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“I’m into paranoia,” she said, surprising him.
“You are? Why?”
“Maybe some time I’ll tell you. For now, just take my word: I’m more diffident about people than you are, for better reason.”
“You?” He was incredulous.
“Oh, I shouldn’t have said that. Let’s change the subject.”
“I—I can’t find a subject.”
She laughed, tiredly. “Then I’ll find one. It’s nice talking to you, Don. So much better than waiting around for the radio to sound, with a pile of books and packages of ugh-y food.”
He chuckled, surprised that he was now able to do that in her presence. She was making him feel more at ease than he had a right to be.
He glanced at Gaspar. The chain was still off, and the man was doing something with the little screwdriver and pliers. It would be a while more before the job was done.
“Y-you were just waiting?”
“For you, yes. Two days. But my life was much the same before that, mostly alone. Books are great company, but I would have enjoyed them more if I’d had live companions. So when I took this job, hoping my life would change, and then for two days it was just more of the same, well, I had to do something.”
“I-I can’t believe you were alone!”
“I could make you believe, but I don’t want to.” She rolled to her side and angled her head to face him. “You’re really interested, aren’t you?”
“I’ll try to explain. When I was just waiting for you, I walked down to the beach.”
“In the early morning, when no one was around. I didn’t want anyone to see me, because of the phase.”
“I know. I came into the water at dawn.”
She laughed again. “Here I’m telling you something that’s not meant to be understood, and you’re understanding.”
“Don’t apologize! It’s not meant to be understood, just felt. But you feel it too, don’t you?”
“Yes.” This conversation was becoming odder and more comfortable. He could lie here forever, talking with her like this, his shyness ebbing.
“I enjoyed the beach,” she continued. “It was raining. Just a little cool. There was a stiff wind—I couldn’t really feel it, but I saw the sea-oats leaning. I just had to go out and walk along the surf a way. Right near the edge of the water. In my bare feet. Except there wasn’t anything to feel, it’s just sort of neutral in phase, and I had to walk the bicycle right along. You know—so I could breathe. That’s one thing that doesn’t wind down when the bike stops moving: the oxygen field. Lucky thing, or we’d never be able to rest or sleep. Batteries, I guess, that recharge for that. I tried to breathe away from the bike, and couldn’t. I’m married to the bike, now. We all are.”
“So I had to pretend. I had the whole beach to myself with only the gulls for company. They stood on the sand facing the wind. I saw a horseshoe crab, and I tried to pick it up—it was the first horseshoe crab I had ever seen.”
“They’re not crabs,” Gaspar said without looking up from his work. That surprised Don; he had thought the man had tuned them out. “They’re related to the scorpions and are the only living members of a large group of extinct animals. They’ve survived unchanged for two hundred and fifty million years.”
“All the more wonderful to behold,” Melanie said. “The beach has a powerful internal significance for me that I’ve never quite been able to understand. This one I experienced was wonderfully dramatic. They all are. I never just have seen a beach. It’s a total experience. The sand under my feet, warmth, wind, smells, sound, and motion. The beach just is. And I am there walking along looking for seashells and somehow I feel that I belong there. For the moment. It feels like something I can always come back to. Something almost unchanged in a sea of change.”
Like the horseshoe crabs, Don thought. Unchanged since the dinosaurs. Perhaps man, when he gazed upon the beach, remembered his ancestor who fought the extraordinary battle to free himself from the grip of the sea, and this was that battleground.
“My life so easily slips into things and experiences with labels,” Melanie said. “But the beach somehow for me always slips the compass of a label and asserts the primacy of existence.” She paused. “If that makes sense to you.”
All he could say was “Yes.” It wasn’t just her perspective on the beach, it was the fact that she had presented it to him as a fellow human being, as if he deserved to have this insight. What a wonderful experience!
Gaspar completed his repair, and they resumed riding. The difference between a slight decline and a slight incline was enormous, when they were pedaling it. But they could not go down forever. Don had been pleased at how well he was keeping up, but now he wondered whether there was something wrong with his own bicycle. He pushed and pushed on the pedals, but the machine moved slowly, and he was out of breath doing a bare five or six miles per hour. Melanie was struggling similarly.
Gaspar abruptly stopped again. This time his rear wheel was loose, so that it rubbed against the frame with every revolution. Thank God! Don thought guiltily, offering no argument about repairs. He dropped to the ground and let life soak back into his deadened limbs.
