THE CHANGED MAN (Chpater One)
EUMENIDES IN THE FOURTH FLOOR LAVATORY
LIVING IN A fourth-floor walkup was part of his revenge, as if to say to Alice, “Throw me out of the house, will you? Then I’ll live in squalor in a Bronx tenement, where the toilet is shared by four apartments! My shirts will go unironed, my tie will be perpetually awry. See what you’ve done to me?”
But when he told Alice about the apartment, she only laughed bitterly and said, “Not anymore, Howard. I won’t play those games with you. You win every damn time.”
She pretended not to care about him anymore, but Howard knew better. He knew people, knew what they wanted, and Alice wanted him. It was his strongest card in their relationship—that she wanted him more than he wanted her. He thought of this often: at work in the offices of Humboldt and Breinhardt, Designers; at lunch in a cheap lunchroom (part of the punishment); on the subway home to his tenement (Alice had keptthe Lincoln Continental). He thought and thought about how much she wanted him. But he kept remembering what she had said the day she threw him out: If you ever come near Rhiannon again I’ll kill you.
He could not remember why she had said that. Could not remember and did not try to remember because that line of thinking made him uncomfortable and one thing Howard insisted on being was comfortable with himself. Other people could spend hours and days of their lives chasing after some accommodation with themselves, but Howard was accommodated. Well adjusted. At ease. I’m OK, I’m OK, I’m OK. Hell with you. “If you let them make you feel uncomfortable,” Howard would often say, “you give them a handle on you and they can run your life.” Howard could find other people’s handles, but they could never find Howard’s.
It was not yet winter but cold as hell at three A.M. when Howard got home from Stu’s party. A must attend party, if you wished to get ahead at Humboldt and Breinhardt. Stu’s ugly wife tried to be tempting, but Howard had played innocent and made her feel so uncomfortable that she dropped the matter. Howard paid careful attention to office gossip and knew that several earlier departures from the company had got caught with, so to speak, their pants down. Not that Howard’s pants were an impenetrable barrier. He got Dolores from the front office into the bedroom and accused her of making life miserable for him. “In little ways,” he insisted. “I know you don’t mean to, but you’ve got to stop.”
“What ways?” Dolores asked, incredulous yet (because she honestly tried to make other people happy) uncomfortable.
“Surely you knew how attracted I am to you.”
“No. That hasn’t—that hasn’t even crossed my mind.”
Howard looked tongue-tied, embarrassed. He actually was neither. “Then—well, then, I was—I was wrong, I’m sorry, I thought you were doing it deliberately—”
“Snub—snubbing me—never mind, it sounds adolescent, just little things, hell, Dolores, I had a stupid schoolboy crush—”
“Howard, I didn’t even know I was hurting you.”
“God, how insensitive,” Howard said, sounding even more hurt.
“Oh, Howard, do I mean that much to you?”
Howard made a little whimpering noise that meant everything she wanted it to mean. She looked uncomfortable. She’d do anything to get back to feeling right with herself again. She was so uncomfortable that they spent a rather nice half hour making each other feel comfortable again. No one else in the office had been able to get to Dolores. But Howard could get to anybody.
He walked up the stairs to his apartment feeling very, very satisfied. Don’t need you, Alice, he said to himself. Don’t need nobody, and nobody’s who I’ve got. He was still mumbling the little ditty to himself as he went into the communal bathroom and turned on the light.
He heard a gurgling sound from the toilet stall, a hissing sound. Had someone been in there with the light off? Howard went into the toilet stall and saw nobody. Then looked closer and saw a baby, probably about two months old, lying in the toilet bowl. Its nose and eyes were barely above the water; it looked terrified, its legs and hips and stomach were down the drain. Someone had obviously hoped to kill it by drowning—it was inconceivable to Howard that anyone could be so moronic as to think it would fit down the drain.
For a moment he thought of leaving it there, with the big-city temptation to mind one’s own business even when to do so would be an atrocity. Saving this baby would mean inconvenience: calling the police, taking care of the child in his apartment, perhaps even headlines, certainly a night of filling out reports. Howard was tired. Howard wanted to go to bed.
But he remembered Alice saying, “You aren’t even human, Howard. You’re a goddam selfish monster.” I am not a monster, he answered silently, and reached down into the toilet bowl to pull the child out.
