The doors opened on the eleventh floor. Austin stepped out. Jessica was a moment behind him.
Gaddo stood at the end of the hall.
Unmistakable: the large rounded back, the silver hair cut perfectly, almost spherically. The hand was just ringing the doorbell.
Austin spun. Jessica ran into him.
“Oh! What’s wrong?”
“Jess—I—I left my wallet in the car. Or I hope that’s where it is.” Scrambling, thinking on his feet. “I don’t feel too good. Can you go back to the car and look?”
“Oh!” She frowned. “Yes. Yes, of course. You go lie down.”
He took the car key off the chain. “Are you sure you don’t mind?”
“Anything for you, Austin.”
“What if it’s not in the car? Do you think you left it at the university? Do you want me to—”
“No, no.” She didn’t even know what a clutch pedal was. “Come back up. I may not have brought it at all.”
She hit the basement button. The doors closed.
Austin turned. He had to. Gaddo now stood facing him, arms folded. Austin met him at the end of the hall.
Gaddo smiled. “How are you, Austin?”
“The same as usual, I guess… indecisive, disorganized… half-crazy…”
Gaddo laughed. Maybe this wasn’t a visit of chastisement. “Do you have a moment?”
“Oh… a few, perhaps.”
He might have longer. She wouldn’t find his wallet; it was in his back pocket. He was a liar, and that was bad—but she would scour the car—a few minutes perhaps, and three minutes or so for the ride down and the ride up. Still, he would have to get rid of Gaddo. Five minutes, maybe.
He found himself unlocking the apartment door. Gaddo followed him in.
What if the leaf had a smell? What if Gaddo recognized it? At least he had hidden the metaphysical sculptures in the studio—
Gaddo couldn’t hide the glance he threw on Jessica’s open luggage, on her underwear tastelessly scattered. Why did she always turn into a slob when she came over, when her apartment was pristine?
But he couldn’t hide it now.
He threw the deadbolt and they sat down at the table. He must try to guide Gaddo towards a quick explanation and a timely exit.
Glancing towards the door—from here, the depth of the entry hall hid it from view.
“So.” He tried to sound chipper, like he didn’t have a guilty conscience. “What’s going on?”
“You know,” said Gaddo.
After a long moment, “Austin, we want you to come back. I don’t need to tell you how much you shocked us—or how much you hurt us. You should have come to us first. You aren’t a prisoner at L’Hermitage; you know that. We would never force you to stay—as if we could!—but the fact that you would leave without telling anyone, that you would actually run from Israel when he questioned you, shows some dreadful insecurity. I’m not chastising you, and I’m not patronizing you; I’m speaking for your own good. You can’t learn to relate to others by turning away from them and—”
“I know, I know. I’m sorry. I don’t know what else to say. I apologize.”
“We’ve already forgiven you.” The words were serene.
“It’s Israel,” he stammered. “I just can’t take it. He scares me. He really does. I don’t like lying on the floor with a grown man crying on top of me. I can’t do it.”
“Yes, yes—that was a particular case. I’m sorry you took the brunt of it. I would have substituted myself if I could have. Believe me, Stella and I are just as uncomfortable around him as you are. Don’t think we’re immune or senseless. You and me and Stella are fairly normal people, to varying degrees—ha.” His eyes laughed, then saddened. “But Israel is a wounded man. Tell me, Austin; does that make him any less needing, any less deserving of love?”
“I can’t love Israel! I’ve tried! I don’t have it in me.”
“Neither do I. That’s no excuse. It’s only in tackling such an impossible task that you’ll ever learn how to tackle it.”
“I can’t tackle it.”
“You don’t want to. Israel is one of us, for better or worse.” His voice turned inward, quiet and unaffected. “I confess to you that I don’t always see why he’s one of us; but I know he’s there for a reason. Whether by free will or chance or some ordinance of the gods, he’s one of us. He can contribute to our work, and we have to do our best to love him. In fact that’s far more important than any so-called ‘contribution’ he can make.” He paused, thinking, and turned his eyes on Austin again. “But you don’t need to take on the burden of Israel right away, or alone for that matter. All we ask is that you come back—”
The doorknob clanked.
“Excuse me.” Austin leapt up. She couldn’t get in, but still, he had to placate her. He unlocked the door and swung it back partway.
“It wasn’t in the car.” She shrugged. “I looked in the seat and under the seat and on the floor in the back.”
“Are you sick?”
“Yes, yes.” Rubbing his forehead. “I was just lying down.”
“Do you want me to go back to the university and look?”
