My cousins visited me a week after I arrived at the nuthouse. I’d never bee_ery close to them, and certainly our relationship had hardly blossomed durin_he week I spent in Toronto, trying to track down Linda and Fede’s plot.
I have two cousins. They’re my father’s sister’s kids, and I didn’t even mee_hem until I was about twenty and tracking down my family history. They’r_ttawa Valley kids, raised on government-town pork, aging hippie muesli, an_ountry-style corn pone. It’s a weird mix, and we’ve never had a conversatio_hat I would consider a success. Ever met a violent, aggressive hippie with a_ntimate knowledge of whose genitals one must masticate in order to get _uilding permit or to make a pot bust vanish? It ain’t pretty.
Cousin the first is Audie. She’s a year older than me, and she’s the smart on_n that side of the family, the one who ended up at Queen’s University for _S in Electrical Engineering and an MA in Poli Sci, and even so finished u_ack in Ottawa, freelancing advice to clueless MPs dealing with Taiwanese an_ierra Leonese OEM importers. Audie’s married to a nice fella whose name I ca_ever remember and they’re gonna have kids in five years; it’s on a timetabl_hat she actually showed me once when I went out there on biz and stopped i_o see her at the office.
Cousin the second is Alphie—three years younger than me, raised in the shado_f his overachieving sister, he was the capo of Ottawa Valley script kiddies, a low-rent hacker who downloaded other people’s code for defeating copyrigh_se-control systems and made a little biz for himself bootlegging games, porn, music and video, until the WIPO bots found him through traffic analysis an_usted his ass, bankrupting him and landing him in the clink for sixty days.
Audie and Alfie are blond and ruddy and a little heavyset, all characteristic_hey got from their father’s side, so add that to the fact that I grew u_ithout being aware of their existence and you’ll understand the absence o_ny real fellow-feeling for them. I don’t dislike them, but I have so littl_n common with them that it’s like hanging out with time travelers from th_east-interesting historical era imaginable.
But they came to Boston and looked me up in the nuthatch.
They found me sitting on the sofa in the ward, post-Group, arms and ankle_rossed, dozing in a shaft of sunlight. It was my habitual napping spot, and _ound that a nap between Group and dinner was a good way to sharpen m_ppetite and anasthetize my taste buds, which made the mealtime slop bearable.
Audie shook my shoulder gently. I assumed at first that she was one of th_nmates trying to get me involved in a game of Martian narco-checkers, so _rushed her hand away.
“They’ve probably got him all doped up,” Audie said. The voice was familia_nd unplaceable and so I cracked my eyelid, squinting up at her silhouette i_he afternoon sun. “There he is,” she said. “Come on, up and at ’em, tiger.”
I sat up abruptly and scrubbed at my eyes. “Audie?” I asked.
“Yup. And Alphie.” Alphie’s pink face hove into view.
“Hi, Art,” he mumbled.
“Jesus,” I said, getting to my feet. Audie put out a superfluous steadyin_and. “Wow.”
“Surprised?” Audie said.
“Yeah!” I said. Audie thrust a bouquet of flowers into my arms. “What are yo_oing here?”
“Oh, your grandmother told me you were here. I was coming down to Boston fo_ork anyway, so I flew in a day early so I could drop in. Alphie came dow_ith me—he’s my assistant now.”
I almost said something about convicted felons working for governmen_ontractors, but I held onto my tongue. Consequently, an awkward silenc_lossomed.
“Well,” Audie said, at last. “Well! Let’s have a look at you, then.” Sh_ctually took a lap around me, looking me up and down, making little noises.
“You look all right, Art. Maybe a little skinny, even. Alphie’s got a box o_ookies for you.” Alphie stepped forward and produced the box, a family pac_f President’s Choice Ridiculous Chocoholic Extra Chewies, a Canadian stor_rand I’d been raised on. Within seconds of seeing them, my mouth was sloshin_ith saliva.
“It’s good to see you, Audie, Alphie.” I managed to say it without spitting, an impressive feat, given the amount of saliva I was contending with. “Thank_or the care package.”
We stared at each other blankly.
“So, Art,” Alphie said, “So! How do you like it here?”
“Well, Alphie,” I said. “I can’t say as I do, really. As far as I can tell, I’m sane as I’ve ever been. It’s just a bunch of unfortunate coincidences an_ad judgment that got me here.” I refrain from mentioning Alphie’s propensit_or lapses in judgment.
“Wow,” Alphie said. “That’s a bummer. We should do something, you know, Audie?”
“Not really my area of expertise,” Audie said in clipped tones. “I would if _ould, you know that, right Art? We’re family, after all.”
“Oh, sure,” I say magnanimously. But now that I’m looking at them, my cousin_ho got into a thousand times more trouble than I ever did, driving drunk, pirating software, growing naughty smokables in the backyard, and got awa_rom it unscathed, I feel a stirring of desperate hope. “Only… ”
“Only what?” Alphie said.
“Only, maybe, Audie, do you think you could, that is, if you’ve got the time, do you think you could have a little look around and see if any of you_ontacts could maybe set me up with a decent lawyer who might be able to ge_y case reheard? Or a shrink, for that matter? Something? ’Cause frankly i_oesn’t really seem like they’re going to let me go, ever. Ever.”
Audie squirmed and glared at her brother. “I don’t really know anyone tha_its the bill,” she said at last.
“Well, not firsthand, sure, why would you? You wouldn’t.” I thought that I wa_tarting to babble, but I couldn’t help myself. “You wouldn’t. But mayb_here’s someone that someone you know knows who can do something about it? _ean, it can’t hurt to ask around, can it?”
“I suppose it can’t,” she said.
“Wow,” I said, “that would just be fantastic, you know. Thanks in advance, Audie, really, I mean it, just for trying, I can’t thank you enough. Thi_lace, well, it really sucks.”
There it was, hanging out, my desperate and pathetic plea for help. Really, there was nowhere to go but down from there. Still, the silence stretched an_napped and I said, “Hey, speaking of, can I offer you guys a tour of th_ard? I mean, it’s not much, but it’s home.”
So I showed them: the droolers and the fondlers and the pukers and my horribl_ittle room and the scarred ping-pong table and the sticky decks of cards an_he meshed-in TV. Alphie actually seemed to dig it, in a kind of horrifie_ay. He started comparing it to the new Kingston Pen, where he’d done his six- month bit. After seeing the first puker, Audie went quiet and thin-lipped, leaving nothing but Alphie’s enthusiastic gurgling as counterpoint to my tour.
“Art,” Audie said finally, desperately, “do you think they’d let us take yo_ut for a cup of coffee or a walk around the grounds?”
I asked. The nurse looked at a comm for a while, then shook her head.
“Nope,” I reported. “They need a day’s notice of off-ward supervise_xcursions.”
“Well, too bad,” Audie said. I understood her strategy immediately. “Too bad.
Nothing for it, then. Guess we should get back to our hotel.” I planted a dr_iss on her cheek, shook Alphie’s sweaty hand, and they were gone. I skippe_upper that night and ate cookies until I couldn’t eat another bite of ric_hocolate.
#“Got a comm?” I ask Doc Szandor, casually.
“Wanna get some of this down. The ideas for the hospital. Before I go back ou_n the ward.” And it is what I want to do, mostly. But the temptation to jus_og on and do my thing—oh!
“Sure,” he says, checking his watch. “I can probably stall them for a coupl_ours more. Feel free to make a call or whatever, too.”