Medusas web, p.4
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       Medusa's Web, p.4

           Tim Powers
 

  “It could have been like a psychic Instagram,” interrupted Madeline. “Like Aunt Amity recorded a message, a video, on that spider you looked at.”

  Scott grimaced. “So what are you saying . . . when we were kids, we really did see an actual guy on a boat open that folder and look at the Usabo spider?”

  Madeline had drawn up her knees, and all Scott could see were her wide eyes as she said, “We didn’t see him, we were him, remember?”

  Scott got stiffly to his feet. “I think Ariel was listening at the door.”

  Madeline straightened her legs and sighed. “Maybe.”

  For several seconds neither of them spoke.

  Then Madeline said, “She is awful mean, Ariel. Do you want to stay here for a week?”

  Scott was glad to abandon the disquieting spider topic. “Do you?”

  “I don’t know. We might inherit the place,” Madeline said, and continued even as her brother was shaking his head, “if we stay the week, like Aunt Amity put in her will. And it’s free food for a week, and a quarter off the month’s utilities at my apartment. That’s not nothing.”

  And I’ll have to at least split my week’s pay with Ellis for filling in for me at the Ravenna Apartments office, thought Scott. Better eat a lot of the free food.

  But, “True,” he said.

  “Ariel liked you, when we first got here. Then she didn’t. What’s up with that?”

  Scott felt his face heating up again. “She was pretending, at first.”

  “You think so? I don’t think so.”

  Madeline got up and crossed to the open window and knelt on the floor to look out at the rainy night. Scott knew that the view was of the long garden that sloped up to a row of garages at the top of the hill.

  The breeze blew Madeline’s curly dark hair away from her face, and the house creaked like an old ship at sea.

  “We could look at all our old places, while we’re here,” she said. “The garden looks the same, as much as I can see. I can just make out the wall that’s got the Medusa mosaic on it, unless all the stones have fallen out by now.” She pursed her lips, perhaps finding that an uncomfortable subject, and went on quickly, “And we could check out the basements. I wonder if our scare-bat is still down there.”

  Scott smiled reluctantly and shook his head. In their childhood explorations of Caveat, they had not neglected the extensive cellars that stretched under all the buildings on the hill, and even under gardens and lawns. In a brick alcove under the main house their flashlights had found a gold-painted four-armed lug wrench stuck upright in a yard-wide square of lumpy concrete; Madeline had eventually stapled together scraps of cloth to make a coat and hat to hang on it, and Scott had painted a clown face on a plastic egg that somebody’s stockings had come in, and hung it under the hat. Madeline had decided that since no crows were ever likely to venture into the cellars, they should call the little figure a scare-bat. She had taken to dressing it for the seasons—red-and-white felt and a conical red hat in December, a witch’s hat and black dress in October . . .

  “If we can still fit through all those passages,” he said.

  “Sure, we weren’t little kids anymore by the time we found the basements.”

  Then she stiffened. “Scott,” she said sharply, “that cat is walking in midair.”

  Scott got up and crouched beside her.

  She pointed out the window. “There!”

  Off to the left, a white cat fifty feet away in the darkness was picking its way along in a straight line. It didn’t seem to mind the rain.

  “It’s on that wall with all the seashells stuck in it,” Scott said. “The old croquet court is on the other side.”

  “No,” said Madeline, “I remember that wall, but it’s gone now, look!”

  Scott peered through the rain, and in fact it did seem that the old wall was gone—the darkness below the walking cat seemed to be farther away than the cat.

  “A metal rod,” he said, almost angrily, “a two-by-four . . . hell, a telephone line—”

  “It’s Bridget!” exclaimed Madeline. “Bridget!” she called out the window.

  Bridget was a cat they had had in the ’90s. She had died of some cat malaise in young Madeline’s arms.

  The cat out in the darkness turned its head toward the window, and for a moment paused there.

  “Bridget, Bridget!” called Madeline again, and Scott saw tears on her cheeks. “Come here, girl!”

