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Authors: Marc Laidlaw

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BOOK: The Orchid Eater
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“I’ll bet
they get it,” Mike said. “Don’t you, guys?”

Around the
room, warming to his method as if by a closed-circuit telepathy from which Hawk
was excluded, the others began to nod. “Yeah, really, Hawk. It’ll never happen

“Right on.”

“Yeah, man,
we see what you’re saying.”

“Leave Sal
alone,” Hawk said.

“Sure, man.”

you say.”

“What he
does is between him and Heaven, all right? You guys aren’t the ones to pass
judgment on him. You should be worried about the judgment someone’s sure as
shit going to pass on you.”

“Amen to
that,” said Scott.

They all
struggled to their feet, realizing that the worst had passed.

“Can we get
a ride, Hawk?” Howard said.

With a surge
of relief, Mike realized that everyone was finally leaving. The house was
intact. He’d had a scare, but that was all. It wasn’t going to get any worse.
He never had to see any of these guys again. Monday he’d go back to Glantz
Appliances and doodle in the storeroom, hang out with Scott, figure out how he
was going to get laid. Everything would be the same as before.

He followed
them outside, switching on the carport light. Hawk’s Jeep was a sight, with a
huge chrome-plated cross for a hood ornament, a row of glowing Jesus figurines
on the dashboard, and verse from the Bible painted all over the sides. He was
embarrassed just seeing it on the same block where he lived.

Howard and
Craig clambered into the back, squeezing in beside Stoner. Dusty took the front
seat. Hawk slipped into the jeep and the motor roared to life, deafening Mike.

“Hey!” he
shouted. “What about my key?”

Hawk sucked
in his cheeks a little, giving Mike a look he couldn’t quite read. Maybe he
knew Mike had been fooling when he pretended to agree with the sermonette;
maybe Hawk wanted him to barbecue a few minutes longer over the coals of a
slow, hellish fire, which was what his dread felt like.

sorry,” Hawk said, “I almost forgot.”

Mike put his
hand out.

shrugged at the open palm. “What’s your name? Mike? I’m sorry, Mike, somebody
else has it now. Guy named Lupe, I think. You know him?”




Mike pushed
a piece of English muffin around his plate in a smear of egg yolk and
hollandaise sauce. Everything glistened sickeningly in the morning sun,
bouncing off utensils and the silver coffee pot a waitress had left on their
table. His eyes ached, his head throbbed. For about a year after the divorce,
when his mother had moved down to Bohemia Bay, he’d had frequent migraines.
He’d taught himself to relieve them with the aid of a cheap self-hypnosis
manual. Now he felt another coming on, the first in ages, like a hot needle
jabbing deep into his right eye. Scott said the brain had no nerve endings in
it, but something in there

“Are you
going to answer me?” his mother asked.

He avoided
her eyes under the pretext of shading his face. Their table, on the patio of
the Dumas P
re restaurant,
sat in direct sunlight.

“I already
said I’m sorry,” he replied.

That’s just great. We give
you a little responsibility . . .”

“We have
extra keys,” Jack interjected. Mike looked up at him sharply, surprised to
receive any support, least of all from Jack.

“That’s not
the point,” his mother said.

“What is the
point?” Mike said, sounding shrill and false in his own ears. “It fell out of
my pocket! What’s so irresponsible about that? I looked for it, but we were
hiking around in the hills. It could be anywhere.”

“Boys get
into these things,” Jack said. “Why don’t we just finish enjoying brunch before
we get back to packing. We already did a lot last night and this morning, Mike.
You and Ryan missed the worst of it.”

His mother
looked at him steadily, as if to say, This isn’t over. “Did you remember to
tell Mr. Glantz you need tomorrow off to help us move?”

stiffened, because he had forgotten.


“Yes!” he

“Don’t you
dare crab at me. You’ve gotten out of plenty of work already. I know you have a
job now, but so do we. Jack and I only have so much time to get this done—we
can’t loaf around all summer like you kids. What’s the problem, anyway? Didn’t
you get any sleep last night?”

“I slept
fine,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong. I’ve just got sort of a headache.”

She looked
dubious, as if she somehow suspected the real story. But there was no way she
could know—would ever know—unless he told her. Which he never would.

