Teddy said, “What, we ignore it?”
Chuck raised a hand to the sky. “We’re going to lose the sun in a couple hours. We’re not at the lighthouse, in case you haven’t noticed. We’re not even at the cemetery. We’re not even sure we can get there from here. And you want to climb all the way down there and look at rocks.”
“Hey, if it’s code...”
“W-hat does it matter by this point? We have proof that Laeddis is here. You saw Noyce. All we have to do is head back home with that information, that proof. And we’ve done your job.”
He was right. Teddy knew that.
Right, however, only if they were still working on the same side. If they weren’t, and this was a code Chuck didn’t want him to see...
“Ten minutes down, ten minutes to get back up,” Teddy said. Chuck sat down wearily on the dark rockface, pulled a cigarette from his jacket. “Fine. But I’m sitting this one out.”
Chuck cupped his hands around the cigarette as he got it going.
“That’s the plan.”
Teddy watched the smoke flow out through his curved fingers and drift out over the sea.
“See you,” Teddy said.
Chuck’s back was to him. “Try not to break your neck.” Teddy made it down in seven minutes, three less than his estimate, because the ground was loose and sandy and he’d slid several times. He wished he’d had more than’ coffee this morning because his stomach was yowling from its own emptiness, and the lack of sugar in his blood combined with lack of sleep had produced eddies in his head, stray, floating specks in front of his eyes.
He counted the rocks in each pile and wrote them in his notebook with their alphabetical assignations beside them:
13(M)-21 (U)-25(Y)-18®-1 (A)-5(E)-8(H)-I 5(O)-9(I) He closed the notebook, placed it in his front pocket, and began the climb back up the sandy slope, clawing his way through the steepest part, taking whole clumps of sea grass with him when he slipped and slid. It took him twenty-five minutes to get back up and the sky had turned a dark bronze and he knew that Chuck had been right, whatever side he was on: they were losing the day fast and this had been a waste of time, whatever the code turned out to be.
They probably couldn’t reach the lighthouse now, and if they could, what then? If Chuck was working with them, then Teddy going with him to the lighthouse was like a bird flying toward a mirror. Teddy saw the top of the hill and the jutting edge of the promontory and the bronze sky arched above it all and he thought, This may have to be it, Dolores. This may be the best I can offer for now. Laeddis will live. Ashecliffe will go on. But we’ll content ourselves knowing we’ve begun a process, a process that could, ultimately, bring the whole thing tumbling down.
He found a cut at the top of the hill, a narrow opening where it met the promontory and enough erosion had occurred for Teddy to stand in the cut with his back against the sandy wall and get both hands on the flat rock above and push himself up just enough so that he could flop his chest onto the promontory and swing his legs over after him.
He lay on his side, looking out at the sea. So blue at this time of day, so vibrant as the afternoon died around it. He lay there feeling the breeze on his face and the sea spreading out forever under the darkening sky and he felt so small, so utterly human, but it wasn’t a debilitating feeling. It was an oddly proud one. To be a part of this. A speck, yes. But part of it, one with it. Breathing.
He looked across the dark flat stone, one cheek pressed to it, and only then did it occur to him that Chuck wasn’t up there with him.
CHUCK’S BODY LAY at the’ bottom of the cliff, the water lapping
Teddy slid over the lip of the promontory legs first, searched the black rocks with the soles of his shoes until he was almost sure they’d take his weight. He let out a breath he hadn’t even known he’d been holding and slid his elbows off the lip and felt his feet sink into the rocks, felt one shift and his right ankle bend to the left with it, and he slapped at the cliff face and leaned the weight of his upper body back against it, and the rocks beneath his feet held.
He turned his body around and lowered himself until he was pressed like a crab to the rocks, and he began to climb down. There was no fast way to do it. Some rocks were wedged hard into the cliff, as secure as bolts in a battleship hull. Others weren’t held there by anything but the ones below them, and you couldn’t tell which were which until you placed your weight on one.
After about ten minutes, he saw one of Chuck’s Luckies, half smoked, the coal gone black and pointed like the tip of a carpenter’s pencil. What had caused the fall? The breeze had picked up, but it wasn’t strong enough to knock a man off a flat ledge.
Teddy thought of Chuck, up there, alone, smoking his cigarette in the last minute of his life, and he thought of all the others he’d cared for who had died while he was asked to soldier on. Dolores, of course. And his father, somewhere on the floor of this same sea. His mother, when he was sixteen. Tootie Vicelli, shot through the teeth in Sicily, smiling curiously at Teddy as if he’d swallowed something whose taste surprised him, the blood trickling out of the corners of his mouth. Martin Phelan, Jason Hill, that big Polish machine gunner from Pittsburgh—what was his name?--Yardak. That was it. Yardak Gilibiowski. The blond kid who’d made them laugh in Belgium. Shot in the leg, seemed like nothing until it wouldn’t stop bleeding.’,And Frankie Gordon, of course, who he’d left in the Cocoanut Grove at night. Two years later, Teddy’d flicked a cigarette off Frankie’s helmet and called him a shitbird Iowan asshole and Frankie said, “You curse better than any man I’ve—“ and stepped on a mine. Teddy still had a piece of the shrapnel in his left calf.
And now Chuck.
Would Teddy ever know if he should have trusted him? If he should’ve given him that last benefit of the doubt? Chuck, who’d made him laugh and made the whole cranial assault of the last three days so much easier to bear. Chuck, who just this morning had said they’d be serving eggs Benedict for breakfast and a thinly sliced Reuben for lunch.
Teddy looked back up at the promontory lip. By hisestimation, he was now about halfway down and the sky was the dark blue of the sea and getting darker every second.
What could have pitched Chuck off that ledge?
Unless he’d dropped something. Unless he’d followed something down. Unless, like Teddy now, he’d tried to work his way down the cliff, grasping and toeing stones that might not hold.