Medusas web, p.8
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       Medusa's Web, p.8

           Tim Powers
 

  “Oh, go away,” came her cousin’s weak voice.

  Ariel tried the knob—the door was unlocked, and she opened it and stepped into the room. In the sudden dimness she peered around at the faintly gleaming glazed ceramic pigs and rats and the gilded Buddhas to be sure where the walls and low tables were, and then she focused on the recumbent form of her cousin sprawled across the four-poster bed. His wheelchair stood in front of the bedside table.

  The smell of incense imperfectly covered the aggressive menthol-and-eucalyptus tang of Bengay. One streak of daylight slanted in between the heavy velvet curtains, and for a moment she saw her own taut face reflected in one of the dozen mirrors on the walls.

  “Later, later,” whispered Claimayne.

  “Now,” she said, crossing the carpet to stand beside the foot of the bed. She could feel the floor sagging under her feet and hoped it wasn’t about to give way. “I just walked outside.”

  “Good. Do it again.”

  “Claimayne, what’s happening around here? Is it Scott and Madeline? I was going out to get in my car, and then all at once it was evening, and the car was gone and there was some kind of old Laurel and Hardy car there instead! And I had not looked at a spider! And—”

  She was interrupted by a deep boom that shook the house and momentarily made the floor springy. The shellacked mahogany pillars of Claimayne’s bed were carved coiled dragons, and they seemed to sway.

  Ariel tried to sustain her anger, but her heart was thumping and she couldn’t take a deep breath. “And what is that? That’s the second time in ten minutes.” She paused, but no further explosions followed, and the floor held steady.

  Claimayne sighed and rolled over to sit up against a big embroidered cushion, his gold DNA pendant under his chin now. He yawned and pulled the pendant down onto his chest and reached weakly for a glass on the bedside table. “Dip into the wine thy little red lips, Salomé, that I may drain the cup!”

  Ariel leaned across the wheelchair and picked up the glass and put it into his shaking hand. “It’s already near empty; finish it yourself.”

  He did, though he spilled some drops onto his dressing gown lapel, and then handed the glass back to her.

  “That explosion,” he said, “you’ve heard it before. It’s my mother, blowing herself up on the roof.”

  Ariel momentarily hoped Scott had climbed down from the roof; but, “What do you mean?” she asked. “Come on, please—that was a week ago.”

  “And how long ago do you suppose that ‘Laurel and Hardy car’ was parked on the side road? All of this is your fault as well as my own. And my mother’s. Though I’m the most guilty, I suppose.” He tried to hike himself farther up, then just slumped back with a gasp of pain. “Damn. We should host a youth camp, you know? They could put up tents in the garden and out by the bungalows.”

  “You really are a vicious pig,” said Ariel, setting down his wineglass. “You can’t get out and leave spiders you’ve looked at in playgrounds anymore, so you want to . . . get your filthy rejuvenation here? I wouldn’t let you.”

  Claimayne waved a pale hand dismissively. “It was just a thought. But I might leave a couple around for our guests. They’re appreciably younger than I am.”

  “I don’t think you’d want to soak up any of Scott’s vitality. You’d probably get the DTs. But you could probably use a dose of anorexia from Madeline.” Ariel looked nervously at the dim ceiling. “Do you know what that explosion was? It can’t have been . . . what you said.”

  “You just saw a car from nearly a hundred years ago, and you don’t believe you can hear a noise from only a week ago? It was my mother.”

  Ariel was horrified to realize that she believed him. “Claimayne,” she whispered shakily, “this has got to stop.”

  “Actually,” drawled Claimayne, “your first guess may have been right—it may be the fault of our guests most of all.”

  “What, that old car I saw is their fault? Or the grenade going off again on the roof?”

  “Both, and more. The dishes and windows—and my vinyl records!—that are breaking in spider-pattern cracks.” He opened his eyes wide for a moment. “Do you remember 1992?”

  “Some. I was ten years old.” She touched her own silver gyroscope pendant.

