Medusas web, p.34
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       Medusa's Web, p.34

           Tim Powers
 

  “But it was a clean spider!”

  She held up the crumpled, blood-spotted piece of paper. “He and I will give it a thousand afters.”

  Scott could feel tears welling up in his eyes. “Where, Maddy? When?”

  “In the past. I’ve been patient.”

  “Maddy. I’ve got to go back, to Ariel. I can find the way. Come with me.”

  Valentino stepped forward and took Madeline’s elbow. To Scott he said, “You found the film I hid, my friend. I’m glad. Do not worry about your sister—I will be to her all the things no one else has been.”

  And he turned and led Madeline down the stairs; she looked back pleadingly, but Scott just waved. “I love you, Maddy!” he called hoarsely.

  Then they had disappeared in the entry hall on the first floor. Scott looked into the sunlit room beyond the open door beside him; an old woman holding a violin smiled at him as he crossed to the window and looked out. Behind him the old woman softly began a passage from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.

  Hollywood was a scattering of bungalows and Victorian houses on the descending green hills in bright morning sunlight, and there were no skyscrapers or freeway. He saw Madeline and Valentino emerge from under the hooded porch light below, and as they crossed the short lawn toward the descending steps, Madeline looked back.

  “I love you, Scott!” she called. A cat bounded across the grass to her, and Scott was sure it was Bridget, the one they’d seen from her bedroom window Tuesday night. Madeline picked up the cat and then she and Valentino were hurrying away down the steps. Scott turned away.

  The room he stood in was empty, the walls bare and spotted with mold. He didn’t look out the window again but walked through the doorway into the hall and up the sagging wooden stairs, through sweeps of darkness and flickers of colored light, as voices rose and fell in brief snatches around him.

  The apiary was lit only by a stormy gray radiance through the windows, and a crowd of shadowy figures filled all the chairs. Scott could dimly make out bowlers and feathered hats on the indistinct heads, and the cold air was tainted with the smells of cigars and perfume and damp clay.

  His own chair was out in front of the others, and he didn’t look at the smoky figure there as he disrupted it by sitting down.

  Abruptly the room was dark behind him and the screen was again, or still, flashing white like the muzzle of a machine gun. Scott’s heart sped up as if trying to match the staccato pace of the flashes, and he was once again in the torrent of vivid but momentary stressful experiences; and his battered consciousness was aware that he was not breathing.

  The spider intermittently visible on the screen still seemed to be static, not rotating at all. Alla Nazimova had said, Like a phonograph record spinning on a turntable in a dark room, illuminated by a light flashing seventy-eight times a minute; the record would appear to be stationary. And the spider, this is the master spider, remember, would effectively lose its spin—become stationary. It would thus find here an impossibility of itself and be excluded in future from this universe.

  But as Madeline had said, Scott’s consciousness was in the Medusa now. Would he be banished with it? He still wasn’t breathing.

  He tried to project a thought to the alien entity that was the spider: Can you hear me, recognize me, perceive me?

  For a moment he was back among Madeline’s Skyscraper People, the illusively vertical shapes, and then they parted and he was surprised to find himself experiencing someone’s memory of a canvas beach chair rotating as it moved slowly through the air against a blue sky; it sank toward a glittering swimming pool, and then Scott’s perspective was from the surface of the water, where the beach chair only existed as several expanding, unconnected intrusions into the plane of the water’s surface. Immediately the vision switched to a lit cigarette on a newspaper—Scott could see that the headline was about the repeal of Prohibition—and a ring of glowing red spread out from it across the paper as the circumference of an irregular black disk. Then that was gone, and he saw a column of tan skin that he recognized as a human throat, and the flat blade of a knife moving toward it.

  Dazedly he wondered why had he been shown these particular memories: a couple of intrusions of a third dimension into a two-dimensional plane, and then a two-dimensional plane approaching a three-dimensional volume.

