Authors: Charlie Price
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Not the Police
A Month Ago
Lizards Hate Red
In the Ozone Layer
Out to Get You
Danger to Self
I Couldn't See My Hand
Rude, Blued, and Tattooed
Strings and Wormholes
What a Party!
Did He Hear Me?
A Pitch to Team Ludlow
Betty Lou Weighs In
Deep Ancestral DNA
Calls and Whimpers
Not Too Close
Are You High?
Let Me Get This Straight
The Doctor Is In
Also by Charlie Price
To my daughter, Jessica Rose, with love:
Once I cradled you against my chest in one hand and smoothed your hair with the other.
Now I cradle you against my heart and smooth your hair in my dreams.
âfromRose,a poem by Charlie Price
I am thankful to have Deborah Brodie as my editor. Collaborating with her is like singing harmony. I treasure her compassion, her wisdom. I am very glad that she embracedLizard People.
I am similarly fortunate to have wonderful agents, Tracey and Josh Adams, and I continue to appreciate their professional acumen and their unflagging efforts on my behalf. Further, I respect Ms. Lauren Wohl for the many great ideas she brings to my literary projects.
This book could not and would not have been written without the daily encouragement and readership of my darling wife, Joan Pechanec, who, time and again, put aside her own agenda and read the latest chapter to tell me what worked and what clanked.
My book writing would not have begun without the inspiration and friendship of Chris Crutcher. I appreciate his graciousness and humor.
I also thank Mr. Bill Siemer, who challenges me to better understand story-craft on a weekly basis over corned beef and eggs.
I am grateful to Celeste White for her expertise, and I am in debt to several friends and readers for their support and straight feedback. I will simply list them in thanks: George Rogers, Kit Anderton, Melinda Brown, Dr. Burley Packwood, and Kate Anderton.
I have benefited from canny technical advice on a variety of matters. I heartily thank Dr. Steve Hudgens, Physicist; Lucy Rogers, RN, BSN; Jay Roitman, DO, Medical Director, Hill Country Community Clinic; Mr. George Wolf, Biologist; and Mr. Manuel Garcia, Attorney.
Not the Police
I'mdriving too fast. The last thing I need right now is to get stopped by the police. A traffic officer might know I knew Marco. They could think I helped him escape. There might be a warrant out for this car. I don't think so, but anything's possible. They might know all about Mom and even believe I'm crazy, too.
I don't know why I'm so revved up. I'm not afraid. Am I? This is just so important! I want people to understand that, want them to know what I know. I have to get to the Ludlows and tell them this story.
I guess I'm a little overexcited, but you can't keep a secret like this. Not something that will actually change the world. Make thousands of people well. Turn science on its nose. I mean, it's not like I have the answers, but I know the direction to go in. I'm the only one who really knew Marco.
Z will help me get a grip. She'll listen to me and figure out what to do next. She's Hubie's sister. Sophomore in college. Three years older than I am. Smart and funny and quirky and so different! If she isn't home? What is today? Whatistoday? Even Hubie could help. He's practically a scientist already. Or Mrs. Ludlow. She'll know what to do. But not the police. Not right now. I'm not ready.
You can't give a story like this to just anybody.
A Month Ago
Icould see Mom with a death grip on one of the secretary's heads. It looked like Mrs. Vance, our across-the-street neighbor. The principal had one hand around Mom's waist, his other hand on her forearm, and he was trying to pull her off the terrified woman. I could see office assistants huddling behind the counter, and two school counselors running through the rear door into the office from the courtyard. Our vice principal, Mrs. Onabi, was on the phone.
I crashed through the office door and tackled Mom, bringing everybody in that tangle to the floor. I was yelling, but Mom was maniacal. She had Mrs. Vance's mouth pulled partway open and was trying to see down inside. The counselors joined the pile, and in a few seconds, the four of us had Mom detached.
“Look at her! Look at her!” Mom was yelling.
“What, Mom?” I was holding her head and one shoulder and whispering in her ear, trying to calm her. “What?” I asked again. “It's me, Ben. What's the matter?”
Mom looked at me for the first time. Her eyes were bloodshot, pupils black whirlpools in a fiery sea of madness. “Sheâwon'tâadmitâit!” Mom puffed, struggling for breath.
The office was suddenly quiet, except for Mrs. Vance softly sobbing, now behind the counter like a barricade.
We released Mom and stood as she stood. She extended her left arm straight in front of her, pointing, index finger tipped with a long scarlet fingernail. Right at Mrs. Vance. “She,” Mom said in a theatrical voice dripping with contempt, “is a Lizard!”
The room was once again silent and stayed that way, practically unmoving, until the police arrived.
Youmeet the nicest people in the lobby of a psychiatric hospital. Unless they're drunk or tweaking. Most people are sad and empathetic and easy to approach after what they have just been through with their dad or mom or son or daughter or husband or wife.
I was sitting at the end of a row of connected metal chairs. Two empty seats down from me there was this good-looking blondish guy with short, thick hair, the kind that pretty much always looks right, whether or not it's combed. I think what held my attention was his eyebrows, really bushy and much darker than the rest of his hair. He looked eighteen or nineteen, but something about him seemed even older. He was concentrating, studying what looked like a map of our county. He would think for a few minutes, make a note on a clipboard, and then do the same thing again.
He was pretty much my size, maybe shorter by an inch or so. Face and arms tanned like he was outside a lot. He didn't have the muscle definition of a jock, but he looked in good shape. His clothes were the kind you might buy in an outdoor store, fleece vest, woven cotton shirt, canvas pants, running sandals. I figured this guy had some relative being admitted, too, but he didn't seem nervous, wasn't trying to pretend he was cool. It looked to me like he was just thinking.
I guess I got absorbed watching him, and he noticed.
“Hey,” he said, “I'm Marco. How about you?”
“Ben,” I said.
“Got somebody here?” he asked, sticking his pen in the metal top of the clipboard.
“My mom,” I said. “She's been losing it more often since Dad walked out. Doc thinks it's something like schizo-affective disorder.” Was I talking too much?
“Yeah,” he said, “my mom's bipolar. I'm just waiting for them to finish with her admission process.”
“Yeah, mood swings, depressed to manic. She's had it for a long time. It flares up and really sends her out there. She stops sleeping, starts drinking, has all these amazing projects going that she's talking about all the time. Usually nobody can slow her down until she goes off the deep end and winds up here or in jail.”
I was nodding. “My mom's a little like that. She gets off her meds and gets wild and scared and crazy. Nobody can talk her out of it. Your mom work?”
Marco moved a seat closer so it was easier to talk. “She's a decorator, houses and stuff,” he said. “She's real intelligent and a good mom when she's down to earth. But every so often, she stops taking her lithium, and thenho, baby,watch out! This time she was trying to build a two-story gazebo in the vacant lot across from the post office at 3 A.M. She says she's going to use it as a demonstrator model for her new exterior design package.Huhuh.The police arrested her and brought her here to get medicated.”
A woman stuck her head out of the locked unit door. “Next?” she said.
Marco said good-bye and went inside before I thought to get his phone number or his school or anything.
Lizards Hate Red
Tryingto take care of Mom after Dad left has played hell with my junior year. I'd missed a fair amount of school, dropped out of wrestling, and resigned as president of the Fly Fishing Club. My teachers and my principal understand what I'm dealing with at home. Especially after today, I bet.
I'm ashamed to admit it, but I was not thinking about Mom as I sat in the hospital admitting area. I was thinking no girl willevergo out with me again. It was bad enough before, but now, there'll be a neon sign on my back: WARNING! SANITY-FREE ZONE! No, cancel that. Most girls will feel sorry for me and that will be even worse. Pity and whispers.
I'm an okay guy. Almost six feet tall, and I usually made the weight and wrestled in the hundred-and-sixty-pound division. I keep my hair short for two reasons: Makes me feel like a wrestler, and my fishing hat fits better and doesn't blow off in the wind. I used to have a bunch of friends. In grade school, middle school, early in high school, in sports, and in summer recreation leagues. This last year most of them have sort of disappeared. They're not mean. I think they're just scared. Like being crazy could be infectious. It is definitely uncool.
I had a couple of girlfriends but I lost them both. I probably know why. For one thing, I was nervous being close to a girl. I watched shows likeReal Worldon MTV whenever I got a chance, and tried to understand what girls were like. Did they want to be treated special, doors held and stuff, or was that insulting? Did they want compliments or did they think that compliments were just the way a guy hit on them?
How the hell was I going to keep taking care of Mom? The whole Lizard thing started when Dad left Mom. Left home actually. I don't think they're divorced. I'm pretty sure it was another woman who caused it. I've seen him around town a couple of different times with the same woman. Or maybe, more likely I guess, living with Mom drove him away. I'll probably never know. He won't talk about that when he calls. He gave me his cell phone number but not his address. He always asks me if I need money for sports or dating or anything, and says, if he has to, he'll visit Mom in the hospital. But he won't come by the house. He hasn't been home for three months, since he walked out.
Mom's breakdowns had been happening on and off over the last several years. She had been in some psychiatric hospitals. Here in Riverton, when they had room, down to Sacramento when they didn't. None of the medications, and they had probably given her at least ten by now, seemed to hold her for long. Or maybe some of them worked and she stopped taking them as soon as she came to her senses.
This is the second time I have seen her paint her face with red lipstick. Mom believes that Lizards hate red. She also believes that you can identify a Lizard Person only by looking deep inside his or her mouth and seeing where the human costume ends and the actual Lizard begins.
I don't mean that Dad made Mom go off her rocker. She was that way before. Sometimes she got so lethargic she couldn't even get out of bed for a week. Sometimes she thought that TV shows were talking about her. But the red on the face and the Lizard thing is a recent development.
Dad said there used to be long-term hospitals that would help a person like Mom, but they got closed, so there's nothing like that now.
I'm going to make Dad come back and deal with this.
In the Ozone Layer
WhenMom got released and came home a couple of days later, I left school early and was there to meet her. She looked snowed.
“New medication?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Mom said. “I'm sleepy. I'm going to bed.”
“Want anything to eat? I could fix you something. Tuna sandwich? Can of soup? Cereal with banana in it?”
She didn't respond. Just slogged past me into her bedroom and closed the door.
I wondered if this time she was going to do what the doctor told her. The professionals always said the same thing. Take your medication as prescribed. Keep a regular daily routine.
Last fall Dr. Bhuspodi told Dad and me that Mom's chances to live a normal life again were very slim. The doctor said that there was almost nothing anyone could do but help her feel safe and cared for and hope that the meds would keep her calm and oriented. They were developing new and better psychotropic medications every day, and before too long, they would probably find one that would stop the voices without so many side effects. For now, ideally, she should be in a highly structured rehabilitation home, but the best one was ninety miles from here, in Chico, and it was very expensive, with a mile-long waiting list.
When Mom's on a tear, I mean, like, all paranoid, she is energetic and talkative and full of ideas. When she is medicated, she is usually quiet, embarrassed by what she did when she was psychotic. I know how much guts it takes for Mom to make it through the bad days when she is trying to cope. I see what a hard life it is. I love her so much. But I'm starting to hate her, too. Why can't she get it together and be like other moms? I know it's an illness, but I'm fed up with it!
And there's another tough thing. Mental illness often runs in families. I could get it. I could already have it. In my blood. In my body. In my brain.
