The girl across the aisle was smiling. She was smiling without question, blushing and parting her bangs, but the meaning of her smile kept itself hidden. Its the music, Lowboy murmured to the Sikh. Theres music in those headphones that she likes. But even as the Sikh nodded backblankly, disaffectedlyLowboy saw he was wrong. The girls smile wasnt private; it was unabashed and open. And she was smiling it at nobody but him.
That made Lowboy remember why hed left the school.
Cautiously, as an experiment, he tried to smile back at the girl. He kept his eyes wide open and made sure to show her his teeth. The strangeness of what he was attempting made the roof of his mouth go numb. Thered been no girls at the school, at least not in his wing, and he hadnt cared about girls before hed been enrolled. But now he did care about them. Now they made him feel wide awake.
Dont leer at her that way, said the Sikh.
Im not leering, Lowboy said. Im being sexy.
Youre frightening her, William.
Lowboy waved at the girl and opened his eyes wider and pointed at his mouth. Her smile went blank and stiffened at its corners and he adjusted his own smile accordingly. The girl jerked her backpack open and tilted her face forward, lowering her bangs like a shutter across a storefront. She gaped down into her backpack like a baby looking into a well.
Why wont she take those fucking headphones off? I want to tell her something. Ill sing it to her if she wants. I want to
The world will end? the Sikh said. Why is that?
Lowboy stopped smiling at once. What magnetism he might have had was neatly and resourcefully sucked away. The question had been meant as a distraction, nothing more: to keep him from establishing contact. To disarm him. The girl with the backpack receded and the Sikh slid quietly forward to take her place. He wasnt the man that he had been before. The rest of the car went dark as though the Sikh were in a spotlight. There was no curiosity in his expression, no humanity, no love. He spoke in a completely different voice.
Your voice has changed, said Lowboy. I dont think I can hear you anymore.
Dont trouble that poor girl any longer, William. Behind his sparse discolored beard the Sikh was grinning. He raised his head and coughed and gave a wink. Why not trouble me instead?
It was then that Lowboy saw the danger clearly. The fact of it hit him in the middle of his chest and spread out in all directions like a cramp. No trouble, he said. He said it effortfully and slowly, biting his breath back after every word. No trouble at all, Grandfather. Go away.
The Sikh flashed his teeth again. Grandfather? he said at the top of his voice. He said it to the rest of the car, not to Lowboy. He was making a public announcement. He looked up and down the car, the consummate entertainer, and brought a shriveled hand to rest on Lowboys shoulder. If I was your grandfather, boy
His voice was still booming up and down the car like the voice of a master of ceremonies as Lowboy slid his hands under the Sikhs beard and pushed. The Sikh lifted out of his seat like a windtossed paper bag. Whod have guessed he was as light as that, thought Lowboy. The Sikh arched his back as he fell and opened his mouth in a garish slackjawed parody of surprise. A standpole caught him just below the shoulder and spun him counterclockwise toward the door. The booming was coming not from the Sikh anymore but from an intercom in the middle of the ceiling. Columbus Circle, Lowboy shouted. Transfer to the A, C, D, 1, and 9. No jokes anymore, he thought, laughing. No part of this is funny. A woman halfway down the car stood gasping in the middle of the aisle. He turned to face her and she shut her mouth.
Excerpted from Lowboy by John Wray, published in March 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2009 by John Wray. All rights reserved.
Blood at the Root
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