Paused a moment.
The water erupted as something broke the surface. Wide and flat and black, easily four feet across, the thing was slick as wet rubber, and with the same consistency. A long, thin tail trailed behind it, as the thing seemed to float along the surface of the water like a flying squirrel soaring from tree to tree. Then it dove again, slicing the river and disappearing into the deep current.
Thomas only stared for a moment at the ripples on the surface where it had gone down. Then he brought his arms up, one hand splayed across his face while with the other, he hugged himself. His fingers covered one eye, as if he couldn't stand to see what he'd just seen, and his heart pumped too hard, too fast in his chest.
His mind gave the thing its name. It was a flying manta, of course. What else could it be? But, then, it couldn't really be a flying manta because there was no such thing.
Not outside of Strangewood. Jesus, he was losing it.
In his right hip pocket, Thomas's tiny cellular phone trilled. Startled, he stepped forward, his foot slipped, and he nearly went over into the shallow water at the river's edge. Instead, he slammed his right knee down on the edge of a rock hard enough to puncture the skin, even through denim. Thomas howled with pain. In the park, the eternal chess players glanced up, saw that he was all right, and went back to their game.
The phone trilled again.
With a loud curse that would have made even his late father, the career military man, blush, Thomas yanked the phone from his pocket, nearly bobbled that into the water, and finally succeeded in flipping it open.
"Yes!" he snapped.
"Have I called at a bad time?"
Thomas took a deep breath; hung his head.
"No, Francesca," he told his agent. "There isn't a good time, these days, so how could this be a bad time? I just think I'm losing my mind is all."
"I don't blame you," she told him.
Thomas knew Francesca thought he was talking about Nathan and what was happening. He let her go on thinking that. He ought to be back at the hospital anyway, he thought. Then, idly, he wondered if he should confer with someone in their psych unit. Or at least get a referral on a shrink.
"I'm headed back over to the hospital now," he said. "What can I do for you?"
She paused a moment on the other end. When she spoke, the question of his sanity was not merely in Thomas's own thoughts, but in his agent's voice as well.
"I'm headed over for that Fox meeting in a bit," she said. "Just a bit of whatever they call breakfast here in the City of Angels. Then it's off to make you a lot of money. I really don't know if I can pull this off without you."
"You'll get more money on the deal if I'm not there, and you know it," he told her dismissively.
"Maybe," she replied. "Listen, I don't want to seem cold about this, Thomas, but is there any way you could get in on a conference call in a little while? And I need to know what to tell them if they ask when you can come out for a follow-up meeting. Even if they agree to do the deal, they may want to meet with you in person anyway."
At first, Thomas didn't respond. Then, when he opened his mouth and the first syllable began to emerge, Francesca cut him off immediately.
"Look, I know that Nathan comes first," she said quickly. "For me, too. Really. But the doctors have already told you he's going to be all right . . ."
"They don't think he'll die, Frankie," Thomas said, eyes narrowed as he massaged his temples, watching the old men play chess. "That doesn't mean he's getting better. It doesn't mean he won't spend the rest of his fucking life like this. What the hell is wrong with you?"
Frankie harrumphed. Thomas could hear it, even over the phone.
"I’m out here working for you, Thomas. Maybe you should think about working for Nathan sometimes too. Look, do you want me to cancel the whole thing? Believe me, I have friends in San Diego who would love to spend the week with me, and I could use a vacation."
"No," Thomas said instantly. "I'm sorry, Francesca. You just have to understand . . ."
"I do understand. Much as you think I don't. But life has got to go on, Thomas. The world doesn't stop turning when you want it to. In all seriousness, Nathan may need you now more than ever. I understand. I really do. But Fox wants this right now. In a day or a week they may not be interested. That's the way this business works. You know that. There's value here, insurance. And if you're going to stop working for a little while, I don't need to remind you that subrights on Strangewood are all you've got for a livelihood."
They were all good points. Thomas recognized that. Francesca wasn't the kind of bloodsucking agent who was going to crack the whip just to make her commission. She was his friend. And horrible as it was, she was right.
To a point.
