Unexpectedly, Milo, page 1
Also by the Author
an only child
who became a brother
This book would not have been the same without the assistance of countless friends and experts, but it would not exist at all if not for my wife, Elysha, who inspires me every day. I was recently asked by a reporter to describe what “gets me up in the morning.” The answer is simple: an insatiable desire to convince my wife that I am worthy of her love and not quite the fool that I often appear to be.
Much love and appreciation to my in-laws, Barbara and Gerry Green, who have reminded me what the unwavering love and constant support of parents can feel like.
Many thanks to all of my ever-faithful readers, who continue to read each chapter with a boundless enthusiasm, a critical eye, and a generous heart. I know there are many authors who can write entire books without allowing anyone to see a single word. I do not understand these people, nor do I try. The constant audience that I enjoy is a blessing that I do not take for granted.
A special thanks to Matthew Shepard and Cindy Raynis, who never failed to read and provide insightful commentary on each chapter within twenty-four hours of distribution. Shep’s analytic style, Cindy’s discerning eye, and their shared affection for Milo have improved this story by leaps and bounds.
Thanks to Carole MacKenzie for her keen insight into obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Great appreciation goes to Alison Kerr Miller, the copyeditor for this book. I have begun to believe that editors’ names should appear on the cover of every book, in recognition for all the work that they do in bringing a story to the finish line. Alison’s expertise has spared me countless moments of literary embarrassment and has helped to craft a clearer, more cohesive narrative. Her invisible but vital imprint is hiding on every page of this book.
Thanks to Melissa Danaczko, my editor and friend, who once again has demonstrated that when an author and an editor seem to share the same brain, true collaboration can flourish. How fortunate I have been to find an editor whose opinions I respect and value without hesitation.
Lastly, thanks to Taryn Fagerness, my agent and friend, who is too humble to acknowledge how she has changed my life forever. From assuaging my flagging confidence to lending her expertise in crafting this book, Taryn has stood alongside me every step of the way. It is a strange and wondrous thing for your top-of-the-mountain, all-time heroine to be your agent and friend as well, but Taryn has been all this and more to me and my family.
Other Books by this Author
The moment that Milo Slade had attempted to avoid for nearly his entire life finally arrived under the sodium glow of a parking lot florescent at a Burger King just south of Washington, D.C., along Interstate 95. His wife, Christine, about three hundred miles north of his position, was completely unaware of his present location. Though his sudden and unexplained disappearance may have been a cause of concern for her just one week ago, Milo suspected that it was significantly less so now.
Things had changed so much in such a short period of time.
The camera and the tapes, the objects that had ultimately led him to this moment, were also back in Connecticut, left there purposely lest he be unable to stop himself from watching. These items had been in his possession for less than two weeks, and he felt guilty enough for what he had seen already.
It was just after seven P.M., and his passenger and fellow traveler had expressed the need to use a restroom. Though Milo also needed to urinate, he decided to forgo nature’s call and use the time alone to access some of the jars of jelly from the trunk of the Honda in order to satisfy one of the mounting demands making rational thought almost impossible. Almost an hour ago, Milo had been forced to complain to his companion about the overwhelming headache that had been plaguing him ever since the first of these demands had taken shape in his mind. Though he was loath to admit to the suffering, always wanting to keep every aspect of the demands as secretive as possible, he felt he needed to in order to limit the conversation in the car and allow him to direct all of his mental energy to the road ahead. An offer had been made to take the wheel, as he knew it would, but Milo knew that the pressure would only increase if he were sitting in a passenger seat with nothing on which to direct his attention. With each passing mile, the demands had grown stronger and louder, though that wasn’t quite right since they issued no actual sound. Instead, each inexplicable demand blazed away in his mind like a small sun, a silent, unstoppable imperative that consumed all thought and reason. And as they did so, the confines of the Honda had seemed to become smaller and smaller. He had grown fidgety, his arms and legs feeling almost electrified. Even in the limited space of the driver’s seat, he was unable to sit still. The fillings in his teeth had begun to ache. He was perspiring profusely. His brain felt as if it were trapped in an ever-tightening vise.
The physical toll of the demands had never been so terrible.
He had tried switching the Honda’s cruise control on and off in an effort to release some of the pressure on his mind and body but found no relief. He had tried adjusting the power mirrors, and still no effect. He had pretended to accidentally lock and unlock the doors in hopes that the pop of the power locks might afford some reprieve, but it had not. Finally, he had risked snapping and unsnapping his jeans, just once, but even this had offered little in the way of respite. The demands were too many and too loud for his usual delaying strategies to work. There were four of them now, a never-before-seen number, pressing on one another like a crowd battling its way to a locked exit door in the middle of a fire.
