Flight to Darkness [MultiFormat]
Click on image to enlarge.
eBook by Gil Brewer
eBook Category: Mystery/Crime
eBook Description: I murdered my brother with a sculptor's mallet. But it was only a dream. It was a dream I always had. I hated my brother. I was going home to see him now, get it out of my system, and then spend the rest of my life hunting Leda. She was my wife and she belonged to me. All I remember of that searing journey was the sun blazing down. And there, framed in the doorway, were my brother Frank and Leda, my lovely Judas wife. So when they found my brother with his head battered in by a sculptor's mallet, they said I had murdered him. But did I?
eBook Publisher: Wonder Audiobooks, LLC/Wonder eBooks, Published: 1952
Fictionwise Release Date: August 2010
* * * *
You know how it is when you believe you should do a thing, rushing ahead toward it because it's a kind of adventure, before your realize you should have stayed in bed? Well, it dawned on me too late. That last day at the veteran's hospital in California was rugged. But I'd waited a long time. I was optimistic.
Leda Thayer stood just at the head of the stairs as I came down the corridor that morning. I wanted to stop and talk with her, maybe touch her, but I had to see Prescott. It would be the last time.
She came up to me and her eyes were full of hell.
"Eric, you sure look different."
"No bathrobe or pajamas." I grinned, took her hand and felt that way. She was wearing her white nylon nurse's uniform. It was the one that was always too tight in exactly the right way beneath her breasts and across her hips, and she was lovely. She had long shapely thighs, and her auburn hair was bright, full of light even in the somber, clinical nakedness of the hallway. There was in her face, in the damp turn of her lips, a secret lasciviousness. Deep-breasted, vigorous, Leda was like a lush, tropical flower blooming poisonously through a crack in a stretch of hot cement sidewalk. Her hand was warm.
"You going in there?" She nodded toward the chief neuropsychiatrist's office.
"Anyway, it's over with."
"All but the good-bys."
"Baby can't wait." Her deep blue eyes got smoky as she watched me. "I like you in a suit of clothes. My big old Viking. Wish you'd grow a beard. A big blond beard."
"So I could tickle you?"
"I better go."
"All right." She leaned in close, kissed me, her lips soft and hot, and for that brief instant we said something against each other not alone with lips. "I'm not so patient any more."
"Good for baby." Inside I was scared but still optimistic. I watched Leda go on down the hall. She moved quickly, lithely, in her crepe-soled shoes, and I liked to hear the very soft hiss of her dress.
Dr. Prescott seemed to have changed. Only I knew he hadn't. He'd been the ogre with whom I'd spent a good share of my time during the past year.
He didn't rise from behind his desk. "How's it feel?"
"Damned fine, Doc."
I went over and sat in the good old chair beside the desk which seemed a little different now.
We looked at each other for a while. He smiled in his calm way and folded his hands on the desk blotter. The office had changed, too. There was the table up against the wall where Prescott administered the electrotherapy treatments but the table no longer held that cloudy vision of terror. At least not for me. The windows with the partially closed Venetian blinds were the same, only like everything else--different, somehow. There'd been a time when I had stared at those blinds and watched them grin at me, wink--even speak.
"You're going home. You feel O. K. about that?"
"Sure," I told him. It was a lie. I was scared, but it had to be all right because it was the only way. My stomach burned and my nerves were like banjo strings.
Prescott looked at his folded hands and pale sunlight ricocheted off the tiny bald spot on his skull. He wasn't much older than my twenty-eight, but I imagined he supposed he was old as hell. His manner had always been a trifle supercilious. He had washed-out gray eyes, straw-colored hair and he sported a mustache of perhaps nineteen hairs, which was incessantly scraggled. He always wore a blue polka-dot bow tie and, as now, a wrinkled gray gabardine suit. He didn't have too much chin, but his overlarge Adam's-apple helped compensate for the lack. His voice was rather high and, to me, irritating.
Prescott and I had been through a lot together.
"Anything happen since I've seen you?"
"Thought we'd get rid of that. Intervals are longer, anyway. How long is it this time?"
"Been a week and a half."
"How did you kill him?"
"Same way, Doc. With a wooden mallet."
He let that coast for a while. Then he cleared his throat. "We can't allow you to run around being haunted."
"Like I told you, Doc--it doesn't bother me any more."
"Yeah. Only you still go right ahead killing your brother every once in a while."
I shrugged. "It's a dream." Somebody strummed the banjo strings. It had to be a dream....
"I remember very clearly how you acted when you came in here," Prescott said. "At least we've helped you some."
"That or it's wearing itself out."
"You always doubted we could help you."
I didn't say anything.
"Eric. You're sure this dream no longer bothers you?"
He was very serious and I suddenly felt sorry for the poor devil. How could he really know? He couldn't. How could I tell him? I had to lie eight-tenths of the time now, because I was leaving the hospital today and this was I good-by. I'd been passed, I was O. K. Sure.
"It doesn't bother me. I don't get in a sweat any more. If I pound in my brother's head with a wooden mallet in a dream, it's all right. Isn't it?"
"Just dandy." He sighed, shook his head. "Only he's not even your brother, really. Adopted into the family."
"I've always known him as my brother."
"Only you knew he wasn't. Eric, we've done all we can--"
"But you don't really know a damn bit more than you did when I came in here. Right?"
It was his turn to keep quiet. We sat there for a time without speaking. Then he looked at me. "You say you hate your brother's guts. What's going to happen when you see him?"
"Nothing." God, I thought, suppose he won't let me go. "So we hate each other," I said. "We've been over all this, Doc."
