“Daddy, I’m tired,” the little girl in the red pants and the green blouse said fretfully. “Can’t we stop?”
“Not yet, honey.”
He was a big, broad-shouldered man in a worn and scuffed corduroy jacket and plain brown twill slacks. He and the little girl were holding hands and walking up Third Avenue in New York City, walking fast, almost running. He looked back over his shoulder and the green car was still there, crawling along slowly in the curbside lane.
“Please, Daddy. Please.”
He looked at her and saw how pale her face was. There were dark circles under her eyes. He picked her up and sat her in the crook of his arm, but he didn’t know how long he could go on like that. He was tired, too, and Charlie was no lightweight anymore.
It was five-thirty in the afternoon and Third Avenue was clogged. They were crossing streets in the upper Sixties now, and these cross streets were both darker and less populated. . . . But that was what he was afraid of.
They bumped into a lady pushing a walker full of groceries. “Look where you’re goin, whyn’t ya?” she said, and was gone, swallowed in the hurrying crowds.
His arm was getting tired, and he switched Charlie to the other one. He snatched another look behind, and the green car was still there, still pacing them, about half a block behind. There were two men in the front seat and, he thought, a third in the back.
What do I do now?
He didn’t know the answer to that. He was tired and scared and it was hard to think. They had caught him at a bad time, and the bastards probably knew it. What he wanted to do was just sit down on the dirty curbing and cry out his frustration and fear. But that was no answer. He was the grownup. He would have to think for both of them.
What do we do now?
No money. That was maybe the biggest problem, after the fact of the men in the green car. You couldn’t do anything with no money in New York. People with no money disappeared in New York; they dropped into the sidewalks, never to be seen again.
He looked back over his shoulder, saw the green car was a little closer, and the sweat began to run down his back and his arms a little faster. If they knew as much as he suspected they did—if they knew how little of the push he actually had left—they might try to take him right here and now. Never mind all the people, either. In New York, if it’s not happening to you, you develop this funny blindness. Have they been charting me? Andy wondered desperately. If they have, they know, and it’s all over but the shouting. If they had, they knew the pattern. After Andy got some money, the strange things stopped happening for a while. The things they were interested in.
Sho, boss. Yassuh, boss. Where?
He had gone into the bank at noon because his radar had been alerted—that funny hunch that they were getting close again. There was money in the bank, and he and Charlie could run on it if they had to. And wasn’t that funny? Andrew McGee no longer had an account at the Chemical Allied Bank of New York, not personal checking, not business checking, not savings. They had all disappeared into thin air, and that was when he knew they really meant to bring the hammer down this time. Had all of that really been only five and a half hours ago?
But maybe there was a tickle left. Just one little tickle. It had been nearly a week since the last time—that presuicidal man at Confidence Associates who had come to the regular Thursday-night counseling session and then begun to talk with an eerie calmness about how Hemingway had committed suicide. And on the way out, his arm casually around the presuicidal man’s shoulders, Andy had given him a push. Now, bitterly, he hoped it had been worth it. Because it looked very much as if he and Charlie were going to be the ones to pay. He almost hoped an echo—
But no. He pushed that away, horrified and disgusted with himself. That was nothing to wish on anybody.
One little tickle, he prayed. That’s all, God, just one little tickle. Enough to get me and Charlie out of this jam.
And oh God, how you’ll pay . . . plus the fact that you’ll be dead for a month afterward, just like a radio with a blown tube. Maybe six weeks. Or maybe really dead, with your worthless brains leaking out your ears. What would happen to Charlie then?
They were coming up on Seventieth Street and the light was against them. Traffic was pouring across and pedestrians were building up at the corner in a bottleneck. And suddenly he knew this was where the men in the green car would take them. Alive if they could, of course, but if it looked like trouble . . . well, they had probably been briefed on Charlie, too.
Maybe they don’t even want us alive anymore. Maybe they’ve decided just to maintain the status quo. What do you do with a faulty equation? Erase it from the board.
A knife in the back, a silenced pistol, quite possibly something more arcane—a drop of rare poison on the end of a needle. Convulsions at the corner of Third and Seventieth. Officer, this man appears to have suffered a heart attack.
He would have to try for that tickle. There was just nothing else.
They reached the waiting pedestrians at the corner. Across the way, DON’T WALK held steady and seemingly eternal. He looked back. The green car had stopped. The curbside doors opened and two men in business suits got out. They were young and smooth-cheeked. They looked considerably fresher than Andy McGee felt.
He began elbowing his way through the clog of pedestrians, eyes searching frantically for a vacant cab.
“For Christ’ sake, fella!”
“Please, mister, you’re stepping on my dog—”
“Excuse me . . . excuse me . . .” Andy said desperately. He searched for a cab. There were none. At any other time the street would have been stuffed with them. He could feel the men from the green car coming for them, wanting to lay hands on him and Charlie, to take them with them God knew where, the Shop, some damn place, or do something even worse—
Charlie laid her head on his shoulder and yawned.
Andy saw a vacant cab.
“Taxi! Taxi!” he yelled, flagging madly with his free hand.
Behind him, the two men dropped all pretense and ran.
The taxi pulled over.
“Hold it!” one of the men yelled. “Police! Police!”
A woman near the back of the crowd at the corner screamed, and then they all began to scatter.
Andy opened the cab’s back door and handed Charlie in. He dived in after her. “La Guardia, step on it,” he said.
“Hold it, cabby. Police!”
The cab driver turned his head toward the voice and Andy pushed—very gently. A dagger of pain was planted squarely in the center of Andy’s forehead and then quickly withdrawn, leaving a vague locus of pain, like a morning headache—the kind you get from sleeping on your neck.
“They’re after that black guy in the checkered cap, I think,” he said to the cabby.
“Right,” the driver said, and pulled serenely away from the curb. They moved down East Seventieth.
Andy looked back. The two men were standing alone at the curb. The rest of the pedestrians wanted nothing to do with them. One of the men took a walkie-talkie from his belt and began to speak into it. Then they were gone.
“That black guy,” the driver said, “whadde do? Rob a liquor store or somethin, you think?”
“I don’t know,” Andy said, trying to think how to go on with this, how to get the most out of this cab driver for the least push. Had they got the cab’s plate number? He would have to assume they had. But they wouldn’t want to go to the city or state cops, and they would be surprised and scrambling, for a while at least
“They’re all a bunch of junkies, the blacks in this city,” the driver said. “Don’t tell me, I’ll tell you.”
Charlie was going to sleep. Andy took off his corduroy jacket, folded it, and slipped it under her head. He had begun to feel a thin hope. If he could play this right, it might work. Lady Luck had sent him what Andy thought of (with no prejudice at all) as a pushover. He was the sort that seemed the easiest to push, right down the line: he was white (Orientals were the toughest, for some reason); he was quite young (old people were nearly impossible) and of medium intelligence (bright people were the easiest pushes, stupid ones harder, and with the mentally retarded it was impossible).
“I’ve changed my mind,” Andy said. “Take us to Albany, please.”
“Where?” The driver stared at him in the rearview mirror. “Man, I can’t take a fare to Albany, you out of your mind?”
Andy pulled his wallet, which contained a single dollar bill. He thanked God that this was not one of those cabs with a bulletproof partition and no way to contact the driver except through a money slot. Open contact always made it easier to push. He had been unable to figure out if that was a psychological thing or not, and right now it was immaterial.
“I’m going to give you a five-hundred-dollar bill,” Andy said quietly, “to take me and my daughter to Albany. Okay?”
Andy stuck the bill into the cabby’s hand, and as the cabby looked down at it, Andy pushed . . . and pushed hard. For a terrible second he was afraid it wasn’t going to work, that there was simply nothing left, that he had scraped the bottom of the barrel when he had made the driver see the nonexistent black man in the checkered cab.
Then the feeling came—as always accompanied by that steel dagger of pain. At the same moment, his stomach seemed to take on weight and his bowels locked in sick, gripping agony. He put an unsteady hand to his face and wondered if he was going to throw up . . . or die. For that one moment he wanted to die, as he always did when he overused it—use it, don’t abuse it, the sign-off slogan of some long-ago disc jockey echoing sickly in his mind—whatever “it” was. If at that very moment someone had slipped a gun into his hand—
Then he looked sideways at Charlie, Charlie sleeping, Charlie trusting him to get them out of this mess as he had all the others, Charlie confident he would be there when she woke up. Yes, all the messes, except it was all the same mess, the same fucking mess, and all they were doing was running again. Black despair pressed behind his eyes.
The feeling passed . . . but not the headache. The headache would get worse and worse until it was a smashing weight, sending red pain through his head and neck with every pulsebeat. Bright lights would make his eyes water helplessly and send darts of agony into the flesh just behind his eyes. His sinuses would close and he would have to breathe through his mouth. Drill bits in his temples. Small noises magnified, ordinary noises as loud as jackhammers, loud noises insupportable. The headache would worsen until it felt as if his head were being crushed inside an inquisitor’s lovecap. Then it would even off at that level for six hours, or eight, or maybe ten. This time he didn’t know. He had never pushed it so far when he was so close to drained. For whatever length of time he was in the grip of the headache, he would be next to helpless. Charlie would have to take care of him. God knew she had done it before . . . but they had been lucky. How many times could you be lucky?
“Gee, mister, I don’t know—”
Which meant he thought it was law trouble.
“The deal only goes as long as you don’t mention it to my little girl,” Andy said. “The last two weeks she’s been with me. Has to be back with her mother tomorrow morning.”
“Visitation rights,” the cabby said. “I know all about it.”
“You see, I was supposed to fly her up.”
“To Albany? Probably Ozark, am I right?”
“Right. Now, the thing is, I’m scared to death of flying. I know how crazy that sounds, but it’s true. Usually I drive her back up, but this time my ex-wife started in on me, and . . . I don’t know.” In truth, Andy didn’t. He had made up the story on the spur of the moment and now it seemed to be headed straight down a blind alley. Most of it was pure exhaustion.
“So I drop you at the old Albany airport, and as far as Moms knows, you flew, right?”
“Sure.” His head was thudding.
“Also, so far as Moms knows, you’re no plucka-plucka-plucka, am I four oh?”
“Yes.” Plucka-plucka-plucka? What was that supposed to mean? The pain was getting bad.
“Five hundred bucks to skip a plane ride,” the driver mused.
“It’s worth it to me,” Andy said, and gave one last little shove. In a very quiet voice, speaking almost into the cabby’s ear, he added, “And it ought to be worth it to you.”
“Listen,” the driver said in a dreamy voice. “I ain’t turning down no five hundred dollars. Don’t tell me, I’ll tell you.”
“Okay,” Andy said, and settled back. The cab driver was satisfied. He wasn’t wondering about Andy’s half-baked story. He wasn’t wondering what a seven-year-old girl was doing visiting her father for two weeks in October with school in. He wasn’t wondering about the fact that neither of them had so much as an overnight bag. He wasn’t worried about anything. He had been pushed.
Now Andy would go ahead and pay the price.
He put a hand on Charlie’s leg. She was fast asleep. They had been on the go all afternoon—ever since Andy got to her school and pulled her out of her second-grade class with some half-remembered excuse . . . grandmother’s very ill . . . called home . . . sorry to have to take her in the middle of the day. And beneath all that a great, swelling relief. How he had dreaded looking into Mrs. Mishkin’s room and seeing Charlie’s seat empty, her books stacked neatly inside her desk: No, Mr. McGee . . . she went with your friends about two hours ago . . . they had a note from you . . . wasn’t that all right? Memories of Vicky coming back, the sudden terror of the empty house that day. His crazy chase after Charlie. Because they had had her once before, oh yes.
But Charlie had been there. How close had it been? Had he beaten them by half an hour? Fifteen minutes? Less? He didn’t like to think about it. He had got them a late lunch at Nathan’s and they had spent the rest of the afternoon just going—Andy could admit to himself now that he had been in a state of blind panic—riding subways, buses, but mostly just walking. And now she was worn out.
He spared her a long, loving look. Her hair was shoulder length, perfect blond, and in her sleep she had a calm beauty. She looked so much like Vicky that it hurt. He closed his own eyes.
In the front seat, the cab driver looked wonderingly at the five-hundred-dollar bill the guy had handed him. He tucked it away in the special belt pocket where he kept all of his tips. He didn’t think it was strange that this fellow in the back had been walking around New York with a little girl and a five-hundred-dollar bill in his pocket. He didn’t wonder how he was going to square this with his dispatcher. All he thought of was how excited his girlfriend, Glyn, was going to be. Glynis kept telling him that driving a taxi was a dismal, unexciting job. Well, wait until she saw his dismal, unexciting five-hundred-dollar bill.
In the back seat, Andy sat with his head back and his eyes closed. The headache was coming, coming, as inexorable as a riderless black horse in a funeral cortege. He could hear the hoofbeats of that horse in his temples: thud . . . thud . . . thud.
On the run. He and Charlie. He was thirty-four years old and until last year he had been an instructor of English at Harrison State College in Ohio. Harrison was a sleepy little college town. Good old Harrison, the very heart of mid-America. Good old Andrew McGee, fine, upstanding young man. Remember the riddle? Why is a farmer the pillar of his community? Because he’s always outstanding in his field.
