From his post in the reception lounge below, Burt said, “If something happens to me and you take in Bobby, never ever give him any of those rawhide treats. He loves them but dogs can choke on them too easy. Over.”
Sammy replied, “No rawhide treats. Got it. Over.”
Before Sammy could return the Talkabout to his pocket, Burt said, “You’ll want to take him out to pee first thing in the morning, again around eleven, also after he eats at three-thirty, and a fourth time just before bed. Over.”
Sammy was about to respond when Burt transmitted again:
“Bobby pees four times a day, but he rarely ever poops four times. What he does is he poops usually three times a day, so if on one of his outings he doesn’t poop, don’t worry about it. That’s normal. Over.”
Sammy waited to be sure that Burt was finished, and then he transmitted: “Four pees, three poops. Got it. Over and out.”
Burt wasn’t finished. “Just to be sure you got it right, tell me which bunny is his favorite. Over.”
“Light-green, fully floppy bunny, not just floppy ears,” Sammy replied. “Over and out.”
Anyone on the channel whose Talkabout was switched on could hear their exchanges. The device chirruped before Sammy could pocket it, and Ralph Nettles said, “Good thing you aren’t obligated to take me in, Sammy. With this prostate, I have to pee like every half hour. Over and out.”
Sammy waited for a while before stuffing the walkie-talkie in his jacket pocket once more.
As if somebody opened a door in the sky, a breeze came down to chase off the stillness. The snow seemed to fall faster, which was probably an illusion. Instead of spiraling in a waltz with the air, the flakes hurried through the darkness, bright slanting skeins in the parking-lot lamps.
Instantly the air was colder than before, and Sammy fisted his lightly gloved hands in his pockets.
Jocko was going to screw up. Didn’t know when. Didn’t know how. But Jocko would screw up because he was Jocko.
He sat on the floor. At the living-room coffee table. Wearing one of his fourteen funny hats with bells. Not his hacker hat. This was his please-don’t-let-me-screw-up hat. It had never worked before. But it had to work this time. It just had to.
With a book, Erika sat in a chair by the fireplace. She smiled at him.
Jocko didn’t smile. As a former tumor and a current monster, his smile was terrifying. He had learned the hard way how terrifying his smile could be.
Erika wasn’t terrified by it. Erika loved him. She was his mom, adopted. But his smile frightened everyone else. Then they screamed or stoned him, or beat him with sticks or buckets, or shoved him in an oven and tried to bake him to death, or shot at him, or tried to set him on fire, or tossed him into a pen with three big, hungry hogs, or literally threw him under a bus, or tried to strangle him with a prayer shawl.
Don’t smile. Don’t smile.
Kneeling on the floor, across the coffee table from him, was his new friend. Chrissy.
Because he was a few inches taller than the average dwarf, Jocko was shorter than almost everyone. He wasn’t shorter than Chrissy, who was five years old. He was the big kid here. Status. This was a first for Jocko. The big kid. The responsibility of his position weighed on Jocko. He was afraid he would start to sweat.
On the table were two cups and saucers. A little plate on which lay four plain-looking biscuits and six cubes of sugar. Two spoons. Two fancy linen napkins with embroidered pink roses that Jocko would have liked to make into a hat for Sundays. And a teapot.
Chrissy said, “How very nice of you to come visiting, Princess Josephine.”
Surprised, little bells jingling, Jocko looked around. For the princess. Royalty. He’d never met royalty before. He might need a different funny hat. He might need shoes. But no one new had come into the room.
When he cocked his head at Chrissy, perplexed, she said, “Now you’re supposed to say, ‘How very nice of you to invite me, Princess Chrissy.’ ”
Deeply impressed, Jocko said, “You’re a princess?”
“I’m the princess of Montana. My father is the king.”
“Whoa,” Jocko said. He began to sweat. Just a little. In his ears.
“And you,” said Princess Chrissy, “are Princess Josephine of a faraway kingdom.”
“This is tea with princesses. Princess Jocko sounds dumb. You’ve gotta be Princess Josephine.”
Jocko smacked his mouth flaps, thinking about it. “You mean her stand-in because she couldn’t make it at the last minute?”
Jocko asked, “Why couldn’t the real Princess Josephine make it?”
Princess Chrissy shrugged. “Maybe she met a handsome prince and they’re gonna get married.”
“Or maybe,” Jocko said, “a sinister contagion has swept her father’s kingdom.”
