Thief of Souls
1. THE REPAIR MAN
DILLON’S ARMS HAD GROWN STRONG FROM HIS LABORS.
At first, his back and shoulders had filled with a fiery soreness that grew worse each day as he worked. His biceps would tighten into twisted, gnarled knots—but in time his body had grown accustomed to the work. So had his mind.
He dug the spade in the soft dirt, and flung it easily over his shoulder.
The chill wind of a late-September night filtered through the nearby forest, filling the midnight air with the rich scent of pine. He shivered. With knuckles stiff from gripping the shovel, he struggled to zip his jacket to the very top. Then he resumed digging, planting the spade again and hurling the dirt, beginning to catch the rhythm of it, giving in to the monotony of spade and earth. He made sure not to get any dirt on the blanket he had brought with him.
He realized he should have worn heavy workboots for the job, but his sneakers, though caked with mud, never seemed to wear out. None of his clothes ever wore out. He had just torn his jeans hopping over the wrought-iron fence, but he knew they would be fine. Even now, the shredded threads around the tear were weaving together.
The fact was, Dillon Cole couldn’t have a pair of faded,
worn-out jeans if he wanted to. He called it “a fringeless fringe benefit.” A peculiar side-effect of his unique blessing.
The shovel dug down. Dirt flew out.
“I got a scratch.”
The small boy’s voice made Dillon flinch, interrupting the rhythm of his digging.
“Carter,” warned Dillon, “I told you to stay with that family until I got back.”
“But the scratch hurts.”
Dillon sighed, put the shovel down and brushed a lock of his thick red hair out of his eyes. “All right, let me see your hand.”
Carter stretched out his arm to show a scratch across the back of his hand. It wasn’t a bad scratch, just enough to draw the tiniest bit of blood, which glistened in the moonlight.
“How’d you do this?” Dillon asked.
Carter just shrugged. “Don’t know.”
Dillon took a long look at the boy. He couldn’t see the boy’s eyes clearly in the moonlight, but he could tell Carter was lying. I won’t challenge him just yet, Dillon thought. Instead he brought his index finger across Carter’s hand, concentrating his thoughts on the scratch.
The boy breathed wondrously as he watched the tiny wound pull itself closed far more easily than the zipper on Dillon’s jacket. “Oh!”
Dillon let the boy’s hand go. “You made that scratch yourself, didn’t you? You did it on purpose.”
Carter didn’t deny it. “I love to watch you heal.”
“I don’t heal,” reminded Dillon. “I fix things that are broken.”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Carter, who had heard it all before. “Reversing Enter-P.”
“Entropy,” Dillon corrected. “Reversing entropy,” and he began to marvel at how something so strange had become so familiar to him.
“Go back to those people,” Dillon scolded Carter gently. He returned to digging. “You’re too young to be here.”
“So are you.”
Dillon smiled. He had to admit that Carter was right. Sixteen was woefully young to be doing what he was doing. But he had to do it anyway. He reasoned that it was his penance; the wage of his sins until every last bit of what he had destroyed was fixed.
The blade of Dillon’s shovel came down hard, with a healthy bang.
Carter jumped. “What was that?”
Dillon shot him a warning glance. “Go back to the house.”
“That woman won’t stop praying,” Carter complained, shifting his weight from one leg to the other, and back again. “It makes me nervous.”
“You go back there and tell them I’ll be back in an hour. And then you sit down and pray with them.”
“Trust me, Carter. You don’t want to see this. Go!”
Carter kicked sullenly at the dirt, then turned to leave. Dillon watched him weave between the polished gravestones and slip through the wrought-iron fence.
When Dillon was sure Carter was gone, he took a long moment to prepare his mind for the task of fixing. Then he brushed away the dirt, and reached for the lip of the coffin.
LITTLE KELLY JESSUP, WRAPPED in a blanket, clung to Dillon Cole, shivering. Dillon braced himself as he carried her through the door of the Jessup home. Mrs. Jessup stood in the hallway,
not quite ready to believe what her eyes told her, until the little girl looked up and said, “Mommy?”
The woman’s scream could have woken the dead, if the job had not already been done.
