Midnight Page 39


She shook her head.


"He said to me, 'People aren't important. People don't count. Only things are important. Money is important, liquor is important, my stereo is important, anything that makes me feel good is important, but I'm not important. He tells me that nuclear bombs are important because they'll blow up all those nice things some day, not because they'll blow up people—after all, people are nothing, just polluting animals that spoil the world. That's what he says. That's what he tells me he believes. He says he can prove it's all true. He says that next time you see a bunch of people standing around a Porsche, admiring the car, look real hard at their faces and you'll see that they care more about that car than about each other. They're not admiring the workmanship, either, not in the sense that they're thinking about the people who made the car. It's as if the Porsche was organic, as if it grew or somehow made itself. They admire it for itself, not for what it represents of human engineering skills and craftsmanship. The car is more alive than they are. They draw energy from the car, from the sleek lines of it, from the thrill of imagining its power under their hands, so the car becomes more real and and far more important than any of the people admiring it."


"That's bullshit," Tessa said with conviction.


"But that's what he tells me, and I know it's crap, and I try to reason with him, but he's got all the answers—or thinks he has. And sometimes I wonder … if I wasn't so soured on life myself, so sick of so many people, would I be able to argue with them more persuasively? If I wasn't who I am, would I be more able to save my son?"


He stopped.


He realized he was trembling.


They were both silent for a moment.


Then he said, "That's why I say life is hard and mean."


"I'm sorry, Sam."


"Not your fault."


"Not yours either."


He sealed the Cheddar in a piece of Saran Wrap and returned it to the refrigerator while she returned to the pancake mix she was making.


"But you had Karen," she said. "There's been love and beauty in your life."


"Sure."


"Well, then—"


"But it doesn't last."


"Nothing lasts forever."


"Exactly my point," he said.


"But that doesn't mean we can't enjoy a blessing while we have it. If you're always looking ahead, wondering when this moment of joy is going to end, you can never know any real pleasure in life."


"Exactly my point," he repeated.


She left the wooden mixing spoon in the big metal bowl and turned to face him. "But that's wrong. I mean, life is filled with moments of wonder, pleasure, joy … and if we don't seize the moment, if we don't sometimes turn off thoughts of the future and relish the moment, then we'll have no memory of joy to carry us through the bad times—and no hope."


He stared at her, admiring her beauty and vitality. But then he began to think about how she would age, grow infirm, and die just as everything died, and he could no longer bear to look at her. Instead he turned his gaze to the rain-washed window above the sink. "Well, I'm sorry if I've upset you, but you'll have to admit you asked for it. You insisted on knowing how I could be such a Gloomy Gus."


"Oh, you're no Gloomy Gus," she said. "You go way beyond that. You're a regular Dr. Doom."


He shrugged.


They returned to their culinary labors.


11


After escaping through the gate at the rear of the rectory yard, Chrissie stayed on the move for more than an hour while she tried to decide what to do next. She had planned to go to school and tell her story to Mrs. Tokawa if Father Castelli proved unhelpful. But now she was no longer willing to trust even Mrs. Tokawa. After her experience with the priests, she realized the aliens would probably have taken possession of all the authority figures in Moonlight Cove as a first step toward conquest. She already knew the priests were possessed. She was certain that the police had been taken over as well, so it was logical to assume that teachers also had been among the early victims.


As she moved from neighborhood to neighborhood, she alternately cursed the rain and was grateful for it. Her shoes and jeans and flannel shirt were sodden again, and she was chilled through and through. But the darkish-gray daylight and the rain kept people indoors and provided her with some cover. in addition, as the wind subsided, a thin cold fog drifted in from the sea, not a fraction as dense as it had been last night, just a beardlike mist that clung to the trees, but enough to further obscure the passage of one small girl through those unfriendly streets.


Last night's thunder and lightning were gone too. She was no longer in danger of being flash-roasted by a sudden bolt, which was at least some comfort.


