"So what happened?"
"You know that man your woman's been seein'?" n.o.ble asked.
"Jackie isn't my 'woman.' She's- Never mind. Yes, she's been seeing Russell Dunne. She told me about him."
"He ain't real," n.o.ble said. "He ain't even there."
The urge to yawn left me. "Tell me," I said.
"This afternoon at lunch-where you ain't been for three days now- Jackie said she had somebody she wanted us to meet. She said he was gonna visit her in her studio at two o'clock and could we come down."
When I looked at Dad, he nodded in agreement.
"Toodles and I didn't want to P.O. Jackie 'cause she runs everythin'
around here, so we were in her little buildin' at five minutes to two."
Again Toodles nodded.
"We were lookin' at the pictures Jackie took when she looked up and said, 'Oh! There he is,' and we turned to look."
When n.o.ble stopped, I said, "And?"
"And there wasn't n.o.body there."
"That doesn't make sense. Maybe she-" But I couldn't think of an explanation.
"You tell him," n.o.ble said to Toodles.
And that's when I found out what a good mimic my father was. He got off the couch, put his hand on his hip in a way I'd seen Jackie do many times, and said, "I'm busy. Very, very busy." He swished about the room looking for dirt and cobwebs, then used an imaginary duster to eliminate them. When I laughed, Dad seemed to turn on, and he began to really put on a show. Pausing at one of the invisible cobwebs, he looked at it from different angles, then began to photograph it.
It was such a perfect pantomime of Jackie that I was laughing hard. The only word my father said was "busy," which described Jackie perfectly.
In my hilarity, I glanced at n.o.ble, but he was sitting on the couch stone-faced, not even looking at Toodles.
Eventually, my father quit cleaning and photographing, and looked toward a door. "Oh! There he is," he said in a good imitation of Jackie's voice.
He opened the imaginary door, then introduced Russell Dunne to Toodles and n.o.ble. Taking turns, Toodles portrayed himself and n.o.ble as they looked for, but didn't see, Jackie's guest.
It took me a few moments to stop laughing, but when I did, I wasn't sure I could believe what my father was doing such an excellent job of imitating.
Jackie had introduced n.o.ble and Toodles to a man who wasn't there.
She'd had a conversation with all of them, but when Toodles and n.o.ble didn't reply to the invisible man's questions and comments, Jackie began to get angry. Toodles showed Jackie's anger, then stepped aside and mimed his own consternation. He showed how n.o.ble had banged on the side of his head and said water had got in his ears in the shower that morning and he couldn't hear a thing. And n.o.ble had put his arm around Toodles's shoulders, saying he was shy with strangers so that's why he wasn't speaking.
Toodles acted out Jackie's relaxing and smiling, then shouting to a deaf n.o.ble that Russell said he liked Toodles's vest and did he have any rhinoceros beetles on there? Toodles showed himself displaying the horned beetle, his eyes wide.
Toodles showed Jackie listening to the man, then shouting that Russell had to go, so could n.o.ble please move so Russell could get out the door?
Toodles demonstrated n.o.ble stepping in front of the door, blocking the exit, and pleading with Jackie to let Ford meet Russell.
"Would you?" Jackie asked, looking at empty s.p.a.ce and waiting for an answer. "Sorry," she said, turning back to n.o.ble. "Russell doesn't have time to meet Ford right now. So, n.o.ble..." She motioned for him to move aside.
Toodles showed how he and n.o.ble had held their breaths, watching the door to see if it would open by itself. But when the door didn't open, Jackie said, "It sticks sometimes," and she opened it, then went outside-after stepping aside for Russell.
Toodles and n.o.ble got wedged into the door as they both tried to crowd through it. Toodles pinched n.o.ble and when n.o.ble yelped, Toodles went through first.
Once they were outside, to my disbelief-and no little repugnance-my father pantomimed Jackie in an imaginary embrace and kissing-complete with tongue-her invisible friend.
After the kiss, my father and n.o.ble looked at me as though I was supposed to know what was going on and to explain it to them. As a kid, I'd seen that look often. From about the time I was nine, whenever anything filtered in from the outside world, I was supposed to explain it. Legal papers and anything from a doctor were handed to me, and I was to read and translate it into English.
Of course I knew that this imaginary friend of Jackie's had nothing to do with her being crazy. If it did and she was, that would be an easy matter to deal with. A few hundred milligrams of some drug and she'd be fine. No more meeting men in the garden and we could all get back to what we were doing.
I should be so lucky. I looked at Toodles and n.o.ble, once again sitting on the couch close together. They looked like old first graders waiting for their teacher to explain why the sky was falling.
"Well, you see..." I began. You're a wordsmith, I told myself, so start smithing those words. "Jackie is... Well, actually, I think maybe... I mean, we think maybe Jackie is, uh-"
Praise the Lord, but the door to my office flew open, distracting the three of us. Tessa stood there, her eyes wide. "Jackie's having an epileptic fit," she said.
