Verse 23: MY OPENING FAREWELL
Gloria woke from deep sleep, dimly aware of someone licking her right eyebrow. It was, on the whole, an odd but not unpleasant experience, and she decided to go with it for the moment. Most of her other sensations were even more agreeable. She ached deliciously all over, and she was not sure where she was, aside from the fact that she was not in her own bed. What did I do last night? she wondered. How much and with whom?
Then it all came crashing in on her: the concert, Zoot's questions, the backyard, the first time, the second time, the third time… and the man… Ah, yes, Lex. Maybe he was doing the licking. Maybe he had some kind of eyebrow fetish. She opened one eye to check…
…then came fully awake with a start.
The blanket pooled in her lap as she sat up. Warlock fell to the floor with a thud, shook himself, and placidly walked over to the chair where Lex sat, fully dressed. "Good morning," he said. "You slept most beautifully."
"How long have you been sitting there watching me?" she asked.
"Minutes. Hours. An eternity. It is hard to say."
Gloria noticed a neat pile of clothing on the coffee table; jeans, blouse, underwear. She picked the last up and examined the crotchband. It was intact, though she dimly recalled…
She looked at him, tacitly seeking some sort of explanation.
"I carried you inside. As beguiling as the thought of you covered with dew might have been, I did not believe you would have appreciated it. I also took the liberty of cleaning you with my Grooming amulet. I am afraid that required the use of magic. I hope you do not mind."
"Um, I guess not." Gloria had wondered why she felt so clean. By rights she should have been covered in grass, dried sweat, and other less mentionable reminders of their lovemaking.
"While I was at it, I also cleaned and mended your clothes and polished your shoes." He smiled charmingly. "In truth, it gave me something to do with my hands."
"That was very thoughtful of you, Lex." She regarded her panties for a second, considering putting them on, but realized how foolish that would be under the circumstances. She saw no reason to be self-conscious or modest with this man, for whom she had bared her body if not her innermost thoughts. Instead, she checked her watch: 7:18 am.
"So…." she began, but had to clear her throat before she could continue. Something welled up inside her, blocking the words she had been about to say. Tell him!, an inner voice commanded. Tell him how you feel before he zooms out of your life forever.
"Yes?" he prompted after a time.
"So… we should leave here by seven-thirty, just to be on the safe side. I… I don't want you to miss your ride home." She forced herself to smile.
"Gloria, there is something I need to say," Lex began, then swallowed.
"You don't have to say anything. Last night was…" she paused. Mere words seemed inadequate. She did not wish to gush like some freshly deflowered schoolgirl. That… event… had taken place when she was sixteen, and had left her feeling more confused than anything else. None of her other lovers, long-term or casual, had done to her what Lex had done, but telling him would be wrong, a way of trying to hold him with the power of her sex. "…it was very special, and I will always cherish the time we had together. But you don't owe me any explanations or promises. I'm a big girl, all grown up, and knew what I was doing every step of the way."
"It was very special to me as well, but that is not –"
Before he could finish, his words were cut short by a gasp. Both turned to see Hannah standing there. She wore a yellow nightshirt, pink bunny slippers, and a look of utter mortification.
"Omigod!" she cried, and Gloria hurriedly pulled the blanket up to cover her breasts. "I'm so sorry! I just wanted to say goodbye to Lex before he… Lex, why aren't you naked?"
"Your sister has explained to me about your taboos regarding male nudity, and I had no wish to transgress them."
Gloria blushed furiously. Hannah sat down on the couch next to her sister, eyeing the neat pile of clothing. "Red ones? Pretty." She turned her attention back to Lex. "You are so the total slut."
"Who's a total slut?" Nate asked as he entered the room. "I just wanted to say goodbye to – Hell-o! What's going on here?"
"They did it," Hannah reported.
"Busted!" Nate gloated. Gloria tried to shrink behind the inadequate coverage of the blanket, but Nate barely spared his older sister a glance. "Does that mean you're staying?"
"It most certainly does not," Gloria found her voice at last, then modulated it upwards. "But I know two very nosy young people who are also not! Get out of here before I have to come up with some totally disproportionate punishment for the both of you."
Nate walked over and offered Lex his hand. "With all due respect, I think you're making a major mistake here, Lex Old Man, giving up on the whole superhero idea and my big sister, but if you're dead set on leaving, I guess I wish you luck."
"Thank you," he replied as he took Nate's hand and shook it. "I shall write a ballad celebrating your bravery in saving me from the Troll."
Hannah rose to her feet and ran over to him. She threw her arms around his neck and kissed his cheek. "G'bye, Lex," she said. "Maybe Gloria will be a little easier to live with now that she's had some –"
"– but frankly I doubt it."
Lex returned her hug and she pulled away. "Things will definitely not be the same after you've gone, Mr. Machallo. You've upset my entire concept of the universe, and it will take me a long time to recover. But I'm glad you did."
"Me, too," piped up Nate.