  “I was eighteen. Arthur and Irina had disappeared on New Year’s Eve of ’91. My mother had apparently lost a collection of spiders in ’91, and I think Arthur and Irina stole them from her; then the summer after those two disappeared, my mother got the collection back again. I think she took them from Scott and Madeline, who must have found their parents’ hiding place.”

  Ariel was aware of, and instantly suppressed, an eagerness to know what had become of the collection. You don’t do that anymore, she told herself—you don’t want to lose yourself, your self, anymore—and these would probably have been dirty ones, ones that somebody else had looked at. I only did freshly printed ones that had no possible flash-aheads or flashbacks connected to them . . . after I knew how they worked, anyway.

  “I was a sneaky boy,” Claimayne went on with a reminiscent smile. “I snooped and found them . . . but there was one she hid away where even I couldn’t find it. They were labeled, and she kept a list—the one I never could find was labeled Oneida Inc. In a penciled note she called it her retirement check. I think my mother never looked at it; I think she was saving it for an extremity, but”—he gave a circular wave that took in the whole troubled house, the whole anachronistic compound—“I think Scott and Madeline may very well have looked at it. I remember that they were both very sick, with characteristic symptoms, on the day my mother got the collection back.”

  In a small voice Ariel asked, “So is it . . . special, that one?”

  Claimayne’s laugh seemed forced. “One spider to rule them all, one spider to bind them,” he said lightly. “And I believe this may be a detoxified version of it, of the Medusa, who ordinarily turns her viewers to stone.” He had found a handkerchief among the bedclothes and now dabbed ineffectually at the wine stains on the lapel of his dressing gown. “Not literal stone, you understand—just something like a total nervous-system seizure and death, from helplessly performing a million actions at once.”

  Ariel frowned and shook her head. “And all this Medusa spider business makes an old car show up in the driveway?”

  “Oh, Ariel. What happens—sometimes!—when you look at a spider on Monday and then somebody else looks at it on Friday?” She rolled her eyes impatiently, but he persisted, “Go on, what happens?”

  “You overlap with each other for a minute or so. You’re in his body on Friday, and he’s in yours on Monday. If you’re lucky, you can act, do stuff, in his body.”

  “Do you know why?” When Ariel shrugged, he went on, “It’s because the spider you both looked at, or which you yourself looked at both times, doesn’t see those two times as two times. Nor as two places. To the spider, it’s one event.”

  Ariel shuddered, remembering that she had looked at one just yesterday, and in fact had yet to do the “after” by looking at it again two days from now.

  “You make it sound as if they’re alive,” she said.

  Claimayne was staring at her. “Amateur!” he said with a smile. “Dilettante! How long were you a steady user? You must have sometimes sensed that they’re . . . something like alive.”

  She shook her head, frowning, and whispered, “I don’t know.”

  “We’re three-dimensional creatures—four, really, since we extend in the fourth dimension, too, which is time. The spiders exist in a different sort of universe. They’re two-dimensional, appearing motionless to us but perpetually spinning in their own frame of reference, and probably entirely unaware of us, even when we spike one into our universe by providing it with a reciprocal image of itself, inverted and reversed, on our retinas.”

  “And so I see old cars.”

  “All right,” he said gently. “All right. Somebody—was it Woody Allen?—said that time is nature
s way of keeping everything from happening at once. Well, you and me, and my mother, and Art and Irina, probably, and even their two bungling curiosi children, all of us have so often used the spiders to make separate moments combine, in this house—made an hour of one day also be an hour of a later day—that time is breaking down, here, everything is beginning to happen at once. And so 1920 or ’50 or ’70 leaks into 2015 sometimes, even if no spider is being quickened in either time at that moment.”

  Ariel nodded dubiously. “Like a cabinet door that’s been opened and slammed too many times, and now it swings open all by itself, even when nobody touches the knob.”

  “If you like. That old car you saw was visible for a minute or so here—I expect it was brand-new when you saw it—and I imagine some residents of this house in the old days were sometimes startled to see a Honda or a Prius parked out there, or to hear a Beatles song echoing out of the house. We’ve bored so many holes through the timeline of this house and grounds that it’s like a load-bearing wall riddled by termites.” He smiled. “And I think our foster cousins may be the biggest termites of all.”

