Bob Leman was an American science fiction and horror short-story writer, most often associated with The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Leman’s first story appeared when he was forty-five. His most famous story, “Window” (1980), was nominated for the Nebula Award and adapted for an episode of Night Visions, directed by and starring Bill Pullman. Another of Leman’s stories, “How Dobbstown Was Saved,” was to have been published in the Harlan Ellison anthology The Last Dangerous Visions but eventually appeared in the collection Feesters in the Lake and Other Stories (2002). This story, “Loob,” was first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1979.
It may be that none of this happened.
That is badly put. Let me say it another way: none of this will have happened at the instant – which I believe must come eventually – the instant that Loob permits my great-grandfather to pass unscathed through the drawing room door.
I believe that one day Loob will permit it. I think he must. Because if he does not, my existence is an impossibility. And I do exist. Cogito, ergo sum. Besides which, I have an actual physical presence: yesterday I cut myself when I shaved (there is a decided tremor in my hands), I have a blister on my right foot, these seedy clothes cover a breathing body.
Officially, though, and perhaps in law, I do not exist. Neither the county nor the state has any record of my birth (nor my father’s; my grandmother’s birth, however, is duly recorded). Lawrenceville and Princeton have no record of my attendance and graduation. Even the United States Army, that indefatigable maker and keeper of records has no paper that acknowledges my three years of servitude. And it is a melancholy fact that no one in the world seems to know or remember me; not friends from prep school days, not college classmates or fellow officers, not a soul in the old home town. My precise and detailed recollection of my twenty-five years of life is always and everywhere belied by records both public and private, and by every reality of the world around me.
Yet I am real, I am a living, breathing, thinking human being, as solid and sentient as any of the degenerates who surround me here. As I skulk about this decrepit travesty of my native town, I reflect endlessly upon my impossible existence, upon the resemblances and differences between this world and my own, upon an explanation for the situation in which I find myself. And I have found the explanation, and in finding it I find some hope. I can only wait, and watch Loob.
It is true that certain parts of my explanation are, perhaps, in a way, to a certain degree (if you like) conjectural; nonetheless, it hangs together, it hangs together. Up to a certain August day in 1905 this world and my own were identical; my explanation rests, therefore, on simple, unarguable fact. On that day there was a divergence, a forking, and Loob was the cause. It took me some time to figure that out.
To identify Loob as the villain, that is. I was much quicker at the rest of it, at accounting for the existence of this town. It is located where the town of my birth is located, it bears the same name, it has the same history up to a point. It is composed of the same streets and buildings that make up the older part of my own town, horribly run-down here, all in a state of slovenly desuetude, with buildings vacant and boarded up, trash in the deserted streets, insolent weeds growing in and around the ruins of structures that have burned or fallen down. It is a depressed and depressing place, forming a most bleak and demoralizing contrast with the self-confident bustle and gloss of the town I knew.
My own situation is also considerably different. There I am the heir apparent, the young master, indulged in expensive toys – a Ferrari, a string of polo ponies – by a doting grandmother. Here I work as a swamper in a saloon; the Top Hat Bar and Grill, to be exact. It is the only work available to a nameless unperson. (They call me Tom Perkins. I don’t know where they got that. Back when I still talked, I used to ask them to use my real name, but the request always generated so much laughter that I gave it up.) At that, I am one of the very few people here who work; most of the town is on welfare, as I might be myself if I could establish the fact that I exist. Ironically, they have volunteered to put me on the welfare rolls under the name of Tom Perkins, an offer which I declined. That also caused a good deal of laughter.
Day after day, as I cleaned the spittoons (three-pound coffee cans, actually) and mopped the foul floor, my mind was occupied by a sustained effort to discover, through the application of the most rigorous logic, a theory to account for my presence in a world where my presence is impossible. (This was after my parole from the state hospital, after I had achieved a measure of resignation to my plight.) The initial stages of my analysis were simple enough: I postulated that any occurrence, anywhere, anytime, is a cause that has a consequent effect. A major occurrence has a major effect and changes history. Now, from the beginning, history has been an infinity of forks in a road, with the road not taken disappearing forever after it is passed, so that a backward look shows only a single thoroughfare stretching to the rear. But suppose that somehow, from our present position on this thoroughfare, a barricade could be hurled backward, back to one of those forks in the road, compelling events to travel on the alternative route. As time went by, and fork after fork came and went, a retrospective survey of the route taken would not show that the main road was missed long ago. It would not show that we now travel on a detour, a sad, sick, degenerate, abominable detour. But the main road is still there, is still there. I think logic dictates that we must believe it is still there.
The exercise of pure reason had brought me to that point, but there my search for the truth began to appear to be almost hopeless. Reduced to essentials, it had become a search for the villain. Someone had erected the barricade that shunted history into the detour and exiled me from the main road to this wretched byway, and whoever he was, he had to be found and compelled to undo his villainy. But the world is a big place, containing a very considerable number of people, and I had not the least vague clue to his identity. A mad scientist? A military secret project? A lama spinning a prayer wheel in Tibet?
My problem was further complicated by the fact that I am not permitted to leave town. The people at the state hospital have decreed that I must be brought in once a month to be questioned and tested, presumably for reassurance that I can safely continue to be farmed out to the Top Hat Bar and Grill. I gather that before my incarceration I sometimes did violent things. (When I compare my mashed-in face with the way I used to look, I can believe it.) Okie Perkins, Prop. of the Top Hat Bar and Grill, drives me to these monthly vettings, where I steadfastly maintain silence despite the often ingenious subterfuges the headshrinkers use to get me to talk. I have promised myself that I shall speak no word until I am back where I belong. Obviously this vow was a further impediment to my investigation.
But I had some good luck, which served me as well as cold reason and sedulous research could have done. I found Loob. At some point in my despairing prowlings through the town, I became aware of him, and I came gradually to realize that I had found the culprit. It was no blazing revelation, or anything of that sort; but as soon as I began to suspect him I undertook to weigh his qualifications as a suspect against the indisputable facts, and, little by little, it became perfectly plain that it was indeed Loob who had done this unspeakable thing. I matched the history of the town – one history until 1905, and then two, both of which I had pondered obsessively – with what I knew about Loob, and at last the whole grim story was laid out for me.
I said that finding him was good luck, but it was bad luck as well, because my plan to compel an undoing of the evil has come to nothing; quite clearly there is no way to compel Loob to do anything at all. There is not even any way to talk to him – which I would be eager to do if he could understand. But he cannot talk, and so certain portions of the story must remain forever conjecture. But they fit the facts, the whole thing coheres.
