“It might be a microbe,
a strand of lost nucleic acid,
a molecule of enzyme,
or a nameless hairless little being
with sharp gray eyes.
Whatever, once we have imagined it,
foreign and therefor hostile,
It is not to be petted.
It must be locked up.
I imagine the debate would turn on
how best to kill it.”
Excerpt from Lewis Thomas’
“The Lives of a Cell.”
Dutchess County, New York
CONALL FROWNS while depressing the clutch. That star’s too bright against the gloaming. It’s also moving. Not like an airplane or helicopter, or meteor, but as if it’s alive, arcing down through dark layers of storm clouds like a spark moving underwater, leaving an inverse, rippling trail behind.
Old, like his truck, and just as tired, he chugs to the shoulder in first gear, mesmerized like a deer by headlights, trying to figure out what on Earth this can be, but before he can draw another breath, he realizes it’s careening, wild, and out of control, straight to where he sits in his idling pickup. The next instant, he’s rocked by the shock of impact a couple hundred yards away. Waterlogged pasture slows the object’s trajectory, grass, soil and water rising like a curtain, yet momentum keeps it tumbling forth for long moments before lodging, upended, in the muddy field, spewing smoke, char and hissing flame.
At the roar of twin jets overhead he cranes his neck and shields his eyes from the rain. Those are military jets, from the sound of them, hidden by heavy clouds, followed by three streaming, bright-headed worms of light; flares, falling to mark the location of the crash.
This is something big, isn’t it?
Strangely calm, Conall coughs against that worrisome rattle in his chest. As the deluge thunders down around him he turns up the cranky heater, squinting between smudgy wiper passes for movement from the wreckage. Why he’s staying, he’s not sure.
So much for getting groceries tonight.
Then he sees it. He’s surprised, to be honest, that anything could have survived such an impact. The fragile-looking figure which emerges looks like a hippie, with conspicuous long white hair. No military pilot, that’s for sure. After letting something down onto the ground, it gazes around, then looks up into the rain, obviously disoriented. A few, unsteady paces later it abruptly collapses. There’s no more motion, except for that nervous little animal which had been set down earlier. A dog, Conall supposes, or maybe a cat. Some sort of pet, worried for its master.
He frowns again, bewildered by his lack of fear, not sure if he should offer assistance. It’s the cold war, after all; he should find a telephone somewhere, call the police, not get more involved than that. He tells this to himself as he eases the Chevy off the pavement and carefully drives across the field, as close to the wreck as he can safely get, and again as he slogs, sodden and cold, through the downpour. The distressing sight before him, laying prone, fragile and alarmingly inert under the pelting rain, somehow slips right through his defenses, piercing his heart. Blinking rain from his eyes, squatting beside the stranger, yards from the queer, fawn-colored little craft, out there alone in the wet hay-field, he carefully turns the frail body over. His vision blurs, but not from the rain. Memories of his lost son roughen his voice as a tidal-wave of unhealed grief closes his throat.
“My stars, my stars, what’s this, now? You’re just a lad…” Conall looks discretely around to be sure they’re unobserved. Thankfully, few souls were as foolhardy as he’d been, venturing out in this storm. Satisfied no one’s watching, he opens the passenger-side door and returns to the foundling, lifting him gingerly and carrying him carefully back across treacherous, uneven ground as that bedraggled little creature (a fox, perhaps,) struggles in alarm to keep up.
Cranking the heat as high as it will go, he belts the odd boy safely into place, dark pools from the lad’s clothes seeping into the worn bench seat plaid. Surprisingly, that little creature manages to climb aboard without assistance and slips under the seat at the boy’s feet, like a ferret into a burrow.
Well, his granddaughter should take to the animal, anyway, whatever it is. Her reaction to the lad, though, and this disruption of her already insular and sullen life, is anybody’s guess. Conall knows he should pull those clinging wet clothes off the boy the minute they get home, to dry and warm him faster, but she’s never seen any boy naked, as far as he knows. Lord knows what they’ll find if they undress this one. She doesn’t need more trauma in her life. Best to not scare her.
But regardless of Caroline’s sensitivities, he can’t very well just leave this boy, injured and unconscious, out here in the driving rain, can he? Or, that wee beastie, either. And he feels compelled to protect this boy, even if he doesn’t know why.
Starting the cranky old truck, Conall drives miles farther along the slick road until he finds a place where he can pull over and think. As the chop of helicopters fades in the distance, he looks in the rear-view mirror at the road behind them, satisfied his tires have washed themselves clean against the glistening pavement and he won’t be traced back by muddy tracks.
