Aren't You the One Who...?
One instant he was dreaming. The next he was awake --sweating and trembling, his harsh breathing the only sound in the dark room. The nightmare again. The same one, only this time--
“Matt?” A tall figure was silhouetted in the dim rectangle of his open door. “You awake?”
Oh lord...he must have been yelling if he had woken up the lieutenant. How many times did this make? Five. And he wasn’t a little kid anymore; he should have outgrown nightmares long ago. Matt swallowed, grateful for the darkness that hid his tearstained face. “Yes, sir, I’m awake.”
“Want to talk?”
Talking helped, but they had said it all before, and there was no point in going over the same ground. What he did want was to tell Ryder he was sorry he was such a sniveling coward, but he couldn’t even do that; a couple of nightmares ago the lieutenant had made him promise not to apologize anymore. The sooner he learned to handle this, the better it would be for both of them. “No, I’m okay now. Thanks.”
Ryder remained in the doorway, motionless. It seemed a long time before he spoke again. “Matt....”
Don’t ask, Matt begged him silently. Jesus...please don’t ask. I’ll break down and tell you everything, and you’ll know for certain what a gutless wonder I-
“All right, Matt,” Ryder said quietly, as if he had heard Matt’s silent plea, “if you’re sure.”
“I’m sure. It was the same as all the others.”
“The crowd attacking you?”
“Nothing else? Nothing new?”
“No.” Yes, but I can’t tell you about that either.
“All right,” he said again. “Good night, then. You know what to do.”
“Yes.” Turn on the light and read for a while so he wouldn’t find himself back in the same dream when he went to sleep. But that wasn’t what he was afraid of this time. “Good night, sir. And thanks.”
Instead of turning on the light after Ryder left, Matt flipped the soggy pillow onto its dry side and lay back, hands under his head, staring into the darkness. It had been the same nightmare; he had not lied about that. Up to a point it had been the same lousy dream. Himself alone in a strange city, searching for Katie, racing desperately down dark streets, calling her name. Suddenly rounding a corner and running into a crowd of ordinary people. Blurting out a plea for help.
Their faces changing--seeing a guy who killed a little girl and got away with it. Hating him. Eyes hard and ugly, mouths screaming accusations. You killed her! You shouldn’t be walking around free and clear; you should be punished for what you did!
Trying to run. Caught. Thrown to the ground yelling. No, no--I didn’t do it! Held down. Begging them to listen.
But they don’t. They’re all over me--kicking,hitting, screaming that I’ve got to pay for hurting her. Sometimes...oh God...sometimes they have knives--
Matt sat bolt upright. Panting hoarsely, he fumbled for the light switch. Jesus! he couldn’t even think about it when he was awake without coming apart. Maybe if he got up and splashed cold water on his face, walked around a little...
Fifteen minutes later he was back in bed, debating whether to leave the light on and deciding against it. On the wall at the foot of his bed was Michael’s birthday poster. Looking at it would only make things worse. He had to forget Craigie and everyone in it. Especially Gary.
Gary. That was the thing that made this nightmare different from the others. And worse. Gare in the crowd, hating him, screaming at him like everyone else.
No wonder he had gone crazy this afternoon. No wonder he felt so shaky and uncertain now. The one person who knew him better than anyone else in the world--who knew everything there was to know about him, the good and the bad--had believed he was capable of hurting someone he loved as much as Katie.
He had counted on Gare. Without him there was no one left who had always known him and who could swear he was okay. Gare had been his secret weapon, his trump card, his proof that he wasn’t the kind of guy that everyone who knew only what they’d read in the papers about him thought he was.
He hadn’t expected life in L.A. to be easy. Even if nine out of every ten people who read about him last spring had forgotten him by now, he was going to run into the tenth one, the one who remembered the story and the photographs, again and again. There was no way he could avoid it, and no way to tell in advance when it was going to happen. Every time he stuck his neck outside the Ryders’ door, or got on a bus, or walked into a classroom, he was going to have to be ready for someone to say, Hey, aren’t you the guy who killed a little girl and got away with it? And once one person knew, it wouldn’t take long for the word to get around.
What kind of guy was he? That was the question people would be asking themselves once they knew the story. If they didn’t actually accuse him of the murder, they’d be looking at him with a question in their eyes, giving him a wide berth.