The baby was firmly jammed in—whoever had tried to kill it had meant to catch it tight. Howard felt a brief surge of genuine indignation that anyone could think to solve his problems by killing an innocent child. But thinking of crimes committed on children was something Howard was determined not to do, and besides, at that moment he suddenly acquired other things to think about.
As the child clutched at Howard’s arm, he noticed the baby’s fingers were fused together into flipperlike flaps of bone and skin at the end of the arm. Yet the flippers gripped his arms with an unusual strength as, with two hands deep in the toilet bowl, Howard tried to pull the baby free.
At last, with a gush, the child came up and the water finished its flushing action. The legs, too, were fused into a single limb that was hideously twisted at the end. The child was male; the genitals, larger than normal, were skewed off to one side. And Howard noticed that where the feet should be were two more flippers, and near the tips were red spots that looked like putrefying sores. The child cried, a savage mewling that reminded Howard of a dog he had seen in its death throes.(Howard refused to be reminded that it had been he who killed the dog by throwing it out in the street in front of a passing car, just to watch the driver swerve; the driver hadn’t swerved.)
Even the hideously deformed have a right to live, Howard thought, but now, holding the child in his arms, he felt a revulsion that translated into sympathy for whoever, probably the parents, had tried to kill the creature. The child shifted its grip on him, and where the flippers had been Howard felt a sharp, stinging pain that quickly turned to agony as it was exposed to the air. Several huge, gaping sores on his arm were already running with blood and pus.
It took a moment for Howard to connect the sores with the child, and by then the leg flippers were already pressed against his stomach, and the arm flippers already gripped his chest. The sores on the child’s flippers were not sores; they were powerful suction devices that gripped Howard’s skin so tightly that it ripped away when the contact was broken. He tried to pry the child off, but no sooner was one flipper free than it found a new place to hold even as Howard struggled to break the grip of another.
What had begun as an act of charity had now become an intense struggle. This was not a child, Howard realized. Children could not hang on so tightly, and the creature had teeth that snapped at his hands and arms whenever they came near enough. A human face, certainly, but not a human being. Howard threw himself against the wall, hoping to stun the creature so it would drop away. It only clung tighter, and the sores where it hung on him hurt more. But at last Howard pried and scraped it off by levering it against the edge of the toilet stall. It dropped to the ground, and Howard backed quickly away, on fire with the pain of a dozen or more stinging wounds.
It had to be a nightmare. In the middle of the night, in a bathroom lighted by a single bulb, with a travesty of humanity writhing on the floor, Howard could not believe that it had any reality.
Could it be a mutation that had somehow lived? Yet the thing had far more purpose, far more control of its body than any human infant. The baby slithered across the floor as Howard, in pain from the wounds on his body, watched in a panic of indecision. The baby reached the wall and cast a flipper onto it. The suction held and the baby began to inch its way straight up the wall. As it climbed, it defecated, a thin drool of green tracing down the wall behind it. Howard looked at the slime following the infant up the wall, looked at the pus-covered sores on his arms.
What if the animal, whatever it was, did not die soon of its terrible deformity? What if it lived? What if it were found, taken to a hospital, cared for? What if it became an adult?
It reached the ceiling and made the turn, clinging tightly to the plaster, not falling off as it hung upside down and inched across toward the light bulb.
The thing was trying to get directly over Howard, and the defecation was still dripping. Loathing overcame fear, and Howard reached up, took hold of the baby from the back, and, using his full weight, was finally able to pry it off the ceiling. It writhed and twisted in his hands, trying to get the suction cups on him, but Howard resisted with all his strength and was able to get the baby, this time headfirst, into the toilet bowl. He held it there until the bubbles stopped and it was blue. Then he went back to his apartment for a knife. Whatever the creature was, it had to disappear from the face of the earth. It had to die, and there had to be no sign left that could hint that Howard had killed it.
He found the knife quickly, but paused for a few moments to put something on his wounds. They stung bitterly, but in a while they felt better. Howard took off his shirt; thought a moment and took off all his clothes, then put on his bathrobe and took a towel with him as he returned to the bathroom. He didn’t want to get any blood on his clothes.