He went on just the same. He always would and perhaps someday he'd write a book, as many of them did. "There was this man--" maybe it would be the last time--"this new man, who came up to the third platoon as a replacement. He looked like your brother."
I sighed. A spider was building a web under the table where they gave the electrotherapy. Maybe it was a black widow.
I knew what he was thinking. He would be going over the same old story in his mind searching for the loose ends that weren't there, and my mind raced back, too. I'd been in charge of the platoon a buck sergeant because it was down to that and Oh God all the rest of it, the platoon wiped out on a ridge all but myself and this new replacement who looked like Frank, my brother, in the bloody twilight with the guns, so the two of us tried to get back to our lines only this other man was now thinking two would draw enemy fire so he lost his head and he tried to kill me and get back alone then I knocked him on the head with a rifle butt and started shouldering him back but I remembered how I hated Frank, damn him, and this was suddenly Frank on my back hating me while they laid a barrage just for us boxed in and then the man Frank came to so I hated him all my life and I picked up the wooden mallet and smashed his head in.
--Claim you killed him only it wasn't your brother and you know that now.
--Still worse that way.
--You got hit then too machine-gunned through both legs slow tick-tick-tick-tick-tick not ours and shell fragments in your back but you brought Frank in carrying him on your back and he was dead.
--Raved around telling them what you had done.
--I killed my brother.
--Came to in a hospital.
--Only it wasn't your brother and you hadn't killed him; there was no wooden mallet!
--Yes there is!
--Where in God's name would you find a wooden mallet on the battlefield in Korea where countless men saw what happened saw this man killed by enemy machine-gun fire while he was being hauled and carried by you killed by the same gun that got you in the legs because he melted the soap carvings....
Prescott had said nothing.
I tried to control my heart and breathing. They were very rapid. Perspiration brightened the backs of my hands. I didn't brush it away because Prescott would notice.
His voice was quite calm. "I swear you still believe you killed him. With that damned wooden mallet. And you dream it all the time. Only now it is your brother."
I stared at the floor. "I don't believe it any more."
"All right." He sighed. He didn't believe me, either. "Because of hate. You hated each other all your lives. Because you want to be a sculptor; you are now. But then you had these prize-winning soap carvings on the shelf in your room. Six years old. You came home from school and Frank had melted them down in a pail. He was pouring the melted soap over the shelf. Kids. And he said--"
"Not that alone, Doc. We fought all through childhood. I still hate his guts."
"All right. The thieving, the lies. You tried to kill him time after time when you were kids. Malarky. But he didn't stop. But not to kill him, Eric. There's no reason for that. Even thinking you had--out there. Dreaming it all the time--with a wooden mallet."
"It's a wooden mallet I use when I work with stone. With a chisel. It's hanging on a rack back home right now."
"And for a time you went after people. Fought with them. You go berserk, Eric. Probably a defensive attitude of some kind stemming from the obsession." Again he sighed. "It'll be a good while before you lose that damned dream."
"It's all right."
"We wouldn't let you go if we didn't think it was all right. It was a dream on the battlefield, Eric. Battle fatigue--could happen to anyone. The recurrence of the dream is because you still feel yourself guilty, dream or not, and not only of the dream, either. You hate your brother. But not enough to kill him. It frightens you, back there someplace in your mind. Until that part of you is convinced it's a dream, that the man was machine-gunned by an enemy apart from you--until that time, Eric, you'll continue to dream and go through your own particular hell. Because you could never kill him."
Some fiend played havoc with the banjo strings. My jaws ached from being clamped together so tightly.
"Permit me, Eric. It could be you're the son-of-a-bitch." Prescott colored slightly. "You have all, he had nothing. Yet you slaughter him in your dreams. Guilt, Eric. Damn it, we can't do anything more. Unless you want to live here for a few years. You're oriented. The dream's wearing itself out, as you say." He paused, breathed deeply. "Just that you're a little crazier in a more positive way than I am, or anybody else." He lifted his hands, dropped them to the desk, stared at them. Then he slowly raised his eyes beneath his brows and watched me. "You sure there's nothing new?"
"Nothing." My voice was hoarse.
"You'll be seeing Frank before long."
I didn't say anything.
"You're leaving here. That means there's nobody to grab you if you go after somebody."
I'd always felt he exaggerated this. If I went after somebody--as he put it--it would be because they needed just that. Maybe I'd got out of hand in the past but that was finished.
"I've said too much and said it wrong, maybe. But you'll have to take more than this. You're intelligent enough. You'll have times of mental depression. Ups and downs--normal to everyone but you. You'll imagine they're something else. Ride it through. Battle fatigue is just a name that covers countless variations from a specific norm. It can be tough."
"You going ahead with the sculptoring?"
"Yeah. It's all I ever really wanted."
"You're going home to a pile of money."
"Well, there's the business, a loan business. It's worth close to a half million right now. Frank's running it for the time being. God knows how. That's supposed to be split between the two of us when mother dies." I hesitated. "Then there's more money, inheritance, that comes to me when she dies. My father's will."
"Frank's out of that?"
"Yes. But I want to get to work, Doc. I want that business so I can get straightened out. It'll give me the money and time for my sculptoring. Maybe eventually--"
"Never hear from your mother?"
I shook my head. "I told Frank in a letter I was leaving California, heading for home."
"I talked with Frank on the phone, Eric."
I went tight all over, forced myself to relax. But Prescott noticed. He noticed every damned thing.
