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By R. Scott Bakker
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2009 R. Scott Bakker
All rights reserved.
August 17th, 6:05 a.m.
Love dies hard.
Two years they had been divorced, and still he dreamed about her ... Nora. As slender as an intake of breath, shining with the light of all those admiring eyes. It had been her day — her day first — and Thomas had made it his own by giving it to her wholly.
The music thumped. The floor swayed with smiles and grand and flabby gestures. The grandfather from North Carolina, shaking his hands like Sunday revival. The cousins from California, wowing the women with their MTV moves. The aunt from WeightWatchers, striking this or that Cosmopolitan pose. The spectators laughed and cheered, continually glanced at the little illuminated screens they held in their palms. Catching his wind at the bar, Thomas watched them all. He beamed as his best man, Neil, broke clear of the fracas to join him. He looked like an actor, Thomas thought, dark-eyed and erratic, like Montgomery Clift celebrating the world's end.
"Welcome!" Neil cried in a tone meant to cut through the jubilation. "Welcome to Disney World, old buddy!"
Thomas nodded the way people do when friends say inappropriate things, a kind of reflex affirmation, chin here, eyes over there. He could never leave things alone, Neil. That was what made him Neil, Thomas supposed — what made him extraordinary.
"Give it a rest," he said.
Neil threw his hands out, as if gesturing to everything in all directions. "C'mon. You see it as clearly as I do. Courtship. Pairbonding. Reproduction ..." He grinned in a manner that was at once festive and conspiratorial. No man living, it seemed to Thomas, could put so much contradiction into his smile. "This is all just part of the program, Goodbook."
"You don't have an answer, do you?"
Thomas saw Nora making her way toward them, laughing at an uncle's one-liner, clutching old hands. She had always been beautiful, but now with the pomp and attention she seemed something impossible, ethereal, a vision who would shed her gown for him and only him. He turned to scowl at his friend, to tell him that she — she — was his answer.
His new conclusion.
"Time to grow up, don't you think? Time to put the Argument behind us."
"Sure," Neil said. "Time to sleep."
Nora danced between them, staggered Thomas by swinging from his arm.
"You guys are freaks!" she cried. She could always tell when they were talking shop, and always knew how to draw them back to the rough ground of more sensible souls. He held her in the rocking way of drunken lovers, laughing so hard he couldn't speak. Another Tom and Nora giggle session. At parties, people would always comment how only they seemed to get each other's jokes. Isn't that what it meant? "Getting" somebody?
They were just on the same drugs, Neil would say.
"Can't you feel it?" she cried, rolling her eyes out to the drunken yonder. "All these people love us, Tommy! All these people luv-luvluvvv —"
The alarm clock crowed as remorseless as a reversing garbage truck. Thomas Bible swatted at it, squinted at the spears of sunlight. He felt like a scrap of something drawn from a forgotten pocket: too crumpled for too long to ever be smoothed. He was hungover — well and truly. Running his tongue over his teeth, he winced at the taste.
He sat hunched for several moments, trying to muster the peace-of-stomach he'd need for the long lurch to the bathroom. Fucking dreams. Why, after all these years, would he dream of his wedding reception? It wasn't so much the images he resented as the happiness.
He was too old for this shit, especially on a workday — no, even worse, a work-and-kid day. He could already hear Nora's rebuke, her voice cross and her eyes jubilant: "What's this I hear ..."
The bathroom reeked of whiskey, but at least the toilet lid was down. He flushed without looking, then sat down in the tub and turned on the shower. The embalming water felt good, so much so he actually stood to wash his hair.
Afterward, he pulled on a robe and trundled downstairs, shushing his dog, an affable black Lab named Bartender. He collected the whiskey tumblers and beer bottles on his way through the living room and thought about checking in on the den, but the partially closed door buzzed with awkwardness. Just inside the door, a pair of blue jeans lay crumpled across the carpet, legs pulled inside out. He considered barging in and committing some petty act of vengeance — bellowing like a drill sergeant or jumping up and down on the foldout or something similarly stupid — but decided against it.
The Advil was in the kitchen.
His place was old, one of the original farmhouses built long before the rest of the surrounding subdivision. Creaky hardwood floors. Tall ceilings. Smallish rooms. No garage. A concrete porch just big enough for two Mormons. "Cozy," the real estate agent had said. "Claustrophobic," Nora had continually complained.
Even still, Thomas had grown to love the place. Over the years he had invested quite a bit of time and money in renovations — enough to make the Century 21 guy right. The kitchen, especially, with its period fixtures and porcelain-rimmed walls, radiated character and homeliness. In the morning sunlight, everything gleamed. The chairs cast ribbed shadows across the tile floor.
Now if only Nora hadn't taken all the plants.
By the time he started the coffeemaker he was feeling much better — almost human. The power of routine, he supposed. Even half-poisoned, the old brain appreciated routine.
The previous night had been nothing if not crazy.
