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Richie by the Sea

The storm had spent its energy the night before. A wild, scattering squall had toppled the Thompson's shed and the last spurt of high water had dropped dark drift across the rocks and sand. In the last light of day the debris was beginning to stink and attract flies and gulls. There were knots of seaweed, floats made of glass and cork, odd bits of boat wood, foam plastic shards and a whale. The whale was about forty feet long. It had died during the night after its impact on the ragged rocks of the cove. It looked like a giant garden slug, draped across the still pool of water with head and tail hanging over.

Thomas Harker felt a tinge of sympathy for the whale, but his house was less than a quarter-mile south and with the wind in his direction the smell would soon be bothersome.

The sheriff's jeep roared over the bluff road between the cove and the university grounds. Thomas waved and the sheriff waved back. There would be a lot of cleaning-up to do.

Thomas backed away from the cliff edge and returned to the path through the trees. He'd left his drafting table an hour ago to stretch his muscles and the walk had taken longer than he expected; Karen would be home by now, waiting for him, tired from the start of the new school year.

The cabin was on a broad piece of property barely thirty yards from the tideline, with nothing but grass and sand and an old picket fence between it and the water. They had worried during the storm, but there had been no flooding. The beach elevated seven feet to their property and they'd come through remarkably well.

Thomas knocked sand from his shoes and hung them on two nails next to the back door. In the service porch he removed his socks and dangled them outside, then draped them on the washer. He had soaked his shoes and socks and feet during an incautious run near the beach. Wriggling his toes, he stepped into the kitchen and sniffed. Karen had popped homemade chicken pies into the oven. Walks along the beach made him ravenous, especially after long days at the board.

He looked out the front window. Karen was at the gate, hair blowing in the evening breeze and knit sweater puffing out across her pink and white blouse. She turned, saw Thomas in the window and waved, saying something he couldn't hear.

He shrugged expressively and went to open the door. He saw something small on the porch and jumped in surprise. Richie stood on the step, smiling up at him, eyes the color of the sunlit sea, black hair unruly.

"Did I scare you, Mr. Harker?" the boy asked.

"Not much. What are you doing here this late? You should be home for dinner."

Karen kicked her shoes off on the porch. "Richie! When did you get here?"

"Just now. I was walking up the sand hills and wanted to say hello." Richie pointed north of the house with his long, unchildlike fingers. "Hello." He looked at Karen with a broad grin, head tilted.

"No dinner at home tonight?" Karen asked, totally vulnerable. "Maybe you can stay here." Thomas winced and raised his hand.

"Can't," Richie said. "Everything's just late tonight. I've got to be home soon. Hey, did you see the whale?"

"Yeah," Thomas said. "Sheriff is going to have a fun time moving it."

"Next tide'll probably take it out," Richie said. He looked between them, still smiling broadly. Thomas guessed his age at nine or ten but he already knew how to handle people.

"Tide won't be that high now," Thomas said.

"I've seen big things wash back before. Think he'll leave it overnight?"

"Probably. It won't start stinking until tomorrow."

Karen wrinkled her nose in disgust.

"Thanks for the invitation anyway, Mrs. Harker." Richie put his hands in his shorts' pockets and walked through the picket fence, turning just beyond the gate. "You got any more old clothes I can have?"

"Not now," Thomas said. "You've taken all our castoffs already."

"I need more for the rag drive," Richie said. "Thanks anyway."

"Where does he live?" Thomas asked after closing the door.

"I don't think he wants us to know. Probably in town. Don't you like him?"

"Of course I like him. He's only a kid."

"You don't seem to want him around." Karen looked at him accusingly.

"Not all the time. He's not ours, his folks should take care of him."

"They obviously don't care much."

"He's well-fed," Thomas said. "He looks healthy and he gets along fine."

They sat down to dinner. Wisps of Karen's hair still took the shape of the wind. She didn't comb it until after the table was cleared and Thomas was doing the dishes. His eyes traced endless circuit diagrams in the suds. "Hey," he shouted to the back bathroom. "I've been working too much."

"I know," Karen answered. "So have I. Isn't it terrible?"

"Let's get to bed early," he said. She walked into the kitchen wrapped in a terry-cloth bathrobe, pulling a snarl out of her hair. "Must get your sleep," she said.

He aimed a snapped towel at her retreating end but missed. Then he leaned over the sink, rubbed his eyes and looked at the suds again. No circuits, only a portrait of Richie. He removed the last plate and rinsed it.

