Caught in a Trap
"Pete Mesling's None So Deaf gave me a serious dose of the creeps. Herein lies an assemblage of horrors that, when it isn't reminding you of Bradbury at his grimmest, will have you double-checking the locks and turning on all the lights. Wonderful stuff indeed."—Kealan Patrick Burke, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of The Turtle Boy, Kin, and Sour Candy
She lay face down on the procedure table, staring through the doughnut-shaped headrest at the tiled floor below. It was the last place she would have expected to find herself two weeks ago, but a phone call to a friend had changed all that, and here she was at the witch doctor’s, waiting for the man with the needles to return and work his ancient magic.
Acupuncture had one thing going for it: it wasn’t likely to make matters worse, even if it didn’t end up alleviating her anxiety. That had been her initial pep talk to herself. Eventually she required more convincing. She couldn’t swallow the idea that a practice dating back many hundreds of years had accidentally turned out to have valid physiological underpinnings that would stand up to the rigors of modern medical science. Her way out of that puzzle was to concede that maybe acupuncture tapped into neural signals to the brain, augmenting its own power to heal from within. She wasn’t about to call it Qi, but she knew she was in that ballpark.
That’s when she decided to reconnect with Jan and, after apologizing for a previous lunch date that had involved a certain amount of condescension toward Jan’s reliance on acupuncture for a number of ailments, ask for her acupuncturist’s contact information.
Dr. Joseph Zhou: Whole Health Acupuncture and Herbs.
As if in response to her reminiscence, there came a soft knock at the door of the procedure room, followed by an accented, “Ms. Evans? May I come in?”
“Yes, come in, please,” she said, her voice somewhat muffled from lying on her stomach. “And call me Susan.”
“Oh, Susan. Okay.” He stepped into the room. “You have acupuncture before?”
“No, this is a first.”
“Very relaxing. No pain. I’ve been doing it almost thirty years.” She felt him lift her stocking feet and place a pillow of some kind under them. “I was medical doctor in China before coming to Seattle.”
She wasn’t sure that was a credential she’d wave around like a flag if the roles were reversed, but she wasn’t there to be operated on, or even diagnosed. It was a perfectly safe procedure. Perhaps it would even help her.
“You here for anxiety, yes?”
“I am. It gets so bad sometimes I get headaches. Backaches, too. Maybe it’s not all related, but it seems that way to me.”
There was something about being in the small, dimly lit room, and hearing the soothing timbre of Dr. Zhou’s voice, that almost made her admit she’d been having more spells of mental hyper-acuity lately as well, but she refrained. That was her secret for now, and she intended to keep it that way, even if it was connected to some of her other issues. The knack for guessing at things with uncanny accuracy and knowing what people were going to say before they said them had been with her since a roll-over accident she was involved in shortly after she and her husband moved to Seattle seven years ago. She didn’t feel like explaining why she’d waited all that time to tell anyone about it, partly because she wasn’t sure herself. At any rate, Dr. Zhou wasn’t going to be the first to hear of it.
“Okay, sound good,” the doctor said. “I need to pull down your sweats just a bit. That okay?”
“Yeah, that’s fine.”
And by the way, doc, sometimes I hear things that people are thinking. Take you, for instance. You’d like to do more than pull down my sweats, wouldn’t you? A whole lot more. But you’re not that kind of man. You love your wife, and you wouldn’t dream of jeopardizing your marriage or your career. The lust is just a passing reaction. I can live with that.
After pulling the waistband of her sweatpants down several inches, Dr. Zhou proceeded to lift the back of her shirt almost to bra level. Interesting that he didn’t feel the need to check in with her before performing that little maneuver. She tried to connect with his thoughts again, but the door to his mind was closed.
“The needles are very sharp and won’t go in far, but I’ll be placing twenty today. Most along your back. Some in your neck and legs.” After sliding the elastic cuffs of her sweatpants up several inches and scrunching the tops of her socks down a little, he dabbed at spots along her calves, back and neck with what felt like a moist wad of cotton. Alcohol, she assumed. At least he believed in sterilization.
Then the tapping of needles began. Her flesh quivered at each prick. He’d been telling the truth. They didn’t hurt, exactly. But he was so unceremonious about it. One moment he was talking to her. The next he was puncturing her skin with needles. By the time she began to wonder whether there was a state or local agency that inspected places like this, he was done.
“Feel good?” he asked.
“It does,” she answered truthfully, a little surprised at how relaxed she felt already.
He swung a heat lamp into position over the middle of her back and switched off the overhead light, leaving only the soft amber glow of a night light in the small room.
“I’ll be back in twenty minutes,” he added as he left her to her thoughts, closing the door behind him.
Immediately she felt a little silly. She taught fifth grade, for Christ’s sake. What business did she have coming to an acupuncturist for stress? She wasn’t a corporate CEO or a tech drone. She wasn’t a commercial airline pilot or emergency-room doctor. They were the ones who ought to be coming to Dr. Zhou, not her.
But then she remembered walking down the long hall from the herb shop and front counter to the back area of the clinic, where the procedure rooms were located. Almost all the doors had been wide open, revealing dark, empty chambers. And there was another hallway of rooms off the main one. Dr. Zhou didn’t exactly seem to be enjoying a booming trade. If the capitalist psychos and world-changing altruists wanted a little help with their anxiety, Susan was pretty sure Dr. Zhou could find a way to squeeze them in.
Her sense of relaxation deepened. Every muscle in her body felt slack and comfortable. Her eyes threatened to close. She could barely keep a thought in front of her as images and ideas floated in and out of her consciousness. It reminded her of the Buddhist meditation she used to do in college, but it always took forever to reach this level of disconnectedness back then. Here it was sudden and unbidden. How could she attribute it to anything other than the acupuncture? Soon she would have to fight off sleep, she realized with a slow blink.
The need to fight did indeed come, though she wasn’t sure why she viewed it that way. What was wrong with a little shut-eye? It would make the time pass more quickly and possibly relax her even further. Yet she resisted for as long as she could. At last, however, sleep claimed her, thin but comforting.
She awoke to a flutter in her chest. It happened sometimes when she woke suddenly from a short nap. She used to think it was her heart, but a check of the pulse was all it took to disprove that. Her heart rate never matched the speed of the fluttering. Weird.
How long had she been out? Surely not more than five minutes. Maybe she should conk out again. Where was the harm? With a revised attitude, she closed her eyes and welcomed sleep.
When she woke up a second time, she knew that more time had passed. Considerably more. Her mouth was gummy, her hair matted with sweat to the tissue paper that lined the procedure table. And the heat lamp burned intensely at her back. Her sense of relaxation vanished, replaced by a keen awareness that something wasn’t right.
Yet so strong are social customs and norms that she felt powerless to call out. How foolish she would have felt if Dr. Zhou were to come running to her aid, only to learn that she had misjudged the time, or if he felt pressured into apologizing for some minor delay that had been outside of his control.
At the same time, however, her unease continued to grow. She didn’t dare stand up with all those needles piercing her from top to bottom. For all she knew there was a special technique for removing them that had to be followed to the letter to prevent infection or nerve damage. What if something had happened to Dr. Zhou? He had been the only person manning the shop, and as far as she knew there wasn’t another patient in the whole damn building.
In the end it was the heat lamp that prompted her to act. The steadily intensifying heat coming off of it was the strongest evidence that something was amiss. Surely with his decades of experience Dr. Zhou wouldn’t make such an obvious mistake as letting a patient lie for too long under the burn of a lamp.
