Read Slow Sculpture Online

Authors: Theodore Sturgeon

Slow Sculpture (11 page)

Then—

—it was as if a mighty voice had called
Stop!
and the very flames froze. Half a foot above her hung the jagged end of the burning beam, and chunks of plaster, splinters and scraps of shattered lath and glowing joist stopped in midair. Yet during this sliver of a fraction of time, she knew that the phenomenon was a mental something, a figment, and the idea of time-cessation only a clumsy effort of her mind’s to account for what was happening.

Save Thyself was
still there, hysterical hands clutching for the controls, but
Cover Thyself
disappeared into the background. Save herself she would, but it would be on new terms. She was in the grip of a reflex of reflexes, one which took into consideration all the factors
a normal reflex would, to the end goal of survival. But along with these, it called up everything Reta Schmidt had ever done, everything she had been. In a single soundless flash, a new kind of light was thrown into every crevice and cranny of her existence. It was her total self now, reacting to a total situation far wider than that which obtained here in this burning room. It illuminated even the future—that much of it which depended upon these events, between them and the next probable major “crossroads.” It canceled past misjudgments and illogics and replaced them with rightness, even for the times she had known what was right and had done otherwise. It came and was gone even while she leaped, while she took two bounding steps across the floor and the beam crashed and crushed and showered sparks where she had been standing.

She scooped up the child and ran down the hall, through the foyer, into the kitchen. It was dark there, thick with swirling smoke, but the glass panels on the kitchen door glared with some unfamiliar light from outdoors. She began to cough violently, but grimly aimed at the light and drove ahead. It was eclipsed suddenly by a monstrous shadow, and suddenly it exploded inward. There were lights out there she had never seen before, and half-silhouetted in the broken doorway was a big man with a gleaming helmet and an axe. She tried to call, or perhaps it was only a scream, but instead she went into a spasm of coughing.

“Somebody in here?” asked the man. A beam of light, apparently from the street, lit up the shield on the front of his helmet as he leaned forward. He stepped inside. “Whew! Where are you?”

She went blindly to him and pushed Robin against his coat. “The baby,” she croaked. “Get him out of this smoke.”

He grunted and suddenly Robin was gone from her arms. “You all right?” He was peering into the black and the smoke.

“Take him out,” she said. “Then I’ll want your coat.”

He went out. Miss Schmidt could hear Robin’s clear voice: “You a fireman?”

“I sure am,” rumbled the man. “Want to see my fire engine? Then sit right there on the grass and wait one second. Okay?”

“Okay.”

The coat flew through the doorway.

“Got it?”

“Thank you.” She put the huge garment on and went out. The fireman waited there, again holding Robin in his arms. “You all right, ma’am?”

Her lungs were an agony and she had burns on her feet and shoulders. Her hair was singed and one of her hands was flayed across its back. “I’m just fine,” she said.

They began to walk up the road. Robin squirmed around in the man’s arms and popped his head out to look back at the brightly burning house.

“ ’Bye, Boff,” he said happily, and then gave his heart to the fire engine.

XII

“Mother, the bread’s burning!”

Mary Haunt opened her eyes to an impossible glare and a great roaring. She shrieked and flailed out blindly, as if she could frighten it away, whatever it was; and then she came enough to her senses to realize that she still sat in her chair by the window, and that the house was on fire. She leaped to her feet, sending the heavy chair skittering across the room where it toppled over against the clothespress. As it always did when it was bumped, the clothespress calmly opened its doors.

But Mary Haunt didn’t wait for that or anything else. She struck the screen with the flat of her hand. It popped out easily, and she hit the ground almost at the same time it did. She ran off a few steps, and then, like Lot’s wife, curiosity overtook her and she stopped. She turned around in fascination.

Great wavering flames leapt fifty and sixty feet in the air and all the windows were alight. From the town side she could hear the shriek and clang of fire engines, and the windows and doors opening, and running feet. But the biggest sound of all was the roar of the fire, like a giant’s blowtorch.

She looked back at her own window. She could see into the room easily, the chair on its side, the bed with its chenille top-spread sprouting
measles of spark and char, and the gaping doors of the— “My clothes! My clothes!”

