Lightning Page 33


She woke more than three hours later at 8:26, feeling rested as much because of that familial communion, provided by her subconscious as because of the sleep itself. Sunlight from a cloudless sky sparkled on the car's chrome and fell in a bright, brassy shaft through the rear window. Chris was still dozing. In the back seat the wounded man had not regained consciousness.


She risked a quick walk to a telephone booth beside the market, which was within sight of the car. With change she had in her purse, she called Ida Palomar, Chris's tutor in Lake Arrowhead, to tell her they would be away from home the rest of the week. She did want poor Ida to walk unsuspecting into the bullet-riddled, blood-spattered house near Big Bear, where police forensic teams were no doubt hard at work. She did not tell Ida where she was calling from; nevertheless, she did not intend to remain in Yorba Linda much longer.


After she returned to the car, she sat yawning, stretching, and massaging the back of her neck, as she watched early shoppers entering and leaving the supermarket a couple of hundred feet away. She was hungry. With sleep-matted eyes and sour breath, Chris woke less than ten minutes later, and she gave him money to go into the market and buy a package of sweet rolls and two pints of range juice, not the most nutritional breakfast but energy-giving.


“What about him?” Chris asked, indicating her guardian.


She remembered Dr. Brenkshaw's warning about the patient's risk of dehydration. But she also knew that she could not force-feed him liquids when he was comatose; he would choke to death. “Well . . . bring a third orange juice. Maybe I can coax him awake.” As Chris got out of the car, she said, “Might as well get us something for lunch, something that won't spoil-say a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter. And get a can of spray deodorant and a bottle of shampoo.”


He grinned. “Why won't you let me eat this way at home?”


“Because if you don't get good nutrition, you're going to wind up with a brain even more twisted than the one you've got now, kiddo.”


“Even on the lam from hired killer:;, I'm surprised you didn't rack a microwave, fresh vegetables, and a bottle of vitamins.”


“Are you saying I'm a good mother but a fussbudget? Compliment noted and point taken. Now go.”


He started to close his door.


She said, “And, Chris . . .” “I know,” the boy said. “Be careful.” While Chris was gone, she started the engine and switched on the radio to listen to the nine o'clock news. She heard a story about herself: the scene at her house near Big Bear, the shoot-out in San Bernardino. Like most news stories it was inaccurate, disjointed, and made little sense. But it confirmed that the police were looking for her throughout southern California. According to the reporter, the authorities expected to locate her soon, largely because her face was already widely known.


She had been shocked last night when Carter Brenkshaw recognized her as Laura Shane, famous writer. She did not think of herself as a celebrity; she was only a storyteller, a weaver of tales, who worked with a loom of language, making a special fabric from words. She had done only one book tour for an early novel, had loathed that dreary trek, and had not repeated the experience. She was not a regular guest on television talkshows. She had never endorsed a product in a TV commercial, had never gone public in support of a politician, and had in general attempted to avoid being part of the media circus. She observed the tradition of having a dust jacket photograph on her books because it seemed harmless, and by the age of thirty-three she could admit without severe embarrassment that she was an unusually striking woman, but she never imagined, as the police put it, that her face was widely known.


Now she was dismayed not only because her loss of anonymity made her easier quarry for the police but because she knew that becoming a celebrity in modern America was tantamount to a loss of one's self-critical faculties and a severe decline of artistic power. A few managed to be both public figures and worthwhile writers, but most seemed to be corrupted by the media attention. Laura dreaded that trap almost as much as she dreaded being picked up by the police.


Suddenly, with some surprise, she realized that if she could worry about becoming a celebrity and losing her artistic center, she must still believe in a safe future in which she would write more books. At times during the night, she had vowed to fight to the death, to struggle to a bloody end to protect her son, but throughout she had felt that their situation was virtually hopeless, their enemy too powerful and unreachable to be destroyed. Now something had changed her, had brought her around to a dim, guarded optimism.


Maybe it had been the dream.


Chris returned with a large package of pecan-cinnamon rolls, three one-pint containers of orange juice, and the other items. They ate the rolls and drank the juice, and nothing had ever tasted better.


When she finished her own breakfast, Laura got in the back seat and tried to wake her guardian. He could not be roused.


