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Julie looked up from the two-page spread in the scrapbook and said, “This is wonderful, Thomas. It makes me want to... run outside in the grass... and stand under the sky and maybe even dance, just throw my head back and laugh. It makes me glad to be alive.”


“Yes!” Thomas said, slurring the word, clapping his hands.


She passed the book to Bobby, and he sat on the edge of the bed to read it.


The most intriguing thing about Thomas’s poems was the emotional response they invariably evoked. None left a reader untouched, as an array of randomly assembled images might have done. Sometimes, when looking at Thomas’s work, Bobby laughed out loud, and sometimes he was so moved that he had to blink back tears, and sometimes he felt fear or sadness or regret or wonder. He did not know why he responded to any particular piece as he did; the effect always defied analysis. Thomas’s compositions functioned on some primal level, eliciting reaction from a region of the mind far deeper than the subconscious.


The latest poem was no exception. Bobby felt what Julie had felt: that life was good; that the world was beautiful; elation in the very fact of existence.


He looked up from the scrapbook and saw that Thomas was awaiting his reaction as eagerly as he had awaited Julie’s, perhaps a sign that Bobby’s opinion was cherished as much as hers, even if he still didn’t rate as long or as ardent a hug as Julie did. “Wow,” he said softly. “Thomas, this one gives me such a warm, tingly feeling that... I think my toes are curling.”


Thomas grinned.


Sometimes Bobby looked at his brother-in-law and felt that two Thomases shared that sadly deformed skull. Thomas number one was the moron, sweet but feebleminded. Thomas number two was just as smart as anyone, but he occupied only a small part of the damaged brain that he shared with Thomas number one, a chamber in the center, from which he had no direct communication with the outside world. All of Thomas number two’s thoughts had to be filtered through Thomas number one’s part of the brain, so they ended up sounding no different from Thomas number one’s thoughts; therefore the world could not know that number two was in there, thinking and feeling and fully alive—except through the evidence of the picture poems, the essence of which survived even after being filtered through Thomas number one.


“You’ve got such a talent,” Bobby said, and he meant it—almost envied it.


Thomas blushed and lowered his eyes. He rose and quickly shuffled to the softly humming refrigerator that stood beside the door to the bathroom. Meals were served in the communal dining room, where snacks and drinks were provided on request, but patients with sufficient mental capacity to keep their rooms neat were allowed to have their own refrigerators stocked with their favorite snacks and drinks, to encourage as much independence as possible. He withdrew three cans of Coke. He gave one to Bobby, one to Julie. With the third he returned to the chair at the worktable, sat down, and said, “You been catchin’ bad guys?”


“Yeah, we’re keeping the jails full,” Bobby said.


“Tell me.”


Julie leaned forward in the armchair, and Thomas scooted his straight-backed chair closer to her, until their knees touched, and she recounted the highlights of the events at Decodyne last night. She made Bobby more heroic than he’d really been, and she played down her own involvement a little, not only out of modesty but in order not to frighten Thomas with too clear a picture of the danger in which she had put herself. Thomas was tough in his own way; if he hadn’t been, he would have curled up on his bed long ago, facing into the corner, and never gotten up again. But he was not tough enough to endure the loss of Julie. He would be devastated even to imagine that she was vulnerable. So she made her dare-devil driving and the shoot-out sound funny, exciting but not really dangerous. Her revised version of events entertained Bobby nearly as much as it did Thomas.


After a while, as usual, Thomas became overwhelmed by what Julie was telling him, and the tale grew more confusing than entertaining. “I’m full up,” he said, which meant he was still trying to process everything he had been told, and didn’t have room for any more just now. He was fascinated by the world outside Cielo Vista, and he often longed to be a part of it, but at the same time he found it too loud and bright and colorful to be handled in more than small doses.


Bobby got one of the older scrapbooks from the shelves and sat on the bed, reading picture poems.


Thomas and Julie sat in their chairs, Cokes put aside, knees to knees, leaning forward and holding hands, sometimes looking at each other, sometimes not, just being together, close. Julie needed that as much as Thomas did.