“Do you… do you mind?” She might do some serious damage to that car, but now, with Gaddo—“It’s just that I’m so sick—”
“Of course! I’m not that selfish.”
“All right, sorry. Well, you have the key.”
She hugged him. “I hope you feel better. I’ll be back.”
He smiled faintly and shut and locked the door.
Gaddo’s gaze on the back of his head constructed the scenario. “Who was that, Austin?”
“Oh… an acquaintance.”
“The same acquaintance, I suppose, who left her lingerie all over the place?”
That was enough. “Can I have my privacy, please?”
Gaddo snorted. “Can I have mine? You realize, Austin, that if she had seen us together, my life, and yours and Stella’s and Israel’s, might be—”
“All right, all right. Just—stop it. No more questions. I’ll make sure she never sees you.”
“That’s not acceptable.”
“Listen, I can’t go back. I’m sorry. I have a lot of work to do. I can only do it in my studio. I have to apply myself full-time or it just won’t get done. I have a lot riding on me with that grant.”
Gaddo blinked patiently.
“Besides, I can’t deal with Israel and I’ve hurt all three of you terribly and I don’t have anything to contribute to your work because I’m an artist. You—”
“The three of us aren’t qualified for the work either. No one is. It’s the will that counts—the mind, the effort. As an artist, you think differently than I do. I am—was—a politician, a man of the people. I approach this like a politician, only without an electorate to woo. Still, my perspective is different from yours, and yours is different from Israel’s and from Stella’s. The three of us have plenty of logic to go around. Not that you’re illogical—but we need your intuition, your heart. That’s what led us to the prize before.”
“My intuition? Led you to… the prize?”
“You know what I’m talking about.”
“Gaddo, those projections were—”
“They were not. The journey happened. You were a little boy; I was already a grown man. My memory is more reliable than yours.”
“You could have fooled yourself.”
“True, and so could you. It’s pointless to argue that. Listen: do you remember the machine? Do you remember Vaulan?”
Oh, that name…
“You led us, Austin. You. Four years old. You can’t deny it.”
Silence. He saw those projections again on the cellar wall on that last dreadful day of the partnership as everything fell apart and Gaddo couldn’t convince him to stay. Nothing had changed now. Even this, this conversation, was nothing but a repetition. The cycle would continue until he stopped it. Time to come clean with himself. Time to acknowledge what he had always known. Time to admit it was all a lie.
No: Stella had come back with them. She wasn’t earthly. You could see it in her outlandish clothes, her awkward mannerisms and thought-patterns, her solitary life in that abandoned church, though it had not always been solitary. Well, no, it was only the breaking that had cut her off; she had stayed, and they had—
They had really gone on that journey.
But Gaddo could have—
They had really gone.
He nodded. He breathed. He met Gaddo’s eyes. Breathed again. “I’ll come back.”
Gaddo blinked and smiled and laughed a little. “Well, I—” he laughed again. “I was ready to get out the big guns—but there you go! You’re a good man, Austin. I knew it. Well, good. Let’s go.”
“I’ve already stayed in Babylon too long. If they followed me, we’re doomed.”
“But—I can’t—I need to pack. And Jessica has my car!”
“She knows where to park it, doesn’t she?”
“You don’t need to pack. We have a veritable thrift store of clothes at L’Hermitage.”
“My God, you’re insane!”
Gaddo just grinned. “Good point. I did dream up the Tower of Babel.”
“Seriously, Gaddo, I can’t leave without telling her.”
“She is not your wife, Austin.”
“I could never be so cruel!”
“You did it to us.”
“My God!” He sat down heavily at the table. “My God, Gaddo!” A long silence. “But this is different. You see—”
“So she is your girlfriend?”
“All right, yes, we’re seeing each other,” he snapped.
“Yes, quite a bit of each other,” said Gaddo, glancing towards the lingerie display. “Austin, I don’t have time. I’m banished from this city. I’m leaving Babylon now.”
“What will I tell her? How will I make her understand?”
“You won’t!” he cried, turning white. He had not seen Gaddo frightened in many years. “Austin, what would you tell her if you waited till she got back? You couldn’t tell her the truth. We’re sworn to secrecy. You know what’s riding on that. Hell, I shouldn’t even be discussing this with you outside of L’Hermitage. It’s against the agreement. But Austin, what would you tell her? How would you explain it?”
He couldn’t answer.
“If you’re with me, come now. Slip away without having to explain yourself. It’s the only way you’ll ever get back.” He brushed past Austin and walked towards the door without looking over his shoulder.