But when he got to the bathroom, the child was not in the toilet. Howard was alarmed. Had someone found it drowning? Had they, perhaps, seen him leaving the bathroom—or worse, returning with his knife? He looked around the bathroom. There was nothing. He stepped back into the hall. No one. He stood a moment in the doorway, wondering what could have happened.
Then a weight dropped onto his head and shoulders from above, and he felt the suction flippers tugging at his face, at his head. He almost screamed. But he didn’t want to arouse anyone. Somehow the child had not drowned after all, had crawled out of the toilet, and had waited over the door for Howard to return.
Once again the struggle resumed, and once again Howard pried the flippers away with the help of the toilet stall, though this time he was hampered by the fact that the child was behind and above him. It was exhausting work. He had to set down the knife so he could use both hands, and another dozen wounds stung bitterly by the time he had the child on the floor. As long as the child lay on its stomach, Howard could seize it from behind. He took it by the neck with one hand and picked up the knife with the other. He carried both to the toilet.
He had to flush twice to handle the flow of blood and pus. Howard wondered if the child was infected with some disease—the white fluid was thick and at least as great in volume as the blood. Then he flushed seven more times to take the pieces of the creaturedown the drain. Even after death, the suction pads clung tightly to the porcelain; Howard pried them off with the knife.
Eventually, the child was completely gone. Howard was panting with the exertion, nauseated at the stench and horror of what he had done. He remembered the smell of his dog’s guts after the car hit it, and he threw up everything he had eaten at the party. Got the party out of his system, felt cleaner; took a shower, felt cleaner still. When he was through, he made sure the bathroom showed no sign of his ordeal.
Then he went to bed.
It wasn’t easy to sleep. He was too keyed up. He couldn’t take out of his mind the thought that he had committed murder (not murder, not murder, simply the elimination of something too foul to be alive). He tried thinking of a dozen, a hundred other things. Projects at work—but the designs kept showing flippers. His children—but their faces turned to the intense face of the struggling monster he had killed. Alice—ah, but Alice was harder to think of than the creature.
At last he slept, and dreamed, and in his dream remembered his father, who had died when he was ten. Howard did not remember any of his standard reminiscences. No long walks with his father, no basketball in the driveway, no fishing trips. Those things had happened, but tonight, because of the struggle with the monster, Howard remembered darker things that he had long been able to keep hidden from himself.
“We can’t afford to get you a ten-speed bike, Howie. Not until the strike is over.”
“I know, Dad. You can’t help it.” Swallow bravely. “And I don’t mind. When all the guys go riding around after school, I’ll just stay home and get ahead on my homework.”
“Lots of boys don’t have ten-speed bikes, Howie.”
Howie shrugged, and turned away to hide the tears in his eyes. “Sure, lot of them. Hey, Dad, don’t you worry about me. Howie can take care of himself.”
Such courage. Such strength. He had got a ten-speed within a week. In his dream, Howard finally made a connection he had never been able to admit to himself before. His father had a rather elaborate ham radio setup in the garage. But about that time he had become tired of it, he said, and he sold it off and did a lot more work in the yard and looked bored as hell until the strike was over and he went back to work and got killed in an accident in the rolling mill.
Howard’s dream ended madly, with him riding piggyback on his father’s shoulders as the monster had ridden on him, tonight—and in his hand was a knife, and he was stabbing his father again and again in the throat.
He awoke in early morning light, before his alarm rang, sobbing weakly and whimpering, “I killed him, I killed him, I killed him.”
And then he drifted upward out of sleep and saw the time. Six-thirty. “A dream,” he said. And the dream had woken him early, too early, with a headache and sore eyes from crying. The pillow was soaked. “A hell of a lousy way to start the day,” he mumbled. And, as was his habit, he got up and went to the window and opened the curtain.
On the glass, suction cups clinging tightly, was the child.
It was pressed close, as if by sucking very tightly it would be able to slither through the glass without breaking it. Far below were the honks of early morning traffic, the roar of passing trucks: but the child seemed oblivious to its height far above the street, with no ledge to break its fall. Indeed, there seemed little chance it would fall. The eyes looked closely, piercingly at Howard.
Howard had been prepared to pretend that the night before had been another terribly realistic nightmare.
He stepped back from the glass, watched the child in fascination. It lifted a flipper, planted it higher, pulled itself up to a new position where it could stare at Howard eye to eye. And then, slowly and methodically, it began beating on the glass with its head.
