Nov 11 2009 2:04pm
August 17th, 11:15 a.m.
Plagued by a curious breathlessness, Thomas crowded off the MTA North with a dozen or so others, most of them chatty octogenarians. He’d lost count of how many times he’d shaken his head and pinched his eyes, but images of Cynthia Powski, her desire turned inside out, returned with every blink. Again and again, like an adolescent dream. He didn’t begin shaking until he started crossing the hot-plate asphalt of the parking lot.
Sunlight glared across a thousand windshields.
Everything had pockets, hidden depths that could be plumbed but never quite emptied. A look, a friend, a skyscraper—it really didn’t matter. Everything was more complicated than it seemed. Only ignorance and stupidity convinced people otherwise.
There was something unreal about his house as it floated nearer around the curve. In the final days of their marriage, it had been a curious image of dread, a white-sided container filled with shouts and recriminations, and the long silences that cramp your gut. It had occurred to him that the real tragedy of marital breakdown was not so much the loss of love as the loss of place. “Who are you?” he used to cry at Nora. It was one of the few refrains he meant genuinely, at least once the need to score points had climbed into the driver’s seat. “No. Really. Who are you?” It began as an entreaty, quickly became an accusation, then inevitably morphed into its most catastrophic implication: “What are you doing here?”
Here. My home.
To drift across that final, fatal line was to be locked in a house with a stranger. Or even worse, to become that stranger.
He could remember driving back the evening after she had moved out, rallying himself with thoughts of how peaceful it would be, how nice to finally have his home back. Kick back and crank the stereo. But when he opened the door, the bachelor bravado had dropped through the soles of his feet—of course. For a time he simply sat on the living room floor, as vacant as the rooms about him, listening to the eternal hum of the fridge. He remembered shouting at the kids to pipe down, even though they were gone. He had cried after that, long and hard.
Home. Life to the pale of property lines. He had struggled hard to build something new, another place. It was partly why stupid things like plants or appliances could strike him with teary-eyed pride. He had worked so hard.
And now this.
He slammed the car into park, fairly ran across the lawn.
“Neil!” he shouted as he burst through the doorway. He hadn’t really expected anyone to answer: Neil’s minivan was gone. Bartender growled and yawned, then trundled over to him, tail flapping. An old dog’s greeting.
“Uncle Cass is gone, Bart,” Thomas said softly. He peered across the living room gloom, at the showroom tidiness. The smell of spilled whiskey bruised the air.
“Uncle Cass has fled the scene.”
He stood motionless next to the sofa, the static in his head roaring loud, thoughts and images in parallel cascades, as though boundaries between times and channels had broken down. Cynthia Powski, as slick as a seal, moaning. The Ocean Voice mentioning an argument. Neil saying, As easy as flicking the switch . . .
The Ocean Voice mentioning an argument . . .
It can’t be. No way.
He thought of Neil working for the NSA, rewiring living, breathing people, cheerfully lying for all these years. He thought of their Princeton days, of the fateful class they took with Professor Skeat. He thought of how they used to argue the end of the world at parties, not the end that was coming, but the end that had already passed. He thought of the Argument.
Ocean Voice. Neil. The FBI. Cynthia Powski.
No fucking way.
Thomas nearly cried out when the doorbell rang. He peered through the curtains, saw Mia standing impatiently on the porch. Thomas opened the door, doing his best to look normal.
Over his neighbor’s shoulder, he glimpsed a white Ford—a new Mustang hybrid— driving slowly down the street.
“Everything OK?” Mia asked. “The kids saw your car in the driveway. I thought I should—”
“No. Just forgot a couple of important things for a committee presentation this afternoon.” He leaned out the door, saw Frankie and Ripley standing on Mia’s porch.
“Daddeee!” Frankie called.
Strange, the power of that word. Pretty much every kid used it, the same name on millions of innocent lips, over and over, and yet it seemed to thrive on this universality. You could feel sorry for all the Wangs and Smiths—who wanted to be one among millions?—but somehow “Daddy” was different. Thomas had visited colleagues whose kids called them by name: “Hey, Janice, can I have supper at Johnny’s? Please-please?” There was something wrong about it, something that triggered an exchange of slack looks—a premonition of some budding rot.
Dad. A single name on a billion lips, and nothing could undo it. No court order. No lifestyle choice. No divorce.
Thomas blinked at the heat in his eyes, called back laughing to his son, asked him if he was being good for Mia. Frankie bounced up and down, as though he waved from a distant mountaintop.
Maybe there were heroes after all.
As much as he longed to spend a moment with his boy, he apologized to Mia and climbed back into his car. Among the wild peculiarities of the previous night’s drinking session was something Neil had said about Nora, a throwaway comment really, about talking to her or something. But of course that was impossible, given that Nora was in San Francisco, which was why Thomas had the kids for this, the busiest of all summer weeks.
What was it he had said? Something. Something . . . Enough to warrant sharing a word or two.
He called out her name to his palmtop as he accelerated down the street, but all he got was her in-box recording. He told himself she might know something. At least that was what he allowed himself to think. The real concern, the worry that clamped his foot to the accelerator was altogether different.
