Authors: Mark Ferguson
“Something had to have happened,” she said.
Gabe knew she believed that, and it made him sorry for her.
“Henry was always really happy. He’s so talented and kind and smart. There has to be a reason for this. You were living with him. You’ve got to know something.”
Gabe didn’t answer, and this time Jan was the one to look away. It felt like a victory.
“He just started acting weird one day. That’s it,” said Gabe. He wanted to tell her that Henry had always been sort of lost in his own head, that he spent ten hours a day hitting blocks of wood with padded mallets. He wanted to tell her that Henry had been different since Val left, that he was lonely and always had been, regardless of what he’d led his own mother to believe.
But he knew he’d regret all that, even if it was the truth. So he lied. “He was stressed out, I guess. I’ve been trying to come up with an explanation too, but you have to know that I would tell you if there was something I knew about, something that I thought made sense.”
“Some people can do drugs and be okay. Some people can’t.”
“I suppose that’s true, Jan,” he said. “But it’s totally irrelevant.”
“I’m not blaming you,” she said, her voice softening. “Is there anything else in this house? Anything that he might have taken without you? I just need to know every possibility. I won’t tell anyone what you’ve done.”
“That’s not how I meant it, Gabe.” She sounded more desperate with each word. “Please,” she said, “if you told me, I could tell his doctor. It could help.”
“You’re not listening to me.” He would have gone on, but he heard someone approaching from inside. Henry appeared. In his arms was a plastic laundry bin piled with clothes, books, a couple of posters. He stepped down to the sidewalk and meandered off. Gabe waited until he was out of earshot. “There are all kinds of things around here, but if you’re asking if it’s possible that he did some drugs without me, I’ve already told you no.”
“Please don’t act like I’m attacking you.”
“Stop!” she said. “Please listen. You can’t imagine what this is like for me, so stop acting like a child and answer the question. Were there any other drugs he had access to? Anything else he could have done?”
“Between the people we know—friends of friends, neighbors, people at parties—there’s no limit to what he
have done, hypothetically.” There was momentum to his rage now. If she wanted to blame him, he would be impervious to blame. “If he were really on a mission he could have found weed, coke, heroin, mushrooms, ecstasy, acid, opium, crack—he could have found anything, whatever he wanted, within five minutes of here.”
She was crying, he saw. It was a low blow, he thought, but it still compelled him to back off. “When he wasn’t at class he was home, and when he was at home he was with me. I never did any of those things with him. He didn’t just trip on acid and not come down. I wish it were that simple.”
Tears gathered underneath Jan’s chin. Gabe wanted to touch her. It felt like the right thing to do. But then she said, “Just tell me, Gabe. Just tell me what happened,” and his pity turned to dust.
Gabe dropped his head and stared at a spot of dirt on the blue-painted two-by-fours beneath his feet. The pot was making everything too bright and small, like the whole world had shifted into miniature. He felt stupid for being high.
When Gabe looked up again, Henry was on the sidewalk in front of the house.
“Do you need any help?” said Gabe.
Henry said nothing. He rocked on the balls of his feet, zipping and unzipping the front of his sweatshirt.
Gabe stood up, brushed past Jan’s knees, and went inside. It took his eyes a minute to adjust, everything bright green and vibrating from the sunlight, but he knew the stairs by heart and found his way up to Henry’s room. He figured Henry would come back up to get some more things, that they’d have a few minutes to talk.
Gabe stared at the index cards that were still piled high on Henry’s desk. He had to prepare. He didn’t want to hear himself speak the way Cal had. He would have to fight to act like he always did, even if Henry couldn’t do the same.
A few minutes later Cal walked in and said, “They’re gone.”
enry cracked open
his sleep-swollen eyelids and saw the same deep darkness as before. His body was awake but his mind was still in transition. It was a feeling he recognized but hadn’t experienced since before his break. He stretched. Yawned with satisfaction and pressed his face to the pillow. It felt incomprehensibly good.
