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Treasure Box


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Chapter Two
Groceries

Junior high, high school. Quentin's days were full and then were forgotten, or at least not much thought about. There were friends in passing. There was laughter. Awards in Spanish and math in the final assembly of his senior year. Grades that brought him just under saludatorian. Passed over in the official "most likely to" balloting, but in the unofficial ballot in homeroom class he was voted "most likely to be the guy your mom wishes you were dating" and "most likely to own the company you end up working for when your first-choice career falls through." Square but not unclassy. Even admired a little, however backhandedly, by his fellow students. He did OK.

Funny, though, their voting him the guy that moms wanted their daughters to date. Because he didn't really date anybody. He didn't even do the tuxedo proms, except the preference dances, when he was asked each year by a sweet and only vaguely unattractive intellectual girl. He said yes each time and rented the tux and bought the corsage and then never asked her out afterward, which probably hurt her feelings but he just wasn't interested in pursuing anything. Four dates in four years. Not much of a record. If his parents worried they didn't say anything.

He certainly didn't worry. He wasn't blind — he knew which girls were attractive. He had his share of interesting dreams and pleasant fantasies. But when it came to thinking of maybe asking a girl out, he'd start watching her a little bit in class or between classes or at lunch or wherever, and pretty soon she'd say something or do something that was ... wrong. Somehow just wrong, he couldn't put a finger on it. It just turned him off and he wasn't interested in her anymore. She didn't measure up. To what, he couldn't have said.

Maybe it was like Lizzy had said when boys started asking her out. "Why waste time with a guy when I know there's no point?" Mom used to say, "But he's a perfectly nice boy, why not go and just see the movie? Eat the pizza?" And Lizzy would roll her eyes and say, "Mom, please, are you really saying I should let them spend money on me when I know I'm just leading them on?" and then the two of them would burst out laughing and Quentin would sit there unnoticed at the kitchen table or in the living room or wherever he was and he'd think, What is this thing between women, like men are a joke that women all told each other long ago but men never get it.

Only maybe now he did get it. The joke wasn't men, the joke was people who didn't know what they wanted to give or to get and so kept disappointing and being disappointed. Quentin didn't know what he wanted, but he did know what he didn't want. What he didn't want was any of the girls at school. He had lots of friends who were girls. He liked them. Nice girls. Just not for him.

And not for him were the girls at Berkeley, either, as he majored in Spanish and then math and then history, grinding away and getting good grades so that even with all the changes in major he graduated right on time and hadn't had more than ten dates in all four years of college. The first couple of years Mom and Dad didn't say anything, but by his junior year Mom had begun asking in every phone call and every visit home to Santa Clara, "Have you been meeting any nice girls? Are there any nice girls in any of your classes?" And there was that one excruciating conversation with Dad in the garage helping him mix the paint for the wood trim around the doors and windows, when Dad's weird questions finally coalesced enough for Quentin to blush furiously and reassure him that yes, Quentin liked girls and not boys, he simply hadn't found the right girl yet but he was looking and don't worry, Dad, when I do bring somebody home she'll wear a dress and she'll have two X chromosomes, now can we please just paint the trim?

He graduated with a double major in Spanish and history and promptly got a job back home in Santa Clara with a company that was actually trying to sell computers for people to use at home or in small businesses. He came into the company because a friend from high school got a job there and thought maybe he could be an adviser on a home history program they were developing, but in no time Quentin fell in love with programming and discovered he had a real knack for it. By the end of the year he had sold out his stock in the hardware company and jumped to a software house that was developing a word processor for the new IBM PCs. A year later that company was bought by an even bigger company that made operating systems and programming languages and spreadsheets and word processors and pretty soon he had risen high enough in that company for them to move him to Washington state where he officially lived on a rented houseboat but actually slept most nights in his office because he was indispensible to several major projects. He had nothing to spend money on, and so he poured it all into buying stock in his own company as it increased a hundredfold in value, and then doubled and doubled and doubled until anybody who had started working for them in the seventies was a millionaire many times over, and Quentin richer than most.

