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|The Hollow Man |
Shadow at Evening
Bremen left the hospital and his dying wife and drove east to the sea. The roads were thick with Philadelphians fleeing the city for the unusually warm Easter weekend, so Bremen had to concentrate on traffic, leaving only the most tenuous of touches in his wife's mind.
Gail was sleeping. Her dreams were fitful and drug-induced. She was seeking her mother through endlessly interlinked rooms filled with Victorian furniture. Images from these dreams slid between the evening shadows of reality as Bremen crossed the Pine Barrens. She awoke just as Bremen was leaving the parkway, and for the few seconds that the pain was not with her, Bremen was able to share the clarity of sunlight falling across the blue blanket at the foot of her bed; then he shared the quick vertigo of confusion as she thought - only for a second - that it was morning on the farm.
Her thoughts reached for him just as the pain returned, stabbing behind her left eye like a thin but infinitely sharp needle. Bremen grimaced and dropped the coin he was handing the toll-booth attendant.
"Something wrong, pal?' Bremen shook his head, fumbled out a dollar, and thrust it blindly at the
man. Tossing his change into the Triumph's cluttered console, he concentrated on pushing the little car up through its gears while shielding himself from the worst of Gail's pain. Slowly the agony faded, but her confusion washed over him like a wave of nausea.
She quickly gained control despite the shifting curtains of fear that fluttered at the edges of her consciousness. She sub vocalized, concentrating on narrowing the spectrum of what she shared to a simulacrum of her voice.
Hi, yourself, kiddo. He sent the thought as he turned on to the exit of Long Beach Island. Bremen shared the visual - the startling green of grass and pine trees overlaid with the gold of April light, the sports car's shadow leaping along the curve of the embankment as he followed the cloverleaf down to the road. Suddenly there came the unmistakable salt-and-rotting vegetation scent of the Atlantic, and he shared that with her as well.
Nice. Gail's thoughts were slurred with the static of too much pain and medication. She clung to the images he sent with an almost feverish concentration of will.
The entrance to the seaside community was disappointing, dilapidated seafood restaurants, overpriced cinderblock motels, endless marinas. But it was reassuring in its familiarity to both of them, and Bremen concentrated on seeing all of it. Gail began to relax a bit as the terrible swells of pain abated, and for a second her presence was so real that Bremen caught himself half turning to speak to her in the passenger's seat. The pang of regret and embarrassment was sent before he could stifle it.
The driveways of beach homes were filled with families unpacking station wagons and carrying late dinners to the beach. The evening shadows carried the nip of early spring, but Bremen concentrated on the fresh air and the warmth of the low strips of sunlight as he drove north to Barnegat Light. He glanced right and caught a glimpse of half a dozen fishermen standing in the surf, their shadows intersecting the white lines of breakers.
Monet, thought Gail, and Bremen nodded, although he had actually been thinking about Euclid.
Always the mathematician. Gail's voice faded as the pain returned. Half-formed sentences shredded like the spray rising from the white breakers.
Bremen left the Triumph parked near the lighthouse and walked through low dunes to the beach. He threw down the tattered blanket that they had carried so many times to just this spot. A group of children ran past, squealing as they came close to the surf. Despite the cold water and rapidly chilling air, they were dressed in swimsuits. One girl of about nine, all long white legs in a suit a year too small, pranced on the wet sand in an intricate and unconscious choreography with the sea.
The light was fading between the Venetian blinds. A nurse smelling of cigarettes and stale talcum powder came in to change the IV drip and to take a pulse. The intercom in the hall continued to make loud, imperative announcements, but it was difficult to understand them through the growing haze of pain. Dr Singh arrived about six p.m. and spoke to her softly, but Gail's attention was riveted on the doorway where the nurse with the blessed needle would arrive. The
cotton swab on her arm was a delightful preliminary to the promised surcease of pain. Gail knew to the second how many minutes before the morphine would begin to work in earnest. The doctor was saying something.
'. . . your husband? I thought he would be staying the night.'
'Right here, doctor,' said Gail. She patted the blanket and the sand.
Bremen pulled on his nylon windbreaker against the chill of coming night. The stars were occluded by a high cloud layer that allowed only a bit of sky to show through. Far out to sea, an improbably long oil tanker moved along the horizon. Windows of the beach homes behind Bremen cast yellow rectangles on the dunes.
