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My eyes flicked open. The clock read 4:51 a.m., and I was wide awake. I’d been dreaming—-rich colors, shapes, and places—-but couldn’t remember all the details. It didn’t matter. I climbed out of bed and shuffled down the hallway. Rachel Swenson sat in an armchair by the front windows. The pup was asleep in her lap.
“Hey,” I said.
She turned, face paled in light from the street, eyes a glittering reflection of my grief and guilt. “Hey.”
“That dog can sleep anywhere.” I pulled a chair close. Maggie slipped an eye open, yawned, stretched, and went back to sleep.
“I should be staying at my place,” Rachel said.
“I like you here.”
She tickled two bandaged fingers across the top of the pup’s head and ran her eyes back toward the windows. Rachel was a sitting judge for the Northern District of Illinois. And one of the finest people I knew. She was also damaged. Because she was my girlfriend. Or, rather, had been.
“I was going to make a cup of tea,” I said. “You want one?”
She shook her head. I stayed where I was. And we sat together in the darkness.
“You can’t sleep?” she said.
She nodded, and we sat some more.
“What’s the knife for, Rach?”
She looked down at the knife tucked into her left hand. “I got it from the kitchen.”
Her gaze drifted to a small table and the slab of cheese that sat on it. “You want a piece?”
I shook my head. She held the blade up between us. “You thought I was going to hurt someone?”
“Just wondering about the knife, Rach.”
“I’m fine.” It had been almost a month since the attack. Most of the swelling in her face was gone—-the bruises reduced to faint traces of yellow.
“What did you dream about?” she said.
“I usually don’t remember.”
“Sometimes I get premonitions. Twice before. I wake up and feel certain things have happened.”
“If they’ve already happened, they’re not premonitions.”
“Are you going to make your tea?”
“In a minute.”
“Tell me about them,” she said, cutting off a small slice of cheese and nibbling at a corner.
“I got the first one when my brother died.”
“I was seventeen. Woke up in the middle of the night and walked out to our living room.”
“I sat in front of the phone and stared at it for ten minutes until it rang. The warden told me he’d killed himself. Hung himself in a cell with his bedsheet. But it wasn’t anything I didn’t already know.”
“Second time was a couple years back—-the night my father died.”
I remembered my eyes opening, tasting the old man’s passing like dry dust at the back of my throat. I pulled out the whiskey that night and filled a glass. Then I sat by the phone again until it rang.
“And now?” Rachel said.
“That’s the thing. I’m not sure this time.”
“But it’s something.”
“I believe so, yes.”
She got up from the chair and settled the pup on the couch. “I’ll make the tea.”
I listened to her rattle the tap in the kitchen, then set the kettle. I got up and pulled a book off the shelf, Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War. It took me a moment to find the passage. Book 2, chapter 7. The historian’s description of the Plague of Athens.
All speculation as to its origin and its causes . . . I leave to other writers, whether lay or professional; for myself, I shall simply set down its nature, and explain the symptoms by which perhaps it may be recognized by the student, if it should ever break out again. This I can the better do, as I had the disease myself, and watched its operation in the case of others.
I thought about Thucydides, surrounded by death, touched himself, scribbling down its essence for us to read twentyfour hundred years later. I’d lied to Rachel. I knew what I feared. Knew why I feared it. I closed my eyes and they were there—-two lightbulbs hanging in the darkness of the Chicago subway. Inside their glass skin, a question mark. Something the old historian himself might struggle to decipher.
The kettle began to whistle. On cue, the phone rang. Rachel watched from the doorway as I picked up. It wasn’t a voice I expected to hear. And that was exactly what I expected. I listened without saying more than a word or two. Finally, the voice stopped talking—-waiting, apparently, for a reaction.
“Where are you?” I said. The voice told me.
“I’ll be there in an hour.” I hung up. Rachel looked like she might speak, then turned away. Maggie was awake now and staring at me from the couch.
“You want breakfast?”
The pup’s ears perked up at the last word. I walked toward the kitchen. She beat me there by the length of the living room.
“Was it what you thought?” Rachel handed me a mug of tea.
“I don’t know.”
I fed the dog. We both listened to her crunch away and then lick the bowl clean.
“I have to go out,” I said.
“I can’t be here when you get back.”
“Rach . . .”
“Stop.” She raised her arm and touched her hand to her face, as if I were about to hit her. Then she turned and left. The pup followed. I walked back into the bedroom and got dressed. When I returned to the living room, Rachel was curled up on the couch.
“I’ll talk to you later,” I said. She didn’t respond. I was going to say more, but recalled the lessons of saying too much. So I left.
It was still dark out as I tramped down Addison. The first streaks of morning stained the Chicago night—-fresh paint on an old canvas. Underneath, a city slept. Everywhere, it seemed, except in my dreams. And the dreams of those I cared about.