All of her life, Violet had lived at the confluence of many rivers of sensation, bathed in great churning currents of sound and scent and sight and taste and touch, experiencing the world not only through her own senses but those of countless surrogates. For part of her childhood, she had been autistic, so overwhelmed by sensory input that she could not cope; she had turned inward, to her secret world of rich, varied, and profound experience, until she had learned to control the incoming flood, harnessing it instead of being swept away. Only then had she chosen to relate to the people around her, abandoning autism, and she had not learned to talk until she was six years old. She had never risen out of those deep, fast currents of extraordinary sensation to stand on the comparatively dry bank of life on which other people existed, but at least she had learned to interact with her mother, Candy, and others to a limited degree.
Verbina had never coped half as well as Violet, and evidently never would. Having chosen a life almost exclusively defined by sensation, she exhibited little or no concern for the exercise and development of her intellect. She had never learned to talk, showed only the vaguest interest in anyone but her sister, and immersed herself with joyous abandonment in the ocean of sensory stimuli that surged around her. Running as a squirrel, flying as a hawk or gull, rutting as a cat, loping and killing as a coyote, drinking cool water from a stream through the mouth of a raccoon or field mouse, entering the mind of a bitch in heat as other dogs mounted her, simultaneously sharing the terror of the cornered rabbit and the savage excitement of the predatory fox, Verbina enjoyed a breadth of life that no one else but Violet could ever know. And she preferred the constant thrill of immersion in the wildness of the world to the comparatively mundane existence of other people.
Now, although Verbina still slept, a part of her was with Violet in the soaring hawk, for even sleep did not necessitate the complete disconnection of their links to other minds. The continuous sensory input of the lesser species was not only the primary fabric from which their lives were cut, but the stuff of which their dreams were formed, as well.
Under storm clouds that grew darker by the minute, the hawk glided high over the canyon behind the Pollard property. It was hunting.
Far below, among pieces of dried and broken tumbleweed, between spiny clumps of gorse, a fat mouse broke cover. It scurried along the canyon floor, alert for signs of enemies at ground level but oblivious to the feathered death that observed it from far above.
Instinctively aware that the mouse could hear the flapping of wings from a great distance and would scramble into the nearest haven at the first sound of them, the hawk silently tucked its wings back, half folding them against its body, and dived steeply, angling toward the rodent. Though she had shared this experience countless times before, Violet held her breath as they plummeted twelve hundred feet, dropping past ground level and farther down into the ravine; and though she actually was safely on her back in bed, her stomach seemed to turn within her, and a primal terror swelled within her breast even as she let out a thin squeal of pleasurable excitement.
On the bed beside Violet, her sister also softly cried out. On the canyon floor the mouse froze, sensing onrushing doom but not certain from which quarter it was coming.
The hawk deployed its wings as foils at the last moment; abruptly the true substance of the air became apparent and provided a welcome braking resistance. Letting its hindquarters precede it, extending its legs, opening its claws, the hawk seized the mouse even as the creature reacted to the sudden spread of wings and tried to flee.
Though remaining with the hawk, Violet entered the mind of the mouse an instant before the predator had taken it. She felt the icy satisfaction of the hunter and the hot fear of the prey. From the perspective of the hawk, she felt the plump mouse’s flesh puncture and split under the sharp and powerful assault of her talons, and from the perspective of the mouse, she was wracked by searing pain and was aware of a dreadful rupturing within. The bird peered down at the squealing rodent in its grasp, and shivered with a wild sense of dominance and power, with a realization that hunger would again be sated. It loosed a caw of triumph that echoed along the canyon. Feeling small and helpless in the grip of its winged assailant, in the thrall of excruciating fear so intense as to be strangely akin to the most exquisite of sensory pleasures, the mouse looked up into the steely, merciless eyes and ceased to struggle, went limp, resigned itself to death. It saw the fierce beak descending, was aware of being rended, but no longer felt pain, only numb resignation, then a brief moment of shattering bliss, then nothing, nothing. The hawk tipped back its head and let bloody ribbons and warm knots of flesh fall down its gullet.
On the bed Violet turned on her side to face her sister. Having been shaken from sleep by the power of the experience with the hawk, Verbina came into Violet’s arms. Naked, pelvis to pelvis, belly to belly, br**sts to breasts, the twins held each other and shuddered uncontrollably. Violet gasped against Verbina’s tender throat, and through her link with Verbina’s mind, she felt that hot flood of her own breath and the warmth it brought to her sister’s skin. They made wordless sounds and clung to each other, and their frantic breathing did not begin to subside until the hawk tore the last red sliver of nourishing meat from the mouse’s hide and, with a flurry of wings, threw itself into the sky again.
