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The Pagan Stone (Chapter Fifteen)

Chapter Fifteen

BECAUSE IT WAS A QUIET PLACE WHERE THE THREE of them could meet in private, Gage and Fox joined Cal in his office in the bowling center. Time was ticking by. Gage could all but feel the days draining away. None of them had seen Twisse, in any form, since the day Gage had shot it. But there had been signs.

The increase in animal attacks, or the bloated bodies of animals on the sides of the road. Unexplained power outages and electrical fires. Tempers grew shorter, it seemed, every day. Accidents increased.

And the dreams became a nightly plague.

"My grandmother and cousin are moving into my parents' place today," Cal told them. "Somebody threw a rock through Grand's next-door-neighbor's window yesterday. I'm trying to convince them all to move out to the farm, Fox. Safety in numbers. The fact is, the way things are, we'll need to get those who're willing out there soon. I know it's earlier than we thought, I know it's a lot, but-"

"They're ready. My mom and dad, my brother and his family, my sister and her guy." Fox rubbed the back of his neck. "I had a fight with Sage over the phone last night," he added, speaking of his older sister. "She started talking about making plans to come back, to help. She's staying in Seattle -pissed at me, but she's staying. I used the fact that Paula's pregnant as leverage there."

"That's good. Enough of your family's involved in this. My two sisters are staying where they are, too. People are heading out of town every day. A couple here, a couple there."

"I stopped by the flower shop yesterday," Fox told them. "Amy told me she's closing up the end of the week, taking a couple weeks' vacation up in Maine. I've had three clients cancel appointments for next week. I'm thinking I might just close the office until after this is done."

"Find out if there's anything your family needs out at the farm. Supplies, tents. I don't know."

"I'm going to head out there later, give them a hand with some of it."

"You need help?" Gage asked.

"No, we've got it covered. I might be late heading back to Cal 's if that's where we'll all bunk tonight. One of you could make sure Layla's not on her own, and gets there."

"No problem. Anybody getting any sleep?" Cal asked them, and Gage merely laughed. "Yeah. Me, too." Cal nudged the bloodstone over the desk. "I took this out of the safe when I got here this morning. I thought maybe if I just sit here, stare at the damn thing, something will come."

"We've got so much going." Fox pushed to his feet to pace. "I can feel it. Can't you feel it? We're right on the edge of it, but we just can't push over. It seems like it's all there, all the pieces of it. Except that one." He picked up the stone. "Except this one. We've got it, but we don't know how the hell to use it."

"Maybe what we need is a howitzer instead of a hunk of rock."

With a half smile, Fox turned to Gage. "I'm at the point a howitzer doesn't sound so bad. But this is what'll do the bastard. The women are spending nearly every waking hour-which is most of the time these days-trying to find the answer to this hunk of rock. But…"

"We can't see past that edge," Cal put in.

"Cybil and I have tried the link-up, but it's either a really crappy vision, or nothing. That interference, that static the bastard can jam things with. It's working overtime on blocking us."

"Yeah, and Quinn's working overtime to find a way around the block. This paranormal stuff's her deal," Cal said with a shrug. "Until then, we keep doing what we can do to protect ourselves, protect the town, and figure out how to use the weapons we have."

"If we can't take it down…" Gage began.

Fox rolled his eyes. "Here goes our Pollyanna with a penis."

"If we can't take it down," Gage repeated, "if we know it's going south, is there a way to get the women clear? To get them out? I know you've both thought the same."

Fox slumped back into a chair. "Yeah."

"I've gone around with it," Cal admitted. "Even if we could convince them, which I don't see happening, I don't see how they'd get out, not if we have to take this stand at the Pagan Stone."

"I don't like it." Fox's jaw tightened. "But that's where it has to be. The middle of Hawkins Wood, in the dark. I wish I didn't know in my gut that it has to be there, that they have to go in there with us. But I do know it. So we can't let it go south, that's all."

IT HAD BEEN EASIER, GAGE ADMITTED, WHEN IT had just been the three of them. He loved his friends, and part of him would die if either of them did. But they'd been in it together since day one. Since minute one, he corrected, as he started downstairs.

It had been easier, too, when the women had first gotten involved. Before any of them really mattered to him. Easier before he'd seen the way Quinn meshed with Cal, or the way Fox lit up when Layla was in the room.

Easier before he'd let himself have feelings for Cybil, because, goddamn it, he had feelings. Messy, irritating, impossible feelings for Cybil. The kind of feelings that pushed him into having thoughts. Messy, irritating, impossible thoughts.

