Trisha had been at the way station for six days when the girl came out of the desert.
She was wearing a tight-sleeved dress of red velvet, really princessy, so long that the hem swept against the salty hardpan and was getting eaten away by it. She wore her hair up, scraped back so tightly that Trisha’s scalp hurt just looking at it; she was round-faced and sunburned on her cheeks and the tops of her boobs. There was something about the way the sun was hitting her that Trisha couldn’t get a handle on: it was like it shone a little redder on her than it did on anything else. She moved towards the way station that way, red-white-red-white.
Trisha didn’t know whether or not to trust her, but the not-knowing of it was at least an improvement over how she’d felt about the man in black. And she didn’t want to stay hidden away forever.
She crept out of the shadows. The girl’s gaze swung towards her like a hawk’s, her nostrils flaring. There was that sun-flicker again: red-red-red.
“What are you doing here?” the girl said.
Trisha said, “I got lost,” and she was surprised by how the words came out, by how angry she sounded—well, she hadn’t done anything wrong, had she? Where did this strange princess girl get off coming in acting like she had? “I went hiking with my mom and my brother and I went off the path.” She closed her hand around her Walkman, clutching it so tightly she could hear the squeak of her sweaty fingers on plastic. She didn’t want to talk about the God of the Lost. The princess-girl looked like a little like a stray nun, the kind that would smack you with a ruler. She said, in a rush, “I got hungry and sick and I died.”
It felt like someone was pressing on her forehead, pressing until Trisha’s skull gave and let their fingers in; it was a dirty, skin-crawly feeling, and somehow Trisha knew the princess-girl was behind it. But at least it didn’t last too long.
“I’m Trisha,” she said. “Trisha McFarland.”
The princess-girl stopped looking so much like somebody carved on the front of an old-timey pirate ship. She looked, instead, almost scared, like Trisha might bite her. She said, “I’m Carrie White.” There were little flecks of dried blood way up by her hairline, brown-black and scabby where they’d been baked by the sun. Trisha didn’t want to ask about that—it felt like too grown-up a question in the same way that asking if Carrie was a princess felt like too baby a question.
Instead she said, “Are you from America too?”
To her relief, there was something almost like humor in Carrie’s eyes. “Yes, I’m from America, too. I’m from Chamberlain, Maine.”
Trisha had been through Chamberlain once, and she couldn’t see any princesses ever even staying the night there. It was what her mom had called a no-horse town. She puzzled over Carrie’s dress some more and wondered if Carrie had been at one of those Renaissance fairs where people ate big turkey legs and laced themselves into Goth-looking corsets.
She said, “You’re dressed up.”
“I was at the prom.” Carrie’s voice was quiet. “There was a fire.” Her eyes went glassy and unfocused, and her body flashed red again, like she was standing in the glow of a stoplight. She said, “I died too. This must be hell.”
It was hot and dry and frightening, but Trisha didn’t think it was hell; if nothing else, she liked it better than the woods. Hell was a thousand mosquitoes and an empty, cramping stomach. Hell was the God of the Lost’s face of buzzing wasps. Trisha wouldn’t have called the desert a five-star vacation, but it was survivable, and she was starting to rank everything on the Trisha Survivorship Scale, with a Can You Live With It? score of one to ten.
Besides, even if there was a hell, Trisha didn’t see why she’d go there. The world might be mean and unfair, just randomly slapping you around, but some justice had to come into it all somewhere, didn’t it?
She didn’t want to say any of that to Carrie. She didn’t want to know how Carrie would respond. Carrie looked like someone whose thoughts on justice would make you want to crawl inside yourself and never come back out.
Instead she said, diplomatically, “Do you want to come inside? I’ve got some water.”
Carrie looked at her and then nodded. They wound up making a whole cowgirl-supper out of it, sitting on the floor of the way station drinking canteen water and nibbling at the old, tough pieces of jerky Trisha had found.
Carrie said, “I was following a man,” and her cheeks stained pink at the word, almost like she was talking about a crush, one of the really deep ones that made you ache inside. “I thought he was the devil, leading me deeper into hell for everything I’d done—and he wanted me to come after him. He gave me that good feeling Momma talked about. In my dreams.” She toyed with the hemline of her dress. Red. “Everybody else always laughed at me.”
Personally, Trisha thought she would have been too terrified of Carrie to let out anything but one of those little mouse-squeak laughs around her, even if Carrie had just told the world’s funniest joke. She looked—witchy. But Trisha wasn’t stupid, and she knew that what looked witchy in the desert when you were two dead girls probably looked like freak city when you were in high school. It was like the way Pete—and she was suddenly hit by a wave of missing her brother, a loneliness so huge it could drown her—thought every little snide comment was the end of the world. Everything that was really bullshit got treated like it was hugely important and everything that really mattered got treated like it was bullshit.
“Was it the man in black?” Trisha said. “The one you were following?”
“The man with no face,” Carrie said, but it sounded like she was agreeing.
Trisha hadn’t seen his face either, now that she thought about it. But she’d heard his voice and even his laugh—a thin, dry titter, like a half-choked bird—as he’d roamed around the way station in long, gliding steps. He’d said things to her even though she’d never come out of her hiding place. Most of it had run out of her memory, like fear had squeezed her mind like a sponge, but she remembered him saying, “You’re in for a world of disappointment, sweetheart,” the s sound hitting like oil on a frying pan. “Nobody here’s played baseball since Mighty Gilead struck out.”
“He gave me the creeps,” Trisha said now. She tried to channel Pepsi, who was more experienced in sounding like she knew how to talk about boys. “I bet you could find somebody else who would make you feel good. I wouldn’t go running after him.”
Besides, she thought, feeling a little petulant, I shouldn’t keep getting stuck places all on my own. I’m just a kid.
