Down From Ten

A novel by
by J. Daniel Sawyer
Adapted from the original screenplay

With dust upon the picture frames
And snow outside the window panes
The nighttime voices whisper fear
A demon’s words out in the clear:
“You can make the whole world end,
if you but count down from ten.
10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2…”

Chapter 1
E Minus Ten, Afternoon

The heavy clouds on the horizon loomed progressively lower and angrier as the road rose ever higher into the Sierra. The valley farmlands, and the high desert before them, had endured the moistureless air of the freezing winter drought. The storm spilling in over the coastal foothills was a welcome harbinger.

From the mountains, however, the view was different. The Volvo—still smart and looking factory fresh despite four hundred thousand miles and a decade’s worth of service—wended its way between the hundred-year-old pines, past the spires of igneous rock and through the long, bowl-shaped valleys carved by the region’s glacial past. At the vista points that dotted the high road every few dozen kilometers, the view of the roiling thunderheads grew increasingly worrisome.

The driver parked, and took stock.

Standing in his gray duster and felt hat, his red University of Paris muffler streaming behind him in the biting wind, dressed shoes-to-shoulders in a hand-tailored wool suit, Gerd Falkstein looked out over the foothills and the San Joaquin valley with a sense of foreboding. The crumpled invitation gripped between the fingers of his lambswool gloves had suffered four visits to the dustbin before he’d finally given in, retrieved it, and looked up directions to the new locale.

For the last six years, the first week of January meant a drive up to Big Bear to spend ten days in a rented cabin with an extraordinary group of people. Ten days of rest from the travails of grading papers, fighting with journal editors, suffering through staff meetings, and an entire life overshadowed by the bright and shiny soullessness of the Las Vegas skyline.

But that life was over now, and the retreat had always been a part of that life. No matter how restful it had always been, it seemed wrong somehow to carry it over into his new life.

Gerd folded the piece of paper again and put it into his pocket, then pulled his hat low against the retreating sun and returned to his car. Growing up in Europe, most of what he’d known of California had been its beaches, stuffed to bursting with an unlikely mixture of computer geeks and bikini-clad surfer girls roasting under a cloudless sky and merrily pickling their livers in Everclear and Corona. Now, almost twenty years into his alien residency, most of them spent in California and Nevada, he could count on one hand the number of times he’d been to the coast on a sunny day.

The mountains were the state’s defining feature. From very few places in California could you look in any direction on a clear day without finding the horizon blocked by high hills or distant mountains of some kind.

The winding road meandered endlessly in front of him. Having never been to this part of California, he didn’t really know how much longer it would take. Satellite photos and online directions never had given him a good sense of what things looked and felt like on the ground, and already he’d burned through the audiobooks of Inferno and Purgatorio.

As the final fifty miles rolled by like a forest breeze, Gerd found himself relieved that he had decided to attend. If the event had been at Big Bear again, he was sure he wouldn’t have come. Too much there reminded him of the life he was just leaving behind. This way, perhaps, the retreat would feel more like a christening than a wake.

 

The chateau—technically, it was a mansion, stuck as it was in the middle of the far end of the American west—lay hidden at the end of a narrow drive that split off the main highway and stumbled down a half a dozen meters into a flat, wide lot cut out of the side of the mountain. The gaudy front looked like something dreamt up by Picasso for a class assignment in Tudor architecture, and the high eaves from the second story cantilevered sharply out over the circular car park in front of the garage. It looked like it could comfortably house thirty, and yet Carol had said in her email in September, when she finally moved in, that it felt homey and intimate.

Since her idea of intimate was one that he found delightfully unconventional, he reserved judgment until he saw the inside.

Gerd took the available spot closest to the door and extricated himself from his automobile’s leather embrace, the cold wind biting at his face as he mashed the fedora down over his brow. Overhead, the sky’s blue had deepened just enough for stars familiar to city-dwellers to peek through. In another hour it would be littered with celestial glitter the likes of which urbanites never saw, though he didn’t trust it to remain that way for long.

He took his overnight bag and his laptop satchel from the back seat and hip-checked the driver’s door shut. The day’s white light hastened towards yellow as the sun flirted with the storm clouds away on the far western horizon, and Gerd found he had to turn his collar up and pull his hat down against the cold wind flowing down off the mountain as he scampered the ten meters to the front door.

It wasn’t locked. The brass latch lifted easily and the heavy black oak slab swung inwards, catching on a stop and holding itself open for his entrance.

The rush of warmth and the din both blasted him in the face as he stepped inside. Somewhere, buried under layers of conversation, he heard someone plucking at a guitar and a young woman singing a desultory rendition of Wild Mountain Thyme.

He’d been right to reserve judgment—Carol’s tastes were, as ever, impeccable.

The house’s double-wide foyer was nearly covered in frames. Photographs of past adventures, past retreats, and art experiments hung proudly next to prints from Bouguereau and Waterhouse, while along the vaulted ceiling dangled small chandeliers, sized just right to make the roof seem much farther away than it actually was.

Gerd stopped at the rack and doffed his hat and coat, hanging them smartly next to the others already there. Kevin’s unmistakable black leather sportcoat, Carol’s neo-Victorian overcoat, Sarah’s dreamcatcher-knit shawl, Katy’s motorcycle leathers, and two he didn’t recognize: a basic brown frock and a tan bomber jacket. As he hung his things, he tripped the stop with his foot and let the door swing closed again.

Next to the rack hung an old, stained sepia portrait of a stately blonde in an underbust corset, holding a riding crop, her left foot resting elegantly on an ottoman as if she were waiting to have her toes polished by an eager shoe-shine boy. The casual observer might have pegged it as a kitschy use of Victorian porn, but anyone who knew Carol would recognize her in the photo, and the unmistakable message it conveyed:

“The Mistress of the house welcomes you. Behave.”

Those words had featured in Carol’s opening remarks every year since Gerd could remember.

The whole place screamed Carol—the tasteful decadence, the constant play at overload and degeneracy combined with the flawless use of space and proportion.

Yes, he decided, it would be a christening, and not a wake. It would be a good thing.

Gerd picked up his bags, counted down from ten, and strode forward into the living room.

The nerve center of the house, a living, breathing museum, yawned before him. Every surface featured a sculpture. Every wall sported paintings and photographs opening windows into neighboring worlds: Psyche and Eros in one, the water nymphs in another, Conan against the giant serpent, the Eagle Nebula. The great room felt like Wonderland’s annex; Gerd stood upon the threshold of ten days in a world where the regular rules of reality didn’t apply.

To his left, in the conversation pit arrayed around the fireplace, Kevin sat at the end of the couch with his right leg crossed over his left, supporting a sketch pad. From his vantage point, Gerd could see the edges of a charcoal drawing emerging under the lanky, bookish man’s careful fingers.

Just in front of Kevin, someone in blue coveralls crouched next to a water bucket. The clothing and the angle hid face and gender, but there was only one person it could be; when the figure stood, he recognized the severe, almost mannishly Japanese face of their resident sculptor. Katy straightened her coveralls with her gloved hands and caught Gerd’s eye. She nodded a curt hello and turned her attention back to Kevin’s sketch subject.

The lady of the house stood on a stool in the middle of the conversation pit with her back to Gerd. Plaster bandages clung around her body from ankles to collarbone. Loose straps hung over her shoulders, wrapped just around the wide point of her ribs, and pinched in down her legs from either side, framing the tattoo of a reticulated python weaving its way down her spine from her neck to her hips. Katy walked around to Carol’s front and exchanged some quiet words with her.

Gerd cleared his throat.

“Bonjour, anybody home?”

Carol’s body was held immobile by the bandages, but her head snapped around as far as it could. When her eyes found him, she beamed.

“Gerd! Welcome home!” She looked apologetically down at her mummified body. “I’ll be with you in a minute.”

“Do not worry, cheri. I will keep.” Gerd set his bags down and leaned against the corner where the entryway met the great room, breathing in the scents of old books and new plaster mingling with the garlic and rosemary wafting out of the kitchen.

Katy peered out from behind the mummified hostess. “Kevin, give us a hand?”

Kevin, his eyes fixed to his drawing, seemed not to hear her. Katy waved her hands to get his attention, “Kevin! Move your tuchus, muchacho. We gotta get the dragon lady off her pedestal.”

“Oh.” Kevin jolted like a startled rabbit, then set his pad and charcoal down on the end table and rolled himself up to his feet. “Sure, sorry.”

i>“Gracias. Grab here,” Katy tapped her knuckles on Carol’s ribs under her right arm, which stretched stiffly out to the mummy’s side, “and here.” She tapped the inside of Carol’s thigh, the knocking sound from the hard plaster reaching Gerd over the rest of the din.

Kevin took his position, then grinned mischievously and snaked his hand up from Carol’s thigh and grabbed a handful of her exposed rebondi. Carol tilted her head down at him—Gerd couldn’t see her expression, but her condescending amusement echoed across the cavernous room towards him like music.

“Down, boy, unless you really mean it.”

“Who says I don’t?”

“Don’t bullshit me, child. I know you just want me for your drawings.”

“¡Andale!” Katy clapped her hands. “We’ve gotta get her out of it while it’s still a little pliable or we’ll have to break her out.”

Kevin moved his hand back to its hold on the bandages at Carol’s thigh. “I’m ready, Katy. Give me the count.”

Katy grabbed corresponding points on Carol’s left side.

“On the count of three, Gringo.”

“You can gringo my big toe, Nipper.”

“You want to see nipping, douijin? Uno. Dos. Tres!” They both lifted in concert and stepped forward, bringing Carol down to rest on the tarpaulin covering the carpet. “Okay, hook your fingers under the edge. Right, start at the ankle. Get ready to step back slow, Mama Mia.”

“Say when.” Carol’s voice barely made it back to Gerd’s ears.

“When. Slowly. Twist…there.” Katy guided Carol’s ankle out of the cast, carefully peeling the plaster away from Carol’s body.

Carol wiggled and leaned a little bit at a time, pulling her skin away from the bandages without hurting the cast. When her left leg and left arm won free, she stepped backwards and twisted the other half of her body, peeling out of her shell until she faced Gerd. The Vaseline that coated her—protection from Katy’s latest experiment—was flecked everywhere by plaster dust, giving her normally-pink skin the pallor of the grave. But this was Carol, and Carol could make a corpse look insufficiently austere if she put her mind to it. She smiled at him as if the year since they’d last seen one another hadn’t ever intervened.

She grabbed a towel and squeezed between Katy and Kevin, narrowly missing them both. Hurdling the side of the couch, she bounded up to Gerd as if she intended to knock him over with a kiss, but when she got near she skittered to a halt.

She looked down at her body, covered head to toe in petroleum jelly, then over to his suit. Gerd reached out for her, but stopped when she held her arms out helplessly and raised an apologetic eyebrow.

Since she’d already beaten him to the eyebrow lift, the best he could manage was a shrug.

Carol looked over Gerd’s suit again, then draped her towel across her breasts and shoulders like a barber’s bib. “This ought to work. Let’s see…”

Very deliberately, she stepped up to him and raised herself onto her toes, her impressive height still dwarfed by his hundred and ninety centimeters. She carefully took his head in her hands, making sure not to touch his suit with her skin, and pulled his face to hers.

Gerd’s hands found her hips and he held her awkwardly and kissed her like a sailor too long at sea, losing himself in the finest welcome he could have asked for. The last of his reservations about coming melted away like so much summer frost, and he nearly forgot his suit.

