They could've dropped down from Pluto as far as we've been able to prove."
"I have a friend who's a whiz on research. I sent her a heads-up. And don't get that look on your face again. I've known her for years, and we've worked together on other projects. I don't know as yet if she can or will come in on this, but trust me, if she does, you'll be grateful. She's brilliant."
Rather than respond, he chewed on it. How much of his resistance was due to this feeling of losing control over the situation? And had he ever had any control to begin with? Some, he knew, was due to the fact that the more people who became involved, the more people he felt responsible for.
And maybe most of all, how much was all this exposure going to affect the town?
"The Hollow's gotten some publicity over the years, focused on this whole thing. That's how you found out about us to begin with. But it's been mild, and for the most part, hasn't done much more than bring interested tourists through. With your involvement, and now potentially two others, it could turn the Hollow into some sort of lurid or ridiculous caption in the tourist guides."
"You knew that was a risk when you agreed to talk to me."
She was keeping pace with him, stride-by-stride on the sloppy ground. And, she was striding into the unknown without a quake or a quiver. "You'd have come whether or not I agreed."
"So part of your cooperation is damage control." She nodded. "Can't blame you. But maybe you should be thinking bigger picture, Cal. More people invested means more brains and more chance of figuring out how to stop what's been happening. Do you want to stop it?"
"More than I can possibly tell you."
"I want a story. There's no point in bullshitting you about that. But I want to stop it, too. Because despite my famous guts, this thing scares me. Better shot at that, it seems to me, if we work together and utilize all our resources. Cybil's one of mine, and she's a damn good one."
"I'll think about it." For now, he thought, he'd given her enough. "Why don't you tell me what made you head down the woo-woo trail, writing-wise."
"That's easy. I always liked spooky stuff. When I was a kid and had a choice between, say, Sweet Valley High or Stephen King, King was always going to win. I used to write my own horror stories and give my friends nightmares. Good times," she said and made him laugh. "Then, the turning point, I suppose, was when I went into this reputed haunted house with a group of friends. Halloween. I was twelve. Big dare. Place was falling down and due to be demolished. We were probably lucky we didn't fall through floorboards. So we poked around, squealed, scared ourselves, and had some laughs. Then I saw her."
"The ghost, of course." She gave him a friendly elbow poke. "Keep up. None of the others did. But I saw her, walking down the stairs. There was blood all over her. She looked at me," Quinn said quietly now. "It seemed like she looked right at me, and walked right by. I felt the cold she carried with her."
"What did you do? And if I get a guess, I'm guessing you followed her."
"Of course, I followed her. My friends were running around, making spooky noises, but I followed her into the falling-down kitchen, down the broken steps to the basement by the beam of my Princess Leia flashlight. No cracks."
"How can I crack when I had a Luke Skywalker flashlight?"
"Good. What I found were a lot of spiderwebs, mouse droppings, dead bugs, and a filthy floor of concrete. Then the concrete was gone and it was just a dirt floor with a hole-a grave-dug in it. A black-handled shovel beside it. She went to it, looked at me again, then slid down, hell, like a woman might slide into a nice bubble bath. Then I was standing on the concrete floor again."
"What did you do?"
"I'd guess you and Leia got the hell out of there."
"Right again. I came out of the basement like a rocket. I told my friends, who didn't believe me. Just trying to spook them out as usual. I didn't tell anyone else, because if I had, our parents would have known we were in the house and we'd have been grounded till our Social Security kicked in. But when they demolished the house, started jackhammering the concrete floor, they found her. She'd been in there since the thirties. The wife of the guy who'd owned the house had claimed she'd run off. He was dead by then, so nobody could ask him how or why he'd done it. But I knew. From the time I saw her until they found her bones, I dreamed about her murder, I saw it happen.
"I didn't tell anyone. I was too afraid. Ever since, I've told what I find, confirming or debunking. Maybe partly to make it up to Mary Bines-that was her name. And partly because I'm not twelve anymore, and nobody's going to ground me."
He said nothing for a long time. "Do you always see what happened?"
