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Authors: A. M. Jenkins

Night Road (14 page)

BOOK: Night Road
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Cole hesitated, then started turning pages till he reached the
Ls.

Lulie.
From the Middle English
lullen,
meaning “to lull, to soothe.”
That did sound like Ma, what Cole could remember of her—humming, wordless, her heel planted on the puncheon floor, toe rhythmic on the cradle rocker while her hands were busy, always busy.

But Cole could not quite remember what they had been busy
with
. If he reasoned it out, he could come up with a lot of things: carding, spinning, darning, sewing, shelling, kneading, plucking, stirring. But he couldn’t
see
any of it, couldn’t remember what his mother’s hands had looked like, or what they had done. All he knew was that they seldom had been still.

Ephraim. That was from the Bible, he knew, but according to this book it meant “fruitful.” True enough, Cole supposed. Pa’d had eight children before he died—but only four had lived past infancy.

Now he looked through the
Gs.
Finally he found it—Guerdon.

Reward.

Now, holding the name book, he thought not about sitting up with Guerdon’s body, nor the nightshirt Ma and Polly and Hannah had torn up to sew into his shroud, but about how out in the woods Cole and Guerdon had tried to cut off Guerdon’s snake-bitten finger in an effort to keep him alive.

Guerdon was a year younger, but he knew as well as Cole what ought to be done. The two punctures were ugly red between the first and second knuckle, and the flesh had already started to swell. Both boys had skinned plenty of animals, but only Cole had his own knife. And besides, he was older. So he was the one to do it.

The knife was the clearest picture left in Cole’s mind now. It had suddenly seemed so awful small when he pulled it from its sheath, the blade terribly short, and though it was sharp it sure wouldn’t slice easily
through bone. No, anybody who could cut off a finger with that knife would have to be both cool and fearless.

Cole had been neither; he could still see that moment like a snapshot—the moment the blade started trembling. He’d held it in the exact right place it needed to be, poised at the joint just above the palm—but at the moment it should have come down strong and firm, it instead hung in the air over Guerdy’s familiar hand and began to quiver.

In the end, the knife had dropped nervelessly onto the ground and he had grabbed Guerdy and bolted for the cabin, a half mile away. Too far; and now Cole realized that the run back, with frightened, fast-pumping hearts, probably hadn’t helped his brother any.

Huh. Now he remembered the feeling he’d had, looking up from those two punctures to see Guerdy’s frightened face.

That’s
what it was; that’s why Gordo had called his brother to mind. It wasn’t anything about the kid in particular, nothing physical. It was his
need
that was the same. That was something neither Guerdon nor Gordo had been aware of but which Cole now saw clearly: a floundering need for someone to step in and
be steady, to take charge and follow through and do what needed to be done.

Okay, so that mystery was solved. The bottom line was that Guerdon had died in the end, and all the woods were gone and his grave long erased by wind and weather, his bones turned to powder and lost under tons of concrete.

But Cole, who had gone off in the woods alone to cry till he puked, was still sitting here, and still in his eighteen-year-old prime. Cole had no doubt that he would now be able to cut off a poisoned finger without so much as blinking an eye.

Lucky for Gordo.

It was almost dawn. He smoothed the page with his fingers, thinking that he ought to go to bed.

Instead he turned the pages quickly, to look up his sisters.

Hannah.
Favor, or grace.

Polly.
Variant form of Mary.

All right, he thought, and turned to the
Ms.

Mary.
Derived from Miriam, meaning “sea of bitterness.”

That was Polly, all right. What he remembered most
about Polly was her nagging, wagging tongue.
Don’t think you can sneak off and read your silly book while others do all the work. Not a crumb you’ll get from this table so long as you shirk your share. Not a crumb, Ezekiel—you can starve, as far as I’m concerned.

“Not likely,” he said out loud, brushing Polly away with a flick of the pages.

Then he found himself turning the pages to look up another name.

Bess.

A pet form of Elizabeth.
Of course; he knew that.

Elizabeth.
Oath of God.

A mistake—a stupid, stupid mistake. There had been fear, he remembered that, how she’d trembled, white arms soft and clinging, how he’d guided her to the feed, full of power and control. The shame, the conceit of it.

But time eventually pressed all one’s joys and sorrows into indistinguishable lumps. That was the good thing about time.

He shut the book and got ready for bed.

As he lay on his back, however, covers up to his neck, waiting for sleep to overtake him, another almost-forgotten memory came drifting into his head.
Probably brought up by the name book.