His awakening had interrupted a dream—one that didn’t end in his evisceration or involve the green light or beads of blood condensing on the walls or pigeons pecking at the backs of his knees. The memory of it was already fading, but Henry knew he had been in a ravine. Sunlight warmed his skin. Above him, the high branches of trees swayed in a breeze. He heard water, so peaceful, and he wanted to go back so he focused on the slippery half-remembrance, tried to feel the comfort of the sun and see the vivid green of the leaves.
There was a knock at the door.
“Henry, I’m coming in,” said a voice.
The older one,
thought Henry. His skin tightened over his body like the head of a drum. He sat up, drew a pillow to his chest, and pushed himself back into the corner at the top of the bed. The recollection of what he’d seen in his last waking moment hit him like an icy wave. Henry hadn’t recognized the older one, though there was something familiar about him, but the image of the younger one, the one that looked like—
“Did you hear me?” said the voice. “I’m going to come in now. Don’t be afraid.”
Henry considered whether he should hide, run, or stand up and fight, but despite himself he whispered, “Okay.”
The door opened quickly. This time the man flipped a switch and Henry was briefly blinded. As his eyes adjusted, he found that he was in a small room with white walls and a beige plush carpet. All of the furniture looked brand-new, and Henry had the impression that nothing he was seeing had ever really belonged to anyone. It looked like an Ikea showroom, as if the only thing missing was a giant price tag. The man in front of him was old, maybe seventy-five—the same man who had entered the room before. He wore dark blue slacks with a thick cardigan. He had thick hair, nearly white with just a touch of brown left to tint it. The smile he wore was genuine and unthreatening, but still Henry was wary.
“What?” said Henry—a challenge, not a question.
“What, what?” said the man. He chuckled softly.
“What’s so funny?”
“It’s not a matter of being funny,” said the man. “It’s just—here we are. I’ll never get used to it. You’ll see what I mean someday.”
Henry didn’t know what to say, so he hugged the pillow tighter and clenched his jaw.
“Relax,” said the man. Sympathy beamed down from his deep-set eyes. He stepped toward the bed and Henry tensed. “You look like you’re ready to launch yourself off that bed and throttle me. But you won’t do that.”
“Where am I?” said Henry. “I was on the GW, I heard this music, and then—” But there was nothing more to say.
The old man reached a stool in front of a desk and took a seat, crossed one leg on top of the other. “I’ll tell you in a minute, but you should come out of this room. We blacked out the windows to help you sleep, but it’s a beautiful day outside. You’ll want to see it.” There was a reassuring worldliness to the man, a warm edge to his voice.
“Why am I here? Is this a hospital?” Henry’s voice wavered. “What do you want?”
“I suppose I want you to forget everything you’ve ever believed. And I want you to stop acting like a cornered cat. I had half a day in which to harm you while you were asleep and yet here you are, alive and awake. Just relax already.” The man uncrossed his legs and straightened his knee, stretched it with a wince. Even as he grimaced he never broke eye contact with Henry. “Your first question is much more interesting.
Why am I here?
One for the ages.”
Henry leaned his head back against the wall, looked at the ceiling. “That’s not really what I meant,” he muttered to himself.
“To put it simply,” the old man continued, “you’re here because you have to be. Would you rather be back on the bridge? Running from some bright green vibration?”
Those words were a hammer, obliterating every thought in Henry’s head save one. “How did you know about that?” he said.
The old man put one hand in his pocket and picked some lint off his sweater with the other. “I know more about you than you know about yourself,” he said. “And if you’ll let me, I’d like to start exploring the hows and whys of what you’re doing in that bed. Unless you’d rather just stay there for the rest of your life?”
It stung Henry’s pride to admit it, but the old man had his attention. “Am I…if I come with you, will I still be thinking like this? Feeling like this?”
“You mean will you still be sane?” The old man chewed his lip, gathering his thoughts. “Things will always be a bit difficult for you. I wish that weren’t the truth. But you’ll get through. And you’re better off right now than you’ve been in months.”
