Gently he lowered Skagg into the car trunk and closed the lid.
Before dawn, in the dark scrub-covered hills along the perimeter of the Angeles National Forest, with the yellow-pink metropolitan glow of Los Angeles filling the lowlands south and west of him, Frank dug a deep hole and slipped Skagg's corpse into the ground. As he filled the grave, he wept.
From that wild burial ground he went directly home to his cozy five-room bungalow. Murphy, his Irish setter, was at the door to greet him with much sniffling and tail wagging. Seuss, his cat, held back at first with typical feline aloofness, but at last the Siamese rushed to him as well, purring noisily and wanting to be stroked.
Though the night had been filled with strenuous activity, Frank did not go to bed, for he never required sleep. Instead, he got out of his wet clothes, put on pajamas and a robe, made a large bowl of popcorn, opened a beer, and settled down on the sofa with Seuss and Murphy to watch an old Frank Capra movie that he had seen at least twenty times before but that he never failed to enjoy: Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed in It's a Wonderful Life.
All of Frank Shaw's friends said that he had a hard shell, but that was only part of what they said. They also said that inside his hard shell beat a heart as soft as any.
THE COOL GREEN WATER SLIPPED ALONG THE STREAMBED, BUBbling around smooth brown stones, reflecting the melancholy willows that lined the bank. Marnie sat on the grass, tossing stones into a deep pool, watching the ripples spread in ever-widening circles and lap at the muddy banks. She was thinking about the kittens. This year's kittens, not last year's. A year ago, her parents had told her that the kittens had gone to Heaven. Pinkie's litter had disappeared the third day after their squealing birth.
Marnie's father had said, "God took them away to Heaven to live with Him."
She didn't exactly doubt her father. After all, he was a religious man. He taught Sunday school every week and was an officer or something in the church, whose duty it was to count collection money and mark it down in a little red book. He was always picked to give the sermon on Laymen's Sunday. And every evening, he read passages to them from the Bible. She had been late for the reading last night and had been spanked. "Spare the rod and spoil the child," her father always said. No, she didn't actually doubt her father, for if anyone would know about God and kittens, it was he.
But she continued to wonder. Why, when there were hundreds upon thousands of kittens in the world, did God have to take all four of hers? Was God selfish?
This was the first that she had thought of those kittens for some time. In the past twelve months, much had happened to make her forget. There was her first year in school, the furor of getting ready for the first day—the buying of paper, pencils, and books. And the first few weeks had been interesting, meeting Mr. Alphabet and Mr. Numbers. When school began to bore her, Christmas rushed in on polished runners and glistening ice: the shopping, the green and yellow and red and blue lights, the Santa Claus on the corner who staggered when he walked, the candlelit church on Christmas Eve when she had had to go to the bathroom and her father had made her wait until the service was over. When things began to lose momentum again in March, her mother had given birth to twins. Marnie had been surprised at how small they were and at how slowly they seemed to grow in the following weeks.
Here it was June again. The twins were three months old, finally beginning to grow a great deal heavier; school was out, and Christmas was an eternity away, and everything was getting dull again. Therefore, when she heard her father telling her mother that Pinkie was going to have another litter, she grasped at the news and wrenched every drop of excitement from it. She busied herself in the kitchen, preparing rags and cotton for the birth and a fancy box for the kittens' home when they arrived.
As events ran their natural course, Pinkie slunk away and had the kittens during the night in a dark corner of the barn. There was no need for sterilized rags or cotton, but the box came in handy. There were six in this litter, all gray with black spots that looked like ink hastily blotted.
She liked the kittens, and she was worried about them. What if God was watching again like last year?
"What are you doing, Marnie?"
She didn't have to look; she knew who was behind her. She turned anyway, out of deference, and saw her father glaring down at her, dark irregular splotches of perspiration discoloring the underarms of his faded blue work coveralls, dirt smeared on his chin and caked to the beard on his left cheek.
"Throwing stones," she answered quietly.
"At the fish?"
"Oh, no, sir. Just throwing stones."
"Do we remember who was the victim of stone throwing?" He smiled a patronizing smile.
"Saint Stephen," she answered.
"Very good." The smile faded. "Supper's ready."
