Yet to continue this purge of the sharp and the blunt and the toxic was sheer madness. She would never harm Dusty. She loved him more than she loved life. She would die for him, as she knew he would die for her. You didn’t kill someone whom you loved that much.
Nevertheless, these irrational fears infected her, swarmed in her blood, bred in her bones, crawled in bacterial plenitude through her mind, and she was growing sicker by the second.
Skeet was sitting in bed, propped against pillows, pallid and sunken-eyed, his lips more gray than pink, and yet he had a tattered and tragic dignity, as though he were not merely one of the legion of lost souls who wandered through the ruins of this crumbling culture, but was instead a consumptive poet, living during a distant past more innocent than this new century, perhaps taking the tuberculosis cure in a private sanatorium, struggling not against his own compulsions, not against a hundred years of cold philosophies that denied purpose and meaning to life, but against nothing more than stubborn bacteria. A footed bed tray bridged his lap.
Standing at the window, Dusty might have been gazing at the night sky, reading his fate in the patterns of the lingering storm clouds. The prows and keels of the eastward-tacking thunderheads appeared to be filigreed with gold leaf, for they were uplighted by the luminous suburban sea above which they sailed.
In truth, the night transformed the glass into a black mirror, allowing Dusty to study Skeet’s colorless reflection in the pane. He expected to see his brother do something strange and revealing that he would not have done if he’d known he was being observed.
This was a curiously paranoid expectation, but it clung like a prickly bur, and Dusty could not shake it off. This odd day had brought him deep into a forest of suspicion that was formless and without object, though nonetheless disturbing.
Skeet was enjoying an early dinner: tomato-basil soup seasoned with chips of Parmesan, followed by rosemary-garlic chicken with roasted potatoes and asparagus. The meals at New Life were superior to ordinary hospital fare—though solid food came precut into bite-size pieces, because Skeet was on a suicide watch.
Sitting erect on the armchair, Valet watched Skeet with the interest of a born gourmand. He was a good dog, however, and though his dinner was overdue, he didn’t beg.
Around a mouthful of chicken, Skeet said, “Haven’t eaten like this in weeks. I guess nothing gives you an appetite like jumping off a roof.”
The kid was so thin that he appeared to have taken bulimia lessons from a supermodel. Considering how shrunken his stomach must be, it was difficult to believe that he had the capacity to pack away as much as he had already eaten.
Still pretending to be seeking portents in the clouds, Dusty said, “You seemed to fall asleep just because I told you to.”
“Yeah? Well, it’s a new leaf, bro. From now on I do everything you want.”
Dusty slipped his right hand into a pocket of his jeans and felt the folded pages from the notepad that he had found in Skeet’s kitchen. He considered asking about Dr. Yen Lo again, but intuition told him that this name, when spoken, might precipitate a second catatonic withdrawal followed by another frustrating, inscrutable dialogue similar to the one in which they had engaged earlier.
Instead, Dusty said, “Clear cascades.”
As revealed by his ghostly reflection in the window, Skeet did not even lift his gaze from his dinner. “What?”
“Into the waves scatter.”
Now Skeet looked up, but he said nothing.
“Blue pine needles,” Dusty said.
Turning from the window, Dusty said, “Does that mean anything to you?”
“Pine needles are green.”
“Some are blue-green, I guess.”
Having cleaned his dinner plate, Skeet slid it aside in favor of a dessert cup containing fresh strawberries in clotted cream and brown sugar. “I think I’ve heard it somewhere.”
“I’m sure you have. Because I heard it from you.”
“From me?” Skeet seemed genuinely surprised. “When?”
“Earlier. When you were.. . out of it.”
After savoring a cream-slathered berry, Skeet said, “That’s weird. I’d hate to think the literary thing is in my genes.”
“Is it a riddle?” Dusty asked.
“Riddle? No. It’s a poem.”
“You write poetry?” Dusty asked with undisguised disbelief, aware of how assiduously Skeet avoided every aspect of the world that his father, the literature professor, inhabited.
“Not mine,” Skeet said, as like a little boy he licked cream from his dessert spoon. “I don’t know the poet’s name. Ancient Japanese. Haiku. I must have read it somewhere, and it just stuck.”
“Haiku,” Dusty said, trying and failing to find useful meaning in this new information.
Using his spoon as if it were a symphony conductor’s baton, Skeet emphasized the meter as he recited the poem:
into the waves scatter
blue pine needles.”