  “Because they looked at that one of your mother’s?”

  “Exactly. That’s the big one, and I think that’s the one that’s really crumbling our local chronology. That’s neat, I must say,” he added, and paused to rummage in the bedside table drawer for a minute. “Damn. Do you have a pen? No? Well, remind me of ‘crumbling our local chronology,’ will you?”

  “It’s not iambic.”

  “It’ll do as anapest. And I think our cousins, or one of them, will look at the big spider again, soon, and that is—has been, will be—the stress that’s really fragmented everything here. Everywhen.”

  “Let’s make them leave. I never wanted them here again in the first place. Can’t we make them leave?”

  “No. Can’t violate the terms of my mother’s provisional will until it’s disallowed. And what would that change? It doesn’t have to be one of them that looks at the Medusa spider next time. If it happens in this house, then all this . . . chronological erosion will have been caused no matter who it happens to be that looks at it. And I don’t think we’d be having these incidents unless somebody is going to look at it here.”

  Claimayne shrugged, and it occurred to Ariel that her cousin’s airy detachment was a pose.

  “You want it,” she said. “You want to be the one. Why? Why did your mother save it without looking at it? Retirement check? What the hell is it?”

  Another boom from the roof rattled the window behind the velvet curtains. Ariel stepped sideways to keep her balance.

  Claimayne had winced at the sound, and his pale fists clenched on the bedspread. “There she goes again,” he said quietly. “Does it occur to any of you that my mother died last week? And it was only four days ago that we buried her? That was my mother; are you sure you’re all quite clear on that?”

  Ariel bit her lip but made herself go on: “Will it—I’m sorry—will the Medusa spider bring her back?” For a moment she thought of her own parents, bohemian amateur mycologists who had died from eating misidentified Amanita phalloides mushrooms in a salad; seven-year-old Ariel and fifteen-year-old Claimayne had been present, but neither one had liked mushrooms.

  “Can it,” she said, “do that?”

  Claimayne laughed now, but not pleasantly. “Bring her back. Yes. Me too, ideally. As opposed to intolerable forward.” He slumped against the cushion and closed his eyes. “I don’t think I’m destined to outlive her by very long. So—backward it is, as richly as possible.”

  “What do you mean? Are you sick?”

  He gestured toward his unnaturally smooth face and said, “I’m still full of youth, obviously—ill gotten though it may arguably be. But there have been—chest pains, angina! Shortness of breath, pains in my jaw and arm. Trifles of that nature.” He coughed. “And I don’t get overlaps from my future anymore. I look at spiders, intending to look at them again when I’m fifty, sixty, seventy—and I get no after-visions at all, not even hallucinations. I’ve never had a flashback from myself much older than I am right now. You’d think I’d have got through once.”

  Ariel nodded, and then was a little surprised to find that she felt no sorrow or alarm at all at the prospect of Claimayne’s death. I should, she told herself. I should be at least as nostalgically saddened as I’d be if . . . oh, if the Medusa mosaic wall were to fall down in the next rain. I grew up with these things, after all, ugly though they may be.

  Why don’t I mind? she asked herself.

  She summoned up a frown and a tone of concern. “But the clogging effect—after a while, and you’ve definitely been at it for a while, you stop being able to really sense the future body—you get hallucinations instead—”

  “Not always. You’re convinced you really did talk to Scott and Madeline on the day after tomorrow.”

  “Well, maybe you’re going to quit soon! I did; no reason you can’t. That would explain you not getting any overlaps from yourself in the future.”

  “Quit. Oh yes, quit. And . . . join a monastery, become a vegan, take up philately?” He waved the idea away. “And Ariel, I—I have bad dreams about this house—all jumbled up, so there’s no door that leads outside anymore, and my mother’s explosion on the roof is constant, like a drumbeat, and, in every room I enter, those old rubber space aliens from the east garage are there again, but in the dream they’re . . . people I’ve overlapped with. Emptied.”