"Pshyeah, right," Hannah scoffed. "Your whole concept of the universe is formed by movies, videogames, Buffy reruns, and –"
"Ahem!" Gloria broke in. "Can you two continue this argument elsewhere?"
Hannah stopped briefly to scoop up Warlock who had clambered onto the coffee table and was showing more interest in Gloria's panties than was decent. "C'mon, Wudge. Let's set you free in Beefy's room!" She took her captive and sprinted back towards the stairs, her slippers' ears beating a soft flap-flap against the floor. Nate gave Lex a hasty wave, then chased after her.
Once she was sure they had gone, Gloria began to dress. "We'd better get moving," she declared as she pulled her pants up and fastened them. "We'll probably be very early, but we shouldn't take any chances. In case the portal decides to show up ahead of schedule."
Lex nodded and also got to his feet. He picked up his instrument, stashed it in his purse, then slung the strap across his chest.
Gloria paused at the front door then dashed into the kitchen. She grabbed a bright blue sack with thin black handles. "I almost forgot your going away present. It's one of our quaint Earth customs. Open your purse." He did so and she placed the gift within. "Don't open it until you get where you're going."
"You did not have to –"
"I wanted to, and I bought it before last night, obviously, so don't get any big ideas that it's for services rendered. It's just something to help you remember your brief stay among the earthlings fondly."
"There is no danger of my ever forgetting my time here," he said, then reached for her, but she turned away and preceded him out the door. Soon, the Indian was roaring down the empty streets of Mystic.
When the sound died away, the door opened again. Nate stuck his head out. "Are they gone?" Hannah's voice came from behind him.
"Yeah. Get your shoes on. Ancient Chinese Proverb say: No can work pedals in bunny slippers."
Hannah glared at her brother and said, "You are such a doofus." Then she went and did as he'd suggested.
It took only minutes for the motorcycle to reach Gilda's. Water Street was free of both foot and motorized traffic and they had the downtown area essentially to themselves. With the ignition off, the scene was unnaturally quiet.
Lex no longer seemed in the mood to talk, so Gloria filled the silence as best she could. "You didn't forget anything did you… I mean back at the house or at Zoot's or wherever? I always seem to forget something every time I go away. This one time? I was going to Philadelphia for a friend's wedding? I got all the way to the New Jersey state line when I realized I'd left home without my whole damn suitcase. I mean I just left it sitting on the front porch, right by the door. Did that ever happen to you? Are you hungry? Suddenly I'm hungry. We shoulda brought some fruit or something. Like a banana. You know I read once, somewhere, that bananas are like the most perfect food in the universe. God, it's quiet here this time of morning. You know what? I wish I'd had the foresight to record your performance last night… the singing performance, I mean, not the, um, other, um, although between you and me I've always wondered what I looked like when… y'know and…"
Lex opened his bag and took out what looked like a pyramidal eggcup holding a clear crystal egg. "I record all of my shows. It was a requirement set by the Guildmasters for all journeymen and now it has become second nature." He rolled up his sleeve and held the device next to the spellengine. After a few seconds, he extracted the egg – actually spherical in shape – and handed it to her. It had turned as red as a ruby. "My going away present to you."
Gloria turned it over in her hand. "How do I play it?" she wondered aloud.
"It works on thought. All you need do is hold it and think it into operation. "
She concentrated and the parking lot rang with the sound of him playing. He spent a few more minutes walking her through the details of its use, which turned out to be not that dissimilar from an iPod.
"Where do you put the batteries?" she asked jokingly.
"You are the battery. It uses a tiny amount of your living energy as a power source."
She listened for a while, then turned it off, and slipped it into her pocket. "I'll save it for later. Besides, I think it best we not attract attention right now. Tourists hear you singing and next thing you know it will be Lexstock all over. Speaking of tourists, it's a pity you didn't have a chance to see more of Mystic while you were in town. There's a very good aquarium, and some interesting shops in Olde Mystick Village, and of course there's Mystic Seaport, which is not really on the sea but on the River, and there are boats, yes, but they're tied securely to the docks, and probably wouldn't bother you." She stopped. "I'm blathering, aren't I?".
"I enjoy listening to your blather."
"You're just being nice. Hey, I found out what happened to your rapier! Wait here half a mo. I'll zip inside and get it. I put it in the supply closet after Michael's wife brought it back yesterday, and yes the blade is bent, but maybe you could have it fixed. I'll be right back, don't go away." She opened the door and dashed inside, returning shortly with the rapier. He carefully slid it into his purse.
"I couldn't locate your missing boot, though. If I find it later, I'd be happy to send it along if I had a forwarding address for you, ha, ha."
He laughed politely.
She was about to ask him if he needed to use the restroom before he left because her Dad had always asked if the kids had done so before setting off on any road trips and there probably weren't any rest areas on the road back to Novagrove, when two bicyclists entered the parking lot.
"Oh, good!" Hannah said, slightly out of breath. She took off her helmet, light blue and emblazoned with a NASA logo. "You haven't left yet!"
"What are you doing here?" Gloria demanded. "Didn't I tell you two not to come?"