The next morning Thomas awoke to the sound of hammering coming from down the beach. He sat up in bed to receive Karen's breezy kiss as she left for the University, then hunkered down again and rolled over to snooze a little longer. His eyes flew open a few minutes later and he cursed. The racket was too much. He rolled out of the warmth and padded into the bathroom, wincing at the cold tiles. He turned the shower on to warm, brought his mug out to shave and examined his face in the cracked mirror. The mirror had been broken six months ago when he'd slipped and jammed his hand against it after a full night poring over the circuit diagrams in his office. Karen had been furious with him and he hadn't worked that hard since. But there was a deadline from Peripheral Data on his freelance designs and he had to meet it if he wanted to keep up his reputation.

In a few more months, he might land an exclusive contract from Key Business Corporation, and then he'd be designing what he wanted to design—big computers, mighty beasts. Outstanding money.

The hammering continued and after dressing he looked out the bedroom window to see Thompson rebuilding his shed. The shed had gone unused for months after Thompson had lost his boat at the Del Mar trials, near San Diego. Still, Thompson was sawing and hammering and reconstructing the slope-roofed structure, possible planning on another boat. Thomas didn't think much about it. He was already at work and he hadn't even reached the desk in his office. There was a whole series of TTL chips he could move to solve the interference he was sure would crop up in the design as he had it now.

By nine o'clock he was deeply absorbed. He had his drafting pencils and templates and mechanic's square spread across the paper in complete confusion. He wasn't interrupted until ten.

He answered the door only half-aware that somebody had knocked. Sheriff Varmanian stood on the porch, sweating. The sun was out and the sky clearing for a hot, humid day.

"Hi, Tom."

"Al," Thomas said, nodding. "Something up?"

"I'm interrupting? Sorry—"

"Yeah, my computers won't be able to take over your job if you keep me here much longer. How's the whale?"

"That's the least of my troubles right now." Varmanian's frizzy hair and round wire-rimmed glasses made him look more like an anarchist than a sheriff. "The whale was taken out with the night tide. We didn't even have to bury it." He pronounced "bury" like it was "burry" and studiously maintained a midwestern twang.

"Something else, then. Come inside and cool off?"

"Thanks. We've lost another kid—the Cooper's four-year-old, Kile. He disappeared last night around seven and no one's seen him since. Anybody see him here?"

"No. Only Richie was here. Listen, I didn't hear any tide big enough to sweep the whale out again. We'd need another storm to do that. Maybe something freak happened and the boy was caught in it. . .a freak tide?"

"There isn't any funnel in Placer Cove to cause that. Just a normal rise and the whale was buoyed up by gases, that's my guess. Cooper kid must have gotten lost on the bluff road and come down to one of the houses to ask for help—that's what the last people who saw him think. So we're checking the beach homes. Thompson didn't see anything either. I'll keep heading north and look at the flats and tide pools again, but I'd say we have another disappearance. Don't quote me, though."

"That's four?"

"Five. Five in the last six months."

"Pretty bad, Al, for a town like this."

"Don't I know it. Coopers are all upset, already planning funeral arrangements. Funerals when there aren't any bodies. But the Goldbergs had one for their son two months ago, so I guess precedent has been set."

He stood by the couch, fingering his hat and looking at the rug. "It's damned hard. How often does this kid, Richie, come down?"

"Three or four times a week. Karen's motherly toward him, thinks his folks aren't paying him enough attention."

"He'll be the next one, wait and see. Thanks for the time, and say hello to the wife for me."

Thomas returned to the board but had difficulty concentrating. He wondered if animals in the field and bush mourned long over the loss of a child. Did gazelles grieve when lions struck? Karen knew more about such feelings than he did; she'd lost a husband before she met him. His own life had been reasonably linear, uneventful.

How would he cope if something happened, if Karen were killed? Like the Coopers, with a quick funeral and burial to make things certain, even when they weren't?

What were they burying?

Four years of work and dreams.

After lunch he took a walk along the beach and found his feet moving him north to where the whale had been. The coastal rocks in this area concentrated on the northern edge of the cove. They stretched into the water for a mile before ending at the deep water shelf. At extreme low tide two or three hundred yards of rocks were exposed. Now, about fifty feet was visible and he could clearly see where the whale had been. Even at high tide the circle of rock was visible. He hadn't walked here much lately, but he remembered first noticing the circle three years before, like a perfect sandy-bottomed wading pool.

