He said, voice hoarse, "Shut up. Go away. Let me eat alone. I'm sick of the lot of you."
Mother and Joe returned a few minutes later where he sat forcing food down his throat. Mother said, "Henry dear--" He didn't answer. She began to cry, and he was glad she left the house then. He had never said anything really bad to his mother. He was afraid this would have been the time. Joe merely cleared his throat and mumbled something about getting together again soon and "drop out and see the new development" and he, too, was gone. Lucille never did manage to speak to him.
He finished his beef and waited. Soon Edith came in with the special dessert she'd been preparing half the day--a magnificent English trifle. She served him, and spooned out a portion for herself and Ralphie. She hesitated near his chair, and when he made no comment she called the boy. Then the three of them were sitting, facing the empty side of the table. They ate the trifle. Ralphie finished first and got up and said, "Hey, I promised--"
"You promised the boys you'd play baseball or football or handball or something; anything to get away from your father."
Ralphie's head dropped and he muttered, "Aw, no, Dad."
Edith said, "He'll stay home, Hank. We'll spend an evening together--talking, watching TV, playing Monopoly."
Ralphie said, "Gee, sure, Dad, if you want to."
Hank stood up. "The question is not whether I want to. You both know I want to. The question is whether you want to."
They answered together that of course they wanted to. But their eyes--his wife's and son's eyes--could not meet his, and so he said he was going to his room because he was, after all, very tired and would in all probability continue to be very tired for a long, long time and that they shouldn't count on him for normal social life.
He fell asleep quickly, lying there in his clothes.
But he didn't sleep long. Edith shook him and he opened his eyes to a lighted room. "Phil and Rhona are here." He blinked at her. She smiled, and it seemed her old smile. "They're so anxious to see you, Hank. I could barely keep Phil from coming up and waking you himself. They want to go out and do the town. Please, Hank, say you will."
He sat up. "Phil," he muttered. "Phil and Rhona." They'd had wonderful times together, from grammar school on. Phil and Rhona, their oldest and closest friends. Perhaps this would begin his real homecoming.
Do the town? They'd paint it and then tear it down!
It didn't turn out that way. He was disappointed; but then again, he'd also expected it. This entire first day at home had conditioned him to expect nothing good. They went to the bowling alleys, and Phil sounded very much the way he always had--soft spoken and full of laughter and full of jokes. He patted Edith on the head the way he always had, and clapped Hank on the shoulder (but not the way he always had--so much more gently, almost remotely), and insisted they all drink more than was good for them as he always had. And for once, Hank was ready to go along on the drinking. For once, he matched Phil shot for shot, beer for beer.
They didn't bowl very long. At ten o'clock they crossed the road to Manfred's Tavern, where Phil and the girls ordered sandwiches and coffee and Hank went right on drinking. Edith said something to him, but he merely smiled and waved his hand and gulped another ounce of nirvana.
There was dancing to a juke box in Manfred's Tavern. He'd been there many times before, and he was sure several of the couples recognized him. But except for a few abortive glances in his direction, it was as if he were a stranger in a city halfway around the world.
At midnight, he was still drinking. The others wanted to leave, but he said, "I haven't danced with my girl Rhona." His tongue was thick, his mind was blurred, and yet he could read the strange expression on her face--pretty Rhona, who'd always flirted with him, who'd made a ritual of flirting with him. Pretty Rhona, who now looked as if she were going to be sick.
"So let's rock," he said and stood up.
They were on the dance floor. He held her close, and hummed and chatted. And through the alcoholic haze saw she was a stiff-smiled, stiff-bodied, mechanical dancing doll.
The number finished; they walked back to the booth. Phil said, "Beddy-bye time."
Hank said, "First one dance with my loving wife."
He and Edith danced. He didn't hold her close as he had Rhona. He waited for her to come close on her own, and she did, and yet she didn't. Because while she put herself against him, there was something in her face--no, in her eyes; it always showed in the eyes--that made him know she was trying to be the old Edith and not succeeding. This time when the music ended, he was ready to go home.