The smell of steak being grilled came to him on the breeze. Bremen tried to remember whether he had eaten that day or not. His stomach twisted in a mild shadow of the pain that still filled Gail even now that the medication was working. Bremen considered going back to the convenience store near the lighthouse to get a sandwich, but remembered an old Payday candy bar he had purchased from the vending machine in the hospital corridor during the previous week's vigil. It was still in his jacket pocket. Bremen contented himself with chewing on the rock-hard wedge of peanuts while he watched the evening settle in.
Footsteps continued to echo in the hall. It sounded as if entire armies were on the march. The rush of footsteps, clatter of trays, and vague chatter of aides bringing dinner to the other patients reminded Gail
of lying in bed as a child and listening to one of her parents' parties downstairs.
Remember the party where we met? sent Bremen.
Mmmm. Gail's attention was thin. Already the black fingers of panic were creeping around the edge of her awareness as the pain began to overwhelm the painkiller. The thin needle behind her eye seemed to grow hotter.
Bremen tried to send memory images of Chuck Gilpen's party a decade earlier, of their first meeting, of that first second when their minds had opened to one another and they had realized I am not alone. And then the corollary realization, I am not a freak. There, in Chuck Gilpen's crowded town house, amid the tense babble and even tenser neurobabble of mingling teachers and graduate students, their lives had been changed forever.
Bremen was just inside the door - someone had pressed a drink in his hand - when suddenly he had sensed another mindshield quite near him. He had put out a gentle probe, and immediately Gail's thoughts had swept across him like a searchlight in a dark room.
Both were stunned. Their first reaction had been to increase the strength of their mindshields, to roll up like frightened armadillos. Each soon found that useless against the unconscious and almost involuntary probes of the other. Neither had ever encountered another telepath of more than primitive, untapped ability. Each had assumed that he or she was a freak -unique and unassailable. Now they stood naked before each other in an empty place. A second later, almost without volition, they flooded each other's mind with a
torrent of images, self-images, half memories, secrets, sensations, preferences, perceptions, hidden shames, half-formed longings, and fully formed fears. Nothing was held back. Every petty cruelty committed, sexual experiment experienced, and prejudice harbored poured out along with thoughts of past birthday parties, former lovers, parents, and an endless stream of trivia. Rarely had two people known each other as well after fifty years of marriage.
A minute later they met for the first time.
The beacon from Barnegat Light passed over Bremen's head every twenty-four seconds. There were more lights burning out at sea now than along the dark line of beach. The wind had come up after midnight, and Bremen clutched the blanket around himself tightly. Gail had refused the needle when the nurse had last made her rounds, but her mindtouch was still clouded. Bremen forced the contact through sheer strength of will.
Gail had always been afraid of the dark. Many were the times during their nine years of marriage that he had reached out in the night with his mind or arm to reassure her. Now she was the frightened little girl again, left alone upstairs in the big old house on Burlingame Avenue. There were things in the darkness beneath her bed.
Bremen reached through her pain and confusion to share the sound of the sea with her. He told her stories about that day's antics of Gernisavien, their calico cat. He lay in the hollow of the sand to match his body with hers on the hospital bed. Slowly she began to relax, to surrender her thoughts to his. She even managed to doze a few times without the morphine, and her
dreams were the movement of stars between clouds and the sharp smell of the Atlantic.
Bremen described the week's work at the farm - what little work he had done between hospital vigils - and shared the subtle beauty of the Fourier equations across the chalkboard in his study and the sunlit satisfaction of planting a peach tree by the front drive. He shared memories of their ski trip to Aspen the year before and the sudden shock of a searchlight reaching in to the beach from an unseen ship out at sea. He shared what little poetry he had memorized, but the words kept sliding into pure images and purer feelings.
The night drew on, and Bremen shared the cold clarity of it with his wife, adding to each image the warm overlay of his love. He shared trivia and hopes for the future. From seventy-five miles away he reached out and touched her hand with his. When he drifted off to sleep for only a few minutes, he sent her his dreams.
Gail died just before the first false light of dawn touched the sky.
A Banner There Upon the Mist
Two days after the funeral, Frank Lowell, the head of the mathematics department at Haverford, came to the house to assure Bremen that his job would be kept safe no matter what he decided to do in the coming months.