He wolfed down a couple of stale Krispy Kreme doughnuts with his coffee, hoping to settle his stomach. After sitting for several minutes listening to the fridge hum, he pulled himself to the granite counter and began preparing breakfast. He knew the kids were awake before he heard them. Bart always clicked out of the kitchen and bounded upstairs moments before the muffled cries began. Like all Labs, he adored his tormentors.
"No!" Thomas heard his daughter, Ripley, shriek. Tumbling footsteps along the hallways, then, "No-no-no-no!" all the way down the stairs.
"Dad!" the eight-year-old cried as she barreled into the kitchen. She was thin and willowy in her Donna Duck pajamas, with a pixie face and her grandmother's long, raven-black hair. She swung into her seat with the strange combination of concentration and abandon that characterized everything she did. "Frankie showed me his you-know-what again!"
Thomas blinked. He'd always been an advocate of early childhood sex education, but he could see why most parents were keen to keep the genie in the bottle for as long as possible. Shame was a lazy parent's way of teaching discretion. Or so he told himself.
She made a face. "His thing, Daddy. His" — she screwed up her face as if to give the official word an official female expression — "peeenis."
Thomas could only stare in horror. Dammit, Tom, he could hear Nora say. They need their own rooms. How many times ... He called upstairs, wincing at the volume of his own voice. "Frankie! Do you remember what we said about your morning —" He caught himself, looked askance at Ripley. "Your morning ... you-know ..."
Frankie's petulant "Yes" floated down from the nethers of the house. He sounded crestfallen.
"Keep your pecker in your pants, son. Please."
Of course Ripley had been watching closely. "Pecker, Daddy? Eeww!"
Thomas grabbed the bridge of his nose and sighed. Nora was going to kill him.
No shame, he told himself. The world was lesson enough. Ripley was already fretting over what clothes to wear, talking about how L'Oreal was better than CoverGirl was better than whatever. Soon they would wince at photographs of themselves, at the sound of their voices on the answering machine, at the rust spots on the rockers of their car, and so on, and so on. Soon they would be good little consumers, buying this or that Band-Aid for their innumerable little shames.
Not if he could help it.
Several minutes afterward, little Frankie shuffled across the tiles, squinting against the sunlight. Thomas was relieved to see his Silver Surfer pajama-bottoms intact. The four-year-old rubbed his puffy eyes, flapping his elbows as he did so. Though impish and compact, Frankie exaggerated all of his movements — even his facial expressions. He waved more than he needed to wave, stepped more than he needed to step; he even sat more than he needed to sit. He took up a lot of room for such a little kid, spatially as well as emotionally.
Ripley regarded him, her expression one of glum boredom. "Nobody needs to see that," she said, pointing at his crotch.
Thomas cracked another egg, smiled ruefully.
"So?" Frankie replied.
"So it's weird. Showing your thing to your sister is weird. Ugh! It's sick."
"Is not sick. Daddy said it's healthy. Right, Daddy?"
"Yes ..." Thomas began, then grimaced, shaking his head. "I mean no ... And yes."
What was the problem? Hadn't he taught a graduate seminar on child sexuality at Columbia? Didn't he know the "developmentally correct" swing for most every curveball a kid could throw? He held up both hands and stood over the table, trying to appear both stern and clinical. His children, however, had forgotten him. Mouths half full of toast, they bickered with the obstinate whininess that characterized so much of their communication.
"Come on. Listen up, guys. Please."
They were both chattering at the same time now. "No, you!" "No, you!" Christ Almighty, his head hurt.
"Listen up, jerks!" he cried. "The old man has had a rough night."
Ripley chortled. "You got drunk with Uncle Cass last night, didn't you?"
"Can we wake him, Daddy?" Frankie asked. "Can we wake him, please?"
What was it with the apprehension? Just a bad night, he told himself. I'll sort it all out this afternoon.
"No. Leave him be. Listen up! As I was saying, the old man has had a rough night. The old man needs his kids to cut him some slack."
They both watched him, at once wary and amused. They knew what he was, the clever little fiends. He was a Hapless Dad. When they angered him, they simply pretended he was shamming until it seemed he was shamming. Manipulative little buggers.
Thomas took a deep breath. "I said, the old man needs his kids to cut him some slack."
They shared a momentary glance, as though to make sure they were both on the same mischievous page, then began laughing.
"Serve oos owr breakfust, wench!" Frankie cried, mimicking some movie they'd watched not so long ago. It had become their Breakfast Joke.
With this, Thomas was undone. He conceded defeat by ruffling their hair and kissing their heads.
"Don't say 'wench,'" he murmured.
Then he got back to breakfast — like a good wench, he supposed. He'd forgotten how much he loved weekday mornings with his children.
Even when hungover.
Normally he saw Franklin and Ripley only on weekends, as per his custody agreement. But Nora had asked if he would take them for the week: some bullshit about a trip to San Francisco. Ordinarily taking the kids wouldn't have been a problem, but Nora had unerringly caught him at the worst time possible: the run-up to the new school year, when the kids had scaled the stir-crazy summit of their summer holidays and when he was up to his eyeballs with committee and course prep work for the upcoming semester. Thank God Mia, his neighbor, had agreed to help out.
