Lightning Page 51


“Well, of course,” Thelma said, “to you Hollywood types, anyone who reads any book, even once, is viewed either as an intellectual giant or a psychopath. Now, Laura, how did you come up with all these convincing-looking, phony papers?”


“They're not phony,” Chris said. “They're real.”


“That's right,” Laura said. “The driver's license and everything else is supported by government files. In researching Endless River, I had to find out how you go about obtaining a new identity of high quality, and I found this interesting man in San Francisco who runs a veritable document industry from the basement beneath a topless nightclub-”


“It doesn't have a roof?” Chris asked.


Laura ruffled the boy's hair and said, “Anyway, Stefan, if you look deeper into that box, you'll find a couple of bank books as well. I've opened accounts for you under your new identity at Security Pacific Bank and Great Western Savings.”


He was startled. “I can't take money from you. I can't-”


“You save me from a wheelchair, repeatedly save my life, and I can't give you money if I feel like it? Thelma, what's wrong with him?”


“He's a man,” Thelma said.


“I guess that explains it.”


“Hairy, Neanderthalic,” Thelma said, “perpetually half-crazed from excessive levels of testosterone, plagued by racial memories of the lost glory of mammoth-hunting expeditions-they're all alike.”


“Men,” Laura said.


“Men,” Thelma said.


To his surprise and almost against his will, Stefan Krieger felt some of the darkness fading from within him, and light began to find a pane through which to shine into his heart.


In late February of the next year, thirteen months after the events in the desert outside Palm Springs, Laura suggested that he come to stay with her and Chris at the house near Big Bear. He went the next day, driving there in the sleek new Russian sports car that he had bought with some of the money she had given him.


For the next seven months he slept in the guest room. Every night. He needed nothing more. Just being with them, day after day, being accepted by them, being included, was all the love he could handle for a while.


In mid-September, twenty months after he had appeared on her doorstep with a bullet hole in his chest, she asked him into her bed. Three nights later he found the courage to go.


The year that Chris was twelve, Jason and Thelma bought a getaway house in Monterey, overlooking the most beautiful coastline in the world, and they insisted that Laura, Stefan, and Chris visit them for the month of August, when they were both between film projects. The mornings on the Monterey peninsula were cool and foggy, the days warm and clear, the nights downright chilly in spite of the season, and that daily pattern of weather was invigorating.


On the second Friday of the month, Stefan and Chris went for a beach walk with Jason. On the rocks not far from shore, sea lions were sunning themselves and barking noisily. Tourists were parked bumper to bumper along the road that served the beach; they ventured onto the sand to take photographs of the sun-worshiping “seals,” as they called them.


“Year by year,” Jason said, “there's more foreign tourists. It's a regular invasion. And you notice-they're mostly either Japanese, Germans, or Russians. Less than half a century ago, we fought the greatest war in history against all three of them, and now they're all more prosperous than we are. Japanese electronics and cars, Russian cars and computers, German cars and quality machinery of all kinds . . . Honest to God, Stefan, I think Americans frequently treat old enemies better than they do old friends.”


Stefan paused to watch the sea lions that had drawn the interest of the tourists, and he thought of the mistake that he had made in his meeting with Winston Churchill.


But tell me at least one thing. Curiosity's killing me. Let's see . . . well, for instance, what of the Soviets after the war?


The old fox had spoken so casually, as if the question was one that had occurred to him by chance, as if he might as likely have asked whether the cut of men's suits would change in the future, when in fact his query had been calculated and the answer of intense interest to him. Operating on what Stefan had told him, Churchill had rallied the Western Allies to continue fighting in Europe after the Germans were defeated. Using the Soviets' land grab of Eastern Europe as an excuse to turn against them, the other Allies had fought the Russians, driving them back into their motherland and ultimately defeating them entirely; in fact, throughout the war with Germany, the Soviets had been propped up with weapons and supplies from the United States, and when that support was withdrawn they collapsed in a matter of months. After all, they had been exhausted after the war with their old ally, Hitler. Now the modern world was far different from what destiny had intended, and all because Stefan had answered Churchill's one question.


Unlike Jason or Thelma or Laura or Chris, Stefan was a man out of time, a man for whom this era was not his destined home; the years since the Great Wars were his future, while those same years were in these people's past; therefore he recalled both the future that had once been and the future that had now come to pass in place of the old. They, however, could remember no different world but this one in which no great world powers were hostile toward one another, in which no huge nuclear arsenals awaited launch, in which democracy flourished even in Russia, in which there were plenty and peace.


Destiny struggles to reassert the pattern that was meant to be. But sometimes, happily, it fails.


Laura and Thelma remained in rocking chairs on the porch, watching their menfolk walk down to the sea and then north along the beach, out of sight.


“Are you happy with him, Shane?”


“He's a melancholy man.”


“But lovely.”


“He'll never be Danny.”


“But Danny is gone.”


Laura nodded. They rocked.


“He says I redeemed him,” Laura said.


“Like grocery coupons, you mean?”


Finally Laura said, “I love him.”


“I know,” Thelma said.


“I never thought I would . . . again. I mean, love a man that way.”


“What way is that, Shane? Are you talking about some kinky new position? You're heading toward middle age, Shane; you'll be forty before too many moons, so isn't it time you reformed your libidinous ways?”


“You're incorrigible.”


“I try to be.”


“How about you, Thelma? Are you happy?”


Thelma patted her large belly. She was seven months pregnant.


“Very happy, Shane. Did I tell you-maybe twins?”


“You told me.”


“Twins,” Thelma said, as if the prospect awed her. “Think how pleased Ruthie would be for me.”


Twins.


Destiny struggles to reassert the pattern that was meant to be, Laura thought. And sometimes, happily, it succeeds.


They sat for a while in companionable silence, breathing the healthful sea air, listening to the wind sough softly in the Monterey pines and cypress.


After a while Thelma said, “Remember that day I came to your house in the mountains, and you were taking target practice in the backyard?”


“I remember.”


“Blasting away at those human silhouettes. Snarling, daring the world to tackle you, guns hidden everywhere. That day you told me you'd spent your life enduring what fate threw at you, but you were not just going to endure any more-you were going to fight to protect your own. You were very angry that day, Shane, and very bitter.”


“Yes.”


“Now, I know you're still an endurer. And I know you're still a fighter. The world is still full of death and tragedy. In spite of all that, somehow you just aren't bitter any more.”


“No.”


“Share the secret?”


“I've learned the third great lesson, that's all. As a kid I learned to endure. After Danny was killed, I learned to fight. Now I'm still an endurer and a fighter-but I've also learned to accept. Fate is.”


“Sounds very Eastern-mystic-transcendental-bullshit, Shane. 'Jeez. 'Fate is.' Next you'll be telling me to chant a mantra and contemplate my navel.”


“Stuffed with twins, as you are,” Laura said, “you can't even see your navel.”


“Oh, yes, I can-with just the right arrangement of mirrors.”


Laura laughed. “I love you, Thelma.”


“I love you, Sis.”


They rocked and rocked.


Down on the shore, the tide was coming in.


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