Lightning Page 13


“Down there,” Rebecca said, pointing toward the north end of the hall. “The next to the last room on the left.”


With a sudden rush of hope, Laura ran to the indicated room. Three beds were empty, but in the fourth, revealed by the light of a reading lamp, was a girl lying on her side, facing the wall.


“Ruth? Thelma?”


The girl on the bed slowly rose-one of the Ackersons, unharmed. She wore a drab, badly wrinkled, gray dress; her hair was in disarray; her face was puffy, her eyes moist with tears. She took a step toward Laura but stopped as if the effort of walking was too great.


Laura rushed to her, hugged her.


With her head on Laura's shoulder, face against Laura's neck, she spoke at last in a tortured voice. “Oh, I wish it'd been me, Shane. If it had to be one of us, why couldn't it have been me?”


Until the girl spoke, Laura had assumed that she was Ruth.


Refusing to accept that horror, Laura said, “Where's Ruthie?”


“Gone. Ruthie's gone. I thought you knew, my Ruthie's dead.”


Laura felt as if something deep within her had torn. Her grief was so powerful that it precluded tears; she was stunned, numb.


For the longest time they just held each other. Twilight faded coward night. They moved to the bed and sat on the edge.


A couple of kids appeared at the door. They evidently shared the room with Thelma, but Laura waved them away.


Looking at the floor, Thelma said, “I woke up to this shrieking, such a horrible shrieking . . . and all this light so bright it hurt my eves. And then I realized the room was on fire. Tammy was on fire. Blazing like a torch. Thrashing in her bed, blazing and shrieking ...”


Laura put an arm around her and waited.


“... The fire leaped off Tammy-whoosh up the wall, her bed was on fire, and fire was spreading across the floor, the rug was burning ...”


Laura remembered how Tammy had sung with them on Christmas and had thereafter been calmer day by day, as if gradually finding inner peace. Now it was obvious that the peace she'd found had been based on the determination to end her torment.


“Tammy's bed was nearest the door, the door was on fire, so I broke the window over my bed. I called to Ruth, she ... s-she said she was coming, there was smoke, I couldn't see, then Heather Doming, who was bunking in your old bed, she came to the window, so I helped her get out, and the smoke was sucked out of the window, so the room cleared a little, which was when I saw Ruth was trying to throw her own blanket over Tammy to s-smother the flames, but that blanket had caught f-fire, too, and I saw Ruth . . . Ruth . . . Ruth on fire . . .”


Outside, the last purple light melted into darkness.


The shadows in the corners of the room deepened.


The lingering burnt odor seemed to grow stronger.


“... and I would've gone to her, I would've gone, but just then the f-fire exploded, it was everywhere in the room, and the smoke was black and so thick, and I couldn't see Ruth any more or anything . . . then I heard sirens, loud and close, sirens, so I tried to tell myself they'd get there in time to help Ruth, which was a 1-1-lie, a lie I told myself and wanted to believe, and ... I left her there, Shane. Oh, God, I went out the window and left Ruthie on f-f-fire, burning ...”


“You couldn't do anything else,” Laura assured her.


“I left Ruthie burning.”


“There was nothing you could do.”


“I left Ruthie.”


“There was no point in you dying too.”


“I left Ruthie burning.”


In May, after her thirteenth birthday, Thelma was transferred to Caswell and assigned to a room with Laura. The social workers agreed to that arrangement because Thelma was suffering from depression and was not responding to therapy. Maybe she would find the succor she needed in her friendship with Laura.


For months Laura despaired of reversing Thelma's decline. At night Thelma was plagued by dreams, and by day she stewed in self-recrimination. Eventually, time healed her, though her wounds never entirely closed. Her sense of humor gradually returned, and her wit became as sharp as ever, but there was a new melancholy in her.


They shared a room at Caswell Hall for five years, until they left the custody of the state and embarked on lives under no one's control but their own. They shared many laughs during those years. Life was good again but never the same as it had been before the fire.


In the main lab of the institute, the dominant object was the gate through which one could step into other ages. It was a huge, barrel-shaped device, twelve feet long and eight feet in diameter, of highly polished steel on the outside, lined with polished copper on the inside. It rested on copper blocks that held it eighteen inches off the floor. Thick electrical cables trailed from it, and within the barrel strange currents made the air shimmer as if it were water.