  He forced himself to concentrate again on altering the visions, in the same way that he used to revise his clear mental image of an intended painting. The newspaper was back in his view, and it was flaming now, but he visualized the flames dying and the bright ring on the page shrinking, and the cigarette rising away to leave the paper unscorched; and when the turbulent swimming pool appeared next, he imagined the chair rising back out of the water and flying away out of view, leaving the surface of the water unbroken.

  Then it was the blade and the throat that he saw, and he struggled against mental resistance to impose a view of the blade retreating—and he at least managed to halt it.

  The visions faded, and all he could see now was the flickering Medusa image on the screen in front of him.

  He had forcibly reversed the sequence of events in the trio of hurled memories, reversed the definitive instances of collision between two dimensions and three dimensions.

  And he was able to breathe again. His sense of balance was gone, but he tried to stand up, and then his left hand flared in immediate personal pain. After a moment he realized that he had fallen out of his chair; and the pain was like a long extension cord connecting him to his own cubic universe.

  Forcing himself to occupy his own body, he saw that he was now lying on the floor, on his back, with his head toward the screen, helplessly staring up at the repeating projected image.

  And, viewed from this angle, the strobing Medusa on his retinas was narrowed, foreshortened. It was tilted away from him, and he sensed that he had in some way separated himself from it.

  He pushed himself forward with his heels and both hands, and as the gash in his left hand dragged agonizingly over the rough floorboards, the Medusa appeared narrower still. He could barely see the gaps between its tensely motionless limbs now.

  Another thrust with his feet pushed his head against the wall. Above him, the Medusa had rotated a full ninety degrees and was now a flat line over him—

  And then on his retinas it compressed to infinite flatness, and his affronted visual cortex interpreted that impossible state as a shift to infinite vertical height; the Medusa was just another one of Madeline’s Skyscraper People now, and as always they parted to let his viewpoint pass between them.

  The universe seemed to roll over, and reality seemed to spring back to reoccupy vacated space. For the first time in twenty-three years, Scott was completely alone in his own mind. He could hear himself panting in the chilly air.

  Patches of varying color in his vision slowly separated from one another, out of flat uniformity. He was staring up at the metal ring on the bottom dowel of the screen, and at the cracked old plaster ceiling, and the lightbulb in the ceramic socket.

  He sat up in flickering yellow light. The projector had caught fire. The round magazine on top was smoking, and flame quickly snaked down the acetate film strip into the mechanism behind the housing door and out into the can of ejected film. Now flames were shooting out of the rim of the magazine and licking at the ceiling.

  I should have oiled it, he thought.

  He managed to sit up and then struggle to his feet by leaning heavily on the wall and the screen, and the screen case came loose from its nails and fell on his head. He thrashed it aside with his right arm and staggered to the door; and when he opened it, Ariel was standing right outside, and she crouched to get her shoulder under his arm.

  “Do we have any fire extinguishers?” she asked, looking past him.

  “You live here.”

  “We don’t have any fire extinguishers. Madeline ran to the stairs, but she was gone by the time I—I was right behind her. She disappeared.”

>   “I know, I saw her. Call 911—about the fire.”

  They shuffled down the hall to the stairs, and Scott gripped the banister and Ariel’s arm as he got both feet on one step before reaching for the next. Ariel had her phone in her free hand and was describing the situation to the 911 dispatcher.

  “I’ve got to go,” she said finally, evidently interrupting the dispatcher, and she thrust the phone into her pocket. When they reached the second-floor landing, she asked Scott, “Did it work? Is there anything you need from your rooms?”

  “It worked,” he gasped, “and no, nothing.” Certainly not the Wild Turkey, he thought.

  Halfway down the last flight of stairs they saw a man in a white jacket pause in the entry hall to stare up at them.

  “The house is on fire,” said Scott distinctly. “Get everyone out now.”

  The man ran away toward the kitchen.

  “Valentino said it would kill whoever watched it,” said Ariel, still supporting most of Scott’s weight.

  Scott took a deep breath and said, “It would have killed me—the Medusa fell out of this reality like . . . a letter through a mail slot—but I managed to separate myself and rotate out of it, away from it, before it went, so I was . . . flat against the mail slot, as it were.” He had run out of breath, but when they reached the floor of the entry hall he inhaled again and added, “Madeline—before the Medusa spider disappeared—escaped into the past with Rudolph Valentino.”