Gaspar was tough. If he was tired, it didn’t show. Don had never been partial to muscle, but would have settled for several extra pounds of it for this trip.
Melanie dropped beside him, almost touching. Even through his fatigue, he felt the thrill. “Talk to me, Don,” she murmured.
This time he was able to perform. “You know, Gaspar and I are both only-survivors in our families. We think that’s because our employer selected for singleness. Maybe they don’t want people wondering where we are. In case—you know. Uh, you said you’re single, but otherwise—is it the same with you?” He had even asked her a direct personal question!
“Almost,” she said. “My father died ten years ago. He married late. My mother was thirty five when I was born. I haven’t seen her for a couple of years. So it’s the same, I guess. I’m uncommitted. But I’d be uncommitted even if I had a massive crowd of relatives.”
“You keep saying that,” Don protested. “But you’re such a lovely young woman—”
She looked at him. “I guess I’d better take the plunge and show you. Get it over with at the outset. That’s maybe better than having it happen by chance, as it surely will otherwise.”
“Show me what?”
“Look at me, Don.” She sat up.
He sat up too, uncertain what she had in mind. He tried to keep his eyes from the firm inner thighs that her crossed legs showed under the skirt, but that meant he was focusing on her evocative bosom. He finally had to fix on her lovely face.
Melanie put her hands to her head and slid her fingers in under her perfect hair. She tugged—and her hair came off in a mass. It was a wig—and beneath it she was completely bald.
Don simply stared.
“I’m hairless,” she said. “All over my body. My eyebrows are glued on, and my eyelashes are fake. It’s a genetic defect, they think. No hair follicles.” She lifted one arm and pulled her blouse to the side to show her armpit. “I don’t shave there. No need to. No hair grows.” She glanced down. “Anywhere.”
Don was stunned. She had abruptly converted from a beautiful young woman to a bald mannequin. She now looked like an alien creature from a science fiction movie. Her green eyes shone out from the face on the billiard ball head, as if this were a doll in the process of manufacture.
“So now you know,” the mouth in the face said.
Don tried to say something positive, but could not speak at all. Her beauty had been destroyed, and she had been made ludicrous. It might as well have been a robot talking to him.
Gaspar righted his bicycle. “Ready to go,” he said. “We shouldn’t use up the batteries unnecessarily.” Then, after a pause: “Oh.”
“Oh,” Melanie echoed tonelessly.
“I wasn’t paying much attention when it counted, it seems,” Gaspar said. “Disease? Radiation therapy?”
“Genetic, from birth,” she said.
“Why show us?”
“Because Don was starting to like me.”
He nodded. “Hair is superficial. We know it. Now all we have to do is believe it.”
Melanie put her wig back on, and pressed it carefully into place. It was evident that it had some kind of adhesive, and would not come loose unless subject to fair stress. She resumed her former appearance. But now, to Don’s eyes, she looked like a bald doll with a hairpiece. She had set out to disabuse him of his notions of her attractiveness, and had succeeded. Evidently she didn’t want to be liked ignorantly.
They resumed travel without further comment. The coordinates were 24°20’–82°30’. Forty minutes west of their rendezvous, ten south. Depth was one hundred fathoms. They must have been traveling well, indeed, downhill, before starting the laborious climb. Don was amazed to realize that they were now beyond their target, and he had never been aware of their passing it. They had time, plenty of time, thank the god of the sea.
They had climbed six hundred feet in the past two miles, and it didn’t look steep, but it was grueling on a bicycle. Now he was glad for the continued struggle, because it gave him something other to think about than Melanie’s hair. She had figured him exactly: he was getting to like her, because she was pretty and she talked to him. And now his building illusion had been shattered. He should have known that there would be something like this.
Twenty miles and seventy fathoms east and up, with a break for another bicycle malfunction—this time Don’s, whose seat had come loose and twisted sideways—the way abruptly became steep. Gaspar, in the lead, dismounted and walked his bike up the slope. Don and Melanie were glad to do the same; it was a relief to change the motion.
Suddenly Don saw a rough wall, almost overhanging. Jagged white outcroppings and brown recesses made this a formidable barrier, and it extended almost up to the surface of the sea.
“This is it,” Gaspar said with satisfaction as they drew beside him.
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