Caleb stayed in the van while Roy went to reception and got the keys for their room. He sunk low in the backseat, ducked under the black-tinted windows. His jacket was zipped all the way to his neck and his hood was up like he was cold. He wore cracked leather gloves. Sunglasses covered his eyes.
The sun beat down on the motel’s cracked parking lot. Young children ran wild and feral round the stationary cars. They tagged each other and pushed each other down. One fell, scraped his bare knee. He got up and screamed as blood ran down his leg. The pusher laughed. The screaming child chased him, fists raised, still howling. Women, probably mothers, leaned on the walkway’s railing above, smoking. They did nothing to intervene. Most of them were watching the van. They blew rings. A couple of them spoke to each other, but not for long.
A junkie strolled over. He dragged a leg behind himself and scratched his chest through his thin and stained white vest. His jeans were tattered, his knees exposed through gaping holes. He chewed his ragged bottom lip with a mouthful of mostly missing teeth. When he reached the van he slowed, peered inside. He pressed his hands to the glass to block glare. Caleb sunk lower.
Roy left the reception office. “Help you with something?”
The junkie straightened, backed away. “Nice ride, man.”
Roy rolled his shoulders. He was tall and broad, thick-necked with muscle. Had about a foot and maybe as much as a hundred pounds on the junkie. “Yeah, it’s real nice when it ain’t got your fuckin' fingerprints all over it.” He went to the glass where the junkie had been and pulled the sleeve of his jacket over his hand, used it to wipe away the marks.
“Someone in there?”
“What’s it to you?”
The junkie held up his hands. “Hey, man, you don’t gotta be so angry.”
“Son, I ain’t angry. You wanna see angry, you stick around. Get the fuck outta here.”
The junkie kept his hands up, did as Roy said. He walked away, his leg scraping the ground. Roy watched him go, then turned back to the van, shaking his head. He opened the door. “Come on. I got the key.”
“This place is a hole,” Caleb said.
“It’s out the way,” Roy said. He wore black. He always wore black, the buttons on his shirt done all the way up. He went to the rear of the van, grabbed their bags. Despite the heat, Caleb kept his hood and zip up, his gloves on.
They crossed the parking lot. Roy led the way. Caleb kept his head down, avoided the inquisitive stares of the smoking women and the men reclining in the shade nearby. The kids, too, stopped running. Caleb felt the weight of all their eyes.
The curtains were drawn in their room, and it was hot. Roy tested the air-conditioner. It hummed, then died. He hit it with the flat of his hand, but it fixed nothing. He grunted. “We’re going to melt.”
Caleb said nothing. He made for the bathroom. Roy went to the bed, pulled the handgun from his waistband and put it under his pillow, then sat on the edge and turned the television on with the remote. The screen was black and white, the corners were fuzzy. Caleb closed the bathroom door, locked himself in.
He removed the sunglasses and pulled down his hood before he faced the mirror. The whites of his eyes weren’t white; they were yellow and pink. His face was skeletal-thin, pale and sickly. The hair atop his head was thinning and tufts of it were missing. Caleb plucked at a handful of strands and they came away with ease. He dropped them into the toilet. They floated on top of the yellow water.
He took off his jacket, the t-shirt underneath, and inspected his torso. He was looking worse. If he wanted, he could count every rib. He ran his tongue round the inside of his mouth and checked how many of his teeth were loose.
There’d been an incident in the last town. In a diner, he’d bumped into a waitress. He’d just left the bathroom, hadn’t pulled his gloves back on, and he grabbed her bare arm to stop her from falling as her bussing tray clattered to the floor.
Roy called his curse a ‘gift.' Whichever it was, gift or curse, it had a life of its own. Sometimes it lay dormant, at others it was wide awake. In that moment, it was the latter.
The waitress had a brain tumor. She didn’t even know. After he let go of her, the feel of her pulsing up and down his arm and to the tips of his fingers like an electric shock, she looked at him, blinked. She could feel its absence. She started to smile. Caleb felt a drop of blood run from his nose. The waitress reached out to him. Caleb hurried away, told Roy what had happened. They got their things and left.
He could still taste the tumor. It made him sick. He spat into the sink. He left the bathroom, presented himself to Roy. “That last one hurt.”
Roy looked him up and down. “I don’t see a difference.”
“I hope you’re not being polite.”
