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Nathan exhales with a sudden whoosh. He grabs at his groin and doubles over, his face contorted in pain.
“NATHAN!” Both girls scream in horror at the same time, they break free of their reluctant captors and race to Nathan, arms outstretched.
That’s it, Walker thinks. I’m not going to take any more of this crap. He bellows, feeling Nathan’s pain and his own anger rise in his throat, and he too begins to advance on where Billy and Nathan stand in the center of the alley.
But as they all converge, a remarkable thing happens. Just as the women are about to grab Nathan’s arms to support and comfort him, just as Walker is about to spin Billy around and pound him into the ground, Nathan holds up a hand.
Walker, whose outstretched hand is already resting on Billy’s arm, comes to a sudden stop. The girls, just a few steps away, grab each other instead of Nathan. Everybody waits to see what’s going to happen next.
And what happens next is that Nathan straightens up and assumes a normal posture. As far as Walker can tell, Nathan’s pain has vanished, blown away like a dry breeze in the night. His eyes are clear – in fact, even in the dark, they begin to twinkle again.
“Pain and pleasure,” Nathan continues, as if nothing had happened, “both come from within, Billy. No one can give you pleasure but yourself. No one can hurt you but yourself.”
“Oh, Nathan!” Sunshine yells. She and Chastity rush to him, they throw their arms around him, they’re sobbing so hard that it’s hard to make out exactly what they’re saying, but they seem to be asking if he’s alright.
“Of course,” Nathan says, agreeably. “I’m always alright,” he points out.
§ § § § § § § § § §
“How the...” Stevie Hutchinson is stunned to the point of speechlessness. The man was bent over in obvious agony a second ago, and now he looks like nothing happened at all. He walks toward Nathan slowly, studying him carefully. “How... how did you do that?”
“As I said, pain is all in the mind.” Nathan speaks as if he’s teaching a lesson in a classroom, as if nothing out of the ordinary had transpired. “The pain is still there. I simply choose not to feel it.”
“But... but doesn’t it hurt? I mean...” – Stevie shudders – “...I mean, Billy kicked you pretty hard. It must hurt. It’s got to.”
“Stevie, what are you doing?” Billy sounds shocked. “You don’t wanna talk to him. He’s one of The Crazies, remember?”
“Yeah, but did you see what he did?” Stevie is awed and excited. “If you’da kicked me in the balls like that, I wouldn’t have been able to walk for a week. Holy shit.”
“Stevie, don’t be so fuckin’ stupid. He’s faking it, is all. I’ll bet he can’t even walk.”
Nathan smiles, and begins to stroll casually from one side of the alley to the other, back and forth, and then again, with a positively boyish spring in his step.
“That’s unbelievable.” Stevie is totally awed. “Look at him, Billy. It’s like nothing ever happened at all.”
“Aw, c’mon, Stevie,” Billy says, tugging on his arm. “He’s hurtin’, believe me. It’s all he can do just to walk around.”
In response, Nathan breaks into a trot. Suddenly, he jumps and clicks his heels in the air. After he lands, he turns to Billy and Stevie and executes a graceful bow.
“Doesn’t that hurt at all?” Stevie is incredulous. “I mean, don’t you feel any pain?”
“It all depends on what you mean by pain,” Nathan explains, the pedagogue once again. “On a superficial level, the pain is very much there. In fact, just moving around is excruciating,” he admits. “But I have trained my mind to process pain as just another sensation. On a deeper level, I notice that the pain is there, but I don’t feel it in the sense that you might.”
“But if it’s so... what did you call it... excruciating?... just to walk around,” Stevie asks, puzzled, “why’d you jump up in the air and do that little jig?”
Nathan smiles, and Stevie thinks that he looks the tiniest bit sheepish. “Just showing off,” he says. And he throws his head back and laughs, a deep, hearty, belly laugh. It seems to be infectious; Walker smiles, then he begins to chuckle, and soon he’s roaring, his big belly shaking, the women hanging on to him for dear life, and then they’re all laughing with unrestrained relief, hugging each other tighter and tighter.
“C’mon, Stevie,” Billy urges, trying to pull him away from Nathan. “Let’s get outta here.”
But Stevie will not be budged. “Can you teach me do to that?” he asks, when Nathan finally stops laughing. “I mean...” – he swallows, hard – “...can you teach me how not to feel any pain?”
“Why don’t you come out to the ashram sometime?” Nathan suggests. “The Phillips place, as you call it,” he explains, in response to Stevie’s puzzled expression. “I’m not sure that I can teach you anything, but you may learn a great many things, if that is what you desire.”
“Stevie! Let’s GO! NOW!” Billy is pulling at his arm, he sounds desperate. Stevie ignores him, shakes him off like he’s not even there. “You mean, I could just come out to the Phillips place?” He’s half excited, but half anxious; strange stories have been circulating through Sturdivant about the goings-on at the Phillips place ever since The Crazies moved in. “Like, it would really be okay?”