“And so it begins!” Kevin’s sharp voice cut through the din. Gerd pulled away from Carol and looked up at the spindly physicist reclining nonchalantly against the back of the longer sofa. “The eternal love-fest, for the select few.”

Carol squinted at him with mock reproach. “I didn’t hear you complain when you got here.”

“Well, that was when I thought you had taste.” Kevin had a long, dour face that his students must have thought humorless; his warm smile looked as if it might break something.

Gerd squeezed Carol as best he could without getting grease all over himself, then let her go. “It is good to be back. Tell me, cheri, am I the last?”

“Not remotely, dear. Sarah’s friend Jeremiah had a thing tonight—fund raiser of some kind…”

The singing filtering through from the other room stopped, and the singer’s voice projected itself into the conversation. “He emceed a biotech rally for Greenpeace.” Ah, Sarah. Gerd should have expected she would bring the music.

Kevin looked markedly unamused. “Thor save us. You invited this guy?”

“Somebody has to give the scary professor a run for his money.” Sarah’s guitar strummed a chord of doom, just for emphasis.

“Run for my money? Sounds like more of a leisurely-but-annoying walk for a penny.”

“Ah, Kevin, my friend.” Gerd reached down and took hold of his bags. “Your unmatchable wit with the English language is impossible to describe without using words like ‘dim.’”

“No welcome kisses for you, buddy.” Kevin’s sour sardonicism rumbled like a tuba in a violin concerto, but his grin and the sparkle in his eyes brought him right into the symphony. “And this guy Sarah invited—an activist right from a rally? He’ll be on his genetically un-manipulated soapbox all week. Ain’t that gonna be a picnic on the beach?”

“Oh, behave yourself. I’m going to have enough problems with him without your help.” Carol crossed arms over her chest like a displeased, if under-dressed, British nanny.

“Oui, oui, très apologies. Where may I find my room, cheri?”

“It’s fourth on the right from the top of the stairs. Here,” she took his laptop and overnight bag from him. “I’ll drop them off in your room. I’ve gotta go shower this goop off.”

“Alas. I had cultivated the desire for greased turkey just now.” Carol shifted his laptop from her left hand to her right and made as if to hit him playfully. “Whoa, whoa Stains, mon cher.”

“Fine, you’re right,” she growled at him. “Would someone hit him for me please?”

Before Carol finished asking, a throw pillow rocketed from Katy’s fist and struck Gerd soundly in the shoulder.

“Thank you, sweetie.”

Katy shrugged her shoulders and peeled her nitrile gloves off, brushing her hands together as if putting to rest a job well done. “De nada, senorita.”

“Well, Gerd, food’s in the kitchen, spa’s in the solarium. Don’t get lost!” She winked at him, and then dodged around the furniture to the staircase without a second look. Her movements were always precise and easy; effortless as an escaped kite gliding on the wind.

“No, Carol,” Gerd whispered to himself, “I will not get lost here.”

The singing in the room near the stairs started up again. Sarah, playing Scottish folk songs. Gerd stirred his lumbering frame from its reverie and started off to follow the music, but before he’d gone five steps, Katy collided with him from the side.

“Hey hey hey!” Despite being half his size, she easily caught him around the neck and hugged him for dear life. “You can’t get away that easy, old man.” She pecked him on his lips. “I’ve been trying to get ahold of you for two months now.”

“I’m sorry. I know. I’ve been busy.” Busy didn’t begin to describe the merde storm he’d unleashed at the end of the last semester, before he’d announced his retirement.

“Busy? You’re certifiable!” She let go of his neck and stepped back so she could see his face without craning her neck, looking him over from head to foot and shaking her head. “How did you think you’d ever get away with it? Kuhn is gospel—or don’t you read the canons of your own profession?” She loosened her do-rag, letting her close-cropped a-line hair fall loose across her face. “Well, come on, shorty, spill it.” She sat down in a wingback chair and threw her shoeless feet up on the end table, gesturing insistently at the couch opposite her. Did he really want to get into the whole thing now, so soon after arriving? Maybe not, but this was Katy—she made up in persistence what she lacked in stature. Gerd sighed, admitting defeat, and sat down in the deep leather opposite her.

She shifted her feet to his lap. He obligingly picked up her left and started to massage the knot in her arch. “Nice. So, how did my favorite fossil become a heretic?”

Gerd laughed. “You read the paper?” She smirked at him, as if only a very silly European would ask such a question. “Well, then, Katydid, you know. Every field needs a revolution now and again, no?”

She shook her head. “They’re gonna guillotine you.”

From the other room, Sarah’s voice slid over the melody as easily as the notes slipped through the air. It helped mark out the new venue as sacred space. Despite retreading the recent drama, Gerd felt the weight of the road and the last few months lift from him as he and Katy spoke. Academic politics were, after all, a thing of the past. He’d said his piece, and now he was up here in the rarefied air. The concerns of the University already seemed obsolete.

Or, as Katy put it, “It’s just the babbling of crusty fuckers who are almost as full of shit as you are.”

A christening, yes. Most assuredly.

 

As much as Sarah’s music echoing airily may have marked the house as sacred for Gerd, in the kitchen it saturated the room like a coffee house concert. Amos Maple, a newcomer to the week’s festivities, wielded his knife against a defenseless pile of onion slices, providing a rhythmic counterpoint and attempting to get a measure of the woman making the music. Slight, delicate, and built like the dancer she’d once been, Sarah sat cross-legged on the island in front of him, filling the room with her easy melody.

Amos hadn’t known her long. He’d met her maybe four times in his life, all of them because she and Carol happened to be in the same place at the same time. Normally she was effervescent, bouncing all about the room like a hyperkinetic hyrax, so her meditative air as she made love to the guitar fascinated him. It seemed out of character, somehow.

Not that he had much time to ponder the moment—not when his old friend Edelle Sirhan was bustling about the kitchen, wrangling an impressive spread of food while arguing the finer points of aesthetics with him. She’d just finished catching him up on her latest adventures in her shadow career as a figure photographer, then ducked out of the room to grab another can of chicken broth before he had a chance to respond.

The ringing egg timer brought Edelle’s careworn face back out of the pantry. Her flannel-clad torso deftly dodged around the island and to the counter next to the oven, where she attacked the can of broth with an opener.

“So, why aren’t you out there taking pictures of the casting?” Amos picked up the conversation where it had left off when Edelle ducked out.

“Plenty of time after everyone’s fed. Where did I put the…”

Amos took a half step back, reached behind his head and grabbed an oven mitt from its hook on the stove-hood without looking. As Edelle cast about for the one she mislaid, he dangled the mitt from its eye-loop. Caught up in her quest for the missing pot holder, she didn’t look up at him until he whistled.

“Oh, you!” She snatched the mitt from his grasp and hit him on the arm with it. “Thanks a lot—ah, here we go. All done.” Edelle pulled the tray of beets out of the oven. She laid the tray down on the counter and poked one of the beet slices with her fork.

“Beets? What are we, Russian?”

“Vot do you theenk, my pretty?” Edelle cut the corner of a beet and skewered it, bringing it up to her mouth and blowing on it before she popped it in to sample. She nodded her head and shrugged, as if she didn’t quite know what to make of them.

“Looks like I think the same thing as you. They’re beets.” Amos returned to his chopping.

“They’re for Jeremiah,” Sarah pulled her long, loose brown hair up into a bun, then returned to finger-picking Celtic ditties on her six string. “Gotta have something for him to eat.”

Amos looked askance at her, “And you work with this guy?”

“Everybody’s got their vices,” Sarah winked at him, “bodice ripper.”

She had him there. He finished up the onions with a flourish and set the knife down, then brushed them into a pan containing an ostensibly edible stew-like substance. “As vices go, abstinence is the most destructive one. And the most annoying.” Amos ducked into the fridge and grabbed a Guinness. He meant to crack it open with his bare hands to punctuate his point, but the Einstein who’d bought them had gotten the ones without the twist tops.

“Oh, that’s hardly fair,” Edelle snatched the bottle from between Amos’s fumbling fingers and turned her back on him. His mouth watered as he heard the unmistakable wet crunch of the top opening.

“Hardly fair? What about stealing a man’s beer?”

“Poor baby.” Edelle turned back to him and presented him with a pint glass filled with his stout. “Feel better?”

“Much. Thank you.” He took a swig and braced himself for Edelle’s rhetorical buffeting.

“You’re welcome. So, look, thousands of people throughout history have devoted themselves to lives of abstinence and service. Monks, nuns…you can hardly say that’s destructive. Or annoying.”

“She’s right, scribbler. Look at Mother Theresa.”

“Oh, god…” Mother Theresa. He should have known someone would bring up that old bat. Amos tilted his head toward the ceiling, pretending to beg the space aliens to bring enlightenment quickly, before he lost his patience. He didn’t notice the improbably large shadow looming in the doorway to his left.

“What?” Sarah wasn’t letting it go. “She was a positive force…”

“Yeah, for advancing suffering in the world. She didn’t even believe in the god she told suffering people to trust instead of medicine. Forget Mother Theresa. Ever known someone who’s been to Catholic school? Ever heard of the Magdalene sisters? Or the Tamil Tigers?” Amos took another glug from his pint glass to emphasize the point. He was going out on a limb a little, trusting Carol’s word that this retreat was a place where he could let it all hang out without worrying about stomping on toes, and that was why he’d come. Besides, Edelle and Sarah were both woman enough to stand up for themselves in an intellectual fencing match.

“The Tamil Tigers weren’t monastic.” Amos jumped, spilling his beer as the thick French accent rolled through the kitchen from behind him. A new arrival?

“And you can’t equate not eating meat with terrorism, Amos,” Sarah chided him, trying to sound maternal. Being more than ten years younger than he and still having the bearing of an excitable teenager didn’t lend much credibility to her case. “That’s…oh, I forget what the technical term is.”

“I think the term you’re looking for is ‘bullshit.’” Edelle winked at Sarah, then dodged out of the way as the stately Frenchman pushed his way past her, heading straight for Sarah.

“Yeah, that’s it.”

“I think you can say that only because you have never been to a PETA rally, petit chat.” The man who would be Poirot arrived next to the guitarist, creating a hell of a comic tableau—he, a six-foot-three bear of a man, she a willowy five foot two with limbs as long as an octopus’s. Next to one another, they looked like refugees from a funhouse. “What song were you playing?”

“Oh,” Sarah picked a few chords, “just futzing around with some old Scots tunes.”

“It sounded lovely. A good welcome.” The large man gathered her gently in his arms and kissed her cheek. Sarah’s face flushed as she returned the embrace. “And your year, Sarah dear, how was it?”

He let her go and stood beside her like a Beefeater, not leaning against the counter.

“It’s been fantastic.” As she tittered, Amos pulled a clean hand towel off the rack, rolled it up in a ball, and threw it. “I think we’ve finally got a show that…hey!” The flying towel caught on her guitar neck.

“Now, now,” Amos waggled a finger at her, “before you both go getting all cozy, aren’t you going to introduce us to your new friend?”

“Oh, of course, sorry. Though, technically, you’re the new friend, Shayna.” Sarah eyeballed him like a cat blackmailing a fishmonger. Of course, she would go there, right at the beginning—it was quintessential Sarah. Christ, this was going to be a long ten days. Amos held on to the thin hope that it would be the good kind of long, rather than the purgatorial kind of long. The auspices were still ambiguous on that point. “Gerd Falkstein, this is Amos Maple.”

Gerd raised both eyebrows, clearly impressed. “Amos Maple…of the Syria Station books?”