The landlord was not generous with upkeep on the building. The glass with thin, and Howard knew that the child would not give up until it had broken through the glass so it could get to Howard.
He began to shake. His throat tightened. He was terribly afraid. Last night had been no dream. The fact that the child was here today was proof of that. Yet he had cut the child into small pieces. It could not possibly be alive. The glass shook and rattled with every blow the child’s head struck.
The glass slivered in a starburst from where the child had hit it. The creature was coming in. And Howard picked up the room’s one chair and threw it at the child, threw it at the window. Glass shattered and the sun dazzled on the fragments as they exploded outward like a glistening halo around the child and the chair.
Howard ran to the window, looked out, looked down and watched as the child landed brutally on the top of a large truck. The body seemed to smear as it hit, and fragments of the chair and shreds of glass danced around the child and bounced down into the street and the sidewalk.
The truck didn’t stop moving; it carried the broken body and the shards of glass and the pool of blood on up the street, and Howard ran to the bed, knelt beside it, buried his face in the blanket, and tried to regain control of himself. He had been seen. The people in the street had looked up and seen him in the window. Last night he had gone to great lengths to avoid discovery,but today discovery was impossible to avoid. He was ruined. And yet he could not, could never have let the child come into the room.
Footsteps on the stairs. Stamping up the corridor. Pounding on the door. “Open up! Hey in there!”
If I’m quiet long enough, they’ll go away, he said to himself, knowing it was a he. He must get up, must answer the door. But he could not bring himself to admit that he ever had to leave the safety of his bed.
“Hey, you son-of-a-bitch—” The imprecations went on but Howard could not move until, suddenly, it occurred to him that the child could be under the bed, and as he thought of it he could feel the tip of the flipper touching his thigh, stroking and ready to fasten itself—
Howard leaped to his feet and rushed for the door. He flung it wide, for even if it was the police come to arrest him, they could protect him from the monster that was haunting him.
It was not a policeman at the door. It was the man on the first floor who collected rent. “You son-of-a-bitch irresponsible pig-kisser!” the man shouted, his toupee only approximately in place. “That chair could have hit somebody! That window’s expensive! Out! Get out of here, right now, I want you out of this place, I don’t care how the hell drunk you are—”
“There was—there was this thing on the window, this creature—”
The man looked at him coldly, but his eyes danced with anger. No, not anger. Fear. Howard realized the man was afraid of him.
“This is a decent place,” the man said softly. “You can take your creatures and your booze and your pink stinking elephants and that’s a hundred bucks for the window, a hundred bucks right now, and you can get out of here in an hour, an hour, you hear? Or I’m calling the police, you hear?”
“I hear.” He heard. The man left when Howard counted out five twenties. The man seemed careful to avoid touching Howard’s hands, as if Howard had become, somehow, repulsive. Well, he had. To himself, if to no one else. He closed the door as soon as the man was gone. He packed the few belongings he had brought to the apartment in two suitcases and went downstairs and called a cab and rode to work. The cabby looked at him sourly, and wouldn’t talk. It was fine with Howard, if only the driver hadn’t kept looking at him through the mirror—nervously, as if he was afraid of what Howard might do or try. I won’t try anything, Howard said to himself, I’m a decent man. Howard tipped the cabby well and then gave him twenty to take his bags to his house in Queens, where Alice could damn well keep them for a while. Howard was through with the tenement—that one or any other.
Obviously it had been a nightmare, last night and this morning. The monster was only visible to him, Howard decided. Only the chair and the glass had fallen from the fourth floor, or the manager would have noticed.
Except that the baby had landed on the truck, and might have been real, and might be discovered in New Jersey or Pennsylvania later today.
Couldn’t be real. He had killed it last night and it was whole again this morning. A nightmare. I didn’t really kill anybody, he insisted. (Except the dog. Except Father, said a new, ugly voice in the back of his mind.)
Work. Draw lines on paper, answer phone calls, dictate letters, keep your mind off your nightmares, off your family, off the mess your life is turning into. “Hell of a good party last night.” Yeah, it was, wasn’t it? “How are you today, Howard?” Feel fine, Dolores, fine—thanks to you. “Got the roughs on the IBM thing?” Nearly, nearly. Give me another twenty minutes.“Howard, you don’t look well.” Had a rough night. The party, you know.
