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The start of their quest was as everyday as going to the corner store.... back when there had been corners and stores. Fran wondered if, after, there would be towns and stores and errands and dullness once again. It didn't seem like it.

Electric lights ain't the answer, Mother Abagail had said, before her command to go west with no food, no water, no packs, but only the clothes they stood up in. But Fran had insisted on heavy walking shoes: "'The clothes you stand up in' didn't specify shoes."

Now Fran and Lucy and Sue and Nadine stood awkwardly on the sidewalk in front of Larry's house, nobody knowing where to look or what to say. Nothing to take and nothing to give. Her empty hands dangled awkwardly at her sides.

"Bye, Larry," Lucy said, her voice as faint as her face was pale.

"Remember, Stu." The sound of Fran’s own voice hurt her throat, then her ears. She swallowed hard.

Stu blew a kiss through his closed fist, a sweet innocent gesture, like something a parent might do sending a child off on a morning school bus. Frannie raised her hand and pretended to catch it, and then had to turn around to hide the tears standing in her eyes, burning and ready to fall. The others took it as a signal and turned with her, and it was as simple as that: one foot in front of the other, walking away.

None of them said a word. The women went two by two down the block: Fran and Lucy first, then Sue and Nadine, although Nadine wasn’t quite in step with the rest of them. The sun was warm on Frannie's face, and she heard a bird sing.

At the end of the block Fran turned and waved again. Lucy did too. Leo and Larry and Stu waved back. Fran couldn't make out their expressions, but she thought Stu was smiling. Lucy’s face was tight with fear. Frannie took Lucy’s hand— the fingers icy and the palm slick— and gently turned her around again, and they crossed the street, and were on their way. Sue's footsteps paced behind her, even, measured, as if setting out on a marathon. She couldn't hear Nadine at all.

"Oh God," Lucy said in a weak voice, sounding as if she might faint again. "Oh dear God." Fran held her hand tighter.

"Just keep going," Sue said. "Golden's not that far. We'll make it by ten, nine even, get a good night's sleep."

"We looked back," Nadine said, her voice so low Fran nearly shivered. "We shouldn't have done that. You never look back."

Just before sunset, they passed the township marker for Boulder, and although their shadows stretched long and wide behind them Fran felt they were going the opposite way, far from the sun and birdsong and love and warmth, deep into the dark.

Sue was right: before ten they were camped in Golden, on makeshift beds of fallen and dry pine boughs that seemed like tissue paper covering the inevitable small pointed rocks all camp beds seem to be made of. Fran was tired, they all were, but none of them slept well, that first night traveling west.

 

Only the day before, Lucy Swann stood by Mother Abagail’s bedside. Mother Abagail’s deathbed.

Lucy had kept still and quiet, the mouse in the corner, apart from the people who had actually been summoned. She’d only gone because she thought her presence might comfort Larry, who’d been torn up with guilt over his failure to stop Harold’s bomb.

Stu stood by Fran, who had to sit on the couch because of her whiplash. The other surviving members of the committee, Glen, Sue, and Larry, crowded around the bed.

Nadine stood apart from them all, arms folded, witchy black-and-white hair pouring down her back. Lucy could swear there was more white in it than there’d been before the bomb. Oh, Nadine had sworn up and down that she hadn’t known anything about Harold’s plot, but Lucy’s gut feeling was that she’d known something.

Best case scenario, Nadine had thought Harold meant to beat Stu up or burn down his house or something like that, and wanted no part of it. Worst case… If she was a spy for the dark man, what could he want kept in reserve that was worse than a bomb?

Lucy hated the way that Larry’s gaze kept drifting toward Nadine, even now. And she couldn’t imagine why Mother Abagail had summoned Nadine here, unless it was to expose her true allegiance in front of everyone.

In Lucy’s ordinary dreams, the ones she’d had before Captain Trips, she often watched events, an invisible observer, like she was seeing a movie. She felt that way now as Mother Abagail addressed the people she’d summoned, one by one, telling Sue that government wouldn’t stop what was coming.

Lucy jumped when Mother Abagail looked straight at her. “Neither will standing by your man, Lucy Swann.”

Everyone glanced at her then, like they’d forgotten she was there. Lucy stared at the floor, but not before she was warmed by the shift of Larry’s weight, as if he was about to come stand beside her.

“Nor will becoming the bride of darkness, Nadine Cross,” whispered Mother Abagail.

Larry froze where he stood. “Bride of darkness?”

Simultaneously, Sue said, “Then she was involved?”

“What makes you think I want to stop it?” Nadine replied coolly. “If a war’s coming… Let it come. At least then it’ll all be resolved and over. One way or another.”

Mother Abagail’s withered lips peeled back in a smile. “That’s it, child. Make your choice and stand by it.”

And then she had given them their quest. Sue had nodded and straightened her shoulders when she’d been named, as if she’d always known that was her destiny. No one had objected to Sue going.

But a stir had gone through the room when Mother Abagail named Nadine.

“Do you trust her?” Larry asked bluntly, saying what everyone thought.

“She’s part of God’s plan,” Mother Abagail had replied. Which did not, Lucy noted, answer the question.

Nadine had turned and stared at a blank spot on the wall, her dark gaze distant, as if she could see through the plaster. It gave Lucy the shudders. Later, Lucy had realized that she had been looking straight west.

Nadine said calmly, “Yes. I’ll go.”

If anyone was capable of killing the dark man, it was Sue Stern. And everyone was relieved to have Nadine out of Boulder. But a riot practically broke out when Mother Abagail named Fran Goldsmith, even after Mother Abagail healed her back.

But then Mother Abagail had again put her hand on Fran’s wrist, and this time she’d showed Fran something. When she was done, Fran was white with horror.

“I’ll go. I believe you. If he wins, my baby won’t be safe anywhere in the world.” But she stared down at Mother Abagail, her lips tight with anger. “But I’ll never forgive you and your killer God for making that the choice.”