He and Scott
had slept on the floor of the moon room, in sleeping bags borrowed from Edgar.
Or rather, Scott had slept and Mike had lain there restless and unsleeping,
thinking of the key, of the gang that had chased them through the dark streets,
of how close they had come to disaster—how he’d thought it averted, only to
find it crashing down on him again. Hawk’s failure, his own mistake. Stupid,
stupid, stupid. He’d wondered all night—worn himself out agonizing over—what
his mother would say, and what he would tell her. Instead of dreaming, he had
cooked up false but acceptable versions of reality.

He realized
with relief that the scenario for which he’d steeled himself was even now
passing. The worst was over.

Mike drained
his orange juice and looked away from the table, knowing his mother would need
time to cool off. If he managed not to talk back, things would return to normal
by the time they got home. He stared out over the patio’s low cement-block
wall, at Central Beach below. The Dumas P
re sat on the very brink of
an ocean cliff Beneath the patio, ice-plant slopes spilled down to the sand,
cut by asphalt trails where tourists and the local senior citizens, in brightly
colored sun hats, strolled. The Coast Highway was clogged with traffic;
suspended exhaust fumes and heat haze made everything look insubstantial.

that?” Jack said.

It occurred
to Mike that he’d been dimly aware of sirens for some time; but suddenly they
were all he heard. Down at the traffic light, where Old Creek Road ended at Central Beach, several police cars were turning off the street, driving down the lifeguard
road toward the boardwalk and the beach.

volleyball courts, busy all day every day in the summer, were deserted now;
players and watchers had crowded toward the police, spectators at another sort
of event.

A bright
yellow lifeguard Jeep was parked on the sand. The crowd surrounded it, though
Mike could see the cops and a few lifeguards pushing back, warning them away. Their
shouts came to him seconds after their mouths moved, disjointed by distance.
The sirens died with a whoop as the last police car arrived. Far off he heard a
fainter alarm. South down the highway, beyond the fancy beach hotels, he caught
a flicker of colored lights—hard to distinguish in the overall glare of full
noon—and spied an ambulance creeping through the heavy traffic.

“Looks like
a drowning,” Jack said.

“Oh, how
terrible,” said Mrs. James. “I hope it’s not a child.”

“I’m gonna
go see,” Mike said.

“I don’t
think that’s such a good idea,” she said. “Especially with all the work you’ve
got to do.”

“There’s a
lot of packing left,” Jack put in, siding with her now, though Mike had the
distinct impression that Jack himself would have liked to go down for a closer
look, excitement being such a rarity in Bohemia Bay.

Mike hopped
the low wall, landing in a bed of ice plant. “I’ll see you at home,” he called
over his shoulder. “Probably beat you there!”

His mother
cried out once, but weakly. He tumbled down the hillside and sprang onto a
path, startling an old woman at an easel. She had been painting the most
familiar, timeless seascape in Bohemia Bay, only to have it spoiled by cop
cars, crowds, and a hint of mortality. Like last night’s first whiff of danger,
Mike found the scene irresistible; but an old woman might see such things
differently. Incipient migraine forgotten, he rushed down the trails and
plunged into the hot sand, his tennis shoes squeaking as he ran toward the

He hated his
shoes filling up with sand—it was too much like walking in a nightmare—so he
made his way to the boardwalk as soon as he could. Joining the crowd, he heard
police and lifeguard radios crackling. Most of the onlookers were down on the
sand, gathered around the perpetual pool of brackish salt water that dribbled
from the Old Creek storm drain. They stood in the muddy sand amid puffs of
scummy foam and twists of colored nylon rope and fly-pestered heaps of rotting

Mike found a
spot on the boardwalk, right above the storm drain. Dropping to all fours, he
leaned over the edge of the planks. Voices echoed in the tunnel. A radio
hissed, turned down low. Ripples spread out into the murky pool from the
tunnel’s mouth, carrying changes of color. Someone in the drain said, “Jesus.”
Red clouds fanned from the opening, shot through with darker veins and richer
clots of color.

The people
at the water’s edge made sounds of horror and backed up onto dry sand, fearing
contact with the water. Mike stared down at a young man’s face, impossibly
white, the eyes bulging behind glass. The crowd grew stealthily more silent and
began to pass away. His reflection dwindled into darkness. Everyone must have
heard his heartbeat. And then the world turned gray, as if he and the sun had
both gone behind a cloud.

later, opening his eyes, he saw blue sky. He was flat on his back. Hot sand
burned his arms and people stood over him, staring down. Closest, kneeling, was
a lifeguard, her nose painted white with zinc oxide.

buddy, lie still for a minute. Can you tell me your name?”

