Medusas web, p.2
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       Medusa's Web, p.2

           Tim Powers
 

  “Then my subconscious is a masochist. I’d marry . . . you, first, and I don’t like you at all. Owners! That will is a joke.”

  “I do think a judge will agree with you about the will. Oh, and you told them to join us in here for dinner. Apparently Rita is going to make enchiladas. Will you feel up to it?”

  Ariel sat up straight with some evident effort and rolled her shoulders and flexed her fingers. “Just three days ahead, and into my own body,” she muttered, “and it feels like I dug ten ditches.”

  Her cousin spread his hands. “You’ve evidently forgotten what it’s like.”

  Ariel stood up unsteadily and moved her feet around till she was facing the hallway door. “Yes, I’ll be here for dinner. I want to see him get pig drunk.” She began walking carefully out of the room.

  “That might help,” called Claimayne.

  CHAPTER 2

  “ARE YOU COMING?” ASKED Madeline. Scott had set down his bundle and one of her canvas bags halfway along the dim hallway that led to the three connecting bedrooms their family had once occupied.

  One wall of the corridor was paneled with a row of mismatched old doors; they had been salvaged from a number of long-demolished hotels and apartment buildings, and though there was only plaster behind them, he knocked at the one that was supposed to have come from the Garden of Allah bungalows on Sunset Boulevard, torn down in 1959.

  In the shadows he saw Madeline’s reluctant smile. “Aunt Amity always knocked on that one whenever she went by,” she said. “I remember.”

  He picked up the bags and walked up to where she stood. “And she always said, ‘When is a door not a door? When it’s a wainscot.’ That’s paneling. Which all these doors are, now that they’ve just got a wall behind them.”

  “It was from that woman’s home, wasn’t it? That silent-movie actress.”

  “Nazimova,” Scott agreed. “After she went broke and made her estate into bungalows so she could live in one of ’em.”

  He dropped the bags again to open the door of their parents’ old room. They shuffled in slowly.

  Madeline clicked the wall switch up, and the bare overhead bulb cast a harsh yellow glow over the bare floor and the cobwebbed shelves.

  The ceiling above the bed was mottled brown, and a foot-wide section of plaster had at some time fallen onto the mattress, which appeared to have been soaked by at least one winter’s leaked rains. Two short wires stuck out of the wall above the baseboard where the telephone had been connected.

  Scott wrestled open the north window to air out the mildew smell, though the breeze was cold.

  “God,” whispered Madeline with a visible shiver, “they’re really gone now, aren’t they?”

  He knew what his sister meant; in the days when their parents’ room had still been regularly dusted and swept, it had been possible to imagine that their mother and father might one day return, with reassurances and unimaginable explanations. But Arthur and Irina Madden had disappeared in 1991, when Scott had been twelve and Madeline had been seven, and redundant evidence at this late date shouldn’t have been needed to confirm that they were gone for good.

  “When I had money,” he said quietly, “I hired a private investigator to look for them. Social Security numbers, dates of birth—nothing.”

  Madeline sniffed and nodded. “That’s good, anyway, that you did that.”

  “Let’s look at our rooms,” he said, stepping past her and pulling open the door that led to Madeline’s old room. He leaned in to switch on the overhead light. “Look, yours isn’t bad at all!”

  Scott took Madeline by the elbow and led her across the bare hardwood floor into her old room, where a poster of the Woody character from the movie Toy Story was somehow still tacked up on the wall, and then he walked on into his old room and turned on the light there.

  Fortunately the roof had not leaked over their rooms, and the ceilings were hammocked with cobwebs but unstained. As Claimayne had said, though, the rooms were chilly.

  “I’ll fetch that heater,” Scott said.

  Madeline crossed her arms and leaned into the connecting doorway. “She doesn’t seem to hate you anymore. These rooms could use some air too.” She walked across to his window, twisted the latch, and tugged, but it didn’t move.

  “I’ll get it in a sec,” he said. “You’re right, she seemed downright friendly. I’m glad.” He brushed some dust off an empty shelf. “Claimayne looks pretty weird these days, doesn’t he? I wonder how long he’s been in a wheelchair.”

