Brother Odd

Page 33



“Any sane man sides with order over anarchy, order over chaos,” said Brother John.


“I agree, Dr. Heineman. But as a young man, you were so obsessed with order that you not only decried disorder, you despised it as if it were a personal affront. You abhorred it, recoiled from it. You had no patience for anyone whom you felt furthered disorder in society. Ironically, you exhibited what might be called an intellectual rather than an emotional obsessive-compulsive disorder.”


“You have been talking to envious men,” said Brother John.


“When your son was born, his deformities and disabilities struck you as biological disorder, the more intolerable because it came from your loins. You disowned him. You wanted him to die.”


“I never wanted him to die. That is outrageous.”


I felt a little like a traitor to him when I said, “Sir, Jacob remembers when you visited him in the hospital and urged his mother to let his infection run its course untreated.”


Atop his tall lanky body, his round face bobbed like a balloon on the end of a string, and I could not tell whether he was nodding in agreement or shaking his head in denial. He might have been doing both. He could not speak.


In a voice no longer characterized by accusation, opting for a note of quiet entreaty, Romanovich said, “Dr. Heineman, have you any conscious awareness that you have been creating abominations that have materialized outside this room, that have killed?”


At the school, in Room 14, Brother Maxwell stands tense, his baseball bat raised, while Brother Knuckles, having dealt with more than his share of wiseguys in years past, and having recently mowed down an uberskeleton with an SUV, is wary but not wound tight.


In fact, leaning almost insouciantly on his bat as if it is a cane, Knuckles says, “Some big guys, they think struttin’ the muscle will put your tail between your legs, but all they got is strut, they ain’t got the guts to back up the brag.”


“This thing,” says Maxwell, “doesn’t have either guts or muscle, it’s all bones.”


“Ain’t that what I’m tellin’ you?”


Half the cracked pane breaks out of the bronze muntins, shatters on the floor.


“No way this chump gets through the window, not with all them little squares.”


The remaining portion of the broken pane cracks loose and falls to the floor.


“You don’t scare me,” Knuckles tells the dog of the Neverwas.


Maxwell says, “It scares me.”


“No it don’t,” Knuckles assures him. “You’re good, Brother, you’re solid.”


A clutching gnarl of flexing bones gropes through the hole in the casement window.


Another pane cracks, and a third explodes, spraying shards of glass onto the two monks’ shoes.


Toward the farther end of the room, Jacob sits with the pillow on his lap, his head bowed to his embroidery, exhibiting no fear, creating beautiful order out of blank white cloth and peach thread, while the disorderly creation at the window shatters two more panes of glass and strains against the bronze muntins.


Brother Fletcher steps in from the hall. “Showtime. You need some backup?”


Brother Maxwell says yes, but Brother Knuckles says, “Seen tougher mugs than this in Jersey. You watchin’ the elevator?”


“It’s covered,” Brother Fletcher assures him.


“Then maybe stay beside Jacob, move him out fast if this chump gets through the window.”


Brother Maxwell protests: “You said it won’t get through.”


“It ain’t gonna, Brother. Yeah, it’s makin’ a big show, but the true fact is — this geek, he’s scared of us.”


The stressed bronze muntins and rails of the casement window creaked, groaned.


“Abominations?”


Brother John’s round face seemed to swell and redden with the pressure of new dark possibilities that his mind could barely contain. “Create without conscious awareness? It isn’t possible.”


“If it is not possible,” Romanovich said, “then have you created them intentionally? Because they do exist. We have seen them.”


I unzipped my jacket and removed from within a folded page that I had torn out of Jacob’s tablet. As I opened the sheet of paper, the drawing of the beast flexed with an illusion of movement.


“Your son has seen this at his window, sir. He says it is the dog of the Neverwas. Jennifer called you the Neverwas.”


Brother John accepted the drawing, spellbound by it. The doubt and fear in his face belied the confidence in his voice when he said, “This is meaningless. The boy is retarded. This is the fantasy of a deformed mind.”


“Dr. Heineman,” the Russian said, “twenty-seven months ago, from things you said to your former colleagues in calls and E-mails, they inferred that you might have already … created something.”


“I did. Yes. I showed it to you moments ago.”


“That pathetic flop-eared creature?”