He didn't want a relationship. He sure as hell didn't want a long-term relationship. And by God, he didn't want a long-term relationship that involved plans and promises. He wanted to come and go as he pleased, and that's just what he did. Except for every seventh year. And so far, so good.

You didn't mess with a streak.

So the feelings and the thoughts would just have to find another sucker to… infect, he decided.

"Gage."

He stopped, saw his father at the base of the steps. Perfect, Gage thought, just one more thing to give a shine to his day.

"I know I said I wouldn't get in your way when you came in to see Cal. And I won't."

"You're standing in it now."

Bill stepped back, rubbed his hands on the thighs of his work pants. "I just wanted to ask you-I didn't want to get in the way, so I wanted to ask you…"

"What?"

"Jim Hawkins tells me some of the towners are going to camp out at the O'Dell farm. I thought it might be I could help them out. Haul people and supplies out and such, do runs back and forth when needs be."

In Gage's memory his father had spent every Seven skunk drunk upstairs in the apartment. "That'd be up to Brian and Joanne."

"Yeah. Okay."

"Why?" Gage demanded as Bill backed away. "Why don't you just get out?"

"It's my town, too. I never did anything to help before. I never paid much mind to it, or to what you were doing about it. But I knew. Nobody could get drunk enough not to know."

"They could use help out at the farm."

"Okay then. Gage." Bill winced, rubbed his hands over his face. "I should tell you, I've been having dreams. Last few nights, I've been having them. It's like I wake up, but I'm asleep, but it's like I wake up 'cause I hear your ma out in the kitchen. She's right there, it's so real. She's at the stove cooking dinner. Pork chops, mashed potatoes, and those little peas I always liked, the way she made them. And she…"

"Keep going."

"She talks to me, smiles over. She had some smile, my Cathy. She says: Hey there, Bill, supper's almost ready. I go on over, like I always did, put my arms around her while her hands are busy at the stove and kiss her neck till she laughs and wiggles away. I can smell her, in the dream, and I can taste…"

He yanked out his bandanna, mopped his eyes. "She tells me, like she always did, to cut that out now, unless I want my supper burned. Then, she says why don't you have a drink, Bill? Why don't you have a nice drink before supper? And there's a bottle on the counter there, and she pours the whiskey into the glass, holds it out to me. She never did that, your ma never did that in her life. And she never looked at me the way she does in the dreams. With her eyes hard and mean. I gotta sit down here a minute."

Bill lowered to the steps, wiped at the sweat that pearled on his forehead. "I wake up, covered in sweat, and I can smell the whiskey she held out to me. Not Cathy, not anymore, just the whiskey. Last night, when I woke up from it, I went on out in the kitchen to get something cold 'cause my throat was so dry. There was a bottle on the counter. It was right there. I swear to Christ, it was there. I didn't buy a bottle." His hands shook now, and fresh sweat popped out above his top lip. "I started to pick it up, to pour it down the sink. I pray to God I was going to pour it down the sink, but there was nothing there. I think I'm going crazy. I know I'll go crazy if I pick up a bottle again and do anything but pour it down the sink."

"You're not going crazy." Another kind of torture, Gage thought. The bastard didn't miss a trick. "Have you ever had dreams like this before?"

"Maybe, a few times over the years. It's hard to say because I wasn't picking up bottles to pour them down the sink back then." Bill sighed now. "But maybe a few times, around this time of year. Around the time Jim says you boys call the Seven."

"It fucks with us. It's fucking with you. Go on out to the farm, give them a hand out there."

"I can do that." Bill pushed back to his feet. "Whatever it is, it's got no right using your ma that way."

"No, it doesn't."

When Bill started to walk away, Gage cursed under his breath. "Wait. I can't forget, and I don't know if I can ever forgive. But I know you loved her. I know that's the truth, so I'm sorry you lost her."

Something came into Bill's eyes, something Gage reluctantly recognized as gratitude.

"You lost her, too. I never let myself think that, not all those years. You lost her, too, and me with her. I'll carry that the rest of my life. But I won't drink today."

Gage went straight to the rental house. He walked in, and right up the stairs. As he reached the top, Quinn stepped out of her bedroom draped in a towel.

"Oh. Well. Hi, Gage."

"Where's Cybil?"

Quinn hitched the towel a little higher. "Probably in the shower or getting dressed. We hit the gym. I was just going to… never mind."