She gave the third carton of orange juice to Chris and said, Keep it for him. He'll probably wake up soon."


“If he can't drink, he can't take his penicillin,” Chris said.


“He doesn't need to take any for a few hours yet. Dr. Brenkshaw owe him a pretty potent shot last night; it's still working.”


But Laura was worried. If he did not regain consciousness, they might never learn the true nature of the dangerous maze in which they were now lost-and might never find a way out of it. “What next?” Chris asked.


“We'll find a service station, use the rest rooms, then stop at a op and buy ammunition for the Uzi and the revolver. After . we start looking for a motel, just the right kind of motel, a where we can hide out.”


When they settled in somewhere, they would be at least fifty miles from Dr. Brenkshaw's place, where their enemies had last found them. But did distance matter to men who measured their journeys strictly in days and years rather than miles?


Parts of Santa Ana, neighborhoods on the south side of Anaheim, and adjoining areas offered the greatest number of motels of the type she was seeking. She did not want a modern, gleaming Red Lion Inn or Howard Johnson's Motor Lodge with color television sets, deep-pile carpet, and a heated swimming pool because reputable establishments required valid ID and a major credit card, and she dared not risk leaving a paper trail that would bring either the police or the assassins down on her. Instead she was seeking a motel that was no longer clean enough or in good enough repair to attract tourists, a seedy place where they were sappy to get the business, eager to take cash, and reluctant to ask questions that would drive away guests.


She knew she would have a hard time finding a room, and she was not surprised to discover that the first twelve places she tried were unable or unwilling to accommodate her. The only people could be seen going from or coming to those dead-end motels were young Mexican women with babies in their arms or young children in tow, and young or middle-aged Mexican men in sneakers, chinos, flannel shirts, and lightweight denim or corduroy jackets, some wearing straw cowboy hats and some baseball caps, and all of them with an air of watchfulness and suspicion. Most decrepit motels had become boarding houses for illegal immigrants, hundreds of thousands of whom had taken up not-so-secret residence in Orange County alone. Whole families lived in a single room, five or six or seven of them crowded into that cramped space, sharing one ancient bed and two chairs and a bathroom with minimally functional plumbing, for which they paid a hundred and fifty dollars or more every week, with no linen or maid service or amenities of any kind, but with cockroaches by the thousands. Yet they were willing to endure those conditions and let themselves be outrageously exploited as underpaid workers rather than return to their homeland and live under the rule of the “revolutionary people's government” that for decades had given them no brotherhood but that of despair.


At the thirteenth motel, The Bluebird of Happiness, the owner-manager still hoped to serve the lower end of the tourist trade, and he had not yet succumbed to the temptation to squeeze a rich living from the blood of poor immigrants. A few of the twenty-four units were obviously rented to illegals, but the management still provided fresh linen daily, maid service, television sets, and two spare pillows in every closet. However the fact that the desk clerk took cash, did not press her for ID, and avoided meeting her eyes was sad proof that in another year The Bluebird of Happiness would be one more monument to political stupidity and human avarice in a world as crowded with such monuments as any old, city cemetery was crowded with tombstones.


The motel had three wings in a U-shape, with parking in the middle, and their unit was in the right rear corner of the back wing. A big fan palm flourished near the door to their room, not visibly touched by smog or limited by its small patch of ground midst so much concrete and blacktop, bristling with new growth even in winter, as if nature had chosen it as a subtle omen of her intention to seize every corner of the earth again when humankind passed on.


Laura and Chris unfolded the wheelchair and got the wounded man into it, making no effort to conceal what they were doing, as if they were simply caring for a disabled person. Fully dressed, with his wounds concealed, her guardian could pass for a paraplegic - except for the way his head lolled against his shoulder.


Their room was small though passably clean. The carpet was worn but recently shampooed, and a pair of dustballs in one corner the size of tumbleweeds. The maroon-plaid spread on the queen size bed was tattered at the edges, and its pattern was not quite busy enough to conceal two patches, but the sheets were crisp and smelled faintly of detergent. They moved her guardian from the wheelchair to the bed and put two pillows under his head.


