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The War of the Flowersby Tad Williams
THEO felt a small flutter of guilt as he turned the cell phone back on, especially when he noticed he'd left it off for more than two hours, and was relieved to see that there were no messages. He'd only meant to flick it off for a few minutes, just to make sure there were no interruptions while they were tuning-the young guys, especially Kris, the guitarist, got really pissy about that-but things had started happening and he'd forgotten.
Johnny stepped over the guitar cases spread across the living room rug like discarded cocoons and slid open the door to join him outside. The fog had come down the hill while they had been practicing; the fenced patio seemed an island in a cold, misty sea.
Jesus, San Francisco in March. He should have brought his jacket out. Might as well be in Minnesota. "Hey," he asked Johnny, "got a smoke?"
The drummer made a face and patted his shirt pocket, then his pants pockets. He was small but he had long, strong arms. With his paunch and his shaggy but balding head, the chest hair climbing out of his T-shirt collars, he always made Theo think of the soulful chimpanzees in that Englishwoman's documentaries.
When Johnny found the pack at last, he shook out one for Theo, then one for himself and lit it. "Man, you never have your own."
"Never buy any. I only smoke when I'm playing."
Johnny shook his head. "That's so typical, Vilmos-you always get the easy road. I'm an addict, you only smoke when you want to-like, when you're around me. I'll probably be the one who gets cancer, too."
"Probably." Theo considered calling home, but he was going to be leaving in a few minutes anyway. Still, Cat was very deep into I'm-pregnant-and-I-want-to-know-where-you-are mode ... He felt another rippie of guilt and couldn't decide what to do. He stared at the phone, as perplexed as if it were an artifact of a vanished civilization.
"Your old lady leave a message?" Johnny was the only one in the band who was Theo's age but he talked like he was even older, unashamedly using words like "chicks" and "hip." Theo had actually heard him say "out of sight" once, but he had sworn later he was being ironic. Johnny was also the only one who'd even understand something as archaic as phoning home. Kris and Dano and Morgan were in that early-twenties stage where they just paged their girlfriends to announce when they were dropping by after practice to have sex.
"Nah. I gotta get going, anyway."
Johnny flipped his cigarette over the fence and out into the street, a tiny shooting star. "Just listen to the playback on 'Feast,' first. You don't want Kris's asshole to get any more puckered than it already is, do you?" He smiled deep in his beard and started peeling off the athletic tape he wrapped around his knuckles before playing because he bashed them against the rims so hard. Theo thought that he'd rather have scars than the pink, hairless patches that striped Johnny's hairy hands, but Johnny was a seemingly permanently single guy who hadn't had a date in months, so he didn't worry much about things like that.
Theo did. He was seriously considering whether it was time to cut his moderately long brown hair. It was bad enough to have turned thirty and still be singing in garage bands without looking like an aging stoner, too.
As it turned out, Theo spent at least another half an hour listening to the demo tracks they had recorded for "Feast of Fools," a sort of high-Goth processional that Kris had written, and over which the guitarist fussed like a neurotic chef preparing for an important dinner party. He had more than a few irritating things to say about Theo's vocal, wanting more rasp in it, more of an air of menace, the kind of melodrama that Theo didn't much like.
On their last listen, as Kris bobbed his close-cropped head to his own music, his expression oddly combining pleasure and pain, Theo had a sudden flash of insight: He's going to want to do the vocal on this himself-that's where this is going. And even though I'm a hundred times better, eventually he's going to get his confidence and want to do all the lead vocals himself And that'll be it for me with this band.
He wasn't certain how he felt about that. On the one hand, much as he admired the young guys' playing and Kris Rolle's musical ideas, it wasn't anything like his ideal band. For a start, he hated the name-The Mighty Clouds of Angst. It was clumsy. Worse, it was a joke name, playing off a famous gospel group, The Mighty Clouds of Joy. Theo believed firmly that joke names equaled joke bands, the Beatles notwithstanding. Plus, it just irritated him. Kris, Morgan, and Dano weren't even old enough to remember The Mighty Clouds of Joy, so why pick that as a name to parody? It smacked a little of white suburban boys making fun of earnest, religious black people, and that made Theo uncomfortable. But if he ever mentioned it, he knew they'd just show him that fishlike stare they had perfected, the all-purpose defense against hopelessly uncool parents and teachers, and he would feel even older than he did.
So when dial I wind up on the wrong side of that particular line?
He eased on his ancient leather jacket and bummed another smoke off John for the road-or for borne, rather, since it was pretty hard to smoke while wearing a motorcycle helmet. He looked around, feeling like he was leaving something behind. Lead singers didn't carry much in the way of equipment. The mikes and PA belonged to Morgan and Kris. Theo could walk away from the Clouds as easily as he was strolling out the door tonight. If he was good at anything, it was leaving when things got too weird.
If he did get forced out, would Johnny quit too? Theo wasn't sure how he felt about that. This was the third band he'd played in with Johnny Battistini, following the obligatory should-have-made-it-big disaster in which they'd met and the horrible cover band in which they'd marked time until hooking up with Kris and company. Theo wouldn't mind the downtime of looking for another gig, and God knew Catherine would be happy to have him home some nights, especially with the baby coming, but o1' Johnny B. didn't have a lot else going on in his life. Besides his record store job and the Clouds, in fact, John was pretty much the kind of guy advertisers made fun of but who kept their clients in business-an amiable lump who lived on take-out food, rented porn movies in bunches, and watched wrestling by himself.
Kris looked up from yet another playing of "Feast of Fools" as Theo reached the door. "You going?" He sounded irritated. Kris had gray eyes like a sky before a storm, the kind of eyes in which teenage girls probably saw things that weren't really there at all.