He studied her face. Her cheeks seemed a little flushed, her eyes a little overbright. "Something wrong?"

"Wrong? No. Everything's good. Great. Thumbs-up. I, ah, better get dressed."

"Pack, too."

"What?"

"Pack up what you need," he told her as she stood frowning and dripping. "Seeing as you're three women, it's going to take more than one trip. Cal and Fox can come by at some point and haul more. There's no point in the three of you staying here-and by the way, do any of you ever think about locking the door? It's getting dangerous in town. Everyone can bunk at Cal 's until this is over."

"You're making that decision for everyone involved?" Cybil asked from behind him.

He turned. She was dressed and leaning against the jamb. "Yeah."

"That's fairly presumptuous, to put it mildly. But I happen to agree with you." She looked over at Quinn. "It's just not practical to have three bases-here, Cal's, Fox's-anymore. We'd be better to consolidate. Even assuming this house is a cold spot, and safe, we're too spread out."

"Who's arguing?" Quinn adjusted her towel again. "Layla's at the boutique with Fox's dad, but Cyb and I can put some of her things together."

Cybil continued to look at Quinn. "It might be helpful if you went by there now, Gage, let her know. It's going to take a little time for us to pack up the research equipment anyway. Then you could borrow Cal 's truck, and we could take the first load."

He knew when he was getting the brush-off. Cybil wanted him gone, for now. "Get it together then. And once we're at Cal 's, you and I have to try the link-up again."

"Yes, we do."

"I'll be back in twenty, so get a move on."

Cybil ignored him. She stood in her doorway and Quinn in hers, watching each other until they heard the front door close behind him.

"What's up, Q?"

"I'm pregnant. Holy shit, Cyb, I'm pregnant." Tears flooded her eyes even as she moved her feet and hips into what could only be interpreted as a happy dance. "I'm knocked up, I'm on the nest, I am with child and have a bun in the oven. Holy shit."

Cybil crossed the hallway, held out her arms. They stood holding each other. "I didn't expect to be expecting. I mean, we weren't trying for it. All this going on, and planning the wedding. After, we both figured."

"How far along?"

"That's just it." Drawing back, Quinn used the towel to dry her face, then turned naked to dig out clothes. "I'm not even late, but the last few days, I've just felt sort of… different. And I had this feeling. I thought, ppfftt, no, but I couldn't shake the feeling. So I bought a-okay five-I bought five early response pregnancy tests because I went a little crazy. At the pharmacy in the next town," she said, laughing now, "because, you know-small towns."

"Yes, I know."

"I only took three-came down from crazy to obsessed. I just took them. Three of them. Pink, plus sign, and the no-frills pregnant all came up. I'm probably only a couple of weeks in, if that, but…" She looked down at her belly. "Wow, somebody's in there."

"You haven't told Cal."

"I didn't want to say before I knew. He'll be happy, but he'll be worried, too." She pulled on capris. "Worried because of what's coming, what we have to do, and I'm, well, in the family way."

"How do you feel, about that part of it?"

"Scared, protective. And I know nothing will ever be right for us, any of us, or for this baby if we don't end it. If we don't follow through, and I'm part of that follow-through. I guess I have to believe that this-" Quinn laid a hand on her belly. "This is a sign of hope."

"I love you, Q."

"Oh God, Cyb." Once more, Quinn went into Cybil's arms. "I'm so glad you were here. I know Cal should've been the first I told, but-"

"He'll understand. He has brothers." Gently, Cybil smoothed Quinn's damp hair back. "We're going to get through this, Q, and you and Cal? You're going to be amazing parents."

"We are. Both counts." Quinn let out a breath. "Whew. You know, maybe I'll go all hormonal on the Big Evil Bastard. That might do it."

Cybil laughed. "It just might."

WHEN GAGE RETURNED, THEY LOADED CAL'S truck. "I'm going to need my car," Quinn said, "so I'll toss some stuff in there, and I'll pick up Layla. I need to go see Cal first." She glanced at Cybil. "So I might be a while."

"Take your time. We'll unpack this load, get things organized. Well… See you later." Quinn gave Cybil a hard squeeze then puzzled Gage by giving him the same. "Bye."

Gage got in the truck, started the engine. Then sat, drumming his fingers on the wheel while it ran. "What's up with Quinn?"

"Quinn's fine."

"She seems a little nervy."

"We're all a little nervy, which is why I agree with you about all of us staying at the same place now."

"Not that kind of nervy." He turned in his seat, met her eyes. "Is she pregnant?"