Kokoschka returned through time to the gate, materializing inside that enormous cylinder. He had made several trips that day, shadowing Stefan in far times and places, and at last he had learned why the traitor was obsessed with reshaping the life of Laura Shane. He hurried to the mouth of the gate and stepped down onto the lab floor, where two scientists and three of his own men were waiting for him.


“The girl has nothing to do with the bastard's plots against the government, nothing to do with his attempts to destroy the time-travel project,” Kokoschka said. “She's an entirely separate matter, just a personal crusade of his.”


“So now we know everything he's done and why,” said one of the scientists, “and you can eliminate him.”


“Yes,” Kokoschka said, crossing the room to the main programming board. “Now that we've uncovered all the traitor's secrets, we can kill him.”


As he sat down at the programming board, intending to reset the gate to deliver him to yet another time, where he could surprise the traitor, Kokoschka decided to kill Laura, too. It would be an easy job something he could handle by himself, for he would have the element of surprise on his side; he preferred to work alone, anyway, whenever possible; he disliked sharing the pleasure. Laura Shane was no danger to the government or to its plans to reshape the future of the world, but he would kill her first and in front of Stefan, merely to break the traitor's heart before putting a bullet in it. Besides, Kokoschka liked to kill.


Three


A LIGHT IN THE DARK


On Laura Shane's twenty-second birthday, January 12, 1977, she received a toad in the mail. The box in which it came bore no return address, and no note was enclosed. She opened it at the desk by the window in the living room of her apartment, and the clear sunlight of the unusually warm winter day glimmered pleasingly on the charming little figurine. The toad was ceramic, two inches tall, standing on a ceramic lily pad, wearing a top hat and holding a cane.


Two weeks earlier the campus literary magazine had published “Amphibian Epics,” a short story of hers about a girl whose father spun fanciful tales of an imaginary toad, Sir Tommy of England. Only she knew that the piece was as much fact as fiction, though someone apparently intuited at least something of the true importance that the story had for her, because the grinning toad in the top hat was packed with extraordinary care. It was carefully wrapped in a swatch of soft cotton cloth tied with red ribbon, then further wrapped in tissue paper, nestled in a plain white box in a bed of cotton balls, and that box was packed in a nest of shredded newspaper inside a still larger box. No one would go to such trouble to protect a five-dollar, novelty figurine unless the packing was meant to signify the sender's perception of the depth of her emotional involvement with the events of “Amphibian Epics.”


To afford the rent, she shared her off-campus apartment in Irvine with two juniors at the university, Meg Falcone and Julie Ishimina, and at first she thought perhaps one of them had sent the toad. They seemed unlikely candidates, for Laura was not close to either of them. They were busy with studies and interests of their own; and they had lived with her only since the previous September. They claimed to have no knowledge of the toad, and their denials seemed sincere.


She wondered if Dr. Matlin, the faculty adviser to the literary magazine at UCI, might have sent the figurine. Since her sophomore year, when she had taken Matlin's course in creative writing, he had encouraged her to pursue her talent and polish her craftsmanship. He had been particularly fond of “Amphibian Epics,” so maybe he had sent the toad to say “well done.” But why no return address, no card? Why the secrecy? No, that was out of character for Harry Matlin.


She had a few casual friends at the university, but she was not truly close to anyone because she had little time to make and sustain deep friendships. Between her studies, her job, and her writing, she used up all the hours of the day not devoted to sleeping or eating. She could think of no one who would have gone out of his way to buy the toad, package it, and mail it anonymously. A mystery.


The following day her first class was at eight o'clock and her last at two. She returned to her nine-year-old Chevy in the campus parking lot at a quarter till four, unlocked the door, got behind the wheel-and was startled to see another toad on the dashboard.


It was two inches high and four inches long. This one was also ceramic, emerald green, reclining with one arm bent and its head propped on its hand. It was smiling dreamily.


She was sure she had left the car locked, and in fact it had been locked when she returned from class. The enigmatic giver of toads had evidently gone to considerable trouble to open the Chevy without a key-a loid of some kind or a coathanger worked through the top of the window to the lock button-and leave the toad in a dramatic fashion.


Later she put the reclining toad on her nightstand where the top hat-and-cane fellow already stood. She spent the evening in bed, reading. From time to time her attention drifted away from the page to the ceramic figures.


