Running with the Demon Prologue
Use of this excerpt from Running with the Demon by Terry Brooks may be made only for purposes of promoting the book, with no changes, editing or additions whatsoever and must be accompanied by the following copyright notice: copyright ©1997 by Terry Brooks.
He stands alone in the center of another of America's burned-out towns, but he has been to this one before. Even in their ruined, blackened condition, the buildings that surround him are recognizable. The streets of the intersection in which he finds himself stretch away in windswept concrete ribbons that dwindle and fade into the horizon--south to the bridge that spans the river, north to the parched flats of what were once cornfields, east toward the remains of Reagan's hometown, and west to the Mississippi and the Great Plains. A street sign, bent and weathered, confirms that he stands at the corner of First Avenue and Third Street. The town is eight blocks square, two blocks in any direction from where he stands, petering out afterward in dribs and drabs of homes that have been converted to real-estate offices and repair shops or simply leveled to provide parking. Farther out lie the abandoned ruins of two supermarkets and the mall, and down along the riverbank he can see the broken-down stacks and rusted-out corrugated roofs of what is left of the steel mill.
He looks around slowly, making sure he is in the right place, because it has been a long time. The sky is clouded and dark. Rain threatens and will probably fall before night. Although it is noon, the light is so pale that it seems more like dusk. The air and the earth are washed clean of color. Buildings, streets, abandoned vehicles, trash, and sky are a uniform shade of gray, the paint running from one into the other until nothing remains but shadows and light to differentiate any of it. In the silence, the wind moans softly as it rises off the river and whips down the empty streets. Twigs, leaves, and debris skitter along the concrete. Windows gape dark and hollow where the plate glass has been broken out. Doors hang open and sag. Smears of black ash and soot stain the walls where fires have burned away the wood and plastic veneer of the offices and shops. Cars hunker down on flattened tires and bare axles, stripped of everything useful, abandoned shells turning slowly to rust.
The man looks the town over as he would a corpse, remembering when it was still vital.
A pack of dogs comes out of one of the buildings. There are maybe ten of them, lean and hungry, quick-eyed and suspicious. They study him momentarily before moving on. They want nothing to do with him. He watches them disappear around the corner of a building, and he begins to walk. He moves east toward the park, even though he knows what he will find. He passes the bank, the paint store, the fabric shop, Al's Bar, and a parking lot, and stops at Josie's. The sign still hangs over the entry; the enamel is faded and broken, but the name is recognizable. He walks over and peers inside. The furniture and pastry cases are all smashed, the cooking equipment broken, and the leather banquettes ripped to shreds. Dust coats the countertop, trash litters the ruined floor, and weeds poke out of cracks in the tile.
He turns away in time to catch sight of two children slipping from the alleyway across the street. They carry canvas bags stuffed with items they have scavenged. They wear knives strapped to their waists. The girl is in her teens, the boy younger. Their hair is long and unkempt, their clothes shabby, and their eyes hard and feral. They slow to consider him, taking his measure. He waits on them, turns to face them, lets them see that he is not afraid. They glance at each other, whisper something punctuated by furtive gestures, then move away. Like the dogs, they want nothing to do with him.
He continues up the street, the sound of his boots a hollow echo in the midday silence. Office buildings and shops give way to homes. The homes are empty as well, those that are still intact. Many are burned out and sagging, settling slowly back into the earth. Weeds grow everywhere, even through cracks in the concrete of the streets. He wonders how long it has been since anyone has lived here. Counting the strays, the dogs and the children and the one or two others that linger because they have no place else to go, how many are left? In some towns, there is no one. Only the cities continue to provide refuge, walled camps in which survivors have banded together in a desperate effort to keep the madness at bay. Chicago is one such city. He has been there and seen what it has to offer. He already knows its fate.
A woman emerges from the shadows of a doorway in one of the residences, a frail, hollow-eyed creature, dark hair tangled and streaked with purple dye, arms hanging loose and bare, the skin dotted with needle marks. Got anything for me? she asks dully. He shakes his head. She comes down to the foot of the porch steps and stops. She trots out a smile. Where'd you come from? He does not respond. She moves a couple of steps closer, hugging herself with her thin arms. Want to come in and party with me? He stops her with a look. In the shadows of the house from which she has come, he can see movement. Eyes, yellow and flat, study him with cold intent. He knows who they belong to. Get away from me, he tells the woman. Her face crumples. She turns back without a word.
He walks to the edge of the town, a mile farther on, out where the park waits. He knows he shouldn't, but he cannot help himself. Nothing of what he remembers remains, but he wants to see anyway. Old Bob and Gran are gone. Pick is gone. Daniel and Wraith are gone. The park is overgrown with weeds and scrub. The cemetery is a cluster of ruined headstones. The townhomes and apartments and houses are all empty. What lives in the park now can be found only in the caves and is his implacable enemy.
And what of Nest Freemark?
He knows that, too. It is a nightmare that haunts him, unrelenting and pitiless.
He stops at the edge of the cemetery and looks off into the shadows beyond. He is here, he supposes, because he has no better place to go. He is here because he is reduced to retracing the steps of his life as a form of penance for his failures. He is hunted at every turn, and so he is drawn to the places that once provided refuge. He searches in the vain hope that something of what was good in his life will resurface, even when he knows the impossibility of that happening.
He takes a long, slow breath. His pursuers will find him again soon enough, but perhaps not this day. So he will walk the park once more and try to recapture some small part of what is lost to him forever.
Across the roadway from where he stands, a billboard hangs in tatters. He can just make out its wording.
WELCOME TO HOPEWELL, ILLINOIS! WE'RE GROWING YOUR WAY!
John Ross woke with a start, jerking upright so sharply that he sent his walking staff clattering to the floor of the bus. For a moment, he didn't know where he was. It was night, and most of his fellow passengers were asleep. He took a moment to collect himself, to remember which journey he was on, which world he was in. Then he maneuvered his bad leg stiffly into the aisle, jockeying himself about on the seat until he was able to reach down and retrieve the staff.
He had fallen asleep in spite of himself, he realized. In spite of what that meant.
He placed the walking stick beside him, leaning it carefully against his knapsack, bracing it in place so that it would not slide away again. An old woman several seats in front of him was still awake. She glanced back at him briefly, her look one of reproof and suspicion. She was the only one who sat close to him. He was alone at the very back of the bus; the other passengers, all save the old woman, had been careful to take seats near the front. Perhaps it was the leg. Or the shabby clothes. Or the mantle of weariness he wore like the ghost of Marley did his chains. Perhaps it was the eyes, the way they seemed to look beyond what everyone else could see, at once cool and discerning, yet distant and lost, an unsettling contradiction.
But, no. He looked down at his hands, studying them. In the manner of one who has come to terms with being shunned, he could ignore the pain of his banishment. Subconsciously, his fellow passengers had made a perfectly understandable decision.
You leave as many empty seats as possible between yourself and Death.