The demand to open those jars of jelly.
The demand to replace the stale air in the Honda’s tires with fresh air.
The demand to bowl a strike.
The demand to sing “99 Luftballons” to anyone who would listen.
He expected others to follow shortly, as the mounting pressure would undoubtedly force new and ever-more-challenging demands to the surface. Weebles and ice cubes and drink boxes and those goddamn words would surely follow, and maybe even some new demands not currently found in his repertoire. He wondered how much more of this he could take.
In short, Milo was a man slowly losing his mind.
But he hoped that the jars of jelly would help. The twisting of the lid, the satisfying pop of the pressure seal, and the subsequent, almost imperceptible yet supremely powerful hiss might alleviate enough of the building pressure to allow him to continue his journey.
As he feared, two jars had not been enough. He had moved a total of nine from the trunk to the front seat, the remain
Milo was in the midst of opening his fifth jar, having lost all track of time in the euphoric pop of the pressure seals, when the passenger door opened, the interior light came on, and the woman attempted to reenter the Honda. She paused for a moment, staring at the four opened jars of Smucker’s grape jelly (Milo’s preferred brand for satisfying this demand) on her seat, their lids stacked neatly in a rectangular space in the console, before asking, “Uh … what’s this?”
Milo was sitting behind the wheel, a jar of jelly in his hand and four more sealed jars in his lap. His left hand wrapped tightly around the jar and his right gripped the lid, ready to turn. For a moment, he considered lying to the woman. After all, he’d spent the last three years of marriage, and two years of courtship before that, concealing these demands from his wife. His parents and even his friends were equally unaware, even though they consumed an enormous portion of his life. And even with the mounting pressure, greater than any he had felt before, he was still filled with shame of this secret part of him. Perhaps he could invent a story about contaminated jars of Smucker’s and the desire for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The story would have been ridiculous (least of all because he had no bread), but the truth, he knew, would be infinitely more so. Still, he might have tried to offer up a plausible explanation for the jars of jelly strewn about the car, but it was because he was about to open the fifth jar, and because he knew that he would need at least a couple more in order to silence the demand, that Milo finally decided to forgo the lies. Though it might have eventually proven impossible, perhaps he would have been able to put off the demands a little while longer, maybe long enough to find a hotel room and satisfy enough of them to make it back to Connecticut safely. But now that he was in the midst of satisfaction—had begun the process of release—he knew that there was no stopping. He could not simply toss the remaining jars into the backseat and drive on as if nothing were wrong. And from the look on the woman’s face as she placed the open jars on the floor, settled in to her seat, and turned to face him, it would’ve been impossible for her to ignore the jars as well.
The time for secrets had finally come to an end.
“Just give me a minute and I’ll explain everything,” Milo said, then turned the lid on the jar, absorbed the satisfying pop of the pressure seal, and sighed heavily.
When he first spotted the video camera sitting on the end of the park bench beneath the dying elm, Milo didn’t take it. He had wanted to take it, to be sure. Not steal it, but claim it first in the event that it had been left behind by a careless owner who might never return. But there were still a few stragglers in the park that evening, and one of them might have left the camera behind, relying on the goodness of man to keep it safe. Though a video camera was something Milo would have liked to own, the act of approaching the bench, reaching down, and placing his hands on the device would require more daring than he could ever muster. Just stopping to take notice of it had left Milo with the feeling that a thousand eyes had been cast on him, forcing him to nudge his dog forward along the path.
Opportunity lost, he had thought as he rounded the hill in the direction of his new home.
So when he returned the following evening and found the same camera in the same location, Milo couldn’t help but think that fortune was somehow smiling on him, forcing him into action. Though the north end of the park was typically deserted because of its lack of amenities (other than the single bench), the fact that the camera had lasted more than twenty-four hours without being claimed by someone, owner or otherwise, was remarkable. And although approximately the same number of stragglers was still present in the park, picnicking across the field near the gazebo and finishing up a game of basketball on the shadow-strewn court, Milo felt more emboldened this evening as he approached the shade of the elm.
Deciding to claim it for his own, he sat down beside the camera, commanding Skywalker, his newly renamed beagle, to heel while he stalled, hoping to add a perceived purpose to his stop. After what he felt was a sufficient period of time, he reached over and casually grabbed the device, which was small enough to fit in one hand, and had begun to straighten up when he noticed the nylon bag in the shadow beneath the bench.