  Ariel shook her head and sighed. “Might have guessed.”

  Men and women in uniforms and overalls were hurrying up and asking questions, and Ariel shouted, “The house is on fire! Get everyone out!” In a more normal voice she added, “The party’s totally canceled.”

  “I can walk,” said Scott. He hobbled to the front door and pulled it open. Already the breeze was spicy with wood smoke. Ariel held his arm as they made their way down the steps and across the patch of lawn to the top of the leaf-strewn and vine-hung stairs. How many years ago, Scott wondered, did Madeline and Valentino and Bridget hurry away down these stairs?—if it happened in actual linear time at all.

  Scott could see a crowd of the cleaners and caterers out on the driveway beyond the kitchen now, and when a couple of young men in the catering uniform hurried out the front door, Scott yelled, “Is everybody out?”

  “The last of them,” one of them answered irritably. “Both crews. Are you sure?”

  “Get over here.”

  The men hurried across the grass, and Scott pointed behind them.

  They turned and looked back. Flames danced behind the windows of the gables, and smoke sifted in quickly dispelling streamers from under the roof tiles. As they watched, a gray rectangle spun away into the sky and a jet of flame burst up from the far side of the roof.

  “That’s the rooftop heater,” said Scott.

  “Right.” Both the caterers hurried toward the driveway, away from Scott and Ariel.

  Ariel was holding Scott’s right hand. “I’m not sure any copies of Claimayne’s books of poetry exist outside of the house,” she remarked.

  “Firemen might save the library.”

  In a low but suddenly fierce voice, Ariel said, “I hope nothing is saved.”

  Scott heard trucks start up and move down the driveway toward Vista Del Mar.

  The breeze was chilly in Scott’s sweaty hair and shirt, and he wished he had paused on the second floor to grab his jacket.

  A moment later he was glad he hadn’t. A crack appeared between two windows on the second floor, and the crack leaped up to the roof and down to the foundation and became a widening, roof-splitting fissure, with falling beams dimly visible through it and clay tiles tumbling out in the gray daylight, and then very slowly the entire east side of the house leaned away and separated into uneven segments as it folded and fell in a rushing burst of dust. The noise was like unending close thunder.

  Coughing in the dust and sudden heat, Scott and Ariel hurried down the steps as bits of masonry clattered in the leaves overhead.

  “All the way to the parking lot,” Scott gasped.

  “Screw jacks!” said Ariel, scuffing through drifts of dead leaves ahead of him.

  “Lousy handyman,” Scott agreed.

  Each of them stumbled on the cement steps at some point and was helped up by the other, but within two minutes they both stood at the street edge of the parking lot, panting.

  Scott was bent forward with his hands gingerly gripping his knees, but he looked up in time to see the western half of the house sink unevenly into the dust cloud. This time the rolling rumble of the collapse was matched by thunder from the sky, and drops of rain tapped at his hands.

  Flames flickered into sight above the treetops, apparently along the whole length of Caveat.

  “Everything,” said Ariel beside him. Then, “The east half of the house fell onto the garage, and it’s all burning. They’ll find Claimayne and Ferdalisi, and the gun, but I doubt they’ll find our blood.”

  Scott nodded, occupied with breathing and keeping his balance.

  Behind him he heard an idling engine and tires slowly turning on asphalt, and when he looked over his shoulder, he saw the gleaming yellow Chevrolet station wagon halt a few yards away. The door opened and the gray-haired man who this morning had called himself Polydectes got out. He was still wearing the dark windbreaker, and his right hand was in the pocket.

  “We put on the spare,” he said to Scott. He looked up the hill then, and after a moment he added, “Your house appears to be burning up.”

  “I watched the film,” Scott said.

  He peered over the man’s shoulder but didn’t see anyone else in the car. But there were probably other cars.

  The man nodded thoughtfully. “You’re alive, though,” he pointed out.

  “I rotated myself out of it,” Scott said. “But it did work.” He straightened up, against sharp aches in his back.