"I don't know if it's seeing or just intuiting, or just my imagination, which is even more far-famed than my guts. But I've learned to trust what I feel, and go with it."
He stopped, gestured. "This is where the tracks cross. We came in from that direction, picked up the cross trail here. We were loaded down. My mother had packed a picnic basket, thinking we were camping out on Fox's family farm. We had his boom box, his load from the market, our backpacks full of the stuff we figured we couldn't live without. We were still nine years old. Kids, pretty much fearless. That all changed before we came out of the woods again."
When he started to walk once more, she put a hand on his arm, squeezed. "Is that tree bleeding, or do you just have really strange sap in this part of the world?"
He turned, looked. Blood seeped from the bark of the old oak, and seeped into the soggy ground at its trunk.
"That kind of thing happens now and again. It puts off the hikers."
"I bet." She watched Lump plod by the tree after only a cursory sniff. "Why doesn't he care?"
"Old hat to him."
She started to give the tree a wide berth, then stopped. "Wait, wait. This is the spot. This is the spot where I saw the deer across the path. I'm sure of it."
"He called it, with magick. The innocent and pure."
She started to speak, then looking at Cal's face, held her tongue. His eyes had darkened; his cheeks had paled.
"Its blood for the binding. Its blood, his blood, the blood of the dark thing. He grieved when he drew the blade across its neck, and its life poured onto his hands and into the cup."
As his head swam, Cal bent over from the waist. Prayed he wouldn't be sick. "Need a second to get my breath."
"Take it easy." Quickly, Quinn pulled off her pack and pulled out her water bottle. "Drink a little."
Most of the queasiness passed when she took his hand, pressed the bottle into it. "I could see it, feel it. I've gone by this tree before, even when it's bled, and I never saw that. Or felt that."
"Two of us this time. Maybe that's what opened it up."
He drank slowly. Not just two, he thought. He'd walked this path with Fox and Gage. We two, he decided. Something about being here with her. "The deer was a sacrifice."
"I get that. Devoveo. He said it in Latin. Blood sacrifice. White witchery doesn't ascribe to that. He had to cross over the line, smear on some of the black to do what he felt he needed to do. Was it Dent? Or someone who came long before him?"
"I don't know."
Because she could see his color was eking back, her own heart rate settled. "Do you see what came before?"
"Bits, pieces, flashes. Not all of it. I generally come back a little sick. If I push for more, it's a hell of a lot worse."
"Let's not push then. Are you okay to go on?"
"Yeah. Yeah." His stomach was still mildly uneasy, but the light-headedness had passed. "We'll be coming to Hester's Pool soon."
"I know. I'm going to tell you what it looks like before we get there. I'm telling you I've never been there before, not in reality, but I've seen it, and I stood there night before last. There are cattails and wild grass. It's off the path, through some brush and thorny stuff. It was night, so the water looked black. Opaque. Its shape isn't quite round, not really oval. It's more of a fat crescent. There were a lot of rocks. Some more like boulders, some no more than pebbles. She filled her pockets with them-they looked to be about hand-sized or smaller-until her pockets were sagging with the weight. Her hair was cut short, like it'd been hacked at, and her eyes looked mad."
"Her body didn't stay down, not according to reports."
"I've read them," Quinn acknowledged. "She was found floating in the pool, which came to bear her name, and because it was suicide, they buried her in unconsecrated ground. Records I've dug up so far don't indicate what happened to the infant daughter she left behind."
Before replacing the pack, she took out a bag of trail mix. Opened it, offered. Cal shook his head. "There's plenty of bark and twigs around if I get that desperate."
"This isn't bad. What did your mother pack for you that day?"
"Ham-and-cheese sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, apple slices, celery and carrot sticks, oatmeal cookies, lemonade." Remembering made him smile. "Pop-Tarts, snack pack cereal for breakfast."
"Uppercase M Mom."
"Yeah, always has been."
"How long do we date before I meet the parents?"
He considered. "They want me to come for dinner some night soon if you want in."
