Edward was ready to leave. He looked exhausted, his face was pale rather than ruddy. He had most of his tools and remnants of materials in his hands, and I picked up the rest. We said our good-byes quickly, now that it was dark. Vector told me that he would see me later, after dinner when I was changed, but we didn't hug. He said what he said with his hands in his brown pockets, a little stiffly.
It was the stiffness that a small disagreement will bring on. He was still angry that I would not return to a group which wanted me to return. It was the sort of stiffness that can be eased so simply, given only one more talk, one more hour of thought, one sign of bending. We had plans to meet later, so we let it stay between us. I left with Edward, piping slung over my arm.
The crowd was thick. Edward moved through it at first with his normal bulldog directness, worrying knots of people apart to let his frame squeeze through. But I could see that he was tired, and I moved out ahead of him.
The crowd was loud, noisemakers joined with the sound of tape players turned slightly past distortion level. A woman passed by and kissed Edward suddenly on the cheek. He began to draw back but his arms were full of his tools. He was squeezed in so tight that there was nowhere for him to move. The woman laughed at his discomfort, rubbed his bald head before veering off.
We waited at a shuttle bus stop, and I saw two or three watches all marking the evening hour neatly, 6:00. We waited, and I looked again, saw that instead of moving to 6:01, they now read 5: 59. They were on countdown, I had forgotten. Then I wished that I could go back to that single plateau one minute before when time moved as naturally, as logically backward or forward. Edward leaned against the shuttle sign's concrete base, yawning, his eyes a bit vacant with fatigue. A truck a few rows over had a huge speaker installed in its bed, and it played so overpoweringly that when the shuttle doors closed on us I could still recognize a man's persistent cough caught in a bootleg of a distant Rochester show.
The shuttle bus moved us through the parking lot in a rectangle of glaring illumination. I could see every mark on the many faces sharing the bus with us. The people talked loudly and in all different accents. The outside looked black, impenetrable, except for the occasional bright overhead light, or where candles and fires lighted windshields, dancing figures. There were heavy pouches under Edward's eyes. It occurred to me that he might not be well, that he might have some creeping illness, that his heart might murmur or be diseased.
He opened his eyes directly on mine, body and face swaying a little with the heavy waltzing motion of the shuttle. He rubbed his cheeks with his hand. ``Don't worry about me, kid,'' he said. ``It's been a long day. I'm tired from turning away all those people this morning who wanted to meet your mom.''
I let his eyes close again. I didn't try to bring him out anymore. We got off the bus after a few more minutes, came out in the dark near the limousine. We had to hunt for it in the gloom by shape, until our eyes readjusted and we could make out letters and space numbers. We slung the piping and the tools into a small narrow bay that Edward had installed next to the compartment for the spare. I listened to a short sermon given to me by a short, dark man while Edward found clean clothes and a towel in the back of the limousine.
Edward came out of the limousine with a long blue bag cinched with a white string, and he threw it down on the blacktop while he locked the door. He had on his old blue windbreaker. I told the small man that we were going to the showers, and he said that God blessed both of us.
Edward gestured at the moving people with his free hand, like a sailor with the duffel bag slung over his back: ``None of them are hurting anybody, are they? Everybody's helping everybody. Everybody's helping everybody turn the music up. Everybody's helping everybody get to some goddamn show. Lots of help.''
``You don't hurt anyone here,'' I said again. ``You're not destroying anything for anyone. You make what you can out of it for yourself, maybe make things for other people. No one gives you anything free outside a Dead show, you know that. Did you give your plumbing business away for free?''
He shook his head, laughing still, his chest shaking a little, touching an eye with a finger as though stopping a tear. ``You're not getting anything free, kid,'' he said, almost laughing. ``You think you are, but you're not. There's always a bill. Take my word for it. You're paying for whatever you get, take my word for it.''
I stopped at a stand where a man and his wife were selling cookies, peanut butter with chocolate kisses in the center. They watched me with big smiles, both of them wearing thick, thick glasses so that their small eyes seemed miles away. I picked a cookie up out of a small red tin.
