Blood Brothers (Chapter Eleven)
CAL SENT A DOZEN PINK ROSES TO HIS MOTHER. She liked the traditional flower for Valentine's Day, and he knew his father always went for the red. If he hadn't known, Amy Yost in the flower shop would have reminded him, as she did every blessed year.
"Your dad ordered a dozen red last week, for delivery today, potted geranium to his grandma, and he sent the Valentine's Day Sweetheart Special to your sisters."
"That suck-up," Cal said, knowing it would make Amy gasp and giggle. "How about a dozen yellow for my gran. In a vase, Amy. I don't want her to have to fool with them."
"Aw, that's sweet. I've got Essie's address on file, you just fill out the card."
He picked one out of the slot, gave it a minute's thought before writing: Hearts are red, these roses are yellow. Happy Valentine's Day from your best fellow.
Corny, sure, he decided, but Gran would love it.
He reached for his wallet to pay when he noticed the red-and-white-striped tulips behind the glass doors of the refrigerated display. "Ah, those tulips are…interesting."
"Aren't they pretty? And they just make me feel like spring. It's no problem if you want to change either of the roses for them. I can just-"
"No, no, maybe…I'll take a dozen of them, too. Another delivery in a vase, Amy."
"Sure." Her cheerful round face lit up with curiosity and the anticipation of good gossip. "Who's your valentine, Cal?"
"It's more a housewarming kind of thing." He couldn't think of any reason why not to send Quinn flowers. Women liked flowers, he thought as he filled out the delivery form. It was Valentine's Day, and she was moving into the High Street house. It wasn't like he was buying her a ring and picking out a band for the wedding.
It was just a nice gesture.
"Quinn Black." Amy wiggled her eyebrows as she read the name on the form. "Meg Stanley ran into her at the flea market yesterday, along with that friend of hers from New York. They bought a bunch of stuff, according to Meg. I heard you were going around with her."
"We're not…" Were they? Either way, it was best to leave it alone. "Well, what's the damage, Amy?"
With his credit card still humming, he stepped outside, hunched his shoulders against the cold. There might be candy-striped tulips, but it didn't feel as if Mother Nature was giving so much as a passing thought to spring. The sky spat out a thin and bitter sleet that lay slick as grease on the streets and sidewalks.
He'd walked down from the bowling center as was his habit, timing his arrival at the florist to their ten o'clock opening. It was the best way to avoid the panicked rush of others who had waited until the last minute to do the Valentine's thing.
It didn't appear he'd needed to worry. Not only had no other customers come in while he'd been buying his roses and impulsive tulips, but there was no one on the sidewalks, no cars creeping cautiously toward the curb in front of the Flower Pot.
"Strange." His voice sounded hollow against the sizzle of sleet striking asphalt. Even on the crappiest day, he'd pass any number of people on his walks around town. He shoved his gloveless hands into his pockets and cursed himself for not breaking his routine and driving.
"Creatures of habit freeze their asses off," he muttered. He wanted to be inside in his office, drinking a cup of coffee, even preparing to start the cancellation process on the evening's scheduled Sweetheart Dance if the sleet worsened. If he'd just taken the damn truck, he'd already be there.
So thinking, he looked up toward the center, and saw the stoplight at the Town Square was out.
Power down, Cal thought, and that was a problem. He quickened his steps. He knew Bill Turner would make certain the generator kicked on for the emergency power, but he needed to be there. School was out, and that meant kids were bound to be scattered around in the arcade.
The hissing of the sleet increased until it sounded like the forced march of an army of giant insects. Despite the slick sidewalk, Cal found himself breaking into a jog when it struck him.
Why weren't there any cars at the Square, or parked at the curbs? Why weren't there any cars anywhere?
He stopped, and so did the hiss of the sleet. In the ensuing silence, he heard his own heart thumping like a fist against steel.
She stood so close he might have reached out to touch her, and knew if he tried, his hand would pass through her as it would through water.