  “Since a couple of years before I moved out in ’08.”

  “What’s wrong with him?”

  “I’m—not sure.”

  “Oh.” After a pause, Scott went on, “What’s that gold thing he wears around his neck?”

  “It’s supposed to be the DNA coil. Double helix. He likes to look at it.”

  “Well, he’s a poet, right? It’s probably a metaphor for something.”

  Scott had dumped the contents of the plastic bag he used for luggage onto his bare dusty mattress, and he flipped through the pile of damp shirts and socks till he found a pack of Camels. Blobs of water were visible under the cellophane, shifting as he handled the pack. “My trashbag leaked,” he observed glumly. He began pulling out the damp cigarettes and laying them in a line on a dusty shelf.

  When he turned back to the bed, he noticed the corner of an envelope under a crumpled shirt, and he pulled it free and held it up.

  “Have you opened yours yet?” he asked.

  “The lawyer said her instructions were to wait till we were here. ‘In residence.’”

  “Well, we’re here. Maybe there’s a five in it.” Their aunt Amity had always put a five-dollar bill inside their birthday cards.

  “I hope so,” said Madeline. “It’s probably all we’ll get.”

  “She meant well, with that last will.”

  The envelope had stayed dry, and Scott tore it open. All it contained was a folded slip of paper about six inches square, and he unfolded it and looked at it—

  —And he tried to fling it away, but he couldn’t move. Inked on the paper was a jaggedly eight-limbed abstract figure, and he could feel a strong alien reciprocity between it and its reversed image on his retinas; the figure seemed to rotate, or to be about to, and the corners of the limbs were suddenly bristly with finer lines, and now it appeared to consist of a dozen fissipating legs, curling and spinning.

  He was breathless and his heart was suddenly pounding, and for a long, long moment he was not even conscious of his own identity.

  Eventually he was aware of shifting shapes with vertical sides and no comprehensible scale, and he knew that their apparently infinite height was an optical illusion.

  The shapes moved aside and he fell through them, and he found himself sitting up in a bed with sunlit curtains flickering to one side. The colors were muted and the things in front of him were hard to focus on. He saw a banner, with letters on it, and he tried to make unfamiliar eyes read the words. At last he pieced it out—WELCOME HOME SCOTT. He swung his field of vision to the side and recognized a four-cornered shape as a blue bedside table. Among a cluster of small orange cylinders was an oval object with a handle on it—probably a mirror, and he pushed a spotted old hand toward it, clutched it, and brought it to a point in front of him. It was indeed a mirror, and he was able to recognize the face it showed him.

  It was his aunt Amity’s face, expressing his own alarm in wide eyes and bared dentures.

  The shapes lost their distinction, and again he was aware of the endlessly-vertical-seeming shapes—but they parted once more, and he seemed this time to be pulled between them, and then he was staring at a brown rectangle with a stylized Medusa head imprinted in gold on it. The hand he moved toward it was slim and smooth, with long, tapering fingers and long nails—evidently a woman’s hand—and around its wrist was a silver bracelet made of links in a chain. The hand was clutching what he could peripherally see was a slip of paper with another eig
ht-limbed pattern on it, so he quickly focused instead on the brown rectangle, which he now saw to be a folder of coarse-textured deckle-edged paper, with a ribbon and a red wax seal holding it closed.

  He remembered having seen that folder before, long ago.

  He voluntarily reached out and touched it—and the air quivered around it, and a profound rolling vibration made a blur of his consciousness—

  —And then he was sprawled awkwardly facedown across the springy surface of a dusty mattress, panting against crumpled damp flannel.

  Scott rolled over and sat up, gasping at sharp new aches in his shoulders and jaw, and he clawed at the mattress and his tumbled shirts and socks to fix himself into the real world. He could feel that the square of paper was still in his hand, damp with sweat now, and he tore it to pieces without looking anywhere near it.

  He was aware that he could see, but the shapes of what he knew must be wall and shelf and window all seemed to be just patches of varied color at no contrasting distances.

