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At 6:00 a.m. it happened again.
Terry Abbott silenced the alarm of his antiquated wind-up clock, rewound the alarm key, then shifted to a sitting position to watch the perpetually fascinating and reassuringly constant miracle taking place beyond the huge French windows. The sun was rising, first peeking red-eyed and hesitant over the ragged line of hills to the east then turning gold and confident in the brightening sky. He watched it with the same sense of wonder that captured him virtually every morning until the golden circle became too overpowering to look upon; until the familiar comforting feeling again washed over him: everything is in order; all is right with the world.
An hour later - showered, shaved, dressed in jeans, UCLA sweatshirt and frayed deck shoes - he was mentally reviewing his work schedule for the day while on his way to the kitchen for coffee and toast. An architect specializing in private residences, he lived alone in the house that also served as his office on an isolated wedge of land jutting into the Pacific just north of Big Sur. Finish the Garton sketches... look at the specs on the Wolford job, he told himself as he entered the living room with its oversized floor-to-ceiling window and stately French doors. A step into the room he froze as though he had just walked into an invisible wall.
The world beyond the window was engulfed with flame, and the sudden shock of the inconceivable turned his heart into an acrobat.
When his senses gathered enough for movement, he rushed to the French door and stumbled onto the balcony, where in an instant one dreaded fear gave way to another. The house appeared safe; his brief survey revealed no sign of fire in the acres of brush and scrawny trees that sloped steeply toward the shore. But the rush of relief he felt quickly vanished, replaced by a soundless swell of dread that began an uncontrollable tumble when his mind fully recorded the enormity of what his eyes were relaying.
The horizon, fronted by the rough, blue-skinned Pacific, was completely ablaze. North to south for as far as he could see was flame; an incredibly immense curtain of twisting, smokeless fire that stretched upward from the waterís surface for what must have been miles.
"Sweet holy Jesus! What the hell is that?!" The words fell from his mouth like boulders.
Panic took over then. He felt his insides move one way then another. His limbs, too, began moving; arms to left and right in senseless little circles; feet shuffling awkwardly in a drunken dance. His mind dashed around his skull like a fear-crazed animal in a burning cage. Then something over which he had no control began asking questions in a quivering, rapid-fire voice. A ship?... an explosion?... a nuclear warhead detonated... Good God!... has the world finally gone berserk?!
The answer, he somehow knew, was that nothing known to man could have produced this impossibly enormous inferno. What could then?
That question had no answer, and he just stood there, his eyes so round they ached; his mind frozen by incredulity.
Minutes passed before his attention shifted to a swirling trail of dust working its way up the dirt road from the south. The sight settled him somewhat because he began to realize that he wasnít alone and that there was a chance that he hadnít gone mad.
A short time later, a deep blue Jeep Cherokee skidded to a stop beneath the balcony. Doug Green, Terryís neighbor a half-mile to the south, flew from the Jeep and shouted up to him. "What the hell do you make of that, Terry?" Doug didnít wait for a reply. He raced toward the front door then up the stairs to the second level and the balcony. "What is that?" he panted, as though he honestly expected Terry to know the answer.
Terry shook his head. "I donít know. I saw it for the first time just a few minutes ago."
"Well... I can tell you it wasnít there a few hours ago," said Doug. "I pulled in about 2:00 this morning and it wasnít there then." Dougís voice tightened with worry as he explained that he had dropped his wife off at the airport. She had taken a late flight to San Antonio to visit her folks.
Terry looked at Doug and sought something that might ease his friendís concern. "Sheíll be all right. Whatever that is seems just... just there. Off to the west."
Doug nodded lamely. "Yeah, I know. But I tried calling San Antonio as soon as I saw the damn thing and I couldnít get through. The phone was dead. Have you tried yours?"
Terry scrambled back into the living room. "No. You try while I turn on the TV and the radio."
"Donít expect much," said Doug, angling off toward the kitchen. "All I got from mine... even the car radio... was static."