They rode back to town along Route Nine, he and Edith in the rear of Phil's car, Rhona driving because Phil had drunk just a little too much, Phil singing and telling an occasional bad joke, and somehow not his old self. No one was his old self. No one would ever be his old self with the First One.
They turned left, to take the short cut along Hallowed Hill Road, and Phil finished a story about a Martian and a Hollywood sex queen and looked at his wife and then past her at the long, cast-iron fence paralleling the road. "Hey," he said, pointing, "do you know why that's the most popular place on earth?"
Rhona glanced to the left, and so did Hank and Edith. Rhona made a little sound, and Edith seemed to stop breathing, but Phil went on a while longer, not yet aware of his supposed faux pas.
"You know why?" he repeated, turning to the back seat, the laughter rumbling up from his chest. "You know why, folks?"
Rhona said, "Did you notice Carl Braken and his wife at--"
Hank said, "No, Phil, why is it the most popular place on earth?"
Phil said, "Because people are--" And then he caught himself and waved his hand and muttered, "I forgot the punch line."
"Because people are dying to get in," Hank said, and looked through the window, past the iron fence, into the large cemetery at the fleeting tombstones.
The car was filled with horrified silence when there should have been nothing but laughter, or irritation at a too-old joke. "Maybe you should let me out right here," Hank said. "I'm home--or that's what everyone seems to think. Maybe I should lie down in an open grave. Maybe that would satisfy people. Maybe that's the only way to act, like Dracula or another monster from the movies."
Edith said, "Oh, Hank, don't, don't!"
The car raced along the road, crossed a macadam highway, went four blocks and pulled to a stop. He didn't bother saying good night. He didn't wait for Edith. He just got out and walked up the flagstone path and entered the house.
"Hank," Edith whispered from the guest room doorway, "I'm so sorry--"
"There's nothing to be sorry about. It's just a matter of time. It'll all work out in time."
"Yes," she said quickly, "that's it. I need a little time. We all need a little time. Because it's so strange, Hank. Because it's so frightening. I should have told you that the moment you walked in. I think I've hurt you terribly, we've all hurt you terribly, by trying to hide that we're frightened."
"I'm going to stay in the guest room," he said, "for as long as necessary. For good if need be."
"How could it be for good? How, Hank?"
That question was perhaps the first firm basis for hope he'd had since returning. And there was something else; what Carlisle had told him, even as Carlisle himself had reacted as all men did.
"There are others coming, Edith. Eight that I know of in the tanks right now. My superior, Captain Davidson, who died at the same moment I did--seven months ago next Wednesday--he's going to be next. He was smashed up worse than I was, so it took a little longer, but he's almost ready. And there'll be many more, Edith. The government is going to save all they possibly can from now on. Every time a young and healthy man loses his life by accident, by violence, and his body can be recovered, he'll go into the tanks and they'll start the regenerative brain and organ process--the process that made it all possible. So people have to get used to us. And the old stories, the old terrors, the ugly old superstitions have to die, because in time each place will have some of us; because in time it'll be an ordinary thing."
Edith said, "Yes, and I'm so grateful that you're here, Hank. Please believe that. Please be patient with me and Ralphie and--" She paused. "There's one question."
He knew what the question was. It had been the first asked him by everyone from the president of the United States on down.
"I saw nothing," he said. "It was as if I slept those six and a half months--slept without dreaming."
She came to him and touched his face with her lips, and he was satisfied.
Later, half asleep, he heard a dog howling, and remembered stories of how they announced death and the presence of monsters. He shivered and pulled the covers closer to him and luxuriated in being safe in his own home.
IT COULD BE ANYTHING.
By KEITH LAUMER
"She'll be pulling out in a minute, Brett," Mr. Phillips said. He tucked his railroader's watch back in his vest pocket. "You better get aboard--if you're still set on going."
