“I know where you’re going with this. Yeah, I’m pretty sure in some biological research there’s something similar. Testing the organism to see how much it can take of one thing or another, before it self-destructs.”
Sasha spat out the same word, which I had now heard her use before, and she turned her back to us, as if to hear and see us discussing this was too disturbing.
Bobby said, “Maybe a quick way to understand why a particular subject—why one of these little kids—has immunity from the virus is to keep infecting him with it, megadoses of infection, and study his immune response.”
“Until finally they kill him? Just kill him?” Sasha asked angrily, turning to us again, her lovely face so drained of blood that she appeared to be halfway through applying the makeup for a mime performance.
“Until finally they kill him,” I confirmed.
“We don’t know this is what they’re doing,” Bobby said in an attempt to console her. “We don’t know jack. It’s just a half-assed theory.”
“Half-assed, half-smart,” I said with dismay. “But what does the damn crow have to do with all this?”
We stared at one another.
None of us had an answer.
Bobby peered suspiciously through the stained-glass window again.
I said, “Bro, what is it? Did you order a pizza?”
“No, but the town’s crawling with anchovies.”
“Fishy types. Like the zombie club we saw last night, coming back from Wyvern to Lilly’s house. The dead-eyed dudes in the sedan. I’ve seen more of them. I get the feeling something’s coming down, something super-humongous.”
“Bigger than the end of the world?” I asked.
He gave me an odd look, then grinned. “You’re right. Can’t go down from here. Where do we have to go but up?”
“Sideways,” Sasha said somberly. “From one kind of hell into another.”
To me, Bobby said, “I see why you love her.”
I said, “My own private sunshine.”
“Sugar in shoes,” he said.
I said, “One hundred twenty pounds of walking honey.”
“One hundred twelve,” she said. “And forget what I said about you two being Curly and Larry. That’s an insult to Larry.”
“Curly and Curly?” Bobby said.
“She thinks she’s Moe,” I said.
Sasha said, “I think I’m going to bed. Unless, Bobby, you have more bad news that’ll keep me from sleeping.”
He shook his head. “That’s the best I can do.”
After locking the front door, I watched through the stained-glass window until he got into his Jeep and drove away.
Parting from a friend makes me nervous.
Maybe I’m needy, neurotic, paranoid. Under the circumstances, of course, if I weren’t needy, neurotic, and paranoid, I’d obviously be psychotic.
If we were always conscious of the fact that people precious to us are frighteningly mortal, hanging not even by a thread but by a wisp of gossamer, perhaps we would be kinder to them and more grateful for the love and friendship they give us.
Sasha and I went upstairs to bed. Lying side by side in the dark, holding hands, we were silent for a while.
We were scared. Scared for Orson, for Jimmy, for the Stuarts, for ourselves. We felt small. We felt helpless. So, of course, for a few minutes we rated our favorite Italian sauces. Pesto with pine nuts almost won, but we mutually agreed on Marsala before falling into a contented silence.
Just when I thought she had drifted into sleep, Sasha said, “You hardly know me, Snowman.”
“I know your heart, what’s in it. That’s everything.”
“I’ve never talked about my family, my past, who I was and what I did before I came to KBAY.”
“Are you going to talk about that now?”
“Good. I’m wiped out.”
“You Cro-Magnons all think you’re so superior.”
After a silence, she said, “Maybe I’ll never talk about the past.”
“You mean, even like about yesterday?”
“You really don’t feel a need to know, do you?”
I said, “I love the person you are. I’m sure I’d also love the person you were. But it’s who you are that I have now.”
“You never prejudge anyone.”
“I’m a saint.”
“So am I. I’m a saint.”
“Better not talk that way about a saint.”
“You’re the only person I’ve ever known who always judges people solely on their actions. And forgives them when they screw up.”
“Well, me and Jesus.”
“Careful now,” I warned. “Better not risk divine punishment. Lightning bolts. Boils. Plagues of locusts. Rains of frogs. Hemorrhoids.”
“I’m embarrassing you, aren’t I?” she asked.
“Yes, Moe, you are.”