Sometimes when Mom is gone, locked in the hospital, I go into her bedroom. I stand in front of her dresser and look at myself in the mirror. I'm embarrassed to say that sometimes I've opened the drawers, picked up one of her slips. So silky. I've sorted through her jewelry. I don't know what I'm looking for. Something of her, maybe, that isn't ruined by the madness. I smell her brush for a quick scent of her hair. I handle the figurines she keeps on her bookcase. I feel close to her in a way I can't seem to anymore when she's present.
I am looking for clues. What happened? What happened to the girl who went to high school and twirled a baton and sang in the choir and rode in convertibles? How did this illness claim her so completely?
Mom keeps her pictures in an old-fashioned striped suitcase under her bed. In my favorite snapshot, she is sitting beside my dad on the porch of a house I don't remember. He's wearing a T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up way too high, his hair longer and shaggy. He has his arm around her and he slouches in a relaxed way that makes it seem like he has already been there for hours and may not move for several more. She's smiling and leaning into his arm. I have taken that picture and put it in my room, in the top drawer of my own dresser, so I can see it whenever I want to.
The range of pictures astounds me: Mom with girlfriends, Mom with groups at football games, Mom in a line waiting to get on a Ferris wheel. Mom with her hair in rollers, dancing with ten or fifteen girls in some gym. She's not like that anymore.
She spends most of her time in her room. She sleeps a lot. She often sits in her rocker and looks out the window at the backyard. This fall I put up a bird feeder by her window, but she hasn't mentioned it and I don't know if it makes any difference. She has all these books but she hardly ever reads.
I had started my homework but I couldn't concentrate. I thought about getting high and going to bed. Recreation for the Mander family? Get sedated and go to sleep. What a life. There was no one to call except my best friend, Hubie, and he was probably still at his after-school job at the Computer Exchange. I wished I had gotten Marco's number. I wanted to ask him if any kind of reasoning ever convinced his mom to take better care of herself.
I got my basketball and went to the neighborhood park to shoot around. I missed my first ten shots and threw my basketball as hard as I could into the street. A landscape company pickup pulling a trailer filled with lawnmowers hit my ball on the first bounce and knocked it way down the street. It made it to the north-south thoroughfare and was flattened by a city bus.Happy now?
So I started walking, didn't care where, trying to think my way out of this mess. Without really noticing it, I made it to Hubie's house in time for dinner.
Hubie's mom is a nursing supervisor at our biggest local hospital, but her main role is the neighborhood caretaker. She often has a stray kid at the dinner table.Hmmm.She's short and compact, a dynamo. At dinner, she's cooking, bringing more food or more milk, rarely sitting in her chair for more than a minute.
She always, always makes me feel welcome. She asks about my family and listens, but it never feels like prying.
Hubie's dad moves slow, talks slow, and eats slow. He's also short, but unlike his wife, he has a big belly. A book about Emiliano Zapata was at his elbow as he ate.
Hubie has his mom's energy. He was talking nonstop about the idea that communities could begin to provide wireless Internet as part of their infrastructure, like roads and sidewalks. Financed by taxes. He continued talking right through our dessert of vanilla ice cream over white cake with canned peaches.
Where was Z? Was she boycotting family dinners? Hubie's older sister, Kaitlin, would answer only to “Z.” She is the bump in the Ludlow family road. Or, maybe in her case, pothole. When Mr. Ludlow asked her what “Z” stood for, she said, “Hypocrisy.” When he pointed out there was no z in hypocrisy, she said, “Exactly!”
In the almost-perfect Ludlow family, she is the anti-daughter. She's against everything her mother stands for. She shrivels you with a scathing look if you call her a goth. But what is she? Her ears are like chain-link fences, she has a diamond stud in her nose, and I don't know if it stops there. She favors light makeup and dark eye shadow and thrift-store-chic outfits. Punk diva goes Hindu.
Z has beaucoup causes that she constantly champions: alternatives to fossil fuel, preserve our redwoods, conserve water, feed the hungry, medical care for everyone. And a number of things she argues against: bigotry, war, corporate greed, and so on. I have loved her since the day Hubie and I became friends and he invited me home. She was doing her homework in their living room while she danced to something on MTV. I was in fifth grade and she was in middle school. Now, she's a sophomore at Sierra Junior College in town.
Z was a hurdler in high school until something happened between her and the coach. After that, no more organized sports. Today when she walked into the dining room, she had on black tights under a sari thing, with a ratty jean jacket vest over it. Black knit watchcap on top. A thick book tucked under her arm. “You're not a duck,” she said when she saw me. Was that a compliment?
She picked two plums out of the fruit bowl in the middle of the table, took a chicken leg off my plate, and left the room. Hubie's mom rolled her eyes. Mr. Ludlow didn't seem to notice.
Even with the odd moment, it was a comfort to sit and eat with a real family and listen to their conversation and not have to think about anything or do anything. Until afterward, when I bussed the dishes and washed them while Hubie stuck the cleaned ones in the drainer.
“How are things?” he asked, while we were standing together at the sink.
I shook my head. “Not so good,” I said, “and I'm pretty sure they'reâ¦” I stopped myself. I didn't need that kind of prophecy.
I went looking for Z before I headed back home. She was in her room with the door closed. I knocked.
“Closed for a reason,” she said.
“Yeah, I figured,” I said through the door. “I just thought I'd say hi before I left.”
I could hear her move across the floor. It sounded like she sat down and leaned against the door on her side. I sat and leaned, too. Now we were back-to-back with the door between. Was this as close as we'd ever be?
“So, WWF, how's things?” she asked.
World Wrestling Federation.She had come with Hubie to see a couple of my matches last year. In general, she thought wrestling for sport was beyond ridiculous.
“Not so good. Mom blew out at school today. Tackled an office worker. Called her a Lizard.”
“Right at school?”
“Pretty tough,” she said. “Maybe you should send the office woman a card. Like, uh, âSorry we mistook you for a reptile, get well soon, the Manders.' Smooth things over.”
“Thanks. You're really helpful.”
“Want me to open the door?”
I did. I wanted her to hug me. I wanted to smell that weird oil she puts on and hear the soft jangle of her earrings.
“No,” I said. “Why aren't I a duck?”
“Wittgenstein,” she said. “The book I'm reading. Philosophy. The clarity of language. You're not a duck, are you?”
“No,” I said. Many of my conversations with Z were like this. In the ozone layer. “You okay?”
“Breathing,” she said. “Hey, don't let the setbacks get you down. Life expectancy in Zimbabwe? Thirty-seven. Thousands of kids dying of AIDS every morning. Puts our day-to-day shit in perspective.”
I could hear her getting up.
“Later, Head-in-the-Armpit Boy.”
I should never have invited her to see me wrestle.
Out to Get You
Duringthe next couple of weeks, I went to school every day, but I couldn't keep my mind on my classes. I kicked myself for not getting Marco's phone number. I would like to have heard how he dealt with his mom's repeated crashes.
A couple of afternoons I went fishing just south of the Cypress Bridge. I worked the flats where some trout were feeding on tiny midges. I caught a couple on those and later, a couple more on yarn salmon eggs. Most of the time, I couldn't tell you what I was thinking about. I was pretty much in another dimension, on automatic pilot, doing what I was told and going wherever I was supposed to be. Other kids kept their distance.
Early on a Tuesday morning, I found out where my mind had been. Hatching a contingency plan.
I was awakened by Mom's keening. I lurched out of bed and found her in the living room, just finishing stuffing red crepe paper all around the edge of the front door. She turned as I came in. She had the red line of lipstick across her forehead and the area from her bottom lip to her chin was solid red.
“Go lock the back door and check the food,” she said, digging in the tote bag at her feet.
I knew she was looking for the red metal Celtic cross.
“Go,” she said, not looking up. “They're already here, all over outside. See how much food we have. Make a list.”
There was no point in arguing with Mom, paranoid and energized.
I walked into the kitchen, picked up a pad and pencil from the table near the phone, and started:milk, bacon, lettuce,just a one-word kind of list. I made a quick inventory of the fridge and pantry, went back into the living room, and handed it to Mom. She was busy tying red ribbons on all the lamps.
The Lizard People were back.
Time for my plan. I grabbed the phone out of the hall and took it to my room.
The woman who answered Dad's cell phone didn't know where he was. She said maybe he was working out of town. And then she started crying. She said he left one night about two weeks ago and she hadn't seen him since.
“You're his son, right?”
“If you see him,” she said, “ask him to give Charlene, me, a call. I need some help with the rent and we can still be friends. Tell him that. Okay?”
“Did he take any clothes? Or his laptop or anything?”
“No. Not even this phone. We were arguing. He just walked out. Well, his computer was probably still in his car.” She coughed. “Hey, you tell him I'm sorry for my part in it. Okay?” she said, sniffling.
“Any idea where he might have gone?” I was picturing what Dad's car looked like.
“Huh-uh. I called the places we go out to. They say they haven't seen him. I called his office, and they say he hasn't been back to work. I even called the police and hospitals this week. I thought maybe something happened to him. They never heard of him.”
From the way she pronounced her words, it sounded to me like maybe she had been drinking. Was Charlene such a big improvement over Mom? What is it with Dad?
“I told him he ought to stop taking all that Vicodin, and six-packs on top of it,” she said. “I told him it made him like a zombie. He's just out there sulking. A motel or something. I don't see how he could be driving very far, the way he gets.”
Dad. The stable one in our family. Yeah, he used a lot of pills for his back pain, and he always had a beer going at home, but he didn't get comatose and he didn't get mean. He just got slowed down. And he could come out of it okay if Mom went on a tear.
Major problem he had was his work. No schedule. Long periods of nothing happening followed by some intense deal closing. He sold commercial pumps: irrigation, wells, circulating pumps for factory machinery. Most years he made a fair amount of money on commission.
He'd been the only salesman for Carbondale Pumps in northern California for years. He traveled some, drumming up business. He had his own contacts, and his laptop kept him current on inventory and e-mail orders, so I guess if he wanted to take a couple of weeks off, he could. No big deal. But when he was living at home, whenever he went on the road, he always packed his bags and took them with him. I didn't like the sound of Dad leaving empty-handed and not coming back.
I thanked Charlene and got off the phone to make a circuit of our house. Make sure the red candles weren't setting anything on fire. So far everything was okay, and I found Mom in the hall closet, sitting on the floor and singing hymns. Her voice wasn't great but I didn't think it would drive Lizards away.
“You better get in here,” Mom said. “I don't know if the cross will hold them.”
“Yeah, okay,” I told her. “I'll be with you in a minute. I'm just making sure the windows are tight and the candles are safe. You go ahead.” She started singing again and I closed the door.
I called Dad's work number. Maybe he'd found another woman and told the office people not to tell Charlene anything. I had met Dad's boss and I thought he'd tell me the truth. When he came on the line, Mr. Tracy said he hadn't seen or talked to Dad for the past week. He thought Dad was on a road trip through Siskiyou County because that area was next on his schedule, but he hadn't called in for any parts or sales confirmations, which was unusual. “Things must be pretty dead,” he concluded.
I decided to take the car and check every motel in town. Probably Dad was holed up.
Mom first. I went to the bathroom to check the garbage can. Nobody ever empties it until it begins to spill over onto the floor. Down about the middle, I found Mom's current antipsychotic meds. I knew she was also supposed to be taking Klonopin to knock down anxiety, and I didn't think she'd toss that. I checked the medicine cabinet. Yep, the Klonopin was there, along with some old Ativan, and the sleepers: Dalmane and Ambien.