"I haven't told him anything about what you've been through; it didn't involve him. That's for you to work out. Not the first time I've talked with him. He doesn't know what you dream, only that you do. Your mother's very ill. Sorry. It's her heart, as you know."
I was wearing a light tan suit. It was getting hot. A fly lit on my left sleeve I flicked him off, watched him buzz in an angry circle.
"You're driving home?"
I nodded. "Bought a car. Going into L. A. for it this afternoon."
The fly pulled a vertical bank and if he'd had machine guns he could have strafed Prescott's skull neatly. Prescott reached out with that irritating calmness of his and plucked the fly from mid-air. He thoughtfully squashed it inside his fist, dropped it into the waste backet.
"Driving back with me, Doc. She's through nursing; her hitch is up."
"Yes. Going to marry?"
"Soon as I see--get things straightened out."
He sighed again. "She's a good nurse. Make a good wife. Knows what to expect. Fine girl." He paused, then said, "You know she planned to make Army nursing her career?"
I hadn't known. But right then all that mattered was getting out of there. I didn't want to talk with Prescott any longer, answer his questions, wonder what the hell was going on behind his eyes. I knew why he'd kept me here so long. Just to make sure old Garth was headed straight.
He rose, walked around his desk. I stood. We looked at each other. I wished to hell he hadn't killed that fly. "How do your legs feel?"
"You walk all right. Back bother you?"
"Still a few pieces of metal in there for you to tote around."
"Well," I said. "I guess this is it."
We shook hands. "Don't have to warn you. But stay away from the bottle. No telling what alcohol might do to you. Might start knocking people around just for the noise." He was quite serious. He'd told me about that before.
I forced a grin to let him know nothing bothered me. Because he was trying to bother me--and succeeding. He always had to make sure. I wondered what he'd told Frank over the phone. And what Frank had said, damn him.
"If you feel like things are falling apart, take a walk. Especially if you feel like tearing anybody apart. Take it quick and take it far. I'll always be here." He smiled wryly. "Until I die--or until some guy like you smashes me with my desk."
I began to like him now, after it was too late. "Well, so long, Doc. And--thanks."
"Good luck, Eric."
I went on out. The tenseness that had been with me in the office became worse. I stopped there in the hall, took some deep breaths. It was as if this were some kind of trial. I tried not to think they were just giving me a chance to see what I'd do, that they'd come along after me in a minute. But I couldn't stop thinking that way. It was bad.
One of the men in the ward said there was a guy out on the sunporch who wanted to see me.
"What kind of a guy?"
"A guy! A guy. St. Peter, maybe. Just a guy!"
He was an excitable patient. I noticed Leda down at the other end of the room. She was saying good-by to some of the men. She no longer wore the nurse's uniform. I knew she'd put it on just for me because I liked it. I waved at her. She wrinkled her eyes and waved back.
I went on out to the sunporch. This fellow was sitting in the wicker chair by the magazine rack. He put down a copy of the Reader's Digest and stood up as I entered.
"I'm Eric Garth. Somebody told me--"
"Well, sure. I'm from Decker's."
"Your car." He stood there a moment. He was about my height, six two, but maybe a little heavier in the middle. His yellow sport shirt bulged over his belt between the flaps of a tweed jacket. He was bright-eyed and smiling too much and his hair was combed too neatly. It was brown hair and it looked as if it had been cut directly into his skull with a very fine chisel, lacquered, then buffed to a sheen. He didn't quite know what to do with his hands. Then he seemed to remember and hauled a pad of paper from his coat pocket. "The Mercury convertible. Gun-metal color." He cleared his throat and smiled some more.
"What about it?"
"Why--" He flapped at the air with the pad but he didn't lose the smile. "It's down in the drive. Mr. Decker thought it would be fine to bring it out to you."
"Oh. I was coming in for it this afternoon."
"Yes. Certainly." His voice was all full of this smiling ha-ha. "Thought we'd save you the trip. Not really necessary. Just so Decker'll know I delivered it." He winked. "Not that he don't trust me, y'know."
I sighed. He pointed through the screen on the sun-porch, down at the parking lot in front of the hospital. "Right there, she is. Drives like a dream, too."
"Thanks." I didn't like the guy and I had kind of wanted to go pick it up myself. We shook hands. "Well, that's that, Mr. Garth."
I nodded. He swallowed, turned and left. As he passed through the doorway leading into the ward, Leda brushed by him. She looked at him, frowned, then came over to me.
She was an orgy of loveliness.
I told her. She wore a pale-green silk dress that had black streaks running through it, and it clung. Her au-burn hair set fire to that green and when she moved--which she did even when she didn't--I felt like that Roman of Nero's time at the feast where the naked princess stepped out of the pie with a snake in her teeth.
Leda moved over to the porch screen and looked down. "I've seen that fellow before. He's been hanging around out here, with someone else. Just lately."
"Probably delivers other cars, baby."
I went over and stood beside her. The big fellow was just coming down the outside hospital steps. He joined a smaller man and they went on down and sat on a stone bench to wait for the bus. The smaller one had carrot-colored hair and even from this distance a sharp, bright-eyed face. He was pale and middle-aged.
"We've got the car," I told Leda. "There she is. Like it?"
She turned, slid her arms up around my neck. "Anything would do. I'll run along now. You can say good-by and meet me at my place this afternoon."
"I love you so damned much," she said. "Because you're going to be a great sculptor and because you're just a little nutty. And, of course, you're going to be very, very rich." She hesitated. "Eric, why don't we get married here before we leave? Then we wouldn't have to hide...."
