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Innocence

Innocence

Innocence 26


  Gwyneth rolled the girl onto her right side, facing away from us, and said, “Addison, help me with this blanket.”

  Telford raised the gun, pointing it at the ceiling, as if to get our attention. “I’m talking here.” He must have been even weaker than he appeared, and the weapon must have been too heavy for him, because his wrist kept going limp, the gun wobbling this way and that. “Why is this little slut so special?”

  “Because everyone is,” Gwyneth said.

  “She’s just a little slut.”

  “If that’s so, then I must be wrong.”

  “You’re wrong as shit, that’s what you are.”

  Together, Gwyneth and I placed the blanket on the bed, so that half of it was draped over the side.

  “You’re special, too,” she told Telford.

  “What kind of crack is that?”

  “It’s not a crack. I’m just hoping.”

  She rolled Jane Doe 329 toward us, onto the blanket, and then onto her left side, almost to the edge of the bed.

  “Hoping what?” Telford asked.

  “Hoping you use what time you have left to save yourself.”

  We draped the dangling length of blanket over the girl and sort of tucked it against her back.

  “You know I’m dying, bitch. Screw hope.” He struggled up from the second bed, as loose-limbed as a drunk. “I gotta tell you something.”

  Gwyneth grabbed the farther hem of the blanket, and pulled it across the insensate child, thereby wrapping her completely.

  Telford stumbled two steps forward and grabbed the other bed railing with his left hand to steady himself.

  I raised the Mace, and Gwyneth said, “No. That’ll just make him crazy. And then what?”

  “Little titmouse, you want crazy, go to North Korea. Maniacs. Lunatic bastards. TV says this thing the lunatics engineered, it’s a twofer.”

  Gwyneth said, “Addison, get your arms under her, lift her off the bed. Do it now.”

  I didn’t want to pocket the Mace. Maybe it would drive him crazy, the burning in his eyes, but maybe that would be good, even if he had a loaded pistol.

  “Do it now, Addison.”

  “Hey, Lone Ranger, you hear it’s a twofer?”

  “I heard,” I assured him as Gwyneth took the Mace from me.

  “Ebola virus, Lone Ranger, and flesh-eating bacteria, and way pumped up, the shit’s totally enhanced, airborne, they say worse than atom bombs. It eats you up from the inside out. How’s that for bad?”

  I got my arms under the girl and lifted her from the bed. Strong with terror, I was amazed that she felt so light.

  The pistol tumbled from Telford’s hand onto the bed. Dripping sweat, weeping bloodier tears than before, he leaned hard across the railing, not to retrieve the weapon, but instead to spit in Gwyneth’s face. The thick, disgusting wad of spittle contained more than mere saliva.

  67

  IN THIS FALLEN WORLD, THERE ARE THINGS YOU hope for but never expect to receive because there is no luck and never was, but also because they are things of such great value that not all the good you could do in an entire lifetime would be enough to make you worthy of them. If one of your hopes is fulfilled, if that precious thing ever comes to you, it comes to you as a grace, and every day of your life thereafter, you need to give thanks for the gift. The girl I met in lamplight near Charles Dickens—she was my grace, all I wanted or would ever want.

  I stood there helpless, with Jane Doe in my arms, and Telford spat in Gwyneth’s face, a foul phlegm that he worked up for a final outrage. He laughed shakily, and there was amusement in it, a giddy delight, almost rapture. “A gun’s too easy, titmouse. You die like me, just like me.”

  She snatched a corner of the top sheet and blotted her face, but I knew that couldn’t be good enough to spare her.

  “Die like me, like me.” The curator drew out each me like squeezed air escaping from the pinched neck of a balloon. He was a man and a monster, too, a monster and a clown amusing himself, and if he had possessed the strength, he would have capered in his delight.

  God help me, I almost dropped the comatose girl to seize the gun and kill him. A rushing noise swelled in my head, like cataracts of water falling from a hundred feet, flecks of static in my vision, ice in my marrow, for I was overtaken by wrath and almost consumed by it, but I didn’t drop the girl.

