Clays Ark | Chapter 23 of 51

Author: Octavia E. Butler | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 6443 Views | Add a Review

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Present 16

WHEN BLAKE AND MEDA had gone, when Ingraham had led Rane away, Eli and Keira sat alone at the large dining room table. Keira looked across at Eli bleakly.

“My sister,” she whispered. Rane had looked so frozen when Ingraham led her out, so terrified.

“She’ll be all right,” Eli said. “She’s tough.”

Keira shook her head. “People think that. She needs to have them think that.”

He smiled. “I know. I should have said she’s strong. Maybe stronger than even she knows.”

A woman carrying a crying child of about three years came into the house. The child, Keira could see, was a little girl wearing only underpants. She had a beautiful face and a dark, shaggy head of hair. There was something wrong with the way she sat on the woman’s arm, though—something Keira could not help noticing, yet could not quite identify.

The woman smiled wearily at Eli. “Red room,” she said.

He nodded.

The woman stared at Keira for a moment. Keira thought she stared hungrily. When she had gone into a room off the living room and shut the long sliding door, Keira faced Eli.

“What’s going on?” she said. “Tell me.”

He looked at her hungrily, too, but then leaned back in his chair and told her. No more hints, no more delays. When he finished, she asked questions and he answered them. At one point, the woman and child came out of the red room and Eli called them to him.

“Lorene, bring Zera over. I want you both to meet Kerry.”

The woman, blond and thin, came over with her hungry eyes and her strange child. She looked at Keira, then at Eli. “Why is there still a table between you two?” she asked. “I’ll bet there’s no table between that guy and Meda.”

“Is that what I called you over here for?” he asked, annoyed. “Don’t you want to brag about your kid a little?”

Lorene faced Keira almost hostilely.

Keira and the child had been staring at each other. Keira roused herself, met Lorene’s suspicious eyes. “I’d like to see her.”

“You see her,” Lorene said. “She’s no freak. She’s supposed to be this way. They’re all this way.”

“I know,” Keira said. “Eli has told me. She’s beautiful.”

Lorene put her daughter on the table and the child immediately sat down, catlike, arms braced against the floor.

“Stand up,” Lorene said, pushing at the little girl’s hindquarters. “Let the lady see you.”

“No!” Zera said firmly. To Keira, that proved something about her was normal. Before Keira’s illness, she had been called on to take care of little toddler cousins who sometimes seemed not to know any other word.

Then Zera did get up, and in a single fluid motion, she launched herself at Eli. He seemed to pluck her out of the air, laughing as he caught her.

“Little girl, I’m going to miss some day. You’re getting faster.”

“What would happen if you did miss?” Keira asked. “She wouldn’t hurt herself, would she?”

“No, she’d be okay. Lands on her feet like a cat. Lorene does miss sometimes.”

“I never miss,” Lorene said, offended. “I just step aside sometimes. I’m not always in the mood to be jumped on.”

Eli put Zera back on the table and this time, she walked a few steps, leaped off the table, and stood beside Lorene.

Keira smiled, enjoying the child’s smooth, catlike way of moving. Then she frowned. “A kid that age should be kind of clumsy and weak. How can she be so coordinated?”

“We’ve talked about that,” Eli said. “They do go through a clumsy period, of course. Last year, Zee fell down all the time. But if you think she’s agile now, you should see Jacob. He’s four.”

“What will they be like when they’re adults?”

“We don’t know,” Lorene said softly. “Maybe they peak early—or maybe they’re going to be as fast as cheetahs some day. Sometimes we’re afraid for them.”

Keira nodded, looked at the child. She was perfect. A perfect, lean, little four-legged thing with shaggy uncombed hair and a beautiful little face. “A baby sphinx,” Keira said, smiling.

“Think you could handle having one like this someday?”

Keira glanced at her, smiled sadly, then turned back to Zera. “I think I could handle it,” she said.