"Look, I can't do anything for the next few hours. I've got to relieve Emily so she can wash up, change clothes. This afternoon, if they want to talk to me, we'll arrange it. But right now, no. And I'm not coming out there."
"Thomas . . ."
"I'm sorry, Frankie, but no. They want to see me, they can come to Manhattan," Thomas said sternly. "I've screwed up my kid's life and mind enough as it is, with this divorce. If they don't get that my son needs me now, then fuck 'em. I plan to be there when Nathan wakes up."
After a brief pause, Francesca said only, "Call me if there's any change. I'll let you know how the meeting goes."
Then there was a click, and she was gone. Thomas folded up the little phone, slipped it into his jeans, and clambered toward shore again, wincing at the pain in his knee. A small dark spot of blood, no bigger than a dime, had soaked through the denim. But he'd be all right. With all that was going on in his life, Thomas really didn't give the injury another thought.
With a glance at the chess players — the older of the two men, a dapper looking Latino, was handily whupping the other — Thomas half-limped across the grass beneath the trees until he came to the dirt path that led back out to the parking lot. Though he'd seen only the chess players in the past twenty minutes or so, there were five cars other than his own in the lot. Two spaces over was a hunter green Jeep Cherokee Laredo, and Thomas admired the vehicle. He'd wanted one for a while, and he knew that Nathan would love it.
Just for you, buddy, he thought, a silent promise to his son. When Nathan woke up, he'd buy the Jeep for both of them.
When he rounded the Jeep, Thomas saw his Volvo. It was covered in bird shit. Not merely one or two drops of white and brown and green, but dozens. It looked as though he'd parked under the trees for weeks, rather than half an hour.
"Jesus!" Thomas snarled and then stared up at the sky as if imploring the heavens for assistance. But the heavens were the problem, he thought. And began to laugh. It didn't last long, but it felt good to laugh. Even at his own stupid jokes.
With a roll of his eyes and a shake of his head, Thomas pulled his keys from his jeans again. He went for the driver's door, and was unlocking it when a huge crow landed on the roof of the car. The bird might have been innocent, but Thomas believed wholeheartedly in guilt by association, particularly as it pertained to beasts such as dogs, cats, birds, and small children.
"Scat, you little shit!" Thomas said. "Get away. Shoo! Get off the car!"
The crow only glared balefully at him, its black eyes shining, reflecting Thomas's face like the most polished of precious stones.
Thomas raised his hands, trying to spook the bird. Nothing worked. The thing would simply not move. Finally, at wit's end, Thomas reached into his car for a road map he kept in the glove compartment and waved it at the bird. The crow behaved as though it were Cleopatra, languishing in the breeze of the wildly fanning map.
Thomas glared at the crow.
"Fine," he grunted. "Fuck you, then. We'll see if you can stay up there doing fifty five."
Keys in his right hand, Thomas held his door open and was about to drop into his seat when the crow spoke.
"He needs you, Our Boy," said the crow. "You're the only one who can help him now."
For a moment, he was frozen. Then Thomas turned to stare at the crow in horror. Its beak was closed. It couldn't possibly have spoken. Not really. It had to all be in his head.
But the way it stared at him with those wide, black, funhouse mirror eyes . . .
Feeling like an utter moron, Thomas tilted his head to regard the bird.
"Dave?" he asked.
Caw! it cried, and with the slap of broad ebon wings on air, it lofted itself skyward. Thomas stared after it until the bird was out of sight. Then he slid behind the wheel of the Volvo, slipped his key into the ignition, and started the car. As the engine roared into life, Thomas glanced out the window again.
"No," he told himself. "No fucking way."
On the way to the hospital, he turned the radio up as loud as he could stand it, and still, he barely heard the music.
* * * * *
There wasn't much of a view from Nathan's hospital window. In the chair in which Thomas had slept the night before, Emily looked out on the windows of other wings of the hospital and the roof of what must have been the lobby, several floors down. The roof was covered with stones, almost like a parking lot, a practice Emily had noticed many times and never understood. What was the purpose of covering the top of a building with a blanket of small rocks? It irked her.
