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Authors: Ray Bradbury

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BOOK: The Cat's Pajamas
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“Smith.”

I introduced them around to everyone eating and they sat and looked at the food and at last began to eat.

They spoke very little, and only when spoken to, and I had an opportunity to remark the beauty in their faces, for they had fine and graceful bone structures in their chins and cheeks and brows, good straight noses, and clear eyes, but always that tiredness about the mouths.

Half through the breakfast, an event occurred to which I must call special attention. Mr. Britz, the garage mechanic, said, “Well, the president has been out fund-raising again today, I see by the paper.”

The stranger, Mr. Smith, snorted angrily. “That terrible man! I've always hated Westercott.”

Everyone looked at him. I stopped eating.

Mrs. Smith frowned at her husband. He coughed slightly and went on eating.

Mr. Britz scowled momentarily, and then we all finished breakfast, but I remember it now. What Mr. Smith had said was, “That terrible man! I've always hated Westercott.”

I never forgot.

 

T
HAT NIGHT SHE CRIED AGAIN
, as if she was lost in the woods, and I stayed awake for an hour, thinking.

There were so many things I suddenly wanted to ask them. And yet it was almost impossible to see them, for they stayed locked in the room constantly.

The next day, however, was Saturday. I caught them momentarily in the garden looking at the pink roses, just standing and looking, not touching, and I said, “A fine day!”

“A wonderful, wonderful day!” they both cried, almost in unison, and then laughed embarrassedly.

“Oh, it can't be
that
good.” I smiled.

“You don't know how good it is, you don't know how wonderful it is—you can't possibly guess,” she said, and then quite suddenly there were tears in her eyes.

I stood bewildered. “I'm sorry,” I said. “Are you all right?”

“Yes, yes.” She blew her nose and went off a distance to pick a few flowers. I stood looking at the apple tree hung with red fruit, and at last I got the courage to inquire, “May I ask where you're from, Mr. Smith?”

“The United States,” he said slowly, as if piecing the words together.

“Oh, I was rather under the impression that—”

“We were from another country?”

“Yes.”

“We are from the United States.”

“What's your business, Mr. Smith?”

“I
think
.”

“I see,” I said, for all the answers were less than satisfactory. “Oh, by the way, what's Westercott's first name?”

“Lionel,” said Mr. Smith, and then stared at me. The color left his face. He turned in a panic. “Please,” he cried, softly. “Why do you ask these questions?” They hurried into the house before I could apologize. From the stair window they looked out at me as if I were the spy of the world. I felt contemptible and ashamed.

 

O
N
S
UNDAY MORNING
I helped clean the house. Tapping on the Smiths' door I received no answer. Listening, for the first time, I heard the tickings, the little clicks and murmurs of numerous clocks working away quietly in the room. I stood entranced. Tick-tick-tick-tick-tick! Two, no,
three
clocks. When I opened their door to fetch their wastepaper basket, I saw the clocks, arrayed, on the bureau, on the windowsill, and by the nightstand, small and large clocks, all set to this hour of the late morning, ticking like a roomful of insects.

So
many
clocks. But why? I wondered. Mr. Smith had
said
he was a
thinker
.

I took the wastebasket down to the incinerator. Inside the basket, as I was dumping it, I found one of her handkerchiefs. I fondled it for a moment, smelling the flower fragrance. Then I tossed it onto the fire.

It did not burn.

I poked at it and pushed it far back in the fire.

But the handkerchief would not burn.

In my room I took out my cigar lighter and touched it to the handkerchief. It would not burn, nor could I tear it.

And then I considered their clothing. I realized why it had seemed peculiar. The cut was regular for men and women in this season, but in their coats and shirts and dresses and shoes, there was not one blessed seam anywhere!

They came back out later that afternoon to walk in the garden. Peering from my high window I saw them standing together, holding hands, talking earnestly.

It was then that the terrifying thing happened.

A roar filled the sky. The woman looked into the sky, screamed, put her hands to her face, and collapsed. The man's face turned white, he stared blindly at the sun, and he fell to his knees calling to his wife to get up, get up, but she lay there, hysterically.

By the time I got downstairs to help, they had vanished. They had evidently run around one side of the house while I had gone around the other. The sky was empty, the roar had dwindled.

Why, I thought, should a simple, ordinary sound of a plane flying unseen in the sky cause such terror?

The airplane flew back a minute later and on the wings it said: COUNTY FAIR! ATTEND! RACING! FUN!

That's
nothing to be afraid of, I thought.

I passed their room at nine-thirty and the door was open. On the walls I saw three calendars lined up with the date August 18, 2035, prominently circled.

“Good evening,” I said pleasantly. “Say, you have a lot of nice calendars there. Come in mighty handy.”

“Yes,” they said.

I went on to my room and stood in the dark before turning on the light and wondered why they should need three calendars, all with the year 2035. It was crazy, but
they
were not. Everything about them was crazy except themselves, they were clean, rational people with beautiful faces, but it began to move in my mind, the calendars, the clocks, the wristwatches they wore, worth a thousand dollars each if I ever saw a wristwatch, and they, themselves, constantly looking at the time. I thought of the handkerchief that wouldn't burn and the seamless clothing, and the sentence “I've always hated Westercott.”

I've always hated Westercott.