Zera took a few steps toward her. Keira knew that if the child scratched or bit her, she would get the disease. Yet she could not bring herself to be afraid. The child was as strange a being as Keira had ever seen, but she was a child. Keira reached out to her, but Zera drew back.

“Hey,” Keira said softly. “What do you have to be afraid of?” She smiled. “Come here.”

The little girl mirrored the smile tentatively, edged toward Keira again. She was a little cat not sure it should trust the strange hand. She even sniffed without getting quite close enough to touch.

“Do I smell good?” Keira asked.

“Meat!” the child said loudly.

Startled, Keira drew back. She expected to be scratched or bitten eventually, but she did not want to have to shake Zera off her fingers. Anything as sleek and catlike as this child probably had sharp teeth.

“Zee!” Lorene said. “Don’t bite!”

Zera looked back at her and grinned, then faced Keira. “I don’t bite.”

The teeth did look sharp, but Keira decided to trust her. She started to reach out again, this time to lift the child into her lap, but Eli spoke up.

“Kerry!”

She looked across the table at him.

“No.”

His voice made her think of a warning rattle. She drew back, not frightened, but wondering what was wrong with him.

Lorene seemed angry. She picked up Zera and faced Eli. “What kind of game are you playing?” she demanded. “What’s the kid here for? Decoration?”

Eli looked up at her.

“Don’t give me that look. Go do what you’re supposed to do. Then you can take care of her! And if she doesn’t make it, you can—”

Eli was on his feet, inches from her, looming over her. Keira held her breath, certain he would hit the woman and perhaps by accident, hurt the child.

Lorene stood her ground. “You’re soaking wet,” she said calmly. “You’re putting yourself through hell. Why?”

He seemed to sag. He touched Lorene’s face, then Zera’s shaggy head. “You two get the hell out of here, will you?”

“What is it!” Lorene insisted.

“Leukemia,” Eli said.

There was silence for a moment. Then Lorene sighed. “Oh.” She shook her head. “Oh shit.” She turned and walked away.

When she had gone through the front door, Keira spoke to Eli. “What are you going to do?” she asked.

He said nothing.

“If you touch me,” she said, “how soon will I die?”

“It isn’t touch.”

“I know. I mean—”

“You might live.”

“You don’t think so.”

More silence.

“I’m not afraid,” she said. “I don’t know why I’m not, but … You should have let me play with Zera. She wouldn’t have known and Lorene wouldn’t have cared.”

“Don’t tell me what I ought to do.”

She could not fear him—not even when he wanted her to. “Is Zera your daughter?”

“No. She calls me Daddy, though. Her father’s dead.”

“You have kids?”

“Oh yes.”

“I always thought someday I’d like to.”

“You’ve prepared yourself to die, haven’t you?”

She shrugged. “Can anyone, really?”

“I can’t. To me, talking about it is like talking about the reality of elves and gnomes.” He smiled wryly “If the organism were intelligent, I’d say it didn’t believe in death.”

“But it will kill me.”

He got up, pushing his chair away angrily. “Come on!”

He led her into the hall and to a large bedroom. “I’m going to lock you in,” he said. “The windows are locked, but I guess even you could kick them out if you wanted to. If you do, don’t expect any consideration from the people you meet outside.”

She only looked at him.

Abruptly, he turned and left the room, slamming the door behind him.

Keira lay down on the bed feeling listless, not quite in pain, but unable to worry about Eli, his guilt, the compulsion that would surely overcome him soon. Her body was warning her. If she did not get her medication soon, she would feel worse. She closed her eyes, hoping to fall asleep. She had the beginnings of a headache, or what felt like the beginnings of one. Sometimes the dull, threatening discomfort could go on for hours without really turning into a headache. She rolled over, away from the wet place her sweating body had made. Clay’s Ark victims were not the only people who could sweat profusely without heat. Her joints hurt her when she moved.

She had decided she was to be left alone for the night when Eli came in. She could see him vaguely outlined in the moonlight. Apparently, he could see her much better.