I took an Ativan and two Ambien to crush and put in mom's soda. She was tough to figure. The last time she went nuts, I tried to sedate her with Everclear in her fruit juice. Oops. Instead of falling asleep, she decided to drive to the sheriff's office and knocked down our mailbox and our neighbor's bay tree before I got her out from behind the wheel. I was hoping the Ativan would slow her down and the Ambien would put her out for a few hours.
Mom was very suspicious of medication, having had some pretty rough times in the hospitals. I couldn't just hand her the meds. Back in the kitchen, I mashed the pills between two spoons, keeping an eye on the closet door. I poured the powder into a glass of Mom's favorite, Coke Classic, and added extra lemon to cover the taste.
“Check the back porch,” Mom told me when I opened the closet again.
I handed her the doctored soda.
“I think that's how they got in last time,” she said, taking a long drink. “Do you still have that red T-shirt?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I'll put it on in a sec.”
She was looking over my shoulder, distracted by the bars of light the venetian blinds cast against the far wall.
“Hey,” I said. “You're going to need liquids if you're going to be on watch today. Finish the Coke and I'll bring you a bottle of water.”
When I came back, she handed me the empty glass, and I handed her a liter of water and the pillows and blankets I'd brought to make her more comfortable.
“You keep singing and I'll take care of the other stuff in the house.”
“Unscrew the lightbulbs,” she said. “I don't want them listening to us when we talk. And Ben?”
I stopped and waited for her to speak.
“Whatever you do, don't turn on the TV.”
“You got it,” I said.
Tough life. All your appliances are out to get you.
Twenty minutes later, when I looked in on her, Mom was dozing. I dug the car keys out of her purse and went to look for Dad. I didn't think he would spring for something expensive, but I checked the Hilton, Holiday Inn, and Red Lion parking lots first, then the other motels on Hillside Drive, then the cheap places on 273, and finally the downtown places on Main. No sign of his car.
Next the bars. Nothing at the Tropicana or Dave's Blue Light Club, the Coop, or any of the other dives I drove by. I know Dad doesn't like to drink in restaurants or pizza places. I was ready to give up, when I remembered the Pit, five miles north in Lake Vista. “A good pour,” is how Dad had described it when we drove by one day. Right. His car was parked around the rear where the blacktop gave way to weeds. Hidden from the street.
He was in a back corner near the storeroom, with his laptop and a bottle of beer on the table in front of him. The booth was dark. I couldn't see his face. He was scribbling on some papers beside the computer. He didn't look up till I sat down.
“Ben,” he said, but he didn't seem particularly surprised.
“Hi, Dad. How are you doing?”
“What brings you in here?” he asked, signaling the heavyset bleach-blond bartender and mouthing the word “Coke” at her.
“Mom is going off. It started again this morning with the red and the candles. I need your help.”
“What do you expect me to do?” he asked, but he didn't seem to care about the answer. He was looking away, over to the bar, and holding up two fingers like he wanted a double for himself.
“Come on, Dad, I can't get her admitted to any hospital without you. You can at least take Mom into the unit and ask them to evaluate her.”
“I'm done with your mom,” he said, as if that was the last word on the matter.
“She's still your wife,” I reminded him. “You have to help me. There's nothing else I can do by myself.”
He pursed his lips. “Okay,” he said. “I got to whiz and then we'll finish these drinks I just ordered and then we'll go home.” He stood up and headed around the bar, toward the restrooms.
I was restless. Any minute Mom was going to wake up and the home situation would escalate to the next level. That could be anything: neighbors, police, firemen, even a local news team.
The waitress served his double whatever-it-was and my Coke, gave me a crumpled smile, and went back to the bar. I began to wonder where Dad was. It didn't usually take him this long to shower, shave, and dress at home.
I went to the men's room.
I ran outside. His car was gone. Gone. Damn him. Lazy, good-for-nothing bastard! I wanted to punch him.
I headed home.
When I got there, Mom wouldn't let me in.
“You're infected,” she yelled through the door.
I left and went to the police station.
Danger to Self
“Mymom has stopped taking her medication, and she's a danger to herself and others,” I told the policeman behind the counter at the station.
His face didn't have any expression. I guess you get that way working behind the counter in a police station. He waited for me to go on.
“She has locked the house and won't let me in, and my dad won't come help get her admitted.”
Still the old stoneface.
“She's been admitted before, here and in Sacramento.” I was trying to think of the right words to get him to do something. “Uh, I'm her son, and I'm requesting a safety-and-welfare check on Mrs. Noreen Mander, 3212 Sandie Lane.”
“Name?” No change in expression, but at least Stone-face was finally speaking.
“Same place,” I said. “I'm a student at Sierra High.”
“Take a seat, please,” he said, and nodded toward some wooden chairs against the side wall. “An officer will be with you shortly.” The man's attention shifted to the next person in line behind me.
The patrolman was huge. He looked like a blue wool mountain. “Mander?” he said.
“Yes.” I stood up.
The man's face was round, bisected by a sparse black mustache. He yawned.
“Your mother has destabilized?” he said, but it didn't really sound like a question. “This is, what, the third time in the past couple of months?”
“Second or third,” I said.
“Has she been drinking or using street drugs?” he asked.
“I don't think so,” I said. “Really, I guess, uh, I don't know. I think just benzodiazepines, uh, you know, antianxiety stuff like Klonopin.”
“Any guns in the house?”
“No. She's not exactly dangerous,” I said. “She hits and bites when she's afraid and cornered, but she doesn't actually try to hurt people.”
“She's locked herself in your home?”
“You have a car?”
“I'm going to meet the mental health liaison at your house in ten minutes. We'll probably take your mother to the hospital for an emergency evaluation. Meet us at the hospital in thirty minutes. Don't go back home. You'll just be in the way.” He rubbed the bridge of his nose with a thick finger, like he was thinking how complicated this might get. “I know this is rough on you,” he said. “Don't worry. We won't hurt her.” He looked me in the eyes. “I mean it.”
He was out the door before I could think of anything to say.
Marco!Marco was sitting in the admitting area of the hospital when I walked in. I recognized him right away.
“Something's happened to me,” he said without looking up.
I looked at him closer. He looked kind of shaggy, but I couldn't see any injury.
“What do you mean?” I asked him, wondering if he would suggest I sit down beside him. I gave the room a quick scan to make sure Mom hadn't arrived yet.
He looked up again, looked around the lobby.
I didn't see the self-confidence that had been so obvious when we first met. Now he seemed tense.
“It has to do with this illness thing,” he said. “I don't want to talk about it here.”
“I think my mom's going to be admitted again,” I told him. “When that gets done, I could probably meet you somewhere.”
I thought about suggesting he come to my house, but I didn't. I figured he'd understand. This was a thing about having a strange mom. You couldn't exactly invite someone to your home whenever you wanted to, because you were never sure what you would find when you opened the front door. Mom covered in lipstick singing hymns in the closet? Not so good.
“Ah,” he said, “you don't want to hear about all this stuff. This is nuts. It can't help anybody.”
“Try me,” I said.
We had just agreed to meet at his house later that night, when Mom came in between Man-mountain and the gray-haired County Mental Health woman. Mom's lipstick was now smeared all over her face, and her hair was mussed like she had been in a struggle. The mountain was also a little worse for wear. He had puffy red scratches on the plains of his cheeks and a white tape bandage on his right hand. Mom was trying to pull away but they had her in a firm grip. When Mom saw me, she started crying.
I stood to the side while the caseworker requested an evaluation. The big cop and an RN who was large enough to have been his sister took Mom down the hall. The social worker stayed in the waiting room. I knew her. She had visited our home before, assigned by the county to oversee our “case.” I don't think she saw me. She was busy jotting something down in a black notebook. I looked around to see what Marco thought of all this, but he had slipped away.
I wondered how long Mom would be staying. I thought she would probably get at least a forty-eight-hour hold for being what they called a “danger to others,” maybe longer if they were going to start a new medication.
The patrolman returned. “Are you eighteen?”
I shook my head.
“Then the liaison, Betty Lou, will sign if your mother has to be admitted, but I don't think she will be. I'm guessing they'll look at her and give her some medication and let her go.”
“Let Mom go? That won't work. She'll be back here in less than twenty-four hours.” I went straight to the admitting station, to the male clerk with the thick black glasses.
“You can't let Mom go,” I interrupted his conversation with the liaison lady. “There's no one home but me to take care of her, and I have to go to school.”
It took an hour. In the end, the hospital would not admit Mom because our insurance wouldn't cover her stay. It would, instead, hold her for twelve hours or so, to monitor her response to the dose of medication they were giving her. Betty Lou would make a daily check on Mom and me for the following week to make sure our home was safe and secure. This, too, had happened a few times before. Mom would probably take her medication as prescribed until Betty Lou stopped coming around, and then, same old, same old.
Man-mountain's radio squawked and he informed Betty Lou he had to leave.
He turned to me.
“Things get bad later this week or next week, give me a call and I'll see what I can do,” he said, taking a card out of his shirt pocket. “Ask for Dullborne.”
I watched him walk out, turning to the side to get through a door that was built to accommodate gurneys. Dullborne. I bet nobody teased him about his name.
I drove Betty Lou back to our house to pick up her car. Betty Lou set up tomorrow's visit. She gave me her card, too. Watching her drive away, I thought, Okay, I've got two new cards, but nothing's really been fixed. Hey, not a bad idea. Got a problem? Get a card! I could have some business cards printed, and whenever Mom lost it, I could hand her one. Is this whole world crazy? Hey! I deserve another card!
I hurried to clean up the red crepe paper and ribbons in case they let Mom go early. Maybe if she didn't see the red stuff, she wouldn't think about the Lizards for a while.
I Couldn't See My Hand
Marco'sneighborhood was an unfinished subdivision on the northeast end of town by the freeway. Four or five blocks of look-alike three-bedroom homes. In the quarter-moon light, most of the rest of it appeared to be scrub trees in fields of dead grass. Breezes off the nearby Cascades pushed branches and moved the grass in slow waves.
His house looked barely lived in. Carpet but no furniture in the living room. No TV. No couch. I could see appliances like a stove and fridge, but no table in the kitchen, no dishes in the sink. Three wooden chairs in what I imagined was the dining room.
I followed him into his room. The walls were covered with detailed posters of stars and galaxies. His bed was a mattress on the floor with two pillows and a sleeping bag on top of it. He saw me looking.
“Don't like doing laundry,” he explained. He leaned against a wall and looked out the window into his backyard.
The floor was strewn with piles of news magazines and notebooks. I didn't see a computer. I don't know anyone who doesn't have a computer. There were no clothes on the floor, no books, no clock radio or CD player, no candy wrappers, no soda cans.
Marco brought in one of the dining-room chairs and put it facing his bed. He plopped down again, waited for me to sit, and started.
“I found something.” He stopped. Began again. “My mom's crazy, right? For a long time I've been wondering how to help her. I walk a lot. Zone out. Think. Try to figure things out. Worry. Stuff like that. Whatever. I always look at birds and trees and pets and kids playing and stuff. We haven't been here that long, but anyway, around here is a pretty large oak tree.” He nodded toward the window, to the field in back of his house. “I don't know why I kind of fixed on it. Live oaks are pretty interesting. Some keep their leaves year-round. You people give out bronze or gold oak leaves for military decorations, like for repeated acts of bravery.”
