Earthquake Weather – Snippet 24

It folded outward with a grating screech, when they hit it, and then the two of them had fallen over the sill and were rolling on the cold cement pavement outside. Plumtree had hiked up her legs as she’d hit the glass, and had landed in a controlled tumble, but Cochran’s knees had collided with the sill and he had jackknifed forward to smack the pavement with his outstretched hands and the side of his head, and in the moment when his legs flailed free and he was nearly standing on his head he was sure that his spine was about to snap.

But then he had fallen over and Plumtree had dragged him to his feet, and he was able to limp dizzily forward across the dark courtyard, pulling her after him; the exterior spotlights had gone out too, and Plumtree kept whispering that she couldn’t see at all, but the dim shine of the half-moon was bright enough for Cochran to avoid the wooden picnic tables as he led her to the parking lot fence, where he and Long John Beach had stood talking six hours ago.

“Grape leaves fell like rain . . .” came a wail through the broken window behind them.

The winter night air was as harsh as menthol cigarette smoke in Cochran’s nose, but it cleared his head enough so that he could lift one of the picnic-table benches and prop it firmly against the spike-topped iron fence; and though he saw two of the security guards furiously pedaling their bicycles across the lot from the main hospital building, they were clearly heading for the clinic entrance, and no one shouted or shined a light at Cochran as he boosted Plumtree up the steeply slanted boards of the bench seat.

The fingers of her good hand caught the top edge, and with a fast scuffling she was at the top, and leaping; and Cochran was already scrambling up the bench when her sneakers slapped the pavement.

Then he had jumped too, and though he almost sat down when he landed, he was ready to run when he straightened up.

But Plumtree caught his shoulder. “Don’t be a person in a hurry,” she said breathlessly. She linked her arm through his, wincing as her swollen knuckles bumped his elbow. “It’s lucky we’re a couple. Just be a guy out for a stroll by the madhouse with his girlfriend, right?”

“Right.” With his free hand he reached back through the bars of the fence and pushed the bench away; the clatter of it hitting the cement pavement in the yard was lost in the crashing cacophony shaking out through the sprung window. “What’s my girlfriend’s name?” he asked as they began walking–a little hurriedly, in spite of her advice–along the tree-shadowed fence toward the lane that led out to Rosecrans Boulevard.

“I’m Janis again. Cody came back just now like somebody fired out of a cannon, so don’t tell me what happened–okay?–or you’ll just have Valerie on your hands. It’s enough to know that you agreed about escaping, and that we’ve done it.” She gave him a frightened smile. “Let’s make like a tree, and leave.”

He nodded, and though his breathing was slowing down, his heart was still knocking in his chest. “Put an egg in your shoe and beat it,” he responded absently. He could see the corner of the fence ahead, and it was all he could do not to walk even faster. “I did agree, in the end.”

He was remembering a pair of shoes Nina had bought for him, actually leather hiking boots. They were only about an eighth of an inch bigger than his ordinary shoes at any point, but he had constantly found himself catching the sides of them against furniture, and tripping on tread edges when he’d go upstairs, and generally kicking things he hadn’t realized were in his way; and it had occurred to him that in his ordinary old shoes, as he had routinely walked through each day, he must have been only narrowly missing collisions and entanglements with every thoughtless step.

What size shoe am I wearing now? he thought giddily. I’m not walking any differently, but lately I’ve collided with a man who can talk with my dead wife’s voice, and who can reach out and grab you across a room with a hand he hasn’t got; and I’ve run afoul of a doctor who wants to keep me locked up in a crazy ward and give electroshock treatments to a woman I . . . am growing very fond of; and she claims to actually be several people, one of whom doesn’t like me and another of whom is reportedly a man, who can–

He took a shuddering breath and clasped her arm tighter, for he was afraid he might fling it away and just run from her.

–who apparently can, he went on, finishing the thought, call up actual earthquakes at will.

Maybe I’m not wearing any shoes at all now, he thought, in that manner of speaking. It’s mostly barefoot people that break their toes.

“You’ve . . . seen this stuff too, right?” he said softly. “Ghosts? And–” She didn’t want to hear about the earthquake right now. “– supernatural stuff?” He had spoken haltingly, embarrassed to be talking about the very coin of madness; but he needed to know that he really did have a companion in this scary new world.

“Don’t make me lose time here, Scant.”

“Sorry.” Her abrupt reply had brought heat to his face, and he tried to keep any tone of hurt out of his voice. “Never mind.” Don’t be disturbing her, he told himself bitterly, with talk of something distasteful that might be important to you, like your mere sanity.

“I’m sorry, Scant,” she said instantly, hugging his arm and leaning her head on his shoulder, “I was afraid you’d say something more– something specific!–that would drive me away from you here. You and I can’t have misunderstandings between us! Yes–I’ve seen this stuff too, undeniably. Sometimes it’s hard for me to tell, because even normal things . . . change, if I take my eyes off them: I never cross the street on the green light, because an hour–a week!–might have gone by between the moment I saw the WALK sign flash and the moment I step off the curb; I always cross with people, almost hanging on to their coats. When I was twelve, my mother took me to her sister’s funeral, and halfway through the ceremony I found out that it was her mother’s funeral, and I was fourteen! I think if she hadn’t ever brought me to another funeral at that same cemetery, so I could recognize it, I wouldn’t have found my way back at all, ever, to this day!”

She laughed helplessly. “But I’ve seen ghosts, too, sure. I attract them, they come to me crying, often as not, telling me they’re lost and want help finding their mothers, these transparent little . . . cellophane bags, like cigarette-pack wrappers! Or they’re . . . feeling romantic, and whisper nasty things in my ear, as if they could do anything about it.

But they can’t grab me, I always just lose time. And Cody and Valerie have different birthdates from me, so each of us that comes up is a fresh picture, and the ghosts slide off, can’t get a grip.” He felt her shudder through his arm. “I think they’d hurt me, I think they’d kill me, if they could get a grip.”

Cochran kissed the top of her head. “Why are they attracted to you?”

“Because I have ‘wide unclasped the table of my thoughts.’ Don’t ask me about that,” she added hastily, “or you’ll be kissing Valerie’s head.” She smacked her lips. “I wish I’d brought my mouthwash.”

They had rounded the fence corner now, and they were walking on a sidewalk under bright streetlights. Cars were driving by, and he could see the traffic signal for Rosecrans Boulevard only a hundred yards ahead of them.

“I think I could call my lawyer now,” he said, “when we find a Denny’s, somewhere we can sit down and they have a payphone. I’ve got change for the call, and I think I can slant the story a little to make sure he’ll wire us money and then legally get us out of Armentrout’s control.”

“A Denny’s would be nice,” Plumtree agreed. “I’ve got a twenty in my shoe, and Ra only knows when I last ate. But we don’t need your lawyer–Cody can get us money and a place to stay, and we’ve got . . . things to do, locally, people to see.”

Cochran could imagine nothing now but getting back to his house in South Daly City up in San Mateo County as quickly as possible. “People?” he said doubtfully. “What, family?”

“No. I’ll tell you when we’ve got drinks in front of us. Don’t most Denny’s serve liquor?”

“I don’t know,” Cochran said, suddenly very happy with the idea of a shot of lukewarm Wild Turkey and an icy Coors for a chaser. “But most bars sell food.”