You can take that kind of stuff from strangers as long as you know something they don’t know. That they’re wrong--dead wrong. that you aren’t the kind of guy they think you are. But what happens when you aren’t sure what kind of guy you are anymore? When your best friend, who’s known you since Day One, says he was wrong about you, how can you be sure that you’re right?
Face it, McKendrick. You aren’t the same guy you were before all this happened. That guy had so many people in his life who knew he was okay he didn’t have to worry about what the rest of the world thought. He could damn the torpedoes and plow straight ahead. But you--! You’re scared to set foot outside the house. You don’t even want to get your toes wet anymore.
If you know so much--what kind of a guy am I?
You really want me to tell you?
Yes. No...forget I asked.
You’re a guy who made a mistake you’re never going to stop paying for. A guy wearing a label a mile high that tells every new person you meet that you’re dangerous, you can’t be trusted, it’s not safe to have you around. A guy who’s going to spend the rest of his life like that crow--alone. You better start getting used to the idea.
I won’t buy that. People can change their minds.
They can, but what makes you think they will? If Gary could believe that story, how are you going to convince all the strangers you’re going to be running into from now on that it isn’t true?
I convinced Tony, didn’t I? And the Ryders.
I don’t know.
Gary changed his mind about you, and he knew you better than they ever will.
Don’t say it.
The lieutenant and Sally don’t know you very well.
Don’t say it, you jerk!
Something could happen, like it did with Gare. They could change their minds about you too.
You’re crazy! Lieutenant Ryder...maybe. But not Sally and Tony.
That’s what you thought about Gare.
Oh Jesus...I can’t lose them too. Not them.
Oh yes you can. That’s another idea you’d better start getting used to....
Matt overslept the next morning, finding Michael chatting with Mrs. B in the kitchen when he came in. Last night he had been ready to spend the rest of his life in his locked bedroom, but then his uncompromising inner voice had given him a positive idea to wrestle with.
There was nothing he could do to change people’s minds about him. People were going to think what they liked, and there was no way he could prove they were wrong. But he had one thing going for him still, one part of him that hadn’t changed. He was a runner, and a good one. It was something he could prove to the world--something small, but all he had left on the plus side. He would make people recognize it and add it to their one-sided view of him if it killed him.
Having the running to concentrate on would make it easier to live with the rest of his problems, but the leg needed a lot of work. If he was going to build it up in time for the cross-country, he had to get started.
“I’m going to take a hike up that side road at the top of the hill, Michael,” he said as he finished his breakfast. “I want to see if it’s a good area for running. Want to come?”
His nightmare was so vivid in his mind that the instant the words were out he wanted to take them back; make Michael stay at home, safe. But how could he make Michael understand? Tell him there might be trouble and he didn’t want him there? What kind of trouble? Michael would ask. Why don’t you want me? Questions he couldn’t answer. If he saw trouble coming, he would just have to grab Michael and run like hell.
A few minutes later they were walking up Verde Canyon Road and turning left on the narrow side street named Las Lomas. Birds called from tree to tree, and small creatures rustled furtively in the shrubbery as they walked by. Trouble seemed unlikely in this remote and peaceful setting. Reminded of other early morning runs, Matt was suddenly impatient to get started. “Come on, Michael. Let’s jog for a little ways.”
“A slow run, like this.” He demonstrated, and Michael trotted happily along beside him for a while before he began to drop back. Matt did not want to let him get too far behind, but he was anxious to test his leg and his wind. “I’ll stop and wait for you at that big tree at the corner, Michael. Okay?”
Using Michael’s cheerful “Okay” as a starting signal, he took off, concentrating on the weak leg. It was worse than he’d hoped, but his breathing was still good. Not too bad, he was congratulating himself as he pulled up. Not hopeless, anyway.
Oh lord. He stopped abruptly. Trouble after all, but not a kind he was expecting. Not a kind he was ready for. On the road ahead a German shepherd had come out of nowhere and was stalking him, its fangs bared. The threat of attack rattled viciously in its throat.
Taking two cautious steps backward, he stumbled over Michael running to catch up. Matt reached behind him. “Quick, Michael, give me your hand!” A trembling hand slid into his, and he hoisted the small boy up on his back. “If he tries to bite you,” he said in a low voice, “kick him as hard as you can.”
