He was in the kitchen again. The drawer was open; the knife lay gleaming there. Tucked in the drawer like a baby in its crib.
“Theo, come on now. I’m telling you, all you got to do is pick it up and do her. You do her and this will all be over.”
The voice. The voice that knew his name, that seemed to crawl around inside his head, waking and sleeping. Part of his mind was in the kitchen, while another part was in the cell, the cell where he had been for days and days, fighting sleep, fighting the dream.
“Is that so fucking hard? Am I not being absolutely clear here?”
He opened his eyes; the kitchen vanished. He was sitting on the edge of the cot. The cell with its door and its stinking hole that ate his piss and shit. Who knew what time it was, what day, what month, what year. He had been in this place forever.
“Theo? Are you listening to me?”
He licked his lips, tasting blood. Had he bitten his tongue? “What do you want?”
A sigh from the far side of the door. “I gotta say, Theo. You do impress me. Nobody holds out like this. I think you’ve got some kind of record going.”
Theo said nothing. What was the point? The voice never answered his questions. If there even was a voice. Sometimes he thought it was just something in his head.
“I mean some, sure,” the voice went on. “In some cases you could say it goes against the grain, carving the old bitch up.” A dark chuckle, like something from the bottom of a pit. “Believe me, I’ve seen people do the damnedest shit.”
It was terrible, Theo thought, what staying awake could do to a person’s mind. You went without sleep long enough, you made your brain stand up and walk around day after day after day no matter how tired you felt—you did push-ups and sit-ups on the cold stone floor until your muscles burned, you scratched and slapped yourself and dug at your own flesh with your bloodied nails to keep awake—and before long you didn’t know which was which, if you were awake or asleep. Everything got blended together. A sensation like pain—only worse, because it wasn’t a pain in your body; the pain was your mind and your mind was you. You were pain itself.
“You mark my words, Theo. You do not want to go there. That was not a story with a happy ending.”
He felt his awareness folding again, taking him down into sleep. He dug his nails hard into his palm. Stay. Awake. Theo. Because there was something worse than staying awake, he knew.
“Sooner or later everybody comes around, is what I’m saying, Theo.”
“Why do you keep using my name?”
“I’m sorry? Theo, did you ask me something?”
He swallowed, tasting blood again, the foulness of his own mouth. His head was in his hands. “My name. You’re always saying it.”
“Just trying to get your attention. You haven’t been yourself much these last few days, if you’ll pardon my saying so.”
Theo said nothing.
“So okay,” the voice went on. “You don’t want me to use your name. Don’t see why not, but I can live with that. Let’s change the subject. What are your thoughts on Alicia? Because I do believe that girl is something special.”
Alicia? The voice was talking about Alicia? It simply wasn’t possible. But nothing was, that was the thing. The voice was always saying things that were impossible.
“Now, I thought it would be Mausami, the way you described her,” the voice went merrily on. “Back when we had our little talk. I was pretty sure my tastes would run in her direction. But there’s something about a redhead that just gets my blood boiling.”
“I don’t know who you’re talking about. I told you. I don’t know anyone by those names.”
“You dog, Theo. Are you trying to tell me you put the wood to Alicia, too? And Mausami in the condition she is?”
The room seemed to tip. “What did you say?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. You didn’t hear? Now, I’m surprised she didn’t tell you. Your Mausami, Theo.” The voice lifted to a kind of singsong. “Got a little bunski in the ovenski.”
He was trying to focus. To hold the words he was hearing in place so he could grasp their meaning. But his brain was heavy, so heavy, like a huge, slippery stone the words kept sliding off.
“I know, I know,” the voice went on. “It came as a shock to me, too. But back to Lish. If you don’t mind my asking, how does she like it? I’m thinking she’s an on-all-fours-howl-at-the-moon kind of girl. How about it, Theo? Set me straight here if I’m wrong.”
“I don’t.… know. Stop using my name.”
