Father Tom spoke reassuringly to his patient: “I have antibiotic powder, capsules of various penicillin derivatives, but no effective painkiller. I wish I did. But this world is about suffering, isn’t it? This vale of tears. You’ll be all right. You’ll be just fine. I promise. God will look after you through me.”
Whether the rector of St. Bernadette’s was a saint or villain, one of the few rational people left in Moonlight Bay or way insane, I couldn’t judge. I didn’t have enough facts, didn’t understand the context of his actions.
I was certain of only one thing: Even if Father Tom might be rational and doing the right thing, his head nevertheless contained enough loose wiring to make it unwise to let him hold the baby during a baptism.
“I’ve had some very basic medical training,” the priest told his patient, “because for three years after seminary, I was called to a mission in Uganda.”
I thought I heard the patient: a muttering that reminded me—but not quite—of the low cooing of pigeons blended with the more guttural purr of a cat.
“I’m sure you’ll be all right,” Father Tom continued. “But you really must stay here a few days so I can administer the antibiotics and monitor the healing of the wound. Do you understand me?” With a note of frustration and despair: “Do you understand me at all?”
As I was about to lean to the right and peer around the wall of boxes, the Other replied to the priest. The Other: That was how I thought of the fugitive when I heard it speaking from such close range, because this was a voice that I was not able to imagine as being either that of a child or a monkey, or of anything else in God’s Big Book of Creation.
I froze. My finger tightened on the trigger.
Certainly it sounded partly like a young child, a little girl, and partly like a monkey. It sounded partly like a lot of things, in fact, as though a highly creative Hollywood sound technician had been playing with a library of human and animal voices, mixing them through an audio console until he’d created the ultimate voice for an extraterrestrial.
The most affecting thing about the Other’s speech was not the tonal range of it, not the pattern of inflections, and not even the earnestness and the emotion that clearly shaped it. Instead, what most jolted me was the perception that it had meaning. I was not listening merely to a babble of animal noises. This was not English, of course, not a word of it; and although I’m not multilingual, I’m certain it wasn’t any foreign tongue, either, for it was not complex enough to be a true language. It was, however, a fluent series of exotic sounds crudely composed like words, a powerful but primitive attempt at language, with a small polysyllabic vocabulary, marked by urgent rhythms.
The Other seemed pathetically desperate to communicate. As I listened, I was surprised to find myself emotionally affected by the longing, loneliness, and anguish in its voice. These were not qualities that I imagined. They were as real as the boards beneath my feet, the stacked boxes against my back, and the heavy beating of my heart.
When the Other and the priest both fell silent, I wasn’t able to look around the corner. I suspected that whatever the priest’s visitor might look like, it would not pass for a real monkey, as did those members of the original troop that had been tormenting Bobby and that Orson and I had encountered on the southern horn of the bay. If it resembled a rhesus at all, the differences would be greater and surely more numerous than the baleful dark-yellow color of the other monkeys’ eyes.
If I was afraid of what I might see, my fear had nothing whatsoever to do with the possible hideousness of this laboratory-born Other. My chest was so tight with emotion that I couldn’t draw deep breaths, and my throat was so thick that I could swallow only with effort. What I feared was meeting the gaze of this entity and seeing my own isolation in its eyes, my own yearning to be normal, which I’d spent twenty-eight years denying with enough success to be happy with my fate. But my happiness, like everyone’s, is fragile. I had heard a terrible longing in this creature’s voice, and I felt that it was akin to the sharp longing around which I had ages ago formed a pearl of indifference and quiet resignation; I was afraid that if I met the Other’s eyes, some resonance between us would shatter that pearl and leave me vulnerable once more.
I was shaking.