So now I watch him and wait for the day when he will undo what he did. Because there is nothing to do but watch and wait. And (I cannot help it) hope. I stalk him through the town, willing him to go to the house, to sit in the window. That is where he must be to change things back. When he is in the house, I usually lurk somewhere outside, not because I can affect what may happen, but simply out of an unexplainable feeling that I should be there. And then, too, looking at the house can sometimes evoke my real life so strongly that for a moment I forget where I am.
The house, my grandmother’s house in the real world. A mansion with many chimneys, enduringly built of the pale-gray local sandstone, still displaying a basic elegance of line and proportion. Its walls remain as stout as the day they were built, and the slates of the roof still turn the rain; but there is no glass in any window, nor a door in any doorway, and the winds sweep through, blowing dust and trash in squalid patterns across the floor. There are no rooms on the first story; the interior walls were torn out years ago and replaced by a number of steel poles to bear the weight of the upper floors. In the cavernous space thus created, a foredoomed machine shop had existed precariously for a few years before it sank into bankruptcy and abandoned its worn-out lathes and drills to the scavengers and vandals. This is where Loob likes to be.
He likes to sit on a box in one of the oriel windows. From there he looks down to the river, across the junk piles and weeds that were once a smooth lawn sloping to the edge of the woods, across the rusty railroad tracks and decaying sheds that stand where great trees grew in the days when the house was in history’s mainstream. He sits there for a large part of almost every day, watching an inconstant landscape: seeing sometimes a squirm of rats among frozen weeds, sometimes a small giggling girl frolicking with a patient dog on a summer lawn, sometimes other things. Loob feels no curiosity about these alterations of the view. Most things in life are incomprehensible to him, and all phenomena are equally unexpected and equally unsurprising. But the little girl engages somewhat more of his attention than do the rats; the pretty lady at the piano is marginally more interesting than a ruined milling machine. Loob is happier (if that is the word for the viscid stirring within him) when he is watching the past.
During all the eighteen years of his life the past has been his milieu as often as the present. He does not distinguish between them. Some things can be touched and some cannot; that is one of the things he knows, and it is his sole perception of the difference between past and present. His questing hand will pass through the piano but be arrested by the milling machine; neither occurrence surprises him. If the piano were suddenly to become palpable and the milling machine insubstantial, he would not remember that it had ever been otherwise.
He answers to “Loob,” short for “Loober,” which is as close as he can come to pronouncing Luther. His name is another of the things he knows. Boys used to use that fact to bait him.
“Hey, Loob. What’s your name, Loob?”
“Loo – ber.” Thick, slow, forced out after a struggle.
Laughter. “Make him do it again.”
“What’s your name, Loob?”
“Loo – ber.”
And laughter again. But now he has grown to several inches over six feet and weighs three hundred pounds. They no longer tease him. He has never been known to harm anyone, but his size and appearance have emancipated him from the role of butt. When he walks in the streets now, they say, “Hi, Loob,” or even, “Hello, Luther.” All of the people here know each other. A stranger may say, “My God, what’s that?” and someone will tell him, “Oh, that’s Luther Rankin. One of our village idiots. Perfectly harmless.”
The speaker will be mistaken; Loob is anything but perfectly harmless. He can do – has done – abominable things, as no one knows better than I. But he has not done them with malice; he has not intended harm. He has never in his life intended anything at all and indeed is incapable of having intentions. The abominations happened simply because Loob is what he is; they came about as suddenly, and with as little premeditation, as the collapse of a river bank in a flood. But it is because of Loob that the house is what it is. That the town is what it is.
For three quarters of a century the town has been dying. At the turn of the century it passed almost overnight from its lusty prime into senescence, but ever since it has clung with a kind of weak tenacity to a spark of life, and now, shrunken and listless, it squats and decays on its mountainside, still housing in decrepit grimy dwellings a few hundred dispirited clients of the welfare system. Trains still make runs along the track that winds down the valley beside the river, but it has been many years since the train has stopped here, and the town’s name on the depot has almost weathered away. A new interstate highway carries most of the traffic that formerly used the river road, and the town’s last filling station stands boarded up at the corner where Main Street meets the road. There are only two stores left, and one saloon. The school has been abandoned, and all but one of the churches. It is a town without hope and without pride, a place with no reason for existing except to provide shelter of a sort for people who are themselves without hope or pride.
Once long ago it was a prosperous confident town, whose citizens believed it might one day rival Pittsburgh. It was not a wholly impossible vision. The Dappling Iron Works, which had grown prodigiously during the Civil War, leagued itself with the railroads when the war ended, and if Henry Dappling had been another kind of man, he might have pushed himself into the company of Carnegie and Frick and made his town a city like theirs. But he was not driven by ambition, and his factory and his town in the first years of the new century were exactly as he wanted them to be: healthy, bustling, productive – and of manageable size. He was comfortable in his role as First Citizen and Squire, and he approved of a community that was not too large for every citizen to know him and know his position. He liked the town as it was, and he liked his own position within it.
He took a keen pleasure in his daily trip to the plant, the ceremony and style of it. Every morning at eight, his polished buggy passed between the gateposts of the estate and proceeded briskly into town along Dappling Road, Dappling portly and erect in the seat, snugly buttoned into well-tailored sober broadcloth, in firm control of a team of matched chestnuts. There were no doffed hats or tugged forelocks as he passed, but those who shouted good morning to him called him Mr. Dappling.
Dappling Road curved around a hill and sloped downward to meet Main Street; Dappling’s house was in fact quite near the town, but hidden from it by the cheek of the hill. At Main Street he turned left, down into the town, past houses that became progressively larger as he approached the square. The block nearest the square had mansions on both sides of the street, large dark buildings of brick or stone, heavily ginger-breaded, standing at the backs of deep lawns. These were the homes of Dappling’s superintendents and the banker and the most prosperous of the merchants. The retail commerce of the town took place around the square, and most of the merchants contrived to be at their doors to greet Dappling as the buggy passed smartly by. He returned to each a sober inclination of the head, a nod calculated precisely to indicate relative social positions. On the lower side of the square was another block of fine houses, and then the row houses of the mill workers down to the wrought-iron gates of the Dappling Iron Works.
In the cobbled courtyard, McVay would be waiting to take the horses, a lean grim mountaineer with a crooked leg. The leg had been crippled in a mill accident, and because McVay had a family, a job as hostler and janitor had been found for him. If he had been killed, his widow would have received a small sum every payday until the oldest boy was old enough to work in the mill. When a mill hand grew too old or too infirm to work, the son or son-in-law who took him in found his pay envelope somewhat augmented each week for so long as the old man lived. No one starved in Dappling’s town. No one had any luxuries, either, except for the people in the big houses on Main Street. And Dappling.