There was that poking and prodding feeling again, grimy fingernails scraping over Trisha’s mind, and for a moment Carrie just sat there looking poleaxed. Trisha had the ungenerous thought—almost cellophane-wrapped in the instinctive I’m glad I can’t feel her looking around now—that yeah, she maybe would have laughed at Carrie too if Carrie had gone around with that slack expression all the time. If there hadn't been that crackle of danger to her.
Carrie said, “I can stay,” and the words were creaky, like she’d never had to use them before, like either no one had ever wanted her anywhere or she’d never had the choice before of going or staying.
Their days at the way station took on a kind of hazy pattern. Carrie could cook, and when they unearthed a cast iron frying pan from the depths of the dusty lean-to kitchen, she sliced and fried up a bunch of potatoes. With no oil or butter or salt, they just kind of blackened up in the pan, but after days of gnawing on jerky, they still felt like the best things Trisha had ever eaten. The potatoes alone made her feel warmly well-disposed towards Carrie.
Carrie could do other stuff too. She could sew—she’d made her own prom dress, she said, and she mended a bunch of the tears in Trisha’s shirt and jeans—and she was strong enough that she didn’t have to wrestle with the water pump the way Trisha always did.
She knew Carrie’s talents went beyond the housekeeping stuff—she knew she hadn’t imagined that clammy invasion of her mind, the feeling like Carrie’s hot damp breath on her scalp—but something told Trisha not to ask. It was easy to remember to keep her mouth shut. She needed Carrie, she even sort of liked Carrie, but she was afraid of her too. There was something unreal about the way Carrie floated around the way station in her long blood-red gown, the way she’d sometimes stand stock-still in a corner, her lips smacking open and closed like a fish’s while she stared at the wall. She slept spooned up against Trisha’s back and she always felt feverish and always smelled weird, like a handful of pennies. And Trisha couldn’t forget that Carrie herself had said she’d been following the man in black—that she’d had the hots for him.
But then again, Carrie had stayed, and she’d stayed because Trisha had wanted her to. And she was the only friend Trisha had left.
She wasn’t like a babysitter or an older sister, so she had to be a friend. And if they were friends, then Trisha figured she had responsibilities to Carrie too.
So on the days when Carrie couldn’t seem to get out of bed, Trisha brought her food and combed her hair for her until every glossy strand lay perfectly straight down against her shoulders, oily but fine. She told Carrie stories.
One time when she was doing this—when she was halfway through telling Carrie about Labyrinth and how Pepsi’s mom had said David Bowie’s pants were too tight but wasn’t he dreamy—Carrie grabbed her suddenly by the wrist.
Carrie usually ran hot—weirdly hot, like scalding water—but right then she felt almost corpse-cold. “We should go.”
Trisha pulled away. “What? Why?”
Trisha didn’t want to leave the only landmark she had, but she didn't want to run into the man in black again, either, so she mutely assembled her backpack . Carrie didn’t ask her why she kept on lugging the Walkman around even though it had gone dead. That was another thing she liked about Carrie—Carrie wasn’t curious about her that way, Carrie didn’t make her remember how she’d died.
They walked out into the desert, their steps grinding against the dry, cracked dirt. After maybe half an hour, Trisha started to feel something tugging at her, like a ghostly hand had grabbed one strap of her backpack was gently yanking her by it. She stopped, wiping her hand across her forehead and squinting at the horizon.
Carrie, out ahead of her, stopped too; she had a way of knowing what Trisha was doing even without looking at her. “What is it?”
Trisha’s mouth was so dry she had to work up some saliva before she could talk. “I think we’re supposed to go that way,” she said, and pointed—maybe more for her own sake than Carrie’s. She felt a shaky desire to do this exactly right, because she knew she was putting on a kind of adult authority that it was easy even for her to think she hadn’t really earned. What did the little girl who’d gotten lost in the woods know about directions?
Well, she knew one thing. You didn’t go off the path, not if you could help it. It took somebody who’d messed that up to really know it.
I get knocked down, Trisha thought-sang, but I get up again.
“Look,” she said, her hand still outstretched to point the way. “You can see the path. Everything sort of curves into it. Like it’s the stalk and everything else is just leaves on it.” It was so clear to her now that she couldn’t imagine how she’d never noticed it before. Because it must have been back home too, right? If she closed her eyes, she could almost find it in her memories, like a glittery filament stitched straight through everything. “You can see it too, Carrie, can’t you?”
“Yes,” Carrie said, after a long pause. “I can see it too.” She wiped her palms against the sides of her dress, and just like that, Trisha could see, almost dizzyingly, that Carrie really was a teenager, not that much older than Trisha herself; she could see that Carrie was sweaty and tired and scared. And unlike Trisha, she didn’t seem to take any comfort from there being a path they were supposed to be following. She looked like she thought the path was just one more trap.
Trisha almost said they could keep going the way they had been, the way they’d picked more or less at random, but the stakes were too high for that. She’d been thirsty and hungry. She didn’t want to die thirsty and hungry again. “Please, Carrie.”
Carrie was vulnerable to please. She nodded.
They spent that night out under the stars, with Trisha huddled up under her jacket with her head on her backpack and Carrie sitting up rigid and alert, like one of those meerkats that looked around all attentively.
Trisha said, “Is he still around?”
Carrie pulled her knees up to her chest. “Maybe. You can’t feel it?”
Trisha shook her head. “What does he feel like?”
Carrie was silent for a long time and then, when Trisha had almost fallen asleep, she said, “The flex. Power. Air and darkness.” She clumsily ran her hand over Trisha’s hair.
Air and darkness. All shall love me and despair.
On the second day of traveling, they came to a beach. Trisha didn’t even see how that was possible. She wouldn't have thought deserts and beaches were friendly enough to hang out right next to each other, just two days’ walk apart. This whole world seemed like some sort of crazy patchwork quilt.
At least the path didn’t shoot across the ocean like she and Carrie were supposed to improvise a cruise ship out of driftwood. It ran along the coastline instead, a kind of furrow in the sand and grit of fractured seashells. They could boil the ocean water and drink it—Trisha knew that much. They could maybe find some clams or mussels, too, though she knew she had to be careful of expecting the whole beach to basically be one long seafood buffet. Still, she thought the beach might rank okay on the Can You Live With It? scale. She told Carrie as much.