“All I’m saying is, this is your difference, Chris. This is the difference that makes you special. Not XP.”
I was silent.
She said, “You’re desperately searching for some smart remark that’ll get me to call you an as**ole again.”
“Or at least a Neanderthal.”
“This is your difference. Sleep tight.”
She let go of my hand and rolled onto her side.
“Love you, Goodall.”
“Love you, Snowman.”
In spite of the blackout blinds and the overlapping drapes, faint traces of light defined the edges of the windows. Even this morning’s overcast heavens had been beautiful. I yearned to go outside, stand under the daytime sky, and look for faces, forms, and animals in the clouds. I yearned to be free.
I said, “Goodall?”
“About your past.”
“You weren’t a hooker, were you?”
I sighed with contentment and closed my eyes.
Worried as I was about Orson and the three missing children, I didn’t expect to sleep well, but I slept the dreamless sleep of a clueless Neanderthal.
When I woke five hours later, Sasha wasn’t in bed. I dressed and went looking for her.
In the kitchen, a note was fixed with a magnet to the door of the refrigerator: Out on business. Back soon. For God’s sake, don’t eat those cheese enchiladas for breakfast. Have bran flakes. Moe.
While the leftover cheese enchiladas were heating in the oven, I went into the dining room, which is now Sasha’s music room, since we eat all our meals at the kitchen table. We have moved the dining table, chairs, and other furniture into the garage so the dining room can accommodate her electronic keyboard, synthesizer, sax stand with saxophone, clarinet, flute, two guitars (one electric, one acoustic), cello and cellist’s stool, music stands, and composition table.
Similarly, we converted the downstairs study into her workout room. An exercise bicycle, rowing machine, and rack of hand weights ring the room, with plush exercise mats in the center. She is deep into homeopathic medicine; consequently, the bookshelves are filled with neatly ordered bottles of vitamins, minerals, herbs—plus, for all I know, powdered wing of bat, eye-of-toad ointment, and iguana-liver marmalade.
Her extensive book collection lined the living room at her former place. Here it is shelved and stacked all over the house.
She is a woman of many passions: cooking, music, exercise, books, and me. Those are the ones I know about. I would never ask her to rank her passions in order of importance. Not because I’m afraid I’d come in fifth of the major five. I’m happy to be fifth, to have any ranking at all.
I circled the dining room, touching her guitars and cello, finally picking up her sax and blowing a few bars of “Quarter Till Three,” the old Gary U.S. Bonds hit. Sasha was teaching me to play. I wouldn’t claim that I wailed, but I wasn’t bad.
In truth, I didn’t pick up the sax to practice. You might find this romantic or disgusting, depending on your point of view, but I picked up the sax because I wanted to put my mouth where her mouth had been. I’m either Romeo or Hannibal Lecter. Your call.
For breakfast I ate three plump cheese enchiladas with a third of a pint of fresh salsa and washed everything down with an ice-cold Pepsi. If I live long enough for my metabolism to turn against me, I might one day regret never having learned to eat for any reason but the sheer fun of it. Currently, however, I am at that blissful age when no indulgence can alter my thirty-inch waistline.
In the upstairs guest bedroom that served as my study, I sat at my desk in candlelight and spent a couple of minutes looking at a pair of framed photographs of my mom and dad. Her face was full of kindness and intelligence. His face was full of kindness and wisdom.
I have rarely seen my own face in full light. The few times I’ve stood in a bright place and confronted a mirror, I’ve not seen anything in my face that I can understand. This disturbs me. How can my parents’ images shine with such virtues and mine be enigmatic?
Did their mirrors show them mysteries?
I think not.
Well, I take solace from the realization that Sasha loves me—perhaps as much as she loves cooking, perhaps even as much as she loves a good aerobic workout. I wouldn’t risk suggesting that she values me as much as she does books and music. Though I hope.
In my study, among hundreds of volumes of poetry and reference books—my own and my father’s collections combined—is a thick Latin dictionary. I looked up the word for beer.
Bobby had said, Carpe cerevisi. Seize the beer. Cerevisi appeared to be correct.
