Meet Karol Carpathescu.
Karol Carpathescu is six feet seven inches tall, in a sense. In another sense, he’s closer to seven feet. For while the top of his head is six feet seven inches from the soles of his feet, it’s not a straight path. First of all, he has a nasty case of scoliosis: his backbone is S-shaped. Second, his head meets his neck at an odd angle — not a right angle by any means, but closer to a right angle than to vertical. Strangely enough, the two afflictions seem to cancel each other out: looking at him, you can’t tell exactly what’s wrong with him, but you really wish he’d straighten up. If he could, he’d be about seven feet tall. But he can’t, so he’s six-seven.
Karol Carpathescu weighs one hundred and fifteen pounds. His elbows are sharp and knobby and poke out of his shirt. His knees are much the same, but he has patches on the knees of his pants so you can’t see them. His shoulders are so broad compared to his chest that it looks like he forgot to take the hanger out of his shirt. He’s a complete scarecrow, basically. The only difference is that a scarecrow has a higher percentage of body fat.
There’s more. Karol Carpathescu’s eyes bug out of his head so much that you’re afraid that they’ll pop out onto the floor. And you almost wish they would, so you wouldn’t have to look at them. Luckily, his eyes are often hidden by the big mop of stringy white hair on his head. The combination of his hair and his body makes him look like a giant cotton swab.
Karol Carpathescu looks to be about twenty-two years old. When people ask him how old he is, he tells them twenty-two. They believe him. However, Karol Carpathescu was born in the year 1890. This story does not take place in 1912. It takes place today. Karol Carpathescu is one of the oldest people in the world. Now, there are still a few people a year or two his senior, so he’s not the oldest. He is, however, the oldest person who can pass himself off as twenty-two.
Karol Carpathescu was born in a little village in Hungary. The village now belongs to Romania. Most people born in the village live out their entire lives there. But not Karol Carpathescu. He’s spent a century travelling the world. Recently, he’s been working his way up the western coast of North America. A few days ago he crossed the Columbia River into the state of Washington. His plan is to proceed due north, make a left at the Mackenzie River, and settle in the Yukon somewhere.
He is about to make a detour.
The detour starts the second he picks up the taste.
Taste, for most people, is probably the most intimate of the senses. Look at it this way. Sight has almost unlimited range: you can see stars trillions of miles away just by looking up at night. Sounds require you to be considerably closer — you can’t hear anything even a single mile away unless it’s exceptionally loud, like a bomb going off, say, or someone tossing a major appliance out the window. To smell something you need to be even closer, a few yards at most. By the time we get to touch we’re down to zero distance: for this sense to work you have to be in physical contact with the object, which can be dangerous if the object is something like a hot stove or a room-temperature cactus. And then there’s taste. To taste something, you have to bring it inside your body — negative distance. If it tastes bad, you can’t just turn it off the way you can close your eyes or cover your ears — you have to remove whatever it is that’s in your mouth, and then rinse your mouth out, or wipe off your tongue, or both.
That’s how it works for most people. But not for Karol Carpathescu. For when he first picks up the taste in question, the source isn’t in his mouth — right away he can tell that it’s far off beyond the horizon, somewhere off to the west. But for all that, it’s no less intimate. He feels it in the back of his throat, just a faint burning sensation for now, but that’s how these things always start. And there’s no way to block it out, either, even if he could reach into his throat and try to rip out the place where the taste seems to come from. He tried that once. It didn’t work. All that happened was that for a few weeks the tasting hurt like a serrated dagger twisting around in his throat, and he spent a month or two coughing up blood, and he got a bunch of his own throat lining wedged underneath his fingernails and couldn’t get it out for a while. But hey, you know, trial and error. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
But that was a long time ago, and his throat is all healed up, and so there is no pain, just a tingle. Nevertheless, panic rushes through his system like an icy waterfall pouring down on him, and he bolts. He dashes east through the forest, dodging trees and ducking under branches, running as fast as his spindly legs can carry him. After a minute or two he’s exhausted and sinks to the ground gasping for breath. But the taste isn’t gone. There are still little wisps of it in the air, beckoning to him, tugging at him. Every cell in his body is telling him to get up and find out where the taste is coming from.
Karol Carpathescu gets up, wipes the dirt off his hands, and heads due north.
Or so he thinks.
He is determined not to buckle under. He remembers what happened the last time, and the time before that, and the time before that. He will stick to the plan. That’s the whole reason for the plan, after all, to get away from the tastes. No matter how enticing. Pick the most remote spot on the continent, steer as far clear of civilization as possible on the way, and do not let the little tingle in the back of your throat get the better of you.
And every evening the sun sets more and more directly ahead of him.
He doesn’t have a compass, so he can only check which direction he’s going twice a day: once at sunset, once at sunrise. Every evening the sun dips below the tops of the trees, and he turns around and heads away from it; every morning he looks over his shoulder, and sees the sun climbing in the sky, and he turns around and heads toward it. He has no idea how he always ends up heading west. And it’s really beginning to get on his nerves.
He likes the forest, he mutters to himself. It’s cool and dark and with all the evergreens around for cover he feels very safe, very much hidden away from everything. He doesn’t have to worry about being spotted. And until recently, the air has been clean, invigorating. The forest is his home, he tells himself. He belongs here. That’s why he doesn’t want to follow the taste, he assures himself. This, of course, is a rationalization. Really, he can pretty much take or leave the forest. In fact, the trees have been giving him some kind of rash or something. But it sounds good to say it’s all because he’s into nature. Heck, every so often he almost has himself convinced.
But it’s not enough. Because as he drifts west, the taste grows stronger, and he finds himself increasingly helpless to resist it. And then one morning he sees the sun rising behind him and can’t bring himself to turn around, and that’s when he knows he’s lost. His body craves the taste; his body will be sated, no matter what he might have to say about the matter. It’s as if you’d been on a hunger strike for a month. Stay away from food and drink, and you’re fine. If your will is strong, maybe you can even sit down at a table and not touch the food on your plate. But if they strap you down and pour the broth into your mouth, you’re going to swallow it. It has nothing to do with you — your reflexes take over. The taste is inside you, and then you need more.
If there were some way he could block out the taste, he might be able to tear himself away and return to his original course. But he can’t. Or even if he’d just fed recently, maybe he’d be full enough to resist. But he hasn’t fed for months. And the hunger has become malicious. It eats at him, he can feel it scraping at him, tearing him with its claws: he can almost feel his stomach lining hanging there in ragged, pulpy strips. It’s all he can do sometimes to keep himself from burying his fingers in his stomach and trying to physically rip the hunger out; and his saliva burns his tongue, his hands and feet sting, his head feels heavy and empty all at once... and he finds his fingers drifting into his mouth, finds his teeth nipping at his tongue when it comes too near... and even when he rips off a piece of bark or some leaves to eat, it doesn’t help. Even if someone were to set a gourmet meal in front of him, it wouldn’t help. He hasn’t been able to keep a meal down since the nineteenth century. Only one thing ever relieves the hunger: the taste. The taste of human.
Karol Carpathescu, you see, is a vampire.
Not in the literal sense, of course — he doesn’t drink blood or sleep in a coffin or turn into a bat. But he does feed on people, and so he thinks of himself as a vampire. Don’t worry, though: chances are he won’t feed on you. And not just because the world’s a big place and he probably won’t come to your town. No, the real reason you shouldn’t worry about Karol Carpathescu is this: there are only a very few people that he can feed upon. One in a million is a generous estimate. Even back when he actively sought out his prey, he would often go months or even years between feedings. If you taste even remotely edible to him, you’re one of the unluckiest people in the world.
Of course, a strange little quirk of nature tilts things in his favor just a little bit. You see, to him, every single human being is broadcasting their own particular taste twenty-four hours a day. You probably don’t even know you’re doing it. It’s certainly not anything you think about, any more than you think about the way you send out your image to anyone who happens to be looking at you. But here’s where the quirk comes in: some people’s tastes travel further than others. If you’re one of the overwhelming majority of the inedible, he can’t pick up your taste until you’re standing a few feet away. But if you’re a candidate to be fed upon, your taste will carry for miles and miles, cross rivers, climb mountains, traverse canyons, as if it were actively seeking him out. So the fact that this particular taste belongs to a potential victim is not some impossible coincidence. If it belonged to anyone else it wouldn’t have reached him.
And so Karol Carpathescu slowly shuffles toward the taste, more like a zombie than a vampire. The days and nights pass with numbing regularity. And eventually he reaches a point where the sun never comes out, nor the moon, nor the stars — not because of some kind of metaphysical state of mind, but just because it’s always overcast along the Washington coast. Every single day is ugly. On those few days that the drizzle doesn’t drip down on him, the cold gray light drips down like the drizzle. But he doesn’t notice. Some of this has to do with the forest: only a little light trickles down from the canopy of evergreens in any case. But really, it’s not so much the amount of light as its color that makes the difference between a cheerful day and a gloomy one: a single shaft of yellow sunlight is warmer than a skyful of unbroken whiteness. The same thing makes a room lit by incandescent light seem warm and inviting where a fluorescent light makes it cold and bleak. And Karol Carpathescu can’t see the color yellow. Or red, or orange — it all looks gray to him. He can see greens and blues and purples and even well into the ultraviolet, not that it helps much. It does enable him to pick out certain flowers from a distance from which normal people wouldn’t notice them, a completely stupid and useless ability on a par with skill with a musket or a working knowledge of conversational Sanskrit. So it’s no wonder he doesn’t notice the gloom overhead: to him the days are always gray.
One day he hears a rumbling sound coming from behind him. He looks over his shoulder: it’s nothing but trees. So he keeps walking and emerges from the forest just as a monster white trailer truck goes roaring past.
He yelps and darts back into the forest. He has just discovered US Route 12.
He’s come across other roads on his trip; usually he’s waited until nightfall and then crossed, or even just dashed across in broad daylight if there hasn’t been any traffic coming. And of course he’s stumbled upon the clearings where the clear-cutters have left giant swaths of stumps looking like the headstones at a cemetery. Every time he’s been able to plunge back into the forest and avoid the problem. But this time, an hour later, he finds himself looking at US Route 12 again. He tries to strike a different course, and the taste leads him back to Route 12. It’s not a mighty highway by any means, but there are always cars and trucks coming; it seems to be the main thoroughfare serving this part of the state.
And so it is. Route 12 is the backbone of Grays Harbor County, located roughly midway on the Washington coast between Cape Flattery and Cape Disappointment. It runs east-west and is dotted with trailer parks and gas-station-and-post-office towns with names like Elma and Satsop. Logging trucks comprise much of the traffic along it; pickup trucks make up most of the rest. It enters Grays Harbor county almost immediately after it splits off from Interstate 5, and runs west until it meets the ocean. Or rather, until it meets Grays Harbor, from which the county gets its name. Or to be even more accurate, until it meets the chief port city of Grays Harbor. The same port city that greets Karol Carpathescu as he emerges from the forest for the final time and finds himself looking at a river.
The city is called Glasgow. When US Route 12 enters Glasgow, it ceases to be US Route 12 and becomes Wishkah Boulevard; the river that Karol Carpathescu comes to at the end of his journey is the Wishkah River. There are two rivers in Glasgow: the Chehalis runs mainly east-west and is a natural extension of the harbor; it splits Glasgow into two distinct parts, with the downtown area in the northern half and the mall in the southern half. The much smaller Wishkah splits off from the Chehalis and runs mainly north-south, forming the eastern boundary of the north half of the town. There are also a few sloughs for the local paper mills, but they don’t really count as rivers so we’ll stop with just the two.
Glasgow itself is a depressed lumber town; as you come in on Route 12, you find yourself flanked on both sides by the usual franchises, but only the most basic ones, the ones that have achieved such total nationwide saturation that you find them in neighborhoods where you have to dodge bullets and step over bodies to get to them: we’re talking about your McDonaldses, your 7-Elevens. The more upscale franchises are conspicuously absent: there are no Olive Gardens, there are no Tower Records, none of the chains you find on every corner in your more affluent suburbs. It’s something like the way a dandelion needs a lawn to grow in but a plain old regular weed will sprout from a crack in the busiest freeway in the country. Once you get past the franchises, you reach the old downtown, full of nameless boarded-up storefronts; big square buildings with signs painted on the sides saying things like "Frederickson’s Furniture and Hardware" or "MacPherson Auto Supply"; pawn shop after pawn shop after pawn shop; and as many bars per capita as any city in the world. And then, if you know where to look, you find the places that set Glasgow apart from its neighbors and make it truly the jewel of Grays Harbor County: the Wal-Mart; the Denny’s; the Safeway; the Glasconians even have a mall, mostly empty, but with a Sears and a food court. It certainly beats the other towns in the region, where the residents have to shop at the gas station and the schools are all K-12.
Times haven’t always been so bad in Glasgow. In 1890, when Karol Carpathescu was born, Glasgow was a thriving seaport. It operated on a service economy, and that service was prostitution; the bordellos between River Street and what is now US Route 101 were generally acknowledged as the best in all the Pacific Northwest. Later the local government cracked down on the "women’s boardinghouses" in an effort to attract industry to the town, and it worked — sawmills started popping up everywhere, loggers and their families moved in. For a generation Glasgow was as prosperous as any town in the country; it wasn’t glamorous by any means, and left much to be desired in the way of culture, but the bowling alleys and malt shops did a brisk business and the residents lived the small-town ideal. And then the bottom fell out. Automation and a downturn in the timber industry sent the local economy crashing down, like someone spiking a football — these things tend to happen when your economy revolves around one single industry. If they’d stuck to prostitution, maybe they’d be better off.
Now the little one-story houses look dilapidated, not charming; the lawns are untended and often strewn with beer bottles and broken toys, dirty old pickup trucks line the curbs, and where you’d expect to find kids riding their bikes or playing on the sidewalk, the streets are muddy and deserted. The sky is always gray and crisscrossed by ugly phone lines. The only remnant of the city’s former splendor is, appropriately enough, Forget Me Not Hill, in the northeast corner of town; the people who live there are mainly the families who run, or used to run, the local mills. They live in Victorian-style homes overlooking the Wishkah River; to get into town, they have to cross the river via the North Glasgow Bridge, about as long and as wide as a typical freeway overpass.
Little do they know that the North Glasgow Bridge has just become home to a vampire.