Her hair was deep blond, worn long and loose as it had been when she'd carried the pails toward the little cabin in Hawkins Wood. When she'd sung about a garden green. But her body was slim and straight in a long gray dress.
He had the ridiculous thought that if he had to see a ghost, at least it wasn't a pregnant one.
As if she heard his thoughts, she smiled. "I am not your fear, but you are my hope. You and those who make up the whole of you. What makes you, Caleb Hawkins, is of the past, the now, and the yet to come."
"Who are you? Are you Ann?"
"I am what came before you, and you are formed through love. Know that, know that long, long before you came into the world, you were loved."
"Love isn't enough."
"No, but it is the rock on which all else stands. You have to look; you have to see. This is the time, Caleb. This was always to be the time."
"The time for what?"
"The end of it. Seven times three. Death or life. He holds it, prevents it. Without his endless struggle, his sacrifice, his courage, all this…" She held out her arms. "All would be destroyed. Now it is for you."
"Just tell me what I need to do. Goddamn it."
"If I could. If I could spare you." She lifted a hand, let it fall again. "There must be struggle, and sacrifice, and great courage. There must be faith. There must be love. It is courage, faith, love that holds it so long, that prevents it from taking all who live and breathe within this place. Now it is for you."
"We don't know how. We've tried."
"This is the time," she repeated. "It is stronger, but so are you, and so are we. Use what you were given, take what it sowed but could never own. You cannot fail."
"Easy for you to say. You're dead."
"But you are not. They are not. Remember that."
When she started to fade, he did reach out, uselessly. "Wait, damn it. Wait. Who are you?"
"Yours," she said. "Yours as I am and always will be his."
She was gone, and the sleet sizzled on the pavement again. Cars rumbled by as the traffic light on the Square glowed green.
"Not the spot for daydreaming." Meg Stanley skidded by, giving him a wink as she pulled open the door of Ma's Pantry.
"No," Cal muttered. "It's not."
He started toward the center again, then veered off to take a detour to High Street.
Quinn's car was in the drive, and through the windows he could see the lights she must've turned on to chase back the gloom. He knocked, heard a muffled call to come in.
When he did, he saw Quinn and Layla trying to muscle something that resembled a desk up the stairs.
"What are you doing? Jesus." He stepped over to grip the side of the desk beside Quinn. "You're going to hurt yourselves."
In an annoyed move, she tossed her head to flip the hair away from her face. "We're managing."
"You'll be managing a trip to the ER. Go on up, take that end with Layla."
"Then we'll both be walking backward. Why don't you take that end?"
"Because I'm going to be taking the bulk of the weight this way."
"Oh." She let go, squeezed between the wall and the desk.
He didn't bother to ask why it had to go up. He'd lived with his mother too long to waste his breath. Instead he grunted out orders to prevent the edge of the desk from bashing into the wall as they angled left at the top of the stairs. Then followed Quinn as she directed the process to the window in the smallest bedroom.
"See, we were right." Quinn panted, and tugged down a Penn State sweatshirt. "This is the spot for it."
There was a seventies chair that had seen better days, a pole lamp with a rosy glass shade that dripped long crystals, and a low bookshelf varnished black over decades that wobbled when he set a hand on it.
"I know, I know." Quinn waved away his baleful look. "But it just needs a little hammering or something, and it's really just to fill things out. We were thinking about making it a little sitting room, then decided it would be better as a little office. Hence the desk we originally thought should be in the dining room."
"The lamp looks like something out of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas." Layla gave one of the crystals a flick with her fingers. "But that's what we like about it. The chair is hideous."
"But comfortable," Quinn inserted.
"But comfortable, and that's what throws are for."
Cal waited a beat as both of them looked at him expectantly. "Okay," he repeated, which was generally how he handled his mother's decorating explanations.
"We've been busy. We turned in Layla's rental car, then hit the flea market just out of town. Bonanza. Plus we agreed no secondhand mattresses. The ones we ordered should be here this afternoon. Anyway, come see what we've got going so far."
