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The midnight club, p.6
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       The Midnight Club, p.6

           Christopher Pike
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  CHRISTOPHER PIKE are quite accomplished artists. Most are extremely good. But there is one artist in particular who catches her attention. He is copying da Vinci's The Virgin of the Rocks, which depicts Mary with the infants Christ and John the Baptist in the care of an angel. They are sitting in the shadow of a grotto. A mysterious vista, which gives the illusion of the dawn of time, extends behind the grotto. The painting, although not da Vinci's most famous, is one of the most significant in Western art, and my personal favorite. The angel in particular has a beautiful radiance—it is as if da Vinci caught her soul with his paints. It is a painting you can stare at for hours and see something new each minute.

  "Teresa is intrigued by the painting, and even more so by the artist who is copying it. Because his painting seems to be every bit as good as da Vinci's. Also, he is a striking young man, not much older than herself, and at the time Teresa was very lonely. Like I said, she came to Paris by herself, but this was because she was an orphan. She strikes up a conversation with the artist and learns his name is Herme. But she's not sure if Herme is French because he doesn't have a French accent. In fact, she can't place his accent and asks him where he is from. But Herme evades the question.

  "Herme has a good reason for not telling her where he is from. If he did she would think he was crazy. You see, Herme is not a human being, but an

  THE MIDNIGHT CLUB angel. He is a particular angel we would call a *muse.' I believe it was the ancient Greeks who invented the term. A muse inspires our great writers, painters, poets, and musicians. Herme had been da Vinci's muse when the artist was alive, and also Raphael's and Michelangelo's. In a sense their creations were his. But in this modem age there is no artist capable of tuning into Herme's inspiration, and so he passed his days copying at the Louvre. He could only work on the physical plane, appear as a human being and paint, while he was at the museum. If he left the Louvre, he was just Uke any other angel, and people wouldn't know he was there. But it was a thrill for Herme to be seen by humans, to be able to talk and ask questions. God had given him this special opportunity because of the great work he had done in the past.

  "In the same way Teresa liked Herme, he liked her. Her face intrigued him—he had an artist's eye for faces. Her eyes were warm and gentle, her mouth touched with sadness. Her voice, also, intrigued him because Teresa could sound like an innocent child and a wise woman in the same sentence. She was beautiful, and he was so taken by her that he suggested they have lunch together in a museum cafe, an invitation which Teresa readily accepted.

  "Herme put aside his paints and his canvas and walked with her down the museum's long halls, pointing out various paintings and telling her stories about the artists, personal things like how van

  CHRISTOPHER PIKE Gogh cut off his ear and gave it to a prostitute or how Michelangelo didn't really like to paint but only wanted to sculpt. He told her other things that even the experts wouldn't know about the artists. Teresa was fascinated by his knowledge and his soft manner. I guess it goes without saying that Herme was nicer than your average person. It was his love that shone in many of the works of the artists he had helped. He was also attractive by human standards, with long brown hair, an austere face, and big fine hands. But his clothes were simple: white pants and a blue shirt. He wore no watch, or anything like that. He didn't have a wallet, for that matter, and when they reached the snack bar and picked up their food, he was embarrassed. He had to apologize that he had no money. But she didn't mind paying for the food, even though she had little money of her own.

  "So they talked and ate and Herme learned a great deal about Teresa, although Teresa learned almost nothing about Herme except that he was a great artist and knew art history like a scholar. Teresa was sensitive and knew somehow that Herme was like no human being she had ever met. By the time lunch was through, she was in love with him, and Herme, being an angel, could see into her heart and knew her love was genuine. And for him it was special because even though he lived in the constant glow of God's love, a secret part of him craved human affection. He had worked with humans for so many centuries that a part of him had

  THE MIDNIGHT CLUB become human. Maybe more than a part. When it was time for Teresa to leave the Louvre, he felt lonely. She promised to come see him the next day.

