Chasing the dead, p.1

Chasing the dead, page 1


Chasing the dead

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Chasing the dead

  Chasing the dead

  Joe Schreiber

  Joe Schreiber

  Chasing the dead



  The Grand Wailea Resort rises up on Maui's south shore, a gleaming oasis in a muscular row of similar high-end hotels, though the Wailea is obviously the official winter palace of the American ruling class. From her balcony, overlooking the palms and the big bright blueberry colada of the Pacific, Sue Young can just barely make out the volcano rising on the northeastern part of the island. Much closer is the resort's own volcano, this one made of chicken wire and plaster, with its own gushing renal system of waterslides twirling down the sides into a network of interconnecting tunnels, manufactured river currents, and grotto bars. The air smells like cocoa butter and sea salt, alive with the sounds of children's feet spanking the cement around the pool as their parents sit nursing whiskey hangovers with blender drinks and a side of pineapple. In this flyspeck of the world, Sue has discovered, even your fifteen-minute oil change comes with a pineapple wedge.

  Far beyond the palm trees and the private beach, where the ocean goes from pale blue to a deeper green, Sue can see a pelican chasing its shadow across the surface, skimming low enough that the tips of its wings leave little Vs in the water. Tonight there will be whales breaching in the middle distance, their tails clearly visible from shore. She and Veda watched them last night, rising and then vanishing massively against the setting sun. She studies the pelican for some uncertain span of time, and then turns back to the suite, where Veda lies in bed, her blanket tucked in her mouth, deep in the throes of her afternoon nap.

  One year, Sue thinks, gazing at her daughter. One year to the day. My God.

  She looks at the unopened bottle of vodka brought up by room service, only an hour before. After years of sobriety, she's not particularly surprised to find herself craving liquor again. The pills they give her don't work and she doesn't like the lingering numbness in her neck and shoulders as they wear off, so alcohol it shall be. No doubt the results will be as dreary as they are predictable, but these days-most days-she can't find it in herself to care.

  She looks out the window again. The pelican is gone.

  The last twelve months have been the longest of her life, as if that endless night one year ago has done permanent damage to her sense of temporal perception, stretching the minutes and hours until they become transparent, meaningless. Certainly there has been enough collateral damage, psychological and otherwise, though it's hard to count the cost in any kind of physical way. Even with a year's perspective, all Sue knows is that certain infinitesimal mental faculties, her ability to make the smallest decisions-like whether to get out of bed in the morning-seem to have been dealt a crippling blow.

  At first it was easy: Therewere no decisions to be made-only regiments of lawyers, cops, officials, men and women in suits and uniforms whisking her from one room to another, patiently asking her questions, questions, questions. There were tape recorders and cameras and polygraphs, locked rooms and white walls and clean, polished tables. Most of the people at that phase were civil enough, but even in her posttraumatic state Sue recognized that the veneer of friendship masked a stunned incredulity, a horror so vast and uncomprehending that they themselves could barely contend with it.



  As the story leaked and then gushed its way all over the world, the media had reacted accordingly to her story of the night before-of what she'd told them about Isaac Hamilton and the Engineer and the towns and the route that connected them-with universal revulsion and disdain. There had been panels and committee meetings and more judges and lawyers than Sue had ever thought existed, and even now her own attorney, the steadfast David Feldman, is doing his damnedest to keep the state from taking Veda away from her. As far as Sue understands it, the only thing keeping her from a psych ward or prison is the fact that nobody could actually prove that she killed anyone. Yet her story-repeated endlessly, in an unwavering litany of the facts as they'd seared themselves into her skull that night-continues to infuriate legions of local, state, and federal law enforcement officials, who insist, at the very least, that Sue Young be committed to an institution for long-term psychiatric care.

  "They can't make it stick, Sue," David told her in their last conversation, a week ago. "There are still too many things that have gone unexplained, too much that they can't pin on you. That may change tomorrow, or the next day-this is going to go on for a long, long time-but in the meantime you need to do whatever you can for you and Veda."

  David,Sue wanted to ask but didn't,what do you think really happened that night? Do you believe me? Do you believe me at all?

  Better not to ask; better not to know. In actuality Sue does have some small clue about whether or not he believes her, but the truth is, she doesn't want to think about that now.

  And so here she is, exactly one year later, half a world away, seeking solace in the fabled blue depths of the Pacific. Sue is staring at her daughter, breathing deeply in the center of the queen-size bed they've shared since arriving on the island Sunday.

  She reaches for the vodka bottle and the water glass on the room service tray, unscrews the bottle's cap, and pours herself three fingers, bringing it to her lips. She can almost taste the sting of the alcohol when, from the corner of her eye, she sees Veda roll over in bed, still clutching her blanket tightly to her chest. Veda's lips move, and Sue recognizes the word "Mama," whispered clearly enough. The little girl's arms go out from the depths of sleep, grasping for a parent who isn't there.

  Sue puts the glass down without drinking from it and gets on the bed. Lying down next to Veda, she pulls her daughter close and kisses her sleeping, dreaming eyelids. The girl stirs but doesn't awaken. Sue has no doubt that someday in the future, she will have to tell her daughter what happened that night, and there will be consequences…for there are always consequences when the truth comes out, and sometimes the truth costs you everything.