“Branches so big and thick they almost block out the sun,” he continued. “Makes a neat hangout. Like a natural tent. We never had them where I grew up. So, a couple of weeks ago, just messing around, I went inside by the trunk. I was actually thinking Indians from this area could have used a tree like that for shelter. You know. I was scanning the ground, wondering if I might even find an arrowhead. Anyway, near the back of the trunk, something weird was happening. There was this pattern like you see sometimes above the blacktop on a real hot day. A heat mirage, all wavy, distorting the light? And I was close enough to put my hand through it andÂ â¦ and, uh, when I did, I couldn't see it at the end of my wrist.”
I had shut my eyes, trying to picture what he was describing. When he stopped speaking, I opened them.
He had turned his head at an angle and narrowed his eyes. Assessing. “Do you believe me?” He wanted to know.
I was unprepared. I had just been listening. Curious. Just trying to visualize what he was saying and trying to remember whether Indians ever used live oaks for shelter and what the trunks looked like, and trying to remember the last time I had been inside a canopy of branches like that. I realized my mouth was open, and I shut it.
“Well?” he asked, not letting me off the hook.
“I don't know,” I said, which was true. “I'm just listening. Go on.”
He looked in my eyes for what seemed like a pretty long time, like he was trying to decide about me. Probably wondering whether I would use whatever he was going to say against him. I wasn't like that. But how could he know?
“Hey,” I said. “You met me at a psych hospital. You know the kind of stuff I go through with my mother.” It wasn't clear to me exactly what I meant by that, except maybe that he and I were struggling with the same kind of situation. I wanted his trust.
He put his hands together, almost like a meditation thing, and closed his eyes and started speaking in the third person.
That threw me for a minute until I remembered ESPN interviews where famous athletes talked about themselves and their lives using the third personâas if they had become their own story instead of their own self.
“Whoa, wait a minute,” I interrupted him. “I got spaced for a second. Start again, please.”
“Okay,” he said. He didn't seem impatient. “You remember that I stuck my hand in the wavy area and couldn't see it anymore?”
“Yeah, I followed you to there.”
“It turned out to be a wormhole,” he said. “Or a time portal. Or like string theory, another dimension, a parallel universe.”
Bythe year 4000, the climate had gotten much warmer, and in the city where Marco exited, people were mostly slender and everybody had coffee-colored skin decorated with bright tattoos or paintings. Outdoors, they wore a lot of variations on what people today call swimsuits, and they all had decorative earpieces with thin wire jewelry arranged around their cheeks and ending near their mouths. Telephones?
The buildings were smooth and rounded, spheres and oblongs of different sizes, but they didn't have signs. Maybe the shapes were supposed to tell you what they were. Or those symbols outside the doors could have really been signs, like logos or something. Maybe each building had everything anyone needed: shops and apartments and restaurants and movies and doctors.
The portal let Marco out beside a massive cedar tree in the middle of a field. A park? And people were gliding around on what looked like skateboards with a cane sticking up in front to hold on to. But there were no wheels and no motor.
While Marco was looking around, a small metal disk like a hockey puck whacked into him and bit him. Well, not bit him exactly, but attached itself to his shirtsleeve and began flashing a message on a small screen. Marco couldn't pull the disk off, and he couldn't read the message. It was a series of lines that looked liked unfinished letters grouped into words.There was a blinking blue button at the end of the screen, and Marco pushed it but nothing seemed to happen.
When he looked up, several silver tube things, each about a foot in diameter and a yard long, were gliding toward him a couple of feet off the ground. The lead one had a flexible hose extending from the front of it. Trouble! He tore off his shirt and jammed back into the portal.
Just as he had a few minutes ago, he was rocketing through a tunnel, like one of those huge metal culverts, with brilliant red lines zinging along the walls. Fireworks shot into his vision, his skin was electrified, and then he was just standing back in the present, under the oak tree, like nothing had happened.
Whoa! Talk about a roller coaster! Where had he been? Scary, but what a rush! One of a kind, right? He bet no one had done anything like this before. He might be the next Magellan! He pictured his name in lights in Times Square. Marco Lasalle discoversÂ â¦ what? A new country? A new planet?
Marco was better prepared next time. He put on a heavy jacket so that when the metal disk struck, he could take off the jacket and wrap the thing inside it. He figured if he didn't press the blue button, and if he kept moving, he could find somebody to talk to. Also, he decided to go at night, when it might be easier to explore undetected.
The field was dark and there were just as many people gliding around as when he visited before. The gliders carried their own glow and illuminated the area around them wherever they went. In a few seconds the puck glommed onto him, and he caught it in his jacket, as he had planned. He began chasing nearby gliders, but whenever he got close, they speeded up and stayed just out of his reach. He waved at people and they waved back. They didn't stop.
When he was tired, he rested under the tree, but when he looked up, he could see the whole night sky. It was just a projection of a tree, transparent from the inside. He caught his breath and walked to a building.
He followed a sidewalk-type path to the front wall, and when he got a couple of feet away, a section of wall slid back. He went inside. The floor was a glossy tile that didn't make any noise when you walked on it. Immediately in front of him were a series of terminals that looked like computers on stalks.
Marco figured that this was where you got your directions. He walked to the nearest one and put his fingers on the keyboard. The keys were in the same script that had been flashing on the metal disk. He moved the cursor to the open address box at the top of the screen, closed his eyes, and tried typing using the key positions he knew. He typed “Google.com” and hit what he thought was the “Enter” key.
While Marco was watching the screen, he felt a poke on his arm. A tube with a hose had attached to him. He gave a tug to break loose, but it did no good. The tube made a noise like a short song in a foreign language.
“I don't understand,” Marco told it.
A tiny door opened in the top of the tube and a plain earphone and wire mike pushed out. Marco put them on.
“Who are you?” he heard when the earphone was in place.
“What are you doing here?”
“I'm, uh, I'm a visitor. I'm lookingÂ â¦ for a cure. For mental illness,” Marco said, trying to make it sound like his business here was important. “Not for me,” he added, but he didn't think anyone heard him. The machine was already leading Marco out the door and over to a waiting skateboardâfloatboard? Marco stepped onto it and began gliding through the city at high speed.
Once away from the park, there were lots of people gliding but no cars in the streets. Everything was spotlessly clean. No paper, no trash, no plastic bags caught on trees or bushes. No trees or bushes! The machine stopped abruptly near the entrance of a huge building that looked like four blimps joined together at their noses. A steady stream of people was going in and coming out. The gliders, or floatboards, were parked in a line along the edge of the walk. The tube led Marco inside to a front desk. Service counter? Nursing station?
The person ahead finished, and the tube propelled Marco forward. A large-chested middle-aged woman in a light blue apron uniform looked him over carefully.
“How can I help you?”
Marco heard her clearly, though those words didn't seem to match the words her lips formed. Then he heard what sounded like another foreign song, this, he thought, from the tube.
The woman's eyebrows lifted. “Wait here,” she said. She leaned her head down to her shoulder and sang something to a button that rested there. The tube pulled Marco to the side so the person next in line could step up.
In less than a minute, a light blue metallic tube came and attached to Marco. The silver tube let go and left. Light Blue led Marco at a leisurely pace down a long corridor, past a series of doors. Beside most of the doors were chairs, and sometimes people sat in them as if waiting for an appointment.
After a right turn into a perpendicular hall, the tube stopped in front of the nearest door and emitted a tone. The door opened and Marco was escorted inside. The tube released him and left. A coffee-colored man in a blue smock with black piping was waiting. He had five stripes where a chest pocket would have been, with a row of small medallions beneath. He was in his thirties or forties. Cleft-chinned, handsome, dapper, no smile. He combed his hair in a complicated arrangement of swirls. Marco wondered if the man was really conceited.
“Are you loose?” the man asked.
“I'm not sure,” Marco said.
“Then you are loose,” the man said. The man pressed a button on the console he was standing behind. The silver tube returned.
“Take him back to the University,” the man told it.
“I didn't come from there,” Marco said.
“None of us did,” the man said, barely concealing a smile.
“What is this place? Where are we? Is this a hospital?” Marco asked him.
“Are you saying you're one of our patients?” the man asked.
“No,” Marco said. “I'm just visiting, and I wantÂ â¦ uh, I need to find your cure for mental illness.”
“So you are one of ours,” the man said. He sang something to the tube and it turned and projected a zoom-in of Marco in the park, Marco chasing gliders, Marco standing in front of the terminal in the other building.
The man sang again, and the tube clamped onto Marco's arm. “You'll go to Dr. Gila on the second floor,” he said.
“You don't understand.” Marco tugged at the tube. “It's not for me! It's for my mom. I arrived here through a tunnel, a space tunnel that let me out in that park you just saw. I just came out near that tree. Right before I started chasing the gliders.”
“I understand,” the man said. “That's what they all say.”
I kept listening, deep in the story, maybe like a trance, eyes closed, but in another part of my mind, questions accumulated.A cure for mental illness? The year 4000?Has he gone nuts on me?
Dr. Gila was a tall, blunt-featured, muscular woman in a pale blue jacket and skirt and matching sandals. Her whole outfit was edged in black, and she had some stripes and medallions, too. She was standing in front of her console, her hands folded in front of her. She waited for Marco to speak.
“I don't need this,” Marco told her. “I'm trying to help my mom is all. I'm okay.”
She looked compassionate, patient. It was probably her eyes.
“I came here because I found a wormhole, a time-portal deal, and I thought you people seemed really advanced. You might know lots of thingsÂ â¦ uh, how to cure diseases or how to cure mental illnessÂ â¦ and my mom and other people need help.”
“Is this the role they gave you at the University?” she asked. “Are you in premed or psychometry?”
“I don't know about any University,” Marco said. “I don't even know what you call this place. I'm from Riverton. California.”
“Of course,” she said. “So you won't mind if I connect to the University for some information?”
Marco didn't know what to say.
The woman stood very straight, very still. Her hands raised and opened in front of her, framing her face, fingers pointing toward the ceiling. The flesh around the bridge of her nose began a slow swelling, blunting her features, and her complexion, even her hands, took on a scaly bronze-green coloration, something like the skin of a reptile.
Marco jumped back, but the woman didn't seem to notice. She had closed her eyes and started a thin, high-pitched, atonal whistle. She stopped and waited. Whistled again for a minute or so. Waited, listening, and then she opened her eyes and lowered her hands. The swelling dissipated and her skin returned to its normal texture and light coffee color.
I couldn't seem to interrupt his monologue. I was kind of trapped, but curious.
“The University confirms,” she said. “You're not registered. And, Dr. Monitor on the first floor tells me you have no chart with us. Do you have a supervising caregiver in this city or are you a transfer?”
“How can I get you to believe me?” Marco asked her, aware that his voice sounded whiny.
“I'll believe you the minute you start telling me the truth or making sense,” she said.
“Give me a lie-detector test,” Marco said.
“All right,” she said.
A small black cube entered the room from the side and attached to the back of Marco's head. It began making sounds like an electronic soprano recorder, and a video image appeared on the wall behind the console. It began with a pan of the oak tree. Next, a pan of a house with red paper stuffed everywhere, red cloth hanging from lamps, and a red Celtic cross in the front hall.
