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The Pagan Stone (Chapter Nine)

Chapter Nine

INSIDE WHAT WOULD BE SISTERS, CYBIL STUDIED the swaths of paint on the various walls. Fresh color, she thought, to cover old wounds and scars. Layla, being Layla, had created a large chart of the interior on the wall-to scale-with the projected changes and additions in place. It took little effort to visualize what could be.

And for Cybil, it took little effort to visualize what had been. The little boy, scared and confused as his mother bled on the floor of a junk shop. From that moment, Gage's life snapped, she thought. He'd glued the pieces back together, but the line of them would be forever changed by those moments in this place, the loss suffered.

She knew, as the line of her life had forever changed at the moment of her father's suicide.

Another snap in Gage's, she realized, the first time his father had raised a hand to him. Another patch, another change in the line. Then another break on his tenth birthday.

A great deal of damage and repair for one young boy. It would take a very strong and determined man not only to accept all that damage, but to build a life on it.

Because the chatter behind her had stopped, she turned to see Layla and Quinn watching her.

"It's perfect, Layla."

"You're thinking about what happened here, about Gage's mother. I've thought about it, too." Layla's eyes clouded as she looked around the shop. "I spent a lot of time thinking about it last night. There's another property a few blocks up. It might be better if I looked into renting that instead-"

"No, no, don't. This is your place." Cybil touched a hand to the chart.

"He never said a thing. Gage never said a thing, and all the times I babbled on about my plans here. Fox never… Or Cal. And when I asked Fox about it, he said the point was to make things what they should be, or preserve what they were meant to be. You know how he gets."

"And he's right." Fresh paint, Cybil thought again. Color and light. "If we don't keep what's ours, or take it back, we've already lost. None of us can change what happened to Gage's mother, or whatever ugliness happened since. But you can make this place live again, and to me, that's giving Twisse a major ass-kicking. As for Gage, he said his mother liked coming here. I think he'd appreciate seeing you make it somewhere she'd have enjoyed."

"I agree with that, and not just because this place is going to rock," Quinn added. "You'll put a lot of positive energy here, and that shoves it right up the ass of negative energy. That's a powerful symbol. More than that, it's damn good physics. What we're dealing with breaks down, on a lot of levels, to basic physics."

"Nature abhors a vacuum," Cybil decided, nodded. "So don't give it one. Fill it up, Layla."

Layla sighed. "As I'm about to be officially unemployed, again, I'll have plenty of time to do that. But right now, I've got to get to the office. It's the first full day of training my replacement."

"How's she working out?" Quinn wondered.

"I think she's going to be perfect. She's smart, efficient, organized, attractive-and happily married with two teenagers. I like her; Fox is a little bit afraid of her. So, perfect." As they started out, Layla looked at Cybil. "If you talk to Gage today, would you ask him? Physics and ass-kickings aside, if it's too hard for him to have this place a part of his life-and it would be because Fox is-I can take a closer look at that other property."

"If I talk to him, I will."

After Layla locked up and turned in the opposite direction to walk to the office, Quinn hooked an arm through Cybil's. "Why don't you go do that?"

"Do what?"

"Go talk to Gage. You'll work better when you're not wondering how he's doing."

"He's a big boy, he can-"

"Cyb. We go back. First, you're involved. Even if you just thought of the guy as part of the team, you'd be involved. But it's more than that. Just you and me here," she said when Cybil stayed silent.

"All right, yes, it's more. I'm not sure how more might be defined, but it's more."

"Okay, there's the nebulous more. And you're thinking of the little boy who lost his mom, and whose father picked up the bottle instead of his son. Of the boy who took more knocks than he should have, and the man who didn't walk away when he could have. So there's the sympathy and respect elements mixed into that more."

"You're right."

"He's smart, loyal, a little bit of a hard-ass and just rough enough around some of the edges to be intriguing. And, of course, he's extremely hot."

"We do go back," Cybil agreed.

"So, go talk to him. Relieve Layla's mind, maybe get a better handle on the more, then you can concentrate on what we have to do next. Which is a lot."

"Which is why I can and should talk to him later. We've barely skimmed the surface of what we're thinking of as the hot spots. And I need a fresh look at the Tarot card draws. Most important, I'm not leaving you alone in that house. Not for anything."

"That's why laptops were invented. I'm taking mine over to the bowling center." Quinn gestured back toward the Square. "Further proof why I made the right choice in men and home base. I'll set up in Cal 's office, or the vicinity, and you can swing by and get me when you're finished talking to Gage."