When Karol Carpathescu first came across Route 12, it was drizzling; by the time he reached the city limits, it was raining pretty steadily; now, as he emerges from the forest to find the Wishkah River, the sky is a seething charcoal gray and the air seems like it’s half water. The normally stagnant Wishkah has suddenly snapped and turned violent and Karol soon finds that ducking back into the forest is no help: the wind rips right through the cover the forest normally provides and soaks him as completely as a firehose. He stumbles around blindly and almost manages to pitch himself into the river, catching himself just before he slips off the bank — good thing, too, since he can’t swim. He wipes the water out of his eyes. Then he sees the bridge.
The North Glasgow Bridge is supported by a number of rickety columns rising up out of the river, and a concrete bulwark on one bank; on the other bank, the ground gradually slopes up from the river to meet the bridge. Most of that bank is mud, but up towards the top he can make out a patch of soft red dirt — or rather soft gray dirt, since the red tones make no impression whatsoever on his vampire eyes. As far as he can tell it’s the only dry spot for miles around. Unfortunately, it’s on the far end of the bridge. But he can feel the cold slicing through him, can feel little spots inside him that are starting to freeze, and knows he must get to some kind of shelter. So he frantically dashes across the bridge to the other side and clambers underneath.
It’s even better than he thought. Not only is the ground dry, but there’s a little shelf where the ground levels out and parallels the bridge before it finally suddenly lunges up to meet it: the crevice thus produced is just barely wide enough for him to cram his spindly body into. His dripping clothes immediately soak the ground around him, sort of defeating the purpose of finding dry land, but at least the rain can’t reach him.
The storm lasts for five days. Karol Carpathescu spends the entire time wedged in the little crack under the bridge. He doesn’t sleep: he’s never slept a day in his life. Nor does he zone out or lose track of time — he’s painfully aware of every single second that passes. Agony tends to do that to you. Part of the agony comes from the howling, freezing wind, against which the bridge offers no protection; more, however, comes from the hunger, which is no weaker even now that the taste has grown so strong that he can feel it in his chest. The hunger is still like jagged shards of glass carving away at the inside of his stomach; he can feel it digging at his temples, pounding in his ears. And the combination of the hunger and the wind is worst of all. It’s like getting a metal shaving caught just beneath the surface of your fingertip and then scraping your thumbnail over it, only multiplied by every cell in your body.
So with all this pain on his mind, it’s really quite understandable that he doesn’t notice when the ground around him dries out again. It’s only five days later when the storm finally settles back down into a drizzle that the hunger dulls and he regains some awareness of his surroundings. First he notices that his clothes are stuck to him, but that’s nothing new — his clothes have been through so many soakings and dryings over the last few months that they’re like sheet metal anyway. But then he notices that they’ve also dried into the ground, which is a problem. In fact, his whole left side seems to have sunk an inch into the ground, which was mud at the time but has now hardened back into solid dirt. He tries to twist to get some leverage but right then the concrete overhead starts rattling furiously and he can feel the bridge collapsing all around him.
Not really, of course — it was only a truck going by on the bridge. It’s just that the bottom of the truck’s tires were a matter of inches from Karol’s head, separated by a couple layers of concrete and asphalt. Once he gets over the shock, he gets back to extricating himself. Trying to get up is hopeless — there’s just no clearance between the bottom of the bridge and his body. So it’ll have to be a roll. Right now he’s facing out towards the river: rolling onto his face should do the trick. He gives it a few practice tries and then hurls himself from the crevice.
Or partly, anyway — while the lower part of his body comes free from the ground easily enough, his hair is a different story. He tries to scratch at the dry mud with his fingernails and free his hair, but it’s no use. So he just holds onto the shelf with both hands and jerks his head free like yanking your hand out of a jar. Unfortunately, the dirt has a stronger hold on his hair than his head does, and he leaves a big tuft of it behind embedded in the ground. More than a little painful, and it leaves a bloody bald patch on the side of his head. But he’s got more important things on his mind. He’s come this far, and now that the worst of the storm has passed, the time has come to feed.
It’s early in the morning, just after sunrise. For once, his vision more or less corresponds to everyone else’s: it is a gray, ashen morning, like all mornings in Glasgow. He clambers up the bank and finds himself on the side of a two-lane road, up to his ankles in wet grass. There isn’t much to see except grass along this stretch of the road. To the north, across the bridge, looms Forget Me Not Hill; to the south, a stop sign indicates the entrance to town. He heads south. He passes a couple abandoned trucks and two-room houses with peeling paint. Off in the distance he can see a traffic light. He stops. He wipes his forehead with the back of his hand, but it’s no use — the drizzle and the months of dirt have combined to form a thick film that won’t come off. He takes a step forward, then turns around and shuffles back to the bridge.
There are about four reasons why.
The first, and least convincing, reason is this: he likes the bridge. It feels safe, there’s no one around to bother him, it offers him some protection from the weather. This is a pretty flimsy excuse. The bridge is even worse than the forest, and he didn’t really like it there either. No need to spend any time on this one.
The second reason is that as he got close to the town, he lost track of the taste. Other tastes, tastes of people unfit to feed upon, got in the way. It’s like trying to eavesdrop on someone across a crowded room where there are hundreds of other people chattering away. This seems reasonable, but then there’s an obvious objection: so what? You know the taste’s in the town somewhere. You’re not going to find it by hiding under the bridge again. So reason number two turns out to be only a little less lame than reason number one.
This brings us to the third reason, and now we start getting somewhere. It has to do with the experience of taste itself, or all senses, for that matter. See, much of what the senses are good for is self-preservation, and in that they can’t afford to be subtle. Touch, for example. People who make a habit of collecting third-degree burns tend to die off before they can pass on their genes, so to prevent this, we feel a bolt of searing, unbearable pain if we touch a hot radiator — it just works better to have the body make the decision to get away from it rather than waste precious seconds as the brain weighs the pros and cons. Another example: spending too much time surrounded by your own waste products is generally unhealthy, so they smell bad to encourage you to get away from them. And the same is true for taste. If something is potentially harmful, like tainted meat, it’ll taste bad so you’ll spit it out before it can make you sick. In this respect Karol Carpathescu is no different than anybody else. If he picks up a taste that his system can’t feed on, it tastes bad. Worse than bad: revolting, nauseating, utterly unbearable. It isn’t uncommon to see him doubled up on the floor gagging when someone especially noxious is standing too close. And it’s already been established that he can’t block out the taste. So that’s why he turns back. Glasgow, Washington, has a population of just under twenty thousand. He can already tell that all but one of them will make him violently sick.
This is one of the main reasons Karol Carpathescu hates being a vampire so much. If everyone lived in an isolated cabin in the woods, his life would be a lot easier. He could avoid the people who make him sick and easily track down the ones that don’t. But in modern society his victims all live in cities, surrounded by thousands or even millions of others whose mere presence sends him into a retching fit. It’s the one thing worse than being hungry — being sick.
So why does he return to the bridge instead of just leaving? Studies that have been done with rats point us to the answer. Take a hungry rat and put it at one end of a corridor. Put an enticing piece of cheese at the other end. The rat will naturally go straight for the cheese. But now electrify the floor. As the rat comes closer and closer to the cheese, the shock gets stronger and stronger. Soon the desire to avoid the shock overwhelms the desire to get the cheese. So the rat turns back. But not all the way back. At some point, the shock is light enough that the rat’s desire to get the cheese reasserts itself and it turns around yet again. Soon the rat finds a point on the corridor where the desire to approach the cheese (and have the pleasure of eating it) and the desire to avoid the cheese (and stay away from painful electric shock) balance perfectly. And it sits there.
It just so happens that Karol Carpathescu’s desire to feed on the person generating the taste he’s been following and his desire to stay away from the people who will make him sick balance at the North Glasgow Bridge.
And there’s a fourth reason.
Karol Carpathescu has done this before. He knows what it means to feed on people. And that makes him sickest of all. Sick at heart. It’s why he decided to condemn himself to a life of hunger and live in exile on a mountain in the Yukon. Because after every feeding it becomes harder and harder to live with himself.
You might ask why he doesn’t just kill himself and get it over with. It seems like it would spare him and everyone else a lot of pain. Well, the truth is, he’s tried it. Twice. He couldn’t get that right either.
It was around the time of the First World War that he finally accepted that no life at all was preferable to the torment of life as a vampire. He was living in the French countryside, far away from the trenches and the disaffected expatriates synonymous with France at the time. There was a river nearby, and he loaded his pockets with stones and threw himself in. He sank. His lungs filled with water, and he could feel his chest about to explode. Black circles formed in front of his eyes and a high-pitched alarm went off in his head, and he knew the end was near. Blinding shocks of pain were going off in his head and chest, and with each one he would cough up a lungful of water and gasp in a lungful more... and forty-five minutes passed and he didn’t seem to be any more dead than he’d been before. Soon the wait became unbearable and finally he took the stones out of his pockets and bobbed to the surface. Of course he still couldn’t swim, so he thrashed around in the freezing water for a few hours until the police fished him out.
The second time he tried to hang himself. It seemed more efficient. He’d seen a number of public executions and had learned how to tie a noose so that the coil is heavy enough to snap the neck instantly — that way, he figured, he wouldn’t wind up swinging from a tree slowly strangling to death. So he went out into the woods, found a tree with a nice strong branch about fifteen feet off the ground, climbed up to it, tied the loose end of the rope around it, slipped the noose around his neck, and jumped off. The coil did its job — he heard his neck snap — but once again, he didn’t die. A stabbing pain shot through his neck and then he felt some kind of icy fluid drip through his body, and suddenly every muscle in his body was aflame, like being burned at the stake... except not heat burn, but cold burn, like lying naked in a bed of dry ice. For days he couldn’t move at all, not even to blink. He hung there lifelessly from the tree, fully conscious but completely powerless — he felt the birds land on him, felt the insects exploring his nose and ears... and then one morning he started to twitch convulsively and couldn’t stop. That lasted for a week or two, and he bit through his tongue more than once. And then at long last he could scream, and he screamed all day and all night for well over a week and finally some woodsmen came and cut him down. This, incidentally, is why his head is on crooked: the vertebrae of his neck fused back together the wrong way. For the last eighty years he’s seen the world at canted angles.
So then he decided to try something he couldn’t recover from. He came into possession of a shotgun and went to the shed where he was living at the time and sat cross-legged on the floor and put the barrel in his mouth. But then he realized — what if it worked? What if I blow my head off, and I still don’t die? What if my head is splattered all over the far wall and my body rots, but I’m still conscious, and still hungry? Even the pain is better than that.
So he lives with the hunger and the sickness. And it’s not as though his suicide attempts were totally useless: they did show him that nothing can kill him. And being well over a century old without seeming to age past twenty-two has taught him something else: he isn’t going to be dying of natural causes any time soon, either. He’s immortal. He’ll never die. And nothing can kill him.
Just hurt him a lot.
When Karol Carpathescu climbs back under the bridge, he sees that the river has receded quite since the worst of the storm. The riverbank has dried out, and for the first time he notices that there are several human-sized hollows in the soft earth. They’re filled with cigarette butts and discarded Big Gulp cups and plastic six-pack holders, but it’s clear what they mean — someone has slept here before.
Now that it’s somewhat light out he takes a look around and finds other signs that he’s not the first to have spent some time here. The bridge is covered with graffiti, every column, every beam, ranging from the crude ("glasgow sucks") to the clever ("rebel against non-conformity"), the plaintive ("love") to the poetic ("rock is my redeemer") — no two messages in the same handwriting. Most of the graffiti seems to be band names, names like "serf punks" and "cindergarten" and "venial sincerity". One of the names has been thoroughly crossed out and replaced with the note "not yet, man — calm down." And spray painted in the corner of one of the large concrete panels is the legend, "none of you will ever know my true intentions".
Karol gets to know the graffiti quite well over the next week or two, for as he crawls back into the crevice he knows this will be his home for the foreseeable future. It isn’t more than a couple of days before he can see the underside of the bridge almost as clearly with his eyes closed as he can with them open: when your brain gets the exact same visual input every second for a week, you tend to see that image swim up before you even when your eyelids shut. The only variation is the way the light strengthens and fades as the days go by — for Karol Carpathescu never sleeps. Nor does he dream. He simply stares dully at the bridge and the riverbank and the stagnant river. This is nothing new to him: he once spent five weeks in the crawl space underneath a house. Vampires find their cracks in the world and try to melt into them.
This goes on for ten, maybe fifteen days. Then, out of nowhere, he feels a kick in the gut. He clutches his stomach, suddenly gasping and heaving, a taste of vomit and feces and sour sweat at the back of his throat. And then, before his eyes, four people amble down the riverbank.
Just about everyone in the Glasgow youth culture can be divided into one of two cliques. Either you’re a redneck, or you’re a stoner. The rednecks are the larger group by a significant if not overwhelming margin. Some of the more popular redneck pastimes are: drag racing their pickups up and down the 101; connecting the towing hooks of their pickups with a chain and driving them in opposite directions to see which one can drag the other one to the end of the block; going to one or many of Glasgow’s plentiful bars and getting drunk; going to someone’s house and getting drunk; hanging out on the street and getting drunk; shooting guns; and beating up on the stoners. Some of the rednecks are jocks; most of them are just plain rednecks. The female rednecks wear lots of makeup and spend most of their time alternately making out with and getting slapped around by their boyfriends. When they grow up, the rednecks generally either become loggers or wind up in prison or both. Very few of them ever leave Glasgow.
If you’re not a redneck, then chances are you’re a stoner. Some of the more popular stoner pastimes are: getting stoned and listening to music; getting stoned and playing music; getting stoned and talking about music; getting stoned with no musical involvement; and getting beaten up by the rednecks. The stoner subculture is very much coed: the guys and the girls live life more or less the same way, and hang out together in packs without pairing off. All of this is of course an exercise in generalization — there is some diversity within the stoner subculture. For instance, you can draw a line between the hardcore stoners, the ones who don’t really go to school and who get stoned pretty much every single day, and the weekend stoners, the ones who go to school and then spend their afternoons mostly at the library and their evenings mostly at Denny’s smoking and drinking coffee and only get stoned on Saturdays — which they started doing not because "everybody was doing it" but because they all read The Doors of Perception. They’re the ones who have a definite plan to get out of Glasgow: keep their grades up and go to college, at least one of the liberal arts schools in Olympia or Portland. The others usually end up working in the chain stores or collecting unemployment. Very few of them ever leave Glasgow.