"We don't hide," I said. "You know that. Make believe. It's all right this way, for now. We'll be married as soon as we get home." I didn't tell her I couldn't take the chance until I knew more about myself. I wanted her as my wife but we'd have to wait for a while.
She poked the fingers of her right hand under my belt, twiddled them. "All right."
I laughed, pulled her close. For a moment she was quite still. "This way," I told her, "you'll be able to make sure I get all that dough."
Her body moved against me and she wasn't breathing. Then she did breathe. Right up against my throat. Hot breath and warm, damp lips. "Yes," she said. "Yes, that's right."
A psycho case back in the ward cursed monotonously, then screamed with laughter.
Leda was staying at a place in San Fernando Valley. She had lived in California for some time but only at the Veterans Hospital. She wanted a short chance to view the trade. She had it. She seemed not to care for it. A ranch-type hotel, catering to anyone who had a buck and a babe to spend it on. It also carried babes without bucks and lonesome bucks looking for babes. The Dark Mesa was just that. It overflowed with eucalyptus, green grass shaved so it just tickled your ankles like an expensive deep-napped carpet, and vine-covered, meandering, low-roofed, alley-wayed, muted rooms with all their views on the inside. It was trellised, fenced, scalloped, walled securely, and when you entered the front door into what was probably the lobby, you got a feeling.
I located Leda's hideout. She had two rooms and they were heavy like everything else at the Dark Mesa. It was built to appeal to the senses. The same way Leda was. I somehow distrusted her living here. But it hadn't been for long and I'd seen her most of the time. She was so completely frank about everything, there was probably no reason for my distrust. If Leda slept with any of the bell-hops she'd have told me. It was a rotten way to think, but that was her way.
"You took long enough, Eric. I'm all packed."
There were two suitcases by the door. I hadn't expected this.
"Yeah." She stepped closer. She was wearing a lemon-yellow terry-cloth robe belted tight at the waist. Her auburn hair was thick and mussed and her eyes were oily, full of sleepy sunshine. Her skin was that way, too, and her lips melted. In a way I would always hate that, hate her--for being drawn to her the way I was. I didn't want to let her go from my arms. Her body was vibrant, lush beneath the robe and the warmth from her body reached me. I felt every full line of her pressed against me, through the robe. She pressed hard. She worked at it and sometimes it was as if she fought--like you'd mash two pieces of clay together, grinding them together.
"You like that," she said.
I squeezed her waist harder and harder. Her eyes fogged and she started breathing through her teeth, hissing her breath in and out, arching backward with the pain. "That's enough!" she said. "Stop, Eric!" Her voice was full of anxiety now.
I quit, swallowed, searched inside me for the patience every man is forced to be born with. I located enough to grin and take her hands.
"Why are you packed?"
Her shoulders still trembled with the ragged breathing. She cocked her head, tipped her lips nervously with her tongue.
"We said we'd stay here for a while."
"I want to leave," she answered.
"Mean find someplace else?"
"No. I mean let's head for home."
She nodded. "Uh-huh."
It was quiet for a time. I couldn't think of what to say. We'd planned staying here for a time. The moments we'd snatched together on the hospital grounds were just that--moments. Hot and anxious in the shadows.
"Figured we'd stay on a bit."
She turned, walked away, whirled back again. "I want to go, Eric. Baby's been standing still too long." Her eyelids closed. "Can't explain it. I just want to go."
"Well, O. K." I took her in my arms. "You nervous or something?"
"No. I want to be with you--just with you." Her voice was way down in her throat someplace, almost a whisper. "If we stay here, we'll never get away. We'll stay and stay. You know we will."
"I see what you mean."
"Then we'll leave tonight." She smiled and I began to wonder if she had something on her mind. Something might be bothering her. Sometimes a woman will go so far with a fetching idea, then scare herself off. It's called seeing the light. They seldom realize they mentally manufacture that light themselves.
Leda hadn't been like that. She wasn't the kind to scare easily. She lounged on the arm of a chair and wrinkled up the corners of her eyes. "Did he scare you? Prescott, I mean?"
"No." I slumped in the chair and pulled her onto my lap. The robe fell apart over her long thighs. It hit me like always, that white flesh. The smell of her, the feel of her, full and urgent. She wriggled in my lap, fumbled the robe together.
"Prescott does that sometimes," she said. "When a man leaves the hospital. He thinks they'll remember better if they're scared."
"I doubt it." Her hair smelled good. I buried my face in it, kissed her throat. She made a noise of content, but her voice was a shade too loud.
"You aren't scared, are you, Eric?"
"I mean about--yourself."
Outside a car hissed up the gravel drive and white light reflected in diminishing convolutions through the heavily draped Venetian blinds.
"Doesn't it frighten you at all that you're going to see your brother? That you're free and on the outside again? Did you feel all right driving over here from the hospital?"
I didn't want to look at her. I couldn't hate her for asking these things, yet something twisted tightly inside me. It had always been that way with Leda. Drawn, yet repelled. I loved her. Yet in some ways I hated her. I hated her possibly for the same reasons I loved her. Something inside both of us met with sharp necessity, yet clashed. I wanted to tell her how crazy it all was. That I was as free of any cracked obsessions as she.
I could never actually hurt her physically, though sometimes it came close to that. But sometimes I was compelled to hurt her with words. I knew she wanted to marry, but I had to put it off until I was sure of myself. And once more I thought, We're a damned odd pair.
"That why you want to leave? Frightened of me?"
"Yeah. What's that supposed to mean?"
"I was wondering, that's all."
It was funny. Things like that came out, and I know that sometimes I hurt her--just with words.
