Read The Last Book in the Universe Online

Authors: Rodman Philbrick

The Last Book in the Universe (10 page)

BOOK: The Last Book in the Universe
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O
NCE WHEN SHE WAS
four years old, Bean decided she wanted to go to Eden. She didn't know it was a real place. She thought we could walk there with our eyes closed and just pretend. “Walk me to Eden,” she asked me, “please please please?” So I took her hand and we walked out through the dark alley behind our building, and then farther, until I found a patch of sunshine among the ruins. “Do you feel that?” I said as the sun warmed our faces. “That's Eden shining on us.” Bean kept her eyes closed the whole time because she didn't want to spoil it. She never told Charly or Kay because it was our secret.

The bad thing is, from then on Bean thought I could do just about anything. I'd taken her to Eden and so I could make it stop raining, or fix a boo-boo, or make Charly and Kay stop fighting. Or make her better when she got sick. “All you have to do is close your eyes,” she'd say. “Make it happen, please?”

I wish I could close my eyes now. Then I wouldn't see the bullet marks above the door of my old family shelter, or the coils of cutwire blocking the entrance. The bullet marks and the cutwire have always been there, ever since I can remember, but they still make me sad.

At first nothing happens when I bang my fist on the door. Then an eye fills the peephole and Charly unlocks and opens up. “You,” he says, sounding surprised. Not angry or disappointed, just surprised. A moment later Kay, my foster mom, she comes running in. As soon as she sees me, her eyes fill with tears. She doesn't hug me or anything. Kay was never much for hugs. Instead, she hugs her own arms and says, “Who are these people?”

She means Ryter and Little Face.

“These are my friends,” I say, and introduce them. Little Face hides behind me, acting shy. Ryter gives a little bow, bending forward over his walking stick, and says, very formal, “Pleased to meet you, madam.”

And then Lanaya comes out from behind the door and Charly almost falls down.

“Oh,” he says. “Oh!”

I don't know if Charly has ever seen a proov up close before, and it's like he doesn't want to see her now. Or he's afraid to look but can't help staring. Probably he doesn't know what to think, or how to act.

“I brought you some edibles,” Lanaya says, holding out a small bag.

Kay takes the bag like it might explode.

“I've come to see Bean,” I manage to say. “Where is she?”

“Our daughter is sick,” Charly mutters. “Very sick.”

“She's been asking for you,” Kay says, so softly she can barely be heard. “I told her you couldn't come. I told her it was against the rules.”

Nobody tries to stop me as I cross the outer room and find the entrance to Bean's cubicle. When I draw back the curtain my hands feel so light it's like they're not connected to my arms. At first I think she's not there, because the mat on the floor looks empty. Just a couple of scruffy old blankets. And then the blankets move and a skull-like face peeks out at me, with big eyes sunk in dark circles. There are lumps on her neck from swollen glands.

“Spaz!” Bean says, wheezing. “I knew you'd come! I knew it!”

Then I'm kneeling beside the mat and pressing my wet face against her face and I'm so glad she's alive, I don't care how bad she looks. She's still Bean inside, you can hear it in her voice. But when I draw back to look at her again, she's so thin and pale and wasted away it almost stops my heart. “Oh, Bean,” I say. “I'm sorry.”

“Don't be sorry,” she says. “My dad said you couldn't come, but you know what? He sent for you anyhow.”

So Charly had paid for the latch runner. I know he did it for Bean and not for me, but I don't care. I'm here, and that's all that matters.

 

Later, Kay tells me the healer stopped coming ten days ago. “There's nothing more she can do. No one can stop the blood sickness. Bean takes her remedy, but it doesn't help.”

Ryter has settled his old bones on the floor and he looks so peaceful it makes me feel better. “The disease used to be called leukemia,” he tells us, “and I think they had real cures for it, in the backtimes.”

“What kind of cures?” I demand.

Ryter shakes his head. “Sorry, son. I've no idea. The knowledge was lost long ago.”

“Then why'd you mention it? It's just backtimer bull, that's all it is,” I say, feeling cranked enough to hit someone. I'm not really mad at the old man, I'm mad at the blood sickness. I'm mad because there's nothing we can do except wait for the worst to happen.

From Ryter's expression you can tell he regrets mentioning the cure they supposedly had before the Big Shake ruined the world. He touches a hand to his lips as if to say, you're right, let me be silent.

Lanaya looks at me and goes, “May I see her?” and so we go back into Bean's cubicle.

She's asleep, but there's a smile on her face. When she hears us enter, her eyes open and then get wider. She stares at Lanaya and says, in a hushed voice, “You're so beautiful! I've never seen anyone so beautiful. You must be from Eden.”

That's my Bean, still sharper and smarter and quicker than anybody. Sick as she is, she glommed right away that Lanaya can't look so perfect and be a normal like the rest of us.

