It was after eleven when they finally turned onto their own street. Nelly slept in the back seat while John and Anne, up front, had not yet found words to begin anything like a full discussion of the evening’s events.
As the car turned into the driveway, the sweep of the headlights revealed a man sitting on their front steps. The form was a vague shadow, but a snow-white flash in the moving headlight beam told John who to expect. He parked the car, turned off the engine, and motioned for Anne to stay with Nelly.
"Dennis," he said, taking a seat beside his visitor. "It’s late."
"I know. I’ve been waiting." Then, without waiting for John’s response: "I thought I could protect you guys, but I can’t. Rankin knows about last week. He cut me a new one for not referring Nelly right away. I did some checking and she’s on the warrant list for Wednesday’s school board meeting. They’re going to take her."
"Shit," John said. "Hell, no."
"Yes. And if you appeal their decision, they’ll make me testify at the hearing. If I lie I’ll get fired, because Rankin already knows the truth. I don’t know how he knows, but he does. If I tell the truth I’ll get fired for cutting Nelly slack. I’m in a bind here. I didn’t do anything wrong. I do not deserve to be punished for this. They’ll take Nelly either way, John, we both know it. But I need my job. There can’t be a hearing. I need to know you won’t sell me out on this."
It took him several seconds to process what was being said, right there to his face on his own front porch. He stood.
"Whoa... Did you just ask me to surrender my daughter without a fight so you can keep your job?
"They’ll take her anyway. You can’t stop that. I’m just saying don’t drag me down, too."
For the second time that evening, John Harper could find no words worthy of the events unfolding around him.
"Get off my property, Dennis." He started back toward the car, to retrieve his wife and child.
Dennis Hale stood just as a new spray of headlights washed over them both. A tan Toyota pulled to a stop in the driveway.
John checked his watch – 11:48. What the...
Paul Rankin stepped out onto the driveway and stood facing the pair, the car door a shield between himself and the two men.
"Hi, John!" Then with an edge of curiosity in his voice, "Dennis?"
"He was just leaving," John Harper said. "And I think you’d better do the same. It’s late."
"Sure, no problem," the youth minister said. He visibly straightened as he pulled himself right to the point. "We missed Nelly at Fellowship Youth tonight. She was supposed to be there. No excuses, remember?"
"We had plans. Seriously. Everybody go home. Leave."
"It’s never wise to blow off church functions. It gets people talking."
"Paul. Listen to me. Get back in your car. Get off my driveway. I’ll see you next Sunday."
"No more plans for Nelly on Sunday nights, okay? It can be date night for you and Anne. We’ll watch the kid."
John raised both hands. "You have to go."
He looked to Dennis Hale, who was still standing awkwardly on the lawn, hands in pockets, then back to Paul Rankin on the driveway.
"I’m taking my family inside my house now. Both of you. Go away. We’re done."
Anne was suddenly by his side. As he opened the back door to lift Nelly out of the car, he heard Paul Rankin’s Toyota back out of the driveway and disappear down the street. A few seconds later, Dennis Hale followed.
* * * *
The hands of the big white clock aligned as one over the twelve. Midnight, and Marion Rankin was still at his desk. The room was dark, and he sat in his tall leather chair, turned to the window, counting his breaths as Arkady slept. He’d maintained this vigil the night of every new moon for the last twenty-five years. His psyche was wide open, his mind expanded as far as he could push it in every direction, like a spider’s web cast over the whole town, straining to sense even the slightest perturbation in the night’s spiritual energy.
For years, his skills had been finely enough honed that he could unfailingly sense the moment the apparition broke through into the material realm, but since they’d bulldozed the camp on City Lake, the where had become impossible to pinpoint. He knew she was out there, somewhere, spreading her superstition, infecting the children, but she had so far succeeded in blinding him to any fixed location a simple raid might eliminate. She was that clever... that devious... Maybe powerful was a better word.
Until tonight. On this moonless night, like no other night before it, he’d seen the devil Arkady’s children called the Good paint a bloody crimson streak into the sky as clearly as if a signal flair had been intentionally fired. And, just as the flaming tail of a rocket always points to the pad that launched it, he’d tracked that streak of light to its source. The appearance had been so brief that anyone looking on with mere physical eyes would have seen nothing, not even a glow. But this was the moment he’d trained for all his life, and when the moment came, he’d been ready.
He turned away from the window to contemplate the fine blue lines of an Arkady street map laid out across his desk, his own straight, dark pencil lines crossing blue and coming together to converge just south of town. He’d found the new Hobo Camp, or at least triangulated the field of its possible locations to within a six square block area. A little door to door, a few parent conferences, and it would all be over but the paperwork.
From his briefcase on the floor beside the desk, a rhythmic buzz. Buzz. Buzz. The phone he was allowed to use only to report a major event was ringing. President Oglesby, all the way from Washington, must have seen the light, as well. Destiny was calling. Marion’s moment had arrived.
* * * *
Time for Tim Rankin had grown progressively less linear as the years rolled by. What Jessica experienced as weeks, or months, even years passed for Tim in the blink of what passed in the vapor realm for an eye. Other times, single moments seemed to hang, unmoving, for tiny eternities, frozen landscapes in which even the finest detail might not shift for what others experienced as whole human lifetimes. Tonight, the latter rule held, and in Tim’s ethereal vision, the crimson heart of the Good was a star hanging motionless in the Arkady sky, its long red tail trailing like ballast on a kite, not really holding it anywhere, but rather following up, and up, and up – and at the same time pointing, unmistakably, down, and down.
Pointing down to the earth. To a hidden place on the earth. To a place where the seed of unreason, as had been prophesied, had found fertile soil and sprung to life, raising its brazen stem and leaves and the fiery bloom of its rosy flower over the town.
The sign had come. The enemy was at hand. And to Tim Rankin’s otherworldly eyes, for all his long-studied aversion to even the tiniest hint of the irrational, that enemy was intensely, seductively, even unreasonably beautiful. For what felt like eternity, he could not compel himself to look away.
* * * *
1:00 AM, and Neil Coleman was wide awake in the cluttered living room, a glowing computer screen before him, on which the woman’s interaction with Nelly played over and over, backward and forward, in slow and fast motion, dissected frame by frame by frame, analyzed for sound, color spectrum, levels of light. There were exactly three frames, one digital moment that would have flashed before their eyes, in real life, no longer than an eighth of a second, in which what still remarkably resembled a crimson heart with wing-like extensions could be seen hovering directly over Nelly’s head before vanishing up through the ceiling of the buried trailer. He isolated the three images, then brought them together on the screen into a single holographic projection that startled him in its clarity.
The telephone rang. It was John Harper, frantic – Dennis Hale, the school board, reeducation for Nelly...
"We’re leaving tonight. We’re getting out of Arkady."
"Hold on," Neil said. "You can’t leave. The sign. I know you saw it. You’ve got to see what’s on my computer screen right now."
"I don’t know what I saw." A pause. "I know this much, though. My daughter is not the seed. She’s an eight year old child. She’s not ready for any of this and neither am I. If we don’t leave tonight, they’ll take her."
"Come back to my place then. You can have the trailer. It’s completely hidden. You’d be crazy to stay in Arkady with the school board on your tail, so everybody’ll think you left town. No one will look for you here."
"They’ll see my car."
"It’s a junkyard. I think I can hide your car."
"Then what? Do we live there forever? Nelly grows up there?"
"Just hide till we figure out what’s next. We have got to take the time to understand what happened here tonight. This is not a small thing. This matters."
"The Special School can’t have her, and neither can you. We’re leaving."
"If Nelly is the seed, the Remnant is all she’s got, and you know it. That’s why you called me. The whole world is going to stand against her. That’s a lot for a little kid to face alone. Nelly needs us. You need us."
"Nelly is not the seed."
"Well, she’s something. You know the prophecy. You know what you saw here tonight. Whatever’s happening, Nelly’s at the center. We need time to figure this out. Just get over here, please, for a couple of days at least. I’ll have the trailer ready."
Neil Coleman’s definition of "ready" left Anne Harper without doubt as to why the twenty-six year old man still lived alone. His idea of bedding was a mattress on the floor and a comforter that smelled like someone had wiped oily hands on it. He gave them the pillow from his own bed; it was the only one he owned. It was 2:00 AM before they settled in, and Anne and Nelly slept side by side on the mattress, fully clothed, with the lights on, while Neil and John went back to the house to spend what was left of the night drinking beer and subjecting Neil’s recordings from the new moon gathering to every form of analysis either one of them could imagine.
By late Thursday afternoon, Marion Rankin was neither smug nor happy. He had two unsolved mysteries on his hands, and the secret phone that in his quarter-century as school principal and chief watcher for the seed had never rung now demanded at least daily updates on his progress.
He was not making progress.
Mystery #1, of course, was locating the Good’s new staging area, which you’d think would be an easy task within a mere six square block map quadrant. It was on the edge of town, so there weren’t even that many houses to check, and only a few businesses. On the pretext of investigating Mystery #2, Arkady’s finest had knocked on every door, peered through garage windows, opened old refrigerators in people’s back yards, and even spent whole days driving slowly through neighborhoods or sitting in parked squad cars simply waiting for something to happen.
Nothing did. Four days after what Marion now thought of as the revelation, he was no closer to an end game regarding the apparition than he’d been Sunday night.
Mystery #2 was the vanishing into thin air of Nelly Harper and her parents. Why they had run was common knowledge. Nelly’s warrant of confinement to the Special School had been made official at the previous night’s school board meeting. But by the time the ink was wet on the paperwork, let alone dry, the Harpers were long gone, tipped off, it was presumed, by Dennis Hale, who’d been seen at their house late Sunday night by Marion’s own son, Paul. Dennis was missing now, too, but nobody had bothered to look for him. He hadn’t come to work Monday or Tuesday and, knowing what he knew, Marion had simply mailed a letter of termination to his home address. If the coward dared to showed his face now, it would only be to gather his personal affects – which Marion had already had placed in a large, sealed carton, for the ex-vice principal’s convenience.
The mystery was not why the Harpers had run, but where they’d gone. They were a one car family, and that one car had evaporated just as thoroughly as its owners. It had not been spotted leaving town. It had not been stopped anywhere in the state for speeding or a broken tail light. John and Anne Harper’s credit and debit cards had not been used, anywhere. There was no sign they had actually left Arkady, though that seemed a reasonable assumption, under the circumstances. But neither was there any evidence they were still in town somewhere. They were just gone.
"Maybe it wasn’t really the sign," Paul Rankin offered. "Maybe it was just a shooting star. Or a reflection. Some freak of nature."
He was sitting across from the big desk, watching his father sulk. Beside him, his wife raked one hand through an oversized purse and finally came up clutching a compact. She studied her face in the tiny mirror.
"I don’t believe that. I know what I felt, not just what I saw. Besides, the Feds have no reason to care about a natural event. And they’re all over this."
"Maybe where you saw the light isn’t where the apparition really appeared. Like it really was the sign, but what you saw Sunday night was a reflection on a cloud or something, and the real base camp is somewhere else."
"Maybe." Marion Rankin exhaled deeply. "It doesn’t feel like that, though. It feels like the answer is right in front of me, and I just can’t see it. Like I’m sitting on the solution to all of this, and it just won’t register. This is pissing me off..."
Christy Rankin snapped the compact closed, stood and crossed to the window. She parted the metal blinds with her fingers and scanned the parking lot with narrowed eyes.
"I’ll tell you who pisses me off," she said. "That stupid janitor, Neil Coleman. I’m at him all year to attend church like a normal human being, and nothing. He just stands there like I’m not even talking to him. Then Sunday, out of the blue, he shows up. No warning, no thank you for inviting me, nothing. Then, when it’s over, boom!, he’s out the door – and making a bee line for that missing person of yours, John Harper, no less, like they’re old buddies or something. The worst part is, he promised to join my Wednesday night Gospel study group, but did he show? Hell No! There is something seriously strange about that man, Marion, and I think you should fire him."
Marion Rankin only really started listening when the Kindergarten teacher said the words John Harper. It was a strange tirade for the name to come up in.
"I can’t fire him," he said. "He quit. Monday morning. Left a message on my phone. Said he didn’t need the job anymore."