“I’m not. It’s in your head, Cal.”
“I look like a fucking cancer patient.”
“Look at the positives. You saved that young lady’s life.”
“Mm.” Caleb gathered up his clothes, pulled them back on. He went to the curtain, twitched at the corner. In the parking lot, the mothers had gone back to smoking and occasionally conversing, and the men relaxed in the shade, some of them with their eyes closed. But the children had not returned to play. They stood together in a loose huddle. They did not look at each other. They watched the room the two strangers had disappeared into. Caleb could see the kid that had fallen, the blood smeared red down his leg. He closed the curtain, turned away from it and went to the bed.
“I’m tired,” he said.
Roy watched the television, did not respond, did not turn the volume down. Caleb lay on his side, stared at the water-stained wall. There was a dull pain in his side. He ignored it. Before long, he slept.
They weren’t dreams. They were memories.
A younger man, but not much younger. Healthy, handsome. A thick head of dark hair. A well-built frame clad in a white suit. A microphone in his hand, held to his lips as he summoned the spirit, as he called it down.
People clapped. They stamped their feet and cheered, they brought out their sick and begged him to lay hands upon them.
He’d pick out a cripple, and he’d lay hands, and he’d heal them.
He’d pick out a plant.
He’d smile. Their cheers were nice, but he thought about the money. He looked at the women, at the pretty daughters and sisters of the ill, and he thought about other things, too.
Some of them were so desperate for their ill to be the chosen. They would give anything. They would give themselves. Roy knew his tastes. Roy picked accordingly.
Then there was a girl called Sarah, a brother whose name he couldn’t remember. The brother, a drooling retard confined to a wheelchair. Sarah, a blonde angel.
She came to him, said she’d do anything for him to lay hands upon her brother.
They always used the same line, they always said the same thing. Anything.
He told her he appreciated that, and then he lay down with her, and told her afterward that God would make the decision, that God led him to pick the chosen.
God never chose their ill. Caleb could see the disappointment on their faces as another was brought to the stage, but there was nothing they could do. They believed God worked through him, they believed God had made the decision. They couldn’t curse God.
But, the next night, Sarah made sure she was chosen. Through half-closed eyes, Caleb searched out the plant. When he opened them, Sarah stood in her place.
The people carried her and her brother to the stage.
Offstage, Roy seethed.
Caleb felt sick in his stomach. Told the people that God worked through him, and that God was the true healer.
Then he lay hands upon Sarah’s brother, expecting nothing but humiliation.
Then he threw up, thick, black, rancid bile.
And for the first time in his life, he healed someone.
Roy woke him. “Cal?”
“You all right?”
Caleb squinted at him. He cleared his throat. “I’m fine.”
“You were moaning. It sounded like you were hurting.”
The stabbing in his side had gotten worse. “I am hurting. And I’m hungry. What time is it?”
Caleb raised his head. “What?”
“You slept through.”
Caleb pushed himself up, but the room spun and he fell back onto the bed.
“You look sick.”
“I always look sick.”
“You look worse.”
“I told you.”
“I’ll get food. And painkillers.”
Caleb closed his eyes and nodded, pushed his head back into the pillows. Roy left the room. He didn’t take the gun. It was for Caleb’s protection. When the door opened Caleb could hear the children playing outside again. It seemed like they never went indoors.
No sooner had the door closed than Caleb felt his stomach turn. He fell from the bed and scrambled to the bathroom and made it to the toilet in time to vomit. Thick brown bile splashed into the water at the bottom of the toilet bowl. It was the color of shit and it tasted just as bad.
Caleb stayed on his knees a long time, dry-heaving once all the solids were out of him, stayed there until his knees began to ache and his thighs cramped. He spat then wiped his mouth, then used the doorframe to pull himself back up to his feet. The room spun. When it stilled, he went to the sink and splashed his face with cold water, scooped some of it into his mouth. A couple of handfuls he swilled round, getting the taste out, then he drank a couple more.
He went back through to the bedroom and lay down, laced his fingers on his chest and faced the ceiling. His neck and legs and back ached, and his throat burned.
Someone was watching him. Looking to his right he saw an eye peering through a gap in the curtains. He ignored it, thinking it would move on, but it didn’t. He stared it out, thinking it would move on, but it didn’t.
