The slats in the venetian blinds in Victor Koch’s bedroom shut out the rich, orange rays of the late-afternoon sun, but not the noise. From outside came the dissonant chant of children’s voices, Piping and persistent.
And then he heard his father’s voice from down below.
“Get outta here, you kids! Get outta here before I call the police!”
The chant was broken up; there were giggles, squeals, and some raucous laughter, along with one last, defiant little voice like the tape inside of a wind-up doll.
“Victor’s an ugly, bird-head freak!”
Victor sat on the floor in the corner of the room, a stocking cap pulled down over his head so that it rested just above his eyes. It looked like a wilted dunce cap, or a wind sock in the middle of a calm. As he sat there in the cool, quiet, comfortable darkness, he heard his father’s voice in a last, hopeless tirade.
“And don’t come back, you crummy kids,” his father yelled from below, “or you’ll be sorry! I guarantee it! You’ll be sorry!”
Victor heard the sound of the screen door closing and was glad that there would be no more chanting from the kids and no more remonstrative yelling from his father for that day. The summer evenings were, of course, the worst. Usually just before the supper hour. Kids played in the street then, and got hungry and bored. Victor didn’t hate them or even resent them. He had only a passive regret that they disturbed the quiet of the early evening and forced his father to react like a child himself, and shout back at them, which simply guaranteed they’d be back the next evening.
Mrs. Koch, Victor’s mother, heard the voices from outside, and her husband’s response. She waited until the screen door had slammed closed, then walked tentatively into the living room.
Paul Koch was just sitting back down in his easy chair. He made a pretense of picking up the newspaper, but Mrs. Koch noticed how his hand shook, and over the top of the paper she saw the set, grim look on his face.
For a moment Koch was silent; then he slammed down the paper. “Ignore them?” He jerked his thumb toward the window. “A pack of wild little animals calling our kid a freak—and we’re supposed to ignore them?” He rose from the chair. “I’ll tell you what the hell I wish we could do! I wish we could take a double-barreled twelve-gauge shotgun and fill it with buckshot—”
“Paul,” Mrs. Koch interrupted him in as loud a voice as she could conjure up; then, much more softly: “It doesn’t do any good to talk that way. It really doesn’t.” She looked up toward the ceiling.
“Sometimes I think he’s grown used to it.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, Doris,” Koch said, “how in the hell could he grow used to it? Could you grow used to it? Once a day, seven days a week—those little monsters screaming filth at the top of their lungs? And we’re just supposed to sit here, read the evening paper, and make believe it’s some kind of a benediction?”
He was right, of course, Doris Koch thought. Painfully, miserably right. But it was not in her gentle nature to shout back at anyone, especially children. And being closer to her son—physically closer, daily closer—she was more aware of the boy’s own special sensitivity, which was much like her own.
Koch picked up the paper, then shook his head and threw it back down. He took a deep breath.
“Doris, We’ve got . . . we’ve got some decisions to make.”
His wife half-closed her eyes.
“He’s seventeen,” Koch persisted. “He’s not a child anymore.”
Doris Koch’s fingers traveled nervously along the fringe of her apron, plucking, twisting, pulling. “I won’t have him put away,” she said in a quiet, desperate kind of fury.
Koch shook his head, and his voice was very soft. “Honey,” he said, “I don’t think we have any choice. He can’t live the rest of his life huddled in a corner of his bedroom. It’s destroying him—it’s destroying us.”
Mrs. Koch’s voice was broken. “Where would they send him?”
Koch shook his head. “I don’t know. But much more of this . . . we wouldn’t have a son, anyway. We’d have just a . . . just a silent piece of scar tissue who cringes in dark corners . . .”
He felt his own voice break, and he had to turn away from her abruptly. He moved across the room into the hallway to the foot of the stairs.
Doris Koch followed him. “Paul,” she said, not really believing that it could happen this way, rejecting the idea that at a quarter to six on a given summer evening one just walked up a flight of stairs and condemned a son to—what? God only knew what.
