1. THE DESTROYER
A SHATTERING OF GLASS.
A monstrous crash echoing through the glass-domed restaurant—and then a second sound so horrid and final it could have meant the very end of the world. The way thunder must sound to a man struck by lightning. The ear-piercing rattle of breaking glass, combined with the deep wooden crunch that followed, pinned the high and low ends of human hearing, and what remained between were dying dissonant chords like that of a shattered—
The restaurant’s maitre d’ could not yet believe his eyes. He stood dumbfounded, trying to figure out what on earth had happened.
The final tinkling of ruined crystal fell from the ornate glass roof of the Garden Court Restaurant—the pride and joy of the Palace Hotel—the most beautiful restaurant in all of San Francisco. Until today. Today shards of the crystal ceiling were stabbing the plush Victorian furniture to death.
And it was a piano—or what was left of it, lying like a shipwreck in the center aisle.
Is God dropping pianos on us today? thought the maitre d’. I should have called in sick.
The restaurant was closed, thank goodness—Sunday brunch did not begin until eight—but workers and early-rising guests had already gathered to gawk.
Of course it must have been the piano from the new Cityview lounge, up on the top floor, but how could it have come crashing down seventeen floors, through the glass roof?
“Should I notify security?” asked one of the waiters, but somehow the maitre d’ was sure security had already figured out there was a problem.
IN LIKE A FLASH and out in the blink of an eye.
The boy called Dillon Cole was in the street in an instant and vanished into the foggy morning. The streets were not crowded, but there were enough people for Dillon to lose himself among unknown faces. He wove through them, brushing past their shoulders, leaving a wake of chaos behind him. The souls he bumped into lost their concentration and sense of direction—a woman stopped short, forgetting where she was going; a man lost his train of thought in the middle of a conversation; a girl, just for a moment, forgot who she was, and why she was even here . . . but then Dillon passed, and their thoughts returned to normal. They would never know that their confusion was caused by Dillon’s mere touch. But Dillon knew. He wondered if believing such a thing was enough to send him to the nuthouse. If that wasn’t enough to have him locked away, certainly the other things would do the job.
Things like that business with the piano. For all the commotion it had caused, it had been an easy enough stunt. It was a simple thing to get into the deserted top-floor lounge on a Sunday morning. Since the grand piano was on wheels, it hadn’t been that hard to ease it across the floor, out onto the patio. As he moved the piano, his fury had grown along with the burning, screaming need to finish this act of destruction—a need that ate at his gut like an uncontrollable hunger.
Adrenaline coursed through his veins, giving him incredible strength as he heaved the piano onto the ledge—but all he could feel was that wrecking-hunger, forcing him on like a hot iron drilling down to his very soul. He hoisted the heavy beast of a piano onto the ledge, where it balanced for a moment, floating between possible futures, and then it disappeared, taking the railing with it.
One second. Two seconds. Three seconds.
The impact came as a deafening scream of dying crystal as the great glass roof seventeen floors below was shattered . . . and the wrecking-hunger was instantly quelled. That pressure deep inside was released by some invisible escape valve. Dillon took a deep breath of relief and didn’t spare the time to look at his handiwork. He got out.
Wearing a bellhop uniform he had taken from a storage closet, Dillon took the elevator to the lobby and left without anyone giving him a second glance—and why should anyone suspect him? He was fifteen, but could pass for seventeen; he was an attractive, clean-cut, redheaded kid who simply looked like one of the kids the bell captain was training. So no one noticed him as he slipped out into the street, where he quickly took off his bellhop jacket and vanished into the morning.
Now, the hotel was far behind him and, in front of him, the stairwell of a BART station descended into darkness. Fog swirled around it as if it were the mouth of a black cave, but to Dillon it was a wonderfully welcome sight.
Once he was down the stairs and heard the approaching train that would carry him away, he knew he was home free. He dropped the bellhop jacket in the trash as he hurried to catch the train. He was not caught. He was never caught.
The train stopped, Dillon found a seat, and it rolled on. Only now, as the hotel fell farther and farther behind, did he relax enough for the worries to fill his head.
Please, he begged. Let no one be hurt. Please let no one be hurt. The restaurant was closed—but what if a waiter had been setting tables? What if a housekeeper had been vacuuming the rug? Dillon was always careful—he was always good at predicting exactly how his little disasters would unfold, and so far there had been no major injuries . . . but he was starting to slip—the wrecking-hunger was making him careless. When the hunger to destroy came, it was all-consuming and didn’t allow him second thoughts. But now in the aftermath of his horrible deed, when his spirit seemed to hang like that piano on the edge of its drop, he could clearly see the ramifications of these awful, awful acts.
