Runick shoved a rolled-up towel against the bottom of the door to keep the smell of pot out of his room; it filled the corridor with a sickly scent and made him ill at ease, a distraction where he was going. He drew the curtains to shut out the grey October light, cutting off his sight of the campus paths, students rushing everywhere in a light rain.
He would shut out that world for as long as he could. It took an additional effort to ignore the stack of textbooks teetering on his little built-in desk, especially since they were in the way of the stereo. He dropped a Holly Terror album on the turntable, then fit a pair of hugely padded headphones over his ears, shutting out all sounds but the soft crackling, like footsteps in pine needles, that always filled him with anticipation. He lay down on his bed, folded his hands over his chest, and shut his eyes.
The first notes, as always, summoned feelings of dread. The music made a choked path into darkness, little-travelled. Of him it made a shadow sweeping down into a black place.
His return was a moment of fear, despite his great joy.
He used to think he was entering the groove itself, that he was becoming microscopic, smaller than the needle’s head, descending into the track. But no vinyl groove could have been so overgrown with brambles, its steepening sides edged far above with tottering rocks like decayed molars. Thick pine branches crowded out the sky, clawed at the stars, blotted out their light—as all the while he swept down faster, borne by the music and his own black wings. He himself was dread now, pure terror. This valley was his hunting ground, a fissure between the hemispheres of his brain, the place he went when he had to get away.
Deeper, darker, faster, as the music built and fed his power, welcoming him home. The darkness was impregnable.
All around him, the black faces of his brethren stirred and squirmed invisibly, their open mouths waiting for any morsel he might drop to them.
And then, right on cue, the light appeared.
Far ahead of him, growing slowly, a spark of brightness, a flame drawing him, a star—
He was unable to check his swooping flight, his headlong plunge, unable to hold back his all-smothering blackness from extinguishing that tiny spark. It grew in size and clarity as he swept toward it—brighter, louder, the words coming clear though his mind refused to admit them. He must quench the spark. The power to do so was his alone. Despite some reluctance, it was necessary to complete the darkness of his mind, to preserve the utter purity of the music, which shaped the silence of this valley.
He spread his wings and the spark trembled, expanding. Suddenly he saw the face of Holly Terror caught in a sourceless spotlight, her jet-black hair with one white streak flying around her alabaster face. He stretched to spill out all the passion he held back, and knew that it was his love that allowed him to murder her—for without her he was incomplete. Without her presence he had no reason to be here. What good is darkness without a light to quench?
Eagerly, he bent to snuff her.
Suddenly his wings were torn away, a light most drab and ordinary fouled his eyes, and Holly was gone, her voice snatched from his ears, her life from his black enveloping fingers.
“Runick! Guess what!”
He came awake clenched in fetal posture, uncurling as his roommate Nevis tore off the headphones that were Runick’s umbilicus to that dark womb of fear. Nevis, who should have been gone for the day, threw open the curtains and dropped down on the opposite bed with that taunting grin that was his usual expression, and not to be taken personally.
“You’re not gonna believe this. She’s back in town.”
“Who?” Runick whispered, far from acclimated to this bright and ugly place.
“Who? What do you mean, who? Is there any other ‘she’ in your vocabulary? Holly Terror, stupid. Unless you’ve got a girl nobody knows about.”
Runick sat up, got to his feet, turned to the door and then back to Nevis. “How do you know?”
“Miller’s girlfriend works at the airport rent-a-car. She just saw her there. You wanna bet she’s gonna do a concert? One for the old home town?”
Runick sank back onto the bed, in shock, unsure of what action he should take—if any. His grief was almost immeasurable. He should have been delirious, but there were so many others here who had a claim on Holly Terror. He was nothing to her, just a face in the crowd despite the power of his visions and the feeling he had when he was with her in that dark valley, swooping down to blow her out with the certain knowledge that he had total control of her life and death. But that was just a dream, a fantasy. What did it matter to Holly that he had seen every concert she’d heldin Portland since he was fifteen, that he’d played her records a thousand times? He was just one among many.