  "At noon the next day, there she was, as Herme was putting the final touches on his copy of The Virgin of the Rocks. Teresa couldn't get over how talented he was, and she went so far as to say his painting was better than da Vinci's. But Herme quickly corrected her that it only looked better because his paints were fresh. In reality Herme never tried to surpass the works of the artists he had helped, although privately he thought that he could. They ate lunch together again, and once more Teresa paid, which made Herme feel uncomfortable because he wanted to take care of Teresa. She told him of her plans to go to America and dropped not-so-subtle hints about how much money he could make in America with his talent. Her enthusiasm was infectious and Herme had to stop to remind himself that he wasn't flesh and blood. That reality hit him painfully when Teresa asked him to go with her to see a movie. He told her he had to stay to finish his work, but Teresa, stubborn at times, tried hard to talk him into it, which only made him feel worse. He finally had to give her a firm no, which she misinterpreted, thinking that he didn't care for her. Just before she left, he asked if she would come to see him the next day, and she promised she would.

  "The following afternoon went much the same as the previous two, except their feelings for each

  CHRISTOPHER PIKE

  Other were more intense. Once more Teresa wanted Herme to leave the museum with her. But he said he couldn't, not until later. She wanted to know how much later—she was willing to come back for him. When he said that would not be possible, she began to suspect that he had another woman or that he was married. But he assured her that was not the case, even without her having voiced her suspicion. That caught her off guard, that he seemed capable of reading her mind, but he quickly smoothed over his comment as a coincidence.

  "Poor Teresa didn't know what to think. She had met this wonderful guy but he seemed unnaturally attached to a museum. He wouldn't tell her where he lived, how he got to work, if he had any other family. Really, when she thought about it, she realized he had told her nothing about himself, only about the artists whose paintings hung in the great halls. Herme could read her mind and he knew he couldn't have her come back day after day to see him. He realized that he was going to lose her, and that brought him more pain than he had ever known, the first real pain he had ever experienced. He made her promise that she would visit him the next day, and this she did, but there was a reluctance in her voice. The fact of Herme asking for her promise—his asking for anything—was very unlike him. Because he was an angel, and angels simply gave, and asked for nothing in return.

  "That night, alone in the Louvre, Herme prayed to God to allow him to leave the museum and go

  THE MIDNIGHT CLUB out with Teresa. He prayed for many hours, and then, suddenly, he felt a great warmth enter his soul, and he knew that God had granted his prayer. But simultaneously he realized that when he left the museum he would never return to it as an angel. He would become entirely human and lose his angelic powers. But this he was willing to do for the love of his Teresa. I say his Teresa and that's what I mean. Already he believed he would have Teresa with him for the rest of the life he had chosen.

  "The next day she came for him, and Herme left the Louvre. He walked outside into bright sunlight, Teresa's hand in his, and laughed out loud. He was so happy, so much in love. He thought it would last forever, but of course he had never been mortal before."

  Kevin stopped talking and reached for his glass of water. They waited anxiously for him to continue, but he shook his head. "That's all for tonight, folks. I'm sorry."

  "Do you know the rest of the story?" Anya asked.

  "Yes," he said. "But I want to tell it in parts. I can't think up a new story every night. I want to get ftill
mileage out of this one."

  Ilonka didn't believe him for Kevin was the most creative one in the group. He was probably trying to keep them in suspense. She did worry, however, that he might have stopped when he did because he was tired. His voice had begun to weaken toward the end. She clapped softly in approval.

  CHRISTOPHER PIKE

  "It's a wonderful story," Ilonka said. "Fm like Teresa, I'm in love with Herme already."

  He lowered his head. "You are a lot like Teresa, you know. You're both Polish."

  She laughed. "You added that at the last second." She almost added that he couldn't have chosen a better name if he had v/antQd to pattern Teresa after her because her middle name was Teresa. But she knew no one at the hospice knew that, not even Dr. White, since she never used her middle name. She didn't want to give Kevin the impression that she thought he would put her in one of his stories, oh no, not that, even though she was telling him stories of their past lives together.