She pushed herself up with both hands and rolled into a sitting position, pushing aside the adjustable arm of the heat lamp in the process. The sudden movement dizzied her some, but she didn’t think much of it. Rising too quickly, especially from a prostrate position, often had that effect on her. It would pass.
“Dr. Zhou?” she called out, not too loud. Just enough to get herself used to the sound of her voice in the small, dark room. He wouldn’t have heard it from the front of the clinic.
She dropped down to her feet and recognized her mistake immediately. The room spun as the flow of her blood adjusted to the sudden change in position. As her dizziness intensified, she wheeled her arms around, trying in vain to find purchase of some kind. Her legs refused to move, even at the knees, and the floor began to loom. There was no help for it. Down she went, as if in slow motion, twisting as she fell.
But when she landed on her back and the needles plunged deeper into her flesh, time returned to its normal rhythm, and pain erupted throughout the warm patch on her back. It quickly spread to her shoulders and neck. Her head began to throb. Fear took hold. What had she done? If acupuncture was capable of healing, could it also cause harm? If the needles were meant to go in only so deep, what was possible when they exceeded that depth?
Dear God, to go from incredulity to adamant certainty of the efficacy of this absurd practice! Was she losing her mind?
“Dr. Zhou!” This time she meant to be heard.
But her cry met with silence.
Standing seemed an insurmountable task, but she knew that the longer she hesitated the more frightened she’d become, and the less likely to act. Placing one hand on the edge of a linen organizer she was able to haul herself to her knees, but the flimsy pressboard unit wouldn’t take her full weight, or at least she couldn’t be sure that it would. And there was no way she was going to invite a repeat of the pain that had exploded through her back when she fell—pain that still throbbed there to an alarming extent. It was time to call upon gumption and the brute strength of her quads.
One foot slid forward in an awkward sweep. She wobbled some on the other knee and never let her hand fall away from the organizer, but soon she was able to swing her other leg into place. Once on her feet she continued to push herself up to a standing position.
Her top was still bunched up above the needles in her back, and the thought of it sliding down, possibly breaking needles off in her skin, prompted her to clutch a knot of the fabric under her breasts and hold it where it was.
Turning the handle, she pushed open the door and stepped into the hall, realizing that between her bunched up shirt and oddly revealing sweats, she probably made quite the picture of crazy.
Good, she thought, and filed away the notion that maybe, just maybe, there’d be something about this experience that she’d be able to look back on and laugh about.
But before she could start counting any chickens, she needed to find out what the hell had hatched with Dr. Zhou.
She didn’t bother calling out as she negotiated the dim hallway leading back to the front room. The silence that was sure to answer would only do more to unravel her nerves.
The herb shop was empty, so she shuffled through aisles of home remedies, still in her stocking feet, to the main counter and stood on her tiptoes to peer over the top.
Oh, my God! she wanted to scream as she peered down into the narrow space between the counter and a back wall that housed row after row of small jars filled with mysterious herbs. There lay Dr. Zhou like a dropped puppet, a look of eternal pain on his motionless face.
Her phone still in her purse back in the procedure room, she got the clunky old desk phone turned around and dialed 911, never letting go of her death grip on the knot of sweatshirt at her abdomen. The call made, she hung up and had to resist the urge to slide down the glass-fronted counter to rest on the floor until help came. She had remembered the needles in her back just in time and stood completely still, staring with a vacancy of cognition. She was in the same position fifteen minutes later when the paramedics arrived.
For Susan it was a simple matter of removing the needles from her flesh, which a young woman wearing purple pseudo-latex gloves did right there in the herb shop before treating her puncture wounds and sending her on her way. Dr. Zhou, on the other hand, was beyond help. Myocardial infarction, they deemed it. His ticker had given out on him, just like that. It occurred to Susan as she stepped through the front door and into a surprisingly sunny afternoon that we spend an awful lot of time worrying about unimportant bullshit, considering the solemnity of the finish line we’re all rushing toward. Then she chided herself as she would one of her students for using soap talk, and she could almost hear Reed Watkins respond: What, we can’t talk about the soaps?, when he knew damn well what she really meant.
Sliding behind the wheel of her tan Toyota Camry she pulled out of the small lot and merged into traffic, homeward bound.
There are places in the world so empty that they would drive most men mad. The cold, dark, rat-infested cell of a Russian prison. The barren, scorching sands of the Australian outback, where only the most cruel and cunning animals survive. The belly of a bustling Indian city, so crowded over with impoverished humanity that it becomes a kind of perverse emptiness unto itself. Such locales, and others like them, would eat at the minds of most men over time. But there are those who seek out the emptiness, so they can fill it up with their own brand of pollution. There are, in short, men like Jacob Kettering of Indianapolis.
Jacob, who sits before his laptop computer, aglow in its digital emanations. Jacob, who ignores the chewing and scratching sounds inside the walls, the beetles and cockroaches that trace intricate zig-zags across his floor and countertops. Jacob, who has never known a single reason to smile, but who smiles anyway. Jacob, who stares not at a website or e-mail window but into a void, seeking a connection in the vast nothingness of cyberspace. His hands hang at his sides, for he does not need to type to connect. He needs only to make himself… empty—though he would never admit it to another soul.
The house was quiet upon her return. In most households, she supposed, that would mean no one else was home. There were no such guarantees in the life of Susan Evans. Her husband might be out, or he might be in the downstairs den, deep in the throes of an art project that he’d never finish. Or he might be napping, tired after a long day of contemplating the work it would require to make any one of his pipe dreams real. Probably he was at a coffeehouse, watching movies on Netflix as research for the novel he swore was in him. Across the courtyard from probability was the remote chance he was even fumbling his way through some kind of affair. She doubted it, but she wouldn’t fall over from shock if it proved to be the case.
The sad truth was that she really didn’t care all that much. Certainly not enough to ask him about it. The last thing she needed was another reason not to respect him. That tower of Jenga blocks was very near its toppling point as it was. It didn’t need her adding another story.
Suddenly she was very tired. Her favorite chair—a chair most people found to be more pleasing to the eye than to the posterior—seemed to draw her into it. Without having made a conscious decision about what to do with the rest of her afternoon, she wrapped one leg underneath her as she flipped open the case of her tablet computer and settled in for a lazy session of e-mail, YouTube videos, mindless games and maybe a chapter or two from one of the ebooks she had going. She hated reading on a screen, but it was so much easier to make sure she had only one item in her hands when she fell into her chair or boarded a train or visited a park. Technology had led to progress in some areas, but it had a lot of explaining to do in terms of what it was doing to the human soul, as far as she was concerned. And yet she was just as susceptible as everyone else. If she wasn’t on her tablet, she damn sure had to know that her phone was within easy reach. She did a pretty good job of keeping most technology out of the classroom unless it served a specific purpose, but in her private life she was just another digital junkie. Her tablet was the high-tech equivalent of a big-box store: one-stop shopping and all the diversions you could hope for.
Had she typed something into a search engine while her thoughts played out in their tired, aimless fashion? Surfing had become so goddamn automatic it was hard to tell. She didn’t remember tapping or typing anything, but her screen had changed. She was in some kind of application that took up all the real estate on her tablet. Was an image forming in the center? And another smaller image in the top right corner? She’d never seen a modern device behave like this. It was the same lack of comportment that had marked a bygone analog era. The stuff of console television sets that could break a mover’s back. The result of a poorly positioned antenna or a bad vacuum tube. Or the visual equivalent of listening to the ghostly static-chat between radio stations that were close neighbors on the dial.