Thud, thud, thud, riderless black horse with red eyes coming down the halls of his mind, ironshod hooves digging up soft gray clods of brain tissue, leaving hoofprints to fill up with mystic crescents of blood.
The cabby had been a pushover. Sure. An outstanding cab driver.
He dozed and saw Charlie’s face. And Charlie’s face became Vicky’s face.
Andy McGee and his wife, pretty Vicky. They had pulled her fingernails out, one by one. They had pulled out four of them and then she had talked. That, at least, was his deduction. Thumb, index, second, ring. Then: Stop. I’ll talk. I’ll tell you anything you want to know. Just stop the hurting. Please. So she had told. And then . . . perhaps it had been an accident . . . then his wife had died. Well, some things are bigger than both of us, and other things are bigger than all of us.
Things like the Shop, for instance.
Thud, thud, thud, riderless black horse coming on, coming on, and coming on: behold, a black horse.
The man in charge of the experiment was Dr. Wanless. He was fat and balding and had at least one rather bizarre habit.
“We’re going to give each of you twelve young ladies and gentlemen an injection,” he said, shredding a cigarette into the ashtray in front of him. His small pink fingers plucked at the thin cigarette paper, spilling out neat little cones of golden-brown tobacco. “Six of these injections will be water. Six of them will be water mixed with a tiny amount of a chemical compound which we call Lot Six. The exact nature of this compound is classified, but it is essentially an hypnotic and mild hallucinogenic. Thus you understand that the compound will be administered by the double-blind method . . . which is to say, neither you nor we will know who has gotten a clear dose and who has not until later. The dozen of you will be under close supervision for forty-eight hours following the injection. Questions?”
There were several, most having to do with the exact composition of Lot Six—that word classified was like putting bloodhounds on a convict’s trail. Wanless slipped these questions quite adroitly. No one had asked the question twenty-two-year-old Andy McGee was most interested in. He considered raising his hand in the hiatus that fell upon the nearly deserted lecture hall in Harrison’s combined Psychology/Sociology building and asking, Say, why are you ripping up perfectly good cigarettes like that? Better not to. Better to let the imagination run on a free rein while this boredom went on. He was trying to give up smoking. The oral retentive smokes them; the anal retentive shreds them. (This brought a slight grin to Andy’s lips, which he covered with a hand.) Wanless’s brother had died of lung cancer and the doctor was symbolically venting his aggressions on the cigarette industry. Or maybe it was just one of those flamboyant tics that college professors felt compelled to flaunt rather than suppress. Andy had one English teacher his sophomore year at Harrison (the man was now mercifully retired) who sniffed his tie constantly while lecturing on William Dean Howells and the rise of realism.
“If there are no more questions, I’ll ask you to fill out these forms and will expect to see you promptly at nine next Tuesday.”
Two grad assistants passed out photocopies with twenty-five ridiculous questions to answer yes or no. Have you ever undergone psychiatric counseling?—#8. Do you believe you have ever had an authentic psychic experience?—#14. Have you ever used hallucinogenic drugs?—#18. After a slight pause, Andy checked “no” to that one, thinking, In this brave year 1969 who hasn’t used them?
He had been put on to this by Quincey Tremont, the fellow he had roomed with in college. Quincey knew that Andy’s financial situation wasn’t so hot. It was May of Andy’s senior year; he was graduating fortieth in a class of five hundred and six, third in the English program. But that didn’t buy no potatoes, as he had told Quincey, who was a psych major. Andy had a GA lined up for himself starting in the fall semester, along with a scholarship-loan package that would be just about enough to buy groceries and keep him in the Harrison grad program. But all of that was fall, and in the meantime there was the summer hiatus. The best he had been able to line up so far was a responsible, challenging position as an Arco gas jockey on the night shift.
“How would you feel about a quick two hundred?” Quincey had asked.
Andy brushed long, dark hair away from his green eyes and grinned. “Which men’s room do I set up my concession in?”
“No, it’s a psych experiment,” Quincey said. “Being run by the Mad Doctor, though. Be warned.”
“Him Wanless, Tonto. Heap big medicine man in-um Psych Department.”
“Why do they call him the Mad Doctor?”
“Well,” Quincey said, “he’s a rat man and a Skinner man both. A behaviorist. The behaviorists are not exactly being overwhelmed with love these days.”
“Oh,” Andy said, mystified.
“Also, he wears very thick little rimless glasses, which makes him look quite a bit like the guy that shrank the people in Dr. Cyclops. You ever see that show?”
Andy, who was a late-show addict, had seen it, and felt on safer ground. But he wasn’t sure he wanted to participate in any experiments run by a prof who was classified as a.) a rat man and b.) a Mad Doctor.
“They’re not trying to shrink people, are they?” he asked.
Quincey had laughed heartily. “No, that’s strictly for the special-effects people who work on the B horror pictures,” he said. “The Psych Department has been testing a series of low-grade hallucinogens. They’re working with the U.S. Intelligence Service.”
“CIA?” Andy asked.
“Not CIA, DIA, or NSA,” Quincey said. “Lower profile than any of them. Have you ever heard of an outfit called the Shop?”
“Maybe in a Sunday supplement or something. I’m not sure.”
Quincey lit his pipe. “These things work in about the same way all across the board,” he said. “Psychology, chemistry, physics, biology . . . even the sociology boys get some of the folding green. Certain programs are subsidized by the government. Anything from the mating ritual of the tsetse fly to the possible disposal of used plutonium slugs. An outfit like the Shop has to spend all of its yearly budget to justify a like amount the following year.”
“That shit troubles me mightily,” Andy said.
“It troubles almost any thinking person,” Quincey said with a calm, untroubled smile. “But the train just keeps rolling. What does our intelligence branch want with low-grade hallucinogens? Who knows? Not me. Not you. Probably they don’t, either. But the reports look good in closed committees come budget-renewal time. They have their pets in every department. At Harrison, Wanless is their pet in the Psych Department”
“The administration doesn’t mind?”
“Don’t be naive, my boy.” He had his pipe going to his satisfaction and was puffing great stinking clouds of smoke out into the ratty apartment living room. His voice accordingly became more rolling, more orotund, more Buckleyesque. “What’s good for Wanless is good for the Harrison Psychology Department, which next year will have its very own building—no more slumming with those sociology types. And what’s good for Psych is good for Harrison State College. And for Ohio. And all that blah-blah.”
“Do you think it’s safe?”
“They don’t test it on student volunteers if it isn’t safe,” Quincey said. “If they have even the slightest question, they test it on rats and then on convicts. You can be sure that what they’re putting into you has been put into roughly three hundred people before you, whose reactions have been carefully monitored.”
“I don’t like this business about the CIA—”
“What’s the difference?” Andy asked morosely. He looked at Quincey’s poster of Richard Nixon standing in front of a crunched-up used car. Nixon was grinning, and a stubby V-for-victory poked up out of each clenched fist. Andy could still hardly believe the man had been elected president less than a year ago.
“Well, I thought maybe you could use the two hundred dollars, that’s all.”
“Why are they paying so much?” Andy asked suspiciously.
Quincey threw up his hands. “Andy, it is the government’s treat! Can’t you follow that? Two years ago the Shop paid something like three hundred thousand dollars for a feasibility study on a mass-produced exploding bicycle—and that was in the Sunday Times. Just another Vietnam thing, I guess, although probably nobody knows for sure. Like Fibber McGee used to say, ‘It seemed like a good idea at the time.’ ” Quincey knocked out his pipe with quick, jittery movements. “To guys like that, every college campus in America is like one big Macy’s. They buy a little here, do a little window-shopping there. Now if you don’t want it—”
“Well, maybe I do. Are you going in on it?”
Quincey had to smile. His father ran a chain of extremely successful menswear stores in Ohio and Indiana. “Don’t need two hundred that bad,” he said. “Besides, I hate needles.”
“Look, I’m not trying to sell it, for Chrissakes; you just looked sort of hungry. The chances are fifty-fifty you’ll be in the control group, anyway. Two hundred bucks for taking on water. Not even tapwater, mind you. Distilled water.”
“You can fix it?”
“I date one of Wanless’s grad assistants,” Quincey said. “They’ll have maybe fifty applications, many of them brownnosers who want to make points with the Mad Doctor—”
“I wish you’d stop calling him that.”
“Wanless, then,” Quincey said, and laughed. “He’ll see that the apple polishers are weeded out personally. My girl will see that your application goes into his ‘in’ basket. After that, dear man, you are on your own.”
So he had made out the application when the notice for volunteers went up on the Psych Department bulletin board. A week after turning it in, a young female GA (Quincey’s girlfriend, for all Andy knew) had called on the phone to ask him some questions. He told her that his parents were dead; that his blood type was O; that he had never participated in a Psychology Department experiment before; that he was indeed currently enrolled in Harrison as an undergraduate, class of ’69, in fact, and carrying more than the twelve credits needed to classify him as a full-time student. And yes, he was past the age of twenty-one and legally able to enter into any and all covenants, public and private.
A week later he had received a letter via campus mail telling him he had been accepted and asking for his signature on a release form. Please bring the signed form to Room 100, Jason Gearneigh Hall, on May the 6th.
And here he was, release form passed in, the cigarette-shredding Wanless departed (and he did indeed look a bit like the mad doctor in that Cyclops movie), answering questions about his religious experiences along with eleven other undergrads. Did he have epilepsy? No. His father had died suddenly of a heart attack when Andy was eleven. His mother had been killed in a car accident when Andy was seventeen—a nasty, traumatic thing. His only close family connection was his mother’s sister, Aunt Cora, and she was getting well along in years.
He went down the column of questions, checking NO, NO, NO. He checked only one yes question: Have you ever suffered a fracture or serious sprain? If yes, specify. In the space provided, he scribbled the fact that he had broken his left ankle sliding into second base during a Little League game twelve years ago.
He went back over his answers, trailing lightly upward with the tip of his Bic. That was when someone tapped him on the shoulder and a girl’s voice, sweet and slightly husky, asked, “Could I borrow that if you’re done with it? Mine went dry.”
“Sure,” he said, turning to hand it to her. Pretty girl. Tall. Light-auburn hair, marvelously clear complexion. Wearing a powder-blue sweater and a short skirt. Good legs. No stockings. Casual appraisal of the future wife.
He handed her his pen and she smiled her thanks. The overhead lights made copper glints in her hair, which had been casually tied back with a wide white ribbon, as she bent over her form again.
He took his form up to the GA at the front of the room. “Thank you,” the GA said, as programmed as Robbie the Robot. “Room Seventy, Saturday morning, nine A.M. Please be on time.”
“What’s the countersign?” Andy whispered hoarsely.
The grad assistant laughed politely.
Andy left the lecture hall, started across the lobby toward the big double doors (outside, the quad was green with approaching summer, students passing desultorily back and forth), and then remembered his pen. He almost let it go; it was only a nineteen-cent Bic, and he still had his final round of prelims to study for. But the girl had been pretty, maybe worth chatting up, as the British said. He had no illusions about his looks or his line, which were both pretty nondescript, or about the girl’s probable status (pinned or engaged), but it was a nice day and he was feeling good. He decided to wait. At the very least, he would get another look at those legs.
She came out three or four minutes later, a few notebooks and a text under her arm. She was very pretty indeed, and Andy decided her legs had been worth waiting for. They were more than good; they were spectacular.
“Oh, there you are,” she said, smiling.
“Here I am,” said Andy McGee. “What did you think of that?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “My friend said these experiments go on all the time—she was in one last semester with those J. B. Rhine ESP cards and got fifty dollars for it even though she missed almost all of them. So I just thought—” She finished the thought with a shrug and flipped her coppery hair neatly back over her shoulders.
“Yeah, me too,” he said, taking his pen back. “Your friend in the Psych Department?”
“Yes,” she said, “and my boyfriend, too. He’s in one of Dr. Wanless’s classes, so he couldn’t get in. Conflict of interest or something.”
Boyfriend. It stood to reason that a tall, auburn-haired beauty like this had one. That was the way the world turned.
“What about you?” she asked.
“Same story. Friend in the Psych Department. I’m Andy, by the way. Andy McGee.”
“I’m Vicky Tomlinson. And a little nervous about this, Andy McGee. What if I go on a bad trip or something?”
“This sounds like pretty mild stuff to me. And even if it is acid, well . . . lab acid is different from the stuff you can pick up on the street, or so I’ve heard. Very smooth, very mellow, and administered under very calm circumstances. They’ll probably pipe in Cream or Jefferson Airplane.” Andy grinned.
“Do you know much about LSD?” she asked with a little corner-wise grin that he liked very much.
“Very little,” he admitted. “I tried it twice—once two years ago, once last year. In some ways it made me feel better. It cleaned out my head . . . at least, that’s what it felt like. Afterward, a lot of the old crud just seemed to be gone. But I wouldn’t want to make a steady habit of it. I don’t like feeling so out of control of myself. Can I buy you a Coke?”
“All right,” she agreed, and they walked over to the Union building together.
He ended up buying her two Cokes, and they spent the afternoon together. That evening they had a few beers at the local hangout. It turned out that she and the boyfriend had come to a parting of the ways, and she wasn’t sure exactly how to handle it. He was beginning to think they were married, she told Andy; had absolutely forbidden her to take part in the Wanless experiment. For that precise reason she had gone ahead and signed the release form and was now determined to go through with it even though she was a little scared.
