Authors: Patrick Ness
—But it’s hardly as if this has been handed to you, Max. You’ve worked hard to do what you’ve done, to get where you are. This hasn’t happened
you. Surely there must have been some motivation there, if not just right this second, then at some point. And if you had it once, you’ll have it again.
—That’s just it. I look at my life, I look at my daughter, and sometimes I can’t remember how I got here.
—So are you saying you don’t want to be Mayor or that you don’t know?
—I’m saying I don’t know.
—Is this serious enough to make you drop out of the campaign?
—I don’t know. Maybe.
—Well, I’ve got to be honest if it kills me, I suppose. It’s not too late to quit. You’d lose a little face, and there are people who’d be mighty disappointed, but four months is enough for someone new to step in if they had to. I’ve no idea who, frankly, but you need to do what you need to do.
—I don’t know if I want to quit. I’m not sure.
—Then how about this? Why not take tomorrow off and just have a three-day weekend? Spend a ton of time with Talon, don’t think about the campaign, although you’ve been doing a pretty good job of that on your own already, and just, I suppose, reflect. Search your heart and mind, Max. Being Mayor is something you shouldn’t do half-assed. There’s a lot of nonsense you have to put up with, and the job is only worth it if it’s worth it to you.
—I’m not sure that’s going to help.
—It either will or it won’t. Do it anyway. Unfortunately, the way things lie, I’m going to have to know one way or another when you come in on Monday. As much a martinet as it might make me, I want to have
say over who the next Mayor is, and if you’re out, there are a mind-boggling number of things to be done.
—All right. Sorry for the wrench in the plans.
—No, no, my fault. I’ve been the advisor in this whole thing. I thought you were having doubts, but I thought they’d I take care of themselves. I was wrong. Take the weekend.
Hell, go home right now. Let me know what you decide on Monday, okay?
—I can agree to that.
—My grandmother always told me that if you search yourself top to bottom, then there’s no such thing as a wrong decision. Whichever way you decide will ultimately be the right way, Max. I trust you.
—I’m assuming your grandmother didn’t tell you the part about how we sometimes make wrong decisions so we can be taught unpleasant lessons.
—Of course she didn’t. My grandmother was a very smart woman.
Luther Pickett was born in Tishimongo Fair, that small, incongruously wet burg stuck deep in the crook of the Molyneux Valley, near the disputed Mohair Pass on the mountain border to the Rumour Land. Besides its more common and justified reputation as a literary bedrock – being the birthplace of both Joan Reachpenny
Christina Ungulate, as well as the summer home of Midge and Lolly Tottering and the location of the Alms Hotel where Shelbert Shelbert famously ended his life with Fergus Pangborn’s triple-barreled rifle – Tishimongo Fair was also the primary production spot of Archie Banyon’s Vallée de Molyneux Merlot, a ‘deeply spicy wine with a tart sensuality’ that made Hennington society matrons blush as they reached for another sip. Lachlan Pickett, Luther’s father, was the winery’s head of distribution. Having been raised by teetotalers, Lachlan knew effectively nothing about wine, but he was good with a clipboard, had a strong profile with a virile haircut, and exuded a calm
confidence that deflected attention away from what was marginal competence at best. He had all the usual blessings of the physically beautiful: an equally beautiful wife, an array of jocular friends, and a golden son with a beatific smile and the usual knack for sports. This last, of course, was Luther.
The memories of Luther’s childhood before the tragedy were lit by warm, soggy sunlight. Tishimongo Fair caught both the rain from the mountains on either side and the heat that came north from the Rumour deserts. Long, steamy summers melted into long, steamy winters. The family wasn’t especially wealthy – Luther’s mother Annika was a stubbornly unsuccessful portrait photographer – but he could never recall wanting for anything. He remembered his home as a casual place with friends dropping by for dinner parties, baby showers, the whole list of middle-class fêtes. Luther was popular at school, did well in his studies to the surprise of his perplexed but proud father, and was a child of whom the dreadful word ‘potential’ was often applied. In short, he was happy, which just couldn’t last.