Christy turned toward the desk. The blinds clinked back into place.
"I wonder what that means? He doesn’t need the job anymore? Anymore... Like he needed it Friday, then by Monday he’s won the lottery or something and doesn’t need to work anymore? What do you suppose happened over the weekend?"
"He never needed the job for money, Hun," Paul said. He stood and moved to the Arkady street map his father had tacked onto the wall behind his desk. "He’s a mechanic. And a successful one. He’s got his own business."
"Then why on earth would he mop floors at a grade school? For the health insurance?"
Marion Rankin stood and moved beside his son. They scanned the map together.
"Maybe he was looking for something," the principal reasoned aloud. "Or someone. Someone that working at the school would make it easier for him to find. A certain child, perhaps..."
"Which, when found, makes the job unnecessary," his son finished.
Marion and Paul Rankin exchanged knowing looks. The principal turned to the big desk and retrieved a list of businesses located within the six square block target zone.
Third on the list: Coleman Auto Repair.
"The cops had to have talked to him. They interviewed everybody in his neighborhood."
"They did. They found nothing suspicious."
"Can you get them back out there?"
Marion Rankin thought the suggestion through in silence.
"Not the police," he said at last. "I have a better idea."
* * * *
In all the years the ghost of his father had inhabited the walls of Rankin Mansion, it had never occurred to Marion to ask if his dad could be other places – like, was his spirit chained to his old home the way you hear about in the usual tragic ghost stories on TV, or had he chosen his final resting place? Was he stuck where he was, or could he move about at will? Could he haunt any location of his choosing?
Which is how Marion Francis Rankin learned, in the course of communicating these questions to a mind no longer operating in the same timeframe as regular flesh and blood human beings, and receiving from that mind equally timeless responses, that his father, Tim Rankin, not only was not a ghost by any traditional definition of that term, he wasn’t even dead. It was impossible for Tim to describe to his son across the time barrier exactly what his physical condition actually was, as what had happened to him had quite possibly never occurred to any other person in all the history of the world. There was nothing in Marion Rankin’s experience Tim could compare his state to, so it could not be made comprehensible in ordinary language. But he knew for sure he wasn’t dead. He was considerably less certain whether he was technically alive by the usual definition of that term, but he was confident he had not experienced anything like the dissolution of being human beings label death. In fact, not only was he not currently dead, he had stopped aging altogether when the metamorphosis began, so he did not appear to be moving toward death, or anything else, for that matter. He appeared, from his own vantage point, anyway, to be essentially immortal.
One thing was certain: However difficult Tim Rankin’s present status as an apparently immortal superconscious being might be to explain or understand in human terms, it had been initiated by, and existed at the will of, President Oglesby – and so, it was by definition a holy state. As hard as it might be to nail down in concrete, English language concepts, Tim Rankin was what enlightenment looked like. He was just about as Universal as an individual self could get.
Marion’s question had been: could he haunt any location of his choosing?
The truth: he didn’t know.
After finding himself drawn home to Arkady, it had never occurred to him to even try being anywhere but enmeshed in the home and world of his wife and child, the only beings in the whole human realm he truly cared for. But now that his only son was requesting his assistance, Tim found reason to try, and in trying, found movement and relocation easy. Movement was fun and exciting after decades of immobility. He inhabited a tree, a running, pissing, happy family dog, the Barrett County Library, where all the words in all the books hit his mind in a single ecstatic flood that left him giddy. He became one with a car left running in the Family Dollar parking lot, took it for an apparently unmanned spin, then flipped gleefully up into a blue jay sailing overhead as the car exploded into a telephone pole at forty miles per hour.
The crash brought him to his senses. Mother...
Movement was possible, but dangerous. Yes, he could travel the world and possess beings and objects at will. But wisdom told him not to risk such things lightly. Universality was not a toy. Such sojourns could only be justified by an exceptional cause, allied to a crystal clear plan.
Both of which his son had at the ready.
For the next two weeks, Tim Rankin possessed Coleman Auto Repair. And Neil Coleman’s house. And the double-wide trailer so carefully hidden amidst the scrap, where John, Anne and Nelly Harper went about their clandestine lives. From inside Neil’s computer, he reviewed years of recordings of apparitional appearances, culminating in Nelly’s transfiguration and the seed’s revelation at the last new moon. He absorbed the names and home addresses of all the members of the Remnant. He was present in the walls as Neil discussed with John and Anne in person, and with others over the phone, plans for the next new moon gathering in just ten days time. The Good’s self-revelation at the last gathering had raised dramatic hopes amongst Remnant families. The coming new moon would change all their lives forever.
Tim returned to Rankin Mansion and passed all of this information, as best he could, considering the time differential, to his son, who phoned it in by secret dedicated line to President Oglesby’s people. Within the hour, the command arrived to stand down. Let no one know the Remnant had been exposed. Let them plan their new moon gathering. Await further orders.
When the orders finally came, even Marion Rankin – true believer in President Oglesby’s divine incarnation, devotee of Self, lifelong aspirant to Ideal Man status, and twenty-five year veteran watcher for the seed, who had unsentimentally confined hundreds of children to the Special School in service to prophecy – was not completely comfortable with the plan.
He had never murdered children before. But when he applied solid, objective reasoning to the issue – knowing, as he did, that all their little selves would simply return to Universal Self, from which they came, and at whose command their physical deaths had been ordered – he could point to nothing irrational in the plan. It was the most efficient means of accomplishing the goal, and that was all that objectively mattered.
It made planning so much easier to know exactly where the apparition would materialize, and thus where the children would be gathered – with Nelly Harper at their center. They would even form a circle around the girl, a living target, with Nelly as the bull’s-eye. The parents would have to be dealt with separately, after the fact, but that was just a mop up operation, really. Once the seed was dead, and her entourage with her, it was over. All the years of waiting, watching, culling families in anticipation of this moment would be justified. Unreason would be undone.
They rehearsed the plan, Marion and his invisible father, over and over in the psychic space where their human and superhuman minds overlapped, until they could visualize every step together, in perfect sync, like dominoes toppling one after another after another.
All the while, upstairs, Jessica Rankin, Marion’s mother, Tim’s wife, now an old woman, drank and slept and watched her TV. An attendant brought food and a fresh bottle. She would soon be asleep again.
* * * *
"I vote Albuquerque," Neil Coleman said. He drummed two fingers on the coffee table. Drum drum. "The Remnant down there is awesome. Great families, great food. Amazing local beer. But this close to the new moon, we don’t have to guess. We can afford to wait." Drum drum. "For orders."
In their three weeks living under cover in the hidden trailer, a whole new world had opened before John and Anne Harper. Coleman Auto Repair, it turned out, inhabited the center of an invisible network of Remnant groups scattered all across the globe. Each group of families kept the story alive in their isolated community, passed it on faithfully to new generations, and gathered monthly to watch Neil’s new moon recordings by secret broadcast from Arkady. Not only were John and Anne Harper not alone in their beliefs, they had stumbled across an entire underground movement of believers, people just like themselves, gathered in pockets throughout the world, who secretly kept the faith, and who now watched with eager anticipation to see what came next regarding their daughter’s role in the prophesied revelation of the seed and the return of the Good to the world.
It was a lot to absorb, but in three solid weeks with nothing to do but learn, John felt he had a handle on the situation. He was getting anxious to move on, to put as much distance between his family and Marion Rankin as he could.
"A few more nights," Neil assured him. "Wherever the woman sends you, I want to go, too. This whole thing’s in motion now. I’m excited. Wherever Nelly goes, that’s the new center. I want to be there."
* * * *
The dusk of the new moon found the Arkady Remnant where it always did, sharing brats and burgers, Frisbee and fellowship, before retreating to Neil’s living room and sending their children snaking out through the darkness toward the trailer.
"Hey," Neil said to nobody in particular. He toggled a switch back and forth on the control panel, then looked up for John Harper. "I can’t turn the lights on from here," he said. "Go light the trailer, then get out of there before the woman comes. Or she won’t." A pause, and a smile. "You’re too old for her."
"I’m on it." John passed Anne in the kitchen. "The trailer’s dark. Switch problems. I’ll be right back."
"Take me with you." She dug a flashlight out of a kitchen drawer, passed it to John, and they whisked out the back door together.
The tunnel through the tall mounds of scrap was nearly pitch black dark. The deeper they went into the stacks, the darker it got, until the narrow beam of the flashlight was all they had to find their way. They heard squealing up ahead.
"Nelly!" John shouted. "Turn on the lights already! You know where they are!"
The lights did not come on. John pictured the kids inside, frantic in the dark.
"I’m coming! Hold on!"
John and Anne reached the trailer’s front door and pulled it wide. The sound of children fumbling in the dark. Anne slid past him and into the trailer. John followed.
"Everybody help me find the switch. It has to be right here by the door somewhere..."
The metal door slammed shut behind him with such force it sent him flying through the room. The coffee table cracked against both his shins at once and he tumbled forward to crash head first onto the floor. The flashlight spun out of his hands and went dark with a thud. John pulled himself to a sitting position.
"Everybody just stay put. Stay right where you are. I’ve got my phone, and I’m going to call the house. Just stay calm."
"John," Anne said.
"Help is on the way, don’t worry."
"John. Do you smell that?"
A whiff of burning insulation hit him just as she spoke the words.
"I smell it. Hold on."
Using his phone as a flashlight, he crawled past several seated, frightened children, back to the front door. It wouldn’t open. He threw all his weight against it, then sat and kicked with both legs. Nothing.
"Anne. Do you have your phone? We need more light."
But suddenly there was plenty of light as sparks exploded out of the breaker box at the end of the trailer’s long hallway and the wall and ceiling across the whole back of the unit were burning.
"Stay put, Nelly. I’m coming. Talk to me so I can find you."
"Daddy! I’m scared I’m scared I’m scared!"
"I know, baby." He scooped her up in the darkness. "Anne! Everybody! Follow my voice!"
He began to count out loud so the children could follow as he made his way to the furthest bedroom away from the now raging fire. Only the kids and Neil Coleman knew where all the secret entrances were, but he was sure he had seen children emerge from this bedroom in the new moon recordings. There had to be a way out.
"In here! Let’s go!"
He stepped through the open bedroom door with Nelly in his arms. The door slammed shut behind him. Fists pounded the door from the other side.
"John! Open the door!"
"I didn’t close it. Hold on!" He put Nelly on the bed, then repeated his front door performance, with the same effect. The door would not budge. "There are other exits. You’ve got to find one, Anne. Those kids know where they are."
"I can’t see anything! Smoke..."
"Shit!" John shouted. He looked to where he knew Nelly was laying, frozen in fear, on the bed, then back to the door. "Anne. I’m getting Nelly out. I’ll come back for you. But you have got to try to find one of the exits. Lead the kids out."
"Ok, John. Get Nelly out."
And in the total darkness of the sealed bedroom, a dot of light appeared, no larger than a single drop of water. Though it was full night outside now, John crazily imagined the dot was daylight seeping through where the door to the exit must be, and he rushed toward it.
"Nelly, come on!"
He found the girl’s hand on the bed and pulled her toward him.
The light disappeared, but his hand, reaching for it in the darkness, fell squarely on the handle of a low wooden door. He pulled it open and smelled fresh air.
They squeezed through the tiny door, and landed on the path, amidst the scrap. Flames rose up through the crushed cars and old appliances covering the far end of the trailer, and they found their way by its flickering orange light. John brought Nelly as far as the rolling chain link gate, then released her hand.
"Nelly, I need you to stay right here. Do not move. I’m going back for your mother."
Something inside the trailer exploded and a plume of red flame with a blue and white center fired up into the sky.
"Stay here!" John shouted over what was now the roar of flames, and disappeared back down the tunnel.
When he reached the small door they’d escaped through, it was sealed. He found a heavy steel pipe in the scrap and began to wail against the door with all his might. Bang. Bang. Bang. He thought he heard the door finally splintering, then was blown back as the center section of the trailer fell in on itself, and a tower of piled junk shifted and crashed to fill the hole.
He did not have time to think about what just happened. He ran back to the gate, where he had left Nelly. She was gone.
