"It's nice to see you," she said.
"I have something." He held a cardboard box with both hands; when he entered the apartment he did not set it down. As if, she thought, it contained something too fragile and too valuable to let go of; he wanted to keep it perpetually in his hands.
She said, "I'll fix you a cup of coffee." At the stove she pressed the coffee button and in a moment had put the imposing mug by his place at the kitchen table. Still holding the box he seated himself, and on his face the round-eyed wonder remained. In all the years she had known him she had not encountered this expression before. Something had happened since she had seen him last; since, last night, he had gone off in his car. Now he had come back and this box had arrived with him: he held, in the box, everything that had happened to him.
"I'm going to sleep," he announced. "All day. I phoned in and got Harry Bryant; he said take the day off and rest. Which is exactly what I'm going to do." Carefully he set the box down on the table and picked up his coffee mug; dutifully, because she wanted him to, he drank his coffee.
Seating herself across from him she said, "What do you have in the box, Rick?
"Can I see it?" She watched as he untied the box and removed the lid. "Oh," she said, seeing the toad; for some reason it frightened her. "Will it bite?" she asked.
"Pick it up. It won't bite; toads don't have teeth." Rick lifted the toad out and extended it toward her. Stemming her aversion she accepted it. "I thought toads were extinct," she said as she turned it over, curious about its legs; they seemed almost useless. "Can toads jump like frogs? I mean, will it jump out of my hands suddenly?"
"The legs of toads are weak," Rick said. "That's the main difference between a toad and a frog, that and water. A frog remains near water but a toad can live in the desert. I found this in the desert, up near the Oregon border. Where everything had died." He reached to take it back from her. But she had discovered something; still holding it upside down she poked at its abdomen and then, with her nail, located the tiny control panel. She flipped the panel open.
"Oh." His face fell by degrees. "Yeah, so I see; you're right." Crestfallen, he gazed mutely at the false animal; he took it back from her, fiddled with the legs as if baffled - he did not seem quite to understand. He then carefully replaced it in its box. "I wonder how it got out there in the desolate part of California like that. Somebody must have put it there. No way to tell what for."
"Maybe I shouldn't have told you - about it being electrical." She put her hand out, touched his arm; she felt guilty, seeing the effect it had on him, the change.
"No," Rick said. "I'm glad to know. Or rather - " He became silent. "I'd prefer to know."
"Do you want to use the mood organ? To feel better? You always have gotten a lot out of it, more than I ever have."
"I'll be okay." He shook his head, as if trying to clear it, still bewildered. "The spider Mercer gave the chickenhead, Isidore; it probably was artificial, too. But it doesn't matter. The electric things have their lives, too. Paltry as those lives are."
Iran said, "You look as if you've walked a hundred miles."
"It's been a long day." He nodded.
"Go get into bed and sleep."
He stared at her, then, as if perplexed. "It is over, isn't it?" Trustingly he seemed to be waiting for her to tell him, as if she would know. As if hearing himself say it meant nothing; he had a dubious attitude toward his own words; they didn't become real, not until she agreed.
"It's over," she said.
"God, what a marathon assignment," Rick said. "Once I began on it there wasn't any way for me to stop; it kept carrying me along, until finally I got to the Batys, and then suddenly I didn't have anything to do. And that - " He hesitated, evidently amazed at what he had begun to say. "That part was worse," he said. "After I finished. I couldn't stop because there would be nothing left after I stopped. You were right this morning when you said I'm nothing but a crude cop with crude cop hands."
"I don't feel that any more," she said. "I'm just damn glad to have you come back home where you ought to be." She kissed him and that seemed to please him; his face lit up, almost as much as before - before she had shown him that the toad was electric.
"Do you think I did wrong?" he asked. "What I did today?
"Mercer said it was wrong but I should do it anyhow. Really weird. Sometimes it's better to do something wrong than right."
"It's the curse on us," Iran said. "That Mercer talks about."
"The dust?" he asked.
"The killers that found Mercer in his sixteenth year, when they told him he couldn't reverse time and bring things back to life again. So now all he can do is move along with life, going where it goes, to death. And the killers throw the rocks; it's they who're doing it. Still pursuing him. And all of us, actually. Did one of them cut your check, where it's been bleeding?"
"Yes," he said wanly.
"Will you go to bed now? If I set the mood organ to a 670 setting?"
"What does that bring about?" he asked.
"Long deserved peace," Iran said.
He got to his feet, stood painfully, his face drowsy and confused, as if a legion of battles had ebbed and advanced there, over many years. And then, by degrees, he progressed along the route to the bedroom. "Okay," he said. "Long deserved peace." he stretched out on the bed, dust sifting from his clothes and hair onto the white sheets.