The townspeople were content with that arrangement. They were proud, illiterate people who made a point of asking for no more than they felt they had earned, and they were in fact more prosperous and lived more comfortably (if perhaps with a little less freedom) than their cousins who lived in mountain cabins. They were all people indigenous to the mountains, some still owning steep remnants of the land granted to ancestors in recognition of service as soldiers in the Revolution. There were no foreigners in Dappling’s mill. He had observed with fastidious disgust the consequences of Pittsburgh’s resort to immigrant labor: the swarms of evil-smelling clownish peasants, gabbling in strange tongues and devouring loathsome foods, creating squalid enclaves that reproduced with hideous fidelity the degenerate East European or Mediterranean villages that had spawned them. Dappling would have none of it. Who would be squire where the tenants were the likes of these?
No, he would forego becoming a great man, if becoming a great man entailed such things. In his lifetime, at least, things would not change here. This neat prospering town where dwelt contented respectful citizens; this bustling profitable mill where free Americans labored; these wooded hills surrounding his elegant great house: these were what he prized; these he would keep. These and his family.
His days were so ordered that there was time for each of them: he would be in his office (he still called it a counting house, a small room darkly furnished in mahogany and green plush) until noon precisely, sitting deliberate and magisterial behind the broad desk, guiding the affairs of his mill with a concentration of attention indistinguishable from love. That part of his life that belonged to the mill was the mill’s absolutely. But with the first sound of the noon whistle he was at the door, and before the sound of the whistle had died the chestnuts were in motion, retracing the morning’s journey. With the closing of the door, Dappling shut business out of his mind until tomorrow; the rest of the day belonged to the estate and the family.
He always felt a lift in his spirits as the buggy approached the gates of the manor, an emotion identical with the one he felt as he neared the mill in the morning. Twice each day on six days of the week he enjoyed this feeling of pleasurable anticipation. He relished each morning’s work, the solid satisfaction of bringing order to confused situations, the pride in his honest profit from his honest product. He relished equally the afternoons: a farmer’s lunch, a change into boots and breeches, and then into the outdoors – sometimes afoot and sometimes riding – to verify that all went well with his acres.
There were about twenty thousand of them, forest mostly, lofty virgin stands of oak and walnut steeply rising above valleys where swift cold streams ran. Where the land was reasonably flat, there were wheat and cornfields, and on steeper clearings grew lush pasturage for the fat cattle and blooded horses that won ribbons for Dappling at the fair. He liked to take his big gray gelding on a tour of the fields on a summer afternoon, using not the farm roads but his private bridle paths, cantering through the silent forest on a crooked course that took him from the stable down to the fat fields of the bottomland, thence upward as far as the high mountain meadow, and from there back again to his house in the last hour before sunset. He would emerge from the trees at the top of the home meadow, whose long slope ran from the edge of the woods down to Dappling Road. There he always pulled up to absorb the view for a few minutes: in the foreground the dairy herd making its way in a peaceable file towards the barn for the evening milking; then the road; and then, beyond treetops, his house, solid, permanent, and shapely, on its broad expanse of lawn. The best part of the day was still to come. If the gelding was not overheated, Dappling would give him his head and, with deliberate theatricality, thunder up to the stable at a dead run. More often than not, Emily would be there waiting for him.
His Emily, his sunshine; the radiance that lighted his life, the small granddaughter whom he loved with an intensity of devotion that sometimes – as he was well aware – made him appear faintly ridiculous. He doted; and was aware that his doting was a cause of laughter, and did not care, this staid industrialist who prized his dignity above most things. He saw in this merry child a recreation of her grandmother, the adored wife who had died young and whose loss inflicted a wound that had remained as raw as the day it was new through all the years until Emily’s birth.
He had remained fond enough of his son Sam and never been so unhinged by grief as to blame the boy because his birth had killed his mother; nonetheless, he had been more a dutiful than a loving father. But if he did not cheer at Sam’s triumphs, neither did he chide him for his failures, and they did not quarrel. They did not embrace, either, and Sam no more filled the empty part of Dappling’s life than did the mill and the estate. All three were good things, important to him and sources of satisfaction, but it was not until the baby’s birth that they fell snugly into place as parts of a life that seemed now to be whole and unflawed. He was able at last to love Sam as a son and to become fond of Sam’s wife Olivia, the aristocrat Sam had fetched home to the mountains from a decaying Main Line mansion.
Sam, for his part, not only loved his father, he admired him above all men. He accounted himself very lucky, did plain decent Sam, with the great Henry Dappling his father and the beautiful Olivia his wife. Sam knew his limitations, knew that his father and his wife had quicker, keener minds than his own. At Harvard, where his father had been graduated cum laude after an indolent and sociable four years, Sam had had to toil mightily for his Gentleman’s Cs, and he was never able to comprehend at all the formidable books that his wife incessantly read. But what he learned he remembered, and Dappling was a patient teacher. Sam had come to be of value in the mill and on the farm, and when the proper time came round (in ten years, Dappling thought, or fifteen), he would be fit to command both. His ways were not his father’s ways, but Dappling had gradually come to realize that Sam’s pleasant, almost diffident orders were carried out with as much alacrity as his own, and undoubtedly more cheerfully. The men respected and to some degree feared Dappling, but they were fond of Sam. They were beginning to respect him, as well; and a few, who had failed him in one way or another, had learned that there were times when he, too, was to be feared.
They dined early, so that Emily could eat with the family. Each evening as they entered the dining room, Mrs. McVay would pop Emily in through the other door, starched and ruffled, fragrant from her bath, her small face serious with the effort of making a ladylike entrance, her eyes on Dappling. It was a game. If Dappling’s expression did not change, she was able to make her way to her chair with suitable gravity; but if he winked, or permitted the corner of his mouth to twitch with an incipient grin, she broke into giggles and ran to him to be picked up and deposited in her chair. She was in fact a beautiful child, with a regularity of feature and a shapeliness of the underlying bone that indicated an inevitable growth into a beautiful woman. She glowed with health; the round cheeks bloomed, the blue eyes sparkled. Merriment bubbled always just beneath the surface of her mood of the moment, so that even when she was irritated or sullen, the bad behavior somehow gave the impression of being no more than a pose. It was not to be doubted that all of her life people would be charmed by her and forgive her almost any offense. She was a delightful small person and seemed so not only to her besotted grandfather but to the whole populace of Dappling’s demesne. In the row houses the grannies were already worrying about a suitable husband being found for her, and eminent fiddlers from the mountain cabins often turned up at the door with tenders of music to be played for the Missy. These were not sycophantish people; they felt a very genuine affection for her. Everyone did.
