Medusas web, p.6
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       Medusa's Web, p.6

           Tim Powers

  behind my eyes vast forms that move fantastically evil things in robes of sorrow no the way out of the tomb is through madeline branded in her eyes not roderick

  Madeline gasped. “Me!” she exclaimed. “She’s talking about me!”

  Scott glanced toward the closed door and put a hand on his sister’s shoulder. “Quiet, she’s not talking about you. It’s from—”

  Madeline had not stopped staring at the monitor screen. “She is so! Right there—”

  “It’s from ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ a Poe story, look at me! Look at me! There’s characters named Madeline and Roderick—and that ‘vast forms’ business is from a poem in the same story. There’s no thought there, no consciousness! She’s just regurgitating bits of old stories, including her own.” He looked at the screen. “It’s just repeating again anyway, see?—cycling the same stuff over and over.” He stood up and walked around to the back of the desk again. “I’m unplugging her. Ariel or Claimayne might walk in here any second.”

  “You’re sure?” Madeline looked over the monitor at her brother. “About this Poe thing?”

  Scott unplugged the black keyboard’s cord and plugged the white one’s back in. “Yes, I can show you the story—the book was in this house at one time, probably still is, somewhere.” Stepping around to the front of the desk, he highlighted the lines on the monitor, but before he could hit the backspace key Madeline caught his hand.

  “Save,” she said.

  “Those two,” he said, nodding toward the door, “are likely to check the recently opened files and notice it, even if you tuck it at the bottom of an already existing file.” He rolled his eyes, then went on, “Oh, cut and paste it into an e-mail form, and mail it to yourself, then close this file without saving. You can open the e-mail at your apartment and read it over all you like.”

  “Or here. But that’s a good idea.”

  “Here?” Scott decided to try one more time. “There’s no reason now to stay here. You’ve got her text, it just repeats—”

  She turned the chair to face him. “Scott, do you honestly think these two bits are all that’s going to show up? Coherent or not?”

  He took a deep breath, paused, and then just let it out in a defeated sigh. “. . . Well, I guess that is . . . unlikely.”

  The black keyboard behind the computer was still softly clicking away.

  “I’m going to keep it in my room,” Madeline said, “And at night when everyone’s gone to bed, I’ll plug it in again.”

  Scott shivered at the idea of reading the ghost’s text down here at night, but he folded the sweater around the keyboard. “You think it’ll still be typing, by then?”

  “I think it’s been typing away ever since she died.”

  “No,” said Scott unhappily. “They must have gone into her room since then, they’d have noticed.” He shook his head. “I bet it’s just been going since you and I arrived here last night.”

  Madeline frowned, then nodded. “Since you looked at your spider. It’s us she wants to communicate with.”

  She took the bundled keyboard from her brother and hugged it to herself, then pulled the library door open and hurried away down the hall toward the stairs.

  Scott glumly opened AOL and checked his e-mail—there was nothing but subject lines announcing percentages of discount on the prices of things he wasn’t interested in—and when he had shut down the computer and stood up and turned toward the door he saw that Ariel was standing there.

  “You can earn your keep,” she said. “The heater—”

  “Madeline told me. On the roof. I think I can fix it.”

  Claimayne’s silk-slippered feet on the wheelchair footrest appeared in the hall behind her, and his voice said, “Where was she off to in such a hurry?”

  “Work,” said Scott. “She’s got deadlines with clients.”

  “I suppose that was a chicken,” said Ariel.

  Scott glanced at her in puzzlement.

  “Wrapped up in her sweater,” Ariel went on. “Doesn’t she read chicken entrails?”

  “Oh! No. Astrology.”

  “Same sort of thing.”

  Scott shrugged, and he heard Claimayne chuckle in the hall.

  “And,” Ariel went on, “in addition to unclogging toilets, do you do the paperwork, at that apartment building you manage? Pay bills and invoices?”

  Scott kept his voice level. “Yes. I leave the checks for the owner to sign.”

  “Good. It’s almost the end of the month, and you get the job of sorting through the bills and writing checks, at least for the utilities and taxes. Nobody’s attended to that lately. I was doing it for a while, but—”

  “It was a mess,” put in Claimayne. “I had to call all the creditors and apologize.”