Pity more than scorn informed Romanovich’s voice, and Brother John met it with silence. Vanity receives pity as a wasp receives a threat to its nest, and a desire to sting brought an unholy venomous shine to the monk’s violet, hooded eyes.


“If you have advanced no further in these twenty-seven months,” Romanovich said, “could it be because something happened about two years ago that frightened you off your research, and you have only recently begun again to power up this god-machine of yours and ‘create’?”


“Brother Constantine’s suicide,” I said.


“Which was not a suicide,” said Romanovich. “Unconsciously, you had dispatched some abomination into the night, Dr. Heineman, and when Constantine saw it, he could not be allowed to live.”


Either the drawing cast a dark enchantment over the scientist monk or he did not trust himself to meet our eyes.


“You suspected what had happened, and you put your research on hold — but twisted pride made you return to it recently. Now Brother Timothy is dead … and even at this hour, you stalk your son through this monstrous surrogate.”


With his gaze still upon the drawing, a pulse jumping in his temples, Brother John said tightly, “I long ago accused myself of my sins against my son and his mother.”


“And I believe your confession was even sincere,” Romanovich conceded.


“I received absolution.”


“You confessed and were forgiven, but some darker self within you did not confess and did not think he needed to be forgiven.”


“Sir, Brother Timothy’s murder last night was … horrendous, inhuman. You have to help us stop this.”


All this time later, I am saddened to write that when Brother John’s eyes welled with tears, which he managed not to spill, I half believed they were not for Tim but for himself.


Romanovich said, “You progressed from postulant to novice, to professed monk. But you yourself have said you were spooked when your research led you to believe in a created universe, so you came to God in fear.”


Straining the words through his teeth, Brother John said, “The motivation matters less than the contrition.”


“Perhaps,” Romanovich allowed. “But most come to Him in love. And some part of you, some Other John, has not come to Him at all.”


With sudden intuition, I said, “Brother John, the Other is an angry child.”


At last he looked up from the drawing and met my eyes.


“The child who, far too young, saw anarchy in the world and feared it.


The child who resented being born into such a disordered world, who saw chaos and yearned to find order in it.”


Behind his violet windows, the Other regarded me with the contempt and self-regard of a child not yet acquainted with empathy and compassion, a child from whom the Better John had separated himself but from whom he had not escaped.


I called his attention to the drawing once more. “Sir, the obsessed child who built a model of quantum foam out of forty-seven sets of Lego blocks is the same child who conceived of this complex mechanism of cold bones and efficient joints.”


As he studied the architecture of the bone beast, reluctantly he recognized that the obsession behind the Lego model was the same that inspired this eerie construction.


“Sir, there is still time. Time for that little boy to give up his anger and have his pain lifted.”


The surface tension of his pent-up tears abruptly broke, and one tracked down each cheek.


He looked up at me and, in a voice thick with sadness but also with bitterness, he said, “No. It’s too late.”


CHAPTER 53


FOR ALL I KNOW, DEATH HAD BEEN IN THE ROOM when the curved walls had bloomed with colorful patterns of imagined God thought, and had moved as our heads had turned, to stay always just out of our line of sight. But it came at me now as if it had just swept into the chamber in a cold fury, seized me, lifted me, pulled me face to face with it.


Instead of the previous void in the hood, confronting me was a brutal version of the face of Brother John, angular where his was round, hard where his was soft, a child’s idea less of the face of Death than of the face of Power personified. The young genius who had recognized and feared the chaos of the world but who had been powerless to bring order to it had now empowered himself.


His breath was that of a machine, rife with the reek of smoking copper and scalding steel.


He threw me over the wingback chair, as if I were but a knotted mass of rags. I slammed into the cool, curved wall and jacked myself up from the floor even as I landed.


A wingback chair flew, I ducked and scooted, the wall rang like a glass bell, as it had not done when I struck it, the chair stayed where it fell, but I kept moving. And here came Death again.


At the window, the bronze rails and muntins strain and slightly tweak but do not fail. The keening of the frustrated attacker grows louder than the clatter of its busy bones.


“This geek,” Brother Maxwell decides, “isn’t scared of us.”


“It’s gonna be before we’re done,” Knuckles assures him.