“Must it be now?”
Koch stared at her for a moment, a special agony of his own twisting up his face. “It should have been years ago,” he answered; then he whirled around and started up the stairs, his heavy body lurching, as if suddenly palsied or drunk. He continued up the stairs and moved directly over to Victor’s bedroom door. He knocked briefly, then opened it, went inside, and closed the door behind him.
“Vic,” he said to the dark, huddled figure in the corner. “I’d like to talk to you, son.”
“All right.” Victor’s voice, as always, was toneless, unrevealing. Always passive, always accepting.
“Your mother and I,” Koch said, “. . . we’ve been discussing this . . .”
He saw the outline of his son’s face turn to him. He hadn’t been aware that the boy had had his back to him. Just vaguely, through the darkness of the bedroom, he could see the outline of the face, the stocking cap, but nothing more.
“What have you been discussing?” Victor asked.
Koch moved over to sit on the bed. “I know . . . we both know . . . how miserable it is here for you. We think it’s imperative that . . .” He stopped of his own accord. He could go no further. He simply couldn’t put the words out into the air.
Victor rose from his place on the floor. “You want to send me away.”
It was not an accusation; there was no anger in the voice. It was just a flat, neutral, almost rhetorical kind of thing. The way a man might say something when ordering it off a menu, or the way the bailiff of a court in the middle of a long docket might read out a statement of charges. Impersonal. Very quiet. Nothing implied at all.
Koch felt himself sweating. “Son—there are places . . . perhaps . . . where boys like
yourself . . .”
“There aren’t any ‘boys like myself.’” Victor’s voice was still flat, but just a little higher. “I’m unique. Didn’t you know that? I’m a one-of-a-kind collector’s item!”
Koch saw his son’s shrug, and just barely heard his last words.
“Do whatever you want with me,” Victor said.
“That’s not the point.” Koch felt some curious, unexplainable anger rising in him—impatience, frustration; it was almost as if he were standing out on the porch again, screaming at the children. “I want to do what you want, Vic. Understand? But just to stay here—hiding in your room—that’s no kind of life.”
“All right, Dad,” Victor said softly. “You give me an alternative kind of life.” He waited for a moment. His father was silent. “Or I’ll give you some. If there were still freak shows, I could be the star attraction. Or pickle me and stick me in a jar. Or why don’t you rent me out for parties and conventions. . . .”
Koch felt an agony, like some gigantic cramp all over his body. “Vic,” he shouted, “no more!”
In the silence, he heard the sound of his son turning away, and his footsteps back across the room.
“You’re quite right, Dad.” Victor’s voice was almost a whisper. “No more. Please get out.”
Koch stood there, trying to think of something to say, desperately searching in his mind for one comforting phrase, one reasonably gentle euphemism—but nothing came to him. He walked across the bedroom, opened the door, and went out. As he started down the stairs, he heard Victor close the door.
Koch reached the foot of the stairs, heard the sound of dishes and silverware in the dining room; then, from somewhere, and with a clenched fist, he reached out for a resolve and a firmness and a strength that he knew would supersede the evening’s dinner, the evening’s conversation—and all the other evenings that were to come.
He moved into the small, telephonic viewing room—a phone-booth kind of cubicle—and stood in front of a dark screen. Then he punched several numbers on a small console. There were several beep-beep sounds, a few jagged lines across the screen; then it brightened and came to life, and an image of a woman appeared.
“Information,” the woman said.
Koch almost held his breath. “I’d like . . . I’d like the government office that . . . that’s involved in population.”
“There are several sublistings under ‘Population,’ sir. What particular department did you lave in mind?”
“Whatever the outfit is that . . .” He found himself running out of words and out of breath.
The woman’s face took on the look of brittle impatience, like all the put-upon civil-service employees who had ever been daily stifled by the deadly dull bureaucracy of their lives.
“Go on, sir,” the woman said. “I’m waiting.”