“Fool,” he said. “Why didn’t you tell me you felt bad? You’ve got medicine in the car, haven’t you?”

Not caring whether he could see or not, she nodded.

“I thought so. Get up. Come show me where it is.”

She did not feel like moving at all, but she got up and followed him out. In the dining room, she watched him pull on a pair of black, cloth-lined, plastic gloves.

“Town gloves,” he said. “People take us for bikers in stores sometimes. I had a guy serve me once with a shotgun next to him. Damn fool. I could have had the gun anytime I wanted it. And all the while I was protecting him from the disease.”

Why are you protecting me? she thought, but she said nothing. She followed him out to the car, which had been moved farther from the house. There, she showed him the compartment that contained her medicine. She had left it on the seat once, not thinking, and someone had nearly managed to smash into the car to get it, no doubt hoping for drugs. They would have been disappointed. They might have gotten into her chemotherapy medicines and made themselves thoroughly sick.

“Where’s your father’s bag?” Eli asked.

She was startled, but she hid her surprise. “Why do you want it?”

“He wants it. Meda says she’s going to let him examine her.”

“Why?”

“He wants to. It gives him the feeling he’s doing something significant, something familiar that he can control. Knowing Meda, I suspect he needs something like that right now.”

“Can I see him?”

“Later, maybe. Where’s the bag?”

This time, she couldn’t help glancing toward the bag’s compartment. It was only a tiny glance. She did not think he had seen it. But he went straight to the compartment, located the hidden keyhole, stared at it for a moment, then selected the right key on the first try.

“You never turn on any lights,” Keira said. “Does the disease help you see in the dark?”

“Yes.” He took the bag from its compartment. “Take your medicine to your room. All of it.”

“The bag won’t work for you,” she said. “It’s coded. Only my father can use it.”

He just smiled.

She had to suppress an impulse to touch him. The feeling surprised her and she stood looking at him until he turned abruptly and strode away. She watched him, realizing he may have felt as bad as she did. His smile had dissolved into a pinched, half-starved look before he turned away.

She stood where she was, first looking after him, then looking up at the clear black sky with its vast spray of stars. The desert sky at night was fascinating and calming to her. She knew she should follow Eli, but she stayed, wondering which of the countless stars was Proxima Centauri—or rather, which was Alpha Centauri. She knew that Proxima could not be seen separately by the unaided eye. A red star whose light a little girl born on Earth longed for.

“Hi,” a child’s voice said from somewhere nearby.

Keira jumped, then looked around. At her feet stood a sphinxlike boy somewhat larger than Zera.

“Daddy said you have to come in,” the boy said.

“Is Eli your daddy?”

“Yes. I’m Jacob.”

“Does anyone call you Jake?”

“No.”

“Lucky boy. I’m Keira—no matter what you hear anyone else say. Okay?”

“Okay. You have to come in.”

“I’m coming.”

The boy walked beside her companionably “You’re nicer than the other one,” he said.

“Other one?”

“Like you, but not as brown.”

“Rane? My sister?”

“Is she your sister?”

“Where is she? Where did you see her?”

“She didn’t like me.”

“Jacob, where did you see her?”

“Do you like me?”

“At the moment, no.” She stopped and stooped to bring herself closer to eye level with him. Her joints did not care much for the gesture. “Jacob, tell me where my sister is.”

“You do like me,” he said. “But I think Daddy will get mad at me if I tell you.”

“Damn right, he will,” Eli’s voice said.

Keira looked up, saw him, and stood up, wondering how anyone could move so silently in sand that crunched underfoot. The boy moved that way, too.

“Eli, why can’t I know where my sister is?” she asked. “What’s happening to her?”

Eli seemed to ignore her, spoke to his son. “Hey, little boy, come on up here.”

He did not bend at all, but Jacob leaped into his arms. Then the boy turned to look down at Keira.

“You tell Kerry what her sister was doing last time you saw her,” Eli said.

The boy frowned. “Keira?”

“Yes. Tell her.”