The doctor sang a loud, sharp note, and the picture dissolved. “God, I hate that color!” she said, rubbing her eyes like they burned.
“Stop!” I didn't mean to yell, but I was breathing hard. My eyes were wide open. “Stop,” I said again in a softer voice. “What are you doing?” I was trying to keep myself from either punching him or running out of his house. “What are you saying? Where did you get that story?”
Marco continued to sit in his meditative position. “I'm just telling you what happened to me. You said you wanted to hear it. Do you want me to stop?”
He was so calm. This afternoon he'd been nervous, but now he was like a monk.
“How did you know about the red stuff, the cross?” I asked him, still trying to get my breathing back to normal.
“I'm just telling you what went on. Do you want me to shut it off? Not tell you any more?”
I did. I really did. Not another word!
“No,” I said, “keep talking.”
“All right,” Dr. Gila said, and the video resumed.
The scene moved to the closet, to a woman with red forehead and chin, swaying, grimacing, hands pressed over her ears, singing.
The video was interrupted by a silver tube entering the room and handing the doctor Marco's leather jacket, which was making a series of loud clicks. The doctor unfolded it and the metal puck floated up to her eye level, stopped clicking, made some tones, and then glided out with the tube.
The doctor sang a short phrase and the black box beeped.
When the box left, the doctor went around to the back of her console and sat down. She took a deep breath and sat looking down in the direction of some sliding switches beside her keyboard. Thinking.
“This is serious,” she said, not looking up. “How long have you had this condition?”
But not far enough.
Marcowas put in a room where one whole wall was a window looking out on some kind of wildlife preserve. The room itself was small and comfortable, with a bed and overstuffed chair. There was a toilet and a shower behind a translucent curtain, and a sink and refrigerator thing that dispensed ice and cold water. Fruit and rolls sat in a basket on the table. Somehowâwas it magnetism?ânone of the furniture would move, not even the basket. The room had its own daylight, and it smelled like it was right next to a waterfall.
Beside the basket on the table was a floating computer screen, but you could see through it like the tree Marco had stood under in the field. On the table under the screen was a button outlined by amber light. Marco pressed it and the screen lit, but nothing else happened. He let it go and the screen resumed its previous state.
Marco sat on the edge of the bed and looked out the window. Brightly colored birds flew tree to tree. Very large gray squirrels darted across the grounds, up trunks, and into branches. Auburn deer with white streaks on their sides grazed or slept on the rough blue-green grass. Flower gardens on the far perimeter. The sky was a vivid blue. Marco felt his ear. The translator thing was still in place.
Back at the screen, he pressed the amber button and spoke. “Where am I?”
The screen had a soothing voice. “Sector Four One Zero Five Interborough Health Conglomerate.”
“What does that mean?” Marco asked.
After a pause, the screen said, “Ask a more specific question, please.”
“What is the purpose of this place?”
“Regional center for human healing,” the screen said.
“I'm not sick,” Marco said.
“I need help,” Marco said.
“What year is this?”
“How do you cure mental illness?” Marco asked.
“How would you like to be cured?” the screen asked.
“I don'tÂ â¦ What are my choices?”
“Accept it and do nothing, take compounds to restore optimal brain function, consent to electro-stim surgery.” The screen was pausing briefly between each option. “Live communally with others possessing similar proclivities, undergo radical organ exchange, authorize yearly psychotropic injections, attend University support interventions for enculturative skill-buildingâ”
“What would be the purpose?”
“Developing tools to cope with perceptual differences.” The screen paused again. “Sign up for glandular implants and genetic reprogramming, wear portable neurotransmitter enhancement devices, and, of course, see an integration counselor if you wish.”
Marco considered these options.
“Are you ready to begin?” the screen asked.
“I actually live a ways from here,” Marco said. “What could you give me that I could take with me?”
“How far away?” the screen asked.
“Two thousand years.”
“I'm afraid you will need to stay here a while longer,” the screen said.
The next day the window showed an ocean tide pool with the lowest two feet featuring the underwater view. Anemones waved, hermit crabs scurried, starfish clung to their rocks. From time to time a cod or some rockfish scooted by.
“I may have been asking the wrong question,” Marco said, “because you keep thinking that I'm the person who needs help. I'm not. I'm looking for help for other people. Please tell me how a person who lived in 2007 could fix mental illness.”
The screen stayed quiet for a few seconds. “Do you mean, what was the cure for mental illness in the year 2007?” it asked.
“Sure,” Marco said.
“In California, the United States, uh, Earth.”
“I am sorry,” the screen responded. “I am unable to access primitive records. But I have a speculation,” it said. “Would you like to hear it?”
“None?” Marco said.
The screen remained silent.
The next day the window showed a high mountain lake, fir-covered banks, fish jumping, nesting eagles, no underwater view.
“What is the purpose of the window?” Marco asked the screen.
“Treatment,” the screen responded. “Quieting, grounding. An aesthetic focus to displace anxiety and confusion, should you choose.”
“How do I get out of here?” Marco asked.
“I think you know,” the screen said.
“What if your system has made a mistake?” Marco asked.
“Prove it,” the screen said.
After a while, I realized that Marco had finished talking. I don't know what time it was. Late. I opened my eyes. Marco's were closed. I was spooked. I had so many questions, but I had to get out of there. I had to think. I left without saying a word.
Out in my car, I sat with my hands on the wheel but I didn't start the engine. There was a glow that illuminated the fields. Reflected city lights, maybe, I couldn't find the moon. A wormhole, I thought. Yeah, and I'm Bill Gates. I don't think so. Is a thing like a time portal or another dimension even possible? I would ask Hubie. And how did Marco know about the Lizards and the red, about Mom's delusion? I turned the radio on and turned it right off again. Shook the steering wheel. Tried to relax my jaw. It didn't help.
I don't know whether you push things out of your mind because you just don't know how to deal with them, or whether that's a good habit or a bad habit. But it's what I did right then with the story Marco had told me.
When I got home I sat in a chair in the living room in the dark, looking out the window at the empty street and the shadows that shifted and leaned like ghosts marching.
Iwoke up thinking about school and feeling kind of sorry for myself. Some junior year, worried every day that Mom would go off. I rarely thought about school, even when I was there, and just did enough homework to get by. My grades had all dropped to Cs since Dad left. I wanted to give up. Just quit. Get baked and go for a low-altitude record. Maybe that's what Dad did. Maybe he was the smart one.
A memory pooled in my mind. I don't know where it came from. I saw Mom screaming, twisting in Dad's arms. He had her pinned standing up, his hands clasped tight so she couldn't get a hand free and hit him. Her eyes were wild, and she was spitting and cursing and yelling that we were all going to be killed.
I was eight or nine and I remember my head was buzzing. I couldn't get hold of what I was seeing. “What's the matter with Mom?” I kept yelling that, kept asking again and again, and Dad was yelling back, “Nothing! Go to your room. Go on! Go back to sleep!” A broken record, until he got hold of the keys and pulled Mom kicking and screaming out the front door. I heard the car start but I didn't move. Just stood there. Stood there until my eyes got tired, and then went back to my bedroom.
We didn't talk about it. Ever. Haven't still. I remembered the feeling, like the earth had come apart. Feeling that my family was disintegrating right in front of me. I didn't think anything would ever be the same again. But I remember Dad fixed us breakfast the next day and said Mom was visiting people and wouldn't be home for a few days. And that was that. I did the push-it-out-of-your-mind trick, and I don't think I thought of it again until this morning. And now I had a cramp that got me running to the bathroom.
Before I left for school Wednesday, I called the police and asked for Patrolman Dullborne. He wasn't in yet, so I left him a message asking if he would meet me at school that afternoon. The phone rang as soon as I had set it back in its cradle. Hubie.
“Heard you had a little more trouble yesterday,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said, “Mom's back on the Lizard thing.” I reached up to rub at my hair, wishing I had taken the time to shower this morning. “She's not too bad, I guess. They didn't admit her, just held her awhile to restart her medications, so she'll probably be coming home sometime early afternoon.”
“My mom said to tell you to let us know if there's anything we can do to help.”
I could hear Mrs. Ludlow's voice in the background. “Thanks, Hube. And tell her thanks, too.” How did the Ludlows always seem to know when my mom was off the beam? I bet the local nursing grapevine. “I'll be all right,” I told him. “Betty Lou whats-her-name from the County is helping us. I'll see how Mom's doing when I get home from school.”
After I hung up, I remembered something that Dull-borne had asked me. I wondered about the drugs. Has Mom been using something else to make herself feel better? She used to do pot every day until her doctor told Dad that it was interfering with her psych meds, changed the brain chemistry balance that enabled her to think right. Dad and I had searched the house and gotten rid of her stash, and since then, I had been pretty sensitive to any marijuana smell around the place. I didn't think she'd been back to pot again. But something else? I wondered if she had any visitors lately when I'd been at school. Hmmm.
I could ask Mr. Bellarmine next door. I knew he had retired sometime last year. His wife had cancer and died a couple of years before that, and now he lived alone and kept a pretty good eye on the neighborhood. Mom had called him a snoop. Of course, Mom was paranoid. I thought it was kind of early to go across the driveway and knock on his door, but I figured I'd do it anyway. If I had Mr. Bellarmine pegged right, he'd been up and organized since dawn.
“Visitor?” Mr. Bellarmine asked, his brow creasing. “Who? That long-haired bozo in the black car? I thought he was just delivering liquor. She's not supposed to have liquor, is she? Never buttons his shirt? Those motorcycle boots? I never liked that look.” He was standing in his doorway, holding the screen open. “Come in if you'd like,” he said.
He looked like he was dressed for work, in a sportcoat, gray hair carefully combed, shoes shined. He caught me sizing him up.
“It doesn't do for a person to let himself go, just because he's retired,” he said, explaining, not apologizing. “Want breakfast?” he asked.
I shook my head.
This visitor was not good news.
Dullborne got me out of Chemistry, which was great, because I was lost somewhere in the nomenclature of inorganic compounds. We walked away from the classroom and over by the stairs, where we had some privacy.
“Thanks,” I said. “It's about my dad. I found him in a bar between here and Lake City, but I've already talked to him once, and I don't think he'll come home and deal with Mom unless you make him.”
Dullborne took off his dark blue patrol hat, ran his hand over his hair, and put the hat back on. “I can't do that,” he said. “It's not legal. It's not even my jurisdiction. That's County. Sheriff's department. But it doesn't make much difference, because they won't do it either. A law officer can't make your father come home and take care of business.” He shifted his weight. “A sheriff could arrest him if there was a warrant out for a crime your dad committed, but I don't think that would help you any, unless maybe it wound up getting your mom some back child-support money. The law can't really force anyone to behave like a good husband or father.”
I tried to mask my disappointment. “But, uh, but I thought you said to call you if I needed help.”
“With your mother,” he said. “I can help you if your mother gets out of control and becomes a danger to herself or others, but I can't help you with your father unless he breaks the law. I'm sorry. Has Betty Lou followed through?”
“I don't know. Maybe. She's supposed to come by later today and see that Mom's settled in okay. She might still be there when I get home from school.”
“Yeah, well, I got to go. Sorry I couldn't be much help.”
“No, yeah, I mean, I understand. Thanks for coming by. One more thing?”