Karol Carpathescu has lucked out. The four people who have just come to hang out under the bridge are stoners, which means that he won’t be pulled out of the crevice and beaten to a pulp. Their names and histories are not terribly important, but just for the sake of curiosity, here they are:
Dennis is tall, blond, gangly, not unlike Karol in a way, with a rather football-shaped head. He is the only one of the four who still goes to school sometimes, but even he never goes to any class except art. There he spends most of his time making collages, consisting mainly of simplistic little sketches and swatches of color that have obviously been agonizingly thought out but are nevertheless pretty much arbitrary, with titles like "in my dreams i feel the icy taste of my own death."
Owen is small, very young-looking, with short reddish-brown hair; he looks as if he should have a dog following him around. His hobby is the opera: he’s never actually seen one, but he’s read about them and he has a lot of tapes and is familiar with many of the more popular performers. He doesn’t talk much.
Avram has a very dark complexion and black curly hair; he is adopted, and both of his adoptive parents teach at the high school. He recently dropped out after spending eleven years as the only Jewish kid in his class, which the rednecks thought was as good a reason as any to beat him up. A couple of weeks ago he was named homecoming king, five full months after he officially withdrew from school. This took a lot of coordination by the stoners and was a rather complex plot to annoy the rednecks.
And then there’s Zach. Over the course of the last two years Zach has impregnated three different girls, one of them twice, leading to one child, two abortions and a miscarriage. His friends look down on him for it, not because of any moral objections so much as because knocking people up is such a redneck thing to do.
They’ve come to the underside of the North Glasgow Bridge this morning to hang out, spray some graffiti, and of course, get stoned. And they’ve brought some rather unusual stuff to get high off of. You see, the drug selection in Glasgow is rather limited, being so far from the major urban centers. Crack and heroin show up occasionally, but are expensive and hard to get; prescription drugs smuggled out from the hospital or one of the drugstores are popular, but require either connections or the willingness to do a lot of favors; and while pot and acid are cheap and easy to get, when you’ve done one or the other or both every day since sixth grade, they get kind of boring. So the four stoners who have come to the bridge this morning, armed with a well-thumbed newspaper article entitled "household items, exotic highs", have collected an interesting assortment of items. Zach has several bottles of correction fluid. Dennis has about a dozen shakers full of paprika. Owen is carrying a bag containing several boxes of aspirin. And Avram has a can of shaving cream and is working on disassembling it to get to the propellant. As a backup, they have a few green-and-yellow antidepressant capsules, but they’re hoping to save those for the weekend.
Karol is still quietly gagging in his crevice, but the stoners don’t notice him. He does have camouflage working for him: after weeks in the crevice, his hair, normally white, is the color of the dirt; his skin, normally white, is the color of the dirt; his clothes, normally black, are the color of the dirt; even the skin under his clothes is the color of the dirt, though that doesn’t help him any. So that’s part of the reason why they don’t see him. But mainly it’s because they just aren’t very observant.
They huddle around the big hollow in the ground as if there were a fire there and go to work trying to get stoned. Owen, munching on handful after handful of aspirin, is the first to complain. "This isn’t doing anything," he mutters.
"It will," Zach says. "It’s all right here in the article."
Dennis unscrews the top of a shaker of paprika, looks at it apprehensively for a minute, and then chugs it. This sends him into a coughing fit. "Water," he gasps.
"River’s right there, man," Zach says. He unscrews the cap of one of the bottles of correction fluid and sniffs it experimentally.
Dennis tries another bottle of paprika and stumbles over to the river. But he doesn’t drink from it. Instead, he falls to his knees and spews a great gush of paprika and half-digested food into it. "Whoa, cool," Zach says. "Going down it was Mexican, coming up it’s Hungarian." He then inhales just a bit too hard and whites out his nostril.
Meanwhile, Avram’s hunched over his disassembled can of shaving cream and he’s got a strange look on his face. "I think it’s working," he says. "I’m, like seeing stuff." He reaches up to wave something out of his face that isn’t there. The effect is similar to that of a novice mime.
"I see something too," Owen says. "Someone’s looking at us."
"Aspirin finally kicking in, huh?" Zach says.
"No, I mean I really see someone looking at us," Owen says. "Look." And he points directly at Karol Carpathescu.
Karol braces himself for the hammerblow to the gut that inevitably follows being discovered hiding somewhere, but this time the effect is very mild — his nausea isn’t really any stronger than before. The four stoners look at each other questioningly, or at least Zach and Owen do — Dennis looks more queasy than questioning, and Avram is already on another planet. A long minute passes and Zach finally thinks of something to say: "Uh, how’s it going?"
Karol doesn’t answer. He tries to, but he still can’t quite catch his breath or stop his throat from seizing up. They’re all just a little too close and they all taste way too disgusting. Besides, after going for a few months without speaking the relevant muscles tend to atrophy a little bit: it takes a while to get going.
"Look," Zach says, "if you’re, like, a bum or something?... you know, that’s cool, but this is like where we, you know, hang and stuff?... and you know, if that’s cool, then... I mean, don’t, like, it’s not like... but, umm..."
"Maybe he’s a mental patient or something," Owen says. "Maybe he escaped and he’s hiding out."
"Oh," Zach says. "So then, like, what do we do?"
"He’s not hurting anything," Owen says. "Just leave him."
"No!" Avram interrupts. But he’s not talking to them, or to anyone, really.
"C’mon," Owen says. He and Zach go over to where Dennis is spraying something. "That’s stupid," they both say.
Karol is shocked. They’re ignoring him. People have had a number of different reactions upon meeting him — shock, horror, revulsion, violence — but never has he just been ignored. The queasiness settles down and soon he’s once again more hungry than sick.
As for the stoners — or rather, the three conscious ones, as Avram has just nodded out — they spend about a half hour arguing what to write on the bridge. Every time one of them starts to write something he gets through about two letters and then the others say, "That’s stupid," and grab the can. They wind up writing the word "fu" in about eight different places.
"We have to tell Dale about this guy," Dennis suddenly says. "He’ll know what to do."
"Good idea," Zach says. "Let’s go now."
"What about him?" Owen asks, pointing at Avram.
"Ah, he knows where he is," Zach says. "If he’s here when we get back, great. If not, he went home. No big. Come on." And the three of them climb back up the riverbank.
Soon Karol can no longer taste them. He waits a minute or two and then scrambles out of the crevice and up the bank. He wants to leave, melt back into the forest, but the good taste is still strong in the air, and he knows he must stay. So he dashes across the bridge as fast as he can and skids down the slope on the other side.
This is the side that was flooded when he first arrived, but now that the river has receded he finds that not only is there a dry surface waiting for him but also a number of tree stumps that he can hide among if he lies flat enough. The ground on this side is much colder and has much less give to it than the soft red earth on the other side, but that doesn’t matter now. What matters is not being there when they get back.
As it turns out, they don’t come back at all. At least not for a couple of days. When Avram wakes up, he rubs his eyes for a few minutes and then trudges up the bank and out of sight. When he gets back to town, he doesn’t tell anyone about the guy hiding under the bridge, because he never really saw him. The others don’t say anything either, because by the time they get to the first traffic light they’ve already forgotten about it — their short-term memory isn’t what it used to be. So Karol is safe.
But he doesn’t know that, so he stays on the other side of the bridge, among the stumps. And after a few days, they do come back. Not necessarily the same people, but people. He can’t see them — he can’t even taste them — but he can hear them. He can hear them talking, and laughing, and playing tapes on a beat-up old boom box, and just generally having what they seem to think is a good time. They come every couple of days and stay late into the night, sometimes even past sunrise.
They don’t know that they’re being listened to.
And then one day another storm sweeps through the area. This one isn’t as wet, but it’s colder. It’s been cold every night, of course, but the kind of cold that slices through you cleanly, antiseptically. This is different. It lingers and pokes around, like a redneck kid prodding a squashed cat with a stick. Karol can feel it welling up and festering in his body. And the stoners keep coming — they just build a small fire in the hollow in the ground and huddle around it for warmth. Karol raises himself up on his elbows and watches them. He wants to be near that fire so desperately it’s all he can do to keep from howling. He’d even be content to lie down where the fire had been, after it’s gone out and everyone has gone home. But that would mean dashing across the bridge in the rain, and being spotted as soon as the stoners come back.
But then he finds that he doesn’t have much choice.
The river is rising again. It doesn’t come near the hollow on the far bank, but Karol isn’t on the far bank. He’s lying among the stumps, and there is no slope here: soon he’s lying in a shallow puddle. And the puddle is growing less and less shallow.
So it’s back to his crevice. And he isn’t there for more than a few hours before the stoners come. Two of them taste familiar: it’s Owen and Dennis, though of course he doesn’t know their names. And there are two others, neither of whom tastes familiar, but who taste almost exactly like each other: an odd combination of stomach acid, oily unwashed hair, and sugary American cheese. It’s enough to make him queasy, but the effect is extremely mild by his standards — new tastes usually incapacitate him, like the last time he was here. He closes his eyes and tries to concentrate on the taste. One of them tastes a little ranker than the other... and also a little horsier. The other one has a slightly fishy flavor. Older brother, younger sister. Has to be.
And it is. Dale Washington is about three years older than his sister Kim. Kim’s a junior at Glasgow High, and is on track to graduate, maybe even make it into college if she can sweeten up her application a little. Dale, on the other hand, never even came close to graduating. He dropped out in the middle of his sophomore year, just before he got kicked out of the house. Kim doesn’t see him too often, considering that they both live within the same twelve square miles. When they do get together, it’s usually to smoke out.
This is one of those times. The four of them are passing around two little plastic bags. One is full of pot, obviously; the other is full of some kind of black powder. Owen and Dennis roll the black stuff into their joints with glee, but Kim seems hesitant. "What is this stuff?" she asks.
"Copy toner," Dale says. "Jen gets it from work. It adds this weird little kick. Try it, man."
Karol watches them smoke and happily chat away. He knows he probably ought to keep his eyes closed — after all, the only part of him that doesn’t blend into the dirt are his huge bulging eyes — but it’s... interesting. Dale and Kim look a lot alike. They both have very long, horsey faces, with long straight dark hair. The main difference is that when Dale talks or smiles, his mouth takes up most of his face: he has the longest teeth Karol has ever seen, and on top of that, every time he opens his mouth his gums seem to go on forever. Kim’s mouth is somewhat more normal. But then again, how could it not be?
Right now the four of them are talking about lizards. "Of course they can take care of themselves, man," Dale is saying. "If they couldn’t, there wouldn’t be any more lizards. They’d die before they could replicate."
"Reproduce," Owen says. "Replicate is for viruses and stuff."
"Whatever," Dale says. "Same idea."
"That’s wild lizards, though," Dennis says. "I’m talking about domesticated lizards. They’re different."
"Hey, uh, did you know there’s a guy up there looking at us?" Kim asks.
They all look. Recognition flashes across Owen’s face; Dennis suddenly tastes paprika and can’t remember why. Dale is completely unfazed. "Hey, man," he says.
Karol doesn’t say anything. "I don’t think he can talk," Owen says. "He was here a few days ago. He didn’t talk then either. I think he’s been living around here."
"Really?" Dale asks. "Have you been living here?"
Karol considers playing dead, but something inside him wants to answer. It’s so rare that people treat him like anything approaching a human being that he feels they deserve a response. Sort of to repay them for being decent enough not to pull him from the crevice and beat on him or run screaming. So he nods.
"I’ve been there, man," Dale says. "So are you dumb? I mean, not stupid, but like, you can’t talk? That’s what it’s called, right? Dumb?"
Karol shakes his head.
"Oh, so you can talk?" Dale says.
"So why don’t you?"
Karol coughs. "Because," he says, "I usually don’t have anything to say."
Karol Carpathescu is such a twisted freak that you’d think he’d have a voice to match. But he doesn’t. His voice is deep and sonorous, with a certain sighing edge to it. And the Balkan accent he had upon coming to America is long gone.
"Oh," Dale says. "Well, that’s cool. Why don’t you come out? We’ve got some extra herb."
"No!" Karol yelps. Dale doesn’t know why, but it’s really very simple. Karol Carpathescu has tried just about every drug that’s come along. Anything he thinks might be a release from the hunger. Opium in the twenties, heroin in the fifties, acid in the sixties, crack in the eighties — every time something would come along that was supposed to leave everything that’d come before in the dust, he’d try it. It’s never been hard to get, even for him — the drug culture is used to freaks. And nothing’s ever had any effect. Narcotics, amphetamines, hallucinogens, all in doses big enough to land anyone else in the morgue, and none of them has had any more effect than a glass of tap water. Actually, that’s not strictly true. Occasionally there would be some effects, especially with prescription drugs. He’d get the side effects. Never the main effects, but sometimes the side effects. "May cause diarrhea, migraine headaches, nausea, irritability" — any of that he’d be sure to get. But the euphoria or drowsiness or energy or whatever he was supposed to get, never. He’s tried going on drinking binges a couple of times: he’d never get drunk, but he would get a hangover. And then there’s marijuana — or pot, or weed, or bud, or herb, or whatever the popular term happened to be that week. That had the worst effect of all. You’ve heard of the munchies? There’s a side effect Karol Carpathescu will never forget — a couple of tokes, and the hunger kicked into overdrive. Everyone else in the little circle is discovering the wonders of how fingers and toes are so similar yet so different, and he’s doubled over in the corner as a hundred thousand rats try to burrow through his stomach. So, no, he wasn’t exactly eager to try Dale’s "herb," copy toner or no.
"Whoa, sorry," Dale says. "You don’t have to yell."
"I think he’s an escaped mental patient," Owen says.
"Hunh," Dale says. "Well, whatever. Look, man, you want a place to stay?"
"Say what?" Kim says.
"Sure, he can stay with me and Jen," Dale says.
"I thought Owen just said he’s an escaped mental patient," Kim says.
"So?" Dale says. "He’s not a redneck, right? So what do you say, man? Me and my girlfriend’ve got this place over on East Second. We’ve got hot water, and a couch — I think we still have the couch — and, like, an iguana... it’s great."
"I still say the iguana’s doomed," Dennis says.
"Yeah," Dale says. "In its dreams it feels the icy taste of its own death. So what do you say, man?"
"I think I’ll just stay here," Karol says.
"Aw, you’re kidding," Dale says. "It’s, like, about five degrees out here. We don’t have heat or anything but at least it’s warmer than—"
"I think I’ll just stay here," Karol says.
