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From her corner where she was sitting in bed doing math homework, Rebecca Bogner said, “We've only got four beds.”


“I'll sleep on the floor,” Laura said.


“This is against the rules,” Rebecca said.


Thelma made a fist and glowered at her.


“Okay, all right,” Rebecca agreed. “I never said / didn't want her to stay. I just pointed out that it's against the rules.”


Laura expected Tammy to object, but the girl lay on her back in bed, atop the covers, staring at the ceiling, apparently lost in her own thoughts and uninterested in their plans.


In the oak-paneled dining room, over an inedible dinner of pork chops, gluey mashed potatoes, and leathery green beans-and under the watchful eyes of the Eel-Thelma said, “As for why Bowmaine wanted to know if she could trust you alone . . . she's afraid you'll try suicide.”


Laura was incredulous.


“Kids have done it here,” Ruth said sadly. “Which is why they stuff at least two of us into even very small rooms. Being alone too much . . . that's one of the things that seems to trigger the impulse.”


Thelma said, “They won't let Ruth and me share one of the small rooms because, since we're identical twins, they think we're really like one person. They think they'd no sooner close the door on us than we'd hang ourselves.”


“That's ridiculous,” Laura said.


“Of course it's ridiculous,” Thelma agreed. “Hanging isn't flamboyant enough. The amazing Ackerson sisters-Ruth and moi-have a flair for the dramatic. We'd commit hara-kiri with stolen kitchen knives, or if we could get hold of a chainsaw ...”


Throughout the room conversations were conducted in moderate voices, for adult monitors patrolled the dining hall. The third-floor Resident Advisor, Miss Keist, passed behind the table where Laura sat with the Ackersons, and Thelma whispered, “Gestapo.”


When Miss Keist passed, Ruth said, “Mrs. Bowmaine means *ell, but she just isn't good at what she does. If she took time to learn what kind of person you are, Laura, she'd never worry about '*HI committing suicide. You're a survivor.”


As she pushed her inedible food around her plate, Thelma said, “Tammy Hinsen was once caught in the bathroom with a packet of razor blades, trying to get up the nerve to slash her wrists.”


Laura was suddenly impressed by the mix of humor and tragedy, absurdity and bleak realism, that formed the peculiar pattern of their lives at McIlroy. One moment they were bantering amusingly with one another; a moment later they were discussing the suicidal tendencies of girls they knew. She realized that such an insight was beyond her years, and as soon as she returned to her room, she would write it down in the notebook of observations she had recently begun to keep.


Ruth had managed to choke down the food on her plate. She said, “A month after the razor-blade incident, they held a surprise search of our rooms, looking for dangerous objects. They found Tammy had a can of lighter fluid and matches. She'd intended to go into the showers, cover herself with lighter fluid, and set herself on fire.”


“Oh, God.” Laura thought of the thin, blond girl with the ashen complexion and the sooty rings around her eyes, and it seemed that her plan to immolate herself was only a desire to speed up the slow fire that for a long time had been consuming her from within.


“They sent her away two months for intense therapy,” Ruth said.


“When she came back,” Thelma said, “the adults talked about how much better she was, but she seemed the same to Ruth and me.”


Ten minutes after Miss Keist's nightly room check, Laura left her bed. The deserted, third-floor hall was lit only by three safety lamps. Dressed in pajamas, carrying a pillow and blanket, she hurried barefoot to the Ackersons' room.


Only Ruth's bedside lamp was aglow. She whispered, “Laura, you sleep on my bed. I've made a place for myself on the floor.”


“Well, unmake it and get back in your bed,” Laura said.


She folded her blanket several times to make a pad on the floor, near the foot of Ruth's bed, and she lay on it with her pillow.


From her own bed Rebecca Bogner said, “We're all going to get in trouble over this.”


“What're you afraid they'll do to us?” Thelma asked. “Stake us in the backyard, smear us with honey, and leave us for the ants?”


Tammy was sleeping or pretending to sleep.


Ruth turned out her light, and they settled down in darkness.


The door flew open, and the overhead light snapped on. Dressed in a red robe, scowling fiercely, Miss Keist entered the room. “So! Laura, what're you doing here?”


Rebecca Bogner groaned. “I told you we'd get in trouble.”


“Come back to your room right this minute, young lady.”


