Medusas web, p.15
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       Medusa's Web, p.15

           Tim Powers

  “In a minute.” He pointed at the pages in her hands. “Is there more?”

  “Okay. Yes. But don’t forget.” Madeline flipped through the pages and handed him another. “There at the top, underlined.”

  retirement check all these years and mister 2by4 stole it his kids found it gave it back i open it on resurrection day its gone kids put a squiggle instead wrote a new will made banners branded in their eyes climb down in her eyes out of the tomb

  “Aunt Amity gave Dad that two-by-four,” said Madeline softly, “on that last Christmas, in ’91. He’s mister two-by-four.”

  Scott knew he would have to forcefully call her attention to another passage in that section, but for now he just nodded. “And she says here that Dad stole what she calls a retirement check, and you and I gave it back to her, but when she opened it on Resurrection Day, whatever she meant by that, she found that we had switched it with a squiggle.”

  “The Oneida Ince one. And then she had to write the new will, specifying that we live here for a week.”

  She waved the typescript. “So how do you know Natacha stole the film from this Taylor guy?”

  Scott described to his sister finding the box of spiders behind a drawer in their aunt’s office, and the vision he had seen after looking at one of them that afternoon: the intrusion by Natacha and her male companion into Taylor’s apartment, what she and Taylor had said to each other, and her shooting him and taking away the can of film.

  “Natacha didn’t mean to shoot him?” said Madeline.

  “No, somebody else had taken control of her body at that point. She was as helpless as I was.”

  Scott glanced farther down the page and read,

  i loved her cyclone I know charlene and alla loved me too at first then said sick wicked and when she died i bought her bathtub and when is a door not adore

  He tapped the paper. “You saw this? I forgot to mention there’s a big old iron bathtub in Aunt Amity’s office. Not hooked up to any plumbing.”

  Madeline shrugged and shook her head. “And she spells a door like worship there. Spell-check doesn’t catch errors if they’re actual other words.” She took the papers and slid them back into her briefcase. “You feel all right now?”

  Scott stretched. “Yeah, I fell asleep for a while, after the vision wore off—” He thought of Louise’s visit, and Ariel not waking him up, but pressed on, “and when I woke up I could still sense where the event happened—”

  “I know,” said Madeline with a visible shiver, “you feel like you can point your finger to it.”

  “And so I got on my bike and went there—”

  Madeline gasped. “You went looking for Usabo?”

  “It was decades ago, Maddy! The apartment where the Taylor guy got shot, the whole building, is gone. It’s a Ross Dress for Less parking lot now. But the building across the street was still there, the same as it was in the vision.”

  “A film that’s an exorcism.” Madeline giggled nervously and looked around the room. More quietly, she went on, “Of what?”

  “Of the big spider, I guess. Maybe of all the spiders. But your Natacha just wanted to cut some frames out of it.”

  “I wonder if the exorcism would work,” said Madeline, “and if it still exists.”

  “I was sort of hoping to find a clue about that,” Scott admitted, “when I rode over there.”

  “I might need it, if we stay here,” Madeline said. Scott looked at her sharply, and she added, “Might.” She didn’t say anything more.

  Scott prompted her: “Oh?”

  “I don’t think she means any harm, but Scott, last night when I finally went to sleep, Aunt Amity was in my dreams! I mean she was alive, intruding, shaking me and making me look in her eyes, and then I think I was dreaming her memories.”

  Madeline leaned against the door frame and slid down until she was sitting on the floor with her knees up. “I guess she got into my dreams when I looked at the spider yesterday.”

  “Maddy, she has got into your head.” He finally pointed at the passage on the page that had most caught his attention. “Look what she wrote—made banners branded in their eyes climb down in her eyes—if you give her time, she’ll get further in, and, I don’t know, crowd you out. Don’t you think that’s looking likely? She’s begun possessing you, through that spider she left for you.”

  Madeline nodded slightly. “Well, I’ve been wondering about that. I thought I was just, you know, channeling her. We psychics do that.”

  “You’re a psychic? I thought you were an astrologer.”

  “Well—they’re related fields, aren’t they?”

