Authors: M. Ann Jacoby
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2008 by M. Ann Jacoby
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
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To my father for his sense of humor and to my mother for her sense of family
“Each generation finds itself obligated to begin the act of living almost as if no one had ever done it before.”
OSÉ ORTEGA Y GASSET
High Grove, Illinois
Eight Days Before Graduation
EFORE MEAD BOARDS THE TRAIN
in Chicago’s Union Station bound for Alton, Illinois, he sells his brand-new CD player and several barely listened-to discs to Forsbeck, his roommate, to raise cash for the ticket. He then holes up in their room, sitting by the window until Herman leaves the dorm and heads off across campus for his final exam. Even then Mead is terrified that the guy will double back and follow him, suddenly materializing in the train seat across the aisle. “Where’re you going, Fegley?” Herman will say. “It’s not like you to ditch school. Could it be that I misjudged you?”
Even after detraining, six hours and twenty-two minutes later, Mead remains uneasy, nervously scanning the platform. He picks up his green-and-blue plaid suitcase in his left hand and lugs it clumsily over to the taxi stand, his right hand wrapped in an Ace bandage. He knows he is being paranoid but cannot help it. What will Herman do when he finds out Mead is gone? Will he go to the dean and rat him out? Or will he hold off in hopes that his well-laid plans can still come to fruition? Mead is betting on the latter. He believes that he knows Herman better than he knows himself. A shining example of humanity, Herman is. The type of person who brings into question the whole notion of man as the superior species on the planet.
The cab driver is skeptical when Mead gives his destination. “High Grove,” the guy says. “Why, that must be thirty miles from here.” He stares at Mead’s bandaged hand. But he relents when Mead promises to make it worth his while. And Mead is surprised just how easily the driver gives in, how willing this stranger is to take him at his word. It’s something Mead would not have even considered doing a year ago —or even a week ago —getting into a cab with barely a dollar in his pocket and having only a vague notion of how to pay for the ride at the other end. He wishes the driver would throw him out on his ass. Tell him to get lost. Tell him to find another sucker. Because then the world would seem right again, the stars aligning with the planets, or whatever.
Outside of the cab, the sun is setting behind a recently planted field of corn. It isn’t a spectacular dusk but rather dull. There are no clouds to catch the last rays of light, only a small circle of orange on the horizon, which, like the dying embers of a fire, snuffs out before Mead’s eyes. A perfect metaphor for what his life has suddenly become.
“Right here,” Mead says, and the driver pulls to a stop in front of a one-story brick house. The lights are on inside, the dining room curtains glowing yellow. His parents have probably just sat down to supper. If there was a funeral today, his father will be sipping a martini and discussing the ceremony. If not, he will settle for a Coke and talk about furniture. Perhaps they will even spend a little time on the subject of next week: when they will leave, what hotel they will stay in, and where they would like to take their son to celebrate the big event of his graduation from college. At the age of eighteen, no less. Thoughts that make Mead’s stomach churn.
He rings the front doorbell, and a moment later, the porch light comes on, throwing him into the spotlight. Mead’s tempted to lift his suitcase and smash the bulb. To remain in the dark. To slip into the house through the back door and down the hall to his bedroom unnoticed. But there is the small matter of the taxi driver.
If there is any saving grace in any of this, it is that his father is the one who opens the door. His face is a mask of neutrality. This is a man accustomed to dealing with tragedy on a day-to-day basis. A man who knows that, in his line of business, there is no room for getting emotionally involved. A man inured to shock. “Teddy,” he says. “What’re you doing here?”
“I owe the cab driver a hundred dollars.”
His father looks past him to the curb.
“I haven’t broken any laws or done anything wrong. Beyond that, I have nothing to tell. I just want to be left alone to deal with this in my own way, all right?”
His father doesn’t answer, just looks at the waiting cab as if it might contain some explanation as to this sudden change in events.
HE PHONE RINGS, WAKING MEAD UP
. A ringing phone can mean only one of two things: either someone has died, or it is the dean. Mead hopes that it is the former, that someone has died. He sits up in bed and glances at his watch, but there isn’t enough light in the room to see, so he steps over to the window and cracks open the blinds to let in a sliver of morning sun. It’s 8:40. Three hours and twenty minutes to showtime. Only the star of the show is nowhere to be found, vanished from his dorm room and from the face of the campus for the second time in three months. He releases the blinds and the slats snap closed like an eyelid. Mead crawls back into bed.
Footsteps come down the hall.
The sound of bad news. They stop outside his bedroom door —more bad news —and Mead braces himself for what he knows is about to come.
The door opens and his mother sticks her head inside. A perfectly coiffed head with powdered cheeks and glossy lips. It is easy to picture her lying in a casket. She will look just as she does now, only with her eyes closed and her mouth stitched shut. He would give anything to have her mouth stitched shut right now.
“It’s Dean Falconia,” she says. “He wants to speak with you.”
“Tell him I’m not here.”
“I will do no such thing. He knows you’re here. For god’s sake, the least you could do is have the decency to speak with him, to offer up an explanation.”