The man’s evasions were only slightly less comforting than his assurances, but it made no difference whether Henry trusted him or not. His only real choice was to face the strangeness that awaited him, to do his best to figure out what was going on. He put down the pillow he’d been clutching and pushed the bedsheets from his legs. His clothes had been changed. In place of the jeans and sweatshirt he’d been wearing on the bridge, he was now dressed in simple cotton pajama bottoms and an extra-large T-shirt that dwarfed him. He shifted to the edge of the bed, put his feet to the soft plush carpet, and stood.
The man smirked, stood up, and turned to walk out the door. “Call me 80,” he said.
“Like the number?” said Henry.
al awoke in
the dark, dimly aware of the sound that had interrupted her sleep. In the first timeless moment after coming to, she just listened. It was a bouncy jingle, one she knew by heart though she couldn’t remember why.
She rolled onto her back as the short verse played, her eyes closing despite her insistence that they remain open.
The verse ended, and she understood. It was her cell phone. But that wasn’t her ringer, or maybe it had been, but wasn’t anymore? But she hadn’t changed it since her parents bought her that phone when she first left for college almost two years before. She awoke a bit more and remembered. It was her ringtone for Henry. The one that played only when he called her. When they were together it had played all the time, but it had been so long that she’d nearly forgotten about it.
The song began again. Val felt like she’d been hearing it for minutes and wondered at how the phone could have continued ringing for so long, but then she recognized that elapse as an illusion, the result of her sleeping mind’s strange understanding of time. She pushed herself toward the edge of the bed and let her hand drop to the ground. She groped in the dark until her fingers found the wire of the charger, then pulled until she could grab the phone itself. She lay back.
She and Henry hadn’t spoken since shortly after the breakup. When she was still at Rutgers they saw each other around, but beyond brief moments of eye contact and mute recognition, they didn’t communicate. Henry didn’t call her. At first she had been hurt by his apparent lack of interest in talking to her, but as time passed she saw it as a mercy. Unlike so many other couples she’d known, their breakup would be without the long tail of confusion and false hope.
The fact that Henry was calling her at—
what time was it?
Val looked at the screen of the phone as it began its third verse, her pupils painfully dilating in its bright glow. Two forty-five—if Henry was calling her that late, it must be important. She cycled through all that might have gone wrong. Had someone died? Was he in trouble? She felt a funny little thrill thinking about the possibilities and wondered why that should be.
“Hello?” she said.
“Val,” said Henry. He laughed. “Vaaaaal.” His tone was playful. Not bad news then.
“Henry? What’s—what’s happening?”
“What’s happening, my man!” he said, and he laughed again. It wasn’t a laugh she fully recognized. It seemed too joyful and uninhibited to belong to the reserved boy she used to love.
“Henry, seriously. Is something wrong? It’s—why are you calling me so late? I was sleeping.”
“Oh?” he said. “It’s Henry.”
“I just—um—how are you?” His words sounded forced.
She sighed. “I’m fine, I guess. I’m tired. It’s the middle of the night. How are you?” She spoke slowly, her displeasure infecting each word.
“Good,” he said.
Val waited in silence so long that she nearly fell back asleep. “Henry?”
“I’m awake,” he said.
Val laughed and shook her head in the dark. “I know you’re awake, but I’m not. I mean, I wasn’t. What are you doing up? You sound weird.”
“I’m thinking about you,” he said.
Val wished that it didn’t feel good to hear that, and it occurred to her to say that she was thinking about him too. But she wasn’t. Or she tried not to. It had been more than a year since they broke up. So much time had passed that she’d almost stopped thinking of him as a living person, an entity that existed outside of her memory. But on the phone was the real Henry, the one still walking around Rutgers and playing percussion and hanging out with Gabe and seeing strange significance in the mundane.
“It’s been a long time,” she said.
Henry cleared his throat and hummed softly.
“Are you drunk?”
Henry laughed again, then stopped abruptly. “I said I’m thinking about you.” The joy she’d heard in his voice was gone. He spoke louder, and an edge that Val had never heard before was creeping in.