People could have died! And I won’t know until I see the news. The weight that now burdened his soul was truly unbearable . . . yet it was more bearable than the hunger, which always came back, making him forget everything else. He would fall slave to it again, and the only way to escape was to destroy something. Anything. Everything. The bigger the better. The louder the better. And when it was done the pressure would be gone. The hunger would be fed, and the relief would be rich and sweet like a fat piece of chocolate melting in his mouth.
But the wrecking-hunger had been getting worse lately. It didn’t come once a week anymore. Now it came almost every day, pushing him, pressing him, demanding to be fed. Even now as he sat on the train, he felt the hunger again. How could it be? So soon! Wasn’t the piano enough? It was the biggest, it was the loudest, it was the worst he’d done yet. What more did he have to do to be free of this terrible hunger?
The woman sitting next to him on the train eyed him with a look of motherly concern—a look Dillon hadn’t seen for the entire year he had been out on his own. She glanced at his shaking hands.
“Are you all right?” asked the woman.
And then she touched his hand to stop it from shaking.
“No!” said Dillon, but it was too late. She had touched him.
Her face became pale and she shrank away.
“Ex . . . excuse me,” she said in a daze, and she wandered off to find a seat far away from Dillon. Then she sat down to begin the task of unscrambling her mind.
“WHAT ARE YOU AFRAID of, Deanna?”
“Everything. Everything, that’s all.”
Deanna Chang’s pale hands gripped the arms of her chair as if the chair were the only thing keeping her from being flung into space. The room around her was painted a hideous yellow, peeling everywhere like flesh, to reveal deep red underneath. The place smelled musty and old. Faces on fading portraits seemed to lean closer to listen. The walls themselves seemed to be listening. And breathing.
“I can’t help you, Deanna, if you won’t be specific.”
The man who sat across the old desk shifted uncomfortably in his chair. I make him nervous, thought Deanna. Why do I even make psychiatrists nervous?
“You can’t help me, okay?” said Deanna. “That’s the point.” He tapped his pencil on the desk. The eraser fell off the end and rolled onto the stained floor.
I hate this place, thought Deanna. I hate this room, I hate this man, and I hate my parents for making me come here to hear the same questions the other shrinks have asked, then give the same answers, and have nothing change. Nothing. Ever.
A woman’s voice wailed outside, and Deanna jumped. She couldn’t tell whether the sound was a shriek, or a laugh.
“I’m afraid,” said Deanna. “I’m afraid of dying.”
“Good. That’s a start.”
Deanna began to rub her pale, slender arms. Behind her and beneath her, the springs within the padding of the chair poked and threatened her through the fabric of the worn upholstery. “At first I was just afraid of walking outside alone. I thought it would end up being a good thing, because it made my parents move us to a better neighborhood—but it didn’t stop when we moved. I started to imagine all the terrible things that could happen to me.” She leaned forward. “That was two years ago. Now I see myself dying every day. I see my body smashed if our house were to collapse. I see a man with a knife hiding in the closet, or the basement, or the attic in the middle of the night. I see a car with no driver leaping the curb to pull me beneath its wheels . . .”
“You think people are out to get you?”
“Not just people. Things. Everything.”
The shrink scribbled with his eraserless pencil. Somewhere deep within the building a heater came on, moaning a faint, sorrowful moan.
“And you imagine these awful things might happen to you?”
“No!” said Deanna. “I see these things happening to me. They happen, I feel them—I see them—It’s REAL!” Deanna reached up and brushed cool sweat from her forehead. “And then I blink, and it—”
“And it all goes away?”
“Sometimes. Other times the vision doesn’t go away until I scream.”
The shrink in the cheap suit loosened his tie and put his finger beneath his collar. He coughed a bit.
“Stuffy,” he said.
“I’m not safe going out,” said Deanna. “I’m not safe staying in. I’m not safe here—because what if the stupid light fixture above my head right now is slowly coming unscrewed and waiting for the perfect moment to fall and crack my skull?”
The shrink looked up at the fixture, which did, indeed, seem loose. He leaned back, unfastened his collar button and took a deep breath, as if the air were thinning. He was becoming frightened, Deanna noted—just like everyone else did when they were near her. She could feel his fear as strongly as her own.