``Can I have this?'' I asked them. They both smiled, waved it toward me. I thanked them, broke it in half as we walked, offered the bigger half to Edward. He slapped it to the blacktop, and it was crushed immediately under shifting feet, sneakers, sandals. I shrugged, ate the smaller half.
I could see the outdoor showers ahead, the sort they have at the seaside, ten or twelve long rows of chrome nozzles bending like bluebells over a huge concrete slab. There was a broken circle of chrome drains all around the slab, suds and water ran into them constantly. You could hear that water fall a long echoing way, fall to some new cavern, even from where we stood. There was a line of people waiting with towels in their hands: some of them in bathing suits, some in terrycloth robes, others fully clothed with bottles of shampoo in their hands.
A young man stood fully naked under one of the nozzles. He had taken his small black swimming trunks off. They lay crumpled near the drain. He stood washing his hair, eyes shut tight. Turning and massaging his scalp under the water, he was obviously aware of the many eyes on his body. Those showering around him faced away from him.
Edward stopped where he was, turned to me. His eyes were wide open, his fatigue seemed to have vanished. He was being jostled as he stood but he gave the people touching him no recognition. He ignored them, pointing a finger at me. ``Maybe you think that fucking credit card you were carrying was free? It wasn't. Not by a long shot. Let me tell you a little story about that credit card. You'll like it. It's a story about people who think that money comes from nowhere.''
I thought that he was going to tell me something about the way he had burned it, maybe something about the way in which it had been destroyed. Then I had a fleeting thought -- like a heresy -- that he might have burned it on purpose. He had never liked my using it, having it. He had never liked the fact that it said only Story on the face of it. I folded my arms in close, so that people could pass me more easily. He started to tell me a story.
It was a story about the time after he had been arrested in Providence. How he had come home to a disordered house, one in which every drawer and cupboard and envelope had been opened. Those first dead days back in his house. Like a catatonic, he had had no desires, he had sat in a stuffed armchair for hours. He cooked for himself, he could never understand what had happened to his life. Why his house was empty. Why he had been released and not charged. Why and how the world seemed to have moved to a place beyond where he stood, a place he could look into but not enter. He did not understand any of it, when he turned on the television, it seemed to move too fast for his eyes. Commercials lasted only short seconds.
There was a swelling in the crowd, and Edward and I moved sideways until we were beneath a small canvas canopy between two booths. There was a card table with rings and pipes and onyx figurines but no one tending it. They had gone off somewhere in the crowd, leaving the things glittering in the candle light. Edward touched my chest with a finger. ``I couldn't understand what the hell was going on with this screwed up world,'' he said. ``So I went to look for you. All I could think was that you knew what the hell was going on. I went looking.''
He looked stunned for an instant, and then angry with me. ``For you,'' he snapped. ``Sonjee was gone a long time ago. What do you think I am? That's over. That's been years, that's been over five years since I stopped looking for her. I was looking for you. I went looking all over hell for you.''
He set the duffel bag down by his feet. He ran a hand over his head in a compulsive way, head down, the hand stopped at his sunburned neck and worked at a knot in the muscles. ``I thought you would know,'' he started, ``I thought you'd be able to tell me something. You were always talking strange, and I always thought you were just a sick kid. You were running away from something, I figured you could tell me what it was. You talked about strange things. You seemed like you were scared of all the things I didn't understand.''
He smiled, a long, hard, tired smile, eyes focused not on mine but on the car parked behind me. I could not deny the little malevolence that I saw in his face now. ``And so I couldn't find you. And I couldn't find you. So I started to scratch around a little bit. I had a couple of souvenirs from when you used to ride with us, I had that poster of you --''
``-- and I had a carbon from that credit card you were always using. You threw it in the garbage when we were at a taco stand one day, and I fished it out, threw it in the glovebox. Put it in my wallet later so Sonjee didn't see. Didn't think I'd need it, but you were a strange bird, so I kept it. I went to work on those two things,'' he continued. ``I called that number, and I went to see that woman in La Mirada who's not your mother. It's too bad she's not, she's a good person. She's got a nice home. And I found out a few things from her. Found out where you used to live, for one, mystery boy.''