  Loudly speaking over his last few words, Ariel said, “Bring the checks back here. Claimayne and I are on the account, either of us can sign them.”

  “And I’ll probably have to apologize to everybody again,” said Claimayne.

  “Back here?” said Scott.

  “Aunt Amity has an office behind the Chase bank on Sunset,” said Ariel, “till the end of the year, anyway. Next door to a tax accountant. Claimayne, give Scott the key.”

  Claimayne rolled his wheelchair forward, and his pale face was strained in a frown. “One of us should be with him; we can bring the key then.”

  “Oh, for—give him the key while you’re here, and not . . . you know, off distracted somewhere. He’s going to be busy all day on the roof and in the basements anyway.”

  After a pause, Claimayne smiled at Scott and hitched around in the wheelchair to reach into a pocket of his dressing gown, shaking his head. “She’s so alpha,” he said. He pulled out a bracelet-sized ring with a lot of keys on it, and he selected one and worked it off the coil. “Don’t lose it,” he said. “I’m only fairly sure we have a spare.”

  “Right.” Scott took out his own key ring and threaded the new key onto it.

  “I’d take gloves,” said Claimayne thoughtfully, “up on the roof. It wasn’t far from the heater that my mother set off her grenade.” He smiled. “There might be bits of her still around.”

  “I wouldn’t be surprised,” said Scott quietly.

  Ariel gave him a sharp look, but only said, “So go get the ladder out.”

  “Okay,” said Scott, “what does the heater do, exactly, that’s wrong? And have you got some tools? A socket set, a voltage meter . . .”

  THERE WERE TWO BATHROOMS on the second floor, and Madeline had chosen the one with a shower rather than a bathtub. Now, in fresh jeans and a brown corduroy shirt, she sat down on the bed in her room and unsnapped her leather valise.

  In among her account book and dozens of blank astrological charts was the envelope the lawyer had given her, and she slowly tugged it free of the other papers.

  Her aunt Amity had asked that it be passed on to her.

  “I think you did mean me,” she whispered, “at least partly, when you typed my name.” She held the envelope up to the light from the window and was able dimly to see crisscrossed lines inside. “Am I your way out of the tomb? Your guide?”

  Scott and I were the children of your deceased husband’s adopted brother, Madeline thought, but after our parents disappeared, you raised us, an eight-year-old girl and a thirteen-year-old boy, as if we were your own children.

  Madeline stroked the edge of the envelope.

  When Scott set one of the uphill garages on fire with a makeshift rocket launcher, and when I was playing in your car and got it into neutral and helplessly rolled backward onto Vista Del Mar Avenue and collided with a UPS truck, you quickly forgave us. And when Scott and I found the envelope full of spiders and confessed to having looked at one, you didn’t yell at us at all. After you put them away, you took us out for ice cream so we’d feel better—though it pained you to walk on your bad foot, even with a cane—and you assured us that we’d feel better soon, and that any nightmares we might have
would pass, which they mostly did. Now I wish we had admitted that we tore up the Oneida Inc one and replaced it with one that Scott drew. I’m sorry we kept that from you, when you were so forgiving.

  Simply, you loved us.

  Madeline stood up and looked down through the open window at the garden in morning sunlight. The sage and rosemary bushes had spread beyond the boundaries that Madeline remembered, obscuring many of the gravel paths, and dandelions and wild anise filled the squares that were once mowed grass. Tall flowering weeds furred the wide top of the Medusa mosaic wall, and the little pool below it had either been filled in or was completely obscured by long crabgrass. At the crest of the slope, only the red tile roofs of a couple of the garages were visible over the treetops against the blue sky.

  Madeline had moved out of Caveat seven years ago, leaving her aunt with Ariel and Claimayne and the solitary writing of her endless unpublishable novels. Scott had left six years before that, to get married, though when that Louise woman left him he hadn’t moved back in.

