False memory, p.2
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       False Memory, p.2

          

  Perhaps her sudden inexplicable anxiety had been spawned by her mother’s whining about Dusty’s supposed paucity of ambition and about his lack of what Sabrina deemed an adequate education. Martie was afraid that her mother’s venom would eventually poison her marriage. Against her will, she might start to see Dusty through her mother’s mercilessly critical eyes. Or maybe Dusty would begin to resent Martie for the low esteem in which Sabrina held him.

  In fact, Dusty was the wisest man Martie had ever known. The engine between his ears was even more finely tuned than her father’s had been, and Smilin’ Bob had been immeasurably smarter than his nickname implied. As for ambition…Well, she would rather have a kind husband than an ambitious one, and you’d find more kindness in Dusty than you’d find greed in Vegas.

  Besides, Martie’s own career didn’t fulfill the expectations her mother had for her. After earning a bachelor’s degree—majoring in business, minoring in marketing—followed by an M.B.A., she had detoured from the road that might have taken her to high-corporate-executive glory. Instead, she became a freelance video-game designer. She’d sold a few minor hits entirely of her own creation, and on a for-hire basis she had designed scenarios, characters, and fantasy worlds based on concepts by others. She earned good money, if not yet great, and she suspected that being a woman in a male-dominated field would ultimately be an enormous advantage, as her point of view was fresh. She liked her work, and recently she’d signed a contract to create an entirely new game based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which might produce enough royalties to impress Scrooge McDuck. Nevertheless, her mother dismissively described her work as “carnival stuff,” apparently because Sabrina associated video games with arcades, arcades with amusement parks, and amusement parks with carnivals. Martie supposed she was lucky that her mother hadn’t gone one step further and described her as a sideshow freak.

  As Valet accompanied her up the back steps and across the porch, Martie said, “Maybe a psychoanalyst would say, just for a minute back there, my shadow was a symbol of my mother, her negativity—”

  Valet grinned up at her and wagged his plumed tail.

  “—and maybe my little anxiety attack expressed an unconscious concern that Mom is…well, that she’s going to be able to mess with my head eventually, pollute me with her toxic attitude.”

  Martie fished a set of keys from a jacket pocket and unlocked the door.

  “My God, I sound like a college sophomore halfway through Basic Psych.”

  She often talked to the dog. The dog listened but never replied, and his silence was one of the pillars of their wonderful relationship.

  “Most likely,” she said, as she followed Valet into the kitchen, “there was no psychological symbolism, and I’m just going totally nutball crazy.”

  Valet chuffed as though agreeing with the diagnosis of madness, and then he enthusiastically lapped water from his bowl.

  Five mornings a week, following a long walk, either she or Dusty spent half an hour grooming the dog on the back porch, combing and brushing. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, grooming followed the afternoon stroll. Their house was pretty much free of dog hair, and she intended to keep it that way.

  “You are obliged,” she reminded Valet, “not to shed until further notice. And remember—just because we’re not here to catch you in the act, doesn’t mean suddenly you have furniture privileges and unlimited access to the refrigerator.”

  He rolled his eyes at her as if to say he was offended by her lack of trust. Then he continued drinking.

  In the half bath adjacent to the kitchen, Martie switched on the light. She intended to check her makeup and brush her windblown hair.

  As she stepped to the sink, sudden fright cinched her chest again, and her heart felt as though it were painfully compressed. She wasn’t seized by the certainty that some mortal danger loomed behind her, as before. Instead, she was afraid to look in the mirror.

  Abruptly weak, she bent forward, hunching her shoulders, feeling as if a great weight of stones had been stacked on her back. Gripping the pedestal sink with both hands, she gazed down at the empty bowl. She was so bowed by irrational fear that she was physically unable to look up.

  A loose black hair, one of her own, lay on the curve of white porcelain, one end curling under the open brass drain plug, and even this filament seemed ominous. Not daring to raise her eyes, she fumbled for a faucet, turned on the hot water, and washed the hair away.

  Letting the water run, she inhaled the rising steam, but it did not dispel the chill that had returned to her. Gradually the edges of the sink became warmer in her white-knuckled grip, though her hands remained cold.

  The mirror waited. Martie could no longer think of it as a mere inanimate object, as a harmless sheet of glass with silvered backing. It waited.

  Or, rather, something within the mirror waited to make eye contact with her. An entity. A presence.

  Without lifting her head, she glanced to her right and saw Valet standing in the doorway. Ordinarily, the dog’s puzzled expression would have made her laugh; now, laughter would require a conscious effort, and it wouldn’t sound like laughter when it grated from her.

  Although she was afraid of the mirror, she was also—and more intensely—frightened of her own bizarre behavior, of her utterly uncharacteristic loss of control.