Maybe she was in danger.
Think clear, he reminded himself. Think straight.
Ocean Voice had said he was making an argument, as well as “making” love. But what argument? Was it the Argument?
Was it Neil holding the camera? Was he the shadow behind the occluded frame?
The Argument, as they would come to call it, was something from their undergraduate days at Princeton. Both he and Neil had been scholarship students, which meant they had no money for anything. Where their more affluent friends barhopped or jetted home for the holidays, they would buy a few bottles of Old En glish Malt Liquor, or “Chateau Ghetto” as Neil used to call it, and get fucked up in their room.
Everyone debated things in college. It was a reflex of sorts, an attempt to recover the certainty of childhood indoctrination for some, a kind of experimental drug for others. Neil and Thomas had definitely belonged to the latter group. Questions—that was how humans made ignorance visible, and the two of them would spend hours asking question after question. Grounds became flimsy stage props. Assumptions became religious chicanery.
For a time it seemed that nothing survived. Nothing save the Argument.
Like most, Thomas had moved on. Humans were hardwired for conviction, thoughtless or otherwise, and had to work to suspend judgment—work hard. He had taken the low road, allowing the assumptions to crowd out the suspicions. The years passed, the children grew, and he found himself packing all the old questions away, even as he continued playing Professor Bible, destroyer of worlds in the classroom. Nothing killed old revelations quite so effectively as responsibility and routine.
But Neil . . . For what ever reason, Neil had never let go. Thomas humored his ramblings, of course, the way you might humor old high-school football stories, or any reminiscence of irrelevant glory. “Oh, yeah, you sacked him real good.” He even wondered whether it was a sign of some hidden distance between them, an inability to connect outside of on-campus residences and off-campus bars.
Last night had simply been more of the same, hadn’t it?
He was trying to talk me out of loving my kids. Peekskill glared beyond the windshield, whipping this way and that as Thomas gunned the straightaways and squealed around the turns. He peered like a pensioner over the steering wheel when he turned down Nora’s crescent. The sight of her black Nissan in the driveway made him numb.
So much for her trip.
His heart sucked ice cubes in his chest.
“San Francisco my ass,” he muttered.
Thomas paused in the shade of the porch. He’d been to Nora’s “new place” more times than he could count, picking up the kids, delivering the kids, and once to help her carry in a new refrigerator—something he still alternately congratulated and cursed himself for doing (they had ended up screwing on her tacky living room couch). And yet despite the frequency of his visits, nothing about the place felt familiar. He was an interloper here, an unwelcome passer-through. The long, low porch with its impenetrable windows, its bustling planters and sun-hanging geraniums, its whitewashed railing and black aluminum door, had always seemed to personify Nora somehow.
And Nora no longer loved him.
But there was more to his hesitation; there was Neil and the FBI as well. Why had Neil mentioned her? And what was it he had said? Something. Something . . . Thomas rubbed his face in frustration.
This isn’t happening.
He simply stood and breathed, stared like an idiot at the closed door. The house seemed preternaturally quiet. When he blinked, he no longer saw Cynthia Powski, he saw inside.
Signs of struggle. Lines of blood roped across hardwood floors . . .
No way. No fucking way.
A fly buzzed in the corner of the window’s concrete sill, caught in a dead spider’s woolly webbing. Another bounced across the opaque glass, summer quick. Sunlight streamed through the railing, casting oblong bars of brilliance across the floor. One of them warmed his left shoe.
Nora. Even after so much bitterness, so much dismay and disbelief, he continually worried about her living all alone. Patronizing concerns, he knew, but . . .
After so long. After trying so hard.
This is crazy!
He rapped the door, his knuckles lighter than air.
He waited in silence.
A dog barked from some neighbor’s backyard. Kids squealed through a series of swimming pool explosions.
Poosh . . . Pooshpoosh. No one answered the door.
Thomas pressed thumb and forefinger against the bridge of his nose, tried to massage away the ache. From over fences, a masculine voice shouted at what must have been the swimming children. Thomas could almost see the water making oil of sunlight. He could almost smell the chlorine.
He knocked again, harder and faster.
She probably was in San Francisco. She probably took a cab to the train station. Or maybe she went with what’s-his-face, that young intern at her agency—didn’t he live somewhere in Peekskill? He probably picked her up. Maybe Neil hadn’t said anything about seeing Nora. There was no—
Thomas grasped the cool knob, twisted . . . only to have the door yanked out of his hands.
“Tommy—” Nora said, blinking at the ambient brightness beyond the eaves. She had a nimble brunet’s face, with a model’s pillow lips and large, hazel eyes that promised honesty and a shrewd accounting of favors. Her straight, short hair was as Irish fine as her skin was Irish pale. Staring at her, Thomas suddenly remembered dreaming of their wedding reception that very morning, and it seemed she had looked the way she looked now, like yearning, like sanctuary and regret . . .
Like the only woman he had ever truly loved.
“I-I can explain,” she said.