At twelve, the tragedy, shocking enough in its casualness to hit the newspapers and ultimately enter Tishimongo lore, came along and took Luther’s parents. On an unusually chilly autumn night, the Pickett family slept soundly in their beds. Sometime during their slumber, a Caucasus Asp, out of season and no doubt freezing to death, slithered into their house through an open vent near a basement window. The basement, unfortunately, also served as the master bedroom for Lachlan and Annika Pickett. The snake, sensing the room’s most potent source of heat, slowly coiled itself under the sheets, between their warm, dozing bodies.
First Annika stirred and was bitten, then Lachlan. Neither of them woke up before their deaths, witnessing only sudden and permanent ends to dreams. Wondering about breakfast,
young Luther found them lying there the next morning. He jostled his father’s shoulder but was unable to rouse him. When he did the same to his mother and touched her exposed, cold skin, he realized something more was at work than simple oversleeping. His jostling awakened the snake, which now realized that its haven had cooled. The Jungle Dangers training Luther had taken at school probably saved his life. He stayed completely frozen while the red-and-white-speckled asp slunk across the floor to another snug sanctuary at the bottom of the linen closet. Luther dialed Crisis Services on his parents’ phone and waited, wide eyed and quiet, on the front walk until the paramedicals arrived.
At the same time, Archie Banyon was in town, making the dreaded annual inspection of his Molyneux vineyards. The dismal weather was not encouraging. His merlot required day after day of steamy sun, to the point where the grapes almost boiled on the vine. Drear could turn the year’s harvest sickly sweet if it stuck around too long. He was irritable and opprobrious and growing increasingly furious with the head shipping clerk for having the insolence to be late to a morning meeting where he would be asked to share his portion of the blame for the weather. Archie had, in fact, gone as far as making a great show of firing Lachlan Pickett
in an attempt to strike fear into the vineyard’s other managers. He was mid-rant when the police showed up.
There is no more potent driver of charity than saving face, a fact which coupled nicely with the realization that Archie had also been in a vineyard when his wife and daughters had perished. He felt some fateful request was being made of him. Perhaps it was a reprimand for firing a dead man. Conversely, maybe the fates were giving him a child as recompense for the loss of his own. Whatever the reason, Archie adopted the blond-haired, serious-browed Luther without hesitation,
sweeping him out of Tishimongo Fair and installing him in a hilltop mansion overlooking Hennington.
To Archie’s surprise and delight, Luther immediately turned out to be the ‘son I feel I’ve never had', always whispered out of earshot of Thomas, of course. Young Luther Pickett – he never considered giving up his last name, and Archie, in a rare show of modest sensitivity, never pushed it – was courteous, intelligent, hard-working, and showed an interest in Archie’s work. All of which could also be said of Thomas Banyon, aside from courteous, but Luther was just so much more
He wore none of Thomas’ surliness, none of that considerable anger that threatened to flash in inappropriate places, and perhaps most importantly, none of that resentment that made Archie seethe. Moreover, Luther owed him. Archie Banyon was a kind and generous man, but he was also rich, a rich that went very deep down. He was more comfortable being owed than owing.
What Archie completely failed to see was that Luther was also in an ongoing, all-consuming state of shock. When Luther found his parents’ bodies lying peacefully in their beds, he realized that the world could not, would not, and should not ever be counted on. Luther, perhaps even subconsciously, accepted that whatever Archie gifted him with was bound to be snatched away sooner or later, a feeling that was probably responsible for his extraordinary success in business. He had unwittingly given up having any stake whatsoever in the outcome. Therefore, his work was relaxed and confident and bravely risk-taking. He made Archie Banyon a breathtakingly huge amount of money, and he never, on some level, expected to see a penny of it.