“If a guy was giving Mom street drugs, would you arrest him or scare him off? I mean, you asked me before if she was using drugs. Maybe she is. Would you help with that?”
He was rubbing the bridge of his nose again.
“We'll see,” he said. “Call me if you find out something for sure.”
I watched him walk down the stairs to the ground floor. Now what was I supposed to do?
Vice Principal Onabi answered that question. “Get back to class!”
Rude, Blued, and Tattooed
WhenI got home after school, a guy was sitting on our couch. While I was standing in the front hall, looking at him, Mom came in from the kitchen and handed him a can of beer. She saw me when she sat beside him. Her eyes were red and didn't seem focused. She was still wearing yesterday's clothes. She looked away quickly and brushed her hands against her jeans, a thing she often did when she was nervous.
“Ben,” she said. Her voice was rough, probably left over from screaming at Dullborne. “Ben,” she repeated, “I'm sorry.”
I didn't answer. She always felt embarrassed when the police had to take her in.
I had so many feelings. I was mad at her for stopping her meds and getting crazy again. Sorry for her. I knew she felt humiliated.
I didn't know what to say. This was the third time we'd played this scene this year. Nothing I could say would do any good. She'd promised lots of times that she would take care of herself and do what the doctors told her to. I felt like yelling, and I felt like crying. I wouldn't do either in front of this guy.
I felt like slapping her. As if hurting her physically would knock some sense into her. Right. And an image passed through my mind like a commercial. I was in my room packing. Taking the few things that mattered to me anymore: the photo of Mom and Dad, the framed academic award I got for being the top of my seventh-grade class, my first-place sophomore wrestling trophy, and my fly rod. And then I was walking out the front door, going to live with Hubie. Sweet!
The guy caught my attention, shifting his position on the couch. He hadn't looked at me. He kept staring at the wall across from him like it had a newspaper taped to it, or maybe he could see out the window and there was something fascinating happening on the lawn.
I didn't say anything and neither did he. Mr. Bellarmine had been right. He was wearing heavy boots and his shirt was open. He also had tattoos all over his arms, and he was outhouse ugly.
I walked to the coffee table.
“What are you doing here?” I said, a hard edge in my voice.
He looked at me then. Like I was a bug that had lit in his food. He stood up. He was an inch or two taller than me, but probably didn't weigh as much. Wasted, thin, with a little pot gut. He had scars around his eyes. Broken glass? Knife? And the teeth I could see were stained yellow and brown, at least one missing from both top and bottom. Scraggly mustache.
“Leaving,” he said, and carried his beer out the door without another word or a backward glance at Mom.
“What's he doing here?” I asked Mom.
“Nothing,” she said. She sounded real tired. Had to make an effort to speak. “Nothing. Came to see me.” She didn't meet my eyes. “I'm tired.” She made a gesture with her head toward the back of the house. “I'm going to bed.”
“Are you doing drugs, Mom?” I could feel the shock wave as I said it. I don't know if she could.
She looked at me then. Shook her head. “I'm feeling pretty groggy.”
“Do you remember yesterday?” I asked her.
“You don't think people are trying to kill me, but they are,” she said, her eyes growing brighter. “They're broadcasting. You pretend you don't hear it, but you know who they are. Doctors think they can knock me out so I'll forget about it. Well, as soon as you forget, they've got you. If it wasn't for me, you and your dad would already be switched.”
Mom's face sharpened and she looked more intense when she talked like this. The doctors said it wouldn't work to argue with her about these ideas. Strange ideas are a symptom of the illness, they said. The only treatment is regular doses of antipsychotic medication and a stable environment with as few stressors as possible. Right. And then Dad leaves her for another woman.
“Is that guy giving you drugs?” I asked her.
Her eyes flared. “Vinnie's my friend,” she said, getting up. “My friend.” She walked past me to her bedroom and closed the door.
That nightÂ â¦ Why did I wait until dark? Why did I even go? I don't know. That night, I went back to Marco's house, got the dining room chair myself this time, and asked for more of the story.
Marco knew he needed to get back to the portal. He thought if he could escape the hospital, if that's what it was, he could just keep going till he reached the park. He needed out of this room.
“I have to see Dr. Gila!” he yelled, and pounded on the door.
A little bit of white steam came out of a vent in the ceiling, and the next thing Marco knew, he was on the floor, feeling dizzy. Marco didn't see the door open but he felt the tube pulling on his arm. He heard some tonal clicking, but he couldn't understand it. He realized his earpiece had become dislodged when he fell. He found it and put it back in.
“â¦ me now. Come with me now,” the machine was saying as it led him along the corridors back to Dr. Gila's office.
“I'm feeling better,” he told her after the tube had exited.
“All right,” she said. “Who are you?”
“I'mÂ â¦ My name is Newt. I'm a nephew of Dr. Monitor. That's why you don't have me in your records. He sent me over here to teach me a lesson.” Marco watched Dr. Gila to see if she bought his story.
“That kind of teaching doesn't sound like the Dr. Monitor I know,” the woman said, looking for something on her desk.
“Wait a minute!” he said, thinking this might be his last chance. “Okay, my name's not Newt. But here's the problem. When I told you the truth the last time, you didn't believe me. Give me a minute, and I'll explain the whole thing.”
Dr. Gila leaned over and pressed a button on her desk.
“No!” Marco screamed. “I can explain!”
“Hold my calls,” Dr. Gila said to a small pad below the button. Then she sat and looked at him. Waiting.
“Okay. First, I don't understand how it works, but I really did come through a wormhole or time connector of some sort. It's located over in a park or a field about a mile or two from here. Second. I'mÂ â¦ on a mission.” Marco was starting to believe it himself. “I really do need to know what the cure for mental illness is. So I can help my Mom.”
Where was his Mom? Where was his family? Was his Mom in the hospital all this time?
“I live in a state called California, in the year 2007,” Marco explained. “I'm not crazy. I just wanted help and thought I might find it here in the future.”
Dr. Gila smoothed wrinkles out of her sleeve. “California. I've not heard of that. An ancient state? This planet?”
Marco nodded. And then he realized he wasn't sure. This planet? He couldn't say exactly where he was or what had happened to him.
“We don't have anything like mental illness in 4000,” she said. “Genetic engineering, glandular implants, and brain chemistry balancing devices have virtually eliminated it. When the rare case surfaces, the person is offered a variety of treatment options. Which one would you like?”
Marco was disappointed by the question. “I don't need one. There is nothing wrong with me!”
“Why did you tell me your name was Newt a minute ago?”
“Well, uh, because your name is Gila and the other doctor's name is Monitor and those are both lizards. And, I saw your face get different and your skin change when you whistled for information earlier and so I thoughtÂ â¦ uh, if I pretended I was a lizard, too, you might think I was okay.”
“You think that I'm a lizard?” Dr. Gila leaned back in her chair.
“I, uh, yes,” Marco said, feeling very off balance. Feeling less certain every second. “I think so. Aren't you?”
“Do you think a person can be a human being and a lizard at the same time?” The doctor made a steeple with her fingers.
“Um, no,” Marco said, “I don't think so.”
“So,” Dr. Gila said, “let me ask you again. What kind of treatment would you like?”
Marco felt like his brain was being tied in knots and rearranged into cornrows. The more he tried to tell the truth and make sense of his situation, the more confused he got. Now he wasn't sure of anything that had happened to him in this place. Did his window change each day? Or did he move to different locations? Was he in a building or on a ship of some kind? And was he talking to a person or a lizard?
“I need to talk to Dr. Monitor,” Marco said. “I want to go to his office with you and I'll show you the entry or exit or whatever it is.”
“Well, I want to talk with Dr. Monitor, too,” Dr. Gila said. “But he's missing. No one has seen him since the day you were admitted.”
“He's gone through the portal!” Marco practically yelled at Dr. Gila. “I told him about it. About how I got here. That's why you can't find him.”
Dr. Gila was up and out of the room before Marco had even finished speaking.
She came back with a shot-putter of a woman wearing a yellow uniform that was covered with what Marco first thought were medals, but which turned out to be tools of all kinds.
“Show us what you call the portal,” Dr. Gila said. It sounded like an order.
Yes! Marco tried not to let them see how eager he was. Practically free!
The woman in yellow took two different-sized buttons off her tunic and placed them on Marco's cheek. “Stabilizer and locator,” his headset translated.
Marco didn't like the sound of that but had no time to protest as they briskly led him out to the street. A toboggan-type board slid up to them and both women stepped up on it. Marco joined them and it glided away immediately.
“The locator traces your spatial memory,” Dr. Gila explained as they sped along in what Marco thought was the direction of the park.
And the stabilizer? Marco wondered.
Tonight I wasn't as uncomfortable as I'd been the night before. With my eyes closed, it was a little like being told a weird bedtime story. I could picture the whole thing as he spoke, like I was watching a movie. But in the back of my mind, I was computing. This can't be true, so what's going on here?
“The entry point is under the biggest branch a few feet from the trunk,” Marco told the two women.
The big woman in yellow took a lie detector box off her belt and held it above her head. In less than a minute, a silver tube appeared. They sang to each other, but Marco didn't get a translation. Yellow took a small cylinder out of her pants pocket, and it unrolled to form a screen. The silver tube began projecting onto it.
The field. Gliders. Then a man in a pale blue smock coming in from the side and dismounting his glider. Walking around the field like he was mowing the lawn. Covering every square foot. His motions became jerky as the video fast-forwarded. Then he was gone. Reverse to the man walking. Slow. He's by the tree. He's standing under the branch. He walks forward a couple of steps andÂ â¦ disappears!
“He found it,” Marco told Dr. Gila. The picture moved back, forward, back, forward. The same thing happened each time. Poof, he was gone. Yellow sent the tube away with a flick of her wrist.
Marco thought the doctor was starting to shift color. He tried to distract her. “Wait a minute,” he said. “I have an idea.” He realized the genius of it. “I'll go back after him. That makes sense because I know how to get around in 2007, and you all don't. I'll bring him back. He's probably just sightseeing. When I bring him back, you guys tell me how to cure my mom's mental illness and I go home to Riverton and never bother you again. Everybody gets what they want.” Marco was very pleased with himself as he watched Dr. Gila confer with Yellow. That good feeling was short-lived.
“Inspector Anole and I agree.” Dr. Gila was removing buttons and stick pins from her smock, taking small gadgets out of her pockets, and handing them to the constable, one by one. She turned around so the woman in yellow could inspect her. Yellow nodded and produced a two-inch capsule from her tunic's chest pocket. She twisted it open and withdrew two copper BB things and an inch-long needle. Dr. Gila put one BB in her ear and one in Marco's. It tickled for a second, and then he lost track of it.
“Translators,” she said. She lifted the earphone and wire mic from his head and pulled the two buttons from his cheek. She took the needle and pushed it into the soft flesh just below his shoulder. That stung, but when he reached for the wound with his other hand, he couldn't find it.
“Stabilizer,” she said. Dr. Gila unfastened her smock and took it off. She stepped out of her skirt and stood under the tree in her pale blue swimsuit. “I'm ready,” she said.
“Ready?” Marco asked.
