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A Time Machine
Alexander does not ask for a ride to his own house, nor begin walking off in another direction, as I had expected him to. Instead, we enter the Theatre lobby right behind Larry's dusty-blue coat and head for a door situated in the narrow space between two light-painted walls with black and white prints hung upon them. Larry turns off towards a flat, blue door beyond what I recognize as the Box Office counter. No one is manning it at the moment; it is only late morning.
"Well, I hope you know what you're doing," Larry finally says just before disappearing through his blue door. "I don't know what else to say, Alexander."
Alexander does not seem disturbed. "Who ever knows."
I can't see whether or not Larry nods, but he's soon out of sight and the man carrying me manages to balance my coat and open the door down our little hallway. Immediately, a white flash of some living thing rears up at Alexander and blows warm breath over me.
"Down," Alexander's vodor says emotionlessly. The white blur recedes, revealing the top of a staircase. Alexander is taking me to a basement. The blur ceases its wild motion, and becomes a Dalmatian dog, smiling its innocently friendly dog smile. It can barely contain its fervent need to nose me, I can tell, but it obeys Alexander.
The dog wags in response to this.
The Dalmatian turns and trots down, a bit precariously on the steps, tail moving. It had not been barking nor making any kind of sound, so I surmise that 'Silence' is a name rather than a command. It obeys so well, it must be Alexander's dog.
"That is Silence," I am told a moment later. "He is my dog. I see-- you are not afraid. I hope."
I adjust my body comfortably in the coat-nest and open and shut my bill a few times, hoping to convey general contentment. Alexander carries me into the open space of the basement, and I see that this is not just Theatre storage space. In fact, that must be accessed by another door altogether, although one of the doors here could also lead to it. It is obvious that this is a sort of living space. Then I know who this is. This is Alexander Leaf, the playwright that has been described as living on the same premises where the Firehouse Group performs. I had not known that he was a SCAB. He seems to keep pretty much to himself. It makes me appreciate all the more that he bothered to take me to the veterinarian.
Silence dances around the living space, showing how well he has kept things in his companion's absence. Alexander praises him for his patience, mentioning that he will take him for a walk later on. "I walk by myself to meditate, some-times," he explains for my benefit. I nod, then tuck my bill into the fold of my unfledged wing and watch the man put away his coat, turn on a vid-feed quietly, and run a sink full of warm water.
"This is just luke-warm," he informs me. "We need to wash your underside and your feet."
I offer no resistance as I am lifted by sharp, chill, but very gentle hands. I notice with the bend of one leg, pressed into the center of his palm, that a bit of Alexander's body surface is warm as I would expect a Normal's to be. He puts me in the shallowly filled sink, and gingerly rubs the grime off my ankles and webs. I watch him, feeling warm and warmer and then quite awake. I had needed this. Now I could do with some food.
Unremarkably, considering his behavior so far, Alexander dries me lightly with a hand towel and then brings forth a dish of something appearing soft and filling. "Just wheat bread," he says. "But I will get you the formula the vet suggest-ed."
I eat eagerly. I am beginning to enjoy myself a little too much. I haven't had company in so long, let alone been anybody else's company. It doesn't seem fair to let him continue carrying on like this. It's perfectly within my abilities to gesture that I wish to be taken to his computer keyboard, over there, under the papyrus wall hanging, and type something out for him.
I could introduce myself. Professor Meg-- Meg-- something. It used to be important what my identity was. At any rate, I could introduce myself, and explain that I am not like this all the time... But then it would beg the question, Meg, what are you? And I'm not sure that I want that answered. Let me be a baby duck for awhile; I deserve the vacation. It's hard to say how many times it's happened, my memories aren't too clear on that, but there's always the chance there won't be a next time. Somehow, it feels more probable every time this happens, from what I recall of my past emotions and the change, that once I've shifted back again there will never be a baby Meg to continue the cycle. It's not fair, but then it's not fair to him, either. If he knew, he could withdraw as he pleased. But-- he has no idea, I could be _anyone_, _anything_, and here he is feeding me baby food in his home and carrying me about and yet speaking to me as if I am an adult. Such foolhardiness is welcome. There aren't many others who would chance to behave in exactly the right fashion towards me; most wouldn't dare to try. It could have been the police. I could have cycled back to home again, eaten alone and stayed alone.