  We never came back, Madeline thought. Ariel hated Scott, so he stayed away, and I . . . somehow the whole house, the whole compound of added-on wings and garages and odd little bungalows and endless cellars, seemed like a convalescent home to me—Ariel and Claimayne were both suffering from their spider addictions, and Claimayne was soon confined to his wheelchair because of it . . . and old lame Aunt Amity was generally shut up in her little office, typing, typing . . .

  Madeline turned back to the room and looked at the envelope she was still holding.

  Scott looked at the spider in his envelope, she thought. Aunt Amity made Welcome Home banners for each of us. Ariel threw them away and said, You won’t see them, but Scott saw his.

  And Scott did not see the Usabo spider again. He said he knew it was there, but it stayed safely inside the folder that had the Medusa head printed on it. He apparently sensed it, powerfully—but no hands opened the folder this time. That was good.

  Madeline tucked her finger into the flap of the envelope—Are you there, Aunt Amity? she thought, waiting for me, with your little Welcome Home Madeline banner?—and when she exerted force, the flap simply came open.


  QUICKLY SHE PINCHED OUT the slip of paper and let the envelope fall, and she looked at the ceiling as she unfolded the paper.

  Madeline realized that she had passed the point of being able to keep from looking at it, and so she lowered her head and stared at the eight inked lines radiating crookedly out from the hub.

  She couldn’t move. She could feel the reciprocal reversed images on her retinas because they completed the figure on the paper, quickened it, and the ink pattern and the images inside her eyes were spinning, and curling and bristling with an infinity of ever-finer lines.

  As if she were tilting outward on the roof edge of a tall building, Madeline’s breath caught in her throat, and her skin seemed to contain only rushing cold air, and she had no name or memories and nothing changed, forever.

  Eventually she dimly realized that there was motion, that she was perceiving what as a child she had called the Skyscraper People, the vertical-sided things with no perceptible bases or tops, which seemed somehow to be alive, and she was aware that their apparent height, any height at all here, was just a compensatory trick of her brain. They parted before her—

  And she found herself sitting up in the bed with the high side rails, and through a distorting blur she could see a long white rectangle some distance in front of her. She forced a pair of eyes that were not her own to focus, and soon she could recognize letters—WELCOME HOME MADELINE.

  She tried to speak, but her teeth and tongue were the wrong shapes.

  Then she was among the infinitely tall-seeming geometrical figures again, and they parted as she was pulled between them—

  And now she was sitting on an ornately embroidered sofa in a spacious parlor with framed tinted prints on the pale green walls. A young woman stood by the window to her left, holding a curtain aside and peering out, her narrow face and hair backlit by morning sunlight.

  Madeline felt the remembered subsonic roar—it rippled her view of the room, and she shivered with a current that almost made her feel that she could leap right out of this unfamiliar house. Usabo is nearby, she thought. Why did I do this?

  “Natacha,” the woman said without looking away from the street, “he won’t let you leave him.”

  Madeline choked, for she had tried to inhale just as her mouth began to speak. “He doesn’t need me, Fridi,” she found herself saying. “He’s got you. Hell, he’s got lots of girls.” She realized that the odd thumping sensation in her palms was her fingers snapping. “Do you see my taxi?”

  The woman turned to look at her. “I don’t see it. He might let you go, but he won’t let you take that away.” She nodded toward the knees of the body Madeline was occupying, and Madeline found herself looking down.

  In her lap was the brown folder with the Medusa head imprinted in gold on the cover; the remembered red wax seal over the ribbon held it closed. Her hands were unfamiliar, with long tapering fingers and painted nails, and a silver chain bracelet was draped around her right wrist.

  “It’s mine,” came the voice out of her mouth. “And I’ll be gone, where he can’t find me, or it—long before he gets home from his hunting trip with DeMille.”

  “Oh, Jesus!” exclaimed the woman, stepping quickly back from the window—and a moment later Madeline heard boots thumping on a porch beyond the front door, and then the door was kicked inward.

  Madeline found her viewpoint rising as she faced the man who stood silhouetted in the doorway. She could see that he was curly haired and broad shouldered, and the object in his right hand was a long shotgun.

  “You leave me, Fridi?” he shouted at the woman by the window, his voice seeming to shake the walls of the parlor. Madeline could see suitcases out there on the porch by his feet.

