Perched on a chair with two plump bed pillows to boost her, Angel extracted one crisp strip from her club sandwich and asked Tom, “Where's bacon come from?"


“You know where it comes from,” her mother said with a yawn that betrayed her exhaustion after a night with no sleep and too much drama.


“Yeah, but I wanna see if he knows,” the girl explained.


Fresh from sedative-assisted sleep, which hadn't ended until they were in the taxi between the hospital and the hotel, Angel had proved as fully resilient as only children could be when they still retained their innocence. She didn't understand how seriously Wally had been hurt, of course, but if the attack by Cain had terrorized her while she'd watched it from beneath her mother's bed, she didn't seem in danger of being permanently traumatized.


“Do you know where bacon comes from?” she asked Tom again.


“From the supermarket,” Tom said.


“Where's the supermarket get it?"


“From farmers."


“Where do farmers get it?"


“They grow it on bacon vines."


The girl giggled. “Is that what you think?"


“I've seen them,” Tom assured her. “My dear, you've never smelled anything better than a field full of bacon vines."


“Silly,” Angel judged.


“Well, where do you think bacon comes from?"


“Pigs!"


“Really? You really think that?” he asked in his flat voice, which he sometimes wished were more musical, but which he knew lent a sober conviction to anything he said. “You think something so delicious could come from a fat, smelly, dirty, snorting old pig?"


Frowning, Angel studied the tasty strip of meat pinched between her fingers, reevaluating everything she thought she knew about the source of bacon.


“Who told you pigs?” he asked.


“Mommy."


“Ah. Well, Mommy never lies."


“Yeah,” Angel said, looking suspiciously at her mother, “but she teases."


Celestina smiled distractedly. Since arriving at the hotel an hour ago, she had been openly debating with herself whether to call her parents in Spruce Hills or to wait until later in the afternoon, when she might be able to report not just that she had a fiancé, and not only that she had a fiancé who'd been shot and nearly killed, but also that his condition had been upgraded from critical to serious. As she'd explained to Tom, in addition to worrying them with the news about Cain, she'd be stunning them with the announcement that she was going to marry a white man twice her age. “My folks don't have one ounce of prejudice between them, but they sure do have firm ideas about what's appropriate and what's not.” This would ring the big bell at the top of the White Family Scale of the Inappropriate. Besides, they were preparing for the funeral of a parishioner, and from personal experience, Celestina knew their day would be full. Nevertheless, at ten minutes past eleven, after picking at her breakfast, she finally decided to call them.


As Celestina settled on the sofa with the phone in her lap, hesitating to dial until she worked up a bit more courage, Angel said to Tom, “So what happened to your face?"


“Angel!” her mother admonished from across the room. “That's impolite."


“I know. But how can I find out 'less I ask?"


“You don't have to find out everything."


“I do,” Angel objected.


“I was ran over by a rhinoceros,” Tom revealed.


Angel blinked at him. “The big ugly animal?"


“That's right."


“Has mean eyes and a horn thing on its nose?"


“Exactly the one."


Angel grimaced. “I don't like rhinosharushes."


“Neither do I."


“Why did it run over you?"


“Because I was in its way."


“Why were you in its way?"


“Because I crossed the street without looking."


“I'm not allowed to cross the street alone."


“Now you see why?” Tom asked.


“Me you sad?"


“Why should I be sad?"


” 'Cause your face looks all mooshed?"


“Oh, Lord,” Celestina said exasperatedly.


“It's all right,” Tom assured her. To Angel, he said, “No, I'm not sad. And you know why?"


“Why?"


“See this?” He placed the pepper shaker in front of her on the room-service table and held the salt shaker concealed in his hand.


“Pepper,” Angel said.


“But let's pretend it's me, okay? So here I am, stepping off the curb without looking both ways-"


He moved the shaker across the tablecloth, rocking it back and forth to convey that he was strolling without a care in the world.


"-and wham! The rhinoceros hits me and never so much as stops to apologize-"


He knocked the pepper shaker on its side, and then with a groan put it upright once more.