  The fire up the hill boomed and cracked.

  “Maybe you watched it, maybe you stashed it.”

  Ariel reached into the pocket of her blouse and pulled out a folded piece of paper. To Scott she said, “I printed two copies, in case . . . I don’t know. Doesn’t matter now.” She faced Polydectes and held the paper out toward him. “This is a live spider, or it was, before Scott did the exorcism. Go ahead, look at it.”

  The man cocked his head at her and smiled. “I doubt you’d have a decoy ready—but you look at it.”

  Ariel nodded and slowly unfolded the paper, and her expression was unreadable. She took a deep breath and then stared at the printed spider pattern.

  And she exhaled and looked away. “Nothing,” she whispered.

  She flipped the paper around to show them. Polydectes flinched, then glanced from Scott to Ariel and looked directly at the spider pattern himself.

  His shoulders sagged in evident relief. “Nothing,” he agreed. He pulled his hand out of his pocket and wiped his face. “We had volunteers—but it’s fitting that a Madden finished poor Taylor’s project. Our volunteers might not have been able to . . . rotate? . . . out of it.” He squinted at Scott and Ariel. “Are you two okay?”

  Ariel gave him a bright, strained smile. “What does it look like?”

  “Right.” To Scott he said, “What you said, at Ostriker’s, that was true—we were on the same side.” He held out his right hand.

  Scott stepped back unsteadily and shook his head. “You were going to shoot my sister’s leg off.”

  The man closed his hand and shrugged. “Did your sister get out all right?”

  “She got out.”

  After another few seconds, the man returned to the station wagon and backed out of the parking lot. Scott heard him sound the horn twice and then once as he drove slowly away down Vista Del Mar. Two acknowledging honks sounded from up and down the street.

  The rain was falling steadily now, and Scott looked at the empty parking lot and thought of the night he and Madeline had arrived here.

&n
bsp; She got out.

  Tears mingled with the rainwater on his face. When she was eight years old, Valentino had told her, My dear, my dear, it is not so dreadful here. And all her life since then, apparently, she had wanted to return to wherever that here was, and to him. And today, or at least in Scott’s recent memory, Valentino had said, I will be to her all the things no one else has been.

  But—where? thought Scott. When? Madeline, I hope I was sometimes what a brother should be.

  When she had told him about briefly stepping into the past on Wednesday, she’d said, I didn’t hurt anymore, and I walked around to the front of the house and—and Hollywood was like a village, beautiful . . . and I started down the steps like I was walking into Narnia . . .

  He sank to his knees on the asphalt as the rain came down harder and blurred his view of the hill, though flashes of flame glared through the swaying veils.

  In the distance, over the close clatter of the rain, he could hear the rising wail of sirens.

  EPILOGUE

  THE BLACK KIA OPTIMA made a right turn off Sunset onto Fairfax by the Rite Aid drugstore, and the early evening sunlight slanting across the parking lot on the right lit the film of dust on the windshield, obscuring the view.

  Ariel slowed the car and switched on the windshield wipers, which didn’t help, but in a few moments the car had moved into the shadows of another apartment building, and she could see out again.

  “For two thousand dollars they could have run it through a car wash,” she said.

  “True,” said Scott. “But it’s lucky it was just impounded, for being parked in the middle of the street—if it had been stolen, you probably wouldn’t have a windshield at all.” The interior of the car smelled of nothing now but the submarine sandwiches in the bag on Scott’s lap.

  “I bet they could have got in touch sooner, though. And the escrow company could have told me they were somehow getting all our mail. And God knows where Madeline’s Datsun is. We should have reported it stolen.”

  “The picture didn’t need complicating.”

  Ariel turned right onto Fountain, and again the windshield became a nearly opaque glowing screen. She slowed the car to a crawl, peering ahead. “At least we can stop taking buses now.” She glanced sideways at Scott. “Do you miss your motorcycle? We can certainly afford to get you a new one, if you like. Not right away, after that first month’s rent and security deposit on Genod’s place—but when escrow closes.”

 

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