"A home-cooked meal by Mom? I'm there. How does she feel about all this?"
"It's hard for them, all of this is hard. And they've never let me down in my life."
"You're a lucky man, Cal."
He broke trail, skirting the tangles of blackberry bushes, and following the more narrow and less-trod path. Lump moved on ahead, as if he understood where they were headed. The first glint of the pool brought a chill down his spine. But then, it always did.
Birds still called, and Lump-more by accident than design, flushed a rabbit that ran across the path and into another thicket. Sunlight streamed through the empty branches onto the leaf-carpeted ground. And glinted dully on the brown water of Hester's Pool.
"It looks different during the day," Quinn noted. "Not nearly as ominous. But I'd have to be very young and very hot to want to go splashing around in that."
"We were both. Fox went in first. We'd snuck out here before to swim, but I'd never much liked it. Who knew what was swimming under there? I always thought Hester's bony hand was going to grab my ankle and pull me under. Then it did."
Quinn's eyebrows shot up, and when he didn't continue, she sat on one of the rocks. "I'm listening."
"Fox was messing with me. I was a better swimmer, but he was sneaky. Gage couldn't swim for crap, but he was game. I thought it was Fox again, dunking me, but it was her. I saw her when I went under. Her hair wasn't short the way you saw her. I remember how her hair streamed out. She didn't look like a ghost. She looked like a woman. Girl," he corrected. "I realized when I got older she was just a girl. I couldn't get out fast enough, and I made Fox and Gage get out. They hadn't seen anything."
"But they believed you."
"That's what friends do."
"Did you ever go back in?"
"Twice. But I never saw her again."
Quinn gave Lump, who wasn't as particular as his master, a handful of trail mix. "It's too damn cold to try now, but come June, I'd like to take a dip and see what happens." She munched some mix as she looked around. "It's a nice spot, considering. Primitive, but still picturesque. Seems like a great place for three boys to run a little wild."
She cocked her head. "So do you usually bring your women here on dates?"
"You'd be the first."
"Really? Is that because they haven't been interested, or you haven't wanted to answer questions pertaining."
"So I'm breaking molds here, which is one of my favorite hobbies." Quinn stared out over the water. "She must've been so sad, so horribly sad to believe there was no other way for her. Crazy's a factor, too, but I think she must've been weighed down by sadness and despair before she weighed herself down with rocks. That's what I felt in the dream, and it's what I feel now, sitting here. Her horrible, heavy sadness. Even more than the fear when it raped her."
She shuddered, rose. "Can we move on? It's too much, sitting here. It's too much."
It would be worse, he thought. If she felt already, sensed or understood this already, it would be worse. He took her hand to lead her back to the path. Since, at least for the moment, it was wide enough to walk abreast, he kept ahold of her hand. It almost seemed as if they were taking a simple walk in the winter woods.
"Tell me something surprising about you. Something I'd never guess."
He cocked his head. "Why would I tell you something about me you'd never guess?"
"It doesn't have to be some dark secret." She bumped her hip against his. "Just something unexpected."
"I lettered in track and field."
Quinn shook her head. "Impressive, but not surprising. I might've guessed that. You've got a yard or so of leg."
"All right, all right." He thought it over. "I grew a pumpkin that broke the county record for weight."
"The fattest pumpkin in the history of the county?"
"It missed the state record by ounces. It got written up in the paper."
"Well, that is surprising. I was hoping for something a bit more salacious, but am forced to admit, I'd never have guessed you held the county record for fattest pumpkin."
"How about you?"
"I'm afraid I've never grown a pumpkin of any size or weight."
"I can walk on my hands. I'd demonstrate, but the ground's not conducive to hand-walking. Come on. You wouldn't have guessed that."
"You're right. I will, however, insist on a demo later. I, after all, have documentation of the pumpkin."
She kept up the chatter, light and silly enough to make him laugh. He wasn't sure he'd laughed along this path since that fateful hike with his friends. But it seemed natural enough now, with the sun beaming down through the trees, the birds singing.
Until he heard the growl.