I got up so fast that the green chair shot behind me, tottered and fell on the blacktop. People passing turned at the little crashing noise, turned back to the fireworks popping occasionally over the lot. They weren't alarmed; they looked like they were hoping it was a fight.
``I've had enough of this half-assed interrogation,'' I told him loudly. ``If you don't want to believe what I say, then fine. Then screw you, Edward. If you don't like a group you've been following for years now, that's fine too. You're bitter about it. But don't expect me to listen to your sick little imaginary --''
He yelled over me easily, moving in front of the table and bending down over the stone hash pipes and the bits of brazed metal: ``You lived in a one-bedroom bachelor apartment, I've seen it. Had a little balcony, and your mom told me you had a whole bunch of flowers out there when you lived there. You lived three exits away from your mother's house, and one exit away from where you worked. Did I mention you had a job? Back in those days?'' He leaned toward me, grinning. ``Did I mention you had a job, kid?''
I turned and ran. I felt my hand bat at the canopy, my finger struck the thin metal pole holding it. Then I was between the cars. I ran through the width of the thick crowd with my knees high like trying to plow through shallow water to the beach. Women's faces, men's faces turning to me, looking down at my shoving hands. I broke through them and between a pop-up camper and a long, disheveled station wagon. I moved faster in that sudden strip of space.
I ran out into a small assembly of empty lawn chairs, heart flailing. I stopped for just a second, caught by the phantom quality of those seven or eight chairs conspiring around a dead black fire. And saw Edward's blue jacket from the corner of my eye as he blindsided me, arms twining around me, both of us falling, sliding through the black ashes, scattering the abandoned lawn chairs.
He was lying with most of his weight on me, his legs under the camper assembly. We were partially hidden by the shadow of the camper, so that only one passing row of people could see us, and no one came, no one disrupted our quiet fight. He was holding me down as I struggled. He pressed my face to the blacktop harder as I struggled harder; when I ceased struggling, he would stop forcing me down. Finally, I lay still. He did not relax his hold.
``No you won't,'' he said, coughing from deep back in his chest. ``Don't shit me. You're so afraid of the police you'd rather die than scream. And you're probably more afraid of that crowd looking at you than you are of the police.''
``Now listen to me,'' he said. And then he repeated the name that Ella had once said to me. It had the same resonance in his mouth, the same ugliness in its sound. ``That's your name,'' he went on, coughing once more. ``That's your goddamn name. You had a job. You were a design engineer --''
I couldn't help what I did. It was the feeling of compression. I began to spasm, my body thrashing and twisting in fast, short movements. Like an epileptic. I felt Edward pushing against me. He pushed my face to the blacktop, my body crushed against it, and as I turned I felt my shoulder burn in a strange, slow way. I felt the joint of my shoulder separate, the bones agitating, then nearly coming apart from one another. I felt the tearing. And I began to cry, rasping in air. My cheek was bleeding. It felt raw, scraped against the blacktop. I lay still under his weight.
Then he lowered his voice, so that I could barely hear it over the screaming and the fireworks, the champagne corks and the sound of the music from the auditorium. ``You were with a company called Story Construction/Protech for seven years. You went to work for them after you graduated high school. They build malls, that kind of shit. You were the fair-haired boy at this company, you had most everything going your own way.''
``You were,'' he stopped to draw breath, ``you were a design engineer.'' I heard his shoes drag on the blacktop as he bettered his leverage. ``You had a company car, company credit card. I talked to a guy who knew you there, he said you were a good designer. You could make stuff up, new stuff. They sent you all over the country, all the branch offices. Story/Protech is a huge conglomerate. And then one day you didn't go to work, your mother couldn't find you. You went to this Dead concert night before. After about two months your mother started with the posters. I talked to some woman in accounting at that company, read her that credit card number, told her I wanted to make sure it was one of their accounts, didn't have any complaint, just checking. She said it was.''
