Christmas Amnesty. You can fall out of contact with a friend, fail to return calls, ignore e-mails, avoid eye contact at the Thrifty-Mart, forget birthdays, anniversaries, and reunions, and if you show up at their house during the holidays (with a gift) they are socially bound to forgive you - act like nothing happened. Decorum dictates that the friendship move forward from that point, without guilt or recrimination. If you started a chess game ten years ago in October, you need only remember whose move it is - or why you sold the chessboard and bought an Xbox in the interim. (Look, Christmas Amnesty is a wonderful thing, but it's not a dimensional shift. The laws of time and space continue to apply, even if you have been avoiding your friends. But don't try using the expansion of the universe as an excuse - like you kept meaning to stop by, but their house kept getting farther away. That crap won't wash. Just say, "Sorry I haven't called. Merry Christmas." Then show the present. Christmas Amnesty protocol dictates that your friend say, "That's okay," and let you in without further comment. This is the way it has always been done.)
"Where the fuck have you been?" said Gabe Fenton when he opened the door and saw his old friend Theophilus Crowe standing there, holding a present. Gabe, forty-five, short and wiry, unshaven and slightly balding, was wearing khakis that looked like he'd slept in them for a week.
"Merry Christmas, Gabe," said Theo, holding out the present, a big red bow on it - sort of waving the box back and forth as if to say, Hey, I have a present here, you're not supposed to sandbag me for not calling for three years.
"Yeah, nice," said Gabe. "But you might have called."
"Sorry. I meant to, but you were involved with Val, I didn't want to interrupt."
"She dumped me, you know?" Gabe had been seeing Valerie Riordan, the town's only psychiatrist, for several years now. Not for the last month, however.
"Yeah, I heard about that." Theo had heard that Val wanted someone who was a little more involved with human culture than Gabe.
Gabe was a behavioral field biologist who studied wild rodents or marine mammals, depending on who was providing the funding. He lived at a small federally owned cottage by the lighthouse with his hundred-pound black Labrador retriever, Skinner.
"You heard? And you didn't call?"
It was nearly noon, and Theo's buzz had mostly worn off, but he was still thrown. Guys were not supposed to lament the lack of support from a friend, unless it was backup in a bar fight or help in moving heavy stuff. This was not normal behavior. Maybe Gabe really did need to spend more time around human beings.
"Look, Gabe, I brought you a present," Theo said. "Look at how glad Skinner is to see me."
Skinner was, in fact, glad to see Theo. He was crowding Gabe in the doorway, his beefy tail beating against the open door like a Snausage war drum. He associated Theo with hamburgers and pizza, and had once thought of him as the emergency backup Food Guy (Gabe being the primary Food Guy).
"Well, I suppose you should come in," said Gabe. The biologist stepped away from the door and allowed Theo to enter. Skinner said hi by shoving his nose into Theo's crotch.
"I'm working in here, so things are a little messy."
A little messy? An understatement on a par with calling the Bataan Death March a nature hike - it looked like someone had loaded all of Gabe's belongings into a cannon and fired them into the room through the wall. Dirty laundry and dishes covered every surface except for Gabe's worktable, which, except for the rats, was immaculate.
"Nice rats," Theo said. "What are you doing with them?"
"I'm studying them."
Gabe sat down in front of a series of five-gallon aquariums arranged around a center tank in a star pattern and linked by Habitrail tubes, with gates for routing rats from one chamber to another. Each of the rats had a silver disk about the size of a quarter glued to its back.
Theo watched as Gabe opened a gate and one of the rats rushed to the center tank and immediately tried to mount its occupant. Gabe picked up a small remote control and hit the button. The attacking rat nearly did a backflip trying to retreat.
"Ha! That'll teach 'im," Gabe shouted. "The female in the center cage is in estrus."
The rat backed away tentatively and did some sniffing, then attempted to mount the female again. Gabe hit the button. The male was jolted off of her.
"Ha! Now do you get it?!" Gabe said maniacally. He looked up from the cages to Theo. "There are electrodes on their testes. The silver disks are batteries and remote receivers. Every time he gets sexually aroused, I'm hitting his little nuts with fifty volts."
The rat made another attempt and again Gabe hit the button. The rat spazzed its way to the corner of the cage.