  The steam condensed on her face. It felt thick in her throat, suffocating. And the rushing, gurgling water began to sound like malevolent voices, wicked chuckling.

  Martie shut off the faucet. In the comparative quiet, her breathing was alarmingly rapid and ragged with an unmistakable note of desperation.

  Earlier, in the street, deep breathing had cleared her head, flushing away the fear, and her distorted shadow had then ceased to be threatening. This time, however, each inhalation seemed to fuel her terror, as oxygen feeds a fire.

  She would have fled the room, but all her strength had drained out of her. Her legs were rubbery, and she worried that she would fall and strike her head against something. She needed the sink for support.

  She tried to reason with herself, hoping to make her way back to stability with simple steps of logic. The mirror couldn’t harm her. It was not a presence. Just a thing. An inanimate object. Mere glass, for God’s sake.

  Nothing she would see in it could be a threat to her. It was not a window at which some madman might be standing, peering in with a lunatic grin, eyes burning with homicidal intent, as in some cheesy screamfest movie. The mirror could not possibly reveal anything but a reflection of the half bath—and of Martie herself.

  Logic wasn’t working. In a dark territory of her mind that she’d never traveled before, she found a twisted landscape of superstition.

  She became convinced that an entity in the mirror was gaining substance and power because of her efforts to reason herself out of this terror, and she shut her eyes lest she glimpse that hostile spirit even peripherally. Every child knows that the boogeyman under the bed grows stronger and more murderous with each denial of its existence, that the best thing to do is not to think of the hungry beast down there with the dust bunnies under the box springs, with the blood of other children on its fetid breath. Just don’t think of it at all, with its mad-yellow eyes and thorny black tongue. Don’t think of it, whereupon it will fade entirely away, and blessed sleep will come at last, followed by morning, and you will wake in your cozy bed, snug under warm blankets, instead of inside some demon’s stomach.

  Valet brushed against Martie, and she almost screamed.

  When she opened her eyes, she saw the dog peering up with one of those simultaneously imploring and concerned expressions that golden retrievers have polished to near perfection.

  Although she was leaning into the pedestal sink, certain that she couldn’t stand without its support, she let go of it with one hand. Trembling, she reached down to touch Valet.

  As if the dog were a lightning rod, contact with him seemed to ground Martie, and like a crackling current of electricity, a portion of the paralyzing anxiety flowed out of her. High terror subsided to mere fear.

  Although affectionate and sweet-tempered and beautiful, Valet was a timid creature. If nothing in this small room had frightened him, then no danger existed here. He licked her hand.

  Taking courage from the dog, Martie finally raised her head. Slowly. Shaking with dire expectations.

  The mirror revealed no monstrous countenance, no otherworldly landscape, no ghost: only her own face, drained of color, and the familiar half bath behind her.

  When she looked into the reflection of her blue eyes, her heart raced anew, for in a fundamental sense, she had become a stranger to herself. This shaky woman who was spooked by her own shadow, who was stricken by panic at the prospect of confronting a mirror…this was not Martine Rhodes, Smilin’ Bob’s daughter, who had always gripped the reins of life and ridden with enthusiasm and poise.

  “What’s happening to me?” she asked the woman in the mirror, but her reflection couldn’t explain, and neither could the dog.

  The phone rang. She went into the kitchen to answer it.

  Valet followed. He stared at her, puzzled, tail wagging at first, then not wagging.

  “Sorry, wrong number,” she said eventually, and she hung up. She noticed the dog’s peculiar attitude. “What’s wrong with you?”

  Valet stared at her, hackles slightly raised.

  “I swear, it wasn’t the girl poodle next door, calling for you.”

  When she returned to the half bath, to the mirror, she still did not like what she saw, but now she knew what to do about it.

  4

  Dusty walked under the softly rustling fronds of a wind-stirred phoenix palm and along the side of the house. Here he found Foster “Fig” Newton, the third member of the crew.

  Hooked to Fig’s belt was a radio—his ever-present electronic IV bottle. A pair of headphones dripped talk radio into his ears.

  He didn’t listen to programs concerned with political issues or with the problems of modern life. Any hour, day or night, Fig knew where on the dial to tune in a show dealing with UFOs, alien abductions, telephone messages from the dead, fourth-dimensional beings, and Big Foot.

  “Hey, Fig.”

  “Hey.”

  Fig was diligently sanding a window casing. His callused fingers were white with powdered paint.

  “You know about Skeet?” Dusty asked as he followed the slate walkway past Fig.

  Nodding, Fig said, “Roof.”

  “Pretending he’s gonna jump.”

  “Probably will.”

  Dusty stopped and turned, surprised. “You really think so?”