* * * *
Alone in his father’s mansion, except for his mother, drunk and oblivious on the third floor, Marion Rankin frowned and shook his head. They had rehearsed the plan so many times. What happened could not have happened.
By the time Tim Rankin’s superhuman consciousness secured complete control of the trailer, the two adult Harpers were already inside, and that was fine. Their deaths would be an added bonus. The interior bedroom door left standing open was a reasonable oversight. They hadn’t planned for any adults to be there, or for anyone to rally the children and lead an escape. But the trap door defied reason. There were six exits from the trailer, counting the front door. Before the fire even started, Tim Rankin had every one of them sealed tight, including the one leading to and from the back bedroom. The door should not have opened. John and Nelly Harper should be dead now. Their escape made the deaths of Anne Harper and the other children something of a hollow victory.
His personal phone rang. It was Paul.
"Don’t worry, I have her."
Marion Rankin sighed, and only then realized he’d been holding his breath.
"Thank you, Paul. Take her directly to the Special School. You have the warrant with you, in case you’re stopped?"
"I do. Don’t worry. We have the seed. It’s still a victory, Dad. We still won."
"Ideal Men always do," Marion said – though, in that moment, he was not so sure.
For these things I weep —
My eyes! My eyes!
They stream with tears!
How far from me is
anyone to comfort,
anyone to restore my life.
My children are desolate;
the enemy has prevailed.
New American Bible
John Harper knew he should be caving in with grief, and he could sense sorrow boiling like thick, black soup somewhere off in the distance. Concern for his child, now a prisoner of the Special School, should by all rights consume him, and thoughts of Nelly did flicker here and there like tiny candles in his darkness. But even three full days after the fire, one spent in jail while police sorted out what had happened and who to blame, one arranging for Anne’s burial, and one lying flat on his back in his own bed at home, staring wide-eyed at the ceiling as final events at the salvage yard looped and looped through his mind, the only feeling he was sure he could identify churning inside his body was rage. Rage, not bright like a flame, but hot like fire hidden behind a closed door, smothering every other sensation, but not yet consuming, not yet burning through.
Holding the rage in check was a brick wall of guilt, stacking higher and higher, thought by falling thought, like a rain of stones pouring and piling onto his chest. This guilt was no simple measure of his failure to save Anne or Nelly. These were stones of awakening, of opening his eyes at last to the truth of his own immense stupidity. To the madness of a grown man believing in fairy tales. Of risking everything in service to a lie. Of trading the lives of his wife and child for... absolutely nothing.
Belief in the supernatural equals mental illness; they’d pounded this into his head every day for ten years at the Special School. And he’d ignored them. He knew better. He was above their reason.
And for the second time, Anne was dead. For the second time, it was his fault. And now, Nelly might not be dead, but she was dead to him until released someday from the Special School, a grown woman and a stranger. If he could trade his own life to reverse the ruin his folly had brought on his family, he would kick off the edge of that cliff with joy. But that, too, was a fantasy, and he refused to entertain it.
He was done with fantasy. The Good the woman was supposed to represent was either a monster happy to roast its followers to death, or a weakling powerless to save them. There was only one sense to be made of what had happened to Anne and the Remnant children. They died for a lie. Their meaningless deaths proved the nonsense of it all. The School was right – there was no Good. There was no Evil. And belief in the existence of either, or any imagined struggle between them, defined insanity. The woman was a dangerous hallucination. A story. A lie. Maybe Miss Bray and Commandant Meyer could undo the damage he’d inflicted on his own child by leading her to believe otherwise. He hoped so. Nelly was better off in their custody.
But in exchange for Good and Evil, the School could only offer Nelly Self – and Self was a fantasy, too. The biggest lie of all. He’d seen full well how pathetic and powerless his own self had proven in the face of, not just the fire, but Marion Rankin and his school board, eight years playing secret Gooder while shamelessly selfing in public, ten years fighting a School system that won the day it took him from his parents, from his home, but he was too stupid to see it. One lame, gullible lifetime – a whole lifetime! – shaped by a story some kid told him on the playground. If that was the best Self could do...
Well, then, Self was an illusion. Just like Good. Just like Evil. Nothing in the whole universe was all powerful, all encompassing, all anything. Nothing was real that you couldn’t hold in your hand. There was no significant difference between a human being, a yapping dog, or a stone on the ground. Kick the stone and it flies away. Throw a stick and the dog brings it back. Tell a man the stupidest thing you can think of and he’ll build a life around it.
But, as clearly as he could define the philosophical nuance of his situation, even this appeared as if projected on a distant screen with the lights down and no sound. That was it. He was watching a movie in a theater at the bottom of the sea, the weight of the whole ocean pressing down on his body, filling his mouth and ears. His thoughts were razor sharp. His mind recognized what a normal human being ought to be feeling, under the circumstances. He could name what drove the quiver in his hands, the tick in the corner of his eye, his racing heart. But what he actually felt, the way he used to feel love or joy or longing in his chest, in the length or shortness of his breath, was nothing at all. Dead air. He did not love, or hate, or long for anything. He was not on the verge of either tears or laughter. He was a mechanical man, a thinking machine, the mere appearance of a living human being, and it was pure reflex that finally lifted him out of the bed and set his body into motion.
His phone was ringing. From the coffee table in the living room. He watched his body sit up, creak out of the bed, set itself in a remarkable imitation of human motion across the carpet. His hand picked up the phone.
"John. It’s Neil. I have to show you something."
John ended the call and placed the phone back on the table. He rubbed his face with both hands. He’d started a beard.
The phone rang again, flashing blue light. His hand scooped it up.
"It wasn’t an accident. They were murdered."
He wanted to end the call again, but his hand wouldn’t do it. "I can’t take this."
"It’s all on the recording. You have to see this. For yourself."
"I don’t have to see anything. I don’t have to see you. I don’t want to talk to you."
"We have to rescue Nelly. They’ll kill her at the Special School. They can’t afford to let the seed live."
"She’s not the seed!" An outburst, then his voice flattened again. "Who’ll kill her, Neil? Who would want to kill Nelly? A little kid?"
"The thing that killed twelve children and your wife. It’s not a person. It’s a thing. I can show it to you."
"You’re the murderer, Neil. You and your half-assed wiring and your trailer buried in junk."
"Just come over. Watch the recording. Hear me out." A long pause. "You know, it wasn’t just Anne. The Remnant is shattered. Those people lost their kids in the attack. And that’s what it was, an attack. I think Nelly was the target. We have to break her out before they try again. She’s a sitting duck there."
"You’re dreaming. Let it go."
"Just come over."
* * * *
The recording did, indeed, show something, but what? Scenes unfolded on eight screens at once, the six paths leading through the junk to the trailer, the main room interior view, and a long shot John had not seen before, from a camera that must be installed very high up and on a far end of the property, as its panorama revealed the whole scrap yard, Neil’s house, and even a few parked cars on the cul-de-sac.
On first viewing, the events of that evening played out much as he remembered, with the children weaving their way to the trailer, lights out, John and Anne on the path, the explosion, fire, collapse. Then Neil applied a filter, and a new element appeared. Children weaving. No lights. John and Anne entering the scene. Then a strange glow on the panorama, a pale, yellow-green cloud like a swarm of sparkling bees following the power line to the house. From there, the glow zipped across the scrap yard at ground level, to disappear right where the trailer was hidden. A few minutes later, explosion. Fire. Collapse. The cloud reappeared and retreated, retracing its path and vanishing where the power lines exceeded the camera’s field of vision.
"You added that. It’s a special effect."
"No. This is real, and there’s more. Watch the distance shot."
Tiny figures appeared, moving toward the junkyard gate. John and Nelly.
Neil tapped the controls and the camera zoomed in.
John vanished, leaving Nelly alone. She was crying, hysterical, hugging herself and stamping her little feet in frustration and fear.
But she stayed put. Her father said don’t move, and she does not move.
Minutes passed. Headlights. A figure approaching. Nelly knows him, backs away. A hand grabs her arm. The image freezes.
"Now, get this." Neil worked the controls, and the camera shifted and zoomed in. A face resolved on the screen before them.
"Son of a bitch. Where did he come from?"
"Exactly. There’s way more to this story than meets the eye."
"I’m not sure yet. But we do know once he grabbed Nelly, he took her straight to the Special School. She was admitted within an hour of the time this was shot."
"How do you know that?"
"I have friends on the inside. Don’t you? We spent half our lives there." Neil’s hands returned to the control board. "But that’s not what matters. I tapped an NSA satellite scan of North America, and isolated Arkady from roughly one hour before the fire to one hour after. Watch."
The image on the panorama screen changed, and became, at first, a gray mass of clouds, then a mad rush toward the floor as the clouds plummeted upward, dissipated, and a bird’s eye view of Arkady at night filled the screen. Neil touched a control and the filter fell back into place. Near the center of town, a cloud of sparkling bees, spinning in luminescent circles, but contained in one place, not traveling as they had seen it in the first recording.
"So where is it settled? Your place is south of there."
"The first question isn’t where, but when."
"One hour before the fire. It hasn’t started its motion yet."
"Okay, so where is it when this shot was taken? Where’s it starting from?"
Neil manipulated his control board and Arkady rushed toward the camera. The green-yellow glow filled the screen. They were looking down on a neighborhood from a hundred feet, maybe. The cloud of light engulfed a large house, tracing its lines like a thin coat of phosphorescent paint.
It was a house anyone raised in Arkady would know on sight, the biggest, fanciest house in town.
"Son of a bitch."
"Yep. Now I’ll speed things up."
Neil backed the camera back up into the sky and the glow shrunk away again. Now fist-sized, it released the house and gathered itself into a cloud above the roof, then set off in fast motion across town. It stopped, settled, and vanished. Moments later, the red pulse of fire. Then the cloud, rising, returning by the same path, resettling over the mansion.
"Okay, I believe you," John Harper said. "But what is it?"
"Some kind of energy weapon, maybe, pulling power from the electric lines? That is, of course, a guess, but what else could it be?"
"It’s Rankin, no matter how it’s done," John said. "He murdered Anne. He killed the Remnant children in cold blood. Now he’s got Nelly..."
"Let’s think this through a minute. We saw Paul take Nelly. But the weapon launched from his old man’s house. Paul’s a toady. He’s got to be working for his dad. The school board authorized Nelly’s confinement, and as an officer of the church, Paul has legal authority to deliver her to the School. Against her will or yours. But you can bet Marion sent him."
"He knew where she was. They used that..." John’s hands flailed up toward the wall of screens. "... to start the fire, then grabbed Nelly when she escaped. So they wanted her dead. And, they knew she got away. They were watching the whole time."
"How do you do all this?"
Neil considered his houseful of mostly homemade equipment.
"Point taken. Surveillance is easy. But what we’re seeing on these recordings... I can’t even begin to imagine how that’s done."
He zoomed in on the house, lit up under his image filter like a Mardi Gras parade float.
"Marion Rankin is just a grade school principal. Paul’s a preacher. This is way beyond me, technologically, so I guaran-damn-tee you it’s beyond them. We’re looking at a weapon here. Like US Military. Federal Government."
John frowned. "You’re saying the Army gave Marion Rankin a death ray so he could kill my eight year old daughter?"
"It sounds stupid, I know. But yeah, that’s what I’m saying. And the one and only way this makes sense is if our cover is completely blown. If Washington is on to the Remnant and knows Nelly is the seed, and the Good is on his way back and they plan to stop it. Come on, John, this is what we’ve believed our whole lives. We knew this day was coming."
"You just lost me," John Harper said, his voice going flat again. “I have believed what you just said for a long time. My whole life, like you said. And look where it brought me. Anne dead. Nelly gone. Twelve little kids charred to ashes. Now we’re talking satellites and secret weapons."
He stood, and began to pace.
"Did you ever think maybe we’ve been wrong our whole lives, Neil? That none of this is real? Maybe we’re just crazy, you know? And it’s all gone too far…"
Neil Coleman turned off all of the monitors. He stood and put his hands on John’s shoulders, steadying his friend.
"We. Are. Not. Insane," he said, slowly, deliberately, looking directly into John Harper’s eyes. "The Good is coming. The Evil is attacking us. The woman will help us. This is real."