Polly’s and Hannah’s muffled giggles—that’s what had woken him, tugged him out of sound sleep in a long-ago darkness, warm under quilts with Guerdon’s soft snores uninterrupted beside him. How old had Cole been then? Five? Six? He did not move, did not make a sound, but peeked out, the air sharp and cold on his nose and cheeks. His sisters’ white nightcaps and nightgowns were bright bobbing patches against the dark, long braids spilling over their shoulders. They stood in the moonlight that shone through the one small window their father had cut into the end wall of the loft, a kindness and a luxury that would let breezes through on sweltering summer nights. This night it had been fall, not summer, and the shutter shouldn’t have been open; but Polly and Hannah needed the moon. Cole could see it framed in the window, visible through the black, shifting fingers of the mostly leafless trees.

He watched them taking turns looking over their shoulders into Ma’s precious hand mirror. He did not know what they saw nor what they were looking for—just that they were doing some kind of fortune-telling. He could not hear what they said, only the quiet mur
mur of their voices, the intermittent bursts of smothered giggles. And he remembered that when the shutter was back in its rightful place bolted tight against the night, and his sisters were finally safely back in their shared bed, he’d pulled the covers over his head against the frosty air, huddled closer to his brother’s warm back, and drifted back into a warm quilted sleep.

There was nothing important in the memory. Nothing earth-shattering, nothing even particularly striking. Just a feeling that wasn’t worth lingering over, because it was no longer possible: a feeling of contentment, and of safety taken for granted.

THE
next night, as usual, Cole went to collect Gordo and Sandor for the evening feed. The carpet muffled his steps; there was no sound. No outside light came into the hallway. It could have been midnight or noon. There was no way to know without a clock.

Through their door he could hear the tinny sound of the television and a low muted hum—that was Gordo’s blow-dryer. Same as last night. And the night before.

He knocked on the door. Here he was again, he thought, retracing the same steps he’d carved out that first night the three of them were on the road. The same thing over and over again for days, weeks, months. The good thing for Gordo was that falling into a routine
was
second nature.

But this was Castile, Ohio, home of Sandor’s favorite party school, and when Sandor opened the door, Cole saw immediately that he was dressed differently. He wasn’t wearing jeans, not even khakis, but dark slacks, black shoes, a button-down shirt.

And a tie—it wasn’t tied yet, but there it was, ends dangling down Sandor’s chest. “Come in, come in,” he said, holding the door open. And when Cole walked in, Sandor did not fling himself on the bed to watch the news but went to stand in front of the bureau mirror.

Cole stared as Sandor fastened the top button on his collar. “You two are on your own tonight, if you don’t mind,” he told Cole, looping the tie around and through itself in practiced movements. “I have a date.”

Cole had not sat down. He stood by the armchair—this hotel had an armchair and no desk—speechless.

Gordo’s blow-dryer hummed on and on. “A date for what?” Cole asked. Perhaps he had misunderstood.

“A date for taking someone out and talking and dancing and having a good time and whatever else that may lead to.”

“A someone. What
kind
of someone?”

“This someone has brown hair. Nice body—”

“An omni.” Cole squeezed his eyes shut. “Sandor. If you want to feed, just feed. If you want to have sex with somebody, just do it. But don’t go on a date, for heaven’s sake.”

“Why not?”

“You’re setting a bad example for Gordo.”

“I don’t agree. I’m just going to have a conversation with someone who is
not
one of us three. It will be a nice change.”

“Omnis are not a nice change. They’re dull.”

“Again, I do not agree.”

“Especially the young attractive ones. They have nothing to say, and they know it, so they try to let their bodies do the talking. And if you don’t want them for sex, their bodies have absolutely nothing to say.”

“Oh, Cole, that reminds me. You’ll never guess what Gordo asked me last night. Out of the blue, mind you. He asked if I were gay.”

“Oh. And you said?”

“I asked him whether he meant gay in the sense of ‘merry,’ or gay in the sense of ‘enjoying sexual pleasure with men,’ and he said the second one. So I told him that if he meant exclusively with men, then no, I’m not
gay, but if he meant when the occasion arises, then yes, I am definitely gay.”

“And what did he say?”

“Nothing. He just got an uncomfortable look about him.”

“Charming.”

“Yes, well, he’s just a boy. Practically a baby. I told him that if in three hundred years he hasn’t dipped a toe in the other end of the pond, to contact the newspapers because that will be a first.”

“And he said?”

“Nothing. But he looked at me with so much mistrust I could not bear it, so I told him something. I said, ‘Gordo, my friend, I think you’re a nice fellow, but I expect to be acquainted with you for many centuries, and it would not be wise to risk bad feelings with one of the few people I am able to get attached to. So you need never hesitate to bend over and pick up the soap, so to speak.’”