Furiously she ran back to the window, paused a moment in horror to see fire run along the picture-molding of the inside wall like a nightmare caterpillar. “My clothes,” she whispered. She didn’t make much money at her job, but every cent that wasn’t used in bed and board went on her back. She mouthed something, and from her throat came that animal growl of hers; she put both hands on the sill and leaped, and tumbled back into the house.

She was prepared for the heat but not for that intensity of light, and the noise was worst of all. She recoiled from it and stood for a moment with her hands over her eyes, swaying with the impact of it. Then she ground her teeth and made her way across to the clothespress. She swept open the bottom drawer and turned out the neatly folded clothes. Down at the bottom was a cotton print dress, wrapped around a picture frame. She lifted it out and hugged it, and ran across to the window with it. She leaned far out and dropped it gently on the grass, then turned back in again.

The far wall, by the door, began to buckle high up, and suddenly there was fire up there. The corner near the ceiling toppled into the room with a crash and a cloud of white dust and greasy-looking smoke, and then the whole wall fell, not toward her, but away, so that her room now included a section of the corridor outside. As the dust settled somebody, a man, came roaring inarticulately and battering through the rubble. She could not know who it was. He apparently meant to travel the corridor whether it was all there or not, and he did, disappearing again into the inferno.

She staggered back toward the clothespress. She felt mad, drunk, crazy. Maybe it was the de-oxygenated atmosphere and maybe it was fear and reaction, but it was sort of wonderful, too; she felt her face writhing and part of her was numb with astonishment at what the rest of her was doing; she was laughing. She slammed into the clothespress, gasping for breath, filled her lungs and delivered up a shrill peal of laughter. Almost helpless from it, she fumbled down a dull satin evening gown with a long silver sash. She held it up in front of her and laughed again, doubling over it, and then straightened
up, rolling the dress up into a ball as she did so. With all her might she hurled it into the rubble of the hallway. Next was a simple black dress with no back and a little bolero; with an expression on her face that can only be described as cheerful, she threw it after the evening gown. Then the blue, and the organdy with the taffeta underskirt, and the black and orange one she used to call her Hallowe’en dress; each one she dragged out, held up, and hurled: “You,” she growled between her convulsions of laughter, “you, and you, and
you
.” When the press was empty, she ran to the bureau and snatched open her scarf drawer, uncovering a flowerbed of dainty, filmy silk and nylon and satin shawls, scarves, and kerchiefs. She whipped out an over-sized babushka, barely heavier than the air that floated it, and ran with it to the flaming mass where her door once was. She dipped and turned like a dancer, fluttering it through flame, and when it was burning she bounced back to the bureau and put it in the drawer with the others. Fire streamed out of the drawer and she laughed and laughed.…

And something nipped her sharply on the calves; she yelped and turned and found the lace of her black negligee was on fire. She twisted back and gathered the cloth and ripped it away. The pain had sobered her and she was bewildered now, weak and beginning to be frightened. She started for the window and tripped and fell heavily, and when she got up the smoke was suddenly like a scalding blanket over her head and shoulders and she didn’t know which way to go. She knelt and peered and found the window in an unexpected direction, and made for it. As she tumbled through, the ceiling behind her fell, and the roof after it.

On her belly she clawed away from the house, sobbing, and at last rose to her knees. She smelt of smoke and burned hair and all her lovely fingernails were broken. She squatted on the ground, staring at the flaming shell of the house, and cried like a little girl. But when her swollen eyes rested on that square patch in the grass, she stopped crying and got up and limped over to it. Her cotton print, and the picture … she picked the tidy package up and went tiredly away with it into the shadows where the hedge met the garage.

XIII

O’Banion raised his head groggily from the fly-leaf of his
Blackstone
and the neat inscription written there:

The law doth punish man or woman

That steals the goose from off the common
,

But let the greater felon loose
,

That steals the common from the goose
.

—a piece of eighteenth-century japery which O’Banion deplored. However, it had been written there by Opdycke when he was in law school, and the Opdyckes were a darn fine family. Princeton people, of course, but nobody minded.

All this flickered through his mind as he swam up out of sleep, along with “What’s the matter with my head?” because any roaring that loud must be in his ears; it would be too incredible anywhere else, and “What’s the matter with the light?”

Then he was fully awake, and on his feet. “My
God!