  After a long pause, the cat resumed its walk, and in a few moments disappeared around the block of deeper darkness that was the northwest shoulder of the building.

  Scott braced himself to stop his sister from climbing right out the window, but Madeline only sat back on her heels, knuckling her eyes.

  “Madeline,” said Scott cautiously, “Bridget—”

  “Oh, I know she died! I was holding her, and she was stiff when we buried her out there!” She waved a hand vaguely at the window. “But—it was her. And that wall is gone.”

  All Scott could think of to say was, “Don’t yell anymore. Claimayne and Ariel—”

  “Their rooms are at the other end, on the front side.”

  “Right, well . . .” He realized that he was shivering. The cat had obviously not been Bridget. The cat had obviously been walking on something. A clothesline, probably. He gripped the wet windowsill and got his feet under himself and managed to stand up without eliciting any strong pains from his knees. “It’s—it’s only for a week.” He leaned against the wall beside the window for a moment, then pushed off and crossed to the doorway to his room, stepping around the buzzing heater. “I’ll leave the connecting door open.”

  SCOTT WAS AWAKENED IN the night by the sound of muffled sobbing, and when he sat up in bed, the room was dimly illuminated by moonlight, and he was startled by the bare shelves and the absence of furniture in the familiar room. Did that have something to do with why Madeline was crying?

  He had flipped the blankets aside and stood up before he remembered that he was an adult, and that this hadn’t been his room for many years.

  He hurried to the connecting door, and his bare foot collided with the heater, knocking it over.

  As he leaned in the doorway and rubbed his toes, smothering curses, Madeline sniffed and said, “Watch out for the heater.” He heard her shift in her bed, and she added, “I’m sorry I woke you up. I’ll be quiet.”

  “Well—what’s wrong?”

  “Oh. Being here again—I just miss everybody that’s gone.”

  “So do I.” As opposed to the ones that are still here, he thought. A line from Coleridge occurred to him, and he sleepily recited it: “‘And a thousand thousand slimy things lived on, and so did I.’” Then he added, “Sorry, that’s from a poem.”

  “Not a helpful poem. Scott, are we gonna be okay? I mean, ten or twenty years from now—are we going to be—with—people? We’re not now.”

  Scott shrugged in the darkness, but said, “Of course. And they’ll be glad of it, too.”

  She laughed softly. “I’m sorry. Let’s go back to sleep. Set the heater up again, it turns off if it’s lying down.”

  “Right.” Scott set the device upright again and turned back toward his own room.

  “It’s got a ball bearing in it,” said Madeline.

  Scott nodded, though she was unlikely to see it, and returned to his bed.

  CHAPTER 4

  BY MORNING THE SKY had cleared, and the sun was casting the shadow of the house across the western lawn all the way to the shaggy palm trees lining the driveway that curled up to the garages and down the hill on the other side to Gower Street. The breeze was chilly and smelled of mesquite and the distant ocean. Claimayne had already angled his wheelchair out onto the west balcony, and he was sipping coffee and setting pebbles on folded slips of paper laid out on a little wrought-iron table when Ariel stepped through the doorway and lowered herself into the chair opposite. She shivered, frowning behind very dark sunglasses, and pulled her ba
throbe more snugly up to her chin. Her silver gyroscope pendant lay across her shoulder.

  Claimayne glanced at her, his round bald head reminding her of the gilded Buddha statues he kept in his room. He gestured at the slips of paper. “Hair of the dog? They’re all clean, freshly copied, never looked at. I don’t like dirty ones for breakfast.”

  Ariel shuddered and turned away. “No, thank you.”

  “You sure? You could burn it right afterward—no possibility of an after, that way, no flash-ahead vision—just the not-me rush.”

  The breeze paused, and for a moment the eternal creaking of the old house was the only sound.

  Ariel reached out and touched one of the pebbles, then made a fist and pulled her hand back. “I’m staying clean,” she said unsteadily. “Yesterday was the exception that proves the rule.”

  “Since you say so.”