Koch’s voice was quieter. “Whoever is involved with deformed children.”
The woman nodded, and he could see her punch several buttons and read some information off a computerized scanning device. Her eyes moved up to look back to him.
“That would be the Office of Special Urban Problems. Just a moment, sir, I’ll connect you.”
There were more beep-been sounds and more lines crisscrossing the screen; then another woman appeared.
“Special Urban Problems,” the second woman said. “How may I help you?”
Koch cleared his throat. “My . . . my son,” he began. He coughed. “Well, my son has a deformity . . .”
“Your name and sector, sir.” The woman’s voice sounded stamped in the air. It was colder and more impersonal than anything Koch had ever heard before.
“And the nature of the deformity?” This time Koch could hear his wife’s footsteps approaching, and he unconsciously took a step sideways.
“You’re moving off the screen, sir.” The woman’s voice followed him accusatively. “I can no longer see you. Would you step back into my vision, please?”
Koch looked at his wife, who stood there, eyes closed, her hands gripped together, as if by some incredible strength of will and resolve she could blot out the sight and the sound of what she knew was transpiring.
Koch forced his eyes away from her to look back into the screen. “What . . . what was it you asked?”
“The nature of the deformity, sir,” the woman on the screen said.
In the Special Urban Problem office a line of women sat in front of their respective telephonic screens, the hum of their voices a continuous beehive drone underneath.
The woman speaking to Koch tried to keep the edge off her voice. So many people lately were so damned vague about things, so reluctant to give out information, it made the job that much harder. But, she had to admit, deformity cases were rather special, and they were frequently sad.
“If you could just give me some general idea, sir,” the woman said to Koch’s reflection on her screen, her voice just a shade kindlier. “Is it a mental deformity . . . physical . . . and if physical, is it . . .”
She was unprepared for what she saw. The figure of Koch was pushed violently away, and in its place she found herself looking into the face of a teen-age boy—a face that covered the screen. Staring at her was a distorted horror. A funnel-shaped head full of concentric flesh furrows that traveled up toward its peak like a rutted mountain road, ending at a point from which just a sprout of dank hair emerged. It was like some kind of grotesque-looking cartoon, but it was painfully, shockingly real. It—whatever it was—spoke to her from the other side of the screen.
“Get a good look for yourself, sister,” the boy’s voice said. “Now appearing on your screen—Victor Koch. Ugly, ugly, ugly . . . bird-head, bird-head, bird-head . . .” There was one quick, spasmodic, quaking sob, and then his voice continued almost in a whisper. “Freak, freak, freak . . .” Then the screen went black.
The woman sat there, motionless and quiet for a moment, then turned to her companion to the left.
“Did you see that?” she asked in a strained voice.
The girl shook her head. “Who was it?” she asked.
“What was it,” the woman corrected her. “God, I’ve seen all kinds! But nothing remotely like that . . . that thing.”
Paul Koch sat tensely on the edge of a contoured plastic chair, looking across at the official whose low, free-form desk had the same pristine, hospital-white color that helped give the room an antiseptic look.
The official put the tips of his fingers together, tapped them, then leaned back. “Well, I’m afraid that’s it,” he said in an end-of-interview kind of voice. “There’s very little this office can do, Mr. Koch. At least in the area of placement.”
Koch cleared his throat. “There are no institutions . . .”
The official made a negative shrug. “Not for a case like your son’s.” He half-turned in his chair, then pushed a button, sliding the shades over the windows behind him to a semi-closed position, shutting out the sunlight. At the same time, an artificial cream-colored, indirect lighting brightened the room as a replacement.
“The Federal Conformity Act of 1993,” the official said, as if delivering a speech to a sizable assemblage, “covered cases of mental incompetence. But, of course, if his condition were alterable, medically speaking . . .”
Koch felt even the tiniest semblance of hope slip away. “We’ve been to a dozen doctors,” he admitted. “They tell us there isn’t anything that can be done surgically.”