And staring back into Neil Coleman’s sincere and serious eyes, John Harper knew that he could not afford to alienate the young mechanic. Of course they were insane. Of course the Good, the Evil, the woman were lies. But he needed Neil Coleman to believe that he still believed. Neil’s expertise, his connections, his willingness to do anything in the service of the fantasy that had him mesmerized and controlled his destiny were all critical to the plan that now emerged fully formed into his mind, pushing into consciousness behind a molten flow of rage that had finally broken through. He was feeling again.
Marion Rankin had to die. Slowly, horribly, painfully, just like Anne did. And he needed Neil to make that happen.
He lowered his gaze. "You’re right. Of course, you’re right. We’ve come so far. This is no time to lose faith."
"For Anne," Neil offered.
"For Anne," John echoed, and for long time, all he could see was red.
Of course, Anne was only dead in a strict, material sense of the word, measured in breaths rising and falling within the chest of a physical body. But that coarse, earthly standard failed even to enter Anne’s mind as she closed her eyes on a scene of panicking children, fire, and black smoke everywhere, and opened them to a light brighter, she was sure, than she knew how to imagine. She was surrounded by light, floating in it, held on all sides by light like gentle hands touching her everywhere. When she turned her new eyes on herself, she saw only more light.
"At last we can speak plainly."
And the light resolved around her into a great castle bedroom where gently glowing stone walls were hung with tapestries and woven cords. She lay beneath ornate blankets in a tall, four-poster bed surrounded on all sides by gauzy white veils. At the foot of the bed, just beyond the pale curtains, the woman.
Anne couldn’t help but laugh. "Are we on the moon?"
"If you wish." And all at once a window filled with stars, and the earth like half a marble sparkling blue on the horizon.
"I wish Nelly was here. She would love this."
"Nelly has work to do," the woman said. "But she needs our help. The Evil has her."
Anne saw Nelly, on her knees beside a little cot of a bed, all alone in her dorm room, alternately weeping and praying for all she was worth. A piece of Anne became love and surrounded the girl. Nelly looked up.
"You’ll get used to how things work here." The woman was no longer veiled. She was smiling. "This is the vision. Once you learn to navigate, we’ll help Nelly."
"Is this a dream?"
"You died to the dream, child. It was a good death, so now you are here."
"A good death?"
"Question later. Play now. Play until you belong to the vision, till it belongs to you. Grasp it with joy. Mold it, but let it mold you, as well."
"What about Nelly?"
"That is being arranged. We’ll go to her soon"
"We’ll see him soon, too. And you’ll need to be ready." Her tone lightened. "But you must first embrace the vision. Play. Learn. Taste. See."
A door, and the sound of running feet, children squealing through the hallway.
And Anne was off, laughing, a streak of light chasing light through broadening avenues of ever more light.
* * * *
"Have a seat, Miss Bray."
Superintendent Meyer did not look up from the paperwork before him as the counselor closed and locked the door, then took her seat across from the desk. Once she was settled, he punched a button on the telephone.
"I’m putting you on speaker. Present in the room is myself, Barrett County Special School Superintendent Ronald Meyer, and Student Counselor Deanna Bray."
A moment of silence, then the speaker crackled to life. "Very good. You’ll understand if we don’t recite names on our end."
"Your report, then."
"Twelve children and one adult died in the fire at the salvage yard attached to the auto repair business. Nelly Harper escaped harm, and was delivered into Special School custody at 10:45 PM CDT. She is currently being held in a solitary facility, under the supervision of Miss Bray. She has not been allowed to interact with other children, or with staff beyond the counselor and myself."
"Very good. Keep her isolated. A team has been dispatched to bring her to Washington. They will contact you directly with their progress. Until they arrive, take all necessary precautions."
"Don’t allow her to escape, Superintendent. Or be rescued. Considering the stakes here, anything could happen. Expect trouble."
"Wouldn’t it be safer to simply... terminate the child?"
"That would certainly get my vote. But I don’t get a vote. We’ve been ordered to bring her to Washington, so that’s what we’ll do. Lock her in a cage if you have to. Post armed guards. Just don’t let her go."
"Consider it done."
* * * *
Nelly’s fear left her so suddenly that its absence stole her breath. The deadly silence of her room was broken by a sound of children running through the hallway, feet pounding, trailing laughter. She ran to the door, but it was locked.
"Open! Open!"she shouted, slapping at the door with the palm of her hand. "Hey! I’m in here!"
But all was silence again. She considered bursting into tears, but they wouldn’t come. Here she was, locked away all alone, but she didn’t feel alone at all. Terrible things had happened, but she couldn’t shake the certainty that everything was going to be alright. She returned to the bed and sat with her back against the wall, her legs curled Indian-style beneath her. A tune from The Queen of the World Show entered her thoughts, and the sound of her own voice startled her as she found herself singing, quietly, aloud:
When the dark seems darkest,
and Evil’s won the day,
fear not, I am with you,
and help is on its way – Hey!
Nelly leaned over the side of the bed and scooped her shoes up off the floor. She needed to be ready. Ready to run.
* * * *
"It’s more incendiary than explosive."
The device Neil Coleman hunched over on the auto shop workbench looked to John’s eyes like two common electrical outlet boxes connected by wires. It did not appear particularly threatening.
"More burn than boom," Neil answered. "It’s not our goal to level the whole estate. The weapon is clearly in the main house, so we draw the line there. As little damage as possible. But what destruction there is needs to be total. This should do the trick."
"I thought you were building a bomb."
"Too indiscriminate. This is a chemical firestarter that will reduce anything in its path to cinders. But unlike a bomb, we can direct its path. It will take down what we point it at, and nothing else."
"Sounds like you have a plan."
"Of course I do. Rankin’s got that three-bay attached garage. The house is live-wired, but the alarm on the garage hasn’t worked in a while. I checked it out."
"Of course you did." John no longer even bothered to ask about Neil’s sources. If he said the alarm was out, it was out. "So I sneak into the garage and attach this thing..."
"To the shared wall, directed toward the house. Right."
"Then I flip the switch and whoosh, the house is gone."
"Right. But we have one problem."
"Only one. That’s good..."
"Jessica Rankin. Marion’s mother. She’s the actual owner of the house. She lives upstairs, and she never, ever leaves."
"Marion Rankin has a mother?" It was an image that, in his whole life, he had never even imagined.
"She’s not even that old. Mid-seventies, maybe. But she’s got problems. Alcoholism, for starters. Depression. We have to get her out of the house."
"Because we’re not murderers, John. Rankin is, but we’re not. I am not okay with killing anybody. We take out the weapon, but that’s it."
John Harper covered his eyes with one hand and slowly massaged, back and forth, across his forehead. If Neil wanted to waste time and effort saving the old woman, that was fine. He’d play along. But he had bigger fish to fry, like figuring out how to make sure Marion Rankin – and Paul, too, if he could swing it – were safely inside the house when he flipped that switch.
Killing murderers was not murder. It was justice.
There it was again. Children’s voices, laughter in the hallway. Miss Bray had made it very clear that Nelly was alone, not another soul in the building, no one to hear her scream or call for help, so don’t bother. But the sounds, like joy whispering circles in the hallway, had the girl on the edge of her bed, shoes laced and ready to fire like a rocket for the door at the first sign of opening.
Anne chased the Remnant children one last time, laughing, past Nelly’s door, then shushed them and they scattered like leaves into the vision. She hovered there silently, it seemed like forever, facing the closed door to Nelly’s room. The woman was suddenly beside her, nodding – yes.
She was ready. Anne nodded her assent, pressed the woman’s glowing hand into her own, and they passed as one through the heavy, locked door.
And Nelly was up. "Mamma!"
There was no doubt the girl could see her, and the woman beside her.
"Oh, thank you thank you thank you!" Nelly shot across the room and fell to her knees before the woman. She dropped prostrate to the floor, a courtier before her queen. "I knew you’d come! I knew it!"
When Nelly lifted her face to her mother, she was radiant. "Oh, Mamma..."
Glowing teardrops on both their faces.
"Bad men are coming," Anne told her daughter. "But good men will get here first. Daddy is coming for you, Nelly. First we must save him, you and I together. Then he will save you."
"I don’t understand..."
"Just believe, Nelly. I am with you forever. This is how the Good returns."
* * * *
President Michael Oglesby had no intention of bringing the seed back to Washington alive. He had ordered her death, and that order stood. Only the girl’s annihilation could guarantee a permanent end to the story, and The Gospel’s final victory over unreason.
But first, he had work to do – work that only he, on the whole of the earth, could do. He had believed he understood the apparitional nature of the creature religionists called the woman. The paraphysical state he’d imposed on Tim Rankin should have made him her equal. It should have enabled him, if not to overpower her, at the very least to engage her directly, hand to hand, as if they were made of the same substance. Yet, the woman had opened the trap door and saved the girl and her father as if Tim Rankin was not even there, inside the walls, holding the panel tight. He did not understand how that was possible, and he desperately wanted another shot at his adversary.
If he killed the girl now, the woman would start over, in hiding, appearing in a new town somewhere, to new children, and he would be right back to square one.
Alive, Nelly was tantalizing bait. He may have misjudged his enemy’s strength, but he had studied her behavior for so many years that he felt certain he understood her motivation and her mind. The woman would not be able to resist appearing to Nelly at the Special School. She would attempt to lead the girl out, as she had saved her from the fire, as she had led Nelly’s mother, and Nelly with her, in the womb, past all the School’s defenses to Arkady and freedom.
And when she showed herself, he would be there. In person. If the woman found Tim Rankin a cream puff to be lightly cast aside, it was clear that finally defeating her was going to require nothing short of divine intervention. And the only man on earth capable of delivering that was the little godling himself.
He had one shot, and it had to go perfectly. With both the seed and the woman removed permanently from the picture, there would be no force on earth capable of challenging his Universal rule.
My eternal rule... he couldn’t help but add. A frame on the desk contained, not a photo, but a polished silver mirror. He picked it up in both hands and studied his own reflection. Nearly fifty years in the White House, and not a day of it showed in his face. The God-ordained vicar of The Gospel of Self deserved nothing less than eternal physical youth and vigor. It was only fitting. There were days when the weight of his true age and wisdom slowed him down on the inside – and this was one of those days. But you would never know by looking.
Michael Oglesby replaced the mirror, then stood and surveyed the trappings of Presidential power surrounding him. He took a deep breath. He felt good. He felt strong.
His whole life had been leading to this moment. He was ready.
A man with a straight spine and a clean blue suit entered the Oval Office. "A team has been dispatched to meet you on site, Mr. President. A car is waiting to take you to the airport."
"Very good. Thank you."
* * * *
Neil’s excess of caution made John Harper crazy, but he had no choice but to play along if he wanted a working device and a chance to fulfill his plan.
"Rankin leaves for work at 7:15 sharp," Neil said. "He gets home between 4:30 and 5:00. Occasionally later – but don’t count on that."
In addition to the incendiary device, there were now three black boxes, each the size and shape of a phone, on the workbench in Neil’s garage.
"After you plant the device itself," he continued, indicating the boxes, "you’ll connect one of these to each garage door. We’ll be able to open and close each door independently, by remote. The trigger is now set to work like a combination lock. Opening and closing the doors in the correct sequence sets off the device. Any other sequence, nothing happens. Take too long working the right sequence, still nothing. The trigger resets every ten minutes."
"Kind of overkill, don’t you think?"
"It’s no kill. So the thing cannot go off accidentally when somebody’s home."
"I get that."
Neil carefully moved all the pieces of the device from the workbench into a plain, black backpack, and handed it to John.
"There’s putty in here to attach the device. It should hug the wall, tight, against wood or drywall. Plant it low – heat rises. And out of site. The control override boxes are magnetic. Stick one directly to the overhead mechanism of each bay door. On top, where no one will see it."
He opened a drawer in the workbench and pulled out another black box, this one slender, with a blue keypad.
"This is the remote." He placed it in the backpack. "The sequence is one, two, three. One is the door closest to the house. Two is center, and door three is the furthest out. Open door one, and close it. Open door two, close it. Open door three, close it. Boom. It’s not rocket science. But the chances of that sequence occurring naturally in any ten minute interval are pretty much nil."
