The first hint that the universe was in crisis came to Mick Keogh at the Pentagon City Metro terminal when he caught the briefest of glimpses of his wife near the top of the escalator. When he reached the street, she was gone. Since she had been dead for years, he blinked his eyes slowly and chalked it up to the end of a long week.
Michael Keogh of the Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences cherished nothing so much as his modest apartment next to Pentagon City, because it was five blocks from the Metro and his place of work was less than five blocks from the Eisenhower Street Station in Alexandria. His apartment was not a luxurious building, but it was at least more modern than the older developments on either side, in Shirlington and to the north in what had become Little Saigon. The walls were of tired brick and there were two storeys of balconies full of barbecue grills and drowsing cats, sliding glass doors and window boxes of flowers that always seemed to have just stopped blooming.
But Keogh needed little more than a kitchen and a bedroom and an office with a window (which, in this case, looked out on the great featureless west face of Nordstrom’s department store). In the last few years he had become, despite an early promise of greatness, an indistinguishable part of the vast and featureless white-collar lumpenproletariat of the federal bureaucracy. Keogh explained his lack of dismay by remarking, quite plausibly, that he would happily live in a yurt with a yak dung fire if it were within walking distance of mass transit.
It was the last day of July, and a Friday.
The walk from the station was just long enough to make his shirt damp, and he started undressing as soon as the door was closed. He turned the thermostat to 75 and the air conditioning obediently clicked on; he opened the draperies and revealed Nordstrom’s wall in all its glory; he entered the code for voicemail.
A beep: Would he be interested in an alternative long-distance service? A beep: his sister requested a call at his convenience. A beep: short silence as a caller stubbornly declined to leave a message.
A beep: “Mick, this is Cecelia. Yes! Really me! Call me right away and make my weekend. New number: 555-2929. Please call as soon as you can. Bye.”
“Oh, wonderful,” said Keogh, as the tape rewound. He threw his clothes on the bed and showered. It was a long shower, and a contemplative one. A call from Cecelia Hamner preceded bad news as crows herald a summer storm. She had not called in over a year, not since a getaway weekend in Annapolis that had ended in bitter words and violent arm-waves. What mechanism had ever drawn him to Cecelia was forever a puzzle, but it had not been conceived in heaven. Cecelia’s means and ends had too little of mystery for Keogh’s taste, and his own dark intensity put her off no matter how many times they tried to reach a balance; and always now there was Gabrielle between them, however dead she might be.
But with Cecelia there was always an unnerving feeling of unfinished business. Keogh detested cliché, but until he returned her call there was always the profound silence that awaits the fall of the second shoe. He turned off the water and toweled himself dry. Then he wiped off the bathroom mirror for a better view, and examined his face. As always he was amazed, as if this face could not possibly be his, was a false advertisement, a betrayal of what sadness hunkered down behind it. The nose that had been broken years before spoke of pugnacious spirit, and that had departed long before. The inexorable spread of gray hair suggested maturity, when all he felt was age. The blue-green eyes that had once charmed Gabrielle were still there, but they were framed by a network of creases that gave them an oddly flat, reticent gaze.
He smiled wryly at his reflection. “What are you grinning at, you chickenshit bastard?”
The ward orderly at Bethesda came with her lunch and stopped to chat briefly with the Marshals Service guard, though this was officially forbidden. “You getting tired of this shit, man?” His name was Duane Harris.
“I never get tired, Duane,” said the agent. “Not in my contract. I think she’s still asleep, but I’ll look in.”
“Just a minute, man. Just answer me one thing. That bitch dangerous? She a witness or some kind of shit? This is weird.”
“Not for you or me to know, and not for you to even think about. Just bring the food, I’ll handle the public relations. Why don’t—what the fuck?” There was a scream from inside the room, a high-pitched, modulating wail, then a phrase repeated three times. The agent threw open the door and before he closed it the orderly saw the young woman standing in front of the window, blood trickling down her face from parallel scratches, her arms uplifted in a manic salute to an unseen audience. Duane had only the briefest look at her eyes, but he had seen those eyes before.
Years before, when he was thirteen, there had been a man not much older than he who had frequented Duane’s neighborhood in Northeast DC. His name was Eddy Brindell, but he was known on the streets as Weird Eddy, and he sold crack. It was a tough way to live, Duane knew even as a child watching Weird Eddy, but he never knew how tough it really was until Weird Eddy started doing the shit himself and making errors in judgment and arithmetic, and one evening they had come for Weird Eddy and wasted him right there in front of Duane’s house, and Weird Eddy, high on the shit and seeing the muzzle flashes and feeling the impact of the MAC-10 slugs, had screamed an obscenity and hoisted his two middle fingers at his killers in one last mad act of distorted manhood before a bullet passed through his jaw and transferred most of his brain to Duane’s front steps. The gunmen had moved out smartly in their war wagon, and Duane and his little brother had looked at Weird Eddy lying there in more blood than they would have guessed his wiry body could hold. That expression of defiance was sure as hell gone, along with assorted other parts of Weird Eddy’s face, but it was his last living face that Duane remembered. It convinced him not to follow in Weird Eddy’s footsteps, and it left an indelible image.