I am put back in mind of my benefactors on the road, but whoever they were my thanks will just have to wait. If they were real, they do not seem to want to be known, and I have decided... at least for now... to let Alexander keep me as he will. It is selfish of me. I console myself with the idea that he's a grown man, a well-known playwright, with fairly intelligent friends who will voice concerns for his welfare. Larry did so, and I needn't repeat anything that Mr. Leaf does not care to have repeated.
This is an almost sinkingly relaxing feeling, as though I am on the edge of a cliff, holding on by bare fingertips, but it is a good place to be. Edges and risk have been something of a comfort to me since the change. For so long, it's been all I've had left. Now let him make some use of me, getting in a good deed for his own soul. These thoughts ease my doubt.
I begin to fall asleep, aware of the spinning sensations as I do so. Alexander sits down at his keyboard, voiceless and unconcerned upon seeing me cuddle into my coat-nest. The vid-feed he has turned off while I was eating, replacing its quiet chatter with a disc of the ocean; some sort of collection of soothing sound effects. He begins to type, his fingers bending up where the long nails begin, and I watch for a short time amidst the falling before I am truly asleep.
Over the course of weeks, this has become too easy.
If Alexander had been requested, specifically, to act in accordance with what would please a professor turned into a baby duck, he could not do better than he has been doing. Silence is allowed to nose me at times, to satisfy himself as to my identity, but I remain otherwise unmolested. I watch the plays; I sit in one of the director's-chair-style cloth audience seats and stare at the stormy, exuberant, then subdued actions of people on stage. Kent Dryer, when asked, watches me for Alexander and maintains a respectful distance. German, the director, and Larry, an owner of this place, are always decorous around me because of the way Alexander treats me. No one knows what to make of me; no one knows who I am. It is strange to be treated this way only because I do not bother to communicate.
Only November Divosijli, a young cat 'morph who reminds me of that first night, has picked me up and stroked the down on my head, and murmured things to me. I don't mind in the least. It surprised me, at first, that no one else has followed her lead, but it has not yet happened and I suppose it won't. The only lap I regularly sit in is Alexander's. I almost imagine he is growing somewhat smug about his nearly exclusive handling of me.
I eat well-- the vet has looked at me once more and adjusted his recommendations, and I am filling out a bit. Of course, I am not growing. Never a single pinfeather pushes out from among the yellow and leaf-brown down coating over my self. I expected this. The vet again asked about other means of examining me medically, and again Alexander bypassed it smoothly. Somehow, he knows. Just my hesitation that first day, perhaps. I do not want to go home. He is giving me what I want. It is too easy.
Every other night I feel a twinge when I snuggle into my new cat-bed, which has taken the place of the coat, and watch Alexander sit down to his keyboard under the papyrus fan on the wall. On alternate nights I am too drowsy to care, but that twinge always comes back in force, and the repeated struggle plays out in my breast. Good conscience has, so far, lost every time. And I suppose I know why. I know that, sooner or later, and sooner every night that I willingly hesitate, my SCABS will make the truth plain and my decision will be made for me. Then, Alexander can do as he will. He has made choices, and I choose to let him.
One night I am feeling the pressure to explain everything, and Alexander must see the anxiety in my black eyes. I suppose they are black eyes. I have not looked in a mirror, but I think I remember ducklings as having black eyes. He turns in his computer chair to see if I am beginning to sleep, as he does every night. My awakeness is evident, and as is so often the case with him he does not bother to speak but instead comes over to me and stares down with the round, faceted eyes I have been able to place beneath a ridge of shell on his face. Alexander does not seem to particularly like his vodor. Larry and German do more talking, really; the day he brought me home was an exception. German's voice startled me at first; it sounded false, like a vodor voice that pretended to reality. But he is a budgerigar 'morph, and when I saw that it made sense. Alexander has no voice but the vodor's. He is expressive without it, I find.
Now he says nothing, but bends at the knees which make the pleats of his trousers jut out as if with skinless limbs beneath them. I suppose they are skinless. I have not watched him undressing. His legs may be shining, hard-shelled like some other parts of him. His sweater is moving, in the chest area. It seems as though tiny arms are in motion beneath it. He reaches out with his extreme claws and touches the down on my back. I look up at him, anxiously. I could patter right over to his computer now and type it all out with my bill, the whole truth and how he could be doing all this for nothing; how he had better be happy to be making me happy because that's all he stands to gain from it. I may not even be around long.
