Which turned out to be a fairly good idea, since TOC ceased to pursue him. Colin fell to the ground, moaning, waves of pain radiating from his middle. It felt as if the Franz Ferdinandian hole in his gut had now torn, and the pain grew and grew from a bullet hole to a canyon until finally Colin himself was the hole. He’d become a wracking, all-over vacuum of pain.
“Oh God,” Colin said finally. “Oh God, my balls. ”
Colin misspoke. In a better state, he would have recognized that it wasn’t his balls that hurt, but rather his brain. Nerve impulses flew from his testes to his brain, where the brain’s pain receptors were triggered, and the brain told Colin to feel pain in his balls, which Colin did, because the body always listens to the brain. Nuts, arms, stomachs—they never hurt. All hurt is brain hurt.
The pain made him dizzy and faint, and he lay on his side, crouched in the fetal position, his eyes closed. His head swam with the nauseating ache, and for a moment he fell asleep. But he had to get up, because he could hear Hassan grunting as he received blow after blow, so Colin crawled to the obelisk, and slowly dragged himself up, his hands walking up the Archduke’s grave.
“I’m still here,” Colin said feebly, his eyes shut as he held onto the obelisk for balance. “Come and get me. ” But when he opened his eyes, TOC was gone. Colin could hear the cicadas out in force, humming to a rhythm that matched his still-throbbing balls. Through the gray twilight, Colin saw Lindsey Lee Wells and her red-crossed first-aid kit tending to a seated Hassan, whose camouflage shirt and orange vest were covered with blood. SOCT and JATT were sitting together sharing a cigarette—there was a lump above JATT’s eye that literally looked like his forehead was about to birth a chicken egg. Colin got dizzy, and then turned back around, hugging the obelisk. When he opened his eyes again, he realized his glasses were gone, and between the dizziness and his astigmatism, the letters before him started dancing. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand. He anagrammed to dull the pain. “Huh,” he mumbled after a moment. “That’s a hell of a coincidence. ”
“The kafir has awoken,” Hassan noted. Lindsey rushed over to Colin, wiped the last flecks of chaw from his earlobe, and whispered into his ear. “Mein held,77 thanks for defending my honor. So where’d he get ya?”
“In the brain,” Colin said, getting it right this time.
The next morning, a Monday, was their twenty-second morning in Gutshot, and indubitably the worst. Aside from the residual tenderness in and around his nuts, Colin’s entire body was sore from a day spent walking and running and shooting and getting hit. And his head hurt—each time he opened his eyes, beams of feverish, demonic pain shot through his brain. The night before, Paramedic (in Training) Lindsey Lee Wells had diagnosed him with moderate contusions and “sprained balls” after an exhaustive search of medical Web sites. She diagnosed TOC as suffering from “I’m-an-asshole-and-Lindsey’s-never-going-to-speak-to-me-again-itis. ”
Keeping his eyes closed as much as possible, Colin stumbled toward the bathroom that morning, where he found Hassan staring at himself in the mirror. Hassan’s lower lip was hideously busted—he looked like he was chewing a fat wad of tobacco—and his right eye was very nearly swollen shut.
“How ya doing?” asked Colin. Hassan turned to him and gave Colin the full view of his well-punched face, as if to answer the question.
“Yeah, sure,” Colin said, reaching in to turn on the shower. “But you should see the other guy. ”
Hass managed a wan smile. “If I could do it all over again,” he said, his speech slow and vaguely mangled by his massive lower lip, “I’d just let myself be trampled to death by the Satan Pig. ”
As Colin came down the stairs to breakfast, he saw Lindsey sitting at the oak table sipping a glass of orange juice. “I really don’t want to talk about it,” Lindsey said, preemptively. “But I do hope your balls are okay. ”
“Me too,” said Colin. He’d checked on them during his shower. They felt the same, only tenderer.
Their assignment that day—left in note form by Hollis—was to interview a woman named Mabel Bartrand. “Oh, man,” Lindsey said when Colin read the name to her. “She’s at the other home, the one for when you’re really old. I can’t take that today. I can’t—God. Let’s just skip. Let’s just all go back to sleep. ”
“I’m for that,” Hassan mumbled through his meaty lips.
“She could probably use the company,” Colin said, trying to use his familiarity with loneliness for the powers of good.
“Lord, you do know how to lay on the guilt,” Lindsey said. “Let’s go. ”
Mabel Bartrand lived in an assisted living facility about fifteen miles outside of Gutshot, one exit south of the Hardee’s. Lindsey knew the way, so she drove the Hearse. On the drive, no one talked. There was too much to discuss. And anyway, Colin’s whole body felt like pure, undiluted crap. But his life had finally calmed down enough to return to the troubling question of Katherine III, and the failure of his memory. His head, however, hurt too much to make any sense of it.
A male nurse met them at reception and guided them to Mabel’s room. This place was significantly more depressing than Sunset Acres. Here the only sound was the whirring of machines, and the halls were mostly empty of people. A TV blaring the Weather Channel in the common room went unwatched; the doors were mostly closed; the few people seated in the common room looked confused or blank or—worst of all—scared.
“Ms. Mabel,” the nurse said singsongily, condescendingly. “You have some visitors. ” Colin turned on the minirecorder. He was using the same tape from the day before, taping over TOC’s confession.
“Hello,” Mabel said. She was seated in a leather recliner in what looked like a dorm room, with one twin bed, one chair, a long-ignored wooden desk, and a minifridge. Her thinning, curly white hair was styled into a kind of old lady Jew-fro. She hunched forward, and she smelled old, vaguely like formaldehyde. Lindsey leaned forward, her arms around Ms. Mabel, and kissed her cheek. Colin and Hassan introduced themselves, and Ms. Mabel smiled but didn’t speak.
Belatedly, Mabel asked, “Is that Lindsey Wells?”
“Yes’m,” said Lindsey, sitting down next to her.
“Oh, Lindsey darling, I ain’t seen you in so long. It’s been years, hasn’t it? Oh, but Lord it’s good to see you. ”
“You too, Mabel. ”
“I’ve thought about you so much and wished on you visitin’, but you never did. Don’t you look so good and grown-up. No more blue hair for you, uh-uh. How’ve you been, baby?”
“I’ve been good, Mabel. How about yourself?”
“I’m ninety-four! How you think I’m doing?” Mabel laughed, and so did Colin. “What’s your name?” she asked Colin, and he told her.