DILLON’S DREAMS THAT NIGHT were interrupted, as they always were, by the green flash of the supernova—a memory that had seared its way deep into his unconscious. It was the first flash of vision that there were five others like him out there . . . and the first inkling of what they truly were; the most powerful and luminous souls on earth. Shards of the fractured soul of the scorpion star, incarnated in human flesh.
From there his dream took a turn into nightmare, and he knew where he would find himself next. The throne room of a crumbling palace, on a ruined mountain, within the red sands of what he could only call “the Unworld.” That non-place that existed between the walls of worlds.
And before him stood the parasitic beast that had leeched onto his soul for so many years, its gray muscles rippling, its veiny wings batting the air, and its face an evil distortion of his own. It was a creature that would never have grown so powerful, had Dillon’s own soul not been so bright.
I will be fed! it told him. You will destroy for me. I will feed on the destruction you bring.
In the dream, Dillon saw himself raising the gun to shoot it, knowing what was about to happen, unable to stop it. He pulled the trigger, the beast stepped aside . . . and there was Deanna.
The bullet struck the chest of the girl Dillon himself would die for.
He ran to her, took her in his arms, while the beast flexed its muscles, absorbing this act of destruction, feeding on Deanna’s dying breaths.
“I’m not afraid,” coughed Deana; “I’m not afraid”—for after she had purged the parasite of fear from her own soul, terror had no hold on her.
Suffer the weight, Dillon, the creature said, as Deanna died in his arms. Suffer the weight of destruction . . . and every moment you suffer is a moment I grow strong . . . .
Dillon was shaken awake by small hands on his shoulders. He opened his eyes to see Carter standing above him. By now this had become a regular routine.
“Dreaming about the monster again?”
Dillon nodded. The thing was still alive out there, Dillon knew. Both his beast and Deanna’s still stalked the sands of the Unworld. The other four shards had killed their parasites, and Dillon suspected that if his were dead too, it wouldn’t invade his dreams with such alarming regularity.
“My dog had worms once,” said Carter. “They got to his heart and ate him from the inside out. Was that what it was like having that thing inside you?”
“Something like that,” said Dillon. He sat up, taking a moment to orient himself. Where was he this time? What had he done here? He was in the Jessups’ home. Yes—that was it. Kelly Jessup had been dead almost a year now, and her parents driven insane. Dillon had undone all that damage.
Dillon looked at his watch. Three in the morning. “Get back to bed,” Dillon told Carter. “We need an early start tomorrow.”
Carter returned to the couch across the guest room. “Who do we see tomorrow?”
“A family called the Bradys. There’ll be more work than here.”
“What about my father?” asked Carter.
Like so many others, Carter’s father had gone insane, and
died a nasty death last year. Dillon’s failure to find his grave was something Carter loved to hang over Dillon’s head, and was a constant reminder to Dillon that there were still a million and one things and people screaming to be fixed.
“I’ll find him,” said Dillon. “And I’ll fix him, just like I promised.”
Carter shrugged. “No rush,” he said, far too pleasantly. “I like being called Carter instead of Delbert anyway.”
The thought unsettled Dillon. When the boy had been found, last year, wandering the streets, he had been a mumbling, maddened lunatic, just like everyone else left alive here in Burton, Oregon. He hadn’t even known his own name.
“Carter was the tag on your T-shirt. Do you want to be named after an underwear company?”
“I don’t care.”
And that was the problem. Since Dillon had fixed the boy’s mind, he had latched on to Dillon like a puppy. Dillon didn’t mind the company, but he knew it just wasn’t right. Life with Dillon was a poor substitute for life with his real family.
Dillon, knowing he would not sleep again tonight, turned to leave the room, but Carter stopped him.
“You were calling her name out in your sleep,” Carter said.
Dillon sighed, wishing he could forget the dream. “Was I?”
Carter rolled over on the couch to face him. “You know,” said Carter, “you could bring her back now . . . .”
Dillon grimaced to hear the words spoken aloud. When Deanna had died, Dillon had had no skill in bringing chaos from order, life out of death. All he knew was how to see patterns of destruction and act upon them. But a year had honed his skills. Now it would be so easy to take Deanna’s broken body in his arms and bring her back to life, cell by cell. He imagined that moment when he could gather her life back and
see her smile at him again. Hear the gentle forgiveness in her voice.
