All at once, without moving, without turning his head or taking in a breath, the Sikh said quietly and clearly: What is your reason, William?
My reason? Lowboy said. He could hardly believe it. My reason for running away, you mean?
The Sikh blinked his eyes idly, like a kitten sitting in a patch of sun.
Ill tell you why, Lowboy said. Since you ask. He leaned over. The world wont make it past this afternoon.
The Sikh turned his head and regarded him now, though only his watery close-set eyes had life. Lowboy couldnt be sure that he was listening, since he hadnt yet said a word, but it seemed extremely likely that he was. The moment of revelation made a leisurely circuit of the car, glittering dimly in the air, then passed away without the slightest sound. Lowboy paid it no mind. The Sikh sat bent stiffly forward, bobbing his head impatiently, digging the heels of his pennyloafers into the floor. Fidgeting like the girl across the aisle. Why was everybody so impatient? It was true of course that time was running out. There were two transfers at the next station: an orange and a blue. Choices would have to be made. They were being made already.
A hissing came off the rails as the train crossed a switch and the noise cut straight up through the car, hanging in sheets down the length of the aisle, as if to offer them a kind of shelter. Lowboy blinked and took a breath and said it. The worlds going to die in ten hours, he said. He shoved his fist against this teeth so he could finish.
Ten hours exactly, Grandfather. By fire.
The look on the Sikhs face was impossible to make sense of. His body was the body of a somnambulist or a corpse. Lowboy closed his mouth and crossed his arms and nodded. It was difficult, even painful, to keep his eyes on the Sikh, to sit there and wait for the least show of feeling, to smile and keep nodding and hope for the one true reply. He decided to look at the girl with the headphones instead.
She was sitting straight up in her seat, the perfect mirror image of the Sikh, as poised and geometric as a painting. The longer Lowboy looked at her the less he understood. His take on the girl, on the Sikh, on everything in the car refused to hold still any longer. His thoughts slid like mercury from one possibility to another. The spaces between events got even wider. They were empty and white. He forced himself to focus on the surface of things and on the surface only. Theres more than enough there, he said to himself. He let his eyes rest flatly on the girl.
The girls hair was colored a dull shade of red, the shade dyed-black hair turns in the summer. It was cut in a way hed never seen before, with long feathered bangs hanging over her eyes. When she leaned forward her face disappeared completely. Lowboy pictured a city of identical girls, all of their faces hidden, silver headphones plugging up their ears. Hed been a cosmonaut for eighteen months, a castaway, an amnesiac, the veteran of an arbitrary war. The world had gotten older while hed been away. Away at school, regressing. He studied the girls hands, cupped protectively in her lap, hiding whatever the headphones were attached to. She seemed ashamed of her hands, of her lap, of her intentionally torn crocheted stockings. Shed hide her whole body if she could, he thought. He felt a rush of recognition. So would I.
Her hands were chapped and pink, with short, ungraceful fingers, but there was something about her fingers that he liked. Only when she brought one to her mouth did he notice that the nails were bitten down to the cuticles, torn and unpainted, the nails of a girl half her age. Something worked itself loose in his memory. Ive seen hands like that before, he thought. A backlit picture came to him then, a body reclining in midair, a sound that wasnt quite a womans name. A few seconds more and hed have remembered the name, even said it out loud, but before that could happen he made a discovery. The name and the backlit picture fell away.
Excerpted from Lowboy by John Wray, published in March 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2009 by John Wray. All rights reserved.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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