They ate the food of the region, roast beef or fried pork or game, with cornbread and boiled greens. But the plain food was served on delicate china and eaten with monogrammed silver; the napery was heavy linen, snowy white. Olivia’s code of manners had not been relaxed by removal to the west. The Dapplings were gentlefolk, after all, and if they had tended to live coarsely during the years when the house was without a chatelaine, it was only her duty, now that she was mistress, to set things back on the correct path. Dappling was amiable about it, and the adoring Sam, as anxious to please as a puppy, pretended great enthusiasm for her amendments to their style of living. They drew the line at formal dinner wear, but were agreeable to changing from outdoor clothes for dinner, and Olivia settled for that.
The men ate hugely, minding their table manners to set an example for Emily and to please Olivia. The conversation would no doubt have surprised a chance visitor: Dappling’s education had been excellent, and he was that rarity among industrialists, a man who loved books. Olivia, too, was a reader. She had had no more than the education considered appropriate for females of her class and time – genteel reading, manners, a little music – but she had very early displayed, to the utter astonishment of the improvident sportsmen and flighty belles who comprised her family, a formidable intellect, an attribute that the clan found as exotic as the ability to charm snakes, and about as desirable in a lady. Her father had leaped at the chance to marry her off to rich Sam Dappling, who was, although perhaps not out of the very top drawer, a lad much to the old man’s liking, a good shot, bold at a jump, well-tailored, and in no way bookish. Indeed, he felt a certain sympathy for Sam, anticipating that the boy might have a difficult time with his blue-stocking daughter. But it had turned out that Dappling’s library had afforded her all she could ask in the way of books, and she had found her father-in-law’s conversation to be modestly learned and sometimes even witty. It more than compensated for the occasional whiff of the frontier she discerned in the atmosphere around her.
Sometimes there were guests. Men came from New York and Pittsburgh to talk about iron and steel, or from the capitol to talk politics. At dinner and afterwards until bedtime they talked their business or politics, with Sam utterly absorbed in the conversation and Dappling joining in with a certain detached amusement, while Olivia sat rigid with boredom, mechanically making the proper responses. But there were other visitors, people from Olivia’s former world who came for extended visits to rest and restore their failing energies in the mountain air. When there were houseguests in residence, dinners were leisurely affairs, deliberately protracted by Olivia; it was the time of the best conversation, and meals were the chief – almost the only – entertainment there in the country. There might be cards in the late evening, or Olivia would play Chopin or Schubert with passable skill. Sometimes they gathered around the piano and sang; often they sat on the lawn late into the night, the talk incessant under the stridulation of night insects until it was time for bed.
Sam was always glad of bedtime; indeed, he found himself looking forward to it almost from the time he rose in the morning. One of his amusements, when conversation about paintings or cotillions had bored him to the point of numbness, was to picture Olivia as she would be later in their bedroom; he liked to imagine the expressions on the faces around the table if they suddenly found themselves conversing not with the cool hostess who was explicating Darwin, but with the Olivia that only he had ever seen, who came into being after the bedroom door had closed. Both Sam and Olivia had been at first enormously surprised and then intensely grateful for the depth of her sexuality; but both were quite certain that it was somehow discreditable, and they were in agreement that it should be utterly secret. Their public manner towards each other was almost formal; they lived in the innocent belief that their passion was wholly concealed.
Dappling was much amused by their affectation of coolness, but it was a benign and complacent amusement. They were a happy couple, and their happiness was a cornerstone of Emily’s world. Whatever made Emily happy met with Dappling’s unqualified approval. It was his intent that her life was to be without sorrow, that her merriment was to continue all of her days. It was to this end that he directed the affairs of his mill, his estate, and his people, so that Emily could never know want, would always have responsible protectors, would always have her path smooth and the way open, no matter what happened to him, no matter what happened to Sam and Olivia. Large sums of money were so placed that she was forever assured of opulence, whatever the vagaries of the economy; banks in Pittsburgh and lawyers in New York were committed by pledge and self-interest to protect her as a jewel; young matrons in the best circles of Eastern Seaboard cities were already anticipating the day when they would sponsor her; and throughout Goster County hard men and their tough women, bound to Dappling by a fealty that was near-feudal, had come to understand that the welfare of this child was to be protected in any and all circumstances, by whatever means were necessary.
Dappling had done what he could, and he did not doubt that it was enough. In any case, he saw his safeguards only as an excess of caution. There was no reason why he should not live until Emily herself was a grandmother, and he proposed to guard her tenderly through all those years. But such speculation about the far future was confined to moments of active planning; in his heart, in his day-to-day thought, she was forever five years old, forever a golden child laughing among flowers in a long golden afternoon. And that would be the reality, in a way.
Or, at any rate, a reality; one of the realities perceived by Loob, peering uncomprehendingly down the chasm of the years from his seat in the oriel window. He watched her often at play, skipping blithely with bare feet over sun-warmed grass, as he sat hunched motionless on his box, strange and gross, scoured by a gritty cold wind that he did not seem to feel, staring with lusterless eyes at the pantomime he watched almost every day without ever remembering that he had seen it before. There had never been pattern or sequence to his perception of the past, and scenes came and went apparently at random, but the child on the lawn was there for him almost every day. He looked through the window and saw her at play, and behind him in the room, if he turned his head to look, the pretty lady was playing the piano while a slim man with a mustache turned the pages of music for her, and through the door another man was entering the room.
It always ended then; abruptly Loob was looking at the desolate present or a different time in the past. No one could have said whether it mattered to him. No expression crossed the broad pallid face, the dull eyes neither brightened nor dimmed. But somewhere in the cloudy corridors of his brain something found that particular scene appealing, and it was endlessly repeated for Loob, child and dog in the sunlight, man and woman at the piano, the other man entering. And some sort of censor existed there, as well, cutting off his view each time at the same point; even Loob could not have borne to see again the scene played to its end.
Or perhaps he could have, and the shift in time had quite another explanation. There was no way of knowing what he felt, or indeed if he had feelings at all. What went on inside his head differed utterly – differed in kind – from the thinking processes of other people. He was not stupid or insane; those words apply to a mind’s efficiency in the handling of reality and rational thought, and what happened inside Loob’s skull bore no relation to those things. There was a power there that normal brains do not have, and Loob could see things long invisible to everyone else, but he did not – could not – think.
He had been born with a brain that was skewed and misshapen; the conduits that carry the impulses called thought were twisted and awry, in no way resembling the complex, symmetrical network which the genetic blueprint prescribes. They coiled upon themselves in tight nodes, forked where they should have continued singly, came to dead ends where they should have made a juncture, joined fortuitously where no connection should have been made. The energies that passed along them traveled unprecedented routes, and the result was not thought but something new and unique.