Quinn grabbed his hand, pulled him across the hall to the room she'd chosen. There was a long bureau desperately in need of refinishing, topped by a spotted mirror. Across the room was a boxy chest someone had painted a murderous and shiny red. On it stood a Wonder Woman lamp.
"It'll be very livable when we're done."
"Yeah. You know I think that lamp might've been my sister Jen's twenty, twenty-five years ago."
"It's classic," Quinn claimed. "It's kitschy."
He fell back on the standard. "Okay."
"I think I have Danish modern," Layla commented from the doorway. "Or possibly Flemish. It's absolutely horrible. I have no idea why I bought it."
"Did you two haul this stuff up here?"
"Please." Quinn tossed her head.
"We opted for brain over brawn."
"Every time. That and a small investment. Do you know how much a couple of teenage boys will cart and carry for twenty bucks each and the opportunity to ogle a couple of hot chicks such as we?" Quinn fisted a hand on her hip, struck a pose.
"I'd've done it for ten. You could have called."
"Which was our intention, actually. But the boys were handy. Why don't we go down and sit on our new third-or fourthhand sofa?"
"We did splurge," Layla added. "We have an actual new coffeemaker and a very eclectic selection of coffee mugs."
"Coffee'd be good."
"I'll get it started."
Cal glanced after Layla. "She seems to have done a one-eighty on all this."
"I'm persuasive. And you're generous. I think I should plant one on you for that."
"Go ahead. I can take it."
Laughing, she braced her hands on his shoulders, gave him a firm, noisy kiss.
"Does that mean I don't get ten bucks?"
Her smile beamed as she poked him in the belly. "You'll take the kiss and like it. Anyway, part of the reason for Layla hanging back was the money. The idea of staying was-is-difficult for her. But the idea of taking a long leave, unpaid, from her job, coming up with rent money here, keeping her place in New York, that was pretty much off the table."
She stepped up to the bright red chest to turn her Wonder Woman lamp on and off. From the look on her face, Cal could see the act pleased her.
"So, the rent-free aspect checked one problem off her list," Quinn went on. "She hasn't completely committed. Right now, it's a day at a time for her."
"I've got something to tell you, both of you, that may make this her last day."
"Something happened." She dropped her hand, turned. "What happened?"
"I'll tell you both. I want to call Fox first, see if he can swing by. Then I can tell it once."
HE HAD TO DO IT WITHOUT FOX, WHO, ACCORDING to Mrs. Hawbaker, was at the courthouse being a lawyer. So he sat in the oddly furnished living room on a couch so soft and saggy he was already wishing for the opportunity to get Quinn naked on it, and told them about the visitation on Main Street.
"An OOB," Quinn decided.
"No, no. Initials, like CYA. Out of body-experience. It sounds like that might be what you had, or maybe there was a slight shift in dimensions and you were in an alternate Hawkins Hollow."
He might have spent two-thirds of his life caught up in something beyond rational belief, but he'd never heard another woman talk like Quinn Black. "I was not in an alternate anything, and I was right inside my body where I belong."
"I've been studying, researching, and writing about the paranormal for some time now." Quinn drank some coffee and brooded over it.
"It could be he was talking to a ghost who caused the illusion that they were alone on the street, and caused everyone else out there to-I don't know-blip out for a few minutes." Layla shrugged at Quinn's narrowed look. "I'm new at this, and I'm still working really hard not to hide under the covers until somebody wakes me up and tells me this was all a dream."
"For the new kid, your theory's pretty good," Quinn told her.
"How about mine? Which is what she said is a hell of a lot more important right now than how she said it."
"Point taken." Quinn nodded at Cal. "This is the time, she said. Three times seven. That one's easy enough to figure."
"Twenty-one years." Cal pushed up to pace. "This July makes twenty-one years."
"Three, like seven, is considered a magickal number. It sounds like she was telling you it was always going to come now, this July, this year. It's stronger, you're stronger, they're stronger." Quinn squeezed her eyes shut.
"So, it and this woman-this spirit-have both been able to…"
"Manifest." Quinn finished Layla's thought. "That follows the logic."
