Chapter 12: Shadows of Doubt
We climb out of Gihon into the hanging gulch. The ease of our departure astounds the Fringers and brings me guilt. I feel like someone touring a slum wearing a designer suit (my skin), driving a Mercedes (my legs). Even though all I possess are two intact eyes and all my limbs, that suffices to make any Squatter envy my riches.
The orb slims to a snake’s pupil but the light it sheds is still plenty bright. Shadows would have consumed the gulch in darkness in a normal world, but Lethe’s orb, perpetually twelve o’clock high, sends its light straight into the depths of the gulch.
Alecto is gone. Goat blood smeared on a ledge is the only sign she was ever here. Feathery locust trees shake their leaflets in a gentle breeze. Sabonis acts wary, as if Alecto may leap out at him at any moment. But I’m not one bit scared. Given her act of charity, I sense she is a person of character.
The orb’s sphincter clenches tighter. Its light turns orange and brownish and drenches the landscape in sepia.
Sabonis is looking fidgety. “We better find some shelter,” he frets. “I had hoped we would be further along. We’d be home by now if we had my boat.”
“You actually have a house?”
“I do. A two room cabin. And it’s a good one.” He makes a beeline out of the marsh for a stone slab jutting out of the hillside, forming an overhang. “Hmm. Not much of a cave. But it looks defensible”
The implications of his remark unnerved me. “Defensible? Against what?”
“Don’t worry about it. We’ll be fine,” he says, unconvincingly as he gathers stones.
We stack flat chunks of shale to close off the open ends of our shelter. Some of the rocks have fossils of little scallop shells etched into them. Weird.
“Not that I’m cold,” I say. “But … any chance we could make a fire?”
“No fires,” he says. “We don’t want to attract attention.”
From who or what, I don’t dare ask. “This Delgado person, does he … can he … Ascend?”
“Never seen him try,” says Sabonis. “For that matter … I never actually seen him, period. When’s he’s in Lethe, he keeps himself pretty scarce. Only people who know him are the whores in Sixwing, his cronies and the Pope.”
“Yeah. We got a Pope. He hangs out across the island in place they call Zion. But Delgado, he lays low. He’s got to, ’cause the Elysians are after his butt.”
“For going back?”
“Not just for that. For fucking with things in the world of the living. I heard he gave his brother a tip on some big horse race in Argentina. Got the info from some newbie and somehow sent the news back in time. Can you imagine? Sheesh! The things you could do with that. But he’s bad news all around. They say he even killed a man on one of his trips back. I’m talking contract work.”
“Question,” I say. “If you’ve never seen him, how do you know he stole your boat?”
“Who else would do it?” says Sabonis, flabbergasted. “Who else has use for a damn catamaran?”
“Dunno,” I say. I have no clue how this place works or why it even exists, never mind interpreting some stranger’s motivations.
It had been a long day, a day that felt more like a week, though I couldn’t prove it without my watch. I’m not one bit tired, though, and I’m only hungry if I think about food.
While Sabonis adds yet more stones to the wall, I feel myself entering the angry phase of my stages of grief. A knot of righteous bile rises up in the pit of my stomach. How dare they take me so young, so abruptly, without as much as a chance to say goodbye to Gina, to my mom, to everyone I loved? Why not go back, just to spite them?
I hope it’s true, what Sabonis is saying about Delgado. It sure sounds like a tall tale. What choice do I have but to follow this last, best hope?
I admire a constellation of forget-me-nots peeking out of the tall grass. The wind is gentle, the air warm. But a sour smell wafts by: the fetid perfume of a not-so-fresh road kill. I gag.
“Oh shit,” says Sabonis. He picks up a stone and retreats into the deepest part of the overhang. There is just enough room for the two of us to sit.
“What is it?”
“Quiet!” he snaps.
Somewhere above us, a yelping squabble breaks out. It sounds like a dog fight, but one of the voices—the losing party—sounds almost human. The source drifts closer. I hear something crash through the brush and disappear into the reeds below. A score of small brown animals swarms down the hillside after it. There is a final piercing yelp and the brown shapes converge.
“They got him,” says Sabonis.
“What got who?” I say, as an inverted brown head pops around the overhand baring canine teeth long enough to puncture a skull. Sabonis heaves the stone at it. It hoots and disappears. Pebbles rain down the front of our shelter. Brown shapes straggle down to the marsh to join a squabble that has broken out anew.
“Monkeys,” says Sabonis.
“I gather,” I say. “What did they get?”
“Fringer, I suppose.”
I feel sick. Everything about this place sickens me. I think Sabonis is terribly deluded. Only a pathological optimist could think this is not Hell.
The orb pinches shut, and Lethe vanishes into black. But then a cool, blue glow seeps over the landscape. I lean out of the shelter to look up at the orb. It is fully open again, but glows softly now, with none of the glare. It simulates a moon. But it is one dull moon, a bland and featureless thing, no craters, no seas. I feel homesick looking at it.
I feel Sabonis’ arm brush mine. His knee bumps mine and stays put. I retreat an inch or two against the ledge. Sabonis’ elbow seeks and nudges mine.
“You sure you’re not just a pretty girl?” says Sabonis. “You’re not just shitting me?”
“For Christ’s Sake, leave me alone. I’m a Goddamn man, and straight, too!” I insist with as much testosterone as I can muster, which isn’t much. My manly bluster sounds ridiculous in this girly voice. Sabonis sniggers.
“Get the fuck away,” I say, “Or I’ll lay open your cranium with one of these rocks.”
I wonder how much strength my new body can muster. My hands feel so small, my forearms so slender.
I can only hope that Lethe’s nights are not as long as its days. I pull the overcoat around myself and close my eyes, and try to think of pleasant things like Cortland apples and pepperoni pizza.
Something large and dark prowls below our shelter. It slants across the slope, silently. Stones clink as Sabonis and I continue to build up the wall.
The creature slides past us, out of view. Sabonis exhales. In a blink it is back, standing before our wall, occluding our view, blacker than black, darker than the darkness, silhouetted against what little light still falls on the marshes.
Sabonis knocks his head against the slab roofing our shelter and scrambles back. “Get away! Scram!”
“Sir, Madam, welcome to my home.” The voice sounds tinny and distant. “I am Haurvil, Jean-Francois. My meestress Alecto seeks to make your acquaintance.”
“How does she know… we’re here?” says Sabonis.
“I am hare watcher,” says Haurvil. “I see. I report.”
“Go away,” says Sabonis.
“It ees safe. You will not be harmed.”
“Tell Alecto, we’re just passing through,” says Sabonis. “We’ll be gone at first light.”“Come now. I will escort you through ze darkness. Come,” says Haurvil.