Bethanys Sin Chapter 31


V

AFTERWARD

THIRTY-ONE

RUINS AND BEGINNINGS

Two figures standing on a plain of charred ruins. A woman and a little girl, holding hands. The September breeze, cooling into autumn, whispering through cracks in freestanding walls, sighing eerily around jutting black chimneys and the ashen stumps of trees long hauled away.

What little remained of Bethany's Sin had been cordoned off for weeks by the police and fire departments as they sifted through the sea of ashes looking for clues that might explain the sudden and terrible holocaust. Kay had been questioned repeatedly, first by the police and then by reporters. To all of them she said the same thing: I don't know. In the last week or so, the reporters had started calling the small, one-bedroom apartment Kay was renting in Johnstown -

God only knew how they'd managed to get the telephone number -

badgering her day and night, treating her like some sort of macabre celebrity. Recently they'd even begun hanging around the private school Laurie was attending, hoping to ask questions of her;but Mrs.

Abercrombie, bless her soul, was a smart lady, and she could spot those reporters a mile away. On several occasions she'd called Kay at George Ross and told her that Laurie would be waiting at the back door today, because you-know-who's outside again this afternoon.

Kay's last session had been with a Lieutenant Knowles,a fiftyish man with curly gray hair and blue-as-flint eyes. He'd offered her coffee, a cigarette. No thank you, no thank you. Let's just get this over with, shall we?

’’Right,’’ the man had said;he'd smiled apologetically and then eased himself down into a black-vinyl swivel chair. ’’I know how painful this is for you...’’

’’Then why do you keep asking me to come back? Of course it's painful!’’

’’Well, I'm really sorry,’’ Knowles said. ’’Really I am.’’ His eyes meant it. ’’But it seems that you're just about the only person who came out of that fire. Well, you and the children, of course. But the children don't know anything....’’

’’And neither do I.’’

’’Mind if I smoke?’’

Kay shook her head.

Knowles reached for a pack of Trues and a lighter. ’’This whole thing is so...crazy. So really crazy.’’ He lit the cigarette, pushed the pack away across his desk. Pictures of a smiling wife and two children were placed to his right, Kay's left. ’’The sheriff's car crashed into the gas station, nothing left of him to speak of;that crazy place with all the statues and old junk;a few skeletons lying around...’’

She shifted uneasily.

’’Sorry,’’ Knowles said over his cigarette. ’’But that's the truth.

One skeleton even missing its head! Another one with a spade or something stuck in its gut. And you know how the firemen found your husband and that Dr. - ’’ He paused, flipped through a few pages of notes he had before him.

’’Drago,’’ Kay said. Something about that name made her skin crawl now.

’’Right. Well, I'll tell you, nothing makes sense.’’ He looked at her, narrowed his eyes. ’’And you still can't remember? I mean, nothing's come back to you at all?’’

’’I've already told you people what I remember. I've told you again and again. I remember seeing my husband inside that museum.

Then I don't remember anything else until I was out in the street.’’

’’How about up to that point? Anything?’’

She took a deep breath. Oh, God, this was where it got confusing. It seemed that she recalled lying in a bed in the clinic, staring at the shadows on the ceiling;the nurse had just brought her some of that awful, chalky tasting orange juice, and she remembered thinking that orange juice isn't for nighttime, it's supposed to be for breakfast. She remembered worrying about Evan, about what he might do in his present state of mind - she'd told no one that - and then she'd felt suddenly and strangely cold, unable to reach for the buzzer beside her bed when she wanted to call for another blanket.

Nothing after that, at all. Just empty darkness. ’’No,’’ she said, and Knowles looked disappointed.

The man drew on his cigarette, tapped it into an ashtray;his brow was furrowed, had been furrowed ever since this nasty business had begun. There were so many damned unanswered questions! The gas station explosion;the skeletons of the man and woman, melded together by the heat, found in the ruins of that museum;a few female skeletons in the ashen forest, along with the charred remains of horses, of all things;other fire-ravaged corpses in several of the houses, where they'd been trapped by fallen debris;the fact that Bethany's Sin had been deserted but for the children, this woman who sat before him, and assorted bits and pieces of burned-beyond-recognition bodies. The coroner was still counting;he'd already passed fifty. The other people who'd lived in that village had just vanished. Strange. Maybe the strangest thing he'd ever heard of.

