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Authors: Mark Clifton

They'd Rather Be Right

BOOK: They'd Rather Be Right
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The Forever Machine


Mark Clifton & Frank Riley



ISBN: 0-88184-842-5


OCR from !foi-proofpacks Hugo 1955 Winne NovelClifton, Mark - They'd Rather Be Right
with Riley, Frank}[vt The Forever Machine].tif . Spell-checked.


Part I. Crazy Joey

Joey pulled the covers up over his head, trying to shut out the whispers which filled the room. But even with the pillow over his head, their shrill buzz entered up through the roof of his mouth, tasting acrid and bitter, spinning around in his brain. Fingers in his ears simply made the words emerge from a sensation of cutting little lights into words.

It worries me, Madge, more and more, the way that boy carries on. I was hoping he’d outgrow it, but he don’t.”

His father’s voice was deep and petulant, sounding from the pillow on his side of the bed there in the other room. “Hanging back, all the time. Not playing with the other kids, staying out of school, claiming the teachers don’t like him. It ain’t natural, Madge. I don’t like it.”

“Now you’re working yourself up again, Bob.” His mother’s patient voice from her side of the bed cut across the deeper tones. “What good is it going to do you?”

“Did some good when I thrashed him.” His father spoke sharply, and a little louder. Joey could hear the buzz of the voice itself coming through the walls. “Stopped him talking about whispers. I tell you I ain’t gonna have a kid of mine acting crazy. I passed a bunch of the little brats on the way home tonight.

Crazy Joey’s father,’ I heard one of them say. I won’t stand for it. Either Joey learns to stand up and be a real boy, or—”

“Or what, Bob?” His mother’s voice had both defiance and fear in it.

“Or ... oh, I don’t know what—” His father’s voice trailed off in disgust. “Let’s go to sleep, Madge.

I’m tired.”

Joey felt his mother’s lift of hope. Perhaps she could keep awake a little longer, waiting for his deep breathing to assure her he was asleep, so she could move from her extreme edge of the bed and be more comfortable—without touching him.

The deep, rasping sensation of his father’s weary hopelessness; desire, but not for her. Drab and uninteresting. He was still young enough, still a man; tied down tight to this drab.

The lighter, more delicate thought of his mother. She was still young enough, still hungered for romance. The vision of a green slope of hill, starred with white daisies, the wind blowing through her flowing hair, a young man striding on firm brown legs up the hill toward her, his sloping shoulders swinging with his stride. Tied to this
her, instead.

The heavier rasp of thought demanded
Those girls flouncing down the hallway of the school; looking out of the corners of their eyes at the boys; conscious only of the returning speculative stares; unconscious of the old janitor who was carrying baskets of wastepaper down the hall behind them.

Joey buried his head deeper into the bed beneath his pillow. The visions were worse than the whispers. He did not fully understand them, but was overwhelmed by them, by a deep sense of shame that he had partici-pated in them.

He tried to will his mind to leave the visions, and there leaped, with startling clarity, the vision of his father holding him down on the bed, a terrible rage in his face, shouting at him.

“How come you know how I looked at those two girls in the hall at school? You spying little sneak!”

The blows. The horror. The utter confusion.

And the imaginings were worse than the visions. So clear, so intricately clear, they become memories. Memories as sharp and clear as any other reality. Eight-year-old Joey could not yet know the reasoned verbalization: an imaginary experience can have as profound an effect upon personality development as a real one. He knew only that it was so.

But he must never tell about this beating, must never tell anyone. Others wouldn’t have any such memory and they would say he was crazy. He must store it away, with all the other things he had stored away. It was hard to keep remembering which were the ones others could remember, and which were his alone. Each was as real as the other, and that was the only distinction.

Sometimes he forgot, and talked about the wrong things. Then they called him a little liar. To keep away from that he always had to go into their minds first, and that was sometimes a terrible and frightening thing; their memories were not the same as his, and often hard to recognize.

Then it was morning. The whispers were all about him again. In half-awake reverie, he shuddered over the imagined beating he had received. He twisted and turned under the covers, trying to escape the
also twisting
threads of thought between his father and mother in the kitchen. The threads became ropes; gray-green and alive; affection turned resentment coiling and threatening; held back from striking only by hopelessness.
into the gray morning light seeping in
around the shade at his window. He tried to trace the designs on the wallpaper, but they, too, became twisting worms of despair.

And transferred again into the memory of the beating. Involuntarily, a sob escaped his throat, aloud.

“Madge!” This was no whisper, but his father shouting at his mother. “That kid is in there sniveling again. I’ll give him something to bawl about.” The sudden terrible rage was a dead black smothering blanket.

“Bob!” The sharp fear in his mother’s voice stopped the tread of feet across the kitchen floor, changing the rage back to hopelessness.

He felt his father go away from his door, back to his place at the table. He felt the sudden surge of resolution in his father.

“Madge. I’m going to talk to Dr. Ames this morning. He gets in early. He’s the head of the psychology department. I’m going to talk to him about Joey.”

Joey could feel the shame of his father at such a revelation. The shame of saying, “Dr. Ames, do you think my son is crazy?”

“What good will that do?” His mother’s voice was resentful, fearful; afraid of what the doctor might say.

“I’ll tell him all about Joey. He gives loony tests, and I’m going to find out about—”

“Bob! Saying such a thing about your own son. It’s—it’s sinful!” His mother’s voice was high, and her chair creaked as she started to move from her side of the table.