  She looked across the table at him. “In yesterday’s flash-ahead, three days in the future—two days, now!—Scott and Madeline were patient, friendly. They obviously knew I’d arrive mad, but they were calm. And then I was back here, sick, pushing you into the dining room while they marched away up the stairs. So you saw the exchanged me from that future point—and I was welcoming to them?”

  Claimayne took a mouthful of coffee and carefully set the cup down. “If it was a real flash-ahead, a real after, and not a hallucination—”

  “It was real.”

  “—which I apologetically but profoundly doubt—then apparently when you look at the spider again, two days from now, you won’t have any quarrel with Scott and Madeline anymore.” He leaned back and smiled. “Maybe you charm them into signing a preemptive quitclaim in the meantime, who knows? They seem passive enough. Maybe we offer them a solid buyout to forestall even the remote risk of a judge validating my mother’s crazy last will. You—”

  “Buyout. I could go a couple of hundred dollars, I think. I wish we’d invested better.”

  Claimayne shrugged. “We did what we could, when we could, with what we had—and we’re secure for a few years yet.” He eyed the slips of paper on the table wistfully. “And sometimes the cumulative clogging effect does relent—phases of the moon, variations in air pressure, blood pressure, tire pressure?—and volition is still possible in the befores and afters, for such as we.”

  “It relented for me last night. I called them ghouls and grave-worms—which is to say I will call them that, two days from now. That’s volition. And . . . and the exchanged ‘me’ from up there had volition: I was hospitable! What did I say?”

  “If it was real, my dear, you have only yourself to blame for our dwindling fortunes. Instead of cussing at them, you should have found a newspaper and noted some stock prices or horserace winners.”

  “Damn it, what did I say?—to them, last night?”

  “Oh—I had started to tell them that they had gone to needless extra trouble in dragging their luggage up the steps, as they were to stay in the street-side apartments, and you interrupted and said no, they were to be put to some extra trouble, namely making up the beds in their old rooms here. You were entirely cordial, smiling—‘Scott, come in out of the rain.’” He slid a paper out from under one of the pebbles. “You don’t mind if I—?”

  She waved the back of her hand at him. “I’ve been four years off them. Yesterday was a—”

  “Fluke,” suggested Claimayne. “An aftershock, a late postcoital shiver.”

  “You’re a filthy old pig.”

  “And you’ve got another . . . fluke, coming, day after tomorrow—right?—so you can come back to yesterday and be their chum.”

  “Go to hell.”

  Claimayne smiled. “Salomé, unfold this spider for me, that I may look at it in your hand!”

  “Fuck you, Tetrarch.”

  Claimayne laughed softly and opened the paper and stared at it.

  Ariel watched his bland face lose all expression as he closed his eyes; he inhaled sharply and his hands gripped the edges of the table as if he were afraid his wheelchair were tipping over; for a full minute neither of them spoke, and finally he sighed and opened his eyes. He focused them on his hands and the table and Ariel in slow succession, and then out across the lawn, and finally he nodded.

  The crumpled paper was still in his hand, and he rolled it between his fingers. “Do you”—he paused to clear his throat—“have a lighter?”

  “No. I quit smoking too, you recall.”

  “Wise, wise.” He dipped the rolled paper into his coffee, held it there a moment, then lifted it out, squeezed it into a ball, and tossed it into his mouth. “No possible future point for that one, you see,” he said after he’d swallowed it and shuddered a bit.

  “I should have burned the one I looked at yesterday, as soon as I came down from it. I still could burn it, without looking at it again, never let it have a future point.”

  Claimayne’s shoulders twitched in the beginning of a shrug, then slumped. “You’d still have said what you said, somehow.”

  Ariel eyed the remaining slips of paper under the pebbles on the table, then resolutely looked away. Softly she asked, “Why do we do it?”

  “You remember.”

  “Not in words.”

  “It’s a gap in continuity, time stops, and we’re not—we don’t have any identity.” His smile now seemed forced, and there was a misting of sweat on his smooth forehead.

  She shook her head. “For no more than a couple of minutes, at most! And then we’re—right the hell back where we were before.”