“Stevie...” Billy sounds frantic.
“All are welcome, Stevie,” Nathan says, affably.“Stevie!!”
“Well, I think I could make it out there tomorrow,” Stevie says. He feels that he’s made a momentous decision. Associating with The Crazies will mark him as a traitor in the eyes of many, if not most, of his friends, but this guy seems to be on the level. And if Nathan can really teach him how not to feel any pain... what a neat trick that would be. “Would tomorrow be okay?”
“STEVIE!!!” Billy screams. “It’s his eyes! Don’t look at his eyes!” He grabs Stevie, swings him away from Nathan. “Don’t you see what he’s doing to you? He’s... he’s hypnotizing you. He’s brainwashing you, Stevie. He’s doing it with his eyes.”
“Billy...” Stevie laughs.
“No, really, Stevie. Don’t laugh. I saw it on TV. He gets you with his eyes, he’s got some kinda power, and then he gets you to come out to his place, and then he takes all of your money, and then...”
“Billy, you know I don’t have any money...”
“And then he won’t let you go, Stevie, not ever!” Billy seems to be working himself up into a panic-stricken frenzy. “You’ll be his slave, Stevie, and you’ll have to do anything he tells you to do, even kill people, maybe, if that’s what he wants you to do. Let’s get outta here, Stevie, right now!” He tugs on Stevie’s arm, but Stevie yanks it away.
“Billy, you’re being ridiculous.”
“RUN WHILE YOU STILL CAN, STEVIE!” Billy screams, backing away slowly. He glances over at Nathan, then he quickly turns his head and holds his hands up to shield his vulnerable eyes. “DON’T LOOK AT HIS EYES, STEVIE! RUN!” And he turns and lumbers off down the alley, into the darkness, screaming, growing fainter and fainter in the night, until they can just barely hear him – “...run, Stevie, run away, run away, don’t look in his eyes, his eyes...” And then he’s gone, leaving behind a surprising and comforting silence.
“Stevie?” Eddie has trotted off behind Billy for a few steps, but he hesitates, as if he doesn’t want to abandon Stevie to the enemy. “Stevie, aren’t you comin’ with us?”
“I don’t think so, Eddie. Not right now.” Stevie smiles, reassuringly. “You go on. I’ll be okay.”
“I think you oughta come with us, Stevie,” Eddie says urgently, as he backs down the alley. “I really think you oughta.” His eyes dart over to Nathan, and, reflexively, he ducks his head and raises his hands to cover his eyes; then, a little embarrassed, he lowers his hands and looks back at Stevie.
“No, it’s okay, really. I’ll be along,” Stevie says. “You go on.”
“Stevie...” Eddie says hoarsely, and there’s real terror in his voice. Then he turns and flees noiselessly into the night.
There are a few seconds of silence as the remaining group watches Eddie run off down the alley. Then Nathan speaks softly. “Would you like to join us?” he asks.
Stevie is taken aback. Billy was right – they are trying to make him join some kind of far-out cult. “Gee, I don’t know,” he hedges, nervously. “I mean, that’s kind of a big decision, you know? And I don’t really have any money or anything to give you, so maybe I oughta think about it for a while, you know...” He trails off, aware that Nathan is smiling at him. No one has ever smiled at him quite like that; it’s a generous smile, and accepting, and it’s a smile that’s very difficult not to respond to in kind.
“What I mean,” Nathan explains, “is: Would you like to join us for a bite to eat? We’re on our way to the Federal Diner.”
Something about this tickles Walker’s funnybone, and he throws his head back and howls with laughter. And then the women are laughing and giggling, and they run to Nathan and hug him, and Nathan is beaming, and Stevie has a picture in his mind of Billy running off down the alley, screaming, his hands over his head to protect him from Nathan’s deadly eyes, and he starts to laugh, and then the women come up and hug him, and one of them even kisses him on the cheek, and that’s great, and then Walker even comes over and hugs him, and that’s not exactly great but it’s okay. And suddenly he feels very much like he’s part of some kind of group, like he belongs, like these people whom he’s known for maybe ten minutes are his life-long friends.
And so they all head off down the alley toward Cohonsett Avenue, laughing and talking, a merry group.
“I... I’m not sure they’ll let me in,” Stevie confides. He’s hesitant to break to mood, but he has to share this important information with his new friends. “At the Federal, I mean. They weren’t real happy with me when I left a little while ago,” he admits, sheepishly.
“You don’t have to worry, Stevie,” Nathan says, with a quiet confidence that’s stronger than anything Stevie has ever seen. “You’re with me.”
And Stevie discovers a feeling that he doesn’t recognize at first, because he hasn’t felt it in years, at least not with this intensity. He’s startled when he realizes what it is. But then he smiles as he feels the warmth spreading inside him.
For the first time in a very long time, and much to his surprise, Stevie Hutchinson is happy.
Next: Chapter 37 (SMU)
Transition: The OnLine Triathlon Adventure Novel