I jumped up, n.o.ble and Dad behind me.
"Get a spoon," n.o.ble said.
"Join the twenty-first century," I shot back at him as I ran down the stairs behind Tessa, Toodles and n.o.ble close behind me.
Jackie was sitting on the chair in the entrance hall, her face buried in her hands and she was crying. I knew she'd had another vision and I wondered how much time we had.
Kneeling before her, I took her wrists and pulled her hands away from her face. She looked awful so I knew that what she'd seen this time was really bad.
I picked up all of what felt like twenty pounds of her, carried her into the living room, and put her on the couch. n.o.ble, Toodles, and Tessa followed me so closely they were stepping on my heels, and after I put Jackie down, I sat on an ottoman in front of her, the Three Stooges sitting behind me.
"Where and what?" I asked.
If Jackie even saw the faces behind me, she didn't let on. She just put her hands back over her face and started crying again. "It's happened," she said.
"Just what Russell said would happen, has." When she looked up at me, her eyes were full of fear. "I saw something bad inside someone's head."
I took her hands in mine. "Calm down and tell me about it."
She took a couple of deep breaths, calmed herself, then looked behind me. By this time Toodles's head was on my left shoulder, Tessa on his shoulder, and n.o.ble had his head on my right shoulder. I must have looked like a four-headed monster.
I gave a couple of shrugs and for a second they pulled away, but they were back as fast as flies on watermelon. All I could do was try to convey to Jackie that it was okay to talk in front of them.
"Rebecca Cutshaw is planning to burn the town down," Jackie said, tears running down her cheeks. "I was inside her head and what I saw is horrible.
She's full of anger. Rage like I've never seen before. She wants to leave here, leave Cole Creek, but she can't. Does that make any sense to you?"
"None at all," I said. "But a lot of things in this town don't make sense to me."
Tessa pulled her head off Toodles's shoulder and sighed noisily. It was the sound of kid-boredom. I guess that when she saw Jackie wasn't really having an exciting seizure, she wasn't interested. "The devil won't let us leave," Tessa said.
We all turned to look at the child. "What do you mean?" I asked as casually as I could manage.
Tessa shrugged. More boredom. "My dad has to come here to visit us because my mom is one of the people who can't go more than fifty miles outside Cole Creek. When she dies, I'll be the one, so I have to leave before she dies and I can never come back."
All four of us adults sat there blinking, opening our mouths like the proverbial fish. I think all of us wanted to ask a billion questions, but nothing would come out. After several seconds of silence it dawned on me that the urgency now was Jackie's vision. I looked back at her. Her tears were gone and she was gaping at Tessa.
"How much time do we have?" I asked.
It took Jackie a moment to remember what we were talking about. "I don't know," she said. "It was night."
"Time for what?" n.o.ble asked, turning away from Tessa, his head no longer on my shoulder. If I knew my cousin, he was thinking about changing the oil in his truck. Newcombes didn't like anything "ghosty" as they called it. They were superst.i.tious to a medieval degree.
"Before some woman sets fire to the town," I said impatiently. Better to think of a fire than the devil.
Again Jackie put her hands over her face. "What I saw was catastrophic.
People died because they couldn't get away, couldn't leave town. And, Ford"-she grabbed my hand in hers-"the fire trucks couldn't get here.
They couldn't get into Cole Creek. Something wouldn't let them enter the town."
Tessa had wandered over to the little gla.s.s cabinet beside the door and was looking at some porcelain birds. "That's because the devil hates this town and wants it to die," she said.
My first thought was to find my Patsy Cline CD and listen to her sing "Crazy." My second thought was to raid the refrigerator and take six days'
worth of food upstairs to my office and bolt the door. What had possessed me to ever want to write something about the occult? If I hadn't wanted to find a way to contact Pat I wouldn't have been interested in Jackie's devil story, so I wouldn't have- Jackie was looking at me as though to say everyone except the two of us was insane. It was hard for me to meet her eyes because I knew, sooner or later, that someone-meaning me-was going to have to tell her that Russell Dunne didn't exist. And I deeply and sincerely hoped that the problem was that Jackie was a paranoid schizophrenic and/or had multiple personalities.
Maybe because my father had what n.o.ble called a "bruised brain" he didn't see the shades of a problem. He got off the ottoman, went to sit beside Jackie, slipped his arm around her shoulders, and said, "Next time you see him, ask him to let them leave."
Pulling back, Jackie looked at my father in bewilderment. "Tell who what?" she asked.
"The devil," my dad said. "Next time you see the devil, ask him to let the people leave this town."
Jackie looked at all of us, seeming for the first time to see the way we were staring at her. "And what gives you the idea that I see the devil?" she asked calmly, but her eyes were flashing.