It was also boring. A cardinal sin. Even the parking lot itself would have made for more interesting viewing. At least she would have been able to see people come and go.
With her cheeks suddenly flushed with guilt, Emily turned to look at Nathan. Nothing had changed. He lay there, so sweet, almost as if he were asleep. If only that had been the case. She thought of Nathan as a baby, the wispy thin brown hair he had as an infant, and the way his animated, forever-babbling face lapsed into a cherubic innocence when he drifted off. His mouth slightly parted, so desperately exhausted just from the effort of being a baby.
He still had dimples. When Nathan smiled, his dimples were enough to make anyone grin right along with him. But he wasn't smiling now. Wasn't asleep now. Instead, he was just frozen in some kind of weird in-between state, here, but also somewhere else, somewhere far away.
There was nothing Emily could do except watch her son's chest rise and fall with each breath, watch horrid daytime television on the hospital set, or stare out the window at the gravel spread inexplicably over the rooftop. And when Emily had stared too long out that window, worried too long and too ineffectually about Nathan, and grown tired of her anxiety, she wanted more than anything to leave.
She dropped her head, suffering with her guilt, and her blonde hair spilled down to drape over her face.
Time and again she told herself that this was her son, that she belonged here at his side. Emily knew that was true, and she would have done anything for Nathan. But a part of her just wanted to escape, only for a little while. To be away from here.
"I’m sorry, honey," she whispered to Nathan as she sat on the edge of his bed, ignoring the tubes.
It was silly, really. She knew that anyone would tell her that. After all, nobody could spend all that time in a hospital room, no contact, no activity or emotion but the fear of the future. But that didn't make the guilt go away.
Emily rose and went to the small private bath off of Nathan's room. She used the toilet, then washed her hands and splashed water on her face. When she had finished, she leaned over the sink and stared hard at her own visage in the mirror. Backward. The opposite of Emily, she had always thought, alternately amused and repulsed by the idea. There were crow's feet around her hazel eyes, but not too many. And though the dark circles were particularly unattractive, she knew that they weren't usually this bad.
There, looking in the mirror, Emily began to come awake at last. To rise from the numbing fog that had enshrouded her since Sunday night. She was in the hospital, with her son, and he needed her more than he had since the day he left her womb. That was all that mattered.
But in order to properly care for Nathan, to be there for him and be ready to handle whatever might come up down the line, Emily knew that she would have to continue to live. Continue to be Emily, the woman in the mirror. Her late father had once told her, in a rare expedition into the foreign land of philosophy, that people defined themselves, for better or worse, by their own reflection in the eyes of others. Emily needed the moral and intellectual support of the people in her life: her ex-husband; her mother — if only it were possible to rouse her from her Alzheimer’s-induced fog; Nathan's doctors; her co-workers; and Joe. She needed Joe, too.
Dragging her fingers through her unwashed hair, Emily went back into Nathan's room. She sat on the edge of his bed, kissed his forehead, and looked at her watch. Thomas had been gone nearly three hours. A long time, she thought, and hoped he'd be back soon. She needed a break, damn it, and to hell with the guilt that thought engendered.
Somehow, even without the shower, the change of clothes, and the sleep she craved so powerfully, Emily felt reenergized. She reached for the phone and, after several aborted attempts trying to figure out how to get an outside line, called work.
Emily was the director of human resources at Sentinel Software. Given her current circumstances, she realized that she was fortunate to be in a job where she had two managers working for her who really knew what they were doing. It had enabled her to work shortened hours, so she could pick Nathan up at three o'clock every afternoon, and have a life with him. And now, the competence of her subordinates enabled her to be with her son when he needed her most.
"HR, this is Lorena."
"It's Emily," she said.
"Oh, God, Emmy, how is he?" Lorena asked fretfully, and just from her voice on the phone, Emily could picture the younger woman's concerned expression.
"No change," Emily admitted, sitting up a bit straighter, a physical sign of her resolve to be strong for her son. "They started with a CT scan on Sunday night, that's sort of a computer map of the brain. Yesterday they did an MRI, which gives much more detail, but they still haven't figured out what's wrong with him. I'm sure it's just a matter of time, though. How are things on your end?"