One day in 1987 he realized that he wasn't interested in programming anymore. Yesterday it was still a challenge. Today it wasn't. Nor did he care about business or marketing or even the people he worked with. They had all changed, the job had changed, the company had changed. It wasn't any fun and if he just sold his stock he'd never have to work another day in his life. When you win the lottery, do you go back to sweeping the supermarket aisles? That's all his job had become to him.

He cashed out all but about ten percent of his stock and there he was at age twenty-six with twelve and a half million dollars. Fifty software and hardware companies offered him ludicrously high salaries that no one could ever really earn, and he turned them all down. So there he was with a rented houseboat, no career, and, to put it candidly, no life. It was as if he had been running a long, long race and finally realized that there was nobody else in it with him, he had crossed the finish line years ago and didn't notice it because not a soul was there to cheer for him and clap him on the back and say, "Good run, Quen! Good run!"

Or, come to think of it, maybe they were there, only Quentin himself didn't care what they thought of him and so he sloughed off their praise and their friendship because he was still waiting for the one voice he'd never hear again.

What do you do with 12.5 million bucks? Quentin put most of it into safe stocks and bonds, a nest egg which he never touched except to move from one safe investment to another. In his worst year, the recession of '91, he still made a million in interest, dividends, and capital gains. He paid off his parents' house and bought them a nice car and then couldn't think of anything else to do with his money. Even renting a very nice apartment, he still needed only about fifty thou a year to live on, which included a not-bad car of his own (nothing outrageous, just a Nissan Maxima). He traveled a little at first, until he found out that hotels in Cancun and Paris and Hong Kong were pretty much alike. So there he was with a lot of money coming in and it seemed completely pointless just to plow it back into more investments and make more money that he had no particular need for. Besides, after you've churned your own portfolio until even your broker is telling you enough already, what is there to do with the rest of the day, the rest of the week, the month, the year?

Home for Thanksgiving in '92, after Dad had finished railing about why the election of Bill Clinton, the conversation took kind of a serious turn. Quentin just sat there staring into the fire and in the silence Mom said, "Quentin, did it all happen too easily for you?"

At once Dad leapt to the defence of capitalism and explained again why it was that Quentin had worked hard and guessed right and the free market had rewarded him, quite properly, with wealth which really wasn't extravagant, not by the standard of Ross Perot or Bill Gates, anyway.

But then Dad ran out of steam and there was a silence again, and some more wordless fire-staring, until again Mom spoke up. "If you don't have any dreams of your own, Quentin, why don't you borrow somebody else's?"

Dad snorted. "Dreams." But of course he had always been the dreamer of the family, and as Quentin thought about it he realized that when he got so extravagantly wealthy he had really been fulfilling his father's dream. A few years work in a job he enjoyed, and he had snapped that tight wire inside Dad's heart and the old man was happy now, at ease. The system had worked for his son, and that was almost better, in Dad's eyes, than if he had earned all that money himself.

The next Monday, Quentin turned over a few hundred thousand dollars of his portfolio to his father to manage for him, of which his father would keep half has his commission. But that was only the beginning of his response to what his mother had said to him. There were other people with dreams that needed only a few thousand or a few hundred thousand dollars to have a shot at making them come true. It was something to do with his excess money.

He ran an ad for one week in the San Jose Mercury and News: Small investor looking for hard working partner with good ideas. He was flooded with letters. From among those not written in crayon he chose a few dozen that seemed worth looking into. Quentin ended up forming fourteen partnerships, in which he supplied all the capital and the salary of an accountant who reported to him; Quentin himself remained benignly silent until it was time either to fold a failing business or offer to let a successful partner buy him out. The picture was usually pretty clear within a year. More than half of the businesses did well, and some made serious money. Two of them went public and Quentin's gain on each of them more than repaid his entire investment in all fourteen partnerships.

It had been the best year of his life. He could share in the happiness of the successful partners, and as for the ones who failed, they might be disappointed but they knew that at least they had given it a good shot. And since Quentin covered all the partnerships' debts and losses, they all walked away clean. Nobody lost. Some good things were accomplished.