  And then her voice was saying, “I’m leaving you, Kosloff.” Beyond the man, she saw an antique checkered taxi slow to a stop at the curb. “Get out of my way.”

  “Damn,” the man shouted, pointing at her hand, “you not leave with the Beardsley!” Madeline could feel the rough texture of the Medusa folder against her fingers. Outside, the taxi’s horn honked.

  “I will,” she said, and moved to step past him toward the door and the sunlight outside—

  —and the shotgun barrel came up and fired, and the deafening explosion knocked her off her feet. Her ears were ringing and all she could see was the afterimage of the muzzle flash, but she rolled into a crouch on the carpet and ran away from him, toward a hallway.

  Another stunning boom sounded behind her, and a fist-sized patch of the wall ahead of her burst into dust and stinging fragments. She gripped a door frame and swung around it into a bedroom—the window ahead of her was open, and as two more blasts shook the house, she crossed the room in three awkward strides and dove through the window without touching the frame.

  She tumbled through the green leaves and pink flowers of an oleander bush. As she rolled over in the grass, she saw that her skirt was dark and gleaming with blood, and a pain like hot coals pressing into her thigh finally caught her attention. The first blast of shot had not entirely missed her.

  Limping now and sobbing through clenched teeth, she flailed across the lawn to the old taxi and wrenched open the rear door.

  “Go,” she said shrilly as she threw herself in across the seat, and the driver stepped on the accelerator.

  “Damn, lady,” he said, exhaling, “that guy shoot you?”

  “Get me to a hospital,” she said, clutching her thigh with both hands above the tangle of bloody shredded linen. The headwind blew the door closed. Her face was sweaty and cold. Madeline was aware that the just-inaudible roar and vibration were gone, and the woman seemed to notice the absence too—she glanced back, and whispered, “He’s got it now, damn him.”

  “Okay,” said the driver, nodding rapid
ly, “okay. Blood on my cushions, you can’t help it, okay.”

  He drove fast past boxy black cars parked under tall palm trees, then steered right, onto a bigger street. Madeline wondered frantically when this hallucination, or vision, would end, and she listened to the woman whispering, “Damn spider didn’t work, here I am still, damn spider didn’t work . . .”

  Tears were mingling with the sweat on her face. Her mouth said, “Where—are we going?”

  “Hollywood-Leland Hospital,” the driver said tensely, staring out through the windshield as he swerved around cars that looked to Madeline like Victorian cabinets, “Sunset and Vine.”

  Madeline’s view shifted to the cab’s sagging fabric headliner as a low moan shook her throat—was the woman dying?—and Madeline managed to impose her will on the relaxed vocal cords, and speak. “It partly worked,” she said. “I’m with you.”

  The body shivered. “Are you me?” came the woman’s voice.

  Madeline waited until the woman’s throat relaxed again, and she was able to exhale and form the words, “No, I’m Madeline.”

  A choked laugh preempted anything further she might have said. “Madeline,” said the woman’s voice, “hold my hand, would you?” The view swept down to the woman’s hands gripping her thigh. “Well, we can’t let go. Hold my thumb.”

  The blood-gleaming thumb of the right hand lifted away from the soggy linen, and Madeline found that she could move the left one; she curled it around the other, and then both thumbs were clamped down again.

  “Stay with me,” said the woman breathlessly.

  The woman’s throat was too tense now for Madeline to reply through it, but she managed to nod the head slightly.

  The eyes closed, and Madeline was aware only of the shaking and jogging of the taxi and the hot throbbing in her leg until someone was lifting her out and laying her on a moving surface, and soon a pinprick in her arm brought welcome oblivion.

  WHEN MADELINE BECAME AWARE of herself again, she was lying facedown on a hard surface. She tried to get up, but her arms wouldn’t support her, and she lay panting in dimness, drooling onto what she could feel was a wood floor. In front of her was an array of different shades of dark brown, divided into rectangles narrower at one end; she crawled forward, and one of the rectangles expanded. She reached a hand toward it and realized that the shifting pale shape that intruded into her view was her own hand, and when it stopped moving, it was because her fingertips felt unyielding polished wood.


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