(Author’s note: As with the last posted chapter, this section skips ahead so as to not reveal plot elements. The following is from Part One, Chapter Eleven, in which Sam and Pacy travel to Sistersville, West Virginia to escape a series of mysterious developments in their lives back in Pittsburgh)
I was three years old. My mom was washing a pan in the sink. Early summer sunlight streamed into the windows through the branches of redwoods that stood next to our house. I pushed a chair across the kitchen floor and propped it up against the wall below the cabinets. I climbed up unsteadily. I grasped at the metal latch on the cabinet doors, opened them and extended my arm inside to grab something. I don’t remember what I was reaching for—probably a glass. I can’t say for sure.
Everything else, though, I remember. I remember because I tried to remember. I’d been waiting for a moment exactly like this.
Standing on the chair, reaching inside the cabinet, I froze. I turned around and looked at the room. I swiveled my head to take in every detail. I noted the way the light poured through the prism hanging above the kitchen nook window, and how it cast little rainbows on the walls. I observed the way my mom bent over the sink and scrubbed, trying to break through some stubborn buildup on the pan. I looked at our old calico, who lay in a patch of sunshine on the floor, watching me.
I took it all in. I let it settle in my mind. And as my head swiveled from side to side, I thought to myself:
I am thinking right now. I am thinking right now. I am thinking right now.
That is my first memory of life. I was three years old and trying to make sense of the concept of thinking. I am 33 years old now, and I have not forgotten.
On the last night of our stay in Sistersville, Pacy and I had an early dinner then took Cooper on a walk along the Ohio river. After the walk, we sat at a table outside the hotel and ordered nightcaps. Before our drinks came, Pacy brought Cooper up to the hotel room to let him sleep. I sat facing the street, which was lined with large planter boxes three-feet tall. Dozens of American flags hanging from phone poles flapped gently in an evening breeze that swept in off the water. Rarely did a car drive past.
The waiter placed a glass of white wine in front of Pacy’s empty chair and a draft beer in front of me. I paid, lifted the glass and took a long drink. Only after I placed the beer back on the table did I realize that someone was sitting in the chair next to me.
“Good evening,” he said.
“Oh,” I replied. “Didn’t see you there.”
He was a short, chubby man, bald on top with red hair sticking out at odd angles around the sides and back of his head. He looked vaguely familiar. I studied his face, trying to place him. He smiled at me.
“Trying to figure it out, right?” he said. “You’re sure we’ve met me before, but you can’t remember where. Am I right?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I swear I’ve seen you before, but I can’t –“
Then I remembered: The sidewalk, the assassination attempt, the game with Detective Santoni.
“You gave me a hundred-dollar bill,” I said. “The day that guy tried to kill the mayor. I was dressed as a homeless person and you gave me a hundred-dollar bill.”
The man continued to smile. “Is that the only memory of me you have?” he said.
He reached out for a short glass containing a dark liquid, some kind of whiskey or brandy. I hadn’t noticed the drink in front of him before.
“Think,” he said. “You seem to be good at that. Better than most, anyways.”
I studied the odd little man, thinking that perhaps he was not stable. But then a second memory flitted through my mind, and again I saw him—clad in overalls, red hair sticking out at odd angles—walking across the Roberto Clemente Bridge shortly before four planes crashed into it.
“The planes crashing,” I said. “You were there, too.”
“Good,” the man said, placing his drink back on the table and folding his hands over his belly. “Now go back even further. What other memories do you have of me?”
I was confused and for a reason I could not yet identify, I began to feel very uncomfortable. I wanted another sip of my beer, but I couldn’t stop staring at this man.
“Come on, Sam,” the man said. “Think. Focus.”
The good feelings I had built over three days in Sistersville suddenly turned.
“How do you know my name?” I said.
“There’s no need to be frightened,” he said. “But I want you to remember. Go all the way back, back to when you were a child and you pushed that chair up to the cabinets to reach for a glass—it was for juice, if I recall. Yes, it was for juice. And what did you do? You turned around and looked at the room. You took in every detail. Didn’t you?”
I could not speak. For some reason, I thought I was about to die, that this is what happens when your life ends: Death comes in the form of riddles and terror.
“Go back,” the man said. “Focus on the memory. Look at the room again and try to find a detail you’ve been blocking all these years. Go ahead. Close your eyes and focus.”
The last thing I wanted to do was obey this little man. Yet, somehow, seemingly against my will, my eyes snapped shut.
“Good,” he said. “Now—what do you see?”