Carrie nodded. “We can get food.” She was staring out over the water. The white sunlight, reflected off the gray-blue waves, washed most of the red out of her. It made her look soft-faced and happy in a way Trisha hadn’t seen before. She stretched out one hand, like she was feeling the sea-breeze against her fingers, and said, “I’ve never been to the ocean before.”
Trisha guessed she knew Chamberlain was inland, but still, getting to the coast should have been a total cakewalk. “Really?”
“Momma says travel is one of the ways the devil tricks you into wanting more than you’re given.”
Totally batshit, Trisha thought, no wonder Carrie was a little screwy. “Didn’t people in the Bible travel all the time?”
Carrie gave her a sharp look. Trisha felt the air between them draw tight somehow, and something wormed its way along the rope of it: Even the devil can quote scripture to his purpose. But the tightrope slackened suddenly, as if Carrie had been holding one end of it in place and then just dropped it. She crouched down, her dress dangling against the damp sand, and trailed her fingers through the water.
“Yes,” Carrie said. “All the time.” She turned her head up and smiled. It was a nice smile, almost a goofy smile. “Want to see something?”
Carrie’s lips tensed—
--and a wave pushed backwards, kicking up off the shore and slapping back further out to sea.
Trisha actually screamed with delight. “Carrie! That’s awesome!” She bounded forward, soaking herself up to her knees. “Hit me with one!”
Carrie furrowed her brow. A second later, a wave smacked Trisha across her chest, almost knocking her down. She couldn’t stop giggling.
“You really like it,” Carrie said.
“Who wouldn’t? It’s so cool! What else can you do? You can read my mind, right? This is better, no offense. But I mean, can you levitate? Bend spoons? Can you levitate me?”
Carrie hesitated just long enough to make Trisha feel like she was being silly, splashing around in the ocean asking her friend to fling her around with her mind-powers. Carrie had taken a long time to show her this, so maybe it was hard for her to do it. Just because you could lift twice your body weight didn’t mean you wanted to go around with a barbell all day, right?
“I get headaches sometimes,” Carrie said, after that long pause. “Or nosebleeds. If I’ve been doing a lot of it. But I can try.”
“I don’t want you to get hurt. It’s okay, really, I—”
A hand pushed up through the waves.
Trisha scrambled backwards, tripping and falling on her butt. There was a flood of saltwater in her mouth as her head briefly bobbed beneath the surface, and then she was up again, getting out of the water like her life depended on it. She grabbed Carrie’s hand, not even caring if she was too old for it.
Carrie said, “Don’t worry,” in a flat kind of voice. There was a broken blood vessel in her eye. She wasn’t blinking, just watching the water, where the lone hand had become two, and two pumping, thrashing feet. “I won’t let anyone hurt us.”
The swimmer came out of the water.
She was maybe Trisha’s mom’s age, but she didn’t look like a mom. Sometimes Trisha and Pete pawed through bargain bins of old VHS tapes, looking for cheap-o stuff, and the thing Trisha had learned from it was that old movies were weird sometimes, full of jungles and women in bikinis screaming their heads off. This lady looked like she could have been on the cover of one of those, standing bare-legged on some blood-spattered all-caps title with her hair all wet and maybe a bazooka under one arm.
She was half-naked, too—that was the other thing. Half-naked with a pair of almost see-through underwear on. Trisha didn’t think her mom owned anything like that.
A pair of blue-steel handcuffs dangled from one of the woman’s wrists.
Sand swirled around Carrie and Trisha’s feet, making a kind of glittery barrier.
“Who are you?” Carrie said.
The woman’s eyes were too wide. They had too much white in them, like she was scared to death. When she spoke, her voice was a barely-there rasp.
“I’m Ruth,” she said. She shook her head, making Trisha wonder if she was knocking water out of her ears. “I’m the Goodwife,” she added, in a voice that was still raspy but a little more sing-song. “And Punkin.” That was higher-pitched. “And Jessie. Jessie Burlingame.” She smiled a slanting smile. “Hail, hail. The gang’s all here.”
Carrie wanted nothing to do with Ruth. (Or the Goodwife, or Punkin, or Jessie.) She settled down past the tidemark and began laying a fire, and she projected a Don’t Talk to Me glower that even Trisha could feel. Ruth stayed far, far away from her and spent most of the time digging her fingers under the cuff on her wrist, scratching herself bloody. Between the handcuffs and the whole long rollout of names, Trisha wondered if she’d escaped from some kind of mental hospital—and then what? Come swimming into la-la land?
Just once, Trisha thought, I’d like to run into someone who knows where we are. Or any kind of responsible adult.
And she knew Carrie had meant it when she’d said she wouldn’t let anything happen to them, but she wished Carrie would do some of the awkward grown-up stuff, too; she wished Carrie hadn’t just left her with Ruth when Trisha hadn’t immediately trotted along at her heels. They were in some kind of mutual sulk-off.
Trisha’s mom would have said that Carrie could win. You couldn’t beat a teenager for sullenness.
She didn’t just want a random responsible adult, actually. She wanted her mom.
A horrible, messy lump seemed to form in Trisha’s throat. She made a hacking sound, like a cat sicking up a hairball.
“You okay, kid?” That was the slightly hoarser voice she’d come to recognize as Ruth’s.
“I just miss my family.” She didn’t want to talk about it, either, not with some crazy lady she didn't even know. “Where are you from?”
“The path of the eclipse.” That was Jessie—sleepier, more thoughtful. “The house by the lake.”
“How did you end up in the ocean?”
Jessie’s voice turned almost wry. “I must have made it out after all.” She raised her head, her nostrils flaring slightly. “It doesn’t smell like the lake,” she added, more to herself than to Trisha. “I was worried it would, but it doesn’t.” She cleared her throat. “And you?” she added in the Goodwife’s anxious soprano. “What about the two of you? We haven’t really been introduced, have we? I’ve been hogging all the attention.”