"What about Jessica Rankin? Upstairs?"
"I don’t know yet. Just get everything set up. I’ll think of something."
* * * *
"Tim? Is that you?"
Jessica Rankin sat up in her bed, and in doing so, toppled an open bottle that had been resting against her side as she slept. Brandy gurgled onto the bedspread, and she slapped the bottle away to thud against the carpet below. Following the thud, a distant tinkle of shattering glass.
But she could see the bottle on the floor; it wasn’t broken.
"Tim? Somebody’s in the house! Tim!"
And though she had never learned to see him, Jessica Rankin felt the comforting press of her husband’s presence close in around her. She knew she was safe.
"Don’t leave me," she said, softly, as she settled back into the pillows. "Stay with me." Then in a commanding screech – "Girl!"
Mrs. Rankin’s attendant entered from the hallway, carrying a tray on which balanced a fresh bottle of brandy and a clean glass snifter.
The girl placed the tray on the nightstand.
"Now get out."
The girl silently retraced her steps to the doorway.
"Bring soda water and clean up this mess. Right away."
"Yes, Ma’am." The door clicked shut behind her.
"I heard something, Tim," Jessica Rankin said to the empty room around her. "Intruder... Break in... Protect me, please..." She drifted quietly back to sleep.
Tim Rankin’s awareness drifted away from his sleeping wife to coalesce around the high window overlooking the grounds. A man wearing a backpack was moving in fast motion, away from the house, across the manicured grass. He slipped through the hedge into the neighbor’s yard and was gone.
The man was John Harper. The man from the hidden trailer. The fugitive whose child must die. Tim Rankin drifted slowly throughout the house, wrapping his consciousness carefully around each room, each door, every window. Nothing was missing. Entry had not been forced anywhere. The alarm maintained its silent vigil over the house.
Why had John Harper been in the yard? He would alert Marion the moment he came home from work. In the meantime, Tim Rankin formed such a potent protective barrier around his sleeping wife that when the girl returned with her cleaning supplies, she could not open the door.
The brandy stain sunk deeper into the carpet.
John Harper had found the garage unsecured, just as Neil described it. The back door, entering from the yard, wasn’t even locked. He’d been able to walk right in and get to work.
With Marion Rankin at school, all three vehicle bays were unoccupied, leaving the garage interior a vast, echoing cave. The walls were lined with metal shelving, on which tools, landscaping supplies and labeled storage containers formed neat rows and columns. An alcove housed a shiny green mower that looked as if it had never been driven. In the northeast corner, hugging the house, was a low wooden platform on which stood the object he had hoped he would find there – a gas hot water heater.
Neil considered a bomb too indiscriminate, too messy. But there couldn’t be enough mess for John. Burn the house, sure, but blow it up, too. Level everything. Goodbye garage. Goodbye gardens. Trees cracking down to scorched earth. Marion crushed beneath tons of burning rubble. Arkady trembling before his fiery monument to vengeance.
He didn’t buy Neil’s government weapon theory – that was a little to SciFi for his tastes. But it didn’t matter how Rankin had started the fire that killed Anne, that was meant to kill Nelly. He did it, and that was all John really needed to know. The weird glow on Neil’s recordings could be the Evil itself, for all he knew or cared. Whatever it was, it left this house and returned to it. Marion Rankin controlled it. And for that, he would die. Score settled.
He secured the incendiary device in the space beneath the water heater, pointing toward the wall, but tilted up just a bit to ensure the first sparks of chemical heat would find the gas line. From the mower alcove, he retrieved several partially filled gas cans, and circled them around the water heater, caps off to let fumes escape and oxygen enter. He packed spray paint cans, paint thinner and barbeque starter fluid between the gasoline containers, then made a shelf to shelf search of the entire garage, stacking every can, box, bottle or bag with warning flammable on the label into a mounding pyre of combustibles that filled half the first vehicle bay.
It was a big, big bomb. Very impressive.
He powered on and secured the three magnetic garage door control boxes, then slipped out through the same door he’d entered by. A glass suncatcher dropped from a hook on the door as he pulled it closed behind him, falling with a tinkling splash to the cement garage floor. He darted for the cover of the neighbor’s hedge, then through to safety.
All he had to do now was sit in his vehicle, parked half a block away, wait for Marion to come home, then trigger the device. Boom. It was almost over.
But when he reached the car, Neil Coleman was in the driver’s seat. Billy Conner rode shotgun.
“Give me your keys and get in the back,” Neil said.
“It’s my car.”
“Just get in. We have to save Nelly. Right now.”
“The Feds are coming. To take her to Washington. That means I’m right.”
“About what, exactly?”
“About everything. They know Nelly’s the seed. They know about the Remnant. You and me. They’re coming for your kid, man. Get in.”
“Nelly is not the seed.”
“Well, they think she is, and they’re going to kill her – if not here then when they get her back to D. C. They have to kill the seed, you know that. And they think its Nelly. If we don’t bust her out in the next two hours, she’s dead.”
John turned toward Rankin Mansion, towering over all the other neighborhood homes.
"Get in the car," Neil said.
“Everything’s set up. We need to finish this.”
“We need to go. You’ve got the remote. Nothing can happen while we’re gone.”
“What if they find it?”
“They won’t. It’s hidden, right?”
“Nelly comes first. Get in the car.”
He handed Neil his keys and climbed in the back. The engine started.
“Just the three of us?”
“What’s left of the Remnant is meeting us there. Should be a couple more guys, at least.”
“Against the whole Special School. And potentially the Feds... Are we armed?”
“No, but we know our way around the place. And I have friends on staff. I know I can get us through the gate.”
“In and out?”
“Well, in, at least. We’ll play the rest by ear.”
John Harper settled back into the seat and toyed with the remote, pushing all the right buttons in the right order to blow Marion Rankin to pieces and clear off the face of the earth. They were already beyond the little remote’s range, but it was fun to imagine.
* * * *
"Are you a ghost now?" Nelly asked.
They sat side by side on the bed, the mattress beneath the girl marked by her sleight weight. Not a wrinkle under Anne. Mother smiled at daughter.
"Not a ghost." she answered, gently. “I’m too happy. Ghosts are always sad on TV. Or angry. I’m not either of those things. I feel great.”
“But you died.”
“I did,” Anne said. “And it was very strange. But it wasn’t scary. I fell asleep with the children in Mr. Coleman’s trailer and woke up in a room with the woman. We all did. I don’t know if that’s how death works for everybody, but it did for us. The Remnant children are all safe. They’re happy you’re safe.”
“Am I safe?”
“Nothing bad can happen to you now. The woman will see to that.”
“Are you like the woman now?”
Anne considered this.
“I think so. We’re family, if that makes sense. We’re all her family. The woman is very, very special. The place she lives is called the vision, and there are lots of people there. Everybody’s happy. It’s fun. When you’re part of the vision, you can make things happen just by thinking about them. You can fly and walk through walls… Like a ghost, except nobody there is dead. They died to get there, but now they’re more alive than they ever were before.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I don’t either, really. And I’m not doing a very good job of describing things. But there’s one thing I know for sure now, Nelly – we all live forever. When we die, we don’t just stop living, and nobody gets absorbed by any ocean like they tell you in Sunday school. That’s all a lie. There really is a Good and there really is an Evil, and the vision is where the Good lives. The vision is full of the Good. You feel it around you all the time like warm light in every color you can imagine. The woman lives there. Her son lives there…”
“The seed?” Nelly asked. “Mr. Coleman thinks I’m the seed. Miss Bray does, too.”
“There just aren’t words for this, baby. The woman is the mother of the Good. The seed is her son. They picked you, out of all the little girls in the whole wide world, to play a very special role in their story.”
“Of how the Good returns to the world. Most people are still sick with the Evil, Nelly. They don’t believe in the Good. They only care about themselves. The only thing that can save them is how much the Good loves them. The Good has chosen you to show that love to the world in a special way. So people can choose it over the Evil. So they can choose it over themselves.”
“Do I have to die?”
Anne laughed. “No, silly! You have to live, and grow up, and be a light to the whole world!”
“I don’t know how to do that.” But she was tingling all over. She felt laughter bubbling up from her belly to her chest and into her mouth. She held it back with a grin. “Mamma…”
“I know, it’s exciting!”
Anne put her arms around the girl and Nelly was sure she could feel their weight. She snuggled close.
“And we will be with you every moment, always and forever, baby. Not just in this life. But forever and ever, truly.”
Outside the window, a flash and a boom. A siren began to wail.
"That’s our cue," Neil said. "Let’s go."
They’d driven to within a hundred yards of the front gate, then left the road to conceal John’s car in the woods. The explosion and the spire of white light that accompanied it toppled a section of the tall fence on the far side of campus, and by the time they reached the main entrance on foot, the gate was unguarded, security staff having sped off in response to the distant, sounding siren.
The steel gate was unlocked and standing slightly ajar. They slipped through in silence, and Neil secured the gate behind them.
He led them to the unmanned guard shack, then circled around the little building to a small employee parking lot where a white service van awaited them, keys in the ignition.
"Friends on the inside?" John questioned.
"Just get in."
They made their way across the Special School campus, with Neil driving and Billy Conner in the passenger seat. John balanced against hanging electrical cables, tools and white plastic parts compartments that lined the walls in the back, squatting precariously and holding on with both hands.
In the distance, gunfire.
"Who brought guns?" Billy asked.
"Not us," Neil said. "And School security isn’t armed, so that leaves the Feds. They beat us here."
Neil kept the van crawling at the posted speed limit. As they rounded the curve past John’s old residence hall, B Dorm, they had to stop altogether. The street was filled with kids pouring out of the dormitory, standing shoulder to shoulder, pressing forward as six black sedans with dark-tinted windows processed slowly by. Leading the parade was Special School security, red and blue lights flashing.
Across the grass, more strobing lights. A School security vehicle, parked, with two men spread-eagle, hands on the hood. A third man lay motionless on the ground. Uniformed guards frisked the standing men, while serious looking men in suits stood watching.
Neil pulled the van to the curb and threw it into park. He left the engine running.
"Those guys in custody...," he started, then cut to the chase. "We’re it now. Time to split up. Nelly’s in Girls Dorm J, third floor. She’s the only kid in the building, but count on guards. Expect a trap. Billy, get the van over there and be ready. John and I go on foot. By different routes. Don’t get caught."
He opened the van door and disappeared into the crowd. Billy worked himself over into the driver’s seat. In the rear view mirror, he could see John, still in the back.
"What?" he demanded.
"Girls Dorm J?" John asked. "Which way?"
Billy rolled his eyes. "Follow the parade, man."
John slipped forward and around into the passenger seat, then out through the door. The van moved slowly back into the teeming street. The parade of Federal vehicles was just disappearing around a corner two blocks ahead, and John set off across the grass on an intercept course.
* * * *
Superintendent Meyer had no idea what to say. The President of the United States was standing in his office. He looked exactly like the official framed photograph that had hung in the Administration Lobby since the day the School opened – which was long before his time, and he’d been in charge more than a decade.
"My men will handle the entire operation," the President was saying. "Order your security forces to stand down. I want the whole area cleared."
"Of course." He pushed a button on the telephone, and gave the order. His security chief did not question. "Five minutes, Mr. President. Then the campus is yours."
"Get the children to their rooms and lock down the dorms. There must be no interference."
"Three men are making their way across your campus right now in a misguided effort to rescue the girl. One is driving a van, and two are on foot. Do not intercept them. Do nothing to arouse their suspicion. Let them reach the girl’s dormitory. We will be taking them with us."
"And I want your staff on lockdown, too. The moment the children are secured. One of the rescuers is very well connected inside your little operation here, Superintendent. A member of my staff will provide you with a list of accomplices. I think you’ll be surprised."
Superintendent Meyer felt his breath crumble beneath him.
"Yes, Sir," he managed.
"And I expect you to take action."
"Of course, Mr. President."
* * * *
Marion Rankin could hardly stand to be at work. The seed was captured. Mission accomplished. There was no reason to still be sitting at this desk, shuffling papers, pretending to read the reports spread out before him.