“I’ll go too,” Stu offered. “I’m—” Lucy practically saw Stu decide it would be too rude or sexist to say, I’m a man. “I’m strong.”

“Do you think, Stu Redman,” Mother Abagail said, “that the Devil can be struck down with fists?”

Dumbly, Stu shook his head.

“Or a switchblade,” murmured Mother Abagail, shaking her head. “That poor, brave, foolish child…”

“She’s delirious,” Glen Bateman said. “We’re seriously considering sending three women out to die in the desert, because of a sick woman’s fever dreams.”

Mother Abagail’s gaze turned to him, and no one in their right mind would think she was delirious. “Four women. Sue Stern. Fran Goldsmith. Nadine Cross. And Lucy Swann.”

Lucy had never fainted in her life but she guessed there was always a first time. It wasn’t like the romance novels described it: no gentle dizziness and slow fall into black. She felt sick and broke out in ice-cold sweat, and stood there wondering if she should run to the bathroom to throw up or tough it out. Next thing she knew, she was opening her eyes on the floor, feeling bruised inside and out.

Larry helped her sit up and held her tight. She leaned into his warmth and strength, unable to believe that she had been chosen. Lucy Swann, goodtime girl. Lucy Swann, pilgrim to the dark place. As a little girl, she’d pushed aside Wonder Woman comics in favor of Archie. She’d always preferred Veronica, but she could be Betty too, if a guy liked the girl next door type. She could be sweet or she could be wild, but the one thing she could not be was a hero.

“Why me?” Lucy asked.

Mother Abagail’s breath wheezed in her lungs. “I couldn’t say, child. It wasn’t me that chose you.”

Lucy felt Larry’s chest expand against her back. “She doesn’t have to go. I’ll take her place.”

The old woman shook her head. “You weren’t chosen. She was.”

“You can’t send her,” Larry said angrily. “Look at her! She fainted just thinking about it!”

“It might have been the heat,” Lucy suggested. “Or—”

I might be pregnant.

She was late. She and Larry hadn’t been using condoms. Nobody knew, not even Larry. Lucy hadn’t wanted to say anything till she was sure, and Larry wasn’t the kind of guy who kept track of stuff like how long it had been since his girlfriend had last been on the rag. But Lucy had been irregular from stress before, too, and God knows she had that.

Mother Abagail looked straight at her, and Lucy knew the old woman knew what she was thinking. She shivered.

“Do you want to know?” Mother Abagail asked, and Lucy knew that if she said yes, Mother Abagail would tell her if she was pregnant or not.

“No, ma’am,” Lucy said, her voice shaking. How could she go, if the answer was yes? She wasn’t brave like Fran and Sue.

Everyone was staring at her and Mother Abagail, wondering what they were talking about. If Lucy told them it would just cause more trouble, more yelling and arguing and Larry demanding to take her place, and “What about the baby?” and “How can you choose without even knowing?”

If everyone knew, Lucy would never be strong enough to stand her ground.

Putting her hand on Larry’s shoulder for support, Lucy slowly got to her feet. “I’ll go,” she said, her voice coming out in a whisper. “I’ll walk with you.”

 

Fran expected the second night of the journey to be as grim as the first. Everyone was tired, Fran’s feet hurt, and Lucy’s walking shoes, which she’d taken new from a shop, were stiff and rubbed blisters into all but three of her toes. Sue seemed preoccupied, Lucy looked miserable, and Nadine was spookily silent.

They walked for a long stretch of highway, hot and thirsty, before they finally came across a gas station. Sue went in first and came out pale, with enough food and water for all four of them.

“Don’t go in,” she said, and refused to say why.

“We’ve all seen corpses,” Fran pointed out.

“Up to you,” Sue said. “But I wish I hadn’t seen it.”

Nobody else went in, and she said nothing as they ate and drank. But Fran caught up with Sue afterward as she walked ahead of the others, her long strides eating up the road.

She didn’t ask, but Sue answered. “It wasn’t the worst thing I’ve seen. It just got to me, I guess. It was a girl, maybe sixteen years old. Probably an athlete – her arms and shoulders were really built.”

“After all this time?”

“She hadn’t died of the flu, you see. She had a backpack and walking shoes. She—” Sue swallowed, looking sick. “She’d cut off her right arm with a saw.”

Fran’s stomach lurched. “What?”

“It was infected,” Sue explained. “Black and rotting all the way up to the elbow. She’d tied it off with a cord, but there was blood all over the floor anyway. Still wet. I don’t think it happened more than a couple hours ago. If we’d gotten here earlier, maybe one of us could have rigged a travois and taken her to Boulder.”

“From the sounds of it, she would have died anyway,” Fran said. That didn’t make it any better, but she wanted to say something. Sue looked like she’d been kicked in the stomach.

“At least she wouldn’t have died alone.” Sue shook her head. “She survived the flu, walked from who knows where, and died in a gas station between Boulder and Vegas. I wonder which way she was headed.”

“Does it matter?” asked Fran.

Sue’s direct brown eyes narrowed, troubled. “If it doesn’t, what are we doing here?”

When they finally camped for the night, they made a lucky find: the only nearby house was full of food and empty of corpses.

They heated a jug of apple juice to make cider, and poured cans of chili into bags of Fritos. Except for the lack of cheese, the Frito pies tasted exactly like they always had. Fran figured that even if the dark man won and the earth crumbled, a couple bags of Fritos would float around in space, unchanged and indestructible, as crunchy and salty as the day they were made.

There was no alcohol, but a giddy mood wafted up with the smoke, like laughing gas. Fran felt as lightheaded as if she’d drunk a six-pack on an empty stomach. It’s the altitude, she thought absurdly, though they were heading down.

“Let’s play ‘I Never,’” said Sue, holding up her cup of cider. “I never had a threesome.”

