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As sundown approached, the encampment spread out on both sides of the road. Meg stayed close to Goliath, and so ended up with a front-row seat as the occupants of Farther set up stage. Five stage hands set up palettes as a stage and a modest but up-to-date sound system. Meg almost spit when their full banner was unfurled: HEDLEY KOW AND THE KRAPPERS.
Meg found herself between Carlos and a willowy woman with flowing blond hair streaked with red. The woman was practicing on an instrument that looked like a fiddle with a crank and a keyboard. “Hi,” she said. “I'm Lady Elayne, with a Y, and this is a hurdygurdy.”
“Are you in the band?” Meg asked.
“I wouldn't say that, but I suppose it comes out the same,” Elayne said. “I play with Hedley, sometimes, when I have the time. I'm a liberal arts professor at Carlos's college... well, I was.”
Carlos laughed. “Try the liberal arts department. A while back, they decided to get with the times and teach the tech boys the humanities. They only ever hired two professors, and t'other quit.”
“So,” Meg said, “what's with the name
“It's from an English legend,” Elayne answered. “Hedley Kow was one of the kelpies, a kind of fairy. Tales say that he could take any shape. He could be a handsome man, or a fine horse. He could even turn into a great monster of the lochs.”
Meg looked askance, but Carlos nodded. “George is into that sort of thing- they call it cryptozoology,” he said. “Among those as take Nessie and such seriously at all, the shape-shiftin' angle is a serious 'ypothesis.”
“Okay,” Meg said, “and what about... the rest of the name?”
“Well... they spelled it wrong.”
Meg gave a perplexed frown. “What?”
Carlos pointed to two non-descript men setting up a synthesizer on stage. “Those are John and Harold. They're brothers, from England,” he said. He pointed to a blond woman who moved in position to test the keyboard. “That's Jane, John's wife. And John's great-to-the- greath grandfather was an inventor named Thomas... Crapper.”
Laramie came and served them dinner paper plates, and stuck around while Elayne flirted with him shamelessly between mouthfuls. Meg inspected the meal, which consisted of a boiled egg, baked beans and something that had been deep-fried beyond recognition. “What is this?” Meg asked, poking the mysterious meat.
“Batter,” said Carlos. Meg ventured a bite, and it turned out to be spam. “We got ourselves a fryer, way back. The way it works, most of the work an' energy just goes into firin' it up, so once it's goin', you might as well do whatever you can. Sometimes things can get a bit outta hand.”
“Would that be the fried ice cream sandwich or the fried armadillo?” Elayne queried with her mouth full.
Carlos jabbed the air with his fork. “Those were gourmet masterpieces!” he expostulated. “Now the fried catfish, that was too far.”
“How is frying a catfish going too far?” Meg asked.
“If the catfish is still moving,” Laramie said deadpan.
“I think I've had enough,” Meg said.
“Nay, you 'aven't,” Carlos said. “You eat what we bring you. Doctor's orders. Hey Lar, bring Grinner over here.” Laramie went to the Horsehauler and brought back a large cage. Inside was something that looked like a rat the size of a cat. Carlos dropped a few chunks of spam through the chickenwire of the cage, and the creature gobbled them. When Carlos waited to drop the final morsel, it hissed and bared a mouthful of many tiny pointed teeth.
“Is that a possum?” Meg asked.
“Opossum, strictly speaking,” Carlos said. “Didelphis virginiana. They range from the east coast all the way to Texas. We call 'em grinners, 'cause when one of 'em gets hit by a car, and sits in the sun a while, the muscles in their lips stretch back, and it looks like a big, happy grin...” Meg almost choked. “Aye, but this bloke, when I found I found 'im in the road, I picked 'im up, an' he says howdy.”
“Well, I think he's cute, and I'm glad you made him the class mascot,” Elayne said.
“Mascot?” Carlos said, with a grin as predatory as the possum's. “I'm saving him for a special occasion. I bet he'll fry up real good.” The possum hissed.
Elayne finished her meal and made a graceful departure. “When I first ran into her, she was a navy brat, way back when,” Carlos muttered. “She and Hedley had an act together before he joined up with the brothers. I think they had a thing, too.” The tone of his voice, and the way his muscles had rippled with tension while Elayne talked with Laramie, made Meg suspect that he had a “thing” of his own.
Then the man who could only be Hedley took the stage, playing a simple squeeze box with no particular proficiency. He looked to be in his early forties, with long dark hair that was starting to recede. He wore a plaid shirt and knee-length khaki shorts with an impressive selection of noise makers in various pockets. He pumped harder and played faster as he took the stage, and the band went wild, as if absolutely determined to drown him out. Elayne played and ululated simultaneously, Jane bobbed and weaved in place as she pummeled the keys, Dick used a foot pedal to pound the bass drum while he frenetically worked over the rest of his instruments, and John started to jump up and down like a child in a tantrum. Hedley more than matched them, flailing his arms at the bellows like Icarus trying to fly. Finally, an English terrier waddled out and started to bark, and all fell suddenly silent.