But he could not get to her. She was sealed away in the Unworld—a place Dillon could not reach. He was trapped in the here-and-now, and the people around him were constant reminders that he didn’t deserve Deanna. All he deserved was the endless, exhausting task of fixing the disasters he had created—because he’d never be able to forgive himself for willfully feeding his parasite—until he had repaired every last bit of his decimation. From the moment the other four surviving shards had left him, he knew what his job was going to be. And one of the first things he bought was a shovel.
“Yes, I know I could bring her back,” he told Carter. “Now go to sleep.”
Carter rolled over, and in a few moments, he was sleeping peacefully. And why not? thought Dillon. He had repaired the boy’s psyche so well, he never had nightmares, in spite of the horrors he had been through.
Dillon slid noiselessly out of the guest room. Downstairs he found Carol Jessup sitting in the family room. The air smelled of sweet cocoa and smoke from the smoldering fireplace. The woman lovingly held her sleeping daughter in her arms, absorbed in stroking the little girl’s hair as she hummed a lullaby. She had been doing this for hours, unable to believe that her daughter was alive again. She stopped humming the moment Dillon stepped into the room. It took her a few moments until she could speak to him.
“I’m afraid to ask who you are,” she said, “or how you did what you did.”
“It’s just patterns, Carol,” Dillon answered. “My mind can see patterns no one else can see, and my soul can repair them. That’s all I can do.”
“That’s all you can do?” she said incredulously. “That’s everything. It’s creation. It’s reversing time!”
“Space,” said Dillon calmly. “Reversing space.”
The woman looked down at her daughter and her eyes became teary. “Maybe I don’t know who you are,” she said to Dillon, looking at him with the sort of holy reverence that made him uncomfortable, “but I know what you are.”
Dillon found himself getting angry. “You don’t know me,” he told her. “You don’t know the things I’ve done.”
But clearly she didn’t care what Dillon had done in the past. All that mattered to her was what he had done here, today. “When the virus came,” she said, “my husband and I got lost in the woods, wandering insane like all the others in town. When we finally came out of it, we were told that Kelly had drowned in the river. I wanted to die along with her.”
“What if I told you there was no virus?” Dillon said to her. “And that they call it a ‘virus’ because they don’t know what else to call it? What if I told you that I destroyed this town last year—shattering everyone’s mind—and that, in a way, I was the one who killed your daughter in the first place?”
Dillon thought back to the time of his rampage. It had taken so little effort for Dillon to shatter the minds of everyone in town. All he had to do was find the weakest point in the pattern, then simply whisper the right words into the right ear to set off a chain reaction, like a ball-peen hammer to a sheet of glass. Just a single whispered phrase, and within a few short hours, every last man, woman, and child in town was driven insane.
“In fact, what if I told you that I was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people . . . including my own parents?”
“If you told me that,” said Carol Jessup, “I wouldn’t believe you. Because I know that a spirit as great as yours isn’t capable of such evil.”
“Bright light casts dark shadows,” he told her, and said no more of it.
Dillon looked around the room. The furniture that had been well worn a day before was now in brand-new condition, and the carpet was thick and lush where it had once showed heavy tracking. Dillon wondered if Carol Jessup and her husband had noticed. He hoped they hadn’t. Lately it wasn’t a matter of him willing these things to happen anymore. Now they happened whether he wanted them to or not. He could sense his power was growing, and now his presence had its own sphere of influence, which affected everything around him. It made him not want to linger anywhere for long.
Little Kelly Jessup’s eyes fluttered open for a moment, then closed again as she snuggled closer to her mother. She had already had a bath, but the child still had the faintest smell of the grave lingering behind the baby shampoo. But that, too, would be gone in a day or two.
“You need to leave here,” Dillon told Carol Jessup. “Before anyone sees your daughter, you have to go somewhere where no one knows you. Where no one will ask you questions. You can never tell anyone what I did here today.” Dillon knew there was still so much confusion in Burton, that one more abandoned house would not raise the questions it might raise elsewhere. It was that confusion which kept Dillon safely hidden from the view of the authorities . . . but the more he repaired, the less disorder there was to hide behind. Dillon knew his corner was getting tight.
“What if we do tell someone?” the woman asked. “What will happen?”
“You don’t want to know.”
The woman shrank back, and paled.
