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27 Short Stories

Orson Scott Card

  27 Short Stories

  Orson Scott Card

  Orson Scott Card

  27 Short Stories


  She was losing her mind during the rain. For four weeks it came down nearly every day, and the people at the Millard County Rest Home didn't take any of the patients outside. It bothered them all, of course, and made life especially hellish for the nurses, everyone complaining to them constantly and demanding to be entertained.

  Elaine didn't demand entertainment, however. She never seemed to demand much of anything. But the rain hurt her worse than anyone. Perhaps because she was only fifteen, the only child in an institution devoted to adult misery. More likely because she depended more than most on the hours spent outside; certainly she took more pleasure from them. They would lift her into her chair, prop her up with pillows so her body would stay straight, and then race down the corridor to the glass doors, Elaine calling, "Faster, faster," as they pushed her until finally they were outside. They told me she never really said anything out there, just sat quietly in her chair on the lawn, watching everything. And then later in the day they would wheel her back in.

  I often saw her being wheeled in -- early, because I was there, though she never complained about my visits' cutting into her hours outside. As I watched her being pushed toward the rest home, she would smile at me so exuberantly that my mind invented arms for her, waving madly to match her childishly delighted face; I imagined legs pumping, imagined her running across the grass, breasting the air like great waves. But there were the pillows where arms should be, keeping her from falling to the side, and the belt around her middle kept her from pitching forward, since she had no legs to balance with.

  It rained four weeks, and I nearly lost her.

  My job was one of the worst in the state, touring six rest homes in as many counties, visiting each of them every week. I "did therapy" wherever the rest home administrators thought therapy was needed. I never figured, out how they decided -- all the patients were mad to one degree or another, most with the helpless insanity of age, the rest with the anguish of the invalid and the crippled.

  You don't end up as a state-employed therapist if you had much ability in college. I sometimes pretend that I didn't distinguish myself in graduate school because I marched to a different dnunmer. But I didn't. As one kind professor gently and brutally told me, I wasn't cut out for science. But I was sure I was cut out for the art of therapy. Ever since I comforted my mother during her final year of cancer, I had believed I had a knack for helping people get straight in their minds. I was everybody's confidant.

  Somehow I had never supposed, though, that I would end up trying to help the hopeless in a part of the state where even the healthy didn't have much to live for. Yet that's all I had the credentials for, and when I (so maturely) told myself I was over the initial disappointment, I made the best of it.

  Elaine was the best of it.

  "Raining raining raining," was the greeting I got when I visited her on the third day of the wet spell.

  "Don't I know it?" I said. "My hair's soaking wet."

  "Wish mine was," Elaine answered.

  "No, you don't. You'd get sick."

  "Not me," she said.

  "Well, Mr. Woodbury told me you're depressed. I'm supposed to make you happy."

  "Make it stop raining."

  "Do I look like God?"

  "I thought maybe you were in disguise. I'm in disguise," she said. It was one of our regular games. "I'm really a large Texas armadillo who was granted one wish. I wished to be a human being. But there wasn't enough of the armadillo to make a full human being; so here I am." She smiled. I smiled back.

  Actually, she had been five years old when an oil truck exploded right in front of her parents' car, killing both of them and blowing her arms and legs right off. That she survived was a miracle. That she had to keep on living was unimaginable cruelty. That she managed to be a reasonably happy person, a favorite of the nurses -- that I don't understand in the least. Maybe it was because she had nothing else to do. There aren't many ways that a person with no arms or legs can kill herself.

  "I want to go outside," she said, turning her head away from me to look out the window.

  Outside wasn't much. A few trees, a lawn, and beyond that a fence, not to keep the inmates in but to keep out the seamier residents of a rather seamy town. But there were low hills in the distance, and the birds usually seemed cheerful. Now, of course, the rain had driven both birds and hills into hiding. There was no wind, and so the trees didn't even sway. The rain just came straight down.

  "Outer space is like the rain," she said. "It sounds like that out there, just a low drizzling sound in the background of everything."

  "Not really," I said. "There's no sound out there at all."

  "How do you know?" she asked.

  "There's no air. Can't be any sound without air."

  She looked at me scornfully. "Just as I thought. You don't really know. You've never been there, have you?"

  "Are you trying to pick a flght?"

  She started to answer, caught herself, and nodded. "Damned rain."

  "At least you don't have to drive in it," I said. But her eyes got wistful, and I knew I had taken the banter too far. "Hey," I said. "First clear day I'll take you out driving."

  "It's hormones," she said.

  "What's hormones?"

  "I'm fifteen. It always bothered me when I had to stay in. But I want to scream.

  My muscles are all bunched up, my stomach is all tight, I want, to go outside and scream. It's hormones."

  "What about your friends?" I asked.

  "Are you kidding? They're all out there, playing in the rain."

  "All of them?"

  "Except Grunty, of course. He'd dissolve."

  "And where's Grunty?"

  "In the freezer, of course."

  "Someday the nurses are going to mistake him for ice cream and serve him to the guests." She didn't smile. She just nodded, and I knew that I wasn't getting anywhere. She really was depressed.

