Alyzon whitestarr, p.17
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       Alyzon Whitestarr, p.17

           Isobelle Carmody

  “Dr. Austin,” I murmured, remembering the short-tempered man—and his stink.

  “He’s Sarry’s doctor,” Harrison said. “He has been treating her since she was a child. Sarry dislikes him because he insists on medicating her after an episode, which weakens her will and makes it harder tae control the sickness. We dinnae bring her tae the hospital anymore, because after drug treatment she’s like a zombie for weeks, sometimes months, until she has wrestled the sickness back intae submission.”

  “I … I didn’t know,” I whispered, understanding that in calling for an ambulance I had sent her to Dr. Austin. A chill stole through me, because if anyone smelled of wrongness, it was him.

  “Alyzon, what happened isnae your fault, and Sarry will tell you that when she can. But right now the most important thing is tae offer her belief. I’ll wait here until she wakes. And Raoul will come and, with luck, we’ll be able tae talk tae her before Dr. Austin arrives. If she’s calm, we might be able tae insist he give her a smaller dose of drugs.” He hesitated. “It might be better if you leave visiting her until another time.”

  “All right,” I said, getting to my feet. My voice sounded jerky.

  * * *

  On the way home I kept seeing Sarry’s horrified face as she had backed away from me, understanding only now that she had not been afraid of me, but of infecting me with the wrongness she believed that she carried. Except it wasn’t she who smelled of rottenness.

  I stifled a gasp at the realization that I had completely forgotten about meeting Harlen at the mall. There was no chance that he would still be there, even if I had been willing to ask Da to drive me back there, and I couldn’t call Harlen to explain because I didn’t know his phone number.

  I was still worrying about it when I crept into bed an hour later, but I was so tired that I quickly fell asleep and slipped bonelessly into the dream of being a wolf in a dark, crumbling city that smelled of rot. At one point in the dream, I came upon a human: a poor frail, terrified thing she seemed to my wolf senses, and yet I had the overwhelming feeling that it was my job to protect her and her kind. Yet how could I protect her from a sickness of the spirit?

  * * *

  The first thing I saw when I came downstairs in the morning was a note on the fridge telling me to call Gilly right away.

  “I didn’t imagine in a million years that Sarry would have an episode when she was alone with you,” she said apologetically. “If only one of us had been there with you!”

  “Harrison said you all believe she’s infected with some sort of sickness.”

  “I suppose you think we’re all mad?” Gilly guessed. “When Harrison said we should try believing her, I was afraid we might be doing her harm by encouraging a delusion. But Raoul was all for it. He says people see him as sick because he’s in a wheelchair, even though he’s perfectly healthy. He said getting treated as if you are sick makes you feel sick, and maybe the only thing wrong with Sarry was that people didn’t believe her. It’s Raoul that Sarry goes to when the wrongness is getting stronger.”

  “She stays with him?”

  “That wouldn’t be allowed. But she spends a lot of her days there, and Raoul drives her home at night.”

  “He drives?” I said, then wished I hadn’t.

  Gilly just laughed. “He has a specially made car. It cost a fortune, but he makes a lot of money from his work testing games and building Web sites. It used to amaze me that he would want to drive. That’s how he got so hurt. A car accident.”

  I blinked at the receiver, wondering how much courage it must take for Raoul to get into a car when it had so savaged him. Then I wondered how I could think of a car in the face of what we had been talking about. As if she felt the same, Gilly’s voice went serious.

  “We’re going to see Sarry tonight.” A small pause. “Do you want to come?”

  “No,” I said. Harrison had been right to steer me away from seeing her so soon after what had happened. But I wanted very much to talk to her when it was possible.

  After I had put the phone down, I thought about Gilly and the others believing Sarry; choosing to believe that she was the carrier of a contagious spiritual sickness that could not be detected by medical science. What would they say if I told them that, like Sarry, I could perceive things other people could not? Including, perhaps, the very sickness that Sarry carried.