I tried to fight it and focus instead on the man sitting next to me, but it was no use. My first memory spread out before me, taking over by force, as if it were projected on a screen wrapped around the inside of my skull. I had to watch.
There I was, pushing the wooden chair, painted white, across the floor to the cabinets, which also were painted white. I reached out for the little metal latch and pulled it open. I extended my hands inside, then paused just before my fingers made contact with that orange plastic cup. Instead of taking it into my hand, I turned slowly and unsteadily on the chair. I scanned the room and took it all in. There was my mom at the sink, scrubbing a pan. There was the little crystal hanging above the kitchen window. There was the calico lounging in the corner. I heard myself speaking inside my head: “I am thinking right now. I am thinking right now,” trying to remember every detail, to take a mental snapshot of that moment in time so I could summon it all later and thus prove to myself that at that second I was thinking, that my brain is full of thoughts, that I can think now and that I can prove having done so in the past.
“Keep looking,” the little man at my side said. “What are you missing?”
Against my will, I remained trapped in the memory. I looked again at my mom and tried to shout to her for help. But it didn’t work like that. I could not manipulate the memory; it simply was. My eyes swiveled from her back to the crystal and again down to the cat. And then they kept going.
They went to the end of the table farthest from my mom, a part of the room that I had not previously included in the first memory of my life.
Someone was there. A little man with orange hair, all messy and sticking out at odd angles. He was drinking a dark liquid from a short glass. He was looking at me. He smiled, lifted his hand and waved.
My eyes shot open. I was back in Sistersville. The man from my first memory sat next to me, older than he was then, but still smiling. He raised his hand and waved, exactly as he had in the memory.
“What is this?” I said. “Who are you?”
At that moment, Pacy returned. She sat down next to me, kissed me on the cheek and took up her glass of wine. She exhaled happily, smiled at me and lifted the glass. She twirled the wine around in her glass and then drank.
“Did you miss me?” she said, as she looked lovingly across the table at me.
My eyes darted to her, then the man, then back to Pacy.
“Oh, she can’t see me,” the man said breezily. “It’s just you and her sitting here.”
Pacy could sense that something was wrong. She asked if I was feeling okay. I swallowed and spoke softly.
“Fine,” I said.
She looked at me with a raised eyebrow. I looked back, trying to focus on her while ignoring the little man at the table.
But he wouldn’t stop talking.
“You’re not crazy,” he said. “Or at least, you’re not imagining me. I am here, and I am real. It’s just that she can’t see me, the waiters can’t see me—nobody can see me except those who have the ability to do so. Including you.”
I took a sip of my beer. I kept looking to Pacy for clues. Could she really not see him? How could she not hear what I was hearing? But she revealed no sign of awareness. She just stared at me as I grew more and more uneasy.
“We have things to talk about,” the man said. “That’s why I’m here.”
Pacy reached out and grabbed my hand.
“Sam,” she said. “Is something wrong?”
“She’s very perceptive,” the man said. “I’m starting to think she might see me someday, too.”
I turned to the man and glared at him. Whatever this was, it was between him and me. Pacy was off limits, and the anger in my eyes effectively conveyed that message. The man raised his hands apologetically and laughed softly.
“Pacy,” I said, turning back to her. “I have to ask you a question, and it’s going to sound strange.”
“What is it, Sam? What’s going on?”
“Nothing, nothing. It’s just—look around. Do you notice anything strange?”
She did not look around. She just stared at me, her concern growing.
“What are you talking about, Sam?”
She didn’t see him.
I felt cold and weak.
“I don’t know,” I said. “You know what? I don’t think I’m feeling too good. Must have been something I ate.”
“You want to lie down?” she said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Let’s go to bed.”
As Pacy and I walked inside, the little man called out after me.
“I’ll be waiting for you right here, Sam.”
I crawled into bed without a word. Pacy slid in and lay on her side, facing me. My eyes were closed but I’m certain hers were open, that she was examining my face and wondering what had caused this sudden shift.
He was down there, waiting. I tried to block him from entering my thoughts but it was useless. He wasn’t going anywhere.
Perhaps this isn’t a bad thing, I thought. Perhaps he has answers. Perhaps this little man with the bald head and red hair and the frightening ability to manipulate my memories can help me understand what is happening.
It seemed possible, if not likely. And as I lay there in our darkened room, it became increasingly clear what must be done. I had to go downstairs. I had to talk to him. I had to find out who he was and how he played into my disappearance, if at all. There was no other choice.
I listened to the room. Cooper was asleep at the foot of the bed, twitching from a dream. Pacy’s breathing steadily deepened. She was falling into what I hoped would be a deep sleep.
