Runick heard Holly singing from the edge of campus. He knew instantly that this was no recording. He owned all her albums, every bootleg. When he saw the crowd up ahead of him, the excitement in the street, he broke into a run. The mob was packed tight around the entrance to a bar, but it couldn’t hold him back. Her voice drew him in; he slipped through the crowd as if invisible, right up to the edge of the stage, and nearly stumbled out in front of her.
His heart nearly stopped. He had never been this close. But suddenly he felt naked, vulnerable, afraid that she might see him—though she was still singing, with eyes closed, the last verse of “The Woods Are Dark.” He wondered how much he’d missed.
He’d attended all her Portland concerts with a bouquet of black roses. He was always among the first in line, the first to the edge of the stage, and there had always come a moment when he was able to reach up and hand the bouquet to her, imagining that something subtler passed between them when she met his eyes and nodded her thanks. He dreamed of all the things she had to say to him, dreamed she might decode all the secret messages locked up in her songs—as if they were all meant for him. But tonight, without his roses, thrust suddenly into this crowd, there was nothing to set him apart from all the others. He was close enough to see lines in her thin unsmiling face. She looked weary, and he wished he could comfort her. If only she knew him, knew his secret soul, he would give her such love. A single streak of pure white ran through her jet black hair, making her look ancient and youthful at the same time. He longed to press his face against that hair, to inhale the scent of her, to caress her tenderly and protect her from all trouble. Looking at her was exquisite agony, almost unbearable, as if she were simultaneously mother, sister and lover. Chills ran through
him like fever waves, spreading from his heart to his crotch and back again.
In the silence that ended “The Woods Are Dark,” Runick glanced furtively at those around him, and was shocked to see that their eyes held something like the same adoration and passion that he felt. Nothing the equal of his own, of course, but still—a puny striving to unite with her power, her purity, as if they alone could make her whole, as if her energy were a physical substance they consumed like addicts. He despised the way they drained the life away from her—no wonder she looked tired. He would never treat her so badly; he wanted to give something to her, not steal it away. No one here could possibly understand her songs as thoroughly as Runick did, for no one here had such a sympathetic darkness at their core, a blackness that harmonized so completely to her music. The dark valley inside him had known no other light than Holly’s voice. In that place especially, she sang for him alone, she created and celebrated his power.
Jealousy made him grit his teeth. His entire being clenched in fury and frustration. His eyes were fixed on her mouth, so he saw, rather than heard, her words: “How Black Was My Valley.” He stiffened in surprise, almost backing away. This was a kind of blasphemy!
But it was too late to flee. The first notes were already sweeping him away, carrying all his rage and jealous passion down into the dark.
Maybe if he’d had some warning, if he’d had time to steel himself against the song, he could have made himself invulnerable. But he was so used to hearing it in private, giving himself to the music completely, that now his descent into the valley was a conditioned reflex—a cue planted and reinforced by self-hypnosis, irresistible.
The pressure of the crowd merged with the pressure of darkness. Instead of cigarette smoke and spilled beer he smelled the night wind blowing through pines and moss. He was alone now, sweeping down into the valley, borne along by the cascading notes, unable to turn back or slow his descent.
He struggled against the current, dimly aware that there was danger here because his other body was in jeopardy. But resistance was useless. He couldn’t tell if his eyes were open or closed, if he were dreaming or awake. All he knew was that the music was loud, all-enveloping, beating at his blood and bones, and its volume made the vision stronger than ever before. She had never played it in a concert he attended. The valley was deeper and darker, impossibly real. Tonight there were no prefatory stars or moon, not even a hint of blanketing clouds. Above was simple darkness, and the sense of sheer walls closing in as he plunged into the deep well of darkness.
The musical wind sucked him down toward the source of sound, so strong that he hardly needed his wings to soar.