“If it is possible to time travel or shift dimensions, it is very dangerous,” Dr. Gila said. “Something from another time or place might seriously alter our future here in 4000. If a person could go back in the past, and somehow affected that world, a killing, or an invention, then the whole future would change from that point on. Novikov's Paradox. Unless there are completely parallel universes. Our science is still some distance from resolving such questions. Right now, I'm guessing nothing bad has happened, because here we are, getting ready to do this. But you may need help with Monitor and I'm in charge of this sector, so I'm coming with you. It's my responsibility.”
Marco could sense it wouldn't do any good to argue. Plus, if he decided to, once he got home, he could give her the slip. “Okay,” Marco said, “but I wouldn't wear that.”
Dr. Gila gave Marco a once-over. “I see what you mean,” she said. “I thought your garb was another manifestation of your illness, but if this is a portal, then your outfit is indicative of the primitives.”
“I guess you could say that,” Marco said, feeling slightly offended.
Dr. Gila put her top and skirt back on. “Does this mark me as a medical in your time?” she asked.
No, Marco thought, it marks you as frumpy, but he didn't say anything. He heard the constable ask the doctor how they would communicate with each other.
“I don't think we'll be able to,” Gila replied. “I don't want to take any more of our equipment back into their time, and, besides, I don't think we have anything that would transmit through a wormhole. Please cordon off the park and post a watch, and I'll be back as soon as I can.” She touched the middle two fingers of her left hand to the middle of her forehead in what looked like a salute to Yellow and gave Marco a nod, signaling she was ready.
“Uh, my jacket?” Marco felt embarrassed about asking, especially since he had used it to evade the disk, but heck, it was his best jacket, leather and everything.
Gila said something to Yellow that Marco didn't catch. Yellow pulled a cord and whistled into some kind of retractor pin on her lapel. Within a minute, a pale blue tube appeared, escorted by a silver tube. The blue had Marco's coat attached to its flexible arm. Yellow snatched it and handed it to him. When Yellow turned to further instruct the tubes, Dr. Gila turned to Marco.
“Ready now?” she asked.
Marco guessed that he was. They walked into the wavy stuff.
This time when Marco stopped, I opened my eyes right away. I had my questions. But he was just sitting there. Like the Buddha.
He didn't move.
Nothing. His eyes were closed but his posture was straight, chin up, so he wasn't conked out. I reached out to shake him but stopped. What did they say about disturbing a sleepwalker? What if I touched him and he went ballistic? This was all soÂ â¦ what if he had gone somewhere in his mind and couldn't come back now?
Strings and Wormholes
Afterschool the next day, I drove by Marco's house to ask him what he thought he was doing, to confront him. Make him tell me the truth about that story. He wasn't home.
Back at my place, I was sitting in the living room, planning, while Mom was napping in her bedroom. I would wait for midnight, until she was down for the night, and then I'd go motel hunting again. Bars would be closed, and Dad would have sacked for the night. Dad's sneaky but he's lazy. I didn't think he'd be farther than ten miles from the bar where I found him earlier.
I called Hubie, who had most of the same classes I did, to see if I could get some back homework.
“What all have you been doing?” He sounded like he was eating.
“Uh, some family stuff came up and I've been trying to take care of it.”
“Your mom again? Tough.”
“Hey, could you tell me any homework I missed early in the week?” I didn't want to talk about Mom.
Hubie filled me in.
“If you want to come over, I'll copy the stuff.”
“Thanks, but I can't tonight.”
“Okay. They'll let you hand them in next week. What else do you have? Chem with Sarah, right? You could call her and she'd tell you the work. Anything else?” he asked.
“History, but we're just reading Zinn and discussing it.”
“Cool. Hey, you want to come eat with us?”
“Hey, Hube, I'd like to. Tomorrow maybe.”
“Well, if there's anything else you need, call,” Hubie said. “You want me to call Sarah about the Chemistry assignments?”
“No thanks. I'll get it laterÂ â¦ but there is one more thing. Uh, what do you know about wormholes?”
“I thought you only fly-fished.”
“No, I mean like in physics. Something that connects two places in space-time? Or even one universe to another?”
“Are you writing a paper of some kind?”
“No. Uh, a friend mentioned the idea, and I wasn't sure I understood about them. Can youÂ â¦ could a person go from one time to another, if they found one?”
“Wow. I don't think even Stephen Hawking can answer that question. They're just theoretical, you know. Einstein's relativity, or maybe Witten's string theory, suggests it, I think. And there are a zillion unanswered questions about how they would even work. Like, could information pass through and maintain its integrity?”
“Whoa! Whoa. I just want to know could they jump through time?”
“Well, jump is probably a misnomer.”
“Okay. Okay. Theoretically, uh, maybe. I have to get through my post-doc at MIT before I can really answer that question.”
“Okay,” I said, “that's good enough for a start.”
“You should be asking Kaitlin about this space stuff,” he said. “I think she went lunar several years ago.”
Hubie knew I had a thing for his sister. He put up with it. Barely. He never called her Z like she wanted. I bet that made for some fights.
Iwoke up at the kitchen table about midnight, Trig problems and sheets of scratch paper in a mess around me. I checked on Mom. She was snoring. I wasn't hungry, I wasn't sleepy. I was ready to find Dad.
Before I got in the car, I stood on the porch and closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and tried to get a feeling about where Dad might be, like I had before with the bar. Out of plain sight, I thought, so neither Mom nor Charlene would be likely to run into him. Cheap, but somehow a good deal, like maybe it had refrigerators in the rooms. Close enough so he wouldn't have to drive too far drunk at closing time. He might switch bars since I'd found him, but I didn't think he'd move to a different motel. What was halfway between here and Lake Vista? There were some chains like Budget Lodge on Market Street, north of downtown. They might cut him a deal, like every seventh night free.
I tried those first.
I remembered some cheesy motels on the old highway between Riverton and Lake Vista. His car was parked outside Room 20 in the second one I found, the Eaz-On Inn. I hesitated when I got to the door. What if he wasn't alone? As I stood there, I began to have second thoughts. What if he just agreed to everything I said and then took off again as soon as I wasn't looking? I might not find him next time. I stood outside his door a few seconds longer, thinking, then walked back to my car. Maybe there was a card I hadn't played.
I fell asleep again, trying to finish my homework at the kitchen table. The recycling truck's clanking bottles woke me the next morning. My neck was stiff and I was hungry. I sliced an apple and fixed some cereal. The milk was sour, so I put a couple of spoonfuls of yogurt on the cornflakes. It tasted annoyingly healthy. I added some blackberry jam. I wondered what Hubie was having. And then I wondered about Marco. Had I seen any food in his house?
Mom padded into the kitchen in her pajamas. She looked all wooly, like she had been hibernating.
“You want some yogurt?” I asked.
She stood in front of the refrigerator, not opening it.
“I could make you a sandwich, if you want peanut butter and honey,” I said.
She shook her head and walked back down the hall toward the bathroom.
When I heard a door close, I went across the driveway to Mr. Bellarmine's. Why couldn't my dad be more like him?
He opened his door in a blue plaid robe over a white dress shirt, already sort of duded up. “What's happened?” he asked, concern in his voice. “Are you two all right?”
I realized that he knew Dad was gone, though I am sure no one had ever told him. I also realized the recycling truck came around before daylight, and that it must be close to six A.M.
“Yes,” I said. “Sure. Don't worry. I, uh, I'm sorry I'm bugging you so early, but I just needed to ask you a favor before I went off to school.”
“Do you always make social calls by dawn's early light?” he asked, his eyes quickly making the trip from my hair to my wrinkled clothes.
“No. No, I'm sorry. I just woke up too. I'm going to change clothes,” I said, “but I need some help with something later today.”
He looked stern but not angry, if that's possible. He nodded.
“That guy you sawÂ â¦ the guy who visits?” I tried to keep my voice even, like this was the most normal request in the world. “If you get a chance, would you copy down his license-plate number?”
He cocked her head and squinted at me. Curious.
“Uh, I just want to make sure he's on the up and up. Uh, like with my mom and all.”
“You think he's a drug dealer?” he asked.
Sheesh! I hadn't expected him to be so savvy. “I don't know,” I said. “Maybe. The thing is, I don't like him here with my mom.”
“I agree with your assessment,” he said. “Get on to school and I'll set up an observation post.”
Walking back to my house, I was trying to remember what work Mr. Bellarmine had retired from. Lawyer? Insurance claims? Whatever it was, it was no-nonsense.
School on Friday was useless. My brain was a cement mixer, Marco-Mom-Dad-Vinnie spinning around in there. I hope I got through the surprise English test fifth period.
First thing after school, I drove by home and checked with Mr. Bellarmine. No license number yet. He had gone grocery shopping and didn't know if Vinnie had come by.
Next, I went by Marco's to make him answer my questions about his story. Nobody home.
What a Party!
WhenI got back home, I checked on Mom. She was asleep in her bed. The room smelled liked farts and cigarette smoke. I doubted if she'd gotten up or eaten or taken her meds.
I thought about fishing but didn't have the energy and fell asleep in the living room within minutes of turning on some college game on ESPN. I had a dream that I was walking down a school hall, a long school hall, and then the doors and lockers and bulletin boards faded and the hall became darker and smaller, more like a tunnel. Finally I was crawling forward, and it was pitch-black and then it just ended. There I was on my hands and knees in a black tunnel that stopped, and I didn't know if I even had room to turn around.
I awoke feeling churned up, funky, like I had been dragged through dirt back to the surface of the earth. I don't know if it was the dream or what, but I decided I'd get high. Friday night. I wouldn't do that if I was wrestling on the team, but I'd quit, so who cares? Time for the Mander boy to party! By myself. What a party! I stuck Miles Davis'sKind of Bluein my stereo and dug out my personal pharmacy: a jay, a mystery pill, and an unopened pint of Jim Beam.
Mom and Vinnie could go screw themselves. Not that they hadn't already. I was pretty sure I knew what he was doing, hanging around her. She was whacked, but she was still pretty. I figured meth and sex. She needed to feel good about herself and, even psychotic, she could get a rush off the powder. Feel high for a while. And he got free sex and a drinking buddy.
I took a long pull off the bottle and it burned. I nearly spit it back up. I wanted to break things! Shoot somebody. Shoot Vinnie. We didn't have a gun in the house. Where could I get a gun?
I decided to pass on the mystery pill. A kid at school had said it was a downer when he gave it to me, but who knew? I fired up the jay and got to work on the Beam. Plenty of benzos in the medicine cabinet if I wanted to get totally subterranean later. Now I was going to slow down a little. Make a careful plan. How'd it go? Revenge is best eaten slow? Something like that. I turned up my tunes, put on my headphones, and got back to the Beam. And my eyes were wet. What the hell was that about?
I woke up Saturday morning thirsty and stinking. The Beam had spilled and I had thrown up sometime during the night. There were flecks of some brown stuff I don't remember eating all over my pillow, on the side of my face, and in my hair.
I tore off the bedding, washed my pillow and mattress with a wet towel, and leaned my mattress against the wall to dry. I scrubbed down my face and hair with a warm washcloth. I couldn't look at myself in the mirror.
There was an inch or so left of the Beam that hadn't spilled out. What do they call that when the sun is already up? A daycap? It was a good start. I didn't want to think what Hubie would say if he saw me right now.
Next time I woke up, I was on my floor with the empty Beam and a battalion of beer bottles. I remembered raiding the fridge before Mom was up. As far as I could tell, she hadn't looked in on me. Good old Ben. Good old stable Ben. Out there taking care of business. Well, adios muchachos, I'm done.