But why limit his new project to the south bay? Quentin began traveling again, renting an apartment in a metro area, putting an ad in the local paper, sorting through the responses, forming the partnerships. It took a few months to get things under way; then he'd move on, keeping the apartment for another year or two so he'd have a place to stay when he came back for follow-up visits. He didn't quite choose each new destination by closing his eyes and stabbing at a map with a pushpin, but his method wasn't much more scientific — he'd look through the travel books section of some bookstore and go wherever the picture intrigued him. There was nothing predictable about it. His stay in Vermont wasn't in beautiful Montpelier, it was in bleak and dirty Burlington; but when he went to Texas he skipped the bustling cities and drove east from Dallas into the lush savannah country until he came to Nacogdoches and thought, for a while, he might have found his home for life.

But a few months later he was on his way again. Durango, Missoula, Kennewick, Seneca. Asheboro, Mandeville, Oakland, the Bronx. There was no shortage of dreamers, no shortage of interesting dreams. Dayton, Concord, Grand Junction, Grand Island. Flagstaff, Johnstown, Boise, Savannah.

Spring of 1995. Herndon, Virginia. The weather was finally warm and Quentin had just placed his ad, not in the Washington Post but in the local shopper. So it would be a few days before it came out and he had time to kill. He went to Worldgate and saw a Wednesday afternoon showing of some movie about the Ebola virus starring Dustin Hoffman as the hero who somehow finds a way to synthesize a serum that can be manufactured so quickly that it can cure people with advanced cases of the disease. He came out of the movie wondering why he was so upset. There had always been stupid movies. Why should this one bother him so much?

He stopped at the frozen yogurt shop at Worldgate but the place had been taken over by extraordinarily smelly gourmet coffees, which meant that all the yogurt would be mocha no matter what flavor it was supposed to be. Why did such a minor annoyance make him want to yell at somebody about how you don't put something with a dominant smell into a shop that depends on having a variety of different flavors? It was absurd. It didn't matter. But when he got to his car he slapped the roof so hard his hand stung and for just a moment he felt a little better.

Maybe my life isn't so great after all, he thought as he drove up Elden Street to the Giant foodstore. It was just before five. The local rush hour wasn't too bad, and the DC commuter wave wouldn't hit for another half hour. Maybe I'm already getting tired of living on borrowed dreams. But if I stop doing this, what will I do next? And how long will the next career last?

Meat pies, apricot nectar, and Teddy Grahams pretty much accounted for his diet these days. He contemplated buying stock in Marie Callendar's, Libby's, or Nabisco, but decided that when it came to food he'd rather be a consumer than an investor. He wondered what the markup must be to allow Giant to accept American Express, or did the foodstore maybe have some sweetheart deal with Amex so the rakeoff wasn't as steep as it was for everybody else? And then he thought, Is my life so empty that this is the best thing I can think of to think about?

Think of a thing to think about. It became his mantra as he pulled meat pies out of the freezer compartment.

And then a whiny child's voice pierced the nonsense in his mind.

"If you were ever home you'd know that I eat healthy things all the time and all I'm asking for is some real ice cream instead of that fakey stuff."

It was a girl, maybe ten or twelve, blond hair done up in that smooth too-sophisticated way that always made Quentin vaguely sad, as if somebody was letting the kid throw away her childhood.

Only this one was obviously a real harpie. A pouty face, a voice too loud, and the parents all a-flutter trying to placate her. "We just want you to be happy, dear," said the mother.

"You told us to help you watch your waistline," said the father.

Could these people hear themselves? They sounded like some movie star's toadies.

"Well I didn't mean ice cream, did I?" said the girl, as if her parents were the stupidest people who had ever lived.

"I don't think there's anything wrong with a little Ben and Jerry's, do you dear?" said the mother. "It doesn't have as much fat as the Haagen Dazs, does it?"

"Whatever," said the father. He, at least, seemed to understand what a monster this child had become. How weak they seemed, to let her manipulate them like this.

All at once a memory flooded back — lying in the grass, Dad's body pressing down on his. Dad getting angry, and Mom suddenly being conciliatory, and Quentin getting away with something. Just as he had done a dozen times before.

So what? So all children are manipulators — at least he had always had the decency not to humiliate his parents in public like this little dipwhistle.

Of course that could also be taken to mean that he was a hypocrite while this little girl was simply open about what all children try to do and all but a few parents are too weak to stop them from doing.

Thank heaven I never married or had kids, thought Quentin. Who needs to get into a lifelong power struggle with your own kids?