YOUNG GIRL FRIED TO A CRISP BY LIGHTNING THEN EATEN BY ALIENS; SPACE CREATURES ENJOY HUMAN POTATO CHIPS; "IF WE CAN MAKE THEM WITH RUFFLES," SAYS ALIEN NEST QUEEN, "THEY'LL BE PERFECT WITH ONION DIP."


She moved as much as possible through alleyways and backyards, crossing streets only when necessary and always quickly, for out there she saw too many pairs of somber-faced, sharpeyed men in slow-moving cars, obvious patrols. Twice she almost ran into them in alleys, too, and had to dive for cover before they spotted her. About a quarter of an hour after she fled through the rectory gate, she noticed more patrols in the area, a sudden influx of cars and men on foot. Foot patrols scared her the most. Pairs of men in rain slickers were better able to conduct a search and were more difficult to escape from than men in cars. She was terrified of walking into them unexpectedly.


Actually she spent more time in hiding than on the move. Once she huddled for a while behind a cluster of garbage cans in an alley. She took refuge under a brewer's spruce, the lower branches of which nearly touched the ground, like a skirt, providing a dark and mostly dry retreat. Twice she crawled under cars and lay for a while.


She never stayed in one place for more than five or ten minutes. She was afraid that some alien-possessed busybody would see her as she crawled into her hiding place and would call the police to report her, and that she would be trapped.


By the time she reached the vacant lot on Juniper Lane, beside Callan's Funeral Home, and curled up in the deepest brush—dry grass and bristly chaparral—she was beginning to wonder if she would ever think of someone to turn to for help. For the first time since her ordeal had begun, she was losing hope.


A huge fir spread its branches across part of the lot, and her clump of brush was within its domain, so she was sheltered from the worst of the rain. More important, in the deep grass, curled on her side, she could not be seen from the street or from the windows of nearby houses.


Nevertheless, every minute or so, she cautiously raised her head far enough to look quickly around, to be sure that no one was creeping up on her. During that reconnoitering, looking cast past the alleyway at the back of the lot, toward Conquistador, she saw a part of the big redwood-and-glass house on the east side of that street. The Talbot place. At once she remembered the man in the wheelchair.


He had come to Thomas Jefferson to speak to the fifth- and sixth-grade students last year, during Awareness Days, a week long program of studies that was for the most part wasted time, though he had been interesting. He had talked to them about the, difficulties and the amazing abilities of disabled people.


At first Chrissie had felt so sorry for him, had just pitied him half to death, because he'd looked so pathetic, sitting there ill his wheelchair, his body half wasted away, able to use only one hand, his head slightly twisted and tilted permanently to one side. But then as she listened to him she realized that he had a wonderful sense of humor and did not feel sorry for himself, so it seemed more and more absurd to pity him. They had an opportunity to ask him questions, and he had been so willing to discuss the intimate details of his life, the sorrows and joys of it, that she had finally come to admire him a whole lot.


And his dog Moose had been terrific.


Now, looking at the redwood-and-glass house through the tips of the rain-shiny stalks of high grass, thinking about Harry Talbot and Moose, Chrissie wondered if that was a place she could go for help.


She dropped back down in the brush and thought about it for a couple of minutes.


Surely a wheelchair-bound cripple was one of the last people the aliens would bother to possess—if they wanted him at all.


She immediately was ashamed of herself for thinking such thing. A wheelchair-bound cripple was not a second-class human being. He had just as much to offer the aliens as anyone else.


On the other hand … would a bunch of aliens have an enlightened view of disabled people? Wasn't that a bit much to expect? After all, they were aliens. Their values weren't supposed to be the same as those of human beings. If they went around planting seeds—or spoors or slimy baby slugs or whatever—in people, and if they ate people, surely they couldn't be expected to treat disabled people with the proper respect any more than they would help old ladies to cross the street.


Harry Talbot.


The more she thought about him, the more certain Chrissie became that he had thus far been spared the horrible attention of the aliens.


12


After she called him Dr. Doom, he sprayed the Jenn-Air griddle with Pam, so the pancakes wouldn't stick.


She turned on the oven and put a plate in there, to which she could transfer the cakes to keep them warm as she made them.