  Except I hadn’t smelled anything on Sarry, which meant either that her sickness was not what I had smelled on Dr. Austin or Harlen, or that Sarry was not infected.

  My reflections were too confused and contradictory, and I knew that the best way to sort out the muddle was to just leave it for a bit. So I managed by a supreme effort of will to immerse myself in homework for almost an hour. But finally thoughts of Harlen and Dr. Austin and Sarry began creeping back in. I gave up trying to concentrate and threw myself into housework. I changed the sheets on my bed, sorted out a pile of dirty laundry, and swept the bedroom.

  Finally I decided to take a walk. I had no particular destination in mind, but when I came to a reserve where Jesse, Mirandah, and I used to ride our bikes when we were younger, I went into it, feeling nostalgic.

  As I set off down the longest trail, I remembered a game we used to play there. Like all our games, it had grown out of hide-and-seek and involved pretending the wilderness was a maze-like subterranean network of caves through which we were being pursued by bears. For me these were the under-bears that had come creeping out of the cracks in the earth. We could only escape their fangs and claws by being utterly still whenever Jesse, who was always in charge of them, said they were near. I remembered how exquisite the terror had been when occasionally Jesse had decided to become one of the bears and had come lumbering and snarling toward us. We had frozen and tried not to move or react to anything he did as he snuffled and butted at and sometimes even licked us.

  I smiled, remembering that, right alongside knowing it was Jesse and wanting to giggle at his antics, I had been genuinely aghast that the bear would rend me and eat me.

  It’s funny how you can do that as a kid; totally believe something and know at the same time that it isn’t real. But maybe it’s because a kid’s life is full of unknown things and imagined things and real things all blurred together.

  The sky had been darkening almost imperceptibly, and all at once it started to rain. I ran, but after a minute I slowed down again, because it wasn’t that cold.

  By the time I got home, I was soaked to the bone. But I felt good because somewhere on the walk, without ever really thinking about it, I realized that I had made up my mind to tell Gilly and Harrison and Raoul the truth about myself.

  Mirandah was busy cooking vegetable pastry puffs for dinner, so after I had a hot shower and changed, I came down to help her, and we listened to an interview she’d taped for school. It was a man talking about the AIDS epidemic in Africa and how many people were infected. The figures were shocking, and I found myself imagining a country where half the population was sick and dying. If it was America or Australia or England, it would have been on the news every night, and the whole Western world would be mobilized to help. But because it was Africa, you hardly saw or read anything about it. The man called it a secret epidemic, although it was less a secret, he said bleakly, than something from which the Western world had simply turned their eyes.

  When the tape clicked off, we grated vegetables in silence for a bit, then some impulse made me say, “Sometimes people do horrible things for no reason at all. A while back, a journalist told my class about a guy not much older than us who killed his younger brother. He didn’t hate him or anything. He just decided to do it, planned it, and did it.”

  Mirandah stared at me. “He must have had some reason. Or maybe he was crazy.”

  “That’s what the court decided,” I said, but I found myself wondering if the guy who had done the murdering had been infected with wrongness. Because if Dr. Austin and Harlen Sanderson were infected by a spiritual sickness that cou
ld not be detected by conventional science, why not others as well?

  After dinner, I called Gilly, but there was no answer. When I finally got to bed, I didn’t dream about Sarry or Harlen, but about Aya being held prisoner inside the detention center. I clambered up the wall, which had grown three times higher but had also developed jutting rocks that could be used as handholds. When I got to the top I stared down incredulously, because inside the walls were not bland concrete block buildings but the ruined city I often dreamed about.

  All at once, I was a wolf again. I jumped down and padded along, sniffing at the greasy black cobbles until I caught a horrible smell. Rather than being repelled, I lifted my muzzle and howled in triumph, then I began to follow the fetid spoor. It brought me to a tiny room in the side of a crumbled building, and here I found not Aya, but Serenity, huddled in rags and smeared with unspeakable filth.

  “Why are you following me?” she snarled. Only then did I realize that the terrible smell I had been following was coming from her.