The swiftness with which Miss Keist appeared was suspicious, and Laura looked at Tammy Hinsen. The blonde was no longer feigning sleep. She was leaning on one elbow, smiling thinly. Evidently she had decided to assist the Eel in his quest for Laura, perhaps with the hope of regaining her status as his favorite.


Miss Keist escorted Laura to her room. Laura got into bed, and Miss Keist stared at her for a moment. “It's warm. I'll open the window.” Returning to the bed, she studied Laura thoughtfully. “Is there anything you want to tell me? Is anything wrong?”


Laura considered telling her about the Eel. But what if Miss Keist waited to catch the Eel as he crept into her room, and what if he didn't show? Laura would never be able to accuse the Eel again because she'd have a history of accusing him; no one would take her seriously. Then even if Sheener raped her, he'd get away with it.


“No, nothing's wrong,” she said.


Miss Keist said, ' Thelma's too sure of herself for a girl her age, full of false sophistication. If you're foolish enough to break the rules again just to have an all-night gabfest, develop some friends worth taking the risk for."


“Yes, ma'am,” Laura said just to get rid of her, sorry that she had even considered responding to the woman's moment of concern.


After Miss Keist left, Laura did not get out of bed and flee. She lay in darkness, certain there would be another bed check in half an hour. Surely the Eel would not slither around until midnight, and it was only ten, so between Miss Keist's next visit and the Eel's arrival, she'd have plenty of time to get to a safe place.


Far, far away in the night, thunder grumbled. She sat up in bed. Her guardian! She threw back the covers and ran to the window. She saw no lightning. The distant rumble faded. Perhaps it had not been thunder after all. She waited ten minutes or more, but nothing else happened. Disappointed, she returned to bed.


Shortly after ten-thirty the doorknob creaked. Laura closed her eyes, let her mouth fall open, and feigned sleep.


Someone stepped quietly across the room, stood beside the bed.


Laura breathed slowly, evenly, deeply, but her heart was racing.


It was Sheener. She knew it was him. Oh, God, she had forgotten he was insane, that he was unpredictable, and now he was here earlier than she'd expected, and he was preparing the hypodermic. He'd jam her into a burlap sack and carry her away as if he was a brain-damaged Santa Claus come to steal children rather than leave gifts.


The clock ticked. The cool breeze rustled the curtains.


At last the person beside the bed retreated. The door closed.


It had been Miss Keist, after all.


Trembling violently, Laura got out of bed and pulled on her robe. She folded the blanket over her arm and left the room without slippers because she would make less noise if she was barefoot.


She could not return to the Ackersons' room. Instead she went to the north stairs, cautiously opened the door, and stepped onto the dimly lit landing. She listened for the sound of the Eel's footsteps below. She descended warily, expecting to encounter Sheener, but she reached the ground floor safely.


Shivering as the cool tile floor imparted its chill to her bare feet, she took refuge in the game room. She didn't turn on the lights but relied on the ghostly glow of the streetlamps that penetrated the windows and silvered the edges of the furniture. She eased past chairs and game tables, bedding down on her folded blanket behind the sofa.


She dozed fitfully, waking repeatedly from nightmares. The old mansion was filled with stealthy sounds in the night: the creaking of floorboards overhead, the hollow popping of ancient plumbing.


Stefan turned out all the lights and waited in the bedroom that was furnished for a child. At three-thirty in the morning, he heard Sheener returning. Stefan moved silently behind the bedroom door. A few minutes later Willy Sheener entered, switched on the light, and started toward the mattress. He made a queer sound as he crossed the room, partly a sigh and partly the whimper of an animal escaping from a hostile world into its burrow.


Stefan closed the door, and Sheener spun around at the sound of movement, shocked that his nest had been invaded. “Who . . . who are you? What the hell are you doing here?”


From a Chevy parked in the shadows across the street, Kokoschka watched Stefan depart Willy Sheener's house. He waited ten minutes, got out of the car, walked around to the back of the bungalow, found the door ajar, and cautiously went inside.


He located Sheener in a child's bedroom, battered and bloody and still. The air reeked of urine, for the man had lost control of his bladder.


Someday, Kokoschka thought with grim determination and a thrill of sadism, I'm going to hurt Stefan even worse than this. Him and that damned girl. As soon as I understand what part she plays in his plans and why he's jumping across decades to reshape her life, I'll put both of them through the kind of pain that no one knows this side of hell.


He left Sheener's house. In the backyard he stared up at the star-spattered sky for a moment, then returned to the institute.