The eye wasn’t tall. It belonged to a child. “Get outta here,” he said, trying to make his voice loud enough to be heard through the glass. The eye didn’t leave. It didn’t blink. “What?”
A little hand began to tap on the glass.
Grumbling, Caleb got off the bed. Pain shot through his stomach and he clamped an arm across it, gritted his teeth. He opened the door and looked out. A barefoot little girl in a white sundress peered up at him. She had one eye, the right. The left was a mess of scar tissue that ran down her cheek and up into her eyebrow. She had dark skin, and the scar was almost white.
“It’s rude to stare,” Caleb said.
“What’s the matter with you?” she said.
“Nothin’s the matter with me.”
“You don’t look well.”
“Then I guess I’m ill.”
“I heard you throwing up.”
“How long you been stood out here?”
“I was passin' by. I saw you arrive yesterday, you and the angry-lookin man. We all did. You movin' in?”
“No. We ain’t gonna be here long.”
“A lot of people come here, they think they’re gonna leave, but they don’t.”
“That what happened to you?”
“No. I’ve always lived here.”
“Well, we ain’t looking to make this place our new home.”
“Okay. Where’s your friend?”
“You always so damn nosey?”
The girl looked at him with her one eye.
“He’s gone out.”
“Where’re your folks?”
“Daddy’ll be around someplace. I dunno where mommy is. She been gone a long time. You’re real thin, mister.”
“Yeah, well, we all got our problems.”
“You got the AIDs?”
“Sometimes daddy worries about the AIDs. You got the cancer?”
“You look like you got somethin'.”
“I got my burdens. And you got bad manners. You know it’s rude to go askin' folk such questions? What happened to your eye?”
She shrugged. “I dunno. Always been this way.”
“You weren’t born like that. You wouldn’t come out with a scar like that.”
“No, I wasn’t born like this. But long as I can remember, I been a Cyclops.”
“A Cyclops, huh?”
“That’s what daddy says. It’s a joke.”
“It ain’t a funny one. He tell you what happened to your eye?”
“Says he’ll tell me when I’m older. Says it wasn’t his fault.”
They both turned to the sound of the voice. There was a man in the middle of the parking lot, one hand hitching up his loose jeans while the other waved. Caleb recognized the man. It was the junkie that had scoped out the minivan the day before.
“What you doin' up there, girl? Get back on down here!”
“I’m comin', daddy!” Cassie turned to Caleb. “Nice to talk to you, mister. I’ll see you again soon.”
“Sure,” Caleb said. He watched her go along the landing, make her way down the steps and towards her father. He realized there were smoking women standing outside their rooms not far from him. They were watching him. He wondered how much they’d heard. He wondered how many of them watched the news, read newspapers. Wondered if there was a chance any of them might recognize him.
He went back inside. It was unlikely that they would. The reports had been a long time ago, and he’d looked much different then. He’d been healthier, and he’d had his hair still. He’d been handsome, goddamnit.
He went to the curtains and he sealed the gap.
When it got dark Caleb went and stood outside, by the railing. He pulled up his hood and watched his breath mist in front of his face.
“What’re you doing?” Roy said.
“I want some air.”
“You want me to stand with you?”
Caleb looked left and right. The tips of a few cigarettes burned brightly in the dark, but nowhere near as many as during the day. “No, that’s all right.”
Roy stayed in the room, but he left the door open.
The parking lot was busy with foot traffic, men and women that shuffled back and forth to and from rooms. Some of them entered from the darkness beyond the forecourt, then left the way they had come. They looked like junkies, all – wild-haired and bug-eyed, holes in their clothes and, when they passed below the street lamps, weeping sores upon their flesh. Caleb watched for Cassie’s father, and occasionally he saw him moving among the shadows, dragging his leg and smoking a cigarette, trying to buy or sell.
There were still children out. They ran between the legs of the shuffling addicts. Caleb thought he glimpsed Cassie a couple of times, but he couldn’t be sure.
“I met a little girl today,” he said to Roy.
Roy sipped from a bottle of water and raised an eyebrow.
“Not like that. A child.”
“She was at the window.”
“Did she know who you were?”
“No. She was – what’s that word? Precocious.” Caleb smiled, thinking about her.
“I wouldn’t talk to her again. People will start talking about you, about us. They might get curious.”
“They’re already curious. They’re already talking about us.”
“Then we should leave soon.”