She took my face in both her hands and blinked at me. Her eyes were very large, concerned, her mouth slightly open. Her chin bunched. "Don't let's fight."
"Think I'm going to crown you?"
"With a wooden mallet?" She smiled.
"You've been talking with Prescott."
I was disgusted with myself for doing this but I couldn't stop. I was worried, plenty, and everything was jumbled in my mind.
"You told me all this, Eric."
"Did you talk with Prescott?" I heard the anger in my voice. I was ashamed of it, but it was there. It was what I felt. I couldn't rid myself of it. It would take time, like Prescott said. Only I half believed he had suggested eight-tenths of my worry to me. It was up to me to rid myself of it. Let it wear itself out. Or become conscious that it was never there in the first place. "Did you?"
"He called me in. Yes."
"Great. What'd he tell you to do?" I stood, dragged her up with me. I walked across the room, sat on the divan in front of the fireplace.
Somehow, touching her, being close to her, it was impossible to talk. She hadn't moved. She stood with her back to me, the long lines of her body showing even through the robe, somehow dissolving the cloth; the supple waist, the flare of hip, the broad curve of shoulder.
"He tell you to watch out?" I said. I realized what I was saying and I didn't like it. My voice went on just the same--harsh, filled with bitterness. "He tell you to get hold of him if I acted funny? Did he?"
She shook her head, not moving, with her back still toward me.
"He tell you I was dangerous, apt to do wild things? He warn you to stay away from me--or what?"
She whirled, came across the room, sat down beside me. I got a crazy thought. Maybe she was being paid to do this--part of her job. Maybe she was just seeing me home....
Excitement was in her voice. "No, Eric. Please don't. You're hurting me and you're hurting yourself. I simply talked with Prescott. He wanted to know more about your plans, our plans. You're so closemouthed."
"It's no business of his."
"He's concerned, Eric."
I nodded. "Concerned. Thinks I'll do some damn fool thing."
"You're acting like a child."
I kept silent.
"He has a right. So've I. We want you well."
"I am well."
"But, darling, you still dream those horrible dreams. Now, listen. We'll be married soon, and you know I love you."
"You want to be sure I won't kill my brother when I see him, don't you? You wouldn't want to be hooked up with a murderer. Damn it, Leda. Nothing's wrong with me."
"All right, darling." She came against me like a flame draws to your hand. "Now I'm going to dress. You're going to sit here and think. We're not going to be like this any more."
She rose, swung into her bedroom. She blew me a kiss as she closed the door. It was like she'd swung her hip against me. I heard her humming in there and I sat on the couch and knew how wrong I was to take off like that, blow up inside.
So much of what I thought was Leda could be my imagination. There was no evil in her. Not the kind of evil you'd think of, anyway. She was pent up. Her nature was like the heat that hesitates along the top of a blast furnace. Withering, hot, molten--anxious to consume. To consume was her nature. It was in her walk, in the way she moved her lips, in the motions of her hands--in fact, of her whole body. Yet it seemed unconscious on her part. I tried to read conscious movement into it. But when I thought about it, I knew it was nothing but instinct. Perhaps Leda was more like her mother than she thought.
I wondered plenty about myself, too. What was going to happen when I returned? There was the loan business my father had left. Frank was running that now. I wanted to get back and get some money. I needed money bad. Because with money I could go on with my sculptoring. That, and now Leda were the important things in my life. I wanted to do a nude of Leda in stone. Maybe then I'd have her--cold and warm at the same time.
And me. What about me? What was going to happen to me? Because there was always that void between sleep and waking. For the long moments after I woke up, after dreaming, it seemed as real--the wooden mallet, Frank, everything--as it seemed that blood-and-thunder day back in Korea.
Leda and I had met close to a year ago. I was in bed all the time then, unable to get around. I had a private room at the far end of the ward and Leda was helping out at the library. She wheeled the cart of books around, for bed patients.
There were trees out beyond my window and some hills, and if I rolled and propped myself on my side I could see pretty well. The room was small and out there it was small too, only in a different way. It was a place composed of the region within my sight. It was good to see it at all. The four walls of the room were bare except for a religious painting at the head of the bed and that single window with the sky blue, gray, white, pale, dark with rain or with the unrebellious succession of days, and the green.
I was in a far wing of the hospital so there were no buildings in sight, only the voluptuous unreality beyond the pane of glass; unreal because I wondered then if I would ever be there again--where it was. A kind of through-the-looking-glass thing, though not backward. And between the myriad procession of hospital events, the time-clocked meals, needles, blood-pressure and pulse counts; "We'll take off the dressing. There, that wasn't so bad, was it?"; nights of dreams; Prescott's first visits, "You don't dream?", the lies; "Ah, so you do dream?", the truths at last, "A wooden mallet!"; the bedpans, the changing of sheets, shave, wash, brush your teeth, the toenails clipped, scar-tissue, haircut, the occasional scream of agonized sound purling across the thick night, and worst of all the first realization that that last scream was you--during the time between I would look out the window. It was always fine and better than any movie or play. It never became monotonous. Once in a while people passed out there, though seldom, and I speculated as to what they did in life; the fat, the slim, the quick, the weary. I speculated and dreamed and thought intensely about my sculptoring and of how much I needed it, how I wanted to return to it. Because thinking about it grounded you somehow, made things real again. And I watched the skies change and the clouds and the winds in the trees out the window.
Then one day my door opened.
"Hi! How'd you like something to read?"
"Thanks. Never mind." I hadn't looked. That door had previously brought nothing to me but a minor or major agony. This could be nothing else.
"Well, have a look, anyway."