There is no one following.
Heart thudding, he stares for a long time at this pale, long-haired waif, trying to use his head rather than his heart. But everything is already changed. “Oh, well. In for a penny, in for a pound, aye?” he says to himself. “C’mon, then.”
Rain’s coming down hard again, weak sun setting low. Conall makes a careful U-turn and heads back to the farm.
if strangers meet
Merciless and bitter, the rain crashes down, hard, drilling the little house with frigid needles, torrentially. And also, vengefully. Yes, thinks Caroline O’Conner, staring through her much-hated, sixteen-year-old reflection; with a vengeance.
She doesn’t sigh, but she scowls. Dramatically. Which is her usual expression most days. She’s feeling sorry for herself again, although she doesn’t think of it that way. She’s a monster who caused her parents’ deaths. No forgiveness. She should be dead.
As guilt threatens to consume her, she segues into her other favorite lament; why can’t she be a pretty girl? No wonder she never goes anywhere, won’t even leave the house. What boy could actually love this slouchy, plain-Jane misfit? She forces herself to straighten up for a second, but why bother?
Maybe she should just go ahead and die.
Standing by the drafty living room window, watching the narrow drive wind away and fade, darkly, into a muddy river, is making her all the grumpier. There, that’s a good word, says her inner editor. Darkly. Here’s an even better one; darklier, the muddy river winds away into the ominous, vengeful night.
Too bad Caroline isn’t as amused by her wordplay as she could be.
With a shiver she sits by the low fire, gets back up and wanders nervously back and forth, blocking the corner lamp’s glare against the glass each time to see out again through that grim-faced girl staring back. As the growing roar fills her ears, she clutches herself against the cold, worrying now over the roof, and the very few dry logs left beside the hearth.
She frowns, searching the dark for headlights. Nothing, yet. Which is, paradoxically, a relief.
Since she's still alone, with no prying grandfather eyes to worry about, she pushes her knitted sleeve up her arm to examine the ache beneath; the broken red line she’d scratched there, hard, with a sharp-ended broken stick. The rage inside her sometimes has to claw its way out, and the only place to turn with it is herself. Somehow, her fury and grief are assuaged by the pain of self-punishment. If she manages to draw blood, so much the better, but usually the result is nothing more than swollen draw lines. So far.
Next time, maybe she’ll do it for real. But knives and razor edges scare her. Sharp, organic sticks, somehow, do not.
She’d thrown the stick into the fire.
There it is - a gray dribble bursts from the ceiling and begins nudging between the floorboards. Of course; another broken thing that won’t get fixed. What else can go wrong? She watches the leak helplessly, crinkling her nose. The little house smells of damp, of neglect.
Where is he?
Finally, she heaves a sigh of relief; her grandfather’s old pickup is laboring up the weather-pitted driveway, spraying wet arcs from beneath its tires, ten-thousand raindrops touched with light from his high-beams. Quickly smoothing her sleeve back down (there’s the guilt, again,) she strains to see through the dark as he parks.
Why he isn’t rushing in with his armful of groceries?
When the driver’s-side door swings open, he calls to her over a great, wet gust and her scowl returns. Really? Go outside, into that? Why should they both get wet?
But she pulls her cardigan snug anyway (if with a martyred sigh) and reluctantly swings the living room door open, gasping in icy shock under the stinging-sharp deluge. Deep tremors shake her as she leans in to see.
Fiddling with something in the passenger seat, Grandpa barks, “Go ‘round, help me get ‘im out.”
What? Ugh, what did he do, pick up a hitchhiker? Can’t the guy let himself out? But when she sloshes around and hauls open the heavy door she freezes, disoriented by the unsettling figure slumped there. Under the faint overhead light, it's obvious how frail and exotic-looking the passenger is, awkward, skinny, his long, pale hair dark with wet.
He also looks about to die.
She pulls back warily.
“Come on, Lass, get moving.” Grandpa’s hurrying around to help.
The passenger’s skin and clothes are clammy under her fingers. She wants to run away, but it’s too late to back out. He’s somehow familiar, now that she’s touched him. Her world has changed because of it. She isn’t used to this, having anyone’s body this close as she tries, weak with adrenaline, to lift him. It makes her uncomfortable, but not as uncomfortable as she’d expected. Maybe it’s just the urgency of it all. An eerie spasm of lightening etches it into her sight; dark blood caked in his hair; tawny clothing singed all along his left side. She jumps as the Earth shakes in reply, but can’t wrest her eyes from him.