"Nothing about this is logical."
"It is, really." Opening her eyes again, Quinn gave Layla a sympathetic look. "Inside this sphere, there's logic. It's just not the kind we deal with, or most of us deal with, every day. The past, the now, the yet to be. Things that happened, that are happening, and that will or may are all part of the solution, the way to end it."
"I think there's more to that part." Cal turned back from the window. "After that night in the clearing, the three of us were different."
"You don't get sick, and you heal almost as soon as you're hurt. Quinn told me."
"Yeah. And I could see."
"Without your glasses."
"I could also see before. I started-right there minutes afterward-to have flashes of the past."
"The way you did-both of us did," Quinn corrected, "when we touched the stone together. And later, when we-"
"Like that, not always that clear, not always so intense. Sometimes awake, sometimes like a dream. Sometimes completely irrelevant. And Fox…It took him a while to understand. Jesus, we were ten. He can see now." Annoyed with himself, Cal shook his head. "He can see, or sense what you're thinking, or feeling."
"Fox is psychic?" Layla demanded.
"Psychic lawyer. He's so hired."
Despite everything, Quinn's announcement made Cal's lips twitch. "Not like that, not exactly. It's never been something we can completely control. Fox has to deliberately push it, and it doesn't always work then. But since then he has an instinct about people. And Gage-"
"He sees what could happen," Quinn added. "He's the soothsayer."
"It's hardest for him. That's why-one of the reasons why-he doesn't spend much time here. It's harder here. He's had some pretty damn vicious dreams, visions, nightmares, whatever the hell you want to call them."
And it hurts you when he hurts, Quinn thought. "But he hasn't seen what you're meant to do?"
"No. That would be too easy, wouldn't it?" Cal said bitterly. "Has to be more fun to mess up the lives of three kids, to let innocent people die or kill and maim each other. Stretch that out for a couple of decades, then say: Okay, boys, now's the time."
"Maybe there was no choice." Quinn held up a hand when Cal's eyes fired. "I'm not saying it's fair. In fact, it sucks. Inside and out, it sucks. I'm saying maybe it couldn't be another way. Whether it was something Giles Dent did, or something set in motion centuries before that, there may have been no other choice. She said he was holding it, that he was preventing it from destroying the Hollow. If it was Ann, and she meant Giles Dent, does that mean he trapped this thing, this bestia, and in some form-beatus-has been trapped with it, battling it, all this time? Three hundred and fifty years and change. That sucks, too."
Layla jumped at the brisk knock on the door, then popped up. "I'll get it. Maybe it's the delivery."
"You're not wrong," Cal said quietly. "But it doesn't make it easier to live through it. It doesn't make it easier to know, in my gut, that we're coming up to our last chance."
Quinn got to her feet. "I wish-"
"It's flowers!" Layla's voice was giddy with delight as she came in carrying the vase of tulips. "For you, Quinn."
"Jesus, talk about weird timing," Cal muttered.
"For me? Oh God, they look like lollipop cups. They're gorgeous!" Quinn set them on the ancient coffee table. "Must be a bribe from my editor so I'll finish that article on-" She broke off as she ripped open the card. Her face was blank with shock as she lifted her eyes to Cal. "You sent me flowers?"
"I was in the florist before-"
"You sent me flowers on Valentine's Day."
"I hear my mother calling," Layla announced. "Coming, Mom!" She made a fast exit.
"You sent me tulips that look like blooming candy canes on Valentine's Day."
"They looked like fun."
"That's what you wrote on the card. 'These look like fun.' Wow." She scooped a hand through her hair. "I have to say that I'm a sensible woman, who knows very well Valentine's Day is a commercially generated holiday designed to sell greeting cards, flowers, and candy."
"Yeah, well." He slid his hands into his pockets. "Works."
"And I'm not the type of woman who goes all mushy and gooey over flowers, or sees them as an apology for an argument, a prelude to sex, or any of the other oft-perceived uses."