  Gwyneth said, “Let’s get her out of here,” and I said, “The bathroom, hot water, soap, wash yourself,” and she said, “Move, move, now, let’s go.”

  A seizure took Telford. His entire body spasmed. He bent over the bed and poured out from his mouth a steaming mass that was not anything he had eaten, that was part of the essential substance of himself. With the sound of bowels liquifying and the knocking of bones, he collapsed onto the floor and out of sight.

  “Come on,” she said, “Come on,” and led the way out of the room, past the bathroom where there would be hot water and soap, along the hallway, to the stairs, and I could do nothing, nothing but follow her, my legs weak with the weight of the girl in my arms and with the burden of my terror.

  As I descended the stairs, the malodor from the archbishop’s fireplace rose around me, the foul stink of Paladine’s marionettes in flames.

  I halted, and Gwyneth must have known, for as she continued down the stairs in front of me, she said, “It’s nothing, they’re not here, it’s arrant deception. Like the rapping in the attic. Come on.”

  Across the foyer, past dead Walter. The door, the porch, the gate in the spearpoint fence, every salient point along the way was no less ominous than it had been when we’d passed it earlier.

  Gwyneth raised the tailgate, and I gently slid the blanket-wrapped girl into the cargo space of the Rover.

  Along the street, two or three people were digging their parked vehicles out of the snow. Their labor had a frantic quality, and not one of them looked up from the job to see what we were about.

  Closing the tailgate, I said, “Do you have sanitizing gel in the glove box, anything, do you have anything? I’ll drive.”

  “You don’t know how to drive. I’ll be all right, Addison.”

  She settled behind the steering wheel, and I had no choice but the passenger seat, and then we were rolling. Rolling, but where and to what?

  68

  WHO WE OF THE HIDDEN WERE, WHAT WE WERE, why we ever existed, explained the mystery of music issuing out of the ether.

  Days after that grim night in the city, when I had quiet time to reflect, I realized that Father had never heard the beautiful but sad melody that sometimes found its way into my deep three-room safehold. He had been laid to rest in the river a year or more before the first piano notes came from the air around me as I sat reading.

  Sometimes the nocturne played only once, those clear notes flowing in crystalline passages, and my mind was engaged by the brilliance of the melodic structure, my heart roused by the purity of emotion embodied in the music. I recognized the acute grief that had been the composer’s motivation, and knew it must have been the consequence of losing someone, but I also admired the talent and the wise intention that had subdued the bitter emotion and had drawn from it the strains of sorrow that were a better testament to the beauty of whoever was lost. On other occasions, the piece repeated two and three times, as often as five, and repetition carried me past all wondering about the identity and motivation of the composer, until the music spoke for me alone and expressed my feelings about my losses.

  If Father had been alive when the phenomenon began, if he had heard that nocturne and, in seeking its source, had been as mystified as I was, he would have raised a question for exploration: By what agency could a piece of piano music be conveyed halfway across a city and deep beneath its streets, making use of neither wire nor wireless technology, playing sweetly without benefit of receiver, amplifier, or speakers? Fascinating conversations would have led to all manner of speculations, from speculation to conjecture, from conjecture to supposition, and finally t
o a working hypothesis, which might in time be discarded and the process begun again.

  Father could never have gone from a hypothesis to the conviction of a theory, because while he lived, he never knew the true nature of the hidden. What we are and why we exist explains the agency by which Gwyneth’s music was conveyed to me by extraordinary means, there at the end of an age. If I had not met Gwyneth, if her biological father had not been the man of insight and true grace that he was, if her father’s closest friend hadn’t been Teague Hanlon, perhaps I never would have learned what we are, and would have died in an ultimate riot of nihilistic violence.

  On that night of Telford’s death, I discovered what I was and who I am. What might have been but never was … Well, it all became possible again.