A pause. “All right. If that’s how you want it. Let’s try a new name, shall we? How about: Babcock.”
His mind clenched. He thought he might be sick. He would have been, if there had been anything in his stomach to come up.
“Now we’re getting somewhere. You know about Babcock, don’t you, Theo?”
That was what was on the other side, the other side of the dream. One of Twelve. Babcock.
“What … is he?”
“Come on, you’re a smart fellow. You really don’t know?” An expectant pause. “Babcock is … you.”
I am Theo Jaxon, he thought, saying the words in his mind like a prayer. I am Theo Jaxon, I am Theo Jaxon. Son of Demetrius and Prudence Jaxon. First Family. I am Theo Jaxon.
“He’s you. He’s me. He’s everyone, at least in these parts. I like to think he’s kind of like our local god. Not like the old gods. A new god. A dream of god we all dream together. Say it with me, Theo. I. Am. Babcock.”
I am Theo Jaxon. I am Theo Jaxon. I am not in the kitchen. I am not in the kitchen with the knife.
“Shut up, shut up,” he begged. “You’re not making any sense.”
“There you go again, trying to make sense of things. You gotta let go, Theo. This old world of ours hasn’t made sense in a hundred goddamn years. Babcock isn’t about making sense. Babcock just is. Like the We. Like the Many.”
The words found Theo’s lips. “The Many.”
The voice was softer now. It floated toward him from behind the door on waves of softness, calling him to sleep. To just let go and sleep.
“That’s right, Theo. The Many. The We. The We of Babcock. You gotta do it, Theo. You’ve got to be a good boy and close your eyes and carve that old bitch up.”
He was tired, so tired. It was like he was melting from the outside in, his body liquefying around him, around the single overwhelming need to close his eyes and sleep. He wanted to cry but he had no tears to shed. He wanted to beg but he didn’t know what for. He tried to think of Mausami’s face, but his eyes had closed again; he had let his lids fall shut, and he was falling, falling into the dream.
“It’s not as bad as you think. A bit of a tussle at the start. The old gal’s got some fight in her, I’ll give her that. But in the end, you’ll see.”
The voice was somewhere above him, floating down through the warm yellow light of the kitchen. The drawer, the knife. The heat and smell and the tightness in his chest, the silence plugging his throat, and the soft place on her neck where her voice was bobbing in its rolls of flesh. I tell you, the boy isn’t just dumb. He’s been struck dumb. Theo was reaching for the knife, the knife was in his hand.
But a new person was in the dream now. A little girl. She was seated at the table, holding a small, soft-looking object in her lap: a stuffed animal.
—This is Peter, she stated in her little girl’s voice, not looking at him. He’s my rabbit.
—That’s not Peter. I know Peter.
But she wasn’t a little girl, she was a beautiful woman, tall and lovely, with tresses of black hair that curved liked cupped hands around her face, and Theo wasn’t in the kitchen anymore. He was in the library, in that terrible room with its stench of death and the rows of cots under the windows and on each cot the body of a child, and the virals were coming; they were coming up the stairs.
—Don’t do it, said the girl, who was a woman now. The kitchen table at which she sat had somehow traveled to the library, and Theo saw that she wasn’t beautiful at all; in her place sat an old woman, wizened and toothless, her hair gone ghostly white.
—Don’t kill her, Theo.
He jerked awake, the dream popping like a bubble. “I won’t … do it.”
The voice broke into a roar. “Goddamnit, you think this is a game? You think you get to choose how this is going to go?”
Theo said nothing. Why wouldn’t they just kill him?
“Well, okay then, pardner. Have it your way.” The voice released a great, final sigh of disappointment. “I got news for you. You’re not the only guest in this hotel. You won’t like this next part very much, I don’t expect.” Theo heard the boots scraping on the floor, turning to go. “I had higher hopes for you. But I guess it’s all the same. Because we’re going to have them, Theo. Maus and Alicia and the rest. One way or the other, we’re going to have them all.”