Lionel Westercott. There wouldn't be two people in the world with an unusual name like that. Lionel Westercott. I said it softly to myself in the summer night. It was a warm evening, with moths dancing softly, in velvet touches, on my screen. I slept fitfully, thinking of my comfortable job, this good little town, everything peaceful, everyone happy, and these two people in the next room, the only people in the town, in the world, it seemed, who were not happy. Their tired mouths haunted me. And sometimes the tired eyes, too tired for ones so young.

I must have slept a bit, for at two o'clock, as usual, I was wakened by her crying, but this time I heard her call out, “Where are we, where are we, how did we get here, where are we?” And his voice, “Hush, hush, now, please,” and he soothed her.

“Are we safe, are we safe, are we safe?”

“Yes, yes, dear, yes.”

And then the sobbing.

Perhaps I could have thought a lot of things. Most minds would turn to murder, fugitives from justice. My mind did not turn that way. Instead I lay in the dark, listening to her cry, and it broke my heart, it moved in my veins and my head and I was so unbearably touched by her sadness and loneliness that I got up and dressed and left the house. I walked down the street and before I knew it I was on the hill over the lake and there was the library, dark and immense, and I had my janitor's key in my hand. Without thinking why, I entered the big silent place at two in the morning and walked through the empty rooms and down the aisles, turning on a few lights. And then I got a couple of big books out and began tracing some paragraphs and lines down and down, page after page, for about an hour in the early, early dark morning. I drew up a chair and sat down. I fetched some more books. I sent my eye searching. I grew tired. But then at last my hand paused on a name, “William Westercott, politician, New York City. Married to Aimee Ralph on January 1998. One child, Lionel, born February 2000.”

I shut the book and locked myself out of the library and walked home, cold, through the summer morning with the stars bright in the black sky.

I stood for a moment in front of the sleeping house with the empty porch and the curtains in every room fluttering with the warm August wind, and I held my cigar in my hand but did not light it. I listened, and there above me, like the cry of some night bird, was the sound of the lonely woman, crying. She had had another nightmare, and, I thought, nightmares are memory, they are based on things remembered, things remembered vividly and horridly and with too much detail, and she had had another of her nightmares and she was afraid.

I looked at the town all around me, the little houses, the houses with people in them, and the country beyond the houses, ten thousand miles of meadow and farm and river and lake, highways and hills and mountains and cities all sizes sleeping in the time before dawn, so quietly, and the streetlights going out now when there was no use for them at this nocturnal hour. And I thought of all the people in the whole land and the years to come, and all of us with good jobs and happy in this year.

Then I went upstairs past their door and went to bed and listened and there, behind the wall, the woman was saying over and over again, “I'm afraid, I'm afraid,” faintly, crying.

And lying there I was as cold as an ancient piece of ice placed between the blankets, and I was trembling, though I knew nothing, I knew everything, for now I knew where these travelers were from and what her nightmares were and what she was afraid of, and what they were running away from.

I figured it just before I went to sleep, with her crying faintly in my ears. Lionel Westercott, I thought, will be old enough to be president of the United States in the year 2035.

Somehow, I did not want the sun to rise in the morning.

HAIL TO THE CHIEF
2003–2004

H
OW'S THAT AGAIN
?”

Silence.

“Would you mind repeating that?”

Silence and an up-and-down murmur on the phone.

“This is a bad line. I can't believe what I'm hearing! Go over that again.”

The government official was rising slowly from his chair, the telephone crammed to his ear. He was staring out the window, then at the ceiling, and then at the walls. Slowly he sat down again.

“Now repeat that.”

The phone made noises.

“Senator Hamfritt, you say? Just a moment. I'll call you right back.”

The official hung up, turned in his chair, and stared out across the lawn at the White House.

Then he reached over and touched the intercom button.

When his secretary appeared at the door he said, “Sit down, you must hear this.”

He picked up the phone, punched a number and the speakerphone.

When a voice came on he said, “This is Elliot. Did you call in the last few minutes? You did. Now, go over those details again. Senator Hamfritt, you say? An Indian casino? In North Dakota? Yes. How many senators? Thirteen? They were there last night? You sure of the facts? He wasn't drunk? He
was
drunk? Well, it's late, but I'll call the president.”

The official put the phone down and slowly turned to his secretary.

“Do you know that idiot Hamfritt?”

She nodded.

“Do you know what that damn fool has done?”

“I can hardly wait.”

“He went off a few hours ago to an Indian reservation in North Dakota with twelve senators. Said he was investigating affairs in the territory.”

The secretary waited.

“He then engaged in a series of roulettes with the chief of the largest tribe, Chief Iron Cloud. They put up New York City and lost that.”

The secretary leaned forward.

“Then they started gambling with states—and lost! By two in the morning, drinking with the Indian chief, they managed to lose the entire United States of America.”

“Holy shit,” said the secretary.

“I might kill myself, but first, who's gonna call the White House and tell the president about this?”

“Not me,” said the secretary.

 

T
HE PRESIDENT OF THE
U
NITED
S
TATES
ran across the airport tarmac.

“Mr. President!” an attaché cried. “You're not dressed!”

The president glanced down at the pajamas under his overcoat.

“I'll change on the plane. Where the hell are we going?”

The attaché turned to the pilot. “Where the hell are we going?”

The pilot glanced at a transcript and said, “The Pocahontas Big Red Casino, Ojibway, North Dakota.”

“Where in hell is that?”

BOOK: The Cat's Pajamas
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