Princess Chrissy frowned. “What’s a … that thing you said?”
“A sinister contagion. A plague. A horrible, disfiguring disease. Your nose can rot off, your ears, like leprosy. Your tongue can turn black and shrivel up. Thousands dead. Thousands more scarred and deranged and crippled for life. Bodies piled up in gutters. Mass graves. Catastrophe.”
She shook her head. “No. It’s the handsome prince. Now will you say it so we can go on?”
Because he wanted this teatime to be a great success, Jocko smacked his lip flaps and thought some more. To be sure he did just what she wanted. To be very sure. Then he said, “It so we can go on.”
Princess Chrissy cocked her head at him, the way he had earlier cocked his at her.
From her chair by the fireplace, Erika stage-whispered to Jocko: “How very nice of you to invite me, Princess Chrissy.”
Oh. He felt stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Less monster than tumor, less tumor than lowly cyst. Typical stupid Jocko. He tried to make a suave recovery. “How very nice of you to invite me, Princess Chrissy.”
“Would you like tea, Princess Josephine?”
“Yes. I would like tea.”
“Isn’t this a pretty teapot?”
“Yes. It is pretty. And a teapot.”
“Shall I pour a full cup?”
“Yes. You shall,” Jocko said.
He was getting the hang of this. It was easier than he thought it would be.
Princess Chrissy said, “Something’s dripping out of your ears.”
“Sweat. Just sweat.”
“I don’t sweat out of my ears.”
Jocko shrugged. “It’s a gift.”
“A little icky,” he admitted. “But it doesn’t stink.”
As she poured the tea into the cups, Princess Chrissy said, “Princess Josephine, whose picture is on your dress? Is he a knight of your kingdom?”
Jocko wasn’t wearing a dress. He wore jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt with his hero’s image on it.
“He’s the one, the only, Buster Steelhammer! He’s the face-smashing, butt-kicking, steroid-crazed, make-you-cry-mama best wrestler of all time!”
Princess Chrissy said she didn’t know what a wrestler was, they didn’t have wrestlers at the royal castle, and Princess Josephine, who was Jocko, was thrilled to explain. He wrestled himself around the floor. Got himself in a hammerlock. Which he could do because of the length of his arms. And the extra elbow joint. He stomped his right foot in his face, held his squished-up face to the floor. He didn’t have any hair to pull. Except the three hairs on his tongue. But he’d never seen any tongue-hair pulling in any show put on by World Wrestling Entertainment. He couldn’t pick himself up and body slam himself. He tried. But he couldn’t. However, he could do a lot of cool wrestler stuff. Which he did. And then returned to his place at the table.
Princess Chrissy giggled. “You’re silly.”
Her giggle made Jocko feel like a real prince. Or a princess. Whichever.
Princess Chrissy picked up her cup, blew on it, and said, “This is the only time I ever, ever had real tea to drink for teatime. Maid Erika brewed it for us.”
“What do you usually drink at teatime?”
“Air tea,” Princess Chrissy said.
Jocko drained the teacup in one swallow. “Yuch. Blech. Gaaaah. Gaaaah. Kack. Feh. Fah. Foo.” He stuck out his tongue and rubbed it vigorously with both hands. Grabbed up the fancy napkin. Wiped out the inside of his mouth. Blew his nose. Blotted the sweat from his ears. He said, “No offense meant.”
“You should ought to put sugar in it,” Princess Chrissy said, pointing to the four cubes left on the plate.
Jocko snatched up all four cubes. Tossed them into his mouth. Rolled them around. Better. But too sweet. He spat them in his cup.
“Wait,” he said, sprang to his feet, and pirouetted out of the room. Along the hallway. Into the kitchen. Around the center island. He liked to pirouette. When he was nervous. Burning up energy. Spinning to calm down. Oh, how his hat bells jingled!
When he returned to the living room, he brought a silver tray with two fresh teacups. A two-quart bottle of cold Pepsi. A plate of whoopie pies.
“This is how we have tea in my kingdom,” Jocko said.
He poured Pepsi in both cups. Didn’t slop any on the table. Didn’t just drink from the bottle. Threw the four plain-looking biscuits into the fireplace. Tossed a whoopie pie as if it were a Frisbee and caught it when it spun around the room like a boomerang and returned to him. Totally George Clooney.