Other things bothered him, too, made him sit awake nights now trying to figure them out, but he realized that he'd probably never grasp the whole picture, no matter how long he and his team investigated. Fragments of some kind of scrapbook had been found in the sheriff's office;clippings of murders and disappearances dating years back. In another half-charred notebook, calculations of when the moon would be full, the lunar sequence painstakingly worked out through December. Who the hell could explain that?

What had Wysinger been, some sort of astronomy nut or something?

And from the reports he'd seen, Kay Reid had lain in a hospital bed for three days after the fire, alternately feverish and shivering, hysterical and silent. Complaints of recurrent nightmare, of seeing figures standing over her bed, some doctor had written on one of her medical forms. Nightmares vague, but indicative of severe trauma.

And now this woman, possibly the key to whatever had happened that August night in Bethany's Sin, sat here in his office and insisted she could remember nothing. He could look into her face and see the new lines around her eyes, and he knew she'd come a long, hard way back from Bethany's Sin, but was she lying to him?

Trying to pretend she knew less than she really did?

So he decided to take a gamble. ’’Are you still having those nightmares, Mrs. Reid?’’ Knowles asked her, watching for her reaction as he stabbed his cigarette out.

She winced, quickly regained her composure. ’’What do you mean?’’

’’The nightmares you were having in the hospital. Do they still bother you?’’

Kay paused for a moment. ’’No,’’ she said finally. ’’No, they don't.’’

’’That's good to hear. What were they about?’’

’’Have you decided to trade your badge in for a psychiatrist's couch?’’

Knowles smiled, shook his head. ’’No. Just curious.’’

For a long while she pretended to examine her nails, still uncertain whether to tell him or not. And then she seemed to relax visibly, as if ridding herself of a haunting, terrible weight. She looked up at him. ’’Yes,’’ she said softly, ’’the nightmares. I was afraid to sleep at first be cause they came every night. They were...especially bad when I was in the hospital because being there reminded me of somewhere else. The clinic in Bethany's Sin. I was...sick, and the doctor put me in a room there.’’

’’What was wrong with you?’’ the man asked.

She shook her head. ’’I don't know. When I try to remember what happened to me from then on, my mind just...well, it's like my memory's blanked out or something. I know it sounds strange, but it's as if I...ceased to exist entirely. I was cold, terribly, terribly cold, and in a place of utter darkness.’’ Kay looked into the man's face, her own gaze intense and fearful. Knowles clicked his lighter, lit another cigarette. ’’I couldn't find my way back,’’ she said, ’’until I heard Evan call my name, as if he were off in the distance somewhere and trying to help me. And then I began to fight toward where the light was;I began to repeat my own name over and over again, and I tried to remember everything in my life that had made me who I am.’’ She saw that Knowles's eyes were vacant above his cigarette, and she knew he couldn't possibly understand or believe. ’’It was like drowning in a bright blue pool, and trying to struggle toward the surface where the sun was shining.’’ She saw him blink suddenly, and she lapsed into silence.

Knowles cleared his throat uneasily, shifted in his chair. ’’All that was part of your nightmares?’’

Kay smiled thinly. ’’Yes, that's right.’’ She wouldn't tell him what she'd really seen in those night visitations: herself in black robes, drifting along a wide, stone-floored corridor, flanked on both sides by grinning statues with volcanic, half-human eyes;and at the far end of that corridor stood a black rectangle. A mirror, Kay realized as she neared it, but reflecting nothing but its own dark, evil-glowing self. And as Kay leaned forward to peer into that mirror, she saw a shape within it, something ancient and scabrous, wafting like dust, turning in on itself, churning like a maelstrom of agonized hatred. As she stared, unable to tear herself away, the shape coagulated, became something mimicking human form, with blue-burning, unblinking eyes that touched her to the soul.

And from the mirror the hand of a skeleton reached out, gripping her around the wrist and pulling. It was then that she realized, in numb-beyond-thinking terror, that this was not a mirror, no, not a mirror, but instead a doorway to that region of entities drifting in the bodiless void between Life and Death. The skeleton had tightened, tightened, pulling her slowly toward the doorway. But always she found her voice and screamed, wrenched away from the nameless horror, turned and ran back along the corridor even as the statues began to shamble toward her, raising their swords and axes and spears to strike her down.