He had invested twenty-five laser-focused years in preparation for the prophesied emergence of the enemy of reason. He had been the faithful watcher, the President’s vanguard, the one man trusted by the very highest powers to conduct the most important manhunt in all of history.
Now the search was over. And having succeeded, having stayed the course, having delivered spectacularly on the task assigned to him, he found himself unceremoniously cast aside. Out of the loop. The dedicated phone that had not let him rest since the night of the revelation now lay dead in his briefcase.
He felt ignored. He felt used.
He had learned through secondary sources that a team of Federal agents were this very moment collecting Nelly Harper for transport to the Capitol. Someone should have informed him directly. He deserved to be involved in the transfer. The President of the United States, God incarnate, the physical embodiment of Universal Self on earth, should in this victorious moment feel – and demonstrate – nothing but gratitude for his years of exemplary service. By all rational measure, he, Marion, was the one who should be traveling to the White House – to receive a hero’s welcome, the Medal of Honor, a lifetime appointment to some high cabinet post or cushy ambassadorship...
"Think of it as job security," Paul Rankin said, though his lighthearted tone fell flat even on his own ears. "We won. We broke the prophecy, and now the world won’t change. Everything stays the same. Arkady School still needs a principal. The Gospel still needs talented preachers."
Marion Rankin slowly shook his head.
"We don’t need jobs, Paul. We need recognition. Without due reward, our service all these years will have been selfless, and that’s an abomination. It violates The Gospel, and a part of me simply cannot accept that President Oglesby would treat us this way. He is The Gospel. He is the fully realized Ideal Man."
"I agree, Dad. It can’t be what it looks like, so we have to assume that there’s a higher plan unfolding here. And even though we can’t see it right now, we are both in that plan somewhere. We will be rewarded. We are not served by jumping to premature conclusions."
"You’re right. Of course you’re right. I hope you’re right."
* * * *
Tim Rankin never slept, but all at once he was sure he was dreaming. The timeline stretching before him into eternity was all wrong.
The seed was in custody. The Arkady Remnant had been dispersed, and information he’d gathered from the mechanic’s computer would soon allow a global roundup of dissidents. President Oglesby himself – Michael, little Cho-cho, the most spiritually and politically powerful man the earth had ever seen, Humanity’s liberator – lay personally in wait for the woman, ready to once and for all eradicate her demonic influence on human spiritual evolution.
The prophecy was broken. The future was secure.
And yet, when he looked forward in time, the woman was there, looking back. The Remnant did not control the world, but it wasn’t dead, either. It had united around the seed and appeared to be growing.
It was a dream, a nightmare, a spectral projection of his own worst fears, or Marion’s, maybe, infecting his vision.
It could not be real. It had to be a dream.
But Tim Rankin never slept. John Harper had been in the yard. Something was very wrong.
He needed his son to come home, right away. He needed his family together.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways
—oracle of the LORD.
New American Bible
John Harper was the first to reach Girls Dorm J, and in doing so, he realized something strange was going on. Twice along the way he’d blundered directly across the path of School security guards, and both times the uniformed men had looked away and hurried off as if they hadn’t seen him.
But he was sure they had. It was as if he was protected by an unseen force, though he no longer believed in such things. Maybe they were just incompetent. Or otherwise occupied.
Or maybe they were following orders. What would that mean?
He didn’t have time to think it through. He had to rescue Nelly, escape from the Special School, and get back to Arkady by 5:00 PM to kill Marion Rankin and destroy Rankin Mansion before somebody discovered his makeshift bomb in the garage. He hoped whatever luck had brought him unscathed thus far would hold out just a little bit longer.
All six black government sedans were parked in a neat row along the front of the dormitory, but not a single suited agent was in sight. John walked right up the main steps and entered through the front door.
The lobby was deserted. He slipped into the stairwell and made his way toward the third floor in eerie silence. By the second turn of the winding staircase, his tingling intuition convinced him to slow down – it had to be a setup. Of course, the Federal agents were here somewhere, presumably waiting for him at the top of the stairs. Their cars were parked and empty. Where else would they be?
He exited the stairwell on what should have been the vacant second floor. He had to bring himself to a full stop, and close and reopen his eyes twice, before he could accept that the scene he found himself stepping into was real.
The dormitory hallway was crowded with blue-suited Secret Service agents, at least a dozen of them, unmoving, posed like mannequins caught in various states of precarious balance – walking, reaching inside jackets for guns, spinning toward the stairwell door with eyes clearly focused on the sound of his entry. One second earlier, they’d been in motion, ready to take him, springing their trap, and now they were frozen in time.
Which was remarkable enough, but it was not the human diorama before him that now had him closing his eyes, slowly, one more time, as a final test of the reality of what he saw materializing in the space between the stationary men. A circle of brilliant white light was opening out of nothing in the center of the long hallway. It slowly expanded, floor to ceiling, wall to wall, acquiring depth and roundness, like a bubble, as it grew. Inside the bubble of light, a flight of ordinary-looking wooden stairs trailed upward and out of sight beyond the sphere’s upper edge.
It was Nelly’s voice, no question, more excited than afraid, coming from the top of the illuminated staircase. He stepped closer and crouched low, craning his neck to see just how far the stairs continued – but no matter how he positioned himself, they appeared to go on forever.
"Daddy, hurry! Come up. You don’t have to be scared."
He, of all people, should be the last to come to Nelly’s rescue. He’d set her up for this, teaching an innocent little child to believe the one thing in all society it was a crime to believe. He’d made her an outcast and ruined her life. It was his fault as much as Marion Rankin’s, or Neil Coleman’s, that Anne was dead and Nelly would grow up raised by strangers – if she grew up at all, if the Feds didn’t just shoot her before he could reach the top of those stairs…
Yet, here he was, playing the hero. The good guy. And if, by pure dumb luck, he managed to pull off this miracle, to lead Nelly out, to escape the School, his very next move would be to commit premeditated murder. What a fine example he was setting…
He no longer recognized himself or the world around him. Everything was ugly. Nothing added up.
Then a single thought, like a shining beacon, formed suddenly crystal-clear in his mind. Nelly was right. Thanks to the mess he’d made of everyone’s lives – Nelly’s, Anne’s, his own – he really did have nothing to fear, because he had absolutely nothing left to lose.
He bolted up the glowing staircase.
* * * *
And found himself in Nelly’s room. The bubble shrank and closed behind him, and the mystery stairs were gone. The floor was solid beneath his feet. He expected Nelly to come running and leap into his arms, but she stood her tiny ground beside the bed, watching him.
"Let’s go," he said, but neither of them moved toward the door.
"Daddy," Nelly said. "Daddy, can you see her?"
"I see you," John said. "Come on, baby. We’ve got to get out of here."
"Mommy’s crying," Nelly said. "She knows what you’re planning, and she’s crying for you, Daddy. You’re not supposed to kill people, ever. Not even bad people."
"Mommy’s dead, Nelly. I’m so sorry. It’s my fault. I should have saved her."
"She’s right here, Daddy. Don’t you see her?"
"Cut it out, Nelly. This is creepy. I’ll fix things, I promise. But we have to go."
Invisible to John’s eyes, Anne placed her hands on Nelly’s shoulders. She blended with her daughter, as the woman had overshadowed the girl the night the Good was revealed.
"John,"Nelly said, and the word was so strange coming out of the little girl’s mouth that John Harper fell to his knees. He told himself that he did not recognize his wife’s voice.
"Stop it, Nelly!"
But he knew it was Anne, and when Nelly spoke again, his wife’s words sliced fire through the shell of his resolve.
"You stop it, John. You have to be stronger than this. If you let the Evil take you, you’ll be lost to us forever. And we need you with us. Nelly and I need you."
"I’ll fail you, Nelly. I already have..."
"Stop it! Right now!"
Nelly was frightened by the sound of her own voice, speaking to her father this way. But her mother talking through her was like water rushing downhill. The words tumbled out; there was no stopping them.
"John, you have to choose. You cannot love me and hate Marion Rankin at the same time. Hate consumes everything. It’s all you’ll have left. Your hatred is the Evil devouring you from inside."
"The Evil is a lie!" His hands were clasped tight before him. He was breaking, on his knees, praying for his words to be true. "The Good is a lie. We’re on our own. Nelly..."
"John! I am standing right here. Because the Good is real."
"If the Good is real, he would have saved you."
"He saved you. And through you, he saved Nelly."
"For what? Saved us for what?" He was boiling again. "This is bullshit, Anne. We’re pawns. We’re being used."
"You feel so sorry for yourself. Can’t you see it? You want to kill Marion Rankin to make yourself feel better. You couldn’t save me, so the whole world burns, is that it? Self, self self. Come on, John. We’ve seen through that lie our whole lives. It’s the first thing we loved about each other."
John shrieked then and pounded both fists against the floor. Nelly backed away in terror, and Anne willed a wave of comfort over the girl.
"Why are you dead?" John shouted through tears. "The Good let you die – why? I hate the Good! I hate him!"
Nelly was in tears, but Anne’s voice remained solid.
"The Good knew I would be fine, John. The Remnant children, too. He knew we would all fly straight to him, and we did. He wasn’t sure about you. So he had to save you."
"What does that mean?"
"It means we are all children of the Good. All of us. Even Marion Rankin. Even the worst person in the world, the biggest liar, the craziest killer. The Good wills that everyone be saved, John. Even you. Most people don’t know it, they don’t believe it. But we are all his children. Don’t you see what that means?"
John was silent.
"If we die hating him, we’re lost to him forever, and that breaks his heart. The Evil wounds us all, and poison seeps out of that wound and because of it we hurt other people. John, we know this. But see the world through the Good’s eyes. The children he loves more than anything, wounded, poisoned, hurting each other, hating, causing more wounds, hurting and hating, round and round... If Nelly had a knife to someone’s throat, what would you do? Would you kill her to stop the murder? Your own child? If killing her meant she’d be lost to you forever? And what if her victim was also your child? How would you choose? The Good makes that choice a thousand times a day, every day. We make him make that choice, by believing the Evil when he tells us our wound is the biggest wound in the world, our pain is the only pain that matters, that if the Good really loved us he’d give us everything we want, and what he gives to someone else he must be taking from us. Hating Marion Rankin won’t stop the Good from loving him. You just force the Good to choose between you, and he doesn’t want that. All the Good wants is one more chance to love you both, to give you both one more chance to love him more than the Evil’s flattery, more than yourself..."
"It’s all a lie, Anne. Don’t you see? No one can love like that, not even the Good..."
He did not see the woman, but he felt her familiar presence coming into being behind him. Nelly stepped forward and took his face in both her little hands. She kneeled and hugged him for all she was worth. Anne and the woman moved as one to join the embrace.
And John Harper was overshadowed.
And then he was light.
Love freely pouring
from the heart of the Good,
like wings warming chicks
against a mother hen’s body.
It held people close,
and shielded from danger,
like the arms of a father
protecting his own.
But the heart of the Good
had been beaten to breaking.
The Evil, transfigured
by malice and pride
from the Good’s greatest artwork
to hater, to liar.
He loved the Good, truly,
but could not abide
the Good’s love for these humans,
so fickle, so frail.
So he’d taken them hostage
and filled them with poison.
They needn’t embrace him,
just turn from the Good –
and the easiest ploy
was to hand them a mirror.
How easily humans
became their own gods,
and traded the love
of the Good for reflections
of crowns on their heads.
Oh, kings of creation!
How they struggled to push off
the weight of his caring.
How they chased after pleasures
with poison inside them.
How the Good, like a shepherd,
would not leave his flock,
but instead suffered with them,
and carried their burdens,
and patiently waited
to heal their hearts…
It was a song, a poem, a story unfolding in reality, in time, in light scrolling right there before of his eyes, but that also rang out around him in a chorus of voices, in a choir of bells…
That suddenly stopped.
He thought of The Queen of the World Show, and the songs Nelly sang…
… And all at once they were there, in the endless sea of light. The woman, Nelly, Anne, holding between them a beating human heart that he knew was his own. The woman pushed her hand through the wall of its flesh and drew out a black, sharp-edged stone. In the palm of her hand the stone melted to water, then rose into the air, a white and glowing teardrop. It circled around them, gaining speed with each orbit, then like an arrow fired downward, plunged back into the heart...