How strange he is!
Grandpa's making impatient motions in her peripheral vision. Letting go her embrace, Caroline grasps at the boy’s arms, thinking to pull him, but the loose fabric is slippery, so she repositions her hands, cold and wet, skin on skin. Seeing her fumble, Conall wearily takes her place while, instead, she hoists up the boy’s legs. Together they wrestle the frail body into the rain, under the strobing sky.
A small golden creature appears on the step bar of the truck, drops to the ground and begins darting about in concern. Stumbling in surprise, Caroline struggles to regain her balance, mumbling to the stranger, “Sorry, I’m sorry…”
Grandpa leads the way through the storm.
With a screech the flimsy screen door swings shut behind them. As they lay the boy, carefully, onto the well-worn couch before the fireplace, she’s told, “Get some warm blankets for him.” Grandpa’s winded, she can tell. She knows she needs to get the towels, but she’s just standing there, transfixed, quaking with cold, staring at this odd, unconscious person stretched out on their furniture.
A look from her grandfather sends her scurrying obediently for the hall closet.
Now, frantic pawing and scraping erupts in a growing ruckus outside the door. Heavily, Conall gets back up to let in that nervous and flighty, wet little golden wisp. After wobbling for a moment in indecision, the bedraggled animal flits past him, looking urgently about with alert, dark eyes. Finding its owner, it leaps onto the couch to curl defensively on the stranger’s chest, shivering, watching them suspiciously while pinning its large, fringed ears. A tiny, whimpering growl, a mewling, arises from its furry throat.
“Warm up some broth for the lad.” Conall firmly shuts the door and reaches for the blankets.
However, Caroline is wavering, hugging the blankets childishly as another rumble rattles the house. The little beast is glaring at her steadfastly in warning, although the fervent threat seems, frankly, rather empty. Still, Caroline can’t help but stare in confusion at the pair of short, slender black horns on its head. “What is that?”
“But what is that? I’ve never --?”
“I said, go on, now.” Gazing somberly at their guest, he slips the blankets from her grasp, draping them gently over both boy and beast. The wee animal’s timid protests are muffled, its glinting eyes hidden. The little lump quivers in silent defeat. “Now, Lass. He’ll need it when he comes around.”
In the kitchen, the bulky gas stove lets forth a tiny burst of heat. Caroline heightens the blue flame, takes out some frozen chicken broth and lumps it into the pan, watching it melt. There’s ominous quiet as shifting winds blow the rain away from the kitchen wall. In this lull, she can think, listening to the quiet gurgle of soup on the stove. What’s just happened to her carefully insular life? As much as she doesn’t want to go back in there, she wants the soup to be just right for the stranger.
The torrent comes rattling furiously back against the windows.
The broth’s starting to smell good.
When she returns, carefully holding the steaming soup level, Grandpa’s breathing wetly, muttering, “There, there,” and dabbing at the ugly wound on the boy’s temple with a damp washcloth. She has to get uncomfortably close to it all so he can take the steaming bowl unsteadily from her hands.
“Grandpa, you’ll catch a cold, like that.” Her own hair, heavy with rainwater, is dripping icily down the side of her face. “I’ll watch him for you, okay? Go change those wet clothes before you get sick. Please.”
Conall’s sparse hair guides a single droplet down its ashy length to touch his flushed skin. There was a time when his hair was thick, and full, and dark reddish-blond. He still sees himself that way, in his mind’s eye. Running a hand around the back of his neck, “I can take care of myself you know.” His grumble is unconvincing, and he relents under her imploring gaze. “Well, keep an eye on him, will you? And make sure he stays warm. Soon as he wakes up, force some of that broth into him. Make sure it’s hot, though. Will you do that?”
Dropping the blood-darkened cloth into a sudsy pail, he leans on her shoulder as he rises, coughing as he heads back to his room.
Her own blood is one thing, but the sight of someone else’s is making her a woozy. Even so, she takes Grandpa’s place warily beside the young man, who’s beginning to stir with little ripples of cold. Shivering as a bitter wind bats at the windows, she finds herself tugging the quilt higher over his trembling shoulders. What’s she thinking? She just doesn’t touch people. She doesn’t even know this boy, and, anyway, it’s dangerous to get too close to anyone, because if you do, you only lose them, anyway.
Still, she watches him in fascination -- until the little corner lamp flickers and blinks out. With a cuss under her breath, she gets up and shoves another of the precious logs into the fire.