I close my eyes under the light pressure of the claw-touches. He realizes that this does not mean that I am fully relaxed, however.
Alexander picks me up in his thin palms, attracting the attention of a promptly jealous Silence, who wags over to bump against his master's legs and eye him pleadingly. Alexander rubs the top of the dog's head and ears to appease him, and Silence grins, his pink tongue showing.
Alexander takes a seat with me on his bed. In the other main part of his living space there is a sofa, and another vid-feed, but that space is more often shared with the Group and this room is where I am allowed to rest quietly. I live with Alexander. There is no telling how long it will last.
The man holds me on his lap and seems to ponder how to best get me to rest. He is as concerned for my health and schedule as if I were a real child. At last, he gets up and, still holding me steadily, turns on the ocean-waves disc again. I perk up at its initial sound, then lean closer into the palms of his hands.
"Do you know what I am." The sound makes me start slightly in his hands, and he apologetically strokes me until I am calm again. Then, in reply, I shake my head.
He nods. "If you are not sleepy I can show you."
"It does-n't matter but I thought maybe with not-thing else to talk about."
I squirm pleasedly in his grasp, showing my willingness to talk about anything he wishes to discuss. At least, anything but my own lack of answers, which he has strangely and mercifully left unprobed.
The man takes me to his bureau, holding me in one hand while he pulls open a drawer with another. "This is a pic-ture." He takes out a heavy book with a textured cloth cover and lays it out on the bed, fingering through it delicately with a burnt-brown claw. I peer at the leaves as they turn. He seems to turn them, unthinkingly, in time with the recorded ocean waves. Matching his timing to things seems natural to Alexander, the way his walk seems natural to him. Yet he must have been human sometime. That is, human in the conventional, Normal terms. I wonder whether his synchrony with his own disease was a necessary thing that affected his responses to everything else, or whether his SCABS walk is more natural to him than his Normal man's walk was. Or, perhaps, whether he is simply putting on a good front. He may be, for me, in my presence. I again feel guilty.
"Here." The claws stop and hold down the edges of a glossy photograph page. It is the top view of a horseshoe crab.
I make a little, peeping sound deep in my throat, and Alexander seems surprised at the fragment of voiced communication. "Yes."
I make no further noise. He shrugs almost imperceptibly and gazes at the photograph. "So now you know what I am. What else to talk about."
I take a good, long look at the page as Alexander stands holding me over it. It takes a slight bit of time, but once I find a single frame of reference it is easy to make the rest of his form fit into place. Yes, yes of course. The segments down his entire back closely resemble the pointed joints of the base of the horseshoe crab's tail. Alexander has no visible tail, and his eyes are placed as a human's, but I can see the crab there, easily. I nuzzle into him to show, in some way, I suppose, my approval of this identification.
"What else to talk about." I don't really think he expects an answer from me, but suddenly I do have a request for him. I peep once, clearly.
He is surprised, to have me so blatantly express anything with my voice, but he immediately appears somewhat disturbed that he does not understand precisely what I want.
I, of course, know that my one syllable could be taken to mean a lot of things. I am just curious to see what Alexander looks like under his clothes. I reach pointedly for his sweater with my bill, and when he holds me close to his torso I tug at the side of one of his sleeves.
He does get the message. "Un-less you are a fan of crabs it is not a pretty sight." His vodor crackles a few times, unbidden, and I fluff out the down-feathers on my head and try to appear pleased.
In agreement, Alexander places me on the bedspread and carefully removes his clothing. It almost occurs to me that I am conveniently finding many ways in which to avert my private worries about Alexander's generosity, but fortunately my interest in what he looks like completes the silencing of my conflicts and I merely watch.
The man unknots and lays out his tie with practiced flexing of his chitinous fingers. What's amazing is that he can also remove and fold a sweater without snagging one of the points of his nails in it.
Alexander removes and distractedly folds his shirt, trousers, even his socks that have been shaped into jagged claw-covers by his unyielding form. He stands still, or as still as I have seen him stand, but for the persistent twitching of those additional limbs of some kind criss-crossing his torso.