“You should call her Keira. That’s what she likes.”

“Do you?” Eli asked her.

“Yes! Now will you please tell me about Rane?”

“She was with Stephen,” Jacob said. “They looked at the cows and fed the chickens and Stephen ate some stuff in the garden. Stephen jumped with her and she didn’t like it.”

“Jumped?” Keira said.

“From some rocks. She liked him.”

Keira looked at Eli, questioning.

“Stephen Kaneshiro is our bachelor,” Eli said, heading for the house again. Keira followed automatically. “He saw the two of you and asked about you. I aimed him at Rane.”

“And she likes him.”

“I’d say so. This little kid reads people pretty clearly.”

“Is she with him?”

“She could have been. Stephen said it was too soon for her, so she’s alone. Kerry, she’s all right, I promise you. Beyond infecting her, no one wants to hurt her.”

“Keira,” Jacob said into Eli’s ear.

Eli laughed. “Yeah,” he said. He looked at the boy. “You know it’s time for you to go to bed. Past time.”

“Mom already put me to bed.”

“I figured she had. What’ll it take to get you to stay there?”

Jacob grinned and said nothing.

“The kids are more nocturnal than we are,” Eli said. “We try to adjust them more to our hours for their own protection. They don’t realize the danger they’re in when they roam around at night.”

He held the door open for her and she went in. “There are bobcats in these mountains, aren’t there?” she asked. “And coyotes?”

“Jacob’s in no danger from animals,” Eli said. “His senses are keener than those of the big animals and he’s fast. He’s literally poison to most of the smaller ones—especially those that are supposed to be poison to him. No, it’s the stray humans out there that I worry about.” He stopped, looked at his son who was listening somberly. “Keira, you take your medicine, then go back to your room. There are some books in there if you want to read. I’m going to put this one to bed.”

She obeyed, never thinking there might be anything else she could do. She caught herself feeling grateful to him for not hurting her, not even forcing the disease on her, though she didn’t know how long that could last. Then she realized she was feeling gratitude to a man who had kidnapped her family. Her problem was she liked him. She wondered who Jacob’s mother was. Meda? If so, why was Meda trying so hard, so obviously to get Blake Maslin into her bed? Perhaps he was there now. No, Jacob’s mother must be someone else. She sat staring at the cover of a battered old book—something from the 1960s—written even before the birth of her father: Ishi, Last of His Tribe. She had intended to read, but she had no concentration. Finally, Eli appeared again to take her to her father.

That meeting was terrible. It forced her to remember that her liking for Eli could not matter. The fact that she was not afraid for herself could not matter. She had a duty to help her father and Rane to escape—and that terrified her. She did not underestimate the capacity of Eli’s people to do harm. Her escape, her family’s escape would endanger their families. They would kill to prevent that. Or perhaps they would only injure her badly and keep her with them in agony. She had had enough of pain.

But she had a duty.

“I shouldn’t have let you see him,” Eli said.

She jumped. She had been walking slowly back to her room, forgetting he was behind her. “I wish you hadn’t,” she whispered. Then she realized what she had said, and she was too ashamed to do anything but go into her room and try to shut the door.

He would not let the door shut.

“I thought it would be a kindness,” he said, “to both of you.” And as though to explain. “I liked the way you got along with Jacob and Zera. They’re good kids, but the reactions they get sometimes from new people …”

She knew about ugly reactions. Probably Jacob knew more, or would learn more, but walking down a city street between her mother and her father had taught her quite a bit.

She reached out and took Eli’s hands. She had been wanting to do that for so long. The hands first pulled back from her, but did not pull away. They were callused, hard, very warm. How insane to expose herself to the disease now that she knew she must at least try to escape. Yet she almost certainly already had it. Eli and her father had deluded themselves into believing otherwise, but she knew her own particular therapy-induced sensitivity to infection. Her father knew it too, whether or not he chose to admit it.

The hands closed on her hands, giving in finally, and in spite of everything, she smiled.

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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