by Scott Wheelock
I've got you under my skin.
I've got you deep in the heart of me.
So deep in my heart that you're really a part of me.
I've got you under my skin.
I'd tried so not to give in.
I said to myself: this affair never will go so well.
But why should I try to resist when, baby, I know so well
I've got you under my skin?
I'd sacrifice anything come what might
For the sake of havin' you near
In spite of a warnin' voice that comes in the night
And repeats, repeats in my ear:
Don't you know, little fool, you never can win?
Use your mentality, wake up to reality.
But each time that I do just the thought of you
Makes me stop before I begin
'Cause I've got you under my skin.
I would sacrifice anything come what might
For the sake of havin' you near
In spite of the warning voice that comes in the night
And repeats - how it yells in my ear:
Don't you know, little fool, you never can win?
Why not use your mentality - step up, wake up to reality?
But each time I do just the thought of you
Makes me stop just before I begin
'Cause I've got you under my skin.
Yes, I've got you under my skin.
Her hand was cold and limp, like a gel-pack in a picnic cooler. She was frighteningly small, dwarfed by the hospital bed, by the wide expanse of undisturbed white sheet. The sickness, unable to bring her spirit low, had settled for shrinking her body, bringing her cheeks into her teeth, tugging her legs and arms into bent silhouettes under the sheet. Ahmad couldn't help but think of a beetle found on its back in a dusty crevice, its limbs crooked over its stomach, its carcass vulnerable to the slightest puff of air.
He had brought a book to read, Potvin's Speaking Stones, but he didn't have any strength to read to her today. He blamed it on the weather, and left it lying beside her. He'd come to see her tomorrow, he told himself, and he'd read it then. Moving quietly, guiltily, he left the hospital room. His mother made no sound, like always.
Riding the Tube home was as terrible as ever. Ahmad despised the heaving cabin that ceaselessly hurtled through Seattle's guts, carrying all manners of people back and forth. He couldn't stand the forced proximity that riding the Tube entailed; the sweat, the furtive glances, the jostling. This twice-daily gauntlet hadn't been necessary before, when he'd had his own vehicle. The solid Volvo Carrier had gotten him six thousand nuyen at the dealership. Added to the money garnered from the sale of his two-bedroom bungalow, it had been enough to pay the fantastic fees that magicians charged for their services, at least for a few months. After the majority of the money had run out, Ahmad had stopped paying them, and they had in turn stopped their rituals, their chants and dances. None of it had helped, and Ahmad now had to ride the Tube with the rest of Seattle's masses as a result, had to walk its grimy, fierce streets, had to listen to the angry noises of the city through his thin apartment walls.
When he lay in bed at night, every footstep was amplified. He'd heard gunshots before, sudden stabs of sound that set his heart thundering. One night he'd heard the unmistakable violence of a car colliding with something outside his window. The voices had burrowed through his walls, the shouts and footsteps, the sirens. He'd laid motionless in bed, grasping his sheets as if they could keep out the reality of the accident.
His mother had woken up once, the morning of day it started. She'd turned her head, and looked him straight in the eye, saying softly, You'll take care of me. Ahmad had dropped and broken the glass sculpture he'd brought for her. The snap-winged bird had lain there at his feet while he stammered for an answer, and his mother had let her eyes close again. He had repeatedly jabbed the 'Call' button, and borne through the questions of nurses and doctors, waiting all day for her to speak again, to even move.
That night, the ride home on the Tube had been a strange experience. Ahmad had lost track of time, and the stops seemed to melt together, or take longer than usual. He was almost to his station when the lights went out.
