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Authors: A. M. Jenkins

Night Road (15 page)

BOOK: Night Road
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“A little bit. Ever since this thing happened to me, it’s like I can’t keep my feet on the ground, like I can’t be sure what’s real anymore. Out here with you guys, it feels like things are more solid. But back at the Building I could just not think and not face anything. It was like I was floating.”

“Yes, that’s part of it. But later, you may get a feeling of being passed by and left alone….” He wasn’t explaining this well enough. He had to do better, make the kid aware of what might come. Had to make him
understand
.

“All right. Now. Don’t talk, just listen. I saw it like this: All of life on Earth was like a river. Everyone on Earth was floating down this river, and I had to stand alone on the bank, watching them all go by. I got to a point where I realized that every single person around me would always be out of my grasp, always disappearing around the bend to a fate that I could never see. Does that make any sense to you?”

Gordo nodded. Cole drew a deep breath and continued.

“I still thought I could get attached to omnis. I thought I halfway still
was
one, I suppose.” He felt a sudden, irrational desire to babble that he had never meant any harm—but he ignored it and pressed grimly on. “And there was this girl, a young lady, who did not know what I was. But I was stupid. I thought that—that—” What was wrong with him? He did not usually have trouble verbalizing whatever was in his head. “I thought that I could
feel
my way through a situation and everything would turn out all right. I think I had faith in God, or the universe, or something—faith that if you have good intentions, things will eventually work out for the best.

“Anyway, what happened was that I—stupidly—
thought I could create a companion for myself. I let myself think that she was my…soul mate, I suppose, although there wasn’t really a word for it back then. And I, being stupid—I can’t stress that enough, Gordo—let myself get attached. I let myself think that it was meant to be.”

He had felt his face getting hot for some time, and it dawned on him: That must mean it was turning red. “I’m uncomfortable telling you all this,” he admitted. He
had
to be honest. It was his own actions, after all, that had resulted in shame and embarrassment. “But I wouldn’t be doing my duty if I didn’t allow you to learn from my mistakes.

“So one romantic summer night I did it. I killed her, with love, with what I thought were good intentions.”

“On purpose?” Gordo didn’t seem to be shocked. He sounded as if he were just making sure.

“Yes,” Cole said. “And it never occurred to me that I hadn’t even
asked
her. I’d never told her what I was. I never stopped to think that half of her affection for me was the usual omni-heme attraction and that the other half was the mysterious life’s tragedy I kept hinting at. Anyway. There’s a lot more to it, but suffice it to say
that she hated me. And she was completely justified in doing so. It was quite a jolt for me to be jerked around to her point of view. To see that my good intentions were really selfish and small-minded.

“But we were stuck together for a while. I had to live side by side with the one person I wanted and couldn’t have, and she was trapped with the one person she despised most in the entire universe. It was torture. She left me for other hemes as soon as she was able, and I ended up traveling with Sandor and Frederick for a while. I saw her occasionally, because she’d check in with Johnny—he was in the process of creating the Colony—but she was very cold to me. Wouldn’t speak to or look at me if she could avoid it at all.

“And then Johnny bought the Building. It was always his dream, to provide a safe place for all of us. You don’t know Johnny very well, but I can tell you that if it wasn’t for him, most of us American hemes would be underground, in the dark.

“Anyway, Bess—Elizabeth—she came when we had only been moved in for a few years. She was different that time. Still avoiding me, but not so spiteful. She seemed sad, and tired. I didn’t try to talk to her about it. I was
afraid to force the issue. But I
should
have tried. Because early one afternoon she threw herself off the roof.

“You can imagine, if you fall five or six stories, what it does to you. I don’t know how long she lay there in the sun. No one could help her. She was dead, the omnis thought—and no wonder; she was pretty well smashed up. And by the time Johnny got her back, her bones had knit themselves back together—but they hadn’t been set, you see, so they were a bit…misshapen. Her internal organs had healed. Her skin had begun to renew itself. The only thing that hadn’t healed in any way was her mind. And that wasn’t from the fall but from the sun.”

And that was it, he thought. He’d done rather well—gotten out the pertinent facts, not glossed over his own errors.

“How did Johnny get her back?” Gordo asked.

“Bribed. Lied. Stole.”

“Oh. I thought maybe he ran out real quick and carried her in.”

