"You can say that again."
"Okay." Sam kicked a pebble across the sidewalk and into a bush. "This has been a really crummy day."
"Hey, look," Arnie hissed. "It's Alyson."
Both boys swiveled to watch their blonde classmate bat enormous black eyelashes at a grad student. Even though she was way too young for him, the bearded young man grinned and nodded as they talked, his own eyes glued to her long legs and thigh-high leather skirt. After a moment, he offered to carry her textbooks. Sam and Arnie silently watched, round-eyed. As the pair walked past, Alyson tossed her head, flipping her bangs up and back. "Tadpoles."
"If we're tadpoles, that guy must be a barracuda," Arnie muttered.
Sam shrugged. He was more interested in brooding over his troubles than in gossiping about a girl. Basically, girls should be eliminated as unnecessary. Except for mothers, of course. The only advantage to being at college so far was that his baby sister couldn't get into his stuff and read his diary.
First, he was homesick. Then he saw that--that--whatever it was. Miss Fritz said it was a trick of the light, but he never heard of a trick of the light that moved around a classroom and stuck its head through a wall. Tomorrow, he was going to look up optical illusions at the library. Anyway, the next thing was calculus, and Professor Groomes. He made Scrooge look like a nice guy. It was obvious that he resented having to teach them. He hated kids, and he really hated Sam Beckett, or 'Master Beckett,' as he kept sneering. After that class, he was really, really, supremely homesick.
"Come on, Arnie. Let's go play piano."
"What do you mean, 'what for'? We're supposed to practice two or three hours every day." Besides, playing something loud and dramatic, pounding on the keys, would make him feel better.
"Haven't you had enough school for one day? I mean, man, that old poop was really hard on you, just because you proved he did that problem wrong."
"I know," Sam said, looking in vain for another stone to kick. "But we could work on that idea of yours."
Arnie froze, his eyes darting from one side to another, as if he were looking for cue cards. "Idea?"
"Yeah, you know. The space opera."
"Oh, right. That."
"If we get something written, even if it's not very good, we could probably get extra credit for it."
"Maybe later, okay? Today, let's you and me go downtown."
"I dunno. To take a break from all this hard work."
"We haven't even done our homework yet."
"We can go shopping. We can have fun. You do remember what fun is, right?"
Sam threw his buddy a sour look. As if he hadn't had a rotten day to start with, he also had to worry about Arnie. All day, Arnie had been acting really funny. Not funny ha-ha, but funny strange. Yesterday he ate, talked, and dreamed opera; today, he couldn't care less. "Yeah. I remember what fun is."
"All right, then. Let's go, my man. Time's a-wasting."
Well, why not? It had been a crummy day. And he could practice piano tonight after supper, instead of watching the dorm T.V. Mom and Dad were sending him his allowance every week, just as if he was still doing his chores on the farm, so maybe he could buy some candy and comic books and stuff.
Arnie seemed to like stopping at the drugstore for the candy and comics, but he got real fidgety when they found the best place of all, The Cat's Meow, a big used bookstore just crammed with great stuff. Even when Sam showed him a section on opera, Arnie just acted bored.
"Wonder how come they call it the cat's meow. Think maybe they have a big section on cats?"
"There's the reason." Arnie pointed at a fat brindle cat sitting on top of a stack of hardbacks. "All the books are probably covered with cat hairs and piss."
"I hate cats."
"I thought you said you had a cat back home."
"Oh. Okay, but I don't like other people's cats. Shoo. Get outta here."
The cat yawned, then hopped off the books and deliberately stropped itself on Arnie's legs, rubbing its scent onto him. Sam grinned at Arnie's disgusted look. Back home, his own cats, Donner and Blitzen, always made a fuss over people who hated them, too. Cats liked to sneer.
"Why don't you wait outside, if they bother you? I wanna browse."
"Come on, Sam, how long does it take you to pick out a dumb book?"
(Guess I'll have to come back on Saturday and spend the day looking for the best buys.)
On impulse, Sam snatched up a couple of Ace doubles from the science fiction section. The cat followed them up the aisle to the cash register, mewing plaintively.
"Are you buying these for your big brother, son?" the matronly storekeeper asked, peering over her half-glasses at them.
"No, he reads Westerns mostly."
"Your father, then?"
"They're for me."
"Aren't they a little old for you, dear? Oh. Are you one of the geniuses in that accelerated learning program?"
His face felt like a strawberry ready to be picked. "Yeah. Kind of. We both are."