“I’m Trisha McFarland. She’s Carrie White.” Trisha didn’t know how much weirdness to get into, but then decided that if Ruth-Jessie-Goodwife-Punkin-whoever had multiple personalities and no clothes and a real set of no-kidding handcuffs, she could probably take a high amount of weird without even noticing it. “We died. There was a fire at Carrie’s prom, and I got lost on the Appalachian Trail.” She figured the name made it sound more impressive than just “the woods,” that it made it clear she hadn’t done anything really babyish like getting lost in one of those roadside patches of scrubby little trees. But in her heart, she knew that the woods were just the woods—they were primeval, older than any name or any trail people had ever inflicted on them.
What Jessie had said about being from the path of the eclipse had reminded her of that. Jessie was from the path of the eclipse, Trisha was from the woods, and Carrie was from the fire.
“I suppose I must have died too, then,” Jessie said. “I was running pretty low on options, the last I can remember. But I’m sorry about you and Carrie.”
Trisha could only shrug. It hadn’t hurt. She didn’t know how to explain that it had been the before dying part that had been the worst—though something told her this woman would have understood. She said, “What should I call you?”
“Jessie. I’m Jessie, really. The others are just—my voices.” Trisha had draped one of their camp blankets over her, but she still shivered a little beneath it. “I was in a rough spot. I needed the company.”
Oh. Like Tom. “I know about that.”
“From when you were lost?”
Trisha nodded. “But I mostly knew they weren’t real.” She frowned. “They didn’t say they were me, I mean.”
“Mine didn’t used to, either.” She touched her temple. “Dying must have really done a number on me. I feel like somebody did the cha-cha all over my head in a pair of steel-toed boots. –I should ask if your friend needs any help with that fire. Not that I know how to do any of this shit—sorry—but I’m resourceful enough in a pinch.” That last was in the Goodwife’s voice, sounding almost shyly pleased with herself.
Trisha grabbed her arm as she started to stand up. “I wouldn’t if I were you.”
“She thinks you’re possessed.”
Jessie snorted inelegantly. “Just by my past, sweet-cheeks,” she said in the Ruth-voice, with waggly eyebrows like something out of an old movie.
Trisha trailed along after her to the campfire, hoping that having her there would keep Carrie’s temper in check.
Carrie looked up. The fire made her face orange. Not, Trisha noted, red, even though when they'd first met, she'd thought all the time that red seemed to follow Carrie around, looking for any excuse to paint her head-to-toe. Now it was just her dress, even in the firelight. She didn't look bloody anymore.
Not that time had made Carrie nice, really. Just less creepy. She looked hard at Jessie and said, pointedly, “Your name is Legion.”
“You should leave us alone,” Carrie continued, with no sign that she cared even one whit for Jessie’s correction. “For all we know, you’re his spy.”
“Do I look like a spy to you?” Jessie said incredulously, tugging the blanket tighter around her shoulders. “My God, if I were a spy, I’d have been able to pick the locks on the fucking handcuffs and I wouldn’t even be here in the first place. And whose would I even be?”
“The man in black's. The man with no face.”
Jessie went moon-pale, bad-cheese pale. “The space cowboy,” she whispered. “The gangster of love.”
The God of the Lost, Trisha thought. Like the woods, he was bigger and older than any of the names they tried to pin on him.
“He was watching me,” Jessie said. She hooked one finger against the cuff on her wrist and began to pull at it again. Trisha could see her skin turning blue and red underneath it. “Standing in the corner of my bedroom, waiting for me to die so he could—touch me—” She shuddered. “I don’t want anything to do with him. Ever. He’s here?”
“He’s around,” Trisha said. “He wants Carrie.”
Carrie raised her head, proud of being wanted even by someone like that.
Jessie looked at her hard. “But you don’t want him back, and you’re not going along with it.”
“I’ve got Trisha,” Carrie said, like that explained everything. She looked up at the sky, and her eyes went unfocused; Trisha was just about to ask what she was doing when a passing gull tumbled down to the sand in front of them, its neck neatly snapped. Trisha’s stomach lurched, but she wrestled it to the mat—she couldn’t afford to turn down dinner just because it didn’t come to her already made up neatly into perfectly fried chicken fingers. Meat was meat.
Jessie looked at the dead gull and then said, “Boy, would I have killed to have had you around. You could have snapped these off like tearing through Kleenex.” She gestured with her cuff.
Carrie still had a suspicious cast to her gaze, but she scrunched up her face, looking kind of like one of those pug dogs, and then the cuff dropped off Jessie’s wrist. “There.”
Jessie started to cry—huge, wracking sobs that shook her whole body. Trisha, not knowing what else to do, curled up against her.
Carrie spitted the seagull. She had a put-upon look now, like she was the only practical one.
Jessie was, as she’d said, Jessie Burlingame. She kept her lips zipped on who all her voices were, but she opened up over the next few days to tell Trisha and Carrie a little bit about her life: she’d been a teacher once—Carrie curled her lip up at that—and then a lawyer’s wife. She was from Maine too, which made Trisha wonder what the heck it was about Maine that made all its dead people wash up in cuckoo-fantasyland. Did every state have its own afterlife or something?
Carrie gave in and admitted that Jessie didn’t look like one of the devil’s own henchgirls, but she still watched her constantly, like only her constant vigilance was keeping Jessie under control.
Trisha plopped down beside Carrie during one of these marathon staring sessions and said, “Can’t you just read her mind?” It was kind of a last resort tactic, she figured, but if it would loosen Carrie up, it could be worth it.
“It goes black,” Carrie muttered.
Carrie rubbed her forehead, something Trisha had seen her doing more and more often lately.
Trisha said, “She said she was from the path of the eclipse. And that’s what it’s like inside her head? Just—black?”