Mia's real name was Emilio, but everyone called him Mia, either because his last name was Farrow, or because of his days as a drag queen. He was a great guy: an amateur Marxist and a professional homosexual — self-described. He was a technical writer for JDS Uniphase and usually worked out of his home. Though he constantly made noise about despising kids, he was positively maudlin when it came to Frankie and Ripley. He complained about them the way diehard sports fans complained about their team's winning streaks: as though offering proof of humility to fickle gods. Thomas suspected that Mia's love of the kids was nothing short of parental, which was to say, indistinguishable from pride.
Running late, Thomas hustled the kids across the lawn. The neighborhood was young enough to sport winding lanes and a bewildering variety of trees, but too old to suffer the super-sized Legoland look. They found Mia standing on his porch arguing with his partner, Bill Mack. Mia had dark, Marine-cropped hair, and a face that shouted zero body fat. His build might have been described as slight were it not for the obvious strength of his shoulders and arms. The man was built like an acrobat.
"So that's just great," Mia was saying. "Fanfuckingtastic, Bill." He turned and smiled guilelessly at the Bibles assembled on the steps below. "Hi, kids," he said. "You got here just in time to say bye-bye to the prick."
"Hi, William," Thomas said carefully to Bill. The previous month Bill had decided he wanted to be called William — the name had more "cultural capital," he had said.
"Jeeeezus Christ," Mia snorted, his inflection somewhere between Alabama wife-beater and California gay. "Why not just call him Willy?"
"'ee's goot a wee willie," Frankie cried out in his Scottish accent.
Mia laughed aloud.
"Why hello, Thomas," Bill replied sunnily. "And how are the Bibles doing?"
"Dad's hungover and Frankie showed me his pecker," Ripley said.
Bill's smile was pure Mona Lisa. "Same ol', same ol', huh?" He crinkled his nose. "I think that's my cue ..." Sidling between the Bibles, he walked to his old-model Toyota SUV — one of the ones ecoprotestors liked to sling tar across. He looked like a blond Sears catalog model in his three-piece. Thomas glimpsed Mia mouth Fuck off and die as Bill pulled out of the driveway.
For as long as he'd known them, Bill and Mia had done all the things statistically doomed couples typically do. They made faces while the other was talking — a frightfully good indicator of impending relationship meltdown. They described each other in unrelentingly negative terms. They even smacked each other around now and again. And yet somehow they managed to thrive, let alone survive. They had certainly outlasted the Bibles.
"Nothing too serious?" Thomas said, checking as much as asking. Over the years he'd helped the two of them sort out several near-fatal communication breakdowns, usually by talking one of them back from the brink without the other knowing. Guerrilla therapy, he called it.
"I'll be fine, professor. Gay men love assholes, remember? Pardon my French."
"Daddy speaks French, too," Ripley said.
"I'm sure he does, honey." Mia nodded at the black minivan parked next to Thomas's Acura. He raised his eyebrows. "Company, professor? L'amore, perhaps?"
Smirking, Thomas closed his eyes and shook his head. Mia was hopelessly nosy.
"No. Nothing like that."
Thomas was a creature of habit.
Over the years since he and Nora had moved to the burbs, the hour-long commute into Manhattan on the MTA Metro-North had become a reprieve of sorts. Thomas liked the packed anonymity of it all. The literary types could boo-hoo all they wanted about the "lonely postindustrial crowd," but there was something to be said for the privacy of vacant and indifferent faces. Countless millions of people all herded into queues, all possessing lives of extraordinary richness, and most with sense enough not to share them with strangers.
It seemed a miracle.
Thomas imagined some grad student somewhere had published a paper on the topic. Some grad student somewhere had published a paper on everything. Now that the big game had been hunted to extinction, all the little mysteries found themselves in the academic crosshairs, all the things that made humans human.
Usually Thomas read the New York Times — the ink-and-paper version — on the trip into Manhattan, but sometimes, like today, he simply stared at the passing Hudson and dozed. No river, he was certain, had been the object of more absent contemplation than the Hudson.
He had much to think about. Frankie's incestuous exhibitionism was the least of his concerns.
He glanced at the front page of his neighbor's Times and saw the headlines he'd expected.
EU SAYS U.S. AID PACKAGE "NOT ENOUGH" DEATH TOLL COULD TOP 50,000 RUSSIAN OFFICIALS SAY
And of course,
THE "CHIROPRACTOR" STRIKES AGAIN: SPINELESS CORPSE FOUND IN BROOKLYN
He found himself peering, trying to read the hazy squares of text beneath. The only words he could make out were "vertebrae" and "eviscerated." He blinked and squeezed his eyes, then cursed himself for giving in to his morbid curiosity. Thousands of years ago, when people still lived in small communities, paying attention to random acts of violence actually paid reproductive dividends. That's why human brains were hardwired to pay attention to them.
Excerpted from Neuropath by R. Scott Bakker. Copyright © 2009 R. Scott Bakker. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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