“I think I might drown,” Deanna said. “Or suffocate. I always feel like I’m suffocating. Have you ever felt like that?”
“On occasion.” His voice sounded empty and distant. He seemed to shrivel slightly in his chair.
Deanna smiled. Feeling his fear somehow made her fear begin to diminish. “I give you the creeps, don’t I?”
“Your mother is very concerned about you.”
“My mother can take a flying leap, if she thinks you can help me.”
“That’s not a healthy attitude.”
“You know what? I think you’re gonna screw me up worse than I was before. Can you guarantee that you won’t? And are you sure this stuff is all inside my head? Are you certain? Are you?” Deanna waited for an answer.
If he said he was sure, she would believe him. If he swore up and down that he could take away the darkness that shrouded her life, she would believe—because she wanted to believe that it was a simple matter of her being crazy. But he didn’t answer her. He couldn’t even look at her. Instead, he glanced down at his watch and breathed a sigh of relief.
“Is my time up?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“FORGIVE ME, FATHER, FOR I have sinned.”
“Tell me what your sins are, my son.” The priest on the other side of the confessional sighed as he spoke. He must have recognized Dillon’s shaky voice from the many times Dillon had come to confess.
“I’ve done terrible things,” said Dillon, cramped within the claustrophobic booth.
“Yesterday I broke a gear in the cable house—that’s why the cable cars weren’t running. This morning I shattered the glass roof of the Garden Court Restaurant.”
“Dear Lord.” The priest’s voice was an icy whisper. “I can’t give you absolution for this, Dillon.”
Dillon stiffened, suddenly feeling as if the booth had grown smaller, tighter, pressing against him. “Please,” he begged, “no one was hurt—the news said so—please!”
“Dillon, you have to turn yourself in.”
“You don’t understand, Father. I can’t. I can’t because it wouldn’t stop me. I would find a way to escape and wreck something else—something even bigger. It’s not like I want to do this stuff—I have to. I don’t have a choice!”
“Listen to me,” said the priest. “You’re . . . not well. You’re a very sick boy and you have to get help.”
“Don’t you think my parents tried that?” fumed Dillon. “That kind of help doesn’t work on me. It only makes me worse!”
“I . . . I’m sorry, I can’t absolve you.”
Dillon was speechless in his terror. To go without forgiveness for the things he was forced to do—that was the worst nightmare of all. He gripped the small cross around his neck, holding it tightly, feeling the silver press into his palm.
“But I’m not guilty!” Dillon insisted. “I have no choice—I’m poisoned! I’m cursed!”
“Then your penance is taking this confession to the police.”
“It’s not their job to absolve me!” screamed Dillon. “It’s your job. You’re supposed to take away my sins, and you can’t judge me! You can’t!”
No answer from the priest.
“Fine. If you won’t absolve me, I’ll find a priest who will.”
Dillon flung the cherrywood door out so hard, it splintered when it hit the wall. A woman gasped, but Dillon was past her, and out the door as quickly as his anger could carry him. The wrecking-hunger was already building again, and he didn’t know how much longer he could resist it. He had half a mind to throw bricks through the stained glass window of the church, but it wasn’t God he had a gripe with. Or was it? He didn’t know.
He had told the priest his name a week before in a moment of weakness, and now it could very well be his ruin. Would this priest betray the secrecy of the confessional and point a finger at Dillon?
Dillon didn’t want to find out. He would have to leave tonight and find a new place to wreak his havoc. He had worked his way up from Arizona without getting caught, and there were still lots of places to go. There was a freedom in feeling completely abandoned by life, Dillon tried to convince himself. It was easy to keep moving when every city was just as lonely. When every face in every crowd was just as uncaring.
But there had to be one more feeding—just one more before he left. It would need to be something grand and devastating—something that would put the wrecking-hunger to sleep for a while.
Are you proud of me, Mom and Dad? he thought bitterly. Are you proud of your little boy now? He thanked God that they were dead, and hoped they were far enough away from this world not to know the things he had done.