  His heart was thudding rapidly in his chest, and he was panting through clenched teeth. “Don’t,” he managed to say, “look in your envelope.” I’m back, he told himself; I’m here, I’m myself in my own body, and I won’t go there again.

  “I won’t,” Madeline squeaked. More levelly, she went on, “You told me to, a second ago, but I won’t. Scott, you’re scaring me. Are you all right?”

  He peered up at the tall, narrow angularity that he knew was his sister and forced himself to comprehend that her shape and the number of her eyes didn’t actually change when she turned her head from side to side, profile to full face to profile.

  “Sorry,” he said. “I—think I’m okay now, or I will be.” He slid his shoes back and forth on the floor, glad to feel the texture of the wood through the soles. He looked in her direction and forced his voice to be steady as he asked, “Do I look all right? My face? Am I slurring my words?”

  “You look fine,” she said anxiously. “What, do you think you had a stroke? You’re talking fine.”

  “Not a stroke.” I hope to God, he thought. He waved his hand, with shreds of the paper still clinging to it. “It was the same thing that happened that time when we were kids.”

  Her head shifted, evidently nodding. “I saw it was a spider,” she whispered, “on the paper, just glimpsed it.”

  “A . . . spider? I didn’t see any spider. No, it was the symbol, like that other time. It must have triggered a flashback of that old shock . . .”

  “That kind of symbol is called a spider. I guess Aunt Amity left one for each of us.”

  Scott shifted on the mattress to stand up but sank back, wincing. His face was cold with sweat. “I—damn,” he said, “I feel like I need a wheelchair myself. I told you to look at yours? While I was out?”

  “Yes. Your voice was all wobbly. Are you normal again?”

  He shook his head. “Getting there. Why the hell would Aunt Amity give us those?”

  “She was crazy, at the end. She killed herself.”

  Scott’s gaze flickered around the bare room, and he was at least able to note the darkness in the horizontally divided window rectangle. “How long was I out? Miss dinner?”

  “No, not even a full minute.” Madeline leaned against the connecting doorway. “What happened?”

  He sighed deeply. “I—I had a hallucination. A couple of them. Aunt Amity herself, with a ‘Welcome Home Scott’ banner, was one of them.” He wiped his hand on the mattress and then rubbed his face hard. “Don’t open your envelope. You might not have the same reaction, but we both had the same shock back in ’92.” He leaned back and stared at the corner where the ceiling met the walls, and he was very relieved to see the relative depths of the junction in perspective. “You remember what it was like?”

  And now he could clearly see that Madeline was only nodding her head, not changing the shape of it. “That was twenty-three years ago,” she whispered. “You didn’t—see Usabo again?”

  “Usabo.” Scott managed a weak laugh. “That’s right, we called it that. Yes, I think I did, actually, though he . . . I didn’t see him this time. In the hallucination he was inside that brown cardboard folder, like before, but this time it stayed sealed, it didn’t get opened.”

  Madeline was hugging herself, gripping her elbows, and she cast a quick glance over her shoulder toward their parents’ room. “If the folder didn’t get opened, how did you know it was him?”

  “Oh, Maddy, you remember how it felt—like magnetism, shaking air—” He was shivering.

  She nodded. “The roaring that’s just outside your hearing. Him aware of you.”

  “That sensation, anyway.” Scott exhaled as if ridding himself of the visions, then inhaled deeply. “Our subconsciouses have monsters in them. How old were we?”

  “It was the summer after mom and dad went away. 1992. I was eight, in second grade; you were thirteen, in seventh.”

  Scott nodded. “That’s right.”

  SEARCHING THEIR PARENTS’ ABANDONED room in the lonely summer of 1992, they had found a section of upright wooden molding on the closet doorway that had swung aside when pressed on the door-side edge, revealing an opening in the wall. Scott found it ironic now that when he had reached into the gap, little Madeline had warned him about spiders. What he had found propped on a two-by-four a foot below the opening was a manila envelope.