"They move when I am ner-vous," he admits. "Or just about any time."
I nod. I recall seeing them on horseshoe crabs held upside down. I do not remember, now, whether I have ever heard what they are for; they could be sensory, or sexual, or for locomotion, and of course on Alexander they could be anything in between. I do not ask him whether he has personally identified the almost softly fanning appendages. To ask would be to admit that I can answer about myself. As it is, I know what he looks like. His seems to be a permanent condition. That is more than I can say for mine.
Alexander looks at me looking for some time, and then I yawn. He piles the clothes over one arm and lays them in the closet on a shelf, evidently to wear next morning. He probably doesn't sweat much.
"Are you ready to sleep yet."
I settle onto the tops of my feet, not really replying either way.
"Are you o-kay."
No, Alexander. I'm not o-kay. But there's nothing that can be done for me. I'm sorry that I ever made you or anyone else care to even ask me that. It makes this that much harder.
The half-horseshoe-crab man sits on the edge of the bed and watches me, concerned. I keep my expression blank.
Suddenly, he smiles and turns towards the head of the bed. His fingernails draw back an edge of the covers and he pats the sheet lightly with dark clawtips. I must appear as pleased as I feel, because his slick lip rises a little more over one tooth in a more lopsided, broader grin. I haven't slept in a bed in a long time. It would feel dignified, for a change.
I accept by trotting duck-style over the high folds in the bedspread, and place my chin on the pillow. Alexander watches me for a moment, then questioningly draws back the covers on his own side. I make no protest, of course. I don't know where else he would sleep in his own apartment.
Before climbing in for the night, the playwright shuts off the distantly buzzing computer, turns off all the lights but the one lamp he consistently leaves for me so I can find my way to the restroom, whose door he leaves open, and turns down the disc he has in the player to a background murmur. It is a collection of classical pieces; Alexander likes the French horn. Playing now is Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man."
In the dim light, I have a much easier time imagining myself sleeping, and I begin to forget what was troubling me. The bed feels rich and clean around me. My own circular cat bed-nest is clean, but it is plush like a child's toy and not so smooth and hypnotizing as a true bed.
Alexander's rough scale-like shell makes rustling noises on the sheet for a few moments, but then he lies so still that only his breathing interrupts the far-off sound of disc music and the perpetual, dust-soft vibration of his chest appendages moving. I suppose he will lift me down if I need anything during the night. Alexander will do anything I like.
Alexander. Is. I thrash under the pressure
of his hands, but nothing is letting up. Chilled
and burning up at the same time. Holding me down.
"Alexander!" I taste something in my mouth as I say that, and it's rich and salty. I see some of the same stuff on his face, grimacing over me. I know it is the same stuff because it is blood.
His vodor makes a sound like a soothing hush, but my body is moving of its own volition and I can only hate the jerking of my legs and arms just before it happens, but not stop it. Only hate it. I begin to choke on the blood, and don't know how to tell him to let me up. But he notices.
"I am lett-ing you up. But you are hurting your-self. I have called-- an-- am-bul-ance."
I suppose he would have to, I think around the tremors, thankful for his claws holding my wrists as they try unbidden to beat against my face. The coughing and choking keeps me from saying anything more, but I am grateful that I spoke to him at all-- he knows, and I know, that I am aware of who he is. This is better than last time. Last time I was more disoriented.
Blood and spit dribble down my chin, and before they reach my breastbone they have cooled, and I begin to shiver even as the tremors are calming slightly. If I could have stayed unconscious, it might not have hurt so much, but then he wouldn't have known I knew who he was. Somehow, that feels important.
"Are you more cold or warm."
"More--" I cough, lick my lips and begin again-- "cold. Please."
Alexander waits, feeling my tight arm muscles and watching my face, but soon he sees and feels that he may let go and I will not be striking at myself. As soon as he frees me, to get a blanket and wrap me up as I seem to have rolled onto the floor during the shift, I drop my face into the crook of one arm and try fervently to sob. My body is too drained even to let me, though. So soon. And I can't even show him how ashamed I am. I can't even cry to show anything.
I say, and my voice sounds dead: "I'm so sorry, Alexander."
