Monday, December 29, 2008

Chapter Thirty-Nine: Tom Hanks knows nothing about sleepless

Six nights of crappy, nightmare-riddled sleep had Compass more on edge than she’d been since the day Todd told her her pedigree was in question. The day-to-day worries were now starting to pile up a bit (sick mom, no income), enough to make a sort of annoying hum in the back of her head. The nightmares of her father, now broken, lurching and insanely angry, slumping into her bedroom, pointing at her with one crooked but powerful arm, darting around her room like a misshapen but speedy giant bug—those were making life unbearable.

There were no safe moments now, not since she’d read in the free neighborhood newspaper that blood but no body had been found in the local library. In books and movies, people always seemed to know what to do next: they called in favors with powerful, knowledgeable people; they reconnected with high school buddies who were intrepid newspaper reporters or high-placed politicians or unconventional but effective members of the police force.

Compass had none of these. Her friends, mostly English teachers, were terrific in a grammar emergency. They could conjugate verbs with the speed of Superman, pull the subjunctive tense out of a hat, distinguish a clause from a phrase at fifty yards and rattle off the difference between further and farther, affect and effect without breaking a sweat, but in cases like this, their many skills just weren’t terribly helpful.

Mark was as exhausted as Compass. Clinging to someone twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week was tiring, apparently. Much as Compass feared or hoped she might be falling in love with the guy, she was starting to feel like she’d have to scrape him off with a spatula just to go to the bathroom. His concern was sweet, his protective instincts appreciated, but if he didn’t stop leeching on to her, she was going to have to pour salt on him just to get some privacy.

There had been no further attempts at contact from Oliver. Compass imagined him holed up somewhere, possibly an abandoned nuclear power plant, feeding off the spent but still radioactive rods or whatever, growing ever more powerful. She couldn’t stop hearing that sickly crunching sound, kept dreaming over and over that moment at the top of the stairs when Oliver had flown backwards into the darkness. Only now she dreamed of him returning up the staircase, flying, silent, up from the depths of the stairwell, a vengeful, broken thing that had until recently been human. She now deeply regretted spending so much of her childhood reading comic books.

Friday morning, she pried Mark off and set about convincing him to go to work. She would get out of the house, spend the day in brightly lit public places, she promised. She just needed some time alone in her own head. Mark, who writing up a proposal for a research grant, had been working from her home, which suited him just fine. He spent his days in his pajamas, one cat on his lap, the other next to him on the desk, drinking mug after mug of coffee and pausing in his work only to shout, “Where are you going?” every time she left the room.

“You need to go to your actual workplace, put in an appearance,” she told him. “They’re starting to forget what you look like.”

“I work in the basement. Alone. They don’t know what I look like.”

“Well, then, don’t you need to collect some more resources? Books and things?”

“Everything I need has been logged on to the network. And Jessie’s there to scan and log anything I need but don’t have.”

“What a crap job for an intern; you should do that yourself,” said Compass, increasingly desperate to have a moment of peace.

“Compass, the point is that I don’t need to go in.”

Compass stared him straight in the eye. “Yes,” she told him, “you do.”

He finally got the hint. Compass could see a day of relative freedom in front of her: she’d shave her legs in a non-furtive sort of way, pee with the bathroom door open, drink milk straight from the carton, maybe parade around in her underwear, which she’d never done before, but what the heck? Today was about possibilities. Just as Mark was gathering his notes and preparing to go the heck away, the phone rang. It was Ginny.

“Compass, sweetie, it’s your grandparents. Honey, I think you’d better come down here as quickly as you can.”

Ginny didn’t want to say much else, just that Mina’s health had deteriorated in the last few days, they were at a hospital in Olympia, and Compass should come. Now. Mark, who had been grumbling and muttering his way through packing himself a lunch, looked up to see Compass’s pale and frightened face. He leaped for the phone, nearly stabbing Compass with a peanut-butter-coated bread knife.

“Now listen up, you sick fuck, if you ever call here again- Oh. Oh, Ginny, oh crap, I’m so sorry, I thought you were….uh… never mind. Is everything OK?”

Compass stood in a sort of frozen numbness, listening to Mark get the news she’d just gotten. Right now, standing just here like this, nothing hurt. She was fine, just like this. If she moved, she’d crumble, but if she stayed still, she was all right. Everything was all right.

“Compass?” Mark grabbed her by the shoulders, forcing her out of her pain-free zone and into a whole new world of hurt. “Compass, sweetie, we gotta go.”

“I know,” she whispered. “Tell Todd to take care of the cats?”

Mark nodded, darted out of the apartment. She heard him banging on Todd’s door a moment later, heard the muffled mumble of their conversation. They both returned a moment later.

“I thought I’d take them to my place,” Todd said, gathering up cats and cat accoutrements. “Seems safer.”

Compass nodded. Or at least she meant to. She wasn’t sure if it had happened or not.

“Linda,” she said suddenly.

Both men looked at her quizzically.

“Mom’s nurse. From here. Someone should tell her.” The need to pass the news along unfroze her, at least for now. She had that nurse’s card somewhere…she’d meant to tear the bitchy little mother-stealer’s card up and flush it, but she’d kept it. She finally located it in the deep dark recesses of her backpack, the place bananas went to die. Linda wasn’t answering her phone, so Compass left her a message. When she was finished, she hung up and looked up to see both men gazing at her.


“That was an incredibly generous thing to do,” said Mark.

“It really was, honey,” said Todd.