“What if he bites you?” Michael quavered in his ear.
Against his back he could feel the terrified beating of the little boy’s heart. “Let him try!” he said savagely. Before he’d let the monster hurt Michael, he would kill it. Worry about its owners later. If he could kill it... “Hey!” he yelled. “Hey, help us somebody! We need help!”
The dog crouched. It was going to spring.
You bastard, Matt thought in silent fury. Come on, then--what are you waiting for? Michael’s whispered “Someone’s coming” took a moment to sink in.
Someone coming? Let it be someone old enough to help, Matt prayed. “Hey,” he shouted, “can you help us get this monster off?”
Fifteen feet away the someone stopped. Risking a quick glance, Matt saw a guy about his own age. “That damned dog!” the guy yelled. “So far he’s been all bluff and no bite, but he’s really going to attack someone someday.” Someday soon, Matt thought. “Hey Boo, you mutt...beat it!” The guy shagged a coupled of rocks at the dog’s flanks. “Go on, Boo, get home! Get out of here, you stupid mutt!”
Boo slunk snarling into the bushes. With a trembling Michael still clinging to his back, Matt moved cautiously away from the dog’s territory. Now that the danger from the dog was over, he realized he was in as big a sweat about the stranger he was going to have to meet as he had been about the dog.
Come on, McKendrick, he told himself scornfully. You’ll know in the first couple of seconds if he’s one of the nine who doesn’t know you, or the tenth guy who does. Just tell him thank you for saving your lives, and then if you have to, you can run like hell for the Ryders’.
The vision of himself fleeing in terror from their astonished rescuer with Michael bouncing wildly on his back made Matt grin in spite of himself. He took a deep breath and kept on walking.
“Thanks,” he said as soon as he was within range. “You’ve got a great throwing arm. Play much baseball?” He was counting the seconds, watching the boy’s eyes for a change of expression.
“Tennis,” said their rescuer with a grin. He flipped his last two rocks in the ditch. “Glad I could help.”
One of the nine. Matt realized he had been holding his breath, and let it out slowly and gently. “So am I.”
The guy was wearing cutoffs split up the side, a sweat band around his thick sun-bleached hair, and old tennis shoes. Not a serious runner, Matt decided as he took this in, but he probably knew the neighborhood. “Where do you do your running?” he asked. “I was going to map out a course to run myself until that monster got in the way.”
The boy turned, pointing back the way he had come. “Well, if you go around that corner, there’s a-- Wait a second. I’ll take you up to the Loop. It’s easier to describe it from there.”
Walking up the road with him, Matt wondered how old the guy was. His voice was deep, but he was about five inches shorter than Matt and, except for a pair of wide shoulders, kind of lean and stringy for his height. His face was thin and square-jawed, and his brown eyes glinted mischievously as he asked, “Do you always run with a load like that?”
Matt grinned. “Only the first twenty miles,” he said, adding over his shoulder, “Let me know, Michael, when you want to get down, okay?” Hitching the small boy higher on his back, he gave Michael’s legs a reassuring squeeze to tell him there was no hurry.
“Are you new around here?” the boy asked.
“Not here. We live on Verde Canyon.”
“The white house with the red tile roof,” Michael put in. “I can get down now, Matt.”
“That’s our house.” The guy was pointing at a sand-colored, stucco ranch-style on the downhill side of the street. “I’m Will,” he added when he saw Matt looking at the T.J Schuyler on the mailbox.
“I’m Matt--” he began automatically, but sheer funk jammed in his throat and strangled the McKendrick before he could get it out. “And this is Michael,” he went on rapidly, hoping Will hadn’t noticed anything odd and calling himself every kind of coward he could name.
But he didn’t have to go around advertising himself to everyone he met, did he? The only people who had to know were the ones who were going to be seeing a lot of him, and he might never see this guy again. “Do you run at school?” he asked, to get the conversation back to safer ground.
“No, I jog because it keeps me in shape for tennis and skiing. Do you?”
“I’m planning on it,” Matt said grimly. “If I can shape up this leg in time.”
Will eyed the offending limb critically. “It does look a shade off-color. What have you been doing to it? Testing different brands of suntan lotion for a TV commercial or something?”