Terry got the same. His TV and radio mimicked each other with a grating racket of hissing noise. He snapped them off as a sward of clammy fear raced along his spine.
"Your phoneís out too," yelled Doug. "Dead as death."
Silence followed. The two men stared at each other, each searching for an answer that didnít exist.
"Holy shit, Terry. What are we going to do?" Dougís voice seemed made of gravel slowly tumbling in his throat.
"Leave... get the hell out of here. Thatís what."
Dougís face creased. He shook his head. "I tried before I came here. The main roadís packed tight... bumper to bumper... a dead stop for as far as you can see. Hell, Iíd have never believed that that many people lived around here."
"Funny, isnít it, how a monstrous wall of flame can bring all your neighbors out," said Terry without humor.
Doug didnít laugh.
A half-hour later, the two men sat in matching deck chairs on the balcony. Each had a mug of hot coffee gripped in a fist. Each had exhausted his ideas as to what could have caused the incredible curtain of flame.
"Itís odd," said Doug. "It doesnít seem to be moving. Itís just sitting there, burning like an opened door to hell."
"Yeah," sighed Terry, "but it makes you wonder whatís happening on the other side, doesnít it?"
Doug turned to answer, then snapped his eyes past Terry. He pointed toward the north. "That looks like Tony and Laura."
Terry recognized the slate-gray Chevy van weaving up the hill. It belonged to Tony and Laura Glenn, the other inhabitants of the small peninsula. The Chevy ground to a stop next to Dougís Jeep and four people scurried out. Only the Glenns were familiar.
"Whoís with them?" asked Terry.
Doug shrugged. "Beats me."
Tony Glenn waved weakly toward the balcony, his eyes wide and confused. He stared at Terry and Doug pleadingly, as though one or the other would say something to turn this preposterous nightmare into a harmless joke. Fear coated Laura Glenís face as though painted there. Her mouth hung slackly open and her eyes reflected a terrible, ineluctable certainty. Tony put a hand to her shoulder, but she stepped away from him.
A "Hi there" drifted up to the balcony, and Terryís eyes shifted to a woman he didnít know. "You must be Terry," she said, a wry smile curling the edges of her mouth.
Terry nodded, then caught himself staring at her. She was attractive. Slender but well proportioned. In profile the bulge of her breasts was obvious and her butt made a smooth, perfect arc beneath her white tennis shorts. Her blonde hair was short and curled in a controlled sort of chaos about her head, and her nose curved slightly upward with a pert almost haughty slope. She turned to the balcony and Terry almost smiled at the "I CUSS!" emblazoned across her T-shirt.
"Iím Beth Bennington, Lauraís sister, visiting from Memphis. The gentleman you donít know is my fiancé, Richard Temple." She tossed her head toward him. "Forgive his rudeness, but heís not what youíd call the talkative type. It interferes with his drinking."
Terry glanced at the man, who, glass in hand, stood still as stone and stared curiously at the wall of flame.
"Some show youíre putting on here, Terry," Beth continued. "But you didnít have to go to all this trouble on our account." She laughed, lightly and casually.
Laura Glenn spun abruptly on her heels. "For the love of God, Beth! Do you have to make a joke out of everything? Are you insane? Donít you realize whatís happening out there?"
Beth gave a wearied sigh. "No, Laura, I donít. And neither do you. So why get bent out of shape about it?"
"You are a fool, Beth!" Laura was shouting now and pointing a shaking finger toward the monstrous inferno. "Look out there! Canít you see that the world is coming to an end?!"
Bethís eyes rolled up in her head. "Honestly, Laura. Youíre becoming a real bore with all that doom-and-gloom crap. Itís all youíve said since we first saw that thing."
Doug nudged Terry. "If they intend on staying, looks like weíre in for one hell of a day.
Terry looked at the blazing horizon. "Iíd say we are anyway."
Tony moved between Beth and Laura and was about to speak when Bethís head snapped suddenly upward. She pointed to about ten oíclock, her hand followed by every eye.
"Holy good God," whispered Doug.