He kept drawing on the blotter on his desk instead of going to the drawing table and producing real work. He doodled out faces. Alice’s face, looking stern and terrible. The face of Stu’s ugly wife. Dolores’s face, looking sweet and yielding and stupid. And Rhiannon’s face.
But with his daughter Rhiannon, he couldn’t stop with the face.
His hand started to tremble when he saw what he had drawn. He ripped the sheet off the blotter, crumpled it, and reached under the desk to drop it in the wastebasket. The basket lurched, and flippers snaked out to seize his hand in an iron grip.
Howard screamed, tried to pull his hand away. The child came with it, the leg flippers grabbing Howard’s right leg. The suction pad stung, bringing back the memory of all the pain last night. He scraped the child off against a filing cabinet, then ran for the door, which was already opening as several of his co-workers tumbled into his office demanding, “What is it! What’s wrong! Why did you scream like that!”
Howard led them gingerly over to where the child should be. Nothing. Just an overturned wastebasket, Howard’s chair capsized on the floor. But Howard’s window was open, and he could not remember opening it. “Howard, what is it? Are you tired, Howard? What’s wrong?”
I don’t feel well. I don’t feel well at all.
Dolores put her arm around him, led him out of the room. “Howard, I’m worried about you.”
I’m worried, too.
“Can I take you home? I have my car in the garage downstairs. Can I take you home?”
Where’s home? Don’t have a home, Dolores.
“My home, then. I have an apartment, you need to lie down and rest. Let me take you home.”
Dolores’s apartment was decorated in early Holly Hobby, and when she put records on the stereo it was old Carpenters and recent Captain and Tennille. Dolores led him to the bed, gently undressed him, and then, because he reached out to her, undressed herself and made love to him before she went back to work. She was naively eager. She whispered in his ear that he was only the second man she had ever loved, the first in five years. Her inept lovemaking was so sincere it made him want to cry.
When she was gone he did cry, because she thought she meant something to him and she did not.
Why am I crying? he asked himself. Why should I care? It’s not my fault she let me get a handle on her …
Sitting on the dresser in a curiously adult posture was the child, carelessly playing with itself as it watched Howard intently. “No,” Howard said, pulling himself up to the head of the bed. “You don’t exist,” he said. “No one’s ever seen you but me.” The child gave no sign of understanding. It just rolled over and began to slither down the front of the dresser.
Howard reached for his clothes, took them out of the bedroom. He put them on in the living room as he watched the door. Sure enough, the child crept along the carpet to the living room; but Howard was dressed by then, and he left.
He walked the streets for three hours. He was coldly rational at first. Logical. The creature does not exist. There is no reason to believe in it.
But bit by bit his rationality was worn away by constant flickers of the creature at the edges of his vision. On a bench, peering over the back at him; in a shop window; staring from the cab of a milk truck. Howardwalked faster and faster, not caring where he went, trying to keep some intelligent process going on in his mind, and failing utterly as he saw the child, saw it clearly, dangling from a traffic signal.
What made it even worse was that occasionally a passerby, violating the unwritten law that New Yorkers are forbidden to look at each other, would gaze at him, shudder, and look away. A short European-looking woman crossed herself. A group of teenagers looking for trouble weren’t looking for him—they grew silent, let him pass in silence, and in silence watched him out of sight.
They may not be able to see the child, Howard realized, but they see something.
And as he grew less and less coherent in the ramblings of his mind, memories began flashing on and off, his life passing before his eyes like a drowning man is supposed to see, only, he realized, if a drowning man saw this he would gulp at the water, breathe it deeply just to end the visions. They were memories he had been unable to find for years; memories he would never have wanted to find.
His poor, confused mother, who was so eager to be a good parent that she read everything, tried everything. Her precocious son Howard read it, too, and understood it better. Nothing she tried ever worked. And he accused her several times of being too demanding, of not demanding enough; of not giving him enough love, of drowning him in phony affection; of trying to take over with his friends, of not liking his friends enough. Until he had badgered and tortured the woman until she was timid every time she spoke to him, careful and long-winded and she phrased everything in such a way that it wouldn’t offend, and while now and then he made her feel wonderful by giving her a hug and saying, “Have I got a wonderful Mom,” there were far more times whenhe put a patient look on his face and said, “That again, Mom? I thought we went over that years ago.” A failure as a parent, that’s what you are, he reminded her again and again, though not in so many words, and she nodded and believed and died inside with every contact they had. He got everything he wanted from her.