“You don’t start small,” remarked Fran, then dissolved into startled laughter when Lucy drank. “Lucy Swann! Did you enjoy it?”

Nadine, seeming interested for the first time, asked, “How did it happen?”

“Two men, or a man and a woman?” asked Sue. Delicately, she added, “Or two women?”

Lucy’s violet eyes crinkled with amusement. “Two men, and it was lovely. I met them in a bar. They were soldiers on leave, they’d been through a lot, and I wanted to give them something that was just happy and simple. Something they could remember and feel good about, along with all the other things they had to remember that were horrible.”

“That’s sweet,” said Sue, sounding a little doubtful. “But how was it for you?

“It was the most times I’ve ever come in my life,” Lucy said cheerfully. Then her expression turned solemn. “But also… it was good because I loved them. And they loved me. It was just for the moment, but it was real.”

“And I know what you’re thinking, Nadine,” Lucy added, turning on her suddenly. “Easy Lucy, opening her legs and calling it love! Stupid Lucy, hooking up with soldiers in a bar, it was just luck they didn’t rape her to death and dump her by the side of the road!”

Nadine didn’t deny it. “It was dangerous. You were lucky. You didn’t know them at all.”

“I had a good feeling about them,” Lucy replied. “And I was right. Anyway, you have to take risks sooner or later, or you never touch anyone at all. Sure, I didn’t know them for long. But some women marry men they knew for years, and then they find out their husbands like to use their fists. Or they already knew, and get together with them anyway. Just knowing someone doesn’t make them good for you.”

Fran had never heard Lucy speak up like this. The space between her and Nadine seemed to crackle with electricity, as if anyone who touched either of them would get a shock. Fran glanced at Sue, wondering if one of them should intervene.

Before she could, Nadine spoke again. “If you give it away to every man who wants it, they don’t value it. When I have sex, it’ll mean something.”

Fran thought she was the only one who noticed the future tense. But Sue’s eyebrows went up. “Nadine, are you saying you’re a virgin?”

Nadine’s chin lifted, a proud gesture, though her downcast gaze spoke of shame. “Yes.”

“So you weren’t actually doing anything with Harold?” Fran asked, baffled.

Nadine shrugged. “We did everything but. All the things that don't matter. I’m still saving myself.”

Lucy’s pink lips parted with surprise, and then she spoke with unexpected gentleness. “That’s a long time to wait. I hope it’s worth to you.”

Sue shook her head. “That’s not how I see it, Nadine. Sex is sex. Not to be crude, but any part goes into any hole, and that’s it as far as virginity’s concerned.”

“Well, that’s not how I see it,” Nadine retorted. “And that’s not how— Forget it. I’m going to bed.”

She lay down and closed her eyes, leaving the other women looking at each other across the fire. Silence fell, and the night seemed colder, and the starry sky filled with watching pinpoint eyes.

Mother Abagail called her the bride of darkness, Fran thought. Is that who she’s saving herself for?

 

Nadine had never been to Hemingford Home before, but she recognized it from descriptions: the plain dirt track, the field of rustling corn, the worn wood shack that was as much of a part of the earth as the corn and the dirt. On the porch, in her wood rocking chair, her feet propped up on an overturned washtub and her hands feeling around in another one right-side-up beside her, was the old woman who had told her she was going to Hell.

Nadine stood still in front of the shack. Mother Abagail gazed down at her, as if she were a fairly pretty but not particularly interesting insect— a grasshopper, say, or a June bug.

"I saw you die," Nadine said.

Mother Abagail said, "Mmmm," and continued fishing around in the tub. She pulled out several ears of corn and began peeling them, or whatever it was people did with corn. Nadine heard a rattling in the corn behind her and before she knew it, her foot was on the first step. She looked up at Mother Abagail, suspicious of a smile, but the old, old woman just kept fooling with her ears of corn.

Finally Mother Abagail looked down again. "You going to help?"

Nadine opened her mouth and said inadequately, "I don't know how."

This couldn't be right. Here was God's mystical messenger, Boulder's own bona fide female messiah, returned from the dead to walk in the dream-time with her, and they were going to fix food? What was next, washing holy dishes? Sweeping the floor of heaven?

Mother Abagail opened her toothless mouth and laughed— a real laugh, not a mean one or a sharp one, a warm, sweet, rich laugh from a woman who had seen too many bored or restless or wayward children and put them to work. "Learn you in bout half a minute, child. Come up here."

Nadine watched intently, as if she were going to be quizzed. Mother Abagail peeled off the outer leaves in a neat pattern until she had only one thin layer left, dropping them as she went in a paper bag so old and faded that it was nearly as soft and creased as her own skin. Then she pulled off the tassel, flipped the cob, snapped off the leaves and silks at the base and dropped them in her bag too.

She pointed the clean, bare cob of corn at Nadine. "Now you."

"You're dead," Nadine said. "You left us, then you came back, and, and then I saw you die! And you said—"

Mother Abagail's gaze was so mild upon her Nadine dropped her own and felt for a cob. She ripped at the tassel vengefully and left half the silk on, nearly splitting a nail. "Ow." She tried picking the slippery strands off with her fingertips, but that was harder than it had any right to be.

Perhaps drawn by her movement, a crow sprang out of a rattling cover of corn and landed neatly on Mother's front step, in the same place where Nadine had put her foot, all in one swift motion, not a pinfeather out of place. Nadine stayed perfectly still. The crow stared at her out of one shiny black eye, then turned its head to glare at Mother Abagail with the other.

Nadine waited for the other woman to screech or spring out of her rocker or toss the bag of tassels at it— something, anything— but when she finally looked over, Mother Abagail sat calmly as ever. She began to shuck corn again. The bird squawked loudly, flapping its wings as if in protest, but neither of them seemed terribly put out by the other.