Two jets, military fighters by their sleek look, were speeding toward the curtain of flame. Seconds later, one of them broke off in a wide loop while the other raced steadily ahead, its wings rolling as if in signal to its partner. The six spectators watched the jet surge closer to the inferno, and for a moment Terry tried to gauge the distance to the immense firestorm by using a hastily formulated approximation of the planeís speed and altitude.
It might have worked, but time ran out.
Whatever the pilot was trying to do didnít work either. The jet suddenly began to tremble, and within seconds the trembling became a violent shaking.
"Pull out! Pull out, you bloody idiot!" Doug shouted, his face contorting to a stiff gruesome mask. "Oh, Jesus! Heís not going to make it. The air currents are too strong. Heís not going to make it!"
He tried - the nose of the troubled jet turned up for a second, but the grip of the turbulence near the furious wall of fire had it snared. An instant later the plane began cartwheeling downward, turning over and over in a series of twisting loops. It exploded in a raging fireball of red, orange and blue flame, and the earth shook with a sound like giant trees snapping.
Only Laura Glenn didnít watch the burning remnants of the plane and pilot drift down like charred confetti. Her hands were glued to her face. She was screaming.
When the sky cleared of debris, a silent pall settled over everyone. No one seemed to know what to do or say. Doug Green slumped disconsolately into a chair on the balcony, his eyes locked on the monstrous wall of flame. Terry stood at the railing and looked blankly down upon the four people below. Laura was on her knees, staring at the ground like a praying Buddha. Tony and Beth stood next to her, their eyes frozen on the spot where fragments of the doomed jet had splashed into the Pacific. Only Richard Temple moved. He hoisted his glass toward the fiery wall then lumbered toward the station wagon. There he struggled to remove a large cooler and lower it to the ground. He pulled a fresh bottle out then sat on the cooler and leaned back against the wagon, opened bottle on its way to his mouth.
Terry finally spoke. "Everybody come inside. Weíve got to talk about this."
Tony shook his head and insisted that they check out the main road again. After convincing no one to accompany him, he set out on his own in the station wagon. Richard Temple posed a different problem. He was perfectly content to just sit on the cooler and stare at the blazing panorama between swigs from his bottle. Beth finally grabbed his collar and pulled him to his feet. Richard shrugged his shoulders and lugged the cooler into the house.
They gathered in the living room. What there was to talk about, they talked about then. Doug, who had flown transports over Viet Nam, controlled the discussion and did most of the talking. He suggested that they "assess the situation," and in true military fashion he organized the obvious facts. A half-hour later he decreed that the wisest thing to do was to stay put and not panic. He concluded with a grim postscript: "If that jet couldnít get close to that mountain of flame, thereís nothing I know of that can."
"Why donít we talk about what might have caused it?" Beth suggested. "We could each take a turn and say what we think."
Laura looked incredulously at her sister then spoke slowly and deliberately, as though she were addressing a child. "Why, Beth? What possible good will that do?" Her calm delivery might have been caused by the gin she had been drinking, or it might have been an outgrowth of the hopeless finality she envisioned for the world.
"Why?" Beth repeated, assuming Lauraís collected tone. "Because I donít believe we should be afraid to talk about it, thatís why. Doug covered everything but that, yet what the damn thing is... is what weíre all thinking about. So... why not? Talking about it beats the hell out of just sitting around like a bunch of zombies."
"Sheís right," offered Terry, feeling strangely at ease. Much more at ease than any sane person had a right to feel in this situation. It could have been the liquor; he hadnít been shy about helping himself to the stash in Richardís cooler. No one had. On any other day the amount he had already consumed would have had him on his back and snoring.
Not this day, though.
"Good God," barked Laura, sinking back into a chair. "Youíre all crazy!"
Terry looked at Beth, who stared back, her eyes warm and inviting, her fingers playing with the gold chain around her neck. Their eyes locked, and Terry became aware that she might be the cause of his odd sense of comfort.
"Okay," said Doug. "Iím game. Who wants to start?"