And Vaughn Robles, who was just a little bit smarter than Howard and Howard wanted very badly to be valedictorian and so Vaughn and Howard became best friends and Vaughn would do anything for Howard and whenever Vaughn got a better grade than Howard he could not help but notice that Howard was hurt, that Howard wondered if he was really worth anything at all. “Am I really worth anything at all, Vaughn? No matter how well I do, there’s always someone ahead of me, and I guess it’s just that before my father died he told me and told me, Howie, be better than your Dad. Be the top. And I promised him I’d be the top but hell, Vaughn, I’m just not cut out for it—” and once he even cried. Vaughn was proud of himself as he sat there and listened to Howard give the valedictory address at high school graduation. What were a few grades, compared to a true friendship? Howard got a scholarship and went away to college and he and Vaughn almost never saw each other again.
And the teacher he provoked into hitting him and losing his job; and the football player who snubbed him and Howard quietly spread the rumor that the fellow was gay and he was ostracized from the team and finally quit; and the beautiful girls he stole from their boyfriends just to prove that he could do it and the friendships he destroyed just because he didn’t like being excluded and the marriages he wrecked and the co-workers he undercut and he walked. along the street with tears streaming down his face, wondering where all these memories had come from and why, after sucha long time in hiding, they had come out now. Yet he knew the answer. The answer was slipping behind doorways, climbing lightpoles as he passed, waving obscene flippers at him from the sidewalk almost under his feet.
And slowly, inexorably, the memories wound their way from the distant past through a hundred tawdry exploitations because he could find people’s weak spots without even trying until finally memory came to the one place where he knew it could not, could not ever go.
He remembered Rhiannon.
Born fourteen years ago. Smiled early, walked early, almost never cried. A loving child from the start, and therefore easy prey for Howard. Oh, Alice was a bitch in her own right—Howard wasn’t the only bad parent in the family. But it was Howard who manipulated Rhiannon most. “Daddy’s feelings are hurt, Sweetheart,” and Rhiannon’s eyes would grow wide, and she’d be sorry, and whatever Daddy wanted, Rhiannon would do. But this was normal, this was part of the pattern, this would have fit easily into all his life before, except for last month.
And even now, after a day of grief at his own life, Howard could not face it. Could not but did. He unwillingly remembered walking by Rhiannon’s almost-closed door, seeing just a flash of cloth moving quickly. He opened the door on impulse, just on impulse, as Rhiannon took off her brassiere and looked at herself in the mirror. Howard had never thought of his daughter with desire, not until that moment, but once the desire formed Howard had no strategy, no pattern in his mind to stop him from trying to get what he wanted. He was uncomfortable, and so he stepped into the room and closed the door behind him and Rhiannon knew no way to say no to her father. When Alice opened thedoor Rhiannon was crying softly, and Alice looked and after a moment Alice screamed and screamed and Howard got up from the bed and tried to smooth it all over but Rhiannon was still crying—and Alice was still screaming, kicking at his crotch, beating him, raking at his face, spitting at him, telling him he was a monster, a monster, until at last he was able to flee the room and the house and, until now, the memory.
He screamed now as he had not screamed then, and threw himself against a plate-glass window, weeping loudly as the blood gushed from a dozen glass cuts on his right arm, which had gone through the window. One large piece of glass stayed embedded in his forearm. He deliberately scraped his arm against the wall to drive the glass deeper. But the pain in his arm was no match for the pain in his mind, and he felt nothing.
They rushed him to the hospital, thinking to save his life, but the doctor was surprised to discover that for all the blood there were only superficial wounds, not dangerous at all. “I don’t know why you didn’t reach a vein or an artery,” the doctor said. “I think the glass went everywhere it could possibly go without causing any important damage.”
After the medical doctor, of course, there was the psychiatrist, but there were many suicidals at the hospital and Howard was not the dangerous kind. “I was insane for a moment, Doctor, that’s all. I don’t want to die, I didn’t want to die then, I’m all right now. You can send me home.” And the psychiatrist let him go home. They bandaged his arm. They did not know that his real relief was that nowhere in the hospital did he see the small, naked, child-shaped creature. He had purged himself. He was free.
