Devoted Page 2

Woody was embarrassed for people who believed stupid science, which a lot of them did. He was also embarrassed for people who got angry over petty things, for people who called other people names, for people who were mean to animals. For a lot of reasons, a great many people made him embarrassed for them.

He was embarrassed for himself, that he was a danger to his own teeth. The Sonicare had a two-minute timer; you were never supposed to scrub with the bristles, but instead let the sound waves remove the plaque. Without the timer, Woody’s mouth would be a graveyard’s worth of gum tissue.

He was also embarrassed because sometimes he thought about kissing a girl, an act that never crossed his mind until recently. Kissing seemed gross—yuck—swapping spit. Something must be going wrong with him that he would yearn for it. He was also—yet again, it never stopped—embarrassed because if he ever did ask some girl’s permission to kiss her, he would never tell her about his dead-guy gums, for fear she would vomit and run away. He’d lie by omission, which was mortifying to contemplate, because lying was a prime source of all human suffering. The word mortification could be defined as a painful sense of humiliation, worse than embarrassment.

As long as he could remember, Woody had been embarrassed for himself and for other people. That was one reason he never talked. If he dared to talk, he’d tell people what they did that embarrassed him, and he’d tell them what he found embarrassing about himself, which was a long list. He was a mess. He really was. People didn’t want to hear about what a mess he was or what a mess they were. But not to tell would be to lie by omission, and the thought of lying so mortified him that he became nauseous. Better to stay silent, say nothing, and maybe people would like you. And if you didn’t tell them what an embarrassing mess you were, maybe they wouldn’t notice.

One of the most embarrassing things about people was how unobservant they were.

After he brushed his teeth, he went to bed and turned out the nightstand lamp. He wasn’t afraid of the dark. There weren’t ghosts or vampires or werewolves or anything like that, and there was zero chance that a dead guy might creep into the bedroom to take his gum tissue back.

The only monsters were people. Not all people. Just some of them. Like those who had killed his father. Dad had been dead for three years, and no one had been put in prison for murder. Everyone still thought his death had been an accident. Woody knew better. Now that he had at last finished “The Son’s Revenge: Faithfully Compiled Evidence of Monstrous Evil,” those individuals responsible would be brought to justice.

Woody was very smart. He’d been reading at a college level since he was seven years old, which maybe didn’t mean a whole lot, considering that many college graduates didn’t seem to know anything. He was an accomplished computer hacker. During the past two years, he’d penetrated highly protected computer systems, in which he had planted rootkits that allowed him to swim through their networks without their security becoming aware that a secret fish explored the data depths. His explorations had also led him into strange places on the Dark Web.

Now, waiting for sleep, Woody encouraged himself to think of something pleasant. He was embarrassed when he imagined himself kissing a girl whom he had seen in a magazine photo. He tried to turn his mind to another subject, but he couldn’t. He wondered if one day, a few years from now, he might meet a girl who’d had gum transplants, which would give them something in common. He had been kissed on the cheek and on the forehead, though not on the mouth, but had never kissed anyone in turn. If he met such a girl, maybe that would be a nice place to start.


Dorothy smelled of death.

She was seventy-six. She would be gone shortly after dawn.

This was a hard truth. The world was a beautiful place, but it was full of hard truths.

The live-in hospice-care nurse, Rosa Leon, attended to her in the bedroom where Dorothy had slept most nights of her long life.

Rosa smelled of life and strawberry-scented shampoo and the peppermint hard candies that she enjoyed.

In this room, Dorothy and her late husband, Arthur, had made love and conceived one child, Jack.

Arthur had been an accountant. He died at sixty-seven.

Jack had died in a war at the age of twenty-eight. His parents outlived him by decades.

Losing a child was the central tragedy of Dorothy’s life.

But she was proud of Jack, and resilient, and she carried on, living a life that mattered.

Kipp had never met Jack or Arthur. He knew them only because Dorothy had so often spoken of them.

Rosa sat in an armchair, reading a paperback, unaware that Death was en route.

At the moment, Dorothy slept, sedated and without pain.

Kipp suffered when Dorothy was in serious pain. He had lived with her only three years. But he loved her desperately.

It was his nature to love beyond reason.

Before the moment of her passing might come, he needed to steel himself, prepare to deal with the loss.

He went downstairs and out through his door and onto the deep back deck to get some fresh air.

The house stood about twenty feet above Lake Tahoe. A minimal tide lapped softly on the beach, and sharp-edged reflections of a scimitar moon shimmered across the rippled water.

A mild breeze brought a rich mélange of odors: pine trees, cedars, woodsmoke from a fireplace, forest mast, wild mushrooms, squirrels, raccoons, and much more.

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