Gregor and the Code of Claw
It was late. Two-fifteen by the clock on the taxi's dashboard. The driver was tired, uncommunicative, and didn't seem to wonder what they were doing hanging out in Central Park at that hour.
When they got to their building, the elevator was broken, so they took the stairs up to their apartment. Gregor's mom had to rest every couple of flights. His dad finally gave him the keys and told him to take the girls on ahead. When Gregor opened the door to his apartment, he couldn't believe how small and cramped the place looked. He and Lizzie slumped back on the couch while Boots immediately dumped a basket of plastic animals on the rug and arranged them in a parade. When she came to a little black bat she'd gotten last Halloween she held it up happily. "Look! Ares!" Gregor could think of nothing to say as she flew the bat around her head.
His parents came in about ten minutes later, and even though she was dropping from fatigue, his mom went right in to check on his grandmother. That's when Gregor realized she didn't know that Grandma wasn't there. His dad had been waiting until they got home to break the news. "It's her heart, Grace. She's in the hospital. We'll go see her first thing tomorrow," his dad said.
They went straight to bed. Gregor didn't even bother with pajamas. He just stripped down to his Underland briefs and crawled between his blankets. They had a dusty, familiar smell. A siren went by. Music from a car radio blared then faded. A toilet flushed. The old comforting sounds of New York City lulled Gregor to sleep....
The tunnel was dark. The flashlights long dead. Gregor was relying solely on echolocation. It had been stupid to go this way. Ripred had told him that but he hadn't listened. Now they had found him. As he ran he could feel the rats panting so he turned and swung, slashing open several faces, splattering himself with blood. But then something happened to his sword. It became rubbery, melting in his hand. He tried to run again but the floor was crumbling beneath his feet and then he was falling, falling, falling into a black pit. He screamed for Ares but there was no Ares and he could see the sharp rocks as they rushed up to meet him, feel the agony as they pierced his chest!
Gregor bolted up in bed, heart pounding, sweat-soaked, his right hand clutching his throbbing chest. Had his own voice woken him? No one came running in. No one called his name. The screams must have stayed in his dream.
The falling nightmares that had plagued him growing up had stopped when he'd had Ares. Now they were back again, filled with rats and blood.
Dawn was just breaking over the city. He'd been in bed only a few hours. He knew he should go back to sleep. But the nightmare had been too real. He sank back on his pillow and watched the sunlight brighten until it stung his eyes.
Gregor cracked open his window and took a deep breath of the exhaust-scented air. What day was it? What month was it? He had no idea. He hadn't been home since Hazard's birthday. That had been in the dead of summer. This air was crisp. Suddenly he had an urgent need to know how much time had passed, to ground himself in some kind of reality. The calendar in the kitchen would be worthless, but he could turn on the TV.... No, that would wake everybody.... He could go down to the corner and check the date on a newspaper. He flung off his blanket and froze as he got his first look at his body in sunlight.
"Oh, geez," he said. He knew he'd gotten beat up pretty bad in the Underland, but things healed up and you moved on. Only he hadn't accounted for the accumulation of scars that dated all the way back to his earliest visits. Marks left by squid suckers, vines, pinchers, teeth, claws. Then there were the wounds he'd made on his hands when he'd broken Sandwich's sword less than a day ago. His skin was like a map where you could trace all of the terrible things that had happened.
The Underlanders had given him more of that fish ointment. Maybe it would help. But some of these things ...like the five claw marks the Bane had left on his chest... They were going nowhere fast. They were part of him forever. How could he ever explain them? Say he'd been in a car wreck? Fallen through a plate-glass window? Wrestled a pack of tigers? If he couldn't explain them, he'd have to hide them. Forget the beach, forget gym class, and forget even going to the doctor unless he was on death's doorstep. A doctor wouldn't accept some lame excuse. He'd want answers and the truth would land Gregor in a mental ward.
Gregor dressed in a long-sleeved shirt and pants, both of which seemed too short. He'd done quite a bit of growing in ... in however long he'd been gone. He put on his socks and his only Overland footwear, a pair of dress shoes he'd gotten for the spring concert. His toes felt cramped and they looked stupid with his outfit. He wanted those great sneakers Mrs. Cormaci had sent him but they'd been ruined in the war.