The next morning when she left the apartment, she found a small box on her doorstep. Inside was another meticulously wrapped toad. It was cast in pewter, sitting upon a log, holding a banjo. The mystery deepened.


In the summer she put in a full shift as a waitress at Hamburger Hamlet in Costa Mesa, but during the school year her course load was so heavy that she could work only three evenings a week. The


Hamlet was an upscale hamburger restaurant providing good food for reasonable prices in a moderately plush ambience-crossbeam ceiling, lots of wood paneling, hugely comfortable armchairs-so the customers were usually happier than those in other places where she had waited tables.


Even if the atmosphere had been seedy and the customers surly, she would have kept the job; she needed the money. On her eighteenth birthday, four years ago, she learned that her father had established a trust fund, consisting of the assets liquidated upon his death, and that the trust could not be touched by the state to pay for her care at McIlroy Home and Caswell Hall. At that time the funds had become hers to spend, and she had applied them toward living and college expenses. Her father hadn't been rich; there was only twelve thousand dollars even after six years of accrued interest, not nearly enough for four years of rent, food, clothing, and tuition, so she depended upon her income as a waitress to make up the difference.


On Sunday evening, January 16, she was halfway through her shift at the Hamlet when the host escorted an older couple, about sixty, to one of the booths in Laura's station. They asked for two Michelobs while they studied the menu. A few minutes later, when she returned from the bar with the beers and two frosted mugs on a tray, she saw a ceramic toad on their table. She nearly dropped the tray in surprise. She looked at the man, at the woman, and they were grinning at her, but they weren't saying anything, so she said, “You've been giving me toads? But I don't even know you-do I?”


The man said, “Oh, you've gotten more of these, have you?”


“This is the fourth. You didn't bring this for me, did you? But it wasn't here a few minutes ago. Who put it on the table?”


He winked at his wife, and she said to Laura, “You've got a secret admirer, dear.”


“Who?”


“Young fella was sitting at that table over there,” the man said, pointing across the room to a station served by a waitress named Amy Heppleman. The table was now empty; the busboy had just finished clearing away the dirty dishes. “Soon as you left to get our beers, he comes over and asks if he can leave this here for you.”


It was a Christmas toad in a Santa suit, without a beard, a sack of toys over its shoulder.


The woman said, “You don't really know who he is?”


“No. What'd he look like?”


“Tall,” the man said. “Quite tall and husky. Brown hair.” “Brown eyes too,” his wife said. “Soft-spoken.” Holding the toad, staring at it, Laura said, “There's something about this . . . something that makes me uneasy.” “Uneasy?” the woman said. “But it's just a young man who's smitten with you, dear.” “Is it?” she wondered. Laura found Amy Heppleman at the salad preparation counter and sought a better description of the toad-giver.


“He had a mushroom omelet, whole-wheat toast, and a Coke.” Amy said, using a pair of stainless-steel tongs to fill two bowls with j salad greens. “Didn't you see him sitting there?” ' “I didn't notice him, no.” “Biggish guy. Jeans. A blue-checkered shirt. His hair was cut too short, but he was kinda cute if you like the moose type. Didn't talk much. Seemed kinda shy.” “Did he pay with a credit card?” “No. Cash.” “Damn,” Laura said.


She took the Santa toad home and put it with the other figurines. The following morning, Monday, as she left the apartment, she found yet another plain white box on the doorstep. She opened a reluctantly. It contained a clear glass toad.


When Laura returned from the UCI campus that same afternoon Julie Ishimina was sitting at the dinette table, reading the daily paper and drinking a cup of coffee. “You got another one,” she said, pointing to a box on the kitchen counter. ' 'Came in the mail." Laura tore open the elaborately wrapped package. The sixth toad was actually a pair of toads-salt and pepper shakers.


She put the shakers with the other figurines on her nightstand and for a long while she sat on the edge of her bed, frowning at that growing collection.


At five o'clock that afternoon she called Thelma Ackerson in Los Angeles and told her about the toads.


Lacking a trust fund of any size, Thelma had not even considered college, but as she said, that was no tragedy because she was not interested in academics. Upon completing high school, she had gone straight from Caswell Hall to Los Angeles, intent upon breaking into show business as a stand-up comic.

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