In truth, nothing would happen to them if she told . . . but if
word of Dillon’s deeds got out, he didn’t want to think about what would happen to him.
“We’ll pack our things, and leave in the morning,” she told him. “And we won’t tell a soul.”
But it was clear from her tone of voice that she already had.
TWO HOURS LATER, THE town of Burton was swarming with police and state troopers, and Dillon knew they were looking for him. He had slipped away from the Jessups’ at dawn, already sensing the world closing in around him. As always, they had decided to drive along the back roads. Carter sat silently in the passenger seat, impassive and unconcerned as Dillon managed to evade one police checkpoint after another, until he finally slammed the brakes on his Land Rover, and slammed his fists on the steering wheel.
“What’sa matter?” asked Carter.
Dillon shook his head to clear his thoughts. There was no way out of town—every road was crawling with troopers. The news of his feats must be more widely known than he had suspected, to mobilize so many troopers to ferret him out. Bringing back the dead must have been an offense as serious as mass murder in the eyes of the law.
A hundred yards ahead, the officers at the Harrison Street checkpoint took notice of Dillon’s car stopped suspiciously a hundred feet away from them.
Carter yawned and brushed some morning crust from the corner of his eye. “We’ll get away from them,” said Carter. “You can get out of anything.”
But it wasn’t that simple. Dillon silently cursed his luck. His talent for seeing patterns in the world around him was as acute as ever, but when it came to his own life, he was blind.
He knew someone would eventually give away his secret, but he had thought he would have more time. And it probably wasn’t just the Jessups who had blown the whistle; other families must have come forward, too. He could imagine the most hardened of police investigators turned into blubbering morons when they saw the resurrected dead with their own eyes. No, they couldn’t catch him, or he’d never be able to complete his repair work. He had to get away.
“We’re smarter than them!” said Carter. “They’ll never catch us!”
Dillon took a good look at the boy. Dillon couldn’t remember ever being that innocent. That trusting.
“We’re going to run, aren’t we?” Carter’s eyes were bright and eager. “Aren’t we? You won’t let them break us up—we’re a team, right?”
Dillon knew what he had to do. Carter deserved more than an apprenticeship to a freak—Dillon owed him at least the chance at a normal life. And so, as the troopers approached, Dillon made no move to escape. Instead he quickly whipped up a new plan. A brilliant, brutal plan that would leave everyone better off.
Well, almost everyone.
THE TROOPERS DRAGGED CARTER, kicking and screaming, into one police car, and took Dillon off in another. Dillon offered no resistance. The two cars drove off, away from Burton, toward a saner part of the world where, presumably, Dillon would be “held for questioning.”
The two state troopers in the front seat smelled of morning breath doused with black coffee. The older one, who drove the car, his graying hair cut in a tightly cropped butch, kept glaring at Dillon in the rearview mirror. His name tag read WELLER,
Dillon had noted. The stripes on his sleeve indicated that he was a sergeant.
“You’ve got the folks around here in one mighty uproar, son,” he said. “We don’t need any more uproars around here—the virus was enough trouble to last a lifetime.”
“What are you charging me with?”
Weller laughed smugly. “Does it matter? You’re obviously a runaway, and we’re well within the law to bring you into ‘protective custody.’ ”
Dillon broke eye contact and gazed out the window.
“Are you listening to me, son?” said Sergeant Weller.
Dillon still didn’t answer him, but he did turn to catch Weller’s eyes once more as Weller watched him in the rearview mirror. Dillon studied Weller—the way he moved, the cadence and inflections of his voice. Dillon noticed the way the man held his shoulders, and judged the way he aggressively changed lanes. To anyone else, it wouldn’t have meant a thing, but to Dillon, the tale couldn’t have been clearer if it were painted on the man’s forehead. I can see patterns, he had told Carol Jessup. That’s all. And the patterns of Sergeant Weller—each action, every word—betrayed to Dillon who this man had been, who he was, and who he was destined to be. It was not a pretty picture.
“Don’t you talk, son?” Weller asked. “Or are you one of them idiot savants?”
Weller chuckled at his own words. Dillon paid particular attention to the methodical but nervous way Weller rubbed the fingers of his right hand, then clasped the hand into a fist. To Dillon, this man’s life was easier to read than a street sign.