“Guilty as charged.” Amos raised his stout in salute and indulged himself in the dark brown nuttiness again.

“Amos has a secret life.” Sarah leaned conspiratorially toward Gerd and delivered the news in a stage whisper. “He funds his science fiction habit by writing Harlequins as a woman.”

“It’s true. Soccer moms think I’m sexier in drag.” Amos shrugged apologetically, determined to roll with the playful teasing and give as good as he got.

Gerd nodded his head magnanimously. “I give you my solemn promise I will not tell anyone who doesn’t offer me a lot of money for the quote.”

Edelle drew a knife from the chopping block and cleared her throat at Sarah. The dancer started, then looked back to Gerd and jerked her head at Edelle. “And this is Edelle Sirhan. She’s our missionary photographer.”

Edelle pulled the hot mitt off her right hand. “Delighted.”

“Bon.” Gerd nodded his head curtly.

“Gerd here is the soon-to-be-ex chair of ancient history at UNLV.” Apparently satisfied that she’d done her social duty for the day, Sarah pulled the towel off her guitar neck and started picking softly again.

Edelle gave Gerd a wry look that belied the authority underneath her cross-examination. She commanded whatever room she was in—or had, every time Amos had seen her, until she came here. She was like a black hole: potent because she was small, pulling people into her orbit almost against their will. Here, she was a singularity dancing in orbit with a host of other singularities. Whether the entire situation would, in the end, suck, remained to be seen, but her ease of manner as she demanded an explanation from Gerd with a wrinkle of her brow was quite a sight.

Amos took mental notes, intending to use the moment in his next book. “Soon-to-be-ex?”

“She exaggerates.” Gerd said, “It is not that bad, I just ruffled some feathers last month when…”

Sarah played a three-beat chord progression of doom, loudly. “It’s scandalous, I tell you!”

“Behave, cheri, or I’ll have Carol see to you.” He turned his attention back to Edelle, stepped toward her and took her free hand. “I’m very pleased to meet you, Edelle.” He kissed it lightly, then let go.

“Oh, pfft. Don’t give me that.” She brushed his hands aside and hugged him.

“Carol met them both at Worldcon a few years ago, and finally decided to have them up.” Sarah resumed her picking.

Gerd released Edelle. “Keeping the pool fresh, is she?”

“Exactly.” Sarah raised a mysterious eyebrow. “Just don’t tell them everything all at once or we might scare them off, and I’m looking forward to having both of them around.” Amos stifled a snicker.

“Somehow I think you are not being quite truthful speaking of what you want to have, ne ce’st pas?” Gerd returned the eyebrow, and raised her a chiding head-shake.

“Shut up, you old letch.” She snatched the towel Amos had thrown at her a moment before and lobbed it at Gerd, landing it squarely atop his head.

Gerd yanked it off and made as if he was shocked. “You mean to say they do not know…”

“Shh…you want to spoil all the surprises?”

Amos chuckled into his pint glass. “Such melodrama! Carol didn’t tell me you had that talent.” He knocked back a swallow, then continued. “Maybe I oughta sub out some of my romance novel business to you.”

“Nope, couldn’t do it. One true love doesn’t work for me.”

“Hmph,” Amos snorted “You and almost everyone else in the world.”

“Be reasonable.” Edelle turned to Amos. “Not everyone is so cynical.”

“Of course.” Amos widened his eyes in mock epiphany. “That’s why most marriages are happy and well-adjusted. I knew I was missing something.”

“People aren’t perfect, Amos. That doesn’t mean love is meaningless.” Edelle returned her attention to the cutting board.

“Love is wonderful. One true love is Disney.”

“Just because you haven’t had good luck. Believe it or not, some people do find the one they’re

destined for.”

“An idealist?” Sarah’s music screeched to a halt again. “How romantic!”

“Oh, please.” Edelle slid the last of her chopping onto a serving tray. “Most people want the same thing. Someone they can love and depend…”

“Children!” Carol’s voice carried sharply from the other room. “Children! Don’t make me ring the bell!”

“I believe that is our cue, my friends.” Gerd nodded past Amos towards the living room door.

“Okay everyone,” Edelle hefted a tray laden heavily with hors d’oeuvre. “Grab a tray, make your way.”

 

Carol pressed her wet hair against the sides of her head and dragged it back over her ears as she stepped up onto the coffee table. Below her, Katy sat at one end of the long couch between the coffee table and the kitchen door. She leaned toward Kevin, at the other end of the couch, and commented quietly on his drawing. The other guests filed in from the kitchen like penitents at an Orphic feast, each bearing a tray filled with sausages, dippables, bagna cauda, and a host of other munchables Carol didn’t recognize at first glance. Edelle was feeding them well already, and Carol was determined to figure out what would feed Edelle’s soul. She had a few ideas percolating.

Carol checked the sash on her kimono to make sure the ends were proportionate past the knot, then turned her attention to the mingling guests before her. “Come in, children. Sit down.”

Amos led the charge, dependably out front as ever, clearing the way as he swept the end table clean to make space for his tray and Edelle’s. Gerd and Sarah circled around to the second long couch and laid their trays on the other end table, before finding a place in the pattern to land.

The family was assembled, seated and comfortable. It was time to begin.

“So, now that we’re mostly here…Ah.” The front door latch clicked, and she heard the heavy oak swing inward. A chill wind blew in from the entryway, the draft pulling the winter air right past Carol to the fireplace. She shivered. “It seems we are all here.” She heard the door shut. A moment later, a frighteningly lean man peeked around the corner and scanned the room as if he were trying to make sure he was in the right place. He looked road-worn and sallow in the yellowing light, his hemp-weave poncho covering most of him. When his eyes lit on Sarah, he broke into a smile and blushed, almost bashful, before taking a couple halting steps into the living room.

He set his bag next to the wall and whipped the poncho off, dropping it on top. Underneath, his black t-shirt plunged tightly into his BDU trousers, showing off every ripple and fiber from his neck to his hips. His body was all long lines;. Narrow shoulders tapered to a narrower waist, veins and muscles in his arms traced like tongue tracks from his knuckles to his shirtsleeves—a dancer’s body if she’d ever seen one. Scrumptious. Sarah was right—but there’d be plenty of time for that later. “Welcome home, Jeremiah. Have a seat with the rest of the class.”

The new arrival found his way over to Sarah, who scooted to the side of her pillow to make room for him. He knelt next to her, and she seized his head and pulled it back into her lap, then kissed him on the forehead and whispered something to him. He leaned on her, seeming contented.

Carol continued. “Now, children, you’ll remember dear old Mr. Coleridge, who taught us all: In Xanadu did Kublah Khan a stately pleasure dome decree. Where Alph, the sacred river, ran, through caverns measureless to man, down to a sunless sea.

“Welcome to Xanadu! Most of you have come before, but some of you are new. This is our sacred space. All of us, one way or another, try to live by our creativity. We bounce around between conventions and conferences, we deal with students and sourpuss audiences. This is our break. Ten days of R&R. So, there are a few rules.”

“What? No fucking in the hallway?” Sarah. Trying to earn her brownie points early this year. Carol put on her best Mary-Poppins-as-dominatrix bearing.

“If you don’t keep quiet, dear, you won’t get your spanking tonight.” Sarah opened her mouth to retort, thought better of it, and closed it again. Carol turned her attention back to the group. “Now, where was I… Ah yes, the rules. This is a retreat from the world. We have no television, no cell phone coverage, no Internet. There is a stereo and music library, but under no circumstances is anyone to turn on a news station.

“No clothing is allowed in the spa. No loud music after midnight. No iPods or anything else that sticks headphones in your ear. If you want to listen to music, share it with the group.

“Try not to get too drunk—you’ll have to clean up after yourself if you do.” She looked pointedly at Kevin, who nodded attrition. No repeats of last year, then. Good.

“Talk about anything you want…except the election. There’s enough chance of cabin fever in here without people trying to kill each other over religious differences.

“Take care to keep your towel with you, please. Always keep track of it. I don’t like bare bums directly on my upholstery.

“Now, on to the positives. We’re here to relax and play. Not everyone here is a visual artist, but everyone here has signed a release to model if asked. We’ll be doing body casting, photography, life drawing, and if we’re lucky Kevin might paint a few of us.

“So, booze is at the bar, condoms are in the bathrooms, the spa is warm, and Edelle’s just made a delightful dinner for us. Have I forgotten anything?”

“No, I think you got it.” Amos raised his glass to her. The others all nodded a general agreement—all but Gerd.

“Just one small thing, I fear.” He leaned forward in his seat. “The news has said there is a big storm coming tomorrow night. They’re predicting three to four feet.”

“Ah, yes. Thank you, dear. Anyone who needs anything out of their car might want to get it before the storm hits, so you don’t have to dig it out with a shovel. Anything else?” The assembled motley crew shook their heads in general agreement. “Well then, I guess everything else you can think of is fair game. Behave yourselves, children…” She dropped her stern demeanor. The rules were done, the retreat begun. This was her family, more truly than any other she’d known. This was how it was supposed to be. Carol let all the warmth she’d felt since Edelle first showed up at lunch bubble to the surface and out through her smile. “And welcome home.”

“Hear hear!” Katy raised her snifter.

“Let the festivities begin!” Kevin answered with his tumbler. Carol extended her left leg and fell forward, planting her foot between Kevin’s legs and kneeling down in his lap. She grabbed his face between her palms and kissed him firmly, then fell rightwards into Amos’s lap. She repeated her welcome to him, then laid the rest of the way down into Katy’s lap. Katy bent down, brushed her a-line hair out of the way, and kissed her deeply.

When Katy finished, Carol rolled off the couch to the right and grabbed her empty tumbler from the coffee table, stepped over Jeremiah and padded her way out of the conversation pit and over to the bar.

 

As Carol finished speaking, Jeremiah tried to get his emotional footing. He’d just finished speaking at a badly-run rally, spent six hours on the road, fought his way through rush hour traffic, and then lain here in Sarah’s lap watching a woman who could only be described as a laid-back sex goddess instruct a group of people—some of them men twice her apparent age—like she was their fucking mother. She’d even called them all “children,” over and over. The different rules were bouncing around in his head like ping pong balls, none of them settling, none of them really making sense. He couldn’t have heard right. Had he fallen into a nest of nudists maintained by Miss Manners? Nobody seemed to be stripping so far. Maybe he’d missed something. Maybe his mind was still back on the road…

Sarah stroked his temples idly. She’d know. She was the reason he was here in the first place. He craned his neck back so that he could see her face.

“No fucking in the hallway?”

“Well, it’s important to have some rules. You never know what might happen.”

“She wasn’t serious, was she? About the clothes thing?”

“Completely serious. You missed it earlier,” Sarah pointed towards the fireplace. Two halves of a plaster shell leaned up against the hearth. It looked like a Barbie-doll-shaped mummy had been sliced in two, lengthways, and hollowed out. “Carol had her whole body cast right here while everyone was hanging around.”

“Naked?” Jeremiah scowled incredulously. What kind of twilight zone had he walked into?

Sarah nodded at him, then leaned down and whispered conspiratorially in his ear. “And slathered in Vaseline.”

“Now I know you’re shitting me.” Jeremiah relaxed his neck and shook his head, looking straight up at the ceiling. Sarah’s fingers in his hair spread warmth in waves down his body. Very soothing. Soothed wasn’t something he was used to feeling in Sarah’s presence. It was nice.

“I’d never do that, silly.”