He had all the pies he needed for a couple of weeks — all that the freezer in his rented townhouse would hold. He wheeled the cart down the aisle past the girl and her tame parents. He made a point of not looking at them — why not let them pretend that nobody noticed their humiliation? But he couldn't resist a long hard glare of contempt at the girl.

She met his gaze with a saucy look; but there was a twinkle in her eyes that surprised him. Could it be irony? Could it be that she knows exactly how bratty she seems?

Well what if she does? Knowing you're a jerk doesn't mean you're any less a jerk; probably the opposite. Lizzy never looked like that. She had too much pride to act like this girl, or look like her, or talk like her. This girl was alive and Lizzy was dead and all of a sudden it rolled over him how many years of life she had missed and how much better she would have lived those years than this snotty little girl. Better than Quentin, too. She wouldn't have found herself thirty-four years old and sick of the emptiness of her life. Because her life wouldn't have been empty. She would have loved somebody and married him and had children. And they wouldn't have been children like this, they would have been good kids, decent kids, kids you could be proud of. She would have made her life mean something. While Quentin had — what? Money? And this girl ... she had that irony in her eyes. Knowledge without wisdom. Power without purpose. Like me.

He stood in the checkout line. The clerk bantered a little with the dressed-for-success woman in front of him. Quentin gazed around the store listlessly, seeing everything, noticing nothing.

Until he saw a woman in the express line, bent over her purse, digging for coins or a pen, and there was something about her, about the way her hair fell, about the slope of her shoulders, the clothes she wore. He knew her, absolutely knew her, only it couldn't be her, but she was so perfectly like his memory of Lizzy that he couldn't breathe. And when she stood straight and handed money to the cashier she did it with that straight-armed, elbow-locked movement that was Lizzy's own.

"Sir?" said the clerk.

The woman ahead of him was picking up her bags and leaving. Quickly Quentin finished moving everything from his cart to the conveyor belt, glancing up as often as he could to see if he could catch a glimpse of her face, not that there was any hope that it could be Lizzy, but if this woman really was somehow Lizzy's double, then maybe he could see her face, see what she would have looked like grown up, only that was crazy, all he would see was that it wasn't Lizzy, and it would hurt him all over again that she wasn't there. Already it hurt him. Already something deep and long-denied was stirring inside him. The grief that he had never expressed except one miserable afternoon of throwing jars on the floor and pulling up plants.

She turned around just as he was bending down to get the last of the pies out of the cart. When he looked up again she was almost at the door but he caught a glimpse of her face and gasped aloud at the face, at the exact, the perfect copy of ...

"Sir, where are you —"

"Just ring it up, I'll be back in one second —"

But she was gone. Standing there at the railing that kept carts from going out into the parking lot, he scanned for her, for that walk, that hair, that light spring sweater, walking to some car, walking to another store, but she wasn't there. No sign of her.

He pressed his hands to his face. It wasn't her. It was just a wish for her, that's all. The woman couldn't have looked that much like her, it was just his mind playing tricks on him. He returned to the store, to a clerk that was looking annoyed, to a line of shoppers — refugees from the DC rush hour now — who seemed about one step from a lynch mob. He swiped his card through the machine, signed the slip, gathered up his frozen food and headed for his car.

The one thing I can't have in all this world is Lizzy. But she's what I've wanted, all day, all month, all these years. Coming out of that bad movie today I wanted to jammer to her about how stupid the science in it was, how pathetic it was to see Dustin Hoffman in a role so dumb, a Stallone cast-off. She would have laughed and quoted some line from The Graduate, which of course she had snuck off to see even though Mom and Dad declared it a dirty movie and off limits. "It wasn't dirty to me," she said. "I just came home and proved that it takes bigger boobs than these to do that tassel thing." And the yogurt place, it was Lizzy he wanted to tell his diatribe to. And in the store, he needed Lizzy beside him so they could laugh about that bratty little girl and then hatch some bizzarre plot to kidnap her and then see how low the ransom would have to go before her parents would finally pay it and take her back.

But I can't have Lizzy.