Out of the kaleidoscopic beast and through one of the empty spaces where a windowpane had been, an urgent thrusting tentacle of scissoring bones invades five feet into the room.


The brothers stagger back in surprise.


The extruded form breaks off or is ejected from the mother mass, and collapses to the floor. Instantly the severed limb assembles into a version of the larger creature.


Pincered, spined, barbed, and hooked, as big as an industrial vacuum cleaner, it comes roach-quick, and Knuckles swings for the bleachers.


The Louisville Slugger slams some corrective discipline into the delinquent, splintering off clusters of bones. Knuckles steps toward the thing as it shudders backward, demolishes it with a second swing.


Through the window comes another thrusting tentacle, and as it detaches, Brother Maxwell shouts to Brother Fletcher, “Get Jacob out of here!”


Brother Fletcher, having played some dangerous gigs in his salad days as a saxophonist, knows how to split a dive when customers start trading gunfire, so he is already scramming from the room with Jacob before Maxwell shouts. Entering the hallway, he hears Brother Gregory cry out that something is in the elevator shaft and is furiously intent on getting through the roof of the blocking cab.


As Death rushed me again, Rodion Romanovich rushed Death, with all the fearlessness of a natural-born mortician, and opened fire with the Desert Eagle.


His promise of incredible noise was fulfilled. The crash of the pistol sounded just a few decibels softer than the thunder of mortar fire.


I didn’t count how many rounds Romanovich squeezed off, but Death burst apart into geometric debris, as it had done when leaping down from the bell tower, the fragmenting robe as brittle as the form it clothed.


Instantly, the shards and scraps and splinters of this unnatural construct twitched and jumped with what looked like life but was not — and within seconds remanifested.


When it turned toward Romanovich, he emptied the pistol, ejected the depleted magazine, and frantically dug the spare out of his pants pocket.


Less shattered by the second barrage of gunfire than by the first, Death rose swiftly from ruin.


John, not a brother at this moment, but now a smug child, stood with eyes closed, thinking the Death figure into existence again, and when he opened his eyes, they were not those of a man of God.


Brother Maxwell slams a home run through the second intruder in Room 14, then sees that Knuckles is again hammering at the first one, which has rattled itself back together with the swiftness of a rose blooming in stop-motion photography.


A third scuttling extrusion of the mother mass assaults, and Maxwell knocks it apart with both a swing and backswing, but the one he had first demolished, now reassembled, rushes him in full bristle and drives two thick barbed spines through his chest.


When Brother Knuckles turns, he witnesses Maxwell pierced and, with horror, sees his brother transformed, as if by contamination, into a kaleidoscope of flexing-pivoting-rotating bones that shreds out of the storm suit as if stripping away a cocoon, and combines with the bone machine that pierced it.


Fleeing the room, Knuckles frantically pulls shut the door and, holding it closed, shouts for help.


Some consideration has been given to such a predicament as this, and two brothers arrive with a chain, which they loop to the levered handle of the door. They join that handle to the one at the adjacent room, ensuring that each door serves as the lock of the other.


The noise from the elevator shaft grows tremendous, rocking the walls. From behind the closed lift doors comes the sound of the cab roof buckling, as well as the thrum and twang of cables tested nearly to destruction.


Jacob is where he will be safest, between Sister Angela and Sister Miriam, whom surely even the devil himself will treat with wary circumspection.


Reborn again, Death shunned me and turned toward the Russian, who proved just two steps faster than the Reaper. Snapping the spare magazine into the Desert Eagle, Romanovich moved toward the man whom I had once admired and shot him twice.


The impact of .50-caliber rounds knocked John Heineman off his feet. When he went down, he stayed down. He wasn’t able to imagine himself reconstructed, because no matter what that lost dark part of his soul might believe, he was not his own creation.


The Death figure reached Romanovich and laid a hand on his shoulder, but did not assault him. The phantom focused instead on Heineman, as if thunderstruck that its lowercase god had been laid low like any mortal.


This time Death deconstructed into a spill of cubes that split into more cubes, a mound of dancing dice, and they cast themselves with larval frenzy, rattling their dotless faces against one another until they were only a fizz of molecules, and then atoms, and then nothing at all but a memory of hubris.