“You’re drunk,” she said. “God. Henry. Please, just do yourself a favor and hang up. Tomorrow, if you still want to talk, call me. I wouldn’t mind catching up, but it’s late and you don’t sound like yourself.”
“Do myself a favor?” said Henry. He giggled and hummed, and the music of it irritated Val’s tired ears. “I’m doing…myself…a favor.”
“Henry, I’m hanging up.”
“I look at your pictures online.”
“Jesus, Henry. Don’t do this.”
“You have hot friends.” He laughed again, mocking and cruel. “I look at them and I do myself a favor.”
“I’m hanging up,” she said, but she didn’t. She waited until his laughter had stopped and hoped that the threat would be enough to get through to him. She just said, “Henry?”
“You left,” he said. “You fucking left.”
“It’s been a year.”
“A year?” he said. “You should have come back. There were things I was supposed to show you, things that only you could understand. I thought you were coming back.”
“Why did you think that?” she said, and she really wanted to know.
“But now you’re evil. You’re with
You’re an evil cunt.”
The word exploded into Val’s consciousness and left her feeling physically stunned, as if she’d fallen on her back from some great height. “I’m not doing this,” she said.
“Doing what? Doing what? What the fuck aren’t you doing besides seeing me or talking to me? Is this what a friend does? Is this what you do? I do? I do I do I do.” His voice rose into a distorted song, those two syllables repeating over and over until he ran out of breath. Val lifted the phone away from her ear and winced.
Henry laughed again. “I see you.”
“I’m not doing this,” she yelled back now. “Call me back when you’re not acting like such a fucking lunatic!”
She ended the call and threw her phone down, but instead of landing next to her on the bed it bounced up and crashed to the floor.
Who was that?
She sat up and threw her feet over the side of the bed, then jerked herself upright and stomped her way toward the door, where she slammed her fist so hard against the light switch that it hurt. The room filled with light. She had to get on her hands and knees in order to find her phone, which had slid beneath the old radiator by the window. She logged in to Facebook and searched for Henry’s name. His picture flashed in front of her eyes in the few seconds it took her to find the setting that would allow her to remove him from her list of friends. He looked different from how she remembered him. It reminded her that without meaning to she had been picturing him making the call from his and Gabe’s freshman-year dorm room. She could see the walls, the big windows tinted with scum from the car exhaust coming off Route Eightee
. But he probably didn’t even live in that room anymore. That made her angry too.
She put the phone back on the floor by her bed, then lifted the blinds and looked out at the small wedge of skyline that she’d memorized since moving in the previous fall. A few spires appeared from down in the financial district, but the view was dominated by the big apartment building across the street from her own. Most of the windows were dark. A few glowed intermittently, painted by the shifting rays of television screens. Even fewer were bright, their occupants busy with the business of being alive despite the hour. She stood and stared, waiting for the big black bubble of violence in her chest to dissolve into her bloodstream.
She replayed the phone call in her mind but didn’t even make it to the painful parts that came after she’d answered. Instead, she focused on the way she’d felt when she first heard the ringtone, how it had stirred something in her. Longing? Hope? Neither seemed quite right, but whatever the feeling was, it came back to her now as she looked out her window. She let it blossom inside her and it turned into a fantasy.
Henry would call back the next day. She felt sure of that. He would have to. And after he apologized, they would talk. About what she wasn’t sure, but she wanted it to lead to more. She allowed herself the brief glimpse of what the future might look like if Henry’s hurtful, misguided plea for attention actually led to a rekindling of their connection. She walked to the light switch and pressed it softly with her finger, then sat down on her bed and once again gazed out the window. She wondered who was up and why. The strangers in their homes had lives like hers, she supposed. They had thoughts and feelings that, from their perspective, took up all the space that the world had to offer. Maybe they were all happy. They would have to be, she thought, if they were living in this neighborhood. They were older and more mature. They were rich. Their relationships were set and comfortably worn in. The youthful heartache, the melancholy and dissatisfaction—it was well behind them.
That idea didn’t erase the hurt of the conversation Val had just endured, but it did make her feel less alone. She lay down again and tried to sleep.