NOT FAR AWAY, DEANNA Chang climbed a steep sidewalk, trying to forget her appointment with the psychiatrist. She didn’t dare to look at the people she passed—they all eyed her suspiciously, or at least it seemed that they did—she could never tell for sure. It made her want to look down to see if her socks were different colors, or if her blouse was bloody from a nosebleed she didn’t even know about. Now that she was outside, her claustrophobia switched gears into agoraphobia—the fear of the outside world. It wasn’t just that her fears were abnormal—they were unnatural, and it made her furious. She had had a warm, loving childhood—she had no trauma in her history—and yet when she had turned twelve, the fears began to build, becoming obsessions that grew into visions, and now, at fifteen, the world around her was laced with razor blades and poison in every look, in every sound, in every moment of every single day. The fear seemed to steal the breath from her lungs. So strong was the fear that it reached out and coiled around anyone close to her; her parents, the kids who had once been her friends—even strangers who got too near. Her fear was as contagious as a laughing fit and as overwhelming as cyanide fumes.
As she reached the corner, her fear gripped her so tightly that she couldn’t move, and she knew that she was about to have another waking-vision of her own death. That it was only in her mind didn’t make it any less real, because she felt every measure of pain and terror.
Then it happened: Confusion around her, loud noises. She blinked, blinked again, and a third time, as she tried to make the horrific vision go away. But the vision remained. The driverless car leapt from the curb, and it swallowed her.
DILLON WATCHED FROM THE top of the hill, his horror almost overwhelming the wrecking-hunger in his gut. His eyes took it in as if it were slow motion.
The truck was hauling six brand-new Cadillacs to a dealership somewhere. A few minutes ago, Dillon had jaywalked across the street. He had searched for the chains that fastened the last car onto the lower deck of the truck and picked the locks with the broken prong of a fork. Another human being could have spent all day trying to figure out how to pick those locks—but chains, ropes, and locks were easy for Dillon. He was better than Houdini.
He had clearly anticipated the entire pattern of how the event would go, like a genius calculating a mathematical equation. The car would spill out of the transport truck; the bus driver behind it would turn the wheel to the right; the bus would jump a curb; cars would start swerving in a mad frenzy to get out of the way of the runaway car; many fenders would be ruined—some cars would be totaled . . . but not many people would get hurt.
Maximum damage; minimal injury. This was the pattern Dillon had envisioned in his unnaturally keen mind. What Dillon did not anticipate was that the driver of the bus was left-handed.
Dillon walked up hill and watched as the truck lurched forward, got halfway up the steep hill, and then the last car on its lower ramp slid out and down the hill. Horns instantly began blaring, tires screeched, the escaping Cadillac headed straight for the bus . . .
. . . And the bus driver instinctively turned his wheel to the left, instead of the right—right into oncoming traffic.
That simple change in the pattern of events altered everything. Dillon now saw a new pattern emerging, and this time there would be blood.
Horrified, he watched as car after car careened off the road into light posts and storefronts. People scattered. Others didn’t have the chance.
Dillon watched the driverless car roll through the intersection and toward a corner. A man ran out of the way, leaving a solitary girl directly in the path of the car—an Asian girl no older than Dillon, who stood frozen in shock. Dillon tried to shout to her, but it was too late. The driverless Caddy leapt the curb, and the girl disappeared, as if swallowed by the mouth of a whale.
For Dillon Benjamin Cole, it was a moment of hell . . . and yet in that moment something inside him released the choke-hold it had on his gut. The hunger was gone—its dark need satisfied by the nightmare before him. Satisfied by the bus that crashed deep down the throat of a bookstore; and by the ruptured fire hydrant that had turned a convertible Mercedes into a fountain; and by the sight of the girl disappearing into the grillwork of the Cadillac. Dillon felt every muscle in his body relax. Relief filled every sense—he could smell it, taste it like a fine meal. A powerful feeling of well-being washed over him, leaving him unable to deny how good it made him feel.
And Dillon hated himself for it. Hated himself more than God could possibly hate him.
A HOSPITAL WAS AN indifferent place, filled with promises it didn’t keep, and prayers that were refused. At least that’s how Dillon saw it ever since he watched his parents waste away in a hospital over a year ago. The doctors never did figure out what had killed them, but Dillon knew. They had held their son one too many times . . . and they died of broken minds. Insanity, Dillon knew, could kill like any other disease. Dillon had watched his parents’ minds slowly fall apart, until the things they said became gibberish, and the things they did became dangerous. In the end, Dillon imagined their minds had become like snow on a television screen. With thoughts as pointless as that, sometimes a body knows to turn itself off and die.