"-and when I get up off the street, my clothes are a mess, and I've got this face."


“You should sue."


“I should,” Tom agreed, “but the point is this. . .” With the finesse of a magician, he allowed the salt shaker to slip out of the concealment of his palm, and stood it beside the pepper. “This is also me."


“No, this is you,” Angel said, tapping one finger on the pepper shaker.


“Well, you see, that's the funny thing about all the important choices we make. If we make a really big wrong choice, if we do the really awful wrong thing, we're given another chance to continue on the right path. So the very moment I stupidly stepped off the curb without looking, I created another world where I did look both ways and saw the rhinoceros coming. And so-"


Holding a shaker in each hand, Tom walked them forward, causing them to diverge slightly at first, but then moving them along exactly parallel to each other.


"-though this Tom now has a rhinoceros-smacked face, this other Tom, in his own world, has an ordinary face. Poor him, so ordinary."


Leaning close to study the salt shaker, Angel said, “Where's his world?"


“Right here with ours. But we can't see it."


She looked around the room. “He's invisible like the Cheshire cat?"


” His whole world is as real as ours, but we can't see it, and people in his world can't see us. There're millions and millions of worlds all here in the same place and invisible to one another, where we keep getting chance after chance to live a good life and do the right thing."


People like Enoch Cain, of course, never choose between the right and the wrong thing, but between two evils. For themselves, they create world after world of despair. For others, they make worlds of pain.


“So,” he said, “you see why I'm not sad?"


Angel raised her attention from the salt shaker to Tom's face, studied his scars for a moment, and said, “No."


“I'm not sad,” Tom said, “because though I have this face here in this world, I know there's another me-in fact, lots of other Tom Vanadiums-who don't have this face at all. Somewhere I'm doing just fine, thank you."


After thinking it over, the girl said, “I'd be sad. Do you like dogs?"


“Who doesn't like dogs?"


“I want a puppy. Did you ever have a puppy?"


“When I was a little boy."


On the sofa, Celestina finally worked up the courage to dial her parents' number in Spruce Hills.


“Do you think dogs can talk?” Angel asked.


“You know,” Tom said, “I've never actually thought about it."


“I saw a horse talk on 'TV."


“Well, if a horse can talk, why not a dog?"


“That's what I think."


Her connection made, Celestina said, “Hi, Mom, it's me."


“What about cats?” Angel asked.


“Mom?” Celestina said.


“If dogs, why not cats?"


“Mom, what's happening?” Celestina asked, sudden worry in her voice.


“That's what I think,” Angel said.


Tom pushed his chair back from the table, got to his feet, and moved toward Celestina.


Bolting up from the couch-“Mom, are you there?"—she turned to Tom, her face collapsing in a ghastly expression.


“I want a talking dog,” Angel said.


As Tom reached Celestina, she said, “Shots.” She said, “Gunshots.” She held the receiver in one hand and pulled at her hair with the other, as if with the administration of a little pain, she might wake up from this nightmare. She said, “He's in Oregon."


The inimitable Mr. Cain. The wizard of surprises. Master of the unlikely.


Chapter 76


“BOILS."


In a stolen black Dodge Charger 440 Magnum, Junior Cain shot out of Spruce Hills on as straight a trajectory to Eugene as the winding roads of southern Oregon would allow, staying off Interstate 5, where the policing was more aggressive.


“Carbuncles, to be precise."


During the drive, he alternated between great gales of delighted laughter and racking sobs wrought by pain and self-pity. The voodoo Baptist was dead, the curse broken with the death of he who had cast it. Yet Junior must endure this final devastating plague.


“A boil is an inflamed, pus-filled hair follicle or pore."


On a street a half mile from the airport in Eugene, he sat in the parked Dodge long enough to gingerly unwind the bandages and use a tissue to wipe off the pungent but useless salve he'd purchased at a pharmacy. Although he pressed the Kleenex to his face so gently that the pressure might not have broken the surface tension on a pool of water, the agony of the touch was so great that he nearly passed out. The rearview mirror revealed clusters of hideous, large, red knobs with glistening yellow heads, and at the sight of himself, he actually did pass out for a minute or two, just long enough to dream that he was a grotesque but misunderstood creature being pursued through a stormy night by crowds of angry villagers with torches and pitchforks, but then the throbbing agony revived him.