"Well, aren't you the insightful one? Yes, she is, and I'm only confirming that because she's going to tell Cal right now."

He sat, rubbed his hands over his face. "Christ."

"You can look at it as the glass is half empty, as you obviously are. Or that it's half full. Personally, I see the glass as overflowing. This is good, strong, positive news, Gage."

"Maybe for normal people under normal circumstances. But try to look at this from Cal 's angle. Would you want the woman you love, who's carrying your child, risking her life, the life of the kid? Or would you wish her a hundred miles away from this?"

"I'd wish her a thousand miles away. Do you think I can't understand how he'll feel? I love her, enormously. But I know she can't be a thousand miles away. So I'm going to look at this, as Quinn is, as a sign of hope. We knew this was coming-or the possibility of this, Gage. We saw it. We saw her and Cal together, alive and together, with Quinn pregnant. I'm going to believe that's what will be. I have to."

"We also saw her killed."

"Please don't." Cybil closed her eyes as her belly twisted. "I know we have to prepare for the worst, but please don't. Not today."

He pulled away from the curb, let her have silence for the next several minutes. "Fox is going to close his office in a couple days anyway. If Layla wants to keep on with the rehab-"

"She will. It's another positive."

"He can go back and forth with her, work with his father some. Between them, Cal and his father, we'll have eyes and ears on the town. There's no reason for Quinn-or you for that matter-to go back into the Hollow until this is over."

"Maybe not." A reasonable compromise, she mused. Surprise.

"My old man's been having dreams," Gage said, and told her.

"Feeding on fears, pain, weaknesses." Cybil closed her hand over his a moment. "It's good that he told you. That's another positive, Gage, however you feel about him. You can feel it in town now, can't you? It's like raw nerves on the air."

"It'll get worse. People coming into the Hollow for business or whatever else will suddenly change their minds. Others who planned to drive through on their way to somewhere else will decide to take a detour. Some of the locals will pack up and go away for a couple weeks. Some of those who stay will hunker down like people do to ride out a hurricane."

He scanned the roads as he drove, braced for any sign. A black dog, a boy. "People who decide they want out after July seventh, well, they won't be able to find their way out of town. They'll drive around in circles, scared, confused. If they try to call for help, mostly the calls won't go through."

He turned onto Cal 's lane. "There's a burning in the air, even before the fires start. Once they do, nobody's safe."

"They will be this time. Some will be safe out at Fox's family's farm. And when we end it, the air won't burn, Gage. And the fires will go out."

He shoved open the door of the truck, then looked back at her. "We'll get this stuff inside. Then-" He grabbed her hand, jerked her back as she opened her own door. "Stay in the truck."

"What? What is it? Oh my God."

She followed his direction and saw what slithered and writhed over Cal 's front deck.

"Copperheads," Gage told her. "Maybe a dozen or so."

"Poisonous. And that many? Yes, the truck's an excellent place to be." She drew her.22 out of her purse, but shook her head. "I don't suppose we can shoot them from here, especially with this."

He reached under the seat, took out his Luger. "This would do the job, but not from here. And shit, Cal will burn my ass if I put bullet holes in his house. I've got a better idea. Stay in the truck. I get bit, it'll piss me off. You get bit, you'll be out of commission-at the least."

"Good point. What's the better idea?"

"First, trade." He handed her the Luger, took the pistol. "Any other surprises, use it."

She tested the weight and feel of the gun in her hand as he stepped out of the truck. Since she had no choice but to trust him, she watched the snakes, and tried to remember what she knew about this specific species.

Poisonous, yes, but the bite was rarely fatal. Still, a few dozen bites might prove to be. They preferred rocky hill-sides, and weren't especially aggressive. Of course, they weren't usually driven mad by a demon either.

These would attack. She had no doubt of that.

On cue, several of the snakes lifted their triangular heads as Gage came around the house with a shovel.

A shovel? Cybil thought. The man had a gun but decided to use a damn shovel against a nest of crazed snakes. She started to lower the window, call out her opinion of his strategy, but he was striding up the steps, and straight into the slithering nest.

It was ugly. She'd always considered herself in possession of a strong stomach, but it rolled now as he smashed and beat and sliced. She couldn't count the number of times they struck at him, and knew despite his healing gift there was pain as fang pierced flesh.

When it was over, she swallowed hard and got out of the truck. He looked down at her, his face glistening with sweat. "That's it. I'll clean this up and bury them."

"I'll give you a hand."

"I've got it. You look a little green."