And then suddenly, everything changed the day he met Peter, a spur of the moment appointment that Luther had allowed himself to be privately talked into by Thomas one
unlikely Boxing Day at Archie’s house. Peter had opened up a future, an actual one, not the fantasy ones he expected to evaporate at any precarious second. Peter ignited something – why not, let’s call it love – deep down somewhere in Luther’s dusty internal file room. Whether it worked out, whether Peter reciprocated, aside from being wished for, hoped for, longed for, was in some ways beside the point. In an instant, Luther remembered himself. In a second, he saw how past futures had failed to fall away as he had expected them to. In a moment, he realized how vicariously and almost posthumously he was living. In a day, he knew that he didn’t want the future as it was now laid out before him. He woke up from nearly three decades of willful self-ignorance.
This was what he had to tell Archie Banyon before the spring board meeting next Wednesday, the board meeting where Archie was going to name Luther Acting Chief Executive Officer, responsible for all business of Banyon Enterprises until Archie Banyon’s death, at which time the ‘Acting’ would be removed from Luther’s title. What Luther realized, at long, long last, was that he did not want it, not any of it. He loved Archie Banyon dearly, would do almost anything for him, but that future was not his. It was a proxy future, a temporary one that had been allowed to run on too long.
The only problem with telling Archie that this future was impossible was that telling Archie was also impossible. And if both his choices were impossible, what was there to do?
They were coming for her.
She couldn’t open her eyes, but she knew they were in the room. She could hear them, almost like a breath, almost like
they could breathe. More, she could feel them, knowing their presence like she knew her own. These weren’t the Lions. The Lions she could handle. These were something else. They wanted her. And they were here. Why wouldn’t her eyes open? It was so much worse in the dark. A scurry across her bare foot. A twitch at her bare hip. A twinge on her oh God bare cheek. The rustling of their movements filled the room, and with just the slightest change in the air, they were on her.
Jacki finally thrust open her eyes but only appreciated the briefest moment of relief before she realized the nightmare had followed her. Numbers, black, filthy, crawling, clamoring, skittering numbers flooded the room and covered her body in a writhing, undulating mass. She leapt to her feet, barely able to keep her balance from the extra weight. The numbers stuck to her like frenzied leeches. She tried to brush them off with her hands, but they burst under her palms until she found herself covered in their viscera. She opened her mouth to scream, and the numbers poured in and down her throat.
—My God, what’s wrong with her? Is it a seizure?
—Looks like it. Can you hear me, Ms Strell? Ms Strell?
The numbers crawled down to her stomach, up her nose, and into her ears. They had somehow gotten beneath her skin, and she saw their shapes pushing out from the palms of her hands. They wormed their way beneath her eyelids, and she could feel them making their way to her brain. I’m dying, she thought. I’m going to die in terror and agony. Help me help me help me help me. She reached back for a final scream and mercifully lost consciousness.
—Give her the water.
—Ms Strell? Can you take some water? I don’t think she’s awake yet. Ms Strell? Jacki?
Jacki was aware of some vague shaking at her shoulders. Something slapped her face. You’ve got the wrong one, she
thought. Meg from the stables is the one who gets slapped.
—What was that? It looked like she was trying to talk.
—It was all slurred. I think she’s drunk.
—High more like it. I mean, that
she made, like she was seeing something horrible.
—Which one does that to you?
—Katzutakis? No, wait, I think Forum is the big hallucinating one.
—Katz is the one that makes you frantic. It must be Forum, but why would
be on Forum?
—Why do you
—Surely he can’t make her do clips.
—He makes everyone do clips.
—But we’ve got the immigration thing. What would he have against her?
—That she’s a Forum addict.
Jacki felt cold all over. She began to tremble, growing more violent as the seconds crawled on.
—Should we call him?
—No way. This is probably somehow his fault. She needs a hit.
—Where in the world are we going to find a hit? I wouldn’t even know what one looks like.
—If she’s addicted, she’s got to have some on her.
—I mean check her desk.
Jacki could hear some sounds in the background, echoes wrapped in echoes. The numbers were gone, but she was so cold. Her vision began to go white.
—This has to be it. And here’s a syringe.
—Give it to me.
—You’re going to inject her?
—Look at her. She’s going to die otherwise.
—Do you know how?
—No, but I can take a guess. Hold her arm still.