He stops pulling the blanket around me, surprised. He does not speak, but comes around to lean close in front of me and admonish me with his expression. I know my voice expresses nothing. He cannot know I mean it. And by the time I have enough control to make any kind of a true apologetic speech, I'll be recuperating from this bout in the hospital and then sitting home, waiting for the next time. If there is a next time, this time.
People are knocking at the door. "It's the EMT's," they say. "Ambulance." Their voices are heavy, and concerned. Alexander lets them in quickly and they check me over. I know I'll appear all right, soon enough. There are some things they cannot fix, but those symptoms that are due to the trauma are what they worry about right now.
Silence is... Silent. He never even barks, not once. Alexander touches him on the head and he backs out of the way, forehead wrinkled. I wonder if he knows this is me. Alexander comes with me as I am carried to the ambulance. I didn't go to the hospital, most of the other times. It all has depended on whether anyone else is around.
"You will be o-kay." I feel his claw make an indentation on the white skin of my wrist. I choke on any sort of reply I might have made.
Unfortunately, they are even kinder and more
concerned than I had thought. Larry, his friend
Francis, Bix and Andrea, November (weeping,
terribly worried for me... why? Does she miss her pet
duckling? She doesn't know the least thing about me
as I am) and of course the inevitable Alexander have
visited me whenever they have been allowed to. I
didn't expect this; at least, I didn't allow myself to
believe that I might expect it. It was easier to believe
they could stop caring when things changed. Now I know
why I felt ashamed at accepting all Alexander has
done for me. I knew he would care about what
happens to me. If he didn't, he wouldn't have had
to pick me up out of the street in the first
place. But it's too late now.
Of course, I am the only one who leaves the hospital fully knowing. It is my diagnosis and my responsibility to carry it, and share it when need be. Most of the Firehouse Group from the Kelly Theatre supposes that I will be returning to my house, now that I have been restored to what appears to be a Normal form. They don't know what it's like, and that I'd have no reason to go back.
I've dragged Alexander far enough into this, yet I go home again with him anyway. It's all for my own sake, too. I like his home so much. There's nothing in it for him, anymore. A glimmer of hope that perhaps, just perhaps, I might get lucky again sees fit to flare up in my brain. I know it's not right to entertain it. I must be up front with him. He doesn't deserve to suffer from somebody else's SCABS.
He sits me down on the edge of the bed and stares at me, expectantly. He knows full well that the expression on the nurses' cautiously closed lips was not routine for releasing a patient. He does not say, but is clearly demanding, "What is it."
I sob, then. I intended to answer concisely, and thoughtfully, taking into account his obvious attachment to me and the cool approach I have managed to take since after I lost my job. It left me nothing to look forward to, I decided then, and I could always remain separated from the future in this way. But my chest is constricting and my stomach churns and my head aches from what seem like years of repressed crying. They won't wait, now. The sobs jolt out of me until I know that if I don't let them come I will start bleeding again, so I give in and cover my face with my hands.
"Meg." He knows my name, now.
I try to indicate that I will answer him, but that the whimpers in my throat won't resolve themselves into words...
"Shh. Meg." Alexander places a long, thin hand over the nape of my neck, cooling and warming it at the same time. Enough of one and the other, not too much of either.
"I can't-- I can't--" I mean to say I can't talk, but I guess he can derive that from the constant pauses while I draw in breaths from the end of crying.
Alexander's basement apartment always remains neat and calming even in desperate situations. Its sand-colored walls seem to smooth the edges off my terrible upset, now, and I rock slightly under my benefactor's arm until I can draw a relatively unlabored breath.
"I'm sorry, Alexander," I speak finally in my weak, but harsh voice. I'm too tall for my weight and I feel like a blemish on the clean apartment with my thin, rickety body. Some of my apology is just for that, for my SCABS-ancient woman's form, my white hair that is never anything but stringy and the veins showing rudely through the skin of my arms.
Alexander just looks at me reproachfully.
"But I need to apologize. You don't-- you don't understand."
The vodor rustles. "I know I do-n't. Explain to me."
"Mr. Leaf. I knew all along I would change into this. I always do. But the duckling is the only thing keeping me alive."
There, it's said. Not very elegantly, but at least it's a start.