"How nice. Don't work too hard this summer, boys. I mean, after all, they say the line between genius and madness is so thin, don't they? In this heat, working when you should be playing--"
"Oh, reading's not work. It's lots easier than feeding cows," Sam assured her. Arnie was jiggling by the door, like he had to go the bathroom real bad, so he stuffed the rest of his allowance into his blue jeans pocket. "Bye, now."
The cat tried to slip out the door with them, but Arnie kicked it back inside. "Stupid cat."
The little bell over the door jingled, and when Sam looked back, the cat was hissing, staring at them through the glass door.
"That was mean."
"No, letting the cat get out and get mushed flat by a car, that would be mean. Jeez, can you believe that old lady?"
Arnie crossed his eyes. In a falsetto, he mimicked her. "'The line between genius and madness is so thin.' Like we're a couple of psychotics or something."
"Aw, she didn't mean anything by it."
"Doesn't it make you mad?"
"Nope." Sam cast him a worried look. "You know, Arnie, you sure are acting weird."
"No, I'm not."
"Yes, you are. You're not acting like yourself."
"Oh, yeah? Then who am I acting like? Dick Van Dyke?"
"That's not what I mean. It's just--you--"
Arnie socked him in the shoulder. "Race you to the Carlyle Shoppe. Last one there's a psychotic."
He was running before Sam could object, and then Sam had to run, too, because no way was he losing a challenge like that. Beating Arnie should've been a cinch, because the only exercise Arnie ever got was pushing the pedals on a piano, but they hit the door in a dead heat, gasping for breath, and then each tried to wriggle through the door first, giggling when their shoulders got jammed in the doorway.
The Carlyle was a pretty expensive place, but maybe he could find a small present to take home to Mom when school let out, if he was careful with his money. Mom loved pretty things, but mostly she spent her money on her kids. What would she like? It was hard to tell, because whenever you asked her what she wanted for her birthday or for Christmas, she'd say stuff like, "For my children to be happy." How do you buy that and wrap it up?
Pondering it, Sam wandered up and down the aisles until he rounded a corner and came face-to-face with a dead body.
Okay, so it wasn't exactly a dead body, still it was weird to find a skeleton smiling at you, stretched out on a carved wooden coffeetable with its skull propped up on one bony hand. It was only the size of one of Katie's baby dolls, but it was perfectly proportioned and anatomically correct. What really utterly enthralled him was the way you could take it apart, piece by piece, and find out where all the internal organs were. There were even tiny black labels on each bone or organ, telling you what it was.
"You like that, huh?" Arnie asked.
"Boy, it sure takes a genius to figure that out."
"So buy it."
"I can't afford that. Did you see the price tag?"
"Won't your parents buy you stuff?"
"Sure, but this accelerated ed stuff costs a lot of money, and running a dairy farm costs a whole lot more. They've already spent too much on me this summer. Tom and Katie--well, they need stuff, too, you know."
"Not stuff like this, though. This is for school, not just for fun."
Sam ran one finger down the exquisitely detailed spine. "Even if I saved every penny of my allowance all summer, I couldn't buy it."
"So don't buy it. Use the five-fingered discount."
"Take it. Hide it in your bookbag, and we'll leave before they notice it's gone."
This had to be more joking around, only Arnie's face was serious. It made Sam feel a little sick, the way his eyes looked, all eager and mean at the same time. He said weakly, "But that's wrong."
"You know what's really wrong? Punishing someone just because he's poor. You deserve this thing, lots more than some college guy rich enough to afford it."
Sam lifted one shoulder. "My dad says life's not always fair."
"So? Does that mean you don't do something to make it more fair?"
"Stealing doesn't make life more fair. It makes things worse for the people you stole from."
"What people? This is a big fancy store. It won't even cost 'em a penny. They've got insurance."
He didn't know exactly how to answer that; all he knew, down deep inside, was that stealing was wrong, even if who you stole from was rich or had insurance or didn't notice anything was gone. Staring back at the anatomical model, Sam shook his head. "No."
Arnie's voice was soft as a kitten's purr. "Just think, by studying something like this, you could make scientific discoveries, maybe even grow up to save lives. That's lots more important than breaking one little rule, isn't it? You deserve this. It's right."
Maybe the bookstore lady was right about the line between genius and madness, and Arnie had slipped way over that line. He sure didn't act like Arnie, or talk like Arnie. In fact, he was downright scary.
Then Arnie flashed him a quick smile. "Okay. Never mind. What say we use some of my money to buy some mirrors and tubes and make one of those things they advertise in comic books all the time? So we can look around corners and stuff?"
"We could play like James Bond."
"Can you make one of those?"