Ugh! How she hates the stinging, musty scent of anything burning!
Even as bright flames throw healing radiance against him, glancing and skittering unpredictably in a draft, the boy is wracked by cruel spasms. “Grandpa –” Hearing the panic in her own voice just makes her weaker. She listens hard for Grandpa’s reply, only to hear him snoring soundly, and she frowns again; he seems to be sleeping so much lately. At the drop of a hat, she recites to herself for the umpteenth time. Guess it’s up to me.
Feeling very alone, and ill-equipped, she takes a shaky breath and kneels beside the boy, bravely steadying his knobby shoulders. It doesn’t feel so strange now, not so intimidating, since she’s touched him before. But she’s bothered by the sooty film his garment transfers to her hands, and she tries to wipe it off onto her jeans. He’s dressed so strangely, as if he’d been caught out in the storm in soft pajamas now wringing wet with dark smoke. What’d happened to him?
That’s when the storm surges, wickedly, and she yelps, shrinking closer to the boy at the sharp splintering crack at the front door, and the ruckus of branches slamming the roof as thunder shakes the floor. The lights, the heat, the hum from the ‘fridge, all go dark, and silent; someone’s flipped a switch to stop the world. Now the soundtrack of the storm rages without competition, the assault glorious in detail, with no inside noises to muffle it.
Gradually, though, everything relaxes, the clutter of noise and pressure in the air thinning, as if the world is exhaling a great breath. The storm’s winding down, it almost isn’t a storm, anymore. Now she can stop worrying.
Exhausted, she pulls a chair beside the couch, still feeling the sting of her scabbing inner arm, but also aware of reassuring breathing noises, the comfortable crackle of flames, dim shapes and shadows and amber light spreading across the walls. Fresh, earthy smells of wet soil and vegetation wind through the musty odors of old wallpaper and furniture.
When’s the last time she noticed them, these sharp/deep/bright scents, the taste of the air, the depth of the darkness – the dimensionality of everything? It’s as if the world’s grown richer – or, she suddenly has sharper senses. Like a wolf, or a deer. Everything around her is more complex, and, somehow, new to her, as if she’s suddenly seeing her familiar surroundings through someone else’s eyes.
The stranger’s stilled from his torment; his face is now free of pain.
How odd he is; small and slim, probably not much older than she – but she really can’t tell. In some ways he seems much older now that she’s looking at him up-close. His gypsum skin, high cheekbones, slightly convex nose, the chiseled sweep of his jaw, defined and boyishly masculine, make him look foreign. Smooth hair falls in feathery white bangs across his forehead, but she knows from seeing him in the truck it’s long in back. He also smells pleasantly of something light and complex – sandalwood? Yet, lingering traces of smoke about his body -- not wood smoke, but something darker, more bitter -- cause her to pull back, from him, and from the writhing memories awakening in Technicolor, and visceral; the calamity she’d been unable to contain, which she’s tried so hard to forget –
Tears smear the firelight. Grabbing the bowl of cooling broth, she flees to the kitchen.
Rousing from his uncomfortable nap, Conall listens through the sounds of the storm as the emphatic crescendos give way, gradually, to simpler, more precise rhythms. As he wakes, he rubs the ache in his neck and shoulder from where he’d sagged back, supported just enough by the uprights of the chair to fall asleep. He’d managed dream a little to the chorus of ghostly voices ringing from the downspout outside his window, but he’ll be paying for those few minutes of sleep with a crick in his neck for days now, maybe a week.
It was the light string of footsteps in the hall that woke him, and he follows their sounds until she’s brushed her teeth and clicks her door shut. That’s when he rises, checking the clock, raising his brows before wrestling off his shoes and sinking gratefully onto the mattress. With relief he stretches flat out on his bed.
He never would have expected it. Had Caroline really been sitting with that lad the entire time?
Through the delicate sonic-screen of drizzle, he listens for any other movement in the house; but all’s quiet. The unusual lad certainly needs sleep if he’s going to recover. In the morning he might have to rethink this impulsive decision – well, that’s a certainty, isn’t it? But now there’s something more to figure into the equation.
So, she’d naturally gravitated to that boy, willingly stayed to watch over him, for hours? No arguments, no questions? No fear? It would’ve been remarkable enough under normal circumstances.
Maybe he should go check on the lad, but his exhaustion’s too deep. Pulling the blanket higher, rolling onto his side with a great exhale, Conall closes his eyes again, willing his mind to stop swirling. He needs to be well-rested before watching the morning news.
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