Chapter 63

CURT IS SITS in the co-pilot’s chair of the parked Fleetwood, gazing through the windshield, wondering if the nuns will risk water-skiing with a storm soon to break.

He had arrived here in Nun’s Lake Saturday afternoon, in the protection of the Spelkenfelter sisters. They settled in a campground on a site that offered them a view of the lake through framing trees.

During the past twenty-four hours, Curtis has spotted no nuns either on the lake or engaged in activities on its shores. This disappoints him because he has seen so many wonderful caring nuns in movies — Ingrid Bergman! Audrey Hepburn! — but has yet to glimpse a real live one since his arrival on this world.

The twins have assured him that if he is patient and watchful, he will see scores of fully habited nuns water-skiing, parasailing, and jet-boat racing. They have made these assurances with such delightful giggles that he infers that nuns at play must be one of the most charming sights this planet offers.

After Curtis revealed his true nature on Friday evening in Twin Falls, Cass and Polly volunteered to be his royal guard. He had tried to explain that he descended from no imperial lineage, that he was an ordinary person just like them. Well, not just like them, considering that he possesses the ability to control his biological structure and to change shape to imitate any organism that has a reasonably high level of intelligence, but otherwise pretty much like them, except that he has no talent as a juggler and would be paralyzingly self-conscious if he had to perform nude on a Las Vegas stage.

They, however, apply a Star Wars template to the situation. They insist on seeing him as Princess Leia without either ample breasts or elaborate hairdo. The transmission for their sense of wonder has been engaged, shifted into high gear, and set racing. They say that they have long dreamed of this moment, and they are ready to dedicate the rest of their lives to helping him perform the work that his mother and her followers came here to do.

He has explained his mission to them, and they understand what he can do for humanity. He has not yet given them the Gift, but soon he will, and they are excited by the prospect of receiving it.

Because they have been so kind to him and because he has come to think of them as his sisters, Curtis was at first reluctant to remain with them and thus put them at risk. Since his lapse on Thursday, he has been Curtis Hammond without fail, in full and fine detail. He is less easily detected by his enemies now than he has been at any time since he arrived on this world, and hour by hour he blends better with the human population. Yet even when he can no longer be detected at all by the biological scanners that he has spent so much time and effort dodging, both human and extraterrestrial hunters will continue to search for him. And if the wrong scalawags ever find him, those who are aligned with him in his work — like Cass and Polly — will be marked for death as certainly as he himself is.

During his six frantic days on Earth, however, he has grown up; his terrible losses and his isolation from his own kind have forced him to the understanding that he must not merely survive, must not simply hope to advance his mother’s mission, but must seize the day and do the work. Do the work. This requires the strong assistance of a circle of friends, a reliable cadre of committed souls who are good of heart, quick of mind, and courageous. Much as he dreads having to assume responsibility for putting the lives of others at risk, he has no choice if he is to prove himself worthy of being his mother’s son.

Changing a world, as he must change this one to save it, comes at a cost, sometimes a terrible price.

If he must assemble a force for change, then Cass and Polly are the ideal recruits. The goodness of their hearts cannot be doubted, nor the quickness of their minds, and between them, they have enough courage to sustain a platoon of marines. Furthermore, their years in Hollywood have sharpened their survival skills and motivated them to become masters of weaponry, which has already proved useful.

They have brought Curtis to Nun’s Lake because they would have come here anyway if they’d never met him. It had been the next stop on their UFO pilgrimage, and they’d taken a detour to the Neary Ranch when the government cordoned off part of Utah in search of the crazed drug lords that all clear-thinking people knew must actually be ETs.

Besides, after the violent encounter at the crossroads store, they believed it would be wise to get farther from the Nevada border than Twin Falls, Idaho.

Now, after a much needed day of rest, as the twins confer in the dining nook, studying maps and deciding where best to go next, Curtis watches the lake for nuns at play. And he occupies his mind with such big plans for a world-changing campaign that his ten-year-old brain, though organically augmented more than once at his beloved mother’s insistence, feels as if it might explode.

Even when plans are being busily spun to save a world, dogs must pee. Old Yeller makes her urgent need known by pawing at the door and by rolling her eyes at her brother-become.

When Curtis goes to the door to let the dog out, Polly rises from the dining nook and warns him to stay inside, where he will be less easily detected if agents of the evil empire are in the vicinity with scanners.

He’s told them that there is no empire aligned against him. The true situation is in some ways simpler and in other ways more complex than standard political entities. The twins are staying with the Star Wars template nonetheless, perhaps hoping that Han Solo and a Wookie will show up in an Airstream travel trailer to add to the fun.

“I’ll take her out,” says Polly.

“No one needs to go along,” Curtis explains. “I’ll let her out by herself, but I’ll stay with her in spirit.”

“The boy-dog bond,” Polly says.

“Yeah. I can have a look around the campground through little sister here.”

“This is so Art Bell,” Polly says, referring to a radio talk-show host who deals in UFO reports and stories of alien contact. She shivers with the thrill of it.