“Carbuncles are interconnected clusters of boils."


Wishing he had left the gauze wrappings on his face, but afraid that the airwaves might already be carrying news of the bandaged man who had killed a minister in Spruce Hills, Junior abandoned the Dodge and hurriedly walked back to the private-service terminal, where the pilot from Sacramento waited. At the sight of his passenger, the pilot blanched and said, Allergic reaction to WHAT? And Junior said, Camellias, because Sacramento was the Camellia Capital of the World, and all that he wanted was to get back there, where he'd left his new Ford van and his Sklents and his Zedd collection and everything he needed to live in the future. The pilot couldn't conceal his intense revulsion, and Junior knew that he would have been stranded if he hadn't paid the round-trip charter fare in advance.


“Ordinarily, I'd recommend that you apply hot compresses every two hours to relieve discomfort and to hasten drainage, and I'd send you home with a prescription for an antibiotic."


Now, here, lying on a bed in the emergency room of a Sacramento hospital, on a Saturday afternoon only six weeks before the camellia festival, Junior suffered under the care of a resident physician who was so young as to raise the suspicion that he was merely playing doctor.


“But I've never seen a case like this. Usually, boils appear on the back of the neck. And in moist areas like the armpits and the groin. Not so often on the face. And never in a quantity like this. Really, I've never seen anything like it."


Of course, you've never seen anything like it, you worthless adolescent twit. You're not old enough to have seen squat, and even if you were older than your own grandfather, you wouldn't have seen anything like this, Dr Kildare, because this here is a true case of voodoo Baptist boils, and they don't come along often!


“I'm not sure which is more unusual-the site of the eruption, the number of boils, or the size of them."


While you're trying to decide, hand me a knife, and I'll cut your jugular you brainless medical-school dropout.


“I'm going to recommend that you be admitted overnight and that we lance these under hospital conditions. We'll use a sterile needle on some of them, but a number are so large they're going to require a surgical knife and possibly the removal of the carbuncle core. This is usually done with a local anesthetic, but in this instance, while I don't think general anesthesia will be required, we'll probably want to sedate you that is, put you in a twilight sleep."


I'll put you in a twilight sleep, you babbling cretin. Where'd you earn your medical degree, you nattering nitwit? Botswana? The Kingdom of Tonga?


“Did they rush you straight in here or did you arrange all the insurance matters at reception, Mr. Pinchbeck?"


“Cash,” Junior said. “I'll pay cash, with whatever amount of deposit is required."


“Then I'll attend to everything right away,” the doctor said, reaching for the privacy curtain that surrounded the ER bed.


“For the love of God,” Junior pleaded, “can't you please give me something for the pain?"


The boy-wonder physician turned to Junior again and assumed an expression of compassion so inauthentic that if he'd been playing a doctor on even the cheesiest daytime soap opera, he'd have been stripped of his actor's-union card, fired, and possibly horsewhipped on a live television special. “We'll be doing the procedure this afternoon, so I wouldn't want to give you anything much for the pain just prior to anesthesia and sedation. But don't you worry, Mr. Pinchbeck. Once we've lanced these boils, when you wake up, ninety percent of the pain will be gone."


In abject misery, Junior lay waiting to go under the knife, more eager to be cut than he would have thought possible only a few hours before. The mere promise of this surgery thrilled him more than all the sex that he'd ever enjoyed between the age of thirteen and the Thursday just past.


The pubescent physician returned with three colleagues, who crowded behind the privacy curtain to proclaim that none of them had ever seen any case remotely like this before. The oldest-a myopic, balding lump-insisted on asking Junior probing questions about his marital status, his family relationships, his dreams, and his self-esteem; the guy proved to be a clinical psychiatrist who speculated openly about the possibility of a psychosomatic component.


The moron.

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