In a different age Loob would have been exposed and abandoned to die, and in a different place he would have been locked into an institution and forgotten. Here in this mountain town he was kept alive and, for what it was worth to him, permitted almost total freedom. The people clung to their immemorial folkways, and it had never been their way to send defective people to institutions. When seventeen-year-old Carolee Rankin came home to bear her bastard and depart again, this time to disappear forever, her mother, as a matter of course, kept the child to raise as one of the moil of children swarming through the ruinous house the welfare people supplied her. Loob shared his grandmother’s breast with his uncle, who was a year older than Loob. By his third birthday he was an inch taller than the uncle. It was by then evident, even to the grandmother, who herself lived at a certain remove from reality, that something was amiss inside Loob’s head. He walked into furniture and followed with his eyes the movements of invisible people and became frightened at the sight of things that were not there. It could not be doubted that he was in some way cracked.
The grandmother did not regard the fact as a major tragedy; most of the families she knew produced at least one natural in each generation. Loob received neither more nor less than his share of her fitful offerings of affection, and perhaps less than his share of the cuffings. He continued to grow with unnatural speed, almost visibly acquiring inches of height and layers of fat, feeding greedily on enormous quantities of the starchy foods provided by bureaucratic charity. When he was seven the grandmother died.
The day after her death, her mother, the matriarch of the clan, appeared in the town. She began a long wrangle with the young woman from the welfare department, who proposed to put into foster homes all of the children except Loob, who was to go to an asylum. The old woman was wise in all the ways and regulations of the welfare department, and she was unshakably determined that her kin would not be raised by strangers. In the end she prevailed; the government would continue to rent the house, regular checks would continue to issue, and the children, including Loob, would be kept together. But her scheming had gone beyond that: she was able, as a part of the same settlement, to make provision for another of her feckless brood. Her youngest son, a cowboy-togged frequenter of honky-tonks, who had reached his early thirties, without ever having had a job, was given a stipend by the government to move with his wife into the house and make a home for the children. He had no children of his own; his wife, a skinny alcoholic named Dolores, did not like them.
As time passed she came to like them less and less, her new charges in particular. The littlest of them cried or screamed a good deal of the time, and those of school age were frequently the cause of visitations by the welfare lady, who tended to be quite fierce after hearing school teachers’ shocked reports about the clothing and grooming of the children. Dolores was infuriated by these intrusions upon her effort to live as she liked. She had experienced the fulfillment of an old daydream: enough money to keep the refrigerator well-filled with beer, and a rent-free dim room where the days could be passed in a mindless fog of alcohol and rock music. She did not ask for more than this, but having tasted it, she would not settle for less. When reality insisted upon invading her misty paradise, she was at first irritated and then filled with sullen rage. These children, she came to see, were her enemies. She would treat them as they deserved to be treated.
And so they grew, an undernourished gaggle of delinquents, vicious and unpredictable, pale of eyes and hair, each with the chinless face and crooked pointed teeth of the family. One by one, as they reached their middle teens, they left the house, to find dens elsewhere in the town or to run away and vanish utterly. Dolores was left at last with only Loob.
And even he had stumbled into habits that kept him out of her reach most of the time. In his early years it had been otherwise; he had not been able to learn, like the others, to make himself inconspicuous or to hide, nor was he able to read the signs that foretold explosions of her wrath. He had thus been almost always conveniently available to her, a ready victim, a swollen speechless lump too lethargic to evade blows and incapable of argument. In summer he would squat in the dusty backyard, and in winter in a corner of the kitchen, staring at whatever it was that he saw. When he was eleven or twelve he began to follow along behind the uncle who was near his own age, and he remained a faithful shadow until the uncle ran away a year or two later. That was the period when the boys used Loob as a butt.
By the time of the uncle’s disappearance Loob seemed to have come to a vague awareness that things were somehow better when he was away from Dolores, that he felt no blows and did not hear the shrill vituperative voice. It came to be his habit to go to the house only to sleep and to eat when he could not find food elsewhere. He became a wanderer through the town and its purlieus, an enormous shambling creature with arms that were disproportionately short and a tongue too large for his mouth who made mysterious detours as he walked and clutched a shapeless bundle of rags that had once been a stuffed toy dog. At some point his wanderings brought him to the window of the old Dappling house. Thereafter he was usually to be found at that place.
Dolores knew where he was, and she had no objection. She had never consciously made a connection between Loob’s absence from the house and a rise in her spirits, but her subconscious mind had for many years observed and recorded the fact that acts of cruelty to Loob were likely to have distressing consequences. The appalling depressions of spirit that sometimes engulfed her, dropping her into a black hell of melancholy and terror, were blamed on her boozing, and she ascribed to the same cause the endless succession of accidents that made bandages or splints a standard part of her costume. That Loob was the cause of her afflictions was not an idea that would have occurred to her.
It did not occur to Loob, either, of course. Loob did not have ideas, any more than he had memories. He lived from moment to moment, and each new moment of his life found him in something very close to a whole new world. The few things he had learned had been absorbed so gradually, over so long a time, that they had merged with, and become indistinguishable from, instinct; no reasoning from cause to effect had ever been the motive of an action of his. He was in fact totally unaware of what he was doing when he made use of his power. It was his, wholly by chance, an effect of the same clots in the circuitry of his brain that deprived him of an effective memory and the faculty of reason, and he used it instinctively and without forethought. Afterwards he would have no memory of what he had done, nor any awareness of consequences. There was the matter of the Goster County dogs, for example.
A lean starving dog of enormous size, driven to mindless ferocity by hunger and the pain of a festering paw, one day sprang at Loob’s throat. Loob reached with cobra swiftness, his instincts serving him, far better than reason would have. The dog seemed to crumple in midair; a savage predator had leaped, and a cowed and broken creature hit the ground. It fled in howling terror to its nest under a stump and remained there until it died of starvation and fear a week later.
If Loob had failed to react, no harm would have been done him; the dog’s attack had actually taken place on a day a century and a half in the past, and Loob had struck at a wraith, an apparition that had no substance in Loob’s time. It is probable that it was not attacking Loob at all, but some beast or person actually there; but it may have sensed somehow Loob’s uncomprehending observation and blindly attacked the unseen. Either way, they were in different times, Loob and the dog, and neither of them had any physical reality for the other. But Loob’s dreadful bolt was not affected by time. Time had no meaning for Loob or his power. And the dog was smitten.
The dog was a wild animal, an amalgam of large breeds, the possessor of a rich strain of wolf blood. He killed sheep and bred bitches on most of the farms in the county and ventured sometimes into the town itself when the wind brought the scent of a bitch in heat. By the time he was brought low by a farmer’s bullet, he had sired feral litters throughout the area, all of which fruitfully interbred. His blood was passed on and enriched by the inbreeding, and his descendants came to be almost a distinct breed, huge rangy dogs with blunt muzzles and smooth black pelts, who stood baleful guard over the farms of the county and patrolled the streets of the town with a forbidding, proprietary air.