'Seriously, Jerry,' Frank was saying, 'there's nothing to worry about in that area. Do what you have to do to put things back together. Whenever you want it back, it's yours.' Frank smiled his best little-boy smile and adjusted his rimless glasses. He seemed to have a chubby thirteen-year-old's cheeks and chin behind the mat of beard. His blue eyes were open and guileless.
Satisfaction. A rival removed. Never really liked Bremen . . . too smart. The Goldmann research made him too much of a threat.
Images of the young blonde from MIT whom Frank had interviewed the summer before and slept with through the long winter.
Perfect. No more need for lying to Nell or inventing conferences to fly to over long weekends. Sheri can stay in town, near campus, and she'll have the chair by next Christmas if Bremen stays away too long. Perfect.
'Seriously, Jer,' said Frank, and leaned forward to pat Bremen's knee, 'just take whatever time you need.
We'll consider it a sabbatical and keep the position open for you.'
Bremen looked up and nodded. Three days later he mailed in his letter of resignation to the college.
Dorothy Parks from the psychology department came on the third day after the funeral, insisted on making dinner for Bremen, and stayed until after dark, explaining the mechanisms of grief to him. They sat on the porch until darkness and chill drove them inside. It was beginning to feel like winter again.
'You have to understand, Jeremy, that stepping out of one's usual environment is a common mistake made by people who've just suffered a serious loss. Taking too much time off from work, changing homes too quickly ... it all seems like it might help, but it's just another way to postpone the inevitable confrontation with grief.'
Bremen nodded and listened attentively.
'Denial is the stage you're in now,' said Dorothy. 'Just as Gail had to go through that stage with her cancer, now you have to go through it in your grief ... go through it and get past it. Do you understand what I'm saying, Jeremy?'
Bremen lifted a knuckle to his lower lip and nodded slowly. Dorothy Parks was in her mid-forties but dressed like a much younger woman. This night she wore a man's shirt, unbuttoned quite low, tucked into a long gaucho skirt. Her boots were at least twenty inches tall. The bracelets on her wrist jingled as she gestured. Her hair was cut short, dyed a red impinging on purple, and moussed into a cockscomb.
'Gail would have wanted you to deal with this denial
as quickly as possible and get on with your life, Jeremy. You know that, don't you?'
He's listening. Looking at me. Perhaps I should have left that fourth button closed . . . just be the therapist tonight . . . worn the gray sweater. Well, shit with that. I've seen him looking at me in the lounge. He's smaller than Darren was . . . not as strong looking . . . but that's not so important. Wonder what he's like in bed?
Images of a sandy-haired man . . . Darren . . . sliding his cheek lower on her belly.
It's okay, he can learn what I like. Wonder where the bedroom is here? Second floor somewhere. No, my place . . . no, better a neutral place the first time. Clock ticking. Biological clock. Shit, whatever man came up with that phrase ought to have his balls cut off.
'. . . important that you share feelings with your friends, with someone close,' she was saying. 'Denial can only go on for so long before it turns the pain inward. You'll promise you'll call? Talk?'
Bremen lifted his head and nodded. At that second he decided beyond any doubt that the farm could not be sold.
On the fourth day after Gail's funeral, Bob and Barbara Sutton, neighbors and friends, called again to express their sympathies in private. Barbara wept easily. Bob shifted uneasily in his chair. He was a big man with a blond crew cut, a permanent flush to his round face, and fingers that looked as short and soft as a child's. He was thinking about getting home in time to watch the Celtics game.
'You know that God doesn't give us anything we
can't bear, Jerry,' Barbara said between bouts of weeping.
Bremen considered that. Barbara had a premature streak of gray in her dark hair and Bremen followed the sinuous line of it back from her forehead; under her barrette, and out of sight around the curve of her skull. The neurobabble from her was like a surge of superheated air from an open hearth.
Witnessing. Wouldn't Pastor Miller think it wonderful if I brought this college professor to the Lord. If I quote Scripture, I'm liable to lose him . . . oh, wouldn't Darlene have a fit if I came to Wednesday-night services with this agnostic . . . atheist. . . whatever he is, ready to come to Christ!
'. . . He gives us the strength we need when we need it,' Barbara was saying. 'Even when we can't understand these things, there's a reason. A reason for everything. Gail was called home for some reason the Good Lord will reveal when our time comes.'