  But that day is not today, nor tomorrow, nor will it be next week or next month or next year. For now, regardless of whatever else happens, Sue Young is going to hold her daughter in her arms and offer up a prayer (yes, a prayer, and any ambulance driver who tells you they don't pray is either lying or heartless, or both) of humbled thanks, to whatever god may be listening.

  "We made it, baby," she whispers in her daughter's ear, not loud enough to wake her. She's crying now, a single tear running over the bridge of her nose. "We're home."

  Yet even as she lies here with tears in her eyes, she cannot help but think again of David Feldman's comment to her a week ago, just before she left Boston, the only remark he's made to her that indicated he might actually believe she's telling the truth.

  There's one thing that's been bothering me for a while, Sue. This metal box by the statue that was supposed to contain Hamilton's heart. You said you saw it crushed between the Expedition and the stone base of the statue. You know they sorted this smashed box out of the wreckage? But they supposedly couldn't find evidence of anything in there. It was empty.

  Sue looks over at the clock on the nightstand. It is two thirty in the afternoon, Hawaii-Aleutian Time; in New England it is well past dusk on the longest night of the year.

  It was empty.

  "No," she says, the word escaping her in a whisper. "It's nothing."

  But she closes her eyes and thinks again of what Phillip told her, so long ago, how the past is never done with you, not in any substantial way. How its bloody fingerprints will never come
off. Not now. Not ever. A sudden coolness spreads through the hotel room, as if the warm equatorial sun has disappeared behind a cloud.

  And next to her, on the nightstand, the phone begins to ring.




  Stuck in week-before-Christmas traffic north of Boston, Sue Young is scanning the radio dial, searching for a weather report, when a song comes on from the summer of 1983, Duran Duran doing "Rio," and oh boy, does it take her back. Without wanting to, she thinks of Phillip, something he'd said to her once:The past is never done with us in any substantial way. The most cursory examination reveals its bloody fingerprints on every surface of our lives.

  It's Phillip in a nutshell, an appetizer of eloquent wisdom with a nice fluffy side salad of pomposity. In the beginning, back when they were kids, she'd only heard the wisdom. Later, after they got married, only the pomposity. Now that he's gone Sue hears a dollop of both but mainly she just hears him, his voice in her head, and despite everything he's done to her, she even misses it from time to time.

  The song on the radio keeps playing. Sue realizes she's stiffened instinctively against the nice leather upholstery that Phillip paid extra to have installed in the Expedition, not enjoying the crawling prickle of nostalgia, at the same time peripherally aware that traffic is beginning to slide forward in front of her. She starts punching presets on the radio dial as she gooses the gas pedal, picking up speed in little doses, and realizes that the Saturn in front of her has stopped suddenly. She slams on the brakes, the Expedition jerking to a halt just six inches from the Saturn's back bumper, close enough to see the driver's aggrieved expression in the sideview mirror. Sue exhales, thinking that she just used up all her luck for the rest of the night.

  It is six twenty and almost totally dark.

  Boston is still right there in her rearview, its stumpy conglomeration of mid-rises too close to even be called a skyline. Around her three lanes of commuter traffic slink forward promisingly and then congeal again. To her right, the fax machine that Phillip installed in the Expedition gives two cheerful chirps and starts spitting out a flurry of pages. Sue flips on the dome light and glances at the cover sheet. It's a draft of the loan agreement for her to look over for tomorrow morning's meeting with BayState, the final phase of the Flaherty deal.

  Sean Flaherty is an orthodontist, a friend of Phillip's from back in Phillip's bachelor days, when Sean and Phillip chased cocktail waitresses from here to Cape Cod and jetted off to Club Med together to drive Jet Skis and spend their money. Sue actually doesn't mind Sean all that much-he can be a bit overbearing at times, but ever since Phillip left her, Sean's become more subdued, almost shy, around her, as if embarrassed by his old friend's behavior.

  Sean has always wanted to open a little bar downtown, in a narrow old space on 151 Exeter Street that he's been lusting after for at least a decade. For years Phillip promised Sean he'd get him 151 Exeter, which has been tied up in probate for ages since the previous owner died intestate and the offspring squabbled over the inheritance. But in the end, the promise to get Sean his bar turned out to be just another broken vow Phillip left in his wake when he abandoned Sue eighteen months ago.

  In the end it was Sue herself who closed the deal for Sean, just today. Upon hearing the news Sean dropped by the office, ecstatic, with two freshly steamed lobsters and a gift-wrapped case of liquor that he insisted Sue take home with her. Sue was happy to accept the lobsters, but she hasn't had anything stronger than club soda in five years. She hadn't even bothered unwrapping it to see what it was. And right now, as the traffic shifts forward and the bottles in the back of the Expedition clink softly together, she wonders what on earth she's going to do with an entire case of hard liquor. It's too late to give it out for Christmas. Does Goodwill accept alcohol?