Given structure and meter, the nine words no longer sounded like gibberish.
Dusty was reminded of an optical illusion that he had seen once in a magazine, many years ago. It was a pencil drawing of serried ranks of trees, pines and firs and spruces and alders, towering and dense and regimented, which had been titled Forest. The accompanying text claimed that this woodland concealed a more complex scene that could be perceived if you put aside your expectations, if you could make yourself forget the word forest, and if you could peer through the surface image to another panorama far different from the sylvan scene. Some people required as little as a few minutes to comprehend the second picture, while others struggled more than an hour before achieving a revelation. After only ten minutes, frustrated, Dusty had pushed aside the magazine—and then from the corner of his eye had glimpsed the hidden city. When again he stared directly at the drawing, he saw a vast Gothic metropolis, where granite buildings crowded one another; shadowy woodland paths between tree trunks had metamorphosed into narrow streets buried deep in a gloom cast by man-made cliffs of stone rising cold and gray against a bleak sky.
Similarly, new meaning arose from these nine words the moment that Dusty heard them read as haiku. The poet’s intent was evident:
The “clear cascades” were gusts of wind stripping pine needles off trees and casting them into the sea. It was a pure, evocative, and poignant observation of nature, which on analysis would surely prove to have numerous metaphorical meanings pertinent to the human condition.
The poet’s intent, however, was not the sole meaning to be found in those three brief lines. There was another interpretation that had profound importance to Skeet when he was in his peculiar trance, but he now appeared to have forgotten all that. Previously, he’d called each line a rule, although he hadn’t been coherent in his attempt to explain what conduct, procedure, sport, or game these cryptic rules governed.
Dusty considered sitting on the edge of his brother’s bed and questioning him further. He was inhibited by the concern that under pressure Skeet might retreat into a semi-catatonic state and might not easily wake the next time.
Besides, together they had been through a difficult day. Skeet, in spite of his nap and fortifying dinner, must be nearly as weary as Dusty, who felt clipped, ripped, and whipped.
Hammers, screwdrivers, saws, drills, pliers, wrenches, long steel nails by the fistful.
Although the kitchen was not yet entirely a safe place, and though other rooms of the house must be inspected and secured, as well, Martie couldn’t stop thinking about the garage, mentally cataloging the numerous instruments of torture and death that it contained.
At last, she was no longer able to maintain her resolve to stay out of the garage and to avoid the risk of being among its sharp temptations when Dusty eventually arrived. She opened the connecting door from the kitchen, fumbled for the light switch, and turned on the overhead fluorescent panels.
As Martie stepped across the threshold, her attention was first drawn to the Peg-Board on which were racked a collection of gardening tools that she had forgotten. Trowels. One pair of snips. A hand spade. Spring-action clippers with Teflon-coated blades. A battery-powered hedge trimmer.
A pruning hook.
Noisily, Skeet scraped the last traces of clotted cream and brown sugar from the dessert cup.
As though summoned by the clatter of spoon against china, a new private nurse arrived for the night shift: Jasmine Hernandez, petite, pretty, in her early thirties—with eyes the purple-black shade of plum skins, mysterious yet clear. Her white uniform was as bright and crisp as her professionalism, although red sneakers with green laces suggested—correctly, as it turned out—a playful streak.
“Hey, you’re just a little bit of a thing,” Skeet told her. He winked at Dusty. “If I want to kill myself, Jasmine, I don’t see you being able to stop me.”
As she removed the dinner tray from the bed and set it on the dresser, the nurse said, “Listen, my little chupaflor, if the only way to keep you from hurting yourself is to break every bone in your body, then put you in a cast from the neck down, I can handle that.”
“Holy shit,” Skeet exclaimed, “where’d you go to nursing school—Transylvania?”
“Tougher than that. I was taught by nuns, the Sisters of Mercy. And I’m warning you, chupaflor—no bad language on my shift.”
“Sorry,” Skeet said, genuinely chagrined, though still in a mood to tease. “What happens when I have to go pee-pee?”
Scratching Valet’s ears, Jasmine assured Skeet, “You don’t have anything I haven’t seen before, though I’m sure I’ve seen larger.”
Dusty smiled at Skeet. “From now on, it would be wise to say nothing but Yes, ma
“What is chupaflor?” Skeet asked. “You’re not trying to slip some bad language by me, are you?”