“That Wanless really does look like a mad doctor,” she said, making rings on the table with her beer glass.
“How did you like that trick with the cigarettes?”
Vicky giggled. “Weird way to quit smoking, huh?”
He asked her if he could pick her up on the morning of the experiment, and she had agreed gratefully.
“It would be good to go into this with a friend,” she said, and looked at him with her direct blue eyes. “I really am a little scared, you know. George was so—I don’t know, adamant.”
“Why? What did he say?”
“That’s just it,” Vicky said. “He wouldn’t really tell me anything, except that he didn’t trust Wanless. He said hardly anyone in the department does, but a lot of them sign up for his tests because he’s in charge of the graduate program. Besides, they know it’s safe, because he just weeds them out again.”
He reached across the table and touched her hand. “We’ll both probably get the distilled water, anyway,” he said “Take it easy, kiddo. Everything’s fine.”
But as it turned out, nothing was fine. Nothing.
albany airport mister
hey mister, this is it we’re here
Hand, shaking him. Making his head roll on his neck. Terrible headache—Jesus! Thudding, shooting pains.
“Hey mister, this is the airport”
Andy opened his eyes, then shut them against the white light of an overhead sodium lamp. There was a terrible, shrieking whine, building up and up and up, and he winced against it. It felt as if steel darning needles were being jammed into his ears. Plane. Taking off. It began to come to him through the red fog of pain. Ah yes, Doc, it all comes back to me now.
“Mister?” The cabby sounded worried. “Mister, you okay?”
“Headache.” His voice seemed to come from far away, buried in the jet-engine sound that was, mercifully, beginning to fade off. “What time is it?”
“Nearly midnight. Slow haul getting up here. Don’t tell me, I’ll tell you. Buses won’t be running, if that was your plan. Sure I can’t take you home?”
Andy groped in his mind for the story he had told the cabby. It was important that he remember, monster headache or not. Because of the echo. If he contradicted the earlier story in any way, it could set up a ricochet effect in the cabby’s mind. It might die out—in fact, probably would—but it might not. The cabby might seize on one point of it, develop a fixation on it; shortly it would be out of control, it would be all the cabby could think about; shortly after that, it would simply tear his mind apart. It had happened before.
“My car’s in the lot,” he said. “Everything is under control.”
“Oh.” The cabby smiled, relieved. “Glyn isn’t gonna believe this, you know. Hey! Don’t tell me, I’ll t—”
“Sure she’ll believe it. You do, don’t you?”
The driver grinned widely. “I got the big bill to prove it, mister. Thanks.”
“Thank you,” Andy said. Struggle to be polite. Struggle to go on. For Charlie. If he had been alone, he would have killed himself long ago. A man wasn’t meant to bear pain like this.
“You sure you’re okay, mister? You look awful white.”
“I’m fine, thanks.” He began to shake Charlie. “Hey, kid.” He was careful not to use her name. It probably didn’t matter, but the caution came as naturally as breathing. “Wake up, we’re here.”
Charlie muttered and tried to roll away from him.
“Come on, doll. Wake up, hon.”
Charlie’s eyes fluttered open—the direct blue eyes she had got from her mother—and she sat up, rubbing her face. “Daddy? Where are we?”
“Albany, hon. The airport.” And leaning closer, he muttered, “Don’t say anything yet.”
“Okay.” She smiled at the cab driver, and the cabby smiled back. She slipped out of the cab and Andy followed her, trying not to stagger.
“Thanks again, man,” the cabby called. “Listen, hey. Great fare. Don’t tell me, I’ll tell you.”
Andy shook the outstretched hand. “Take care.”
“I will. Glyn’s just not gonna believe this action.”
The cabby got back in and pulled away from the yellow-painted curb. Another jet was taking off, the engine revving and revving until Andy felt as though his head would split in two pieces and fall to the pavement like a hollow gourd. He staggered a little, and Charlie put her hands on his arm.
“Oh, Daddy,” she said, and her voice was far away.
“Inside. I have to sit down.”
They went in, the little girl in the red pants and the green blouse, the big man with the shaggy black hair and the slumped shoulders. A skycap watched them go and thought it was a pure sin, a big man like that out after midnight, drunk as a lord by the look of him, with his little girl who should have been in bed hours ago leading him around like a Seeing Eye dog. Parents like that ought to be sterilized, the skycap thought.
Then they went in through the electric-eye-controlled doors and the skycap forgot all about them until some forty minutes later, when the green car pulled up to the curb and the two men got out to talk to him.
It was ten past midnight. The lobby of the terminal had been given over to the early-morning people: servicemen at the end of their leaves, harried-looking women riding herd on scratchy, up-too-late children, businessmen with pouches of weariness under their eyes, cruising kids in big boots and long hair, some of them with packs on their backs, a couple with cased tennis rackets. The loudspeaker system announced arrivals and departures and paged people like some omnipotent voice in a dream.
Andy and Charlie sat side by side at desks with TVs bolted to them. The TVs were scratched and dented and painted dead black. To Andy they looked like sinister, futuristic cobras. He plugged his last two quarters into them so they wouldn’t be asked to leave the seats. Charlie’s was showing a rerun of The Rookies and Johnny Carson was yucking it up with Sonny Bono and Buddy Hackett on Andy’s.
“Daddy, do I have to?” Charlie asked for the second time. She was on the verge of tears.
“Honey, I’m used up,” he said. “We have no money. We can’t stay here.”
“Those bad men are coming?” she asked, and her voice dropped to a whisper.
“I don’t know.” Thud, thud, thud in his brain. Not a riderless black horse anymore; now it was mailsacks filled with sharp scraps of iron being dropped on him from a fifth-story window. “We have to assume they are.”
“How could I get money?”
He hesitated and then said, “You know.”
The tears began to come and trickled down her cheeks. “It’s not right. It’s not right to steal.”
“I know it,” he said. “But it’s not right for them to keep coming at us, either. I explained it to you, Charlie. Or at least I tried.”
“About little bad and big bad?”
“Yes. Lesser and greater evil.”
“Does your head really hurt?”
“It’s pretty bad,” Andy said. There was no use telling her that in an hour, or possibly two, it would be so bad he would no longer be able to think coherently. No use frightening her worse than she already was. No use telling her that he didn’t think they were going to get away this time.
“I’ll try,” she said, and got out of the chair. “Poor Daddy,” she said, and kissed him.
He closed his eyes. The TV played on in front of him, a faraway babble of sound in the midst of the steadily growing ache in his head. When he opened his eyes again, she was just a distant figure, very small, dressed in red and green, like a Christmas ornament, bobbing away through the scattered people on the concourse.
Please God, let her be all right, he thought. Don’t let anyone mess with her, or scare her worse than she is already. Please and thank you, God. Okay?
He closed his eyes again.
Little girl in red stretch pants and a green rayon blouse. Shoulder-length blond hair. Up too late, apparently by herself. She was in one of the few places where a little girl by herself could go unremarked after midnight. She passed people, but no one really saw her. If she had been crying, a security guard might have come over to ask her if she was lost, if she knew which airline her mommy and daddy were ticketed on, what their names were so they could be paged. But she wasn’t crying, and she looked as if she knew where she was going.
She didn’t, exactly—but she had a pretty fair idea of what she was looking for. They needed money; that was what Daddy had said. The bad men were coming, and Daddy was hurt. When he got hurt like this, it got hard for him to think. He had to lie down and have as much quiet as he could. He had to sleep until the pain went away. And the bad men might be coming . . . the men from the Shop, the men who wanted to pick them apart and see what made them work—and to see if they could be used, made to do things.
She saw a paper shopping bag sticking out of the top of a trash basket and took it. A little way farther down the concourse she came to what she was looking for: a bank of pay phones.
Charlie stood looking at them, and she was afraid. She was afraid because Daddy had told her again and again that she shouldn’t do it . . . since earliest childhood it had been the Bad Thing. She couldn’t always control the Bad Thing. She might hurt herself, or someone else, or lots of people. The time
(oh mommy i’m sorry the hurt the bandages the screams she screamed i made my mommy scream and i never will again . . . never . . . because it is a Bad Thing)
in the kitchen when she was little . . . but it hurt too much to think of that. It was a Bad Thing because when you let it go, it went . . . everywhere. And that was scary.
There were other things. The push, for instance; that’s what Daddy called it, the push. Only she could push a lot harder than Daddy, and she never got headaches afterward. But sometimes, afterward . . . there were fires.
The word for the Bad Thing clanged in her mind as she stood nervously looking at the telephone booths: pyrokinesis. “Never mind that,” Daddy had told her when they were still in Port City and thinking like fools that they were safe. “You’re a firestarter, honey. Just one great big Zippo lighter.” And then it had seemed funny, she had giggled, but now it didn’t seem funny at all.
The other reason she wasn’t supposed to push was because they might find out. The bad men from the Shop. “I don’t know how much they know about you now,” Daddy had told her, “but I don’t want them to find out any more. Your push isn’t exactly like mine, honey. You can’t make people . . . well, change their minds, can you?”
“No-ooo . . .”
“But you can make things move. And if they ever began to see a pattern, and connect that pattern to you, we’d be in even worse trouble than we are now.”
And it was stealing, and stealing was also a Bad Thing.
Never mind. Daddy’s head was hurting him and they had to get to a quiet, warm place before it got too bad for him to think at all. Charlie moved forward.
There were about fifteen phonebooths in all, with circular sliding doors. When you were inside the booth, it was like being inside a great big Contac capsule with a phone inside it. Most of the booths were dark, Charlie saw as she drifted down past them. There was a fat lady in a pantsuit crammed into one of them, talking busily and smiling. And three booths from the end a young man in a service uniform was sitting on the little stool with the door open and his legs poking out. He was talking fast.
“Sally, look, I understand how you feel, but I can explain everything. Absolutely. I know . . . I know . . . but if you’ll just let me—” He looked up, saw the little girl looking at him, and yanked his legs in and pulled the circular door closed, all in one motion, like a turtle pulling into its shell. Having a fight with his girlfriend, Charlie thought. Probably stood her up. I’d never let a guy stand me up.
Echoing loudspeaker. Rat of fear in the back of her mind, gnawing. All the faces were strange faces. She felt lonely and very small, grief-sick over her mother even now. This was stealing, but what did that matter? They had stolen her mother’s life.
She slipped into the phonebooth on the end, shopping bag crackling. She took the phone off the hook and pretended she was talking—hello, Grampa, yes, Daddy and I just got in, we’re fine—and looked out through the glass to see if anyone was being nosy. No one was. The only person nearby was a black woman getting flight insurance from a machine, and her back was to Charlie.
Charlie looked at the pay phone and suddenly shoved it.
A little grunt of effort escaped her, and she bit down on her lower lip, liking the way it squeezed under her teeth. No, there was no pain involved. It felt good to shove things, and that was another thing that scared her. Suppose she got to like this dangerous thing?
She shoved the pay phone again, very lightly, and suddenly a tide of silver poured out of the coin return. She tried to get her bag under it, but by the time she did, most of the quarters and nickels and dimes had spewed onto the floor. She bent over and swept as much as she could into the bag, glancing again and again out the window.
With the change picked up, she went on to the next booth. The serviceman was still talking on the next phone up the line. He had opened the door again and was smoking. “Sal, honest to Christ I did! Just ask your brother if you don’t believe me! He’ll—”
Charlie slipped the door shut, cutting off the slightly whining sound of his voice. She was only seven, but she knew a snowjob when she heard one. She looked at the phone, and a moment later it gave up its change. This time she had the bag positioned perfectly and the coins cascaded to the bottom with a musical little jingling sound.
The serviceman was gone when she came out, and Charlie went into his booth. The seat was still warm and the air smelled nastily of cigarette smoke in spite of the fan.
The money rattled into her bag and she went on.
Eddie Delgardo sat in a hard plastic contour chair, looking up at the ceiling and smoking. Bitch, he was thinking. She’ll think twice about keeping her goddam legs closed next time. Eddie this and Eddie that and Eddie I never want to see you again and Eddie how could you be so crew-ool. But he had changed her mind about the old I-never-want-to-see-you-again bit. He was on thirty-day leave and now he was going to New York City, the Big Apple, to see the sights and tour the singles bars. And when he came back, Sally would be like a big ripe apple herself, ripe and ready to fall. None of that don’t-you-have-any-respect-for-me stuff went down with Eddie Delgardo of Marathon, Florida. Sally Bradford was going to put out, and if she really believed that crap about him having had a vasectomy, it served her right. And then let her go running to her hick schoolteacher brother if she wanted to. Eddie Delgardo would be driving an army supply truck in West Berlin. He would be—
Eddie’s half-resentful, half-pleasant chain of daydreams was broken by a strange feeling of warmth coming from his feet; it was as if the floor had suddenly heated up ten degrees. And accompanying this was a strange but not completely unfamiliar smell . . . not something burning but . . . something singeing, maybe?
He opened his eyes and the first thing he saw was that little girl who had been cruising around by the phonebooths, little girl seven or eight years old, looking really ragged out. Now she was carrying a big paper bag, carrying it by the bottom as if it were full of groceries or something.