  “I’m . . . sorry,” was all Ariel could think of to say, and she tried to mean it.

  He rolled over on his side, facing the picture-decked wall. “Leave me alone,” he said hoarsely, “can’t you?”

  Ariel stood for a moment, staring helplessly around at the indistinct Chinatown clutter on the shelves and walls, then turned and hurried across the carpet to the door.

  Squinting in the relative brightness of the hall, she hurried to her own room, entered and closed the door behind her, then pulled out the bottom drawer of her dresser, pushing aside a stack of sweaters as she lifted out a rubber-banded bundle of twenty-dollar bills. She tucked it into the left pocket of her jeans and tapped the right pocket to make sure she had her keys.

  CHAPTER 7

  SCOTT REMEMBERED HAPPY CHILDHOOD explorations in the darkness among the towers of mismatched bricks and cinder blocks and sections of vertical four-by-four lumber in the basement under the main house, but as his flashlight illuminated them one by one now, he was chilled by the realization that these makeshift supports under the floor joists were all that were keeping the rooms above from falling into the cellar. His flashlight beam picked out the steel cylinders of at least a couple of industrial screw jacks in the receding dark gallery, but even these were footed on crumbling bricks or stacks of wood or, in one case, a truck wheel-rim. Attempting to give their levers even a slight tightening twist might just burst the junk they were standing on.

  A new thermocouple for the roof, he thought nervously, and a truckload of heavy-duty screw jacks and sturdy footings. The bathrooms in the northeast corner of the building on each of the three floors were tile over cement and must weigh several tons altogether.

  The house creaked steadily over him, like, he thought, a gallows with a big body hung from it swinging in the wind on a moonless night.

  He kept the flashlight beam on the dirt floor as he stepped away from the patch of sunlight by the opened cellar door behind him, for since his time someone had decided to store a lot of boxes of old National Geographic magazines down here, and the boxes had split open and the magazines had slid everywhere; and by the walls the light gleamed on long puddles, either from the recent rain or from leaky pipes. The cool draft from ahead was spiced with the reek of mildew and old mud.

  He remembered that the dirt floor sloped down after a few yards, and so he was careful not to slip. When it leveled out, the floor was mud, and he hoped the screw jacks—or improvised towers—were footed on something solid.

  Scott
paused, hopelessly swinging the flashlight beam from side to side as he peered into the remote dark expanse. He recalled areas where one had to crawl through low brick arches, and he didn’t see any use in threading his way through them today, just to verify that the joist supports were no good.

  Just as he was about to retrace his steps, he heard a scuffling from the darkness ahead, and a scared voice that he recognized as Madeline’s cried, “I’m here, I’m here!”

  He pointed the flashlight in the direction her voice had seemed to come from and soon picked out her sneakers poking out from behind a brick column.

  “Maddy, it’s me, Scott.” He shuffled forward through the mud. “How did you get—”

  “Scott!” Now he could see her pale, wide-eyed face above the shoes. She moved her head as if to look past him.

  Scott made his way to the column she was crouching behind, and when he shined the light around, he recognized this corner of this basement. The crayon drawings of bats and moons that little Madeline had taped to the brick wall here had long since fallen down and moldered away, but the gold-painted four-armed lug wrench still stood upright in a square of lumpy cement near the brick wall. He tried to remember the words someone had incised into the cement.

  “Who were you thinking it would be?” he asked. “Ariel? Claimayne?”

  Madeline turned her head away from the light and touched the lug wrench. “Oh,” she said, “somebody else—somebody I sort of met in this house once. Anything seems to be possible.” She went on quickly, “But another person was dragging something, this way, and I didn’t want to meet whoever that was.”

  Scott nervously turned around to sweep the darkness with the flashlight beam, but he saw only wet brick and upright four-by-fours and mud. He couldn’t hear anything except Madeline’s breathing and his own.

  He sighed and turned the light back into the alcove. Madeline gave him a blinking, twitchy smile and stood up carefully, bracing herself against the wall. “I’m glad you’re here.”

 
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