Up and down the beach, the wrack remained, dark and smelly and flyblown. But the whale was gone. It was obvious there hadn't been much wave action. Still, that was the easy explanation and he had no other.

After the walk he returned to his office and opened all the windows before setting pencil to paper. By the time Karen was home, he had finished a good portion of the diagram from his original sketches. When he turned it in, Peripheral Data would have little more to do than hand it to their drafting department for smoothing.

Richie didn't visit them that evening. He came in the morning instead. It was a Saturday and Karen was home, reading in the living room. She invited the boy in and offered him milk and cookies, then sat him before the television to watch cartoons.

Richie consumed TV with a hunger that was fascinating. He avidly mimicked the expressions of the people he saw in the commercials, as if memorizing a store of emotions, filling in the gaps in his humanity left by an imperfect upbringing.

Richie left a few hours later. As usual, he had not touched the food. He wasn't starving.

"Think he's adopting us?" Thomas asked.

"I don't know. Maybe. Maybe he just needs a couple of friends like you and me. Human contacts, if his own folks don't pay attention to him."

"Varmanian thinks he might be the next one to disappear." Thomas regretted the statement the instant it was out, but Karen didn't react. She put out a lunch of beans and sausages and waited until they were eating to say something. "When do you want to have a child?"

"Two weeks from now, over the three-day holiday," Thomas said.

"No, I'm serious."

"You've taken a shine to Richie and you think we should have one of our own?"

"Not until something breaks for you," she said, looking away. "If Key Business comes through, maybe I can take a sabbatical and study child-rearing. Directly. But one of us has to be free full time."

Thomas nodded and sipped at a glass of iced tea. Behind her humor she was serious. There was a lot at stake in the next few months—more than just money. Perhaps their happiness together. It was a hard weight to carry. Being an adult was difficult at times. He almost wished he could be like Richie, free as a gull, uncommitted.

A line of dark clouds schemed over the ocean as afternoon turned to evening. "Looks like another storm," he called to Karen, who was typing in the back bedroom.

"So soon?" she asked by way of complaint.

He sat in the kitchen to watch the advancing front. The warm, fading light of sunset turned his face orange and painted an orange square on the living room wall. The square had progressed above the level of the couch when the doorbell rang.

It was Gina Hammond and a little girl he didn't recognize. Hammond was about sixty with thinning black hair and a narrow, wizened face that always bore an irritated scowl. A cigarette was pinched between her fingers, as usual. She explained the visit between nervous stammers which embarrassed Thomas far more than they did her.

"Mr. Harker, this is my grand-daughter Julie." The girl, seven or eight, looked up at him accusingly. "Julie says she's lost four of her kittens. Th-th-that's because she gave them to your boy to play with and he-he never brought them back. You know anything about them?"

"We don't have any children, Mrs. Hammond."

"You've got a boy named Richie," the woman said, glaring at him as if he were a monster.

Karen came out of the hallway and leaned against the door jamb beside Thomas. "Gina, Richie just wanders around our house a lot. He's not ours."

"Julie says Richie lives here—he told h-h-her that—and his name is Richie Harker. What's this all about i-i-if he isn't your boy?"

"He took my kittens!" Julie said, a tear escaping to slide down her cheek.

"If that's what he told you—that we're his folks—he was fibbing," Karen said. "He lives in town, closer to you than to us."

"He brought the kittens to the beach!" Julie cried. "I saw him."

"He hasn't been here since this morning," Thomas said. "We haven't seen the kittens."

"He stole 'em!" The girl began crying in earnest.

"I'll talk to him next time I see him," Thomas promised. "But I don't know where he lives."

"H-h-his last name?"

"Don't know that, either."

Mrs. Hammond wasn't convinced. "I don't like the idea of little boys stealing things that don't belong to them."

"Neither do I, Mrs. Hammond," Karen said. "We told you we'd talk to him when we see him."

"Well," Mrs. Hammond said. She thanked them beneath her breath and left with the blubbering Julie close behind.


The storm hit after dinner. It was a heavy squall and the rain trounced over the roof as if the sky had feet. A leak started in the bathroom, fortunately right over the tub, and Thomas rummaged through his caulking gear, preparing for the storm's end when he could get up on the roof and search out the leak.

A small tool shed connected with the cabin through the garage. It had one bare light and a tiny four-paned window which stared at Thomas's chest-level into the streaming night. As he dug out his putty knife and caulking cans, the phone rang in the kitchen and Karen answered it. Her voice came across as a murmur under the barrage of rain on the garage roof. He was putting all his supplies into a cardboard box when she stuck her head through the garage door and told him she'd be going out.