  “She means to take you over. Already, just when you’re talking, some of your word choices—it’s like somebody else’s vocabulary is mixing in with yours. We have to leave here.”

  “Oh hell.” She hugged her knees. “Maybe. Tomorrow. If it happens again, or if it gets worse, or if it gets scary.”

  He stared at her incredulously. “This isn’t scary? That a dead old woman has got herself inside your head?”

  Madeline looked away and shrugged. “But I’m afraid she’ll die if I leave.”

  “Uh . . .”

  “I know, she’s dead already. But I think I can help her to, you know, move on.”

  “Go toward the white light.”

  “Right, that stuff.”

  Scott was disconcerted by her evident calmness. “We should leave tonight,” he said firmly. “Now.”


  “But if she—”

  “No, Scott.”

  He bared his teeth in frustration. “But we do leave tomorrow!”

  “If it gets too scary.” Scott started to say something more, but Madeline waved dismissively. “So what news of the household?”

  Scott emptied his lungs in a sigh, then spread his hands. “Well—Claimayne’s gone crazy. He shot a gun into the floor not ten minutes ago.” Now Madeline was glancing around at the floor, and he added impatiently, “Not here, in the dining room.”

  “Oh. I saw him downstairs; he said dinner’s in half an hour—probably twenty minutes now. He’s got a nosebleed.”

  “Do you want to have dinner with those two again?”

  “It’s free. I spent your ten dollars on gas.”

  “There’s that. Okay. One last dinner. And remember we—”

  A loud explosion from overhead shook the floor and rattled the window.

  “Damn!” Scott crossed to the window and saw scraps of yellow lace spinning away down into the garden. “Do you know what Ariel says that noise is?”

  “No. I know what it is, though. It’s Aunt Amity blowing herself up again. No, not again—still.”

  Scott had turned to face her. “How do you know that?”

  Madeline shrugged. “I don’t know. What else could it be?”

  “What else could—? Maddy—” Scott paused, trying to think of some reply or further question, and for several seconds neither of them spoke.

  Then Madeline said in a rush, “I dreamed about what she wrote. I was in a long room, a tent, really, with no roof, and the walls were painted like rooms but they kept wiggling because it was windy outside, and in front of me three guys in D’Artagnan clothes were having a swordfight, and off to one side of them was like a saloon, with cowboys, and on the other side a guy and a girl dressed like for a wedding were sitting on a bench in front of some fake bushes and holding hands, not paying any attention to the sword guys or the cowboys. And behind me guys were yelling at them, like ‘Slower, quicker, kiss her hand!’”

  “Sounds like they were filming a movie. Several movies. Maddy, what makes you think—”

  “Oh!” Madeline’s eyes had widened. “Yeah, it does. Silent movies, I guess, what with guys all the time yelling at the actors.” She paused, then nodded. “Yes, it was back when I was an actress.”


  “I said it was back when she was an actress.”

  “What? Who, Aunt Amity?”
  Madeline held a faraway stare for a moment, then looked down and shook her head. “Whoever.” She stepped to the door and twisted the deadbolt back.

  Scott didn’t move. “You said, ‘when I was an actress.’”

  Madeline rolled her eyes. “That was I in the dream, Scott. I’ve never been an actress.”

  She started to say something further, then just shook her head. “We better go down to dinner before Salomé feeds it all to the tetrarch.”

  “You go ahead,” he said, “I’ll catch up.” And when he heard her steps receding in the hall, he pulled the bourbon bottle out of his jacket pocket and hurried into his own room and shoved it under his mattress.

  ARIEL WAS NOT SITTING at her place when Scott and Madeline walked in from the hallway, and as Claimayne waved them to their own chairs he said, “Rita isn’t here, and so Ariel is cooking dinner tonight.”

  The tall windows in the dining room were closed this evening, though the long room still smelled faintly of diesel exhaust from down the hill, and lit candles stood in three wax-dribbled wine bottles on the table. Aunt Amity’s empty chair still seemed to dominate the room.