“Chupaflor means ‘hummingbird,’ “ Jasmine Hernandez explained as she stuck a digital thermometer in Skeet’s mouth.
In a thermometer-punctuated mumble, Skeet said, “You’re calling me hummingbird?”
“Chupaflor,” she confirmed. Skeet was no longer hooked to the electrocardiograph, so she lifted his bony wrist to time his pulse.
A new uneasiness slid into Dusty, as cold as a shiv between the ribs, though he couldn’t identify the cause. Not wholly new, in fact. It was the free-floating suspicion that earlier had motivated him to watch Skeet’s reflection in the night-mirrored window. Something was wrong here, but not necessarily with Skeet. His suspicion refocused on the place, the clinic.
“Hummingbirds are cute,” Skeet told Jasmine Hernandez.
“Keep the thermometer under your tongue,” she admonished.
Mumbling again, he pressed: “Do you think I’m cute?”
“You’re a nice-looking boy,” she said, as though she could see Skeet as he had once been—healthy, fresh-faced, and clear-eyed.
“Hummingbirds are charming. They’re free spirits.”
With her attention on her wristwatch, counting Skeet’s pulse, the nurse said, “Yes, exactly, the chupaflor is a cute, charming, free, insignificant little bird.”
Skeet glanced at his brother and rolled his eyes.
If something were wrong about this moment, this place, these people, Dusty was unable to pinpoint the falsity. The bastard son of Sherlock Holmes, born of Miss Jane Marple, would be hard pressed to find good reason for the suspicion that sawed at Dusty’s nerves. His edginess probably arose from weariness and from his worry about Skeet; until he was rested, he couldn’t trust his intuition.
In response to his brother’s rolling eyes, Dusty said, “I warned you. Two words. Yes, ma’am. You can’t go wrong with Yes, ma'am.”
As Jasmine let go of Skeet’s wrist, the digital thermometer beeped, and she took it out of his mouth.
Moving to the bed, Dusty said, “Gotta split, kid. Promised Martie we’d go Out to dinner, and I’m late.”
“Always keep your promises to Martie. She’s special.”
“Didn’t I marry her?”
“I hope she doesn’t hate me,” Skeet said.
“Hey, don’t be stupid.”
Unspent tears shimmered in Skeet’s eyes. “I love her, Dusty, you know? Martie’s always been so good to me.”
“She loves you, too, kid.”
“That’s a pretty small club—People Who Love Skeet. But People Who Love Martie—now, that’s bigger than the Rotary and the Kiwanis and the Optimist clubs all rolled into one.”
Dusty could think of no comforting reply, because Skeet’s observation was undeniably true.
The kid wasn’t speaking from self-pity, however. “Man, that’s a load I wouldn’t want to carry. You know? People love you, they have expectations, and then you have responsibilities. The more people who love you—well, it goes round and round, it never stops.”
“Love is hard, huh?”
Skeet nodded. “Love is hard. Go, go take Martie out for a nice dinner, a glass of wine, tell her how beautiful she is.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Dusty promised, picking up Valet’s leash and clipping it to the dog’s collar.
“You’ll find me right here,” Skeet said. “I’ll be the one in a body cast from the neck down.”
As Dusty led Valet out of the room, Jasmine approached the bed with a sphygmomanometer. “I need your blood pressure, chupaflor.”
Skeet said, “Yes, ma’am.”
That skewering sense of wrongness again. Ignore it. Weariness. Imagination. It could be cured with a glass of wine and the sight of Martie’s face.
All the way along the hall to the elevator, Valet’s claws ticked softly on the vinyl-tile flooring.
Nurses and nurses’ assistants smiled at the retriever. “Hi, puppy.” “What a handsome fella.” “You’re a cutie, aren’t you?”
Dusty and Valet shared the elevator with a male orderly who knew just the spot on the ears that, when gently rubbed, caused the dog’s eyes to take on a dreamy cast. “Had a golden myself. A sweet girl named Sassy. She got cancer, had to put her to sleep about a month ago.” His voice caught briefly on the word sleep. “Couldn’t get her to go for a Frisbee, but she’d chase tennis balls all day.”
“Him, too,” Dusty said. “He won’t drop the first ball when you throw a second, brings them both back, looking like the world’s worst case of mumps. You going to get a new puppy?”
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