Relieved that Arnie probably was just pulling a not-very-funny joke, and all was right with his world, Sam grinned. "Betcha a pack of Double Bubble Gum I can."
Maybe tricks of the light could confuse you about perfectly ordinary buddies, too.
A voice uncannily like Darth Vader's commanded, "Thames. Explain yourself."
Right now, he wished he felt more like Han Solo and less like one of those hairy little furballs that kept getting squashed. "I have a plan!"
That apparently gave the disembodied voice something to think about. While it was silent, Al tried hard to think of a plan to offer it. You don't want to get someone or something that sounds like Darth Vader pissed at you.
"Uh, the kid can see me. Not real clear, but he sees me. We can use that." Since he wasn't sure yet what they were supposed to be doing, other than watching Arnie and Beckett, he crossed the fingers under the hand-link, hoping Darth Junior wouldn't ask for details.
"I agree," the voice decided, and he uncrossed his fingers, safe. That was a mistake. "But you behavior has been anomalous."
(Anonymous? How did he know? Was it that obvious?)
"Report to the clinic for brain wave analysis. Perhaps we can pinpoint the reason for Dr. Beckett perceiving your image."
There was a scraping noise behind him. Before he could turn around, two burly men in white lab coats grabbed him by the elbows and hauled him out of the Imaging Chamber on his heels.
"Wait! Does it have to be the clinic? Can't I take a written test or something?"
The strong-arm guys didn't bat an eyelash. Maybe they were robots. The way they neatly and wordlessly shifted sideways to get him through doorways said they'd probably done this more than once.
"Could we stop somewhere for a drink on our way? My treat?"
No reaction. Either they were robots, or teetotallers.
Resigned to his fate, he tried to snatch glimpses of his surroundings, but everything zipped past in a blur of bland walls and merging fluorescent lights. None of the people they passed paid any attention to him being manhandled by two extras from The Godfather. Nothing he saw seemed in any way familiar.
Something about the word 'clinic' spooked him. Maybe he got terrorized by a mean nurse once. Maybe he was afraid of needles.
Guido and Mario unceremoniously dropped him in a chair in a room so brightly lit that his eyes burned. Al squirmed around to check the exit, but they were leaning against the wall on either side of the door, and one of them smirked at him, so he eased back down. Suddenly remembering another appointment he had to go to probably wasn't going to do any good.
Music was playing somewhere in the back of the room, neither soothing Muzak nor ominous mad-scientist organ tunes but the hostile drone of gangsta rap. Maybe that was a good sign. If the doctor was a blood, a bro, he might go easier on his patient.
He was getting real tired of the word 'maybe.'
The harsh rap music clicked off. Al tensed up. (How do they do brain wave analysis, anyway? Are we talking surgery here?)
A man in an even more pristine white lab coat, with a stethoscope dangling from his neck, came around something that looked like a cyclotron. He wasn't black, which was a disappointment, but he looked reassuringly like a heavyset Marcus Welby, M.D., with silver hair and laugh lines around dark blue eyes. Unsmiling, he lifted Al's head with a finger under the chin.
"Yes, Doctor," another voice responded softly, and Al snatched a quick look behind him.
For the first time, he was seeing someone who actually looked good in a white lab coat. In fact, he'd like to see her wearing nothing else but a coat with big buttons begging to be opened. She was petite, not at all bosomy, but those enchanting almond eyes and that golden skin made up for it. Al beamed at her.
"If I'd known there was so someone so pretty waiting for me here, I'd have been here sooner."
Although she was trying to look serious, one corner of her small pink mouth perked up.
"I bet looking at you makes my brain waves do all sorts of crazy things."
A hint of peach brightened her cheeks, and she refused to meet his eyes again. The doctor snapped some technical gobbledy-gook at her, and when she didn't respond promptly, he casually backhanded her. Al practically swallowed his tongue.
(This guy is not Marcus Welby.)
Protesting would probably get the poor kid in more trouble. He made himself sit still while they settled a metal cap studded with electrodes on his head, watching the red handprint darken on her high cheekbone.
That did it. He boiled to his feet. "Uh-uh! You're not tying me down!"
Wrong. Guido and Mario shoved him back into the chair and strapped his wrists down so tightly that his fingers went numb. He then spent approximately half an eternity being treated like some sort of lab animal. Sometimes the chair was tilted onto its back. Sometimes they played music, or popped smelly capsules under his nose, or showed him pictures: a puppy, a witch, a bloody car wreck with a decapitated man dangling from one window, a naked black woman old enough to be his mother, two black men making love, shots of weird abstract art.
