THE PILGRIM, UP AND DOWN
Her name was Laurel. She was nothing like Josie, save in one thing alone. Trager loved her.
Pretty? Trager didn't think so, not at first. She was too tall, a half-foot taller than he was, and she was a bit on the heavy side, and more than a bit on the awkward side. Her hair was her best feature, her hair that was red-brown in winter and glowing blond in summer, that fell long and straight down past her shoulders and did wild beautiful things in the wind. But she was not beautiful, not the way Josie had been beautiful. Although, oddly, she grew more beautiful with time, and maybe that was because she was losing weight, and maybe that was because Trager was falling in love with her and seeing her through kinder eyes, and maybe that was because he told her she was pretty and the very telling made it so. Just as Laurel told him he was wise, and her belief gave him wisdom. Whatever the reason, Laurel was very beautiful indeed after he had known her for a time.
She was five years younger than he, clean-scrubbed and innocent, shy where Josie had been assertive. She was intelligent, romantic, a dreamer; she was wondrously fresh and eager; she was painfully insecure, and full of hungry need.
She was new to Gidyon, fresh from the Vendalian outback, a student forester. Trager, on leave again, was visiting the forestry college to say hello to a teacher who'd once worked with his crew. They met in the teacher's office. Trager had two weeks free in a city of strangers and meathouses; Laurel was alone. He showed her the glittering decadence of Gidyon, feeling smooth and sophisticated, and she was suitably impressed.
Two weeks went quickly. They came to the last night. Trager, suddenly afraid, took her to the park by the river that ran through Gidyon and they sat together on the low stone wall by the water's edge. Close, not touching.
«Time runs too fast,» he said. He had a stone in his hand. He flicked it out over the water, flat and hard. Thoughtfully, he watched it splash and sink. Then he looked at her. «I'm nervous,» he said, laughing. «I—Laurel. I don't want to leave.»
Her face was unreadable (wary?). «The city is nice,» she agreed.
Trager shook his head violently. «No. No! Not the city, you. Laurel, I think I . . . well . . .»
Laurel smiled for him. Her eyes were bright, very happy. «I know,» she said.
Trager could hardly believe it. He reached out, touched her cheek. She turned her head and kissed his hand. They smiled at each other.
He flew back to the forest camp to quit. «Don, Don, you've got to meet her,» he shouted. «See, you can do it, I did it, just keep believing, keep trying. I feel so goddamn good it's obscene.»
Donelly, stiff and logical, smiled for him, at a loss as how to handle such a flood of happiness. «What will you do?» he asked, a little awkwardly. «The arena?»
Trager laughed. «Hardly, you know how I feel. But something like that. There's a theatre near the spaceport, puts on pantomime with corpse actors. I've got a job there. The pay is rotten, but I'll be near Laurel. That's all that matters.»
They hardly slept at night. Instead they talked and cuddled and made love. The lovemaking was a joy, a game, a glorious discovery; never as good technically as the meathouse, but Trager hardly cared. He taught her to be open. He told her every secret he had, and wished he had more secrets.
«Poor Josie,» Laurel would often say at night, her body warm against his. «She doesn't know what she missed. I'm lucky. There couldn't be anyone else like you.»
«No,» said Trager, «I'm lucky.»
They would argue about it, laughing.
Donelly came to Gidyon and joined the theatre. Without Trager, the forest work had been no fun, he said. The three of them spent a lot of time together, and Trager glowed. He wanted to share his friends with Laurel, and he'd already mentioned Donelly a lot. And he wanted Donelly to see how happy he'd become, to see what belief could accomplish.
«I like her,» Donelly said, smiling, the first night after Laurel had left.
«Good,» Trager replied, nodding.
«No,» said Donelly. «Greg, I really like her.»
They spent a lot of time together.
«Greg,» Laurel said one night in bed, «I think that Don is . . . well, after me. You know.»
Trager rolled over and propped his head up on his elbow. «God,» he said. He sounded concerned.
«I don't know how to handle it.»
«Carefully,» Trager said. «He's very vulnerable. You're probably the first woman he's ever been interested in. Don't be too hard on him. He shouldn't have to go through the stuff I went through, you know?»
* * *
The sex was never as good as a meathouse. And, after a while, Laurel began to close. More and more nights now she went to sleep after they made love; the days when they talked till dawn were gone. Perhaps they had nothing left to say. Trager had noticed that she had a tendency to finish his stories for him. It was nearly impossible to come up with one he hadn't already told her.
«He said that?» Trager got out of bed, turned on a light, and sat down frowning. Laurel pulled the covers up to her chin.
«Well, what did you say?»
She hesitated. «I can't tell you. It's between Don and me. He said it wasn't fair, the way I turn around and tell you everything that goes on between us, and he's right.»
«Right! But I tell you everything. Don't you remember what we . . .»
«I know, but . . .»
Trager shook his head. His voice lost some of its anger. «What's going on, Laurel, huh? I'm scared, all of a sudden. I love you, remember? How can everything change so fast?»
Her face softened. She sat up, and held out her arms, and the covers fell back from full soft breasts. «Oh, Greg,» she said. «Don't worry. I love you, I always will, but it's just that I love him too, I guess. You know?»
Trager, mollified, came into her arms, and kissed her with fervor. Then, suddenly, he broke off. «Hey,» he said, with mock sternness to hide the trembling in his voice, «who do you love more?»
«You, of course, always you.»
Smiling, he returned to the kiss.
«I know you know,» Donelly said. «I guess we have to talk about it.»
Trager nodded. They were backstage in the theatre. Three of his corpses walked up behind him, and stood arms crossed, like a guard. «All right.» He looked straight at Donelly, and his face—smiling until the other's words—was suddenly stern. «Laurel asked me to pretend I didn't know anything. She said you felt guilty. But pretending was quite a strain, Don. I guess it's time we got everything out in the open.»
Donelly's pale blue eyes shifted to the floor, and he stuck his hands into his pockets. «I don't want to hurt you,» he said.
«But I'm not going to pretend I'm dead, either. I'm not. I love her too.»
«You're supposed to be my friend, Don. Love someone else. You're just going to get yourself hurt this way.»
«I have more in common with her than you do.»
Trager just stared.
Donelly looked up at him. Then, abashed, back down again. «I don't know. Oh, Greg. She loves you more anyway, she said so. I never should have expected anything else. I feel like I've stabbed you in the back. I . . .»
Trager watched him. Finally, he laughed softly. «Oh, shit, I can't take this. Look, Don, you haven't stabbed me, c'mon, don't talk like that. I guess, if you love her, this is the way it's got to be, you know. I just hope everything comes out all right.»
Later that night, in bed with Laurel; «I'm worried about him,» he told her.
His face, once tanned, now ashen. «Laurel?» he said. Not believing.
«I don't love you anymore. I'm sorry. I don't. It seemed real at the time, but now it's almost like a dream. I don't even know if I ever loved you, really.»
«Don,» he said woodenly.
Laurel flushed. «Don't say anything bad about Don. I'm tired of hearing you run him down. He never says anything except good about you.»
«Oh, Laurel. Don't you remember? The things we said, the way we felt? I'm the same person you said those words to.»
«But I've grown,» Laurel said, hard and tearless, tossing her red-gold hair. «I remember perfectly well, but I just don't feel that way anymore.»
«Don't,» he said. He reached for her.
She stepped back. «Keep your hands off me. I told you, Greg, it's over. You have to leave now. Don is coming by.»
It was worse than Josie. A thousand times worse.