“We won’t then. Better wash up, boy. Suppertime.”
The boy ran.
Perhaps ten minutes later a boat floated down the serene surface of the canal, a tall lank man with black hair poling it along with leisurely drives of his arms. “Evening, Brother LaFarge,” he said, pausing at his task.
“Evening Saul, what’s the word?”
“All kinds of words tonight. You know that fellow named Nomland who lives down the canal in the tin hut?”
LaFarge stiffened. “Yes?”
“You know what sort of rascal he was?”
“Rumor had it he left Earth because he killed a man.”
Saul leaned on his wet pole, gazing at LaFarge. “Remember the name of the man he killed?”
“Gillings, wasn’t it?”
“Right. Gillings. Well, about two hours ago Mr. Nomland came running to town crying about how he had seen Gillings, alive, here on Mars, today, this afternoon! He tried to get the jail to lock him up safe. The jail wouldn’t. So Nomland went home, and twenty minutes ago, as I get the story, blew his brains out with a gun. I just came from there.”
“Well, well,” said LaFarge.
“The darnedest things happen,” said Saul. “Well, good night, LaFarge.”
The boat drifted on down the serene canal waters.
“Supper’s hot,” called the old woman.
Mr. LaFarge sat down to his supper and, knife in hand, looked over at Tom. “Tom,” he said, “what did you do this afternoon?”
“Nothing,” said Tom, his mouth full. “Why?”
“Just wanted to know.” The old man tucked his napkin in.
At seven that night the old woman wanted to go to town. “Haven’t been there in months,” she said. But Tom desisted. “I’m afraid of the town,” he said. “The people. I don’t want to go there.”
“Such talk for a grown boy,” said Anna. “I won’t listen to it. You’ll come along. I say so.”
“Anna, if the boy doesn’t want to … ” started the old man.
But there was no arguing. She hustled them into the canalboat and they floated up the canal under the evening stars, Tom lying on his back, his eyes closed; asleep or not, there was no telling. The old man looked at him steadily, wondering. Who is this, he thought, in need of love as much as we? Who is he and what is he that, out of loneliness, he comes into the alien camp and assumes the voice and face of memory and stands among us, accepted and happy at last? From what mountain, what cave, what small last race of people remaining on this world when the rockets came from Earth? The old man shook his head. There was no way to know. This, to all purposes, was Tom.
The old man looked at the town ahead and did not like it, but then he returned to thoughts of Tom and Anna again and he thought to himself: Perhaps this is wrong to keep Tom but a little while, when nothing can come of it but trouble and sorrow, but how are we to give up the very thing we’ve wanted, no matter if it stays only a day and is gone, making the emptiness emptier, the dark nights darker, the rainy nights wetter? You might as well force the food from our mouths as take this one from us.
And he looked at the boy slumbering so peacefully at the bottom of the boat. The boy whimpered with some dream. “The people,” he murmured in his sleep. “Changing and changing. The trap.”
“There, there, boy.” LaFarge stroked the boy’s soft curls and Tom ceased.
LaFarge helped wife and son from the boat.
“Here we are!” Anna smiled at all the lights, listening to the music from the drinking houses, the pianos, the phonographs, watching people, arm in arm, striding by in the crowded streets.
“I wish I was home,” said Tom.
“You never talked that way before,” said the mother. “You always liked Saturday nights in town.”
“Stay close to me,” whispered Tom. “I don’t want to get trapped.”
Anna overheard. “Stop talking that way; come along!”
LaFarge noticed that the boy held his hand. LaFarge squeezed it. “I’ll stick with you, Tommy-boy.” He looked at the throngs coming and going and it worried him also. “We won’t stay long.”