She always escaped.

And in time those nightmares had faded. Thank God.

’’What are your plans now?’’ Knowles asked her.

’’I have an apartment,’’ Kay said. ’’I've been given the opportunity to stay on at George Ross. Laurie...still cries, but I think she'll be all right.’’ Kay smiled;or tried to, because her lips trembled.

’’I never realized how very much I loved and needed Evan until he was gone. Sometimes in the night I still reach over to the other side of the bed for him.’’ Her eyes glistened. ’’I want him so much to be there. Love's funny, isn't it? What's the old saying? You never know how much you've got until it's gone. But he's not really gone, not really. No one's ever really gone unless you forget.’’

Knowles sat still for a moment, examining her face. No, he decided. This woman wasn't lying. He felt more certain now than ever that whatever had happened in Bethany's Sin was locked away from him. Perhaps forever. No, no, he thought, scratch that. I'm a police officer, and maybe someday I'll dig up something. He rose to his feet. ’’I suppose that about wraps it up, Mrs. Reid. Thank you very much for coming in.’’

Two figures standing on a plain of charred ruins. A woman and a little girl, holding hands.

’’I don't like this, Mommy,’’ Laurie said. ’’Let's go home.’’

’’We will, sweetheart,’’ Kay told her softly. ’’In just a little while, we will.’’ They stood on what remained of McClain Terrace: blackened facades of houses with collapsed roofs. Nothing but timbers left of the Demargeon house, as if it had been struck by God Himself. The house where the Reid family had lived was a charred shell: roof sagging;windows empty, gaping holes. Kay had wanted to come to this place one last time;after today she would not return here again, and their lives would start fresh from this place and point in time. It was such a beautiful house, she thought, looking at the ruins. Such a beautiful village. She moved closer, shoes crunching ashes and shards of glass. Something fluttered on the ground, and Kay bent to pick it up.

It was a page from one of Evan's short stories. She could see the typewritten characters only faintly, and before she could read it the breeze had crisped it into ashes that spun out of her grasp, floating, floating, floating away. That same breeze made ghost-voices moan from empty doorways.

Kay wiped her face - quickly so Laurie wouldn't see and become disturbed - and then said, ’’Come on. We'd better be getting home now.’’ They crossed the lawn of ashes toward Kay's second-hand Vega, climbed in with ashes still clinging to their shoes. Kay hugged Laurie to her for a moment, then started the car and left McClain Terrace behind.

Yellow lights blinked on Blair Street. A detour: a maze of trash and fallen trees still awaited the cleanup crews. Kay had to turn onto Cowlington.

And as they passed the burned-out hulk of the museum, Kay slowed, staring up at it. She pulled the Vega to the curb and sat for a few minutes, her heart slowly beating, beating, beating. Evan's tomb, she thought. But why? What had happened in those last days? What kept hammering at the door of her mind, even now the memories trying to force their way in? Something that Evan had been trying to warn her of, all along? Something she'd dismissed with a wave of her hand and an accusation? The breeze whispered around the corners of the house. Spirals of ash spun up, twisted, dancing back and forth;one of the spirals, caught in the teeth of the breeze, whirled down toward the Vega. Kay smelled a hot, scorched smell.

’’I don't like it here, Mommy,’’ Laurie said.

’’We're going,’’ Kay said. She put the car in gear and pulled away from the curb, accelerating. ’’We won't come back to this place anymore.’’ Someday I'll know, Kay told herself. Someday I'll be strong enough to let those memories in, and I'll see what it was that Evan saw. She stroked Laurie's hair. ’’Home in just a few minutes,’’

she said, and glanced down at her child.

Laurie smiled. For the briefest instant Kay thought she saw something strange in the little girl's eyes, but then Laurie blinked and that half-seen, half-recognized glimmer was gone. Laurie slid across the seat against her mother, thinking of how much she was going to miss Mrs. Omarian. Mrs. Omarian with those funny stories about those funny women, those stories that were too funny for daddies to know.

But, somehow, Laurie didn't feel like laughing anymore.

They left Bethany's Sin.

And turned toward the city.

Time shall come when the female shall conquer the male, and shall chase him far away....

- ANCIENT ORACLE

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