She'd heard it, too. He couldn't think of another reason her voice would have stopped so short, or her hand would have gripped his arm like a vise. "Cal-"
"Yeah, I hear it. We're nearly there. Sometimes it makes noise, sometimes it makes an appearance." Never this time of year, he thought, as he hitched up the back of his jacket. But these, apparently, were different times. "Just stay close."
"Believe me, I..." Her voice trailed off this time as he drew the large, jagged-edged hunting knife. "Okay. Okay. Now that would have been one of those unexpected things about you. That you, ah, carry a Crocodile Dundee around."
"I don't come here unarmed."
She moistened her lips. "And you probably know how to use it, if necessary."
He shot her a look. "I probably do. Do you want to keep going, or do you want to turn around and go back?"
"I'm not turning tail."
He could hear it rustling in the brush, could hear the slide of mud underfoot. Stalking them, he thought. He imagined the knife was as useless as a few harsh words if the thing meant business, but he felt better with it in his hand.
"Lump doesn't hear it," Quinn murmured, lifting her chin to where the dog slopped along the path a few feet ahead. "Even he can't be that lazy. If he heard it, scented it, he'd show some concern. So it's not real." She took a slow breath. "It's just show."
"Not real to him, anyway."
When the thing howled, Cal took her firmly by the arm and pulled her through the edge of the trees into the clearing where the Pagan Stone speared up out of the muddy earth.
"I guess, all things considered, I was half expecting something along the lines of the king stone from Stonehenge." Quinn stepped away from Cal to circle the stone. "It's amazing enough though, when you take a good look, the way it forms a table, or altar. How flat and smooth the top is." She laid her hand on it. "It's warm," she added. "Warmer than stone should be in a February wood."
He put his hand beside hers. "Sometimes it's cold." He fit the knife back into its sheath. "Nothing to worry about when it's warm. So far." He shoved his sleeve back, examined the scar on his wrist. "So far," he repeated.
Without thinking, he laid his hand over hers. "As long as-"
"It's heating up! Feel that? Do you feel that?"
She shifted, started to place her other hand on the stone. He moved, felt himself move as he might have through that wall of fire. Madly.
He gripped her shoulders, spinning her around until her back was pressed to the stone. Then sated the sudden, desperate appetite by taking her mouth.
For an instant, he was someone else, as was she, and the moment was full of grieving desperation. Her taste, her skin, the beat of her heart.
Then he was himself, feeling Quinn's lips heat under his as the stone had heated under their hands. It was her body quivering against his, and her fingers digging into his hips.
He wanted more, wanted to shove her onto the table of rock, to cover her with his body, to surround himself with all she was.
Not him, he thought dimly, or not entirely him. And so he made himself pull back, forced himself to break that connection.
The air wavered a moment. "Sorry," he managed. "Not altogether sorry, but-"
"Surprised." Her voice was hoarse. "Me, too. That was definitely unexpected. Made me dizzy," she whispered. "That's not a complaint. It wasn't us, then it was." She took another steadying breath. "Call me a slut, but I liked it both ways." With her eyes on his, she placed her hand on the stone again. "Want to try it again?"
"I think I'm still a man, so damn right I do. But I don't think it'd be smart, or particularly safe. Plus, I don't care for someone-something-else yanking on my hormones. Next time I kiss you, it's just you and me."
"All right. Connections." She nodded. "I'm more in favor than ever about the theory regarding connections. Could be blood, could be a reincarnation thing. It's worth exploring."
She sidestepped away from the stone, and him. "So, no more contact with each other and that thing for the time being. And let's take it back to the purpose at hand."
"Are you okay?"
"Stirred me up, I'll admit. But no harm, no foul." She took out her water bottle, and this time drank deep.
"I wanted you. Both ways."
Lowering the bottle, she met those calm gray eyes. She'd just gulped down water, she thought, but now her throat was dry again. "I know. What I don't know is if that's going to be a problem."
"It's going to be a problem. I'm not going to care about that."