The seventeen-inch television set was firmly bolted to a table with a scarred, laminated top, and the back legs of the table were in turn bolted to the floor. Chris sat in one of the two mismatched chairs, switched on the set, and turned the cracked dial in search of either a cartoon show or reruns of an old sitcom. He settled for Get Smart, but complained that it was “too stupid to be funny,” and wondered how many boys his age would have thought so.


She sat in the other chair. “Why don't you get a shower?”


“Then just get back in these same clothes?” he asked doubtfully


“I know it sounds like purest folly, but try it. I guarantee you'll feel cleaner even without fresh clothes.”


“”But all that trouble to shower, then get into wrinkled clothes?"


“When did you become such a fashion plate that you're offended bf a few wrinkles?”


He grinned, got up from his chair, and pranced to the bathroom is he thought a hopeless fop might prance. “The king and queen would be shocked to see me such a mess.”


“We'll make them put on blindfolds when they visit,” she said.


He returned from the bathroom in a minute. "There's a dead bug in the toilet bowl. I think it's a cockroach, but I'm not really


“Does the species matter? Will we be notifying next of kin?”


Chris laughed. God, she loved to hear him laugh. He said, “What should I do - flush him?”


“Unless you want to fish him out, put him in a matchbox, and bury him in the flowerbed outside.”


He laughed again. “Nope. Burial at sea.” In the bathroom, he hummed “Taps,” then flushed the John.


While the boy was showering, Get Smart ended and a movie on. The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island. Laura was not actually watching the set; she left it on for background, but there were limits to what even a woman on the lam could endure, so she quickly switched to channel eleven and Hour Magazine.


She stared at her guardian for a while, but his unnatural slumber depressed her. From her chair she reached to the drapes a few times, parting them far enough to scan the motel's parking lot, but no one on earth could know where she was; she was in no imminent danger. So she stared at the TV screen, uninterested in what it offered, until she was half hypnotized by it. The Hour Magazine host was interviewing a young actor who droned on about himself, not always making much sense, and after a while she was vaguely aware that he kept saying something about water, but now she was beginning to doze off, and his insistent talk of water was both mesmeric and annoying.


“Mom?”


She blinked, sat up, and saw Chris in the bathroom doorway. He'd just gotten out of the shower. His hair was damp, and he was dressed only in his briefs. The sight of his thin, boyish body-all ribs and elbows and knees-pulled at her heart, for he looked so innocent and vulnerable. He was so small and fragile that she wondered how she could ever protect him, and renewed fear rose in her.


“Mom, he's talking,” Chris said, pointing to the man on the bed. “Didn't you hear him? He's talking.” “Water,” her guardian said thickly. “Water.” She went quickly to the bed and bent over him. He was no longer comatose. He was trying to sit up, but he had no strength. His blue eyes were open, and although they were bloodshot, they focused on her, alert and observant. “Thirsty,” he said. She said, “Chris-”


He was already there with a glass of water from the bathroom. She sat on the bed beside her guardian, lifted his head, took the water from Chris, and helped the wounded man drink. She allowed him only small sips; she didn't want him to choke. His lips were fever-chapped, and his tongue was coated with a white film, as if he had eaten ashes. He drank more than a third of a glass of water, then indicated that he'd had enough.


After she lowered his head to the pillow, she put a hand to his forehead. “Not so hot as he was.”


He rolled his head from side to side, trying to look at the room. In spite of the water, his voice was dry, burnt out. “Where are we?” he said.


“Safe,” she said.


“Nowhere is safe.”


“We may have figured out more of this crazy situation than you realize,” she told him.


“Yeah,” Chris said, sitting on the bed beside his mother. “We know you're a time traveler!”


The man looked at the boy, managed a weak smile, winced in pain.


“I've got drugs,” Laura said. “A painkiller.”


“No,” he said. “Not now. Later maybe. More water?” Laura lifted him once more, and this time he drank most of what remained in the glass. She remembered the penicillin and put a capsule between his teeth. He washed it down with the last two swallows.


“When do you come from?” Chris asked, intensely interested, oblivious of the droplets of bathwater that tracked out of his damp hair and down his face. “When?”


“Honey,” Laura said, “he's very weak, and I don't think we should bother him with too many questions just yet.”

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