Putting her tea aside, Princess Chrissy said, “This is lovely.”
“Very lovely,” he agreed.
“Princess Josephine, tell me the news from your kingdom.”
About to thrust an entire whoopie pie in his mouth, Jocko put it down instead. He was only Josephine’s stand-in. He didn’t know anything about her kingdom. Maybe he should lie. But lying wasn’t right. He had often lied. But it wasn’t right. He wanted to be a better Jocko.
Princess Chrissy said, “Tell me about your dragons.”
“There aren’t any dragons.”
“What about witches?”
“Nope. No witches.”
“Then tell me about your wizards.”
He saw she was unhappy with him. He was a bad conversationalist. Bad. Pathetic. Despicable. Horrendous.
Think. Think. Salvage the moment. Put the burden of conversation on her. “Your father, he’s the king of Montana. How many heads has he chopped off?”
“Silly. He doesn’t chop off heads.”
“Some kings do,” Jocko said.
“No, they don’t.”
“Some do. And torture people in dungeons.”
“No, they don’t.”
“They rip out your fingernails.”
“What’s wrong with you?” Princess Chrissy asked.
“Jocko’s just saying. Like in the history books. They brand you with hot irons and stick needles in your tongue.”
“You have yellow eyes,” Princess Chrissy said.
Now confidently holding up his end of the conversation, pleased to discover his social skills improving so rapidly, Jocko said, “They put you on this thing they call the rack, and they stretch your body until your joints pull apart.”
“You got scary eyes,” Princess Chrissy said.
From her armchair by the fireplace, Erika said, “Did you know that some angels have yellow eyes, golden eyes?”
“They do?” Chrissy and Jocko asked simultaneously.
“Did you know that angels have to know how to wrestle because they’re always wrestling devils?”
“Is Buster Steelhammer an angel?” Princess Chrissy asked.
“He’s too bad-ass to be an angel,” Jocko decided.
Outside, the growl of an engine rose, like a truck pulling into their driveway.
Putting aside her book, rising from her chair, Erika said, “Why don’t you talk about angels, just angels, while I see who that is.”
“It probably isn’t angels,” Chrissy said. “Angels fly, they don’t need trucks.”
Erika said, “That’s why I keep a semiauto shotgun handy, sweetheart.”
In the interest of efficiency, a Communitarian needed to adapt to setbacks whenever they occurred. With the urgent need to finish bringing more order to the disordered barn and thus do her part to destroy humankind, Nancy Potter used the push broom as a crutch and hobbled into the tack room at the back of the barn.
At the end of that narrow space stood a small desk where the real Mayor Erskine Potter had sat to maintain records of expenses related to the horses and to keep notes about vet visits and recommendations. At the desk was an old wooden office chair on wheels.
Nancy broke the back off the chair, turning it into a wheeled stool. Using a large roll of Vetrap hoof tape, she bound the cauterized stump of her left leg to the stool, which wasn’t an easy task, but she persisted for the Community. Walking on her right foot, rolling on her footless left leg stump, she maneuvered out of the tack room, into the main part of the barn.
She stood over the remains of Ariel, wondering if there was anything she ought to do. This didn’t look like a Builder anymore. It was like a large, mostly smooth formation of limestone in which someone had been carving faces. There were three faces at different places, all sort of resembling Ariel but distorted. She turned the broom around in her hands and rapped the end of the handle against what had once been Ariel, and it sounded like stone, too. She could not see anything she needed to do more urgently than sweep and sweep the barn floor until all the bristle marks in the dirt were aligned rather than chaotic.
As she set to work, she realized that sprinkles of snowflakes were coming through the two holes that Ariel, in her swarm mode, had made in the roof. Because the building was heated, most of the flakes melted and evaporated as they fell. Those few that survived all the way to floor became dots of dampness that would soon dry.
The broom swished and swished, the wheels of the chair squeaked, the seat creaked. A light wind soughed in the eaves of the barn and snuffled at the holes in the roof.
The horses were calm again. Commander had not managed to kick out any portion of his stall at the height of his terror. Now and then, Queenie and Valentine nickered. A couple of times, the stallion snorted.
Entirely committed to precisely aligning the bristle marks in the dirt, replicant Nancy seldom looked up from the difficult task before her. But every time she raised her eyes, the horses had their heads beyond the tops of their stall doors, watching her, sometimes while they chewed a bit of hay, other times just staring.
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