After that they leave him alone. And they leave before too long — too self-conscious to enjoy themselves knowing he’s watching, Karol supposes.
Part of him wishes he’d taken Dale up on his offer. Real shelter would be nice. Of course, the last thing he wants is to be surrounded by people. If he’d wanted that, he’d have gone into town in the first place. But still, he hasn’t encountered that kind of generosity in a long, long time. No one’s offered him shelter out of the blue like that since the Beats decided he was a hip gone cat and hung around with him for a few weeks before ditching him at a truck stop in New Mexico.
And it looks like he’s going to have to go into town sometime. He’s been stalling, hoping that the taste would disappear, that whoever it is who’s drawn him here will just disappear. It’s happened before: they get on a plane, the taste is gone, he’s free to go. By the time they come back — if they come back — he’s far enough away that their taste can’t reel him back in. But things just don’t work that way in Glasgow. No one ever comes in or out. The people who live there have nowhere else to go, and no one who doesn’t live there has any reason to come.
Except for him.
That night the weather worsens, if such a thing is possible. He hears a clattering all around him: it’s hail, smacking into the bridge right above his head. Lightning slices through the air, thunder makes the houses shudder, trees and telephone poles come crashing down. The winds barreling down the riverbed physically slam him into the back of the crevice. It feels very much like the end of the world.
And then suddenly Dale is standing there in front of him, brushing clumps of ice out of his hair. "Do you believe this, man?" he says. "We’re talking hail the size of chihuahuas. Now come on, you’re gonna freeze to death out here."
Of course, from Karol Carpathescu’s point of view, the problem is that he’s not going to freeze to death. He shakes his head.
"Don’t argue," Dale says. He grabs Karol’s wrist. And even a taste as mild as Dale’s sends Karol headlong into a retching fit with actual physical contact. Karol goes limp as a rag doll and Dale pulls him out easily.
"Good deal," he says. "Now come on."
Dale wraps his coat more tightly around himself and heads up the bank. Karol at first heads back to the crevice. But that’d just mean that Dale would come back for him again. So he follows him.
Dale, it turns out, lives all of two blocks away from the bridge. You turn right at the stop sign and it takes about ninety seconds to get there if you walk at a leisurely pace. You pass a grand total of six houses on the way.
East Second Street is a bad neighborhood, even for Glasgow. All the houses in the flat part of town are essentially just big cardboard boxes, but in this stretch the porches are literally falling off the houses and the windows are sealed up with duct tape and the paint is a distant memory. 7 East Second Street is probably the best house in the area — it even has two stories — but Dale doesn’t live at 7 East Second Street. He lives behind 7 East Second Street. It’s a tiny house, a shack really, about the size of a largish living room, with no porch — you have to step up about a foot to get in — and right next to the spot where all the various cables in the area are tied down. It’s shaped like the houses you see in kids’ crayon drawings: perfectly square, with a perfectly triangular roof, and with a big four-panel window right next to the door. The door has no lock. Which is a good thing, because Dale doesn’t have the key. Dale doesn’t officially live there. Neither does anyone else. 9907 East Second Street is supposed to be empty. But the people in the big house don’t seem to mind, and Dale has called it home for a couple of years now.
Dale throws open the door and they both go in. Before them is the house. It consists of two rooms. In the far left corner of the house is the bathroom. The rest of the house is all one big space, serving many different functions: there are a sink and a stove and oven in the far right corner, obviously the kitchen; taking a step away from the sink you find yourself in the dining room, a stack of bowls and plates and silverware on the floor; then comes the living room, an expanse just big enough to sit down in if not for the clothes and macaroni boxes and books scattered on the floor; the master bedroom is to the immediate left of the door, a pair of mattresses stacked on each other and hidden from the rest of the house by a curtain; across from the master bedroom is the guest bedroom, a battered brown couch currently occupied by a very bored-looking iguana; and then between the master bedroom and the bathroom, along the west wall, is a six-piece drum set and four guitars — a shiny new Gibson Les Paul and fretless Fender Jazz bass, as well as a half-destroyed Squier Strat with magic marker all over it and a weatherbeaten Martin Dreadnought. Scattered in among the instruments are a couple of amplifiers and effects pedals and also a four-track recorder. On the wall across from the musical equipment is a collage of laminated color copies of photographs: along the top it reads "have you seen me?" and underneath are about thirty photos of various people. Among them are Owen, Dennis, Zach, Avram, Kim, and Dale, though Karol doesn’t look at it long enough to pick them out. Instead, he stands dripping in the doorway and wonders how much stuff they could fit into the house if it were bigger than a walk-in closet.
"Close the door, man, you’ll let the rednecks in," Dale says. "Do you believe it? No one’s here! It’s like the first night in a year. Probably all went to Denny’s while I was gone. Bastards." He picks up a few of the clothes on the floor at random. "I’m going to go change out of this wet stuff," he says. "I wish we had some stuff that’d fit you but you’re, what, about eleven feet tall? I’ll get you some towels, though." He disappears into the bathroom.
Karol sits down on the couch; the iguana glares at him. If his vision were normal he’d notice that the couch has orange and green threads running through it, obviously an artifact from the seventies. But he doesn’t. Almost involuntarily he stretches out and stares at the ceiling, complete with mysterious stains. He can hardly believe it. His luck is finally changing. A few minutes ago he was huddled under a bridge during one of the very worst storms of his entire century-plus lifetime, and now he’s lying on a relatively comfortable couch in a warm house. And only a tiny bit queasier for the change.
Dale comes out of the bathroom wearing a gauzy white blouse and a pair of tattered blue jeans. In his arms is a stack of towels. "Here you go, man," he said. "You can use the shower if you want, but the hot water’s kind of iffy most of the time."
"You’re very kind," Karol says.
"Hey, no problem, man," Dale says. "I mean, I used to live under that bridge after I got kicked out and it’s just not where you want to be, you know?" He yawns. "What time is it, anyway? Like around four? I think I’m gonna crash. Hey, you want something to eat? You must be starving."
"No, thank you," Karol says. "I don’t... really eat all that much."
"No kidding," Dale says. "Hey, do you know the Glow Girl?"
Karol looks puzzled. "Nah, I guess it was a longshot," Dale says. "There’s this chick Jen works with, her name’s — great, now I have to remember how to pronounce it — it’s like, Chris-tee-ann-ee-uh Guy-uh-check — and she doesn’t eat either. And she’s got big eyes like yours. I thought you might be related or something. I’ll have Jen bring her over sometime. Anyway, if you change your mind there’s some cereal and stuff under the sink. And the brown thing next to the oven’s a fridge. Bathroom’s over there. Mi casa su casa, you know?" He flashes Karol one of his enormous teeth-and-gums smiles and disappears behind the curtain.
Karol stares at the ceiling for a few minutes and suddenly realizes he’s shivering. The window is open a crack and in his cold wet clothes the draft feels quite frigid. He gets up and shuffles into the bathroom. He turns on the water in the shower: it’s not exactly hot, but it’s the warmest water he’s felt in months.
He doesn’t even bother to undress: no sense in getting himself warm and dry just to put on his cold wet clothes again. He just closes the bathroom door and steps fully dressed into the warm water spray. There’s no shower curtain, so within seconds the bathroom floor is flooded. But at least it’s clean water. The water that collects at the bottom of the tub is as opaque as mud. When Karol holds his arm out in the water spray he can see the mud just pour right off of it. But he doesn’t really care about cleanliness all that much. He just wants to get warm.
The water gets rather chilly after a while so he turns it off. He wrings out his clothes a little bit and then towels off. He’s still damp, but no longer soaked and dripping. Then he drapes the towels over the floor to soak up the extra water and opens the door.
He is immediately hit with a number of new tastes: there are three people sprawled on the floor, one on the couch, all of them fast asleep. He doesn’t recognize any of them, and none of them taste very good. He considers bolting and hiding under the bridge again, but decides against it — mainly because it’d take too much effort. Instead he slumps in the corner behind the drum kit and tries to look inconspicuous.
And it works. A few hours later when the others wake up and leave they don’t even notice he’s there. Once they’re gone he gets up and watches the iguana for a while. But it doesn’t do much, just kind of sits there and occasionally wanders around looking for something to eat. It’s a lifestyle he can relate to. Then he looks at the photo collage for a while. It’s pretty meaningless to him — he doesn’t know the people in the pictures — but it looks neat: some of the pictures are in color, some in black-and-white, some clear, some grainy, and they overlap in interesting ways; obviously a lot of thought went into it. He goes over to the Dreadnought, a steel-string acoustic guitar with a neck that joins the body at the fourteenth fret, and plucks a few strings. It doesn’t sound very good.
"Oh, hello," somebody says. "That’s way out of tune. I think the neck is warped. We keep it around for sentimental reasons more than anything else."
Karol is so startled he almost falls over — no one can sneak up on him, he always tastes them first. As he looks up he frantically tries to pick up a taste reading from the room: he can sort of make out Dale, and he also picks up something else... but it’s strange. Even the taste of the people who have left is still stronger than this... it’s like stagnant rainwater, with traces of vomit and carpet just for flavor. This is Jen X.
Jen has one of these faces that looks like either a really old-looking thirteen-year-old or a really young-looking thirty-five-year-old. (She’s eighteen.) She has long blonde hair with beautiful pink and purple streaks running through it and is wearing a thick flannel bathrobe and a wool cap. In her left nostril is a tiny diamond stud. "Do we have your picture yet?" she asks. "I’m pretty sure we don’t. Hold still, let me get my camera." She looks around at the heaps of junk on the floor and then sticks her head inside the curtain. "Where’s the camera?" she asks.
"I dunno," Dale says sleepily. "Lemme look." The curtain parts and Dale emerges. "Oh, hey, have you two met? Jen, this is... uh..." He grins. "I don’t think I ever got your name, man."
"Karol Carpathescu," Karol says.
"Great, another one," Dale says. "Just like Chris-tee-anna— no, wait— Chris-tee-ann-ee-uh Gay-uh— no, wait—"
"Christiania Gajicic," Jen says. "They look like each other, don’t they? Same eyes."
"I think I already said that," Dale says. "Anyway, Jen, this is Karol Carpawhatever, Karol, this is Jen. And I bet I know where the camera is." He goes over to the couch and lifts up a cushion: sure enough, underneath there’s a tiny camera about the same size and shape as a remote control. Jen snaps Karol’s picture and puts the camera in a drawer by the sink.
"I’ll get this run off tonight," she says. She pulls a pack of cigarettes out of the drawer and lights one up. "Can you believe I’m down to two of these things a day? I went through a carton a week in junior high. I must finally be getting less stupid." She looks at her watch. "Or just have less free time. I’m going to be late." She hands the cigarette to Dale. "Do you know if the hot water’s working today?"
"No clue, man," Dale says. He take a puff on the cigarette and grins at no one in particular.
"Great," she says. "Oh, well, here goes nothing."
"Can I watch?" Dale asks.
"No time," she says. "Got to get to work." She grabs some clothes and disappears into the bathroom. The door closes with an audible click.
"She never lets me watch," Dale says, sprawling on the couch. "Don’t know why. You know, she grew up on this commune in Mexico where the kids all ran around naked. She didn’t even own a scrap of clothing till she was six years old."
"Why is that the one part of my life story you tell everyone?" Jen asks through the door. "There are probably about ten thousand people out there who know exactly one thing about me and that’s it." She turns on the water before Dale can reply.
Karol says nothing; he’s too stunned by the way these two are acting. Carrying on as if there weren’t a twisted freak in their house, as if they’d known him for years. Even the beatniks and hippies who’d hung around with him out of curiosity had tended to clam up and just watch him when he was around. But then, he reminds himself, they don’t know that he’s a vampire yet. Dale finishes off the cigarette and goes over and picks up the Strat. He twists one of the knobs and it breaks off in his hand. "Whoa," he says. "I’m pretty sure that’s not good."
Jen comes out a minute later wearing a plaid flannel shirt and a pair of army-green jeans. She puts on a pair of thick black boots and then even though her hair is wet she puts the wool cap back on. "I’m off," she says. "Tell everyone I said hi."
"Try to come back early, okay?" Dale asks. "Once?"
"I’ll see what I can do," she says. "Bye." They kiss.
"Later, man," Dale says. She leaves. With Jen gone, Dale collapses back on the couch and his eyes flit around the room looking for something to alight on. Finally they settle on Karol. "So, tell me, man, what’s the plan?"
"Plan?" Karol asks.
"Yeah," he says. "Like, first of all, where are you from? I know you’re not from Glasgow cause I know I’d remember you if I’d ever seen you around. Why’d you come here of all places?"
"I was... in the area," Karol says. "I’ve been heading north but then I... got sidetracked."
"Oh, I get it," Dale says. "No money to make it the rest of the way to Seattle, huh? Sure, okay. But here’s the thing. See, I’d be glad to let you stay here as long as you want, you know, but if you want to stay more than a week or two it’d really look good to Jen if you got a job or something. Like, when Randall was here, he’d just hang out all day and me and Jen actually had to kick him out when we wanted to, you know, be alone and stuff, and this went on for about four months until he finally left. I mean, you can stay here for four months if you want, I don’t care, but it should at least look like you’re putting together some money to go the rest of the way to Seattle with and you should have somewhere to go during the day, you know? Or night. One or the other."
"Where do you work?" Karol asks.
"Me?" Dale says. "Oh, I have to devote all my time to the band. Me and Jen have this band, we’re called Boat Akk, and we just got a new drummer finally — we went through about five different drummers and they were all stiffs, but this new guy’s pretty good. We don’t know him very well, though. Real serious guy. Nah, Jen’s the one that brings in all the money. We’re saving up to get an place in Olympia. She’s got a space reserved for her at Evergreen State but there’s no way we’d be able to live there for very long unless we get some serious cash saved up. Did you know she grew up on this commune in Mexico where— oh, wait, I already said that." He scratches his head. "Well, I’ve gotta practice. Scootch over."
Dale gets up and plugs in the Strat; Karol goes over to the couch. "I’ve had this guitar since I was ten," Dale says. "Jen sold her cello to get us all this great gear but this is still the only guitar that feels, you know, natural." He plays a few chords. Karol listens for a while but the hunger is really starting to gnaw at him and he finds it difficult to concentrate.