Nadine stared at the bird, deathly afraid. Her hands had gone so cold she could no longer feel the cob in her grip, although she saw she was holding the leaves so tightly that green juice was oozing out slowly over her hands. Sickened, she swallowed hard.

"No need to catch a fright," Mother Abagail said calmly, rocking herself with, no more than a tiny push of her frail foot against the floor, in gentle rhythm with the movements of her hands. "Bird's been around forever. His eyes and ears, that's all. His spy."

She looked at Nadine. "Like you, that's all. Just like you."

Nadine was more petrified than she'd ever been with Flagg. Fear rose around her like a cold black wave, like the hell Mother had said she was going to. She couldn't even voice the denial both of them knew was worthless.

"That's why you're here," Mother Abagail told her, then corrected herself: "There. With the other women. He knew," and there was no mistaking which Him she meant now. "Sakes, child, He knows all, you think He didn't know that? About you? He knew Adam would eat the apple."

She began rocking harder, her words an incantation in time with the sound of the runners on the wood. "He knew Cain kilt his brother. He knew Judas would betray. That Peter would deny. The rock cries out to you, no hiding place. There is nowhere left to go. There never was."

Her gaze was gentle and pitiless, and went through Nadine like a hog-killing knife. "The quest is for you. The stand is yours. You choose. Up till now, you been playing. But now the time for childish games is over. The dark man set you to be his spy, make you a traitor. But now you know: you are not bringing them to him. They are bringing you."

Nadine threw back her head to scream, to howl, to stop the terrible, truthful words, and a whole murder of crows flew upward from the corn and into the sky and covered it with darkness, and she was awake and staring up at the stars, her own hand clamped over her mouth, sure she had woken Fran and Sue and Lucy with her screaming. But it was so quiet she could hear the soft breathing of the sleepers.

The fire was out, and the stars blazed above her, until they blurred and she felt the salt water running from her eyes, so warm the cold after it was burning.

 

Dayna stared numbly down at the thing that, a second ago, had been her switchblade: a banana lying on the carpet, yellow and absurd, complete with a blue and white Chiquita sticker.

Flagg stood over it, laughing and laughing. Of course he was laughing. What a joke, that Dayna had thought she could kill the Devil with a switchblade.

But in a moment, he’d stop laughing and look into her eyes, and then she’d tell him everything he wanted to know. The other spy is Tom Cullen. He’s right here in Las Vegas. You can torture him to death whenever you want, now that I’ve told you his name.

Or maybe Flagg would never stop laughing, not when she gave up Tom, not when he ripped her open with his bare hands that had no lines on the palms or prints on the fingers, pulled her guts out slowly and kept on laughing, laughing forever, till the second end of the world.

Dayna’s gaze fell on the huge window. She drew in a breath to spin around and—

The door flung open. Dayna wobbled, caught in the tension before movement. Jenny Engstrom stood in the doorway, her pistol leveled at Dayna.

No. Her pistol was leveled at Flagg.

The laughter cut off like a turned-off radio.

“Get out of here, Jurgens.” Jenny’s voice and gun hand were shaking, and her face was the color of soured milk. She was doing the bravest thing Dayna had ever seen, but she didn’t look brave. She looked terrified. “Go back to the old lady. Tell them all what he’s planning.”

Dayna dared a glance at Flagg. For just a second, she saw astonishment in his face. He’d known about the Judge, he’d known about Dayna and her switchblade, but he hadn’t known that Jenny would change her mind. Then the surprise vanished, leaving only amusement.

“You really think you can kill me with that?” Flagg crooned, shaking his finger as if Jenny was a toddler threatening him with a Nerf bat.

Jenny’s finger tensed on the trigger, jerking it over and over, convulsively. Bright pink Silly String sprayed out of the pistol, falling in squiggles over the carpet and desk, as if some executive had thrown a less-than-wild birthday party in the office.

Flagg began laughing again, with great jolly humor that made Dayna want to throw up. He beckoned to Jenny. Her left foot lifted up, jerkily, as if controlled by invisible strings, and came down in front of her. Flagg beckoned again, and Jenny took another step forward.

“Tell them!” Jenny screamed.

Dayna whirled around and bolted out the door, leaving her friend, her betrayer, her friend.

Every step she took, she expected to run smack into Lloyd and Whitney and the guards. Or to feel her own body freeze in place as Flagg seized control of it. But the casino was empty, unguarded. Flagg must have dismissed everyone, wanting to be alone with Dayna, to break her at his leisure.

Like he must be breaking Jenny, right now.

Dayna forced herself not to tear straight out the door. She’d been taken to the casino in the middle of the night, and only a few people knew about her arrest. Her only chance, and it was an absurdly tiny one, was to do her best not to attract attention.

Trying not to think of what Flagg had to be doing to Jenny (turning his fingernails into knives and skinning her alive, looking into her eyes and driving her mad, stop it, Dayna, stop it) Dayna walked briskly out the front door of the casino.

The streets were silent and empty. It was like the days after Captain Trips, when Dayna had thought she was the only living person in the world.

A crash of breaking glass made Dayna jump, her breath catching, her throat too dry with fear to even scream. Something plummeted down and smashed into the sidewalk, three feet away from her.

Jenny Engstrom lay broken on the ground, limbs and neck and back twisted and shattered, like a doll ruined in a child’s tantrum. Her face was still white, but the fear had gone from it.

A bellow of inhuman rage rose from the broken window, and Dayna knew that this death had not been at Flagg’s hands or by his intent.

Dayna tensed to run. Then a strange calm came over her. She would escape, or not. She would be captured by Flagg, or not. But she would never give him what he wanted. If Jenny could die first, so could Dayna.

Not caring who might see or what precious seconds it might lose her, Dayna knelt beside Jenny’s body and kissed her cooling forehead.

“Goodbye, Jenny,” Dayna whispered. “I’m glad we got a chance to be friends.”