I heard the door swing wide and wheels running--one with a squeak--and crepe-soled shoes and the hiss of a nylon dress against what I suddenly saw was female flesh. The cart was piled high with books, with tabs sticking out of them, and magazines. That's what she'd meant for me to look at. I looked at her. She was something to watch.
There she was. My fate stood right there in the door with the books in the cart and looked at me out of still blue eyes. A fate that was going to be mixed up with death, murder, money, and hell. A lush red-lipped fate with thick auburn hair and long legs in a white dress which seemed to have been spun across her body.
Maybe I didn't think anything right then. Except that she was something real. You didn't have to look hard to see it.
"They say you haven't had any books," she said. "I thought you might like some." Her voice was soft, yet there was a rasping quality to it. An exciting voice. Her eyes were very steady.
I raised to my elbows, pushed back against the pillows. Something tore in my back and hurt like hell, but she was morphine.
It was a day in May, about three o'clock in the after-noon, and it began raining when she opened the door.
I hadn't said anything and she looked embarrassed. Her face colored up. When she started to turn the cart through the door, it caught on her skirt.
"Don't go," I said. "I might like something."
She was dubious now. But it was easier at that moment to let me see the books on the cart than to wheel the cart out the door. She half smiled and pressed her hair away from her face with both hands. It was a gesture I would often see and remember for the rest of my life. There was something in that gesture that made you want to sink your hands into that hair. As she moved closer to the bed I realized her eyes had changed from blue to gray. A cold gray, like wet black slate. Her mouth was broad, full-lipped, her body long and willowy with deep breasts, and she was very much alive. The blue returned to her eyes.
"What would you like to read?" Her voice was rusty. That was it.
"I don't know."
She smiled. "Lots of detective stories."
"That's good." I wasn't thinking. Not about books.
"Mysteries pass the time."
"Have you found that?"
"Well, sometimes I read them." She looked out the window. I saw that her eyelids were heavy. I thought then it was from overwork. It wasn't. I learned that later. It was natural with her. Her lids were dark. It wasn't eye shadow, either. It came from something inside her. Those heavy dark lids with the blue eyes were sure something.
Somebody opened the ward door down the hall and the draft caused my door to slam. She said, "Oh," and looked at the door. "I'm not supposed to be in here." She said it like she didn't give a damn.
There was a long silence. Maybe she was trying to be serious but there was always that twist at the corners of her lips.
"Are you hurt badly?"
"No. Are you a nurse here?"
"I've been here since before Korea."
"Why don't you sit down?"
"Oh, no." She had moved a scant inch toward the bed. "I've got to go."
"I'll think of some books I want."
"Do that. I'll come back tomorrow."
We looked at each other. "Let's cut this out," I said. "Let's relax."
"It's been a strain, hasn't it?"
We told each other our names. She knew mine. "The doctor told me. He also said you're interested in sculptoring."
"Yes." I didn't like to talk about that with anybody. It was the only thing I had, really. I wanted to keep it my own--all the way.
"Have you done any recently?"
"Before you went away?"
"Commercial stuff, mostly. My home's in Florida. I have a place there where I work." I thought it over. "You could sit down. I haven't talked with a woman for a long time."
"Ah." She watched the rain out the window. It was darkening in the room now as the late afternoon slowly failed. "My father was an artist," she said. Her voice was touched with bitterness. "He hung himself. I found him that way, with the light cord twisted around his neck."
It startled me. They didn't talk like that around this part of the hospital.
"That why you're a nurse?"
"No." She stared at me, her eyes bright. "I planned it. I became a nurse so I could find some rich man, a helpless patient, and make him fall in love with me. Then I'd marry him for his money."
"Have you found him?"
Her dress hissed as she moved her leg. "No. I guess not." She told me her hitch would be up in less than a year. After she left I lay in bed and thought about her and knew she was going to get in bed with me. She had the look and that current was there between us. Then I decided I was off my nut and finally I went to sleep.
I awoke in a strait jacket.
It was the dream again. I had Frank up against the wall with one hand driving into his throat. The wooden mallet was in my other hand. I pounded at his head. He kept screaming. I heard him scream and scream as I woke up--only I was screaming.
I was in the hall outside my room. My fist was hurt bad from smacking it on the wall. They were tightening the straps.
"Look," Leda said one day. "You'll find out anyway. Dr. Prescott's made me a kind of special nurse to you. He thought it might do you good."
She put the books down on the table by the head of the bed and stood there with her hands clasped in front of her. Her breasts thrust large and firm in a white lace brassiere. I glimpsed the shadow of flesh through the nylon uniform. Her eyes were deep blue and the light from the bed lamp shimmered in her hair. "We may as well learn to be frank and open with each other right away."
"It's a good way to be."
She looked at me sharply, then turned and sat in the chair by the window, crossing her legs. They were long gorgeous legs and the low-heeled crepe-soled shoes somehow enhanced them. In high heels her legs would be of the same impossibility of a Petty drawing. Only they'd be real. That would be something and she knew it.
"I know all about you," she said.
"That's not so good."
"Come and sit beside me on the bed."
She uncrossed her legs and said, "I can't."
"Somebody might come." She made it sound like a caress. It was that unconscious trait of hers. Sometimes when she talked and moved she kissed you with her whole body. Maybe it was the tone of her voice. I wasn't sure.
"Come on," I said. "Be frank and open."
She glanced toward the door. It was very quiet. The staff would be eating and the room was dim, with only the bed light on. She came over and sat on the edge of the bed and said, "There."