"How long." Nothing but that, and spoken as monotonously as everything else that emanates from the vodor. I glance at Alexander, and blink rapidly to clear away the tears clinging to my sticky eyelashes... I seem always to have some disgusting membrane loosing something onto my body. A fuzzy baby duck I am not in the least.
"I... don't know," I manage to answer. "Three or four weeks, they say. Maybe less, maybe more. Certainly not more than five weeks. And it's always the same. I always start over at the same place."
Alexander is placing his arms around me, slowly, moving closer in what my guilty mind admits is a comforting, welcome hug, but at the same time I know I can't let him do this if he's not really hearing me. I should know better, though. Alexander is aware of too many things about me to stop listening now.
"Shh. Shh. Calm down and then you will get cleaned up. You need-ed to cry."
I nod, the tears threatening again at the mention of them. I lower my head and mutter, "Yes."
A long pause lets the sounds of air moving in the apartment and Silence curling tighter into a sleeping ball clean the most part of the tension from directly around me. I feel better, but weaker, and don't work so hard to sit upright. Alexander lets me lean on him for an indeterminate amount of time. Finally, when he sees that I am awake, merely letting some of my body rest, he speaks.
"You will stay here, Meg."
I nod. There is no use arguing. He has asked and received his answer. He already knows the rest from what he knows of living with me. He doesn't need to hear that sometimes it's four weeks, sometimes two and a half. He knows that if I don't change, the degenerations inside will finish out my body before the other form ever reappears.
"Good." He strokes my hair, and holds me close so my own chest feels his moving, and probably those limbs can feel the rise and fall of my ribs.
This looks like the right place. Something
about it is slightly off-center, and I hesitate, but
the landmarks seem right; I may be misjudging things
due to my changed shape and size.
"It was here..? You remember." I hold my coat-collar tighter against my mouth so I'll breathe warmed air. Alexander tightens his grip on my mittened hand.
He nods, "Yes." He, too, though, glances about in slow confirmation at the road and its buildings.
"Someone spoke to me. I swear that I ate something. But I saw no one before the voice and a sort of surrounding black-out. There were others, too, I would swear it more strongly if I had any idea who it could have been."
Alexander, surveying the street by MacLeod's laundry building, of course sees no one. His vodor's volume does not rise above an acceptable indoor level, but he attempts, "Hello. Any-one."
My voice is raspy, but I try as well. There is no reply. Only Silence, touching his nose to the gritty, cold surface of the road, turns to face us and wiggle whenever we call out.
I sigh. Even this makes my shoulders ache. I needed the air, and desired to find my benefactors of the night I changed on the street, but my body is dictating the end of this walk. "Alexander, I'm sorry, I need to go."
"Ofv course. Come Silence."
Silence trots evenly on the end of his nylon leash. Alexander seems to support some of my weight by holding my hand lightly; I don't know how he does it. His measured gait brings back the sounds that reached me when he picked me up; two steps, and taking the foot back in line, alternately, two steps again... Something sounds a little off. As if we're not far enough yet from the place where I was found. Listening to Alexander, I begin watching the ground.
"We-'ll try a-gain an-other time."
"Wait." I notice that we have had to take more steps, I'm sure of it now. More steps to return to the main road. It's as if a whole block had somehow... Moved. Alexander waits. Silence noses at the seam of the blacktop, newer where we stand, separating this area where I was found from the rest of the neighborhood. The blackness of the asphalt, hugging its tiny pieces of gravel and dust, recalls something to me.
I glance quickly back over my shoulder, constantly readjusting my collar over my chin and mouth, but in the clear air there is nothing but the rise of steam from an outlet to the laundry building. For a moment I imagine I feel something, a presence, but then it's gone-- whether it was real and I forced it away by noticing it is now impossible for me to say.
"Is some-thing different," Alexander inquires, noticing that I have felt it too.
"Yes." I cough slightly, knowing I have to give it up for now-- whatever it was, it is at least temporarily silent, or motionless. "You're right-- we'll try again. Some other time."
Alexander looks back, just as I did. His vodor speaks evenly, but it feels like a whisper. "They have all moved."
Someone is aware that he has said that. They will expect me back. I won't know what to offer them to make up for all the mystery except a plain thank-you.
Silence dances at the edge of the thickly-laid asphalt. Alexander draws the leash taut, and takes firmer hold of my hand, and for the time being we disappear, as well.