Below was the Pollard property: the Eugenia hedge; the gabled, slate-roofed, weathered-looking house; the twenty-year-old Buick that had belonged to their mother and that Candy sometimes drove; clusters of primrose burning with red and yellow and purple blooms in a narrow and untended flowerbed that extended the length of the decrepit back porch. Violet also saw Candy far below, at the northeast corner of the sprawling property.
Still holding fast to her sister, gracing Verbina’s throat and cheek and temple with a lace of gentle kisses, Violet simultaneously directed the hawk to circle above her brother. Through the bird, she watched him as he stood, head bowed, at their mother’s grave, mourning her as he had mourned her every day, without exception, since her death those many years ago.
Violet did not mourn. Her mother had been as much a stranger to her as anyone in the world, and she had felt nothing special at the woman’s passing. Indeed, because Candy was gifted, too, Violet felt closer to him than she had to her mother, which was not saying much because she did not really know him or care a great deal about him. How could she be close to anyone if she could not enter his mind and live with him, through him? That incredible intimacy was what welded her to Verbina, and it marked the myriad relationships she enjoyed with all the fowl and fauna that populated nature’s world. She simply did not know how to relate to anyone without that intense, innermost connection, and if she could not love, she could not mourn.
Far below the wheeling hawk, Candy dropped to his knees beside the grave.
MONDAY AFTERNOON. Thomas sat at his worktable. Making a picture poem.
Derek helped. Or thought he did. He sorted through a box of magazine clippings. He chose pictures, gave them to Thomas. If the picture was right, Thomas trimmed it, pasted it on the page. Most of the time it wasn’t right, so he put it aside and asked for another picture and another until Derek gave him something he could use.
He didn’t tell Derek the awful truth. The awful truth was that he wanted to make the poem by himself. But he couldn’t hurt Derek’s feelings. Derek was hurt enough. Too much. Being dumb really hurt, and Derek was dumber than Thomas. Derek was dumber-looking, too, which was more hurt. His forehead sloped more than Thomas’s. His nose was flatter, and his head had a squashy shape. Awful truth.
Later, tired of making the picture poem, Thomas and Derek went to the wreck room, and that was where it happened. Derek got hurt. He got hurt so much he cried. A girl did it. Mary. In the wreck room.
Some people were playing a game of marbles in one comer. Some were watching TV. Thomas and Derek were sitting on a couch near some windows, Being Sociable when anyone came around. The aides always wanted people at The Home to Be Sociable. It was good for you to Be Sociable. When no one came around to Be Sociable with them, Thomas and Derek were watching hummingbirds at a feeder that hung outside the windows. Hummingbirds didn’t really hum, but they zipped around and were a lot of fun to watch. Mary, who was new at The Home, didn’t zip around and wasn’t fun to watch, but she hummed a lot. No, she buzzed. Buzz, buzz, buzz, all the time.
Mary knew about eye cues. She said they really mattered, eye cues, and maybe they did, though Thomas had never heard of them and didn’t understand what they were, but then a lot of things he didn’t understand were important. He knew what eyes were, of course. He knew a cue was a stick you hit balls with because they had a pool table right there in the wreck room, near where he and Derek were sitting, though nobody used it much. He figured it would be a bad thing, real bad, if you stuck yourself in the eye with a cue, but this Mary said eye cues were good and she had a big one for a Down’s kid.
“I’m a high-end moron,” she said, real happy with herself, you could tell.
Thomas didn’t know what a moron was, but he couldn’t see a high end to Mary anywhere, she was fat and mostly droopy all over.
“You’re probably a moron, too, Thomas, but you ain’t high-end like me. I’m almost normal, and you ain’t as close normal as me.”
All this only confused Thomas.
It confused Derek even more, you could tell, and in his thick and sometimes hard to understand voice, Derek said, “Me? No moron.” He shook his head. “Cowboy.” He smiled. “Cowboy.”
Mary laughed at him. “You ain’t no cowboy or ever going to be. What you are is you’re an imbecile.”
They had to ask her to say it a few times before they got it, but even then they didn’t really get it. They could say it but didn’t know what it was any more than they knew what one of these eye cues looked like.
“You’ve got your normal people,” Mary said, “then morons under them, then imbeciles, who’re dumber than morons, and then you got idiots, who’re dumber than even imbeciles. Me, I’m a high-end moron, and I ain’t going to be here forever, I’m going to be good, behave, work hard to be normal, and someday go back to the halfway house.”