* * *
She sat ramrod stiff in the old maroon easy chair, looking attentive as her father read to them from the ancient family Bible that was bound in black leather, all scuffed and with several torn pages. Her mother sat next to her father on the dark blue corduroy couch, hands folded in her lap, an isn't-it-wonderful-what-God-has-given-us smile painted on her plain but pretty face.
"Suffer the little children to come to me, and forbid them not; for such is the kingdom of God." Her father closed the book with a gentle slap that seemed to leap into the stale air and hang there, holding up a thick curtain of silence. No one spoke for several minutes. Then: "What chapter of what book did we just read, Marnie?"
"Saint Mark, chapter ten," she said dutifully.
"Fine," he said. Turning to his wife, whose smile had changed to a we've-done-what-a-Christian-family-should-do expression, he said, "Mary, how about coffee for us and a glass of milk for Marnie?"
"Right," said her mother, getting up and pacing into the kitchen.
Her father sat there, examining the inside covers of the old holy book, running his fingers along the cracks in the yellow paper, scrutinizing the ghostly stains embedded forever in the title page where some great-uncle had accidentally spilled wine a million-billion years ago.
"Father," she said tentatively.
He looked up from the book, not smiling, not frowning.
"What about the kittens?"
"What about them?" he countered.
"Will God take them again this year?"
The half-smile that had crept onto his face evaporated into the thick air of the living room. "Perhaps," was all that he said.
"He can't," she almost sobbed.
"Are you saying what God can and cannot do, young lady?"
"God can do anything."
"Yes, sir." She fidgeted in her chair, pushing herself deeper into its rough, worn folds. "But why would he want my kittens again? Why always mine?"
"I've had quite enough of this, Marnie. Now be quiet."
"But why mine?" she persisted.
He stood suddenly, crossed to the chair, and slapped her delicate face. A thin trickle of blood slipped from the corner of her mouth. She wiped it away with the palm of her hand.
"You must not doubt God's motives!" her father insisted. "You are far too young to doubt." The saliva glistened on his lips. He grabbed her by the arm and brought her to her feet. "Now you get up those stairs and into bed."
She didn't argue. On the way to the staircase, she wiped away the re-forming stream of blood. She walked slowly up the steps, allowing her hand to run along the smooth, polished wood railing.
"Here's the milk," she heard her mother saying below.
"We won't be needing it," her father answered curtly.
In her room, she lay in the semidarkness that came when the full moon shone through her window, its orange-yellow light glinting from a row of religious plaques that lined one wall. In her parents' room, her mother was cooing to the twins, changing their diapers. "God's little angels," she heard her mother say. Her father was tickling them, and she could hear the "angels" chuckling—a deep gurgle that rippled from down in their fat throats.
Neither her father nor her mother came to say good night. She was being punished.
* * *
Marnie was sitting in the barn, petting one of the gray kittens, postponing an errand her mother had sent her on ten minutes earlier. The rich smell of dry, golden hay filled the air. Straw covered the floor and crackled underfoot. In the far end of the building, the cows were lowing to each other—only two of them, whose legs had been sliced by barbed wire and who were being made to convalesce. The kitten mewed and pawed the air below her chin.
"Where's Marnie?" her father's voice boomed from somewhere in the yard between the house and the barn.
She was about to answer when she heard her mother call from the house: "I sent her to Brown's for a recipe of Helen's. She'll be gone another twenty minutes."
"That's plenty of time," her father answered. The crunch of his heavy shoes on the cinder path echoed in military rhythm.
Marnie knew that something was wrong; something was happening that she was not supposed to see. Quickly, she put the kitten back in the red and gold box and sprawled behind a pile of straw to watch.
Her father entered, drew a bucket of water from the wall tap, and placed it in front of the kittens. Pinkie hissed and arched her back. The man picked her up and shut her in an empty oat bin from which her anguished squeals boomed in a ridiculously loud echo that belonged on the African veldt and not on an American farm. Marnie almost laughed, but remembered her father and suppressed the levity.
He turned again to the box of kittens. Carefully, he lifted one by the scruff of the neck, petted it twice, and thrust its head under the water in the bucket! There was a violent thrashing from within the bucket, and sparkling droplets of water sprayed into the air. Her father grimaced and shoved the entire body under the smothering pool. In time, the thrashing ceased. Marnie found that her fingers were digging into the concrete floor, hurting her.