“Hmph.” She said that now. Now that she wasn’t barking orders to him and the other dancers, or finagling them into extra work with talk about break times and bonuses and other daydreams. He closed his eyes and took a breath, trying to remind himself that this was supposed to be a vacation. He opened them again just in time to see Carol stepping over him, her legs parting neatly above him and letting him see straight up into her cooze.

When her back leg swooped forward over him he found himself staring at the ceiling again. He followed Carol’s legs with his eyes as she shuffled to the bar and refilled her drink. What the fuck?

“See, I told you.” Sarah stopped stroking his hair. He looked back up and caught her gloating over him with a shit-eating grin.

“Meh.” Jeremiah sneered at her and sat up. Carol seemed to float back across the floor to find a seat on the coffee table opposite him. She crossed one long, elegant leg over another and dangled the tumbler from the fingers of her left hand, resting its wrist on her right knee. She stared at him as she swirled the amber liquid around in the crystal. She dragged her eyes languorously over his body, sizing him up like she was deciding what kind of mount she’d like for the handsome new trophy that had come in through the door. Her gaze lingered, until she seemed to be looking through him as the liquor continued its regular orbit of the tumbler-bottom. He shuddered uncomfortably, then decided to be the bigger man.

“Um…hello?” He straightened up and waved at her like she was catatonic.

“Mum? Is there a problem?” He felt Sarah shift her weight behind him.

Carol slowly smirked, as if she had a secret. “No, no problem, just checking for signs of intelligent life.” Her voice was all smiles and warmth.

Oh, this is perfect. Just fucking perfect. “Well I…um…” he paused, trying to choose his words as neutrally as possible, and defaulted to, “I’m glad to meet you too, I guess.”

She laughed. At him. “Oh, I’m sorry, where are my manners?”

“You left ’em in the plaster.” Sarah leapt to his defense, which buoyed Jeremiah’s mood a bit. He turned back to her to thank her somehow, but Carol’s voice blew past him.

“You’re being a brat, little one.” He caught the movement out of the corner of his eye and moved to follow it. Without moving her scotch glass or any of the rest of her body, Carol had reached her right hand out to the end table and seized on something Jeremiah hadn’t noticed before. Long and black with a little leather strap on the end of it. A riding crop. What the hell…

Jeremiah didn’t have a chance to finish the thought. Sarah stood halfway up and stuck her sweats-covered ass at Carol, who snapped the crop sharply enough that it must have left a welt.

“Thank you, ma’am.” Sarah sat back down and wiggled in her seat like a little girl, but her voice was dripping and sultry. The incongruity sent Jeremiah reeling again.

“You’re welcome. Now, behave.” Agog, Jeremiah returned his attention to Carol, whom he found leaning towards him and extending her right hand. “You must be the one Sarah’s been talking about all day. Jeremiah, right? I’m Carol. Pleased to meet you.”

Now this, he recognized. A handshake. He could cope with a handshake. He took her hand and shook it firmly. “I didn’t even hear about you until she invited me.”

“I just had to make sure that…” Sarah started to explain herself, but Carol cut her off.

“Don’t worry about that. Sarah’s a stickler for the secret handshake, but don’t let it fool you. We’re a lot more relaxed than we let on.” Carol winked at him. Friendly? Flirting? Trying to make him feel comfortable? He didn’t know how to take it. Maybe it was just road fatigue—especially after speaking this afternoon. He didn’t do well with this amount of activity in one day.

“I wouldn’t have guessed.” He needed to move the conversation to something he understood. He looked Carol up and down for ideas, and his eyes lit on her drink. It looked like a whisky, and he thought he’d seen her pouring scotch at the bar. He hazarded a guess and gestured to her glass. “Dewar’s?”

Behind him, he thought he heard a low “Uh-oh” from Sarah.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you.” Carol blinked aristocratically, as if trying to politely ignore a fart.

“The scotch—Dewar’s?”

Carol raised her glass to the light and looked through it carefully, then turned a steely gaze on him. “Blasphemer!”

“Oh, no…” Sarah, behind him, shifted her weight as she groaned. Jeremiah looked back at her to find her head buried in her hands, shaking ruefully.

“What did I…?” Jeremiah started. If he couldn’t read the secret language, he could at least give in and ask for an explanation, but he was cut off by a voice behind him.

“Did I hear somebody say Dewar’s?”

Jeremiah cautiously ventured, “Yes…”

He felt a firm, masculine hand grip him comfortingly on the shoulder. A tall, geeky looking black man squatted down next to him and pulled him into a huddle.

“The thing is, Jeremiah, you don’t actually want to use that word around here. It’s against the rules.” More rules?

“She didn’t say anything about…”

“Not the rules of conduct.” The man winked at him, then nodded back to Carol, who was moving to a recently vacated seat at the end of the couch, next to the cushion at Sarah’s back. “If you ask nicely I’m sure she’ll explain.” He stayed squatting, waiting for a reaction. Jeremiah could smell his cologne, just a slight bit. Cinnamony.

Jeremiah shifted his weight so he was facing Carol again, trying to ignore the spice scent and roll with the conversation.

“Okay…Carol, what are these rules…the rules?”

“Ah ha! Well, since you ask nicely…” She took a sip of her drink and pulled herself up to perfect posture, like a schoolmarm. “If you’re going to drink scotch, you have to follow the rules. The rules are as old as the highlands that the malt used to come from, as old as the tears of the moon that lit the fires under the first distilleries.” Jeremiah didn’t suspect that he’d walked into a madhouse anymore. He knew. What had Sarah been thinking, inviting him up here? “They guide the palate of all who worship at the grand tumbler. They have frequently been confused with other rules, such as those governing who may be executed, leading to great harm among those who misapply them. To know them is to follow them, and you must be willing to open your mind to understanding. Do you really wish to know?”

Jeremiah shifted his weight a little bit, so that he’d be ready to roll to his feet and run if things got any creepier. “Umm…sure. Okay.”

Sarah touched his shoulder lightly, making him jump. “That’s a little vague.” She was teasing him. Well, that was typical. “Are you sure?”

He was going to roll with this, goddammit. He was going to do his damnedest right up until he walked over and picked up his bag and drove home. In the morning. After he’d gotten a little rest.

“Okay, fine. Yes, yes, I want to know. Jesus…”

“You’re gonna wanna take notes.” Sarah had leaned forward so that her head was next to his, and she nodded at Carol. “She gives pop quizzes.”

“Very well,” Carol continued. “The rules for scotch are ones you may have heard before. They are the same as the rules for women. If you wish to have one, you must select one with these qualities.” She set down her tumbler on the end table and started ticking off the rules on her fingers. “It must be unpolluted. It must be individualistic. It must be bold. It must be as mature as you can possibly afford, and under no circumstances may it be under twelve years old. Follow these rules, and you will never have an unpleasant experience, except through overindulgence.”

A riddle. He could do riddles. He’d read The Hobbit in high school. Carol didn’t look much like Gollum, but she was creepy enough to fill the role. Jeremiah thought for a moment, turning the rules over in his mind to decipher them. “So, you’re telling me…let’s see…unpolluted. Like, with no ice or soda? Neat? Straight?”

“Neat, yes. If it was straight, then it wouldn’t be the same as the rules for women, now, would it?” She reached out and ran her fingers over Sarah’s ear and arched an eyebrow at him to emphasize her point. Sarah purred next to him under the fleeting ministration. Sarah?

Jeremiah plunged blindly onward. “Okay…let’s see. Individualistic…independent? Single? Like a single malt? Why not just say ‘single’ or ‘unblended?’”

“Well, a woman doesn’t have to be single to be nibblable. She just has to be available according to the rules she’s chosen to live by.” Sarah spoke patiently, as if she were trying to bring him up to speed without being a bitch about it. Okay, so they’re into the whole hippie free love thing. Fine.

The man who started this merry-go-round—what the hell was his name, anyway?—jumped into the fray again. “And unblended…that’s awfully racist, isn’t it?”

“Okay, fine. Independent. Single malt. Got it.” Jeremiah clamped down on his exasperation and turned his attention back to the riddle. “Bold is easy. It has to have a distinctive flavor.”

“Indeed.” Carol nodded magnanimously.

“And aged twelve years or more.” He wasn’t quite comfortable with where this analogy seemed to be going “That’s obvious, too.”

“That part is very important.” This guy must be a professor. He had that kind of “arrogant prick” way of explaining things. “Scotch aged less than twelve years is harsh and doesn’t have much character. It has no idea what to do with itself.”

Sarah giggled next to him. “Just like girls.”

What the fuck? “You people are perverted!” Did these people honestly think it was okay to fuck twelve-year-olds?

“Tut-tut.” Carol wagged a chiding finger at him. “Deviated preverts, please.”

“We’re not really preverts, we just play them on TV.” The guy obviously thought that was a comforting thought, but Jeremiah couldn’t shake the feeling that he should just stand up and leave. He looked askance at Sarah. She’d set all these weirdos straight.

Maybe not. She just smirked at him and said, “If you don’t like it, you’ll have to answer to the Coca-Cola company.”

Jeremiah shook his head, trying to clear out the insanity. “Fine. Whatever.”

“Really, we’re not that scary, I promise.” The man still squatting next to him proffered his hand, “I’m Kevin. Kevin Walden.”

Jeremiah cautiously took his hand and shook it. “Jeremiah Evans.”

“Evans?” Kevin looked questioningly at Sarah.

“No.” Sarah set him straight. “Not even close.” Jeremiah and Sarah got that all the time. They didn’t look a thing alike, but working in the show together, having the same last name, everyone always thought they were either brother and sister, or married. Kevin shrugged and dragged a floor pillow over, plopped his ass down in it and faced Jeremiah. The guy obviously wanted to keep talking, and so far, as irritating as he was, he was the most normal guy in the room. And he smelled like cinnamon. Jeremiah shifted his body to shut Carol out.

“So, Kevin, what keeps you busy?”

“Worrying about the future of humanity, trying to make it a little better. You know, the usual stuff.”

Worried about humanity? This was someone he could talk to. “Really? It’s good to meet you!”

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Chapter 2
E Minus Ten, Evening

The fire was finally doing its job. Katy shrugged out of the top of her coveralls and tied the arms around her waist, then reached for her goblet again. Her thin tank top didn’t trap the heat like the battered denim.

“…and at that point, the teacher found out…” Katy raised her glass to her lips. When she got nothing out of it, she fixed it with a vexed glare. “Eh, I’m in the mood for a chewier wine anyway.”

She swung her legs over the arm of the couch and tumbled to her feet, then looked back at Amos as she strode to the kitchen, pulling him behind her with the power of the delayed punchline.

Edelle had put them in the fridge to chill, somewhere on the middle shelf behind the…ah, no. Top shelf behind the milk. She seized the tub-full of wined grapes and snaked them out from between the tottering condiment bottles. Between Edelle and Carol and Kevin, the fridge was packed with a dozen in-progress culinary experiments.

She could nearly feel Amos breathing down her neck, so she turned around and popped a chardonnay-pickled seedless in his mouth and continued her story. “So I was like, ‘No, no, no. I said sects.’” She raised an enigmatic eyebrow at him.

“The nuns didn’t buy it.”

“Not a chance. They took me right up to the head of the class and whipped me raw.” Katy cringed internally at the memory, but it was worth it to see Amos wince.

“Scarred you for life?”