“What’s wrong, Runick? I thought you’d be stoked.”
He shrugged. “It is good news.”
“So come on, time for action. We’ll track her down. Spencer’s such a small town, she can’t hide for long. Her sister still lives on the outskirts—I’ll bet that’s the place to start. Come on, Runick, you’re up for it, aren’t you?”
He hauled himself unwillingly toward the window. Every step into that world took him farther from the black valley where his true power lay; farther from that brilliant spark that was his alone to fan or guench; farther from the ultimate darkness. Yet the world was irresistible, and despite himself he felt the birth of new hopes. He couldn’t just lie here listening to unchanging music, a dead voice, when the living one was near.
“All right,” he said, “I’m coming.”
“How could you resist, Runick? This is your time to shine!”
Holly was in England when the band broke up, each member spinning off in separate directions like the skirling notes of their final set. She was close to Wales, her mother’s home, so it seemed natural that she should seek a new start there now that the structure she’d spent the last ten years perfecting had cracked wide open. The Welsh hills reminded her of Oregon, in that they were green and damp, but there were constant reminders that this was not home, that she was an alien here. The landscape was sleeping, uneasy in its slumber, and she knew that it would never wake for her, nor wake the things inside her that she needed to discover. Sitting upstairs in an inn, watching the rain rush down on a gunmetal river and into the sea, she realized that nothing kept her here except her own indecision. She was used to coordinating her plans with five others. The time had come to chart her own path.
By nightfall she was in a jet above the dark Atlantic. She called her manager from Kennedy Airport to tell him she was heading back to Oregon for a rest before making any new plans. She expected him to pressure her at least obliquely to stop off in L.A. first; instead he read a week-old telegram from her sister Heather, three words: “Emergency. Come home.”
Circling Spencer Airport prior to landing, she wondered what kind of emergency Heather could have meant. Their mother’s death two years before had prompted no such message. It had taken three weeks for the news to reach Holly, and not because the band was touring in Europe at the time. Heather hadn’t considered it an emergency, after so many years of illness.
The Willamette River glinted below the plane, catching a glimpse of the sun. She and Heather had stood on a bridge above that river and opened the canister from the crematorium, scattering not ashes but heat-fused lumps more like porcelain. In her guavering voice, Heather had sung a few lines of a song Holly had never heard before or since, and that was the extent of the ceremony.
If Heather hadn’t considered that an emergency, then what could have alarmed her now? When Holly called from Portland to let her knew she was almost home, Heather had refused to elaborate on the telegram. She’d sounded anxious, worse than ever. Holly wondered how long she’d be able to stand her weird sister this time.
The town of Spencer had been swept by an orange brush, though the dark green of wet grass and pine still prevailed. The airport lay amid an ugly sprawl of agricultural industry, ranks of tractors and dairy trucks. The plane touched down hard.
Heather wasn’t waiting, but Holly hadn’t expected her. Her older sister had no sense of direction, and had often gotten lost on foot in her home town. Heather had spent her entire life within the span of a few square miles, and she was uncomfortable with most of those except the interior and immediate surroundings of the old house. Holly had travelled all over the world since she turned seventeen, yet she often thought that it was Heather’s mind that roamed the farthest; in her imagination she certainly ventured to stranger places than Holly ever dared.
She rented a car, and on the drive into town got a glimpse of the campus through the autumn oaks. For most people, spending a few years here as students, these were the strongest memories of Spencer that they would carry away. Holly hadn’t gone to college, here or anywhere. It was the broad, quiet avenues beyond the school that meant the most to her. Huge ivy-wrapped manors on manicured lawns, stone walls and empty parks where she had wandered and played as a child. These were memories not even Heather shared, housebound Heather with her books and poetry, who never went much farther than the woods behind their house.