  I asked her whether she wanted something.

  "No pills," she,said. "They make me sleep all the time."

  "If I gave you uppers, it would make you climb the walls."

  "Neat trick," she said.

  "It's that strong. So do you want something to take your mind off the rain and these four ugly yellow walls?"

  She shook her head. "I'm trying not to sleep."

  "Why not?"

  She just shook her head again. "Can't sleep. Can't let myself sleep too much."

  I asked again.

  "Because," she said, "I might not wake up." She said it rather sternly, and I knew I shouldn't ask anymore. She didn't often get impatient with me, but I knew this time I was coming perilously close to overstaying my welcome.

  "Got to go," I said. "You will wake up." And then I left, and I didn't see her for a week, and to tell the truth I didn't think of her much that week, what with the rain and a suicide in Ford County that really got to me, since she was fairly young and had a lot to live for, in my opinion. She disagreed and won the argument the hard way.

  Weekends I live in a trailer in Piedmont. I live alone. The place is spotlessly clean because cleaning is something I do religiously. Besides, I tell myself, I might want to bring a woman home with me one night. Some nights I even do, and some nights I even enjoy it, but I always get restless and irritable when they start trying to get me to change my work schedule, or take them along to the motels I live in or, once only, get the trailerpark manager to let them into my trailer when I'm gone. To keep things cozy for me. I'm not interested in "cozy." This is probably because of my mother's death; her cancer and my responsibilities as
housekeeper for my father probably explain why I am a neat housekeeper. Therapist, therap thyself. The days passed in rain and highways and depressing people depressed out of their minds; the nights passed in television and sandwiches and motel bedsheets at state expense; and then it was time to go to the Millard County Rest Home again, where Elaine was waiting. It was then that I thought of her and realized that the rain had been going on for more than a week, and the poor girl must be almost out of her mind. I bought a cassette of Copland conducting Copland. She insisted on cassettes, because they stopped. Eight-tracks went on and on until she couldn't think.

  "Where have you been?" she demanded.

  "Locked in a cage by a cruel duke in Transylvania. It was only four feet high, suspended over a pond filled with crocodiles. I got out by picking the lock with my

  teeth. Luckily, the crocodiles weren't hungry. Where have you been?"

  "I mean it. Don't you keep a schedule?"

  "I'm right on my schedule, Elaine. This is Wednesday. I was here last

  Wednesday. This year Christmas falls on a Wednesday, and I'll be here on Christmas."

  "It feels like a year."

  "Only ten months. Till Christmas. Elaine, you aren't being any fun."

  She wasn't in the mood for fun. There were tears in her eyes. "I can't stand much more," she said.

  "I'm sorry."

  "I'm afraid."

  And she was afraid. Her voice trembled.

  "At night, and in the daytime, whenever I sleep. I'm just the right size."

  "For what?"

  "What do you mean?"

  "You said you were just the right size."

  "I did? Oh, I don't know what I meant. I'm going crazy. That's what you're here for, isn't it? To keep me sane. It's the rain. I can't do anything, I can't see anything, and all I can hear most of the time is the hissing of the rain."

  "Like outer space," I said, remembering what she had said the last time.

  She apparently didn't remember our discussion. She looked. startled. "How did you know?" she asked. "You told me."

  "There isn't any sound in outer space," she said.

  "Oh," I answered.

  "There's no air out there."

  "I knew that."

  "Then why did you say, 'Oh, of course?' The engines. You can hear them all over the ship, it's a drone, all the time. That's just like the rain. Only after a while you can't hear it anymore. It becomes like silence. Anansa told me."

  Another imaginary friend. Her file said that she had kept her imaginary friends long after most children give them up. That was why I had first been assigned to see her, to get rid of the friends. Grunty, the ice pig; Howard, the boy who beat up everybody; Sue Ann, who would bring her dolls and play with them for her, making them do what Elaine said for them to do; Fuchsia, who lived among the flowers and was only inches high. There were others. After a few sessions with her I saw that she knew that they weren't real. But they passed time for her. They stepped outside her body and did things she could never do. I felt they did her no harm at all, and destroying that imaginary world for her would only make her lonelier and more unhappy. She was sane, that was certain. And yet I kept seeing her, not entirely because I liked her so much. Partly because I wondered whether she had been pretending when she told me she knew her friends weren't real. Anansa was a new one.

  "Who's Anansa?"

  "Oh, you don't want to know." She didn't want to talk about her; that was obvious.

  "I want to know."

  She turned away. "I can't make you go away, but I wish you would. When you get nosy."

  "It's my job."

  "Job!" She sounded contemptuous. "I see all of you, running around on your healthy legs, doing all your jobs."

  What could I say to her? "It's how we stay alive," I said. "I do my best." Then she got a strange look on her face; I've got a secret, she seemed to say, and I want you to pry it out of me. "Maybe I can get a job, too."

  "Maybe," I said. I tried to think of something she could do.

  "There's always music," she said.

  I misunderstood. "There aren't many instruments you can play. That's the way it is." Dose of reality and all that.

  "Don't be stupid."

  "Okay. Never again."