“I’ll show you later if you like.” Amos raised his eyebrows and nodded to himself, as if it weren’t a half bad idea, at that. She knew perfectly well he wouldn’t take her up on the offer— previous encounters showed her that his eyes tended to settle elsewhere in the group—but he never rebuffed her. He always played back, as if someday, something might just tease him out from behind the brick wall he kept built high around himself. He wasn’t what her mother would have called “socially acceptable” or “polite,” and he wasn’t a sweetheart, but she’d yet to walk away from him without feeling complimented. Katy idly wondered if Carol was going to get off her ass and do something about his settling eyes this week or not.

She winked and ducked around him to find a bowl from the cupboard. The scent of the grapes had her mouth watering all over again.

Amos set his empty pint glass down and pulled his stout frame up onto the counter. “So, the new class—you keeping your marbles so far?” Amos grabbed another chardonnay grape from the tub and popped it into his mouth, then leaned back as Gerd squeezed by.

“They’re wonderful. You’d love it. This semester it’s full of high schoolers humping for double credits.” Katy grabbed the tub from Amos and dumped the contents, chardonnay and all, into a serving bowl.

“It is not something I value much in history students, the naivety of youth.” Gerd reached past Katy and grabbed a plate from the still-open cupboard.

“Not in literature either. You wouldn’t believe the shit they fall for when they get fed Derrida or Foucault without any context.” Amos and Gerd—now, that would be an interesting fight. Katy considered keeping her mouth shut and watching them scrap for a bit, but as soon as the thought crossed her mind she discarded it. The two of them were of a depressingly similar mindset on the topic of students: Gerd didn’t seem to remember why he got into teaching in the first place, and Amos adjuncted as little as he could get away with and still make rent. She’d need to do a little more work to get the fur flying properly.

“Hey hey hey now, pick on someone your own size. Them’s my peeps you’re talking about, and they’re too dead now to defend themselves.” Katy crossed her arms indignantly. Leave it to a couple of materialists to beat up on the most important minds in artistic philosophy.

“I think you just made my point. Their theories are as dead as they are.” Amos popped another grape into his mouth and donned a self-satisfied grin.

“Watch it, nino, Gerd won’t stand for you beating up on his countrymen like that.”

Non, cheri, with Sartre they are the pestilence of Paris.” Gerd shook his head sadly at her.

“Oh, you’re no fun anymore.”

“You speak a bit early in the retreat, ne ce’st pas?”

“Hmph. Next time I want my French fix I’ll go to gay Paris and leave you stogedy old straight guys here to dump on it.” She popped a grape into her mouth and concentrated on the intense burst of sour-sweet dryness in order to keep her opprobrium going. It wasn’t easy with these two. Both of them outclassed her in academics, but she was miles ahead of either of them in horse sense, and was determined to get them to notice.

“Face it, Katy,” Amos’s eyes sparkled with restrained amusement, “they’ve had their bones picked dry by their disciples. They were irresponsible thinkers, and they’ve sown a lot of grief in a world that took them too seriously.”

“But in art such recklessness is good, is it not?” Now they’d get into it—Gerd the lover of life against Amos the truth whore. “All that passion, that anxiety, seeing it pushed full force in the flower of youth, rushing headlong into Technicolor tragedy? Not all that is beautiful is not wasteful.”

“If they direct it, sure. It’s good raw material. And it keeps me on my toes.” As Katy spoke, Gerd’s demeanor shifted. A look of concern crossed his face, and he stiffened. She followed his eyes and saw Amos.

Amos’s smile was gone. He seemed to stare blankly through Gerd for half a second, then he set his jaw unpleasantly and slid off the counter. Standing with his shoulders squared off like he wanted to throw a punch, he kept staring through Gerd as if he expected the larger man to raise his fists.

He whipped his gaze over to Katy, and mumbled, “You always were too patient for my own good. Excuse me.” Amos turned and marched quickly from the room.

Katy turned back to Gerd. “Is it something I said?”

Non, mon ami.” Gerd laid his hand on her shoulder, but continued looking after Amos. “It is not at you that he is angry.”

“I’ll go see how…”

Non. It will not help. Let him be, I will take care of him later.”

“Ah, the great international male code of silence.”

“It is a sacred brotherhood. Now, these students of yours…”

 

Kevin stood up, almost rudely, and walked over to the fire guttering behind the glass doors, stopping Jeremiah in mid-sentence. Ten minutes ago the dancer would have taken it as an insult, but Sarah was curled up against him and the afghan he had wrapped around his shoulders felt homey. Kevin wasn’t a graceful man, but he was lean and his broad shoulders were impressive even under his loose Oxford shirt. He was only nerdy looking from the neck up—and besides, he was an interesting guy and seemed to have some kind of a clue about the world. The whole retreat, as weird as it was, might turn out okay after all.

Still, when Kevin just stood up and walked over to the hearth, Jeremiah didn’t quite know what to do with himself. He grabbed his glass and took a sip of his soda water to buy some time.

“Sorry, Jeremiah, keep going. I just gotta throw a couple more carbon offsets on here to keep us all from freezing.” Kevin’s manner was gruff, but he had one of those gentle voices. He’d said he was a professor; he must have been a good one. He had a way of setting a guy at ease.

“Okay. So, anyway, that’s what I try to do,” Jeremiah warmed back up to his favorite subject, and set his glass down again. “But people just sit around while these corporate-stooge scientists are playing games with life.”

Kevin sorted through the wood pile, examining each log as if he were searching for something in particular. Jeremiah couldn’t tell what, and he bristled when Kevin mumbled a bland, “Appalling, eh?” over his shoulder at him.

Jeremiah trudged on while the lanky man tossed a pair of split pine wedges on the embers, and then lovingly deposited a eucalyptus log between them.

“It’s worse than that. They’ll turn life into just another product if we don’t rein them in now. And nobody in the media even reports on it.” Kevin closed the fire door and returned his full attention to Jeremiah. He trailed his fingertip idly down Carol’s neck and arm as he walked back to his seat, the heat following him back to the sofa. “Can you imagine what’ll happen when corporations can own the exclusive right to create the seeds for the food we eat?”

“Hmm.” Kevin scooped up his drink and collapsed again into his seat, burrowing down in and drawing the blanket back across his lap. “I thought they already did.” Sarah shifted her weight away from Jeremiah and leaned against Kevin’s legs, leaving Jeremiah feeling a little lost and naked.

She looked up at Kevin and smiled. “Warmer?”

“Thanks, it helps.” Kevin patted her on her shoulder and then turned his earnest gaze to Jeremiah and abruptly changed the subject. “Sarah tells me you’re quite a dancer.”

“Oh, that.” Jeremiah took another sip. “Thanks.” He smiled at Sarah. She smiled back at him. In the half an hour since he’d been here he’d seen her smile more than he had in the last three months of rehearsals. It looked pretty on her. “We’re rehearsing a rock version of the Three…um, the play that ‘Mack the Knife’ comes from.”

“The Threepenny Opera?”

“Right, that.”

Sarah glowed at him while she spoke to Kevin. “You should see him up there. He plays Mack, and he does these jumps in the final scene that you wouldn’t believe. He vaults off one girl’s shoulders and over four others.”

Jeremiah blushed. “It’s her choreography, I just try to keep from cracking my head open.”

“Impressive. I couldn’t move that way even when I was your age.”

The professor’s approval stroked him more than he expected it to, but he found that he didn’t mind it. It felt nice. He just couldn’t think of any good way to continue the conversation without looking like he was self-absorbed. Sitting on his pillow, Jeremiah tried to look as satisfied with the silence as he could, but Sarah spotted his discomfort and tried to get things moving again. He was beginning to like this off-hours version of her.

She looked up at Kevin and said, “How ‘bout that scary weather coming tomorrow? You got anything you need to get out of the car before we get buried in?”

“I’ve got everything I need already. But I think we’ll be fine.”

“Yeah,” Jeremiah jumped back in, determined to find the rhythm to impress Sarah, if nothing else. “There’s been a drought here for the last three years. We won’t get half the snow that big guy said we would.”

“I don’t know,” Sarah sounded like she was getting ready to tattle on him, “Gerd’s pretty reliable.”

Jeremiah shook his head. “The chances of this area ever getting that kind of snow again are pretty slim.” At least they were back on a subject he could actually talk about.

Kevin looked confused.

“Greenhouse effect. Global warming. You’re the physicist.”

“Oh, that. Yeah. I don’t know, we might be okay. I gave a symposium at Syngenta last year with a couple geneticists. They’re working on this algae that sucks CO2 right out…”

“Oh, come on, man. Don’t do that. It’s not cool.”

“Don’t tell me…You’re not just against GM crops, you’re against all biotech.”

“I’m against corporate biotech. Obviously there has to be some government research to help fight bird flu and AIDS and things.” Jeremiah shook his head. Kevin seemed like a smart fellow. He should understand this.

“And you’re worried about the state of the world’s poor?”

“Damn right.” What kind of question was that? “They’ve been ground under our imperialist heel long enough…”

“And you care about habitat destruction and species extinction?”

“Didn’t I just tell you…”

“So what kind of environmentalist are you?”

“What?” This wasn’t right. Jeremiah suddenly felt like he’d just run off a cliff after a roadrunner.

“Let’s take them in order.” Kevin took a sip of his scotch, then leaned forward and laid his palms open. “Without biotech crops, the world will keep losing topsoil and running thin on fresh water and ruining wetlands with fertilizer runoff…”

“We’ll find a way. The risks are too big: cross pollinating with real plants and ruining the environment, all of our food crops owned by mega corporations, and who knows what kind of cancers these things will cause? It’s too dangerous…”

“There are a lot of people in the world. What’s your alternative? How will they all eat?”

“It used to be that family farms could make their own way with natural seeds.”

“Natural seeds—you mean seeds that haven’t been altered by human action?”

“Yes.” Finally, he gets it.

“Look,” Kevin closed his eyes for a second and took a deep breath. “Dude, corn and wheat and oats and rice all used to be grass before humans started fucking with them. That kind of natural doesn’t exist.”

Jeremiah crinkled his brow and looked at Kevin with wounded eyes. Kevin was a college professor. He really seemed to care. The world needed people like him. What kind of corporate crap had he been reading? “What is your problem, man? You say you worry about the future, but you’re sitting here spouting all this corporatist shit…”

“Hmph. Corporatist, my ass. I do worry about the future. I worry about what will happen if more people start buying into the ‘good old days’ malarkey and the idea that somehow humans aren’t part of nature.”

“But we have to reduce our impact on other species.”

“I agree.” Kevin took another sip of his scotch, then another.

“Really?” Jeremiah felt like he was being led into another trap.

Kevin nodded earnestly.

“So what’s your malfunction?”

“Okay, here’s my problem. You’re against nuclear power, you’re against genetic engineering, you’re against nanotech, you’re against trade. You say you care about the health of the biosphere and the plight of the poor. Have I got all that right?”

“Yes.”

“My malfunction is that you can’t have all those things at once. It’s basic physics. You can’t get an increase in a system’s efficacy without increasing energy input into that system. It’s gotta come from somewhere. If they burn coal, it’s just going to pollute more.”

“That’s why we need wind and solar…”

“They’re nice. They can help,” Kevin inclined his head magnanimously, “but they can’t do the job on their own…”

“Not yet, but they’ll find something that’ll work…”

“They?” Kevin’s face screwed up like he was trying to understand a foreign language. “You’re against the corporations that would do the work. Even if the government funded everything, do you think all the implementation is going to be done in government or university labs?”