"Maybe that's not such a bad idea."

"Pal of mine," Quinn said as they walked into the house, "not such bad ideas are my stock and trade."

AT CAL 'S KITCHEN COUNTER, GAGE DUG INTO HIS memories, and with coffee at his elbow, documented them on his own laptop. Shit happened, he thought, and a lot of it had been monumentally bad shit. But in writing it down, he began to see there were a handful of locations where it happened repeatedly.

Still, it didn't all make sense. He'd experienced the worst of his life-pain, fear, grief, and fury-in that damn apartment over the bowling alley. Though incidents occurred there during every Seven, he couldn't recall a single major one. No loss of life, no burning, no looting.

And that itself was odd, wasn't it? A town institution, his childhood home, Cal 's family's center in a very true sense, Fox's favorite hangout. Yet when the infection raged, and people were burning, breaking, beating hell out of each other, the old Bowl-a-Rama stood almost untouched.

That earned a big why in his book, with a secondary, how can we use it.

There was the old library, and the three of them had certainly put in time there. Cal 's great-grandmother had run the place. Ann Hawkins had lived there, and died there during the early days of the Hawkins Hollow settlement. Fox had suffered a major tragedy during the previous Seven when his fianc��e took a header off the roof.

But… But, he mused, sipping coffee, it was the only tragedy he could remember in that location. No burning or pillaging there either. And with all those books as fuel.

The middle and high schools, hit every time, and the elementary virtually untouched. Interesting.

He shifted to study his drawing of the town map and began to speculate not only on the hot spots, but the cold ones.

The mild irritation of the knock on the front door turned into another kind of speculation when he found Cybil on the other side.

"Why don't you just come in?" he asked her. "Nobody else knocks."

"Superior breeding." She closed the door herself then tilted her head as she gave him a slow once-over. "Rough night?"

"I'd've put on a suit and tie if I'd been expecting company of superior breeding."

"A shave wouldn't hurt. I'm charged with discussing something with you. Should we discuss it standing here?"

"Is it going to take long?"

The amused glint in her eye struck a chord with him. "Aren't you the gracious host?"

"Not my house," he pointed out. "I'm working in the kitchen. You can come on back."

"Why, thank you. I believe I will." She strolled ahead of him in what he thought of as her sexy queen glide. "Mind if I make tea?"

He shrugged. "You know where everything is."

"I do." She took the kettle off the stove, walked to the sink.

He wasn't particularly annoyed that she'd come by. The fact was, it wasn't exactly a hardship to have a beautiful woman making tea in the kitchen. And that was the sticky part, he admitted. Not just any beautiful woman, but Cybil. Not just any kitchen, but for all intents and purposes right at the moment, his kitchen.

There'd been something intense between them the night before, when she'd kissed him, when she'd shed tears for him. Not sexual, or not at its core, he admitted. Sexual he could work with, he could handle. Whatever was going on between them was a hell of a lot more dangerous than sex.

She glanced over her shoulder and he felt that instant and recognizable punch of physical attraction. And there the ground held firmer under his feet.

"What are you working on?" she asked him.

"My homework assignment."

She wandered over, then gave his map an approving nod. "Nicely done."

"Do I get an A?"

Her gaze flicked up to his. "I appreciate bad moods. I have them often myself. Why don't I skip the tea, get right to the point, then I can leave you alone to enjoy yours?"

"Finish making the tea, it's no skin off mine. You can top off my coffee while you're at it. And what is the point?"

Wasn't it fascinating to watch her face while she debated between being pissed and flipping him off, or being superior and doing what she'd come to do.

She turned, got out a cup and saucer-and, he noted, ignored his request to top off his coffee. She leaned back against the opposite counter while she waited for the water to boil. "Layla's considering an alternate location for her boutique."

He waited for the rest, lifting his hands when it didn't come. "And this needs to be discussed with me because…?"

"She's considering an alternative because she's concerned about your feelings."

"My feelings regarding ladies' boutiques are pretty much nonexistent. Why would she…"

With a nod, Cybil turned to turn off the burner under the sputtering kettle. "I see your brain's able to engage even through your bad mood. She's worried that opening her business there will hurt you. As her cards indicated, compassion and empathy are some of her strengths. You're Fox's brother in the truest sense of the word, so she loves you. She'll adjust her plans."

"There's no need for that. She doesn't have to… It's not…" He couldn't put the words together; they simply wouldn't come.