“Take it easy, Madge,” his father warned her. ‘I’m not saying he’s crazy, mind you. I just want to get to the bottom of it. I want to know. I want a normal boy.” Then, desperately: “Madge, I just want a boy!” The frustration, the disappointment welled over Joey as if it were his own.

“I’ll talk to the doctor,” his father was continuing, reasoning with her. “I’ll try to get him to see Joey.

I’m janitor of his building, and he shouldn’t charge me anything. Maybe he’ll see you and Joey this afternoon. I’ll call you on the phone if he will. You be ready to take Joey up there if I should call.” The voice was stern, unbending.

“Yes, Bob.” His mother recognized the inflexibility of the decision.

“Where’s my lunch pail, then?” his father asked. “I’ll get to work early, so I can have a talk with Dr.

Ames before class time.”

“On the sink, Bob. Where it always is,” his mother answered patiently.

The sudden rage again. Always is. Always is. That’s the trouble, Madge. Everything always is. Just like
yesterday, and the
That’s why it’s all so hopeless.
But the
bitterness switched suddenly to pity.

“Don’t worry so, Madge.” There was a tone of near affection in his father’s voice. Belated consideration. Joey felt his father move around the table, pat his mother awkwardly on the shoulder. But still the little yellow petals of affection were torn and consumed by the gray-green worms of resentment.

“Bob—” His mother spoke to the closing door. The footsteps, heavy, went on down the back steps of their house, each a soundless impact upon Joey’s chest.


Joey felt his mother start toward his room. Hastily he took the pillow from over his head, pulled the blanket up under his chin, dropped his chin and jaw, let his mouth open in the relaxation of deep sleep, and breathed slowly. He hoped he could will away the welts of the belt blows before she would see them. With all his might he willed the welts away, and the angry blue bruises of his imagination. All the signs of the terrible consequences of what might have been.

He felt her warm tenderness as she opened his door. Now the lights were warm and shining, clear and beautiful, unmuddied by any resentments. He felt the tenderness flow outward from her, and wrapped it around him to clear away the bruises. He willed back the tears of relief, and lay in apparent deep sleep. He felt her kneel down by his bed, and heard the whispers in her mind.

“My poor little different boy. You’re
all I’ve got.
I don’t care what they say, Joey. I don’t care what they say.” Joey felt the throb of grief arise in her throat, choked back, the tremendous effort to smile at him, to make her voice light and carefree.

“Wake up, Joey,” she called, and shook his shoulder lightly. “It’s morning, darling.” There was bright play in her voice, the gladness of morning itself. “Time all little fellows were up and doing.”

He opened his eyes, and her face was sweet and tender. No one but a Joey could have read the apprehension and dread which lay behind it.

“I sure slept sound,” he said boisterously. “I didn’t even dream.”

“Then you weren’t crying a while ago?” she asked in hesitant puzzlement.

“Me, Mom? Me?” he shouted indignantly. “What could there be to cry about?”


The campus of Steiffel University was familiar to Joey from the outside. He knew the winding paths, the stretches of lawn, the green trees, the white benches nestled in shaded nooks. The other kids loved to hide in the bushes at night and listen to the young men and women talking. They snickered about it on the school playground all the time. Joey had tried it once, but had refused to go back again. These were thoughts he did not want to see—tender, urgent thoughts so precious that they belonged to no one else except the people feeling them.

But now walking up the path, leading to the psychology building with his mother, he could feel only her stream of thought.

“Oh I pray, dear God, I pray that the doctor won’t find anything wrong with Joey. Dear God ... dear God ... don’t let them find anything wrong with

Joey. They might want to take him away, shut him up somewhere. I couldn’t bear it. I couldn’t live.

Dear God ... oh dear God—”

Joey’s thought darted down another bypath of what might be, opened by his mother’s prayer. He willed away the constriction in his throat.

“This is interesting, Mom,” he exclaimed happily. “Pop is always talking about it. But I’ve never been inside the building of a college before. Have you?”

“No, son,” she said absently. Thank heaven he doesn’t know. “Joey—” she said suddenly, and faltered.

He could read the thought in her mind. Don’t let them find anything wrong with you. Try not to talk about whispers, or imagination, or

“What, Mom?” It was urgent to get her away from her fear again.

“Joey ... er ... are you afraid?”

“No, Mom,” he answered scornfully. “Course not. It’s just another school, that’s all. A school for big kids.”

He could feel his father watching them through a basement window, waiting for them to start up the steps of the building. Waiting to meet them in the front hall, to take them up to Dr. Ames’s study. He could feel the efforts his father was making to be casual and normal about it all; Bob Carter, perhaps only a janitor, but a solid citizen, independently proud. Didn’t everyone call him “Mr. Carter?” Recognize his dignity?

Joey’s father, with his dignity upon him, met them at the doorway of the building; looked furtively and quickly at the rusty black clothing of his wife, inadvertently comparing the textiles of her old suit to the rich materials the coeds wore with such careless style.

“You look right nice, Madge,” he said heavily, to reassure her, and took her arm gallantly. When they had reached the second floor, up the broad stairs, he turned to Joey.

“I’ve been telling the professors how bright you are, Joey. They want to talk to you.” He chuckled agreeably.

Pop, don’t laugh like that. I know you’re ashamed. But don’t lie to me. Pop, I know.

BOOK: They'd Rather Be Right
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