  It had proved to contain a dozen small white envelopes; each bore an obscure handwritten label, eleven in black ink and one in red. The carefully printed label on that one was Oneida Inc, and the envelope wasn’t sealed. In it was a piece of folded paper much like the one he had looked at here, moments ago.

  And young Madeline and Scott together had unfolded it and looked at the eight-limbed symbol inked on it. And together they had fallen through the moment of breathless loss of identity into the perception of the featureless vertical things that Madeline later called the Skyscraper People, because the things were infinitely tall but seemed alive . . . and then—as they had always recalled it afterward, in any case—they had found themselves sharing the experience of sitting in a leather-covered chair in a rocking room with a porthole in one paneled wall. The body they had seemed to occupy moved and spoke, but—unlike Scott’s recent ability to move “his” hand in a hallucination—the two children were passive viewers of the moment. The pair of tanned hands in front of them was holding the stiff brown paper folder with the Medusa head printed on it in gold, and the hands broke the seal and shucked off the ribbon—while, somewhere off to the side, a voice was raised in sudden protest or warning—and flipped the folder open.

  And, experiencing it at one remove through the view of the man in the chair, Scott and Madeline had looked at what Madeline later referred to, in fearful whispers, as Usabo.

  It had been another of the eight-limbed symbols. This one was more minimal and uniform, at first; then its eight arms had quickly bloomed with a spinning infinity of filaments and spilled the young siblings again through the world of vertical surfaces into, not one vision, but thousands of them.

  Later, Scott would try to diminish the experience by comparing it to riffling through a million snapshots at once—with brief but animate glimpses of cars, faces, bodies clothed and naked, cityscapes viewed far too briefly for any hope of recognition, guns firing—or comparing it to spinning inside an enormous sphere made of active television screens; but he could never manage to forget the vast, unseen, inaudibly roaring creature around or within whom all these visions whirled like fragments of houses in a tornado.

  When the visions subsided, they had found themselves still in their parents’ room; Scott was gripping the telephone receiver and pressing it to his ear.

  In a few minutes they had been able to walk and see clearly, and they tore the paper into dozens of tiny pieces; then, fearful at having destroyed something that grown-ups had evidently considered important, Scott had cut out a similar-sized piece of typing paper and hastily drawn a random eight-limbed f
igure on it, then folded it and put it into the Oneida Inc envelope and tucked that back into the big manila envelope with the others. When they pushed the redial button on the phone, they found that the number Scott had apparently tapped out while in the vision had only four digits.

  Their aunt Amity had noticed their lack of appetite and their clumsiness and evident exhaustion, and they had been too enervated to lie about what they’d done—Scott gave their aunt the big envelope and admitted that he and his little sister had looked at the “squiggle” in one of the envelopes inside it. And Aunt Amity hadn’t been angry—instead she had shuffled through the dozen little envelopes, then wordlessly clasped the package to her chest before hurrying out of the room, and when she returned without it, she had taken Scott and Madeline out to the Snow White Café for as much ice cream as they wanted to eat.

  SCOTT STOOD UP NOW from the mattress and his scattered clothes, and though he held his hands out to the sides, his balance seemed mostly restored; but he found that he’d taken an involuntary step toward the hallway door.

  “It was that way,” he said, pointing at the wall to the right of the door. “West of here, and a bit south. The folder. A woman was holding it.” Slowly he lowered his hand, though he was staring at the wall as if trying to see through it and out over the clustered lights of Los Angeles. “I almost feel like I could find the place. It feels like I’m partly still there.”

  Madeline nodded. “That wears off. It’s supposed to be sort of a hangover the spider visions give you.”

  Scott turned to face her. “The spider visions?” He shivered. “What, does this happen a lot? To other people?” He recalled something she had told him earlier. “You said symbols like that are called spiders. Who calls them that?”

  “Claimayne and Ariel. You moved out of Caveat thirteen years ago, before they started doing them.”

  “Doing them? Looking at them, you mean?”

  She nodded.

  “Good God. But it can’t be like this,” he asked, waving a still-shaky hand at himself and the mattress, “for them?”

 

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