“Whatever. Mom loves her. Maybe Linda can give her a little comfort. Let’s go. Wait! What about the emerald?”

They couldn’t leave it in Compass’s apartment, that’d be tantamount to wrapping it up with a bow and FedExing it directly to Oliver. Compass refused to saddle Todd with it, and chances were good that Oliver knew where Mark lived as well. In the end, there was no other choice—they took the poison stone with them.

Seattle to Olympia normally took a couple of hours, longer when I-5 was backed up, as it usually was. They made it in just under an hour-fifteen. They raced in the door, banged on the information desk until someone arrived to give them some, got to Mina’s room in time to see her hanging up the phone.

“That was Linda,” she said, as her haggard, red-eyed daughter appeared in her doorway. “She said you called to let her know I was in the hospital.”

Uh oh. “I’m sorry, I thought-”

“Thank you.”

“Oh. Uh…sure.”

“Could you all go find something wobbly and green and with things floating in it to eat? I’d like to speak with my daughter.”

Compass finally registered the fact that in addition to her mother, Ginny and Arthur were also in the room. She hugged them as they headed out. Compass sat in the chair that Ginny had vacated. For a long moment, they simply looked at each other. Mina was so pale and thin, but she still looked beautiful. Compass’s eyes filled up and she tried to blink the tears away before Mina saw them and made fun of her.

“Jeremy would have loved you,” her mother said.

Compass, shocked, sat for a moment with nothing to say. “I wish I’d met him.”

“He enjoyed me. I made his life exciting and interesting and fun for awhile. But in the end, he would have gotten very tired of that. He was made for a quiet life with a wife and kids, golden retriever, mowing the lawn on Sundays. His idea of being crazy was a second beer.”

Compass nodded. She tried to remember the face of the man in the photograph.

“He didn’t mind that I wasn’t his?”

Mina smiled. “I think he would have preferred it if you had been, but no, it wasn’t a big deal. He couldn’t wait for you to be born. He had the nursery ready, bought so many toys, I could hardly see over them. He read all the books, talked to his friends who had kids for hours about what to expect. No, he was all ready to be your Dad, DNA notwithstanding.”

“You think we would have gotten along?”

“I do. You’re calm, like him. You drift with the current instead of spending your energy trying to swim upstream. He was like that too.”

“Dull, huh?” Compass smiled.

“No. Just…adept at navigating someone else’s chaos. I named you well.”

It was the first time Compass could remember her mother complimenting her for anything. She held her breath, prayed her mother wouldn’t snatch it away the next instant.

“I’m sorry you lost him,” Compass said.

“I’m sorry we both did.”

Compass reached out to take her mother’s hand, realized what she was doing and patted the sheets instead, as if smoothing out wrinkles. Mina hated it when people did stereotypical things like holding the hand of the dying, accused people of having soap opera moments rather than authentic ones. To Compass’s surprise, Mina grabbed her hand and held on.

“Don’t let him get the stone.”

“Why not? It can’t ... do anything for us, why not let him have it?”

“He killed Jeremy to get it.” Mina’s voice was lead. “A few days after you were born, Oliver sent me a picture, of Jeremy in the alleyway, smoking a cigarette, breathing his last breaths, oblivious. Oliver drove that garbage truck. If he gets the stone, he wins. He denied me the one thing that could have made my life good. Happy. I need you to make sure he gets a taste of that.”

I could have made your life good, maybe, if you’d given us a chance to be happy, Compass thought but didn’t say. For a moment, she’d felt like a daughter. Now she felt like an instrument of revenge.

“Why does he want it? What can he do with it? He can’t keep it.”

“That, child, is the genius of the curse. It doesn’t just poison your body, it poisons your mind. Amelia Hind was no dummy—she knew once word of the curse got around, no one would want it. It’d end up at the bottom of a river or deep in desert sand, and that’d be the end of her entertainment. So she made sure people would hold on to it even as their clutching fingers rotted away around it. Oliver wants the stone because he wants it. I’d be keeping a close eye on your bald boyfriend, too. It doesn’t take long for the emerald to put its roots in a man.”

“It can’t just go back to the museum, then, can it? I mean, it’d just put a spell on the next guy, and this would all start up again, with a different cast.”

“That’s not your problem. Return it to the museum, and Oliver will never be able to get his hands on it again.”

Mina’s grip on Compass’s hand tightened.

“There’s got to be a better way. A way to remove the curse, maybe.”

Mina laughed, and suddenly she was the old Mina again, the woman to be feared and placated at all costs. She didn’t so much drop Compass’s hand as toss it back to her.

“Don’t be stupid. That thing’s been cursed for centuries. You think you can just say a few words in Latin, maybe light a couple of candles, wave some holy water around? Send it back to England. I don’t care if the whole goddamn island sinks, just make sure that stone sits in the British Museum, on display for Oliver to see and lament for the rest of his shitty, murderous little life.”

Just then, Mark appeared in the doorway, bearing doughnuts and coffee. He looked awful: wild-eyed from lack of sleep and abundance of worry, hair and head with a fine growth of stubble, clothes that looked like they’d been slept in by a circus. He looked, in short, crazy. Mina met Compass’s eyes, gave her a knowing look.

“And so it begins,” she told her daughter.

1 comment:

NuclearToast said...

"And so it begins"? In chapter thirty-nine? AUGH!

Also, I think I speak for everyone when I say you've left out an important detail. What KIND of donuts did Mark bear? Hmmm?