"I'll tell her."

"No, I'll talk to her." Christ. "It's just a place where something bad happened. If they boarded up all the places where something bad happened in the Hollow, there wouldn't be a town. I wouldn't give a good damn about that, but there are people I give a good damn about who do."

And loyalty, Cybil thought, was one of his strengths. "She'll make it shine. I think it's what she's meant to do. I saw her there. Two separate flashes. Two separate potentials. In one the place was burned out, the windows broken, the walls scorched. She stood alone inside the shell of the place. There was light coming through the broken front window, and that made it worse somehow. The way it beamed and burned over the ruin of her hopes."

Turning again, she poured out a cup of tea. "In the other, the light was beaming and burning in through sparkling glass, over the polished floor. She wasn't alone. There were people inside, looking at the displays, the racks. There was such movement and color. I don't know which may happen, if either. But I do know she needs to try to make that second version the truth. She'll be able to try if you tell her you're okay with it."

"Fine."

"Well, since I've completed my mission, I'll just go and leave you alone."

"Finish your damn tea."

She carried her cup over, leaned on the counter so they were face-to-face. A little sympathy shone in those big, brown eyes of hers. "Love's a weight, isn't it? And here you are loaded down with Cal and Fox, with the Hawkinses and the Barry-O'Dells. Now Layla goes and drops a big stone on the pile. There's Quinn, too, you might as well shoulder that one because she's the type who'll just keep picking it back up and dropping it on again. No wonder you're in such a sour mood."

"That's your take. To me, this just feels normal."

"In that case." She strolled around the counter to study his laptop screen over his shoulder. "My, my, you are doing your homework."

She smelled like the woods, he thought. Autumn woods. Nothing fragile and pastel like spring, but rich and vivid, with just a hint of distant smoke.

"A lot of locations here," she commented. "I think I get the basic idea of your groupings, but why don't you explain your-"

He didn't think about the move, he just made it. Usually a mistake, he knew, but it didn't feel like one. It didn't taste like one. He had his mouth on hers, his hands fisted in her hair before either one of them knew it was coming.

He'd jerked her off balance-he hoped in more ways than one-so her hands braced on his shoulders. She didn't shy back or pull away, but sank in. Not surrender, but like a woman who chose to enjoy.

"No seduction," he said with his mouth an inch from hers. "I don't welch on a deal, so this is straight-out. We can keep dancing around this, or we can go upstairs."

"You're right. That's definitely not seduction."

"You named the terms," he reminded her. "If you want to change them-"

"No, no. A deal's a deal." This time her mouth took his, just as hot, just as greedy. "And while I do like to dance, it's…" She trailed off at the knock on the door. "Why don't I see who that is? You probably need a moment or two to… settle down."

And so, Cybil thought as she walked out of the kitchen, did she. She had no objections to jumping into the deep end of the pool. She was, after all, a skilled and sensible swimmer. But it didn't hurt to take a couple of good, head-clearing breaths first, then decide if she wanted to jump into this particular pool at this particular time.

She took one of those breaths and opened the door. It took her a moment to recognize the man she'd seen a few times in the bowling center. She thought again that Gage favored his mother, as there was no resemblance she could see between father and son.

"Mr. Turner, I'm Cybil Kinski." He stood, Cybil thought, looking embarrassed, and a little scared. His hair had gone thin and gray. He had Gage's height, but a scrawnier build. It would be the years of drinking, she assumed, that had dug the lines in his face and webbed the broken capillaries over it. His eyes were a watered-down blue that seemed to struggle to meet hers.

"Sorry. I thought if Gage was here, I could…"

"Yes, he is. Come in. He's back in the kitchen. Why don't you have a seat and I'll-"

"He won't be staying." Gage's voice was brutally neutral when he stepped in. "You need to go."

"If I could have just a minute."

"I'm busy, and you're not welcome here."

"I asked Mr. Turner in." Cybil's words dropped like stones into the deep well of silence. "So I'll apologize to both of you. And I'm going to leave you alone to deal with each other. Excuse me."

Gage didn't so much as glance at her as she walked back toward the kitchen. "You need to go," he repeated.

"I just got some things to say."

"That's not my problem. I don't want to hear them. I'm living here for now, and as long as I am, you don't come around here."

Bill's jaw tightened; his mouth firmed. "I put this off since you came back to town. I can't put it off anymore. You give me five minutes, for Chrissake. Five minutes, and I won't bother you no more. I know you only come around the bowling center when I'm off. You hear me out, I'll make myself scarce anytime you want to come in, see Cal. I won't come around you, you got my word."

