|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||4.24(w) x 6.68(h) x 0.95(d)|
About the Author
Frank M. Robinson brought us The Towering Inferno, one of the most popular films of the '70s, as well as the 1950s classic, The Power. His novel, The Dark Beyond the Stars, won the Lambda Literary Award. He lives in San Francisco.
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By Robinson, Frank M.
Tor BooksCopyright © 2000 Robinson, Frank M.
All right reserved.
It was Artie's favorite dream.
He was lying on a grassy plain, naked, staring at the billowy white clouds slowly vaulting past in the blue sky overhead. It was warm, and a breeze stroked his chest and fingered the tangled hair that fell over his shoulders. He lifted his head slightly to stare at the mountains in the distance, their outlines fuzzed by a slight haze, then let it fall back. Without turning to look, he knew there were several caves a stone's throw behind him and that the plain in front ran forever.
It was so pleasant that he didn't want to move; he just wanted to lie there feeling the rough blades of grass against his back and buttocks and stare up at the sky, his mind a blank. He sensed others there as well, but he didn't bother looking around to see who they were. Most of all, he was aware of the overpowering scent of flowers. Thousands of them. Out of the corner of his eye he could see them spotted in the grass, little clumps of purples and reds and yellows and pinks.
A gorgeous summer day and he was very young and die warmth of the sun was arousing but he didn't care. It was a lucid dream, the kind where in the dream you know that you're dreaming. Some of his friends who were into meditation said they had a lot of dreams like Somewhere a back door banged open and Shea could hear the rattle of garbage cans. Then: "Hey, you--you there by crate. What the hell you hangaround back here for?"
A sudden sense, of consternation and regret.
There was a feeling of withdrawal, and the old man slumped forward. Shea stared at him, then reached out with a shaking hand and once again checked the carotid artery in his neck. He hadn't been mistaken. No pulse. Dead.
He sat there for minutes, afraid to move, afraid to leave, afraid even to touch the old man for another try at CPR. His mind was spinning, wondering what the hell had cornered him and what it had wanted. The revelation was slow in coming, and when it did, it left him in shock. Sweet Jesus, he thought once again. He rocked back and forth, his arms wrapped around his, chest for protection against his own fears and the suddenly biting cold. It was half a minute before he became aware of something scratching at the strip of carpeting that covered the entrance of the crate.
He turned just in time to throw up his hands to protect his face but not his throat, and his screams never made it past his teeth. He fought in the gloom as best he could, but he was too frightened and too weak and there were three of them tearing at him. They were large and ferocious, and he didn't struggle very long at all. As a doctor he knew it was easy to die. He was mildly surprised at just how easy. His last thought was a half-formed, wistful longing for Cathy and James and Andy and a sudden conviction that he had been followed because he had something somebody else wanted.
But he hadn't thought about it soon enough, so nobody had been able to pick his brain and discover where he'd left it.
that but this was the only one that Artie Banks had ever had. The dream probably meant something but he was afraid that if he ever found out, he'd never dream it again. In the dream, he had no idea where he was, but it didn't matter. All that mattered was the warmth and the sky and the smell of the flowers and his own unashamed arousal.
There were birds wheeling overhead, which- was something new, and they were calling to one another, making noises that sounded like distant chimes. Then the scene wavered and grew faint around the edges and a voice was saying "...an accident on the Bay Bridge just west of the incline has blocked two lanes and traffic is backed uph;"
The dream vanished and Artie yawned and fumbled for the clock radio on the bedstand. Why did he always dream it around morning? Why not earlier, so he could spend some time in it, find out who the others were and where he was? He shrugged. What the hell, it was a kid's dream. He was getting too old for early morning erections.
He swung his feet over the side of the bed and yawned again. He ran his fingers through his hair and his tongue around the inside of his mouth, then glanced over to where Susan was usually huddled deep within the covers. She wasn't there. He stared at the rumpled blankets, his mind still fogged with sleep. Then he remembered that today was the day she was leaving for Willow. Her mother had called late last night with the news that her father wasn't doing well. Susan had wanted to take Mark with her but he had begged off--he still had a few days of school before Christmas break. Artie had offered to drive up later if things got worse, and that's where they'd left it. Susan had looked unhappy, but Artie felt relieved. He had never gotten along with her parents; her father was openly hostile and even small talk was a chore.