“Have you been crying?” Thomas asked. Beyond the confounded emotions, he felt relieved to the point of sobbing. At least she was safe. At least she was safe.
What the hell was he thinking? Neil, a psychopath?
She itched an eye. “No,” she said. “What are you doing here? Where are the kids? Is everything okay?”
“The kids are fine. They’re with Mia. I came . . . ah . . .”
She watched him.
“I came because Neil stopped by last night. He mentioned something about seeing you.” Thomas smiled, finally finding his stride. “Since you’d told me you were going to San Francisco, I thought I’d swing by to make sure everything is all right. Is everything all right?”
The question seemed to catch her off-guard, or perhaps it was the intensity of his concern. “Everything’s fine,” she said with a sour what’s-this-really-about smile.
A strange moment passed between them as he stepped into the foyer, a memory of forgotten intimacy, perhaps. Their eyes locked.
“The San Francisco trip was bullshit, wasn’t it?”
“Yes,” she said.
So far the exchange had been completely involuntary, or so it seemed to Thomas.
“Why, Nora? Why lie?” Resentment was back in the driver’s seat.
Not like this . . . C’mon, you know better.
“Because . . .” Nora said lamely.
“Because . . . Christ, Nora, even fucking Frankie could do better than that.”
“Don’t say that. Don’t say ‘fucking Frankie.’ You know I hate it when you say that.”
“How about San-fucking-Francisco? Or does that get under your skin too?”
“Screw you, Tommy,” Nora said. She turned toward the kitchen.
She was wearing a light cotton dress, the kind that made men wish for gusts of naughty wind.
Thomas glanced down at his hands. They trembled ever so slightly. “So what did you and Neil talk about?” he called.
“Not much,” Nora replied bitterly. She turned to address the granite counter top. “He didn’t come to talk . . .” She laughed, as though marveling over carnal memories. Then she dared his astounded gaze, her expression tight with shame, resentment—all those things people use to digest their sins. “He never does.”
Thomas stepped into the air-conditioned gloom.
It was funny how natural such things could seem, how easily you could convince yourself you knew all along. Even as he recoiled at the impossibility, buzzed through the slow-assembling implications, part of him whispered, Of course.
He forced the words past the hornet sting in the back of his throat. “How long?” There was no certainty, no breath in his lungs, so he repeated himself just to be sure. “How long have you been fucking my best friend?”
Nora and Neil . . . Neil and Nora . . .
Her eyes were swollen. She blinked tears and looked away, saying, “You don’t want to know.”
“While we were married,” Thomas said. “Huh?”
Nora turned back, her expression somewhere between anguish and fury. “I just . . . just needed him, Tommy. I just needed . . .” She struggled with her lips. “More. I needed more.”
Thomas turned to the door, grabbed the handle.
“Have you seen him?” Nora called, her voice half-panicked. “I m-mean . . . do you know where he is?”
She loved him. His ex-wife loved Neil Cassidy. His best friend.
He turned and grabbed her. “You want to know where Neil is?” he cried. He cuffed her on the side of the face. He clenched his teeth and shook her. She would be so easy to break! He started pressing her backward. But then, in some strange corner of nowhere, he could hear himself whisper, This is a jealousy response, an ancient adaptation meant to minimize the risk of reproductive losses . . .
He dropped his hands, dumbfounded.
“Neil,” he spat. “Let me tell you something about Neil, Nora. He’s fucking snapped. He’s started killing people and making videos to send to the FBI. Can you believe it? Yeah! Our Neil. The FBI visited me this morning, showed me some of his handiwork. Our Neil is a fucking monster! He makes the Chiropractor or what ever they’re calling him look like a choirboy!”
He paused, struck breathless by the look of horror on her face. He lowered his hands, backed toward the door.
“You’re crazy,” she gasped.
He turned to the door.
“You’re lying! Lying!”
He left the door open behind him.
The ground seemed to pitch beneath his feet. The walk to his car seemed more a controlled fall. He leaned against the door to catch his breath. The metal stung his palms, and he found himself thinking how when it came to heat, the whole world was a battery, sucking it up, then releasing it in a slow burn. A convertible rolled past, filled with teenagers shouting over subwoofers. He glared at them in a disconnected-from-consequences way.
Neil and Nora.
The Acura’s interior was amniotic, the air was so hot. He placed trembling hands on the steering wheel, caressed the leather. Then he punched the dash five times in rapid succession.
“FUCK!” he roared.
It seemed the world was ending. That the Argument—
“Professor Bible?” he heard someone call. A woman.
He squinted up at her beautiful face. “Agent Logan,” he managed to reply.
She smiled cautiously.
“Professor Bible, I think we need to talk.”
R. Scott Bakker is the author of The Darkness That Comes Before, The Warrior Prophet, and The Thousdandfold Thought, a trilogy that Publishers Weekly calls “a work of unforgettable power.” He is also the author of The Judging Eye. He spent his childhood exploring the bluffs of Lake Erie’s north shore and his youth studying literature, languages, and philosophy. He now lives in London, Ontario, with his wife, Sharron, and their cat, Scully.