They disappeared when Loob struck the attacker; or, rather, did not disappear: they had never existed. The old progenitor had died of terror in a hole before he could breed their ancestors, and other dogs lived – had always lived – here. Reality had been amended in a small way: a race of dogs did not exist; the bloodlines of the local sheep were imperceptibly different; the phrase, “As mean as a Goster County dog” did not have currency in that end of the state. Most of the people had memories of their pasts that were somewhat different from what they had been; a great many snapshots showed other dogs or no dogs at all. Not much else. Loob’s mindless interference with the past had harmed no one, all things considered, and the world was in fact in no worse condition than it would otherwise have been.
But of course that was not the only occasion on which he altered the past, and that other tampering had consequences that scarcely bear thinking about, that were indeed so incomparably dreadful that one has difficulty in restraining himself from committing atrocities upon Loob’s person. But that would be self-defeating, that would be something worse than suicide. Loob is not to be interfered with; he must be left to do as he is moved to do.
Loob once had a dog of his own. When he was twelve or thirteen years old, an emaciated stray mongrel had one summer evening peered through a hole in the fence and watched him as he sat in a corner of the yard hunched over his tin basin of pork and potatoes. The dog had sat staring with hopeless longing at the pieces that fell into the dust as Loob crammed the food into his mouth until, unable to restrain itself any longer, it made a frantic and despairing foray into the yard, snatched a loathly ort from under Loob’s feet, and scrambled in terror back through the hole. Loob took no notice whatever. The dog, observing this, made a second raid, again without retribution. By the time the basin was empty, the ground was clear of food, and the dog was sitting beside Loob waiting for the next scrap to fall.
Thereafter they took their meals together, and after a time the dog began to follow Loob wherever he went and to lie down touching Loob when Loob was at rest. Loob appeared not to be aware of the dog at all until the evening when the dog for the first time attempted to follow him into the house and was hastily ejected by Dolores. Loob began an enormous bellowing, a noise so offensive and sustained that one of the older children admitted the animal as soon as Dolores had returned to her room. After that time they were not separated by day or night until a coal truck ran over the dog on Main Street one morning, not only killing it instantly but flattening it to something unrecognizable as a dog.
Loob saw the incident; at any rate his eyes were turned toward it at the moment it happened. But he gave no sign that he recognized what had taken place, and he continued his lurching progress up the street without pausing. That night he did not eat, however, a thing that had not happened before in his lifetime. During all of the next day and the day after that, he took no food. The other children, astonished and frightened, told Dolores, who two days later told the welfare lady. Loob’s skin was by then beginning to hang in pale folds, and he staggered even more than usual as he wandered through the town.
“I don’t know,” the welfare lady said. “Maybe this time he’ll have to go to Murdock.” Murdock is a state mental hospital. I know it well.
“It was the dog gettin’ kilt done it,” one of the children said. Maybe if he had another dog—”
“Another dog,” the welfare lady said. “Aid to Dependent Dogs.” She spoke to Dolores: “Do you have any idea – No. Of course you don’t. I’ll talk to the doctor. I’m afraid it will have to be Murdock.” But she came back later in the day with a toy dog, a stylized stuffed Airdale covered in plush. “Let’s try it, anyhow,” she said. “You never know.”
Loob stared at the toy as emptily as he stared at the rest of the world. After a while the welfare lady said, “Well, I’m not surprised. It was worth trying, though.” She turned to go. Loob reached out and took the toy. His face did not change, but he raised the dog and squeezed it to his chest with both hands, and that evening he devoured his usual enormous meal. For the next five years of his life he was never seen without the toy in his hand.
He did not play with it or show it any sign of affection, or indeed seem to be aware that he held it, but even in his sleep his grip did not wholly relax. In time the plastic stuffing hardened and crumbled and sifted out through rips in the seams of the plush, so that at last Loob carried only a filthy rag; but to all appearances the rag had the same value to him that the new toy had had. It may have been that the sticky wad of cloth provided the only continuity in his life, the only thing of permanence in his inconstant world. Or perhaps he was after all capable of some murky analogue of emotion and felt something akin to affection for the ruined toy. It is even possible that he had never perceived it as a representation of a dog, but simply as an object tendered in kindness, and hence not to be relinquished. Whatever the reason, it was unique in the world, a thing that appeared to matter to Loob.
Dolores took it from him one day, took it and burned it and so created her own beginnings and condemned a town. She took Loob’s rag out of simple malice, out of a heartfelt desire to cause him pain; but she never knew whether or not the confiscation had really hurt him, any more than in the past she had been able to tell if he had heard her voice when she railed at him or felt the blows when she struck him. This time, though, she had achieved her purpose.
It was a bad morning for her, a morning when the thrum and jangle of her nerves had begun before she awoke, so that she came to consciousness depressed and apprehensive, with a yellow taste in her mouth and an incipient tremor in her limbs. She was well aware of the cause, which was a lack of alcohol in her system; and she remembered clearly and with despair that before going to sleep she had drunk the last drop in the house, having debated leaving a pick-me-up in the vodka bottle and deciding against it. She had had this experience before, and she knew precisely the course it would take. It was absolutely necessary that she have a bottle within the next hour, or the shaking and nausea would utterly incapacitate her.
The car would not start. She sat behind the wheel and cursed, a stringy woman with bad teeth and lank hair, musty and disheveled and becoming frantic. Without pause in her swearing she left the car and, sweating, returned to the house to use the telephone. The taxicab company told her the town’s only taxi would not be available until the afternoon.
She stood clutching the telephone, frozen by panic. She did not see how she could walk the mile to the liquor store, but no matter how desperately she tried, she could think of no alternative. She was quite unable to cope with the problem. Until her brain had received its wonted portion of alcohol, it scarcely functioned at all, and getting the alcohol to make thinking possible was itself her problem. Frustration squeezed her in a clawed vice and became anger, a red extremity of rage that she thought might burst her head with its intensity.
Through the door to the kitchen she caught sight of Loob, sitting dumbly in his corner staring at nothing. “You bastard!” she shouted. “You goddam crazy dummy, you old goddam crazy dummy! Sit and hold your goddam crazy rag all day, you goddam crazy dummy! Why can’t you do something?”
Loob did not move, did not blink. She rushed into the kitchen and struck him on the cheek with her fist. He gave no sign of feeling it. “Goddam you!” she shouted. “Goddam, oh, goddam!” Loob sat and stared emptily. “You bastard,” she said, panting now. “Oh, you big dummy bastard.” Her eye fell upon the rag. “Oh, you big dummy bastard with your rag.”