  * * *

  I woke deep in the night to find Mum in the bedroom. I wasn’t frightened, because she had a long habit of drifting through our rooms in the night, and more than once I had opened my eyes to find her looking down at me. Somehow her presence almost seemed like an extension of my dream, because she was staring at Serenity.

  In the morning I felt tired and headachy but I resisted the temptation to beg a day home sick because if Da called the school, they were bound to mention my absence on Friday. Besides, I wanted to talk to Gilly I dragged myself out of bed, groaning at the way my bones ached, and carefully faked a sick note from Da for Friday.

  But Gilly wasn’t in homeroom. I felt depressed, both by her absence and by the knowledge that I would be alone when I finally faced Harlen’s wrath. But when he came into English a few minutes after the bell, he didn’t even glance at me. He went straight to the back of the class to sit with some of the tougher boys. I heard him laughing and, all at once, my idea that he was infected by a spiritual disease seemed utterly fantastic.

  Mrs. Barker thwarted my reluctant plan to confront and apologize to Harlen after class by holding me back to tell me I’d passed my tests.

  I couldn’t find Harlen at lunchtime, so I went to the office to see if the school knew why Gilly was absent. The woman at the reception desk said no one had called in, and she suggested kindly that Gilly might have caught what I had on Friday. I felt myself flush guiltily.

  Afternoon recess came, and I slipped out of school to call Gilly from the pay phone down the road. Standing in the booth, listening to the phone ring, I noticed the clouds clogging the sky were dark. There was also a tense feel to the air that made me wonder if a storm was brewing. I was about to go back to school when it struck me that the ringing of the phone had sounded odd. Besides, wouldn’t there be an answering machine if there was no one home?

  I dialed again, listened, then called the operator. A man tested Gilly’s number and agreed that there was something wrong with the line. He suggested I call back later to check the status. The end-of-recess bell had already rung by the time I got back into the school yard, so I ran to get the books I needed for next period. The locker passage was empty except for Sylvia Yarrow pushing books into her locker and swearing violently.

  “Are you OK?” I asked, picking up a notepad she had dropped and holding it out to her.

  She gave me an unseeing look as she reached out for it, and some impulse made me shift my hand and make physical contact. Immediately I felt hatred flow through me, thick and greasy-dark as a tide of oil. A nightmarish vision of hands pushing a white cat into a bath of water flashed into my mind—unmistakably Sylvia’s hands, because of all the rings she wore.

  I gave a cry of horror and jerked my hand away from her.

  Sylvia gaped at me, then she turned and fled down the corridor as if all the demons of hell were after her. She had left her locker door hanging open and, as I stood there, some books slid out and crashed to the floor. Shakily, I picked them up and stacked them inside, shutting the door to the locker with trembling hands. Then I got my own bag, knowing I couldn’t just go and sit in class after what I had seen.

  I left the school, telling myself it couldn’t be a real memory I had seen. Sylvia had only been imagining killing the cat. But even to imagine such an awful, cruel thing was unthinkable.

  * * *

  I’d just made it across the street from school when I heard a familiar voice call my name. I turned, staring in disbelief as Harrison approached. “What are you doing here?” I asked.

  His brows lifted. “I’m here tae follow your sister.”

  “Oh God! You shouldn’t have worried about it. Sarry—”

  “Would be the first tae say I should do what I promised,” Harrison said firmly. His eyes narrowed behind his spectacles. “Are you all right, Alyzon? You look a wee bit strange.”

  I tried to find something to say, but all I could see was the white cat, struggling and clawing the air, desperate and dying. All at once it seemed that the world I had lived in for fifteen years was an illusion, cracking and breaking away to reveal a strange, dark world in which good-looking young men smelled of rot and girls murdered cats. It was as if the underbears of my childish nightmares had finally escaped.

  “No,” I heard myself saying in a thin voice. “I’m not OK. Listen, Harrison, it’s almost an hour before school gets out, and there’s a cafe just a few streets away. Can we go and get a drink? I really need to talk.”

  “OK,” he said equably.

