Authors: Mark Ferguson
“Why aren’t you, you know, flipping out?”
Val couldn’t ignore that question, though she wanted to. She trusted Gabe’s explanations for why he thought Henry was fine even as she saw that Gabe was worried. If his rationalizations weren’t even working on himself, Val had to wonder why they were working on her. She poured water into the press and returned to the table. “I guess I just feel like he’ll come back when he wants to.”
Call me back when you’re not acting like such a fucking lunatic.
The words came back in a torrent, made her feel the kind of anxiety she recognized from her worst nightmares. It was the knowledge that she had done something horrible, the absolute and suffocating certainty that she was indelibly stained. If Henry never reappeared, those last words to him would be chiseled into the stone of her life. She would have to read and repeat them until she died.
“So what are you gonna do?” Kara asked. “I mean, you have to try to find him, right?”
“No. I don’t think I do.”
Kara’s mouth opened but no sound emerged. She closed it again.
“I don’t think I want to talk about this any more right now,” said Val.
Kara nodded and stood up. “I need to get ready for church,” she said. Her bowl and spoon rattled together when she dropped them in the sink. On her way out, she placed a single fumbling hand on Val’s shoulder and squeezed. “It’ll be okay,” she said.
The sound of water running through the pipes in the wall mixed with the faint and sporadic hum of traffic from the West Side Highway. Val thought about all that had happened since she left Rutgers, and the question that Gabe had pushed from her mind returned. It was as big and scary as ever, but she still couldn’t articulate it. Her thoughts were moving too quickly to be turned into words.
The blast of Kara’s blow-dryer returned Val to the present. She was a junior in college, living in an apartment in New York City. Henry was missing and she’d just shared a bed with Gabe. It was incomprehensible.
She pressed the coffee and poured it into her mug, but the smell made her realize that she didn’t want it anymore. She stood up and poured it in the sink, then scoured the sticky residue from Kara’s cereal bowl.
hen Henry awoke
the next day the sun was high enough in the sky to paint red-walnut trapezoids on the floor of his bedroom. He struggled to reconstruct the world he’d left behind while sleeping. First came his body’s painful understanding that Val was not with him in bed, followed by his conscious mind’s recollection of why. That led him to recall 80 and what the old man had told him about Gabe.
Henry held his breath and waited for the pain to ebb.
It took so long that he had time to wonder if anyone had ever managed to kill themselves like that, just by sheer force of will. His diaphragm spasmed. He gasped for air while multicolored pixels of light floated in from the periphery of his vision.
He propped himself up on his elbows.
This is not my life.
He extended the mantra, filling the room with it.
These are not my clothes. This is not my bed. These are not my sheets. This is not my room. This is not my house.
And then, strangest of all:
This is not my time.
He flipped the covers from his body and placed his feet on the floor. It was warm from the sun. He walked to the window, and when the light was directly on his face he closed his eyes and relaxed into what he saw behind the lids: a field of pulsing red blood split by a bright yellow horizon. Did 80 remember this moment, Henry wondered? And what if he did? What if he didn’t? There were so many inconsequential hours and days between the great movements of his life. In some ways, the minutiae were everything. They were the stuff he was made of. But Henry didn’t remember most of it, so he had to assume that 80 didn’t either.
Eyes still closed, Henry cataloged all that he had lost. Annie. Val. Gabe. His home. His marriage. His life.
The cliché questions—the
how could they
s and the
how dare they
s—couldn’t be asked with any seriousness. He was of course tempted to be outraged, but that would have been a farce. Val had seen Henry through so much and he’d repaid her by breaking their one sacred rule. As for Gabe, it was out of the question to be shocked. When Henry disappeared the first time to wander the highways and back roads of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Val and Gabe had sought each other out. Later, when Henry was better and Val came back to him, she told him about the night Gabe had come to see her. They shared a bed, she said, and though they didn’t actually touch, not in that way, something changed between them. She said that they saw each other more after that, that they both grew more confused. But then Henry was found. Gabe and Val were both so relieved that he was alive that the fog lifted. They were friends again and nothing more.
Henry knew that Gabe loved Val. He’d even learned to enjoy the shape that love took. Gabe was the third point on a triangle that changed its proportions but never broke. Val loved Gabe too. She expressed that love by being Gabe’s sounding board when he felt lost or confused. She built him up, shared her intimacy freely. For better or worse, that dynamic continued, even when Gabe got married. It got stronger still when he divorced a few short years later and asked if he could move in with Henry and Val for a couple of months. He helped take care of Annie during the day and cooked meals for Henry and Val at night. With Annie, the triangle became a square. Henry had loved it at the time. All of the people that mattered to him were under the same roof.