“I said I’m against corporate biotech. Why don’t you, you know, listen occasionally?” Jeremiah gripped his glass so tightly he thought it might shatter in his hands, but goddammit, this fucking guy just kept running around in circles.

“Okay, look. Without genetic engineering, poor farmers in the Amazon and Borneo will keep cutting down rainforest to find fertile ground instead of planting crops that can survive on the kind of soil they have—and even replenish it like clover does. Without nuclear power—or maybe geothermal—they’ll have to burn coal to get the energy to build industries to lift them out of poverty…”

“Wait, hold on. You grow that much more food and the population will explode…”

“So it’s better that people starve to death.”

“No, of course not—we have to help them become self-sufficient.” Jeremiah emptied the last of his glass and tried, very hard, not to slam it down on the table next to him.

“We do? Well, maybe you’re right. They’re too dumb to do it themselves…”

“I didn’t say that!” It was all Jeremiah could do to leap to his feet and slap him. Where did this corporatist fuck get off?

 

Kevin kicked himself. He should have known better. Some people were amenable to education, but the kid was taking this argument way too personally. He knew he should just drop it before it got out of hand. Back off. Try another track. Maybe something would get through.

“You’re right, I’m sorry.” Kevin took a breath, rolled his neck from side to side, and tried to shake off his irritation. “I get worked up about this stuff. Let’s go a different way. What about cloning and GM animals?”

“Are you kidding?” Jeremiah stared at Kevin, slack-jawed, as if Kevin had just suggested they barbecue a child for dinner.

“No, I’m not kidding. The animals we raise for food are one of the biggest sources of pollution and river poisoning and waste in the world…”

“We shouldn’t be raising animals for food in the first place! We don’t have any right to enslave and torture other creatures for our own ends. What makes us so special that we have the right to play God with plants and animals? The third…”

“What in the hell do you think makes rich westerners so special that they have the right to tell starving people in developing countries what industries they can build, or what food they can eat, or what pesticides they can use? Seems pretty racist if you…”

“Kevin!” Carol’s voice was sharp enough to stop a charging elephant. Kevin looked over to her seat. She wasn’t reclining anymore. She was sitting up and looking straight through him. He’d just leapt over the line; he knew it the moment the words were out of his mouth.. Fuck. “Manners!”

Kevin stood up, realizing belatedly that he was robbing Sarah of her back rest. He grabbed a pillow from the couch and tucked it behind her, trying to control his temper. “You’re right.” She was right. He knew it. He was battling wits with an unarmed opponent—always bad form. “I shouldn’t let idiots without a whit of real research under their belts get to me.”

Kevin stepped over Sarah and past Jeremiah. The kid muttered, “Fascist shill,” right on time, like he was reading from a script. No surprise. An object in asshole mode would stay in asshole mode unless acted upon by an outside force. Preferably one that behaved like a chainsaw.

The physicist stalked off to the far end of the living room where he broke out his easel and tried to center himself. He couldn’t paint when he was this wound up, and somehow working out on the weight bench felt like conceding. But he didn’t want the twerp knowing how close he’d come to wiping the floor with him, and he had to do something, so setting up was as good a pretext as any for cooling off.

He wished Carol would be more selective about the people she brought in. Last year there was the woman who stayed drunk half the week. The year before, there had been the couple that insisted on moralizing anytime anyone traded partners. Being open and welcoming was one thing, but when people piss all over your hospitality…

After the canvas, he inventoried his paints, and he sharpened his pencils. Maybe with a little judicious use of his protractor he could get a good angle on something. If this was going to go on again this year, he might have to leave early, and not come back next year.

 

“Is any of this safe to eat?”

Sarah didn’t hear, at first. She was too busy shaking her head and trading apologetic looks with Carol. She might be the baby of the group, but she didn’t fancy being the one who brought the party pooper to fuck up the retreat.

She didn’t notice Jeremiah’s pestering until Carol gestured toward him with her eyes.

“What?”

“This…” Jeremiah waved his left hand vaguely at the tray on the table, “Is any of it safe to eat?”

“Of course.” Like they were going to poison him. “Edelle made these especially for you.” She reached for the tray and grabbed a slice of beet. “You might even like ‘em if you pull the stick out of your ass.”

Jeremiah rolled his eyes at her. “You invited me. I don’t need to hear this shit from you, too. Used to be, people respected other people’s beliefs.”

“Okay, fine, I’m sorry. Jesus.” He was right, it wasn’t fair. Sarah had asked everyone to put him through the paces because she wanted to be sure about him, but the conversation with Kevin had gotten away from her before she could stop it. Maybe it was too much all at once. She hung her head for a moment to find her composure, then smiled at him and pushed a slice of beet to his lips. “Here.”

For a moment, he smiled back. She’d hoped he would. Looking into his dark, angry eyes and for almost twenty seconds, she saw something like tenderness. The same thing she saw in him when he danced.

Hola mis amigos!” And, of course, it all was cut short by a dive-bombing Katy. She plopped down on the floor pillow next to Jeremiah as if she’d flown there in the lotus position. “I heard there were fireworks. So, Sarah, who’s the new boy?”

“You saw him come in. What, am I supposed to introduce everyone now?”

“Ain’t my fault you brought the new people this year, cucaracha. And all of them so much fun!” Katy bumped Jeremiah playfully with her shoulder but with her attention rapt on Sarah, she didn’t notice Jeremiah shifting uncomfortably away from her. He was back to all prickles again. Damn.

“I didn’t bring Edelle…”

“Well, you seemed to know her.” Katy popped a beet slice in her mouth and raised an insinuative eyebrow in Sarah’s general direction.

“Only because I got here first and actually met people instead of spending all afternoon feeling up the host.” Katy conceded the point with a shrug. “Carol invited Edelle. Amos, too.”

Jeremiah butted in like an offended schoolmarm. “So, when’s the wedding?”

Katy leaned back and blinked at him like she was a cat whose dignity had just been insulted. “’Scuse me?”

“You’re like an old married couple.”

Understanding crept across Katy’s face like a conspiracy theory. “You mean she hasn’t…ah. Perdon. If Sarah won’t do the dirty work, I’ll have to do it for her. I’m Katy Sato.”

“Jeremiah Evans.” Jeremiah extended his hand and Katy took it. Sarah braced herself for the inevitable question.

“Evans? Secret husband?” Katy winked at her.

“Goddess, no,” Sarah laughed in spite of herself. “I never saw this beanpole before I cast him.”

“Must be impressive for you to drag him all the way up here.”

Sarah leaned forward and gave Katy a stage whisper. “I’ve heard epic rumors from the other boys in the show.” She glanced meaningfully at his crotch and gave her eyebrows a Groucho Marx waggle.

“Hello, I am here. I’m not on display in a store window.” Jeremiah’s body language had shifted, if it was possible, even further towards the uncomfortable end of the emotional gradient. Sarah fully expected him to have to resort to yoga positions next.

Katy, on the other hand, seemed to have different ideas. “Oh, don’t worry. Girls on top here, Jerry. You’ll get used to it.”

“Be careful, Katydid. He hates being treated like a side of beef.”

Jeremiah’s face wrinkled as he muttered, “Ugh. Fucking carnivore.”

“Tolerance goes two ways, you know.” Sarah wanted to thump him. He always was an asshole, but normally he had a sense of humor. He always rolled with the ribbing he got from the gay boys in the cast, and never seemed upset when they tried to sneak chicken into his food.

“Oh, yeah, your friends are all shining examples.” Jeremiah snatched his drink from the end table and slammed the rest of the brandy, then stood up and jumped over Katy, stalking over to the far corner of the living room. He stopped abruptly when he realized he was nearly eye to eye with Kevin.

The two of them stood for a second, as if trying to stare one another down, before Kevin waved magnanimously to a solitary antique chair next to him, then set down his box of paints and paced out the back door to the solarium.

Jeremiah seemed to shrink by three inches as soon as Kevin’s back was turned. He took two long steps to the old wooden seat and plopped down upon it in a heap of his own indignation.

Sarah sighed. He’d come around. She knew he would. But why couldn’t he just fucking relax? She pulled herself up onto the couch and leaned on the end table facing Katy.

Katy matched her, hopping from her perch on the floor onto the chair that Jeremiah no longer sat against. She pulled her legs under her thighs and looked around the edge of the wingback to make sure Jeremiah wasn’t looking, then turned back to Sarah and opened her mouth almost as wide as her eyes.

“Bit prickly, isn’t he?” Affecting the kind of shocked face Sarah would have if she walked in on her parents screwing, Katy pointed towards him like a second-banana mime. Sarah couldn’t help but giggle.

“Oh, give him a bit. He’s got his identity tied to this activism thing. He just came from a rally, so it’s on his mind. Give him a couple days, you won’t be able to keep your hands off him.”

“I can believe that. He’s gorgeous.” Katy snaked her head up to the edge of the wingback and peered around it again, mostly for Sarah’s benefit.

“Just wait till you see how he moves. He’ll give you something to sculpt.”

Katy leaned across the end table and kissed Sarah’s lips quickly, then followed it with a grape pushed firmly between her teeth. When the skin broke, Sarah couldn’t decide whether to relish the juice or complain that it was a grape rather than a tongue. Before she could make up her mind she felt Katy’s breath on her ear.

“Behave yourself or I’ll have Gerd spank you.” Katy pulled back and raised her eyebrows in an attempt to be toppy, but she couldn’t pull it off as well as Carol did.

“Oh no, ma’am, please don’t throw me into the brier patch.”

Katy stood up and rested her fingers on Sarah’s head, gently kneading at the scalp. “You’re an incorrigible little brat, aren’t you?”

Sarah purred. “Ah, but you love me that way.”

“Don’t let it go to your head, sweetie.” Katy patted Sarah’s head, then absconded while Sarah was still quivering from the attention.

When Sarah opened her eyes again, she found herself alone at one end of the conversation pit. At the other end, Carol, and Gerd conferred quietly in a way that reminded Sarah of old friends playing chess in a park, or old veterans from a shared field. She scooted down the couch and joined the circle, determined not to miss anything interesting.

 

The midwinter sun hung low in the western sky, sketching the dusky outline of the stone rampart separating the central valley from the coast. Carol’s front porch wrapped around the side of the house, overlooking a gorge cutting deep through the mountains and the foothills below, providing a view all the way to the other side of the valley.

Amos pulled the cold air deep into his lungs, holding it and letting them ache.

On the coast, the light would be just right to scatter flower petals on the waves and watch them float out to sea on the rip currents. Here, there was no movement but the breeze sweeping up off the warmer valley floor and across the mountainsides already buried months-long under the snow. The Earth waited patiently for its springtime awakening. Looking out over the barren land in the failing light, he wondered if spring could bring back the fertility that had fled with the madness of October.

The cold felt right. He pulled his coat tight about his body and lost himself in the dusky yellow orange. Darkness would come soon enough. The time of day when he best blended in. But dusk was a close second, when the sky glowed dimly with the last light of day, leaking the color of regret in deep blue shadows over the land.

Regret? Or was it guilt? Was there any difference between them?

The muted cacophony in the house at his back opened up full for a moment, as he heard Sarah lamenting in full Sarah Bernhardt melodrama, “That poor horse!”

Amos heard the front door close again, and he looked to his left in time to see Gerd stride purposefully around the corner, wrapped up in an overcoat and hat. The Frenchman wore a smile and shook his head like a father trying too hard not to laugh at his child’s latest off-color joke. Before Amos could pipe up with a, Really, I want to be alone, Gerd was at his side.