He fell back into bed and rolled over so he could feel Susan's lingering warmth, smell her familiar scent, and rub his body across the still warm sheets. Why did she have to be leaving on the morning of his dream? The dream was an aphrodisiac, and afterward, as in the dream itself, he was without shame.
Susan, of course, was always without shame. After fifteen years of marriage he considered that pretty remarkable, but he wasn't about to complain. Susan sometimes seemed a little remote to him, more than a little puzzling and sometimes difficult to understand.
But not in bed. Never in bed.
He stretched and got up, suddenly aware of the smells of coffee and toast and the chirping of the microwave indicating the bacon was done. Time for a quick shower and breakfast before Susan vanished for three days.
He shuffled down the hall toward the bathroom, pausing outside Mark's room with his hand on the doorknob. A week ago when he'd entered without warning, Mark had stopped what he was doing to frown slightly and say, "I'm way past puberty, Artie--you ought to knock." What had bothered Artie more than anything else was Mark's total lack of embarrassment. But then, Artie had been embarrassed enough for both of them.
He rapped on the door, then smiled wryly and rattled the doorknob. "Your mother's about to leave, Mark, but you can still catch her for breakfast."
A muffled voice. "Be right there, Artie. Give me a minute."
Call me Ishmael, Artie thought sarcastically. What the hell was wrong with "Dad"? Or maybe it was just a phase kids went through, a way of leveling the playing field between their parents and themselves. He listened for a moment to the creaking of the bed and pictured Mark muscling himself over the side and into his wheelchair.
As usual, the image hurt. The accident had been...how long ago? Five years? When Mark was twelve? Susan had been driving and she and Mark had been side-swiped by a drunk. Thankfully, Susan hadn't been hurt, but Mark had been partially paralyzed from the waist down. Susan had found a specialist and some feeling had been restored--the morning he'd walked in on Mark had been proof of that--but Mark had used a wheelchair ever since.
Artie had always felt guilty about it. He'd married Susan when Mark was two, but he and the boy had had difficulty bonding and he'd always felt that every bad thing that happened to Mark was partly his fault.
He pushed into the John, shivering when his bare feet touched the cold tile, and turned on the hot water. What was happening to him? Half the time he was grateful for his family, the other half he was depressed by it. More accurately, maybe it was a growing sense of inadequacy, a feeling that he wasn't living up to their expectations--hell, to his expectations.
He angrily turned the shower knob to Cold, jumping at the sudden spray of chilly water. It was strictly the shits to wake up from his dream and then slip into his usual morning depression. More than likely it was the weather, not Mark or Susan--the seemingly constant overcast and drizzle that was winter in San Francisco was enough to depress anybody.
* * *
"So what did Larry have to say?"
It had been in the back of Artie's head all morning but he hadn't really thought about it until Susan mentioned it.
"He didn't come. They missed you, by the way."
Susan was leaning back in her chair, cradling her cup of coffee and taking little sips while she talked.
"How come Larry never showed?"
Artie felt faintly irritated--not at her, at Larry. "Beats me. We phoned his house but got the answering machine. He was probably called to Kaiser on an emergency."
Susan finished her coffee and walked over to put her cup in the sink. There were days when she was just a housewife, Artie thought, fighting forty and watching her diet and dismayed by the occasional gray hair. But this morning wasn't one of them. She was dressed in a casual beige suit, light brown hair gathered close around her head, and wearing just a hint of makeup. How old did she look? Thirty, maybe? And how the hell did she do it? Or was it all in the eye of the beholder? She was a little on the heavy side--zaftig, she joked--but he never noticed unless he was looking at her critically, and he seldom did that.
"Cathy should have been home, or one of the boys."
"Probably Christmas shopping."
It sounded like he was making excuses for Larry, when the truth was that he was worried--a little--and annoyed--a lot. Larry might have been called to the hospital, but he knew they were meeting at Soriano's and he could have phoned. Should have phoned.
