Like a permanent soul-deep tinnitus, I still hear my own voice screaming NO.
It was a long time before I could trust myself to even speak to Eloi, other than to ask to be left alone. Even though the chaos that followed Dad’s demise only lasted another second or two, somehow I wound up coming through Transition with poor little Barney in my arms. He must have been hobbling in even as Dad disappeared, and I’d scooped him up off of the fallen clothes. While still in the Gray, I knelt down and checked out the brave little guy. He’d apparently been kicked in the head; one eye was swollen shut, and he was bleeding from his ear. I looked up at Eloi. He made some offer to get help, I think; I don’t know. Right at that moment I’d never hated anything or anyone as much as I hated Eloi and all the damned Angels. My father was gone not even God knew where, and this scrappy mutt, a stray my Dad had only had for a week or so, was all I had left of him. “I’ll take care of him,” I managed to say. “Just send us back to the apartment and leave me alone.” I lowered my eyes. I honestly couldn’t bear to so much as look at him. Still, I added, “Please.”
Back at Walt’s, I set Barney down on a sofa, and would have ripped off my silver suit if the damn stuff would rip. I took a fiercely hot shower and put on my old clothes for the first time in weeks, or reckoned in Mickey Time, probably years. Barney needed cleaning up, but I didn’t have the heart to disturb him. I let him sleep, and before long I fell asleep on the sofa next to him. Mercifully, I don’t remember any dreams.
The next day—still fully dark outside of course, but all of us at Disneyland had long since gotten accustomed to days measured by clocks, not by the sun—I realized that Barney might need more help than I knew how to offer. But I was damned if I was going to go to Eloi or Ishim doctors. He was semi-conscious and whimpering pitifully; I bundled him up and carried him down to the Diamond Horseshoe. Maybe Donna would be there. At the very least, somebody there would probably know how to track down another nurse or doctor or even a vet.
The place had changed over the years, of course, its population waxing and waning with the changing profile of the Strays, from lost kids to young adults. The last time I’d been here it had been full to the rafters; now it was back to a smaller core of diehards, including many that I still thought of as “my kids.”
Mary Beth and Jessica were two of the young mothers who’d asked me for a chance to go home; today they were wrangling a bunch of toddlers, their own and a half dozen more besides. They knew I’d been away, but no one knew I’d been home; it was my guilty little secret; guiltier than ever now, of course—I’d already told myself a thousand times that if I’d left well-enough alone, Dad would be at home sleeping right now with Barney at his feet.
As soon as they saw Barney they cooed sympathetic “awwww”s. No, they hadn’t seen Donna for a few weeks now, but Jessica was pretty sure that Brianna had hooked up with somebody who had been a veterinary student. Mary Beth asked why I didn’t use my universal PA access and put out a park-wide announcement. I couldn’t very well tell her that I’d lost my eardrop (and apparently I had; I must have dropped it during the melee at Dad’s) or that I’d rather eat nails than ask Angels for help right now, so I settled for a lesser truth: I wasn’t ready yet to answer a bunch of questions about where Barney had come from and especially how he’d been injured.
The girls helped clean the little dog’s wounds, and later Bri turned up with her boyfriend Brian, a big, round-faced, rapidly balding fellow who was indeed an almost-veterinarian. He was very upbeat, and assured me that Barney just needed bed-rest and TLC, and in a few days would be good as new. Even his puffy eye was no worse than a shiner.
So I had a mission for the next week or so: tend to Barney, see him well. It wasn’t really necessary, but I treated it like a full-time job. I only left the apartment to take Barney out onto the patio area downstairs for a little fresh air (which was of course an illusion; the air within the pyramid was the same inside and out). Ishim came and went with meals; I ignored them, feeding Barney portions of my own food, but after a day or two, they started including a dish for the dog, unbidden. Probably the Ishim were also spying on Eloi’s behalf, but their reports had to be boring: “Human subject fed the canine subject. Human talks to canine as if attempting higher-order communication. Human seems prone to bouts of melancholy.”
On the fourth or fifth day there was a timid knock at the door. It was Kimberly, all grown up now, but looking much the same: long amber hair in braids, a wool cap, two or three layers of tops and blouses, an ankle-length skirt in faded denim. Still, as always, adorable. “May I come in?” she asked sweetly. Barney was on his feet by then, limping slightly, his eye looking better now; he stood at my side, his tail wagging just a bit, no doubt thrilled to see another human. He didn’t bark, though. Nothing would ever persuade him to really bark again.
Kimberly didn’t ask permission to pet him; she just knelt down and reached out. Barney licked her face and she gently ruffled the fur on his back, giggling like a little girl.
I backed away from the doorway. “Come on in, Bright Eyes. Barney, behave.”
She scratched Barney under his chin and stood up. “He’s behaving just fine,” she said, her eyes a little misty. “I didn’t realize until just this moment how much I miss my own little monster. His name is Max.” She reached down and scratched Barney behind an ear. “He’s a scruffy mutt, too.”
Eventually she told me that some of the others had sent her as a sort of emissary; they were worried about me. Brianna especially had noted that I “looked so sad.” And now nobody had seen me for days. Finally, it all boiled down to one question: “Mr. K, are you okay?”
Maybe it was the fact that she still called me Mr. K. Maybe it was those big, sweet blue-green eyes looking so sincerely concerned. Maybe it was that tiny little lisp. Whatever the reason, she opened the floodgates; tears suddenly filled my eyes and a lump closed my throat. If I wasn’t a foot taller than she was I might have collapsed in her arms for a big hug. But the logistics were too ridiculous; I just smiled. “Thanks for asking, sweetie,” I managed after a few seconds. “I’ll be fine. I just still need a little time.”