“I can’t get inside at all,” Carrie said, huffy and eager at the same time, impatient of explaining herself and still craving for Trisha to ask her. “It’s like something’s pulled in front of her. She’s eclipsed.”
“By what? By the man in black?”
“I can hear you talking about me,” Jessie called across the sand. She came and sat down beside them. She wouldn’t stay for long, Trisha knew; she was always restless.
“In hell,” Carrie said, with another weird combination of emotions, equal parts fear and ghoulishness, “the punishment for eavesdropping is having burning hot oil dripped into your ears so that all you hear is the sizzle of your own sin being cooked out of you, forever and ever.”
As far as Trisha could tell, Carrie could have been raised by a basket full of creepy sayings about hell and she probably would have come out the same or better; her mom must have been a real piece of work.
“Be that as it may,” Jessie said dryly, “I’d still like to know what you were saying.”
Trisha decided to take over for expediency’s sake. “Carrie can’t read your mind because something’s blocking the light from getting to you.”
“We don’t have to talk about that,” Goodwife Jessie said, all prissy and anxious.
It had been the Goodwife part of Jessie that had been gushiest about thanking Carrie for making her a kind of garbage-bag-shaped dress out of one of their blankets; the Goodwife who had bemoaned—at length—her lack of a bra. Trisha was pretty sure the Goodwife would have unironically enthused over waterless cookware, but she was almost afraid to ask. The Goodwife was the one who always intervened when Jessie had been talking for a while, and who steered her away from saying much about her life. She bugged Trisha, but at the same time, she was also the one who’d figured out how to best wash their clothes and had been the one to find mussels on the beach for them to cook, so she had her uses; they were less itchy and their stomachs were full.
But she wasn’t good at getting to the dank, smelly bottom of things. She was more of a “spray perfume on it” kind of person.
Trisha counted to ten to keep herself from losing her patience. She said, "It could be the man in black. Your space cowboy."
“It’s not the man in black.” Ruth-Jessie added, “But it is a man—well, men.” And then there was a voice chiming in that Trisha had never heard from her before. It was reserved, like it didn’t consider itself involved in the situation at all, and it was definitely an it, even more alien to Jessie than the childishness of Punkin: “I wouldn’t worry about it. The eclipse always comes back around again, and the sun’s been going out on this world for a long, long time. The path of the eclipse is the path of the Beam, and sooner or later we’ll all pass into the shadow.”
God, Trisha thought, that’s all we need.
The beach curved eventually, but the path they were following didn’t. Carrie sulked a little about having to leave the ocean behind—she squatted down in the sand and stared at it for a long time, like she was saying an actual goodbye—but however nervous the path made her in general, she couldn't resist the idea that they were following the Will of God.
The crazy part—besides all of it—was that the whacko UFO voice Jessie had come up with had been what had finished warming Carrie up towards her; Carrie seemed to think it meant Jessie was some kind of prophet. Trisha tried to just keep on slogging through the weirdness the world kept throwing at her. She thought she was doing all right, too, until she saw where the path was taking them.
Fear flooded her mouth, salty and coppery, and she almost just fell back on her butt and sat down then and there. Nope. Not doing it. No way, José.
She knew there were plenty of reasons to keep going, even if you didn’t subscribe to Carrie’s theory that they were marching on some sort of heavenly orders. Walking along the ocean, they had to boil all their water before they could drink it, and while Carrie was good at starting fires, it took something out of her. She’d been getting more headaches lately. And there was no shelter on the beach. Trisha woke up so often with sand in her underpants that at this point she felt like she’d never get all of it off her.
But the beach had one big thing going for it: it wasn’t the woods.
The woods could have fresh water and edible plants and plenty of slow-moving game, sure. It could have a McDonald’s and a snowcone stand and trees full of fresh Walkman batteries; she still wasn’t going into them.
She had just stopped. She wouldn’t even look at the trees, just in case they reached out and gulped her up. She stared down at her sneakers instead. One of the soles had come unglued a little and was flapping at the toe.
“Trisha?” Jessie said. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t want to,” Trisha said, in a small voice she hated herself for even having. It would be easier, she thought bitterly, if she were Jessie and she could split this part of herself off and say it was someone else. “I don’t want to die in the woods again.”
“Oh, honey.” Jessie put her arms around her and let Trisha press her head against Jessie’s shoulder; she could feel the hot tears she was leaking onto the stupid coarse blanket-sack of Jessie’s dress.
Carrie wasn’t much of a hugger, but she put her hand on Trisha’s head, almost shyly, like she expected Trisha to bite her for it. Trisha couldn’t even imagine how yucky her hair must feel, with the long-time build-up of grease and crusty sea salt, but Carrie didn’t seem to mind.
“Carrie. Can you make me not care?”
Carrie’s fingers stiffened. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
“None of us should be tampering with anyone’s brains,” Jessie said, in a voice Trisha somehow knew wasn’t one of her special voices but just the way she'd talked back when she'd been a teacher. She could almost smell the chalk-dust in the air.
“I just—I know we’re supposed to go there.” That was almost a wail, and she tucked herself closer up against Jessie and grabbed onto Carrie’s arm too, for good measure. “I know we’re supposed to, I know I know the way, but I just can’t. I’m sorry!”
“I wouldn’t let anything hurt you,” Carrie said in a low, fierce voice.
But it wasn’t about things hurting you. It wasn’t about the God of the Lost, however sick with terror she’d been at the end. It was just about the way the density of the unknown around you could eat you up, the way you could get bitten by mosquitoes and get stomach cramps and find yourself starving. Left on its own, without the right stuff around to support it, your body would hurt itself, Trisha knew, and there wouldn’t be anything Carrie could do about that. Carrie couldn't even keep her own body from falling apart. There was a broken blood vessel in her ear now, a little knot of purple and scarlet.
Maybe she got some of that out between snotty little whimpers, because finally Jessie said, “Fuck it,” and Carrie didn’t even glare at her for it. “We can go around them.”