Tony reappeared then, walking with an uncharacteristic bounce to his step. A guarded, guilty-looking smile tugged at his mouth, a can of Coors filled his right hand.
Seeing him, Laura slid to the edge of her chair, nearly spilling her drink. "Tony! The roadís open?! We can leave?!"
"No... quite the opposite," Tony answered, his voice slightly slurred. "The roadís packed tighter than a full tick. Itís only two lanes, you know, and neither one is moving. But you should see the crowd out there. Hell, youíd think you came upon Woodstock or something. People are everywhere, and most of them are milling about... shaking hands... talking, laughing and pouring drinks like thereís no tomorrow." Tonyís hand flew to his mouth; his eyes raced from person to person in the room. "Whoops, sorry. I didnít mean it that way."
Beth let out a screech. "Hell, Tony. I though it was great."
Tony cast a wary glance at Laura, who had covered her face with her hands. "I was shocked at first," he continued. "I though the whole lot of them had fallen off the deep end. I mean... for Christís sake, the worldís on fire and everyoneís having a party. But then I figured... what the hell... there wasnít anything any of them could do about that inferno out there, or about the logjam theyíre stuck in, so... why not make the best of it?
"And I think they have the right idea. Letís face it, folks. Thereís nothing anyone can do, and that makes our choices simple. We can moan and groan and worry ourselves gray, or do like everybody else and just make the best of it. The fire is just sitting out there and will probably burn itself out before long. And Iíll tell you this. I feel a damned sight better knowing that nobodyís going bananas over this."
With that, Laura Glenn came apart. She jumped to her feet, her face livid and swollen with fury. Her gin and tonic took flight toward her husband, who dropped his Coors and ducked just in time. The glass detonated against the wall behind him.
"Bananas!!" she screamed. "You dumb ass! Youíre out there partying with a bunch of mindless weirdoes while weíve been sitting here waiting... waiting for!!" She went for Tony then, lunging across the room in quick awkward strides. Hissing and shrieking like something rabid, she began flailing away at the shield he made of his arms.
The rest of the group sat board stiff, wide eyed with wonder and too dumbstruck to move. Each had witnessed Lauraís tantrums before, but this one promised something special. A windmilling left hand broke through Tonyís pitiful barricade and caught him solidly beneath his left eye. He stumbled backward, cursing and grabbing at his face which showed blood from Lauraís nails.
Perhaps reflexively; perhaps not, Tonyís right hand became a fist that slammed into Lauraís temple. She went down like something dropped and lay still on the floor, a trickle of blood seeping from her left ear.
By then, everyone but Richard Temple was standing, but no one moved. They watched Tony, who was standing over his wife like a gladiator, his fists still clenched, his face red with blood and rage. "You miserable bitch... thatís it! I've taken all from you Iím ever going to!"
Doug Green stepped forward to firmly push Tony back toward the wall. "Easy, Tony. Itís okay. Come on now. Calm down." Doug then squatted beside Laura and felt her temple, then her wrist. "I donít know," he said. "Her breathingís not good and sheís turning pale. I... I donít know." He gained his feet and looked around for help. "We should move her to some place more comfortable. Where to, Terry?"
It took Terry a moment to answer. His attention had shifted to Beth, now at his side with her arms locked around his elbow. "The guest room is closest. Iíll give you a hand with her."
"Oh, dear God!" Tony screamed, his face the color of dry ice. "Leave her alone! Please... let me do it." He scooped his wife into his arms, took a few steps into the hall, then stopped. "Iím sorry," he said. "I... I donít know what got into me."
As he disappeared into the hallway, Beth spoke through her teeth, but loud enough for all to hear. "Sheís what got into him. Sheís been asking for that for years."
Richard Temple, again heading for the cooler, laughed gruffly. "Thatís cute, Beth. Just the sort of concern Iíd expect from you." Appearing amazingly sober, he took a bottle of vodka from the cooler, opened it and headed for the stairs. "Youíll have to continue the party without me, folks. Think Iíll walk down to the shore to watch the fireworks."