But his feet, that was the thing.
They were no longer warm. They were hot.
Eddie Delgardo looked down and screamed, “Godamighty Jeesus!”
His shoes were on fire.
Eddie leaped to his feet. Heads turned. Some woman saw what was happening and yelled in alarm. Two security guards who had been noodling with an Allegheny Airlines ticket clerk looked over to see what was going on.
None of which meant doodly-squat to Eddie Delgardo. Thoughts of Sally Bradford and his revenge of love upon her were the furthest things from his mind. His army-issue shoes were burning merrily. The cuffs of his dress greens were catching. He was sprinting across the concourse, trailing smoke, as if shot from a catapult. The women’s room was closer, and Eddie, whose sense of self-preservation was exquisitely defined, hit the door straight-arm and ran inside without a moment’s hesitation.
A young woman was coming out of one of the stalls, her skirt rucked up to her waist, adjusting her Underalls. She saw Eddie, the human torch, and let out a scream that the bathroom’s tiled walls magnified enormously. There was a babble of “What was that?” and “What’s going on?” from the few other occupied stalls. Eddie caught the pay-toilet door before it could swing back all the way and latch. He grabbed both sides of the stall at the top and hoisted himself feet first into the toilet. There was a hissing sound and a remarkable billow of steam.
The two security guards burst in.
“Hold it, you in there!” one of them cried. He had drawn his gun. “Come out of there with your hands laced on top of your head!”
“You mind waiting until I put my feet out?” Eddie Delgardo snarled.
Charlie was back. And she was crying again.
“What happened, babe?”
“I got the money but . . . it got away from me again, Daddy . . . there was a man . . . a soldier . . . I couldn’t help it . . .”
Andy felt the fear creep up on him. It was muted by the pain in his head and down the back of his neck, but it was there. “Was . . . was there a fire, Charlie?”
She couldn’t speak, but nodded. Tears coursed down her cheeks.
“Oh my God,” Andy whispered, and made himself get to his feet.
That broke Charlie completely. She put her face in her hands and sobbed helplessly, rocking back and forth.
A knot of people had gathered around the door of the women’s room. It had been propped open, but Andy couldn’t see . . . and then he could. The two security guards who had gone running down there were leading a tough-looking young man in an army uniform out of the bathroom and toward the security office. The young man was jawing at them loudly, and most of what he had to say was inventively profane. His uniform was mostly gone below the knees, and he was carrying two dripping, blackened things that might once have been shoes. Then they were gone into the office, the door slamming behind them. An excited babble of conversation swept the terminal.
Andy sat down again and put his arm around Charlie. It was very hard to think now; his thoughts were tiny silver fish swimming around in a great black sea of throbbing pain. But he had to do the best he could. He needed Charlie if they were going to get out of this.
“He’s all right, Charlie. He’s okay. They just took him down to the security office. Now, what happened?”
Through diminishing tears, Charlie told him. Overhearing the soldier on the phone. Having a few random thoughts about him, a feeling that he was trying to trick the girl he was talking to. “And then, when I was coming back to you, I saw him . . . and before I could stop it . . . it happened. It just got away. I could have hurt him, Daddy. I could have hurt him bad. I set him on fire!”
“Keep your voice down,” he said. “I want you to listen to me, Charlie. I think this is the most encouraging thing that’s happened in some time.”
“Y-you do?” She looked at him in frank surprise.
“You say it got away from you,” Andy said, forcing the words. “And it did. But not like before. It only got away a little bit. What happened was dangerous, honey, but . . . you might have set his hair on fire. Or his face.”
She winced away from that thought, horrified. Andy turned her face gently back to his.
“It’s a subconscious thing, and it always goes out at someone you don’t like,” he said. “But . . . you didn’t really hurt that guy, Charlie. You . . .” But the rest of it was gone and only the pain was left. Was he still talking? For a moment he didn’t even know.
Charlie could still feel that thing, that Bad Thing, racing around in her head, wanting to get away again, to do something else. It was like a small, vicious, and rather stupid animal. You had to let it out of its cage to do something like getting money from the phones . . . but it could do something else, something really bad
(like mommy in the kitchen oh mom i’m sorry)
before you could get it back in again. But now it didn’t matter. She wouldn’t think about it now, she wouldn’t think about
(the bandages my mommy has to wear bandages because i hurt her)
any of it now. Her father was what mattered now. He was slumped over in his TV chair, his face stamped with pain. He was paper white. His eyes were bloodshot.
Oh, Daddy, she thought, I’d trade even-Steven with you if I could. You’ve got something that hurts you but it never gets out of its cage. I’ve got something big that doesn’t hurt me at all but oh sometimes I get so scared—
“I’ve got the money,” she said. “I didn’t go to all the telephones, because the bag was getting heavy and I was afraid it would break.” She looked at him anxiously. “Where can we go, Daddy? You have to lie down.”
Andy reached into the bag and slowly began to transfer the change in handfuls to the pockets of his corduroy coat. He wondered if this night would ever end. He wanted to do nothing more than grab another cab and go into town and check them into the first hotel or motel in sight . . . but he was afraid. Cabs could be traced. And he had a strong feeling that the people from the green car were still close behind.
He tried to put together what he knew about the Albany airport. First of all, it was the Albany County Airport; it really wasn’t in Albany at all but in the town of Colonie. Shaker country—hadn’t his grandfather told him once that this was Shaker country? Or had all of them died out now? What about highways? Turnpikes? The answer came slowly. There was a road . . . some sort of Way. Northway or Southway, he thought.
He opened his eyes and looked at Charlie. “Can you walk aways, kiddo? Couple of miles, maybe?”
“Sure.” She had slept and felt relatively fresh. “Can you?”
That was the question. He didn’t know. “I’m going to try,” he said. “I think we ought to walk out to the main road and try to catch a ride, hon.”
“Hitchhike?” she asked.
He nodded. “Tracing a hitchhiker is pretty hard, Charlie. If we’re lucky, we’ll get a ride with someone who’ll be in Buffalo by morning.” And if we’re not, we’ll still be standing in the breakdown lane with our thumbs out when that green car comes rolling up.
“If you think it’s okay,” Charlie said doubtfully.
“Come on,” he said, “help me.”
Gigantic bolt of pain as he got to his feet. He swayed a little, closed his eyes, then opened them again. People looked surreal. Colors seemed too bright. A woman walked by on high heels, and every click on the airport tiles was the sound of a vault door being slammed.
“Daddy, are you sure you can?” Her voice was small and very scared.
Charlie. Only Charlie looked right
“I think I can,” he said. “Come on.”
They left by a different door from the one they had entered, and the skycap who had noticed them getting out of the cab was busy unloading suitcases from the trunk of a car. He didn’t see them go out.
“Which way, Daddy?” Charlie asked.
He looked both ways and saw the Northway, curving away below and to the right of the terminal building. How to get there, that was the question. There were roads everywhere—overpasses, underpasses, NO RIGHT TURN, STOP ON SIGNAL, KEEP LEFT, NO PARKING ANYTIME. Traffic signals flashing in the early-morning blackness like uneasy spirits.
“This way, I think,” he said, and they walked the length of the terminal beside the feeder road that was lined with LOADING AND UNLOADING ONLY signs. The sidewalk ended at the end of the terminal. A large silver Mercedes swept by them indifferently, and the reflected glow of the overhead sodium arcs on its surface made him wince.
Charlie was looking at him questioningly.
Andy nodded. “Just keep as far over to the side as you can. Are you cold?”
“Thank goodness it’s a warm night. Your mother would—”
His mouth snapped shut over that.
The two of them walked off into darkness, the big man with the broad shoulders and the little girl in the red pants and the green blouse, holding his hand, almost seeming to lead him.
The green car showed up about fifteen minutes later and parked at the yellow curb. Two men got out, the same two who had chased Andy and Charlie to the cab back in Manhattan. The driver sat behind the wheel.
An airport cop strolled up. “You can’t park here, sir,” he said. “If you’ll just pull up to—”
“Sure I can,” the driver said. He showed the cop his ID. The airport cop looked at it, looked at the driver, looked back at the picture on the ID.
“Oh,” he said. “I’m sorry, sir. Is it something we should know about?”
“Nothing that affects airport security,” the driver said, “but maybe you can help. Have you seen either of these two people tonight?” He handed the airport cop a picture of Andy, and then a fuzzy picture of Charlie. Her hair had been longer then. In the snap, it was braided into pigtails. Her mother had been alive then. “The girl’s a year or so older now,” the driver said. “Her hair’s a bit shorter. About to her shoulders.”
The cop examined the pictures carefully, shuffling them back and forth. “You know, I believe I did see this little girl,” he said. “Towhead, isn’t she? Picture makes it a little hard to tell.”
“The man her father?”
“Ask me no questions, I’ll tell you no lies.”
The airport cop felt a wave of dislike for the blank-faced young man behind the wheel of the nondescript green car. He had had peripheral doings with the FBI, the CIA, and the outfit they called the Shop before. Their agents were all the same, blankly arrogant and patronizing. They regarded anyone in a bluesuit as a kiddy cop. But when they’d had the hijacking here five years ago, it had been the kiddy cops who got the guy, loaded down with grenades, off the plane, and he had been in the custody of the “real” cops when he committed suicide by opening up his carotid artery with his own fingernails. Nice going, guys.
“Look . . . sir. I asked if the man was her father to try and find out if there’s a family resemblance. Those pictures make it a little hard to tell.”
“They look a bit alike. Different hair colors.”
That much I can see for myself, you asshole, the airport cop thought. “I saw them both,” the cop told the driver of the green car. “He’s a big guy, bigger than he looks in that picture. He looked sick or something.”
“Did he?” The driver seemed pleased.
“We’ve had a big night here, all told. Some fool also managed to light his own shoes on fire.”
The driver sat bolt upright behind the wheel. “Say what?”
The airport cop nodded, happy to have got through the driver’s bored façade. He would not have been so happy if the driver had told him he had just earned himself a debriefing in the Shop’s Manhattan offices. And Eddie Delgardo probably would have beaten the crap out of him, because instead of touring the singles bars (and the massage parlors, and the Times Square porno shops) during the Big Apple segment of his leave, he was going to spend most of it in a drug-induced state of total recall, describing over and over again what had happened before and just after his shoes got hot.
The other two men from the green sedan were talking to airport personnel. One of them discovered the skycap who had noticed Andy and Charlie getting out of the cab and going into the terminal.
“Sure I saw them. I thought it was a pure-d shame, a man as drunk as that having a little girl out that late.”
“Maybe they took a plane,” one of the men suggested.
“Maybe so,” the skycap agreed. “I wonder what that child’s mother can be thinking of. I wonder if she knows what’s going on.”
“I doubt if she does,” the man in the dark-blue Botany 500 suit said. He spoke with great sincerity. “You didn’t see them leave?”
“No, sir. Far as I know, they’re still round here somewhere . . . unless their flight’s been called, of course.”
The two men made a quick sweep through the main terminal and then through the boarding gates, holding their IDs up in their cupped hands for the security cops to see. They met near the United Airlines ticket desk.
“Dry,” the first said.
“Think they took a plane?” the second asked. He was the fellow in the nice blue Botany 500.
“I don’t think that bastard had more than fifty bucks to his name . . . maybe a whole lot less than that.”
“We better check it.”
“Yeah. But quick.”
United Airlines. Allegheny. American. Braniff. The commuter airlines. No broad-shouldered man who looked sick had bought tickets. The baggage handler at Albany Airlines thought he had seen a little girl in red pants and a green shirt, though. Pretty blond hair, shoulder-length.
The two of them met again near the TV chairs where Andy and Charlie had been sitting not long ago. “What do you think?” the first asked.
The agent in the Botany 500 looked excited. “I think we ought to blanket the area,” he said. “I think they’re on foot.”
They headed back to the green car, almost trotting.
Andy and Charlie walked on through the dark along the soft shoulder of the airport feeder road. An occasional car swept by them. It was almost one o’clock. A mile behind them, in the terminal, the two men had rejoined their third partner at the green car. Andy and Charlie were now walking parallel to the Northway, which was to their right and below them, lit by the depthless glare of sodium lights. It might be possible to scramble down the embankment and try to thumb a ride in the breakdown lane, but if a cop came along, that would end whatever poor chance they still had to get away. Andy was wondering how far they would have to walk before they came to a ramp. Each time his foot came down, it generated a thud that resounded sickly in his head.
“Daddy? Are you still okay?”
“So far, so good,” he said, but he was not so very okay. He wasn’t fooling himself, and he doubted if he was fooling Charlie.
“How much further is it?”
“Are you getting tired?”
“Not yet . . . but Daddy . . .”
He stopped and looked solemnly down at her. “What is it, Charlie?”
“I feel like those bad men are around again,” she whispered.
“All right,” he said. “I think we better just take a shortcut, honey. Can you get down that hill without falling?”
She looked at the grade, which was covered with dead October grass.
“I guess so,” she said doubtfully.