  "I meant that there's always the music. On my job."

  "And what job is this?"

  "Wouldn't you like to know?" she said, rolling her eyes mysteriously and turning toward the window. I imagined her as a normal fifteen-year-old girl. Ordinarily I would have interpreted this as flirting. But there was something else under all this. A feeling of desperation. She was right. I really would like to know. I made a rather logical guess. I put together the two secrets she was trying to get me to figure out today.

  "What kind of job is Anansa going to give you?"

  She looked at me, startled. "So it's true then."

  "What's true?"

  "It's so frightening. I keep telling myself it's a dream. But it isn't, is it?"

  "What, Anansa?"

  "You think she's just one of my friends, don't you. But they're not in my dreams,

  not like this. Anansa --"

  "What about Anansa?"

  "She sings to me. In my sleep."

  My trained psychologist's mind immediately conjured up mother figures. "Of

  course," I said. "She's in space, and she sings to me. You wouldn't believe the songs." It reminded me. I pulled out the cassette I had bought for her. "Thank you," she said. "You're welcome. Want to hear it?" She nodded. I put it on the cassette player. Appalachian Spring. She moved her

  head to the music. I imagined her as a dancer. She felt the music very well. But after a few minutes she stopped moving and started to cry. "It's not the same," she said. "You've heard it before?" "Turn it off. Turn it off!" I turned it off. "Sorry," I said. "Thought you'd like it." "Guilt, nothing but guilt," she said. "You always feel guilty, don't you?" "Pretty nearly always," I admitted cheerfully. A lot of my patients threw

  psychological jargon in my face. Or soap-opera language. "I'm sorry," she said. "It's just -- it's just not the music. Not the music. Now that I've heard it, everything is so dark compared to it. Like the rain, all gray and heavy and dim, as if the composer is trying to see the hills but the rain is always

  in the way. For a few minutes I thought he was getting it right." "Anansa's music?" She nodded. "I know you don't believe me. But I hear her when I'm asleep. She

  tells me that's the only time she can communicate with me. It's not talking. It's all her songs. She's out there, in her starship, singing And at night I hear her." "Why you?"

  "You mean, why only me?" She laughed. "Because of what I am. You told me yourself. Because I can't run around, I live in my imagination. She say that the threads between minds are very thin and hard to hold. But mine she can hold, because I live completely in my mind. She holds on to me. When I go to sleep, I can't escape her now anymore at all."

  "Escape? I thought you liked her." "I don't know what I like. I like -- I like the music. But Anansa wants me. She wants to have me -- she wants to give me a job."

  "What's the singing like?" When she said job, she trembled and closed up; I referred back to something that she had been willing to talk about, to keep the floundering conversation going.

  "It's not like anything. She's there in space, and it's black, just the humming of the engines like the sound of rain, and she reaches into the dust out there and draws in the songs. She reaches out her -- out her fingers, or her ears, I don't know; it isn't clear. She reaches out and draws in the dust and the songs and turns them into the music that I hear. It's powerful. She says it's her songs that drive her between the stars."

  "Is she alone?"

  Elaine nodded. "She wants me."

  "Wants you. How can she have you, with you here and her out there?"

  Elaine licked her lips. "I don't want to talk about it," she said in a way that told me she was on the verge of telling me.

  "I wish
you would. I really wish you'd tell me."

  "She says -- she says that she can take me. She says that if I can learn the songs, she can pull me out of my body and take me there and give me arms and legs and fingers and I can run and dance and--"

  She broke down, crying.

  I patted her on the only place that she permitted, her soft little belly. She refused to be hugged. I had tried it years before, and she had screamed at me to stop it. One of the nurses told me it was because her mother had always hugged her, and Elaine wanted to hug back. And couldn't.

  "It's a lovely dream, Elaine."

  "It's a terrible dream. Don't you see? I'll be like her."

  "And what's she like?"

  "She's the ship. She's the starship. And she wants me with her, to be the starship with her. And sing our way through space together for thousands and thousands of years." "It's just a dream, Elaine. You don't have to be afraid of it."

  "They did it to her. They cut off her arms and legs and put her into the


  "But no one's going to put you into a machine."

  "I want to go outside," she said.

  "You can't. It's raining."

  "Damn the rain."

  "I do, every day."

  "I'm not joking! She pulls me all the time now, even when I'm awake. She keeps pulling at me and making me fall asleep, and she sings to me, and I feel her pulling and pulling. If I could just go outside, I could hold on. I feel like I could hold on if I could just--"

  "Hey, relax. Let me give you a--"

  "No! I don't want to sleep!"

  "Listen, Elaine. It's just a dream. You can't let it get to you like this. It's just the

  rain keeping you here. It makes you sleepy, and so you keep dreaming this. But don't fight it. It's a beautiful dream in a way. Why not go with it?"

  She looked at me with terror in her eyes.

  "You don't mean that. You don't want me to go."

  "No; Of course I don't want you to go anywhere. But you won't, don't you see? It's a dream, floating out there between the stars."

  "She's not floating. She's ramming her way through space so fast it makes me dizzy whenever she shows me."