  Scott glanced toward the swinging kitchen doors—he heard steps and faint clattering, and considered and then instantly dismissed the idea of getting up and going in there to see if Ariel needed any help.

  When he looked back to the table, Claimayne was smiling at him, so Scott quickly said, “Is Rita sick?”

  “I think she’s going to retire, actually,” said Claimayne. “Yes, she had something like a stroke today. A window cracked, and she was unwise enough to look directly at it.” Claimayne was staring intently at Scott now. “You’d think she’d know better, after working in this house for so many years, wouldn’t you?”

  Scott sat back in his chair and considered how to answer. Finally, “Yes,” he said.

  “Is she all right?” asked Madeline.

  Still watching Scott, Claimayne said, “I think so. She was very shaky afterward, as you’d expect, but at least it was a fresh . . . set of cracks. Not dirty.”

  “I hope you broke the glass out of the window,” said Scott.

  Claimayne pushed at an opened bottle of Mondavi merlot, clearly finding it too heavy to lift. He glanced impatiently toward the kitchen.

  “No,” he said, “I think it might be rather entertaining to look at it myself one of these days.” He slapped the arms of his wheelchair. “Let Rita briefly have seen how the lower half lives.”

  Scott frowned. “Where is it?”

  “God knows! Today’s Thursday, her day for vacuuming and dusting everywhere. I found her on the stairs—which is apparently where I’ll leave her when our overlap expires.”

  The kitchen doors swung open, and Ariel, wearing glasses now, stepped into the dining room carrying two plates with wedges of steaming frittata on them; she carefully set them at her place and Claimayne’s, then returned to the kitchen.

  “I bet I find the window,” said Madeline cheerfully, “and I bet I break it. Poor old Rita doesn’t deserve to be you, even just for a few minutes. No offense,” she added. She looked at the plate in front of Claimayne. “Frittata! With ’sparagus and bacon! Your old favorite, Scott.”

  “I don’t remember that,” said Ariel, pushing through the swinging doors again with two more plates. She clanked one down in front of Scott without looking at him, and Madeline took the other from her and set it down gently.

  “And you leave Rita alone,” said Ariel to Claimayne.

  “Your fault,” said Claimayne, “for not giving her your glasses. Would you pour the wine?”

  Scott looked at Ariel more closely and then smothered a surprised laugh—the lenses of her glasses were rippled in a bull’s-eye pattern, making fragmented rings of her eyes.

  Madeline had noticed it too. “It’s a good thing you were cooking frittata,” she said, and when Ariel turned to her, she added, “since it’s round. I bet we all look like blowfishes to you.”

  “I pass on that,” said Claimayne. “Salomé, the wine?”

  “Leeches is what you look like,” said Ariel. She lifted the bottle and splashed wine into her glass and Claimayne’s, then pushed it across the table.

  Madeline poured a few ounces into her own glass and said, “Is there any more Coke?”

  “I don’t keep track of such things,” said Ariel as she pulled out her chair and sat down.

  Madeline started to get up, but Scott waved her back and got to his feet.

  “Damn it, Ariel,” said Claimayne, “you could fetch him his—”

  “It’s okay,” said Scott, stepping around the table and pushing open the kitchen doors. Behind him Claimayne exhaled in exasperation.

  The kitchen had not changed since Scott had moved out thirteen years earlier—the green-and-white tiled counters, the O’Keefe and Merritt double-oven stove—and the old green refrigerator that he had always thought looked like a 1950 Buick stood on end; the refrigerator door looked bare without some of Madeline’s crayon drawings held on by souvenir magnets.

  He levered open the door and leaned down to peer in at the ranks of yogurt cartons and translucent Tupperware containers half full of unattractive stuff, and by the ice sheet in the back he saw two cans of Coke. He lifted one free and straightened up.

  Thinking of Claimayne’s irritation that Ariel hadn’t fetched the Coke, he looked around at the kitchen, and after a few moments noticed that the lace curtain over the door window was yellowed at the edges but white in the middle, as if it had been fastened aside for a long time and only recently loosed and drawn across the glass.