There was a flash after the initial darkness that gave Ahmad's mind a static image of the train car to dwell on, then the emergency lights failed as well. Ahmad felt as if his lungs had turned to stone, his veins to roaring water. He could see the afterimages of his cabin-mates, fiery silhouettes in the blackness. Someone giggled, and Ahmad's mind brought him an image of a creeping boy with knife extended, a twisted grin on his face. He was sure, he thought, as his palms went slick with sweat, that the man across from him had a gun under his jacket, an angular fold betraying the weapon hidden at his side. Ahmad drew his heels together tightly, breathing faster and faster, and clenched his arms to his sides, listening to the Tube car charge through the void. Impossibly, the darkness seemed to swim and tilt, and the noise of the tunnel and rails receded for a moment.
He did not faint. Instead, he heard a voice.
Calm. I am with you.
Irrationally, Ahmad's heart began to decelerate. He had no idea where the voice had come from, but he was sure he'd heard it before. It was oddly familiar, like a passing face that stops you in the street. But it didn't solve his situation: he was in the dark, underground, and all around were--
Stay quiet. Stay small. They won't find you.
Ahmad knew that the voice should be coming from one of the passengers that sat near him, but he could hear them shuffling, breathing, murmuring. They were not close; this voice was very near, on top of him. He was still terrified, but there was another odd feeling that he couldn't grasp.
The Tube burst suddenly free from the darkness, emerging into the flourescent blaze of Ahmad's stop. Dazzled, Ahmad stayed perfectly still, pulse still racing. None of the other passengers had moved. None were watching him. He left the car as soon as it halted, and moved quickly home, a rabbit swerving through a menagerie of unknown predators.
It was late, very late, when he was spoken to a second time. Sitting in his only chair, an untouched glass of water in his hand, he had been watching his trideo console for the first time in . . . he couldn't remember how long. The news broadcast had flickered in front of him for a while, unnoticed. When a pirate signal had patched in, madly blathering about some new threat to freedom, Ahmad had shut the device off, giving up the charade. The reality of it was, he was waiting. He didn't wait long.
A wave of adrenaline coursed through him, erupting as a soft noise from his throat. Realization hammered into his brain: he had felt the presence behind the voice for a very long time now. Trying to pinpoint how long was as impossible, and as irrelevant, as remembering at what moment he'd learned to read.
You're ready now. The presence was as reassuring as a warm blanket. It wrapped around him, filling in a hole in his life that he hadn't even known was there.
Tired drizzle beat down on his umbrella, spattered his shoes. He was outside the hospital, looking its dreary lobby in the eye, staring down the doors. He concentrated, focused on the air around him, the living air, just as the Guide had told him. He felt the change, the altered state, and stepped forward, watching the automated doors open. Moving into the lobby had all the unreality of a dream, as he watched the people pass by like shadows. Belief only came as he passed the security desk, moving through the guard's vision without provoking any reaction at all. As he made his way through the hospital's hallways, he half-expected the guard to suddenly appear, slapping him on the back, laughing riotously at how completely Ahmad had been suckered.
Don't worry. You've done well.
Ahmad grinned, and inwardly agreed. He had done well . . . it had been so easy. Nothing had prepared him for it, the utter naturalness of using magic. The trideo was way off, with its flashes and crackles, smoke and mirrors. Magic was terrifyingly seductive, and easy; he was sure the Guide had to be helping him.
It's in you. I'm just helping you unveil it.
Thank you. Ahmad knew a moment of sheer bliss as gratitude washed over him, and then he stepped into his mother's room.
The smell was all through the room, as always. The light that came in fell upon her in the same way as it did every day. He moved to her bedside, and felt his confidence slip away. Something unfamiliar boiled to the surface, and he shook ever so slightly. This had been the first time in nearly a week that he'd been here. There had been so much work to do to get him to this point, but he should have come here . . . it was the presence.
I didn't stop you.
No. But you disapproved. You wanted me to learn.
Yes. Ahmad felt a current of anger dance under his scalp, and he barely recognized it as his own emotion.
Why do you teach me parlour tricks? Teach me to help her! You promised you'd teach me to help her!