And as he plunged his car out into the heavy traffic of Elden Street, it occurred to him for the first time that even if Lizzy hadn't died, he couldn't have had her with him at age thirty-four in Herndon Virginia in the spring of 1995, because she would have been thirty-nine years old and undoubtedly married and probably she would have had a couple of kids in high school by then and a husband who adored her because she wouldn't marry anybody stupid enough not to adore her and he would have been the one talking to her and listening to her and sharing jokes with her and inflicting his diatribes on her. Not me.

If she had lived, then she would have gone away to college before he even got to high school. The closeness between them would have faded. He would have grieved a little, maybe, but he would have turned to his friends then, the way other people did. He wouldn't have kept comparing every girl he knew to his perfect image of Lizzy because Lizzy would still be home for holidays and he wouldn't be so needy for her; some other girl's fresh and un-Lizzyish style or look or attitude would have intrigued him instead of putting him off. He would have fallen in love the normal dozen or so times and right now if he had these millions of dollars he wouldn't be wandering North America borrowing other people's dreams, he'd be at home, and everything he did and made and built and won would have been for his wife, his children, their future. Together they would have invented dreams of their own, dreams to spare, enough dreams that they could freely share them with strangers instead of his having to go shopping for them.

Grownup men don't share their lives with their sisters, they share them with their wives.

He felt sick with the sense of loss. What have I been doing all these years? How stupid can a reasonably bright guy be?

The realization struck him so hard that he had to pull off the Herndon Parkway into a condo parking lot and rest his head against the steering wheel and what was he doing? Why was he crying like some ten-year-old kid? It wasn't Lizzy he was grieving for after all. It was himself. It was his own lost years.

It was Lizzy whose organs they harvested, not mine. So why have I made myself as solitary as the dead?

Finally he got control of himself, pulled a kleenex from the box he always kept on the perpetually empty passenger seat, dried his eyes, wiped his glasses, put them back on, and leaned back to look at the bright evening all around him. Cars pulling into the parking lot. People getting out and going into their condos where some of them lived alone and some of them had roommates and some of them had a wife or husband and some of them had kids and every damned one of them had more sense than Quentin Fears had.

There she was, climbing up the stairs to the end townhouse on the building right next to him. He could see her face clearly as she dug in her purse for her keys. No, she didn't look like Lizzy after all, not really, not as much as he had thought in the store. But her movement was the same, or very similar, he hadn't imagined that. And her hair, it was almost like Lizzy's, wasn't it? When Lizzy had worn it that way, or almost that way? Long, anyway.

Not Lizzy at all, really. But — and here's the thing that surprised him — she was still attractive. Still interesting. The way she stopped searching, stood up straight, rolled her eyes heavenward in exasperation, and then made one final dive of the hand into the purse, to have it emerge a moment later clutching the keys on a big brass ring. How could she have missed something that size in her purse? She slipped it into the lock, went inside, and closed the door behind her. Lights went on. She was home.

But I'm not home. Not here, not anywhere.

More than anything else Quentin wanted to get out of his car and walk up to that door, knock on it, smile sheepishly when she opened the door and ...

And what? Lie? I'm sorry, I seem to have locked my keys in my car, can I use your phone to call triple-A? Beg your pardon, but I noticed you in the grocery store and you look so much like my dead sister that I really want to spend some time with you, thinking about her and crying — do you have a few evenings free?

She probably had a husband in there waiting for her, or coming home soon afterward. But as he sat in the parking lot, nobody else walked up the front steps. There was no husband. Somehow there was no husband. And the certainty grew: I should be the one to walk those stairs, to open that door, to laughingly call out, "Hi, Honey, I'm home." To tease her about a purse so cluttered she couldn't even find a two-pound eight-inch brass ring of keys.

Hello, I'm a multi-millionaire who is pathologically lonely and so filled with pent-up longings that you have only to think of a desire and I'll satisfy it. Mind if I come in?

He restarted his engine and drove away. It was dark. He had sat there for nearly three hours. When he got back to his apartment the meat pies weren't even cold, let alone frozen. He spent a half hour slopping them out of their pieplates and grinding them down the disposal. Then he went to the Rio Grande and over a plate of pork tamales and a bottle of sangria-flavor Peñafiel at the bar he plotted how to find out who she was and, more to the point, how to arrange to meet her before the end of the week.

Copyright © 1996 Orson Scott Card

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