And John’s eyes were opened. He saw before him, across the whole plane of the world, teeming Humanity, exactly as the Good sees them:
With one eye, he saw men, women, even children torn to pieces, chiseled down, ravaged, their lives, their love, the great potential of their spirits stolen away by the Evil, the murderer, the thief who bids they rend their own souls in trade for death hidden in even in the most ordinary of pleasures. People scuttled about, frightened shadows, bent and bleeding gnomes, hugging the earth. Through tricks and deception, the Evil stole what was best in each of them, rolled their talents and virtues on his tongue like sweet candy, bit down, then offered in solace only more death in whispers of sex and wealth and power...
But in the other eye, the very same people were glorious. Brilliance radiated from every man, every woman, every child – every human being a shining sun, a lamp in the darkness, a sparkling jewel whose light collectively illuminated the world. Through this eye every person was irreplaceably precious, his very own child, a delight to be provided for, held close, graciously loved, and protected at all costs...
Then the two visions blended, and he saw the human race through the eyes of the Good – the radiance all men, every woman, all children were in nature, and the darkness they’d settled for, what the Evil had made of them.
And he was anguish.
A curtain opened. Scenes displayed:
Over there, Paul Rankin, a boy of nine, fleeing in terror, hurtling through woods, away from City Lake, his gut churning at his own easy betrayal of his father – Dad’s trust, his life’s mission – done just to fit in, to be one of the guys, blinking tears at the thought of the beating he deserved, but knew he wouldn’t get. Dad would know; he always knew. He’d never hit his son, but sometimes Paul wished he would. He deserved it. He’d do anything now to regain his father’s trust, even betray all his friends... I’m sorry! Oh, Dad!
And Marion Rankin, fatherless boy, showered in riches in place of love by an invisible dad no one could ever say for sure was either dead or alive, and who one day came home in both of those states, or neither, a ghost in the walls, a monster Marion loved for coming home to him at all...
Tim Rankin, thirteen, destroyed by his mother’s death, recreated in the image of a jealous man’s philosophy, then betrayed by that man to the very loss of his humanity...
Even poor Michael Oglesby, enslaved from the cradle to the darkest of destinies, trained like a chimp to work miracles and wonders, released like a lion to reshape the world in the image of his dead father’s self-involved fantasies...
They struck out in their pain, like wolves caught in traps, and he could not help but weep for them all. His heart broke for love of each one. The tragic, impossible love of the Good washed over and through him in great, rushing waves he let fill his lungs, envelop his heart, extinguish his rage. He surrendered completely to the love of the Good and dived deep...
… then resurfaced, gasping. On his knees. A hard, wooden floor. Nelly in his arms.
He had no words. He held his child, and let her hold him.
“Daddy? I think we can go now.”
Anne and the woman had gone, he could feel it. It was just him and Nelly, now. Against the School, against armed Federal agents, against all the odds.
But if the Good was for them, who could stand against them?
A patter of gravel against glass. John and Nelly moved together to the little window. Three floors down, Neil Coleman stood beside the white service truck, throwing-arm ready to launch a second salvo of stones. To John’s eyes, Neil glowed. Sparks of light circled his body like a field of stars. John tried the window, but it was sealed tight. He rapped his knuckles hard three times against the glass instead, in hopes his friend would get the message they were on their way down.
* * * *
The failure of his team was simply unacceptable. Michael Oglesby didn’t need to be physically present inside the dormitory to understand what was happening. It was all too clear. The witch had delivered the girl to John Harper, while twelve Secret Servicemen stood idly by. They would argue that it wasn’t their fault, that they’d been hypnotized, or hexed.
But he was out of patience. He was done with excuses.
His eyes closed briefly as he willed the release of their useless little selves back to the void that had spawned them. On the second floor of Girls Dorm J, twelve blue-suited bodies crashed, lifeless, to the floor.
Superintendent Meyer noted a momentary distraction on the part of the President, but made no guess as to its meaning.
“The radio’s gone from static to silence. Should I send in School Security?”
“Oh, no, Superintendent,” the President said. “We’re beyond that now. When I leave this room, you and Miss Bray are on lockdown with your staff. You will not attempt to leave this office until you hear the order directly from me. Do you understand?”
The Superintendent and the counselor exchanged glances.
“Of course, Mr. President. Only on your order.”
When President Michael Oglesby stepped alone into the long Administration building hallway, he was not surprised to find his path to the exit blocked by a sparkling teardrop that slowly expanded into a robed, glowing woman.
The hallway exploded into light.
* * * *
“What was that?”
John and Nelly Harper were standing with Neil now, beside the service truck. The engine was running. Billy Conner was behind the wheel. They had simply walked together down three flights of stairs and out the front door of the dormitory. They’d taken the east stairs instead of the west, to avoid the Federal agents, but that was the only precaution they took. And all along the way, not a single human being had crossed their path or tried to stop them.
“Lightning, maybe?” Neil shaded his eyes and scanned a full circle around them. There’d been a blinding flash of light, but it had not been followed by the boom of thunder. It was still broad daylight and the sky was clear, so to be seen at all, the flash had to have been enormous. But no smoke rose over the horizon, nothing appeared to be in ruins.
“Whatever,” Billy Conner said, and revved the engine. “Let’s get out of here.”
John and Nelly entered the truck through the passenger door, then slid around to the back. Neil took shotgun, and they retraced their path, unmolested, to the front gate. The gate was locked, but there were still no guards.
“You’ve got a key, right?” John questioned.
“Don’t worry,” Billy Conner said. "I’ve got it covered."
He put the truck in reverse, and backed slowly to the first curve of the blacktopped road. He threw the transmission into drive and floored the accelerator.
They hit the gate and it flew wide before them.
"WooHooo!" Billy sang out, one fist in the air. He pounded the steering wheel and the horn blared. "We win! Next stop, Rankin Mansion!"
John told them, then, about the vision, and especially what it had revealed to him about Tim Rankin. What killed Anne and the Remnant children was not a weapon; it was a person. A very messed up person, but one who was as much a victim as anyone who died in the fire. John couldn’t explain how, but Tim Rankin was somehow alive inside the walls of the house. And Marion’s mother was still upstairs. They couldn’t go through with it. People would die.
"I never liked that plan, anyway," Neil said. He turned the remote upside down on his knee, removed the battery cover, and gave the device a firm whack. Four power cells clattered to the floor of the truck.
John shook his head. "I wish it was that simple."
He confessed, then, about turning Neil’s device into a giant bomb, his plan to kill Marion Rankin, his complete unconcern for Marion’s mother on the third floor.
"That’s dark," Neil said. "But don’t worry. I can defuse anything you put together. Just get me over there."
"I’ll do it." John looked to his daughter curled up in his lap, then back up to his friend. "You and Billy get Nelly out of Arkady. You’ve got connections. You know where to go. You’ve got people out there. I’ll catch up with you."
* * * *
Michael Oglesby was blind. More than that, he was furious. With one parlor trick, the witch had genuinely injured him. The body whose perfect health he’d preserved for decades through relentless spiritual practice was now... imperfect. No longer ideal. With a simple flash of light, she had proven the most powerful man in the world’s complete powerlessness before her. She had marked him the way a dog marks a tree, and there was no washing the stain away.
He lay flat on his back on the cold hallway tile. A hand touched his shoulder. He heard voices.
"Don’t move him! He might have internal injuries. Call security. Have them find the doctor and get her over here, quick."
He recognized the voice. It was Superintendent Meyer speaking, presumably, to Miss Bray.
Eyes closed, speaking slowly: "I. Did. Not. Give. The. Command. You are still on lockdown, Superintendent. Call no one."
"But you’re injured, Mr. President. Let us help you."
"Return to the office. Both of you. This moment."
They did as they were told. When he heard the office door click shut behind them, Michael Oglesby pushed himself to a sitting position and sat for a long time, right there, cross-legged on the floor. He laid his hands across his eyes and willed healing, as he had healed others when there had been a political favor to be gained, as he had withheld from his foster father, knowing the old man would only be a burden in America.
Nothing changed. The message was clear. The woman had the power. His head was already caught beneath her foot, and all too soon she’d be pressing down...
And that was simply unacceptable. He had invested his entire life, literally from the cradle, in ridding humanity of reliance on supernatural fantasies like the woman and her seed. He had single-handedly torn memory of the Good out of every human brain on earth. He had freed men to live for themselves, for the glory of their minds and the expression of their individual human potential. He was the world’s true savior.
Yet here he sat, in the dark. Cross-legged. Blind. Humiliated.
But far from helpless. The witch might have proven her superiority in raw power, but he was sure he had her beat in guile. And ambition – the unconditional will to win at any cost. And resources. Either openly or behind the closed doors of hidden smoke filled rooms, whether they knew it or not, every government, every army, every police force, every low level bureaucrat on earth answered directly or indirectly to him. His influence was everywhere. He pulled every string.
He knew now that he was powerless to destroy the woman in a face to face confrontation. But those for whom she showed concern – Nelly and John Harper, the mechanic and his "Remnant." These were just people, and people could be killed. People could be used. People could be turned...
In his mind’s eye he envisioned little Nelly seduced into his service, beguiled by all the pretty things he could give her, the exotic places he could show her, the unlimited power he could promise to share if only she’d be his. He saw her choosing him – choosing her self. He saw her rejecting the woman, joining him in the battle to secure the world for all eternity from unreason, ruling that world by his side...
Oh, how that would make the witch suffer. No, he couldn’t destroy the woman. But he could make her wish he had. He could twist and torture everyone she loves. He could rid the world of everything that brings her joy. And if he controlled the seed, she would have no choice but to endure that suffering, for as long as he cared to inflict it...
It was time to clear a path between himself and Nelly Harper. It was time for John Harper to die.
* * * *
It had been two long hours since the dismissal bell rang, and Marion Rankin was still at his desk. He wasn’t bothering to look busy. His briefcase lay open before him on the desk, the secret phone exposed, and he just stared at the little device, waiting for it to spring to life and prove all his fears wrong. It was all he could think to do.
The phone rang, and he scooped it up.
"John Harper is almost to your house. He plans to kill you and destroy everything you own."
"I’m still at school."
"Then get home. Kill him before he kills you. Before he kills your mother."
The mention of danger to his mother should have triggered a powerful reaction in him, and even he was surprised when it did not.
"Mr. President, we need to talk."
"Harper is literally blocks from your house. If you do not move now, you’ll miss him."
"About reward. About compensation. I did not... Paul and I have not served you all these years without expectation of reward. We have done exactly as you asked. We found and delivered the seed. We want... We expect to be rewarded."
His arrogance in making demands of the President of the United States was met by a long silence. Then:
"Very well, Principal. I require of you one final task. Kill John Harper. If you fail, you forfeit your own life, and that of your son. If you succeed, I will give you anything you desire. Hear me, Principal, anything you desire. No limits."
"And Paul, too."
"How selfless of you, Principal."
"And Paul, too. Take it or leave it."
Marion Rankin ended the call, and closed his briefcase.
Anything he desired. That was more like it. It was advantageous, then, that John Harper had escaped the fire at the salvage yard. His death that night would have carried no reward of its own. Now it was going to pay off in spades.
He snatched his jacket from the back of the chair and darted for the parking lot.
When Neil and Billy dropped John Harper across the street from Rankin Mansion, sorrow churned like stale vinegar in his stomach. Some part of him was sure he would never see any of them again.
He kissed Nelly and reassured her with a smile. Trust Mr. Coleman. He’ll take good care of you – till I catch up. In a day or two at most.
The van pulled away.
Rankin Mansion stood at the center of the estate. Though he was directly across the street, there was a lot of rolling green yard between the garage and where he stood. He would have to make his way in the open, across all that grass, not only to the garage, but around and behind it in hopes the back door he’d entered through that morning would still be unlocked. He crouched behind a parked car and plotted a route in his mind.
He checked his watch – 5:34 PM – then stood and readied himself to make a mad dash. He quickly dropped back into hiding, though, as a black Lincoln Town Car squealed around the corner, fired down the long Rankin Mansion driveway, then skidded to a stop in front of the garage, near the house. The garage door rose, but the car did not move. Instead, the driver’s door opened, and Marion Rankin stepped out onto the pavement. Metal glinted in his right hand, and though it could have been anything, seen from a distance, John’s gut told him Marion had a gun.