"It was reading all them books done it," Aunt Haicey said. "Thick books, and no pictures in them. I knew it'd make trouble." She plucked at the faded hand-embroidered shawl over her thin shoulders, a tiny bird-like woman with bright anxious eyes.
"Don't worry about me," Brett said. "I'll be back."
"The place'll be yours when I'm gone," Aunt Haicey said. "Lord knows it won't be long."
"Why don't you change your mind and stay on, boy?" Mr. Phillips said, blinking up at the young man. "If I talk to Mr. J.D., I think he can find a job for you at the plant."
"So many young people leave Casperton," Aunt Haicey said. "They never come back."
Mr. Phillips clicked his teeth. "They write, at first," he said. "Then they gradually lose touch."
"All your people are here, Brett," Aunt Haicey said. "Haven't you been happy here?"
"Why can't you young folks be content with Casperton?" Mr. Phillips said. "There's everything you need here."
"It's that Pretty-Lee done it," Aunt Haicey said. "If it wasn't for that girl--"
A clatter ran down the line of cars. Brett kissed Aunt Haicey's dry cheek, shook Mr. Phillips' hand, and swung aboard. His suitcase was on one of the seats. He put it up above in the rack, and sat down, turned to wave back at the two old people.
It was a summer morning. Brett leaned back and watched the country slide by. It was nice country, Brett thought; mostly in corn, some cattle, and away in the distance the hazy blue hills. Now he would see what was on the other side of them: the cities, the mountains, and the ocean. Up until now all he knew about anything outside of Casperton was what he'd read or seen pictures of. As far as he was concerned, chopping wood and milking cows back in Casperton, they might as well not have existed. They were just words and pictures printed on paper. But he didn't want to just read about them. He wanted to see for himself.
Pretty-Lee hadn't come to see him off. She was probably still mad about yesterday. She had been sitting at the counter at the Club Rexall, drinking a soda and reading a movie magazine with a big picture of an impossibly pretty face on the cover--the kind you never see just walking down the street. He had taken the next stool and ordered a coke.
"Why don't you read something good, instead of that pap?" he asked her.
"Something good? You mean something dry, I guess. And don't call it ... that word. It doesn't sound polite."
"What does it say? That somebody named Doll Starr is fed up with glamor and longs for a simple home in the country and lots of kids? Then why doesn't she move to Casperton?"
"You wouldn't understand," said Pretty-Lee.
He took the magazine, leafed through it. "Look at this: all about people who give parties that cost thousands of dollars, and fly all over the world having affairs with each other and committing suicide and getting divorced. It's like reading about Martians."
"I still like to read about the stars. There's nothing wrong with it."
"Reading all that junk just makes you dissatisfied. You want to do your hair up crazy like the pictures in the magazines and wear weird-looking clothes--"
Pretty-Lee bent her straw double. She stood up and took her shopping bag. "I'm very glad to know you think my clothes are weird--"
"You're taking everything I say personally. Look." He showed her a full-color advertisement on the back cover of the magazine. "Look at this. Here's a man supposed to be cooking steaks on some kind of back-yard grill. He looks like a movie star; he's dressed up like he was going to get married; there's not a wrinkle anywhere. There's not a spot on that apron. There isn't even a grease spot on the frying pan. The lawn is as smooth as a billiard table. There's his son; he looks just like his pop, except that he's not grey at the temples. Did you ever really see a man that handsome, or hair that was just silver over the ears and the rest glossy black? The daughter looks like a movie starlet, and her mom is exactly the same, except that she has that grey streak in front to match her husband. You can see the car in the drive; the treads of the tires must have just been scrubbed; they're not even dusty. There's not a pebble out of place; all the flowers are in full bloom; no dead ones. No leaves on the lawn; no dry twigs showing on the trees. That other house in the background looks like a palace, and the man with the rake, looking over the fence: he looks like this one's twin brother, and he's out raking leaves in brand new clothes--"
Pretty-Lee grabbed her magazine. "You just seem to hate everything that's nicer than this messy town--"
"I don't think it's nicer. I like you; your hair isn't always perfectly smooth, and you've got a mended place on your dress, and you feel human, you smell human--"
"Oh!" Pretty-Lee turned and flounced out of the drug store.