  “As our clocks reckon it, sure. As a bystander would reckon it. But that gap—ah, Ariel, that gap is infinite! Our departure and return are two points very close together in time, but remember that there’s an infinity between any two points.”

  The creaking of the house stopped, and the balcony shifted under their chairs; then the faint squeaks and prolonged groans began again.

  Ariel was on her feet and stepping into the doorway. She grabbed the handles of Claimayne’s wheelchair, but he slapped at the hand he could reach.

  “The house isn’t going to collapse, my dear. Stop shaking me and sit down.”

  “Maybe not, but the balcony’s going to fall off!”

  Claimayne grinned at her. “Impossible! If it did, we’d be killed, and then who would look at your spider from yesterday, and retroactively welcome Arthur’s children? As long as you don’t consummate that exchange, don’t do the after, you’re immortal, right?”

  Ariel edged cautiously out onto the balcony again and slowly resumed her seat. “No,” she said, “you were right, I’d still have said what I said.” She touched the balcony rail. “This place is collapsing. Little by little.”

  “Well—you may be right, at that.” Claimayne tugged all the papers out from under the pebbles and put them in the pocket of his dressing gown. “How long since that fellow tightened all the screw jacks under the joists in the basements? It would never do to have the floors collapse during the party on Saturday.”

  “Joey the surfer? He quit when your mom blew herself up on the roof. I’m going to get Scott to take over the job, while he’s here.”

  “Scott? I don’t like the idea of him clowning about with those things. Hire another fellow.”

  “No, I want to order Scott to crawl around in the mud down there.”

  Claimayne shook his head, then winced and closed his eyes. “I suppose he can’t do much harm. I think I’m going to be . . . sitting in a hot bath now, for an hour or so.”

  Ariel nodded dubiously. “I remember it always hurts.”

  ARIEL WAS IN THE narrow kitchen spooning ground coffee into the percolator when Madeline stepped in from the slantingly sunlit dining room in yesterday’s jeans and sweater.

  Ariel gave her an unfriendly look, set the tin lid on the percolator and then reached into a jar of sugar cubes; and when she tried to pull a handful of them out, her fist was too wide for the mouth of the jar. Madeline recalled stories of monkeys being trapped that way.<
br />
  “You look like a monkey trying to pull his hand out,” she said.

  “You look like a monkey trying to pull his head out,” Ariel retorted instantly, releasing the sugar cubes and yanking her hand free.

  Madeline thought about that. “His head? His head wouldn’t be wider. A squirrel’s might be, if its cheeks were full of nuts.”

  “What are you talking about? I meant trying to pull his head out of his ass.”

  “Oh.” Madeline decided to let it go. “I came down to get coffee.”

  “I just put it on, it’ll be ready soon. I’ve got some jobs for you and your brother. The heater on the roof—”

  “I’m an astrologer,” said Madeline.

  Ariel paused, her mouth still open. “Astrology won’t fix the heater.”

  “It’s hard to imagine,” agreed Madeline. “Make a list of the things that need doing, and I’ll take it upstairs to Scott. I’m sure he can do work here; he’s got somebody filling in for him at the apartments where he usually works. Right now he wants coffee—he’s not feeling very well.”

  “Oh, he killed the bottle upstairs after dinner?”

  The window over the sink was open, and the white curtains flapped in the breeze from over the shadowed lawn.

  “No,” said Madeline, “I think he has what you and Claimayne had.”

  Ariel reddened and turned away and pulled open a drawer on the far side of the sink. She lifted out a pad and pencil and began hastily scribbling.

  “It’s winter,” she said over her shoulder, “and the rooftop heater doesn’t work. Cups are in the cabinet by your head, sugar’s still in that jar, though I was going to put some in a bowl, and the coffee should be ready in a minute. The kid we had working here said the heater’s pilot light won’t stay lit. The kid kept the ladder leaned up against the house, since he was up on the roof a lot, but after Claimayne’s mad mother used it to climb up there, we threw it behind the poolhouse. You think Scott remembers where that is?”

 
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