We adults, even my father, heard the edge in Jackie's voice, so we were quiet.
"The man you talk to," Tessa said. "The man in the studio. The one who isn't there. The man you can see but no one else can see. He's the devil."
"Russell?" Jackie asked, incredulous. "You people think that Russell Dunne is... is the devil?"
All of us looked at Tessa in wonder. It looked as though she too had seen -or not seen, I guess-Jackie's nonexistent friend. When I turned back to Jackie, I saw that her face was turning red with anger. I'd seen her anger on the day she was to have been married, so I didn't want to bring it to the surface.
I gave a little smile and a shrug. "It's just a theory," I said, hoping she'd laugh.
But she didn't laugh. Instead, she threw up her hands and said, "I'm outta here," then stalked out of the room. I heard the keys jangle as she grabbed them off the hall table, and seconds later I heard my car start. I didn't try to stop her because she was putting into action what I wanted to do. But I wasn't free as she was. I had relatives to support and a house that I'd have to dispose of. I couldn't just walk away.
The truth was, I wanted her to get away. I didn't think I or my kin were in any danger, but for a long time now I'd felt that Jackie was in jeopardy.
Whether the danger was from someone who'd murdered others, from a man who didn't exist in solid form, or the danger was to Jackie's sanity, I didn't know. All I was sure of was that it was good for her to get away. Now.
We didn't say much after Jackie ran out of the house, and I'd lost my desire to go back to my office. I went to the library to stare sightlessly at the pages of a book, while n.o.ble went outside, opened the hood of my pickup and buried himself inside. Toodles went to the garden with Tessa, but whenever I saw him, he wasn't talking and there was a look of fear in his eyes. Only Tessa seemed normal. But then she had-maybe-possibly?- lived with the devil all her life.
Less than an hour after Jackie left, my cell phone rang. It was Jackie and she'd run out of gas. Exactly fifty miles south of Cole Creek, she'd run out of gas.
I'd filled the tank the night before.
Jackie I rode back to Cole Creek in the pickup with Ford in silence. Silence was the best I could do under the circ.u.mstances because I knew he and n.o.ble had played a trick on me. Oh, yes, the two of them had shown up in the truck with a gas can in the back, but I wasn't "dumb female" so much that I couldn't see that the can was empty. They'd put it in the truck just for show, to make me feel better, because they knew they weren't going to have to put gas in a car that had a nearly full tank.
When I got in the truck with Ford he turned on the radio-something he never did because his writer's brain was so full he couldn't hear much else- so I knew he wanted to distract me. Sure enough, as soon as I turned off the radio, I heard the car engine start.
I didn't look back but I knew that an hour ago, that car had been dead. So maybe n.o.ble had done some boy-thing under the hood and made it start.
Tapped on a spark plug. Put gin in the generator.
But I knew he hadn't. The car was dead for me, but alive for n.o.ble. Just as Tessa had said, there were some people who "couldn't" get more than fifty miles outside of Cole Creek.
I leaned my head back against the seat and closed my eyes. I did not want this to be happening.
But curiosity got the better of me. Opening my eyes, I punched b.u.t.tons on my cell phone. Random numbers with a New York area code. When I got someone's machine, I hung up. A few minutes ago the only number I could call on my phone was Ford's. Not even emergency numbers had worked.
Ford was silent, so I knew he was letting me have some time to sort things out in my mind. But how can one figure something like that out?
Had I really seen and talked-and l.u.s.ted after-the devil? Or was I-I hoped-merely insane?
I could believe that n.o.ble and Toodles were "mistaken" about not seeing Russell. Or even lying. n.o.ble could be angry that I was "steppin' out" on his cousin, and he'd be able to make Toodles believe whatever he wanted. But Tessa? She was the kid who told the emperor he had no clothes on.
I thought about how rude n.o.ble and Toodles had been to Russell when they'd met him. At the time, I'd figured n.o.ble didn't like the idea that I was seeing another man, so that was why he was snubbing Russell. Even when n.o.ble pretended he couldn't hear Russell, I played along and shouted every word. I didn't get to tell n.o.ble what I thought of him, but at least I got to use my preferred volume.
Russell had been wonderful. He'd smiled at n.o.ble and Toodles, and had been gracious when they didn't answer his questions. He'd even smiled when they'd ignored his outstretched hand.
I'd been so angry at the two men that when I went outside with Russell, I'd given him a super kiss. I wanted those two to go to Ford and tell him that Jackie Maxwell didn't "belong" to him as everyone seemed to think I did.
Besides, I was sick of Ford's not being there. It was pretty boring around the house when he wasn't there. During Ford's three-day absence, n.o.ble and Allie had spent quite a bit of time together in the rotting old house across the street, and a couple of times their laughter had drifted all the way back to me.
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