Brett shifted in the dusty plush seat and looked around. There were a few other people in the car. An old man was reading a newspaper; two old ladies whispered together. There was a woman of about thirty with a mean-looking kid; and some others. They didn't look like magazine pictures, any of them. He tried to picture them doing the things you read in newspapers: the old ladies putting poison in somebody's tea; the old man giving orders to start a war. He thought about babies in houses in cities, and airplanes flying over, and bombs falling down: huge explosive bombs. Blam! Buildings fall in, pieces of glass and stone fly through the air. The babies are blown up along with everything else-- But the kind of people he knew couldn't do anything like that. They liked to loaf and eat and talk and drink beer and buy a new tractor or refrigerator and go fishing. And if they ever got mad and hit somebody--afterwards they were embarrassed and wanted to shake hands....
The train slowed, came to a shuddery stop. Through the window he saw a cardboardy-looking building with the words BAXTER'S JUNCTION painted across it. There were a few faded posters on a bulletin board. An old man was sitting on a bench, waiting. The two old ladies got off and a boy in blue jeans got on. The train started up. Brett folded his jacket and tucked it under his head and tried to doze off....
Brett awoke, yawned, sat up. The train was slowing. He remembered you couldn't use the toilets while the train was stopped. He got up and went to the end of the car. The door was jammed. He got it open and went inside and closed the door behind him. The train was going slower, clack-clack ... clack-clack ... clack; clack ... cuh-lack ...
He washed his hands, then pulled at the door. It was stuck. He pulled harder. The handle was too small; it was hard to get hold of. The train came to a halt. Brett braced himself and strained against the door. It didn't budge.
He looked out the grimy window. The sun was getting lower. It was about three-thirty, he guessed. He couldn't see anything but some dry-looking fields.
Outside in the corridor there were footsteps. He started to call, but then didn't. It would be too embarrassing, pounding on the door and yelling, "Let me out! I'm stuck in the toilet ..."
He tried to rattle the door. It didn't rattle. Somebody was dragging something heavy past the door. Mail bags, maybe. He'd better yell. But dammit, the door couldn't be all that hard to open. He studied the latch. All he had to do was turn it. He got a good grip and twisted. Nothing.
He heard the mail bag bump-bump, and then another one. To heck with it; he'd yell. He'd wait until he heard the footsteps pass the door again and then he'd make some noise.
Brett waited. It was quiet now. He rapped on the door anyway. No answer. Maybe there was nobody left in the car. In a minute the train would start up and he'd be stuck here until the next stop. He banged on the door. "Hey! The door is stuck!"
It sounded foolish. He listened. It was very quiet. He pounded again. The car creaked once. He put his ear to the door. He couldn't hear anything. He turned back to the window. There was no one in sight. He put his cheek flat against it, looked along the car. He saw only dry fields.
He turned around and gave the door a good kick. If he damaged it, it was too bad; the railroad shouldn't have defective locks on the doors. If they tried to make him pay for it, he'd tell them they were lucky he didn't sue the railroad ...
He braced himself against the opposite wall, drew his foot back, and kicked hard at the lock. Something broke. He pulled the door open.
He was looking out the open door and through the window beyond. There was no platform, just the same dry fields he could see on the other side. He came out and went along to his seat. The car was empty now.
He looked out the window. Why had the train stopped here? Maybe there was some kind of trouble with the engine. It had been sitting here for ten minutes or so now. Brett got up and went along to the door, stepped down onto the iron step. Leaning out, he could see the train stretching along ahead, one car, two cars-- There was no engine.
Maybe he was turned around. He looked the other way. There were three cars. No engine there either. He must be on some kind of siding ...