It gave her the creeps, whatever it was, especially when both images began to take on the vague outline of human faces. What the hell was going on? Part of her didn’t want to know, wanted to switch off the hand-held computer and slip it into a drawer somewhere. But some other part of her must have been more curious than that, because not only did she leave the tablet on, but she stared intently at the screen, eager to know what the blurred forms in front of her were becoming. Yes, the progress was slow, but there was clarity at work in the circuitry of the machine. It steadily gained a stronger foothold. Soon she would have some kind of clue, even if it turned out to be something as banal as a pop-up ad, at least she would know.
But she felt certain it was more than an ad.
An ad… An-ad-iapolis… Andiapolis… Indianapolis?
At 111 South Meridian Street, in Indianapolis, Indiana, a computer screen flickers and blinks off. The man in front of it thinks there may be a technical problem at first, but it comes back to life before his fingers can reach the keyboard to begin troubleshooting. A face obscured by the kind of grainy black-and-white snow that used to plague old television sets materializes before him. He’s made contact before, but never with this much detail, or preceded by such a dramatic surge of power to the monitor. He is excited that it is a woman. He was hoping for a woman.
He winks at the built-in webcam above the screen, and its cobalt beam swells on, bringing his own face to life in a small corner of the monitor. His smile broadens. He has gotten very good at all of this. In the beginning it was only reading the thoughts of others. Then he started planting ideas in people’s minds. Now he can turn things on and off, sometimes even move them. He suspects he is becoming a god, but he hasn’t shared his secret yet. When the teeming masses of the world begin to realize that Jacob Kettering is the antidote to the emptiness of their lives, his godhood will be plain enough. That’s the trouble with people nowadays. They’ve lost their faith.
He will restore it.
The woman’s features are quite clear now. She’s pretty but not beautiful. Her blond hair is thick and piled about her head in an attractive fashion. Kindness and intelligence flow from her eyes. Here is a woman who might just be bright enough to receive his truths, and recognize them. His ever-present smile stretches wide.
If she turns out to be just another mindless vessel, despite appearances, there will of course be consequences. For as with all aspiring gods, the benevolence of Jacob’s message is tempered by an angry, wrathful distaste for insubordination.
His smile returns to its usual low grade.
The images on her device were very sharp now, and it was clear what was going on, though not why it was happening. Someone had hacked into her tablet and opened a video chat session. Presumably it had been the unwashed young man occupying the largest portion of the screen. Her face occupied the small square of streaming video in the top right corner. Instinct screamed at her now to close the tablet, but this time it was more than curiosity that kept her from doing so. She was being held by his will.
His eyes were black pits in the grainy sockets of his face. Strings of greasy black hair cradled each cheek, and an unnerving smile shifted its tilt continually. Left corner up, right corner down. Right corner up, left corner down. An odd nervous tick.
His name is Jacob.
“My name is Jacob,” he said, a slight delay between the sound of his words and the movement of his lips. It was a reedy, ugly voice.
Her leg had fallen asleep, so she uncurled it from beneath her and sat forward in the chair.
“Susan,” the man continued. “That’s a dependable name. Are you a dependable person, Susan? Do you live up to your name?”
Her head shook slowly back and forth. “How… Who are… How do you know my name?”
“You’re not the only one with gifts, you know. In fact, there are many of us. I’m in contact with dozens.”
“Gifts?” She refused to assume anything. He would have to spell this out.
“Ah, dependable and cautious. Both commendable traits.” A certain wryness stole into his tone. “But don’t play dumb. It’s rude, it’s irritating and it’s ineffective. Yes, I can read your thoughts. That’s what you’re wondering. And you caught hold of my name, didn’t you? That was impressive. Your abilities are fairly strong.”
She almost asked why he was bothering her all the way from Indiana. Didn’t they have psychics and misfits enough in the heartland? But before the thought could form completely she crumpled it up and rolled it down an imaginary bowling lane, hoping she was quick enough to keep it from this man’s feelers. He’d get it eventually, she supposed, but he’d have to go fishing.
“What do you want with me?”
“You’re one of the strong. I want you to join our ranks.”
“What, you mean like a club?
“An organization. I won’t lie to you, socializing isn’t a prominent attribute among our tribe. Our talents often keep us at the boundaries of societal norms, but that doesn’t mean we have less need for social interaction than others. It just means we might not be as good at it as we are at… other things.”
“And just like that you expect me to join up? Is there a membership fee?” She didn’t bother to keep a little laugh from escaping. But although she found the whole proposition somewhat cracked, she was already reminding herself that it was summertime, and she had no real obligations for almost two months. The timing could have been worse for a convention of mental adepts.
“No fee as of yet,” he assured her, “though you will be responsible for your own airfare and hotel… should you decide to come.”
“This is crazy. You really went to the trouble of contacting me to invite me to Indianapolis for a meeting of the minds?”
“An apt way of putting it. Consider, Susan, that you are in a very elite group. Only the strongest of the strong are capable of picking up a signal of this nature. And the fact that you’ve been able to keep it live for this long is astonishing. I haven’t been in contact with anyone as gifted as you in quite some time.”
The incident at the acupuncturist’s. Could it have had something to do with this? Could it have influenced her ability to connect mentally with people? Augmented it? Another thought worth keeping hidden for the time being. She balled it up and rolled it down the lane: a perfect strike.
“How many of you are there. How many will be convening, I mean.”
“How many of us are there. And I expect at least a couple dozen so far. There might be some last-minute RSVPs.”
Silence bothered her. It seemed more likely that he’d be able to pick up on her thoughts if she didn’t keep talking. This was the case with her own powers of mental assessment. But she was at a loss for words. She didn’t want to leap into a commitment, but she also didn’t want to linger like an open gate through which Jacob could send a Trojan horse at any moment. It already felt as though he was pulling her to him with his mind.
“Can we connect about this again soon?” she asked. “This is a lot to take in. I need time to think it over.”
“Think away,” Jacob answered. “I’ll be waiting. There’s no pressure, of course, but I think you’d find comfort in the gathering. And I know that you’d have much to contribute. Please consider it carefully and thoughtfully. We may have a role in this world that has yet to be determined. Why shouldn’t we actively shape that role? Surely we can do more as a group than we can individually.”
She shuddered at the realization that he hadn’t spoken any of these last words. His entire response had been sent telepathically, almost hypnotically. Dear God.
“One request, though,” he added. “Don’t mention this to anyone. One of the items up for discussion when we meet up is the matter of how much we wish to reveal about ourselves, and to whom we wish to reveal it.”
Jacob’s image blinked out of existence on Susan’s tablet screen, and she was left staring at herself, as if into a tiny mirror. Then her image also shrank to a pinprick before leaving the screen completely dark. She set the tablet on the edge of a nearby end table without looking. It fell to the floor, which barely registered with her. A swirl of fear, exhilaration and wonder had her in its dizzying ebb and flow. Each wave was like a new torsion on her faith in reality.