This is also why I cannot, dare not, will not express my pain or my grief when life wounds me or takes from me someone I love. Grief too easily leads to despair. In the fertile ground of despair, self-pity can sprout and thrive. I can’t begin to indulge in self-pity, because by enumerating and dwelling upon my limitations, I will be digging a hole so deep that I’ll never again be able to crawl out of it. I’ve got to be something of a cold bastard to survive, live with a chinkless shell around my heart at least when it comes to grieving for the dead. I’m able to express my love for the living, to embrace my friends without reservation, to give my heart without concern for how it might be abused. But on the day that my father dies, I must make jokes about death, about crematoriums, about life, about every damn thing, because I can’t risk—won’t risk—descending from grief to despair to self-pity and, finally, to the pit of inescapable rage and loneliness and self-hatred that is freakdom. I can’t love the dead too much. No matter how desperately I want to remember them and hold them dear, I have to let them go—and quickly. I have to push them out of my heart even as they are cooling in their deathbeds. Likewise, I have to make jokes about being a killer, because if I think too long and too hard about what it really means to have murdered a man, even a monster like Lewis Stevenson, then I will begin to wonder if I am, in fact, the freak that those nasty little shitheads of my childhood insisted that I was: the Nightcrawler, Vampire Boy, Creepy Chris. I must not care too much about the dead, either those whom I loved or those whom I despised. I must not care too much about being alone. I must not care too much about what I cannot change. Like all of us in this storm between birth and death, I can wreak no great changes on the world, only small changes for the better, I hope, in the lives of those I love, which means that to live I must care not about what I am but about what I can become, not about the past but about the future, not even so much about myself as about the bright circle of friends who provide the only light in which I am able to flourish.
I was shaking as I contemplated turning the corner and facing the Other, in whose eyes I might see far too much of myself. I was clutching the Glock as if it were a talisman rather than a weapon, as though it were a crucifix with which I could ward off all that might destroy me, but I forced myself into action. I leaned to the right, turned my head—and saw no one.
This perimeter passage along the south side of the attic was wider than the one along the east flank, perhaps eight feet across; and on the plywood floor, tucked in against the eaves, was a narrow mattress and a tangle of blankets. The light came from a cone-shaped brass desk lamp plugged into a GFI receptacle that was mounted on an eave brace. Beside the mattress were a thermos, a plate of sliced fruit and buttered bread, a pail of water, bottles of medication and rubbing alcohol, the makings for bandages, a folded towel, and a damp washcloth spotted with blood.
The priest and his guest seemed to have vanished as if they had whispered an incantation.
Although immobilized by the emotional impact of the longing in the Other’s voice, I could not have been standing at the end of the box row for more than a minute, probably half a minute, after the creature had fallen silent. Yet neither Father Tom nor his visitor was in sight in the passageway ahead.
Silence ruled. I heard not a single footfall. Not any creak or pop or tick of wood that sounded more significant than the usual faint settling noises.
I actually looked up into the rafters toward the center of the space, overcome by the bizarre conviction that the missing pair had learned a trick from the clever spider and had drawn themselves up gossamer filaments, curling into tight black balls in the shadows overhead.
As long as I stayed close to the wall of boxes on my right side, I had sufficient headroom to stand erect. Soaring from the eaves to my left, the sharply pitched rafters cleared my head by six or eight inches. Nevertheless, I moved defensively in a modified crouch.
The lamp was not dangerously bright, and the brass cone focused the light away from me, so I moved to the mattress for a closer look at the items arrayed beside it. With the toe of one shoe, I disturbed the tangled blankets; although I’m not sure what I expected to find under them, what I did find was a lot of nothing.
I wasn’t concerned that Father Tom would go downstairs and find Orson. For one thing, I didn’t think he was finished with his work up here in the attic. Besides, my criminally experienced mutt would have the street savvy to duck for cover and lie low until escape was more feasible.
Suddenly, however, I realized that if the priest went below, he might fold away the ladder and close the trapdoor. I could force it open and release the ladder from above, but not without making almost as much racket as Satan and his conspirators had made when cast out of Heaven.
Rather than follow this passage to the next entrance to the maze and risk encountering the priest and the Other on the route they might have taken, I turned back the way I’d come, reminding myself to be light on my feet. The high-quality plyboard had few voids, and it was screwed rather than nailed to the floor joists, so I was virtually silent even in my haste.
When I turned the corner at the end of the row of boxes, plump Father Tom loomed from the shadows where I had stood listening only a minute or two ago. He was dressed neither for Mass nor bed, but was wearing a gray sweat suit and a sheen of sweat, as if he’d been fending off gluttonous urges by working out to an exercise video.
“You!” he said bitterly when he recognized me, as though I were not merely Christopher Snow but were the devil Baal and had stepped out of a conjurer’s chalk pentagram without first asking permission or obtaining a lavatory pass.