The principal stepped inside the garage, then returned quickly to his car. Of course, he wouldn’t be able to park in the first bay; John’s makeshift bomb occupied most of that space.
The Lincoln backed up the driveway and idled while the first garage door dropped back into place. The the middle bay door rose, and the long, black car disappeared inside. The door closed behind it.
John stood again, this time thinking hard about that gun in Marion’s hand, and what might happen if he was seen entering the garage, or heard dragging fertilizer bags and gas cans back to their places on the shelves.
He was still recalibrating when a tan Toyota appeared around the corner – Paul Rankin. The tiny car shot down the driveway, and pulled to a stop directly in front of the third garage bay door, as if it were the customary spot the youth minister always parked when visiting his dad.
The door rose. The Toyota disappeared inside. The door began to close.
And John Harper was in motion.
"Shit! Paul! Stop! Stop!"
He fired across the street, leaped the low brick wall that circled the property, hit the grass running – then threw himself to the ground.
The garage door was closed. There was nothing he could do. He covered his head.
Bay one of the three bay garage was gone. A hole the approximate height and width of that bay had appeared in the side of the mansion – revealing inside the house, flame, orange, yellow, everywhere.
"Paul! Get out!"
And then a second and a third explosion as the gas tanks of the vehicles inside the garage filled with flame.
John was on his feet, running hard. Paul was done for. But he might still save Marion Rankin. He could rescue the old woman. He had to try.
* * * *
From the back of his limo, tracing I-49 toward the airport where Air Force One waited to return him to DC, President Michael Oglesby saw it all. He saw the mansion burning, Paul Rankin struggling to release a serpentine seatbelt, igniting with his car. He saw John Harper running – not away from the catastrophe like any sane man would run, but toward the house and the fire that consumed it, just like the fool he had always been...
Michael Oglesby had possessed psychic sight for as long as he could remember, but now that his physical vision was gone, his mind’s eye opened onto a broad, new vista, a universal view bordering on omniscience. In that magnified psychic space, the scene at Rankin Mansion unfolded as if he were there, heat pressing his face, his chest racked with agony as the rear of the little Toyota fired forward like a cannon through Paul Rankin’s body...
And, inside the house, Marion Rankin, unconscious, in a heap on the floor. Tim Rankin, inside the walls, seething against the fire, holding back flames and splintered walls with his body, protecting his son.
And John Harper, entering the scene, checking Marion for life, collecting the gun.
Michael fired a bolt of rage and confusion and urgency into Tim Rankin’s mind. He’ll kill Marion! Stop him!
Tim released a slice of burning ceiling over John Harper’s head that swung down and crashed in a shower of sparks to the floor, missing him by inches.
"Mr. Rankin! Wake up!"
Where the ceiling had fallen, new flames were taking life. John transferred the gun to his left hand, and wrapped his right around Marion Rankin’s wrist. He pulled with all his strength and managed to drag the unconscious man several feet toward safety before the wrist came alive and pulled free of his grip. Marion Rankin was awake and standing before him.
"Good. Come on. We have to save your mother. Show me where she is."
He’ll kill Jessica!And another salvo of fear and anger and need to destroy hit Tim Rankin, and flooded his mind, and the whole house resonated with a tremble of rage.
Marion Rankin eyed the gun in John’s hand, then tilted his head, as if straining to hear someone speak. He spun to face the mansion’s massive front door, which opened before him of its own volition.
"He’s all yours, Dad," he said to the air. "Finish him."
He disappeared into the daylight.
John surveyed the open door, and the green grass beyond it, then turned to the stairway behind him. Flames licked the banister, but had not yet claimed the steps themselves.
"I know you can hear me," he shouted to the burning walls around him. "I’m here to help your wife. Marion’s mother. I want to save her. You have to believe me."
A wide chunk of burning wall twisted free and flew at him across the room. A tall cabinet slid forward, then toppled toward him.
He dodged both projectiles, but he had to move fast now – toward the open front door and certain escape, or up the blazing stairway. He returned the gun to his right hand and bolted up the stairs.
He hoped the mansion’s second floor might be mostly smoke, but it was already flames, licking hard for the ceiling. The stairs turned, and he barreled on, sweat pouring into his eyes, fighting to reach Jessica Rankin before the third story floor could become glowing coals beneath his feet, while there might still be a solid staircase to run back down.
He topped the stairs.
"Jessica Rankin! Jessica Rankin!"
It was a mansion. There were doors everywhere. Which was hers?
The teardrop of bright, white light that appeared at the end of hallway did not surprise him, and he did not hesitate to react. He ran as hard and as fast toward the light as he could, and launched his body with all the force of his weight and the inertia of running into the door the light indicated. The doorframe splintered and the door flew wide.
Jessica Rankin lay sleeping on the bed. The walls around her crawled with snakes of orange flame that hissed and slithered and intertwined as they joined to consume expanding portions of the room. The carpet everywhere was burning. A wide, wooden ceiling beam glowed red with heat, and as he watched, it grew rhythmically brighter and hotter, like a coal being blown to life in a fireplace.
He’ll kill her, Tim! Stop him! Destroy him now!
But rather than attack John Harper, Tim Rankin’s presence coalesced around the bed, a swarm of closely-packed bees, a field of energy so densely focused that John caught a glowing, green hint of it even with his naked eyes. All the hairs of his body danced upright and pulled toward the scene. Jessica Rankin slept on inside the bubble, a fairytale queen encased in ice. The burning carpet drew lines of fire all around the bed, but they stopped there. Nothing could harm her.
I said, kill him! Michael Oglesby fired a bolt of blind hatred into Tim Rankin’s mind. Do as I say! Kill him! Kill him now!
The glowing beam broke free and spun a fiery arc toward the bed. It crashed against the field that was Tim Rankin and rolled to the floor. Jessica slept on.
"Let me take her," John Harper called from the hallway. "Let me get her out of the house."
The door slammed so forcefully in his face that he was thrown into the opposite wall, where he sank to the floor. The gun skittered away and he didn’t go after it.
He threw himself against the door again. Nothing. He pounded against the wood.
"Come on!" he shouted. "She’ll die in there! Let me save her! Please!"
The door didn’t budge, and with his palms against its surface, he could feel the heat pressing back. Fire was claiming the room.
He pounded the door. "Please!"
And this time, when the woman appeared, it was as if her light swelled out from inside his own chest. Her glow, like liquid moonlight, flowed up to swirl around his head, then down to his feet in a single motion, and he was standing in a bubble of light. He could feel the woman with him, around him, inside him, loaning him her power. He touched the door, and though he could see it with his eyes, solid there before him, to his hand it was mist. He stepped through into the burning room.
Jessica Rankin floated impossibly at the center of a sea of flame. There was nothing in the room that was not burning now, except the bed itself, and a faintly green bubble surrounding it.
John Harper felt only the woman’s cool touch against his skin as he made his way across the room. When he reached the bed, he stepped through Tim Rankin as easily as he had the closed door, and scooped Jessica into his arms. The glow protecting his body expanded to surround the unconscious woman. He carried her to the hallway.
Michael Oglesby sent a torrent of images raging through Tim Rankin’s mind – John Harper raping and torturing Jessica, cutting her throat, going after Marion, Paul Rankin exploding in his car.
Stop him! Kill him! What’s wrong with you? Go!
John had barely reached the second floor landing when Tim Rankin hit him hard from behind. The sleeping woman flew from his arms. His legs vanished beneath him. His forehead hit the banister, and he was rolling fast, head first, down the final flight of stairs. When he hit the burning front hallway floor, he managed to stay conscious, but he’d lost all feeling the whole length of body. He sensed his head was twisted in a direction it shouldn’t be. The only part of him he could move was his eyes.
And before those eyes, Jessica Rankin floated gently down the stairs as if carried in a pair of invisible arms. She was awake now, and for the briefest of moments, their eyes met, before she turned away and buried her face in the comfort of a chest he could not see.
He couldn’t tell if he was breathing. There was only heat and smoke, and the red of fire everywhere – and fading, golden daylight still shining through the open front door.
Jessica Rankin floated out of the house, into the safety of the yard.
The door closed behind her.
Neil, Billy and Nelly ditched the service van at Neil’s salvage yard, and hit the open road in Billy’s 2050 Ford Friendship, a family sedan so brown and boxy and non-descript that no self-respecting cop would even notice it on the highway, let alone be seen pulling it over. They slipped, unchallenged, out of Arkady, and by the time the moon had risen over the highway, they were already entering the next state.
It had been a while since Nelly had spoken. When they first started driving, she’d jabbered nervously, talking about everything and nothing, filling the back seat with the sound of her own voice. When she’d fallen silent, Neil at first thought she was asleep, the poor kid. But in the rear view mirror, he could see that her eyes were wide open. She was sitting with her hands in her lap, hunched slightly forward. Her eyes darted back and forth across the open palms of her hands as if a movie were playing there. He watched her expression change gradually from curiosity, to delight, to sorrow, to resolve.
"Nelly? You okay back there?"
Nelly shook both hands before her as if they stung, then swiveled up onto her knees. She leaned forward and stuck her head between the two front seats.
"Mr. Coleman," she said. Her tiny voice was matter of fact, like a TV lawyer warming up to cross examine a witness. " The first time you saw the woman, you were with my father."
"And Billy," Neil answered. "And a bunch of other kids. Third graders, mostly."
Nelly nodded. "The woman spoke that night, but Daddy couldn’t hear what she said. You did, though." She looked at Billy. "You both did."
"Did your dad tell you that story?"
"No," Nelly said, simply. "The woman talks to me all the time now, and she told me to ask you about it."
The two men exchanged glances.
"Okay," Neil said. "Yes, it’s true. The woman spoke to Billy, and I heard every word because she was talking to me, too. She called us to Hobo Camp that night to tell us something important."
"About the future, anyway. You hadn’t been born yet. But yes, I now think she was probably talking about you."
"What did she say?"
"You don’t know?"
"She told me to ask you. She says its important that I hear it from you."
"Okay, Nelly. Remember, I was nine years old at the time. Your age. She told me Billy and I would be friends forever, and that part’s come true."
Billy gave the girl a thumb’s up. Neil smiled and continued.
"And she said we’d grow up to be her warriors someday, like the Knights of the Round Table. She was going to entrust us with something very precious to protect at all cost. She showed us the Holy Grail, like in the King Arthur stories, because that was something we knew at the time. But even then, we figured she meant the seed."
"Am I the seed, Mr. Coleman?"
"I can’t say for sure, Nelly. But you’re close enough for me."
Me, too, Billy echoed.
"And we will protect you, Nelly. For the rest of our lives. With everything that we have."
All three of them suddenly had tears in their eyes.
"Will you be my father now, Mr. Coleman?" Nelly said.
"You have a father, baby. Your dad is our friend."
Nelly took three small breaths, shuddering more with each exhalation.
"Daddy’s on his way to Mamma. The woman told me. He hasn’t reached the vision yet, but he’s on his way. The Good is helping him, so he’s sure to make it..."
She sighed again, her voice cracking.
"But he’s not here anymore, here with us in the regular world. You’re all I have, Mr. Coleman."
There was so much to cry about in the girl’s last words that Neil didn’t know where to begin. John was dead. Nelly was orphaned. And this sweet, vulnerable little kid was at the center of prophecy, of supernatural events destined to rock the whole world. Her life was deeply tied to the greatest Good in all the universe. The greatest Evil in the world wanted her dead. And all she had to protect her were two small town mechanics – with good hearts, for sure, but would that be enough?
Well, they also had connections. The Remnant was out there, mostly small, secret pockets of Gooders scattered all over the world. He’d once been at their center, with his salvage yard broadcasts. He knew where the spokes ran.
They were not alone.
He rubbed Nelly’s hair and smiled reassuringly.
"And we’ll be all you ever need, from now on, Nelly. I promise."
She curled up in the back, then, and did finally fall asleep, while up front, her champions debated alternate routes to their first destination – not the closest spoke on the wheel of the Remnant, necessarily, but by far the one with the best local beer...
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