"You stupid shit!" Gabe shouted. "You think they'd learn. I'll hit each of them with the jolt a dozen times today, but when I open the cage tomorrow, they'll all run back in and try to mount her again. You see, you see how we are?"
"Us. Males. See how we are. We know there's going to be nothing but pain, but we go back again and again."
Gabe had always been so steady, so calm, so professionally detached, scientifically obsessed, so dependably nerdy - Theo felt as if he were talking to a whole different person, like someone had scrubbed off all the intellect and had exposed the nerves. "Uh, Gabe, I'm not sure that we should equate ourselves with rodents. I mean - »
"Oh, sure. That's what you say now. But you'll call me and tell me I was right. Something will happen and you'll call. She'll stomp your heart and you'll finish the destruction she starts. Am I right? Am I right?"
"Uh, I - " Theo was thinking about the graveyard sex followed by the fight he'd had with Molly last night.
"So I'm going to change the association. Watch this." Gabe stormed over to a bookshelf, threw aside a bunch of professional journals and notebooks until he found what he was looking for. "See. See her." Gabe held up a recent Victoria's Secret catalog. The model on the front was wearing garments spectacularly inadequate in concealing her appeal. She looked as if she just couldn't be happier about it. "Beautiful, right? Amazing, right? Hold that thought." Gabe reached into the pocket of his khakis and pulled out a stainless remote just like the one on the rat table. "Beautiful," he said, and he hit the button.
The biologist's back arched and he suddenly became six inches taller, all the muscles of his body seeming to flex at once. He convulsed twice, then fell to the floor, the crumpled catalog still in his hand.
Skinner lapsed into a barking fit. Don't die, Food Guy, my bowl is on the porch and I can't open the door by myself, he was saying. It was the same every time, he was always glad when the Food Guy wasn't actually dead, but the Food Guy's convulsions made him anxious.
Theo rushed to his friend's aid. Gabe's eyes were rolled back and he twitched a couple of times before he sucked in a deep breath and looked Theo in the eye. "See. You change the association. Won't be long and I'll have that reaction without the electrodes glued to my scrotum."
"Are you okay?"
"Oh yeah. It will take hold, I know it. It hasn't worked with the rats yet, but I'm hoping it will before they all die."
"They're dying of this?"
"Well, it has to hurt or they'll never learn." Gabe held up his remote again and Theo snatched it out of his hand.
"I have another set of electrodes and receiver. You want to try it? I've been dying to try it out in the field. We could go to a titty bar."
Theo helped Gabe to his feet, then set him in a chair facing away from the rat table and pulled a chair around for himself.
"Gabe, you are out of control. I'm sorry I didn't call."
"I know you've been busy. It's okay."
Great, now he has the appropriate Christmas Amnesty reaction, Theo thought. "These rats, the electrodes, all of it, it's just wrong. You're just going to end up with either a bunch of paranoid misogynist males, or a pile of corpses."
"You make that sound like a bad thing."
"You got your heart broken. It will heal."
"She said I was dull."
"She should see this." Theo gestured around the room.
"She wasn't interested in my work."
"You guys had a good run. Five years. Maybe it was just time. You told me yourself that the human male was not evolved for monogamy."
"Yeah, but I had a girlfriend when I said that."
"So it's not true?"
"No, it's true, but it didn't bother me when I had a girlfriend. Now I know that I am biologically programmed to spread the seed of my loins far and wide, to as many females as possible, a series of torrid, meaningless matings, only to move on to the next fertile female. My genes are demanding that I pass them on, and I don't know where to start."
"You might want to shower before you start the seed spreading."
"You don't think I know that? That's why I was trying to reprogram my impulses. Tame the animus, as it were."
"Because you don't want to shower?"
"No, because I don't know how to talk to women. I could talk to Val."
"Val was a pro."
"She was not. She never turned a trick in her life."
"Listener, Gabe. She was a pro listener - a psychiatrist."
"Oh, right. Do you think I should start with a prostitute, or 'tutes?"
"For a broken heart? Yeah, I'm sure that will work just as well as the electrodes on your scrotum, but first I need you to do something for me." Theo thought maybe, just maybe, work - nonfreakish work - might bring his friend back from the brink. He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out the hank of yellow hair he'd taken out of the Volvo's wheel well. "I need you to look at this and tell me about it."