“That might be miles,” Trisha said, wiping at her eyes.
“Trust me,” Jessie said, “I’m still just glad to be stretching my legs. I’ll tap-dance miles out of our way if you want. Besides, we don’t even know where we’re going, so what do we care about when we get there?” The Goodwife pitched in: “You don’t always have to do the hardest thing there is, sweetheart. Even that harpy Ruth would agree about that.”
Trisha had a weird feeling in the pit of her stomach, like this was all half-right and half-wrong at the same time. No, you didn’t always have to do the hardest thing, but you had to suck it up when you did have to, right? Wasn’t that what her problem with Pete had been, that he hadn’t been able to just get over it and go on?
The Subaudible would say that she could take it easy; the Subaudible wasn't a big pusher. The God of Tom Gordon—the God of Tom Gordon was the one who said, Here’s your path, like it or not. I’m a baseball fan, but I don’t have to be a Red Sox fan. I’m not up here cheering for your particular team, Trisha McFarland, I just organize the games, and I’ve said you’re pitching tonight, so you’re up.
Tom had to go out onto the mound even when the game was shot and the hopes for the Series were spiraling down the drain. Tom wouldn’t have let his team cover for him while he curled up on himself like a sick dog.
She rubbed at her eyes again, pressing so hard she saw flares of color against the black. Supernovas to balance out the eclipse Jessie’s UFO voice had threatened them with. “No. We have to go. It just sucks. It’s shitty.”
“Are you sure?” Jessie said.
She was sure, she thought grimly—sure was the one thing she was. She knew they had to go. She just didn’t like it. Maybe she was growing up after all, growing into Pete and Carrie’s difficult teenage years, where she’d be able to dig in her heels and whine about things being the way they were, even knowing that all the whining in the world wouldn't change a thing.
“I’m sure,” she said.
The trouble was that even after that, she chickened out. Not all the way, but halfway, and as she’d already figured out, half-right was still half-wrong. She let Jessie and Carrie coddle her by making their camp early and spending the night on the outskirts of the woods instead of going straight in. It was a measly little delay, but Trisha had felt her bravery bottom out again when she’d looked into the pitch-black thicket of trees, and the idea of putting it off at all had seemed spectacular right then.
So Carrie conjured up a fire that they carefully surrounded with a break of stones and dirt, and after they’d eaten some more gull—and maybe that would be a good reason to go into the woods, no more greasy-stinky seagull meat—Trisha tried to sleep. She didn’t do such a hot job of it. She kept opening her eyes to watch the orange firelight dance across Jessie’s face, splitting her into various guises, as neat as jack-o-lantern carvings: here the Goodwife, there Ruth, there Jessie, there Punkin. (She knew without even thinking about it that there was no way the UFO voice had a face at all.)
The fire shone in Carrie’s eyes. She looked troubled, somehow, and she kept chewing on her lower lip. She glanced over and seemed to see Trisha looking, because all of a sudden, a wave of intense sleepiness smacked into Trisha, bowling her over into sleep. So much for not messing with each other's minds.
The next thing she knew, she was waking up in the dark, and the smell of the smoke had gone sour.
And someone was talking, and it wasn’t either one of her friends.
It was a supple voice, like well-oiled leather, with a kind of jingly-jangly sound to it: boots with spurs, Trisha thought vaguely, spurs rattling and clicking. He’d kick a horse bloody with them if he had to—or even if he didn’t. He’d do it because he liked it. She’d heard that voice before, but it wasn’t until it tripped over into a giggle that she recognized it for what it was.
The man in black.
At first Trisha just went cold and stiff, a petrified little animal frozen with fright. Something told her to just be as small as she could. Maybe he’d overlook her—after all, she wasn’t the one he wanted, right? He’d left her alone before.
The only one he’d wanted was—
Trisha came upright in a spray of dust and felt, of all the things, yet another trickle of sand run down her leg, shaken out from somewhere in her clothes. “You can’t have Carrie!”
He looked at her with his sculpted wax face. She hadn’t seen him before. He was almost handsome, that was the worst part of it. He was too thin and too sallow, but he had what Pepsi had called kissable lips, really red ones like those dumb sugared gummy candies, and his eyes were this horrible bright-dark. They were Jessie’s eclipse, she realized dumbly, with the pupils somehow huge enough to shut out the irises, even though you knew the irises burned there somewhere.
“What a little spitfire,” he said. “I already knew you were a tomboy, Trisha, but now I’m thinking you were your daddy's little girl, too. Wasn’t she, Jessie?”
Jessie moved suddenly, shoving her body between Trisha and the dark man like some kind of human shield. “Don’t you even look at her, you motherfucker.”
Another screechy little giggle. “Oh, Punkin, Punkin. Don't talk of what ye know not of! You've never been a mother; you wouldn't even know what motherfucking looks like. You know wifefuckers and you know daughterfuckers, but—”
“Shut up. Get away from us. All of us.”
"Where's the harm?" he said. "Let me take what I want, Jessie. Where did putting up a fight ever get you? And there's no harm in it, is there? After all," and he smiled a smile that seemed to have a hundred glittering teeth in it, "I'm only made of moonlight."
Trisha didn't know what any of this meant, and if the tear-tracks on Jessie's rigid face were any sign, she didn't want to. She stood by what she knew. "You can't take Carrie!"
“It doesn’t matter,” Carrie said, dumb now, ox-like. Trisha would take terrifying, witchy Carrie any day over this. “He found me. They always find you, sooner or later.” Her mind groped out blindly and grazed against Trisha’s, and Trisha saw a jumble of images, like six different puzzles smashed up together:
blood on a tiled floor washing pink where the water hits it plug it up plug it up dirty filthy never told me should have told me momma all gonna laugh at you the devil for your idle hands make you burn make you pay godless soulless damned already let him split you open let him do what he wants do what you want red red red THEY LAUGHED
“Why do you think Carrie’s here?” the dark man said silkily.
“She died. At her prom. There was a fire.”