I moved my face a little, felt the raw scrape on my cheek against the pavement. Edward's arms tightened on me, but I held still, and he relaxed them slightly. I looked where my face had been, and there was a small well of blood connecting the minute pockmarks of the blacktop. Like little wells full of red ink, the blood would never sink through the black skin of that substance. It was immiscible.
I heard Edward begin again: ``They never cancelled that card, it stayed on their extended credit list. You were on a travel account. You weren't drawing very much. They went to a different credit voucher system in 1990, your card never got cancelled. For some reason you're not on their double-check list. So every time somebody got a little suspicious and ran a check, the double-check would show that there wasn't any problem. Double-check, triple-check, you weren't there. The computer hid you. You've been on the sugar tit all this time, and they didn't even know it. You didn't even know it.''
I realized that he was holding me hardly at all any more, but I had no interest in struggling. Edward said with a bit of awe in his voice, ``You were their main design guy, when the project was something big. Big and complex. You were the coordinator for everything. That guy you worked with said you were a detail freak, you had to make everything elegant. You helped rough out this amphitheater in the original concept sketch, he told me. You were one of the people working on the original design. You drew it.''
The childishness of it made him stop. I could feel him just looking at me there in his arms. He ignored it. ``You left, no one there ever had any more contact with you. But your mother, yes your mother! says you called a couple of weeks or so back, left a whole long message. Had me in it, she said that when I talked to her. It was about me and, and Sonjee, and, and some strange things,'' Edward said, his voice turned rough, thick, like talking through a cough.
I began to get up, and Edward withdrew his hands from around my shoulder, my chest. He sat back on the blacktop and watched me narrowly. He looked so awkward as he sat like that, his big blue windbreaker stomach and smallish legs out in front of him, a worried look on, sitting like Humpty Dumpty. Ashes on his face, the knees of his pants.
He reached out a calloused hand to me, as though to help me up, and I kicked at it with my sneaker, knocking his fingers back against the surface of the lot. I wanted to kick him again, but I didn't. He didn't move when I kicked him, he just watched me. I stood after a minute, slowly. I couldn't use my arm.
``What did you say?'' he asked, pushing himself to his feet. There was a pleading tone in his voice now, no more threatening. He kept moving in front of me as I turned weakly around. ``Your mother erased the tape by accident when she called in for her messages, I couldn't listen to it. But she said you were making sense of all this weird bullshit. What did you say on that tape, boy? What do you know about what happened? Just tell me what you know. I don't understand any of this shit. Just give me some kind of an idea about what you know.''
I walked away from him. Normal steps. I began to walk toward the showers. I could see that there were ashes all over my arms and the front of my clothing. I wanted to wash my face. Edward walked beside me, shouting a question every few seconds, exasperated. ``Tell me what you know!'' he shouted at me. He was turning from me to the oncoming crowd, worming his way through two or three bottlenecks, trying to stay as close to me as he could. But he did not try to hold me. He just kept me in sight.
I walked past the long lines by the showers, past those men and women. I saw the stiff, clean towels and the traveler's bars of soap, the eyes of all the people waiting with nothing to do but watch. I walked past the front of the line, and as a woman vacated one of the nozzles, one of the spaces on the wet concrete, I walked under the continuous stream of water. Edward yelled at me distantly, a shrill, warning yell.
My clothes sagged on my body immediately, they grew heavy. I turned my face up to the stream and the scrape on my face burned. My hair sank into my eyes. I looked for soap, but no dispenser had been provided.
With almost no lag time, two men in tan uniforms pulled me from the shower. Security, their badges said. They had been watching because of the naked man earlier. Water squeezed from my shirt under the hands that gripped me. The uniformed men had small metal rods tipped with black plastic poking up behind their ears, small discs on thin metal arcs positioned before their mouths. They looked like tall, upright insects. One took me by my bad arm, and I screamed.
They held me tightly between the two of them, walking me out of the shower area, and one of them talking to me in a curiously rehearsed voice, repeating certain phrases, like phrases learned from a travel guide, some cognate form of my own language. I could almost understand him as we walked. The other talked to no one that I could see. I thought to look for Edward, but I could not see him anywhere in the big-eyed faces watching us move through the crowd.