  "I think it's a wonderful story, too," Sandra said. "I can't wait to see how it turns out."

  "I'll reserve my judgment for the time being," Spence said. "Many a story can start out great and then fade. I've had it happen myself a few times."

  "You've had more start awful and then get worse," Anya told him. She shifted in her wheelchair, absently smoothing her hand over a spot just below the stump of her leg. Ilonka had often seen her make the movement before, as if she were trying to rub a spot on her leg that no longer existed. "There's been a lot of talk tonight about God and angels and devils and past lives. Does anyone here really think that we survive after death?"

  "Are you trying to spoil the festive mood or what?" Spence asked.

  THE MIDNIGHT CLUB

  Anya's anger flared. "No. Vm asking a serious question and I'd like to know your opinions. What is it?"

  "I have no opinion," Spence said.

  Anya continued to be annoyed with him. "You must have thought about it, seeing where we are."

  "I have thought about it," Spence said. "That's why I have no opinion. I think it's the only honest opinion to have."

  "I believe in God," Sandra said. "I believe there's a heaven and hell."

  Anya smiled wickedly. "Which one do you believe you will go to in the next few days or weeks, Sandra dear?"

  Sandra gulped. "Heaven, I hope. I've always tried to be good."

  Anya chuckled. "If that's the main criteria for getting into heaven I don't know if I want to go there." She scanned the room. "How about you, Kevin?"

  "I believe in the soul. I think the experiences of people who've had near-death experiences strongly points toward the idea that something survives the death of our bodies. I don't believe in heaven or hell in the traditional sense of the words. If there is a God, I can't see why he would create a place to torture people for eternity just because they made a few mistakes on earth." Kevin paused. "But I also believe that my beliefs don't matter much. What is—is. I can't change a thing. Do you know what I mean?"

  "I don't," Ilonka said, watching him closely. She

  CHRISTOPHER PIKE

  had never heard Kevin speak so openly before, about anything. Ordinarily she had to grab glimpses of his feelings from his stories. He looked over at her and shook his head.

  "Maybe I'm as bad as Spence," he said. "I only know that I don't know."

  "How about you, Ilonka?" Anya asked. "Or need I bother asking you after your past-life story?"

  Ilonka was thoughtful. "I don't know about having a soul. Sometimes I'm sure I must have one. Other times I feel there's nothing inside. But I do believe that love survives. That the love we feel in our lives doesn't vanish. That God keeps track of it, saves it so that it is always there, more and more love in the universe. Then maybe each time we come back there is a little more love waiting for us."

  "If we do come back," Anya said.

  Ilonka shrugged. "I won't know until I do."

  Spence sat up. "But that's why these discussions are a waste of time. We won't know what it's like to die until we die. Maybe the bright light people who've had near-death experiences see will turn out to be nothing more than the brain's last attempt to stave off the horror of nonexistence." He paused. "It's a pity that the first one of us to go can't come back and tell the others what it's like."

  Sandra made a face. "That's an awful thought."

  Spence wore a strange expression, as if, even though it was his own idea, it shocked him. "What's awful about it?" he asked. "I think it's the best idea this club has ever had."

  THE MIDNIGHT CLUB

  Ilonka laughed uneasily. "I don't want any ghosts knocking on my door in the middle of the night."

  "But what if it were a ghost you knew?" Spence asked. He addressed the whole group. "Fm serious about this. Why don't we take a vow that the first one of us to die is to make every effort to contact the rest of us? What do you think, Kevin?"

  "You are suggesting that the one in question give us a sign?" Kevin asked.

  "Yes," Spence said.

  "Do you want us all to agree upon a prearranged sign?" Kevin asked.

  "No," Spence said.

  "But if the sign is random, how will we know it's from the dead person?" Kevin asked.

  "The sign could be anything," Spence said. "We could meet late at night as usual and our dearly departed could knock over a lamp or something."