It hadn’t been a lie, her claiming to need some time. But she didn’t need it to make up her mind. That was already made up, whether completely of her own volition or not. How could she resist an opportunity to meet others like her? Even before the ill-fated appointment with Dr. Zhou, Susan’s mental sensitivities were a source of frequent distress. If she now belonged to an even rarer group of people, she would need the comfort and guidance of those similarly burdened souls. What she needed straightaway, however, was time to hone the use of her abilities. Jacob was clearly an adversary of sorts, even if he preached the gospel of inclusion. She would need to be as prepared as possible before reaching out to him again, would need to develop confidence in the recent heightening of her extra-sensory awareness.
Yes, she would need time. But not much. Jacob would be hearing from her again soon. Susan was overdue for a change of scenery. Maybe it was partly his influence at work, but not entirely.
She was pretty sure it was Roseanne Barr who had joked that the reason women lie to men is that it takes too long to explain the truth. Sometimes comedy wasn’t much of an exaggeration, she thought. It had been so much simpler to tell her husband that she’d joined a women’s group that was meeting in Indianapolis than any conceivable version of the truth. It had been Jan’s idea, she told him, knowing he’d never check in with her best friend. The two of them could barely stand to be in the same room. No, dearest Paul would barely know that Susan was gone. He’d probably already forgotten where she told him she was going.
The airplane hit a bumpy patch of air, rousing her from her reflections. The bald, heavy man beside her shifted in his sleep. Heat radiated off of him; sweat slicked his hirsute arms. She didn’t really mind. They were twenty minutes from touch-down. There were more important things to be worrying about than the sweat of a stranger.
Her sanity, for instance. What the hell had she been thinking, traveling all this way to meet up with a complete stranger, or close to it? They’d gotten to know each other somewhat through the strange communications that continued after their initial meeting, but that was largely a game of hide-and-seek. She and Jacob were both holding a good deal back from one another. Especially Jacob. A child would understand the danger she was rushing into, yet here she was, 2,200 miles from home, about to step into the dark unknown, if she hadn’t already.
So be it. Maybe the dark unknown would prove more interesting than the bleak sameness of the connubial misfire that was her marriage. There had been a time when she wouldn’t have exchanged her career for all the doubloons in El Dorado, but even the shine of her calling was beginning to dull. It was salvageable, she felt certain, but a change was in order.
Neither of these was the main reason she was about to land at Indianapolis International Airport for a risky assignation, however. The plain and simple truth was that her psychic acuity scared her—more than ever since her fall at Dr. Zhou’s—and left her feeling very alone in the universe. Jacob Kettering (his last name had come to her in a dream) was one person with similar abilities who she was actually able to meet. If he wasn’t a complete nuthatch, she might actually learn something from him. And if he was sincere about introducing her to a whole conglomerate of special folks, all the better.
A half hour later she was gathering her bags from the United carousel. She tried to link up with Jacob’s thoughts, more to see if she could pick up his whereabouts than anything, but there was nothing. They’d had a couple of sessions that were unfettered by technology, but apparently he was blocking himself. A tattooed girl with dyed black hair was selling coffee drinks at a nearby stand. Susan decided to roll her luggage in that direction, grateful that the appetite for decent coffee had spread well beyond the boundaries of the Pacific Northwest.
The milk steamer hissed, startling her. The barista took notice and smiled.
“What can I get started for you?”
Susan must have answered, because the young woman immediately began tamping finely ground espresso for a fresh drink.
She parked herself in a reasonably comfortable chair to finish her latte, took one more futile stab at connecting with Jacob and went in search of a cab. If her host was still offline by the time she checked in to her hotel, she’d trim two nights off her reservation and do her best to find a flight back to Seattle the following day.
Anger thrummed somewhere in her midsection as it grew increasingly apparent that Jacob was a no-show. There was also a sense of relief, she couldn’t help admitting to herself, but definitely anger at the fact that he had convinced her to invest her time and money in this excursion, and now it was all for nothing. What kind of game was he playing? She knew that she should accept defeat and give up on Jacob Kettering and his society of freaks, but the upset in her belly, mixed with the wonder of her condition and the answers Jacob might be able to provide, drove her to think it unlikely that they wouldn’t meet eventually.
The cab driver, a bearded old Sikh with a meticulously maintained turban, took her luggage as she slid into the backseat.
“The Airport Marriott,” she said once the driver was behind the wheel.
He eyed her in the rearview mirror and gave a quick nod before pulling into traffic.
She is at the airport, Jacob thinks, deeply disappointed in himself as he stares at the familiar water stains on his ceiling. He sees shapes in them, seldom the same. One day they might form an army of soldiers on horseback, riding into some unknown battle. The next, maybe the misshapen head of a giant. Today the stains are a brownish roiling cloud with a portal of white near the center. The portal beckons to him.
He should be at the airport, greeting her, showing her to his car, driving her to his apartment and…
She isn’t empty like the others: devoid of intellect, bereft of curiosity. Susan Evans has things to offer him. Maybe she can even pour some of her essence into his vessel, fill it to the top. It would diminish her in the end, but it would bring him one step closer to the divine state he now sees as his birthright. What he really needs from her is…
No, not courage. What a stupid thought. He needs her ability to operate among the empty masses. She can teach him how to better fit in, or pretend to.
He rises from his little cot and steps into the pale light trickling in through an east-facing window. The Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Monument isn’t quite visible from his apartment, which looks down onto Meridian Street. He lives on the third and top floor of what appears to be a very small turn-of-the-century brick building to passersby, though it actually extends back away from the street almost to the next block. On the ground floor is a shop that sells Catholic supplies to area churches and religious fanatics. The owners use much of the space in the back as storage, and they occupy the second-floor rooms themselves.
It’s a shitty apartment in a shitty neighborhood of a shitty town. He ought to be living in a mansion overlooking some vast acreage, ruling from on high.
“Patience,” he whispers to himself. “Your time will come.”
The only reason she’d been able to get any sleep was that she focused on shutting down her internal signal processor, a kind of meditation that she’d been getting better at with practice. The initial analogy to meditation had come from Jacob. She was pretty sure he was still unaware that she’d gone scavenging in his psyche for help with the process of locking up her thoughts. It was something he was frighteningly adept at, and she’d needed to lessen his edge. She wasn’t yet his equal, but she’d closed the gap considerably. Enough to get a good night’s sleep, at any rate, without worrying about a middle-of-the-night intrusion from her mentor. Maybe he could find a way in, a back door of some kind. She’d managed it with him, after all. But she was gaining confidence in the integrity of the walls she put up from time to time.
Now the morning sun stole into her hotel room and beckoned her back to Seattle. She pinched her nipples through her cotton pajama top as she stretched and yawned, almost laughing out loud at what an odd, unintentional action it was. Her mornings were often filled with such involuntary business: rote matters of dressing and cleaning herself, coupled with the small random actions and digressions of a sleepy conscience.
She was pleased to be in good spirits. She’d need them when she arrived at the airport and put herself on the standby list for a flight home. It was the best the airline could do for her under the circumstances. At least they didn’t charge a fee for the privilege, like they did for checked luggage and extra leg room.
More than three hours after she’d showered, dressed and checked out of the Marriott, Susan was finally cleared to board a plane. Another hour and some change to Chicago, then about four-and-a-half for the final leg. It was what the old-timers used to call a full day.
Much soap talk had run like a soundtrack through her mind as she soared high above the heartland that afternoon, and she wouldn’t have taken back a single fuck or shit. Later, with the approach of evening, home had never felt more welcoming. She was almost eager to see Paul when she waved the cab away and unlocked the front door. He walked past her on his way to the basement staircase, pausing to give her a peck on the cheek.