  69

  THIS SNOW FALLING, SNOW ON SNOW, SEEMED LIKE none before it, not because it fell as dense as tropical rain, but because of what I now knew of the implacable plague. That knowledge served as a corrective to my vision, so that I saw in this descending whiteness not merely the suggestion of peace inherent in all snow, but peace eternal.

  A great city is the hope of mankind. This isn’t to say that the future lies in cities. A whistle-stop is also the hope of mankind. A humble village, a county seat, a state capitol, a great metropolis: Each is the hope of mankind on Earth. As is any neighborhood. A life in isolation might be a life in preparation, as mine seemed now to be, but it is not a life complete until it is lived with others who complete it. Although I had been an outsider, welcome nowhere in its boroughs, the city was home to me, its people my people even if they did not wish to be, and this fast-falling snow might as well have been ashes from a crematorium in a death camp, its descent a piercing sadness.

  The nameless girl lay blanketed and comatose in the back of the Land Rover. Gwyneth drove. I worried. Worried and accused myself for not using Telford’s gun on him, and prayed to hold off despair.

  Gwyneth said, “How often do you get a cold?”

  In our current circumstances, the question seemed curious. “What do you mean?”

  “Only one of those words had more than a single syllable.”

  “How often do I get a cold?”

  “Is there any word in that you need defined?”

  “I don’t get colds,” I said.

  “How often have you had the flu?”

  “Never. How would I possibly catch a cold or the flu? I’ve had virtually no contact with people, sick people or otherwise. I’ve lived almost in isolation.”

  “What about the man you called Father? Colds, the flu?”

  “Not in the time I knew him. He had no more contact with people than I did.”

  “Toothache?”

  “No. We floss and brush. We’re very diligent about it.”

  “That must be miracle floss, a magic brush. Not one cavity?”

  “What is this about?”

  “Ever cut yourself?”

  “Of course.”

  “Ever had an infected cut?”

  The Clears distracted me from answering her. We were still in a residential neighborhood, where they could be seen from time to time, as they could be seen anywhere, but suddenly they appeared in numbers. One in hospital blues crossed a lawn where, in the early hours of the storm, children had rolled together a snowman, using discs of reflective orange plastic for its eyes, a tennis ball for its nose, and what appeared to be the keys from a toy piano for its teeth. Another in whites passed through the wall of a house and came toward the street, leaving no rubble and bearing no wounds from his passage, and two in greens glided down from a roof to drift across a yard, all of them moving atop the mantle of snow rather than through it. On a branch high in a bare-limbed tree, a glowing woman in blues stood as if sentinel, and as the Land Rover approached, she turned her head to stare down at us, and in spite of the distance, though being in no danger of coming eye-to-eye, I looked away, as Father had told me always to do.

  Gwyneth said, “How long do you need to ponder it?”

  “Ponder what?”

  “Ever had an infected cut?” she repeated.

  “Not with Bactine and iodine and bandages.”

  “You’re very careful about your health.”

  “I have to be. I can never go to a doctor.”

  “What do you fear, Addison?”

  “Losing you,” I said at once.

  “What did you fear most before you ever met me?”

  “Losing Father.”

  “And what else?”

  “Father being beaten and badly hurt. Being beaten myself.”

  “There must be more you feared.”

  “Seeing other people hurt. A man shot in the back gave me this Rolex. It was the worst thing to watch him die. Sometimes I’m afraid to read the newspapers in the library because they contain so many stories of suffering.”

  “Do you fear the policemen who killed your father?”

  “No. I don’t fear anyone until I see murder in his face.”

  We still hadn’t talked much about Father. I hadn’t told her that the men who killed him were police officers.

  Accustomed to the prevalence of mysteries in the world and still reluctant to ask questions that, though she had professed her love, might cause her to withdraw, I didn’t inquire how she had come upon that information.

  “What do you hate?” she asked.

  I thought a moment. “Only what I fear.”

  “What you fear. That’s a most unusual answer in this world of hatred.”