Mead rolls over so that his back is to his mother. He does not want to talk to the dean —or to anyone else for that matter —because he does not know what to say. Where he would start. How to explain the stupid things he has done. Once he opens his mouth, he will have lost the only advantage he has and he cannot afford to let Herman get the upper hand. Not this time.
“Whatever it is that has happened,” his mother says, “it can’t be worth throwing away a college degree. Worth ruining your life.” Her voice falters. But whether she is choking up with tears or anger, it is hard to say. Probably a little of both. And Mead cannot blame her. He would probably feel the same way if he were in her shoes. But he isn’t.
She leaves the door open, her heels
ing back down the hall. “Give me a couple of days to get to the bottom of this,” Mead hears his mother say to the dean before clamping the bed pillow over his ears.
HE SIX-LEGGED CREATURE IS CROUCHING
behind Mead. He cannot see it, but he can hear it breathing in and out. In and out. Waiting for just the right moment to pounce. It has been shadowing Mead since seventh grade, ever since he brought home that C on his report card. The creature is insatiable. Always hungering for more, more, more. Mead thought it would stay behind when he boarded the train north to Chicago for his freshman year of college. He saw neither hide nor hair of it for several weeks. Then one evening in the library, a week before final exams, it reappeared, breathing down the back of his neck. Mead was so shocked that he scooped up his books and ran all the way back to the dorm. But it followed him and then hung around for several days —straight through finals week —before disappearing again. After that, it started showing up more and more often until, once again, it had become a constant presence in his life. It was almost as if Mead had never left home at all.
It was not until he came back to High Grove —last night —that he realized how weakened the six-legged creature had been up there in Chicago. Not until he returned to its nest was he reminded of just how powerful the beast can be when it is on its home turf.
“I’m not budging until you tell me what this is all about,” it says.
Two hours, thirty-six minutes, and seventeen seconds. Eighteen seconds. Nineteen seconds. That’s how long the creature has been crouching behind him. And in all that time, Mead hasn’t moved a muscle. But he’s starting to wonder how long he’s going to be able to keep this up. Lying motionless. His mattress, which started out feeling soft and comfortable, has turned into a bed of jagged rocks that are poking into his hips and thighs, making it almost unbearable to remain still. But Mead is afraid that if he moves, even an inch, the creature will sense weakness and be fortified in its resolve to sit him out.
The phone rings for the second time this morning, followed by a different pair of feet coming down the hall, the footsteps this time around less punishing to the ear. They stop outside Mead’s open bedroom door.
“That was the coroner,” his father says. “I have to go out.”
Mead rolls over and comes face-to-face with the six-legged creature: his mother sitting on a straight-backed kitchen chair, her arms crossed over her chest, staring at him. Standing directly behind her is Mead’s father: a tall, thin man in a black suit who could easily be mistaken for the beast’s shadow. Mead looks past the creature, as if it isn’t there, and says to its shadow, “I’ll go with you.”
S THEY DRIVE ACROSS TOWN
, Mead unwraps the Ace bandage from around his right hand and flexes his fingers. The pain is far less intense than it was just twenty-four hours ago and the swelling has gone way down. It’s amazing to Mead how quickly the body repairs itself. Bounces back and keeps going. The brain, on the other hand, is a little slower on the rebound.
“How did you hurt your hand?” his father asks.
“I let my emotions get the better of me.”
“You hit someone?”
Mead flexes his fingers and flinches at the memory. “Don’t worry, Dad, I’ve got them under control now.”
HE BLACK HEARSE PULLS TO A STOP
in front of a white colonial with green shutters. A lawn stretches out before it, as relaxed as a sleeping cat. Daffodils smile up at the sun. The house itself seems to breathe with life. It’s not hard to imagine a kitchen filled with fragrant smells, laughter floating down the stairs, a dog sleeping by the fireplace.
“Are you sure this is the right address?” Mead asks.
His father shuts off the engine. “You don’t have to come inside, you know. You can stay right here. I’ll be back in a minute.”
Mead considers his father’s offer. Considers the fact that he is under no obligation whatsoever to go inside. After all, he’s not even supposed to be here. He’s supposed to be at Chicago University, standing behind the lectern in Epps Hall before an auditorium full of mathematicians, chalk in hand, discussing the significance of the spacings between the zeros of the zeta function. Which is precisely why he has to go inside, because he isn’t in that auditorium. He’s here. In the passenger seat of his father’s hearse.
“No,” Mead says. “I’ll go.” And he proceeds to climb out.
A couple of girls come down the street on bicycles, beach towels stuffed into their handlebar baskets. Talking and laughing. Until they spot Mead’s dad unloading the gurney. Pushing it up the front walk. They stare at the bed-on-wheels as if a dead person were already on it and come within inches of colliding with each other.
“I’m here to pick up Delia Winslow,” Mead’s father says to the dry-eyed woman who answers the front door. She nods, and Mead helps him maneuver the gurney up the steps and into the front hall. It’s a long hall lined with photographs, like an art gallery. Cocktails will be served from three until five. Please leave all charitable donations in the candy dish by the front door.