“You have a good trip?” he asked, completely ignorant of the fact that she was home sooner than planned.
That pretty much rolled up the welcome mat.
“Peachy,” she replied and dropped her bags in a corner to deal with later. By the time she added, “Just fucking peachy,” he was out of hearing range, though she did pick up a wisp of his mental gymnastics as he headed for the den: What if they break into the workhouse just as one of the boys is smashing the jug full of coins at the feet of the prostitute… Brilliant! God only knew what he was dreaming up this time. Whatever it was, Susan wouldn’t start spending his advance for it quite yet.
Jacob’s first night on the road is spent in a Motel 6 in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, northwest of the Twin Cities by a stretch. Near the North Dakota border. After twelve hours of driving he is in desperate need of sleep. But it will not come. He is unaccustomed to the cleanliness of his surroundings, the comfort of the mattress he lies on as he stares at the Stucco ceiling of his room, the lack of sirens and drunken shouting. What most would consider a recipe of sorts for restful slumber Jacob views as a barricade. He does not know what to make of this room, devoid as it is of filth, familiarity and decrepitude. And it’s a strain to find patterns or shapes in the tiny, faint shadows of the bumps on the ceiling.
Then it hits him like a stone fist to the solar plexus: he cannot sleep because he is afraid of the room’s emptiness.
But how can that be? He has been called upon to eradicate emptiness wherever he finds it, to pour his true version of reality into that emptiness whenever it threatens to leave a place cracked and decimated. If he is able to fear the void, what does that say about his prospects for becoming a divinity?
Despite a meandering trail of similar thoughts, he drops into a fitful sleep at last.
But he awakens trembling. A quick glance at the clock on the nightstand tells him he had roughly two-and-a-half hours of sleep. It is time to move on. Another long day of driving. He intends to reach western Montana before nightfall, though he will be lucky to make it half that distance without veering off the road, the way he feels.
Coffee and cigarettes, then. That will be his fuel. For the red Dodge Monaco he drives, gasoline will have to do.
His smile shifts.
Left corner up, right corner down. Right corner up, left corner down. When did he become so aware of that habit?
He is ready to fill the Dodge with gas, his belly with doughnuts and coffee, the burgeoning day with his wandering presence. In short, he is ready to ride.
Tonight he will try to connect with Susan Evans. Tonight he will not let fatigue get the better of him. And by tomorrow night, Ms. Evans will have a visitor. These things he promises himself as he carries his laptop and suitcase outside, where the bright morning sun reflects fiercely off the roof of his car.
A pleasant evening breeze stirred the cedars, firs, poplars and dogwoods of Volunteer Park as Susan made her way along the meandering paved path, hands jammed into the pockets of her slacks. Her stride was comfortable, her posture confident. She assumed that the people who passed her occasionally, walking in the opposite direction, took her for an average woman enjoying a routine constitutional. Some nodded and smiled. A few even said, or thought, hello. But no two people ever have the same day, and just because the sun is shining doesn’t mean it’s cherries all around. Some folks suffered in the warmth of summer. Others prospered in the chill of winter. Come the change of seasons, their roles might reverse right along with their fortunes. Life was like that: full of confusion and mystery, asymmetry and false hope.
If anyone knew that, it was Susan Evans. She’d been back in Seattle for two days now, and still no signal from Jacob Kettering. She didn’t like it. It made her buggy. He’d made such a fuss about having found her, and she had bought into the idea of meeting others with her abilities. The silence didn’t fit the situation, and it didn’t fit what she knew of Jacob’s character. He couldn’t have cut off communications permanently. So what was he up to? What was he plotting?
“Susan.” It was Jan, calling to her from a nearby bench.
Susan gave a brief wave and crossed over to her. Crows and pigeons argued and scrapped in the area, and a couple of seagulls cavorted in the higher currents above the treetops. It really did want to be a fine end to a fine day. Something in it wanted to prove universally irresistible, but such cajoling brought out the cynic in her. Let the general mood of the world stoop down to her level. She wasn’t about to budge.
“How’s my favorite schoolmarm on this beautiful summer evening?” Jan asked, smiling, her brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. “The only clouds in the sky are made of cotton. How often can you say that in this wet, dreary town?”
“You know me,” Susan said. “I love a nice overcast.”
“Oh, how do they let you teach fifth-graders with an attitude like that?” It was a playful question.
Susan sat down beside Jan and gazed out across the park at the looming Space Needle and, beyond it, a narrow rectangle of Elliott Bay. The meeting had been her idea. She’d even considered letting her friend in on some of what had been going on with her. It seemed ridiculous now that the opportunity was at hand. As ridiculous as confession had always seemed when she was a good little Catholic. Those days were long gone. So were the days of her running to Jan with every little problem and trusting her to offer the perfect solution.
Still, she was glad she’d called her. It was good to feel her friendly presence beside her. She looked over at her and smiled. For a moment she thought she might cry, but she reeled herself back in.
“You okay, Suse?”
“I think so, yeah. Summers are always a little jarring, you know? I put so much into the teaching, and then at the end of the school year it’s all yanked away, like a carpet from under my feet. I guess I’m floundering a bit more than usual this year. I feel so damn untethered.”
“How are things with Paul?”
Oh, she had a knack for getting to the heart of things, this one. Only this time Paul wasn’t at the heart of things. Not even close. This whole situation with Dr. Zhou and Jacob Kettering was well out of his league. Leagues out of his league. But he suddenly seemed like a handy scapegoat for her obvious strain.
“Never great, to be honest. He lives in a different world than you and me. I don’t know what’s running through his mind half the time.” Which might have been true, but she was getting a clearer sense of what occupied his thoughts the other half of the time than she ever would have before Dr. Zhou’s little needles went in a bit too deep. It turned out the truth wasn’t any better than what she used to have to imagine was creeping around in her husband’s brain. It was a miracle that he ever managed to turn a profit from his hair-brained ideas. Of course it was never the writing or art projects that brought in any cash. It was quixotic real estate deals and complicated business transactions that occasionally hit pay dirt. In Susan’s view he was lucky to have a handful of intelligent, if unscrupulous, friends.
“How long has it been since he was laid off at Boeing?”
“Almost a year-and-a-half.”
Jan only shook her head, but it spoke volumes about the disgust she felt toward Paul. The feeling had always been there, since long before the layoff. It had taken Susan much longer to draw some of the same conclusions as Jan about the man she’d married. The marriage itself had been a mistake, she supposed, but she didn’t have the wherewithal to confront that particular problem yet. If their marriage was doomed, then maybe it would continue to unravel until there was nothing left to do or say. If so, it would be an easy job to make the split final, and legal.
Susan heard the thought in Jacob’s voice. The faintest smell of residual cigarette stink came to her. He was back.
“Susan?” Jan checked in, clearly alarmed by a change in Susan’s manner or posture or facial expression.
Shit, she had to put up a wall, and fast, but that took concentration. She couldn’t do it while carrying on a conversation with Jan. And yet how could she reasonably excuse herself? Better to embarrass herself a little then let the increasingly unsavory Jacob Kettering collect any more personal details than he already had, she decided. Hell, she was practically giving them away. Jan would understand, eventually.
“I’m not feeling so hot,” she replied, running the back of a hand across her forehead. “I get these spells once in a while. Too much stress and not enough sleep. I’ll be okay, but I should probably get back home.”