Then, in a tone of voice that immediately clued him to the fact that she was bent on persuading him to reconsider his bleak assessment of life, she said, "Tell me—"


"Can't you leave it alone yet?"


"No."


He sighed.


She said, "If you're this damned glum, why not …"


"Kill myself?"


"Why not?"


He laughed bitterly. "On the drive up here from San Francisco, I played a little game with myself—counted the reasons that life was worth living. I came up with just four, but I guess they're enough, because I'm still hanging around."


"What were they?"


"One—good Mexican food."


"I'll go along with that."


"Two—Guinness Stout."


"I like Heineken Dark myself."


"It's okay, but it's not a reason to live. Guinness is a reason to live."


"What's number three?"


"Goldie Hawn."


"You know Goldie Hawn?"


"Nope. Maybe I don't want to, 'cause maybe I'd be disappointed. I'm talking about her screen image, the idealized Goldie Hawn."


"She's your dream girl, huh?"


"More than that. She … hell I don't know … she seems untouched by life, undamaged, vital and happy and innocent and … fun."


"Think you'll ever meet her?"


"You've got to be kidding."


She said, "You know what?"


"What?"


"If you did meet Goldie Hawn, if she walked up to you at a party and said something funny, something cute, and giggled in that way she has, you wouldn't even recognize her."


"Oh, I'd recognize her, all right."


"No, you wouldn't. You'd be so busy brooding about how unfair, unjust, hard, cruel, bleak, dismal, and stupid life is that you would not seize the moment. You wouldn't even recognize the moment. You'd be too shrouded in a haze of gloom to see who she was. Now, what's your fourth reason for living?"


He hesitated. "Fear of death."


She blinked at him.


"I don't understand. If life's so awful, why is death to be feared?"


"I underwent a near-death experience. I was in surgery, having a bullet taken out of my chest, and I almost bought the farm. Rose out of my body, drifted up to the ceiling, watched the surgeons for a while, then found myself rushing faster and faster down a dark tunnel toward this dazzling light—the whole screwy scenario."


She was impressed and intrigued. Her clear blue eyes were wide with interest. "And?"


"I saw what lies beyond."


"You're serious, aren't you?"


"Damned serious."


"You're telling me that you know there's an afterlife?"


"Yes."


"A God?"


"Yes."


Astonished, she said, "But if you know there's a God and that we move on from this world, then you know life has purpose, meaning,"


"So?"


"Well, it's doubt about the purpose of life that lies at the root of most people's spells of gloom and depression. Most of us, if we'd experienced what you'd experienced well, we'd never worry again. We'd have the strength to deal with any adversity, knowing there was meaning to it and a life beyond. So what's wrong with you, mister? Why didn't you lighten up after that? Are you just a bullheaded dweeb or what?"


"Dweeb?"


"Answer the question."


The elevator kicked in and ascended from the first-floor hall.


"Harry's coming," Sam said.


"Answer the question," she repeated.


"Let's just say that what I saw didn't give me hope. It scared the hell out of me."


"Well? Don't keep me hanging. What'd you see on the Other Side?"


"If I tell you, you'll think I'm crazy."


"You've got nothing to lose. I already think you're crazy."


He sighed and shook his head and wished that he'd never brought it up. How had she gotten him to open himself so completely?


The elevator reached the third floor and halted.


Tessa stepped away from the kitchen counter, moving closer to him, and said, "Tell me what you saw, dammit."


"You won't understand."


"What am I—a moron?"


"Oh, you'd understand what I saw, but you wouldn't understand what it meant to me."


"Do you understand what it meant to you?"


"Oh, yes," he said solemnly.


"Are you going to tell me willingly, or do I have to take a meat fork from that rack and torture it out of you? The elevator had started down from the third floor."


He glanced toward the hall. "I really don't want to discuss it."


"You don't, huh?"


"No."


"You saw God but you don't want to discuss it."


"That's right."


"Most guys who see God—that's the only thing they ever want to discuss. Most guys who see God—they form whole religions based on the one meeting with Him, and they tell millions of people about it."

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