Then I will. He sensed something different at that point, like he'd just lost the comfortable weight that was his jacket. The presence was gone. He swayed a bit, then sat down beside his mother's bed. Her skin was pale, and his fingers looked oddly dark next to it. He held her hand for a time, thinking, then left.
I want to go see her. Ahmad tried to get up, and sank back into his bed, exhausted.
I'm teaching you.
I'm tired. I want to see her. It's been two weeks.
You wanted this. Ahmad nodded. He had, but it was so tiring . . . and progress was so slow. He'd long since quit his job, and the inside of his apartment, once such a snug refuge, now seemed repetitive, familiar. He felt the presence twist angrily, a strange sensation that always unnerved him. You wanted this because you were scared. You're living in a world that threatens you with every breath, every heave and sway. The sum of your knowledge about this universe could fit on the head of a pin, and you hate that. I can open doors for you. I can help you survive, and thrive. Do you want that?
Yes. Ahmad felt shrunken, an ungrateful child berated by a parent. But a mote of agitation still survived, and he gave it voice. I still want to see her. She is my mother.
We'll see her tomorrow.
All right. It sounded angry, and Ahmad comprehended for an instance his own precarious position. He buried the doubt, and concentrated on the teachings.
"Yes, two. The ones I pointed out."
"Okay. I guess they'll have each other to play with, that'll be good." The short man looked suspiciously at Ahmad, then shrugged his shoulders again, his wariness gone as abruptly as it had come. "Just fill out these forms, and e-mail them to me. There's a one-day waiting period, and the shelter has to contact you tomorrow anyway, sort of an interview. You'll be home?"
"I'll be home."
"Okay, then. See you tomorrow."
"Sure." Ahmad left the Animal Shelter nonchalantly, heading toward the Tube station. The two big dogs would do nicely, he thought. A boxer and a bull terrier; both as high at the shoulder as the knob on a door. He still was a little uneasy about the plan, but the Guide had been so sure, so calm. She had made him feel so much better, a warm sense of nearness that had brushed dirt over his fears.
You're lonely, she had said, one day when he was leaving the hospital. He hadn't had to agree. She knew him. I can help that. We can help that.
I'll show you.
The darkness of his new apartment was better, he mused. It was far more comfortable in the dark, and besides, the basement was so much cheaper. The twin sacs pulsed strongly in the low light. The walls were cold . . . he preferred warmth, but you got what you paid for. She had assured him that money wouldn't be a problem soon, and he believed her. He always believed her. He ran his hand lightly over one of the veined globes that nested cozily in the bathtub, and ran the tub a tiny bit, just enough to refresh the hot water that pooled around the eggs. He knew, as a parent might know, that today was the day. The forms inside had been roiling around, pushing stronger and stronger against the walls of their wombs. It would be very soon.
When it happened, he was unprepared. He'd dozed off, and it was only her crooning that woke him up. It was a low vibrating hum in his skull, and he was lost for a moment in its unfamiliarity. Then he saw the thin arm poking through the ruptured membrane, and his heart leapt. He helped it from the sac as a chauffeur helps a client of fifty years from their car, carefully, tentatively. When it lay at last on the bathroom floor, its head in his lap, he marvelled at its beauty, and hummed a low song along with the Guide. The child in his arms twitched and stretched, spreading wet wings, flicking a moist tongue out to taste its environment. Its delicate, mirrorball eyes seemed to take in the whole room, and Ahmad was nearly washed away by a dazed mix of protectiveness and pride. When its abdomen glowed weakly, Ahmad knew he was in love. He sang a strange buzzing tune, rocking the poor, helpless thing in his arms, promising it everything he could think of.
A few nights later, he awoke in a cold sweat, terrified beyond belief at the enormous insect crouching in the corner of his bedroom. It took a long time for her to calm him down.
"Mother? I think you can hear me. I'm ready to try something that I've learned, Mother. It's going to be hard for me, and I'll need your strength. I know you don't want to give up, otherwise you wouldn't be here after all this time. So hang on, and give me just a little more strength than you have been."