The official made a little shrug. He hoped that Koch wouldn’t get emotional. So many of them got emotional. Then he sighed and started to fiddle with a metal pencil.
“That’s unfortunate, Mr. Koch, and it leaves us pretty much back where we started.”
“He’s a bright boy,” Koch said intensely. “He’s got an exceptionally high I.Q. And he’s . . . he’s a nice kid, too.”
The official averted Koch’s intense stare. “I have no doubt, Mr. Koch. But you’ve pretty much reached the proper conclusions on your own—in terms of the boy remaining at home. . . .”
Koch nodded. “I know he can’t stay with us anymore. But there must be someplace . . .”
The official exhaled, and his voice carried with it just a suggestion of a belated impatience. “Of course, he can’t. But I’ve already told you that there are no private or government sectors which institutionalize this kind of case.” There was a long silence while he examined the pencil, then looked back up. “Which leaves us with the only remaining alternative, Mr. Koch.” He let another moment pass. “And there’s no sense in our walking around tiptoe and in agony, not saying aloud what that alternative is.”
Koch’s voice was cold. “Kill him, you mean.”
The official winced. “That would be in the nature of a medieval value judgment, Mr. Koch. Hardly applicable in this day and age. To mercifully put someone to sleep for humanitarian reasons is certainly not an act of murder.”
Of course not, Koch thought. To kill out of compassion—why, by God, that was the next best thing to a kiss. Waves of something rose up in him. Revulsion, sickness, an overpowering awareness of his desperate weakness. “Beautiful.” He spit the word out. “Just beautiful. I love your value judgments. You take a human life, mister—and you can spray that act with euphemisms like they were perfume—but it’s still taking a human life. It’s taking my son’s life!”
Once again the official leaned back in the chair and surveyed Koch. Emotional, damn it. Always emotional, these people. Now, why couldn’t they accept things as they came? So a kid is born a monstrous freak—so they want to keep him alive indefinitely, and for no other bloody reason than some misplaced, ancient, anachronistic ethic.
The official shrugged. “You can suit yourself, Mr. Koch. You have the alternatives. He can remain with you for the rest of his life . . . or you can do the right thing . . . really the most charitable thing . . .”
Koch had already left the chair and was moving toward the door. “Thank you for your trouble,” Koch said.
As he reached for the doorknob, a red light went on on the console alongside of the official’s desk; then a small bell rang. The official flicked a switch and called across the room. “Just a moment, Mr. Koch.” He turned his face in the direction of a wire-meshed rectangular speaker that was flush in the console. “Yes,” he said.
A filtered voice came from the speaker. “Are you handling a case involving a deformity—a seventeen-year-old boy—file number 783?”
“Koch.” The official supplied the name. “That’s correct.”
“Check contemporary bulletin in your relocation rulings.”
The official nodded. “Immediately.” He flicked off the switch and again looked across the room. “Just a moment, Mr. Koch—apparently there are some new procedural considerations still open to us.” He flicked another switch, then pushed a button. There was a low hum, and then from a slot on his desk appeared an official-looking paper. The official ripped it off, read it, nodded several times, then looked at Koch. “Sit down for a moment, Mr. Koch,” he said in a different, friendlier tone.
Koch retraced his steps back over to the chair, but just stood there without sitting down.
The official continued to study the paper and then looked up. “As you know, Mr. Koch,” he said, “we have exchange programs with several of the populated planets.”
Koch just stared at him.
The official cleared his throat. “In most cases these are cultural exchanges . . . scientific exchanges . . . usually for prescribed periods. I’m reminded”—he pointed to the paper—“of a new arrangement with a planet called Boreon. Tiny little world just beyond Mars. Unknown to us ten years ago.”
Koch held himself rigid, not daring to breathe. Any plan—whatever it was, wherever it took place—was a reprieve.