Flagg’s scream of impotent fury had never stopped. It was still keening into the darkened sky, already for far longer than any human could draw breath. No one in Vegas would stop Dayna; no one would dare come out from wherever they were hiding, so long as that demonic tantrum continued.

Dayna straightened up, and began walking east.

 

There was a crow in the barn. Still alive, somehow, though the barn seemed to have been closed up ever since the superflu.

Fran was cautiously exploring the barn for stray potatoes or other food when a mass of black feathers exploded up from a grain bin, cawing, obsidian beak darting toward her eyes. She leaped backward, instinctively throwing up her hands to protect her face.

Her foot came down on empty air. She hurtled backward, falling.

Time slowed enough for her to think, This is bad… This is so bad. And then, terrified, My baby!

Then time sped up, and she slammed into the basement floor, in a half-sitting position with her legs doubled up beneath her. Dazed, Fran’s first thought was relief that she hadn’t landed on her belly. She’d had one hell of a fall, but she doubted that it was enough to cause a miscarriage.

And then Lucy and Sue and Nadine had come down the steps and stared at her left leg, and Frannie realized that her baby was going to die after all, because she was going to die.

They carried her out of the basement and set her down on a heap of straw, and Sue splinted her leg while Lucy held her hand and Nadine hung back, biting her knuckles, her beautiful face as dead white as the streaks in her hair.

Of course, Frannie thought, dreamy with shock. I broke my leg, just like Harold. Too bad I don’t have a gun to shoot myself with, like Harold did.

Nadine had gone white like that when they’d found Harold’s body and his last note, signed with that nickname that had more sad dignity, under the circumstances, than his old HAROLD EMERY LAUDER. Whatever else Nadine might have done or known, she’d obviously been shocked by Harold’s death.

“I’ll stay with Frannie,” Lucy said, squeezing her hand. “You two go on.”

Fran gently disengaged her fingers. “That’s not the plan. You have to leave me.”

Sue gave Fran a grateful glance, obviously relieved that she didn’t have to be the one to say it.

“But there’s nothing I can do to fight him,” Lucy protested. “I’m the third wheel. Fran and Sue were on the council, and Nadine… Well…” Awkwardly, Lucy finished, “Well, obviously, if I’m here for any reason at all, it’s to stay behind right now and save Fran’s life.”

“That’s not the plan,” Sue said, echoing Fran’s words.

“None of us know why we’re here,” Nadine said unexpectedly.

“Carry me outside, will you?” Fran asked. “I want to see the sky.”

“It’ll be even colder outside,” Lucy protested. “At least in the barn, there’s walls to protect you against the wind. You could cover yourself in straw. You’ll freeze to death outside!”

“I know,” said Fran.

That struck Lucy dumb. Sue and Nadine were the ones who stepped forward to chair-carry Frannie outside. They set her down with her back against the barn, in an open field with a view of the road. The sky was overcast. Lucy was crying.

Sue went back to the barn, and returned with an armload of potatoes and two big paint cans, washed clean and filled with water. She set them beside Fran, along with matches and hay and firewood.

“I was right,” Fran said. “There were potatoes in the cellar.”

“Turnips, too,” said Sue with a watery smile. “Want some of those?”

“I’ll pass.”

Fran said her good-byes to Sue and Lucy, then turned to Nadine. “You stay for a minute. Catch up with them.”

Nadine knelt down in front of Frannie, after Sue and Lucy had walked on out of earshot. Now that Frannie had her, she didn’t know what to say to her. If Nadine truly was in league with the dark man, nothing Fran could say to her would change her mind. And her leg hurt so badly that it was hard to think of anything else.

Fran laid her hand on Nadine’s arm. “You’re stronger than I thought. I realized it when you were carrying me.”

It was true. You’d never know it to look at her, so delicate and ethereal and otherworldly. But beneath all that floating hair and soft skin was hard bone and dense muscle.

Nadine’s dark eyebrows rose. “Is that what you wanted to tell me?”

Despite her pain, Fran managed a chuckle. “Didn’t you used to be an English teacher? It’s a metaphor. Or a simile. I never could remember the difference.”

“Neither,” replied Nadine. “It’s a symbol.”

Fran couldn’t read the black mirrors of Nadine’s eyes. Her head was spinning, and she wasn’t sure what she’d said had made any sense at all.

“Thank you,” Nadine said. “Good-bye, Fran.”

She didn’t take the dirt path right beside her, but walked away beside it, over the damp grass of the field. Her feet sank into the ground, and made no sound.

Fran leaned against the worn slats of the barn, thinking of Stu and her baby and the women walking down the road. Her mind drifted to the day when she’d buried her father. No one would bury her. Stu would probably never even know what happened to her. In a few months, her body would be unrecognizable.

She picked up a sharp bit of rock and began scratching on the rust-red paint. She couldn’t imagine that Stu would ever see this. Then again, what were the chances that Larry Underwood would find Harold’s painted signs?

Fran wrote,

Stu,
I broke my leg. Sue, Lucy, and Nadine went on. I love you.
Fran

She thought of adding more, but her hands were shaking and she felt dizzy and sick. She put down the rock. She’d said everything that was important. It would have to do.

 

Lucy knew they were getting close to the border. The sun shone and a wind blew fine cirrus around the bright blue sky, but the light was odd at the corners of her eyes, as if twilight was gathering and she couldn't quite catch it. She thought of Statues, a game she had never liked, the way the other children crept up behind you and you had to turn to stop them in their tracks, turn faster and faster.....

She was walking next to Nadine, Sue having "taken point," as she called it, to see what danger might be ahead (other than plague, gangs and the Devil.)

It was a measure of how desperate she was to distract herself that Lucy blurted out, "What d'you think Frannie's doing now? Roasting potatoes, or—"

"Roasting potatoes?" Nadine stopped in her tracks, those elegant eyebrows arching. “With a broken leg, outside in the freezing cold, with the two days’ worth of water we left her? What do you think she’s doing?”