Her pulse gave a couple of quick jumps. "Ah...This probably isn't the place to-"
"No, it's not." He took a step forward, but didn't touch her. And still her skin went hot. "There's going to be another place."
"Okay." She cleared her throat. "All right. To work."
She did another circle while he watched her. He'd made her a little jumpy. He didn't mind that. In fact, he considered it a point for his side. Something might have pushed him to kiss her that way, but he knew what he'd felt as that something released its grip. He knew what he'd been feeling since she'd stepped out of her car at the top of his lane.
Plain and simple lust. Caleb Hawkins for Quinn Black.
"You camped here, the three of you, that night." Apparently taking Cal at his word about the safety of the area, Quinn moved easily around the clearing. "You-if I have any understanding of young boys-ate junk food, ragged on each other, maybe told ghost stories."
"Some. We also drank the beer Gage stole from his father, and looked at the skin mags he'd swiped."
"Of course, though I'd have pegged those activities for more like twelve-year-olds."
"Precocious." He ordered himself to stop thinking about her, to take himself back. "We built a fire. We had the boom box on. It was a pretty night, still hot, but not oppressive. And it was our night. It was, we thought, our place. Sacred ground."
"So your great-grandmother said."
"It called for ritual." He waited for her to turn to him. "We wrote down words. Words we made. We swore an oath, and at midnight, I used my Boy Scout knife to cut our wrists. We said the words we'd made and pressed our wrists together to mix the blood. To make us blood brothers. And hell opened up."
"I don't know, not exactly. None of us do, not that we can remember. There was a kind of explosion. It seemed like one. The light was blinding, and the force of it knocked me back. Lifted me right off my feet. Screams, but I've never known if they were mine, Fox's, Gage's, or something else. The fire shot straight up, there seemed to be fire everywhere, but we weren't burned. Something pushed out, pushed into me. Pain, I remember pain. Then I saw some kind of dark mass rising out, and felt the cold it brought with it. Then it was over, and we were alone, scared, and the ground was scorched black."
Ten years old, she thought. Just a little boy. "How did you get out?"
"We hiked out the next morning pretty much as we'd hiked in. Except for a few changes. I came into this clearing when I was nine. I was wearing glasses. I was nearsighted."
Her brows rose. "Was?"
"Twenty-one hundred in my left eye, twenty-ninety in my right. I walked out ten, and twenty-twenty. None of us had a mark on him when we left, though Gage especially had some wounds he brought in with him. Not one of us has been sick a day since that night. If we're injured, it heals on its own."
There was no doubt on her face, only interest with a touch, he thought, of fascination. It struck him that other than his family she was the only one who knew. Who believed.
"You were given some sort of immunity."
"You could call it that."
"Do you feel pain?"
"Damn right. I came out with perfect vision, not X-ray. And the healing can hurt like a mother, but it's pretty quick. I can see things that happened before, like out on the trail. Not all the time, not every time, but I can see events of the past."
"A reverse clairvoyance."
"When it's on. I've seen what happened here on July seventh, sixteen fifty-two."
"What happened here, Cal?"
"The demon was bound under the stone. And Fox, Gage, and I, we cut the bastard loose."
She moved to him. She wanted to touch him, to soothe that worry from his face, but was afraid to. "If you did, you weren't to blame."
"Blame and responsibility aren't much different."
The hell with it. She laid her hands on his cheeks even when he flinched. Then touched her lips gently to his. "That was normal. You're responsible because, to my mind, you're willing to take responsibility. You've stayed when a lot of other men would've walked, if not run, away from here. So I say there's a way to beat it back where it belongs. And I'm going to do whatever I can to help you do just that."
She opened her pack. "I'm going to take photos, some measurements, some notes, and ask a lot of annoying questions."
She'd shaken him. The touch, the words, the faith. He wanted to draw her in, hold on to her. Just hold on. Normal, she'd said, and looking at her now, he craved the bliss of normality.
Not the place, he reminded himself, and stepped back. "You've got an hour. We start back in an hour. We're going to be well out of the woods before twilight."
"No argument." This time, she thought, and went to work.