That memory was ruined now.
Their affair would have started as a kind of mourning, innocent but intense. After Val left the house with Annie, she certainly would have reached out to Gabe for advice and support. And she would have needed help with Annie, which Gabe would have happily given. Then, after Henry went back to Lung-Ta, they would have shared late nights and long weekend days. Annie would have loved the doting attention of her uncle, and Gabe would have told himself—and it would have been mostly true—that he was unselfishly acting the father figure, smoothing Annie’s path to a time when Henry could be the real father that she desperately needed.
But then…what? Gabe would have crossed a line, Henry supposed, but perhaps he was just being generous with himself. Val may have started it herself. Perhaps they’d fallen asleep on the couch while watching a movie and woken up in an embrace. Maybe a kiss on the cheek was slightly off the mark and their lips touched, awakening a strong desire for more. Or maybe it wasn’t innocent at all. Years of pent-up desire may have been unleashed, not in a moment of weakness but in one of pure, visceral strength.
Henry opened his eyes. He would not imagine that. The sun burned through his pupils and the pain made him forget.
Once out of the bedroom, Henry took his time in the shower. He brushed his teeth so long that the mint of the toothpaste numbed his tongue. He could have further delayed his descent downstairs by shaving his already thick beard—he’d stopped grooming when the obsession first took over a month before—but if he shaved that day, he’d only have to shave again the next. It seemed like a waste of effort. The smell of bacon greeted him as he walked down the stairs. He didn’t actually remember when last he’d eaten. His hunger was of a lazy, unpracticed sort.
80 was already at the table, reading a book. “Morning,” he said. He picked up a half-eaten triangle of toast and bit into it without looking. The crunch told Henry it was dry and hard—the way he liked it. Still, the sound was irritating.
There were three limp slices of bacon curling in the cast-iron skillet, and an open bag of bread on the counter. Henry got a plate from the cabinet and put the bacon on it, then placed two pieces of bread in the toaster. His stomach still warming to its desire, he turned on the burner underneath the skillet and opened the fridge for eggs.
80 read on. The toaster clicked a few times. Minutes passed and neither Henry spoke a word. The elder picked up his toast again and crunched. “You’re annoyed by the sound of my chewing,” he said. “It’s a cumbersome pet peeve, really. People can’t help making some sound when they eat. Not that I’ve been able to get over it any better than you have.” He put down his book and smiled brightly. “It’s kind of funny, though, isn’t it? You being irritated by your own chewing from across the room?”
“Not really,” said Henry. He turned toward the stove and cracked an egg into the sizzling bacon fat. It spit, sending a cascade of tiny, burning needle-pricks from Henry’s fingers to his elbow.
80 crunched his toast again.
Once everything was ready, Henry sat down and ate in silence. Then he cleaned his dishes, dried them, and put them away. “I’m going for a walk,” he said.
“I’d offer to come along,” said 80, “but I know you’ll say no.”
“Don’t do that,” said Henry.
“You don’t have to tell me what I’m thinking or what I’m going to do just because you can.”
“I’m sorry,” said 80. “It’s difficult to resist. I know it makes you feel powerless, like you have no choice in anything, but that’s an illusion. Me knowing what you’re going to do is not the same thing as you lacking the will to decide. In fact, our conversation yesterday should have made clear that I think you have the capacity to surprise me. I’m counting on that.”
Henry wasn’t in the mood to talk philosophy, and he heard the last of these words as a murmur as he walked through the living room and out the front of the house. The screen door creaked and then clapped against its frame. There was a satisfying finality to it.
He wished Annie were by his side, picking her careful way through the ferns and tree roots. They’d lift up rocks together, talk about potato bugs and poison ivy. She would have prepared for the trip by visiting the library and asking the reference desk for help finding a wilderness guide. Then she would have pulled a backpack from her closet, one with a pocket the exact right size for the book. That would have pleased her. On the car ride up, she would have read about first aid and finding water and different kinds of insects and plants. But rather than letting that information define or limit her own experience of the forest, she would have used it to fuel her wild imagination. She was kind of magical in that way. Henry pictured her running between the trees, the skin on her bony kneecaps imprinted with the shapes of twigs and needles. He might never have deserved Val, but with Annie what he deserved didn’t come into it. He couldn’t live without her. To 80, Annie only served to make him feel bad about himself. The old man had long since stopped expecting her to trust him or to want to be near him. 80 didn’t even seem to think that she loved him, really.
Henry couldn’t imagine being so closed off. But someday he would be. 80 was proof of it.