“God, no.
Nobody
could do that. I’m the only one who was stupid enough to try.”

He hadn’t intended to mention that part. It had been horrible—his outer layers of skin falling in white lacy
shreds, the flesh underneath red raw meat. Every nerve exposed. He’d had to turn back after only a few seconds of direct sunlight.

It took him a moment to realize that Gordo had asked him a question. “Sorry, what?” he said.

“She didn’t die, right?”

“Of course not.”

“So where is she now?”

“She’s in the Building,” Cole said. “Up on the fifth floor.” He noticed suddenly that he wasn’t looking at Gordo—that he hadn’t been able to for some time. So now he forced himself to lift his head, ready to see the kid gawking at him.

But Gordo’s face showed nothing of the kind. No shock, no horror.

Cole could not
tell
what Gordo was thinking. It was a little disconcerting, as if he’d lost his footing unexpectedly while Gordo was standing steady.

That was a silly thought. He’d gotten the information out. Said what needed to be said—
more
than what needed to be said. Now they were done with the subject. Lesson taught. Over. Finished.

He reached for a stack. “Are we through looking at
these?” he asked Gordo.

“I am. So is she up there all by herself?”

Methodically Cole began to put each stack in its proper place in the file case. “No, she’s never left alone. The others take turns watching over her.” He frowned down at the photos in his hand—couldn’t remember which ones they were, which section of the case they belonged in. “And Johnny checks in on her every day.” The top picture was of women running a race during a town picnic. Their dresses flared back above their ankles, showing black stockings and button shoes; their hair was piled up high; their arms were caught midpump.

“Do you go visit her?” Gordo asked.

Cole stuffed the stack into an empty slot. “There’s no point.” He wasn’t going to try to explain what it felt like to look into the eyes of someone you loved and see an inhuman something looking out at you. Wasn’t going to describe what it’s like when the mind of the person you care about has been evicted from her body. And to know that you had caused it. “No point,” he repeated, more firmly. “She doesn’t recognize anyone. Doesn’t remember anything that happened, whether it was a hundred years or merely a hundred seconds ago. Seeing me—
seeing
anyone
—does nothing for her; and—and—there’s just no point.”

He picked up another stack and shoved it into the file.

“I’m sorry,” he heard Gordo say, with such sincere sympathy that it gave Cole that odd, disoriented feeling again.

“Sounds kind of like what I did with Jill,” Gordo added.

“No, it’s completely different.” Last stack. Cole shut the flap and snapped the elastic around it, suddenly weary.

But it didn’t matter how weary he was. He was here to explain things, no matter whether he was tired, or hurting—no matter what he felt; he had a responsibility to fulfill. “Thirst,” he told Gordo, keeping his voice even, “is a physical need. Our bodies
need
blood the way they
need
oxygen. You may deny the need to breathe, but your lungs will eventually force you to breathe anyway. What you did was out of your control. What
I
did was completely unnecessary.”

He got up and took the file over to his suitcase. He hoped the kid would let it go now.

“Yeah, but you loved her,” Gordo pointed out. “You didn’t mean to hurt her.”

Cole could feel himself starting to get angry—why,
he wasn’t quite sure; but he knew it wasn’t the least bit helpful, so he said nothing and tried to push it down.

“You didn’t mean for it to work out the way it did,” Gordo went on.

Cole put the file folder back in the pocket of the suitcase. “Let’s just drop it.”

“So, really,” Gordo continued, “we
are
basically in the same boat.”

“I said, let’s drop it.”

“Okay, but the point is, I know how you feel, dude.”

Enough.
Cole zipped his suitcase with one quick gesture. Then he turned to Gordo. “You know nothing,” he said, low and deadly even. “A few weeks ago you were…eating cooked animal flesh and downing six-packs. You know
less
than nothing.”

He hadn’t raised his voice at all. Hadn’t made one move toward Gordo. Yet Gordo sat stunned. He looked as if Cole had struck him.

For just a moment—then his mouth tightened. “Is that why you act like you’re better than me all the time?”

“I don’t do that.”

“Yes, you do. You talk to me like I’m an idiot. ‘Tighten
the cap on your shampoo,’” Gordo mimicked. “Get rid of the red shirt.’”