Twenty minutes later, he sat weeping in the chair beside her bed, cradling his elbows in his hands, shaking his head.
She's gone. I'll never bring her back. Professional healers couldn't do it, doctors couldn't, and I can't.
You need to gain more power. I can teach you more still. We'll try again.
Yes. Ahmad kept crying, and she draped her comfort over him.
"Yes. Stolen." The man from the Animal Shelter had appeared at Ahmad's basement door, and had stepped into the entryway without an invitation.
"They broke in and stole both dogs?" He was short, and thin. Ahmad hadn't noticed before, but the man behaved like a predator, confident and aggressive. He'd just walked in. The children, four now, had almost fallen upon him, sank their mouth parts into his eyes, shredded his soft throat with their hands. Ahmad had stopped them. They were being careful as always, he and the Guide.
"Yes," Ahmad repeated, "both dogs." The sweat was threatening to bead on his forehead.
"That's too bad." The man looked as if he might suddenly start tearing through the apartment, looking in every cabinet for the two huge dogs, the dogs that had whimpered so when Ahmad tranquillized them.
"Yes. I was very sad."
"I'm sure. Okay, then. I'll be seeing you around, I think." The man gave Ahmad one more piercing glare, then turned and went back out the door. He turned again, but Ahmad closed the entrance, and looked over to the room where his children waited. It was emitting a soft, rhythmic glow, as if Lone Star was trying out a kinder, calmer police flasher in his bathroom. Ahmad sighed, then listened to her as she gave him instructions.
The failure the second time was almost more than he could bear. Sagged over his mother's ever-constant shape, he moaned until his throat was rasping with every noise. He railed at everything in his mind, and the Guide took her share of the blame stoically. The sun was down before he could get up again.
You've tried your best. The finality of that phrase made Ahmad's head spin with despair, and he flailed at the air, as if he could strike her.
"You said I could help her!"
There's another way. It will require courage. It's frightening, but it will bring her back to you.
I'll do it. Whatever it is.
It will be hard. You're ready?
Yes. The sun fell silently through the sky, and Ahmad listened, grieving.
With the wall between the bathroom and his bedroom taken down, the apartment seemed much larger. The walls dripped now, glistening with a warm, soothing fluid that ran slowly. The floor was moist, mouldy. Ahmad stood over the large egg, maintaining his vigil as he had for days. The flashing glow of his children was reaching its peak, becoming strobe-like in its intensity. The blank, human gaze of the man from the Shelter was illuminated again and again, his once hawklike features seeming waxy, off-kilter. He came forward haltingly, bringing Ahmad a bowl of soy and water, chittering softly under his breath.
Ahmad's head felt about to explode. He groped uselessly at the soy, then let it drop to the ground. In the circle of his offspring was an egg, and it drew his attention like a flame drew moths. Ten days ago, the Guide had left him, after he had started the investing. He needed her back now, missed her so badly. Even the children had become agitated, flitting from one corner of the tiny apartment to the other. If she was gone forever . . .
No. She would come back. The investing was the last thing she needed him to do for her, then they could be closer together than they ever had been. He longed for that closeness.
When the egg shifted, he knew a delicious lick of fear. What if it hadn't worked . . . what would come out of that sac . . . an abomination, like the children he'd been forced to destroy, half-real, half-flesh? Perhaps just a quivering mass of jelly, or a featureless shell. There was so much she hadn't told him!
The rip of the egg's skin tore through him as well, and he watched, spell bound, as a perfect hand emerged from the orb, its segmented fingers flexing in the damp air. He'd been so afraid, but she was immaculate! The arm followed, and as the head came slowly and confidently into the room, he found himself experiencing a moment where terror, hatred, and love all twined together as if inseparable. He looked into her eyes.
©1999, Scott Wheelock - used with permission