"I just saw them, thought you'd get a kick out of them. Period. I've got to get to work."
"But," she continued and moved toward him, "strangely, I find none of that applies in the least in this particular case. They are fun." She rose up on her toes, kissed his cheek. "And they're beautiful." Then his other cheek. "And thoughtful." Now his lips. "Thank you."
"I'd like to add that…" She trailed her hands down his shirt, up again. "If you'll tell me what time you finish up tonight, I'll have a bottle of wine waiting in my bedroom upstairs, where I can promise you, you're going to get really, really lucky."
"Eleven," he said immediately. "I can be here at eleven-oh-five. I-Oh shit. Sweetheart Dance, that's midnight. Special event. No problem. You'll come."
"That's my plan." When he grinned, she rolled her eyes. "You mean to this dance. At the Bowl-a-Rama. A Sweetheart Dance at the Bowl-a-Rama. God, I'd love that. But, I can't leave Layla here, not at night. Not alone."
"She can come, too-to the dance."
Now her eyeroll was absolutely sincere. "Cal, no woman wants to tag along with a couple to a dance on Valentine's Day. It paints a big L for loser in the middle of her forehead, and they're so damn hard to wash off."
"Fox can take her. Probably. I'll check."
"That's a possibility, especially if we make it all for fun. You check, then I'll check, then we'll see. But either way." She grabbed a fistful of his shirt, and this time brought him to her for a long, long kiss. "My bedroom, twelve-oh-five."
LAYLA SAT ON HER BRAND-NEW DISCOUNT MATTRESS while Quinn busily checked out the clothes she'd recently hung in her closet.
"Quinn, I appreciate the thought, I really do, but put yourself in my place. The third-wheel position."
"It's perfectly acceptable to be the third wheel when there're four wheels altogether. Fox is going."
"Because Cal asked him to take pity on the poor dateless V-Day loser. Probably told him or bribed him or-"
"You're right. Fox certainly had to have his arm twisted to go out with such an ugly hag like yourself. I admit every time I look at you, I'm tempted to go: woof, woof, what a dog. Besides…Oh, I love this jacket! You have the best clothes. But this jacket is seriously awesome. Mmm." Quinn stroked it like a cat. "Cashmere."
"I don't know why I packed it. I don't know why I packed half the stuff I did. I just started grabbing things. And you're trying to distract me."
"Not really, but it's a nice side benefit. What was I saying? Oh, yeah. Besides, it's not a date. It's a gang bang," she said and made Layla laugh. "It's just the four of us going to a bowling alley, for God's sake, to hear some local band play and dance a little."
"Sure. After which, you'll be hanging a scarf over the doorknob of your bedroom. I went to college, Quinn. I had a roommate. Actually, I had a nympho of a roommate who had an endless supply of scarves."
"Is it a problem?" Quinn stopped poking in the closet long enough to look over her shoulder. "Cal and me, across the hall?"
"No. No." And now didn't she feel stupid and petty? "I think it's great. Really, I do. Anybody can tell the two of you rev like engines when you're within three feet of each other."
"They can?" Quinn turned all the way around now. "We do."
"Vroom, vroom. He's great, it's great. I just feel…" Layla rolled her shoulders broadly. "In the way."
"You're not. I couldn't stay here without you. I'm pretty steady, but I couldn't stay in this house alone. The dance isn't a big deal. We don't have to go, but I think it'd be fun, for all of us. And a chance to do something absolutely normal to take our minds off everything that isn't."
"That's a good point."
"So get dressed. Put on something fun, maybe a little sexy, and let's hit the Bowl-a-Rama."
THE BAND, A LOCAL GROUP NAMED HOLLOWED Out, was into its first set. They were popular at weddings and corporate functions, and regularly booked at the center's events because their playlist ran the gamut from old standards to hip-hop. The something-for-everybody kept the dance floor lively while those sitting one out could chat at one of the tables circling the room, sip drinks, or nibble from the light buffet set up along one of the side walls.