“Oh, there was a fire, all right.” His smile had too many teeth. “Hellfire for all the sinners, and Carrie White reigning over them with her bloody, bloody crown.”
“Shut up,” Carrie whispered. “Don’t tell them. Don’t make them know.”
“But it’s best to tell the truth. Isn’t that what your momma would say?”
“I’ll go. I’ll do whatever you want me to do—”
“I want you to burn,” the dark man said. “Burn and break. And you like that, don’t you? All that blood was as sweet as honey in your mouth.” He stroked Carrie’s cheek, his fingers white against her flushed face. “I’ll use you to crack the world, and you’ll enjoy it. Might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb, isn’t that right, Carrie? Might as well burn for being the devil herself, not just a sinner. A dirty, filthy sinner.”
Trisha understood too slowly, but when she did, she realized that she should have realized it a long time ago. Of course Carrie had started the fire at her prom. Of course her being this scared had made her scary. They had laughed at her, and Trisha might have laughed too--if she'd been there, she could be dead like all the rest of them--
But she was dead. More or less.
And she thought about Carrie frying potatoes for them, and Carrie staying because Trisha needed someone to look after her, and Carrie’s dirty hand in Trisha’s own dirty hair, not a blessing but a being there.
“I don’t care what she did,” Trisha said. If it wasn’t true, it was close enough, and besides, it wasn’t always best to tell the truth—Carrie’s momma had been as dumb and hurtful on that subject as she’d been on everything else. Sometimes you lied. If you loved somebody.
“I don’t care either,” Jessie said. Her hands were balled into fists. “I killed my husband. What are a couple more deaths between friends?”
“And if you ask me,” a new voice said, “the bastard had it coming.”
A gray-haired woman in a long, shabby dress—she wore it over faded breeches tucked into big leather boots—strode out of the woods. She had a huge silver pistol in each hand and a red bandana around her neck. She looked pissed, in a way Trisha had never seen an old woman look before. She pointed both her guns at the man in black, but when she spoke, it was only to Trisha and Jessie and Carrie.
“I thought you’d make better time,” the woman said to them. “Guess that shows me for a fool.”
The man in black almost cringed away from the guns. Not all the way, but almost. Which was funny, when you thought about it, because Trisha would have guessed that even silver bullets wouldn't leave a dent in him.
“You stop smirking at me,” the woman said, her eyes on him now. “Every goddamn time I see you, it’s this smirk on your face, like you’re so all-fired sly. You ain’t such a big shot. I knew you when you were just a squirt, little Walter Padick, with flour and ashes still all over your boots. You might have knocked all those Gilead men for a loop, but they were about as dumb as they came, cobwebs and rust all up in their works. Frigging nobility gets you that way, that’s what I think, not that anybody asked me. You can’t just sit around soaking up being good all the time. Makes you stupid."
“Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hold onto,” Jessie said. She sounded strained, like she had to force the words up from somewhere deep down inside herself.
“That’s right. Sometimes it is. But sometimes a woman’s got a gun, and that’ll do the trick if being a bitch don’t come easy.” She cocked the hammers on both of her pistols. “You want to move on, you cocksucker? None of these girls want anything to do with you. Hell, even if Carrie does, you’re still gonna hop out of here like your toes are on fire and your ass is catching, because she’s just a kid.”
“You’re not a gunslinger.” But he didn’t sound sure. “And guns won’t make you one.”
“No. Just like a dick never made you a man. But I kill with my heart, and that makes me anything I damn well please."
Without waiting even a beat for him to respond, she fired. Both pistols at the same time. Blue sparks leapt from her guns, arcing down to the ground, and blue smoke uncurled from the muzzles.
It was like a magic trick, making the man in black vanish in a puff of colored smoke. Trisha didn’t know what the bullets had hit, but not him. He was gone, and he'd been gone before they'd even touched him. Maybe he’d never even really been there at all, maybe he really had only been made of moonlight—but if that were true, then why had he flinched away from her? Why had it mattered if she fired at him?
She didn’t know she’d said any of that out loud until the woman looked over at her. Her expression was sour, her mouth all scrunched up like the top of a drawstring purse, but her black eyes were warm. “Because sometimes what matters is giving them hell at all. Not always--sometimes you really got to win, not just fight--but sometimes. And he always was shit-scared of gunslingers, for all he runs around panting after the one he thinks is gonna up and kill him someday. He never did go at anybody straight. Weaselly bastard.” She holstered her guns. “I’m Dolores Claiborne. I’ve been looking for you.”
Jessie turned around to look at her. “You,” she said. "I know you."
Then she fainted.
Dolores and Carrie had lugged Jessie all through the woods, her balanced between them with her arms over their shoulders; Trisha trailed behind them, swallowing down her fear and watching the pale backs of Jessie’s legs where her shapeless dress kept riding up. The moonlight caught there, so if Trisha just kept looking right there and nowhere else, the night didn’t feel as thick.
They were going to Dolores’s house.
“House might be overstating it a touch,” Dolores said. “But it’s got a roof and a place to piss out of the wind, so for my money, that’s a sight better than what you girls were going on with. I still can't for the life of me believe you dilly-dallyed out there because you were scared of getting lost."
"I died lost," Trisha said.
Dolores didn't seem impressed with that. "Most people do, honeybunch."
“What’s a gunslinger?” Carrie said. She grunted, shifting Jessie's weight around.
“A gunslinger’s what you’ll be when you learn to aim a little better,” Dolores said. “A killer, girl, and a good one. But one who tends to get herself in the thick of trouble and do the hard scrubbing so somebody else don’t have to, so a house-cleaner too. With about the same level of backbreaking."
“They laughed at me,” Carrie said quietly. “They invited me to the prom as a joke, and they dumped blood all over me and they laughed—”
“And you killed them,” Dolores finished. “Did you go home and finish the job on your momma, too?”
Carrie looked like Dolores had slapped her. “No. I—burned up with everybody else.”
“That’s a shame.”