Lucy flinched as if Nadine had slapped her. Maybe Frannie wasn’t dead yet, but they’d left her to die, and die she would.

Nadine looked down. "I'm sorry."

Lucy was so surprised that she stopped too. She didn't think she'd heard Nadine apologize to anyone before— and to her! But Nadine was already walking ahead.

Lucy caught up and said quietly, "No. Nadine, I'm sorry."

Now Nadine seemed shocked, but she didn't stop again. A moment later the mask was back in place, cool and faintly amused: "Should I ask why?"

Lucy bit her lip, but kept going. "You know why. I hollered at you. And doubted you."

Never believed, more like. Never trusted her for a minute, never knew why Mother Abagail had said she had to go, any more than she'd insisted Lucy come along too. Lucy forced a laugh. "Cause of Larry, I guess. I...."

Nadine was silent, frowning a little. Thinking. Her snow-white, crow-black hair flowed in the wind, still shiny and soft-looking, to Lucy's envy. Had Nadine stowed a miniature beauty parlor in her pocket, or was great hair a side effect of selling your soul?

"No, it wasn't Larry," Nadine said, finally.

Lucy surprised herself by agreeing. "No, I guess it wasn't."

They walked on a little while, but the silence felt companionable now.

Nadine made a sound that would have been a sigh from another woman, hissing and sad. "It wasn't Larry," she said again. "You had him. Have him. He has you. Fran has Stu. Everyone has. It's not just the sex," she said, a little defiantly, still, and Lucy hid a smile. "I was thinking about what you said, you and Sue. I thought, even if nobody had me, he had me, all the time. The dark man. He was first. I belonged to him." She laughed, brief and bitter. "Little did I know. I was his anyway."

"That's not what Mother Abagail would say," Lucy said defiantly.

Nadine got her thinking-look again, the tiny crease between her perfect brows (maybe if I wait up at night I'll catch her with a pair of tweezers) somehow emphasizing her beauty, not marring it. "No," she agreed, "she didn't."

"Did she say that when she sent us out?" Lucy frowned herself, trying to remember.

"No. Last night." Nadine looked sly, as if trying to provoke her, but Lucy kept a poker face. "You know. In one of those prophetic nightmares. She knew." Nadine now looked ineffably sad. "She knew everything."

"She doesn't know what'll happen to us," Lucy pointed out.

Nadine was scornful. "A child could know what'll happen to us! We'll get picked off one by one. And that’s if we're lucky, if we fail completely and don't even reach our fated destination. “Oh, I know, I know," she said, as if Lucy was arguing with her. "'Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall' and all that. It never made sense. How can the creations of something omnipotent have a choice?"

Lucy was breathless. This was the most she'd heard Nadine ever say at one time. She was only sorry Frannie was missing it. But she was interested in Nadine, not the theology.

"What....was that from?" Lucy asked cautiously.

"Milton," Nadine said indifferently. After a minute she relented. "Paradise Lost. It used to be on the teaching exams. I memorized a lot of it once."

She didn't put on a "poetry-reading" voice as most people did, and she paused at the ends of the lines as if they were sentences, which Lucy found easy to follow.

"Such I created all th' Ethereal Powers
And Spirits, both them who stood & them who faild;
Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell.
Not free, what proof could they have givn sincere
Of true allegiance...."

Nadine frowned. "I'm missing a lot....'I formd them free, and free they must remain, Till they enthrall themselves: I else must change.... they themselves, something.... ordain'd their fall.' The same conceit as John Donne's Holy Sonnets. We tempt ourselves."

The heat and the thirst must have been working on her: she sounded as she must have before Flagg, before Harold, before the superflu, before everything. Lucy could see her now, prim and proper in a buttoned-up dress, careful to stand away from the blackboard to avoid the chalk dust.

"John Donne?"

Nadine could remember more of him. Probably, she said, because his meter was regular and the human mind was attracted to rhymes, which made Lucy think of Larry trying to write songs. Lucy figured she was doing it to pass the miles, but to her own surprise, she enjoyed listening to Nadine recite poems and explain the vocabulary and rhetorical twists. She must have been a good teacher, Lucy thought.

The darkness was falling around them, like sheets of rain; since abandoning Fran, they had made very poor time.

Even Sue had slowed down, not that you'd know it now as she came back for them, grim with the news they already knew: "Getting dark faster. We need to camp soon, and tomorrow we need to put on some speed."

Lucy felt her heart about to fall out of her shoes, as Stu would say. Fran was gone, and surely Lucy would be next. Sue might survive the longest, athletic and savvy as she was. Unless Nadine....no, Nadine had been doubly right: the best thing would be if they failed, if they never reached what had been jokingly called Sin City. It sure wasn’t funny now.

They camped less than twenty miles from the place they'd left Fran. Lucy couldn't help thinking how quick it would be if they found a car with even a quarter tank of gas, the keys still in the ignition, turned it around, and drove straight on back.

She watched the sparks from their scrub fire flying up into the blackness, winking out long before they ever got near the tiny glowing stars. An owl hooted somewhere, a low witchy sound that made her think of Nadine. Lucy looked over, expecting to see her long since gone off into the desert, but she was still there, almost out of reach of the firelight, the flames glinting on the shiny threads of white in her long hair and the crescents of her lowered eyes.

"Go back to sleep, Lucy," Nadine said without looking up.

Lucy shut her eyes even tighter and tried to think of Larry, then not to think of Larry, not to think of anything at all.

 

Dayna leaned into the wind. Her skin was raw and chapped from cold and dust, but she didn’t care. After so many days and nights on the road, sneaking like a rat and jumping at shadows, she was finally beginning to believe that she really had escaped.

