Bill said, "Why not?"
Orville grinned without showing his teeth. "Where there's no discipline, there're no discipline problems. He can work whatever hours he wants. He'll have access to anything he needs: budget, staff, an office, whatever. It's his dream job."
Bill said, "I don't like this."
George wondered why not. It sounded pretty good to him.
Orville puffed at his pipe. "Like it or not, I think you'll have a hard time convincing Joe not to do it. He's sold."
Bill went back into the cabin and closed the door.
"He took that well, don't you think?" Orville asked.
George said, "I suppose so."
Orville said, "Is everything working out all right for you? Shifts OK?
George said, "Everything's fine. Thank you."
Orville tapped his pipe out on the b.u.mper, then got back into the cart. "All right then. Good night, George."
George started cooking dinner for two. More and more, Joe spent the night in a suite at one of the hotels, "working late." George didn't know what sort of work he was doing, but he sure seemed to enjoy it. He hardly came back to the cabin at all. The first time he'd stayed out all night, Bill had gone back to the Island and gotten Orville out of bed to help him search. After that, Joe started sending out a runner, usually some poor Ops trainee, to tell them he wasn't coming back for dinner. Eventually, he stopped bothering, and Bill stopped worrying.
One night, a month after Orville had come out to the cabin, George slathered a muskrat's carca.s.s with mayonnaise and lemon and dragonfly eggs and set it out for him and Joe.
Bill hardly ate, which was usually a signal that he was thinking. George left him half of the dinner and waited for him to speak. Bill picked his way through the rest, then pushed his plate away. George cleared it and brought them both mason jars full of muddy water from the swamp out back. Bill took his jar out front of the cabin and leaned against the wall and stared out into the night, sipping. George joined him.
"We're getting old," Bill said, at last.
"Every night, the inside of my uniform is black," George said.
"Mine, too. We're getting very old. I think that you're at least thirty, and I'm pretty sure that I'm twenty-five. That's old. Our father told me that he thought he was fifty, the year he died. And he was very old for one of us."
George thought of their father on his deathbed, eating the food they chewed for him, eyes nearly blind, skin crazed with cracks. "He was very old," George said.
Bill held his two whole hands up against the stars. "When father was my age, he had two sons. Can you remember how proud he was of us? How proud he was of himself? He'd done well enough that he could lose both his thumbs, and still know that his sons would take care of him."
George shifted and sighed. He'd been thinking about sons, too.
"I've wanted a son since we came to the Island," Bill said. "I never did anything about it because I couldn't take care of Joe and a son." Bill turned to look at George. "I think Joe's finally taking care of himself."
George didn't know what to say. If Bill had a son, then he couldn't. They couldn't both stop working to raise their sons. But Bill always made the decisions for them. George didn't know what to say, so he said nothing.
"I'm going to have a son," Bill said.
Bill did it the next night. He told Orville that he'd need a month off, and after eating the dinner George made for them, he made a nest of earth and blankets on the floor of their cabin.
George sat in the corner and watched Bill as he stared at his thumbs. It was the most important decision one of their kind ever made: a clever son of the left hand, or a strong son of the right. George knew that his son would come from the left hand. In the world his father had put them into, cleverness was far more important than strength. After all, Bill was having the first son.
Bill put his clever left thumb in his mouth and slowly, slowly, bit down. George felt muddy tears p.r.i.c.king at his eyes. Bill's hand coursed with silty blood. He ignored it, and used his strong right hand to take the severed thumb from his mouth and bed it down with infinite care in the nest he'd built.
George cautiously moved forward to peer at the thumb, which was already moving blindly in its nest, twisting like a grub. Bill looked on, his eyes shining.
"It's perfect," George breathed.
George felt an uncharacteristic welling up inside him, and he put his arm around Bill's shoulders. Bill leaned into him, and said, "Thank you, George. This family wouldn't exist without you."
They both slept curled around the nest that night.
By morning, the thumb had sprouted tiny arm- and leg-buds, and it inched itself blindly around the nest. George marveled at it before going to work.
Joe stopped by his stand that day. His belly was bigger than ever, and his skin was cracking like their father's had. "Big guy!" he shouted, vaulting the counter into George's stand. "Where's Bill today? He wasn't at his post."
George said, "Bill had a son last night. From his left hand."
Joe rolled his eyes, which had gone the murky yellow of swamp water. "Wonderful, right? Ugh. There are better ways to achieve immortality, bro. I'm designing a crawl-through for HorrorZone: you're an earthworm crawling underneath a graveyard. It's gonna be huge: maggots as big as horses, chasing the Guests through the tunnels; huge ghost hands grabbing at them. We're building a giant tombstone as the weenie, you'll be able to see it from anywhere on the Island.
We'll build out over the midway for HorrorZone -- it's the biggest rehab we've done since they brought in electric power."
As usual, George didn't know what to say to Joe. "That sounds very nice," he said.
Joe rolled his eyes again and started to say something, but stopped when three Guests came up to George's booth. George hardly recognised the Mitch.e.l.l brothers. The youngest was already three-quarters donkey, so dangerously close that it was a miracle he hadn't been picked up already. He was hunched over, and his hands were fused into fists. His hair had grown down over his shoulders in a coa.r.s.e mane, and his lips bulged around his elongated jaws.
The middle and eldest were well on their ways, too. The points of their ears poked out from under their hair, and they carried themselves painfully, forcing their legs and hips upright.
George flipped over his phone and punched 911, but left it out of sight below the counter. Loudly, he said, "Come on over, boys! You look like you could use one of George's triple-dips, the best on the midway!"
From the phone, he heard the security operator say, "Thank you, George, we'll be along in a moment." Surrept.i.tiously, he racked the receiver and smiled at the boys.
"How are you enjoying your stay, boys?" he said.
"It'th aw-thome!" the youngest said around his clumsy teeth.
George handed him a cone piled high with floss, then started building two more for his brothers. Joe smirked at them. George hoped he wouldn't say anything before security got there.
The eldest said, "I don't think my brother's feeling too good. Is there a doctor here I can take him to?"
The youngest, face sticky with confection, kicked his brother. "I'm fine!" he said. "I wanna go on more rideth!"
His brother said, "We'll go on more rides after we see a doctor."
The youngest dropped to his knees and cried. "No!" he said, hammering his fists on the ground. "No no no no!" George watched in alarm as the boy went all the way over to donkey. His cries turned to brays, and his shorts split around his haunches and tail. His shirt went next, and George smoothly vaulted the counter and stood in front of the donkey, blocking him from pa.s.sers-by. The other two made a run for it. George snagged the middle by his collar, but the boy tore free and took off down the midway. George looked about wildly for security, but they still hadn't arrived.
Then Joe tore past him, moving faster than George had ever seen him go. He caught the boys and stuffed one under each arm, kicking and squirming. He grinned ferociously as he pinned them beneath his knees at George's feet. He clamped his hands over their mouths. "Got 'em!" he said to George.
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