Mark reached for another slice of wheat toast and ladled on the strawberry jam.
"What was he going to talk about?"
He was still in his shorts and T-shirt, and Artie felt both pride and pity. He had been lucky with Susan and Mark. With Susan because she was bright and beautiful--and tenured in the psychology department at San Francisco State, he thought gratefully; taking care of Mark had been horrendously expensive and even though her parents helped, her income and contacts had been invaluable. It had been Susan who'd managed to enroll Mark in the private school for the disabled.
But he had been lucky with Mark, too, who was strong and healthy despite the paralysis. Artie stared at him. Mark was a good-looking kid, he realized with something of a shock. You saw them through acne and scabs and dirty hands and faces and "Don't slouch--keep your shoulders back," and then one day you were suddenly proud of the way they looked: a pale face framed by thick, black hair and eyebrows that almost met in the middle. A striking face and undeniably handsome, marred only, in Artie's view, by a small, ancient ring in his right ear that Susan had given him as a family heirloom--all the style, Mark had gleefully claimed. He was strongly muscled above the waist and even though he couldn't walk, his legs looked normal. He was stocky for a seventeen-year-old, and therapy had kept the flesh from withering. Remarkably, Mark had never let it get him down. And from the number of phone calls he got, he had to be one of the most popular students in his school.
Mark looked embarrassed. "What're you staring at?"
"Nothing," Artie lied.
"So what was he going to talk about?"
Mark was all wide-eyed with anticipation and Artie felt annoyed. Mark was putting him on, as he frequently did lately, constantly feigning surprise at whatever he did or said: the not-so-subtle war between the generations, or maybe Mark was still getting back at Artie for having walked in on him.
"How long have I been going to meetings and telling you all about them later? Did you ever listen?" He was sorry immediately: Had he ever listened to his father when he was a teenager? "I don't know what he was going to talk about; that's the whole point of the Club. Each of us talks about the latest developments in his or her specialty--nobody knows the topic in advance." He went back to buttering a slice of toast and grumbled, "Eat your Cheerios."
Mark obligingly filled his bowl and dropped a glob of jam on top. Artie winced, then realized that at Mark's age it could just as easily have been peanut butter. Rebellion usually started at the breakfast table and ended in the bedroom, or was it the other way around?
"Odd sort of club."
"Not really. It's a modern version of the nineteenth-century French salon. Besides, it keeps me informed and"--he lowered his voice and intoned the slogan of KXAM--"information is our business."
Mark looked blank and Artie sighed. "It's a joke, son."
The gulf between the generations. It first showed up in their senses of humor. Mark thought Artie's jokes were lame, and what cracked Mark up usually left Artie shaking his head. Each generation had to have its own music, its own movies, its own humor. Well, hell, when was the last time he'd laughed at Bob Hope, his father's favorite comedian? Or Milton Berle? And was either one still alive? His own favorites had been Chevy Chase and Bill Murray; Mark's were Jim Carrey and Robin Williams.
"Gotta run," Susan said, pushing away from the table. "And so do you."
She bent down to peck Mark on the cheek, who gave her a quick hug in re turn. "Give Grandma and Grandpa my love."
Artie felt a brief twinge of jealousy. Mother and son. They seemed to have more in common with each other than they had with him. In his next incarnation he'd make sure he married a woman who had a daughter as well.
He walked Susan to her car, holding her a shade too tightly and deep-kissing her before she got in.
She smiled. "Your dream again?"
"Yeah. Sorry you have to leave so soon."
"So am I, but Mom asked me to try and get there in time for supper. I've left their new number on the phone pad if you have to get in touch."
"You got the presents?"
"They're in the trunk. Don't forget to call Larry--Cathy said they were thinking about having friends over Christmas Day."
Larry. Again, he'd almost forgotten.
"Soon as I get back in the house." He pulled his shirt tighter around his shoulders. "Christ, it's freezing out here."
"Take care of Mark. I know it's a bad time of the year to take off, but Dad..." Then, oddly serious: "You mean a lot to me, Artie."
