The old man kept pace with him, then ran ahead in a sudden burst of energy and fear-as
if he loved Louisa more. Man and boy raced toward the scream, a long high note, a shriek
without pause for breath, inhuman in its constancy.
Malakhai's entire body awoke in violent spasms of flailing arms and churning legs, running naked into the real and solid world of his bed and its tangle of damp sheets. Rising quickly in the dark, he knocked over a small table, sending a clock to the floor, shattering its glass face and killing the alarm.
Cold air rushed across his bare feet to push open the door. By the light of a wall sconce in the outer hallway, he cast a shadow on the bedroom floor and revolved in a slow turn, not recognizing any of the furnishings. A long black robe lay across the arms of a chair. Shivering, he picked up the unfamiliar garment and pulled it across his shoulders like a cape.
A window sash had been raised a crack. White curtains ghosted inward, and drops from a rain gutter made small wet explosions on the sill. His head jerked up. A black fly was screaming in circles around a chandelier of dark electric candles.
Malakhai bolted through the doorway and down a corridor of closed rooms, the long robe flying out behind him. This narrow passage opened onto a parlor of gracious proportions and bright light. There were too many textures and colors. He could only absorb them as bits of a mosaic: the pattern of the tin ceiling, forest-green walls, book spines, veins of marble, carved scrolls of mahogany and swatches of brocade.
He caught the slight movement of a head turning in the mirror over the mantelpiece. His right arm was slowly rising to shield his eyes from the impossible. And now he was staring at the wrinkled flesh across the back of his raised hand, the enlarged veins and brown liver spots.
He drew the robe close about him as a thin silk protection against more confusion. Awakenings were always cruel.
How much of his life had been stripped away, killed in the tissues of his brain? And how much disorientation was only the temporary companion of a recent stroke? Malakhai pulled aside a velvet drape to look through the window. He had not yet fixed the day or even the year, but only gleaned that it was night and very late in life.
The alarm clock by his bed had been set for some event. Without assistance from anyone, he must recall what it was. Asking for help was akin to soiling himself in public.
Working his way from nineteen years old toward a place well beyond middle age, he moved closer to the mirror, the better to assess the damage. His thick mane of hair had grown white. The flesh was firm, but marked with lines of an interesting life and a long one. Only his eyes were curiously unchanged, still dark gunmetal blue.
The plush material of the rug was soft beneath his bare feet. Its woven colors were vivid, though the fringes showed extreme age. He recalled purchasing this carpet from a dealer in antiquities. The rosewood butler's table had come from the same shop. It was laid with a silver tray and an array of leaded crystal. More at home now in this aged incarnation, Malakhai lifted the decanter and poured out a glass of Spanish sherry.
Two armchairs faced the television set. Of course-one for the living and one for the dead. Well, that was normal enough, for he was well past the year when his wife had died.
The enormous size of the television screen was the best clue to the current decade. By tricks of illness and memory, he had begun his flight through this suite of rooms in the 1940s, and now he settled down in a well-padded chair near the end of the twentieth century, a time traveler catching his breath and seeking compass points. He was not in France anymore. This was the west wing of a private hospital in the northern corner of New York State, and soon he would remember why the clock had sounded an alarm.
Reprinted from Shell Game by Carol O'Connell by permission of G. P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 1999 by Carol O'Connell.
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