"The Thompsons have lost their power," she said. "I'm going to take some candles to them on the beach road. I should be back in a few minutes, but they may want me to drive into town and buy some lanterns with them. If they do, I'll be back in an hour or so. Don't worry about me!"

Thomas came out of the shed clutching the box. "I could go instead."

"Don't be silly. Give you more time to work on the sketches. I'll be back soon. Tend the leaks."

Then she was out the front door and gone. He looked through the living room window at her receding lights and felt a gnaw of worry. He'd forgotten a rag to wipe the putty knife. He switched the light back on and went through the garage to the shed.

Something scraped against the wall outside. He bent down and peered out the four-paned window, rubbing where his breath fogged the glass. A small face stared back at him. It vanished almost as soon as he saw it.

"Richie!" Thomas yelled. "Damn it, come back here!"

Some of it seemed to fall in place as Thomas ran outside with his go-aheads and raincoat on. The boy didn't have a home to go to when he left their house. He slept someplace else, in the woods perhaps, and scavenged what he could. But now he was in the rain and soaked and in danger of becoming very ill unless Thomas caught up with him. A flash of lightning brought grass and shore into bright relief and he saw the boy running south across the sand, faster than seemed possible for a boy his age. Thomas ran after with the rain slapping him in the face.

He was halfway toward the Thompson house when the lightning flashes decreased and he couldn't follow the boy's trail. It was pitch black but for the lights coming from their cabin. The Thompson house, of course, was dark.

Thomas was soaked through and rain ran down his neck in a steady stream. Sand itched his feet and burrs from the grass caught in his cuffs, pricking his ankles.

A close flash printed the Thompsons' shed in silver against the dark. Thunder roared and grumbled down the beach.

That was it, that was where Richie stayed. He had fled to the woods only after the first storm had knocked the structure down.

He lurched through the wind-slanted strikes of water until he stood by the shed door. He fumbled at the catch and found a lock. He tugged at it and the whole thing slid free. The screws had been pried loose. "Richie," he said, opening the door. "Come on. It's Tom."

The shed waited dry and silent. "You should come home with me, stay with us." No answer. He opened the door wide and lightning showed him rags scattered everywhere, rising to a shape that looked like a man lying on his back with a blank face turned to Thomas. He jumped, but it was only a lump of rags. The boy didn't seem to be there. He started to close the door when he saw two pale points of light dance in the dark like fireflies. His heart froze and his back tingled. Again the lightning threw its dazzling sheets of light and wrapped the inside of the shed in cold whiteness and inky shadow.

Richie stood at the back, staring at Thomas with a slack expression.

The dark closed again and the boy said, "Tom, could you take me someplace warm?"

"Sure," Tom said, relaxing. "Come here." He took the boy into his arms and bundled him under the raincoat. There was something lumpy on Richie's back, under his sopping t-shirt. Thomas's hand drew back by reflex. Richie shied away just as quickly and Thomas thought, He's got a hunch or scar, he's embarrassed about it.

Lurching against each other as they walked to the house, Thomas asked himself why he'd been scared by what he first saw in the shed. A pile of rags. "My nerves are shot," he told Richie. The boy said nothing.

In the house he put Richie under a warm shower—the boy seemed unfamiliar with bathtubs and shower heads—and put an old Mackinaw out for the boy to wear. Thomas brought a cot and sleeping bag from the garage into the living room. Richie slipped on the Mackinaw, buttoning it with a curious crabwise flick of right hand over left, and climbed into the down bag, falling asleep almost immediately.

Karen came home an hour later, tired and wet. Thomas pointed to the cot with his finger at his lips. She looked at it, mouth open in surprise, and nodded.

In their bedroom, before fatigue and the patter of rain lulled them into sleep, Karen told him the Thompsons were nice people. "She's a little old and crotchety, but he's a bright old coot. He said something strange, though. Said when the shed fell down during the last storm he found a dummy inside it, wrapped in old blankets and dressed in cast-off clothing. Made out of straw and old sheets, he said."

"Oh." He saw the lump of rags in the lightning and shivered.

"Do you think Richie made it?"

He shook his head, too tired to think.


Sunday morning, as they came awake, they heard Richie playing outside. "You've got to ask about the kittens," Karen said. Thomas agreed reluctantly and put his clothes on.

The storm had passed in the night, having scrubbed a clear sky for the morning. He found Richie talking to the Sheriff and greeted Varmanian with a wave and a yawned "Hello."