He stepped over the guardrail cables and then helped Charlie over. As it sometimes did in moments of extreme pain and stress, his mind attempted to flee into the past, to get away from the stress. There had been some good years, some good times, before the shadow began to steal gradually over their lives—first just over him and Vicky, then over all three, blotting out their happiness a little at a time, as inexorably as a lunar eclipse. It had been—
“Daddy!” Charlie called in sudden alarm. She had lost her footing. The dry grass was slippery, treacherous. Andy grabbed for her flailing arm, missed, and overbalanced himself. The thud as he hit the ground caused such pain in his head that he cried out loud. Then they were both rolling and sliding down the embankment toward the Northway where the cars rushed past, much too fast to stop if one of them—he or Charlie—should tumble out onto the pavement
The GA looped a piece of rubber flex around Andy’s arm just above the elbow and said, “Make a fist, please.” Andy did. The vein popped up obligingly. He looked away, feeling a little ill. Two hundred dollars or not, he had no urge to watch the IV set in place.
Vicky Tomlinson was on the next cot, dressed in a sleeveless white blouse and dove-gray slacks. She offered him a strained smile. He thought again what beautiful auburn hair she had, how well it went with her direct blue eyes . . . then the prick of pain, followed by dull heat, in his arm.
“There,” the grad assistant said comfortingly.
“There yourself,” Andy said. He was not comforted.
They were in Room 70 of Jason Gearneigh Hall, upstairs. A dozen cots had been trucked in, courtesy of the college infirmary, and the twelve volunteers were lying propped up on hypoallergenic foam pillows, earning their money. Dr. Wanless started none of the IVs himself, but he was walking up and down between the cots with a word for everyone, and a little frosty smile. We’ll start to shrink anytime now, Andy thought morbidly.
Wanless had made a brief speech when they were all assembled, and what he had said, when boiled down, amounted to: Do not fear. You are wrapped snugly in the arms of Modern Science. Andy had no great faith in Modern Science, which had given the world the H-bomb, napalm, and the laser rifle, along with the Salk vaccine and Clearasil.
The grad assistant was doing something else now. Crimping the IV line.
The IV drip was five percent dextrose in water, Wanless had said . . . what he called a D5W solution. Below the crimp, a small tip poked out of the IV line. If Andy got Lot Six, it would be administered by syringe through the tip. If he was in the control group, it would be normal saline. Heads or tails.
He glanced over at Vicky again. “How you doin, kid?”
Wanless had arrived. He stood between them, looking first at Vicky and then at Andy.
“You feel some slight pain, yes?” He had no accent of any kind, least of all a regional-American one, but he constructed his sentences in a way Andy associated with English learned as a second language.
“Pressure,” Vicky said. “Slight pressure.”
“Yes? It will pass.” He smiled benevolently down at Andy. In his white lab coat he seemed very tall. His glasses seemed very small. The small and the tall.
Andy said, “When do we start to shrink?”
Wanless continued to smile. “Do you feel you will shrink?”
“Shhhhrrrrrink,” Andy said, and grinned foolishly. Something was happening to him. By God, he was getting high. He was getting off.
“Everything will be fine,” Wanless said, and smiled more widely. He passed on. Horseman, pass by, Andy thought bemusedly. He looked over at Vicky again. How bright her hair was! For some crazy reason it reminded him of the copper wire on the armature of a new motor . . . generator . . . alternator . . . flibbertigibbet . . .
He laughed aloud.
Smiling slightly, as if sharing the joke, the grad assistant crimped the line and injected a little more of the hypo’s contents into Andy’s arm and strolled away again. Andy could look at the IV line now. It didn’t bother him now. I’m a pine tree, he thought See my beautiful needles. He laughed again.
Vicky was smiling at him. God, she was beautiful. He wanted to tell her how beautiful she was, how her hair was like copper set aflame.
“Thank you,” she said. “What a nice compliment.” Had she said that? Or had he imagined it?
Grasping the last shreds of his mind, he said, “I think I crapped out on the distilled water, Vicky.”
She said placidly, “Me too.”
“Nice, isn’t it?”
“Nice,” she agreed dreamily.
Somewhere someone was crying. Babbling hysterically. The sound rose and fell in interesting cycles. After what seemed like eons of contemplation, Andy turned his head to see what was going on. It was interesting. Everything had become interesting. Everything seemed to be in slow motion. Slomo, as the avant-garde campus film critic always put it in his columns. In this film, as in others, Antonioni achieves some of his most spectacular effects with his use of slomo footage. What an interesting, really clever word; it had the sound of a snake slipping out of a refrigerator: slomo.
Several of the grad assistants were running in slomo toward one of the cots that had been placed near Room 70’s blackboard. The young fellow on the cot appeared to be doing something to his eyes. Yes, he was definitely doing something to his eyes, because his fingers were hooked into them and he seemed to be clawing his eyeballs out of his head. His hands were hooked into claws, and blood was gushing from his eyes. It was gushing in slomo. The needle flapped from his arm in slomo. Wanless was running in slomo. The eyes of the kid on the cot now looked like deflated poached eggs, Andy noted clinically. Yes indeedy.
Then the white coats were all gathered around the cot, and you couldn’t see the kid anymore. Directly behind him, a chart hung down. It showed the quadrants of the human brain. Andy looked at this with great interest for a while. Verrry in-der-rresting, as Arte Johnson said on Laugh-In.
A bloody hand rose out of the huddle of white coats, like the hand of a drowning man. The fingers were streaked with gore and shreds of tissue hung from them. The hand smacked the chart, leaving a bloodstain in the shape of a large comma. The chart rattled up on its roller with a smacking sound.
Then the cot was lifted (it was still impossible to see the boy who had clawed his eyes out) and carried briskly from the room.
A few minutes (hours? days? years?) later, one of the grad assistants came over to Andy’s cot, examined his drip, and then injected some more Lot Six into Andy’s mind.
“How you feeling, guy?” the GA asked, but of course he wasn’t a GA, he wasn’t a student, none of them were. For one thing, this guy looked about thirty-five, and that was a little long in the tooth for a graduate student. For another, this guy worked for the Shop. Andy suddenly knew it. It was absurd, but he knew it. And the man’s name was . . .
Andy groped for it, and he got it. The man’s name was Ralph Baxter.
He smiled. Ralph Baxter. Good deal.
“I feel okay,” he said. “How’s that other fella?”
“What other fella’s that, Andy?”
“The one who clawed his eyes out,” Andy said serenely.
Ralph Baxter smiled and patted Andy’s hand. “Pretty visual stuff, huh, guy?”
“No, really,” Vicky said. “I saw it, too.”
“You think you did,” the GA who was not a GA said. “You just shared the same illusion. There was a guy over there by the board who had a muscular reaction . . . something like a charley horse. No clawed eyes. No blood.”
He started away again.
Andy said, “My man, it is impossible to share the same illusion without some prior consultation.” He felt immensely clever. The logic was impeccable, inarguable. He had old Ralph Baxter by the shorts.
Ralph smiled back, undaunted. “With this drug, it’s very possible,” he said. “I’ll be back in a bit, okay?”
“Okay, Ralph,” Andy said.
Ralph paused and came back toward where Andy lay on his cot. He came back in slomo. He looked thoughtfully down at Andy. Andy grinned back, a wide, foolish, drugged-out grin. Got you there, Ralph old son. Got you right by the proverbial shorts. Suddenly a wealth of information about Ralph Baxter flooded in on him, tons of stuff: he was thirty-five, he had been with the Shop for six years, before that he’d been with the FBI for two years, he had—
He had killed four people during his career, three men and one woman. And he had raped the woman after she was dead. She had been an AP stringer and she had known about—
That part wasn’t clear. And it didn’t matter. Suddenly, Andy didn’t want to know. The grin faded from his lips. Ralph Baxter was still looking down at him, and Andy was swept by a black paranoia that he remembered from his two previous LSD trips . . . but this was deeper and much more frightening. He had no idea how he could know such things about Ralph Baxter—or how he had known his name at all—but if he told Ralph that he knew, he was terribly afraid that he might disappear from Room 70 of Jason Gearneigh with the same swiftness as the boy who had clawed his eyes out. Or maybe all of that really had been a hallucination; it didn’t seem real at all now.
Ralph was still looking at him. Little by little he began to smile. “See?” he said softly. “With Lot Six, all kinds of funky things happen.”
He left Andy let out a slow sigh of relief. He looked over at Vicky and she was looking back at him, her eyes wide and frightened. She’s getting your emotions, he thought. Like a radio. Take it easy on her! Remember she’s tripping, whatever else this weird shit is!
He smiled at her, and after a moment, Vicky smiled uncertainly back. She asked him what was wrong. He told her he didn’t know, probably nothing.
(but we’re not talking—her mouth’s not moving)
(vicky? is that you)
(is it telepathy, andy? is it?)
He didn’t know. It was something. He let his eyes slip closed.
Are those really grad assistants? she asked him, troubled. They don’t look the same. Is it the drug, Andy? I don’t know, he said, eyes still closed. I don’t know who they are. What happened to that boy? The one they took away? He opened his eyes again and looked at her, but Vicky was shaking her head. She didn’t remember. Andy was surprised and dismayed to find that he hardly remembered himself. It seemed to have happened years ago. Got a charley horse, hadn’t he, that guy? A muscular twitch, that’s all. He—
Clawed his eyes out.
But what did it matter, really?
Hand rising out of the huddle of white coats like the hand of a drowning man.
But it happened a long time ago. Like in the twelfth century.
Bloody hand. Striking the chart. The chart rattling up on its roller with a smacking sound.
Better to drift. Vicky was looking troubled again.
Suddenly music began to flood down from the speakers in the ceiling, and that was nice . . . much nicer than thinking about charley horses and leaking eyeballs. The music was soft and yet majestic. Much later, Andy decided (in consultation with Vicky) that it had been Rachmaninoff. And ever after when he heard Rachmaninoff, it brought back drifting, dreamy memories of that endless, timeless time in Room 70 of Jason Gearneigh Hall.
How much of it had been real, how much hallucination? Twelve years of off-and-on thought had not answered that question for Andy McGee. At one point, objects had seemed to fly through the room as if an invisible wind were blowing—paper cups, towels, a blood-pressure cuff, a deadly hail of pens and pencils. At another point, sometime later (or had it really been earlier? there was just no linear sequence), one of the test subjects had gone into a muscular seizure followed by cardiac arrest—or so it had seemed. There had been frantic efforts to restore him using mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, followed by a shot of something directly into the chest cavity, and finally a machine that made a high whine and had two black cups attached to thick wires. Andy seemed to remember one of the “grad assistants” roaring, “Zap him! Zap him! Oh, give them to me, you fuckhead!”
At another point he had slept, dozing in and out of a twilight consciousness. He spoke to Vicky and they told each other about themselves. Andy told her about the car accident that had taken his mother’s life and how he had spent the next year with his aunt in a semi-nervous breakdown of grief. She told him that when she was seven, a teenage baby-sitter had assaulted her and now she was terribly afraid of sex, even more afraid that she might be frigid, it was that more than anything else that had forced her and her boyfriend to the breakup. He kept . . . pressing her.
They told each other things that a man and a woman don’t tell each other until they’ve known each other for years . . . things a man and woman often never tell, not even in the dark marriage bed after decades of being together.
But did they speak?
That Andy never knew.
Time had stopped, but somehow it passed anyway.
He came out of the doze a little at a time. The Rachmaninoff was gone . . . if it had ever been there at all. Vicky was sleeping peacefully on the cot beside him, her hands folded between her breasts, the simple hands of a child who has fallen asleep while offering her bedtime prayers. Andy looked at her and was simply aware that at some point he had fallen in love with her. It was a deep and complete feeling, above (and below) question.
After a while he looked around. Several of the cots were empty. There were maybe five test subjects left in the room. Some were sleeping. One was sitting up on his cot and a grad assistant—a perfectly normal grad assistant of perhaps twenty-five—was questioning him and writing notes on a clipboard. The test subject apparently said something funny, because both of them laughed—in the low, considerate way you do when others around you are sleeping.
Andy sat up and took inventory of himself. He felt fine. He tried a smile and found that it fit perfectly. His muscles lay peacefully against one another. He felt eager and fresh, every perception sharply honed and somehow innocent. He could remember feeling this way as a kid, waking up on Saturday morning, knowing his bike was heeled over on its kickstand in the garage, and feeling that the whole weekend stretched ahead of him like a carnival of dreams where every ride was free.
One of the grad assistants came over and said, “How you feeling, Andy?”
Andy looked at him. This was the same guy that had injected him—when? A year ago? He rubbed a palm over his cheek and heard the rasp of beard stubble. “I feel like Rip van Winkle,” he said.
The GA smiled. “It’s only been forty-eight hours, not twenty years. How do you feel, really?”
“Whatever that word means, yes. Normal. Where’s Ralph?”
“Ralph?” The GA raised his eyebrows.
“Yes, Ralph Baxter. About thirty-five. Big guy. Sandy hair.”
The grad assistant smiled. “You dreamed him up,” he said.
Andy looked at the GA uncertainly. “I did what?”
“Dreamed him up. Hallucinated him. The only Ralph I know who’s involved in all the Lot Six tests in any way is a Dartan Pharmaceutical rep named Ralph Steinham. And he’s fifty-five or so.”