“That’s not—”


You
are not to have sexual contact.
You
are not to have a date.
You
are not to do anything at all because you’re a fucking
idiot
, Gordo.’”

“Just because—”

“Leave me alone.” Gordo picked up the remote and switched on the TV.

Okay.

It was fine with Cole if they didn’t talk. Cole didn’t need anybody explaining his own past to him. So he’d hurt the kid’s feelings. So what? He wasn’t here to make friends. Besides, teenage guys said worse to each other every day.

Cole wanted to go back to his own room.
Really
leave the kid alone. But he knew he couldn’t. It was his responsibility—his burden—to stick with Gordo, no matter what.

They sat together in stiff silence for the rest of the night.

BY
the next evening Cole regretted snapping at the kid.
Eating cooked animal flesh and downing six-packs
—for God’s sake, he had quoted
Frederick
at the boy!

And Gordo had obviously taken it to heart. As they left the hotel, Cole could see that he was still out of sorts. He didn’t wait to hand his suitcase to Cole, who stood in front of the open trunk, but tossed the bag in himself before walking around to get in.

Cole gave Sandor a questioning glance.

Sandor just shrugged.

When they were on the road again, Cole studied Gordo in the mirror. The kid was in his usual place in the backseat. But he slouched into the corner as if he’d collapsed there, and dark circles under his eyes gave his face a weary look.

Cole remembered now what Gordo had told him:
Ever since this thing happened to me, it’s like I can’t keep my feet on the ground. Out here with you guys, it feels like things are more solid.

“Gordo,” he said, “I’m sorry I snapped at you last night.”

Gordo didn’t say it was all right. Lights from oncoming cars seemed to slide over his shoulders and face before dropping into shadows.

Cole thought he wasn’t going to speak at all, but after a few moments, he asked stiffly, “Where are we going?”

“I don’t know,” Cole answered.

“Don’t you have some kind of
plan
?” He sounded like the same sulky, sullen kid Cole had met that first night in the Building.

“It doesn’t matter much where we go right now. We can work on basics anywhere.”

“Anywhere?” Gordo sat up. “Then why don’t we go to Missouri?”

“Missouri is not an option,” Cole reminded him. He did not explain. He knew why Gordo wanted to go there. And Gordo knew why they couldn’t.

Gordo slumped back in his seat again. When he spoke this time, his voice was laced with bitterness.

“I’m sick of you guys.”

Concerned, Sandor started to turn around.

“Let him be,” Cole advised.

Sandor sighed and turned back.

“How’s that look?” Cole nodded at a sign ahead on the right. It stood in front of a large building with lots of cars parked around it and a sign announcing that Thursday was Ladies’ Nite.

“Very nice,” Sandor said, a little too heartily.

Once inside, Cole was relieved to see that Gordo’s mood didn’t affect his hunting. The basics
were
becoming second nature to the boy. His feed was effortless, quick, and unnoticed. He chose a slow song for a slow dance. He had the moves to the neck down pat. He didn’t walk away the moment he was done but stayed to finish the dance, talking to his feed as an omni would so as not to attract attention.

“He’s coming along,” Cole admitted to Sandor as they sat at a small table crammed up against a pillar.

“He’s homesick,” Sandor told Cole. “I heard him crying during the day.”

“Crying?” No wonder the kid looked tired.

“Yes. It seems to have hit him all of a sudden:
Boom!
Like a tidal wave.”

Gordon’s had his whole life ripped away from him,
Johnny had said.
You and Sandor are the only way he has of making sense of it all.

Gordo needed someone to be steady. That someone was Cole—and Cole had dropped the ball.

Okay. He couldn’t go back and fix it. He felt bad for the kid, bad for losing his temper last night—but he mustn’t let pity or guilt keep him from continuing to teach the boy survival skills. That’s what he’d done with Bess. And the more he’d backed off, the worse things had gotten.

“The thing to do,” Cole told Sandor, “is not get sucked into his drama. We have to stay focused, no matter what his mood is. We have to be…solid.”

“Like rocks along the shore.” Sandor stirred his straw around in his drink. “So that Gordo has something to cling to when the waves break over him.”

“Well…yes. I guess.”

“It’s a good analogy, especially for a heme, don’t you think? I should have been a writer.” Sandor dropped the
straw back into the untouched glass. “Now I’m going to go feed, if you don’t mind. I see a little redhead over there. I’ve always been partial to redheads, and I feel that I could use some cheering up.”