“Halfway where?” Derek asked, which was what Thomas wondered too.
Mary laughed at him. “Halfway to being normal, which is more than you’ll ever be, you poor damn imbecile.”
This time Derek realized she was looking down on him, making fun, and he tried not to cry, but he did. He got red in the face and cried, and Mary grinned sort of wild, she was all puffed up, excited, like she’d won some big prize. She’d used a bad word—damn—and should be ashamed, but she wasn’t, you could tell. She said the other word again, which Thomas now saw was a bad word, too, “imbecile,” and she kept saying it, until poor Derek got up and ran, and even then she shouted it after him.
Thomas went back to their room, looking for Derek, and Derek was in the closet with the door shut, bawling. Some of the aides came, and they talked to Derek real nice, but he didn’t want to come out of the closet. They had to talk to him a long time to get him to come out of there, but even then he couldn’t stop crying, and so after a while they had to Give Him Something. Once in a while when you were sick, like with the flu, the aides asked you to Take Something, which meant a pill of one shape or another, one color or another, big or little. But when they had to Give You Something, it always meant a needle, which was a bad thing. They never had to Give Something to Thomas because he was always good. But sometimes Derek, nice as he was, got to feeling so bad about himself that he couldn’t stop crying, and sometimes he hit himself, just hit himself in the face, until he broke himself open and got blood on himself, and even then he wouldn’t stop, so they had to Give Him Something For His Own Good. Derek never hit anyone else, he was nice, but For His Own Good he sometimes had to be made to relax or sometimes even made to sleep, which was what happened the day Mary the high-end moron called him an imbecile.
After Derek was made to sleep, one of the aides sat beside Thomas at the worktable. It was Cathy. Thomas liked Cathy. She was older than Julie but not as old as somebody’s mother. She was pretty. Not as pretty as Julie but pretty, with a nice voice and eyes you weren’t afraid to look into. She took one of Thomas’s hands in both of hers, and she asked if he was okay. He said he was, but he really wasn’t, and she knew it. They talked a while. That helped. Being Sociable.
She told him about Mary, so he’d understand, and that helped too. “She’s so frustrated, Thomas. She was out there in the world for a while, at a halfway house, and she even had a part-time job, making a little money of her own. She was trying so hard, but it didn’t work, she had too many problems, so she had to be institutionalized again. I think she regrets what she did to Derek. She’s just so disappointed that she needed to feel superior to someone.”
“I am ... was... was out there in the world once,” Thomas said.
“I know you were, honey.”
“With my dad. Then with my sister. And Bobby.”
“Did you like it out there?”
“Some of it ... scared me. But when I was with Julie and Bobby ... I liked that part.”
On his bed, Derek was snoring now.
The afternoon was half gone. The sky was getting ugly-stormy. The room had shadows everywhere. Only the desk lamp was on. Cathy’s face looked pretty in the lampglow. Her skin was like peach-colored satin. He knew what satin was like. Julie once had a dress of satin.
For a while he and Cathy were quiet.
Then he said, “Sometimes it’s hard.”
She put her hand on his head. Smoothed his hair. “Yeah, I know, Thomas. I know.”
She was so nice. He didn’t know why he started to cry when she was so nice, but he did. Maybe it was because she was so nice.
Cathy scooted her chair closer to his. He leaned against her. She put her arms around him. He cried and cried. Not hard terrible crying like Derek. Soft. But he couldn’t stop. He tried not to cry because crying made him feel dumb, and he hated feeling dumb.
Through his tears, he said, “I hate feeling dumb.”
“You’re not dumb, honey.”
“Yeah, I am. Hate it. But I can’t be nothing else. I try not to think about being dumb, but you can’t not think about it when it’s what you are, and when other people aren’t, and they go out in the world every day and they live, but you don’t go out in the world and don’t even want to but, oh, you want to, even when you say you don’t.” That was a lot for him to say, and he was surprised that he had said it all, surprised but also frustrated because he wanted so bad to tell her how it felt, being dumb, being afraid of going out in the world, and he’d failed, hadn’t been able to find the right words, so the feeling was still all bottled up in him. “Time. There’s lots of time, see, when you’re dumb and can’t go out in the world, lots of time to fill up, but then there really ain’t enough time, not enough for learning how to be not afraid of things, and I’ve got to learn how not to be afraid so I can go back and be with Julie and Bobby, which I want to do real bad, before all the time runs out. There’s too big amounts of time and not enough, and that sounds dumb, don’t it?”
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