And Weird Eddy was what he saw when he looked at Melinda Rosen’s face.
The words came again, a shout of unfamiliar syllables and guttural consonants. Neither orderly nor agent had any idea what they meant.
Had they known, they would have been even more mystified.
I’auchuch-ke katu-we bashbi-awak she-wak!
Hear me, beloved foxes! she shouted. Hear me say now, I want to die!
“Hank,” said Blackie, “can we look at that buffalo skull?” Cecelia looked at him again, unbelieving.
“Oh, sure. Take just a second. Come on around back.”
“Back” was an ancient wooden shed with a corrugated steel roof that gave arguable shelter to a utility trailer, old lumber, and long unused leather harness tack. “We don’t use it much anymore,” said Hank, “but it’ll cost more than I want to spend right now to haul the stuff away. Skull’s on the back side.” They followed him, Cecelia rehearsing harsh words for Blackie’s education when they were out of earshot.
“There she is. Ain’t much use, but you don’t throw away something like that.” The skull was chalk white from age and the bleaching of the sun, unlike Blackie’s trophy. The anthropologist removed his dark glasses and examined it closely, rubbing his finger gently between the eye sockets.
“Hank, how long has it been outside?”
“That I can swear to, at least forty years. On the porch and later out here, when we built the new place.”
“Was it in the sun when it was on the porch?” Blackie asked.
“Sure was. Had it up on the edge of the porch roof, so people walked under it when they came up the steps. There it sat.”
“Did it always look like this?”
“Well now,” Hank said thoughtfully, “I don’t guess it would change much, would it?”
Blackie took a Swiss Army knife out of his pocket and scratched at the bone again. “Well, for one thing it would weather. Do you remember if it ever had paint on it?”
Hank looked at Blackie curiously. “Well, damned if I don’t. I hadn’t thought of that in I don’t know how long. It sure did, but only a few places.”
“Blue? There are still a few flakes here,” said Blackie, folding the knife.
“At least one,” said Cecelia.
“Yeah, kind of a blue, but real faded, I think. Been a long time. You want that one, too?”
“No thanks, I got all I can use. Sure you don’t remember where your father found it?”
“Sure don’t. Sat up there as long as I can remember. My Mama called it ‘Gilbert.’ She had a cousin named Gilbert, moved to Cheyenne years ago. Didn’t like him much.”
Blackie laughed. “I guess not. I don’t have anything more.”
“Sure you don’t want Gilbert?”
“No!” said Cecelia, with so much emphasis even Keogh smiled.
“No!” They all turned. The boy had followed them to the shed, and his shout— seemingly in mimicry of Cecelia’s reaction to the skull—was the first word he had uttered.
Hank put his arm around the boy’s shoulder and gave him a hug. The impassive face was transformed for a moment, alight with an ingenuous smile, then the moment was lost and the flicker of light died.
“He’s always been like that,” said Hank. “Hardly says anything, and when he does it’s just to repeat something he hears. Broke my old lady’s heart. He never seems to like much of anything but that rocking chair, or maybe rolling marbles across the kitchen floor.”
Keogh smiled at the boy, who regarded him directly, though with a blank stare. “What’s your name, son?”
“He don’t answer,” said Hank. “He sure listens, though.”
But the boy defied Hank’s prediction. In an instant, the smile was back, and behind the eyes there was the light of a soul. He laughed, and Hank gaped at him. “Lady!” he cried abruptly. “Pretty lady, pretty lady! Coming, she coming coming coming!”
“I’ll be damned,” said Hank.
Keogh was stunned at the boy’s intensity, and puzzled as well; the words were addressed to him, not to Cecelia as Hank had presumed. The slate-blue eyes of the boy looked directly into his own, and there was no mistaking the urgency to communicate.
“She’s coming?” said Keogh. “Who’s coming?”
“Never seen him that excited,” said Hank. “You really got him stirred up.”
But the boy’s attention was on Keogh alone. “Pretty lady, coming, forever! Forever!”
Hank shrugged. The boy takes a notion sometimes, he seemed to say. The boy’s excitement subsided, but in its place there was sadness, not the emptiness that had been there before. He reached out to Keogh and touched his chest. “Here,” he said, as if he had found the source of Keogh’s pain. Then the faraway porcelain gaze was back, and the boy hugged Hank and rocked slowly back and forth against his father’s side.