  Newton was usually so taciturn that Dusty didn’t expect more than a shrug of the shoulders by way of reply. Instead Fig said, “Skeet doesn’t believe in anything.”

  “Anything what?” Dusty asked.

  “Anything period.”

  “He isn’t a bad kid, really.”

  Fig’s reply was, for him, the equivalent of an after-dinner speech: “Problem is, he isn’t much of anything.”

  Foster Newton’s pie-round face, plum of a chin, full mouth, cherry-red nose with cherry-round tip, and flushed cheeks ought to have made him look like a debauched hedonist; however, he was saved from caricature by clear gray eyes which, magnified by his thick eyeglasses, were full of sorrow. This was not a conditional sorrow, related to Skeet’s suicidal impulse, but a perpetual sorrow with which Fig appeared to regard everyone and everything.

  “Hollow,” Fig added.

  “Skeet?”

  “Empty.”

  “He’ll find himself.”

  “He stopped looking.”

  “That’s pessimistic,” Dusty said, reduced to Fig’s terse conversational style.

  “Realistic.”

  Fig cocked his head, attention drawn to a discussion on the radio, which Dusty could hear only as a faint tinny whisper that escaped one of the headphones. Fig stood with his sanding block poised over the window casing, eyes flooding with an even deeper sorrow that apparently arose from the weirdness to which he was listening, as motionless as if he had been struck by the paralytic beam from an extraterrestrial’s ray gun.

  Worried by Fig’s glum prediction, Dusty hurried to the long aluminum extension ladder that Skeet had climbed earlier. Briefly, he considered moving it to the front of the house. Skeet might become alarmed by a more direct approach, however, and leap before he could be talked down. The rungs rattled under Dusty’s feet as he rapidly ascended.

  When he swung off the top of the ladder, Dusty was at the back of the house. Skeet Caulfield was at the front, out of sight beyond a steep slope of orange clay tiles that rose like the scaly flank of a sleeping dragon.

  This house was on a hill, and a couple miles to the west, beyond the crowded flats of Newport Beach and its sheltered harbor, lay the Pacific. The usual blueness of the water had settled like a sediment to the ocean floor, and the choppy waves were many shades of gray, mottled with black: a reflection of the forbidding heavens. At the horizon, sea and sky appeared to curve together in a colossal dark wave which, if real, would have rushed ashore with enough force to sweep past the Rocky Mountains more than six hundred miles to the east.

  Behind the house, forty feet below Dusty, were slate-paved patios that posed a more immediate danger than the sea and the oncoming storm. He could more easily envision himself splattered across that slate than he could conjure, in his mind’s eye, an image of the Rockies awash.

  Turning his back to the ocean and to the perilous drop, leaning from the waist, with his arms slightly spread and thrust forward to serve as counterweights to the dangerous backward pull of gravity, Dusty clambered upward. The onshore flow was still just a strong breeze, not yet grown into a full-fledged wind; nevertheless, he was grateful to have it at his back, sticking him to the roof instead of lifting him away from it. At the summit of the long incline, he straddled the ridge line and looked toward the front of the house, past additional slopes of the complex roof.

  Skeet was perched on another ridge parallel to this one, beside a double-stack chimney disguised as a squat bell tower. The stucco tower was surmounted by Palladian arches, the faux-limestone columns of which supported a copper-clad Spanish-colonial cupola, and atop the cupola was a shortened but ornate Gothic spire that was no more out of place in this screwball design than would have been a giant neon sign for Budweiser.

  With his back toward Dusty, knees drawn up, Skeet gazed at the three crows circling above him. His arms were raised to them in an embracive gesture, inviting the birds to settle upon his head and shoulders, as though he were not a housepainter but Saint Francis of Assisi in communion with his feathered friends.

  Still straddling the ridge, waddling like a penguin, Dusty moved north until he came to the point at which a lower roof, running west to east, slid under the eaves of the roof that he was traversing. He abandoned the peak and descended the rounded tiles, leaning backward because gravity now inexorably pulled him forward. Crouching, he hesitated near the brink, but then jumped across the rain gutter and dropped three feet onto the lower surface, landing with one rubber-soled shoe planted on each slope.

  Because his weight wasn’t evenly distributed, Dusty tipped to the right. He struggled to regain his balance but realized that he wasn’t going to be able to keep his footing. Before he tilted too far and tumbled to his death, he threw himself forward and crashed facedown on the ridge-line tiles, right leg and arm pressing hard against the south slope, left leg and arm clamped to the north slope, holding on as though he were a panicked rodeo cowboy riding a furious bull.

  He lay there for a while, contemplating the mottled orange-brown finish and the patina of dead lichen on the roofing tiles. He was reminded of the art of Jackson Pollock, though this was more subtle, more fraught with meaning, and more appealing to the eye.