"Why not take the whole cooler and stay out there forever?" Beth quipped caustically.
Richard turned, his eyes hard with contempt. "As a matter of fact, dearest Beth, I will be out there forever. Which may, if weíre unlucky enough, drag on a few more hours." He swept the room with his eyes, pausing but briefly upon each person. "Lauraís right, you know. Whatís happening out there is the end of the world." He glared at Beth. "You wanted everyoneís opinion of that bloody conflagration? Thatís mine. The end of the world. The absolute and everlasting end of it. God has finally had enough of us... of our greed and our wickedness toward one other. The world was born of fire and fire is now destroying it. Thatís quite fitting, donít you agree? Yeah... what weíre witnessing, folks, is the last page of creation. And all things considered, Iíd say itís come none too soon."
Beth scoffed. "Get out, you drunken fool. Go somewhere and drink yourself to death."
"Precisely my thoughts, love," Richard laughed and raised his bottle. "And that calls for a final toast. Hereís to you, darling almost-wife. Hereís to you and your incredible yet somehow fascinating self-indulgence." He took a long swallow then descended the stairs.
"Worthless idiot," Beth muttered while moving toward the cooler. Doug followed her.
"Uh... not to be nosey," he said, "but arenít you two engaged?"
Beth sneered. "Why sure we are. The weddingís set for the tenth of next month." She lifted a fifth of bourbon from the cooler and filled her glass. "Money... if youíre wondering the reason. Heís filthy rich and thatís the only reason I need. As for Richard, in case you havenít already guessed, heís a faggot. Queer as a three-dollar bill. But he needs a cover... a wife. A fine, well-bred young Southern lady like me to make him appear respectable. Yeah, respectable, so he can sneak out at night and play around with the boys. Itís a lot easier being a faggot when youíre married, you know. Weíll both get what we want, and what could be fairer than that?"
Doug scratched his head and grabbed a bottle of Scotch. "This is too deep for me. Iím going out on the balcony for some fresh air."
Terry stared at Beth. "Is it true?"
"About Richard and me? Every last word."
"What about the end of the world?"
Beth shot him a surprised look. "That last page of creation crap? Oh, Jesus, Terry. Get serious, will you?"
"I am. At least I think I am. I mean... "
He didnít know what he meant. Didnít know what he felt. His head was spinning; his mind felt like a score of bees trapped in a jar. The booze, he knew, had to be hitting him pretty hard by now. But even with that, he couldnít make himself believe that this daylong display of insanity was actually happening. He tried telling himself that he was dreaming; that he was simply lost in some sleep-induced demented fog that was trying to convince him that the impossible had become real. If he wasnít dreaming, he sinkingly realized, then the world had gone crazy and he had become a madman.
Beth approached, draped an arm around his neck, then gently eased his head to her shoulder. Her lips brushed his cheek; her tongue found his ear. Her breathing was slow and even and rife with suggestion, and she smelled of bourbon, tired makeup and female sweat.
Terry, left to choose between madness and a dream, let himself succumb to the dream. He embraced her roughly around the waist, dug a hand into her hair, and pulled her head back to stare into her eyes. They blazed back with confidence and conquest. He smiled his capitulation and opened his mouth for hers.
A scream broke them apart, first to look oddly at each other then down the hallway toward the guestroom. Behind them, the door to the balcony whooshed open. "What the hell was that?" yelled Doug.
The scream came from Tony Glenn, who was lumbering toward the living room from the hallway. He stopped at the stairwell and turned toward Terry and Beth. His eyes bulged and his lips quivered in a crazy jig. "Lauraís dead," he finally said. "Dead." With that he raced down the stairs.
Doug took an indecisive step into the living room then turned and lunged back to the balcony. "For Godís sake, Tony! What happened?" His voice then roared into the living room like cannon fire. "Tony! No! Donít do it, man!"