“That's right,” Lanaya says, crouching by the mat. She puts her hand on Bean's forehead and says, “Where does it hurt?”

“It hurts everywhere, but only a little,” Bean says almost cheerfully. “Are you my brother's luvmate?”

Lanaya laughs. “No, we're not luvmates. As a matter-of-fact, I don't think your brother likes me very much. He thinks I'm spoiled and headstrong and always get my own way.”

“Lanaya brought us here,” I tell Bean. “That makes up for everything else.”

Lanaya gives me a funny look, but I can tell she likes what I said, and it's obvious she likes Bean. Of course you can't help but like Bean. Even a proov can't help it. Bean and Lanaya talk for a while, girltalk kinds of things, but they don't seem to mind that I'm listening, and every now and then Bean goes, “Isn't that right, Spaz?” or, “Remember, Spaz?” and tells a lot of funny stories about what a silly googan I used to be. Pretty soon I'm laughing along with her and for some reason I'm even starting to think she doesn't look so bad. I'm thinking maybe the healer is wrong and she'll get better like she did that last time.

“I'll leave you with your big brother,” Lanaya says, standing up. “I'll go help your mom prepare some edibles. You need to eat, Bean. We need to fatten you up.”

“I'm not hungry anymore,” she says, and my heart sinks.

When Lanaya's gone, Bean smiles at me and says, “I think she likes you. You two should get married.”

“Silly girl,” I tell her. “Proovs can't marry normals. And I'm not even a normal.”

“You are too a normal.”

“I'm a deef,” I remind her. “I've got a genetic defect, remember?”

Bean sighs and settles back on her mat. “I hate that word. ‘Deef.'”

“It's just a word,” I tell her. “Kay told me you've been taking your remedy.”

Bean looks at me. “It's only honey water and stuff to make it taste icky,” she says. “It doesn't do any good.”

“But you're going to be okay,” I tell her.

Her skinny little hands reach out from under the blankets. They feel cool and dry and weak, like old people's hands. “I'm glad you came,” she says. “I was afraid you'd never see me again, and the last thing you'd remember was me fighting with Dad, and those names he called me. You mustn't hate him, Spaz. He can't help what he did.”

“I don't hate him,” I say. “I don't hate anybody. You're going to get better, Bean. You have to.”

“Sure, I'll get better,” Bean says, but she doesn't believe it, and neither do I. “Remember how you used to tell me stories so I'd take my remedy?”

“I remember.”

“Tell me a story, Spaz. Tell me a story where everybody lives happily ever after.”

So I tell her stories until she falls asleep.

 

 

L
ATER THAT NIGHT
, after we'd made a meal of the edibles, and Little Face entertained us all by singing a song that had only one word — you can guess the word — later that night my foster sister Bean lies back on her mat and closes her eyes.

So far she hasn't opened them again.

The healer comes and runs her hands over Bean and tells us she's entered the long sleep, and that she'll probably never wake up. Ryter says the real word is “coma,” but what does it matter about words when the only person you've ever loved, and who ever loved you, is dying?

“I'm truly sorry, my boy,” Ryter says, bowing his head. “This isn't what I had in mind when we began our great adventure.”

He says it so gentle and kind, I have to run outside and kick at the bullet-scarred wall. Mostly I'm mad at myself. I knew when we left the latch that Bean didn't have much of a chance if the blood sickness came back strong. So what was I thinking? That she'd get better just because I showed up? Like I was her personal cure or something? Huh? What a mope! What a googan! What a spaz!

I'm sitting on the gutter curb, thinking the world is stupid if this is what happens to the best person ever born. What's the point if you have to live behind cutwire and steel doors and be afraid of gangs and then get sick and die because normals are too numb to remember the cure? I'm thinking maybe letting the latches burn is the right idea. Let everything burn until there's nothing left but cold ashes and clear rain.

I'm there on the gutter curb for a long time when Ryter comes out with Lanaya. They sit down on either side of me. Ryter folds his hands on his walking stick and when he speaks, his voice sounds younger than usual. “We've got a new plan,” he announces. “A new adventure. Would you like to hear it?”

I haven't got the energy to tell him I'm no longer interested in his “adventures,” so I just shrug.

“Remember I said they used to have a cure for Bean's disease?” he begins. “Well, I got to thinking that maybe the knowledge still exists somewhere, in a slightly different form.”

The old geez has my attention.

“This better be real,” I tell him. “Not some story you made up for your stupid book.”

Ryter sighs. “I think there's a real enough chance, but there's no guarantee. It will be dangerous and difficult. Lanaya has agreed to help.”

I notice Lanaya's nose is red where she's been crying. So even proovs get red noses, which means they're not as perfect as they say.

“What can you do to help?” I ask her. “What can anybody do to help Bean?”

Ryter and Lanaya look at each other, then at me.

“We can take her to Eden,” says the proov girl.

 

 

N
O SURPRISE
, Charly is against it.