Andy looked at the GA for a long time without saying anything. Ralph an illusion? Well, maybe so. It had all the paranoid elements of a dope dream, certainly; Andy seemed to remember thinking Ralph was some sort of secret agent who had wasted all sorts of people. He smiled a little. The GA smiled back . . . a little too readily, Andy thought. Or was that paranoia, too? Surely it was.
The guy who had been sitting up and talking when Andy woke up was now being escorted from the room, drinking from a paper cup of orange juice.
Cautiously, Andy said: “No one got hurt, did they?”
“Well—no one had a convulsion, did they? Or—”
The grad assistant leaned forward, looking concerned. “Say, Andy, I hope you won’t go spreading anything like that around campus. It would play bloody hell with Dr. Wanless’s research program. We have Lots Seven and Eight coming up next semester, and—”
“Was there anything?”
“There was one boy who had a muscular reaction, minor but quite painful,” the GA said. “It passed in less than fifteen minutes with no harm done. But there’s a witch-hunt atmosphere around here now. End the draft, ban ROTC, ban Dow Chemical job recruiters because they make napalm. . . . Things get out of proportion, and I happen to think this is pretty important research.”
“Who was the guy?”
“Now you know I can’t tell you that. All I am saying is please remember you were under the influence of a mild hallucinogenic. Don’t go mixing up your drug-induced fantasies with reality and then start spreading the combination around.”
“Would I be allowed to do that?” Andy asked.
The GA looked puzzled. “I don’t see how we could stop you. Any college experimental program is pretty much at the mercy of its volunteers. For a lousy two hundred bucks we can hardly expect you to sign an oath of allegiance, can we?”
Andy felt relief. If this guy was lying, he was doing a really superlative job of it. It had all been a series of hallucinations. And on the cot beside his, Vicky was beginning to stir.
“Now what about it?” the GA asked, smiling. “I think I’m supposed to be asking the questions.”
And he did ask questions. By the time Andy finished answering them, Vicky was fully awake, looking rested and calm and radiant, and smiling at him. The questions were detailed. Many of them were the questions Andy himself would have asked.
So why did he have the feeling they were all window dressing?
Sitting on a couch in one of the smaller Union lounges that evening, Andy and Vicky compared hallucinations.
She had no memory of the thing that troubled him the most: that bloody hand waving limply above the knot of white tunics, striking the chart, and then disappearing. Andy had no recollection of the thing that was most vivid to her: a man with long blond hair had set up a folding table by her cot, so that it was just at her eye level. He had put a row of great big dominoes on the table and said, “Knock them down, Vicky. Knock them all down.” And she had raised her hands to push them over, wanting to oblige, and the man had gently but firmly pressed her hands back down on her chest. “You don’t need your hands, Vicky,” he had said. “Just knock them down.” So she had looked at the dominoes and they had fallen over, one after the other. A dozen or so in all.
“It made me feel very tired,” she told Andy, smiling that small, slantwise smile of hers. “And I had gotten this idea somehow that we were discussing Vietnam, you know. So I said something like, ‘Yes, that proves it, if South Vietnam goes, they all go.’ And he smiled and patted my hands and said, ‘Why don’t you sleep for a while, Vicky? You must be tired.’ So I did.” She shook her head. “But now it doesn’t seem real at all. I think I must have made it up entirely or built a hallucination around some perfectly normal test. You don’t remember seeing him, do you? Tall guy with shoulder-length blond hair and a little scar on his chin?”
Andy shook his head.
“But I still don’t understand how we could share any of the same fantasies,” Andy said, “unless they’ve developed a drug over there that’s a telepathic as well as an hallucinogenic. I know there’s been some talk about it in the last few years . . . the idea seems to be that if hallucinogens can heighten perception . . .” He shrugged, then grinned. “Carlos Castaneda, where are you when we need you?”
“Isn’t it more likely that we just discussed the same fantasy and then forgot we did?” Vicky asked.
He agreed it was a strong possibility, but he still felt disquieted by the whole experience. It had been, as they say, a bummer.
Taking his courage in his hands, he said, “The only thing I really am sure of is that I seem to be falling in love with you, Vicky.”
She smiled nervously and kissed the corner of his mouth. “That’s sweet, Andy, but—”
“But you’re a little afraid of me. Of men in general, maybe.”
“Maybe I am,” she said.
“All I’m asking for is a chance.”
“You’ll have your chance,” she said. “I like you, Andy. A lot. But please remember that I get scared. Sometimes I just . . . get scared.” She tried to shrug lightly, but it turned into something like a shudder.
“I’ll remember,” he said, and drew her into his arms and kissed her. There was a moment’s hesitation, and then she kissed him back, holding his hands firmly in hers.
“Daddy!” Charlie screamed.
The world revolved sickly in front of Andy’s eyes. The sodium arc lamps lining the Northway were below him, the ground was above him and shaking him loose. Then he was on his butt, sliding down the lower half of the embankment like a kid on a slide. Charlie was below him rolling helplessly over and over.
Oh no, she’s going to shoot right out into the traffic—
“Charlie!” he yelled hoarsely, hurting his throat, his head. “Watch it!”
Then she was down, squatting in the breakdown lane, washed by the harsh lights of a passing car, sobbing. A moment later he landed beside her with a solid whap! that rocketed all the way up his spine to his head. Things doubled in front of his eyes, tripled, and then gradually settled down.
Charlie was sitting on her haunches, her head cradled in her arms.
“Charlie,” he said, touching her arm. “It’s all right, honey.”
“I wish I did go in front of the cars!” she cried out, her voice bright and vicious with a self-loathing that made Andy’s heart ache in his chest. “I deserve to for setting that man on fire!”
“Shhh,” he said. “Charlie, you don’t have to think of that anymore.”
He held her. The cars swashed by them. Any one of them could be a cop, and that would end it. At this point it would almost be a relief.
Her sobs faded off little by little. Part of it, he realized, was simple tiredness. The same thing that was aggravating his headache past the screaming point and bringing this unwelcome flood of memories. If they could only get somewhere and lie down. . . .
“Can you get up, Charlie?”
She got to her feet slowly, brushing the last of the tears away. Her face was a pallid moonlet in the dark. Looking at her, he felt a sharp lance of guilt. She should be snugly tucked into a bed somewhere in a house with a shrinking mortgage, a teddy bear crooked under one arm, ready to go back to school the next morning and do battle for God, country, and the second grade. Instead, she was standing in the breakdown lane of a turnpike spur in upstate New York at one-fifteen in the morning, on the run, consumed with guilt because she had inherited something from her mother and father—something she herself had had no more part in determining than the direct blue of her eyes. How do you explain to a seven-year-old girl that Daddy and Mommy had once needed two hundred dollars and the people they had talked to said it was all right, but they had lied?
“We’re going to hook us a ride,” Andy said, and he couldn’t tell if he had slung his arm around her shoulders to comfort her or to support himself. “We’ll get to a hotel or a motel and we’ll sleep. Then well think about what to do next. That sound all right?”
Charlie nodded listlessly.
“Okay,” he said, and cocked his thumb. The cars rushed by it, unheeding, and less than two miles away the green car was on its way again. Andy knew nothing of this; his harried mind had turned back to that night with Vicky in the Union. She was staying at one of the dorms and he had dropped her off there, relishing her lips again on the step just outside the big double doors, and she had put her arms hesitantly around his neck, this girl who had still been a virgin. They had been young, Jesus they had been young.
The cars rushed by, Charlie’s hair lifted and dropped in each backwash of air, and he remembered the rest of what had happened that night twelve years ago.
Andy started across campus after seeing Vicky into her dorm, headed for the highway where he would hitch a ride into town. Although he could feel it only faintly against his face, the May wind beat strongly through the elms lining the mall, as if an invisible river ran through the air just above him, a river from which he could detect only the faintest, farthest ripples.
Jason Gearneigh Hall was on his way and he stopped in front of its dark bulk. Around it, the trees with their new foliage danced sinuously in the unseen current of that river of wind. A cool chill wormed its way down his spine and then settled in his stomach, freezing him lightly. He shivered even though the evening was warm. A big silver-dollar moon rode between the growing rafts of clouds—gilded keelboats running before the wind, running on that dark river of air. The moonlight reflected on the building’s windows, making them glare like blankly unpleasant eyes.
Something happened in there, he thought. Something more than what we were told or led to expect. What was it?
In his mind’s eye he saw that drowning, bloody hand again—only this time he saw it striking the chart, leaving a bloodstain in the shape of a comma . . . and then the chart rolling up with a rattling, smacking sound.
He walked toward the building. Crazy. They’re not going to let you into a lecture hall at past ten o’clock. And—
And I’m scared.
Yes. That was it. Too many disquieting half-memories. Too easy to persuade himself they had only been fantasies; Vicky was already on her way to accomplishing that. A test subject clawing his eyes out. Someone screaming that she wished she were dead, that being dead would be better than this, even if it meant going to hell and burning there for eternity. Someone else going into cardiac arrest and then being bundled out of sight with chilling professionalism. Because, let’s face it, Andy old kid, thinking about telepathy doesn’t scare you. What scares you is the thought that one of those things might have happened.
Heels clicking, he walked up to the big double doors and tried them. Locked. Behind them he could see the empty lobby. Andy knocked, and when he saw someone coming out of the shadows, he almost ran. He almost ran because the face that was going to appear out of those swimming shadows would be the face of Ralph Baxter, or of a tall man with shoulder-length blond hair and a scar on his chin.
But it was neither; the man who came over to the lobby doors and unlocked them and stuck his querulous face out was a typical college security guard: about sixty-two, lined cheeks and forehead, wary blue eyes that were rheumy from too much bottle time. A big time clock was clipped to his belt
“Building’s closed!” he said.
“I know,” Andy said, “but I was part of an experiment in Room Seventy that finished up this morning and—”
“That don’t matter! Building closes at nine on weeknights! Come back tomorrow!”
“—and I think I left my watch in there,” Andy said. He didn’t own a watch. “Hey, what do you say? Just one quick look around.”
“I can’t do that,” the night man said, but all at once he sounded strangely unsure.
With no thought at all about it one way or another, Andy said in a low voice: “Sure you can. I’ll just take a look and then I’ll be out of your way. You won’t even remember I was here, right?”
A sudden weird feeling in his head: it was as if he had reached out and pushed this elderly night security man, only with his head instead of his hands. And the guard did take two or three uncertain steps backward, letting go of the door.
Andy stepped in, a little concerned. There was a sudden sharp pain in his head, but it subsided to a low throb that was gone half an hour later.
“Say, are you all right?” he asked the security man.
“Huh? Sure, I’m okay.” The security man’s suspicion was gone; he gave Andy a smile that was entirely friendly. “Go on up and look for your watch, if you want to. Take your time. I probably won’t even remember that you’re here.”
And he strolled off.
Andy looked after him disbelievingly and then rubbed his forehead absently, as if to soothe the mild ache there. What in God’s name had he done to that old duck? Something, that was for sure.
He turned, went to the stairs, and began climbing them. The upper hall was deeply shadowed and narrow; a nagging feeling of claustrophobia slipped around him and seemed to tighten his breathing, like an invisible dogcollar. Up here, the building had poked into that river of wind, and the air went skating under the eaves, screaming thinly. Room 70 had two double doors, the top halves two squares of frosted, pebbled glass. Andy stood outside them, listening to the wind move through the old gutters and downspouts, rattling the rusty leaves of dead years. His heart was thudding heavily in his chest.
He almost walked away from it then; it seemed suddenly easier not to know, just to forget it. Then he reached out and grasped one of the doorknobs, telling himself there was nothing to worry about anyway because the damn room would be locked and good riddance to it.
Except that it wasn’t. The knob turned freely. The door opened.
The room was empty, lit only by stuttering moonlight through the moving branches of the old elms outside. There was enough light for him to see that the cots had been removed. The blackboard had been erased and washed. The chart was rolled up like a windowshade, only the pull ring dangling. Andy stepped toward it, and after a moment he reached up with a hand that trembled slightly and pulled it down.
Quadrants of the brain; the human mind served up and marked like a butcher’s diagram. Just seeing it made him get that trippy feeling again, like an acid flash. Nothing fun about it; it was sickening, and a moan escaped his throat, as delicate as a silver strand of spiderweb.
The bloodstain was there, comma-black in the moon’s uneasy light. A printed legend that had undoubtedly read CORPUS CALLOSUM before this weekend’s experiment now read COR OSUM, the comma-shaped stain intervening.
Such a small thing.
Such a huge thing.
He stood in the dark, looking at it, starting to shake for real. How much of it did this make true? Some? Most? All? None of the above?
From behind him he heard a sound, or thought he did: the stealthy squeak of a shoe.
His hands jerked and one of them struck the chart with that same awful smacking sound. It rattled back up on its roller, the sound dreadfully loud in this black pit of a room.
A sudden knocking on the moonlight-dusted far window; a branch or perhaps dead fingers streaked with gore and tissue: let me in I left my eyes in there oh let me in let me in—
He whirled in a slow-motion dream, a slomo dream, sinkingly sure that it would be that boy, a spirit in a white robe, dripping black holes where his eyes had been. His heart was a live thing in his throat.
No one there.
No thing there.