Reflecting on the moment much later, Milo would grin, thinking how close he had come to missing the camera bag entirely. Though he had always thought that it was the camera that had changed his life, it was really the bag, filled with those fourteen numbered tapes, that had set things in motion.
The word filled Milo’s mind as he and Skywalker covered the mile between the park and his apartment. For the trip home, he had placed the video camera into the black bag and slung it over his shoulder, affirming his newfound ownership over the device in one single motion.
For reasons that he would never understand, this was the latest in a series of hundreds, maybe thousands of words that became lodged in his mind from time to time over the course of his life, though “lodged” was perhaps an understatement. These words appeared suddenly, for no apparent reason, and though they started as a tickle in the back of his mind, they quickly grew to consume every bit of his mental processes, infiltrating the farthest corners of his brain, burning in his head to the point of physical pain until they were at last satisfied.
The word had been in his thoughts for almost a week, an uncommonly long period of time in comparison to most, and so the pressure and tension building in his head was especially high. No matter what Milo did, where he went or what he thought, conflagration remained in the forefront, serving as an aching, insidious, and insistent distracter to all that he attempted. And as with all previous words, Milo had no idea why this particular one chose to take up residence in his mind, but as with the rest, he knew that there was only one way to rid himself of it. If things went well, he might have to endure the word for only one more day.
Milo’s new home was a one-bedroom apartment on Willard Avenue in the town of Newington, Connecticut, about a mile from his real home, which was currently occupied by his wife, Christine. Milo had been separated from Christine for about three weeks, and he still had yet to completely unpack. Boxes were neatly stacked about the living room and kitchen, and his bedroom furniture consisted only of his bed and desk, both extricated from his home during the rapid departure (or what he thought of as an escape) from his house on Wilson Road.
Milo’s marriage to Christine had been in decline for more than a year when she finally asked Milo for “space,” and after two months of stalling, hoping that things would eventually improve, he finally began taking steps to rent an apartment close to the house in order to accommodate what he thought had been his wife’s request.
Though digging through boxes for a clean pair of underwear was getting old, Milo was not anxious to finish unpacking. Part of him hoped that the separation wouldn’t last long. He and Christine had been married for almost three years, and although there were clearly issues that needed to be worked out between them, he couldn’t imagine permanently upending things over a few squabbles. They had a home, a dog, and a life together, and he had expected them to be discussing children soon. Making such drastic changes to his future seemed incomprehensible.
Nevertheless, for weeks prior to his departure, Milo had begun assembling the items that he thought he might need in the event that he was forced to move out. In the words of his best friend, Andy, “A woman can only ask for space for so long before she’s going to tell you to get the fuck out.” As much as he hated to admit it, Milo knew that his friend was right. Every time Christine broached the topic of space, never specifically requesting a separation but only suggesting the need for some time apart, Milo would acknowledge her comment with a dej
Stopping at a tag sale on the way to pick up coffee for Christine one morning, he had purchased a pair of lamps and a can opener for eight dollars, stuffing the items into the trunk of his car in the event that he suddenly found himself on his own in need of adequate lighting and a tuna fish sandwich. This was followed by more and more surreptitious Saturday-morning visits to tag sales and flea markets, where he continued to fill his trunk to the point of nearly bursting. Though it took him weeks to accept the inevitable, he wanted to be equipped to move on, knowing in his heart that he might soon be living alone with his best friend, Puggles, whose name he had changed to Skywalker during his first week in the apartment. Though his friends thought him crazy for changing the name of a dog that he had owned for two years, Milo understood that dogs reacted more to tone than words, so an excited, high-pitched “Skywalker!” proved to attract just as much attention from his beagle as did a similarly intoned “Puggles!”
Besides, he had always hated the name that Christine had given the dog.
It had been during their late-afternoon runs that the deterioration of the marriage had become obvious to Milo. Though things had apparently been going sour for some time (at least in Christine’s estimation), he had never suspected real trouble until they began running together in early spring. Despite the never-ending plague of odd and inexplicable demands placed on him, Milo had managed to effectively conceal each and every one from his wife from the moment they had begun dating, and this, in addition to other, more routine efforts to keep Christine happy, should have been more than enough to keep their marriage on a sound footing. At least this is what Milo had thought when they began jogging through the neighborhood, side by side.
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