The sweet-tempered, jovial, good-natured padre that I had known was evidently vacationing in Palm Springs, having given the keys of his parish to his evil twin. He poked me in the chest with the blunt end of a baseball bat, hard enough to hurt.
Because even XP-Man is subject to the laws of physics, I was rocked backward by the blow, stumbled into the eaves, and cracked the back of my head against a rafter. I didn’t see stars, not even a great character actor like M. Emmet Walsh or Rip Torn, but if not for the cushion provided by my James Dean thatch of hair, I might have gone out cold.
Poking me in the chest again with the baseball bat, Father Tom said, “You! You!”
Indeed, I was me, and I had never tried to claim otherwise, so I didn’t know why he should be so incensed.
“You!” he said with a new rush of anger.
This time he rammed the damn bat into my stomach, which winded me but not as badly as it might have if I hadn’t seen it coming. Just before the blow landed, I sucked in my stomach and tightened my abdominal muscles, and because I’d already thrown up what was left of Bobby’s chicken tacos, the only consequence was a hot flash of pain from my groin to my breastbone, which I would have laughed off if I’d been wearing my armored spandex superhero uniform under my street clothes.
I pointed the Glock at him and wheezed threateningly, but he was either a man of God with no fear of death—or he was nuts. Gripping the bat with both hands to put even more power behind it, he poked it savagely at my stomach again, but I twisted to the side and dodged the blow, although unfortunately I mussed my hair on a rough-sawn rafter.
I was nonplussed to be in a fight with a priest. The encounter seemed more absurd than frightening—though it was plenty frightening enough to make my heart race and to make me worry that I’d have to return Bobby’s jeans with urine stains.
“You! You!” he said more angrily than ever and seemingly with more surprise, too, as though my appearance in his dusty attic were so outrageous and improbable that his astonishment would grow at an ever-accelerating rate until his brain went nova.
He swung at me again. He would have missed this time even if I hadn’t wrenched myself away from the bat. He was a priest, after all, not a ninja assassin. He was middle-aged and overweight, too.
The baseball bat smashed into one of the cardboard boxes with enough force to tear a hole in it and knock it out of the stack into the empty aisle beyond. Although woefully ignorant of even the basic principles of the martial arts and not gifted with the physique of a mighty warrior, the good father could not be faulted for a lack of enthusiasm.
I couldn’t imagine shooting him, but I couldn’t very well allow him to club me to death. I backed away from him, toward the lamp and the mattress in the wider aisle along the south side of the attic, hoping that he would recover his senses.
Instead, he came after me, swinging the bat from left to right, cutting the air with a whoosh, then immediately swinging it right to left, chanting “You!” between each swing.
His hair was disarranged and hanging over his brow, and his face appeared to be contorted as much by terror as by rage. His nostrils dilated and quivered with each stentorian breath, and spittle flew from his mouth with each explosive repetition of the pronoun that seemed to constitute his entire vocabulary.
I was going to end up radically dead if I waited for Father Tom to recover his senses. If he even had senses left, the priest wasn’t carrying them with him. They were put away somewhere, perhaps over in the church, locked up with a splinter of a saint’s shinbone in the reliquary on the altar.
As he swung at me again, I searched for that animal eyeshine I’d seen in Lewis Stevenson, because a glimpse of that uncanny glow might justify meeting violence with violence. It would mean I was battling not a priest or an ordinary man, but something with one foot in the Twilight Zone. But I couldn’t see a glimmer. Perhaps Father Tom was infected with the same disease that had corrupted the police chief’s mind, but if so, he didn’t seem as far gone as the cop.
Moving backward, attention on the baseball bat, I hooked the lamp cord with my foot. Proving myself a worthy victim for an aging, overweight priest, I fell flat on my back, drumming a nice paradiddle on the floor with the back of my skull.
The lamp fell over. Fortunately, it neither went out nor flung its light directly into my sensitive eyes.
I shook my foot out of the entangling cord and scooted backward on my butt as Father Tom rushed in and hammered the floor with the bat.
He missed my legs by inches, punctuating the assault with that now-familiar accusation in the second-person singular: “You!”
“You!” I said somewhat hysterically, casting it right back at him as I continued to scoot out of his way.