Whenever anything seemed to provoke an emotion, or a hint of a memory, Al quashed it, because he was damned if he'd help these nozzles. Instead, he concentrated on hating them, every muscle aching to strike out. When the images got really confusing, he superimposed the doc's square face on them. See what their brain wave analysis made of that.
During all those hours, the only time he saw the silver-haired doctor smile was when he got to administer mild electrical shocks and a couple sharp pinches to his victim to "verify normal response to pain."
By the time they released his wrists, he was in no shape to sock the mad scientist in the nose like he deserved. Dazed and aching, Al let himself be half-dragged through the corridors and onto an elevator, his legs making only vague efforts to support him. The two gorillas seemed to know where lived, which was more than he did, because they finally slapped his palm on a raised pad set in a wall, and shoved him through electronic doors when they opened.
"Don't wait around for a tip," he wheezed, but the door was already sliding shut behind them.
"Home sweet home."
Swaying, he gazed around his home. It was a cold, lifeless, three room hotel suite, neatly furnished but quite impersonal. In the bathroom, he splashed cold water on his face, puzzled by the way his reflection still seemed so unfamiliar. He shaved this face every day. You'd think this much, at least, he would remember.
Never mind. He was too sore and too weary to worry about it now.
The only personal items he noticed as he stumbled into the bedroom were a stack of porno videos and magazines, topped with a box of condoms. He didn't pause to check any of them out. With a soft groan, he collapsed into the double bed.
(Now I know why I don't like the clinic. Sheesh. There's gotta be a way to study brain waves without hurting people. But the doc wouldn't enjoy it half as much.)
What he should do was start going through the place, looking for personal stuff to trigger memories--I.D. and snapshots and old letters. What he was going to do was get some sleep.
Al threw his right arm over his face to block out the dim overhead lighting, too limp to bother looking for the lighting controls.
(How come none of this looks like home? I live here, right? So how come I don't have models of jets, or pictures of 'em, and stuff like that in here? Maybe I just moved in and haven't unpacked yet?)
Someone knocked on the door. The odds were pretty high that it wasn't Marcus Welby doing a house call to be sure he was all right. "Yeah?"
Maybe letting whoever was out there know he was inside wasn't a good idea. He could hear the door swishing open, which meant somebody else had their palm prints programmed into his lock. Guido and Mario? Sitting up, he grabbed at the CD player by the bed and hefted it, waiting to see if he needed to maybe throw it at somebody.
"I'm sorry, Thames."
Al squinted at the figure in the doorway. Neither Guido nor Mario had an hourglass figure, and the Asian nurse wasn't stacked like that. "Who's there?"
"It's me. Teri."
Head down, she edged into the bedroom as if she really didn't want to be there. She was very young, and looked it; probably got carded every time she tried to buy a drink. The black uniform with the red lightning bolt patches didn't do much for her dusky skin. Her hair was done in a mass of braids and red beads, probably chosen to match the patch.
Her voice was soft, but urgent. "I'm sorry I wasn't here when you came back. I know I should've been here waiting for you." She swallowed hard. "Are you going to punish me?"
Oh, boy. He must be her superior officer or something. When did Air Force uniforms get changed? Did he have one of those sleek black outfits in his closet somewhere? "Of course not," he said generously, trying to figure out what she was late for. After that mini-torture session, was he supposed to attend some sort of meeting?
Teri raised her eyes from the floor for an instant. "I'm not?"
"I'm not in the mood for punishment." He waved a hand vaguely. "Go ahead and get started. I'm tired; I'll catch up later."
For an instant she just gaped at him, her face blank, as if what he had said made no sense at all, then she stared at the floor again. A breath shuddered through her. One hand rose to her neck, and began unbuttoning the uniform. A scarlet bra peeked through the open black sides.
Al rocketed off the bed. "Stop that!"
Teri cowered, like a puppy expecting to be kicked. Maybe she'd had a few sessions in the clinic herself. "I'm sorry," she whispered, her dark eyes welling with tears.
"No, I'm the one who's sorry. I didn't mean to scare you. I'm not mad, sweetie." He couldn't tell what was obviously his woman that his brain had been Mix-Mastered to the point where he mistook her for some sort of aide de camp. That was no way to win friends and influence women. Very gently, so as not to make her flinch, he touched her face, dabbing at a tear before it could slide down one round cheek. "It's just that...well, see, I always found unwrapping my presents myself to be half the fun."
With a kiss, he began to prove it.
Take me to Jane Leavell's Story Page, because I've got a hot date with Al Calavicci in another story.
I want to Leap to the main page