Terry, his heart suddenly pounding, began a clumsy sprint for the balcony. He arrived as Doug vaulted over the railing, his voice trailing behind him. "Tony! Donít be a damn fool!"
Frozen by disbelief, Terry stood at the railing and watched the two men below struggle by the opened door of Tonyís station wagon. Behind the, like some immense rippling stage prop, the hellish wall of fire churned and twisted against the sky. Both men tugged and tore at some object held between them, and for an incredibly irrational instant Terry thought the object to be a gun.
Then he realized that it was a gun. "This isnít happening," he said aloud. "This canít be real." Then he knew that the gun was real. The sharp angry report it made chilled his blood and sent a ringing percussion down his spine.
Doug Green stumbled backward, one hand gripping his chest; the other shaking and reaching toward Tony. Tottering like a wind-blown tree, Doug turned and stared at the balcony. His face was white with bewilderment and he said but two words: "Terry... why?" Then he laughed, a low gurgling chuckle filled with confusion and disbelief. A quick gulp of breath stiffened him before he toppled forward and thudded into the dirt of the driveway.
Bethís hand squeezed at Terryís shoulder, and he snapped quickly around. That he did spared him from witnessing Tony Glenn thrust the gun into his mouth and pull the trigger. But another angry sound and the look of curious but indifferent astonishment that gathered on Bethís face told him what had occurred.
The remainder of the day was largely a blur. When he did make an effort to think, Terry was invariably overpowered by the belief that he was trapped in some hideous nightmare that refused to end. The absurdity of this horrifying day left no other sensible explanation. He recalled awakening from other nightmares still captured by them; still seeing what his mind had conceived spin vividly through his senses as he sat sweating and panting on his bed. This was the same thing. Prolonged... yes, but it, too, would eventually give way to reality.
Drugged by that belief, he was able to impassively place the three bodies in the back of the Glennsí station wagon. He thought of Richard Temple, but never seriously considered searching for his ghost along the shoreline. He might have found it had he looked. But what would be the point? He continued drinking and spent long periods on the balcony, totally desensitized and lethargically staring at the blazing and now, he believed, harmless inferno upon the horizon. As dusk darkened to night, he even marveled at the incredible beauty of the swirling red and orange curtain of flame. Beth appeared occasionally, cooing and laughing and drinking herself into oblivion. But she was merely part of the nightmare, and what would happen would happen.
Somehow they ended up in Terryís bed, he upon her and visa-versa in a twisting, totally unsatisfying exercise in lust. But why not? The impossible fantasy controlled everything.
When passion had spent itself, Terry freed himself from Bethís persistent embrace and turned facedown and exhausted to his pillow. It was then that this preposterous illusion he was enduring began one last assault upon whatever remained of sanity. For a terrifying moment he lay frozen and uncertain of what had taken place. But the assault quickly withered. Stupefied by drink, by Bethís incessant craving, and by the utter inanity of this inconceivable fantasy, he drifted off into sleep. The irony of falling asleep during a dream danced like a jester through his mind.
Terry awoke with a start, the throbbing in his head amplified by the abrasive clamor from the alarm clock. Drenched with sweat and very much aware of a strange clawing in his stomach, he lay facing the clock on the nightstand. It read 6:00 a.m. He silenced the alarm with his second try then lifted his head. He felt his face tighten when he saw the strange shadows dancing on the wall behind the bed. For a moment he simply stared at them, blinking erratically as if doing so would dismiss his bafflement. Then his eyes popped horribly open and he whirled to his back, a flying elbow catching Beth in the shoulder. She grumbled raggedly and turned over.
"Terry?" She reached for him and turned suddenly rigid. Her hand had fallen on his chest, right above his heart. And his heart had become a crazy machine attempting to make itself explode. She propped herself on her elbows, stared oddly at him, and focused on his face. His eyes bulged outward and glowed orange.
Her head snapped toward the huge window that looked out upon the jagged line of hills to the east. She screamed at what she saw.
The hills were on fire, covered by an immense mountain of flame that reached far into the sky.
The fire was moving steadily down the hill.
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