“I think we’ll be okay for a few more days. We just got here. I’m tired, Roy.”
“Then rest, and if you see another child at the window close the fucking curtain. Before long they’ll all be here.”
“She has one eye.”
“That’s unfortunate for her.”
Caleb stepped into the room fully, closed the door. “I think it was burned out. It looked like a burn to me.”
“Don’t think about it. It’s not your concern.”
“It could be.”
Roy looked at him. “You can’t grow back an eye no more’n you could grow back a limb.”
“Why do you stay with me, Roy?”
“To keep you safe. And to talk sense in times like these.”
Roy worked his jaw. “You know why.”
“Then tell me.”
“Because you’re God’s gift.”
“Because you think I’m God’s gift. Because you think I’ve got some great purpose.”
“That’s right.” Roy ran a hand down his mouth. “But things were simpler when it was just about the money.”
“Well it ain’t. Not anymore. But you’re always telling me, I’ve got some great purpose, and we’ll know it when we see it.”
“It ain’t here.”
“Maybe you’re right. But sometimes I wonder, Roy – one good deed, is that my great purpose? Is that all it would take? That’s what they say, ain’t it? One good deed to right all the past wrongs.”
“It takes more than one good thing to undo all the bad. Get those thoughts out your head, Cal. She ain’t your purpose. She can’t be. It has to be something bigger. You can’t help her.”
Caleb looked to one side, bit his lip.
“Caleb. I’m serious. Leave her alone.”
“Sure. Of course.”
Caleb thought about Sarah often. And her brother. Sometimes he’d catch them, appearing on some talk show or news program. The brother could speak now, though his words were slurred still. And he could move better, even walk a few steps, but there were still years of physical therapy ahead of him.
After Sarah and her brother, they kept the show going a while longer. They drew in bigger crowds than ever before. A genuine healer. They made more money than they could dream of.
But Caleb couldn’t handle the toll the healings were taking upon his body. His appearance changed. His hair fell out. He lost weight and couldn’t eat. After every show he was violently sick. They were killing him. Saving them was killing him.
And they wanted more. They all wanted more. They grabbed at him, tore his clothes and scratched his skin, all of them desperate to touch him, to be healed, to be saved.
They fled, he and Roy. They went into hiding. They kept moving. The news followed them. Sometimes people recognized him. Sarah and her brother kept showing up, everywhere they turned, their faces on the covers of magazines or flashing up on television screens.
That first night, after Roy drove them out of town and Caleb curled up on the back seat in agonizing pain, like his insides were all knotted up and on fire, Roy said “You shouldn’t have fucked that girl.”
“I know! I wish I hadn’t!”
“What you think she’s done to you?”
“You think it was her?”
“I don’t think it was her.”
“Then who do you think it was?”
Caleb covered his head with his arms, willed himself to sleep so he wouldn’t feel the pain. He didn’t want to say who he thought it was, didn’t want Roy to think he was losing his mind with the agony. Roy believed in a loving, caring God. But Caleb thought he was being punished.
They’d been at the motel three days. Roy said that they would leave in the morning. Caleb waited until he slept, then left the room. Roy couldn’t understand, and he wouldn’t help.
The night was cool. Caleb made his way down the steps. He’d been watching. He knew which room Cassie shared with her father. He went to it, though the door was open and bodies spilled out. The closer he got the stink in the air of smoke and weed grew stronger, made his eyes water.
His hands were gloved and his hood was up. He squeezed through, but the men were too high to realize they were being jostled. They chuckled to themselves.
Bodies lay strewn upon the ground. They were stepped upon and stepped over. Others propped themselves up against walls. Those that weren’t smoking used needles and pipes. Caleb saw Cassie’s father across the room, talking to someone. His back was turned. Cassie wasn’t in the room. Caleb stepped gingerly, went to the bathroom. She was there, lying curled in the bathtub, a pillow under her head and a thin blanket over her body. A man was nearby, slumped on the toilet and passed out, a needle in his arm. Caleb closed the door and went to the girl. He touched her arm and she woke.
She frowned at him. “You lookin'mfor my daddy?” Her words were sleep-slurred.
“No, darlin'. I’m lookin' for you.”
She rubbed her eye. “I know you,” she said. “I remember speakin' to you.”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“You waved at me yesterday.”
“You waved back.”
“You feelin' any better?”
“You don’t look it.”