  * * *

  “So what’s up?” he asked. We were sitting at a sticky plastic-covered table with two glasses of orange juice between us. The girl who had served us was cleaning the counter nearest us meticulously, but I doubted she would hear what we were saying because of the humming and wheezing of the drink fridge.

  I took a deep breath. “First, tell me about Sarry Is she OK?”

  Harrison said soberly, “She was pretty depressed tae start with. But Dr. Austin is on holiday, and after Raoul pointed out how long it had been since Sarry’s last episode, the doctor taking his caseload is willing tae drop the dose.”

  “Did Sarry say anything about me?”

  He nodded, frowning slightly. “She is still convinced you can smell the sickness in her, but Raoul managed tae convince her that, even if you could, it was only because the sickness must be in a stronger phase. He couldnae tell her that she had just misunderstood you when she’s half off her head with dope.”

  I took a deep breath. “At the hospital you said you and the others had decided to believe Sarry was sick even though she had no way of proving it to you. Can you do the same for me? Believe something even though I’ve no proof of it?”

  “I’ll try,” he said calmly, and there was something in the combination of mildness and firmness that reassured me more than a truckload of words.

  I took a sip of the orange juice, which was too sweet, and blinked hard to stop a sudden hot gathering of tears behind my eyes. I wasn’t sure why I had the impulse to cry. Maybe it was just shock at having arrived at the moment of telling. I collected myself and told him as concisely as I could about waking after the accident to find my senses had changed. Harrison did not interrupt to ask questions, and he looked intensely interested. But when I told him about my encounter with Dr. Austin and how he had smelled, Harrison’s brows climbed into his blond fringe and he said, “Are ye saying Sarry’s right and ye can smell wrongness?” His accent was suddenly much thicker.

  “I don’t know if it is wrongness that I can smell on Dr. Austin,” I said slowly. “Sarry didn’t say so, did she?”

  “Sarry cannae perceive wrongness in anyone but herself,” Harrison said. “And she never said anything about smelling wrongness until she was talking about you. She always talks about feeling it getting hungry or strong. But what does it mean that Dr. Austin wanted tae drug you both? He cannae be out tae infect Sarry, since she’s already infected.”

“Is she?” I asked. “Because that’s another thing. She doesn’t smell like Dr. Austin.”

  “It could be … But wait, are you saying it was just coincidence that you started talking about the smell of wrongness tae Sarry?” Harrison sounded incredulous.

  I shrugged. “Is that any weirder than anything else we’ve been talking about?”

  He gave a short laugh, then he glanced at his watch. “Damn, I’ll have tae go, but we need tae talk more about this. What happened just now in school, anyway? You looked upset.”

  I told him about Sylvia.

  “You actually had a vision when you touched her?” Harrison asked eagerly.

  I nodded. “I can’t figure if I was seeing a memory or some kind of wish.” I meant to tell what I had seen when Sarry had grabbed me during her attack, but he was getting to his feet.

  “I’d better head back tae the school or I’ll miss your sister.”

  “But you believe me,” I said uncertainly.

  “Of course I believe you,” he said. I was so relieved that I felt myself blush. He went to pay, refusing my offer of money. When he came back, I got up and we went out together.

  “Did Sarry ever say how she got infected? I mean the actual process?”

  Harrison shook his head. “It’s like I told you and your da at the hospital. It happened when she was too young tae take it in clearly, but she always connects it with her mother’s death. She would have been too young tae resist anything then, so I guess it must take a while before the sickness becomes contagious. From what Sarry said, it seems tae get stronger in cycles, so maybe it is only contagious at certain times.” He looked at me, hesitating. “How would you feel about telling Raoul and Gilly?”

  “I mean to tell all of you. But speaking of Gilly, you don’t happen to know why she didn’t come to school today, do you?”

  He shook his head again, then told me I had better not come back to the school with him in case Serenity saw us together. I agreed to go another way and we said goodbye. But just as I was about to leave, Harrison stopped me and suggested we meet the next night.

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