It was suddenly very much more than I'd expected. When she was that near the true feeling of it struck me and I reached for her hand. I made it as much of a gesture of instinct as I could.
We sat there holding hands. It was abruptly ludicrous and I let go. She moved closer to me and said, "It's all right. I think I know how you feel." It was almost a whisper.
Leda was from a good family that had no money. They'd put her through the best schools on their name. She was a wild one and she showed it. A suppressed, combustible wildness. She was the type you might wonder about having a knife sheathed in the rim of her stocking. But you'd want to look, anyway. She seemed greatly interested in art, but had the idea people would kill art. They would kill the artist and he didn't have a chance. Through ignorance, through wanting something other than what the artist had to offer.
"I don't like persons like you," she said. "Because I saw it happen to father. All the fine things he did went into the furnace. They heated the front parlor."
"You've got to have money."
Her father had hung himself, and her mother had gone to Germany before the war and joined the Nazi party for excitement. She'd been a fancy collaborator and had her own radio broadcast on a par with Axis Sally. She'd died in the explosion when the station was bombed. Leda rather lauded her mother.
"Really all right," Leda said. "Misplaced, that's all." So then she got her ideas about nursing and here she was, a First Lieutenant in the Army. That was her story.
"Help me fix the pillows so I can sit up."
"You feel strong tonight?" God, the way she said these things.
She stood beside the bed and leaned over me to fix the pillows. I put my arms around her and drew her down and kissed her. I put a lot of pressure into that kiss, holding her down against me, and she started to let go. I knew that when she did let go, put herself into the kiss, it was going to be something. Her lips trembled and her breasts were against me and her hair formed a kind of tent over my face. We were in the tent together and it smelled good.
She fixed the pillows. I sat up against them.
"It was a trick," she said. "You shouldn't have done it." Her lids were still heavy. But beneath those lids the blue of her eyes had changed to gray. She walked over to the door. "Enjoy yourself."
She went out. The door closed quietly and I heard her crepe-soled shoes whisking down the hall.
I lay there and thought about home with Leda all mixed up in it, her eyes, lips, and body drowning in the daydream. Because I was afraid of sleep--afraid of the real dream.
There was Lenny Conn. I wondered if he had changed; if he was still living on the bayou, fishing, and mowing lawns. Did he still live in that shack with the pictures on the walls? And the flat glass cases shelved in the mahogany cabinet he'd made. Like collecting butterflies. Only they weren't butterflies. And I wondered where that subtle perversion of his had led him. Women. Lenny Conn and his collection about which even the law could do nothing. Lenny. Not very old and not very smart, of backwoods heritage--but cruel. Cruel as the person who tears the wings off flies and watches them squirm is cruel. Lenny Conn, whom I had known most of my life, who had once been a conductor on a Pullman train, who loved women in the blind groping darkness of a fantastic wish, and who mowed our lawn and trimmed our hedges. Wily, at times inscrutable, clever and secret and laughable. Lenny along the shoals in a skiff with a gig in his hand, watching for flounder. Lenny, who was unable to comprehend why the Garths lived in a huge old pillared home with live oaks and drives and misery when he thirsted out his days in a scorpion-infested shack with his cryptic, startling collection.
Whenever I thought of home I had to push away the memory of another girl. Norma. My girl. It was like denying your name. I hadn't written her and she no longer wrote. I wondered if she still wanted to open a photography shop, if she still thought of me, if she would be there, when and if I returned. And thinking of Norma, the circle would flash around, completing itself with Leda. Invariably I would compare them--then think of Leda's breasts and thighs outlined beneath white nylon, in a savage effort to forget the girl who'd said she would wait. Because you do those things....
My light was out and it was past two in the morning. I heard the door open, the hiss of movement, and I smelled her bending over me. I felt her breath on my cheek.
"You're awake. Don't trick me again."
"I'm sorry," she said softly. "It's just that they all try. I didn't want that from you."
"I'm special?" I needed her and knew it. She had become the something I had to have to endure, to flash back out of the hell I was in.
"I think you're special. I'm not sure yet."
"How long will it be before you're sure?"
I listened to her breathe and it was dark in the room. Her breathing was like her voice. It was very still and lonely and cool in the room with the wind outside the window and the shadows on the wall and her shadow beside the bed. It was always like that in the hospital at night; cool and lonely and very still and the room was longer, high-walled, and sometimes not secure.
I reached for her hand, found it, and she moved toward me. We kissed and this time it was all the way with her giving, then we parted, our breathing warm and nervous and shaking.
"Listen," she said. "We'll have to be careful."
"Don't go." I held her waist, felt the swell of her breasts, the fine line of her waist. I could see the outline of her long legs and how her hips flared. She put her hands over mine, pressing. "Please don't go, Leda."
She went out softly and closed the door. But it was as if she were still in the room and I was sweating beneath the dressings.
She came often every day then. We would talk and occasionally she read to me. I didn't read any of the books.
"But it's all right, darling," she said. "I don't mind bringing you books. Maybe sometime you'll want to read them."
"With you? Who wants to read if he has you?"
It was getting so I couldn't stand it when she came close, or when we kissed. I needed her around, too, because it was worse now when she wasn't with me. I thought too much about Frank and what was the matter with me. I kept remembering Mother alone with Frank, unwell and unable. Normally she could handle Frank, anybody--but with her heart, I didn't know. And I never heard from her. I had ceased writing.
"You're big enough for a sculptor," Leda said. "Are you bold?"
"I don't know." Maybe she was the bold one.
"Have you ever loved anyone?"