Austin stood tortured for a moment. Gaddo unlocked the door and stepped out. Austin dashed after him with a groan. “Wait! I’m coming. Just let me leave her a note. Otherwise she’ll call the police and die of anxiety. I do care about her.”
“Make it quick.” Gaddo came back into the apartment and shut the door.
He threw the note on the table and leapt up. “Let’s go, before I change my mind.”
“We’ll take the stairs.”
“What?! Why? Eleven flights—”
“I won’t risk being seen in the elevator. Besides, what if we run into your acquaintance?”
Austin was shamefully out of breath when they reached the bottom. Gaddo was out of breath too, but not quite so shamefully.
“How are we getting to L’Hermitage?” asked Austin as they slipped out a back door.
“Ssh! We don’t speak that name in public, remember?”
“Just be more careful. My car is about a block and a half away.”
As they circled around the maintenance area at the back of the building, Gaddo put on a large pair of sunglasses and a baggy hat that gave a different impression of the shape of his head.
“You really are serious about this,” Austin muttered.
“Of course I am. Banishment was the soft sentence. If the hardliners in the senate had had their way, I’d still be rotting in a prison.”
They came to Gaddo’s little red car. The parking meter had expired, but the police had not come by yet. Good thing: the car had no plates.
“Are you really driving around without registration? And parking at a…”
“Yes. I know.” He cranked the engine into a tuneless banging. “But I had to talk to you, and we can’t use phone lines for that.”
He put it in gear. The engine grumbled as they pulled out into traffic. “Your job is to watch the mirrors to make sure no one follows us. It could be any kind of vehicle—not necessarily a police cruiser or a government car. They have undercover people.”
Austin blinked and nodded. “Right… I can do that.” He could, but his heart was pounding. Before, they had been subversives working within a legally sanctioned project. Now Gaddo was an outlaw. So was Austin, by association.
And they might be followed? If it was that dangerous, why had Gaddo left L’Hermitage in the first place?
Because you matter that much to him.
He craned his head, memorizing the cars in the side mirror. All he had to do was keep track of which—
“I’m sorry, Austin. I didn’t mean to scare you. I doubt anyone will follow us.”
“Oh, I know.” It came out faster than it was supposed to. “There are millions of cars in this city, and there are plenty of crimes and traffic accidents happening every day to keep the cops busy.”
“It’s not the cops I’m worried about,” said Gaddo.
“Oh.” He blinked and nodded.
Gaddo drove through the city towards the interstate. It was slow going and the air was quivering with the heat of almost-noon. The air conditioning was long broken, so they rolled the windows down until they couldn’t stand the smog.
Austin watched the mirrors ceaselessly. After a while, he had to say it. “There’s a car back there. It’s been following us since you pulled out. I lost it a few times, but it keeps popping up.”
“Which one?” Gaddo scanned the mirrors.
“The black one. Brand new, with tinted windows.”
“I see it.” He squinted in the mirror. “Could be an unmarked government car.”
“What do we do?!”
“Relax!” Gaddo laughed. “I’ll pull a maneuver. See if they follow us.”
He took a sudden left down a one-way alley, then a right at the end. Austin saw nothing in the mirrors until they were a block past the alley, when a black form pulled out into the road. He couldn’t make out the shape back there, but he didn’t need to.
“Damn it. Is it the same—?”
Gaddo downshifted, punched the gas.
“Watch out, that truck—”
He swerved, right turn lane; swung madly around the corner, shot down an empty road, now back the way they had come. “We’ll lose them,” he muttered.
Red light at the top of a hill. The car ground to a halt. Parker Avenue ripped past, liquid glass and steel. The ramps for the interstate were four blocks away.
Austin glanced in the mirror. The black car was pulling out behind them.
“Gaddo, they’re coming!”
“Red light,” he muttered helplessly.
The black car swelled in the mirror, bigger and bigger, until the sweeping hood hid everything else.
Gaddo turned left. The black car rode their tail.
“We’ll try an old trick,” said Gaddo. “We’ll go so slow, they’ll have to pass us.”
But the black car slowed down too, staying a few lengths back. Soon the light behind them went green and a wave of traffic swept past. Still the black car hung back.
“Enough!” Gaddo downshifted and gassed it and swerved away between semi-trucks, dodging two lanes over. Ripped through an open stretch, passing another block of cars. Slipped over one lane into a tight space, cutting someone off—honk!
“I can’t see it anywhere.”
They were back on the interstate after the eighteen-mile detour, just picking up speed again, when Austin saw it ten or fifteen cars back, blending with traffic.