Julie’s mother had been killed when Julie was twelve. Her father had died eight years later, two years before Bobby and Julie had been married. She’d been only twenty at the time, working as a waitress to put herself through college and to pay her half of the rent on a studio apartment she shared with another student. Her parents had never been rich, and though they had kept Thomas at home, the expense of looking after him had depleted what little savings they’d ever had. When her dad died, Julie had been unable to afford an apartment for her and Thomas, to say nothing of the time required to help him cope in a civilian environment, so she’d been forced to commit him to a state institution for mentally disabled children. Though Thomas never held it against her, she viewed the commitment as a betrayal of him.


She had intended to get a degree in criminology, but she dropped out of school in her third year and applied to the sheriffs’ academy. She had worked as a deputy for fourteen months by the time Bobby met and married her; she had been living on peanuts, her life-style hardly better than that of a bag lady, saving most of her salary in hope of putting together a nest egg that would allow her to buy a small house someday and take Thomas in with her. Shortly after they were married, when Dakota Investigations became Dakota & Dakota, they brought Thomas to live with them. But they worked irregular hours, and although some victims of Down’s syndrome were capable of living to a degree on their own, Thomas needed someone nearby at all times. The cost of three daily shifts of qualified companions was even more than the cost of high-level care at a private institution like Cielo Vista; but they would have borne it if they could have found enough reliable help. When it became impossible to conduct their business, have a life of their own, and take care of Thomas, too, they brought him to Cielo Vista. It was as comfortable a care institution as existed, but Julie viewed it as her second betrayal of her brother. That he was happy at Cielo Vista, even thrived there, did not lighten her burden of guilt.


One part of The Dream, an important part, was to have the time and financial resources to bring Thomas home again.


Bobby looked up from the scrapbook just as Julie said, “Thomas, think you’d like to go out with us for a while?”


Thomas and Julie were still holding hands, and Bobby saw his brother-in-law’s grip tighten at the suggestion of an excursion.


“We could just go for a drive,” Julie said. “Down to the sea. Walk on the shore. Get an ice cream cone. What do you say?”


Thomas looked nervously at the nearest window, which framed a portion of clear blue sky, where white sea gulls periodically swooped and capered. “It’s bad out.”


“Just a little windy, honey.”


“Don’t mean the wind.”


“We’ll have fun.”


“It’s bad out,” he repeated. He chewed on his lower lip.


At times he was eager to venture out into the world, but at other times he withdrew from the prospect as if the air beyond Cielo Vista was purest poison. Thomas could never be argued or cajoled out of that agoraphobic mood, and Julie knew not to push the issue.


“Maybe next time,” she said.


“Maybe,” Thomas said, looking at the floor. “But today’s really bad. I ... sort of feel it ... the badness . . . cold all over my skin.”


For a while Bobby and Julie tried various subjects, but Thomas was talked out. He said nothing, did not make eye contact, and gave no indication that he even heard them.


They sat together in silence, then, until after a few minutes Thomas said, “Don’t go yet.”


“We’re not going,” Bobby assured him.


“Just ’cause I can’t talk ... don’t mean I want you gone.”


“We know that, kiddo,” Julie said.


“I ... need you.”


“I need you too,” Julie said. She lifted one of her brother’s thick-fingered hands and kissed his knuckles.


16


AFTER BUYING an electric razor at a drugstore, Frank Pollard shaved and washed as best he could in a service-station restroom. He stopped at a shopping mall and bought a suitcase, underwear, socks, a couple of shirts, another pair of jeans, and incidentals. In the mall parking lot, with the stolen Chevy rocking slightly in the gusting wind, he packed the other purchases in the suitcase. Then he drove to a motel in Irvine, where he checked in under the name of George Farris, using one of the sets of ID he possessed, making a cash deposit because he lacked a credit card. He had cash in abundance.


He could have stayed in the Laguna area; but he sensed that he should not remain in one place too long. Maybe his wariness was based on hard experience. Or maybe he had been on the run for so long that he had become a creature of motion who could never again be truly comfortable at rest.


The motel room was large, clean, and tastefully decorated. The designer had been swept up in the southwest craze: whitewashed wood, rattan side chairs with cushions upholstered in peach and pale-blue patterns, seafoam-green drapes. Only the mottled-brown carpet, evidently chosen for its ability to conceal stains and wear, spoiled the effect; by contrast, the lighthued furnishings seemed not merely to stand on the dark carpet but to float above it, creating spatial illusions that were disconcerting, even slightly eerie.