Gabe took the hair and looked at it. "Is this crime stuff?"
"Where did you get it? What do you need to know?"
"Tell me everything you can about it before I tell you anything, okay?"
"Well, it appears to be blond."
"Thanks, Gabe, I was thinking maybe you could look at it under the microscope or something."
"Doesn't the county have a crime lab for that?"
"Yeah, but I can't take it to them. There are circumstances."
"Like they will think I'm stoned or nuts or both. Look at the hair," Theo said. "You tell me. I'll tell you.
"Okay, but I don't have all that cool CSI stuff."
"Yeah, but the guys at the crime lab don't have batteries Super-Glued to their gonads. You've got them there."
Ten minutes later Gabe looked up from his microscope. "Well, it's not human," he said.
"In fact, it doesn't appear to be hair."
"So what is it?"
"Well, it seems to have a lot of the qualities of optic fiber."
"So it's man-made?"
"Not so fast. It has a root, and what appears to be a cuticle, but it doesn't look like keratin. I'd have to have it tested for proteins. If it's manufactured, there's no evidence of the process. It looks as if it was grown, not made. You know polar-bear hair has fiber-optic properties - channels light energy through to the black skin for heat."
"So it's polar-bear hair?"
"Not so fast."
"Gabe, goddammit, where in the hell did it come from?"
"You tell me."
"Just us, okay? This doesn't leave this cottage unless We get some confirmation, okay?"
"Of course. Are you okay, Theo?"
"Am I okay? You're asking me if I'm okay?"
"Everything all right with you and Molly? The job? You're not smoking dope again, are you?"
Theo hung his head. "You say you have another one of those electrodes?"
Gabe brightened. "You'll need to shave a spot. Can I open my present while you're in the bathroom? You can use my razor."
"No, go ahead and open your present. I have some stuff I need to tell you."
"Wow, a salad shooter. Thanks, Theo."
"He took the salad shooter," Molly said.
"Wow, was that important to him?" Lena asked.
"It was a wedding present."
"I know, I gave it to you. It was a wedding present to me and Dale, too."
"See, there was tradition." Molly was inconsolable. She drank off half of her diet Coke and slammed the plastic Budweiser cup down on the bar like a pirate cursing over a schooner of grog. "Bastard!"
It was Wednesday evening, and they were at the Head of the Slug saloon to coordinate the replanning of the food for the Christmas for the Lonesome party. Lena's first reaction to Molly's call to help was to beg off and stay at home, but even as she was creating an excuse, she realized that she'd only sit home obsessing alternately on getting caught for killing Dale and getting her heart broken by this strange, strange helicopter pilot. She decided that maybe meeting with Molly and Mavis down at the Slug wasn't such a bad idea. And she might be able to find out from Molly if Theo suspected her in Dale's disappearance. Yeah, fat chance, with Molly obsessing on Theo's - whatever it was that Theo was supposed to have done wrong. It sounded to Lena like he had just taken a salad shooter to work with him. You were supposed to empathize with your friend's problems, but they were, after all, your friend's problems, and Lena's friends, Molly in particular, could be a little wacky.
The bar was full of singles in their twenties and thirties and you could feel a desperate energy sparking around the dark room, like loneliness was the negative and sex was the positive and someone was brushing the wires together over an open bucket of gasoline. This was the fallout of the holiday heartbreak cycle that started with young men who, lacking any stronger motivation toward changing their lives, would break up with their current girlfriend in order to avoid having to buy her a Christmas present. The distraught women would sulk for a few days, eat ice cream, and avoid calling relatives, but then, as the idea of a solitary Christmas and New Year started to loom large, they swarmed into the Slug in search of a companion, virtually any companion, with whom they could pass the holidays. Full speed ahead and forget the presents. Pine Cove's male singles, to display their newfound freedom, would descend on the Slug, and avail themselves of the affections of dejected women in a game of small-town sexual musical chairs played hungrily to the tune of "Deck the Halls" - everyone hoping to have slipped drunkenly into someone more comfortable before the last fa was la-la-ed.