Away from campus, the houses thinned out and the streets grew narrower; the hills were densely forested. An assault of housing tracts had failed when the lumber industry took heavy blows from environmentalists and Spencer’s economy had collapsed to its current poor condition. It was hard to see now where the land had ever been cleared for new housing. On the winding approach to her house, the woods seemed thicker than she remembered. She came suddenly around a curve and saw the place, shrunken and yellow as a plant raised in a cellar. Something even paler moved across a window. It was Heather.
Her sister stood inside the doorway watching Holly unload two heavy bags and come up the path through a chill rain. They brushed cheeks in the hallway. The house smelled like mold and crumbling rock; its dampness told her that the furnace hadn’t yet been used this year. No trace of her mother remained to haunt the house, no odors of cooking which might have draped her in sadness, as had happened on her last visit. She wasn’t sure what the mildew reminded her of.
Heather shut the door and faced her with a pinched expression, her shoulders hunched up, her white hair falling limp across her face.
“You want coffee, I suppose.” She pushed past Holly, toward the kitchen.
“Thanks. I’ll just take these upstairs.”
There was no welcome in her bedroom either. The bed was freshly made up, but the walls and shelves were bare. She remembered telling Heather to do what she wished with the room, but she hadn’t expected her simply to empty it. It was freezing upstairs, damper than below. She dug a sweater out of her luggage and tried the thermostat, without result.
Heather was pouring water into two mugs when Holly came back into the kitchen.
“Do you always keep it so cold?”
“I don’t notice. There’s oil in the burner if you want to turn it on.”
“Would you mind?”
“Why should I?”
In the basement, she discovered nearly a hundred gallons of fuel oil in the burner. As she lit the pilot, she realized with something like shock that she was relieved to be away from her sister. After less than five minutes together, she was more uneasy than ever. They were such strangers to each other. It was hard to believe they were relatives; hard to believe that all this time she had been singing Heather’s songs, expressing her sister’s emotions, when she didn’t even know her. The sister she knew from those songs was not someone she really wanted to know, for the lyrics were oppressively somber, morbid, steeped in darkness and decay.
Their relationship had only lasted this long, she supposed, because of the distance she kept between them. She had profited from Heather’s genius without troubling herself over the other, inexplicable parts of her character.
Maybe she’d be wise to keep the distance even in Spencer. Rents here were ridiculously cheap. She’d have to pick carefully, though, if she took a place of her own. It wasn’t easy to be inconspicuous when she was the one town daughter who had made it big—even if, by industry standards, she wasn’t really all that big. Spencer would never let her go back to being plain Holly Andrews, sister of that weird albino Heather.
By the time she climbed back upstairs she had all but made up her mind to find a motel. The problem was finding a way of breaking the news to Heather. Her sister sat at the table with her hands wrapped around her mug, looking up at Holly through the steam with frightened eyes.
“What is it, Heather? What’s the emergency?”
“It’s something I have to tell you. I had to do it in person.”
Holly sat down. “So tell me.”
“I . . . you won’t be seeing my songs anymore.”
“You mean you’ve stopped writing?”
Holly scalded her mouth on the coffee, trying not to get too far ahead of Heather, trying not to read anything into the words—though everything she said was haunted with implications of other things she didn’t dare put into words. Conversations with Heather were like a game of riddles. Her plainest speech could be as cryptic and mysterious as her songs.
Go slow, she told herself. “Yes or no, Heather? Are you blocked? It happens, you know.”
“No, it goes deeper than that. I hear them all the time. They’ve been coming more than ever lately. But I won’t write them down, and I won’t have you putting them to music and blasting them all over the world. It’s bad enough that I can hear them.”
“You probably didn’t hear, dear, but the band broke up two weeks ago. There’s no one to blast your words or my music, even if you did keep writing.”
Heather looked unconvinced. “You’ll get another band. Everything comes easy to you. But you won’t have my words anymore.”