  She reaches over and pulls out her cell phone from her coat pocket. It would be easier to pick up the car phone mounted in the Expedition, just twelve inches away from the steering wheel. But she's so in the habit of using her cell-sometimes it feels grafted between her shoulder and her jaw-that she'll often catch herself using it even when she's home sitting right in front of the land line.

  Sue hits the programmed number for the house and waits, but there's no answer. No messages from Marilyn on her voicemail or the machine. No text messages except Brad at work reminding her about the bank meeting with Sean tomorrow morning to close on his bar. She dials the number in the Jeep and after three rings Marilyn picks up with a disorganized-sounding "hello."

  "Hey," Sue says, "it's me."

  "Oh, hey, hi."

  Sue checks the clock again even though she just did it twenty seconds earlier. It's a habit with her. Time is a rival. "You headed out for dinner?"

  "Actually just getting back," Marilyn says, and in the background Sue can hear Veda doing a running commentary in the blithe, hyper-inflective nonsense of toddler argot. "Her Creative Movements class ran a little late and we ended up grabbing an early dinner at the Rainforest Cafe. Should be home in twenty minutes or so."

  "So you already ate?"


  Sue looks at the Legal Seafood box on the floor next to her, the one that Sean had produced with such pleasure that she couldn't help getting caught up in his excitement. "Too bad for you. Somebody gave me a couple of lobsters." It's the sort of remark that invites questions-somebody gave youlobsters?-but she only hears Marilyn grunt on the other end, uncharacteristically quiet, distracted. A red light goes on in Sue's mind. "Is everything all right?"

  "Yeah," Marilyn says, "this loser in a van is just riding my tail. Sorry."

  "I'll let you go."

  "We'll see you back at the house," Marilyn says, and clicks off. Sue drops the phone on top of her coat, folded on the passenger seat, and concentrates on her driving. It isn't snowing, not yet, but it still takes her the better part of an hour to get back to Concord and by the time she pulls up to the house she's hungry and frustrated enough that she forgets the lobsters and the liquor in the car.

  Inside, it takes her a moment before she realizes that Marilyn and Veda aren't home yet. She kicks off her shoes and calls the Jeep's phone again but this time nobody answers.

  Odd, she thinks, heading into the kitchen. Not alarming, necessarily, but definitely out of character for Marilyn, who wouldn't normally deviate from the plan without letting Sue know. Marilyn's been Sue's nanny for over a year now and they work well together because they think alike. Veda loves Marilyn, and that's terrific, that's a real plus. But at the end of the day what matters is that Marilyn and Sue share the same peculiarities, the same worries, the same little neuroses about raising a child in a world where handguns cost less than a pair of sneakers and nobody washes their hands. When the agency first sent her over for an interview, Sue took Marilyn out to lunch and watched her use her hip to bump open the ladies' room door so that she could keep her hands clean. Sue made her an offer before their salads arrived.

  The phone rings as she's pouring herself a cranberry juice and tonic with a wedge of lime.


  A man's voice, one she doesn't know. "Susan Young?"

  "Speaking," she says, already thinking:telemarketer. She hasn't been Susan to anybody but distant relatives since eighth grade. There's still half a chicken Caesar in the fridge from last night at the Capital Grille and she opens the Styrofoam box with the phone tucked under her jaw, picking off slightly soggy croutons and cherry tomatoes.

  "Is this Susan?" the man asks again with irritating slowness.

  "Yes, this is she. Who's calling?"

  "You have a very lovely little girl, Susan."

  And Sue freezes, feeling the tiles of the kitchen floor vanish beneath her feet. "Who is this?"

  "She's beautiful. Gorgeous green eyes, precious blond hair, those little dimples on the backs of her hands when she uncurls her fingers. And that smile, Susan. She certainly favors you." The voice pauses. "Susan? Are you there?"


  Sue doesn't say anything. Can't, really. Standing in the middle of her kitchen, gazing out the window where her three acres of dark woods slope away underneath the moonlight, she's hearing things in the man's voice, a barely suppressed note of hilarity underneath what she first thought was a toneless growl. She can hear him breathe between phrases, as if it's difficult for him to get whole sentences out without inhaling. There are no other sounds in the background.

  Somehow she has the presence of mind to think that when things like this happen in the movies or on TV the person's first response is to accuse the caller of playing some kind of joke, or to get angry and accuse them of lying. But somehow she knows that this is not a joke and the man on the phone isn't lying to her. And anger is a long, long way from what she's feeling right now.

  "I haven't lost you, have I, Susan?"

  No,she tries to say but no noise comes out. There is still the sense of not touching anything, not even the clothes she's wearing. In fact she is floating, suspended in a gel of utter disbelief, not even horrified yet, although the horror is certainly out there and she can feel it corroding its way inward. "No," she says again, louder. "Who is this?"

  "We'll get there," the man says. "We've got all night. And after all this is December twenty-first. The longest night of the year."

  She has absolutely no idea how to respond to that observation. "Is she there?" she asks. "Is my daughter there with you?"

  "Of course she is, Susan. You don't think I'd leave a little one-year-old unattended, do you?"

  "Where's Marilyn?"

  The man hesitates like he has to think about it. "Oh," he says, "she's here, too. We're all here, Susan."

  "Let me talk to my daughter. Please."

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