Then suddenly there was light, a nova, and Holly’s face shone out at him as her luminous words spilled their radiance over everything. He panicked, beating backward, afraid of the flash—afraid that his true nature would be revealed, his sickness exposed, and everyone would see what he really was. He fanned his black wings, trying to blot her out before she could harm him. He felt his shadow spreading, saw the fear come into her eyes as she finally noticed him and recognized his power
And again he was snatched back, his wings furling up painfully, the lights of the bar breaking in on the black purity of the vision, all his limitless power abruptly dwindling to nothing but the weak shell of a frantic, obsessed young man—only one among many.
It was Nevis again, his roommate, shouting. “I been looking for you, man! See you found her, though. Isn’t this great? I told you she’d play for us!”
Runick tried to pull away, struggling back to the valley where his destiny lay, but he was hopelessly off the track.
He stumbled away from the stage, unable to bear the disparity between the growing intensity of the song and his own loss of power. Nevis clutched his shoulder, shouting in his ear.
“After this we’ll stake out her sister’s place on the edge of town, okay? Heather Anderson’s her name. Holly’s probably staying there. We’ll get her autograph or maybe a good look through the shades.”
“You can’t do that.”
“Sure we can. Come on, you’re her biggest fan, you should be up for it. When are you gonna get another chance like this?”
“You can’t invade her privacy like that. You don’t understand.”
“It’s not like we’re breaking into her house, Runick, we just want to see her. But hey, if you don’t want to come along, that’s fine.”
He couldn’t imagine hiding with anyone else, tolerating their brutish comments. Their understanding of her songs was superficial; to them all rock music was just an excuse to jerk around and scream and do drugs. As if the Black Valley were only a valley, only words in a song, instead of a place more real to Runick than the inside of this bar. Nevis had never been to that place; he had no idea what made it so black.
Still … if he was clever, and went along with them only so far, he might profit from their enthusiasm—at least as far as it went. He didn’t have to sink to their level when he could stand on their shoulders.
“Maybe I’ll go,” he said. “Just to keep you in line.”
Nevis cheered and then he was gone, spotting another accomplice. Left alone in the crowd, Runick looked back at the stage, wishing things could be as they had been before. The image of the dark valley had frightened him, but at least it was better—more fulfilling—than this.
But he was grounded in reality now, mired in bodies.
The rest of the concert was almost disappointing, with never another moment when he felt close to Holly until she hustled past him with the guitarist’s arm over her shoulder, fighting for the door. For a brief moment he found himself inadvertently placed in her path. The panic in her eyes might not have been meant for him, but it looked like recognition.
After playing a set in that bar, it was ruined for the group as a place to relax. Ron took off without a word as soon as they got out the door. Kelly suggested a bar in Laineville, and Raelene immediately dropped out. When they got there, Holly could see why. It was full of cowboys, such as they were these days, and more kept coming in carrying bowling bags. She couldn’t help but feel anonymous here.
Neil asked endless technical guestions about the eguipment she used until Kelly started steering the conversation toward events from their past—things the synth player had no part in. Eventually Neil said something about having to get up early for work, and then they were alone. Later they walked down Main Street looking in dark storefront windows, wandering around a subject that didn’t fit comfortably into any conversation. The end of the evening seemed all too inevitable. Worse, despite herself Holly found that she was curious about exactly how much—and how little—Kelly had changed. It had been a long time since she’d been in this position with anyone who’d known her first as Holly Andrews rather than Holly Terror.
“Time I got back,” she said, and caught the expected flicker of anxiety in Kelly’s eyes.
“You staying with Heather?”
“Motel. I can’t take too much of her right now.”
“Have you seen her at all, Kelly? Is it just me, or is she weirder now?”
He shook his head. “I don’t run into her very often— you know how she is.”
“I feel bad not staying with her, but . . . .”
“You two never did have much in common.” He squeezed her hand. “Come on, I’ll give you a lift. Maybe you want to come by my place for awhile?”
“Maybe for awhile,” she answered, wondering whether it was curiosity or entropy that made her go against her better judgment.