Now, as he stepped into the private hospital room with a bouquet of flowers, Dillon barely recognized the girl in the bed. He had only seen her from a distance—before the Cadillac had taken her down, and then in the aftermath of his awful accident, when she was whisked into an ambulance and taken away. How could he expect to recognize a face he had seen so briefly? And yet he had seen that face long enough for it to haunt him for the rest of his life unless he paid this visit.
Her name was Deanna; he had found that much out. She was half-Asian; an only child. The nurse at reception had asked if he was family, he told her he was a cousin. Once inside the room, he told her mother that he was a classmate. He sat beside the mother, chattering lies about a school and teachers he had never heard of, and then the mother got up to make some calls, leaving Dillon alone to keep a vigil for the girl. For Deanna.
DEANNA FLOATED DEEP IN the void, hearing nothing but her own heartbeat. She opened her mouth to scream, but no sound came out. She felt far away, beneath an ocean, for she could not breathe at all. She forced herself up and up, toward the light at the surface, her head pounding, her chest cramping, until finally she broke surface, into the light of—
—a room. A hospital room. Yes. Yes, of course. The driverless car of doom. How terrified she had been of it. She had seen it before. Only this time it had been real. It was not just there to terrify her—it was there to kill her—and it could have, too—but she wasn’t dead. She wiggled her toes—she wasn’t even paralyzed. She moved her right arm and felt a searing pain shoot through her wrist that made her groan.
“You’re all right,” said someone next to her. The voice of a man. No—a boy. She lazily turned her head to face him, and her eyes began to focus. He was her age—fifteenish, with red hair but eyes that were dark and so frighteningly deep that she couldn’t look away. Soulful, her mother would call those eyes.
“Your wrist is sprained,” he said. “You’ve probably got a concussion too, but still you’re pretty lucky, considering what happened.”
“Who are you?” she asked.
“No one important,” he replied. “My name’s Dillon.” She still could not look away from his eyes, and what she saw there told her all she needed to know. His eyes poured forth his guilt, and she knew that somehow he had done this to her. He had sent the terrible driverless car.
“You bastard,” she groaned, and yet she felt strangely relieved. This time it had been real, not just another vision—and yet she wasn’t dead. In its own way, it was a relief.
Dillon leaned away, unnerved. “I didn’t want to hurt you.” He said anxiously. “I didn’t want to hurt anybody . . . . It’s just that . . .” He stopped. How could he hope she could ever understand?
“No, tell me,” she said and grabbed his hand. Dillon gasped and tried to pull his hand back; but even in her weakened state, she held him firmly . . . and he was amazed to discover that his touch didn’t scramble her mind. She did not shrink away from him.
How was this possible? Everyone he touched was affected—everyone.
“Your hand is warm,” she said, then looked at him curiously. “You’re not afraid! I don’t make you afraid!”
“No,” he said. She smiled, keeping her eyes fixed on his, and in that moment a brilliant light shone through the half-opened blinds—a sudden green flash that resolved into a red glow in the dark sky.
Whatever that light was, it seemed to make the rest of the world go away, leaving the two of them floating in a hospital room that was floating in space.
This, thought Deanna, is the most important moment of my life . . . and she immediately knew why.
“You’re like me!” she whispered. “You’re just like me!”
Dillon nodded, his eyes filling with tears, because he too knew it was true. In this instant, he felt closer to Deanna than he had ever felt to anyone. I almost killed her, he thought. How horrible it would have been if she died, and we had never met. He marveled at how the strange light painted a soft glow around her charcoal hair, and he felt a sudden reverence for her that was beyond words. The only words that he could speak now that would make any sense would be his confession.
“I destroy everything I touch,” said Dillon.
“You don’t destroy me,” answered Deanna.
“I’m a monster,” said Dillon.
“That’s not what I see,” she answered. It was the closest thing to forgiveness Dillon had ever felt. Then Deanna began to cry and began a confession of her own.
“I’m afraid,” she said.
“Of this place. Of my life. Of everything inside and out. I’m terrified.”
Dillon gripped her hand tightly. “Then I’ll protect you,” he said. “I’ll make sure nothing out there can hurt you.”
Deanna smiled through her tears, because she knew that this boy who had almost destroyed her now meant to protect her with all his heart. He held her hand with a delicate intensity, as if having her hand in his was a miracle of the highest order. In this instant, she trusted him more than she had ever trusted anyone.
“No,” she answered. “We’ll protect each other.”