“So long as I feel it, right?”
Cassie sat up. Her pajamas were old, yellowing round the neck and the cuffs, and torn in places.
“This is where you sleep?”
“Not always.” She yawned. “Why you lookin' for me?”
“I got somethin' for you, darlin'.”
“For me?” She frowned. The scar tissue wrinkled.
“What is it?”
“Well, I’m thinkin' it might be a new eye.”
“A glass one? No good, mister, ain’t got nothin' to put it in.”
“No, darlin'. A real one, that you can see out of. I’m gonna grow it back.”
Cassie said nothing.
“Just stay real quiet, okay? Don’t be scared.”
He took off his gloves and reached out to her. She flinched at first, but then she let him touch her. He put both hands on her face, covered the scarred flesh where her eye should have been.
The feeling came on in waves of nausea. The waves got stronger, more extreme, until the bile spilled from between his clamped lips and pain began to course through his body. Cassie fell away from him and he toppled too, spent. He coughed and tasted blood and pushed himself up, peered over the rim of the bathtub.
Cassie held her hands in front of her face. She brought them closer, then pulled them away, then closer again. She waved them in front of her left eye.
“Wuzza – wudda you done?”
Caleb turned. The junkie on the toilet watched them. He licked his lips over and over, then swallowed. It looked like he was trying to bring himself round.
“Warra you doin'? You – you wus touchin' tha' girl…”
Caleb grabbed his gloves and fled. Behind him, in the bathroom, he heard the junkie find his voice. “Deke! Yo, Deke!”
Caleb didn’t know who Deke was. He guessed it was Cassie’s father.
He burst into the room and woke Roy. “We need to go!”
Roy gave a start. Seeing Caleb panicked, he woke quickly. His face went dark. “What have you done?”
Caleb wanted to explain how he’d just wanted to help, how he thought this one redemptive moment could cure everything else and he would be back to normal, he wouldn’t hurt anymore – but they could talk about it in the car. “We need to go!”
Roy leapt from the bed and grabbed his clothes.
Outside, Caleb could hear the junkies spill out into the parking lot. Roy went to the window, peered down. “Shit!” He threw the curtains closed. “They’re coming up the stairs!”
They crashed through the door. They surrounded Caleb and dragged him out. He grabbed the doorframe, held it with what strength he had. Roy jumped forward, threw punches and kicks, knocked the junkies down with ease, but then one tackled him, and another leapt on top. Together they held him down, though he struggled fiercely.
Caleb’s grip on the doorframe broke. Two men hoisted him from the ground and carried him down the stairs. The parking lot was filled, not just with junkies now but with the curious occupants of the other rooms. He heard people calling to each other. He saw the junkie – Deke, maybe – holding Cassie and staring into her new eye, the one she was squinting out of and couldn’t stop blinking.
Some of them had realized who he was. They were desperate to let everyone know.
Caleb struggled, but he couldn’t break loose. Above everything he kept hearing one phrase: “The Healer! The Healer!”
They wanted him. They all wanted something from him. They were all sick, in pain, and they wanted him to take that away. Wanted him to make them better, the way he’d made Cassie better, and all those others they’d heard about on the news and the radio and in the magazines.
He managed to wriggle from their grasp and landed on his feet. He tried to run but someone tackled him to the ground. Others gathered round, and they ripped at his clothes, searching for an inch of bare flesh.
A gunshot rang out and he looked to the landing, outside his room. Roy was coming, screaming, firing the handgun as he made his way. He shot down all in his path, junkie and non-junkie alike, until he had no more bullets, and when he ran out of bullets he caved in skulls with the gun, used it like a club. He punched and he kicked and he bit until finally he was tackled and smothered, his animal screams dulled.
Caleb screamed as the hands fell upon him, as the fingers dug into his flesh like claws, as the grips tightened and pulled at him and encased his head with interlocking fingers that reached into his mouth and down his throat and tore his lips.
Then he threw up, and those arms snatched away from him. He vomited, and it was like tar, it racked his body and burned his throat and he could feel teeth come loose and leave with it, and when it finally ended he fell forward, fell into the thick black bile, and the people gathered all stepped back and they looked at him as he gasped his last breaths, and Caleb looked through them, through their legs, and he could see a little girl looking back at him, both eyes wide. He tried to smile at her, and he managed half of one before he died.