You can't save somebody else.
My room was warm. It felt like early afternoon. I was ready to start a new plan. Okay. Drop school. Stay loaded on summer-job money for a couple of weeks. Then find a studio apartment. Blackmail Dad into rent money or I tell the company that his new office is a bar and he's drinking and drugging his sales into the dust. Then I get a part-time job, I pass the GED, and I start going to junior college. Mom goes down the drain. Nothing I can do about it.
I finish junior college and thenÂ â¦ then hit the road and never look back. Simple enough. I could do it. I resisted an impulse to pick up an empty beer bottle and throw it at the wall.
Time to get started. No sense overthinking these things. First I would check the fridge and see if I'd left any beer behind. Out in the hall, walking toward the kitchen, I heard voices.
“Put this away,” Mom was saying. “Ben'll be home.”
“Let him see it.” Vinnie's voice. “He knows anyway. You're the adult. You rule.”
“No, no,” Mom was saying when I walked in the living room. Straws, opened paper bindles, white stuff on a hand mirror. Half-empty six-pack beside them on the coffee table.
“Oh, oooohh.” Mom couldn't think what to say to me.
Vinnie stood. “Let's you and me go to the kitchen and talk for a sec,” he said, moving past me.
I followed him. When I walked through the kitchen door, he punched me hard in the solar plexus. When I bent over, he kneed me in the head. I went down and skidded on my butt.
I couldn't get any air. I thought maybe he had ruptured something. In a minute I felt something cold dripping on my cheek. When I looked up, Vinnie was holding a wet towel above my head. He let it drop.
“Get yourself together,” he said.
While I was mopping blood off my chin and upper lip, he was talking. “Now let's you and me get one thing clear,” he said in a strong whisper. “This is your mother's house. She pays the rent and she says what goes. Right now she's saying I'm staying. Got that?”
He toed me with his boot.
“Got that?” he repeated.
“When I'm here, which is once in a while, you're gone.” He looked at me real steady to make sure I was paying attention. “Now get out of here. Don't let me see you no more. Clear?”
“And one more thing,” he said, burning a hole in me with his eyes. “You keep your mouth shut and maybe I can find a way to keep your mother from getting hurt. Know what I mean, amigo?”
I was starting to space out. Or overload or something. I couldn't seem to track what he wanted me to do.
He toed me again. “Know-what-I-mean?”
“Yeah,” I said. My voice was gravelly.
“Clean up the floor and get out of here.”
Marco was in his bedroom, asleep in the bag. I shook his shoulder until he sat up. It took a minute for him to come around.
“What happened to you?”
I didn't want to tell him. “Got drunk. Fell,” I said. “I want to know about this story you've been telling. How did my mom get in it?”
He raised his eyebrows. Used his fingers to clean out the corners of his eyes. “Look,” he said, “I don't know what you're talking about. I'm just telling you what happened to me. I told you it was strange. Take it or leave it.”
I was watching his face as he spoke. A crime show I saw said liars look away when they're telling a lie. Sometimes just for an instant. But he was calm. Placid even. Was he on some kind of drug? He didn't seem to be lying, didn't shift his eyes, didn't nod or smile more than usual, didn't get more rigid or more careful.
“Your story has too many coincidences that fit, uhâ¦” Suddenly I didn't want to tell him any more. Didn't trust him. Didn't want to give him anything to work with. “Where's your family?” I asked, like maybe if I could keep him off balance, I could get closer to the truth.
He unzipped the sleeping bag and sat on the edge of his bed. “Get a chair,” he said.
I didn't move.
“Okay, Dad is traveling, Mom's in the hospital.”
“How come you don't have any furniture?”
“I told you, we just moved here. Haven't settled in yet.”
“Where did you hear this story?”
He stood. “Look,” he said. “You don't want to hear it, don't ask. You want to leave, leave. I'm not coming to your house every day.”
How did he know I'd been here every day? He hadn't been home some of the times I'd come by. Was he just guessing? Had he been watching? Oops. I was getting paranoid. Was I going crazy? Was I already there?
I backed off. “Yeah,” I said, “you're right. I, uh, I just wanted to know you better because I had never met another kid with a mentally ill parent. And then you seemed weirded out by what you said had happened to you, and when you told it to me, I guess I got a little upset myself.”
“It goes on,” he said. “It keeps happeningÂ â¦ the story.”
He left the room and I could hear him in the bathroom. When he came back, he was carrying the chair. “Want to hear more?” he asked.
Dr. Gila held his shoulder so Marco couldn't walk out from the oak tree. She gave a soft whistle.
Marco didn't understand.
She rolled her eyes, held up a single finger.
“One?” Marco whispered. Then it dawned on him. “You mean stop,” he said, “wait a minute.”
She let go of him and turned to look out through the branches, listening.
Marco bolted, but a blinding pain drove him to his knees before he had taken two steps. The stabilizer! He could feel his shoulder burning. He crawled back to Dr. Gila and the pain receded.
“You and I will search together,” she said. “You will guide, and I will think. Are we clear?”
“We are in your backyard?” Gila affirmed.
“Do not attract attention,” Gila warned. “If we encounter someone, you will speak and get them to leave us alone. If you run again, or try to raise an alarm, I will stabilize you back to our time.” She paused to see if he understood. “Now, let's go.”
Marco's mind was working at hyperspeed on getting away, but for now, he would do as she said.
They left the shelter of the oak tree and surveyed the yard and nearby houses.
“Monitor is a scientist,” Gila whispered. “He would be curious and explore, but he would be very careful.”
“Would he carry a cloaking device?” Marco asked.
“No. No devices. Too risky. Like Anole and I agreed, only the stabilizer, so we would not lose you, and the translators so we can talk and I can understand the people here. That was unavoidable, but nothing else that would alter history. And I'm sure he would be similarly responsible.”
Marco felt his shoulder. It was in there somewhere. Implant.
They went to the back fence and looked over. Nothing. Side fences, nothing. They edged around the house to the shrubbery at the border of the front yard.
“How long has he been here?” Marco wondered.
“A few hours at the most,” Gila said.
“Would he have gone inside one of these houses?” Marco asked.
“Doubtful.” Gila was holding her fingers to her temples. “He would have been extremely cautious,” Gila said. “He was very aware of the risks.”
“Marco! Watch out! Another one's behind you!” His neighbor, Mr. Bellarmine, was yelling at him. “Run! Run! I've got 911!”
My neighbor's name is Mr. Bellarmine! I blinked my eyes against a growing headache.
Marco grabbed Gila and pulled her toward his front door. He could feel scales forming on her hand as he reached the steps. Throwing the door open and running inside, he almost ran down his mother, who was standing in the front hallway, facing the door. His mother's face was painted red, and she was holding an odd-shaped cross in front of her. She began screaming. Marco turned to Gila, who was again transforming, her nose blunting, her skin changing texture. He dropped her hand and ran to his mother. The pain dropped him to his knees again. Gila pulled him to his feet and the two of them were outside, running down the block, away from his home and the neighbor with the phone. Marco could feel the scales receding on her hand.
In the middle of the next block, Marco ducked into a yard, pulling Gila toward the back.
“Garvins' garage,” he explained, not slowing down. “I do their lawn.”
I mow the Garvins' lawn! I swallowed, tasted acid in my mouth.
“They're vacationing,” Marco said, letting go of Gila's hand at the garage's side door and pushing hard on the window next to it. A sound froze him. Sirens! He put his weight behind the pushing, and the window opened a crack, then more, then enough for him to squeeze through. The sound was getting louder! Noooo! Not now. He couldn't even imagine what would happen if they were caught. Would the world as he knew it justÂ â¦ what? Disappear?
He opened the door from the inside and Gila rushed in. With the slam of the door closing, he bent over, hands on knees, breathing hard. The sirens had gotten very loud and then stopped. What did that mean?
Monitor's voice startled him.
“I don't know how to explain it simply,” Monitor said, holding up his hand to ward off their questions. “A sort of time warp, possibly. Inexactitude. Space is not as linear as you might think.”
As Gila had earlier, Monitor had taken off his blue smock and was dressed in his swimsuit thing. He was lean and muscular, like an Olympic freestyler, but at the moment, he looked silly standing in a dark garage in his bathing suit.
What was happening with the sirens? Could they have been fire trucks? Marco looked out the side window he had entered but saw nothing except sunlight, trees, and shadows.
Gila had her hands on her hips and looked steamed. She probably would have said something, but she was still breathing too hard.
“When I came out under the oak tree,” Monitor continued, “I knew you had arrived beforeÂ â¦ well, that's not quite true. When your neighbor caught me looking around and began yelling, I ran back to the portal. When I came out on the other side, Anole was standing there with her command tube and I didn't want to get stuck answering to her and lose this opportunity, so I decided to come back here while I still could, and finish what I started.”
“What do you mean?” Marco had his breath back. “I started it! I'm the one who told you about it. I want to know how to cure Mom, and you guys are just making it worse!”
Monitor began to get that greenish-bronze hue. Oh jeez!
“Ulrich!” Gila had recovered her breath. “Calm down. Now!”
His coloring receded and his skin resumed its fleshlike texture. What was it? Whenever these guys got excited or upset orÂ â¦ or when did she do it the first time? When she made some kind of mind link with what she called the University. Marco wanted to form a theory but clearly didn't have enough information.
“Is this real?” Gila asked Monitor, gesturing to the outdoors.
“That's what I thought at first, too,” he said. “That these were all dense holograms, but no, these are actual trees and flowers. Even the buildings in this area are made from genuine natural materials. Must have cost a fortune, yet the people dress very plainly and the tech systems are antediluvian.”
The emotion in Marco's voice rose and fell with the events in the tale like it was a book on tape. How could he know this stuff?
“I told you it's 2007!” Marco said, exasperated at how little respect they seemed to have for his words or his intelligence.
Gila and Monitor looked at each other.
“We have underestimated the boy,” Gila said. “He's not nearly as crazy as we thought.” Once again she brought her fingers to her temples as if she had a migraine. Or perhaps that helped her think better.
“The garage is surrounded!” A loud megaphone voice coming from the driveway startled the three of them. “Put any weapons down, raise your hands, and walk slowly out the door. Immediately!”
Gila screamed and started to change again.
“Novikov's Paradox!” Monitor swore. “This cannot happen!”
“Come out immediately, hands in the air.” The voice was hard, unyielding, an anvil. “We will not negotiate.”
Marco jumped into the front seat of the Garvins' Suburban. As usual, the keys were in it. “Get in the back, quick!” he yelled at the two doctors.
The truck started with a rumble, and Marco threw it into reverse, ramming into the closed garage door. The wooden door broke in the middle, sunlight leaked in. In his rearview mirror, Marco saw what looked like a SWAT team.
“Halt! Halt! We will shoot!” The voice was getting even louder.
Marco could see black uniforms, but he wasn't sure whether the bullhorn man was behind him in the driveway or to the side, near the door they had entered. He jammed the vehicle into four-wheel, slid the automatic tranny into drive, and stomped down on the accelerator. The SUV's tires squealed, and the big machine lurched forward into the plasterboard covering the back of the garage. The wheels smoked, the vehicle hesitated, and then the studs gave way and the truck bulled its way through the wall, snapping siding like kindling. Five or six policemen with guns drawn were stationed around the side yard. All seemed momentarily frozen by the spectacle.