“You don’t want to talk about it?”
I almost said no, of course, but then I found myself saying, “You know what? I do want to talk about it; I want to tell you all about my Dad.”
And so we sat on the plush red sofa with Barney lying between us and I told Kimberly all about the Professor.
When I finished my story we were both weeping. Barney would have probably wept too if he knew how. “So you don’t even know, really, if he’s alive or dead?” Kimberly whispered.
“No. Even Gabriel doesn’t know what becomes of these people. I wouldn’t have thought Eloi capable of it, but I should have known better. We spend so much time together that I start to think of him as a—” I started to say “human,” but that wasn’t quite right. “As a person. But he swept my father away without batting an eyelash.”
Even then I knew that I wasn’t being fair; the event had played over and over in my mind, and as I continued to hear myself scream no, I also saw the Ishim weapon pointed at Dad. I had already begun to realize that Eloi may have saved Dad’s life, even may have reflexively meant to save his life. But to what end? I thought of Gabriel’s pronouncement about Big Zac: “Done is done.” And I remembered Donna’s resolve when I’d told her about her friend Leslie’s identical demise: she’d promised to do her “damnedest” to find out what had happened to her. I don’t think Donna had meant that lightly; it was no fault of hers, but her damnedest had never added up to much because she had so little access to the Angels.
But I had access. Maybe my damnedest could add up to something. This little germ of hope slowly took root in the back of my mind. It wasn’t much, and I had no idea how to turn this bitter determination into anything that could help my Dad, but it was, as I was increasingly fond of saying, better than nothing. What were the old song lyrics? “I don’t know how I’m gonna do it, I only know I’m gonna try.”
Over the next week or so, Kimberly spent at least a little time with Barney and me every day. If I’d offered the least encouragement, it might have developed into something romantic, but I was sure that no amount of Mickey Time could alter the fact that I still saw her as a teenager with a crush. Maybe I kept her at arm’s length because even after all this time, I felt like I still had a “relationship” with Donna, or at least unresolved issues. I rarely even saw her; she had long since broken up with Joel Blum, if in fact they had ever really been together, and now spent most of her time with the remnants of the Drill Team, which had given up actual digging for the investigative kind, trying to understand who or what the Angels really were. Donna was no doubt still looking for her old friend, prying at metaphorical trap doors. More than once I’d heard some of the kids say that she was truly obsessed with this hopeless quest.
One evening—it was now well into sunrise in the outside world, so, like the broken clock that’s right twice a day, it even felt like evening for a change, with low golden light at the windows; never mind that it had been that way all day—one evening Kimberly was still visiting, playing with Barney on the floor, when the nightly Ishim arrived with the silver box that held dinner. Kimberly gasped, then clutched Barney like a security blanket, barely moving, apparently barely breathing until the Ishim was gone.
As the big alien turned away from the counter, I held up my hand to get her attention. I thought I recognized this one, but I wasn’t sure. I’m afraid I had let Eloi and the other Angels set the standard for me with regard to the Ishim; they thought of them as an anonymous collective, not individuals. In some ways, the Angels seemed to respect humans more than the Ishim. Now I looked at this handsome female face and realized I didn’t know if this was her first visit here or her fiftieth. “Can you understand me?” I asked. She frowned, but said nothing. “Never mind. It doesn’t matter. I have a message for Eloi, you understand? For Eloi.”
She nodded and said in low alto tones, “Falohim, yes.”
Close enough. I needed the shortest possible message. I said, “‘Graham is ready.’ Yes? ‘Graham is ready.’”
“‘Garamas hredda,’” she said, nodding again.
“Good. Thanks.” I stepped away. The Ishim vanished.
I turned to Kimberly, still clutching Barney on the floor. She sighed, letting out that long-held breath, and I saw that she was trembling. I knelt next to her. “Are you okay?”
She nodded, then gave up a timid little smile. “I shouldn’t be scared of them any more, I know. But ever since that night...” Her voice trailed away.
“The night of the riot?” She nodded. “But Jake told me none of you guys were anywhere near that mess.”
“He didn’t know. Nobody knew.” I gave her a hand up from the floor and led her to the sofa. “I was up with Danielle. Her back was aching and I went for a walk with her. We heard the commotion. We were pretty far away, but we saw the—the Angel soldiers; what do you call them?”
“We saw the Ishim shoot those poor people down. We turned and ran.” She was starting to cry. “Danielle shouldn’t have been running. We were just outside the Horseshoe when everything blacked out. Then there was that terrible lurch. The next thing we knew...” Of course. Danielle had lost her baby.
“Kimberly, that wasn’t your fault.”
She flashed a little anger, as if she was possessive of her guilt. “You don’t know that! If we hadn’t—”
“But I do know. Donna told me. She said Danielle would have lost that baby no matter what.”
She frowned. “Really?”
“Really. So feel guilty about cheating on a third grade math test if you want, or shaving the neighbor’s cat, but—”
She laughed. It was a delightful sound. “Thank you, Mr. K. I think you’re probably full of beans, but thank you.” She bounced up, grabbed my head and kissed me on the forehead. “I gotta go.” She whirled around and found the dog. “Bye, Barney!” she said, giving him a quick scratch, “See you tomorrow!” She skipped over to the door, then turned back, shaking her head as she looked at me. “You are so funny. Like I’d ever need to cheat on a math test.” She opened the door, stepped outside, then stuck her head back in. “I do feel kind of bad about that cat, though.”
And she pulled the door to and was gone. I could hear her clunky shoes ringing on the metal stairs outside, like muted syncopated chimes.