"Because your word always meant so much?"

Color came and went in Bill's face. "It's all I got. Five minutes, and you're rid of me."

"I've been rid of you." But Gage shrugged. "Take your five."

"Okay then." Bill cleared his throat. "I'm an alcoholic. I've been sober five years, six months, and twelve days. I let drink take over my life. I used it as an excuse to hurt you. I should've looked after you. I should've taken care of you. You didn't have nobody-anybody else, and I made it so you had nobody." His throat moved as he swallowed hard. "I used my hands and my fists and my belt on you, and I'da kept using them if you hadn't gotten big enough to stop me. I made you promises, and I broke them. Over and over again. I wasn't no kind of father to you. I wasn't no kind of man."

His voice wavered, and he looked away. While Gage said nothing, Bill took several audible breaths, then looked back into his son's face. "I can't go back and change that. I could tell you I'm sorry from now until the day I die, and it won't make up for it. I'm not going to promise you I won't drink again, but I'm not going to drink today. When I wake up tomorrow, I'm not going to drink. That's what I'm going to do, every day. And every day I'm sober, I know what I did to you, how I shamed myself as a man, and as a father. How your ma must've looked down and cried. I let her down. I let you down. I'll be sorry for that the rest of my life."

Bill took another breath. "I guess that's what I had to say. 'Cept, you made yourself into something. You did that on your own."

"Why?" If this would be the last time they faced each other, Gage wanted the answer to the single question that had haunted him most of his life. "Why did you turn on me that way? Drinking was the excuse. That's a true thing. So why?"

"I couldn't take the belt to God." Emotion gleamed in Bill's eyes, and though his voice wavered, he continued on. "I couldn't beat God with my fists. But there you were. Had to blame someone, had to punish someone." Bill looked down at his hands. "I wasn't anything special. I could fix things, and I didn't mind hard work, but I wasn't anything special. Then she looked at me. Your ma, she made me a better man. She loved me. I'd wake up every morning, go to bed every night amazed that she was there, and she loved me. She… I got a couple minutes left of my five, right?"

"Finish it then."

"You oughta know… She was-we were-so happy when she got pregnant with you. You probably don't remember how it was… before. But we were happy. Cathy… Your ma had some problems with the pregnancy, and then it happened so fast, you coming. We didn't even get to the hospital. You come out of her heading up the pike in the ambulance."

Bill glanced away again, but this time-whether Gage wanted to see it or not-it was grief vivid in those faded blue eyes. "And there were some problems, and the doctor, he said there shouldn't be any more kids. That was okay, that was fine with me. We had you, and, Jesus, you looked just like her. I know you don't remember, but I loved you both more'n anything in the world."

"No," Gage said when Bill stopped. "I don't remember."

"I guess you wouldn't. After a while, she wanted another. She wanted another baby so bad. She'd say: Look, Bill, look at our Gage. Look what we made. Isn't he beautiful? He needs a brother or sister. And well, we started another, and she was careful. She took such good care of herself, did everything the doctor said, and no complaint. But it went wrong. They came and got me from work, and…"

He pulled out a bandanna, mopped at tears without any sign of shame. "I lost her, and the little girl we'd tried to make. Jim and Frannie, Jo and Brian, they helped all they could. More than most would. I started drinking, just a little here and there to get through, to get by. But it wasn't enough, so I drank more, and more yet."

His eyes dry again, he shoved the cloth back in his pocket. "I started thinking how it was my fault she died. I should've gone and gotten myself fixed, and not told her, that's all. She'd be alive if I had. Then that hurt too much, so I'd drink some more. Till I started thinking how she'd be alive if we hadn't had you. Hadn't had you, whatever messed her up inside wouldn't be, and she'd still be there when I woke in the morning. Blaming you didn't hurt so much, so I talked myself into seeing that as God's truth instead of a damned lie. Everything was your fault. Lost my job because I was drunk, but I turned that around so I lost my job because I had to look after you on my own. Anything went wrong, it was because of you, then I could drink some more, whale on you, and I wouldn't have to face the truth.

"There was nobody to blame, Gage." He let out a long sigh. "It wasn't anybody's fault. Things just went wrong, and she died. And when she died, I stopped being a man. I stopped being your daddy. What was left of me, your ma, she'd never have looked at twice. So that's the why. That's the long way around the why. I'm not asking you to forgive me. I'm not asking you to forget. I'm just asking for you to believe that I know what I did, and I'm sorry for it."