"No." Norma's bright laughing face flashed across my mind. Why did I push her out?
"I'd be a liar if I told you I'd never loved anyone." It was in her eyes, like always.
"How do you feel today?"
"Mean as a snake."
"Yes," I said. "You. A bad dream of you."
I reached for her and her lips were soft and warm and my hands were in her hair and it was wild and hot.
You're not well," she said, sitting up.
I pulled her down. "I'm all right."
"You're not sick, or anything?"
"No. I'm fine. Don't go away."
"Eric," she said. "I love you. I knew it would happen this way. I didn't want it to." The excitement in her voice was rich and impatient. The rustling of her uniform was maddened. "I'll have to be careful of your legs."
"Hell with my legs."
"Tell me you love me," she said.
"I do. I love you."
"Say my name with it."
"I love you, Leda." I could feel it all welling up inside me like damming the Mississippi river.
"Tighter. Eric!" She sat up, frowned.
God, I thought, I did something wrong.
She stood, glanced sharply at me, then walked toward the door. Her crepe soles whisked heartlessly.
"Leda," I said. "Don't go. Where're you going?"
She didn't answer. She closed the door and I heard her going down the hall. You damned fool, I told myself. You did something. What the hell did you do? You've ruined it. That's how you ruin it. I cursed and smashed the bed with my fist.
Then suddenly I knew I loved her. I was in love with her. It was no good, but that's the way it was.
The walls of the room eventually grew smaller with darkness and I fought sleep because to fight sleep was to win out over the dream.
Daily we grew closer and I became stronger but she wouldn't come to bed. Because someone might come into the room. I knew I had to get well.
There was little mail from home. None from Mother, and Frank's letters few and addressed to Prescott. Whatever news they held for me was brusque. He said he had run the loan business into some money. My father's crazy dream. All I saw was Frank running out of money. Mother was close to death, Frank said. Any light shock could take her away.
Frank ignored my questions. Sometimes I wondered a bit insanely if he was alive, if I hadn't killed him after all. Maybe that's why I was in the hospital. At these times I needed Leda.
And all the time, night and day, I fought the dream. I had to leave the hospital, get to work, get back to my sculptoring. I wanted to do Leda in stone. Inch by inch I learned her body by hand. Her mind. She had crawled into my mind. She was insidious and she kept me on a cliff of desire.
Then I was up and around. Stronger. Making my visits to Prescott's office alone now. I used canes. The dreams were bad and I told Leda all about them.
She spoke of Frank. "I can't see what you hold against him. Looks to me more like a go-getter than you. Looks like he'll have plenty of money."
"Wish you'd get money out of your head, baby."
"I like money."
"What else do you like?"
She looked at me. "Not like. Would like."
It was Sunday afternoon and we had planned to spend it on the hospital grounds together. She met me outside the building. I had looked forward to this for a long time. Being with her, alone, out of sight of people. But I hadn't looked forward to what I got.
I still used two canes. But I walked all right and felt fine. I felt as if I could tear down a brick wall.
I knew the moment I saw her....
She was wearing a dress. Not a nurse's uniform. It was a black dress with a zipper all the way down the front in a fold of white. Her eyes were foggy and heavy-lidded and she wore high-heeled shoes and sheer nylons and her hair was thick and blinding.
"We'll walk over there," she said. She was urgent, almost grim.
I couldn't speak right. My throat was thick. I was all bunged up inside and ready to burst. She brushed against me and we looked at each other. Her eyes were hot and her lips damp. We walked on down across the lawn, the green softness, until we were in a thick copse of fir and the walls of the hospital were shielded from view.
"Leda," I said. I held her and dropped the canes. She moved her body against me. "Let's sit down," I said, and the ground was soft and warm with the sun up there and the shadows.
She was suddenly mute. There was an expression of intense anxiousness on her face. She stood beside me, looked down at me, her eyes burning. She dampened her lips with her tongue, reached for the zipper on her dress. Her hands shook. The zipper screamed and the dress opened as she came down toward me.
There was nothing beneath the dress. She kept staring at me, peeling off the dress, staring with that mute, terrific anxiousness.
I cursed her. She was a complete savage, bursting with passion, lustful, wanton, wild. At first it was like drinking hot red wine. Then the whole world shuddered and rocked, with the trees thick and mingled with her hair and the smell of it with the sunny shade, a dark blinding explosion.
She was absolutely mine. The dream.
"You planned this. Your clothes, everything," I said finally. I held her close and quiet. She nodded against me.
"Yes. I've been crazy inside. You've made me crazy. Darling, make me sane again."
Prescott, the dream, the attempt to uncover the why of the dream, the mostly failure, the realization at last that the hospital was no more help. Leda and the long waiting and now we were going home. My home. And I would face the dream.
"I'll be right with you," Leda told me from the bedroom of the Dark Mesa. "Quit thinking the wrong way."
"Don't be afraid."
That was easy to say....
She came out of the bedroom looking wonderful in a gray dress trimmed with gold, carrying a short coat. She shone all over.
She put the yellow robe in a suitcase along with some other things, then faced me, smiling. "I'm ready," she said.
I didn't move from the couch. I was scared way down inside. I felt like hell. Because things were coming closer and closer.
"Eric," she said. "You'll be all right. It's the getting started. This is your first day away from the regime."
"You'll be all right."
"O. K. I'll be fine." I rose, squeezed her hand. "You just want to start right now, without anything?"
Her luggage wasn't heavy, and as we walked outside into the fine summer day, Leda was beautiful and laughing. The car was new and bright and I was free and going home. It was just too good, that's all. It was just too good.