Cal figured it was one of the center's most popular annual events for good reason. His mother headed up the decorating committee, so there were flowers and candles, red and white streamers, glittering red hearts. It gave people a chance to get a little dressed up in the dullness that was February, get out and socialize, hear some music, show off their moves if they had them. Or like Cy Hudson, even if they didn't.
It was a little bright spot toward the end of a long winter, and they never failed to have a full house.
Cal danced with Essie to "Fly Me to the Moon."
"Your mother was right to make you take those dance lessons."
"I was humiliated among my peers," Cal said. "But light on my feet."
"Women tend to lose their heads over a good dancer."
"A fact I've exploited whenever possible." He smiled down at her. "You look so pretty, Gran."
"I look dignified. Now, there was a day when I turned plenty of heads."
"You still turn mine."
"And you're still the sweetest of my sweethearts. When are you going to bring that pretty writer to see me?"
"Soon, if that's what you want."
"It feels like time. I don't know why. And speaking of-" She nodded toward the open double doors. "Those two turn heads."
He looked. He noticed Layla, in that she was there. But his focus was all for Quinn. She'd wound that mass of blond hair up, a touch of elegance, and wore an open black jacket over some kind of lacey top-camisole, he remembered. They called them camisoles, and God bless whoever invented them.
Things glittered at her ears, at her wrists, but all he could think was she had the sexiest collarbone in the history of collarbones, and he couldn't wait to get his mouth on it.
"You're about to drool, Caleb."
"What?" He blinked his attention back to Essie. "Oh. Jeez."
"She does look a picture. You take me on back to my table now and go get her. Bring her and her friend around to say hello before I leave."
By the time he got to them, Fox had already scooped them up to one of the portable bars and sprung for champagne. Quinn turned to Cal, glass in hand, and pitched her voice over the music. "This is great! The band's hot, the bubbly's cold, and the room looks like a love affair."
"You were expecting a couple of toothless guys with a washboard and a jug, some hard cider, and a few plastic hearts."
"No." She laughed, jabbed him with her finger. "But something between that and this. It's my first bowling alley dance, and I'm impressed. And look! Isn't that His Honor, the mayor, getting down?"
"With his wife's cousin, who is the choir director for the First Methodist Church."
"Isn't that your assistant, Fox?" Layla gestured to a table.
"Yeah. Fortunately, the guy she's kissing is her husband."
"They look completely in love."
"Guess they are. I don't know what I'm going to do without her. They're moving to Minneapolis in a couple months. I wish they'd just take off for a few weeks in July instead of-" He caught himself. "No shop talk tonight. Do you want to scare up a table?"
"Perfect for people-watching," Quinn agreed, then spun toward the band. "'In the Mood'!"
"Signature piece for them. Do you swing?" Cal asked her.
"Damn right." She glanced at him, considered. "Do you?"
"Let's go see what you've got, Blondie." He grabbed her hand, pulled her out to the dance floor.
Fox watched the spins and footwork. "I absolutely can't do that."
"Neither can I. Wow." Layla's eyes widened. "They're really good."
On the dance floor, Cal set Quinn up for a double spin, whipped her back. "Lessons?"
"Four years. You?"
"Three." When the song ended and bled into a slow number, he fit Quinn's body to his and blessed his mother. "I'm glad you're here."
"Me, too." She nuzzled her cheek to his. "Everything feels good tonight. Sweet and shiny. And mmm," she murmured when he led her into a stylish turn. "Sexy." Tipping back her head, she smiled at him. "I've completely reversed my cynical take on Valentine's Day. I now consider it the perfect holiday."
He brushed his lips over hers. "After this dance, why don't we sneak off to the storeroom upstairs and neck?"
With a laugh, he started to bring her close again. And froze.
The hearts bled. The glittery art board dripped, and splattered red on the dance floor, plopped on tables, slid down the hair and faces of people while they laughed, or chatted, strolled or swayed.
"I see it. Oh God."
The vocalist continued to sing of love and longing as the red and silver balloons overhead popped like gunshots. And from them rained spiders.