“Why make such a big issue out of your words, Heather? I mean, they’re wonderful, but they’re not state secrets. If you don’t want to write for me anymore, that’s fine, but tell me so straight out. Don’t cloak it in mysterious bullshit.”
“Who else knows about me?”
“What do you mean? Who knows we’re sisters?”
“No, who knows I write your lyrics?”
Holly met Heather’s eyes as steadily as she could. “You know I promised not to tell.”
“But have you?”
“Of course not!”
“No one wonders why you split your money with me?”
“That’s my business. They think you’re an invalid, and I’m supporting you. I mean, it’s sort of true, except that you’re earning your split. You really are an invalid, the way you live.”
“I wish I’d never gone out.” She gnawed her thin lip. “Did my telegram worry you?”
“I was coming home anyway. Of course it worried me!”
“I wanted you back here, but you shouldn’t worry.”
“Oh no? My source is cut off. Not that it matters, since my career will probably dry up like your inspiration.”
“I still have my inspiration. More than enough. You— you could have it yourself, though, if you could get away with it.”
“What are you talking about? I’m a miserable poet. Where am I going to find anyone who writes like you? You’re the ‘terror’ half of Holly Terror.”
“You can have the words if you want them. You already have the music.”
And Heather stared at her, smirking, with panic a slow surging tide behind her eyes, playing through the steadier current of irony.
This was the same old game of taunts and riddles. She was supposed to play along, dredging for meaning in her sister’s deliberately vague remarks, never sure of the truth of anything, never arriving at a final understanding. Heather’s way with words made for powerful poetry, but as conversation it was maddening.
Holly shoved back from the table. “I can’t take this shit right now, all right? I’ve been through too much in the last few weeks as it is, everything rearranging itself around me. I’ve lost everything I thought I could count on—and now this, my ace in the hole. You can’t just throw this news at me and expect me to play your fucking little guessing games.”
Heather gazed at her cup, looking slightly chastened. “Do you feel betrayed?”
“If I did, it wouldn’t be for the reason you think.”
“Because I—I did betray you, Holly. That’s part of what we have to talk about.”
“We have to talk sense if we talk at all. You’re free to do what you want with your songs, but I think I deserve some straight talk when it affects me this much. I don’t have much patience for bullshit right now.”
She rose from the table and saw Heather’s veneer of self-control slide away. Of course, it had only been thinly pulled over a bottomless pit of insecurity. “Where are you going?”
“To a motel.”
“Don’t! Stay here.”
“Until you’re ready to talk, things can only get worse. I’ll call you with a number.”
She walked out of the kitchen, simultaneously relieved and ashamed of herself. It had been so easy to get free of Heather, forcing an overreaction for the sake of winning some breathing room. It was all a pretext for escape. But Heather apparently believed she was as upset as she pretended.
When she came down with her bags, Heather stood in the doorway. “Don’t go.”
Holly allowed herself to soften. “I don’t need more confusion right now, that’s all. Maybe when my head’s clear I’ll be able to understand you better. We both need time to think about things, okay? I’ll call you.”
“But . . . but what if I need you here?”
“You don’t, Heather. You never did. I’ve been the one dependent on you, it was never the other way around.”
Heather had no answer to that, not even a mystification.
As she walked out to the car, she thought she heard voices above the hiss of rain. She looked back and saw the house being swallowed up in trees. The sound was soft and metallic, hardly human, the sort of noise the brain always reads into random patterns such as the white-noise sizzle of rain. Heather turned abruptly back into the hall, slamming the door behind her, and the sounds died instantly.
Holly stared at the house. The front windows were exactly as dark as the shadows under the trees. It looked as if the house were a facade with no rear wall, opening directly into the woods. She stared at it a long time, getting soaked, thinking she could still hear those silvery voices sliding away into distance. Then she remembered that she wasn’t waiting for anyone but herself. She was free to go.