“Go ahead,” said Cole. “I’ll be the rock along the shore until Gordo comes back.”

They were all finished shortly after and able to move on quite soon—a huge improvement over the first few nights when Gordo had taken hours to get sustenance.

They had been traveling vaguely southwest, but Cole thought it might be better now to head east again—the opposite direction from Missouri.

And after they got back in the car, he
knew
it was better.

“Since
I’m
the only one who wants to go anywhere,” Gordo announced the second the doors were shut, “
I
say we go to Missouri.”

Cole cast a glance at him in the rearview mirror but said nothing.

“I want to check on Jill.”

Cole felt Sandor looking at him. He shook his head slightly to remind Sandor:
Don’t get sucked into the drama.

“I want…I want to see my
mom.
” Gordo’s voice cracked slightly on the last word.

Sandor turned around, full of sympathy. “Oh, Gordo—”

“No,” Cole interrupted. “You have to cut them loose. One more time, Gordo: They are aging and will die. You won’t.”

“I—I already talked to my mother,” Gordo said in a rush. “I called her earlier while Sandor was in the shower.”

“Oh, my God,” Cole said in disgust. “Did you tell her where you were?”

“No.”

“You called her from the room?” Sandor echoed. “What did you say to her, Gordo?”

“I told her I was better now and that I missed her.”

Cole fought his urge to snap at the kid again. The last Gordo’s mother had heard, he’d turned into Jack the Ripper and run off into the dark. And the kid called her out of the blue to say he was
better now
?

God, hadn’t the kid heard anything Cole said?

“How did she take it?” Sandor was asking Gordo.

Gordo shrugged and looked away.

“I’ll tell you how she took it,” Cole said dryly. “
Not well
.”

“I knew she’d be worried about me.” Gordo’s voice was muffled.

“Do you think she’s less worried now?”

Gordo did not answer. He leaned his forehead against the window.

“We’ll talk about it sometime in the future,” Sandor said. “Maybe you could see them after a few years, when you are more self-sufficient.”

“When I’m no longer responsible for you,” Cole said. “I’m telling you right now; we are not going to Missouri on my watch.” He waited another moment, willing himself to remain calm and steady—like Sandor said, a rock along the shore. “All right,” he said, more to himself than to anyone. “Let’s get back to business.”

He started the car, but when he turned to make sure the way was clear to back up, he noticed something.

“You’re not buckled,” he told Gordo, trying beyond all patience to keep his voice even. He pulled out of the parking space, expecting the boy to sullenly buckle up and then sit there in his gloomy corner for the rest of the night.

Cole was heading toward the exit before he realized
that the kid hadn’t moved.

He hit the brakes. “Gordo. Buckle your seat belt.”

“What difference does it make?” Gordo said coldly. “You said I can’t die.”

“Nobody said anything about dying. I just don’t want to get a ticket.”

“Gordo, please,” said Sandor.

Cole pulled up the emergency brake and put the car in park. He watched in the mirror, waiting.

And waiting.

After an uncomfortable couple of minutes and a honk from a car that couldn’t get by, Gordo finally gave in and fastened the seat belt.

With bad grace, Cole noticed. It was irritating, but Cole said nothing, just pulled onto the highway.

“At least I
want
to check on Jill.” Gordo’s voice came from the backseat. “At least
I
didn’t just walk off and leave her locked up somewhere.”

Silence came down like a cold curtain over the car.

Cole’s fingers curled tight around the steering wheel.
I didn’t
leave
her
, he wanted to say.
She’s well cared for
.

No. No. He must disengage himself. This wasn’t about him. It was about Gordo. Gordo was firing off
arrows because he was angry and upset.

In the backseat, Gordo sank into his corner again.

How predictable.

Cole should never have told the kid all that stuff about Bess. At least he shouldn’t have gone into detail the way he had. What had he been thinking? He’d treated the kid—okay, fine,
almost
as if he were a friend. At least for a short time he had. For a few minutes there. And the kid had stuck a knife in his back.

Gordo just leaned against the window, looking out.

To Cole, it felt as if the boy wore his feelings all over his body. Being around him made Cole feel saturated, almost sticky, with residue from his gloom.

BOOK: Night Road
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