“You should find another acupuncturist,” Jan said. “You barely had a chance—”
“I know. But I don’t think I’m so good for their health.”
Jan smiled, but it was awkward, forced. She was uncomfortable with black humor.
Paul Manning. You didn’t even take his name.
“God damn it! You little fucker. What is it you want from me?” She only thought this, but it had been close. Little Reed Watkins would have shit himself a four-pound brick if he’d heard some of the words coursing through her mind just then.
“I’ll give you a call, Jan, okay?”
She didn’t give Jan a chance to answer, simply stood up and made a beeline for the parking lot. She knew she wouldn’t have to make the call. Jan would be texting her within five minutes and ringing her within the hour. It was good to have a close friend nearby, but right now she needed to rely on her own resolve—maybe more so than ever before. She fished her phone out of her purse and turned it off. Not only would it keep the world at bay while she built defenses against the wolf at her door, but it would give that wolf one less conduit to her.
Livingston, Montana, proves not to be much different than Fergus Falls to the eyes of a drifter like Jacob Kettering. He holes up in a Super 8 instead of a Motel 6, noting the emptiness between the two numbers (why no chain of 7th Heaven Inns?). A sign, perhaps.
He is too impatient after checking into his Spartan room, can’t resist the urge to reconnect with his new friend. It is a mistake. His intrusion into her thoughts startles her, and she quickly retreats and begins efforts to block him. He should have used the laptop, might have been able to do some quiet spying through her phone. Something he’s been practicing.
Still, he has gathered a couple of juicy nuggets. He is no longer afraid of the husband, for instance. That has been a thorn in his ambitions, but a little mental dredging plucked it out like child’s play. Paul Manning is a modern-day roustabout. Jacob imagines him to be simpering and shy, weak of color and build. Not even empty, but rather full of shit. Shit thoughts, shit dreams, shit regrets. Shit piled on shit piled on shit.
This Jan Pullman, on the other hand, seems an extraordinarily empty vessel, practically longing to be filled. He has to remember that his impressions of the woman—and the husband, for that matter—are being filtered through the perceptions of Susan Evans, but there are possibilities there.
First, however… Susan. Without question he will fill her first, but if that goes well and she is receptive, he might just extend his stay in Seattle.
If he ever fucking gets there. The road beneath his wheels is taking a toll. It is an emptier of men, and though he should be immune to its gravity, he is not, entirely. The road has weakened him, but there is only one more day of travel.
Not counting the return trip to Indianapolis.
He will survive this test.
Must survive this test.
That may not prove true for everyone.
She knew Paul had entered the room, though it was difficult to recall which of her senses had tipped her off. The sound of his muted steps on the carpet? Unlikely. A whiff of his cologne, maybe? A vaporous shadow passing across the pages of her book as he stepped into the doorway, blocking the low-wattage entry hall light? Why couldn’t he just stride into a room and announce his presence like a normal person?
Christ, her college self would be screaming in horror at her middle-aged self as it pined for normality. Well, maybe she wouldn’t be pining if the odd and quirky had manifested itself in a more appealing way in Paul, she told herself. But she wondered if that was entirely true. It couldn’t all be his fault, after all. Maybe she lacked self-awareness, as well as the courage to send her man packing. Probably shouldn’t have married him in the first place. Now the bother of a divorce barely seemed worth the effort. A separation, perhaps…
“Hon,” Paul said, still behind her as she sat on the couch, her book upside down on one knee, “can we talk for a bit?”
Suddenly the floor lamp beside her didn’t give off nearly enough light. This was not his place, to catch her unawares with something heavy. If anyone was going to initiate a heart-to-heart, it was damn sure going to be her, not him. Her heart jackhammered in her chest. Jesus, she was fucking scared of this!
“Can it wait?” she asked, turning her head a little in a token show of attentiveness. “I was just going to finish up this chapter and then meet up with Jan for an evening coffee.”
“Well, can we set a time, then? It’s important.”
“Sure.” She set her book beside her on the couch and managed to stand and face him with a smile she hoped didn’t look as fake as it felt in the subdued light. “Can we do that tomorrow?”
“What, set a time or actually meet?”
“Set a time.”
They stared at each other. She couldn’t read his expression perfectly, but he seemed perplexed, unsure how to proceed. Maybe a little stymied. His head dropped, and he turned and left her alone in the room.
The meeting with Jan had been a lie, but now it felt like a good idea. She picked up her phone from an end table and roused it to life so she could text her friend, but the image on her lock screen stopped her cold. Within the small glowing rectangle of her phone was the leering face of Jacob Kettering in close-up. As a still image it was unnerving enough, but when it suddenly came to life and his head began to bob up and down with laughter, she actually dropped the phone. When she picked it up again, the image had gone back to being the picture she had taken of the front of Pierce Elementary that spring. It was like looking at a photograph that someone else had taken in a city she’d never visited. She could barely imagine returning there to work in the fall.
Quickly swiping the image away, she texted Jan. Jacob might still be lingering in the circuitry, but so be it. Chances were his appearance had only been a reminder of his presence in her life, which was bad enough. He already knew about Jan, anyway. Still, she was careful to refer to their usual coffeehouse as the “regular place,” not the Bumpin’ Grind, in her message to Jan. She was done feeding freebies to Jacob.
In seconds Jan had responded in the affirmative, and Susan was out the door. She felt like a bit of a shit. It was unfair, the way she’d treated Paul, but he’d caught her off guard. Blindsided her, truthfully. That was no excuse for her childish behavior, but it might get her through the night. Maybe Jan would have some additional suggestions. It would be a sign of end times if she didn’t.
The place was close to empty when she walked in, so Jan would have been easy to spot even if she hadn’t been sitting in their usual corner.
“You okay, love?” Jan greeted her.
Susan had decided on the way over to let Jan in on some of what was going on. She couldn’t scatter all the beans, of course, but she was scared enough to want someone to know she was scared. Besides, anything was better than talking about Paul. Maybe they could work their way to that kettle of carp, but it wasn’t going to be the opening salvo.
“I’m all right,” she said, taking a seat across the small table from Jan. “Tired, I guess. I haven’t been getting enough sleep.”
“You mentioned that yesterday at the park. Anything in particular keeping you up?”
She placed her head in her hands momentarily, then said, “I think I’m being stalked.”
“What? Jesus, that’s a hell of a bombshell. What do you mean, you think you’re being stalked? By who?”
“Whom,” Susan corrected, but Jan’s steady gaze told her it was no time for grammatical policing, and she let it drop. “Sorry. Look, I really don’t have the energy to go into all the details tonight, but I want you to know that I’m… concerned.”
“Well, shit yes. So am I. Good God, stalked…” Jan shook her head in disbelief. “Have you talked to the police?”
“No, not yet. I haven’t even brought it up with Paul.”
“Don’t you think you ought to?”
“I suppose. I don’t know. It’s complicated.”
“Do you know the creep? Are you safe at home?”
“He’s an acquaintance. I’m safe for the time being. He’s not in Seattle right now. He’s not even in Washington.”
“Well, that’s a relief. Listen, you can come to me with anything. You know that, right? Anything. Any time.”
Susan nodded, surprised to find herself a little choked up by the quick sincerity of Jan’s concern.
“Are you going to have anything?” Jan asked, taking a sip from her cup.
“I guess I could handle a decaf,” she said, trying to smile. “It’s too late for the real thing. Be right back.”