He half shrugged, half shivered. "I love you, too, baby. Be careful on the freeway--there're places where the tule fog can get pretty thick."
She put the car in gear and Artie watched the old green Volvo roll down Noe toward Market and the freeway entrance. It was a bad day to go anyplace. Overcast, chilly, a fine drizzle in the air. Worst of all, the city itself had lost the magic it used to have on cold, rainy days. San Francisco hadn't been Baghdad by die Bay for years now. It was dirty and damp, run-down at the heels--the old girl had certainly seen better days. The signs of the times were the graffiti spray-painted on decaying wooden walls, the army of, homeless with their in-your-face panhandling, and the fat old bag lady he'd seen the day before relieving herself over a sewer grating.
The world's going to hell in a handbasket. That's what his father used to say. He'd been thinking about it for weeks now, unable to get the phrase out of his mind. What was frightening was that thirty years from now, these would probably be "the good old days." Pack up and move to Portland or Seattle, that's what they ought to do. Or maybe Tucson, where the sun shines even in the winter, so they say.
At the bottom of the hill, the Volvo turned right and disappeared into the traffic on Market Street. Artie stood there a moment, watching where it had vanished with a deep sense of affection. When Susan said he meant a lot to her, he knew the emotions went far deeper than the words. But when was the last time she had said she loved him? Or had she ever? She must have, but.he couldn't remember when. He'd always considered Susan a shade too good for him, and in the back of his mind was the fear that someday she would think so, too. He needed reassurance, but she had never offered any. She wasn't entirely to blame, of course--he'd never asked. And then, as he frequently did when he thought about Susan, he felt guilty. She might not be a saint, but as far as he was concerned, she was above reproach. Meeting her at the Club had been the best thing that had ever happened to him. But he would give a lot to know if she felt the same way.
Some men's lives were wrapped up in their jobs. For him, his job was important, but first and last he was a family man. He would give his life for Mark and Susan but it wasn't the sort of thing you talked about, and he was never really sure they knew.
He shivered and started up the walk, then came to an abrupt halt, his senses taut as a bowstring. He could hear the soft creaking of die trees in the wind, feel the rough texture of the concrete beneath his slippers, even smell the faint odor where a cat had marked its territory.
He ignored the cold wind fingering his shirt and the chill drops spattering against his face. He turned to stare at the cars parked across the street and the bushes in front of the houses.
Odd feeling. Like somebody was out there watching him.
But there was nobody else around. Nobody was sitting in any of the cars along the curb. Nobody was picking up the morning paper where it had landed in the bushes. Nobody was watching him through slatted blinds in any of the neighbor's windows, at least that he could see.
He started to shiver uncontrollably and padded quickly back to the house.
Inside, Mark had dressed and packed his schoolbooks in his bag. He was waiting by the front door for the van that picked up the handicapped kids for the private school. One of Susan's contacts had recommended Bayview Academy to them, and it had been a godsend.
"Last few days before Christmas break, sport?"
"Yeah. Mom's gonna be gone for three days?"
"Maybe more. Your grandfather's not doing well and she may want to stay longer."
"Lots of chances for me to beat you at chess, then." Mark looked smug, reminding Artie that Mark was up on him by a dozen games. It was also an affirmation of the father-son bond, and for that, Artie was grateful.
Then the bus was honking outside and Mark opened the door and wheeled down the walk. Artie watched through the window as Mark maneuvered his chair onto the lift and was hoisted into the van. My faulty Artie thought. Maybe if I'd been driving, it wouldn't have happened. But he'd been engrossed in watching an episode of Cheers and Susan had offered to drive Mark home from the basketball game.
He was halfway through his second cup of coffee of the morning when he remembered Larry Shea and dialed Shea's office. No, Dr. Shea wasn't in yet. Did he want to leave a message?
When he called the Shea house, he got the answering machine.
Nobody picked up.
Copyright 1999 by Frank M. Robinson
Excerpted from Waiting by Robinson, Frank M. Copyright © 2000 by Robinson, Frank M.. Excerpted by permission.
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