He ran to the door and snatched it open. Flame squirted at him as if from a hose; in a split second he felt his eyebrows disappear. He yelled and staggered back from it, and it pursued him. He turned and dove out the window, landing clumsily on his stomach with his fists clenched over his solar plexus. His own weight drove the fists deep, and for a full minute he lay groaning for air. At last he got up, shook himself, and pelted around the house to the front. One fire engine was already standing by the curb. There was a police car and the knot of bug-eyed spectators who spring apparently out of the ground at the scene of any accident anywhere at any hour. At the far end of the Bittelman lot, there was a sharp scream of rubber and a glare of lights as a taxicab pulled in as close to the police barrier as it could get. The door was already open; a figure left it, half running, half thrown out by the sudden stop.

“Sue!”
But no one heard him—everyone else was yelling too: “Look!” “Somebody stop her!” “Hey!” “Hey, you!”

O’Banion backed off a little to cup his hands and yell again, when directly over his head a cheerful small voice said, “Mommy runs
fast!

“Robin! You’re all right—” He was perched on top of the fire engine with one arm around the shining brass bell, looking like a Botticelli seraph. Someone beside him—good heavens, it was Miss Schmidt, disheveled and bright-eyed, wrapped up in some tentlike garment—Miss Schmidt screamed, “Stop her, stop her, I’ve got the baby here!”

Robin said to Miss Schmidt, “Tonio runs fast too, shall we?”

Now they were all yelling at O’Banion, but in four paces he could hear nothing but the roar ahead of him. He had never seen a house burn like this, all over, all at once. He took the porch steps in one bound and had just time to turn his shoulder to the door. It was ajar, but couldn’t swing fast enough under such an impact. It went down flat and slid, and for one crazy moment O’Banion was riding it like an aquaplane in a sea of fire, for the foyer floor was ablaze. Then the leading edge of the door caught on something and spilled him off. He rolled over twice in fuming debris and then got his feet under him. It was like a particularly bad dream, so familiar, so confusing. He turned completely around to orient himself, found the corridor, and started up it, yelling for Sue at the top of his voice. He saw a left-hand wall lean down toward him and had to scamper back out of the way. It had barely poured its rubble down when he was on, in, and through it. Over the crash and roar, over his own hoarse bellowing, he thought he heard a crazy woman laughing somewhere in the fire. Even in his near-hysteria, he could say, “Not Sue, that’s not Sue Martin.…” And he was, before he knew it, at and past Sue Martin’s room. He flung out a hand. He bounced off the end wall and turned as he did so, like a sprint swimmer, and swung into Sue Martin’s room. “Sue! Sue!”

Was he mistaken? Did someone call, “Robin—Robin honey …”?

He dropped to his knees, where he could see in relatively clearer air. “Sue, oh Sue!”

She lay half buried in rubble from the fallen ceiling. He threw off scorched and broken two-by-fours and burning lath, took her by the shoulders and lifted her out of the heap of broken plaster—thank the powers for that! it had protected her to some degree. “Sue?”

“Robin,” she croaked.

He shook her. “He’s all right, he’s outside, I saw him.”

She opened her eyes and frowned at him. Not at him; at what he had said. “He’s here somewhere.”

“I saw him. Come on!” He lifted her to her feet, and as she dragged, “It’s the truth; do you think
I
would lie to you?”

He felt strength surge into her body. “You forgot to say, ‘I, an O’Banion,’ ” she said, but it didn’t hurt. They stumbled to the window and he pushed her through it and leaped after her. For two painful breaths they lay gulping clean air, and then O’Banion got to his feet. His head was spinning and he almost lay down again. He set his jaw and helped Sue Martin up. “Too close!” he shouted. Holding her up, he half-dragged her no more than a step when she suddenly straightened, and with unexpected and irresistible strength leapt back toward the burning wall, pulling him with her. He caught at her to regain his balance, and she put her arms tight around him. “The wall!” he screamed, as it leaned out over them. She said nothing, but her arms tightened even more, and he could have moved more easily if he had been bound to a post with steel chains. The wall came down then, thunder and sparks, like the end of the world; madly, it occurred to him just then that he could solve one of his problem cases by defining the unorthodox contract under suit as a stock certificate.

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