They were walking me toward a van, I knew, the sort of van which had taken Edward in Providence. I could not see it in the many lines of cars, but I knew that we were passing in as straight a line as possible toward it. I could feel it in the muscled arms of those tan men. I could feel it in the few phrases the one kept repeating, designed to sedate rather than to communicate. I would be questioned, dissected, photographed, imaged, stored, excreted.
Then they both listened, as though to a distant whistle. We were between cars. They cocked their heads. Both of them simply let me go, began to move off quickly in another direction. The crowd opened for them, closed behind them with a low, murmuring sound.
The crowd watched me for a few moments. I stood dripping, my hair hanging in my face. And then they went back to looking at their watches, their glasses, the smuggled roman candles exploding brilliantly, illicitly over the lot at unpatterned intervals. A man jumped from the back of a pickup and ran a towel to me, put it around me without saying a word, ran back, looking up at the sky.
I needed my group. I had never felt the lack as strongly before, or as specifically. I had never felt that need for one particular group, they had always been interchangeable. But I needed Ella's group. I shivered and wiped at my neck with the rough towel. I needed to go back inside them and heal. I thought of Sarah, and her unbalanced emotion. I needed to feel the security of Ella and Eric who never ceased their compound patrols, never ceased defending the integrity of the group. I missed Lane, and Tom.
I couldn't feel the lower part of my arm, only a burning sensation beginning at my elbow and intensifying at my shoulder. The music from the amphitheater came to the lot in a halting fashion, the sort of introspective interval that the Dead had always had but now stripped of the sense of ultimate direction, the final lift back into melody. It was as though the younger voice was simply holding a pattern, the group holding time behind him, waiting to come out of that maze.
I walked in the light breeze for hours looking for them, and my clothes dried on my back, damp and irritating in their seams. Until I couldn't bear to walk anymore. I wanted too badly to be with them, I couldn't find them in all of those people. And I came too often across small sudden flowerings of the night before, people watching tapes that they had taken. All of those tapes contained the story which the monitors had insisted upon telling. A television stuck up on the hood of a car would show the heads of the previous night's crowd and then a miniature version of one of the hanging monitors, and I swear to you that as I passed one once I thought that I saw in the miniature record of that monitor a smaller, rarer flash of Sonjee recorded in her illness. I thought I saw her through all of those pictures of pictures, lying there in Egypt. But it was a lie. I stopped and looked more closely and knew that again, and I turned away from it.
Dull concussions of people striking me, paining my arm, but all of us ignoring those touches which could not be avoided, everyone yelling to someone. Candles going off overhead, whistles like hunting birds. And sudden blooms of red and orange in the dark velvet sky. I saw a row sign, QQQ 101-200, and I looked for a hill of the lot I knew as a landmark, with an outcropping of double-wide trucks on its windward side. I climbed up on top of shuttle bus signs, looked over the high trucks around me.
I ran upon a funeral between trucks, a candle at the head and a candle at the feet of a bearded man nearly as heavy as the older voice of the Dead had been. I nearly ran over his body. Around him was a group wearing black. I realized when I heard them fall into silence that they had been singing one of the songs that he had written. They looked at me blankly, the woman leading them as though she were proud of their reverence. It was the woman in widow's weeds: her dark lace billowed around her as she sat. The man playing the dead man sat up in the sudden silence, annoyed. I could see that he felt silly, he had been able to join this group because of his resemblance, because they needed him to lie as he was lying now. He had joined them because he wanted one of them, his eyes went to her reflexively, and I ran back the way I had come. Their voices came up behind me again, as solemn as before.
Coming around a long-bed truck that I thought I remembered, I saw the boy who had showed me his watch the day before. He and his brothers were sitting in perfect tallest-to-smallest order between their parents on the tailgate of their truck. Their black hair combed, all of them were watching the sky quietly, politely. He saw me as I came toward their car, and he whispered something to his mother. She looked to where he had pointed, and nodded, helped him scramble the few feet to the ground. He ran over to me very quickly, as a child will do to show that he can. He stopped in front of me, now a little shy. He held out his little watch helpfully, because the only thing he knew about me was that I had once been interested in what time it was.