Old Yeller jumps from the motor home to the ground, the sisters reconvene over the maps, and Curtis returns to the co-pilot’s seat.

His bond with little sister is at all times established, twenty-four hours a day, whether he is focused on it or not. Now he focuses.

The cockpit of the Fleetwood, the trees beyond the windshield, and the nunless lake beyond the trees all fade from his awareness, and Curtis is both inside the motor home and afoot in the world with Old Yeller.

She pees but not all at once. Padding among the motor homes and the travel trailers, she happily explores this new territory, and when she finds something particularly to her liking, she marks the spot with a quick squat and a brief stream.

The warm afternoon is gradually cooling as the clouds pour out of the west, roll down the rocky peaks, and, trapped between the mountains, condense into ever darker shades of gray.

The day smells of the sheltering pines, of the forest mast, of rain brewing.

Death-still, the air is also heavy with expectancy, as if in an instant, the eerily deep calm might whip itself into a raging tumult.

Everywhere, campers prepare for the storm. Extendable canvas awnings are cranked shut and locked down. Women fold lawn furniture and stow it in a motor home. A man leads two children back from the lakeshore, all in swimsuits and carrying beach toys. People gather up magazines, books, blankets, anything that shouldn’t get wet.

Old Yeller receives unsolicited coos and compliments, and she rewards every expression of delight with a grin and the brisk wagging of her tail, although she cannot be distracted from her explorations, which she finds ceaselessly intriguing. The world is an infinite sea of odors and every scent is a current that either brings fresh life to complex memories or teases with mystery and a promise of wondrous discoveries.

Curiosity and the measured payout of a full bladder lead Old Yeller through a maze of recreational vehicles and trees and picnic benches to a motor home that looms like a juggernaut poised to crush battalions in a great war that is straining toward eruption at any moment. Even compared to the twins’ impressive Fleetwood American Heritage, this behemoth is a daunting machine.

Sister-become is drawn to this caravan fit for Zeus, not because of its tremendous size or because of its formidable appearance, but because the scents associated with it both fascinate and disturb her. She approaches warily, sniffs the tires, peers cautiously into the shadows beneath the vehicle, and at last arrives at the closed door, where she sniffs still more aggressively.

Aboard the Fleetwood, physically far removed from Old Yeller, Curtis nonetheless is disquieted and overcome by a sense of danger. His first thought is that this juggernaut, like the Corvette behind the crossroads store, might be more than it appears to be, a machine not of this world.

The dog had penetrated the illusion of the sports car and had perceived the alien conveyance beneath. Here, however, she sees only what anyone can see — which strikes her as plenty strange enough.

At the motor-home door, one sharp smell suggests bitterness, while another is the essence of rot. Not the bitterness of quassia or quinine; the bitterness of a soul in despair. Not the stench of flesh decomposing, but of a spirit hideously corrupted in a body still alive. To the dog, everyone’s body emits pheromones that reveal much about the true condition of the spirit within. And here, too, is a twist of an odor suggesting sourness; not the sourness of lemons or spoiled milk, but of fear so long endured and purely distilled that sister-become whimpers in sympathy with the heart that lives in such constant anxiety.

She has not a dram of sympathy, however, for the vicious beast whose malodor underlies all other scents. Someone who lives in this vehicle is a sulfurous volcano of repressed rage, a steaming cesspool of hatred so dark and thick that even though the monster currently is not present, its singularly caustic spoor burns like toxic fumes in sister-become’s sensitive nose. If Death truly stalks the world in living form, with or without hooded robe and scythe, its pheromones can be no more fearsome than these. The dog sneezes to clear her nostrils of the stinging effluvium, growls low in her throat, and backs away from the door.

Old Yeller sneezes twice again as she rounds the front of the enormous motor home, and when, at Curtis’s instruction, she looks up toward the panoramic windshield, she sees — as thus does he — neither a goblin nor a ghoul, but a pretty young girl of nine or ten. This girl stands beside the unoccupied driver’s seat, leaning on it, bent forward, peering toward the lake and at the steadily hardening sky, probably trying to judge how long until the tension in the clouds will crack and the storm spill out.

Hers might be the bitter despair and the long-distilled sourness of fear that in part drew sister-become to investigate this ominous motor home.

Surely the girl isn’t the source of the rotten fetor that, for the dog, identifies a deeply corrupted soul. She is too young to have allowed worms so completely to infest her spirit.

Neither can she be the monster whose heart is a machine of rage and whose blood is hatred flowing.

She notices sister-become and looks down. The dog — and Curtis unseen in his Fleetwood redoubt — gaze up from the severe angle that is the canine point of view on all the world above two feet.

Yeller’s wagging tail renders a judgment without need of words.

The girl is radiant.

In her home on wheels, where evidently she belongs, she appears nevertheless to be lost. And haunted. More than merely haunted, she half seems to be a ghost herself, and the big windshield lies between her and the dog as though it is a cold membrane between the land of the living and the land of the dead.

The radiant girl turns away and moves deeper into the motor home, evanescing into the dim beyond.

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