later, when the pack of feral children had headed down the blasted highway with their loot and their prisoners, and the handful of survivors had straggled out into the thin winter sunlight, maitland was astonished to find the doctor still sitting beside the empty swimming pool in his blue bermuda shorts, chuckling to himself like an albatross on amphetamines.
thick palm trees waved above the pool like exhausted witches, reducing the sunlight to a few flickering postal stamps of luminescence, like the tentative finger poppings of a dying god.
"benway!" somehow the sight of the doctor had given maitland a new lease on energy, and he actually managed to shout across the blank expanse of the empty pool.
"don't look behind you, maitland!" benway shouted jovially, like a juiced up panda. "don't look behind you!" he roared with laughter, slapping his bloated midsection like a faltering falstaff and tipping his tattered beach chair dangerously backward.
maitland grimaced politely as he approached the edge of the pool. this was one of benway's private jokes - one of his innumerable incomprehensible private jokes. whenever he had encountered maitland, since they had first met at margaret de la tour's salon - was it only a week ago? - he greeted him with this curious salutation. maitland had, indeed, looked behind him the first two times. but had seen nothing.
looking and seeing nothing was, in any case, the default application at the casa de un solo mundo since the arrival and departure of the children.
"i am glad to see you looking so chipper, doctor," maitland announced when he finally reached benway's side. he rubbed his hands together in a pitiful parody of enthusiasm. "we will need all our chipperness - all our energy - in the days ahead."
"the days ahead?" benway laughed, quite mirthlessly this time. "there are no days ahead." he picked up a glass from the rusty little table beside his chair and drained it. maitland was surprised - astonished - to see him reach down beneath the chair and produce a half full fifth of johnnie walker scotch.
"good heavens! how did you manage to keep that from the children?"
"i willed them away. the pure exercise of will, maitland. always the best solution to any problem - except when it isn't. " he poured some whiskey into the glass. "you are welcome to some, if you can find a glass."
"i am afraid i didn't bring a glass with me, thank you all the same." maitland noticed an overturned beach chair a few yards away. he retrieved it, brushed it off and placed it beside the doctor's little table. after a hesitant glance at its ragged cloth slats, he sat down gingerly in it.
"ahhh - that's good!" the doctor drained the glass he had filled about one third full. "but that's enough for now. " he put the glass on the table and the bottle back beside his chair.
maitland looked up at the palm trees, which looked back at him like elderly lobby sitters resigned to the fact that their television was broken.
"do you have any plans, doctor?" maitland inquired after a minute or so of silence.
"of course not. what plans would i have? except to finish this bottle."
"well then - what do you plan to do when you finish the bottle?"
"search for another one." and the doctor gazed up at the palm trees with the expression of one searching the faces of a group of passengers disembarking from the runway of a bombed airport.
"that sounds like a good plan." maitland cleared his throat. "do you think the children will return?''
"probably not. not those children. why would they return?" the doctor took another swallow from his glass. "but who is to say others may not come along,eh?"
"indeed. do you think the others will be worse?"
"i think they might be enraged to find the area picked clean by their predecessors."
"a good point." suddenly maitland was bored by the doctor. he also suddenly felt very tired. all he wanted to do was sleep...
suddenly the palm trees exploded with motion. maitland stared at them, his brain not processing what his eyes were registering - his first thought was of sudden storm - a storm without rain - but then the full horror burst upon him.
the children! either they had circled around and returned for some reason comprehensible only to their own miswired and misfiring brains - or this was a whole new pack, following on the heels of the first!
he looked over at benway - who had been something of a mindreader even in the desultory days of "civilization" and whose para-animal powers could reasonably be expected to have sharpened in the more stimulating air of collapse - and he did not disappoint, reading maitland's thoughts as easily as graffiti scrawled across the blackboard menu of an abandoned cafe.
"a new group,'"he remarked to maitland, as absently as if he had been pointing out a new blend of coffee offered by one of the pushcart vendors whose soothing and ubiquitous presence on the streets and by the riverfront now seemed as remote as hoop skirts and trilby hats and sunday supplement stories about the bright new generation.
"definitely a new group," benway repeated. "ah, it looks like their leader is detaching himself from the group in order to confront us. now he is looking around - no doubt for his chief toady, or prime minister, to accompany him. " he chuckled appreciatively at his own perspicacity. "now he's found him."
a group of about twenty "children" - a few of them looking to be very much "almost grown" - were huddling up in front of the palm trees. a few of them cast glances over at maitland and the doctor warily immobile in their beach chairs - glances one part contempt, one part bemusement, and five parts anticipation of sadistic delight.
as the doctor had predicted, two of the children - apparently, but not positively boys - approached.
the first boy, the "leader", showed no expression on the lower half of a smooth face. his eyes were hidden by a fall of white hair - hair of a quite professionally looking cut.
the second boy, the "toady", one of the smallest of the group, kept up a running series of smirks and muggings as he followed three or four paces behind the leader.
maitland looked around. he wondered if anyone - benway, the two boys - if they were boys - the other children watching them with various degrees of concentration, would even notice if he just got up and walked away. if he walked into the empty pool and broke his neck...
benway, jovial as ever , saluted the two boys with the bonhomie of an oil company vice president greeting the new husband of a woman who had divorced him twenty years ago...
"care for a drink?"
the leader made no response, but stopped five paces from the two men.
"always a good day for a drink," the unfazed benway continued . "even if it is high noon, a good day to die, and all that sort of thing..."