He offered me a wrist full of zeroes. There was only a 42 at the end of that series of square, digital circles. I thanked him. The part in his black hair was a flat, white curve. He looked back at his mother, embarrassed. Finally, we shook hands, he took my left hand, my good hand. Then he ran back very quickly and competently and got into place, and his father picked him up and reinserted him like a beautiful, gifted component.
I looked down into that depression where I had seen the bus, that little valley in the lot. I wanted to see how Sarah was sitting or standing. I wanted, I think, to see again that Ella meant me no harm, that she was not what I had thought her from the top of the cookie factory.
I looked down over the trucks and the vans, and I saw that there was a crowd around the bus. The words Hiawatha Christian Day School were readable only for short clipped seconds, people were milling back and forth in front of it. The small crowd was surging there. I saw traces of bright blue pass through the air, blue on hands and arms. Blue on the tips of fingers being carried aloft like a prize.
It was the honey. They had poured all of it into a large round plastic washtub. Eric and Lane and Sarah were holding it steady on a tall-legged table, while hand after hand was dipped into it. Ella and Margery and Lauren and Tom were sitting on top of the bus, watching. Ella was there, directing people to it, calling to them. Next to her was Vector, the two of them nearly the same height. He had waited for me, I knew, and then gone to the closest thing to a group that he had. He couldn't go through the night alone, not this night, any more than I could. Ella turned to say something to him. I could just barely see her cupping her hands to her mouth. Then she went back to yelling things to Eric, or to Sarah, or to the people before the honey tub, I couldn't tell. The rockets and firecrackers were coming almost on the heels of one another, and there were so many screams and bursts of applause from the crowds in all of the various valleys and on all of the hills of the lot.
I realized then that no one was paying for their share, everyone was dipping their fingers in it for free. Tom's sullenness of the day before came back to me -- Ella was giving it away, all of it, to everyone. A miracle. Maybe the largest miracle ever granted.
The crowd was surging toward the honey tub, toward the novelty. It was Ella's wish that they have it for free; this was what she had tried so long to explain to Tom. She had some reason for it, there was a need. She always knew when to give a miracle. She watched them eating it below her. And the crowd had looked for so long in the lot for something new, something they could tell stories about forever afterward. They had rejected the antlers of deers bored out as pipes, the many-pointed racks fitted with the fabric hoses of a hookah. They had seen the crystal, onyx, jade and leather, gauze, the hard teak wood. This was something new, which they would have paid to have. That it was to be given to them made them impatient to have it, that thing completely new, completely free.
I watched for long moments the arms slapping at the heavy, clinging surface. Eric would move someone on who was trying to cup both hands in it. People at the tub threw their arms out so that droplets scattered over all the faces of the crowd. In the pushing, the honey was smeared on clothing, from arm to arm, people fed their blue fingers into one another's mouths.
I could see people dancing down there at the edges of that crowd, as though their perception of the faint music from the auditorium had been sharpened. Beyond them there were figures running, skipping away from the crowd around the tub, carrying their blue hands out, stopping to anoint the mouths of people along the way, a small series of secondary miracles.
I felt it rise up in me. I wanted some of it as well. It was mine too. I had watered the mushrooms and helped pick them, I had gathered the honey. I was almost saying these things to myself as I watched. I found myself walking down into the cars of the downhill slope, touching their outstretched mirrors absently as I went. I was moving toward the bus, breaking into a weak dog-trot, holding my arm to keep it from being jolted.
I could see from my elevation that the perfect blue of the tub was now clouded with green: the bottom was showing through a thin, vanishing layer of honey, like an eye winking at me as arms blotted it from my vision, and then were lifted away. It was a blue eye, touched with a washed-out green and lined with holding fingers. I stopped then, looking into it, caught by it. Before I could move again, the tub was stripped from their six hands by the crowd.