"Yeah," Nate admitted, "but we're rebellious youth. If we can't disobey a direct order every once in a while they'll take away our membership privileges. Anyway, it was Hannah's idea."
"It was not!"
"Was too. You said something along the lines of 'It's better to apologize than ask permission.' I recall that distinctly."
"You are such a liar!"
Lex forestalled further argument by wrapping his arms around them both and hugging them to his side. "You are both foolish and brave and I am glad to see you, but this is dangerous. If you are going to be here, you must stand well clear of the portal. You can watch from the street. That should be outside the area of risk."
"But I wanted to take a picture!" Hannah protested, producing her digital camera.
"On the street or back on your bikes and home," Gloria threatened. "Give me the damn camera. I'll try to get a shot for you."
"No," Lex interjected. "I want you to stay by the street as well."
"I must insist. You are all too precious to me to place yourselves in peril's path." He saw the look on her face and relented. He pointed at the dumpster. "Stand there. You should be able to take pictures without risk."
"It's around T-minus-5 minutes," Hannah observed. "You better get ready."
Lex hugged each of them in turn, saving Gloria for last. He held her for a long time. He smoothed her hair as she buried her face in his chest. Don't cry! She ordered herself. Remember the face you used to wear around Dad and don't you dare cry!
She released him and walked the children to the edge of the lot, then took up her position at the dumpster and waited, staring at Lex's back. He didn't want to look at her, she realized. He did not dare.
At 7:50, there was a noticeable shift in the air pressure and, before she could register the difference on more than a visceral level, the portal arrived with a sound like tearing linen.
"I love you," she mouthed the words. "I always will."
Lex could not possibly have heard, given the sudden blast of wind that surrounded him. Yet he turned towards her at that moment. His face was filled with resolve and regret, and then he faced the whirling disc. He took off just as Gloria raised the camera to capture the moment for posterity.
Lex got about ten feet before being stopped in his tracks, unable to make headway against the rush of wind pouring out of the portal. The sight was almost comical, or would have been had less been riding on the outcome. Gloria could see him straining and lent whatever moral support she could, though if anything, he seemed to be losing ground. It was a yeoman effort, but few prizes are awarded for effort alone. He leaned into the wind, but his feet slipped from under him and he fell flat on his face. Gloria felt both pity and relief, as Lex lifted his head, but even that seemed like too much work. She ached to run to him, but knew all she could do was stand there uselessly until the portal went away. Soon enough there was a very rude sound and it did just that. Seconds later, Gloria and the kids were by his side.
"Oh, Lex, I'm so sorry!" Gloria cried.
Lex tried to push himself up, then fell again. Together, the three Robinettes turned him over. He looked deathly pale. He opened his mouth to speak, but what came out were a few jagged croaks.
"What is it?" Gloria saw the mute anguish in his eyes. She felt his forehead. It was clammy. He was struggling to breathe. She tossed her keyring to Hannah. "Open the door and turn on the lights. Nate, help me get him inside."
With their assistance, she managed to get Lex onto the damaged pool table. She checked his pulse. It was weak and thready. "Hannah, call 911," she ordered, but Lex tugged at her arm and shook his head. "What? Do you know what's wrong with you?" He shook it again, but pointed to his other arm.
"Sleeve," he rasped. Gloria pushed up his sleeve, revealing the spellengine. "Bring."
"You want me to bring it closer?" A nod. She moved his arm so the device was close to his mouth.
"Ac-ti-vate." The screen once more appeared in mid-air. "Desig-nate Command: Accept new user." With supreme effort, he pushed his forearm in her direction. "Speak. Name."
"What? Oh, Gloria Robinette." The screen blipped and the dark rich tones of Darth Vader returned.
"Recognize What Oh Gloria Robinette."
"What should I do now?" she asked Lex, but the spellengine answered for him,
"Detecting variance from baseline medical profile. Running diagnostic scan, subject T'Lexigar Machallo." An outline of a human body appeared on the screen, filled in with a multitude of colors. Gloria intuited that the spellengine was acting very much like a CAT-scan or Magnetic Resonance Imager. Several areas glowed bright red on Lex's otherwise blue on-screen avatar.
"What do the colors mean?" she demanded.
"Colors indicate temperature. Blue indicates baseline norm of –"
"Never mind that. What are the bright red patches?"
"Increased body temperature due to unnatural cellular growth. Areas: brain, lungs, livers, pancreas, bone marrow, throat…"
Nate and Hannah held back, and even they understood what the dark voice was saying. They had been through something very much like this before.
"Display a white blood cell count!" Gloria demanded.
"Damn! All right, display count of all solid blood components, then reduce to proportional comparison." Several very high numbers appeared on the screen, which were quickly replaced by some simple ratios. Karrier cells. Healer cells. Binder cells. Healer cells must be the white blood cells, she decided, but sought confirmation anyway. "Can you display pictures of the various blood components?"
In an instant, pictures supplemented the words. There was no doubt left in her mind.
"Oh God," she murmured and bent down to look into the Minstrel's watery blue eyes. "Lex, you have cancer."