In the bathroom, the blow-dryer stopped.

“Sandor—,” Cole began.

“I would like to take the car, if that’s all right. There are half a dozen places within walking distance for
you two to feed. So taking the car isn’t a problem, am I correct?”

“Yes, but—”

“Cole, life would be dull if we never did anything different. I refuse to be one monotonous note all the time:
bong, bong, bong.
I will be very careful with your car. And I’ll be back before dawn. Ah, here comes Gordo.”

Here came Gordo indeed, with his plastic bag of dirty clothes and his now neatly zipped Ziploc bag. For all the time he spent on his hair, to Cole it just looked like…hair, no different from Cole’s own, which was towel-and-air-dried.

“Listen, Gordo,” Sandor called to him as he walked over to his open suitcase. “After you two are back here, you should ask Cole to show you his photos. Some of them are really quite extraordinary.” He turned to the mirror again and looked his reflection up and down. “Do I look all right?”

“You look fine. But Sandor, do you really think—”

“Cole, I really do. Now, don’t wait up for me!” Sandor checked his wallet to make sure he had his key, and then with a bounding step, he was gone.

“He’s sure happy,” Gordo remarked wistfully. He had
dropped his bag of dirty clothes into his suitcase and was mashing it down to make it fit.

“Mmph,” Cole said. It wasn’t that he disapproved, exactly. It was just that Gordo might not understand what a pointless exercise dating was. If you found an omni you liked, what could you do with it? You couldn’t keep it for long. If you fed from it much it would get addicted. If it didn’t get addicted, it got jealous. Even if you didn’t feed from it at all, you could only keep it a few years, at best, before it started noticing that you didn’t age or—if it had any spirit—carping at the restrictions of your night life. Cruel, anyway, to take it from its friends and family, which is what you had to do if you wanted to spend any reasonable amount of personal time with it.

“Sounds like he’s going to have fun,” Gordo said as he zipped up his suitcase.

“That’s beside the point.
You
are not to have a date. Sandor knows how to read omnis, to play them and release them none the wiser. You do not. Dates are for people who wear self-control and restraint like a second skin—”

“Take it easy. I don’t
want
to go on a date.”

He said it so positively that Cole was taken a little aback. “Oh,” he said. “Good.”

“Are we ready?”

“Yes.” Now Cole was wondering why Gordo wouldn’t want to go on a date. Wasn’t that what omnis did? Omnis, and Sandor?

He thought about it some more as he and Gordo left the hotel. Gordo already seemed older than he had back in New York. Cole saw him silently observing their surroundings—taking in the wide street, the columned and bricked campus buildings, the muted colors of the passing cars. The only omni-like moment came when a group of girls paused on the opposite sidewalk.

It would not have occurred to Cole to enjoy their appearance, but when he noticed Gordo’s eyes lingering appreciatively over them, he took a second look. And now that he thought about it, that one with the blonde hair did have a rather attractive line from neck to shoulder, from shoulder to waist—fragile bone structure but generous breasts.

As they walked on, leaving the girls behind, Cole had the sudden feeling that he was skimming the surface of his own life.

It was silly; what was he supposed to do about seeing omnis on a public street anyway?

Nothing, that’s what.

“Hey, Cole,” Gordo said, turning to look over his shoulder after a girl in fishnet stockings, “you know the street dance last night?”

The headlights of the stopped cars were uncomfortably bright, and you couldn’t see who was behind the wheel of any of the cars.

“Yes,” Cole said. He was trying to recall exactly what Johnny had said, back in four-and-a-half.

It’s our ability to feel that keeps us human.

“I saw this Goth guy there with a thing on his finger,” Gordo was saying. “Like a tool thing, you know, pointy. It looked a lot easier than these rings. I don’t guess there’s any way we could use something like that?”

Cole immediately thought of Royal. “What did he look like?”

“You know, Goth. Just…
Goth.
Black all over. And the pointy thing.”

“Finger guard,” Cole corrected. They weren’t terribly unusual, among certain types of omnis. “No, we can’t use them. They draw attention.”

“Yeah, I figured.” Gordo sighed.

“The guy—what color was his hair? Was it black too?”

“I dunno. I was mostly just noticing the pointy thing. Why?”

“Did you talk to him?” Cole asked. “What was he doing?”

“I don’t know. He was just in the crowd, that’s all.”

It was highly unlikely that Gordo had seen Royal. They were almost four hundred miles from Phildelphia. Why would the stray have followed them so far when he’d run away from them back in Philly?

Still, to be safe, Cole would mention it to Sandor, so they could keep an eye out. Just in case.