There might have been a bubble around Lena and Molly, however, for they were obviously not part of the game. While both were certainly more than attractive enough to garner attention from the younger men, they had about them a mystique of experience, of having been there and moved on, of unbullshitability. Essentially, they scared the hell out of all but the drunkest of the Slug's suitors, and the fact that they were drinking straight diet Coke scared the hell out of the drunks. Molly and Lena, despite their own personal distress, had slain their own holiday desperation dragons, which was how the Lonesome Christmas party had started in the first place. Now they were on to new, individual anxieties.
"Sloppy joes," said Mavis, a great cloud of low-tar smoke powering the announcement and washing over Lena and Molly. It had been illegal to smoke in California bars for years, but Mavis ignored the law and the authorities (Theophilus Crowe) and smoked on. "Who doesn't like his meat sloppy on a bun?"
"Mavis, it's Christmas," Lena said. So far Mavis had only suggested soupy or saucy entr��es - Lena suspected that Mavis had misplaced her dentures again and was therefore lobbying for a gummable feast.
"With pickles, then. Red sauce, green pickles, Christmas theme."
"I mean shouldn't we do something nice for Christmas? Not just sloppy joes?"
"At five bucks a head, I told her that barbecue was the only way to feed them." Mavis leaned in and looked at Molly, who was muttering malevolently into her ice cubes. "But everyone seems to think it's going to rain. Like it ever rains in December."
Molly looked up and growled a little, then looked at the television screen behind Mavis and pointed. The sound was muted, but there was a weather map of California. About eight hundred miles off the coast there was a great blob of color whirling in jump-frame satellite-photo motion, making it appear that a Technicolor amoeba was about to consume the Bay Area.
"Ain't nothin'," Mavis said. "They won't even give it a name. If that thing was crouched like that over Bermuda, they'd have given it a name two days ago. Know why? 'Cause they don't come onshore here. That bitch will turn right a hundred miles off Anacapa Island and go down and dump all over the Yucatan. Meanwhile we won't be able to wash our cars because of the drought."
"The rain at least will stop any sand-pirate attacks," Molly said, crunching an ice cube.
"Huh?" said Lena.
"The hell did you say?" Mavis adjusted her hearing aid.
"Nothing," Molly said. "What do you guys think about lasagna? You know, some garlic bread, a little salad."
"Yeah, we can probably do it for five bucks a head if we don't use sauce or cheese," said Mavis.
"Lasagna just doesn't seem very Christmasy," said Lena.
"We could put it in Santa Claus pans," Molly suggested.
"No!" Lena snapped. "No Santas! We can do a snowman or something, but no friggin' Santas."
Mavis reached over and patted Lena's hand. "Santa played a little grab-ass with a lot of us when we were little, darlin'. Once your mustache starts growing you're supposed to let go of that shit."
"I am not growing a mustache."
"Do you wax? Because you can't see a thing," said Molly, being supportive.
"I do not have a mustache," said Lena.
"You think it's bad being a Mexican, Romanian women have to start shaving when they're twelve," Mavis said.
Lena took that opportunity to plant her elbows squarely on the bar and grip two great handfuls of her hair, which she began to pull, slowly and steadily, to make her point.
"What?" said Mavis.
"What?" said Molly.
And there was an awkward moment of silence among the three - only the muted jukebox thumping in the background and the low murmur of people lying to one another. They looked around to avoid talking, then turned to the front door as Vance McNally, Pine Cove's senior EMT, came through it and let loose a long, growling belch.
Vance was in his midfifties, and fancied himself a charmer and a hero, when, in fact, he was a bit of a dolt. He had been driving the ambulance for over twenty years now, and nothing gave him pleasure like being the bearer of bad news. It was the measure of his importance.
"You guys hear that the highway patrol found Dale Pearson's truck parked up in Big Sur by Lime Kiln Rock? Looks like he was fishing and fell in. Yep, surf coming up from that storm, they'll never find him. Theo's up there now investigating."
Lena stumbled back to her bar stool and climbed up. She was sure everyone in the bar, all the locals anyway, were looking at her for a reaction. She let her long hair hang down by her face, hiding in it.
"So, lasagna it is," said Mavis.
"But no fucking Santa pans!" Lena snapped, not looking up.
Mavis pulled both of their plastic cups off the bar. "Normal circumstances, you'd be cut off, but as it is, I think you two really need to start drinking."