Outside, the storm continues unabated; the shack doesn’t really have any insulation, and it gets cold. Even Dale notices. "Man, we’ve got to get some bodies in here," he says, looking up from his guitar. "Or burn some stuff."
As if on cue, the door swings open and Owen and Dennis and Zach and Avram stumble in. Dale drops his guitar. "Whoa!" he says. "Okay, I noticed that."
"You know, maybe if you didn’t keep dropping that thing it wouldn’t be all chipped and stuff," Avram says.
"Shut up," Dale says. "There’s a synchronicity thing happening here. I said it was getting cold and we had to burn some stuff and right then you guys come in. That’s gotta be more than just coincidence."
"Wait," Owen says. "What does us coming in have to do with burning stuff?"
"Huh?" Dale says. "It— hunh. Uh, I dunno."
"So I guess the party hasn’t started yet, huh?" Zach asks.
"What party?" Dale asks.
"I thought there was going to be a party here," Zach says. "Crow told us there was going to be a party."
"Actually, we told Crow there was going to be a party," Dennis says.
"Oh, yeah," Zach says.
Avram squints at the blouse Dale’s wearing. "Hey, uh, Dale," he says, "isn’t that Jen’s shirt?"
Dale looks down at himself. "Yeah, I guess," he says. "So? It’s not like it’s stealing or anything. I mean, she wears my stuff and I don’t complain."
Right then Crow comes in. Nobody knows his real name, because he keeps changing it. He even tries to get people to call him by whatever he happens to be calling himself, but since it’s never the same thing from month to month most people just call him "Crow" — although no one remembers where the nickname came from. Crow is twenty-one years old, and goes to Glasgow High. He’s not enrolled, but he goes there anyway. He pretends to be a student and hangs out at the smokers’ shed and picks up on any new stoner girls that happen to start hanging out there. And he’s brought a couple of them along with him tonight. "Hey, guys," he says, "this is Ashley, and this is, uh, Caitlin."
"Yeah, hi," Dale says. Ashley and Caitlin shrug and try to look like they spend all their free time hanging out with strange older guys they’ve never seen before. They don’t do a very good job. They have, however, pretty much perfected the sort of washed-out and bedraggled look they spent so much time working on over the summer so they’d look cool when they got to high school.
There are now nine people packed into a cluttered room the size of a phone booth, but it still feels kind of empty. "Uh, I guess I’ll put on some music," Dave says.
"Oh!" Zach says. "I forgot. I brought some cough syrup." He reaches into the grocery bag he’s brought with him and starts passing it around.
"All right!" say about six people at once. And so the party begins.
Dale is actually responsible for popularizing cough syrup among Glasgow’s stoner cliques. It was about five years ago, when he was home sick with a cold. He had a bottle of cough syrup next to his bed and just to pass the time he started reading the label and discovered that the stuff was over forty percent alcohol. Naturally, the bottle was drained within the next thirty seconds. "It’s great, man!" he told everyone at school the following Monday. "It gets you just as drunk as beer, and it doesn’t taste like piss!"
Soon everyone is swigging their bottles of cough syrup and hanging around and talking and listening to music, which is being played through a Walkman hooked up to one of the guitar amplifiers. And even more people show up. Among them are Heather and Christine, two of the three girls Zach has gotten pregnant — the third is at home taking care of his child. Zach tosses them each a bottle of cough syrup as they walk in the door. As they come in they can’t help but notice how stuffy and hot the air is. They don’t notice, however, that the air is thick with the taste of diseased urine and rotting mushrooms and a hundred other putrid flavors. Only Karol Carpathescu can tell that. And he’s wedged in the crack between the end of the sofa and the corner of the house, lying on the floor in the fetal position, clutching his stomach and gasping for air.
No one notices him.
Meanwhile Dale is changing the tape again. The drunker he gets, the less patience he has for any one tape: he plays the Punk Freud tape most of the way through, but only plays one side of the Affy Buddhists tape and doesn’t let the Friendly Führer tape run for more than a couple of songs. He’s digging through his collection looking for something new to play when two people who aren’t in the collage come up and tap him on the shoulder and ask him something. Dale erupts. No one’s ever seen him this angry. "Hell no!" he roars. "Give me that!" He grabs the cassette out of the strange girl’s hand and rips the tape out of it until it’s an unsalvageable mess.
"Hey, that’s my tape," she protests.
"Now it’s gobbige," Dale says. "No one and I mean no one says the words ‘Grateful Dead’ in my presence, got it? And you," he adds, turning to her friend, "what did you want me to play?"
"Uh, the Steve Miller Band," he says.
"Get out," Dale says. "Out! What the hell is wrong with you people? I bet you get all fired up when your mail-order Gee-Tar Rock CDs come and you find out they’ve got a bonus Bad Company track, huh? Get out!"
They slink out the door and vanish into the rain. "Pretty vicious," someone says. "Next you’ll be yelling at the kids to get out of your yard."
Dale looks over to see who it is and breaks out into a grin that seems to stretch from his forehead to his chin. "Randall!" he cries. "I didn’t know you were back!" He tries to make his way through the crush of people to greet him. It takes a while.
"Sure am," Randall says. "Steve had to get out of California."
"You can’t have been back long, man," Dale says. "I haven’t seen any property damage."
This isn’t a joke. The best way to tell whether Randall the Vandal is in town is to see whether there’s a lot of broken stuff around: busted storefronts, cars with smashed windshields, meaningless graffiti, that kind of thing. He doesn’t cause all this damage out of hostility, though — he just likes to see stuff break. Randall the Vandal — and his name isn’t really Randall, it’s Jonathan, but "Jonathan the Vandal" doesn’t sound very good — considers destruction to be an artistic experience. He likes to go into supermarkets and push the display cases over just to watch the stuff fall over. "It’s entropy," he explains. "Everything leads to chaos because for every ordered state there are an infinite number of disordered states. But you don’t know exactly which disordered state something is going to fall into until you break it. How many pieces, what shape the pieces will be, all that stuff. It’s like a mini-drama. There’s the anticipation of wondering what something’ll look like when you destroy it, and then the fulfillment of seeing it destroyed."
Randall gets away with causing thousands of dollars in property damage each night because he’s an order of magnitude smarter than the average class of stoners: smarter than Dale, up there with Jen. So if he does get caught, he can always talk himself out of trouble. But he rarely gets caught, and the cops never suspect him — he doesn’t look like a troublemaker. In a town full of bulked-up drunken rednecks and vaguely menacing counterculture types, a small well-spoken short-haired kid in a baseball cap and deck sneakers isn’t going to be the first one called into the police station when someone’s mailbox blows up. He’s looking a little shaggier now, though, more like a stoner, with longer hair and the requisite northwest flannel. This isn’t what Dale notices, though.
"Your Mariners cap!" he says. "What happened?"
"Well— remember in junior high when every single chick in the entire school started wearing all this paisley crap?" Randall says. "And how I said that it was maybe one in ten million girls who could get away with wearing paisley and that if I ever met one I’d do anything she asked? Well, I met this girl in San Francisco who had on a paisley shirt and actually looked good in it. And she said she liked the cap, so I gave it to her."
"Cool," Dale says. "Did you—"
"Nah," Randall says. "She was with her dad. Where’s everyone getting the cough syrup? I need some."
"Zach has it," Dale says. "He’s around here somewhere." He looks around. There are about fifteen square feet of space to stand in and over twenty people trying to stand in it, so it takes a while to find him.
As it turns out, he and Dennis are playing with the iguana. "Heey," Zach says, his speech completely slurred by now, "I wonder’f these things’re like toads, where they get y’high if y’lick ‘em..."
"You don’ understand what love is," Dennis grumbles. "No one does."
"Quiet," Zach says. He picks up the iguana and starts licking it.
"Put it down, man," Dale says. "Where’s the bag?"
Zach points at the bag of cough syrup on the floor. "Heey," he says, "where’d y’get the, you know, the lizard?"
"Found it out behind the house," Dale says. "Me and Jen needed a pet." He opens the bag. "Hey! There’s none left."
"I have some herb," Heather offers.
"Yeah, but I’m out of toner," Dale says. "And it’s no good plain. You have to cut it with something. Lemme see what we have in the house." He shoves his way over to the kitchen. "Hmm... how about this?" he says, holding up a small white packet bearing the words "cheese flavoring". "But no, I’m gonna want to eat that. Okay, you," he says, pointing at Crow pretty much at random. "Run down to the 7-Eleven. Call Jen. Here’s the number. Have her send someone down with some copy toner." Crow takes off. "We really need to get a phone," Dale mutters.
It’s a long wait, and just about everyone starts in on the pot early. Dale works his way back to Randall, who is casually unravelling one of the cushions of the couch. "So where’s Steve?" he asks.
"He’s... around," Randall says.
"Does he still have the van?" Dale asks.
"He sold it," Randall says.
Dale’s jaw drops. "Aw, man," he says. "Me and Jen were really counting on having that van. There’s no way we can fit all our gear into the Rabbit. It’s just not going to happen. And we’re probably going to be playing some clubs and stuff soon."
"I thought you still needed a drummer," Randall says.
"Not anymore, man," Dale says. "We’re trying out a new guy, he looks pretty good, and like, when we practice he actually practices, he doesn’t just hang out and pick up on the chicks and then play three songs and screw up two of them. He’s coming over tonight, actually. His name’s Stonhardt."
"The hardware guy?" Randall says. "He’s fifty!"
"His son," Dale says. "But now that we don’t have a van— why the hell did he sell it?"
"Why do you think?" Randall asks. "He’s toxic. Same reason we had to get out of California. He stiffed a dealer."
"Aw, man," Dale says. "Come on, do you know where he is? Put down the cushion." He and Randall slip outside.
They’re still not back when Annalee shows up with the toner. Annalee has the shift right before Jen at Kinko’s Copies in Olympia and she occasionally makes the fifty-mile trip to Glasgow just to hang out. She plays in a uterock band — "uterock" being the trendy term for a group of all-female bands with names like Feminomenon and XX-Rated that have been springing up in the area. She looks the part, too: bowl-shaped haircut, glasses with thick black rims but no prescription, combat boots. "Where’s Dale?" she asks.
With Dale gone, no one’s really in charge, so no one answers. But they do grab the toner and mix it into Heather’s stash.
"Hey, guys, that was rude," Dale says, coming in behind her. He and Randall carry in a very limp Steve and toss him onto the bed. Dale closes the curtain. "Hey, Annalee," he says. "Long time no see, man. Do you know Randall?"
"Only by reputation," she says.
"Well, this is him," Dale says. "Annalee, this is Randall, Randall, this is Annalee. She’s a friend of Jen’s. She’s in a band, too. It’s called Vagina Frittata."
"Dentata," Annalee says.
"Whatever," Dale says. "How’s the band going, anyway?"
"Really good," she says. "We’re opening for Apocalabia at Community World Theater in Tacoma tomorrow. Umm... do you really want him to do that to your couch?"
Dale looks over his shoulder to find Randall methodically pulling loose threads on the sofa to see which one will make it collapse into a heap of stuffing. "Cut it out," he says.
"Hey," Heather says, working her way to the front of the house, "you’re Annalee, right? You’re in that chick band?"
"It’s not a ‘chick band,’" Annalee says. "It’s a feminist band."
"Cool," Heather says. "Well, I need your advice on something. You see, I’ve got this idea for a book, you know, like a feminist thing. I’ve already written the first sentence. It goes, ‘Brittany stood there, quietly ovulating.’ But I’m not sure where to take it from there."
"How about the local incinerator?" Dale suggests.
Before Heather can answer there’s a cry from the back of the house. "Check it out!" Zach says. He takes a joint he’s rolled from the pot-and-toner mix, inhales, holds it for a moment, and lets out the smoke — which is bright aqua blue, like the water in a swimming pool.
Everyone’s is like that. Soon the room is filled with a thick cloud of aqua blue smoke. "Okay, this is weird," Dale says. "What’s going on?"
"Oops," Annalee says.
"Oops what?" Dale asks.
"Well, all the black-and-white copiers are self-service and they were all being used," Annalee explains. "And Jen was busy doing a paste-up job so she asked me to get some toner and so I raided the color copier... and I guess I kind of got the cyan stuff instead of the black." She shrugs. "Sorry."
"Nah, it’s okay," Dale says. "If I knew it came in different flavors I probably would’ve asked for some blue stuff. Pass me some, huh?"
But right then there’s a knock on the door. No one ever knocks, so Dale is at first kind of stunned. Then there’s another knock and he realizes that it’s his house so he’d better answer it. It’s Stonhardt.
William Stonhardt, Jr., isn’t really a part of this subculture. He’s the same age as Dale and Randall and the rest, but even though they’d seen him around school, they didn’t really know who he was. A lot of them still don’t. They know where Stonhardt Hardware is — that’s where the anonymous bit of graffiti reading "boat akk" that inspired the name of Dale’s band first showed up — but most of them have no idea that old Bill Stonhardt has a son or that he plays drums. Stonhardt isn’t a stoner, but he isn’t really a redneck either — he spends all day working in the hardware store from opening to closing and then plays drums in his spare time. For a while he was in a speed metal band called Hollowcost but then his bandmates left to join the Marines. There aren’t many bands in Glasgow, even fewer that are looking for a drummer, so even though they didn’t transact in the same social circles it wasn’t long before he wound up playing with Dale and Jen, at least on a trial basis.
Stonhardt seems a little taken aback at the scene inside, with the crush of people and the half-destroyed couch and all the blue smoke, but Dale manages to clear a path to the drum set for him. Dale rips the Walkman out of the amplifier and hooks up the Gibson; Stonhardt sits down at the drum set; Annalee agrees to play bass, even though she plays lead guitar in her own band and isn’t used to playing without frets. "Okay, everyone, we’re going to rehearse for a while now," Dale says.
Everyone nods and goes back to talking and passing around the pot-and-toner mixture and trying to blow blue smoke rings. "That means shut up!" Dale yells.
They shut up.
Dale and Annalee and Stonhardt just jam for a few minutes. It doesn’t sound very good: Dale and Annalee pull the melody in opposite directions instead of building on each other, and so Stonhardt doesn’t know what tempo to play at. Eventually Dale draws his finger over his throat. "Let’s play ‘The Blort Song,’" he suggests. He takes the Fender from Annalee and shows her the bassline. "Got it?" he says. "Okay, let’s go."