  When the rain came, the film of dead lichen would quickly turn slimy, and the kiln-fired tiles would become treacherously slippery. He had to reach Skeet and get off the house before the storm broke.

  Eventually he crawled forward to a smaller bell tower.

  This one lacked a cupola. The surmounting dome was a miniature version of those on mosques, clad in ceramic tiles that depicted the Islamic pattern called the Tree of Paradise. The owners of the house weren’t Muslims, so they apparently included this exotic detail because they found it visually appealing—even though, up here, the only people who could get close enough to the dome to admire it were roofers, housepainters, and chimney sweeps.

  Leaning against the six-foot tower, Dusty pulled himself to his feet. Shifting his hands from one vent slot to another, under the rim of the dome, he edged around the structure to the next length of open roof.

  Once more straddling the ridge, crouching, he hurried forward toward another damn false bell tower with another Tree of Paradise dome. He felt like Quasimodo, the high-living hunchback of Notre Dame: perhaps not nearly as ugly as that poor wretch but also not a fraction as nimble.

  He edged around the next tower and continued to the end of the east-west span, which slid under the eaves of the north-south roof that capped the front wing of the residence. Skeet had left a short aluminum ladder as a ramp from the lower ridge line to the slope of the higher roof, and Dusty ascended it, rising from all fours to an apelike crouch as he moved off the ladder onto one more incline.

  When at last Dusty reached the final peak, Skeet was neither surprised to see him nor alarmed. “Morning, Dusty.”

  “Hi, kid.”

  Dusty was twenty-nine, only five years older than the younger man; nonetheless, he thought of Skeet as a child.

  “Mind if I sit down?” Dusty asked.

  With a smile, Skeet said, “I’d sure like your company.”

  Dusty sat beside him, butt on the ridge line, knees drawn up, shoes planted solidly on the barrel tiles.

  Far to the east, past wind-shivered treetops and more roofs, beyond freeways and housing tracts, beyond the San Joaquin Hills, the Santa Ana Mountains rose brown and sere, here at the beginning of the rainy season; around their aged crowns, the clouds wound like dirty turbans.

  On the driveway below, Motherwell had spread a big tarp, but he himself was nowhere to be seen.

  The security guard scowled up at them, and then he consulted his wristwatch. He had given Dusty ten minutes to get Skeet down.

  “Sorry about this,” Skeet said. His voice was eerily calm.

  “Sorry about what?”

  “Jumping on the job.”

  “You could have made it a leisure-time activity,” Dusty agreed.

  “Yeah, but I wanted to jump where I’m happy, not where I’m unhappy, and I’m happiest on the job.”

  “Well, I do try to create a pleasant work environment.”

  Skeet laughed softly and wiped his runny nose on the back of his sleeve.

  Though always slender, Skeet had once been wiry and tough; now he was far too thin, even gaunt, yet he was soft-looking, as if the weight he had lost consisted entirely of bone mass and muscle. He was pale, too, although he often worked in the sun; a ghostly pallor shone through his vague tan, which was more gray than brown. In cheap black-canvas-and-white-rubber sneakers, red socks, white pants, and a tattered pale-yellow sweater with frayed cuffs that draped loosely around his bony wrists, he looked like a boy, a lost child who had been wandering in the desert without food or water.

  Wiping his nose on the sleeve of his sweater again, Skeet said, “Must be getting a cold.”

  “Or maybe the runny nose is just a side effect.”

  Usually, Skeet’s eyes were honey-brown, intensely luminous, but now they were so watery that a portion of the color seemed to have washed out, leaving him with a dim and yellowish gaze. “You think I’ve failed you, huh?”

  “No.”

  “Yes, you do. And that’s all right. Hey, I’m okay with that.”

  “You can’t fail me,” Dusty assured him.

  “Well, I did. We both knew I would.”

  “You can only fail yourself.”

  “Relax, bro.” Skeet patted Dusty’s knee reassuringly and smiled. “I don’t blame you for expecting too much of me, and I don’t blame myself for being a screwup. I’m past all that.”

  Forty feet below, Motherwell came out of the house, single-handedly carrying the mattress from a double bed.

  The vacationing owners had left keys with Dusty, because some interior walls in high-traffic areas had also needed to be painted. That part of the job was finished.

  Motherwell dropped the mattress on the previously positioned tarpaulin, glanced up at Dusty and Skeet, and then went back into the house.

  Even from a height of forty feet, Dusty could see that the security guard didn’t approve of Motherwell raiding the residence to put together this makeshift fall-break.

  “What did you take?” Dusty asked.

  Skeet shrugged and turned his face up toward the circling crows, regarding them with such an inane smile and with such reverence that you would have thought he was a total naturehead who had begun the day with a glass of fresh-squeezed
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