“How do you know about us?” Trisha said, taking a little hop-skip to stay caught up with them. She’d been slowing down. She was falling asleep on her feet—that should have seemed impossible after being scared out of her skin with the dark man and now shoved into the woods to boot, but she guessed that was what a a whole day of walking did to you. A whole day of walking and a whole night of having become an afterthought, a little kid once again: someone to be pushed to the side while the adults did all the talking.
“My Jessie told me.” Dolores sounded almost wistful now. Trisha hadn’t even known her an hour, and already she could tell she wasn’t the kind to get wistful very often. “A long, long time ago, on the day of the eclipse.”
“Your Jessie? Not this Jessie?"
“Sometimes there’s only one of somebody,” Dolores said. “Sometimes there ain’t. Jessie and me, we turn up over and over again, like jokers in the deck, and we're two cards that are always supposed to be dealt out together, unless somebody frigs up. I’d guess you two are the one-and-only kind, and that’s why ka had to suck you out of your world and bring you into mine. Just like it had to bring me another Jessie.”
“But what happened to yours?”
“Took her damned dog and joined up with Roland and his folks.” Roland—she kept saying that name. “Jessie and my daughter both. That’s their ka, just like waiting for you three was mine.”
“Full of questions, aren’t you? Ka’s a bitch of a thing. It’s what must be.”
“Like the will of God,” Carrie said.
“Or the path,” Trisha said.
“You can call it whatever you want. I call it ka. And right now your ka, Carrie White, is to pick up your damn feet a little so we reach my place before I die of old age. No,” she added sharply, “don’t you try floating her out ahead of you, either. You’re worth too damn much to burn yourself up like kindling. I’m going to teach you to use a gun. There’s more than one way to kill with your mind, girl, and you’ll live longer if you figure that out. And Trisha, as long as you follow the Path of the Beam, which you seem to be finding well enough, you won’t get lost in the woods or anywhere else. And nobody starves or dies of thirst on the Path of the Beam.”
Trisha couldn’t think of anything to say except, “Yes, ma’am.”
Dolores went on talking—yammering, she called it, yammering my damn head off—until they reached her cottage, which was prettier than she’d made it sound. There were clay pots with crumpled purple flowers in them, and Trisha only realized then that that was the first bit of purple she'd seen in weeks. They helped Jessie inside and dabbed water on her face until her eyes fluttered and opened.
“It’s you,” Jessie said. She spoke so softly that it took Trisha a moment to identify the voice as Punkin’s, the little-girl voice that made Trisha uncomfortable—the way, she realized, Carrie’s cow-eyed act sometimes made her uncomfortable. Weakness got everybody squirmy sometimes, like it was a bug you wanted to squash before it touched you. “I saw you. You were by a well."
“That I was, Jessie.”
“That’s Punkin,” Trisha whispered.
She was only trying to help, but Dolores shot her a glare that could have stripped paint off the wall. “They’re all Jessie.” She dabbed the wet towel against Jessie's face again. “You know that, don’t you? The other me couldn’t find you, I'd wager, but I found you now. And all the men who blocked the sun out—they’re dead now, Jessie. Dead and gone a whole world away from us. So you need to strap yourself together again, because you’re a woman now, and we’ve got two girls here to look after.” She kissed her on the forehead. “Sun’s out, sweetheart.”
Trisha, feeling almost as grumpy as she did tired, looked out the window at the glossy darkness, just to soak in the fact that at least Dolores wasn’t literally right; she felt Carrie’s attention flick across her and saw Carrie smile. It was the way Pete used to smile sideways at her whenever Mom or Dad was getting really out of hand, back in the days when it felt definitively like Trisha and Pete against their parents and not Pete against the universe.
She drifted away and leaned against the window-sill. Carrie came after her.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” Carrie said. “I wanted you to like me.”
Most of the time she didn’t know if she liked Carrie or not, so she just told the truth. “I love you.” She could feel her throat clenching up. She wanted to cry. She was in the woods again, and them coming across Dolores wasn't about them getting rescued. It was, she knew, about ka or whatever pulling them up to the pitcher’s mound: they were in the game now whether they liked it or not.
She started to say, Carrie, what’s going to happen to us?—but then it occurred to her that there was no way Carrie could know, no matter what weird powers she had. Carrie hadn’t even known they wouldn’t hate her when the truth came out.
So if they were all in this, then at least they were all in it together. Tom would say that was a good thing.
Nobody knew much about anything, Trisha decided, so maybe the thing to do was to just pick up what you could, wherever you could, and keep going. And strap yourself together, like Dolores had said.
She wasn’t surprised when she felt Dolores’s hands on her shoulders a minute or so later.
“I’m sorry I snapped at you, girl,” Dolores said. “I’ve got a foul mouth and a cussed bad temper. And I want Jessie knit back together again.”
“Me too,” Trisha said.
“I think she’s coming back. She's sleeping, and that's the best thing. Bits and pieces will always be floating around—even my Jessie never shook herself out of having khef with the Tower itself every now and then—but mostly together.”
“What’s the Tower?”
“Save some questions for the morning,” Dolores said. “You two look bushed. You get into bed. Jessie will probably snore all the way through tomorrow too—getting back to being just one person takes it out of a body.” She touched Trisha’s hair briefly and then touched Carrie’s, too, like there was no difference between them. “We’ll all talk in the morning about what we’re fixing to do.”
Trisha breathed out on the window and watched it fog up. She took her finger and streaked a line down it, the clear-cut path of what Dolores had called the Beam.
Out of the woods and into a field of roses. She didn’t know how she knew that. Maybe all lost people knew what home looked like, even if they didn’t know how to get there.
Dolores’s cottage wasn’t home, she was sure of that. It was just another way station. One where they could practice shooting and drowning out the voices in their heads. One where they could have a little time to get used to having a sun that wouldn’t go out on them--or where they could learn how to survive together in the dark. She took Carrie's hand in hers and squeezed it, and then she went to bed.