They crash into the song, and to everyone’s surprise, it sounds really good. It’s mainly bass-driven, with a simple I-IV-V chord progression on top. Then Dale starts into the first verse. Now, the male singing voice has traditionally been divided up into three ranges: bass, baritone, and tenor. For centuries these terms have served to indicate which notes on the scale a given male vocalist is capable of reaching, and they’ve done their job admirably. But not anymore. Dale Washington has just invented a new category: three-legged cat on fire.
A dozen pairs of hands go up to clutch a dozen pairs of ears; many members of the audience have nosebleeds. "Jeez, it wasn’t that bad," Dale says.
"Yeah it was," says Owen; his voice is an octave lower than usual.
"Whoa, you sound weird," Avram says — and then realizes that his voice is also way lower than usual. And then his nose starts bleeding. "The blue stuff!" he says. "The toner!"
"This is worse than the paprika," Dennis says.
A wave of horror sweeps through the room; Caitlin starts crying. "I want to go home," she sobs. Everyone starts filing out, to get away from the blue smoke. Dale and Annalee trade worried glances. Only Randall, stretched out on a heap of stuffing that was once a couch, seems to find the situation amusing. "Classic," he laughs.
Soon the room is nearly empty. Only Stonhardt, Annalee, Randall and Dale remain in the main room; Steve, lying in a puddle of his own drool and urine, is safely hidden away in the "bedroom."
And Karol Carpathescu, unnoticed by all, gulps down a huge draft of air. For several hours now, his gag reflex has left him unable to catch his breath; his body wants to regurgitate, but with nothing in his stomach, he just heaves up any air he breathes before it can reach his lungs. The oxygen deprivation alone would have killed a normal person hours ago; but Karol Carpathescu cannot die. For several minutes he lies limp in the tiny space between the couch and the wall, under the windowsill, feeling completely disembodied: with no oxygen to feed his body, it’s all gone dead. He is floating in a limbo of hunger and nausea, and without a clear sense of time, it seems to go on forever.
Karol Carpathescu has never heard it, but there’s a puzzle known as the Lightbulb Paradox that goes like this: a lightbulb is turned on for one second, then off for half a second, then on for a quarter of a second, then off for an eighth of a second, and so on. Is the lightbulb on or off when exactly two seconds have passed? Now, the reason it’s a paradox is that when you add up all the fractions, you never reach two. The lightbulb will change an infinite number of times before two seconds pass. Which is impossible: a change of state implies a change in time, and even the smallest fraction of a second times infinity is infinity. Nevertheless, the two seconds will pass, and the lightbulb has to be in one state or the other when they do. Anyway, the point is that Karol Carpathescu is experiencing something similar right now. He feels each passing infinitesimal speck of time as if it lasted forever. But neverthess, time does pass, and he does get feeling back in his limbs. It’s excruciatingly painful, like a trillion slivers of glass raining down on him, but it is feeling. Which means he can move. And he does. He crawls out the door and into the rain.
Jen is the one who discovers him. In fact, she almost runs over him. See, this isn’t really the safest place to park, even if all you have is a beat-up third-hand VW Rabbit, and since there isn’t much of a curb she likes to drive right up onto the grass and park right next to the house. And that’s where Karol Carpathescu is, slumped up against the side of the shack, muddy and drenched. He’d intended to return to the bridge, but his strength gave out no more than a few feet from the door. Jen stops the car, sets the parking brake, puts on the steering wheel lock, and gets out.
"Hey," she says, "are you all right?"
"Stay away," Karol says. Normally he’d let her approach until he actually felt sick, but he figures that in his weakened condition even Jen X had better keep her distance. But she doesn’t listen, just keeps coming. "I mean it, stay away," he says.
Jen stops. "Why?" she asks. Not hostile, like she’s offended, but not overly friendly either. Her tone is completely neutral. An "I ask purely for the sake of information" disclaimer would not be out of place.
"It’s... a medical condition," he says. "I’m... allergic."
"To me?" she asks.
"Hunh," she says.
By now, she too is getting rather soaked. The door of the house swings open. It’s Dale. "Hey, man," he says, "what’re you doing out there in the rain? You’ll get wet."
"I’m already wet," Jen says.
"Now that’s what I like to hear," Dale says. "C’mon, man, get inside."
"Just a minute," Jen says. "I’m talking to Karol. Did you know he was out here?"
"Karol?" Dale says. "Karol who?" Then he remembers. "Aw, man, the ghoul. I totally forgot. I got caught up in some stuff. Did he sketch out for the bridge again?"
"No," Jen says. "He’s right here. Like I said. He says he’s allergic to people."
"Cool!" Dale says. "I thought I was allergic to people once but it turned out that I just didn’t like the kids in my class. So are you going to bring him in or what?"
"Do you want to come in?" Jen asks.
Karol hasn’t really been listening; it takes him a moment to realize he’s been asked a question. Then it takes him another moment to scrape up the energy to answer. Finally he just shrugs.
"Well, the door’s unlocked," she says. She goes inside.
There she finds Randall asleep on the remains of the couch. "Oh, no," she says. "He’s back."
"Yeah," Dale says. "Isn’t it great?"
"I’m not so sure," Jen says. "The last time he was here he almost burned the place down. Twice. And remember the incident with the baseball bat?"
"Don’t worry, it’s only for a few days," Dale says. "But we can always kick him out if you want to, you know—"
"Not right now," Jen says. "Way too tired." She pulls off her cap and hangs it up on the inside doorknob. "In fact, I think I’m going to sleep."
She pulls back the curtain to find Steve fast asleep, the lower half of his face resting comfortably in a puddle of vomit. The sheets are soaked with other fluids as well. "Oh my God," she says.
"Oh, yeah, we had to drag Steve over," Dale says. "He’s detoxing. But like I said, it’ll just be—"
"Dale, this is our bed," Jen says.
"It was crowded," Dale says. "There wasn’t any room for him on the—"
"Dale, this is our bed," Jen says.
"Yeah, well, it’s not like we’ve been using it too much lately."
Jen X says nothing for a second. In that second she organizes in her mind all the things she’s about to say: that she gave up a comfortable apartment in Portland to come live here; that while Dale spends his days hanging out with his friends and smoking pot, she wakes up at five-thirty every afternoon, takes a shower that rarely includes hot water, races down to the Dairy Queen to spend four hours making burgers and milkshakes for junior-high rednecks to throw at their dates as a prelude to feeling them up, then closes up the shop for the night, comes back, drives fifty miles away to Olympia to fill the midnight-to-eight am shift running the color copier and doing paste-up and special orders at Kinko’s Copies, that is, when she’s not busy sending stolen copy toner back to Glasgow for him and his friends to smoke, then drives fifty miles back to Glasgow to make herself some Kraft Macaroni and Cheese for dinner-slash-breakfast and work on coming up with bass lines for his songs before finally getting a chance to grab maybe six hours of sleep before starting the whole cycle again; that she sold her only real prized possession, a cello she’d had since she was eight years old, so that they could buy a used car and some decent musical equipment for this band that is destined to go nowhere because he can’t sing; that she shares her home with anyone he brings over, sometimes for months at a time, many of whom destroy their property; that she provides one hundred percent of their household income and that if not for him she could have built up enough savings to go to college on; and that if on top of all this she’s sometimes a little too tired to service him, the least he could do is put his libido on hold for a day or two and not complain about it to her face. Luckily for him, the second it takes for Jen to decide what order to say all this in is enough for him to realize what she’s about to say before she says it.
"I’m sorry," he blurts out, "I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m a complete penis, now just beat the crap out of me and get it over with."
Jen sighs and lets her monologue dissipate back into its component parts. "Look," she says, "get the secretion machine out of our bed, get rid of the sheets and the top mattress, find someplace for Randall where he won’t destroy anything, and try to keep an eye on Karol. I’m going to go sleep in the car. Knock on the window this afternoon and if I’m feeling less tired I’ll let you in. Okay?"
Dale doesn’t even answer. Instead he grabs Randall by the collar and throws him out the door. Jen shakes her head and walks out to the car.
Karol Carpathescu is oblivious to all this. He doesn’t even feel the rain coming down on him. However, in an unusual twist, he doesn’t feel especially hungry or sick either. He just feels weak. He hasn’t felt this depleted in years. Not that weakness is an especially wonderful feeling either: he feels like the planet’s gravity has tripled, and his head is pounding like someone is banging the inside of his skull with a mallet trying to get out.
It isn’t until afternoon that his awareness of the outside world drifts back to him. First he feels the rain pelting his face, cold and wet, even wetter than water usually seems to be. Then he feels something else... it’s dark and glistening, metallic almost, like droplets of graphite... but without the edges, one dissipating into the next, like drops of ink on a wet page. It’s a strange feeling, mournful and melancholy, but nonetheless sweet, like a hug of consolation in the middle of a tragedy... and then he realizes it’s not a feeling at all — it’s a sound. He forces himself to his feet and staggers toward the sound. It’s inside the house.
The door is already open, which is a good thing, because it squeaks, and Jen’s recording. She has on a pair of headphones and is playing along to the drum track she’s hearing; her eyes, when they’re not closed, are on the neck of her bass guitar, and she doesn’t even notice Karol come in. Dale does, but he just grins and puts his finger to his lips.
Jen plays for another minute. The last note echoes in the air as she takes off her headphones. "How was that?" she asks.
"It was beautiful," Karol says.
Jen X doesn’t startle easily, but her eyes do dart over to Karol in surprise. "Oh, hello," she says. There is warmth in her voice. "I didn’t know you’d come in."
Suddenly Karol feels very conspicuous. He hadn’t meant to say anything, and now she’s looking at him expectantly as if he’s supposed to have a response for her, and he doesn’t. He wants to crawl under the floorboards and let her go back to her life, unsullied by his presence. "That’s all," he mumbles. "It’s just that that was very beautiful."
"Well, thank you," she says. "That’s very sweet." She turns back to Dale. "What’d you think?" she asks, somewhat skeptically.
"It was good, man," Dale says. "Really good. You’ll need to rock it up a little more, but like, the figure’s good."
"I liked it the way it was," Karol says.
"No, he’s right," Jen says. "It doesn’t really match the drum track."
"Then change the drum track," Karol says.
Jen smiles. "Yeah, but if we do that then I’ll wind up on a total ego trip and start demanding bigger cabinets and from there it’s just a short step from bringing in eighty-five piece orchestras and complaining about the crusts on the finger sandwiches backstage," she says.
"Yeah, and you’ll want to sing too," Dale adds.
"Besides," Jen says, "it’s a good drum track. I think we’ve finally found someone who can pick a tempo and go with it instead of lurching back and forth from funeral march to disco fever every five seconds. I can actually work with this." She puts down the guitar. "But not now. I have to get to work."
Dale snaps his fingers. "Oh, hey, that reminds me," he says, pointing at Karol. "I found a job for you. Crow says that Izzy’s looking for someone to help him out after school. Pays minimum wage, but in a few weeks you’ll have enough to make it the rest of the way to Seattle."
"Who’s Izzy?" Jen asks.
"He’s the janitor at Glasgow High," Dale says. "You don’t have a problem with emptying out trash cans and stuff, do you?"
Karol shudders. Not at the prospect of emptying out trash cans — he’s lived in dumpsters, after all — but at the idea of being surrounded by a thousand people all at once. High school students, no less. Nevertheless, he shakes his head.
"Cool," Dale says. "Do you know where the high school is?"
Again Karol shakes his head.
"Well, it’s right on 3rd Street, between H and I," Dale says. "You can’t miss it. It’s a big building, with two rows of these sort of rectangular honeycomb things—"
"Why don’t you just take him there?" Jen asks. "I’d do it but I’ve got to go. Bye." She kisses him and then is out the door.
"Okay," Dale says. "C’mon, we can go right now."
It is a very short trip to Glasgow High, seven blocks southwest and two blocks northwest — the grid of streets runs diagonal. The campus is located at a point where three different parts of town overlap: further southwest is the main residential area of Glasgow, where one-story houses are arranged in tiny little square blocks; to the northwest a hill slopes upward to some nicer houses, if not quite up to the standards of Forget Me Not Hill, or for that matter, just about any suburb in America; and to the northeast is the poor and even squalid neighborhood from which they’ve just come. So it’s difficult to classify the area. The kids coming uphill think it’s pretty ritzy, the kids coming downhill think it’s a slum.
The main building is much as Dale described: a big concrete building, three stories tall, with rectangular panels over the windows. The top two floors look like a prison block; the bottom floor, with its cheap plastic paneling allowing passersby to see the secretaries processing attendance sheets, looks like a Social Security office. That’s where the entrance is, but Dale and Karol don’t go there — they go around back, to a door marked "custodian". "Well, have fun, man," Dale says. "I’m gonna head back. Unless you want me to hang around?"
Karol shakes his head.
"Good," Dale says. "I couldn’t stand this place when I went here. Tell me how it goes, okay?"
Karol nods. Dale flashes him a peace sign and heads back for the house.
School has been out for a couple of hours now, so at least Karol doesn’t have to worry about anyone coming too close or roughing him up. He doesn’t see or taste a single person until forty minutes later, after the sun has gone down. It’s Izzy the janitor, an old bald man with pale leathery skin and a significant paunch. He tastes like a combination of cheap liquor, Pepto-Bismol, and moldy limburger cheese. He’s pushing a two-tiered cart with a bucket and mop on the bottom and a bunch of spray bottles on top. "Whaddaya you want?" he asks.
Karol can feel the bile rising in his throat and has to take a second to choke it down before he answers. "Is it true you have a job opening up?"
Izzy unlocks the door and shoves the cart inside. "Depends," he says. "You a junkie?"
People always ask Karol if he’s a junkie. No one ever asks if he’s a vampire. People have such narrow minds.
"No," Karol says. He rolls up his sleeves and shows the janitor his arms.
"Then what the hell’s wrong with you?" he asks. "You look like some kind of goddamn freak. You got AIDS?"
"No," Karol says.
"Stand up straight," Izzy says. He makes a deep hocking sound in his throat and spits on the ground. "All right, come back tomorrow at four o’clock. Meet me right here. Don’t go through the office or ask them for money. Got it?"
"Yes," Karol says.
"Good," Izzy says. "Now get the hell out of here."
The streets are curiously empty as Karol trudges back to the shack. The only person he encounters is a boy, maybe three or four years old, playing with some splintery sticks in his front yard; the second he sees Karol coming, he drops the sticks and runs inside. His taste lingers in the yard for a few minutes — it’s the same mixture of molasses and diarrhea that all kids taste like, and Karol crosses the street rather than come too close.