 

They fed at the college library. Cole was pleased to see Gordo prowling the stacks like any other student desperately trying to finish a paper on a Sunday night.

He wasn’t so pleased when they were back at the hotel and Gordo took Sandor at his word, asking to see Cole’s photos.

Cole couldn’t think of any reason to refuse—it wasn’t as if the photos were private, or secret, or would reveal
anything he wanted to keep hidden. Okay, so he had an uncomfortable inkling that he wasn’t quite rational in his feelings about them. More reason to bring them out into the light of day, so to speak.

So he brought the file case over to Gordo’s room, and, opening it, took out all the various stacks and spread them on the bed. Gordo looked them over for a moment before picking up one of the batches from the fifties.

He started flipping through.

After a moment, Cole picked up a stack he’d taken among the families who lived in the oil fields of Oklahoma. As he looked at each picture, he felt nothing. He thought maybe that was because Gordo was in the room, but it was also possible, he decided with a bit of discomfort, that he’d let too much time go by since the last time he’d looked. He’d briefly perused that one stack at the hotel in—where was it?—but before that he couldn’t recall the last time he’d even opened the case.

Gordo went through the pictures, careful not to touch the surfaces. “It’s like the edges are cut off on all of them,” he said after a while. “I mean, they’re not centered. Like this one, see?”

Cole glanced at the one he held out; it showed a lit
tle girl, swinging. Cole could remember taking it; her dress was gray in the picture, but in life it had been cherry red, with a white collar. She was caught in mid-flight at the height of her swing, at the exact point between rising and falling. Her hair was lofted chaotically into her face, but even the hair couldn’t hide the smile of pure joy.

“See her feet?” Gordon said. “And her head, and the top of the swing set, and the house? It’s like…”

“What?”

“I dunno. Like she goes on beyond the edge of the picture. All of these are like that. Like there’s all kinds of stuff going on beyond the edges.”

Cole bent closer to see the photo. He did not touch it.

“That’s right,” he said. “It’s her life.”

“Her life?”

“It goes on beyond the edges of the picture. This is just one moment, one feeling.”

“She looks really happy.”

“Happy. Yes.”

“But you said you’re not taking these anymore.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t enjoy it now.”

Gordo gave him a long look, but said nothing. He went back to the photos.

Cole put down his stack and sat in the armchair. He watched Gordo finish the stack in his hand, then pick up another. The kid went through them pretty quickly, only occasionally stopping to look more closely, when one caught his eye.

He held up a photo to show Cole. “Who killed him?”

It was the little boy in the white sailor suit. “No one,” Cole said. “He died of disease. Why would you think someone killed him?”

“I dunno. I just thought maybe…I dunno.” He put the picture back into the stack and started leafing through again. “Hey. Cole. Did
you
ever kill anyone?”

It was an unexpected question. Bluntly put, but honestly asked. Cole knew he meant killing in the feed. It was something Gordo would be interested in. And it was something that Cole ought to explain, in order to show Gordo how he had to learn to relate to the rest of the world.

So he answered. “Yes.”

“Who?”

“A girl.”

“What happened?”

All right. This was part of his responsibility. He was here to let Gordo know all aspects of a heme’s position. He, Cole, had a concrete example to share. If he had to rake over a couple of raw nerves to do it, that was a small price to pay to prevent Gordo from making the same mistake. And Gordo would remember the lesson better if it had real people attached to it.

Cole had never spoken baldly of what he’d done, never told it out loud as one entire experience. He could do it though. Enough time had passed that he ought to be able to speak of it without emotion. The same way he had told Gordo about his first feed.

It took him a moment to compose himself though. He did not look forward to seeing that horrified, fascinated, omni-ish look on Gordo’s face. Not about this.

Gordo was still looking through the pictures in his hand—photos of strangers. How much easier it was to talk about strangers!

“Okay,” Cole said, committing himself. “Gordo. Do you remember when I told you what happens to us in sun?”

“Yeah.”

“The reason I know what it’s like is that I…made an error once. Oh, put those damn pictures down and sit.”
Gordo perched on the edge of the bed. He held the stack of photos for another moment, then laid it carefully on the bed and turned his attention to Cole.

“When I was like you,” Cole began. “Actually, a bit older…but anyway. I was…fearful. Alone. I don’t know—probably you haven’t felt this yet, but you get to a point where you see that every living thing is passing you by.”

“Like spring,” Gordo reminded him. “Like you said in the kitchen that time.”

“Yes. It can start with a feeling of disconnection. Do you understand what I mean?”

BOOK: Night Road
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