“Your wife wishes you would stop smoking,” Dillon told him. “She wishes you would stop drinking, too.”
Catching Dillon’s intrusive gaze in the rearview mirror,
Weller’s cold demeanor took a turn toward winter. “Watch yourself, son,” he said. “You make up stories about people, you may find people making up stories about you.”
For the first time, the trooper riding shotgun turned around. His name tag read LARABY. He was younger than Weller and to Dillon didn’t seem nearly as unpleasant. He did, however, seem troubled. “People are saying you bring back the dead,” Officer Laraby said. “You got anything to say about that?”
“It’s all a bunch of voodoo talk,” Weller sneered. “Mass hysteria—these people all think they got over ‘the virus,’ but I say some of their marbles are still lost in the drain pipe.”
Officer Laraby turned to him. “So how do you explain all those people who turned up alive?”
Weller brushed a weathered hand over his butch and threw a warning glance at his young partner. “It’s all hearsay. That’s how a hoax works—hearsay held together by spit and tissue paper, isn’t that right, son?”
Dillon smiled, all the while thinking how much he hated the way this man called him “son.” “I suppose so.”
The grin made Weller more irritable. “You think you’re pretty smart, don’t you? What did you do—take money from folks who didn’t know any better, then bring back people who weren’t even dead? That’s the way you worked it, wasn’t it, son?”
Dillon let the grin slip from his face. “You hit your wife one more time, and she’s gonna leave you, you know?”
Panic flashed in Weller’s eyes. His jaw twitched uncomfortably. Laraby watched the two of them, his head going back and forth like it was a game of Ping-Pong, to see who would speak next.
Weller hid his uneasiness behind an outburst of laughter. “Oh, you’re good,” he told Dillon. “You put on one heck of
a show—but the truth is you don’t know a thing about me.”
Dillon found himself grinning again—the way he did in the days when the wrecking hunger had consumed him. “I know what I know,” he said.
Dillon sensed the younger cop’s growing discomfort, his confusion and uncertainty. Dillon also noticed the particular shade of the rings beneath Laraby’s eyes, the faint smell of mild perfumed soap, and a handful of bitten fingernails. Dillon, his skill at deciphering patterns as acute as ever, understood Laraby’s situation completely.
“Sorry your baby’s sick,” Dillon told Officer Laraby.
The man went pale. Dillon noted the exact way his chest seemed to cave in.
“Heart problem?” asked Dillon. “Or is it his lungs?”
“Heart,” Laraby said in a weak sort of wonder.
“Don’t talk to him!” Weller ordered Laraby. “It’s tricks, that’s all.”
“Yeah,” said Laraby, unconvinced. “Yeah, I guess . . . .”
In front of them, the car that carried Carter had pulled out far ahead of them. If Dillon’s plan was to work, he knew he would have to strike now, with lethal precision. He leaned forward, and whispered into Sergeant Weller’s sun-reddened ear, hitting him with a quiet blast of personal devastation in the form of a simple comment.
“Sergeant Weller,” he whispered, “no matter what everyone says . . . it was your fault. Your fault, and no one else’s.”
A subtle hammer to glass. Dillon could feel the man’s mind shatter, even before there were any outward signs. Weller gripped the steering wheel tighter, his knuckles turning as white as the cloud-covered sky. Dillon could hear the man’s teeth gnash like the grindstone of a mill, and then, with a sudden jolt, Weller jerked the wheel.
The car lurched off the road and careened down a steep wooded slope. Pine branches whapped at the windshield, and a single trunk loomed before them. Then came the crunch of metal, and the sudden PFFFLAP! of the air bags deploying in the front seat, while in the backseat, Dillon’s seat belt dug into his gut and shoulder. The car caromed off the tree, skidded sideways another ten yards, until smashing into another tree hard enough to shatter the right-side windows before coming to rest.
Dillon was stunned and bruised but he didn’t take time to check his own damage. He climbed through the broken window, falling into the thick, cold mud of the woods, and for once the deep, earthy smell was a welcome relief. He stood, and quickly pulled open the passenger door of the ruined car. Officer Laraby was pinned between the seat and the firm billow of the air bag. The bag had knocked the wind out of him, and his gasps filled the air like the blasts of a car alarm. Dillon pulled him out of the car, and he fell to the ground.