Howard was taken home in an ambulance, and they wheeled him into the house and lifted him from thestretcher to the bed. Through it all Alice hardly said a word except to direct them to the bedroom. Howard lay still on the bed as she stood over him, the two of them alone for the first time since he left the house a month ago.
“It was kind of you,” Howard said softly, “to let me come back.”
“They said there wasn’t room enough to keep you, but you needed to be watched and taken care of for a few weeks. So lucky me, I get to watch you.” Her voice was a low monotone, but the acid dripped from every word. It stung.
“You were right, Alice,” Howard said.
“Right about what? That marrying you was the worst mistake of my life? No, Howard. Meeting you was my worst mistake.”
Howard began to cry. Real tears that welled up from places in him that had once been deep but that now rested painfully close to the surface. “I’ve been a monster, Alice. I haven’t had any control over myself. What I did to Rhiannon—Alice, I wanted to die, I wanted to die!”
Alice’s face was twisted and bitter. “And I wanted you to, Howard. I have never been so disappointed as when the doctor called and said you’d be all right. You’ll never be all right, Howard, you’ll always be—”
“Let him be, Mother.”
Rhiannon stood in the doorway.
“Don’t come in, Rhiannon,” Alice said.
Rhiannon came in. “Daddy, it’s all right.”
“What she means,” Alice said,”is that we’ve checked her and she isn’t pregnant. No little monster is going to be born.”
Rhiannon didn’t look at her mother, just gazed with wide eyes at her father. “You didn’t need to—hurt yourself,Daddy. I forgive you. People lose control sometimes. And it was as much my fault as yours, it really was, you don’t need to feel bad, Father.”
It was too much for Howard. He cried out, shouted his confession, how he had manipulated her all his life, how he was an utterly selfish and rotten parent, and when it was over Rhiannon came to her father and laid her head on his chest and said, softly, “Father, it’s all right. We are who we are. We’ve done what we’ve done. But it’s all right now. I forgive you.”
When Rhiannon left, Alice said, “You don’t deserve her.”
“I was going to sleep on the couch, but that would be stupid. Wouldn’t it, Howard?”
I deserve to be left alone, like a leper.
“You misunderstand, Howard. I need to stay here to make sure you don’t do anything else. To yourself or to anyone.”
Yes. Yes, please. I can’t be trusted.
“Don’t wallow in it, Howard. Don’t enjoy it. Don’t make yourself even more disgusting than you were before.”
They were drifting off to sleep when Alice said, “Oh, when the doctor called he wondered if I knew what had caused those sores all over your arms and chest.”
But Howard was asleep, and didn’t hear her. Asleep with no dreams at all, the sleep of peace, the sleep of having been forgiven, of being clean. It hadn’t taken that much, after all. Now that it was over, it was easy. He felt as if a great weight had been taken from him.
He felt as if something heavy was lying on his legs. He awoke, sweating even though the room was not hot. He heard breathing. And it was not Alice’s low-pitched,slow breath, it was quick and high and hard, as if the breather had been exerting himself.
One of them lay across his legs, the flippers plucking at the blanket. The other two lay on either side, their eyes wide and intent, creeping slowly toward where his face emerged from the sheets.
Howard was puzzled. “I thought you’d be gone,” he said to the children. “You’re supposed to be gone now.”
Alice stirred at the sound of his voice, mumbled in her sleep.
He saw more of them stirring in the gloomy corners of the room, another writhing slowly along the top of the dresser, another inching up the wall toward the ceiling.
“I don’t need you anymore,” he said, his voice oddly high-pitched.
Alice started breathing irregularly, mumbling, “What? What?”
And Howard said nothing more, just lay there in the sheets, watching the creatures carefully but not daring to make a sound for fear Alice would wake up. He was terribly afraid she would wake up and not see the creatures, which would prove, once and for all, that he had lost his mind.
He was even more afraid, however, that when she awoke she would see them. That was the one unbearable thought, yet he thought it continuously as they relentlessly approached with nothing at all in their eyes, not even hate, not even anger, not even contempt. We are with you, they seemed to be saying, we will be with you from now on. We will be with you, Howard, forever.
And Alice rolled over and opened her eyes.
THE CHANGED MAN. Copyright © 1992 by Orson Scott Card.