Meg glanced sidelong at Carlos. “Well, look at it this way,” he said, “if any of them are around, you can bet you're going to know it.” Sure enough, Daniel fired several bursts, and then all was quiet. The band continued to go through their motions in the silence, as if the music were still going in their minds. Then Hedley swapped the squeezebox for a banjo slung over his shoulder, and strummed along with lyrics he delivered with the sing-song quality of a nursery rhyme.
“Well one day old Lucifer called Heaven, said, `There ain't no more room in hell,' An' St. Pete says, `We need a curve to get more bodies in here.' So the dead returned to Earth, and it sure was a sight, the night they all woke up.” He blew a slide whistle.
“So the unknown soldiers came out of the tomb sayin' `Peace out, man!' Lincoln got up and said `Segregation forever!' While Jefferson sat down and said `Brown sugar's better!!' The night they all woke up.
“Lenin climbed out of the box and said, `Capitalism rocks!' Gandhi said `No more Mister Passive Resistance!' And John called Ringo an' said `Tell Paul Wings sucks!' The night they all woke up!”
“Then all the stiffs in the churchyard came in and said to the priest, `You told us when we die we'd live up in the sky in the sweet by and by. Instead we wake up in the same old muck, so Padre whatthe-!” A riff from the band and a blast of the squeeze box covered the obviously intended profanity. “The night they all woke up.” The band went through one last extended riff that cut off abruptly at the dog's bark.
The song was obviously their signature number. Meg clapped, and was moderately disturbed to see Janie doing the same. After that, they went into mostly covers, mostly mild sixties numbers that by their very benignity took on a disturbing quality. The weirdest was a muzak-like instrumental from the band that Carlos identified as “the Gonk”. “Theme from a British kids' movie,” he said. “Bloody crazy Brits...” A close second was John joining Jane at the keyboard for “Heart and Soul”. He proved to have a eerily soft pitch, while his wife sang with a jarringly deep contralto. That was followed by a spaced-out version of “Georgie Girl” with the redhead singing the vocals. The performance wrapped up with everyone singing along with “Good Morning, Starshine,” at which point Dianna carried Janie off to Moby Ralph.
As the stage came down, Carlos called to John: “Hey, I gotta talk to Hedley.”
While Carlos waited, Meg talked briefly to Jane: “So, Carlos told me about the name...”
“What about it?” she said. “A name's a name.”
“Yeah, but... Well, did you take his name?”
“Why wouldn't I?” Meg tried not to look perplexed. “What, are the hip girls against a woman taking her husband's name now?”
“No, of course not, but... you shouldn't have to.”
“I didn't.” Meg stopped trying to hide her bafflement. “Look, I thought about it, and I figured, most important inventions in human history: fire, the wheel, the flush toilet. Nobody knows who made the first two, and I didn't want to be the reason people forget who made the other one. So I took his name, and when we have a son, the world will have another John Crapper.” By then, Jane was smiling herself, and Meg finally allowed herself to laugh.
Hedley arrived with a set of bongos under one arm and a didgeridoo over the other shoulder. John took his wife's hand, and they hustled for the bus. “Put those down,” Carlos said sternly. Hedley complied. “We've got some new vehicles, and we need to do some recon. First light tomorrow, if not before, I'm leading a scouting party west, and I'm taking some of our new acquisitions with us to make it a shakedown. I want your bus with them as backup.” Hedley shrugged in resignation. Carlos looked to Meg. “I want you to go with them, show us where you been.”
“I can do that,” she said hesitantly, “but I don't know if I can be much help. There really isn't much to see. Just... a lot of them.” She saw that her hands were trembling.
“Then show us where you saw them,” Carlos said. “Tell us how many. You might see things that jog or memory, even notice things you didn't the first time. You can help us, and it's going to help you too.”
Meg squeezed her hand into a fist, and the trembling stopped. “I'll do it,” she said. “We can take my Audi.”
“We have enough vehicles already, and I want you in the old Jeep with Joe,” Carlos said. “But it's appreciated. Now, I need you to prepare... by getting in that van now and getting a good night's sleep.” Meg found she was more than happy to comply, and found she was especially comfortable in the upper bunk.
Not long after, Carlos looked in, with Laramie looking over his shoulder. “You haven't told her,” his student said casually.
“What good would it do if we did?” Carlos responded rhetorically. “If there's anything we know, it's that whatever happens is mostly in the head. Telling them it could happen is the surest way to make it happen.”
The fiberglass boat had a plexiglass window on the bottom, with one edge just over the bunk. Meg slept, not so much peacefully as simply without conscious thought. Thus, when she awoke, she had no notion of the passage of time, except that it was darker than when she went to bed.
She was on her side, and tried to shift, which was when she discovered she could not move. She could not even raise her head. She found she could move her eyes, though. She looked down, and saw Laramie stretched out on the couch. Then she looked up, at the skylight, and saw a face peering down. She saw only a face, as clearly as if it was illuminated by full moonlight.
It was Greg.