  "It might not be possible, as a ghost, to do something so dramatic," Kevin said.

  "Let's stop talking about this," Sandra said. "I don't like talking about it."

  "It's intriguing," Anya admitted.

  Sandra was outraged. "When people die, they don't hang around the earth and give people signs. It just isn't done."

  "If it isn't done, then it doesn't have to scare you," Spence argued.

  "I am not scared," Sandra said indignantly. "I just think it's unnatural. Ilonka, say something."

  "Could the person who dies communicate with us telepathically?" Ilonka suggested, warming to

  CHRISTOPHER PIKE the possibility. She realized that when she got right down to it she was as curious as anybody else. Spence shook his head.

  "That would be too abstract," Spence said. "We would never know for sure if we didn't imagine it."

  "But what if the dead person made us all dream the same dream?" Ilonka asked. "That would be proof, of sorts."

  "That's an interesting idea," Kevin agreed. "Assuming someone on the other side can influence our dreams. How about if we use a Ouija board and try to contact the person?"

  "We could ask Dr. White to buy us one," Spence said, interested.

  Sandra shook her head. "I will not agree to this. If I die I'm going straight to heaven, and that's the end of it."

  "Don't worry," Anya said. "If you're the first one to die none of us will be in a hurry to talk to you."

  "Now, now, be nice," Spence said. "Sandra, I didn't ask for a contract, you don't have to sign anything. But if you don't want to do it, that's fine. But think how you could put the rest of us at ease if we see that you're still kicking on the other side."

  "You're assuming it will be a relief to know that we do have souls," Anya said.

  "You really are in a bad mood tonight," Sandra told Anya.

  "It's my natural state," Anya said sweetly. "That's why I'm not anxious to make it eternal."

  "I think the first of us who dies will have to

  THE MIDNIGHT CLUB decide on the other side the best way to contact the others," Spence said.

  "That may be true, but we should give him or her some idea of where we will be looking for a sign," Kevin said. "But we can think about that later."

  "Not too much later," Anya said. "You never know in a place like this."

  "Are we all agreed then?" Spence asked. "Sandra?"

  "As long as I don't get in trouble with God I guess it will be all right to try," Sandra said, doing an about-face.

  "I'm for it," Kevin said.

  "Me, too," Ilonka said.

  "We sh
ould take a blood oath," Anya said. "It will add power to our intent."

  "I don't think that's necessary," Spence said.

  "I don't mind taking a blood oath." Ilonka said. "It will add a pagan flavor to our vow."

  "It doesn't exactly matter if we catch anything from each other," Kevin said.

  "Somebody get a needle," Anya said. "We'll smear it altogether and chant our vow in unison."

  Spence was shaking his head. "Let's not turn this into a sideshow. We all agree to try our best to contact the others. That's all that matters."

  "But we want the blood ceremony," Anya said.

  "You can have it if you want," Spence said, standing up. "I'm going to bed." He turned toward the door. "Good night, everybody. Sweet dreams. No one die during the night."

  CHRISTOPHER PIKE

  "He left all of a sudden," Ilonka said when Spence was gone. She didn't feel tired herself, probably because she had slept half the day away. Kevin was beginning to nod in the chair beside her, his messy brown hair hanging over his bony face. She touched his arm. "Hey, sleepyhead, you have to get to bed."

  Kevin raised his head, his face brightening. "Why don't you give me an escort?"

  She felt herself blush. "I should probably take Anya back to our room."

  "I can get back to the room without your help," Anya said. "Sandra can help me."

  "As long as you don't bite my hand," Sandra said, getting to her feet and stepping behind Anya's wheelchair. Anya had cancer in her right arm as well as her remaining leg and didn't have the strength to push her wheelchair. Dr. White was trying to get her a motorized chair but it was going to take time he said—and would probably be too late when it did arrive. Sandra and Anya left the room on a chorus of good nights and Ilonka was left alone with Kevin.

 
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