In a few moments she returned with her low-octane coffee. They both slipped into mundane conversation, as if agreeing telepathically that they’d had enough of the heavy stuff for one night. But there was nothing telepathic about it. For one thing, Susan had vowed not to pry into the mind of her best friend. That was one Pandora’s box she had no intention of opening. When her mother had died Susan read her journals. It remained one of her deepest regrets. She wasn’t about to make the same mistake on a far more intrusive level. The temptation was there, of course, but wasn’t it always? Like a figure in the smoke, beckoning with the repeating curl of its forefinger…
He watches her leave the coffee shop with the ridiculous name. It is a name empty of meaning, in fact, and he loathes the intentional avoidance of meaning. All things in the coming age will be filled with meaning. His meaning.
Susan Evans is on foot, and it is nighttime. Good. Contact will be easy. Real physical contact at last.
He follows her into the next block. There is less light, less activity. He increases his pace, closes the gap. She stops dead and turns her head slightly. He also stops, sensing that she is aware of both his presence and identity.
“Face me,” he says. In his mind it was an implacable command, but it comes out soft and timid.
Nonetheless she complies.
“I guess I knew we’d meet eventually, even though you stood me up in Indianapolis,” she says.
“You weren’t ready. I thought you were, but you weren’t.”
What she really saw was that he was lying through his crooked teeth. He was the one who hadn’t been ready, or capable, in Indiana. The question was, Ready or capable of what?
“And what is it I’m now ready for?” she asked, playing his game for the time being.
“To be filled up.”
She didn’t like the sound of that.
“What do you mean?”
“I want you to be my acolyte. I wish to fill you with knowledge and wisdom, make you my disciple.”
Jesus, she thought.
“How do you see that happening? I don’t feel like I need… filling up.”
“Oh, but you do. They all do, but you’re special. I plan to fill you in another way as well.”
“Oh, yes, Susan. You are to be my bride. I will fill you with my seed, and then you will be fertile for my message.”
Fight or flight? It was an actual conscious question, not a mere evolutionary reaction. She felt the need to make a choice, and it was flight. But not before she could get off a barb.
“You goddamn empty-headed little pervert.”
As she peeled off in the direction of a nearby alley, his voice thundered after her. No longer timid, it bellowed and resonated. Was he sending his response mentally as well? Hard to tell, but it was loud and fearsome:
“You’ll pay for that, you insolent bitch!”
So much for her vague hope that a remonstrance might cool him off.
His boot heels clacked on the pavement as he began his pursuit. He was blocking his thoughts from her, which was good. It was harder to reach into the minds of others when you were busy guarding your own. Her defenses were also up, which gave her additional protection. He already had the advantage of surprise and strength. She wasn’t about to welcome him into her head as well.
Block after block rolled away beneath her feet, and his footsteps neared. He was gaining on her. She tripped on a bit of uneven sidewalk but didn’t go down. Still, she was tiring, and he sounded very close.
“Do you think you can actually win against me?” His voice was choppy from heavy breathing. He was tired, too.
She didn’t bother to respond, but the conservation of her energies was for naught. A hand clamped onto her shoulder and gave her a spin, as if she were a top. The motion sent her stumbling into a parking strip and banging face-first into the trunk of a vine maple. Stunned, she stared at the tree and struggled to remain upright, knowing that falling would spell defeat. In the end it didn’t matter. Jacob was upon her before she could collapse. Defeat had come.
“Where are you taking me,” she wants to know.
“You’ll see,” Jacob responds.
She doesn’t scream. He will kill her right here in the middle of the street if she screams, but it is not the way he wants this to end. He has held a contingency plan in his mind’s back pocket since an epiphany halfway between Livingston and Seattle. Like everything in his life, what he knows of Susan Evans has been stolen. That includes the location of the school where she teaches fifth-grade students how to be productive members of society. He wonders if she is unwittingly producing another potential god like him as well. If so, he may have competition in the future.
His smile shifts from one side of his mouth to the other. He wasn’t aware of this habit until he caught wind of her mental observation of it. Now he has trouble putting it out of his mind. He gives her a push through an open gate in the chain link fence that runs the perimeter of the schoolyard.
“Do you know what people yearn for most, Susan? What they lack more than anything?”
She shakes her head nervously.
“An unbelievable story,” he continues. “A story that shocks and bewilders but is absolutely true, to all appearances. That’s exactly what we’re going to give them.”
They arrive at a rear entrance to the old brick schoolhouse, and she looks at him with wonder.
“The key, please,” he says. “And don’t bullshit me. I know that it never leaves your purse.”
Her struggle to find a believable lie is obvious, and she quickly resigns herself to the futility of it and hands over the requested key, which he uses to let them in.
“Now, take me to your classroom. Then we’ll talk.”
Once inside room twenty-three, he takes a seat on top of one of the undersized desks and motions for Susan to do the same. She declines. He shrugs and shifts his smile. Does she smirk at him briefly? He lets it go.
“I’ll give you one more chance to be my willing bride. Rule with me in my new kingdom.”
“I’ll say this once,” she replies, “then you do what you have to do. There is no pain exquisite enough, no longing deep enough, no fear debilitating enough to make me give myself to you in body, mind or spirit. What I thought you had to offer turns out to be a complete falsehood, so I want you out of my life. How do I achieve that?”
“Easy,” he says, standing quickly and pulling something out of his back pocket.
Before she can register his intent, he has her spun around and is cuffing her hands behind her. Real metal cuffs, too. They’ve been in his possession ever since he swiped them off a stolid cop who was hassling him and some fellow hooligans a number of years back. He still has the key somewhere, too, but no longer needs it. The lock is easily disengaged with a little concentrated thought.
“You’ve grown strong,” he continues. “You are a citadel to me. What goes on in that head of yours, hmm?”
He doesn’t wait for an answer. She is done talking, and her thoughts are locked. He could break in, but he has other business to focus on, which is why he climbs onto the large desk at the front of the classroom and stands to his full height. Reaching almost to his limit he punches a ceiling panel upward. It lands askew on a flimsy metal framework. He is not satisfied and punches a second panel loose, and a third. Ah, jackpot! A thick water pipe runs above this last panel. He scoots the square of asbestos amalgam almost completely out of sight.
“Join me,” he commands.
She turns her back to him and wiggles her fingers.
He jumps down and lifts her to a sitting position on the desk. After hauling himself back up, he is able to help her to her feet. If she expected him to undo the cuffs already, she was in for a great disappointment. She has worn a scarf out tonight. Good. He would have found something else—a cord from one of the window blinds, perhaps—but the scarf will make things much easier. Before she realizes what he’s up to, he is knotting the crocheted garment around her throat, good and tight.
“Fuck, dammit!” she squawks.
With the same swiftness used to secure the one end of the scarf, he ties the other snugly around the pipe in the ceiling before looking intently into Susan’s eyes to enjoy the dawning fear there. He doesn’t see the kick to the groin coming, but it’s weak and off center. He quickly jumps to the floor and squints fiercely. The handcuffs click free and fall to the desk. She aims for his head this time, but he manages to dodge the kick. He upends the desk in a cacophony of metal on tile flooring.
Susan drops to the end of the makeshift noose and twitches grotesquely, kicking one pump off in the process. Jacob watches her closely until her body goes limp and only swings gently back and forth. It is disgusting that things had to end this way. He envisioned so much more for the woman. For both of them.