When he gets back to Dale’s place he can hear the people inside — about half a dozen of them, judging from the taste. It’s a cold cloudy night and the drizzle is hanging in the air, just sort of drifting around rather than falling. But better to spend the night cold and wet than sick. So he returns to the bridge. He crosses over to the far bank, where the stumps are, just in case the stoners come by. But they don’t, at least not right away. Soon he stops paying attention and concentrates on ignoring the sharp pains in his stomach. It’s something he’s been practicing for over a hundred years now and still isn’t very good at.
But then, a little while after the sun comes up, something distracts him: he can make out little snatches of sound floating over the river. Their quality is both very similar to and dramatically different from the bass guitar from the day before: this sound is lighter, clear and colorful instead of dark and metallic, wistful instead of mournful — but just as sweet. He looks up from his hiding place amid the stumps, and sure enough, it’s Jen. She’s by herself, sitting in the big hollow on the opposite bank, playing her battered acoustic guitar. He can even make out the purple streaks in her (to him) light gray hair. He tries to listen, but the river and the distance drown out much of the sound. Very carefully he gets up and climbs the riverbank. She doesn’t see him.
The sound gets stronger as he crosses the bridge, and as he passes directly above her, he discovers something else: she’s not just playing, but singing as well. Her voice is soft and low and very beautiful, soothing without being wispy or ethereal, steady without being heavy or flat, the rhythms speechlike and without theatrics. But it’s still not enough: the concrete blocks most of the sound, and besides, he can’t sit in the middle of the road. He thinks that maybe if he can take just a couple of steps down the bank and hide in the patchy weeds he’ll be able to listen without being spotted, so he tries it. It doesn’t work. With his very first step she stops playing and turns around. "Dale?" she says.
No sense in making her think he’s sneaking up on her, so he answers. "No," he says. "It’s... me."
"Oh, hello," she says. She ducks her head so she can see his face; as it is the edge of the bridge cuts off her view of his head. "He wasn’t home when I got back," she explains. "I thought he might be looking for me."
Karol has nothing to say to that, so he just sits down. There’s an awkward silence. "So, uh, did you get that job?" Jen finally asks.
Karol nods. Another silence passes. "Umm... is something wrong?" Jen asks. "You look... like you want to eat me alive, or something."
"Not you," he says. He glances down at her guitar.
"Oh, you liked the song?" she says. "It’s not very good... I wrote it when I was fourteen. And I missed a bunch of notes. I don’t know. I’ve been spending so much time playing bass lately that my hands’ve forgotten how to deal with all these strings."
"I thought it was beautiful," Karol says. "And your voice. Why don’t you sing instead of Dale?"
She smiles. "Because... see, if we’d gotten together and said, ‘Let’s put together a band,’ then that’d be one thing. But he’s had this band in one form or another since he was in junior high. He already lost a friend by kicking him out and putting me in instead. And I already write half the music. If I did the singing too it’d be like kicking him out of his own band. He’d just be a backup player in mine." She lets out a breath and looks at the river for a minute. "You’re right, though, we do need a new singer. But it’d have to be someone outside the band. I don’t suppose you sing at all, do you...?"
Karol gets an alarmed look and shakes his head. "I didn’t think so," Jen says. She absentmindedly picks out a piece of a melody, then sees the hunger in his face and stops again. "Why do you like this stuff so much?" she asks.
"Because it’s beautiful," he says.
"I mean, specifically," she says. "Not just whether it’s good or not but what about it do you like?"
Karol’s eyes darken. "It’s like... it reminds me of..." He shakes his head. If he says it’s because it’s the sonic equivalent of the taste he feeds on, he’ll ruin everything. Luckily, Jen doesn’t wait for him to finish.
"Childhood?" she suggests.
That sounds like as good an excuse as any, so he nods. "I think so too," she says. "I don’t mean like being seven or eight, because that sucks. Anyone who doesn’t think so doesn’t remember it very well. Everything you want to do you’re either not able to or not allowed to. But before that... like when you’re three years old, and you get really excited every time you open your eyes because there’s a whole new day waiting for you, and you don’t have any responsibilities and anything you could think of to want is provided for you, and every day is a good day because you don’t know how to distinguish between good days and bad days, you don’t have any standard of comparison. I mean, I grew up in just terrible conditions, no running water, sleeping on a blanket on the ground, the whole desert commune experience, and I just didn’t realize that I was living in squalor, it seemed perfectly fine to me. The same way I spent the first six years of my life running around naked but not even realizing it, because none of the kids wore clothes any more than the dogs did — it just didn’t occur to me that I should be wearing anything." She pauses. "You know, there’s something very symbolic about that. I wish I knew what it was."
Karol feels the blood rush to his face. Partly because of the embarrassment of having to picture her undressed, but mainly because someone capable of creating something as beautiful as her music is sharing intimate details of her life with him, and he knows for a fact that he isn’t worthy to hear them. Nevertheless, Jen continues right along.
"Anyway," she says, "you know how when you smell something familiar, your head is suddenly flooded with memories? I think the same thing’s true for music, only deeper. Because if I smell, say, hot sand, it’ll remind me of my childhood, because when I was a little girl the air always smelled like hot sand. But you can play a bunch of abstract sounds" — she plays a quick chord sequence — "and it’ll do the same thing. Even if you never heard those sounds when you were a kid. Or ever." She looks puzzled for a minute. "No, wait, that’s not true either." She turns away from Karol and plays the song she’d been playing, without singing along, just listening intently. She gets halfway through the second chorus and stops. "Okay, forget that. I changed my mind. It isn’t provoking any specific memories. It’s just making me feel nostalgic in general." Her face lights up. "Hey, maybe that’s it! Smells provoke memories, and music provokes feelings. Like anger, or sadness, or triumph, or... or nostalgia." She plays pieces of about five different songs and grows increasingly bemused. "Now all I have to figure out is why every single song I’ve ever written is a nostalgia song. Probably because the first instrument I learned to play was the cello and it’s especially good at that sort of thing. Man, I loved that cello. I even carved a little heart into the back of it with a screwdriver I loved it so much. Lucky for me the guy didn’t notice when I sold it."
"How did you get a cello on the commune?" Karol asks.
"Hmm?" she says. "Oh, no. This was later. See, the commune broke up when I was six, and when my mom tried to return to America they caught her trying to smuggle something like a hundred thousand peyote buttons across the border. So she got thrown in jail and I got shipped off to live with my dad, who’d married some other woman and was a stockbroker in Portland. He’d never even seen me before, he and my mom split up when she was still pregnant. Anyway, they were pretty rich — my dad and my stepmom, I mean — and so they bought me pretty much anything I asked for, like the cello. But they didn’t like me very much. They already had two other kids and my stepmom in particular was really pissed about her family being sullied by her husband’s hippie love child. And then when I put the streaks in my hair and started hanging out with the stoner kids and spending the night at boys’ houses and doing a lot of acid — well, let’s just say it wasn’t a good scene. You know what I finally got kicked out of the house for? Dropping out of school. And I hadn’t even dropped out — I got my GED and was taking night classes at the community college. I mean, you’d think they’d be proud of me for getting ahead and everything." She pauses. "But I’m making this sound worse than it really was. I mean, it wasn’t like Dale, where he came home one day and found all his stuff out on the front lawn. They gave me a month to find an apartment and get a job and move out. So that’s how I wound up working in Kelso. Which is where I met Dale." She pauses again. "But that isn’t even close to what you asked. Oh well. Want to hear the song I was playing when we met?"
Karol nods. Barely a few seconds after she starts he picks up Dale’s taste somewhere behind him. Right on schedule, he comes stumbling down the bank. "Hey," he says, grinning. "You’re playing our song."
She stops. "Mmm-hmm," she says. "I was just telling Karol about how I wound up in Kelso."
"Oh man, Kelso," Dale says. "You should’ve seen this place, man. Me and Steve and Randall went down to Portland to see Sadistical Probability play and just get away from here for a while and on the way down we stopped at the mall in Kelso for dinner, and this place — I mean, all the girls looked like models and all the guys looked like Jeff Gillooly. These scrawny wanna-be metal guys with scuzzy mustaches with patches missing... it was like the girls and guys were different species or something. And as we were going in, right by the entrance there’s this chick, like a street musician, just playing this song for no one in particular, and I stopped and listened for like a minute or two, but Steve and Randall wanted some food so we went and ate and when we got back out she was gone. And then we went to the show, and hung out in Portland for a couple of days buying tapes — well, stealing tapes — and just sort of cruising around in the van, and the whole time I’m just thinking about this chick, because one, she was gorgeous, and two, that song was just stuck in my head, and I wished I’d told her how good she was or at least just asked her who it was by. And so on the way back up I had Steve take us back to the mall, and she wasn’t there, but it was lunchtime so we went in, and then I saw her — she was working at the cinnamon roll shop. And we talked for a few minutes, and then I asked if she wanted to be in my band. And she said okay."
"Actually, first I asked why," Jen interrupts, "and he said, ‘Because, every band these days has to have a female bassist. It’s a law, I swear. They passed it in 1991, I think. And we don’t have one right now and if we don’t get one soon the cops are going to come and throw me in jail.’ So I had to say yes. I didn’t want to see anyone get locked up on my account."
"Oh, hey, that reminds me," Dale says. "I had to raid the emergency cash to get Kim’s boyfriend out of jail. He got into a fight with some rednecks and the cops fined him a hundred and eighty bucks."
"We had a hundred and eighty bucks?" Jen asks.
"Nah, just twenty," Dale says. "The rest I got by breaking into his room and selling his stuff. I mean, it’s his fine."
"Sounds fair," she says.
Dale suddenly remembers Karol sitting among the weeds. "Oh, hey, man," he says. "You get that job?"
Karol nods. "All right!" Dale says. "Cool deal. You’ll be back on your way in no time."
Hardly, Karol thinks to himself. But he doesn’t say anything. Right then Owen shows up, all out of breath. "Dale, we need your help," he pants. "Zach’s yelling at everyone to cast away their worldly possessions."
"So?" Dale says.
"And he’s naked," Owen says.
"So?" Dale says.
"And he’s standing on the roof of your house," Owen says. "Can you come talk him down?"
"Aw, man," Dale says. "Don’t I get a second to just hang out? All right, I’m coming. Catch you later, hon."
Jen watches him trudge back up the hill. She doesn’t look away until the bottoms of his feet are out of sight. "So why did you really go with him?" Karol asks quietly.
"Hmm?" she says. "Oh... well, mainly just because I was stuck. I made just enough selling cinnamon rolls to pay the rent, and that was about it. It was beginning to look like I was going to end up working at the mall for the rest of my life. The whole thing was timing, really. He just so happened to ask the one person who was looking to take a sledgehammer to her life. Sure, it’s not as comfortable here, necessarily, but as least my life’s moving forward again. And... well, let me put it this way. When I got kicked out of the house my dad and my stepmom were expecting that I’d be wind up living in a coldwater apartment blowing my unemployment checks on drugs and then one day I’d be half starving to death and come crawling back to them promising to be a good little bourgeois suburbanite and go back to school and join the drill team and all that. And so I wanted to prove to them — and to me, for that matter — that I could have a perfectly comfortable life all on my own and do what I want. And so I did. I had a nice apartment, I bought records when I wanted, I got high when I wanted, and I did it all by myself. Great. Anyway, by the time Dale came along I’d been on my own for over a year and I’d proven my point and it was time to do something else. Try some other kind of life, see what it was like. Because I knew if it didn’t work out I could go back to working at some mall, I wouldn’t wind up turning tricks or anything. So suddenly I had this opportunity to leave everything behind and become a punk in a backwoods redneck helltown, and I took it. And it was great. I mean, the first few weeks I was here, before I got the copy shop job in Olympia and was just working four hours a day, the rest of the time Dale and I would just play, like kids — we’d drop a ton of dirty acid and rage around town, go into bars and taunt the rednecks till they chased us out, find pickup trucks with rifle racks on them and put bumper stickers saying things like ‘gay and proud’ on them, have sex up against the wall outside the Dairy Queen, and it was just total freedom, no responsibility, no rules, nothing." She isn’t even looking at Karol anymore, just staring into the middle distance. "Of course, that was a phase too, just like my mall phase. It was incredibly fun and I don’t regret a minute of it, but like I said, you don’t want to get stuck in any one kind of life for too long. And, you know, there’s a difference between being a child and just being childish. It gets old. Anyway, my original plan when I left Portland was to go to Glasgow with Dale, go bohemian for a while, and then just split — but then when I was ready to move forward again, I didn’t want to go. I mean, at the mall Dale came off like an interesting guy, someone it might be fun to spend a few weeks being punk with, but there’s more... he’s just the most generous, giving person I’ve ever met. Ask him for absolutely anything and he’ll give it to you without even thinking about it. There’s just nothing selfish about him. And that’s hard to find. Impossible, almost. Sure, he’s not exactly incredibly mature, or responsible, or even fantastically bright... but you grow into all those things. A good nature you either have or you don’t, and he does."
Karol nods vigorously. He doesn’t necessarily agree that Dale has the greatest nature in the world, but he can definitely relate to the part about "you either have it or you don’t." The difference is, he’s thinking about taste.
"Let me show you something," Jen says. She gets up and walks over to one of the graffiti-covered beams of the bridge. "Look at this," she says, pointing. "See what it says? It says ‘love’. When Dale got kicked out of the house, he didn’t have anywhere to stay a lot of the time, and he’d sleep here, underneath the bridge, with just a blanket, and maybe a small fire... he’s the one who carved out that hollow... and it’s always raining here, and cold, and dirty... and when he was sleeping here in the dirt, wet and miserable, rejected by his own family, under a bridge at the edge of this armpit of a town, did he write ‘hate’ or ‘revenge’ or anything like that? No. He forgave everybody. And I dare you to find anyone else in this town who would." She comes back and sits down again. "And that’s why I’m still here," she says. "Dale, he sort of takes care of everybody. It’s like, here where ninety-five percent of the people are these alcoholic, brain-dead hicks, all the outcasts are like a family, and Dale’s sort of the big brother. He puts people up so they don’t have to sleep here, finds jobs for them, gets them out of jail, talks them off of rooftops... and that sort of defines who he is. And I guess I’ve sort of become the big sister, just by default. I mean, I’m ready to go, try the serious student thing for a while, but it’s going to be hard. And I’m not going without Dale. There are still a bunch of lives I want to try out, but I want him to be a part of all of them. If that’s not sappy enough to make you sick."