The stream, when he reached it, was smaller than he’d expected. It was late spring. The water level seemed low but compared to what, Henry didn’t know. He slid carefully down the bank and walked along the pebbled bed. When he’d gone just far enough to feel alone he stopped to rest on a massive tree root that had grown down from its trunk on the steep bank above. He watched the water and tried to relax.
80 was obsessed with changing the past. His bitterness drove him to believe that everything would be better
if only this
if only that
. It seemed impossible that they could control the change 80 sought. Henry considered the stream. He could build a little dam from sticks and mud, but he couldn’t predict how that would change the water’s flow a hundred yards down. 80 was deluded if he thought otherwise.
Even so, the old man had a point. They were in an extraordinary position.
Henry stood up and continued his walk along the bank.
He wouldn’t have to limit himself to a single intervention. If he built a dam and it didn’t do what he wanted it to, couldn’t he just destroy it? Or build another one even higher upstream? With enough time he could reroute the water entirely, and time was exactly the thing he had in excess. 80 had already started that process, and though it hadn’t worked perfectly, that was to be expected. Henry had been a guinea pig. 80 was inviting him to become a lab technician. At the moment, Henry was disinclined to accept the invitation. He resented 80’s intrusion and the burden he’d placed on their shoulders. The old man carried out his manipulations with an attitude of patronizing pity, as though he were the shepherd and Henry the flock. He professed to care about Val and Annie and the betterment of Henry himself, but his actions seemed so calculated as to leave little room for emotion. And this, finally, was what bothered Henry the most. He was currently destined to become that sanctimonious, unfeeling asshole, to be plagued by loneliness and desperation until he became a pathetic old man. But therein lay the strange, paralyzing paradox. In order to avoid becoming the kind of man who would coldly manipulate his younger self into agreeing to a rash and dangerous action, Henry had to agree to that same rash and dangerous action.
It was too big an idea to properly contemplate. He couldn’t find a way in.
He imagined Annie again, pictured her with her guidebook open to a page with leaves on it. She’d have told him what tree he was resting his palm on. She would have identified the soft ferns that had brushed against his shins in the woods. Without her there, Henry could only look, fascinated, at the green mossy stuff, the little white flowery things, the bushes with the pink flowers, the beautiful thin trees with the weird bark that peeled off like skin from a blister.
When he reached a bend in the stream, Henry saw a crossing farther down. It looked like someone had taken a child’s drawing of the George Washington Bridge and transformed it into a design for a long hiker’s footbrid
. The banks of the stream were too steep and close to the water now, so Henry climbed up to level ground and walked on.
A few minutes later, he was at the very center of the bridge, sitting with his legs dangling beneath the lowest of three guardrails. He rested his elbows on the middle strut, his forehead against the top one, and looked down at the water rushing out from underneath him. He had the fleeting feeling that he was in fact moving backwards. The loss of equilibrium felt good. For a while, he thought of as little as he could. He wanted to simply breathe and sit, but just as he was thinking how glad he was to be alone, a light tapping announced that 80, walking stick in hand, was coming toward him. When he arrived at the center of the bridge, he stood with his left palm resting on the top of the stick, his right on top of that, and his chin atop both of them.
“I wanted to be alone,” said Henry. “You said you knew that.”
“You resent me, and I understand that perfectly. You don’t want to become me. But what you fail to understand is that I don’t want to
“Stop selling me,” said Henry.
“I’m not going to stop. This is what we do now, forever and ever. I will pitch you and you’ll decline.”
The music started, very faintly. The song was woody and watery with just the slightest inorganic twinge coming through the steel suspension cables. It settled into Henry’s ears as though it had been there all along, so effortless that he wondered how he could ever
“Even after I’m dead and you’re dead, we’ll still be here, endlessly locked in the same argument about nothing, and then we’ll die again. And again.”
80’s voice bubbled into the song, played off the burble of the water over the stones below. It hit the steel cables with a pizzicato pluck and repeated.
And again. And again.
The song got louder. Inevitably, Henry was stupefied. The sound was everything, nothing was separate, and he forgot himself just as he had before and before, and then he was compressed along with everything else into a space the size of nothing but with limitless white depth in all directions. The rush came so loud, impossibly bright. Henry’s last remaining bit of consciousness told him that it was good, so good, but then that was gone too, and everything was everything.
Some timeless time later, he again understood that he had a body. The transition wasn’t as abrupt as before. The song lingered, its ghostly diminuendo like the sweet echo of a concert hall. The white receded and Henry noticed that his eyes were already open. He was looking down at running water—a stream surrounded on either side by a cacophony of red and orange. It was suddenly fall.