He left quietly, but as he passed Mrs. Cormaci's apartment, the door opened. She had always been an early riser. "So. You stayed in one piece," she said, looking him up and down critically. "Your pants are too short. Want some French toast?"
Gregor followed her into the kitchen and sat at the table while she made breakfast. She filled him in on his grandma's condition. "She's not doing too well, Gregor.' She's in intensive care. If your mother has some idea about taking her on a road trip to Virginia, well, that just isn't going to happen." She piled the thick slices of challah bread fried in egg batter on Gregor's plate and placed a platter of bacon in front of him. "I don't see how we can stay here," he said, pouring syrup on the toast. "Maybe she'll just take us kids." It would be awful breaking up the family again, though. They'd just gotten back together.
"Maybe. So, what's been going on with you, mister?" Mrs. Cormaci asked.
Gregor thought about all that had happened since he'd last been home. All he'd seen and done. He couldn't form any of it into words.
"Cat got your tongue?" asked Mrs. Cormaci. "It's okay. You don't need to tell me or anyone else about it unless you feel like it." She dipped a piece of bacon in his syrup and chewed it thoughtfully. "You know, Mr. Cormaci fought in a war. He didn't want to talk about it, either. I knew there'd been some terrible things, though. That man had bad dreams until the day he died."
"One woke me this morning," said Gregor.
"It won't be the last," said Mrs. Cormaci. "Want some juice?" She poured him a glass without waiting for him to answer. "It's like this. You spend your whole childhood hearing about being nice to other people and how hurting someone's a crime, and then they ship you off to some war and tell you to kill. What's that going to do to your head, huh?"
"Nothing good," Gregor said.
"You'll be all right, though, Gregor," said Mrs. Cormaci.
"I don't know. In my dream, I fell to my death," said Gregor. "I used to have falling dreams before, but this was the first time I hit bottom."
"Don't worry. If you hit bottom, there's a whole lot of people here to help you up," said Mrs. Cormaci.
"Help me up?" Gregor thought. "Wipe me up is more like it. Nothing left to help once you hit those rocks." And even if people wanted to help, Gregor was alone in his dreams. No one could help him there.
While he ate, Mrs. Cormaci found a pair of old sneakers that had belonged to one of her sons about twenty years ago. They weren't exactly in style but they fit pretty well and looked better than the dress shoes.,
"You're going to need new clothes for school," she said.
"Has it started already?" he asked.
"Weeks ago," she said. "We're halfway through October, Gregor."
"I didn't know," he said.
The morning was spent watching his sisters while his parents and Mrs. Cormaci went to the hospital. While Lizzie and Boots ate breakfast, Gregor stood at the kitchen window watching the neighborhood kids go off to school. He thought of his friends Larry and Angelina and wondered what they must make of his disappearance. Did they think he had moved? Was sick? Part of him wanted to see them badly and another part never wanted to see them again. He had been through so much, changed so much, that the idea of hanging out with them and pretending everything was back to normal seemed impossible.
His parents got back around lunch. The visit had been a shock to his mom. No one could say when his grandmother would be able to leave the hospital, and even then she'd probably have to go to some kind of nursing home with full-time medical care.
"Can I see her?" asked Gregor.
"Not now, son. Maybe when she's stronger," said his dad.
"What are we going to do now?" asked Gregor. "About Virginia?"
"I don't know. We'll work it out," said his dad.
"I don't want to go to Virginia," said Lizzie, and they all looked at her in surprise.
"But you said you did, Lizzie," said their mom. "You were the first one packing when I mentioned it."
"I don't want to go anymore. This is our home. I don't want to run away," said Lizzie. "Ripred says if you run from things that scare you they just chase you."
"What about you, Gregor?" asked his dad.
Gregor tried to imagine living in Virginia. Tried to imagine staying here. "It doesn't matter. I don't care where we live," he said. It would be awful wherever he was. He pulled his jacket off of the hook by the door. "I'm going for a walk."
He hadn't had a destination in mind when he'd left, but in a few blocks he knew where he wanted to go. He checked his pocket. Thirty-five bucks. That would be plenty. He hopped on the subway and headed to the Cloisters. He had to see the stone knight who had gotten him through these last weeks. Maybe that would help him make sense of things.