For most of the afternoon Frank sat on the bed, using a pile of pillows as a backrest. The television was on, but he did not watch it. Instead, he probed at the black hole of his past. Hard as he tried, he could still not recall anything of his life prior to waking in the alleyway the previous night. Some strange and exceedingly malevolent shape loomed at the edge of recollection, however, and he wondered uneasily if forgetfulness actually might be a blessing.


He needed help. Given the cash in the flight bag and his two sets of ID, he suspected that he would be unwise to seek assistance from the authorities. He withdrew the Yellow Pages from one of the nightstands and studied the listings for private investigators. But a PI called to mind old Humphrey Bogart movies and seemed like an anachronism in this modem age. How could a guy in a trenchcoat and a snap-brimmed fedora help him recover his memory?


Eventually, with the wind singing threnodies at the window, Frank stretched out to get some of the sleep he had missed last night.


A few hours later, just an hour before dusk, he woke suddenly, whimpering, gasping for breath. His heart pounded furiously.


When he sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed, he saw that his hands were wet and scarlet. His shirt and jeans were smeared with blood. Some, though surely not all of it, was his own blood, for both of his hands bore deep, oozing scratches. His face stung, and in the bathroom, the mirror revealed two long scratches on his right cheek, one on his left cheek, and a fourth on his chin.


He could not understand how this could have happened in his sleep. If he had torn at himself in some bizarre dream frenzy—and he could recall no dream—or if someone else had clawed him while he slept, he would have awakened at once. Which meant that he had been awake when it had happened, then had stretched out on the bed again and gone back to sleep—and had forgotten the incident, just as he had forgotten his life prior to that alleyway last night.


He returned in panic to the bedroom and looked on the other side of the bed, then in the closet. He was not sure what he was looking for. Maybe a dead body. He found nothing.


The very thought of killing anyone made him sick. He knew he did not have the capacity to kill, except perhaps in self-defense. So who had scratched his face and hands? Whose blood was on him?


In the bathroom again, he stripped out of his stained clothes and rolled them into a tight bundle. He washed his face and hands. He had bought a styptic pencil along with other shaving gear; he used that to stop the scratches from bleeding.


When he met his own eyes in the mirror, they were so haunted that he had to look away.


Frank dressed in fresh clothes and snatched the car keys off the dresser. He was afraid of what he might find in the Chevy.


At the door, as he disengaged the dead bolt, he realized that neither the frame nor the door itself was smeared with blood. If he had left during the afternoon and returned, bleeding from his hands, he would not have had the presence of mind to wipe the door clean before climbing into bed. Anyway, he had seen no bloody washcloth or tissues with which a cleanup might have been accomplished.


Outside, the sky was clear; the westering sun was bright. The motel’s palm trees shivered in a cool wind, and a constant susurration rose from them, punctuated by an occasional series of hard clacks as the thick spines of the fronds met like snapping, wooden teeth.


The concrete walkway outside his room was not spotted with blood. The interior of the car was free of blood. No blood marked the dirty rubber mat in the trunk, either.


He stood by the open trunk, blinking at the sun-washed motel and parking lot around him. Three doors down, a man and woman in their twenties were unloading luggage from their black Pontiac. Another couple and their grade-school-age daughter were hurrying along the covered walkway, apparently heading toward the motel restaurant. Frank realized that he could not have gone out and committed murder and returned, blood-soaked and in broad daylight, without being seen.


In his room again, he went to the bed and studied the rumpled sheets. They were crimson-spotted, but not a fraction as saturated as they would have been if the attack—whatever its nature—had happened there. Of course, if all the blood was his, it might have spilled mostly on the front of his shirt and jeans. But he still could not believe that he had clawed himself in his sleep—one hand ripping at the other, both hands tearing at his face—without waking.


Besides, he had been scratched by someone with sharp fingernails. His own nails were blunt, bitten down to the quick.


17


SOUTH OF Cielo Vista Care Home, between Corona Del Mar and Laguna, Bobby tucked the Samurai into a corner of a parking lot at a public beach. He and Julie walked down to the shore.


The sea was marbled blue and green, with thin veins of gray. The water was dark in the troughs, lighter and more colorful where the waves rose and were half pierced by the rays of the fat, low sun. In serried ranks the breakers moved toward the strand, big but not huge, wearing caps of foam that the wind snatched from them.

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