One area of the crowd dipped low, scuffling. The tub had ceased to belong to someone, it was something to be claimed. Outside that circle of shoving, people began to push in earnest, trying to get away from the intensity of the four or five small fights which had broken out. I saw yellow security jackets inching forward in long, tenuous groupings. One was struck down as he tried to separate two men. The yellow figures began to strike at people near them. Car lights came on. Engines raced with no room to move forward, and their drivers sounded their horns plaintively, crazily.
Eric boosted Sarah up onto the top of the bus, Vector hauled her up by her arm, and both of them fell sprawling on the white roof. I was watching for Lane to follow Eric up -- I could not see him anymore -- when I heard the soft regular implosions like the sound of large flags snapping in the wind. But the sound was faster and deeper, more regular, sharper.
People were running by me and shoving me backward, back up the incline, farther from the bus. People were climbing up on cars, denting their roofs. I found that I couldn't move forward, the crowd was moving too thickly back up toward me. I climbed up on a truck covered with Dead stickers and sat on the roof, as people ran past the cab, shaking it as they ran into it or reached out to steady themselves. There was a screaming, a screaming like I had never heard.
I could see them now coming from the hills, the old army base, lights sweeping down from chiton bodies. Their rotors shimmering, blurred like dragonfly wings. I counted fourteen of them from the old warrens and barracks still in the hills. They came over us, and the wind forced the sounds back into the throats of the crowd.
They simply looked at us, and I felt something like modesty. I saw many people shield their faces. They played the lights over us, and in that brilliance there were no shadows of any sort. Brighter than the half-instant of a camera flash, it turned the face of a woman running past the truck so bright that I could not look at it. It turned all of the hair on my arms transparent blond and I could see small blemishes and the pores of my skin. I could see a misshapen freckle, and I wondered in a thin second if the cells there would turn apostate, give themselves over to cancer.
Those helicopters were speaking in a voice garbled by static, the same language that the tan men had spoken earlier. I could begin to understand that voice. But the light was so bright that I couldn't truly hear, none of us could hear.
The light felt heavy on me, even with my eyes closed. It came through the membranes of my lids so brightly that I saw spots. I scrambled to the edge of the roof, fell off into the crowd, scrabbled under the truck and lay there. Even that dark space was lit up like day. The blacktop shone before my face.
I felt a finality, the ruined quality of nightmares, that feeling that life will never resurrect itself. That light had seen me, that was enough. Anything could pass from that fact. Those lights could read the bracelets of people running through the lot. They could read of Vector's allergies, that same light would record the information as light and it would never forget it. There would be tapes of us all, tapes everlasting. They could write things on those same moving bracelets if they chose, any sort of story. The light could never be shut off once it had shone on me. I could be summoned by it, like a djinn. Everything was comprised in the light, all time, perspective, life. It could see me through the car, only different lengths of waves were needed. I watched the back of my hand glow in it. I watched it watch my hand, look at the veins humping up the skin.
I felt what I had felt earlier, that it was the same, that there was no difference. We were both part of some composite body that could look at its own insides, could operate upon itself, transmute itself in that way. I felt it like a faith. I scraped my shoulder blade coming out from under the car. I felt foolish hiding there, and I climbed back up on the roof.
I sat under the spotlights, my hair shining brilliantly. Because the helicopters were a part of something I was a part of, we were the same, different only in our positions with respect to the light. All of us wrapped in a cell-wall of concrete and blacktop, spilling endlessly forward.
The crowd began to tear itself apart. Sections of it shoved so hard that they began to drive the fighting further. The helicopters swept out after that violent, advancing wave. The crowd could not see the light the way I was seeing it: they saw it as an aggression being committed upon them, a rape, a violation. They could not get out of the light, and they went a little crazy under it. Cars accelerated into the crowd, trying to force a path, only to be mired in moving figures. One drove into a knot of people, several of them fell away from its grill.
I saw a last instant of my group, before they scrambled into the bus. I saw Sarah and Eric on one corner of the white roof, their backs together as they looked out over the crowd. They were defending one another, naturally, without the need for thought. And I saw Vector jump down into the crowd and stretch his arms up to Ella. He was most concerned for her, I saw it in the frantic way he waved his hands for her to jump. She hesitated, then decided to make the small leap.