She was
taking his pulse, he realized. She laid her palm on Mike’s forehead, probed his
neck with strong fingers. Mike’s skin felt clammy, feverish in the heat, but he
didn’t feel so bad that he wasn’t already admiring her gleaming tan shoulders,
the way sweat beaded and dripped toward her freckled cleavage. She was so
close. If only she would lean closer and give him mouth-to-mouth . . .

“Can you
hear me?” she said.

James,” he blurted, feeling stupid on top of everything else.

“How many
fingers do you see, Mike?”


“Okay. You
pass with flying colors. You live around here?”

“Not far. A
few blocks. What happened?”


“Really?” He
tried to sit up, but a wave of weakness washed through him. As it passed, he
remembered blood surging into the briny pool, and then clouds closing in.

Blood. Oh

He twisted
around and barfed convulsively in the sand, eyes squinched shut, humiliated to
think of the volleyball crowd standing there watching him. It was worse to
think that a second ago he’d been wanting to taste the lifeguard’s tongue in
his mouth. Now all he felt was nausea.

When he
opened his eyes again, the crowd had turned away, but the woman was still
studying him. There was some activity around the mouth of the tunnel, which was
only a few feet away. He turned his head to avoid seeing whatever it was.

better?” the lifeguard asked.

Mike nodded.
“Yeah. Was I out long?”

“Nah, less
than a minute. I was coming out of the tunnel, looked up and saw you falling.
Nearly scared me to death.”

“You caught
me? Now I’m really embarrassed.”

“Don’t be.”
She kicked sand over what looked remotely like Hollandaise sauce. “You saw more
than you could handle, that’s all.”

“I’m an
artist,” he said impulsively, light-headed but still wanting to impress her. “I
should be able to look at anything.”

“Well, we
all have our limits. Maybe you should stick to seascapes.”

He stuck out
his tongue. “Bleah.”

“Are you
going to be okay?” She was starting to look impatient.

“I guess
so.” Mike got up, brushing sand from his clothes. He felt clammy but steady
enough. “Is—Could I ask what you found in there?”

“At the risk
of making you faint again, it looks like someone was hurt in the pipe. A dog
found him, cut up pretty bad.”

“Hurt? You

“Well, the
police are keeping us out of there, so I’d say that’s a possibility.”

“Wow,” Mike
said. “Murder.”

“I better
get back to work,” she said, and grinned. “Keeping people like you from seeing
more than they want to.”

“Thanks for,
uh, catching me.”

“No sweat.”

She padded
away down the sandy bank, back toward the pipe. Fortunately, the people were
clustered so thickly around the mouth of the tunnel that Mike couldn’t really
see much of anything. He watched her legs and ass instead as she walked away
through the crowd.

Things could
have been worse. He could have landed in the bloody water, right in front of

As he headed
for the boardwalk, he saw a familiar figure running toward him across the
highway, causing the stranded tourist cars to blurt their horns.

It was Hawk.
He looked winded, messed up, as if he’d run all the way down Old Creek Road from his weird little trailer. Hawk crossed the grass and the boardwalk,
running straight to the spot where Mike had knelt and fallen in.

He stopped
at the edge of the planks and shouted down: “Where is he?”

Hawk didn’t
wait for an answer. He jumped, landing with a splash that made the crowd
recoil. Hawk thrashed around, struggling to free himself from the mud,
dragging toward the storm drain opening; he was spattered with grime and slimy
kelp. Before he could reach the pipe, a man came rushing out to meet him.

It was a
police officer, his trousers wet to the knees. He grabbed Hawk by the shoulders
and held him back.

“Lemme go,”
Hawk said. “A lifeguard radioed. I know you’ve got one of my boys in there.”

“It doesn’t
matter who’s in there. It’s none of your—”

Hawk threw
off the officer’s hands and tried to get past him. Stopping him required a full
body-block. The cop shoved Hawk up against the curved concrete wall just inside
the mouth of the pipe, and pinned him there to the crust of dead algae.

BOOK: The Orchid Eater
10.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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