Meanwhile, Sergeant Weller didn’t seem to care about any of it. He just sobbed and sobbed. Dillon didn’t dare catch his gaze now, for Dillon knew how his eyes would look. One pupil would be wide, the other shrunken to a pinpoint. They always looked like that when Dillon drove them insane.
“It’s my fault,” sobbed Weller, deep in a state of madness that went miles beyond mere guilt. “It’s my fault my fault my fault my fault . . . .”
Laraby turned to Dillon, just beginning to recover his senses. “What’s his fault?”
“I don’t know,” said Dillon, “but it doesn’t matter now.” And he really didn’t know—all Dillon knew was that every pore of that man’s body breathed out guilt that he was trying to hide. Very old guilt, and very potent. All Dillon had to do was tweak it to shatter his mind.
Up above, the other car, which had doubled back, had pulled to the side of the road. Doors opened and closed.
“Listen to me,” Dillon told Laraby. “The boy in the other car—he says his name is Carter, but it’s really Delbert. Delbert Morgan. You and your wife are going to take him in as a foster child. You’re going to volunteer to do it.”
The officer squirmed. “But—”
“You will take him in, and take care of him until his father comes for him someday”—and then Dillon added—“or else.”
“Or else what?”
The answer came as another incoherent wail from the insane cop, still in the driver’s seat pounding his fist mindlessly against his air bag. It was evidence of the destruction Dillon was still capable of when he chose to destroy—his ability to create chaos still every bit as powerful as his ability to create order.
Dillon could hear shouts on the hillside above them now, and people hurrying toward them. He tried to run, but Laraby, still on the ground, grabbed Dillon’s shirt as if he were sinking into quicksand.
“Can you save my son?” asked the officer. “Can you fix his heart?”
The look in Laraby’s eyes—a clashing combination between hope and terror—was something Dillon had seen before. In recent months, people would cling to him, asking him to fix things he hadn’t broken in the first place. People begging him to change the patterns of their destinies.
“If you do,” bribed Laraby, “I’ll take care of that Carter kid. I swear I will.”
Time was short, and Dillon needed to know that Carter would be cared for. Dillon nodded. “Agreed. I’ll come back someday and fix your son—”
“Not someday. Now!” demanded Laraby. “They say he’s gonna die, so you gotta do it now!”
“It doesn’t matter if he dies,” Dillon told him. “I’ll come back later, and fix him anyway.”
The cop had no response to that. The very idea tied his tongue.
Dillon broke free, sliding the rest of the way down the wooded slope until he could see the Columbia River through the trees far up ahead. He could hear the officers from the other car on his tail, but the image filling his mind was that of Laraby’s face; the desperation as he had gripped on to Dillon’s shirttail; those eyes staring at him in fearful, hopeful awe as if Dillon held both salvation and damnation in his fingertips.
And then there was Weller.
Dillon had shattered the man. He had sworn he would never shatter anyone ever again. Dillon had been so certain that his destructiveness was in the past. But I had no choice, he reasoned. I had to escape.
Dillon told himself that he would come back and fix the man someday, although he knew it would be a long time before he could surface in Burton again.
He continued down the slope, bouncing off trees like a pinball, stumbling through the mud and peat.
It was foolish of Dillon to think the people of Burton could keep quiet. It was human nature to whisper the things that no one should hear, and it was only a matter of time until all of those whispers grew loud enough to bring out a swarm of badges from a dozen government agencies. And despite what Weller had said—they did believe in what he could do. Otherwise they wouldn’t have sent out a posse of state troopers to find him.
Now they’d be on the lookout for him everywhere “the
virus” had hit. Foolish, because it was their meddling that would prevent him from fixing the mess.
The dense woods suddenly ended, and he stumbled over a gnarled root, to the muddy edge of the river.
“Down here—this way!” his pursuers shouted.
Dillon leapt from the bank into the raging torrents of the river, swollen by a storm upstream. The cold hit him instantly, sucking the heat from his limbs. His muscles seized into tight knots, but he stretched his arms and legs out so he wouldn’t cramp. He was quickly spirited downstream, pulled away from those chasing him. The opposite bank seemed much more distant than it had from shore, but he willed his arms to move. Yes, his limbs had grown strong from his work. Even in the cold waters, he could force his arms to stroke and legs to kick, long after many would have drowned, until he finally collapsed on the far shore.