"I believe you know what you did, and you're sorry for it. You're well over your five minutes."

With a nod, Bill cast his eyes down, turned to open the door. "I won't get in your way," he said with his back to Gage. "You want to come in and see Cal, or have a beer at the grill, I won't get in your way."

When Bill closed the door behind him, Gage stood where he was. How was he supposed to feel? Was all that supposed to make a difference? All the sorry in the world didn't erase one minute of the years he'd lived in fear, of the years he'd lived in bitter anger. It did nothing to negate the shame or the sorrow.

So the old man got it off his chest, Gage thought as he strode back to the kitchen. That was fine. That was the end between them.

He saw Cybil through the window as she sat on Cal 's back deck drinking her tea. He shoved open the door.

"Why the hell did you let him in? Is that your superior breeding?"

"I suppose. I've already apologized for it."

"It's the day for goddamn apologies." The anger he hadn't let himself feel for his father-the old man wasn't entitled to it-sparked now. And flared. "You're sitting out here thinking I should forgive and forget. Poor old guy's sober now, and just trying to mend fences with his only son, the one he used to kick the shit out of regularly. But that was the booze, and the booze was the answer to grief and guilt. Besides, alcoholism's a disease, and he caught it like cancer. Now he's in remission, he's in his one fucking day at a time, so all's fucking forgiven. I should break out the poles and see if he wants to go down to the fishing hole and drown some worms. Did your father ever punch you in the face before he blew his brains out?"

He heard her breath hitch in, release. But her voice was rock steady when she spoke. "No, he did not."

"Did he ever take a belt to your back until it bled?"

"No, he did not."

"That being the case, I'd say you lack the experience to sit out here thinking I should shrug all that off and have myself a real Oprah moment with the old man."

"You'd be right, absolutely. But here's another thing. You're putting thoughts in my head that aren't there, and words in my mouth I have no intention of saying. And I don't appreciate it. I imagine that talking with your father just now has left you feeling both raw and prickly, so I'll give you some room. In fact, I'll give you plenty of room and leave you alone to have your tantrum in private."

She made it all the way to the door before she whirled back. "No, I will not. I'll be damned if I will. Do you want to know what I think? Are you at all interested in hearing my own opinion rather than the one you've projected on me?"

He waved a hand, a gesture so brittle with sarcasm, it all but cracked the air. "Go right ahead."

"I think you're under no obligation whatsoever to forgive anything, to forget anything. You're not required to push away the years of abuse because the abuser now chooses to be sober and in his sobriety regrets his actions. And while it may be small and unforgiving of me, I think people who do so at the snap of a damn finger are either liars or are in need of serious therapy. I assume you heard him out, so in my personal opinion, any debt you might owe for your existence is now paid in full. It may be fashionable to hold the opinion that terrible actions are indeed terrible, but that the person inflicting them isn't responsible due to alcohol, drugs, DNA, or goddamn PMS. He damn well was responsible, and if you decide to loathe him for the rest of your life, I wouldn't blame you for it. How's that?"

"Unexpected," Gage said after a moment.

"I believe the strong have an obligation to protect the weak. It's why they're the strong. I believe a parent has an obligation to protect the child. It's why they're the parent. As for my father-"

"I'm sorry." A day for apologies, he thought again. And this one might qualify as the most sincere of his lifetime. "Cybil, I'm very sorry I threw that at you."

"Regardless, he never raised a hand to me. If he were able to stand where you are right now and apologize to me for killing himself, I don't know if I'd forgive him. He ripped my life in two with that single, selfish, self-pitying act, so I think it would take more than an apology. Which would be useless since he'd still be dead. Your father's alive, and he's taken a step toward making amends. Good for him. But for my money, you can't forgive without trust, and he hasn't earned that from you. He may never, and that's not on you. His actions, his consequences. End of story."

She'd said it all, he thought. She might have said it all in the heat of temper and resentment. But everything she'd said was a comfort. "Can I start over?"

"With what?"

"I'd like to thank you for stepping out and letting me deal with that."

"You're welcome."

"And to thank you for not leaving."

"No problem."

"And last, to thank you for the kick in the ass."

She huffed out a breath, almost smiled. "That part was my pleasure."

"I bet."

He stepped to her, held out a hand. "Come upstairs."

She looked down at his hand, up into his eyes. "All right," she said, and put her hand in his.

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