  Before I could consider what she said, we turned a corner onto a major avenue, drove through three Clears, and came upon a gathering of their kind that reminded me of that night five years earlier, a year after Father died, when I encountered the grand spectacle that I called the Convocation. Now, the city lay dimmed by the seething veils of winter, and the high-rises tiered away into the obscuring weather until those beyond a block might have been only shapes in a murky mirror, mere reflections of nearer buildings. Through the white gloom, standing in air and descending slowly like glowing ornaments being hung upon the night by invisible hands, came Clears of both sexes and all races, in their white shoes and white or blue or green uniforms, from whatever other dimension and into ours. Upon touching down, each of them at once walked away, with the brisk purpose that perhaps hospital personnel displayed on a busy night in the emergency room.

  Until the past few minutes, the sight of Clears always lifted my spirits. Although I believed that in their eyes could be glimpsed some power or knowledge that, though it might not turn me to stone, would shake me to my core, I felt happier in their presence than I was when they weren’t around. But they did not gladden my heart now. Ordinarily, if anything can be said to be ordinary in this world, some of them were solemn while others smiled. This time, not one smile could be seen, and their demeanor seemed to be one of deep, inconsolable sorrow. The great beauty of their incandescent descent chilled my heart, and finally I understood something of what Father had meant when he said that the Clears, although not evil like the Fogs, were in their own way terrible, for their power was supremely grand and formidable.

  I closed my eyes, unable to bear that beauty anymore, and after a moment, Gwyneth said, “Have you ever had a sore throat, headache, indigestion, ulcers in the mouth, hay fever?”

  “What does any of that matter?”

  She said, “You will not die of the plague.”

  “I’m in the world more now. I’m at risk of contagion, just like you. I wish you had washed your face.”

  “Trust,” she insisted.

  70

  BEFORE I EVER CAME TO THE CITY, FATHER’S BENEFACTOR had given him the key to the food bank. I was never told the man’s position, and the only name that I had for him was Our Friend. Although this stranger cared about us and our welfare, although he could once or twice a year meet with my father for a few minutes and not strike out at him, Our Friend did not trust himself to restrain a violent impulse through a longer encounter. And becau
se Our Friend suffered a bout of depression bordering on despair after each meeting, Father felt that he should impose upon the man as seldom as possible and that I should impose upon him not at all until Father had died.

  When that day of misery arrived, and after Father lay at rest on the river bottom, I composed a note as he had instructed me and, that night, I took it to the food bank. The note said: Father has died. I have done with his body what he instructed. He wished me to tell you how very much he loved you for your tolerance and how much he appreciated your generosity. I know that you told him the key would be mine when he passed away, but he wanted me to ask you just the same if I might keep it. I will never take more than I need from either the food bank or the thrift shop, and I will try never to be found on the premises, never frighten anyone there by revealing what I am, for I would be most aggrieved to ever bring pain or dishonor to the food bank or anyone who staffs it. I miss Father terribly, and I don’t think that will ever change, but I will be all right. He wanted me to assure you that I will be all right.

  Because Father had told me that Our Friend had a sense of humor and because I knew he would understand the meaning of my last three words, I signed the note Son of It.

  Father had instructed me to seal the message in an envelope and to leave it in the center drawer of the desk in the smaller of the food bank’s two offices. The arrangement with our benefactor was that any missive would be answered overnight if possible. When I returned, I found a different sealed envelope from the one that I had left, and in it a reply. Dear boy, I was profoundly saddened to receive your news. I have always kept your father in my prayers, and I will keep him—and you—in them as long as I live. You may of course have the key. I wish that I could do more for you and be more of a comfort, but I am weak and so afraid. I accuse myself daily of cowardice and insufficient charity. As your father might have told you, for much longer than I knew him, I have suffered periodic depression, though I do always bounce back. Each encounter with your father precipitated a bout of the most severe despair, blackest depression, in spite of his great heart and gentle nature, and his face appears in dreams from which I wake as terrified as a child. This is my shortcoming and of course no fault of his. Do not hesitate to ask me for whatever you may need. Each time that I can be of help, I have a chance to mend my soul. God bless.