Matt laughed, feeling lightheaded. After all the nights he’d spent worrying, imagining the worst, here he was kidding around with an ordinary human being again. “It’s been goofing off all summer in a cast.”
They reached the Loop, where the road forked right and left as well as continuing straight ahead. Using a stick to draw a map in the dirt, Will described the setup as a figure eight with Las Lomas running straight up the middle, making a course on which Matt could keep close track of times and distances.
“Sounds good,” Matt said finally. “Any hills?”
“Right where the next Loop comes in,” Will assured him. “A real killer. Down and up. People have been known to collapse at the bottom and have to be rescued by helicopter.”
Snorting appreciatively at this description, Matt gazed longingly up the road.
“You going to try it now?” Will asked.
“I can do it, Matt,” Michael put in anxiously, as if he thought it was his fault Matt couldn’t go.
“I can’t,” Matt said. To head off further debate, he started back. Will walked them down past Boo’s house, but the dog was no longer in front.
“What a stupid name for a dog like that!” Matt said, remembering what a near thing it had been for him and Michael.
“He wasn’t always that bad,” Will said. “When they got him, he was a friendly little fuzz-ball. He used to pop out at people and give one sharp bark. That’s where the name came from.”
“How did he get like this, then?”
“I don’t know. It was after they sent him somewhere to be trained to protect their kids. Probably got to thinking he was Super Watchdog and extended his territory out farther and farther until it covered the street.”
“Is there any other way to get to Las Lomas without going past his house?”
“Not unless you run all the way to the bottom of Verde Canyon, along Montgomery Boulevard, and up the next canyon road.”
“Well, I’m not going through that every day,” Matt vowed. “I’ll complain to his owners if he does it again--and I live through it,” he added, only half-joking.
“Complaining won’t do any good. I’ve tried. The Kennetts will tell you he’s as sweet and gentle as their little old granny and put him in the backyard with their kids. The next day he’ll dig a new hole and be out on the street again.”
“Oh lord!” Matt had already fought and lost several encounters with that stubborn, I’ve-made-up-my-mind, don’t-confuse-me-with-the-facts attitude. “Well, anyway, thanks a lot. Glad you were out this morning.”
“Yeah, me too.” Will left them and was halfway home before he stopped and turned around. “Hey, Matt? If you want a tour guide--you know, to introduce you to the neighborhood dogs and all that--I usually run around seven when it’s still cool. Just stop by and knock on the door.” He paused, as if sensing Matt’s sudden withdrawal, and added awkwardly, “If you want to.”
Matt hesitated. Did he want this? Was Will’s company for a few days going to be worth the painful confrontation over who he was that would inevitably bring it to an end? What should he tell him, yes or no? Will turned away, heading home. In a second it would be too late to tell him anything.
Take a chance, McKendrick, go on. At least you’ll know it’s coming. It won’t hurt as much the second time around. “Okay,” Matt yelled before he lost his nerve. “Thanks. If I don’t make it the first couple of days, don’t be too surprised. I’ve been sleeping in for so long, I’m all out of practice.”
They saluted each other, and Matt and Michael jogged to the end of Las Lomas before walking the rest of the way home.
That night, instead of eating supper with Mrs. B and the children the way he usually did, Matt had dinner late with Sally and Ryder so he could ask the lieutenant whether there was anything he could do about a dangerous dog before it hurt someone--not after when it would be too late. Describing the incident on Las Lomas, he told them he thought the dog’s protective instincts were so strong it was almost insane.
Ryder considered the problem. “I don’t know,” he said finally. “I’ll find out for you, but I have a feeling that if the dog hasn’t actually done anything, about all you can do is talk to the owner. You can’t get Animal Control people out here on your hunch that something might happen someday, however educated that hunch might be.”
“But, sir, a dog that size could kill someone.”
“I’ll ask around Headquarters tomorrow, Matt. All right?”
Matt recognized his tone. For Ryder, not a waster of words, everything that could be decided for now had been decided. There was no point in discussing it further.
Dinner over, he left the table wishing there was another way for him to get on Las Lomas without passing the Kennett’s house so he could forget about Boo. But even if there had been ten different ways to avoid the dog, he could not turn his back on the situation now. The dog was a danger not only to him, but to everyone else on Las Lomas.