“You are now the story I referred to,” he says to the strange pendulum. “People will devour your suicide. How could an elementary school teacher do such a thing? And why would she go to the trouble of doing it in her classroom after hours? In the summer months, no less! So many questions. So much symbolism. So much improbability. All of which will make it seem undeniably true. I wonder who will find you in the morning. Or will you hang there for days before a janitor bothers to check in on room twenty-three? Supposed to get pretty hot in the next few days. There is much to speculate about.”
Retrieving the handcuffs, Jacob Kettering tosses Susan’s school key to the floor and makes a hasty exit. He has never been more sickened, angry or let down in his life, but he will not go forth like a lunatic. He will retreat as far as Livingston to gather his thoughts and prepare for the next campaign, but Jan Pullman will never be far from his thoughts. Maybe she will be the bride he hoped Susan would be, but he will not hold out any great hope. If she acquiesces, fine. If not…
Well, if not, not.
She should have expected violence. Why else would he want to chase her down in the night and get her alone, away from prying eyes?
But why lead her to the very school building where she taught? It had puzzled her. Now, of course, she had an answer.
Stars filled the firmament of her mind’s eye. Her neck throbbed with pain. If he’d used anything other than the scarf, she might not have been having these thoughts, might not have lived long enough to hear his bizarre logic in hanging her here. But he chose to lynch her with the scarf that Jan had crocheted for her the previous Christmas. It could have killed her, but a crocheted scarf has some give to it. In her case, that give had been enough to keep her neck from snapping when the desk had been yanked from beneath her. As a result, she now had a real chance.
Her weight shifted. Her thoughts had become a circuit, crawling up the yarn of the scarf to work loose the knot around the pipe before returning to their source to deliver a progress report and gather steam for a subsequent lap. Another slight bounce. It was working!
Two more laps of pure thought energy and she scarf broke free of the pipe, sending her crashing to the floor. She couldn’t undo the knot about her neck quickly enough. Breath came in strained gasps as she rubbed her sore flesh. She had done it, actually used her mind to manipulate reality. Astonishing. And frightening, when she remembered that Jacob possessed similar abilities and was more skilled at using them. He was also still out there somewhere—barely out of the building, most likely.
She rose to her feet and immediately knew the movement had been too soon and too fast. The room began to rotate and tilt. She tried to focus on centering herself, but it was a lost cause. Her last thoughts this side of unconsciousness were of her experience at Dr. Zhou’s acupuncture clinic. This was only a fall, she told herself. Worse than the one she’d experienced at Dr. Zhou’s, perhaps, but not akin to the fall he had taken behind the counter while she rested in one of his procedure rooms. She would survive this, but right now her body needed quiescence.
And like that, it came.
Night is the best time to drive. Some people think of the night as empty compared to the day, but it’s an illusion caused by the blinding darkness. The world comes alive in the nighttime, claimed by a whole new race of creatures. The intentions of these night creatures are different than those of their daytime counterparts. And the darkness itself has a density that makes the daylight seem drained and withered by comparison. Empty.
He drives fast in the dark, unencumbered by the constant need to watch for danger, even though it still inhabits the world. Driving at night is like sliding down a tunnel: prescribed and inevitable. This particular tunnel will deposit Jacob in the womb of the Super 8 in Livingston. He can see this destination more clearly in his mind than he can see anything outside the windows of his Dodge in the impenetrable night. That’s because the night shows you nothing but what you need to see. It will even show you the truth if you let it.
Jacob is very interested in truth tonight, but he’s almost as interested in sleep. He spends so much time being tired these days, and there is no real rest in sight. But there is a Super 8 not too many miles up the road, and no shortage of ideas banging around in his head.
“Well, here it is,” Paul said holding up the small clock radio she’d asked him to bring to the hospital. He placed it on a mobile tray set up for her use, plugged it into the nearest outlet and set the clock. “I still don’t understand why this couldn’t have waited until after sunup, but I guess a brush with the beyond warrants an eccentric request or two.”
She tried not to laugh but failed. “Sunup? Is that when you milk the chickens, Farmer Paul?”
He smiled warmly at her good-natured ribbing. It was odd how sudden adversity could wipe away years. She felt closer to her husband than she had when they moved into their first home. There was still the matter of what had been on his mind the night before, but it could wait. Maybe it could wait forever.
“I’m going to let you rest,” he said. “I’ll be back later in the morning. Do you need me to bring anything else?”
“No, and thanks.”
He kissed her lightly and slipped out of the room. The holstered sidearm of a local police officer was framed in the doorway until the door swung shut again.
Susan reached over to switch on the radio. She tuned it to unadulterated static, set the volume so low it was practically silent and then readjusted herself and closed her eyes.
Not that she was at all tired. This wasn’t a sleep ritual. It was revenge.
His eyes flash open in sudden wakefulness. He was dreaming—a rich, complicated dream—but not a single detail is available to him now. Did he turn on the bedside radio before going to bed, or did he do it in his sleep? A song that he can almost name is playing, but it cuts off abruptly and is replaced with static.
He does not turn his head, only goes on staring at the ceiling, and listening.
The static fades to clarity.
“We have a request now, ladies and gentlemen,” a female voice on the radio announces. “This one goes out from the Great Big Empty to one Jacob Kettering of Indianapolis, though I think I have him pinned down to a two-bit motel in western Montana at the moment. Folks, there is only one King, and we have him here for you right now, singing ‘Suspicious Minds.’ If you’re out there, Jacob, I hope you enjoy this. I know you’ve been lonely, but you’ll have company very soon. The kind of company that arrives with badges flashing and guns drawn. Good night for now… and good morning.”
It is her. Susan Evans. But how is that possible? Has she grown so strong that she can communicate even from beyond the grave, and along radio waves? The thought sends a chill through his body. He feels frightened and vulnerable. Worse, he feels empty. Empty of ideas, empty of will, empty of excuses. Empty except for fear and vulnerability. As if to punctuate the realization, his stomach growls with early morning hunger.
A pounding at the door.
“Jacob Kettering?” a man’s voice, deep and ragged. “Police. Open up!”
It is like viewing his destiny through a funnel, his options narrowing as his gaze moves deeper into the cone. One thing he does not have to put up with for a minute longer, however, is the monotonous drone of Elvis Presley. He reaches across and slaps the radio off. The song continues for several seconds, which paralyzes him with terror, but eventually it fades to silence.
“I’m coming and I’m unarmed!” he calls out.
He will find a way out of this, locate his confidence again. But for now, compliance is the only way. They will regret hauling Jacob Kettering in on a murder charge. He will make them all pay for the emptiness of their decision to hunt him down like an animal. But he can play the role of the caged monster for a time, and he will take the lessons he learns back into the wilderness with him.
He pauses at the door. Someone is in his thoughts. No, not just someone. Her.
And in that instant he realizes that she is not dead after all. Somehow she has survived the hanging. And that means he is only up on charges of attempted murder.
His ever-present smile alternates its tilt. Back and forth. Forth and back.
“Here I come,” he says as he opens the door of his motel room.
Here I come, he thinks, sending it across the miles to the puzzling woman who had the gall to resist his will.
Her terror comes to him then, almost like a coppery smell, before she can lock him out of her thoughts. A small victory, but one that he relishes as they cuff him and squeeze him into the back of an awaiting patrol car.
Jacob Kettering has been had, but he just goes on shifting that smile of his all the way to the Livingston police station. He’ll smile all the way to hell if he has to. For once in his miserable life he has something to smile about: he has met a worthy foe.