“We’ve had no mutual visitations with the planet,” the official continued, “but considerable voice communication. In our last exchange they told us that they were extremely anxious for émigrés. Seems the place is seriously underpopulated. Further than that, they’ve indicated that they would place no restrictions of any kind on whomever we wanted to send. That is to say— well—here they are, soliciting any and all kinds of people . . .” He spread out his hands, as if emphasizing the enormity of this extraterrestrial compassion.
“Any and all kinds of people,” Koch repeated softly, “like my son.”
The official shrugged. “Like anyone. They simply want more people.” He looked down at the paper. “Their planet is roughly one-fiftieth the size of earth. But its atmosphere is almost identical. Its people are humanoid. Reasonably technologically advanced.” He looked up from the paper again, smiling. “And altogether anxious, it would seem, to welcome anyone we might want to send. So anxious, as a matter of fact”—he tapped the paper—“they are willing to finance the entire operation. Now, how does that strike you, Mr. Koch? Isn’t that the sort of thing that . . . that . . .”—he checked out another paper—“. . . that Victor might find exciting and to his liking?”
Koch wondered. Exiled. Marooned in space. “You tell me,” he said softly. “You send a kid a million miles into space, dump him on some unknown planet—like a garbage run. Would you find that . . . ‘exciting’ . . . and ‘to your liking’?”
The official leaned forward, pointing with the metal pencil. “If the alternative, Mr. Koch, were extermination—I think I should prefer the former.” He rose from behind the desk. “Talk it over with the boy . . . and with your wife. Get back to me by tomorrow, if you can. We’ll open up further communication with the planet . . . and arrange for his transport.” He held out his hand. “Good day to you, Mr. Koch.”
Koch shook it with a preoccupied limpness, then moved across the room. He stopped by the door. “There’s just one diminutive little problem,” he said over his shoulder.
“And that is?”
“When he finds out the alternatives,” Koch said, feeling his eyes wet, “how do I keep him from cutting his throat?”
The single lamp in Victor’s bedroom had a twenty-five-watt bulb that defeated the darkness, but did little else to illuminate the room. Victor himself wasn’t sure of the color of the shirts that he had jammed into the little overnight case that lay open on his bed. He threw things into it with a kind of methodical and suppressed frenzy.
There was a knock on the door. It opened, and Koch and his wife entered. Her eyes were red from crying, her face held together tightly, as if by wires.
“About ready, son?” Koch asked with a desperate matter-of-factness.
Victor closed the suitcase and nodded. “All set.”
“Vic,” Koch said hesitantly, “your mother and I . . . your mother and I want you to know that . . .”
Victor turned to him, the top of the stocking cap bobbing. “I just want you to know,” he said, “and you, too, Mom . . . no guilts, no self-recriminations, and no long good-byes.”
“If we knew what the place was like,” his mother said, her voice tremulous. “The place you’re going. If we were just certain in our own minds that . . .” She stopped and reached for a handkerchief.
“You want to know something?” Victor said. “It can be a desert, frozen tundra, or a pit where the sun never shines. And it would be better than this!” He picked up the overnight bag. “Let’s go,” he said.
His father and mother left the room, and Victor started after them. He turned briefly at the door, took off the stocking cap, and threw it on the dresser, then surveyed the room. No pennants. No model airplanes. No photographs of any kind. No high-school-prom reminders. No anything. It had been an empty and unadorned way station between life and death—and that’s all it had been. He felt no regrets. No regrets at all. It had offered him nothing but comforting darkness, and he was sure that comforting darkness he could find almost anywhere.
Long after the rocket had pierced the night sky and the flames of its afterburners had disappeared into the darkness, Koch and his wife stood behind a wire-mesh gate staring after it.
“What will it be like up there for him?” she asked.
Koch shook his head. “I don’t know.”
“Will he be happy?” Her voice broke. “Paul—will they treat him like a human being?”
There was silence for a moment. “I don’t know that either,” Koch said, “but I’m going to spend every last remaining day praying . . . praying that they will.”