Mon dieu, but it can be crowded in there!” The larger man chuckled and reclined against the rail at an arm’s distance.

Amos nodded and looked back out at the sunset. The orange glow fading into deep blue marked the day’s slow death. “It can.” The temperature was dropping fast now. The snow which had melted under the sun and made the roads wet would freeze soon, making even the most careful drive back down to the highway foolish. Any thought Amos had of writing the retreat off as a bad idea was gone until tomorrow.

Not that he really had anything to go back to. It was just that his reasons for staying didn’t seem to measure up to his desire to be alone, cocooned in grief’s embrace with his word processor.

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Gerd studying him, but he did his best to ignore it. The passing of the day was a sacred thing. A little-death that deserved its own moment of silence as the retreating light painted the sky with the colors of its defeat.

The Frenchman reached into his coat pocket. “Tell me, my friend,” he produced a pair of cigars and shimmied the first of them out of its wrapper. “How is it that a writer is a man of so few words?”

“It happens.”

Gerd’s left hand, with practiced efficiency, sorted through the items on his key chain until it came upon a punch cutter. A twist of his fingers, and the round blade deployed from the end of the small cylinder. He sank it into the foot of the first cigar. “Perhaps you spend them all on the page, oui?” Gerd held the cigar out to Amos.

Despite having seen more or less what Gerd was up to, it took Amos a moment to realize that the man was offering him a smoke—and a very nice one at that. A Fuente Opus X Churchill. “Oh,” Amos started a bit, then accepted the cigar and ran it under his nose. It smelled vaguely of vegetation, dark chocolate, and cow dung. He smiled and signaled his thanks with a dip of his brow. “Maybe we do, at that.”

Gerd clamped a second Churchill gingerly between his teeth and produced a box of matches from his coat pocket, handing them to Amos. “I find always that the matches are the best for the cigars, do you not? No chemicals to cloud the taste.” Amos nodded at Gerd’s appraisal and struck one against the side of the box. With the relaxed confidence of an old hand he warmed the end of the cigar over the flame before putting the cigar in his mouth and sucking, just a bit. He rotated the rolled tobacco over the flame until the end was evenly lit.

“Mmm…” Amos blew solidly through the cigar once to clear the tar, then took one long drag, filling his mouth with the blue and coating his tongue with the bold, dark stew of earthy flavors. “Yeah. The wood’s just more burning vegetable matter. They go together.” He handed the matchbox back to its owner.

“Oui, it is true.” Gerd, with more practiced grace than Amos dared hope he’d possess at the man’s age, lit his own cigar quickly. For a moment, they both contented themselves with blowing short-lived clouds of blue in the cold air, until the silence slid from companionable to stilted.

“So, Gerd, what brings you up to this little soirée?”

“You must be joking, my friend. I would not miss it, not if the world fell down around me.” Gerd’s gaze swept from Amos and out to the valley below, where the distant electrical fires of Redding flickered to life.

Amos followed his gaze and smoke into the night. “That’s pretty devout.”

“Maybe. But Carol, I have known her since she was my student, and never does she age except to grow more lovely. The mind of the razor, and the playfulness of the tiger she has, mais oui?”

“Ha! Good description.”

“And you? What brings you up into these mountains, away from your beloved coastal waters?”

“Well, you’ve met Carol. You really need to ask?” Amos took another long pull from the cigar. The flavors in his mouth danced between coffee and vegetable.

“Indeed, indeed. Katy, she tells me you have spent much time with Kevin and Carol, yet you have not been to the retreats before.”

“It was never the right time. This year, well…all the pieces were in the right place. It was time.”

Gerd rested one hip on the handrail and leaned back against a column. He chuckled and shook his head. “Your riddles are no less perplexing in person than they are in your books, my friend.”

“Glad I don’t disappoint.” Amos blew another cloud of blue at the last flash of disappearing orange. All that was left of the day now was a phosphorescent blue over the western horizon. “It always disappears so fast.”

Oui. It does.” Gerd’s voice seemed to come quietly, as if whispered from miles away.

“A lot can happen in the dark. Voices. Faces.”

“The darkness out there will never swallow up the darkness a man carries with him.”

Amos nodded. “No, it won’t. But it blends.” There wasn’t a point in playing evasion games. The Frenchman was a perceptive bastard, and he obviously wanted Amos to feel at home. Problem was, home was the last place Amos wanted to feel. He inclined his head to Gerd, something he hoped looked like thanks, or deference. “Thanks for the Fuente. I’m gonna take a walk before it gets too cold.”

The cigar perched between his thumb and forefinger, Amos strode past Gerd. Halfway down the drive, he heard the man’s voice calling after him “Mind the ice.” He waved without looking back, continuing forward out of the driveway lights and into the darkness of the mountain road.

 

As the author left the drive, Gerd took a final pull on his own cigar before perching it on the edge of the handrail to burn out. He couldn’t help wondering whether Amos would return from his walk. There was something missing when Gerd looked in his eyes. Something dead and rotting at the heart of the man.

A frigid wind blew up from the valley and cut through his overcoat like it wasn’t there.

He could hear Sarah’s voice carousing inside, the sound of youth without pretense. Gerd turned his back on the cold, the dark, and the writer who haunted both, and returned again to the warmth within.

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Chapter 3
E Minus Ten, Night

The solarium had not been in Carol’s original plans. Actually, if Kevin remembered correctly, she’d ordained it for an early demolition as soon as the weather broke in the spring. Carol’s stint as an English teacher in rural Japan had given her an unnatural love of hot tubbing in the cold and snowy, and the solarium “fucked with her chi” on that point. Next year they’d all be damned to cold-footing it through hell to get to this little slice of heaven.

This year, the brickwork floor was warm under the domed glass roof and walls, concentrating even the heat of a winter day nicely enough that Kevin could still walk barefoot at dusk here. And that was just fine with him.

He hopped up and down a couple times, trying to get a good wind to center himself. He stripped his shirt off and hung it on the towel rack, then stalked over to the spa. The cover slid off with far less effort than he put into dislodging it.

The activity didn’t actually help at all, but the quiet was good. Away from the overused and overvalued vocal apparatuses of moronic overgrown teenagers, he at least didn’t have to deal with any more irritation.

Back at the towel rack he kicked off his shoes and was reaching for his belt buckle when he caught a shadow out of the corner of his eye. He looked over at the doorway to see Edelle leaning against the jamb in her plaid and jeans.

She just stood there, not saying anything, looking at him as if she were expecting him to speak.

“Um…hi.” He stood with his belt half open, waiting for her to show some sign of what she wanted.

“Hiding?” Edelle seemed to have an inimitable ability to use her tongue like a razor. Actually saying the word ‘coward’ probably would have blunted her meaning.

“No. Gonna jump in the spa for a few minutes to cool off.” He pulled his belt out through the loops and tossed it on the rack.

“Of course.” She clearly thought he was completely full of shit. “That’s what everyone uses hot water for.”

“Call it counterintuitive thermodynamics. Hot water makes you mellow out.” He hooked his thumbs in his waistband and slid his jeans and jockeys off together, throwing them on the rack with the rest of his clothes.

“Hmph.” If contempt had a tune, it would have been called ‘Edelle.’ “Well, I hope it works.” She was pissed about something.

“Hm? Oh, that. Sorry I lost my cool. I have a low moron tolerance.” Kevin grabbed a towel off the rack and slung it across his shoulders.

“You must have a high jerk tolerance to look in the mirror every day.”

Right for the jugular. Gotta love it. Kevin shook his head ruefully at her. “I’m used to people with thicker skin.”

He turned away from her and started for the spa.

“Good euphemism.”

Kevin dipped his hand in to check the temperature. “Perfect.” He cast a glance back at Edelle, “Want to join me?”

“Ha.” He couldn’t be sure, but Kevin thought he heard an actual laugh under her derision. “Dream on.”

Kevin slid down into the water and let it close over his head, grounding himself in its heat. He broke the surface, hearing the splashing sounds echo emptily off the solarium’s ceiling and walls.

He hadn’t come here to hide out in a hot tub with no company, dammit. He dealt with smarmy, self-satisfied moronic kids who thought they could buy the secret of the universe from Oprah’s book club every day of the week. It was part of his job. If he could deal with that, he could deal with this. Jeremiah was an idiot, but he was one idiot in a room full of people who were anything but.

“Fuck this.” Kevin pulled himself out of the tub and dragged the rough side of the towel across his skin. The light had gone in the few minutes he’d been in the tub, so it took him some stumbling about to find his clothes.

 

Patting Sarah on the head to reassure her that she was a good pet, Katy grabbed a beet slice off the tray and snaked her way out of the conversation pit and over to where Jeremiah sulked in his shroud of magnificent melancholy.

Even though he’d been prickly and humorless, Katy couldn’t help but give him an extra reach-around. His skin alone was enough for a good swoon or two, and his arms were taut and spindly like they’d been sculpted of twine layered painstakingly on a wire skeleton. All of his limbs were long enough to cocoon a woman so that she was being hugged from all sides, and he moved with an unselfconscious grace that only a dancer could manage, even when he was pouting.

Nobody should allowed to be that pretty, but even so, she hated seeing him lonely. Katy, at least, remembered when she was the new girl at the party six years ago, and she remembered how confusing the first plunge had been—and she had already known Sarah and Carol at the time.

The chair Jeremiah sat on had a matched companion sitting along the opposite wall between two bookshelves. Katy carried it across to where Jeremiah sat, set it down next to him, and set herself on top of it. She unceremoniously shoved the beet into Jeremiah’s field of view.

“Nothing ups the spirits like a good fried beet.”

Jeremiah took it from her and chucked it into a nearby trash basket without looking at her. “They’re rancid.”

“We can talk to Edelle, figure out what you like.” Katy trod lightly. He was clearly far more upset than she thought.

“I brought my own food. I’ll find a place for it in the fridge, I guess.”

“Whatever suits. We want you to be comfortable.”

Kevin entered from the solarium and found a seat on the sofa next to Sarah.

“Eh. I shouldn’t have come.” The dancer continued to look straight ahead, talking to her out of the side of his mouth like she was the angel on his shoulder. “This isn’t my scene.”

Katy leaned towards him and spoke quietly. “Look around.” She nodded at the crowd. Sarah lay across Kevin’s lap as he rubbed her back while she, Edelle, and Carol gabbed pleasantly. “They’re good people. It’s a warm group. You’ll fit right in.”

“Not from where I’m sitting. You guys all know each other. I don’t mind being the odd man out now and then, but a punching bag on my vacation? Fuck you very much. I oughta head down to Yosemite tomorrow and go packing.”

“I’ll tell you a secret.” Katy leaned closer and dropped her voice to a whisper. “We’re all the odd man out. Look at Edelle over there. She’s a journalist, travels with missionaries and reports on the third world. They keep her on the fringes at her church because she’s a fine art photographer in her spare time.” The winter wind blew in from outside as Gerd entered once again. He moved to the sofa to assist Kevin in his massage duties. “They can’t stand what she does. She wants to get married and have kids, but she’ll only marry another Christian, and none of the ones she’s met will have her. Well, not the ones she likes, anyway.

“Gerd, over there with Sarah. Top of his department. Brilliant historian. He’s about to lose his tenure. Lost his wife ten years ago in a fire, with his two kids, in the Paris riots.” Katy laid her hand on Jeremiah’s shoulder tentatively. When he didn’t flinch, she pushed ever so gently to direct his gaze past the woman he obviously lusted after and toward the queen bee holding court.