She shrugs. Everything is quiet for a moment. "Why are you telling me all this?" Karol finally asks. "You don’t even know what I... who I am."
"Oh, I know," she says. "I guess I just kind of felt like telling my story and you’re the only one around who hasn’t heard it. You know, if you don’t tell your story every so often, one day you wake up and it never happened."
There is quiet again for a minute or two. Then Jen X launches into another song and the music once again floats over the river.
That afternoon at four o’clock Karol Carpathescu reports for janitor duty at Glasgow High. Izzy opens up the custodian’s closet and pulls out the cart. "Here," he says, pulling a key off of his enormous key ring. "This’ll open up all the classrooms. Go through all the rooms, spray off the desks, scrape the gum out from under them, get rid of the trash. When you’re done that, take the mop and clean out the bathrooms. Then bring the cart back. You’ll get paid tomorrow afternoon. If you do it right." Izzy closes up the closet and heads back to his car.
There is a set of double doors next to the custodian’s closet. Karol opens them up and pushes the cart inside. He finds himself in a long hallway lined on both sides by doors and lockers; it has a cheap tile floor like a supermarket and is lit by a series of flickering gray fluorescent light banks. The place is empty. Karol wheels the cart down the hall and into the first classroom.
The classroom has the same dismal ambience as the hallway. Karol picks one of the spray bottles at random and starts spraying off the desks. This gets rid of all the pencil marks and even a lot of the ink, but has absolutely no effect on all the graffiti carved into the desks, things like "satan" and "kill fags". It’s mindless, methodical work, and Karol soon finds that he sort of enjoys it. Taking each desk, spraying it off, wiping it dry, taking the scraper and chiselling the gum off the undersides of the desks... it’s absorbing and takes no thought or effort. When he’s done he empties the wastebasket into the big trashbag on the bottom tier of the cart and then sprays off the blackboard just for the heck of it.
Before too long he finishes up and is ready to move on to the next classroom. But as he turns out the lights and pushes the cart out into the hallway he picks up an unpleasant taste: it tastes like a combination of musk and tainted beef and warm beer, so powerful he looks around expecting to find someone right next to him. But the hallway is empty. Karol tries to ignore the churning in the stomach and steps out into the hallway, but that only makes the taste doubly strong and he has to grab onto the cart to keep from collapsing to the floor. A clock above one of the sets of lockers says it’s four-twenty — who would hang around after school for two hours? He was sure the place was empty when he came in. Where could the taste be coming from?
And then he gets his answer. Coming down the stairs is most of the Glasgow High football team, 1-8 this season but nevertheless completely full of themselves. Practice has just let out, and as Karol was cleaning the first classroom they’d come to get their stuff out of their lockers. Most of them come straight down the stairs and right out the door, but two of them — Ray and Eddie, real steroid cases — see Karol hunched over his cart and head in his direction. Ray and Eddie do have personal histories, but they’re completely unimportant and not worth the time to go into them.
"Hey!" Eddie says. "Hey freak! What’re you lookin’ at?"
Karol doesn’t answer; he barely manages to lift his head up and look at them. "You heard him," Ray says. "What’s wrong with you? You trying to start trouble? You wanna fight, is that it? You wanna fight?"
They stand there expectantly, waiting for him to either say something or take off running. But he just stares at them dully, his mouth hanging open. Finally Ray looks at Eddie. "I think he’s retarded or something," he says.
"Oh, is that it?" Eddie says. "You a retard, freak? Huh? You retarded?" He takes a step forward; Karol reflexively puts up a forearm to shield his face. His stomach feels like it’s filled with acid and he slumps against the cart, convulsing.
"Check it out," Ray says. "He’s a fag, too. Lookit the way he’s standing. We’ve got a big flaming retarded homo here." He snorts.
"Yeah?" Eddie says. "Well, I’ll show him what we do with homos here in Glasgow." He swipes at Karol’s face with his right fist; Karol puts his arms up to protect himself, and Eddie lands a punch in his gut. Karol drops to the ground, coughing up blood.
"Heh," Eddie says. "How d’ya like that, Mr. Fag? Huh? How d’ya like that?" He turns to Ray, expecting to see him sharing in his triumph; instead, Ray’s face is contorted with fear. "What?" he says. "What’s wrong?"
"Look what you did," Ray stammers. "He’s bleeding."
"So?" Eddie says.
"So when homos bleed they can give you AIDS, man," Ray says. "We gotta get outta here before he infects us. We gotta get outta here now."
Eddie’s mouth drops open and they take off. Karol lies on the floor, clutching his stomach, gagging and coughing up blood; he doesn’t recover until long after they’ve left. When he does finally drag himself to his feet, his face is smeared with blood. He wipes it off on his sleeve and then mops up the puddle of blood on the floor. Even as he does that, his throat lurches a few times. He makes a mental note to consider a new line of work.
Once he’s cleaned the blood off the floor he goes back to working on the classrooms. The different decorations in each room are interesting, and the spraying and wiping and scraping get his mind off getting beaten up. Soon he gets to the end of the hall and only a twinge in his stomach reminds him of the incident. As he pushes the cart out into the hallway he notices that it’s dark outside; he still hasn’t done the upper two floors or cleaned out the bathrooms yet. He hadn’t realized this was going to be an all-night job.
Suddenly he hears footsteps coming from the staircase; he knows he should run and hide or do something, but he’s too paralyzed to do anything but stand there. He clutches his mop and waits for the beating to begin. But whoever it is coming down the stairs doesn’t attack him after all. She just flashes a quick smile at him and heads out the door.
Time stops. Or rather, time continues, but Karol Carpathescu’s connection to it is completely sundered; a moment passes that seems infinitely long and infinitely short all at once. Then he’s jerked back to reality, where the world is spinning frantically around his head. He drops the mop and tries to run after her but his body doesn’t respond right and he trips over himself and tumbles to the ground. But he doesn’t care.
He’s just found the taste that brought him here.
Her name is Allison Beale, and she’s even more of a freak than Karol Carpathescu. He is set apart from everyone else by the genetic quirk that turned him into a vampire, but otherwise he’s really much the same as anyone else; she is set apart by her fundamental nature, her essence, her taste, and while there’s nothing physically different about her, she might as well be a member of a different species.
Allison Beale has lived in Glasgow all her life, yet is neither a redneck nor a stoner. She doesn’t have a clique because there’s no one else around like her. If there’s any clique she’s closer to than the others it’s the college-bound types; when she sees them in the library she’ll go up and talk to them, see what they’re up to, how they’re doing. But she’s not really a member of their social circle, because even though she’s more than smart enough to keep up with them, she’s not a big fan of their chosen recreations. She doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink coffee, and has never gotten stoned in her life, and so even though she thanks them graciously when they invite her along, she never goes to Denny’s with them or to their houses.
The stoners, for their part, find Allison’s refusal to get high with them unfathomable. One of them in particular — a guy named Calvin, the top-ranked student at Glasgow High — is constantly deluging her with scholarly studies and newspaper and magazine articles trying to convince her that there’s nothing dangerous about simple cannabis use. "Look at all this research," he says. "There’s no risk of you getting hooked. Study after study shows that it’s completely non-addictive."
"So is smacking yourself in the head with a ballpeen hammer," Allison says. "I’m not about to try that, either."
"But that’s a false analogy," Calvin says. "Smacking yourself in the head can hurt you. There’s nothing physically harmful about hemp at all. Maybe some eventual memory loss. But it’s a lot safer than alcohol or tobacco or even caffeine."
"Good thing I don’t use alcohol or tobacco or caffeine, then, huh?" Allison says.
It’s at this point that Calvin usually gets frustrated and starts raising his voice. "Look, that’s not the point," he says. "The point is that pot smoking is totally benign. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t at least try it."
"Yes, there is," she says. "I don’t stay away from drugs because I’m afraid of getting hooked or worried about brain cell damage or overdosing or anything. I stay away from drugs because I don’t want to get stoned."
"Why the hell not?" Calvin asks.
"Because," Allison says, "the way you think and feel is who you are. It’s what makes you knowable to other people. And—"
"That’s a load of crap," Calvin says. "‘Who you are’ is a bunch of chemical interactions. You know that."
"That’s not true," Allison says. "That’s just what you’re made of. Who you are does derive from what you’re made of, but it’s not the same thing. It’s like if you look at a painting. What’s it made of? Paint. But what it is isn’t a heap of paint. It’s a picture of something. Same thing with the self. What it’s made of is a bunch of chemical interactions. What it is is a way of thinking and feeling. You know, a personality. Or a soul."
"Now you’re just being deliberately stupid," Calvin says. "You know as well as I do that there’s no such thing as a soul. Show me a soul. It’s all a bunch of dualist BS."
"I’m not saying the soul is a thing," Allison says. "It’s a reification. An abstract idea given a name and treated as if it were a concrete thing."
"I know what a reification is," he sneers.
"Good," she says. "Anyway, what I was about to say was that if you suddenly change that by messing around with the chemical interactions that it derives from, you’re getting rid of the only thing that makes you knowable to other people. The people who care about you can’t find you anymore, just some parody of you that’s taken over your body. I don’t think that’s very considerate to the people who love you. If I were them it’d make me heartsick. Besides, the problem today is that we need people to have more control over themselves, not less."
"You don’t even know what you’re talking about," Calvin says. "Smoking pot doesn’t make you into a ‘parody.’ It makes you more aware."
"Of what?" she asks.
And that’s usually when Calvin just shakes his head and walks away. It doesn’t stop him from coming back a couple weeks later with more studies and starting the conversation all over again. The rest of the intellectual stoners are frankly quite sick of it. But Calvin is persistent and Allison is patient. Besides, it’s nothing compared to the discussions that break out whenever he makes her explain why she’s still a virgin.
Incidentally, this little discussion would probably be of great interest to Karol Carpathescu. It’s quite similar to what a doctor he met once suggested about his condition. He explained that everyone’s personality and memories and everything that makes up a person are encoded in the brain as a chemical structure. Also, everyone is constantly giving off chemicals into the air: pheromones, basically. The chemical structure of those pheromones are dependent on the chemical structure on the brain, and thus on what kind of person you are. Thus Karol’s "vampirism," the doctor concluded, could be explained as simply a sensitivity to and dependence on certain human pheromones. It’s the best explanation Karol has heard so far of his condition. Then again, it was the sixties, and the doctor was pretty stoned at the time and was scratching violently at his face the whole time he was theorizing. So it might not exactly be an expert diagnosis.
But back to Allison. Allison Beale isn’t especially pretty, but she isn’t hung up about it — partly because she lives in Glasgow, where not having any discolored teeth is enough to make you a raving beauty, but mostly because she has enough self-esteem that being somewhat plain doesn’t give her an inferiority complex. She wears her strawberry-blonde hair in the same page-boy style she’s had since she was nine, and just laughs when the kids at school tease her about it, which frustrates them to no end — they can’t understand how someone can be so uncool and so unconcerned about it. Most of them figure it must have something to do with that weird school she goes to.
You see, Allison Beale doesn’t technically go to Glasgow High. Her official transcript lists her as a tenth-grader at Concordance High School of Olympia, Washington, an all-girls Catholic school. Concordance High and its brother school, the all-boys Filius Dei High, are also a sort of reification — they consist of a bunch of trailers scattered all over the state. They’re sponsored by the local Catholic Church to provide a single-sex parochial education in regions that can’t provide it, regions like Glasgow. What going to Concordance means to Allison is that before school for an hour every day she and six other girls go across the street to a trailer for religion class. The rest of her classes she takes just as if she were a normal Glasgow High student. There’s one other thing about Concordance: because it isn’t affiliated with the financially strapped Grays Harbor school district, it can offer all sorts of extracurricular activites that Glasgow High doesn’t. And that’s why Allison goes there — she isn’t even Catholic in anything but name, has never been to Mass, taken communion, nothing. She owns a couple of pleated plaid skirts, that’s about the extent of her Catholicism. But it’s worth sitting through the religion class — which is actually pretty interesting, and she enjoys arguing with the teacher — for the chance to participate in activities that only Concordance offers. For instance, Concordance High has a debate team, Glasgow High doesn’t. Concordance has a Lit Court team, Glasgow doesn’t. (There are other things Allison would like to get into, but each extracurricular activity means one day a week her mom has to drive her to Olympia or Centralia or Kelso or whichever branch is holding that week’s meeting. Every so often everyone comes to Glasgow just to be fair, but it’s not exactly a popular choice among the students. So to spare her mom the driving, she sticks to things she think will help her in her eventual career — she wants to be a defense attorney. She does do Latin Club, but that just takes up a couple weekends a year.)
This is why she was at school so late — she’d come to get her books after getting back from debate practice at the Concordance trailer in Montesano. When she saw Karol Carpathescu, she smiled at him as she smiles at everybody. But not everybody is sensitive to the fact that the same burst of kindness that triggered the smile was also responsible for the release of a trace amount of a chemical unique to her genetic makeup. It’s the same chemical, analogous to a pheromone, that has spread across southwestern Washington over the course of the fifteen years she’s been on the planet. And it’s the same chemical that for a few all-too-brief moments relieves Karol’s hunger, takes away the excruciating pain that has been an uninterrupted constant for well over a year now. For a moment, just for a moment, he feels like everybody else. And then she’s gone, taking her kindness with her, and the hunger slowly begins to creep back. But it’s enough for now. Karol Carpathescu has fed.
And then he feels sick. Not because someone has come near him, or because of any ambient taste. This sickness isn’t physical. It’s the kind that comes when he thinks about what he has stolen from her.
He doesn’t finish cleaning up until ten at night. For a while it looked as if he might finish relatively early — once all the desks and blackboards were taken care of, he started on the bathrooms and it seemed like a simple mop job. But those were the girls’ bathrooms. Once he reached the guys’ bathrooms, where random, undirected urination proved to be the generally accepted procedure, he knew he was in for a long night.
So he locks away the janitorial equipment and heads back to Dale and Jen’s place. The rain is falling steadily and he hurries. But when he reaches 9907 East Second Street he finds a note on the door:
Anyone who opens this door will learn firsthand what it’s like to be bashed in the head with a solid-body bass guitar.