She passed a hand over her brow. "I'm embarrassed to admit I feel a little green. That was… Are you okay?"

"Got me a few times, but that's no big."

"Thank God we got here before Layla. I can help. I'll get another shovel."

"Cybil. I could really use some coffee."

She struggled a moment, then accepted the out he offered. "All right."

She didn't suppose there was any shame in averting her eyes from the mess of it as she went into the house. Why look if she didn't have to? In the kitchen she drank cold water, splashed a little on her face until her system re-settled. When the coffee was brewed, she carried it out to him where he dug a hole just inside the edge of the woods.

"This is turning into a kind of twisted pet cemetery," she commented. "Crazy Roscoe, and now a battalion of snakes. Take a break. I can dig. Really."

He traded her the shovel for the coffee. "More of a practical joke."

"What?"

"This. Not a big show. More of an elbow in the ribs."

"I'm still laughing. But yes, I see what you mean. You're right. Just a casual little psyche-out."

"Snakes come out during the Seven. People find them in their houses, the basement, closets. Even in their cars if they're stupid enough not to close the windows when they park. Rats, too."

"Lovely. Yes, I've got the notes." The summer heat and exertion dewed her skin. "Is this deep enough?"

"Yeah, it'll do. Go on back in the house."

She glanced toward the two drywall compound buckets, and thought about what he'd had to put inside them. "I'm going to see worse than this. No pandering to the delicate female."

"Your choice."

When he dumped the contents in-and her gorge rose-she could only think she hoped she didn't see much worse. "I'll wash these out." She picked up the empty buckets. "And clean off the deck while you finish here."

"Cybil," he said as she walked away. "Delicate's not how I think of you."

Strong, he thought as he dumped the first shovelful of dirt. Steady. The kind of woman a man could trust to stick, through better or worse.

When he'd finished, he walked around the house, and stopped short when he saw her on her hands and knees, scrubbing the deck. "Okay, here's another way I haven't thought of you."

She blew hair out of her eyes, looked over. "As?"

"A woman with a scrub brush in her hand."

"While I may prefer to pay someone else to do it, I've scrubbed floors before. Though I can say this is the first time I've ever scrubbed off snake guts. It's not a pleasant, housewifely task."

He climbed up, leaned on the rail out of range of the soap and water. "What would be a pleasant, housewifely task?"

"Cooking a pretty meal when the mood strikes, arranging flowers, setting an artistic table. I'm running out, that's the short list." With sweat sliding down her back, she sat back on her heels. "Oh, and making reservations."

"For dinner?"

"For anything." Rising, she started to lift the bucket, but he put his hand over hers. "I need to dump this out, then hose this off."

"I'll take care of it."

With a smile, she tipped her head. "A not-altogether-unpleasant manly task?"

"You could say."

"Then have at it. I'll clean up and we can start unloading the truck."

They worked quickly, and in tandem. That was another thing, he thought. He couldn't remember ever working in tandem with a woman. He couldn't think of a single sane reason cleaning up with her after dealing with the mangled bodies of snakes should start up those messy thoughts and feelings.

"What do you want when this is over?" he asked as he washed up at the sink.

"What do I want when this is over?" She repeated it thoughtfully as she poured him another cup of coffee. "About twelve hours' sleep in a wonderful bed with 450 thread count sheets, followed by a pitcher of mimosas along with breakfast in bed."

"All good choices, but I meant what do you want?"

"Ah, the more philosophical and encompassing want." She poured grapefruit juice and ginger ale over ice, rattled it, then took a long drink. "A break initially. From the work, the stress, this town-not that I have anything against it. Just a celebratory break from all of it. Then I want to come back and help Quinn and Layla plan their weddings, and now help Q plan for her baby. I want to see Hawkins Hollow again. I want the satisfaction of seeing it when there's no threat hanging over it, and knowing I had a part in that. I want to go back to New York for a while, then back to work, wherever that takes me. I want to see you again. Does that surprise you?"

Everything about her surprised him, he realized. "I was thinking we might catch that twelve hours' sleep and breakfast in bed together. Somewhere that's not here."

"Is that an offer?"

"It sounds like it."

"I'll take it."

"Just like that?"

"Life's short or it's long, Gage. Who the hell knows. So, yes, just like that."

He reached out, touched her cheek. "Where do you want to go?"

"Surprise me." She lifted her hand to cover his.

"What if I said-" He broke off when they heard the front door open. "Never mind," he said. "I'll surprise you."

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