His mind hazy, and his body leaden from the cold, he tried to catch his bearings as he knelt on all fours, coughing up lungfuls of river water. He tried to stand, but moved too quickly, and a wave of dizziness brought him back to the ground. He rolled over onto his back, forcing deep breaths, trying to will a steady flow of oxygenated blood back to his head.
He never heard them approaching. He didn’t know they were there until their silhouettes eclipsed the light of the gray sky.
“He’s all right,” said a voice just above him. A female voice.
Dillon gasped through his chattering teeth. The voice was familiar, and in his confusion, he felt sure he knew who it was.
“Tory?” he said. There were others around him now. “Winston? Lourdes? Michael?” He had hardly known the other four shards, and yet for months they had occupied most of his thoughts. Only now did he realize how much he needed
them—to talk to, to be with. He thought he saw their faces before him, and it filled him with comfort and gratitude.
He sat up, and as his blurred vision cleared, his heart sank like a boulder in the furious river.
“No,” said the voice. “It’s me, Carol Jessup.”
There were more gathering around him now. He was mistaken—these were not his friends, they were all residents of the town. He knew them all—the Kendalls, the McMillans, the Schwartzes. He had spent time with each of them, restoring the life of a loved one. He had entered each of their lives, and returned them back to order.
“We’re glad the police didn’t take you away from us,” said Carol.
Dillon began to feel his gut slowly churn and he knew it wasn’t just the cold.
“Don’t worry,” said her husband, taking his hand. “We’ll protect you.”
“We’ll take care of you,” said one of the others, rubbing Dillon’s sleeve.
“We won’t let them hurt you,” said another, reaching out and touching Dillon’s hair.
This is wrong, Dillon thought. This is terribly, horribly wrong.
“We’ll follow you,” said another voice. “And we’ll help you do your wondrous works.”
“We’ll tend to your needs,” proclaimed another.
“We’ll be your servants.”
“Because we’ve seen your glory.”
“We’ve been blessed.”
“And you’ll bless us again.”
More hands. Dozens of hands, reaching out, touching his skin, his hair, his clothes. He felt himself raised from the
ground, and as he looked into the clouded sky, he realized why this all felt so wrong.
His unique talent for making connections showed him a new pattern emerging in the world around him now. There were always a million possible roads, and a million possible futures, but now, every road focused toward one end: a murky darkness of chaos and ruin.
A year ago, during his own dark time, Dillon had sought to trigger the ultimate act of destruction. A quiet whisper that would precipitate a massive chain reaction, eventually shattering every relationship, every connection, every mind until the entire world became like the maddened mobs in Burton. Dillon had thought he’d failed to achieve that final act . . . but now he wasn’t so sure. What if his “great collapse” had simply taken a different course? The swarming patterns of destiny he saw when he looked at these people around him seemed to scream back the same answer.
The destruction never ended.
It just hid, dormant until now—and all the fixing he had done would soon be overshadowed by a new threat. Some bleak chain of events spreading forth from this moment, that not even he could foresee.
He wailed again in the pain of this revelation, but the crowd ignored all his protests, as they carried him off in the cradle of their happy, needy hands.
IN THE RANDOM RUSH of water, a pocket of stillness formed where the Columbia River had caressed Dillon Cole’s body. With Dillon’s passing, the entire river slowed . . . and a tiny portion of the river ceased its swirling, defied entropy and came to order, touched by Dillon’s unique gift. It became an oasis of focused calm, beneath the surface of the raging river.
The calm pocket carried within it the simplest of bacteria, born from rotting leaves and dead salmon farther upstream. Only, now those bacteria didn’t swarm and divide haphazardly. Instead, the single-celled organisms drew toward one another, aligning and dividing in unison; positioning themselves in a choreographed mitotic dance—a perfect pattern, as if the millions of bacteria were all of a single mind.
Farther downstream, where the river spilled into the Pacific, plankton fed on the aligned bacteria, and in turn tiny shrimplike krill devoured the plankton. Farther from shore, a school of fish, ten thousand strong, gobbled up the krill with ease and swam south, their tight formation suddenly becoming more perfect, and more orderly than it was possible for a school of fish to be, as it headed south, toward shark-infested waters.