The day was cool and sunny. The trees were starting to turn. But Gregor kept thinking of another world, one without sunlight and precious few trees, that he seemed to belong to now. What if he'd told his parents he wanted to go back and live in the Under-land? Where he was not such a freak? Where he had friends? Where he had Luxa? They would never let him go. And did he really want to go? He didn't know. He only knew that he felt like a stranger in what used to be his home. And he felt very alone.
The woman at the booth hesitated when he tried to buy a ticket. What did she see? Some kid in mismatched clothes showing up alone in the middle of the school day. Weird bandages on his hands. And Gregor couldn't remember the last time he'd had a haircut. He tried to cover. "I have to do a school report. We're supposed to write about the coolest building in New York. I picked here. Do you have any information or anything I could look at?" She was still wary, but she let him in with a couple of glossy brochures and a warning not to touch anything.
The place was almost empty. Gregorian chants were being piped in, which were sort of eerie and calming at the same time. The Cloisters reminded Gregor of Regalia, with the carvings of strange animals, the tapestries, the stone walls, floors, ceilings. He wandered through a couple of rooms before he found the tomb. The knight was just as Gregor had last seen him, lying beneath the window, his hands resting on his sword, sleeping away eternity. Thinking of this knight had gotten Gregor through some tough times. He had made the trip today because he expected to find some comfort in the stone figure. But now, he realized it was no longer of use to him. He had spent the last months learning how to die, and now he was going to have to learn how to live again. The knight couldn't help him with that.
It was late afternoon when Gregor got home and he wasn't one step in the door when his mom descended on him. "Where on earth have you been? Do you know how long you've been gone? You had the whole family worried sick!"
Boy, she was upset! Her eyes were red as if she'd been crying.
"I'm sorry," Gregor said. "I just went for a walk."
His dad laid a hand on his shoulder. "It's okay. You've just got to get used to having parents again."
"I'm sorry," Gregor repeated. His parents went in the bedroom to talk. Lizzie and Boots were playing some game with the plastic animals on the floor. Gregor turned on the television and flipped through the channels. He stopped on the news. A bomb had blown up in a marketplace somewhere, killing forty-nine. There were body parts and smoke and relatives wailing. The next story was about refugees dying on the road, driven from their homes by an enemy army. The news anchor was just starting to show a grainy video of a soldier who had been taken hostage when his mother reached in and switched off the television. She looked so sad. "I think you've seen enough, Gregor."
It had all looked pretty familiar. The bodies, the fear, the desperation. These things had always been here in the Overland, he supposed, but he had never really paid any attention to them until now.
"Why don't you take your sisters out to the playground?" said his dad. "They've been cooped up in here all day."
"Are we moving to Virginia or staying here?" Lizzie asked.
"We're still working that out," his dad said. "You kids go on out and play a while." When they reached the playground, Boots immediately ran off to build castles with some little boy in the sandbox. Lizzie wandered around alone with her hands deep in her jacket pockets and her eyes on the ground.
Gregor sat on a bench. He had walked a lot today and all of his injuries were hurting. Seeing the news had made him think. He was safe for the moment, here in the playground, but people all over the world were suffering, starving, fleeing, killing one another as they waged their wars. How much energy they put into harming one another. How little into saving. Would it ever change? What would it take to make it change? He thought of Luxa's hand pressed into Ripred's paw. That's what it would take. People rejecting war. Not one or two, but all of them. Saying it was an unacceptable way to solve their differences. By the look of things, the human race had a lot of evolving to do before that happened. Maybe it was impossible. But maybe it wasn't. Like Vikus said, nothing would happen unless you hoped it could. If you had hope, maybe you could find the way to make things change. Because if you thought about it, there were so many reasons to try.
One tugged on his jacket and lifted up her arms. "Hold me." Gregor pulled Boots up onto his lap and
snuggled her inside his jacket. She rested her head on his shoulder and studied his face. "You feel sad," she said.
"A little," said Gregor.
"You miss them," said Boots.
"Yeah, I do," Gregor said. "But I've still got you." He remembered all of the times he'd thought he had lost her, and tightened his grip around her.
"Here." Boots dug in her pocket and pulled out the little black plastic bat. Ares. She put it in his hand. "You can have this, Gregor."
"Thanks," he said. They leaned back and watched as the streetlights came on.
Suddenly Gregor smiled. "Hey, Boots," he said. "Hey. You can finally say my name."