“Carol there? Best selling steampunk writer in the world. She doesn’t know much of anyone who isn’t a fan. You’ve been on stage—imagine if the only relationships you had were with fans. It feels good for about three days, then you begin to wonder if you’re really a person, or if you’re some kind of bulletin board for people to pin their hopes to.

“And Amos…hmm…can’t see him right now, he must be in the other room. But you remember him from earlier, right?”

“Yeah.”

“You saw how he sits apart from the group, always holding back?”

Jeremiah raised a wry eyebrow. “He’s not even in the room.”

“See? Well… it’s his first year, too, but I’ve bumped into him a few times. He used to be the life of every party I saw him at. Now he’s got something on his mind…nobody knows what.” She stroked his back lightly, hoping to soothe him a bit before she brought up a sore topic. “And Kevin, you met.” As she expected, Jeremiah grunted like a dog turning his nose up at a rotting steak. “Well, he’s a brilliant physicist, and he paints like a god. Lives in a world that doesn’t have time for painters anymore—only place he could go is New York, but he doesn’t have the stomach for the gallery business. His grant writers are really conservative, don’t approve of artsy-fartsy types in their endowed chairs.

“And Sarah…well, you know Sarah.”

“Yeah. Sometimes I wish I didn’t.”

Katy clicked her tongue disapprovingly. “Oh, she’s a sweetheart. Most tender soul you’ll ever meet.”

The spindly dancer turned towards Katy and looked at her like he was trying to look through her. “You haven’t seen her barking orders.”

“If you don’t like her, why did you come?”

Jeremiah dropped his eyes to a point on the floor somewhere in front of them and studied it intently. He moved his mouth uselessly a couple times, as if to explain, then he gave up and contented himself with contemplating the carpet, his eyes furtively glancing at the back of the couch where Sarah lay. Katy smiled to herself—it was exactly as she’d suspected.

“Oh. Well, you may have come to the right place. She relaxes up here. There might be time…”

“Yeah, right. I get shit every day from her. Get shit all the time, for what I do.”

“The activism thing?”

“It’s not a ‘thing.’ Just because a guy cares enough not to go through life mindlessly consuming everything…”

Katy couldn’t keep from laughing. “If you’re looking for people who will coddle you for being righteous, or who’ll praise you for your courage when they think you’re nuts, you’ve come to the wrong party. But if you want a few days away from the world, surrounded by people who will give you a decent argument and still respect you in the morning, then you’ve come to the right place.” She opened her mouth and tossed a grape in, making sure he noticed as she chewed it to bits.

“Eh.” He shrugged. “It’s too late to drive back tonight, anyhow.” He straightened in his chair as if he’d made a decision, then he looked at her. “And how about you? What’s your story?”

“Oh, now that would be telling, wouldn’t it?” Katy popped another grape and winked at him.

 

The air, still like crystal near the ground, howled just thirty feet up in the trees. The lee of an outcropping protected Amos as he leaned against it about a hundred yards down the road from the house, the air cold and sheltered enough for his smoke rings to spin and hang for little snatches of eternity. They seemed to hold back the darkness for a moment, like a baby’s first laugh echoing through the emptiness of the winter forest.

Amos drew the cigar sparingly, wanting to keep it smoldering as long as he could. So long as he had it, he had a reason not to go back inside where he might be smashed again by some careless comment. He didn’t have a right to be angry about it, but if he had ever harbored doubts that English was a thoroughly brutal language, they were gone. The last week had taught him that.

The mountainside behind him felt like a towering guard. He pushed himself off the rock and walked away, going nowhere in particular. Above him, in the narrow avenue between the treetops, he could see the universe retreating above him. He couldn’t decide whether its size was a promise of possibility, or an embodiment of futility.

 

For Jeremiah, something about hearing eighty-year-old music in this gaudy museum of a house seemed to fit. It wasn’t just that the vaulting made every note sound sweet, they made it sound like they came swinging at him straight from Louis Armstrong’s trumpet. Except this wasn’t Louis Armstrong. This was better. This was Billie Holiday. Her voice echoed off the high ceilings like chants in a cathedral, and Jeremiah sat deep in the sofa, remarkably unaware of the fact that it was covered in leather.

Katy had prevailed upon him to give the group one more try, and as soon as he’d grudgingly assented, she had put Billie on the stereo and started dancing. It wasn’t long before Carol joined her, and the two of them fox-trotted to Billie’s voice like old lovers reunited after years of separation. He almost didn’t feel Sarah sit down next to him until he heard her voice in his right ear.

“Beautiful, aren’t they?” Her voice was all smiles but he barely heard the words, and his answer came as if his body were talking while his mind floated somewhere between his eyes and the women on the floor.

“Yes. Yes, they are.”

Sarah’s waved her hand in front of his face. He started and looked at her. “Are you having fun yet, Jeremiah?”

“It…” He thought for a second. After she’d been such a snit to him, he didn’t actually expect her to ask. But he was adaptable. He could roll with it. “It takes some getting used to. We’ll see.”

Still, he couldn’t help smiling when he stole another glance at Carol and Katy dancing together. The way they were caught up in one another’s eyes, lost in the music, made even this ghoulish place seem warm.

“I’m glad you came. I’m sorry I was a bitch earlier.” Sarah’s voice came through the fog again, and Jeremiah thought he said something like, “Don’t worry about it,” but he couldn’t have sworn to it.

The song wound up, and Katy and Carol exchanged a friendly kiss before parting ways. When Katy turned back towards Jeremiah, her brow furrowed. Her eyes darted around the room, and she leaned sideways to get a good view of the kitchen. Not finding whatever it was she was looking for, she reached back for Carol, touching her on the shoulder.

“Carol, where’d Amos go?”

Carol’s head whipped around like a startled cat’s. When she saw that Amos wasn’t there, she appeared to mentally check the last time she’d seen him. “Oh, hell…”

 

Between the trees, in the furtive breaks between the thickening, low clouds, the black fell forever above Amos. It didn’t really give him much of a sop for the pus his heart was oozing, but it did help. Something about the smallness of a man against all that was out there. Something about the possibility all that space presented. Something out there tugged at him in a refreshing way. Different than the way that life’s hooks yanked at the underside of his heart.

The curling of the pines and redwoods that lined the road carried the sound of soft-soled shoes up to him from dozens of yards away. He knew her gait without looking. She was the last person he wanted to talk to right now. She could see him, and he was out here in the dark because he didn’t want to be seen.

“I know.” He didn’t need to hear what she had to say. He knew. But it didn’t stop her from saying it anyway.

“It’s getting cold in there without you.”

Amos closed his eyes against Carol’s voice and pulled a social face from his repertoire. “Well, I did wear my handy-dandy uranium underwear today, guaranteed to warm up anyone within fifteen feet.”

“Right. So, come on. You’re driving up my heating bill.”

Amos shook his head and smiled. She’d made it through to him again, just like he’d been afraid she would. But he found that he didn’t really mind, after all. The night was as good shared as taken alone. He walked towards her and took her hand in his, walking with her beneath the dancing stars, but he didn’t look at her. He was still looking at them. Always up. Carol didn’t fail to notice.

“They are beautiful tonight.”

“They’re always beautiful,” he agreed. “Always out of reach.”

Their footsteps shuffled steadily, slowly, the sound changing under the clouds. Carol leaned against him. When he looked down at her, he saw her looking up past him as the last of the coming storm swallowed up the sky. The overcast pulled in, blowing low across the road and mingling with their breaths.

“It’s good to have something to reach for.”

“Yes,” he agreed. “Yes, it is.”

 

The house, if it had eyes, might have smiled when it saw Amos and Carol walking up the drive arm in arm. Had it breathed, it might have sighed with relief as the conflict brewing earlier in the evening washed away under the diplomatic hands of Gerd and Katy, each whispering one after the other into the right ears, convincing Jeremiah and Kevin and Edelle to let their guard down enough to see more of one another than just their spears. Had it listened, it might have eavesdropped with delight at the whispered flirtations, the word games, the laughter shared between old friends, and the hesitant daring moves into fresh conversations by the newcomers.

It might have done all of those things, or none of them, had it been able. But it wasn’t able.

Of course it wasn’t. It was just an ordinary house, standing on a commonplace mountainside in California’s high country, filled with a cadre of artists determined to spend ten days in civilized decadence.

And that was all it was, so far as anyone knew.

One by one, the guests traded tumblers for mugs, sipping herbal tea in hopes of staving off any potential revenge their bodies might inflict upon them for the first evening’s indulgence. As the hands on the clock wound round past midnight and on toward two, Gerd sat up from an impromptu nest of floor pillows and a crumpled heap of snoring Sarah, and announced the end of his evening. With the greatest possible dignity, he hauled his footballer’s frame to its feet and lumbered up the stairs to his room. Katy followed next, then Carol.

Jeremiah hung back until Kevin had gone, then helped Sarah to her feet and half-carried her up to her bed. He tucked her in, then reluctantly retreated out her door and found his own.

Edelle, sitting on her bed, set her chamomile down next to her Bible and slid between the sheets, praying only that sleep would find her quickly.

Amos was the last to give up on the fire. Carol had invited him along, but he wasn’t ready for her yet. He contented himself with losing his thoughts in the movements of the flames, trying to find some kind of cleansing in its heat, until finally it was only embers.

Exhausted as the fuel, Amos threw a new log on the fire, then he too found his room, his pillow, and his bed, falling asleep almost as soon as he lay flat.

Gerd and Sarah, diagonally across the hall from one another, snored in an alternating rhythm that gave the interior an aural texture just otherworldly enough to make a well-adjusted ghost feel right at home.

Nothing moved. Not a mouse. Not a fly. Not even a guest tossing and turning, or stumbling half-asleep to the toilet. In the whole house, barely a mite stirred. Slowly, a bit at a time, the entire estate slipped into a deafening, impenetrable silence.

The house was still.

Nothing stirred.

Not until the clock on the mantle slipped silently past four twenty-five, when a shadow moved in the living room’s wan night light.

The shadow walked lightly, careful that no step should make a sound. It reached beneath the longer of the two couches, finding its object by touch among the five slim laptops lined up neatly in the protected space.

It set the computer on the coffee table and opened the lid. The dark robe, colorless in the dark and the flickering yellow, shrouded the figure’s right hand as it moved over the keyboard. The dark screen sprang to life, displaying nothing more than a cursor.

The keyboard held its silence as login 81377bx52 appeared on the screen.

The computer seemed to contemplate this for a moment, and then returned a demand.

Thumbprint ID required to proceed.

The figure reached up to the screen and pressed its thumb to the LCD. A bright light, razor-narrow, scanned across it from left to right. An enlarged photograph of the thumbprint appeared progressively on the left side of the screen while the machine checked the breaks, scars, ridges, and whorls against the version stored with the ID.

Access Granted.

The screen blanked, and then Report appeared at top left.

Like everything else in the house, the keyboard was soundless as the shadow typed.

“Situation progressing faster than anticipated. Initiate protocol.”

A minute passed, then two, while the figure sat as if waiting for something. As the third minute passed, its patience was rewarded with a reply.

Understood. Please verify all elements are in place.

“All elements are in place.”

Level 10 access granted. Regular progress reports expected. TXP #8357. Protocol initiated.

The figure pressed the “Escape” key. The display flickered, then flashed the shutdown splash screen, and then blanked.

The figure retreated, and for the rest of the night, nothing else moved.

Not even a mite.

End of sample. ©2009 J. Daniel Sawyer, All Rights Reserved

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