The latest motorcycle she’d found was also the best, a vintage Harley that felt like an extension of her own body. She’d been forced to abandon three others, two at crevasses and one because of some mechanical problem she couldn’t figure out. Dayna hoped the Harley would last her all the way to Boulder. She’d been contemplating naming it, but had avoided it for fear of attracting bad luck.

Dayna had never been a superstitious person before the apocalypse, but seeing miracles and having prophetic dreams had gotten her to thinking maybe there might be something to other stuff she used to think was silly. Not that she was going to go overboard with that. If a black cat crossed her path, she wouldn’t do anything but crouch down and call, “Here, kitty, kitty.”

The sun was lowering behind her when she saw a red barn. Dayna slowed, wondering if she should camp there or push on. A sign a couple miles back had said “Springfield 40 miles.” Every state seemed to have at least one Springfield.

Springfield would have beds, but Dayna was tired. No sense riding till she was exhausted and maybe wrecking the Harley. She slowed to take it off road, riding over a bumpy dirt path to the barn.

A corpse lay beside the barn. Dayna hardly gave it a glance at first as she headed for the doors, then stopped, turning to give it a second look. It had been months since the flu; the bodies from that were starting to skeletonize. This body was fresh, turned on its belly but with a perfectly intact arm visible, hiding its face.

Of course: not a corpse at all. A sleeper. A survivor, just like her.

When she came closer, stepping softly, she could hear harsh, labored breathing. Remembered fear gripped Dayna. Captain Trips!

Then she saw the rough splint around the woman’s leg. She was injured, that was all. Probably sick from exposure.

Dayna walked up and knelt by the woman’s side. She didn’t stir, deep in a sleep that was probably closer to unconsciousness. Her hair was dark and tangled, her skin flushed and sweaty.

As Dayna reached out her hand to wake the woman, her mind was already inventorying the supplies she had with her: a sleeping bag, some soup, a basic medical kit she’d hastily put together several towns back… She’d probably need to drive ahead to the town after all, to find a pharmacy.

Then Dayna saw the writing on the wall, and her heart turned over in her chest.

She read Fran’s note to Stu, scratched out in shaky letters, and, beside it, a list headed Things to Remember:

Tourists
Fast-forward
McDonald’s
Bus tokens
The Oscars
Rock stars
Fashion shows
Tropical fruit year-round
Traffic tickets

The list by went on and on, spilling out of the original neat column to fill up all the space that could be reached by a tall woman sitting down. Probably at the last, Frannie had drawn a clumsy box around her note to Stu, to set it off from her epitaph for a world gone by.

What in the world was Fran Goldsmith doing here, alone and injured, so far from home?

“Frannie?” Dayna said softly, putting her hand on Fran’s shoulder. “Frannie, wake up.”

Fran didn’t stir until Dayna rolled her over on to her back, careful not to jar her leg. “My leg hurts. What happened?”

“I was hoping you could tell me,” Dayna replied, uncertain how much Frannie was understanding. “What are you doing here?”

Fran’s gaze slipped out of focus. “My chest hurts. I want Stu to come rub my back. Where is he?”

Dayna supposed she could get answers later. “He’s not here right now, Frannie. Come on, we have to get you inside. Just lean as much of your weight as you can on me.”

Fran protested as Dayna hauled her to her feet, then stumbled into the barn. There were heaps of hay, tools and feed bins and scrap metal, and an open trap door leading into a dark cellar.

“I don’t want to go in the cellar,” Fran mumbled. “It’s a bad place. The crow made me go in.”

“You’re not going in the cellar,” Dayna said patiently, laying her down on a bed of straw.

She shut the trap door, wondering if Frannie had broken her leg falling into it. But surely she couldn’t have gotten out on her own. Fran relaxed once the trap door was closed, but the exertion set off a nasty coughing fit.

Dayna was no doctor, but fever, chest pain, and coughing after being stuck outside in cold weather with a broken leg for who knows how long suggested pneumonia to her. Fran needed care, warmth, and antibiotics, and to rest up somewhere more comfortable than a freezing cold barn. But she was in no shape to ride a motorcycle, and Dayna hadn’t seen any cars on the road or parked by the barn.

She fetched her bags from the Harley, unzipped her sleeping bags and draped it over Fran, and laid down some sheet metal so she could start a fire on the floor and make some soup from the Lipton packets she had with her.

The fire didn’t do much to heat the barn, but Dayna helped Fran sit up and held a soup mug to her lips. As Fran slowly drank, Dayna wondered again why Fran was there, and what the odds were that Dayna had found her. A chance in a million, she supposed. Like the odds of either of them surviving the superflu.

“I’m sorry you missed Sue,” Fran said suddenly. “But she’ll be glad to know you made it. She was afraid that she’d gotten you killed.”

“What?” Dayna asked, unnerved. “Sue Stern? Was she with you?”

But Fran was wandering again, her gaze drifting and distant. “I have to bury my Daddy. There’s nobody else to do it.”

Dayna laid Fran back down in the straw. “I’m going to get you medicine. I’ll be back in a couple hours, probably.”

Dayna hurried out, threw her leg over the Harley, and roared off. Screw superstition, she loved this bike. This bike was going to help her save Fran. It deserved a name.

As she gunned it along the road, keeping a wary eye out for wrecked cars and other hazards, she let her mind drift to suitable namesakes. Amelia Earhart? Babe Didrikson Zaharias, the all-rounder whom Dad had always said was one of the greatest athletes in the history of America?

Dayna smiled to herself, remembering all those hours she’d spent on the sofa with Dad, watching sports on TV. The two of them watched anything if someone good was playing, even football, which bored Dayna.

Mom joined them sometimes to keep them company, but the only sport she really enjoyed was tennis. All three of them had leaped to their feet and pumped their fists, cheering at the top of their lungs until their downstairs neighbor had banged on the ceiling with a broom, when Billie Jean King had kicked Bobby Riggs’ ass in the Battle of the Sexes.