I watched Vector fumble with the latch of the side door, and Ella finally pulled it out of its sticky housing from behind. It shot suddenly aside, yawning open. I saw them all hurry into that approximate square of blackness, and it was like the opening up of years for them.
All of the rest followed Ella and Vector into the bus, one by one, Lauren tugging Margery in who was lost in tears, and then the door closed. Though the bus was rocked slightly and struck by thrown trash and the hands of running people, the doors did not open again.
I could see dim suggestions of the amphitheater crowd pushing away from the searchlights and from each other, swarming toward the cover of the rocks by the sea. Both running and being pushed. I thought I could see figures falling, being pushed from the rocks in tiny drops of color. The light swung out over the water, hunting, even as it stayed full over my part of the lot.
I accepted the light as I sat on the roof of that truck covered with stickers, whose color and whose model I cannot remember. My stomach did not turn at the thought. I was no longer fighting it in that way. I opened my eyes like looking directly into the sun. I embraced it.
There was a beauty in its intensity. It could know everything. When I had had my eyes open to it for only a second or two, I became aware of a horn blaring and of a voice shouting the name Edward had told me was mine. It was a hoarse shouting, that name over and over again.
I looked for the sound, hands shading my eyes. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the weaker illumination, but I could see headlights from three rows away, flashing on and off with the horn. A short figure was leaning out the driver's side door, yelling that name in a deep voice. I knew that it was Edward, he held himself in a way that I could recognize even in outline. Finally, I could blink and make out his arms signaling something.
I jumped down, holding my arm. I stood for a moment before I began to run through the crowd; like launching out from under an awning into a heavy rainstorm. I ran and was knocked down in a minute, someone fell on me, and before I could scream Edward had lifted me up and begun to shove our way to the car. He was like a thick wedge, yelling and slapping at the bodies all around us. The limousine was tightly surrounded. He had made it as far as the juncture of four rows and there the joining of those numbers had stopped him. He held me up with one arm, ripped the keys from his jacket pocket, shoved them up in the light to find the door key. He opened the passenger door and laid me inside. There was the profound leather smell of the seats of old cars.
I saw him fight his way through all of the people to his door, passing from one side of the windshield to the other as vividly and realistically as if it were a television screen. I unlocked it for him, and he fell inside, slammed the door on his windbreaker, opened it again, and reshut it. He turned the ignition key and locked all the doors with the central switch. There was the sound of our deep breathing. After a moment, the white light outside the windows subsided, the helicopters began to move away, to mass at the edge of the ocean. It grew dark in the car. We sat in the relative silence for a moment, the car rocking lightly every few seconds, as a small boat would rock. No music playing.
The heat began to seep out from the vents in the dash. A shiver ran through me. I hadn't realized how cold I was. We passed about five minutes of the new millennium somewhere in that quiet interval. Edward took out a pen flashlight and snapped down his visor, began to study a street map he had clipped to its underside. He ran a big finger along a fine red road. I remember thinking idly that it might be a good thing if he could teach me to plumb.
``I'm picking out the shortest way to La Mirada,'' he said casually, searching those twining roads. ``I made a promise to that woman there that I would bring you to see her. It'll put her mind at rest, no matter who you are. What do you think?''
My eyes had closed. I could see no reason to avoid it, and I felt even a mild curiosity to see the photo which had been convinced by so many photocopiers to look like me. I felt a coming sadness for this woman, for her disappointments.
``It's just that I promised. And you can't break a promise to a woman like this.'' He was using his words carefully. ``You'll be able to tell that when you meet her, right off the bat. She's a wonderful woman.''
``North,'' he repeated mechanically, as though searching for something, and I opened my eyes, saw that we were still surrounded by the deepening crowd. Their faces were everywhere in that darkness, mouths open. I saw Edward look out at them in puzzlement. His confusion hurt me. So I reached up and switched on the limousine's directional map light, so that the screen of the windshield came to reflect only just the two of us sitting there in the car.