"Sheriff wants to know if we saw Mr. Jones yesterday," Richie said. Mr. Jones—named after Davy Jones—was an old beachcomber frequently seen waving a metal detector around the cove. His bag was always filled with metal junk of little interest to anybody but him.

"No, I didn't," Thomas said. "Gone?"

"Not hard to guess, is it?" Varmanian said grimly. "I'm starting to think we ought to have a police guard out here."

"Might be an idea." Thomas waited for the sheriff to leave before asking the boy about the kittens. Richie became huffy, as if imitating some child in a television commercial. "I gave them back to Julie," he said. "I didn't take them anywhere. She's got them now

"Richie, this was just yesterday. I don't see how you could have returned them already."

"You don't trust me, do you, Mr. Harker?" Richie asked. The boy's face turned as cold as sea-water, as hard as the rocks in the cove.

"I just don't think you're telling the truth."

"Thanks for the roof last night," Richie said softly. "I've got to go now." Thomas thought briefly about following after him, but there was nothing he could do. He considered calling Varmanian's office and telling him Richie had no legal guardian, but it didn't seem the right time.

Karen was angry with him for not being more decisive. "That boy needs someone to protect him! It's our duty to find out who the real parents are and tell the sheriff he's neglected."

"I don't think that's the problem," Thomas said. He frowned, trying to put things together. More was going on than was apparent.

"But he would have spent the night in the rain if you hadn't brought him here."

"He had that shed to go back to. He's been using the rags we gave him for—"

"That shed is cold and damp and no place for a small boy!" She took a deep breath to calm herself. "What are you trying to say, under all your evasions?"

"I have a feeling Richie can take care of himself."

"But he's a small boy, Tom."

"You're pinning a label on him without thinking how. . . without looking at how he can take care of himself, what he can do. But okay, I tell Varmanian about him and the boy gets picked up and returned to his parents—"

"What if he doesn't have any? He told Mrs. Hammond we were his parents."

"He's got to have parents somewhere, or legal guardians! Orphans just don't have the run of the town without somebody finding out. Say Varmanian turns him back to his parents—what kind of parents would make a small boy, as you call him, want to run away?"

Karen folded her arms and said nothing.

"Not very good to turn him back then, hm? What we should do is tell Varmanian to notify the parents, if any, if they haven't skipped town or something, that we're going to keep Richie here until they show up to claim him. I think Al would go along with that. If they don't show, we can contest their right to Richie and start proceedings to adopt him."

"It's not that simple," Karen said, but her eyes were sparkling. "The laws aren't that cut and dried."

"Okay, but that's the start of a plan, isn't it?"

"I suppose so."

"Okay." He pursed his lips and shook his head. "That'd be a big responsibility. Could we take care of a boy like Richie now?"

Karen nodded and Thomas was suddenly aware how much she wanted a child. It stung him a little to see her eagerness and the moisture in her eyes.

"Okay. I'll go find him." He put on his shoes and started out through the fence, turning south to the Thompson's shed. When he reached the wooden building he saw the door had been equipped with a new padlock and the latch screwed in tight. He was able to peek in through a chink in the wood—whatever could be said about Thompson as a boatbuilder, he wasn't much of a carpenter—and scan the inside. The pile of rags was gone. Only a few loose pieces remained. Richie, as he expected, wasn't inside.

Karen called from the porch and he looked north. Richie was striding toward the rocks at the opposite end of the cove. "I see him," Thomas said as he passed the cabin. "Be back in a few minutes."

He walked briskly to the base of the rocks and looked for Richie. The boy stood on a boulder, pretending to ignore him. Hesitant, not knowing exactly how to say it, Thomas told him what they were going to do. The boy looked down from the rock.

"You mean, you want to be my folks?" A smile, broad and toothy, slowly spread across his face. Everything was going to be okay.

"That's it, I think," Thomas said. "If your parents don't contest the matter."

"Oh, I don't have any folks," Richie said. Thomas looked at the sea-colored eyes and felt sudden misgivings.

"Might be easier, then," he said softly.

"Hey, Tom? I found something in the pools. Come look with me? Come on!" Richie was pure small-boy then, up from his seat and down the rock and vanishing from view like a bird taking wing.

"Richie!" Thomas cried. "I haven't time right now. Wait!" He climbed up the rock with his hands and feet slipping on the slick surface. At the top he looked across the quarter-mile stretch of pools, irritated. "Richie!"

