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Показать все книги автора/авторов: Anthony Piers, Farmer Philip
 

«THE CATERPILLARS QUESTION», Piers Anthony и др.

 

"Who are you?" the Caterpillar said "I can't explain myself, I'm afraid,sir," said Alice, "because I'm not myself, you see."-Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

 

THEY had told Jack they thought it was psychosomatic. She could talk ifshe wanted to, and might even recover the sight of one eye. But it had taken seven years to obtain the grant from the foundation, and now shewas thirteen.

He glanced at her, sitting tight and stiff in the passenger bucket.

Her dark hair was cut so short it was boyish, but the gentle bulges inthe heavy man's shirt she wore belied any boyhood or childhood. Onehand toyed indifferently with the buckle of the seat belt, and under her cotton skirt the shiny length of a metal brace paralleled her left leg.Her sharp chin pointed forward, but of course she was not watchinganything.

The horn of the car behind him blared as the light changed. Jackshifted and edged out, waiting for the string of late left-fumers toclear. He wasn't even certain which city this was; the hours of silentdriving had grown monotonous.

"Are you ready to stop, Tappy?" But she did not answer or make any sign.He knew she heard and understood-but he was still a stranger, and shewas afraid. Had they even bothered to tell her where she was going, orwhy?

Concord, maimed at the age of six, in the accident that killed herfather. She had never known her mother, and the kin that took her in had not been pleased very long with THEIR burden. Jack had no doubt theyhad made this plain to girl many times.

THEY PULLED into a roadside restaurant. His job was to transport HER tothe clinic. She couldn't cover a thousand miles Without eating. -WHyhadn't they sent her by plane, so that all this driving was Necessary?No, the plane was out of the question. Tappy surely remembered that last trip in her father's little flier. Apparently there had been amiscalculation, and they had crashed. Jack had not inquired about thedetails, for Tappy had been there listening, and he had never been onefor pointless cruelty.

He got out, opened her door, unsnapped her seat belt, slipped his handsunder her arms, and lifted her to her feet. They had warned him about this, too: there was often no way to make her come except to make hercome. Anywhere. Otherwise she might simply sit there indefinitely,staring sightlessly ahead. He felt awkward, putting his hands on her,but she did not seem to notice.

He guided her firmly by the elbow and stopped at the little signpointing to the ladies' room, not certain whether the girl knew her way around public facilities, and doubtful what he'd do if she didn't. Hehad to ask her, rather awkwardly because of the people passing nearby,and she shook her head no. Was it wisest to treat her as a child or asa woman? The difference was important the moment they left theisolation of the car. He decided on the latter, at least in publicplaces.

They took a corner table, enduring the interminable wait for theirorder. He was super-conscious of the glances of others, but Tappyseemed oblivious to her surroundings. She kept her hands in her lap,eyes downcast and he saw too clearly the narrow white scar that crossedone eye and terminated at the mutilated ear. What did his pettyembarrassment mean, compared to her problems?

"Lookit that girl's ear's gone!" exclaimed a younger boy at aneighboring table, his voice startlingly loud. There was a fierceshushing that was worse than the remark because it confirmed itsaccuracy. Heads turned, first toward the boy, then toward the object ofthe boy's curiosity.

A slow tear started down Tappy's left cheek.

Jack stood up so suddenly that his chair crashed backward, and hestepped around the table and caught her arm and brought her out of thatplace. It was as if he had tunnel vision; all he saw was the escaperoute, the room and people fuzzing out at the periphery. They made itto the car, strapped in, and he drove, arrowing down the highway at a dangerous velocity. He was first numb, then furious-but he wasn't sureat what.

Gradually he cooled, and knew that the worst of the situation had beenhis own reaction. It was too late to undo what damage he might havedone, but he could at least be guided more sensibly henceforth. Heschooled himself not to react like that, no matter what happened nexttime.

But first he had something more difficult to do. "Tappy, I'm sorry. Ishouldn't have done that. I just-" He faltered, for she was notreacting at all. "I'm sorry."

She might as well have been a statue.

At dusk, starving, he drew up to a motel and left Tappy in the seatwhile he registered for two rooms. He took her to one of them and sat her on the bed. He crossed the street and bought a six-pack of fruitdrinks and two submarine sandwiches for their supper. Class fare it wasnot, but it was all he could think of at the moment.

He set things up precariously on the bed in her room, and was glad tosee that she had a good appetite. She evidently was not used to this particular menu, but was experienced with bedroom meals. His pleasurebecame concern as he thought about it. Had they ever let her eat at thetable, family style? He could see why they might not have, but itbothered him anyway. There was a human being inside that torturedshell!

His thoughts drifted to his own motives. Why had he taken this job? A


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