“All right. We’re going to lose them for good this time.” Gaddo glanced up as they passed under a set of road signs. “We’ll take the next exit.”
“Don’t lead them to L’Hermitage!”
“Oh, they’ll never get that far.”
The car skittered on the buckled ramp, swung right at the top, tore off straight down the crumbling and untended road.
Black car turning off the distant exit ramp.
Gaddo wound through the wooded hills. Tires gripped, slipped, grabbed. Bearings groaned; springs crashed. Curves, curves, curves—no sign of the black car—
Straightaway. There it was, closer than before.
“They’re gaining on us!”
“Damn these bald tires…”
Long straight main street of a derelict town. Black car roaring up behind. Ahead, a giant arrow sign not yet vine-devoured—a sharp left turn—Gaddo slammed the brakes. Austin hit the dashboard, almost the windshield.
Screech, tail slid wide around the curve, down a steep hill—
The road corkscrewed. Hollows, crumbling bridges, plunging little hills—
He swept up a slope, swung to the right, braked hard, spun left. Traction gave out. Into the woods, spinning around and around in the dead leaves, engine stalled—
Finally at rest, facing the road. Gaddo rolled down his window to listen.
Roaring came—louder—fevered—swept past around the curve that Gaddo hadn’t taken. Tires screeching—a tremendous crash.
“What the hell…”
Gaddo only chuckled, started the car, drove back to the road. “You’ll see.” He crept slowly up the ascent.
They came around the bend. A gray lake opened below them, drowning the road and releasing it a thousand feet away. Clean black metal bubbled and sloshed in the bitter water. The doors were just opening. Curses sliced through the stillness.
Gaddo shut off the engine and let the car roll silently back down the hill. He caught Austin’s eye and grinned. “Told you I’d lose them.”
“Ha!” He couldn’t hide the trembling in his voice. “You bastard. I don’t blame them for taking away your license.”
“Oh, hush. I was in control the whole time.” He swung the car around, started the engine, and tore off madly through the hills.
“Are we anywhere near L’Hermitage?”
“Oh… yes and no. We can get there without going back to the freeway, provided none of the roads are blocked and I can remember the way.”
“Maybe you should go back to the freeway. What if they track you somehow? Look at the grass coming up through the cracks in the pavement. They might be able to tell where a car rolled over it. They might follow us all the way back to L’Hermitage if you don’t…”
“Good point. We’ll take the freeway.”
He studied the mirrors again. What if their pursuers had called for backup, with a description of the battered red car? But he saw nothing suspicious. Still, one thought nagged him: in leading the agents into the countryside, Gaddo had given them new direction in their search for subversion.
The waning of the light dulled the roof of L’Hermitage to a sullen red. He smelled blood in his head. Did he have to come back?
The car leaned madly on the hill. Gaddo swung left into the parking lot. The engine died, the car rocked backwards, and the silence of L’Hermitage descended. Gaddo climbed out before it was time. Then Austin was standing and closing the door.
“Austin, are you all right? Do you need a moment?”
“Are they angry at me?”
“It’s not my place to answer that.”
“Fine. Let’s go.”
They climbed up the grassy hill to the open front doors. He wasn’t ready. Hadn’t he resolved—
Stella and Israel came out.
He stared. He shouldn’t have—
They stepped forward and embraced him. Blinking, he raised his arms and hugged back. Then he was talking. “I’m sorry I’m such an idiot. I’m sorry I couldn’t—”
“We forgive you.” Stella smiled faintly in the dusk. A cord of strain broke in his head.
“I’m sorry, Austin,” said Israel. “We’ve all had a talk. I know why you left. I’m sorry I’m such an emotional person. I asked for too much strength from you. It won’t happen again.”
He knew better than to believe that, but he said, “I forgive you.”
“Are you back for good?” asked Stella.
“I—er—” Why was he coming back? To make amends? To have closure? To please Gaddo?
To take up the cross again?
Words couldn’t convey the confusion of his thoughts.
Stella frowned at him, but Israel said, “I guess that’s all we can ask for.”
Stella turned towards the door. “We have some developments, Austin. Gaddo may have told you about them.”
Austin glanced at Gaddo.
“Actually, I didn’t get the chance.”
“Really!” said Stella. “But that car ride takes several hours…”
“We were a little distracted.” Gaddo told how they had been pursued.
“Good Lord,” Stella murmured. The sanctuary opened, brown and dark and safe. “You’d better not show yourself in Babylon again.”
“I don’t think they actually saw me—”
“Matt!” she laughed. “They followed your car. They must have seen you. Unless you did something else suspicious—”