Shortly after dawn, before the first of the shelter's residents had arisen but when Laura felt the danger from Sheener had passed, she left her bed in the game room and returned to the third floor. Everything in her room was as she had left it. There was no sign that she'd had an intruder during the night.


Exhausted, bleary-eyed, she wondered if she had given the Eel too much credit for boldness and daring. She felt somewhat foolish.


She made her bed-a housekeeping chore every McIlroy child •vas expected to perform-and when she lifted her pillow she was paralyzed by the sight of what lay under it. A single Tootsie Roll.


That day the White Eel did not come to work. He had been awake all night preparing to abduct Laura and no doubt needed his sleep.


“How does a man like that sleep at all?” Ruth wondered as they gathered in a corner of McIlroy's playground after school. “I mean, doesn't his conscience keep him awake?”


“Ruthie,” Thelma said, “he doesn't have a conscience.”


“Everyone does, even the worst of us. That's how God made us.”


“Shane,” Thelma said, “prepare to assist me in an exorcism. Our Ruth is once again possessed by the moronic spirit of Gidget.”


In an uncharacteristic stroke of compassion, Mrs. Bowmaine moved Tammy and Rebecca to another room and allowed Laura to bunk with Ruth and Thelma. For the time being the fourth bed was vacant.


“It'll be Paul McCartney's bed,” Thelma said, as she and Ruth helped Laura settle in. “Anytime the Beatles are in town, Paul can come use it. And I'll use Paul!”


“Sometimes,” Ruth said, “you're embarrassing.”


“Hey, I'm only expressing healthy sexual desire.”


“Thelma, you're only twelve!” Ruth said exasperatedly.


“Thirteen's next. Going to have my first period any day now. We'll wake up one morning, and there'll be so much blood this place will look like there's been a massacre.”


'Thelma!''


Sheener did not come to work on Thursday, either. His days off that week were Friday and Saturday, so by Saturday evening, Laura and the twins speculated excitedly that the Eel would never show up again, that he had been run down by a truck or had contracted beriberi.


But at Sunday morning breakfast, Sheener was at the buffet. He had two black eyes, a bandaged right ear, a swollen upper lip, a six-inch scrape along his left jaw, and he was missing two front teeth.


“Maybe he was hit by a truck,” Ruth whispered as they moved forward in the cafeteria line.


Other kids were commenting on Sheener's injuries, and some were giggling. But they either feared and despised him or scorned him, so none cared to speak to him directly about his condition.


Laura, Ruth, and Thelma fell silent as they reached the buffet. The closer they drew to him, the more battered he appeared. His black eyes were not new but a few days old, yet the flesh was still horribly discolored and puffy; initially both eyes must have been nearly swollen shut. His split lip looked raw. Where his face was not bruised or abraded, his usually milk-pale skin was gray. Under his mop of frizzy, copper-red hair, he was a ludicrous figure-a circus clown who had taken a pratfall down a set of stairs without knowing how to land properly and avoid injury. He did not look up at any of the kids as he served them but kept his eyes on the milk and breakfast pastries. He seemed to tense when Laura came before him, but he did not raise his eyes.


At their table Laura and the twins arranged their chairs so they could watch the Eel, a turn of events they would not have contemplated an hour ago. But he was now less fearful than intriguing. Instead of avoiding him, they spent the day following him on his chores, trying to be casual about it, as if they just happened to wind up in the same places he did, watching him surreptitiously. Gradually it became clear that he was aware of Laura but was avoiding even glancing at her. He looked at other kids. paused in the game room to speak softly to Tammy Hinsen on one occasion, but seemed as loath to meet Laura's eyes as he would have been to stick his fingers in an electric socket. By late morning Ruth said, “Laura, he's afraid of you.” “Damned if he isn't,” Thelma said. “Was it you who beat him up. Shane? Have you been hiding the fact that you're a karate expert?”


“It is strange, isn't it? Why's he afraid of me?”


But she knew. Her special guardian. Though she had thought she would have to deal with Sheener herself, her guardian had come through again, warning Sheener to stay away from her.


She was not sure why she was reluctant to share the story of her mysterious protector with the Ackersons. They were her best friends. She trusted them. Yet intuitively she felt that the secret of her guardian was meant to remain a secret, that what little she knew of him was sacred knowledge, and that she had no right to prattle on about him to other people, reducing sacred knowledge to mere gossip.

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