The boy ran like a crayfish over the jagged terrain. He turned and shouted back, "In the big pool! Come on!" Then he ran on.

Tom followed, eyes lowered to keep his footing. "Slow down!" He looked up for a moment and saw a small flail of arms, a face turned toward him with the smile frozen in surprise, and the boy disappearing. There was a small cry and a splash. "Richie!" Thomas shouted, his voice cracking. He'd fallen into the pool, the circular pool where the whale had been.

He gave up all thought of his own safety and ran across the rocks, slipping twice and cracking his knees against a sharp ridge of granite. Agony shot up his legs and fogged his vision. Cursing, throwing hair out of his eyes, he crawled to his feet and shakily hobbled over the loose pebbles and sand to the edge of the round pool.

With his hands on the smooth rock rim, he blinked and saw the boy floating in the middle of the pool, face down. Thomas groaned and shut his eyes, dizzy. There was a rank odor in the air; he wanted to get up and run. This was not the way rescuers were supposed to feel. His stomach twisted. There was no time to waste, however. He forced himself over the rim into the cold water, slipping and plunging head first. His brow touched the bottom. The sand was hard and compact, crusted. He stood with the water streaming off his head and torso. It was slick like oil and came up to his groin, deepening as he splashed to the middle. It would be up to his chest where Richie floated.

Richie's shirt clung damply, outlining the odd hump on his back. We'll get that fixed, Thomas told himself. Oh, God, we'll get that fixed, let him be alive and it'll work out fine.

The water splashed across his chest. Some of it entered his mouth and he gagged at the fishy taste. He reached out for the boy's closest foot but couldn't quite reach it. The sand shifted beneath him and he ducked under the surface, swallowing more water. Bobbing up again, kicking to keep his mouth clear, he wiped his eyes with one hand and saw the boy's arms making small, sinuous motions, like the fins of a fish.

Swimming away from Thomas.

"Richie!" Thomas shouted. His wet tennis shoes, tapping against the bottom, seemed to make it resound, as if it were hollow. Then he felt the bottom lift slightly until his feet pressed flat against it, fall away until he tread water, lift again. . .

He looked down. The sand, distorted by ripples in the pool, was receding. Thomas struggled with his hands, trying to swim to the edge. Beneath him waited black water like a pool of crude oil, and in it something long and white, insistent. His feet kicked furiously to keep him from ducking under again, but the water swirled.

Thomas shut his mouth after taking a deep breath. The water throbbed like a bell, drawing him deeper, still struggling. He looked up and saw the sky, gray-blue above the ripples. There was still a chance. He kicked his shoes off, watching them spiral down. Heavy shoes, wet, gone now, he could swim better.

He spun with the water and the surface darkened. His lungs ached. He clenched his teeth to keep his mouth shut. There seemed to be progress. The surface seemed brighter. But three hazy-edged triangles converged and he could not fool himself any more, the surface was black and he had to let his breath out, hands straining up.

He touched a hard rasping shell.


* * *


The pool rippled for a few minutes, then grew still. Richie let loose of the pool's side and climbed up the edge, out of the water. His skin was pale, eyes almost milky.

The hunger had been bad for a few months. Now they were almost content. The meals were more frequent and larger—but who knew about the months to come? Best to take advantage of the good times. He pulled the limp dummy from its hiding place beneath the flat boulder and dragged it to the pool's edge, dumping it over and jumping in after. For a brief moment he smiled and hugged it; it was so much like himself, a final lure to make things more certain. Most of the time, it was all the human-shaped company he needed. He arranged its arms and legs in a natural position, spread out, and adjusted the drift of the Mackinaw in the water. The dummy drifted to the center of the pool and stayed there.

A fleshy ribbon thick as his arm waved in the water and he pulled up the back of his shirt to let it touch him on the hump and fasten. This was the best time. His limbs shrank and his face sunk inward. His skin became the color of the rocks and his eyes grew large and golden. Energy—food—pulsed into him and he felt a great love for this clever other part of him, so adaptable.

It was mother and brother at once, and if there were times when Richie felt there might be a life beyond it, an existence like that of the people he mimicked, it was only because the mimicry was so fine.

He would never actually leave.

He couldn't. Eventually he would starve; he wasn't very good at digesting.

He wriggled until he hugged smooth against the rim, with only his head sticking out of the water. He waited.

"Tom!" a voice called, not very far away. It was Karen.

"Mrs. Harker!" Richie screamed. "Help!"



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