[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter One]
In ten thousand miles of dreams there is only one Max.
He stands surrounded by dream, lost in great billowing clouds of dream, lost in endless and infinite dream, one tiny speck of human in a surging sea.
The wind that rushes past has taken the skin from him, taken the bones from him, flayed him down to just that speck:
He is flailing in his bed but he does not know it.
His arms are casting about.
Then there is light pressing against the darkness, sunlight turning the insides of his eyelids into shapes, and he remembers his name.
There is a welter of blankets around him. There is cool air flowing through the room. His bones ache.
In his eyes there is sun.
He mumbles a complaint.
These days, when the sun sneaks in through the pinhole in his curtain, it’s personal. It’s not just an anonymous irritant or the wicked hands of fate. It’s Iphigenia, and she’s probably doing it on purpose.
She is a mischevious girl.
She’s a burning yellow heat.
She is 1.4 million kilometers in diameter when she is the sun but no siggort ever came out of Siggort Town just to be her friend.
“Gr,” he mumbles.
In his eyes there is sun.
Something nags at the back of his mind.
He doesn’t want to wake up.
He doesn’t want to wake up. He’s tired and unhappy but there’s some reason—
Max opens his eyes.
There’s a horrible little thing on his pillow. It’s like a crocodile’s skull, only it’s got horns. Its dry and its white but it’s not dead. It’s looking at him.
“Right,” he says.
He reaches out his hand. He holds its jaws closed. With his other hand he rubs his own forehead.
“Martin warned me about you,” he says. “Sneaking in through the pipes and making bad dreams like that.”
The thing struggles in his hand.
Max looks wry.
“I feel sorry for you,” he says. “Coming to a place like this, a little thing like you.”
It’s a horror of living bone. It was probably eating his soul as he slept. But there’s never been a siggort who’d show up just because it said the siggort’s name. There never was a siggort who’d look so . . . so Sid at it when it smiled.
Aside from the numbing horror of it, it’s kind of cute.
So Max doesn’t kill it.
He takes his hat off his hat rack and hangs the horror there and puts his hat on it and then he goes to wash his face in the dinky blue bathroom that’s next to his room.
He doesn’t want to wake up, but there’s some reason—
And he looks at himself in the mirror and he thinks, Ah, right.
Of course he has to wake up.
Sid loved me.
It is June 1, 2004.
There’s a knock on Max’s door.
Max has an image to maintain, so he doesn’t answer. Instead, he pushes a button next to the door.
On both sides of the door a BROODING light lights up.
He can hear from outside: “Aw, man!”
It’s Jane’s voice.
Jane’s like a self-arming nuclear bomb with independently mobile legs. She’s a six-year-old girl. But there’s never been a siggort that waited thirteen hundred years just so Jane could be born.
That happened, with Max.
But not with Jane.
Max pulls on a white shirt. He doesn’t need pants because he sleeps in his jeans so he’s wearing them already.
He flops on his bed.
Jane gives him a full two minutes to relax, to think: maybe she’s gone away?
Then she knocks again.
Max stands up.
He opens the door.
Max brushes back his hair with one hand.
“It’s four in the morning,” he says.
“It’s ten,” says Jane, scandalized.
Max makes a gesture as if to indicate that he cannot be bothered with mundane details of timekeeping.
“I’m brooding,” he says.
“I saw,” says Jane.
“What do you want?” Max asks.
Jane looks at him. She wrings her hands. Then she says what she rehearsed.
“It’s all right to fight,” she says. “But it’s all right to make up, too.”
“Come in,” he says.
Jane comes in. She pulls herself up on the spare bed, the one Max doesn’t use, the one all spread with a cowhide-colored quilt. Max flops in his desk chair, more or less directly in front of and below his hat rack.
What do I say?
“It is because of Sid that I can be here,” Max says. “It’s because he looked at me and saw something worth saving, worth rescuing, worth returning to the world. But I can’t make up with him.”
“It’s easy,” stresses Jane. “You just say, ‘I’m sorry,’ and then you hug.”
“It’s not that easy.”
“You could make him a cake!”
Max looks for words.
“It’s Sid’s business,” he says. “Fixing it, I mean. It’s not mine.”
Jane gapes at him.
“See,” says Max, “if I was all, ‘we must make this right, I miss you, I hurt every day over this,’ then how’d Sid feel?”
“It’d be like if the monster came to you and wanted you to accept his apology,” Max says.
“Oh,” says Jane.
Her mouth moves, like she’s thinking or trying to sound out a hard word.
After a bit, she says, “Sometimes I beat up Martin, or he dangles me by my feet or dunks my head in water, and then we make up.”
“Yes,” says Max. “You’re modeled after young primates.”
It’s a kind of unexpected giggle, as if the image in her mind is surprisingly silly.
“What?” Max asks warily.
“Like in Pokemon!” Jane declares.
Max narrows his eyes. He stares at her with his gunman’s gaze.
“You’re thinking of Primape,” he corrects, and she’s laughing too hard to stop him when he chases her out of his room.
It is June 1, 2004.
Max is alone.
Max feels alone.
He is surrounded by inhuman things, in a place beyond the boundaries of the world. If he thinks about it very carefully, even ten thousand miles of chaos is not so frightening to him as Jane.
Or Mrs. Schiff, that casual swallower of horrors.
Or even the Roomba.
But he doesn’t have to think about it carefully.
It’s not necessary.
There’s no one but Max within ten thousand miles who’s ever had a siggort come out of Siggort Town just to love them, and the immensity of love makes everything else seem small.