But his nerve was broken and when the branch began its implacable knocking again, he fled, not bothering to close the classroom door behind him. He sprinted down the narrow corridor and suddenly footfalls were pursuing him, echoes of his own running feet. He went down the stairs two at a time and so came back into the lobby, breathing hard, the blood hammering at his temples. The air in his throat prickled like cut hay.
He didn’t see the security man anywhere about. He left, shutting one of the big glass lobby doors behind him and slinking down the walk to the quad like the fugitive he would later become.
Five days later, and much against her will, Andy dragged Vicky Tomlinson down to Jason Gearneigh Hall. She had already decided she never wanted to think about the experiment again. She had drawn her two-hundred-dollar check from the Psychology Department, banked it, and wanted to forget where it had come from.
He persuaded her to come, using eloquence he hadn’t been aware he possessed. They went at the two-fifty change of classes; the bells of Harrison Chapel played a carillon in the dozing May air. “Nothing can happen to us in broad daylight,” he said, uneasily refusing to clarify, even in his own mind, exactly what he might be afraid of. “Not with dozens of people all around.”
“I just don’t want to go, Andy,” she had said, but she had gone.
There were two or three kids leaving the lecture room with books under their arms. Sunshine painted the windows a prosier hue than the diamond-dust of moonlight Andy remembered. As Andy and Vicky entered, a few others trickled in for their three-o’clock biology seminar. One of them began to talk softly and earnestly to a pair of the others about an end-ROTC march that was coming off that weekend. No one took the slightest notice of Andy and Vicky.
“All right,” Andy said, and his voice was thick and nervous. “See what you think.”
He pulled the chart down by the dangling ring. They were looking at a naked man with his skin flayed away and his organs labeled. His muscles looked like interwoven skeins of red yarn. Some wit had labeled him Oscar the Grouch.
“Jesus!” Andy said.
She gripped his arm and her hand was warm with nervous perspiration. “Andy,” she said. “Please, let’s go. Before someone recognizes us.”
Yes, he was ready to go. The fact that the chart had been changed somehow scared him more than anything else. He jerked the pull ring down sharply and let it go. It made that same smacking sound as it went up.
Different chart. Same sound. Twelve years later he could still hear the sound it made—when his aching head would let him. He never stepped into Room 70 of Jason Gearneigh Hall after that day, but he was acquainted with that sound.
He heard it frequently in his dreams . . . and saw that questing, drowning, bloodstained hand.
The green car whispered along the airport feeder road toward the Northway entrance ramp. Behind the wheel, Norville Bates sat with his hands firmly at ten and two o’clock. Classical music came from the FM receiver in a muted, smooth flow. His hair was now short and combed back, but the small, semicircular scar on his chin hadn’t changed—the place where he had cut himself on a jagged piece of Coke bottle as a kid. Vicky, had she still been alive, would have recognized him.
“We have one unit on the way,” the man in the Botany 500 suit said. His name was John Mayo. “The guy’s a stringer. He works for DIA as well as us.”
“Just an ordinary whore,” the third man said, and all three of them laughed in a nervous, keyed-up way. They knew they were close; they could almost smell blood. The name of the third man was Orville Jamieson, but he preferred to be called OJ, or even better, The Juice. He signed all his office memos OJ. He had signed one The Juice and that bastard Cap had given him a reprimand. Not just an oral one; a written one that had gone in his record.
“You think it’s the Northway, huh?” OJ asked.
Norville Bates shrugged. “Either the Northway or they headed into Albany,” he said. “I gave the local yokel the hotels in town because it’s his town, right?”
“Right,” John Mayo said. He and Norville got along well together. They went back a long way. All the way back to Room 70 of Jason Gearneigh Hall, and that, my friend, should anyone ever ask you, had been hairy. John never wanted to go through anything that hairy again. He had been the man who zapped the kid who went into cardiac arrest. He had been a medic during the early days in Nam and he knew what to do with the defibrillator—in theory, at least. In practice, it hadn’t gone so well, and the kid had got away from them. Twelve kids got Lot Six that day. Two of them had died—the kid who had gone into cardiac arrest and a girl who died six days later in her dorm, apparently of a sudden brain embolism. Two others had gone hopelessly insane—one of them the boy who had blinded himself, the other a girl who later developed a total paralysis from the neck down. Wanless had said that was psychological, but who the fuck knew? It had been a nice day’s work, all right.
“The local yokel is taking his wife along,” Norville was saying. “She’s looking for her granddaughter. Her son ran away with the little girl. Nasty divorce case, all of that. She doesn’t want to notify the police unless she has to, but she’s afraid the son might be going mental. If she plays it right, there isn’t a night clerk in town that won’t tell her if the two of them have checked in.”
“If she plays it right,” OJ said. “With these stringers you can never tell.”
John said, “We’re going to the closest on-ramp, right?”
“Right,” Norville said. “Just three, four minutes now.”
“Have they had enough time to get down there?”
“They have if they were busting ass. Maybe we’ll be able to pick them up trying to thumb a ride right there on the ramp. Or maybe they took a shortcut and went over the side into the breakdown lane. Either way, all we have to do is cruise along until we come to them.”
“Where you headed, buddy, hop in,” The Juice said, and laughed. There was a .357 Magnum in a shoulder holster under his left arm. He called it The Windsucker.
“If they already hooked them a ride, we’re shit out of luck, Norv,” John said.
Norville shrugged. “Percentage play. It’s quarter past one in the morning. With the rationing, traffic’s thinner than ever. What’s Mr. Businessman going to think if he sees a big guy and a little girl trying to hitch a ride?”
“He’s gonna think it’s bad news,” John said.
“That’s a big ten-four.”
The Juice laughed again. Up ahead the stop-and-go light that marked the Northway ramp gleamed in the dark. OJ put his hand on the walnut stock of The Windsucker. Just in case.
The van passed them by, backwashing cool air . . . and then its brakelights flashed brighter and it swerved over into the breakdown lane about fifty yards farther up.
“Thank God,” Andy said softly. “You let me do the talking, Charlie.”
“All right, Daddy.” She sounded apathetic. The dark circles were back under her eyes. The van was backing up as they walked toward it. Andy’s head felt like a slowly swelling lead balloon.
There was a vision from the Thousand and One Nights painted on the side—caliphs, maidens hiding under gauzy masks, a carpet floating mystically in the air. The carpet was undoubtedly meant to be red, but in the light of the turnpike sodiums it was the dark maroon of drying blood.
Andy opened the passenger door and boosted Charlie up and in. He followed her. “Thanks, mister,” he said. “Saved our lives.”
“My pleasure,” the driver said. “Hi, little stranger.”
“Hi,” Charlie said in a small voice.
The driver checked the outside mirror, drove down the breakdown lane at a steadily increasing pace, and then crossed into the travel lane. Glancing past Charlie’s slightly bowed head, Andy felt a touch of guilt: the driver was exactly the sort of young man Andy himself always passed by when he saw him standing on the shoulder with his thumb out. Big but lean, he wore a heavy black beard that curled down to his chest and a big felt hat that looked like a prop in a movie about feudin Kentucky hillbillies. A cigarette that looked home-rolled was cocked in the corner of his mouth, curling up smoke. Just a cigarette, by the smell; no sweet odor of cannabis.
“Where you headed, my man?” the driver asked.
“Two towns up the line,” Andy said.
The driver nodded. “On the run from someone, I guess.”
Charlie tensed and Andy put a soothing hand on her back and rubbed gently until she loosened up again. He had detected no menace in the driver’s voice.
“There was a process server at the airport,” he said.
The driver grinned—it was almost hidden beneath his fierce beard—plucked the cigarette from his mouth, and offered it delicately to the wind sucking just outside his half-open vent window. The slipstream gulped it down.
“Something to do with the little stranger here is my guess,” he said.
“Not far wrong,” Andy said.
The driver fell silent. Andy settled back and tried to cope with his headache. It seemed to have leveled off at a final screaming pitch. Had it ever been this bad before? Impossible to tell. Each time he overdid it, it seemed like the worst ever. It would be a month before he dared use the push again. He knew that two towns up the line was not nearly far enough, but it was all he could manage tonight. He was tipped over. Hastings Glen would have to do.
“Who do you pick, man?” the driver asked him.
“The Series. The San Diego Padres in the World Series—how do you figure that?”
“Pretty far out,” Andy agreed. His voice came from far away, a tolling undersea bell.
“You okay, man? You look pale.”
“Headache,” Andy said. “Migraine.”
“Too much pressure,” the driver said. “I can dig it. You staying at a hotel? You need some cash? I could let you have five. Wish it was more, but I’m on my way to California, and I got to watch it careful. Just like the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath.”
Andy smiled gratefully. “I think we’re okay.”
“Fine.” He glanced at Charlie, who had dozed off. “Pretty little girl, my man. Are you watching out for her?”
“As best I can,” Andy said.
“All right,” the driver said. “That’s the name of that tune.”
Hastings Glen was little more than a wide place in the road; at this hour all the traffic lights in town had turned to blinkers. The bearded driver in the hillbilly hat took them up the exit ramp, through the sleeping town, and down Route 40 to the Slumberland Motel, a redwood place with the skeletal remains of a harvested cornfield in back and a pinkish-red neon sign out front that stuttered the nonword VA A CY into the dark. As her sleep deepened, Charlie had tilted farther and farther to the left, until her head was resting on the driver’s blue-jeaned thigh. Andy had offered to shift her, and the driver shook his head.
“She’s fine, man. Let her sleep.”
“Would you mind dropping us off a little bit past?” Andy asked. It was hard to think, but this caution came almost intuitively.
“Don’t want the night man to know you don’t have a car?” The driver smiled. “Sure, man. But a place like that, they wouldn’t give a squirt if you pedaled in on a unicycle.” The van’s tires crunched the gravel shoulder. “You positive you couldn’t use five?”
“I guess I could,” Andy said reluctantly. “Would you write down your address for me? I’ll mail it back to you.”
The driver’s grin reappeared. “My address is ‘in transit,’ ” he said, getting out his wallet. “But you may see my happy smiling face again, right? Who knows. Grab onto Abe, man.”
He handed the five to Andy and suddenly Andy was crying—not a lot, but crying.
“No, man,” the driver said kindly. He touched the back of Andy’s neck lightly. “Life is short and pain is long and we were all put on this earth to help each other. The comic-book philosophy of Jim Paulson in a nutshell. Take good care of the little stranger.”
“Sure,” Andy said, brushing his eyes. He put the five-dollar bill in the pocket of his corduroy coat. “Charlie? Hon? Wake up. Just a little bit longer now.”
Three minutes later Charlie was leaning sleepily against him while he watched Jim Paulson go up the road to a closed restaurant, turn around, and then head back past them toward the Interstate. Andy raised his hand. Paulson raised his in return. Old Ford van with the Arabian Nights on the side, jinns and grand viziers and a mystic, floating carpet. Hope California’s good to you, guy, Andy thought, and then the two of them walked back toward the Slumberland Motel.
“I want you to wait for me outside and out of sight,” Andy said. “Okay?”
“Okay, Daddy.” Very sleepy.
He left her by an evergreen shrub and walked over to the office and rang the night bell. After about two minutes, a middle-aged man in a bathrobe appeared, polishing his glasses. He opened the door and let Andy in without a word.
“I wonder if I could have the unit down on the end of the left wing,” Andy said. “I parked there.”
“This time of year, you could have all of the west wing if you wanted it,” the night man said, and smiled around a mouthful of yellow dentures. He gave Andy a printed index card and a pen advertising business supplies. A car passed by outside, silent headlights that waxed and waned.
Andy signed the card Bruce Rozelle. Bruce was driving a 1978 Vega, New York license LMS 240. He looked at the blank marked ORGANIZATION/COMPANY for a moment, and then, in a flash of inspiration (as much as his aching head would allow), he wrote United Vending Company of America. And checked CASH under form of payment.
Another car went by out front.
The clerk initialed the card and tucked it away. “That’s seventeen dollars and fifty cents.”
“Do you mind change?” Andy asked. “I never did get a chance to cash up, and I’m dragging around twenty pounds of silver. I hate these country milk runs.”
“Spends just as easy. I don’t mind.”
“Thanks.” Andy reached into his coat pocket, pushed aside the five-dollar bill with his fingers, and brought out a fistful of quarters, nickels, and dimes. He counted out fourteen dollars, brought out some more change, and made up the rest. The clerk had been separating the coins into neat piles and now he swept them into the correct compartments of the cash drawer.
“You know,” he said, closing the drawer and looking at Andy hopefully, “I’d knock five bucks off your room bill if you could fix my cigarette machine. It’s been out of order for a week.”
Andy walked over to the machine, which stood in the corner, pretended to look at it, and then walked back. “Not our brand,” he said.
“Oh. Shit. Okay. Goodnight, buddy. You’ll find an extra blanket on the closet shelf if you should want it.”
He went out. The gravel crunched beneath his feet, hideously amplified in his ears, sounding like stone cereal. He walked over to the evergreen shrub where he had left Charlie and Charlie wasn’t there.
No answer. He switched the room key on its long green plastic tab from one hand to the other. Both hands were suddenly sweaty.
Still no answer. He thought back and now it seemed to him that the car that had gone past when he had been filling out the registration card had been slowing down. Maybe it had been a green car.