Her father lifted the limp body from the bucket. Something pink and bloody hung from the animal's mouth. She couldn't tell whether it was the tongue or whether the precious thing had spewed its entrails into the water in a last attempt to escape the heavy, horrible death of suffocation.
Soon six kittens were dead. Soon six silent fur balls were dropped in a burlap sack. The top was twisted shut. He let Pinkie out of the bin. The shivering cat followed him out of the barn, mewing softly, hissing when he turned to look at her.
Marnie lay very still for a long time, thinking of nothing but the execution and trying desperately to understand. Had God sent her father? Was it God who told him to kill the kittens—to take them away from her? If it was, she didn't see how she could ever again stand before that gold and white altar, accepting communion. She stood and walked toward the house, blood dripping from her fingers, blood and cement.
"Did you get the recipe?" asked her mother as Marnie slammed the kitchen door.
"Mrs. Brown couldn't find it. She'll send it over tomorrow." She lied so well that she surprised herself. "Did God take my kittens?" she blurted suddenly.
Her mother looked confused. "Yes," was all that she could say.
"I'll get even with God! He can't do that! He can't!" She ran out of the kitchen toward the staircase.
Her mother watched but didn't try to stop her.
Marnie Caufield walked slowly up the stairs, letting her hand run along the smooth, polished wood railing.
* * *
At noon, when Walter Caufield came in from the field, he heard a loud crash and the tinkling of china and the shattering of glass. He rushed into the living room to see his wife lying at the foot of the stairs. A novelty table was overturned, statuettes broken and cracked.
"Mary, Mary. Are you hurt?" He bent quickly to her side.
She looked up at him out of eyes that were far away in distant mists. "Walt! My Good God, Walt—our precious angels. The bathtub—our precious angels!"
THE NIGHT OF THE STORM
HE WAS A ROBOT MORE THAN A HUNDRED YEARS OLD, BUILT BY OTHER robots in an automated factory that had been continuously engaged in the production of robots for many centuries.
His name was Curanov, and as was the custom of his kind, he roamed the earth in search of interesting things to do. Curanov had climbed the highest mountains in the world, with the aid of special body attachments (spikes in his metal feet, tiny but strong hooks on the ends of his twelve fingers, an emergency grappling rope coiled inside his chest-area storage compartment and ready for a swift ejection if he should fall); his small, antigravity flight motors were removed to make the climb as dangerous and, therefore, as interesting as possible. Having submitted to heavy-duty component-sealing procedures, Curanov had once spent eighteen months under water, exploring a large portion of the Pacific Ocean, until he was bored even by the mating of whales and by the ever-shifting beauty of the sea bottom. Curanov had crossed deserts, explored the Arctic Circle on foot, gone spelunking in countless different subterranean systems. He had been caught in a blizzard, in a major flood, in a hurricane, and in the middle of an earthquake that would have registered nine on the Richter scale, if the Richter scale had still been in use. Once, specially insulated, he had descended halfway to the center of the earth, there to bask in pockets of glowing gases, between pools of molten stone, scalded by eruptions of magma, feeling nothing. Eventually, he grew weary of even that colorful spectacle, and he surfaced again.
Having lived only one of his two assigned centuries, he wondered if he could last through another hundred years of such tedium.
Curanov's private counselor, a robot named Bikermien, assured him that this boredom was only temporary and easily alleviated. If one was clever, Bikermien said, one could find limitless excitement as well as innumerable, valuable situations for data collection about both one's environment and one's mechanical aptitude and heritage. Bikermien, in the last half of his second century, had developed such an enormous and complex data vault that he was assigned stationary duty as a counselor, attached to a mother computer, utterly immobile. By now, extremely adept at finding excitement even through secondhand experience, Bikermien did not mourn the loss of his mobility; he was, after all, a spiritual superior to most robots, inwardly directed. Therefore, when Bikermien advised, Curanov listened, however skeptical he might be.
Curanov's problem, according to Bikermien, was that he had started out in life, from the moment he'd left the factory, to pit himself against the greatest of forces—the wildest sea, the coldest cold, the highest temperatures, the greatest pressures—and now, having conquered these things, he could see no interesting challenges beyond them. Yet, the counselor said that Curanov had overlooked some of the most fascinating explorations. The quality of any challenge was directly related to one's ability to meet it; the less adequate one felt, the better the experience, the richer the contest, and the more handsome the data reward.