“Come on, Billie Jean,” Dayna whispered to the Harley. “Let’s go find medicine for Frannie.”

The stars and half-moon shone bright over Springfield. Cats and rats and possums and raccoons scuttled out of Dayna’s path as she rode Billie Jean through the streets, searching for a pharmacy, a Physician’s Desk Reference, a nice house without corpses and a car that would start. When she had everything she needed, she parked Billie Jean, got in the car, and drove back to the barn.

Dayna pulled up the car beside the door, so Fran wouldn’t have to walk one step more than she absolutely had to. Fear prickled her nerves as she reached for the door. If she opened it, and found Fran dead, she didn’t think she could stand it.

To her relief, Fran’s raspy breathing filled the barn.

Dayna knelt beside her, gently shaking her awake. “I found a car, Frannie. I found medicine. I found a nice house where we can hole up till you’re better. Once you’re all rested up, I’ll find a bike for you, and we can ride back to Boulder together.”

Fran blinked up at Dayna with fever-bright eyes, uncomprehending. “Tell Stu that I love him.”

“You can tell him yourself, honey,” said Dayna, stroking back her damp hair. “I’ve come to take you home.”

 

"I'll take first watch," Nadine had said, after Sue had chosen a washout to camp in.

They had drunk their fill of water, but there was no food, not even a snack. Sue had said in an undertone to Nadine that if they'd found any food, anything at all, even a bag of chips, it was best to give it to Lucy first. Nadine had shrugged, letting Sue keep up the pretense that Lucy was the weakest member.

"We are all God's children," Mother Abagail's voice, low and smooth as a cello note, said right in her ear.

Nadine shrugged, watching the abstract shapes in the fire.

He'll kill them, Nadine replied to Mother Abagail in her mind. He killed Fran, and he'll kill Lucy and Sue, and then he'll come for me. And if I die, I'll be lucky. If not, he'll… And then I'll be in hell. Alive or dead. Forever. His blushing bride.

Nadine sat with her knees to her chin and her arms wrapped around her legs, making as tight a ball of herself as she could, knowing all protection, all comfort, was futile. She waited until the flames died to coals and nearly all of the coals were ashes, and then she woke Sue and lay down herself, knowing she would not sleep. That sleep and rest and peace were no longer hers, not even after death.

Nadine closed her eyes…

I love you, Frannie scratched on the wall, like a dying rat.

Frannie had so many things to remember, for the baby. 8 track tapes. Cassettes. AM Radio. Susan B. Anthony dollars.

Dayna was wrestling Fran out of the back seat of a car. She screamed when her foot touched the ground.

Frannie scratched on the wall: Penicillin. Ampicillin. Aspirin.

The darkness was pressing in all around them. She could feel him at her back, the cold burning, grinning like a wolf, tongue lolling, eager to lick clean their bones and drink their blood.

Wolfman Jack. CB Radio. The war on drugs. Mount St. Helens.

"I'm here," the dark man said softly. "I'm always here."

Klaus Barbie. James Earl Ray. Hiroshima. The Tenerife Disaster. Patty Hearst.

"Frannie?" Dayna leaned over a still figure on a bed. "Can you hear me? Frannie!"

Nadine reached out. "I'll help you. Dayna, I'll help you."

Frannie opened her eyes. “I’m here, Dayna. Don’t yell, it makes my head hurt.”

"I can't die!" Randall Flagg cried, desperate, and Nadine felt the fire take her, the Hand of God reaching down to lift her up, every hair on her head rising like a halo, aflame.

She sat straight up. It was daylight, and the other women were awake too, staring at her.

"Nadine," Lucy said, horrified. "My God."

"Your hair!" Even Sue was shocked.

There was no black any more in the hair cascading onto her shoulders. It was the finest, purest white, and it floated around her like a bridal veil.

Nadine laughed. Sue tensed, probably looking for a straightjacket.

"No, no." Nadine tried to stop laughing, to calm down. She felt light-headed. Even, ridiculously, light-hearted. "It's all right. I saw them. I saw her, Lucy. I saw Fran."

"Frannie's dead?" Lucy squeaked.

"No! Dayna was there. She saved her. Fran's alive. So is her baby."

Lucy's hand went unconsciously to her own stomach. "Her baby....?"

“A girl,” Nadine said, though she didn’t know how she knew that.

“I dreamed of Dayna too,” Sue said, as calm as ever. “I saw her on the road, riding a Harley. She was headed east.”

“I dreamed too,” Lucy said slowly. “But not of Dayna or Fran. I dreamed that I was carrying twins. It felt real— it is real. I’m sure of it. And I’m sure that your dream was true, too, Nadine. Fran’s alive.”

As she watched cautious happiness blossom on Lucy and Sue’s faces, a serenity washed through Nadine, a peace that was close to joy. She was walking to her death, she was sure. But it was a fate she had chosen. And she wasn’t walking alone.

 

The sun glared white-hot over Nevada.

They’d all been quiet since they’d passed the sign that marked the border. Lucy didn’t need any post-apocalyptic psychic flashes to know that they were all thinking how about close they were to Las Vegas, and how any curve in the road might reveal a bunch of the dark man’s thugs.

Or the dark man himself.

Their hands brushed against each other as they headed down the road, Nadine’s steady, Lucy’s trembling, Sue’s tensed and ready.

One step, and Lucy was certain that she’d never again see Boulder, never again make love to Larry, never again kiss Leo good night. Her twins would never draw breath. Frannie had died alone. Nadine would betray them. The dark man would win. Hate would triumph over love.

Another step, and she believed that Nadine was honest and her dream was true. Frannie was alive. Dayna was alive. Frannie’s baby would live. Hate would consume itself, and the travellers would fulfill their purpose, whether or not they ever returned.

The women walked on, journeying west.