No, Theo wanted to say. No, I'm going to hang around here and stay up all night smoking dope and marveling at my own brilliance, just like you guys, because I've got nothing better to do and nobody on my ass about when I come home.
"Can't stay," he said instead. "I've got a pregnant girlfriend, remember?" And for a self-righteous moment he almost forgot he had left the phone off for two hours.
Kris rolled his eyes, dismissing the entire unimaginably boring subject, then punched the buttons on the DAT deck with his long fingers, rewinding the tape to listen to his feedback-heavy solo again. Morgan and Dano bobbed their heads once each in Theo's direction, which he assumed was to save the energy of waving. John smiled at him, sharing the joke, although unlike Theo he was going to stay and hang out with these kids a decade younger than himself, sharing bong hits and loose talk about a hypothetical first album until one of two in the morning. "Stay loose, Thee," he called.
Theo's ancient Yamaha started on the first kick. It seemed like a good sign.
The bedroom light was out but the television was flickering behind the blinds, which meant Catherine was probably still up. Even though she hadn't tried to call him, he had a feeling she wouldn't be too happy with him coming in after midnight. Theo hesitated, then sat down on the porch steps to smoke the cigarette Johnny had given him. The streetlamps made little pools of light down the sidewalk that ran in front of the dark houses. It was a quiet neighborhood in the Western Addition, a working neighborhood, full of people who watched Letterman or Leno through the opening monologue and then switched off because they had to be up early. A wind sent leaves rattling and rolling up the street.
I'm dying here, he thought suddenly. I don't belong here.
He had surprised himself. If not here, then where? What was he going to find that was any better? It was true that he never felt quite alive except when he was singing, making music-he often had the disturbing feeling that in his job, his conversations, even sometimes being with Cat, he was just going through the motions-but he felt sure he was past the childish dreams of being a rock star. He would be happy just to play club dates in front of live human beings every few weeks. No, this was what he wanted, wasn't it-a house, a grown-up life? It was certainly what Catherine Lillard wanted, and he wanted her. He'd been with her for almost two years. That was nearly forever, wasn't it? Practically married, even before they'd received the test results.
Theo walked across the tiny lawn to the sidewalk and flicked his cigarette into the gutter, then went inside. The television was on, but there was only a tangled blanket in Cat's usual curling-up spot on the couch.
"Hey, honey? Cat?" The kitchen was dark, but it smelled like she'd been cooking: there was a weird, spicy scent in the air, something both sweet and a little sickening. The windows were open and it was a nice March night, but the air inside the small house felt as close as if a thunderstorm were moving in.
"Cat? It's me." He shrugged. Maybe she'd gone to bed and left the television on. He wandered down the hall and saw that the light was on in the bathroom, but that was nothing unusual-Cat hated fumbling for the switch when she was half-awake of barking her shin in the dark on something left in the hall. He took little notice of the bundle on the floor against the far bathroom wall. It was the red smears on the side of the tub that caught his eye instead, weirdly vivid against the porcelain. He pushed the door all the way open.
It took perhaps two full seconds to realize what he was seeing, the longest two seconds he had ever experienced, a sideways lurch of reality as disorienting as a hallucination. Blood was smeared across the bathroom floor behind the door, too, screamingly scarlet under the fluorescents. Cat's terrycloth bathrobe, rolled somehow into a huge lump and flung against the wall near the toilet, was soaked in it as well.
"Oh my God ..." he said.
The bathrobe shuddered and rolled over, revealing Catherine's pale face. Her skin was like a white paper mask except for the bloody fingerprints on both cheeks-her own, as he found out later. But for a moment he could only stare, his chest clamped in crushing shock, his brain shrilling murder murder murder over and over.
He was right. But he didn't find that out until later, either. Much later.
Cat's eyes found his face, struggled to focus. A parched whisper: "Theo ...?"
"My God, my God, what happened? Are you ...?"
Her throat convulsed so powerfully he thought she was going to vomit-he had a terrible image of blood gushing out of her mouth like a fountain. The ragged sound that leaped from her instead was so horribly raw and ragged that he could not at first understand the words.
He was down on his knees in the sopping fingerpainted mess of the bathroom floor, the slick, sticky scarlet-where had it all come from, all this red wetness? He was trying to help her up, panicking, an idiot voice telling him Don't move her, she's an accident victim, but he didn't know what had happened, what could have possibly have happened, did someone get in ...? Then suddenly he understood.
"I lost it!" she moaned, more clear now that there was almost no air left in the cry. "Oh, Jesus, I lost the baby!"
He was halfway across the house to the phone when he realized his own cell phone was in his pocket. He called 911 and gave them the address while simultaneously trying to wrap towels around the outside of her bathrobe, as though she were some immense wound that needed to be held together. She was crying, but it made almost no sound.
When he had finished he held her tightly against him, waiting to hear the sound of the paramedics at the door.
"Where were you?" Her eyes were shut and she was shivering. "Where were you?"
Hospitals were like T. S. Eliot poems, somehow-well-lit wastelands, places of quiet talk that could not quite hide the terrible things going on behind the doors. Even when he went out to the lobby to stretch his legs, to walk off some of the horrible, helpless tension, he felt like he was pacing through a mausoleum.
Cat's blood loss had not been as mortal as Theo had felt it must be. Some of the mess had been amniotic fluid and splashed water from the hot bath she had taken when the cramps first started becoming painful. The doctors talked calmly to him of premature rupture of membranes, of possible uterine abnormalities, but it might have been Byzantine religious ritual for all his poleaxed brain could make of it. Catherine Lillard slept most of the first ten hours, face pale as a picture-book princess, IVs jacked into both arms. When she opened her eyes at last, she seemed like a stranger.
Copyright © 2003 by Tad Williams
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