“Normals aren't allowed to leave the Urb for any reason,” he says, his voice trembling. “‘A normal entering the Forbidden Zone will be canceled immediately.' That's rule number one. We learn it as children.”

“Rules are made to be broken,” Ryter tells him gently.

Charly's face gets all twisted up. “Easy for you to say, old man. But this is my daughter. Why should I let you risk her life?”

When nobody says anything, Charly has to think about it. He knows she hasn't got much life left to risk. “I don't know,” he mutters. “All I know is, normals don't go to Eden.”

He can't or won't look at Lanaya, and when she reaches out to touch his shoulder he moans like he's been hit by a splat gun.

“Charly?” she says. “That rule you learn as children? You're right, of course. A normal trying to cross on his own would be destroyed automatically. But there's no rule about entering while under my protection, as my guest. Whatever happens, I won't let them cancel her. You have my word.”

Kay hugs Charly from behind and rests her head on his shoulder. “She's already gone from us, Charly. What harm can it do?”

He goes, “It's wrong, is all,” but the fight's gone out of him and when Kay gives us the nod, he doesn't say no.

I figure we better get moving before they change their minds. Ryter comes into Bean's cubicle with me, but I don't need any help. Bean doesn't weigh much, and it's nothing at all to carry her in my arms.

Charly and Kay have gone into their own cubicle, like they can't bear to see her leave. Lanaya unbolts the locks, opens the door, and holds back the cutwire to let me pass.

“She's so thin,” says Lanaya, “so very thin and pale. We'll find a way to help her. We must.”

I carry Bean down the steps where we used to play Boss of the Latch, over the concrete patch where she chalked her hopskip, and into the waiting takvee. I keep hoping Bean will wake up a little, but she doesn't move even when the seat adjusts itself around her. As if waking up would take too much strength when it's all her frail little body can do to keep breathing.

“Bean?” I whisper. “Can you hear me? I'm taking you to Eden, like I promised when you were little. Keep your eyes closed until we get there, okay?”

I'm climbing back out of the hatch to check on Little Face when the ground starts shaking. Something is coming, and knowing what it is, what it must be, it makes my heart sink down into my boots. Sure enough the air thrums and then suddenly an army of jetbikes comes roaring out of nowhere, lighting the night with the flames of their terrible swift engines.

The battle is over and the Vandals are victorious.

They ride through the streets bare-chested to show off their wounds. They whoop and holler and pull along their roped-up prisoners. The Furies look small and ordinary with their hooded cloaks torn to rags and their skull masks gone. They look as if they never could have won, but then again Ryter says the defeated always look beaten and hopeless.

I look for Vida Bleek among the prisoners, but he's nowhere to be seen.

“LOT-TI! LOT-TI!” the Vandals chant. “LOT-TI GETTS! ALWAYS WINS! LOT-TI GETTS!”

Lotti Getts, the Latch Queen, shows off her winning ways by straddling two jetbikes. She waves her chetty blade high above her head in triumph. When she spots me, her victory smile widens. She makes a motion, and instantly the jetbikes go silent.

“Still here, Spaz boy? You had your chance to escape. What stopped you?”

I can't think of what to say.

“What's a-matter, boy, rat got your tongue?”

Ryter comes up behind me. “We're on a mission of mercy,” he explains. “Trying to save the life of a young woman.”

The Latch Queen seems amused by the idea. “And what do you want from me?” she asks. “Arms? Escort? What?”

“Nothing, my lady,” Ryter says.

“You help me trap my enemy, and ask nothing in return?”

“Only what you pledged, my lady. Free passage out of the latch. After that, we're on our own.”

The Latch Queen points her chetty blade at me. “You! Spaz boy! What do you have to say for yourself? Huh? Nothing? Have you gone mute?” she demands.

Ryter nudges me.

“I'm too scared to talk,” I say, fighting to get the words out.

You can tell the Latch Queen likes the idea. “Scared? Scared of me, Spaz boy? Why ever should you be scared of me?” she cackles.

“I'm scared my sister will die if we don't hurry.”

She snorts and makes a face, as if disgusted to hear of such weakness. “Then be off, the lot of you! Go on, get out of here!”

We're hurrying into the takvee, when the chetty blade flashes in my face and stops so close to my nose, I can smell the warm steel. “One last thing, Spaz boy,” the Latch Queen says, breathing into my ear. “Be sure and tell Billy Bizmo about my victory. Tell him to think twice before he brings battle to the White Widow.” She laughs, tickling me with the steel. “I gave myself that name, didn't you know? It suits me.”

She raises my chin with her blade.

“Look upon this,” she says, holding up a bulging sack. A velvet sack exactly large enough to hold a human skull. “Tell Billy this is what happens to my enemies. One kiss of my blade and they lose their heads!”

Her laughter follows us all the way to Eden.

BOOK: The Last Book in the Universe
11.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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