His heartbeat began to pick up, sending jolts of pain up to his skull. He tried to think what he should do if Charlie was gone, but he couldn’t think. His head hurt too badly. He—
There was a low, snorting, snoring sound from deeper back in the bushes. A sound he knew very well. He leaped toward it, gravel spurting out from under his shoes. Stiff evergreen branches scraped his legs and raked back the tails of his corduroy jacket.
Charlie was lying on her side on the verge of the motel lawn, knees drawn up nearly to her chin, hands between them. Fast asleep. Andy stood with his eyes closed for a moment and then shook her awake for what he hoped would be the last time that night. That long, long night.
Her eyelids fluttered, and then she was looking up at him. “Daddy?” she asked, her voice was blurred, still half in her dreams. “I got out of sight like you said.”
“I know, honey,” he said. “I know you did. Come on. We’re going to bed.”
Twenty minutes later they were both in the double bed of Unit 16, Charlie fast asleep and breathing evenly, Andy still awake but drifting toward sleep, only the steady thump in his head still holding him up. And the questions.
They had been on the run for about a year. It was almost impossible to believe, maybe because it hadn’t seemed so much like running, not when they had been in Port City, Pennsylvania, running the Weight-Off program. Charlie had gone to school in Port City, and how could you be on the run if you were holding a job and your daughter was going to first grade? They had almost been caught in Port City, not because they had been particularly good (although they were terribly dogged, and that frightened Andy a lot) but because Andy had made that crucial lapse—he had allowed himself temporarily to forget they were fugitives.
No chance of that now.
How close were they? Still back in New York? If only he could believe that—they hadn’t got the cabby’s number; they were still tracking him down. More likely they were in Albany, crawling over the airport like maggots over a pile of meat scraps. Hastings Glen? Maybe by morning. But maybe not. Hastings Glen was fifteen miles from the airport. No need to let paranoia sweep away good sense.
I deserve it! I deserve to go in front of the cars for setting that man on fire!
His own voice replying: It could have been worse. It could have been his face.
Voices in a haunted room.
Something else came to him. He was supposed to be driving a Vega. When morning came and the night man didn’t see a Vega parked in front of Unit 16, would he just assume his United Vending Company man had pushed on? Or would he investigate? Nothing he could do about it now. He was totally wasted.
I thought there was something funny about him. He looked pale, sick. And he paid with change. He said he worked for a vending-machine company, but he couldn’t fix the cigarette machine in the lobby.
Voices in a haunted room.
He shifted onto his side, listening to Charlie’s slow, even breathing. He thought they had taken her, but she’d only gone farther back in the bushes. Out of sight. Charlene Roberta McGee, Charlie since . . . well, since forever. If they took you, Charlie, I don’t know what I’d do.
One last voice, his roommate Quincey’s voice, from six years ago.
Charlie had been a year old then, and of course they knew she wasn’t normal. They had known that since she was a week old and Vicky had brought her into their bed with them because when she was left in the little crib, the pillow began to . . . well, began to smolder. The night they had put the crib away forever, not speaking in their fright, a fright too big and too strange to be articulated, it had got hot enough to blister her cheek and she had screamed most of the night, in spite of the Solarcaine Andy had found in the medicine chest. What a crazyhouse that first year had been, no sleep, endless fear. Fires in the wastebaskets when her bottles were late; once the curtains had burst into flame, and if Vicky hadn’t been in the room—
It was her fall down the stairs that had finally prompted him to call Quincey. She had been crawling then, and was quite good at going up the stairs on her hands and knees and then backing down again the same way. Andy had been sitting with her that day; Vicky was out at Senter’s with one of her friends, shopping. She had been hesitant about going, and Andy nearly had to throw her out the door. She was looking too used lately, too tired. There was something starey in her eyes that made him think about those combat-fatigue stories you heard during wartime.
He had been reading in the living room, near the foot of the stairs. Charlie was going up and down. Sitting on the stairs was a teddy bear. He should have moved it, of course, but each time she went up, Charlie went around it, and he had become lulled—much as he had become lulled by what appeared to be their normal life in Port City.
As she came down the third time, her feet got tangled around the bear and she came all the way to the bottom, thump, bump, and tumble, wailing with rage and fear. The stairs were carpeted and she didn’t even have a bruise—God watches over drunks and small children, that had been Quincey’s saying, and that was his first conscious thought of Quincey that day—but Andy rushed to her, picked her up, held her, cooed a lot of nonsense to her while he gave her a quick once-over, looking for blood, or a limb hanging wrong, signs of concussion. And—
And he felt it pass him—the invisible, incredible bolt of death from his daughter’s mind. It felt like the backwash of warm air from a highballing subway train, when it’s summertime and you’re standing maybe a little too close on the platform. A soft, soundless passage of warm air . . . and then the teddy bear was on fire. Teddy had hurt Charlie; Charlie would hurt Teddy. The flames roared up, and for a moment, as it charred, Andy was looking at its black shoebutton eyes through a sheet of flame, and the flames were spreading to the carpeting on the stairs where the bear had tumbled.
Andy put his daughter down and ran for the fire extinguisher on the wall near the TV. He and Vicky didn’t talk about the thing their daughter could do—there were times when Andy wanted to, but Vicky wouldn’t hear of it; she avoided the subject with hysterical stubbornness, saying there was nothing wrong with Charlie, nothing wrong—but fire extinguishers had appeared silently, undiscussed, with almost the same stealth as dandelions appear during that period when spring and summer overlap. They didn’t talk about what Charlie could do, but there were fire extinguishers all over the house.
He grabbed this one, smelling the heavy aroma of frying carpet, and dashed for the stairs . . . and still there was time to think about that story, the one he had read as a kid, “It’s a Good Life,” by some guy named Jerome Bixby, and that had been about a little kid who had enslaved his parents with psychic terror, a nightmare of a thousand possible deaths, and you never knew . . . you never knew when the little kid was going to get mad. . . .
Charlie was wailing, sitting on her butt at the foot of the stairs.
Andy twisted the knob on the fire extinguisher savagely and sprayed foam on the spreading fire, dousing it. He picked up Teddy, his fur stippled with dots and puffs and dollops of foam, and carried him back downstairs.
Hating himself, yet knowing in some primitive way that it had to be done, the line had to be drawn, the lesson learned, he jammed the bear almost into Charlie’s screaming, frightened, tear-streaked face. Oh you dirty bastard, he had thought desperately, why don’t you just go out to the kitchen and get a paring knife and cut a line up each cheek? Mark her that way? And his mind had seized on that. Scars. Yes. That’s what he had to do. Scar his child. Burn a scar on her soul.
“Do you like the way Teddy looks?” he roared. The bear was scalded, the bear was blackened, and in his hand it was still as warm as a cooling lump of charcoal. “Do you like Teddy to be all burned so you can’t play with him anymore, Charlie?”
Charlie was crying in great, braying whoops, her skin all red fever and pale death, her eyes swimming with tears. “Daaaaa! Ted! Ted!”
“Yes, Teddy,” he said grimly. “Teddy’s all burned, Charlie. You burned Teddy. And if you burn Teddy, you might burn Mommy. Daddy. Now . . . don’t you do it anymore!” He leaned closer to her, not picking her up yet, not touching her. “Don’t you do it anymore because it is a Bad Thing!”
And that was all the heartbreak he could stand to inflict, all the horror, all the fear. He picked her up, held her, walked her back and forth until—a very long time later—her sobs tapered off to irregular hitchings of her chest, and sniffles. When he looked at her, she was asleep with her cheek on his shoulder.
He put her on the couch and went to the phone in the kitchen and called Quincey.
Quincey didn’t want to talk. He was working for a large aircraft corporation in that year of 1975, and in the notes that accompanied each of his yearly Christmas cards to the McGees he described his job as Vice-President in Charge of Stroking. When the men who made the airplanes had problems, they were supposed to go see Quincey. Quincey would help them with their problems—feelings of alienation, identity crises, maybe just a feeling that their jobs were dehumanizing them—and they wouldn’t go back to the line and put the widget where the wadget was supposed to go and therefore the planes wouldn’t crash and the world would continue to be safe for democracy. For this Quincey made thirty-two thousand dollars a year, seventeen thousand more than Andy made. “And I don’t feel a bit guilty,” he had written. “I consider it a small salary to extract for keeping America afloat almost single-handed.”
That was Quincey, as sardonically funny as ever. Except he hadn’t been funny that day when Andy called from Ohio with his daughter sleeping on the couch and the smell of burned bear and singed carpeting in his nostrils.
“I’ve heard things,” Quincey said finally, when he saw that Andy wasn’t going to let him off without something. “But sometimes people listen in on phones, old buddy. It’s the era of Watergate.”
“I’m scared,” Andy said. “Vicky’s scared. And Charlie’s scared too. What have you heard, Quincey?”
“Once upon a time there was an experiment in which twelve people participated,” Quincey said. “About six years ago. Do you remember that?”
“I remember it,” Andy said grimly.
“There aren’t many of those twelve people left. There were four, the last I heard. And two of them married each other.”
“Yes,” Andy said, but inside he felt growing horror. Only four left? What was Quincey talking about?
“I understand one of them can bend keys and shut doors without even touching them.” Quincey’s voice, thin, coming across two thousand miles of telephone cable, coming through switching stations, through open-relay points, through junction boxes in Nevada, Idaho, Colorado, Iowa. A million places to tap into Quincey’s voice.
“Yes?” he said, straining to keep his voice level. And he thought of Vicky, who could sometimes turn on the radio or turn off the TV without going anywhere near it—and Vicky was apparently not even aware she was doing those things.
“Oh yes, he’s for real,” Quincey was saying. “He’s—what would you say?—a documented case. It hurts his head if he does those things too often, but he can do them. They keep him in a little room with a door he can’t open and a lock he can’t bend. They do tests on him. He bends keys. He shuts doors. And I understand he’s nearly crazy.”
“Oh . . . my . . . God,” Andy said faintly.
“He’s part of the peace effort, so it’s all right if he goes crazy,” Quincey went on. “He’s going crazy so two hundred and twenty million Americans can stay safe and free. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Andy had whispered.
“What about the two people who got married? Nothing. So far as they know. They live quietly, in some quiet middle-American state like Ohio. There’s maybe a yearly check on them. Just to see if they’re doing anything like bending keys or closing doors without touching them or doing funny little mentalist routines at the local Backyard Carnival for Muscular Dystrophy. Good thing those people can’t do anything like that, isn’t it, Andy?”
Andy closed his eyes and smelled burned cloth. Sometimes Charlie would pull open the fridge door, look in, and then crawl off again. And if Vicky was ironing, she would glance at the fridge door and it would swing shut again—all without her being aware that she was doing anything strange. That was sometimes. At other times it didn’t seem to work, and she would leave her ironing and close the refrigerator door herself (or turn off the radio, or turn on the TV). Vicky couldn’t bend keys or read thoughts or fly or start fires or predict the future. She could sometimes shut a door from across the room and that was about the extent of it. Sometimes, after she had done several of these things, Andy had noticed that she would complain of a headache or an upset stomach, and whether that was a physical reaction or some sort of muttered warning from her subconscious, Andy didn’t know. Her ability to do these things got maybe a little stronger around the time of her period. Such small things, and so infrequently, that Andy had come to think of them as normal. As for himself . . . well he could push people. There was no real name for it; perhaps autohypnosis came closest. And he couldn’t do it often, because it gave him headaches. Most days he could forget completely that he wasn’t utterly normal and never really had been since that day in Room 70 of Jason Gearneigh.
He closed his eyes and on the dark field inside his eyelids he saw that comma-shaped bloodstain and the nonwords COR OSUM.
“Yes, it’s a good thing,” Quincey went on, as if Andy had agreed. “Or they might put them in two little rooms where they could work full-time to keep two hundred and twenty million Americans safe and free.”
“A good thing,” Andy agreed.
“Those twelve people,” Quincey said, “maybe they gave those twelve people a drug they didn’t fully understand. It might have been that someone—a certain Mad Doctor—might have deliberately misled them. Or maybe he thought he was misleading them and they were deliberately leading him on. It doesn’t matter.”
“So this drug was given to them and maybe it changed their chromosomes a little bit. Or a lot. Or who knows. And maybe two of them got married and decided to have a baby and maybe the baby got something more than her eyes and his mouth. Wouldn’t they be interested in that child?”
“I bet they would,” Andy said, now so frightened he was having trouble talking at all. He had already decided that he would not tell Vicky about calling Quincey.
“It’s like you got lemon, and that’s nice, and you got meringue, and that’s nice, too, but when you put them together, you’ve got . . . a whole new taste treat. I bet they’d want to see just what that child could do. They might just want to take it and put it in a little room and see if it could help make the world safe for democracy. And I think that’s all I want to say, old buddy, except . . . keep your head down.”
Voices in a haunted room.
Keep your head down.
He turned his head on the motel pillow and looked at Charlie, who was sleeping deeply. Charlie kid, what are we going to do? Where can we go and be left alone? How is this going to end?
No answer to any of these questions.
And at last he slept, while not so far away a green car cruised through the dark, still hoping to come upon a big man with broad shoulders in a corduroy jacket and a little girl with blond hair in red pants and a green blouse.