We had been friends for so long that I knew Bobby had never sat through a class in Latin. Therefore, I was touched. The apparent effort that he had taken to mock me was a sign of true friendship.
I closed the dictionary and slid it aside, next to a copy of the book I had written about my life as a child of darkness. It had been a national best-seller about four years ago, when I’d thought I knew the meaning of my life, prior to my discovery that my mother, out of fierce maternal love and a desire to free me from my disability, had inadvertently made me the poster child for doomsday.
I hadn’t opened this book in two years. It should have been on one of the shelves behind my desk. I assumed Sasha had been looking at it and neglected to put it back where she’d found it.
Also on the desk was a decorative tin box painted with the faces of dogs. In the center of the lid are these lines from Elizabeth Barrett Browning:
Therefore to this dog will I,
Tenderly not scornfully,
Render praise and favor:
With my hand upon his head,
Is my benediction said
Therefore and forever.
This tin box was a gift from my mother, given to me on the day that she brought Orson home. I keep special biscuits in it, which he particularly enjoys, and from time to time I give him a couple, not to reward him for a trick learned, because I don’t teach him tricks, and not to enforce any training, for he needs no training, but simply because the taste of them makes him happy.
When my mother brought Orson to live with us, I didn’t know how special he was. She kept this secret until long after her death, until after my father’s death. When she gave me the box, she said, “I know you’ll give him love, Chris. But also, when he needs it—and he will need it—take pity on him. His life is no less difficult than yours.”
At the time, I assumed she meant nothing more than that animals, like us, are subject to the fear and suffering of this world. Now I know there were deeper and more complex layers of meaning in her words.
I reached toward the tin, intending to test its weight, because I wanted to be certain that it was filled with treats for Orson’s triumphant return. My hand began to shake so badly that I left the box untouched.
I folded my hands, one over the other, on the desk. Staring down at the hard white points of my knuckles, I realized that I had assumed the very pose in which I’d first seen Lilly Wing when Bobby and I returned from Wyvern.
Orson. Jimmy. Aaron. Anson. Like the barbed points on a razor-wire fence, their names spiraled through my mind. The lost boys.
I felt an obligation to all of them, a fierce sense of duty, which wasn’t entirely explicable—except that in spite of my good fortune in parents and in spite of the riches of friendship that I enjoyed, I was the ultimate lost boy, myself, and to some extent would be lost until the day I passed out of my darkness in this world into whatever light waits beyond.
Impatience abraded my nerves. In conventional searches for lost hikers, for small aircraft downed in mountainous terrain, and for boats at sea, search parties break from dusk to dawn. We were limited, instead, to the dark hours, not merely by my XP but by our need to gather our forces and to act in utmost secrecy. I wondered whether the members of conventional search parties checked their watches every two minutes, chewed their lips, and went slightly screwy with frustration while waiting for first light. My watch crystal was etched with eye tracks, my lip was shaggy with shredded skin, and I was half nuts by 12:45.
Shortly before one o’clock, as I was diligently ridding myself of the second half of my sanity, the doorbell rang.
With the Glock in hand, I went downstairs. Through one of the stained-glass sidelights, I saw Bobby on the front porch. He was turned half away from the door, staring back toward the street, as though looking for a police surveillance team in one of the parked cars or for a school of anchovies in a passing vehicle.
As he stepped inside and I closed the door behind him, I said, “Bitchin’ shirt.”
He was wearing a red and gray volcanic-beach scene with blue ferns, which looked totally cool over a long-sleeve black pullover.
“Made by Iolani,” I said. “Coconut-husk buttons, 1955.”
Instead of commenting on my erudition with even as little as a roll of the eyes, he headed for the kitchen, saying, “I saw Charlie Dai again.”
The kitchen was brightened only by the ashen face of the day pressed to the window blinds, by the digital clocks on the ovens, and by two fat candles on the table.
“Another kid is gone,” Bobby said.
I felt a tremor in my hands once more, and I put the Glock on the kitchen table. “Who, when?”
Snatching a Mountain Dew from the refrigerator, where the standard light had been replaced with a lower-wattage, pink-tinted bulb, Bobby said, “Wendy Dulcinea.”
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