She snatched suddenly, and the rag was in her hand. Without hesitation she pulled a lid off the stove and dropped the rag inside, where coals still glowed. “There, you crazy dummy!” she said. “There’s your crazy rag.” There was a crackle of flame inside the stove.
Still Loob made no sign. She gave a wordless shriek, a yelp of pure, helpless rage, and struck him again, to no effect whatever. She stood trembling for a moment and then ran from the room and from the house and stood sobbing beside the road. A car came, and she held up her hand. The car stopped and picked her up.
In the kitchen Loob sat without movement for some time. Then his hand opened, lay so for a moment, and clenched again. He repeated the movement two or three times. He rose ponderously, lurched out through the kitchen door, and made his way through the litter of the back yard to a gap in the fence, and thence through a vacant lot to Dappling Road. He proceeded erratically down the road, as he had a thousand times before, and turned in at the derelict slag lane that led down to the old house. When he reached the house he climbed the discolored stone steps, entered, and took his seat in the window. His hand was slowly clenching and unclenching.
Something new had happened – was happening – to him: he was, improbably, in the grip of an emotion. Somewhere in the ruinous labyrinth of his mind there was adumbrated a feeling of loss, something nameless that was forever gone. There was no way for him to weigh the matter, to reflect upon the strangeness of this phenomenon; he could only react instinctively: Danger. Strike. He struck.
It was toward the end of a long August afternoon in 1905, and Sam Dappling was opening a door, entering the room where Olivia was playing Chopin. A house-guest, a cousin from Philadelphia, stood beside the piano and turned the pages of the music, and two other visitors, another cousin and his wife, listened from seats on a divan. As he crossed the threshold, placid, genial Sam Dappling went mad; the black discharge of Loob’s strange ordnance smashed into his brain, instantly exploding a million subtle connections, and in the moment of passing through the doorway Sam Dappling ceased to exist. In his stead was something monstrous, a thing bulging with insensate ferocity, that ran suddenly into the room and tore from the wall the Civil War saber that hung under a portrait of old General Dappling. It whirled with the saber in its hand and without the slightest pause accelerated into frenzied motion, filling the room with a demented fury of destruction and dismemberment; and when the butchery at last was done, it again did not pause, but rushed dripping out of that place of blood and stink and twitching scraps into the outdoors, onto the lawn where a child and a dog played in the sunshine.
It left unspeakable things scattered there on the grass and plunged, howling, into the barn, where it found only a mare and her foal, upon whom it fell in undiminished frenzy. When there was no more movement in the stall, it paused for a fraction of a moment. In the loft pigeons were fluttering; it heard the sound and went swarming up the ladder, in no way slowed by the saber. The pigeons were out of reach, swooping just under the roof, far above. At the end of the loft was another ladder, leading up to the great opening under the ridge pole through which the hay was hauled into the mow. It scuttled up with the agility of a great feral monkey. A startled pigeon flapped in confusion and then flew hastily through the opening, and the thing that had been Sam Dappling leaped for it, wildly cutting with its sword. The pigeon rose gracefully and curved back to alight on the roof. The thing sailed outward and dropped, still slicing and hacking at the air through which it fell. It struck the hard-packed earth and bounced slightly and was still. In the house the screaming had just begun.
For Henry Dappling it never stopped. He lived for the seven years that remained of his life with a never-ending scream in his ears. It was not the screaming from the house that he heard; it was the demented noise that came from Mrs. McVay, who was standing on the lawn with her face to the sky as he rode the gray out of the woods that evening. He had emerged from the sun-shot cool gloom and silence of the forest into the full evening sunlight and pulled up as usual. He heard it then, a mindless howl of terror and loss and unutterable grief, ripping through the bright clear air with ugly insistence, smirching the evening. He put the gray into a dead run, down the meadow and the drive and over the lawn to where she stood screaming and screaming. He saw what she held in her hands.
That was the real end of Henry Dappling’s life. His remaining seven years were something worse than death. He would have made a quick end of it almost immediately, except that he did not see how he could die without knowing why. Even a vindictive maniac God must have had a reason for so gross an affront to decency, so loathsome and abominable a cruelty as permitting him to see the bulging small blue eyes and yellow curls of what was frozen in Mrs. McVay’s clawed hands. The question became almost the sole tenant of his mind, a consuming obsession that was never absent for a second of his years as a mad hermit in his mansion. He did not find his answer, of course, and he died at last with the screaming still in his ears, alone in the great house where mildew and dry rot were crumbling the interior and weeds and branches besieged the walls. Long before his death the house had come to look desolate and abandoned, and it was known as a haunted house while its master still lived within its walls.
He had attended the funeral; indeed, he had taken charge from the very first, from the moment he had pried Mrs. McVay’s hands away from their awful burden. He had shouted at her in so loud and peremptory a voice that her hysteria was punctured, and she took hold of herself and obeyed his instructions to gather together the men whom he named and to have the sheriff sent for. He himself told the men what to do, evincing no emotion at the sight of the shambles in the house or the pitiful thing that had been his son lying broken on the ramp of the barn. He went about for the three days, with an expressionless face, speaking, when speech was needful, in a precise cold voice, glassy-hard and without apparent grief or rage. He was watched warily: at any moment full realization might strike him, and he could be expected to do something strange – to become violent and murderous or perhaps lose his mind entirely and gibber and drool.
In fact he did none of those things. After the funeral he took the superintendent of the mill aside. “Pay off everybody,” he said. “Yourself, too. Lock it up.”
“What?” said the superintendent. “Pay—? Lock—? What?”
“Do it,” Dappling said. The superintendent did. The town stopped. The big houses lost their people first, as the men who had run the mill betook themselves to Pittsburgh and Gary. Then some of the row houses emptied; venturesome or ambitious men severed their roots and went to Wheeling or Youngstown, while others, in whom the old highland blood ran strong, satisfied a perennial urge and returned to the cabins. A majority stayed. They stayed and watched the town decay around them, a passive indolent community bereft of leadership and energy, doomed now to a long sleep and then extinction.
It stirred to life, briefly, during the First World War; money and importunities from Washington effected a partial resolution of the chaos into which Dappling’s estate had fallen and the mill was put into operation for a year, although the already archaic equipment was hopelessly inefficient. After the Armistice the ponderous machinery of the law again clanked into operation; the gates were re-locked, the new railroad sidings left to rust. The tedious succession of suit and countersuit, stay and deferral, lien and attachment and injunction was resumed and dragged its dusty way through courtrooms and sheriff’s offices and lawyers’ chambers. If Dappling had died with his family, there would have been no problem; his affairs would have been carried on without even a pause by an existing establishment. But he lived on for seven years, and there was no way to appoint an executor or administrator for a living man. They might have had him certified incompetent, but no one dared. And so no taxes were paid or rents collected; no one voted shares of stock or gave proxies for them; no one guarded or was responsible for property and accounts. Sheriff’s deputies nailed notices to doors; servers of process came and went; various bank accounts stagnated or were looted. Numbers of small suppliers went bankrupt; certain bankers and lawyers prospered greatly.