Then he took his wife’s hand and gently prodded her away from the fence and toward the parking lot. He had a persistent, gnawing, ugly little thought that he wished would go away. Saying good-bye to Victor had been like a funeral. It had been like losing his son. Seeing him walk up the metal ladder to disappear inside the giant cylinder had been no different from watching a body placed in a casket under the ground. And there was one other similarity. And it was the recollection of this that ravaged him: Like any burial service, the deceased left without kissing you good-bye.
Hours later, while he stood in the darkness of the basement, crying, Koch kept thinking to himself that if only his son had allowed him an embrace—just a quick, fleeting, last embrace; something he and his mother could take with them over the years as a remembrance. But Victor had been like an overanxious aspirant for an execution. Going up the metal ladder, he had run. Not looking back, he had disappeared. No look, no words, no farewells of any kind. The victim, afraid of being late for the gallows.
Koch let the tears come, flow, and then ebb. Then he walked back up the cellar steps, through the night-shrouded house, and past the door of Victor’s bedroom that was now open. He looked briefly into the room. There was nothing left save for a stocking cap draped over a dresser. The effects of Victor Koch. All that was left of seventeen years.
Koch continued on into his bedroom, knowing that he would not sleep that night.
It was like a long, dark tunnel with curved walls. Or like a metal cylindrical passageway with a light at the far end. The doors slid open noiselessly, and Victor, carrying his overnight bag, walked down its length toward the light. Sliding doors on the opposite end moved open, and a figure came toward him.
“Did you just get off the ship?” the figure asked as it stepped into the light.
“That’s right,” Victor said. “Are you . . . are you the welcoming committee?”
The boy had moved past him, now stopped and turned. “The welcoming committee?” He shook his head. “I’m taking off on the ship. I’m going back to earth on the return leg. I’ve been waiting years to get permission.”
Victor studied him. “You’re not from here?”
The boy nodded. “I’m from here.” Then he smiled. “I guess this is the first exchange we’ve made—your planet and mine.” He half-waved. “I wish you luck.”
“You, too,” Victor said as he went through the sliding doors to the loading platform of the ship. “Hey,” Victor called after him. “Could I ask you something?”
The boy stopped and turned.
“Why are you leaving?” Victor asked.
The boy stared at him. “You serious?”
“Look at me.”
Victor looked. “What’s . . . what’s wrong?”
The boy laughed. A short, ugly, anguished laugh. “What’s wrong with me? Look, buddy—you don’t have to be kind. I’m used to being this way. And I’m used to the reaction.” He smiled. “Well—I hope it works out all right for you.”
He turned on the platform and waited for the metal staircase that slid slowly toward him from the ship. Then the sliding doors closed.
“Victor Koch?” a woman’s voice asked. “From the planet Earth?”
Victor turned abruptly. A young woman stood in front of him. She was smiling, holding out her hand. Her eyes were very big and very blue. Her smile was a soft, gentle, lovely thing. And her head spiraled up to a point, where a tuft of blond hair sprouted.
“I’m very happy to welcome you, Mr. Koch,” she said.
Then out of the darkness from the other end of the tunnel came another group of young people. It was like watching moving church steeples. Each of them had the same funneled head.
“He’s beautiful,” one girl whispered.
“Shhhh—he’ll hear you,” came another girl’s response.
A boy took Victor’s bag from him and shook his hand. Another patted him on the arm.
“We hope you’ll like it here, Mr. Koch,” the first girl said. “The climate is very temperate. And in terms of language and art—I think you’ll find it almost identical to Earth—the cultures are very similar.”
As they walked toward the light at the end of the corridor, Victor found himself smiling and nodding and wanting to talk.
Two of the girls jostled each other to see who would walk next to him.
“I think,” Victor said, feeling a warmth rise up in him, feeling a sense of pleasure he had never felt before, “I think I’ll be very happy. I already feel as if . . . as if I belonged!”
Then the beautiful people left the tunnel, Victor amongst them, laughing and talking.