  He crossed the worn linoleum to it and, being careful to stare at the red can in his hand, pulled the fabric to the side. Peripherally he could see cracks in the windowpane, possibly eight of them, radiating from a point in the center. They glowed in the slanting western sunlight.

  Scott turned to the sink, unhooked an oven mitt and slipped it onto his free hand, and punched the glass out of the window. The shards clattered on the walkway pavement outside, and the early evening breeze through the empty frame was cold and smelled now of juniper. He beat the mitt over the trash can and hung it up again and then carried the Coke back to the dining room.

  “The window was—in the kitchen!” said Madeline to Claimayne around a mouthful of frittata. She swallowed and went on, “You found Rita on the kitchen floor, not on the stairs.”

  As Scott pulled out his chair and sat down again, Claimayne looked at Scott’s hands. “You didn’t cut yourself, I hope?”

  “Oven mitt,” said Scott. He dug his fork into the wedge of thick omelette on his plate.

  “Good,” said Ariel. To Claimayne, she went on, “And Rita’s older than you! You want your blood even more worn out than it already is?”

  “It is bitter,” said Claimayne with a smile, “but I like it because it is bitter, and because it is my blood.” He took a sip of wine and waved his free hand. “Paraphrased from Stephen Crane.”

  “I was just gonna say,” said Scott, who knew nothing about Stephen Crane except that he might have written The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

  “This is canned ’sparagus,” said Madeline, “not fresh. Scott always said canned was better in frittatas.” To Ariel she added, “You remember?”

  Ariel just frowned and shook her head.

  For nearly a minute no one spoke, and the only sounds were chewing and the clink of cutlery. Ariel several times lifted her bare fork to her mouth, then impatiently lowered it and tried again to get some piece of frittata onto it; clearly she couldn’t see it through her peculiar glasses.

  Finally, “We’ve all been tense,” said Claimayne. “Testy. Out of sorts. I think it would relax us all, as a family, to watch a heartwarming movie together.”

  “A movie?” said Ariel. “No, I’m not going to—”

  Madeline shook her head sharply, as if dislodging a fly. “Yes,” she said, “I’m afraid it’s high time.”

  Scott thought of the wa
inscot door in the upstairs hallway. When is a door not adore? “It might be worthwhile,” he admitted, “at that.”

  Ariel pulled off her glasses impatiently and glanced from one face to another. “What are you all—oh. The Alla Nazimova movie. Salomé.”

  “In honor of my mother,” agreed Claimayne, “who loved it.”

  “How do you spell her first name?” asked Madeline. “Nazimova, not your mother. I know how to spell her name.”

  “We won’t test you, child. But Nazimova’s first name was A-L-L-A. When her estate on Sunset was broken up into rental bungalows, the new owner called the complex ‘The Garden of Allah,’ with an H at the end, like for the Islamic deity.”

  “Her real name was Adelaida,” said Ariel, rubbing the bridge of her nose. “Back in Siberia or wherever she came from.”

  Madeline was giving Scott a wide-eyed look, and he frowned and nodded slightly. Yes yes, I remember that passage, he thought—i loved her cyclone I know charlene and alla loved me too at first—don’t draw attention.

  But Ariel had caught the look and nod, and asked, “What?”

  “That’s the password,” said Madeline quickly. “On your computer. Adelaida.”

  “My mother’s computer,” corrected Claimayne. Evidently having had enough of the dinner, he pushed his wheelchair back from the table.

  Scott glanced at the wall above the hallway door, and noticed for the first time that the long metal retractable-screen case was missing; he could see the patches where the screw holes had been puttied over.

  “This room is no longer the home theater,” said Claimayne. “Now we’ve got a TV in the apiary. I’ve got a VHS version of Salomé, and we’ve still got the VHS player, so we no longer need the projector and those worn-out reels.”

  The apiary had been the household name for a ballroom on the third floor. When they had all been children, it had been stacked with old furniture.

  “Are the bees gone?” asked Madeline worriedly, pushing back her chair and standing up.

  “She got rid of the bees when you were still in grade school,” said Ariel. “You never did grasp that.”

  “I never did like bugs,” said Madeline.

  “Bees aren’t—”

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