And all the while the town shrank and rotted and waited for the better times that had to come, and Henry Dappling, grown hairy and filthy and emaciated, crept through the dark haunted rooms of his mansion and endlessly asked his unanswerable question. One day in the seventh summer, McVay, who each week left a supply of food for the hermit at the kitchen door, found the previous week’s provisions still on the step. He called the sheriff, who came with a fat deputy, broke into the shuttered house, and found Dappling’s body. The screaming had stopped at last.
Lawful administration of the estate began at once, but it was too late. Except for the federal cutting of the Gordian Knot for wartime purposes, there had never been a hope of bringing enough order out of the chaos to make the mill a going enterprise again. Vultures and then beetles picked the carcass clean and left the town to its own devices.
It could devise nothing but stagnation. When the Great Depression came, the event would have passed unnoticed by the people had it not been for the fact that money began to arrive from the government. They were at first too proud to accept it, and then they accepted it and were ashamed, and in due course they were not ashamed but came to think of it as rightfully theirs. The relief checks became the way of life of the town, an assurance of a livelihood for even the most indolent and feckless. When times at last improved, there was a leaching away of the brighter and abler young, who went to seek a future elsewhere; and by the time “relief” became “welfare,” no one there worked at all except for a few torpid merchants, whose customers paid with government checks. The town would not die, but it lived – or half-lived – as a parasite.
The citizens know no other life. Loob was born to it, and so was his mother, and his grandmother came to it before her adolescence. These are people who do not know want, but have never known prosperity. They do not know ambition or thrift; neither do they know toil or hunger. Their possessions are cheap and gaudy and soiled, their diet deficient in nourishment and abundant in sugar, their music a commercial debasement of the folk music of their fathers. They drink fiercely and are given to casual incest and sometimes slice each other with knives. Their only dreams are of winning prizes on television giveaway shows. These are the descendants of the stern mountaineers who were Henry Dappling’s people. Down the years each generation has been more misshapen than its predecessor. Loob is their ultimate fruit.
And so a circle is completed. Because Loob is what he is, he shattered the mind of Sam Dappling and so damned the town. Because the town was damned, Loob is what he is.
There is no point of entry into this circle: Loob created the events that created Loob. And since that cannot be, it is necessary to consider the possibility that these things did not happen at all. It may be that someday, as Loob sits in the window, his censor may not operate, he may see the scene through to its end; and now, with the loss of his toy no longer a fresh wound, and indeed probably no longer even a scar, he may let Sam come through the door and enter the room unchanged. If that should come about, then none of this happened; if Sam comes unscathed across the threshold, the past has once more been changed. Or left unchanged. The entry into the room of a sane Sam Dappling will mean that the horrors of that evening never occurred, that through the years ahead events will take place with Sam and Emily and Olivia alive, with Henry Dappling a fulfilled and happy man. It will mean that at the moment Loob fails to loose his bolt, he will never have existed.
One would perhaps then find in the bay of the window not a pale gross cretin crouched on a box, but an old lady in a Sheraton chair, who contemplates with eyes that are still merry and blue the long slope of lawn outside the window. The old piano is still in the room, its top covered with photographs, among them those of her great-grandchildren. Her great-grandfather’s portrait as a general hangs on the wall and under it his saber, unblooded since Bull Run. The woodwork of the room glows with the deep luster of fervent polishings, the metal is bright, the glass sparkles. It is an old room and a happy one, sunny and filled with good things well cared for, an appropriate setting for this patrician lady.
She is waiting for someone, perhaps her grandson, almost certainly her grandson. He will no doubt arrive in the Ferrari, sending up a spray of white gravel when he brakes in front of the house. A manservant will hurry down to get his luggage, but he is already halfway up the steps, a trim athletic young man in flannels and tweed jacket. He has been in the East for a month of polo, but now he is home again, home where he is heir to the town and the big house. The townspeople had smiled and waved as the Ferrari growled up steep Main Street past the busy mill and the gleaming row houses, around the square with its sleek shops and smug shopkeepers, and up to where Dappling Road curled around the hill to the monumental gates of the estate.
Grandmother has laid on champagne for the occasion, chilled in a monogrammed silver bucket. She raises her glass in a toast to the happy homecoming, and the happy homecomer responds. We make a pretty picture there in that elegant room, beaming at each other: she slim, erect, and proud, wearing her years with grace; I the golden youth, handsome, cultured, immensely rich, at play for a while before settling down to my responsibilities. This is who I am. I am not the man they call Tom Perkins, the crazy sweeper of a sleazy bar in a decayed simulacrum of my town. This – this is the real world, this world with the champagne and the Ferrari, not the shoddy horror where the Perkins creature lives, where I am standing now.
And the real world is so very close. If once, only once, Loob permits Sam to enter the room, Loob never existed, and the town’s history followed the main, the real thoroughfare, and I am safely where I belong, and none of this vile scenario ever took place. I think I will not be aware of the transition – indeed, there will not be a transition: all this simply will not have been, and there will nowhere be the faintest memory or even dream of this grim place. I will be sipping my champagne in my grandmother’s drawing room, and all will be as it always was.
That is what I believe as I stand here among the cold weeds watching Loob in the window, as I wait for the instant that I am real again. And that is going to happen. I have no doubt that it will happen, none at all. None at all. Because I have positive proof that Loob can undo his interference with the past.
The proof is this: they are here, the Goster County dogs. They are here, gravely patrolling the streets of the town and the country round about, alert, watchful, and intimidating, as much a part of the landscape as the ridge above the town. And they have always been here. That is the point, that is the proof. Never since about the time of the Mexican War has the town been without these dogs. Think about that. It is quite obvious that a day came when there was a repetition of the circumstances surrounding the destruction of the old ancestor dog, with Loob in the same location when that same segment of the past unreeled itself. This time, though, Loob’s vacant stare was directed elsewhere when the dog attacked. There was thus no instinctive reaction to the attacks; the dog lived on to beget his progeny. There is no fact in the universe more certain than the existence of these dogs. One of them is watching me now.
If Loob can do that, he can put right his other, greater, his infinitely tragic interference. And when he does, he and the wretched Tom Perkins will never have been. The world will be back on its true path, the path where there is love and comfort and safety.