Outside the window, from the street below, I could hear the little man whistling softly to himself, waiting patiently.
The restaurant was closed. The street was dark. It was past midnight and nobody was out. Except for the little man. He sat at the table, the same small glass with the dark liquid in front of him. He motioned to a chair at the table. I approached, but stopped ten feet short.
“We’ve got a lot to talk about,” the little man said. “You might as well get comfortable.”
“What are you?” I said. I wanted to control the conversation. Directness seemed to be the best approach.
“Interesting,” he said. “Not who are you. Not how are you—though at this point I’m sure you really don’t care—but what are you. I must confess, Sam, you prove me right time and time again. I simply cannot completely figure you out, which is why I’m so drawn to you. I could have sat here guessing for hours how you would open and I never would have come up with that. Nicely done.”
“Answer the question.”
“Well, I’m afraid the answer will come as a disappointment,” he said. “What am I? I am the same as you, to a degree. I am a human being.”
I stared at him, waiting for further explanation. He offered none. But like any human, his eyes blinked and his chest moved in and out with each breath. He sat there, staring back at me and grinning happily, as if the world were exactly as it should be.
“What do you want with me?” I said.
“Ah,” the little man said. “Now that is a very complicated question. And at this point, I’m afraid you might not be ready to comprehend the full answer. Not just yet, anyways. So let’s start with something more fundamental, shall we? For example: It occurs to me that we’ve never actually been properly introduced.”
The little man pushed his chair back and rose to his feet. I thought I heard a noise above me, and I jumped back. But the little man paid no attention and walked around the table.
He extended his hand. “My name is Lloyd,” he said.
I did not shake his hand. I only stared at him, trying to keep my face as blank as possible.
Lloyd sighed. “Look,” he said, walking back to his seat at the table. “We really do have a lot to cover. The more you resist, the longer it’s going to take.” He sat down and sipped from his glass. “So, please, Sam—sit down. I’m not going anywhere, and you know it. It is an irreversible course on which you and I now find ourselves. You might not realize it yet, but you know it. There is no turning back. You can fight, but you won’t win. And that’s OK.”
“Says who? I didn’t ask for any of this.”
“Fair enough,” Lloyd said. “But that really doesn’t matter now. Not at all.”
I started to speak, to again protest, but Lloyd stopped me by raising his hand.
“The fact is, it’s you,” he said. “There is no backing out. You can’t hide. Like it or not, you’ve entered into a partnership. With me. And while I hate to put it this way, I’ll be perfectly clear: You really have no choice in the matter.
“Now,” he said, motioning again to the seat at the table. “Please sit.”
“No,” I said. “I’ll stand.”
Lloyd threw his hands in the air, his ever-present smile never wavering. “Suit yourself,” he said. “But let me ask you a question, Sam. How old do you think I am?”
“Old,” I said. “Very old. You look like you could have a heart attack at any minute.”
“Ha!” Lloyd said, leaning back in his chair, delighted by my hostility. “You’ve certainly got fight in you, Sam. I like that. But seriously, how old do you think I am? There’s a reason I ask, I assure you.”
He looked like he was in his mid-50s.
“Seventy,” I said.
“I see what you did there,” Lloyd said, more to himself than me. “Plus fifteen, eh? Yes, yes, you really don’t like me yet, do you? No matter. What’s important is what you think, and you actually think I’m in my mid-50s. Well, guess what, Sam: You’re wrong. Very wrong. Would you believe that I was born in 1900? It’s true! I’m nearly twelve decades old. Now, let me ask you this: Don’t I look great for my age?”
Lloyd’s smile grew bigger, but my distrust remained. “No,” I said. “You look terrible for any age.”
Lloyd ignored the barb and continued.
“We’ll get to all that later,” he said. “For now, the important thing for you know is that I am part of a group of people that—how can I explain this in the simplest of terms?—a group of people that has figured out some secrets, let’s say. And as a result, we’re able to use more of our senses and, more importantly, more of our brains, than people like you. Or rather, people like you used to be, like everyone else in the world that are not part of our group. Does that make sense?”
I did not respond.
Lloyd put his elbows on the table and leaned in, as if he were about to share a secret.
“Want to know what we call everyone else?”
“I don’t care.”
“Normal!” he said, laughing and slapping the table with his open palm. “Can you believe that? I always expected we’d pick something a bit cleverer, or at least more derogatory, you know? I mean we’re so much more advanced than everyone else, yet all we came up with is Normal. That just kills me.”
Lloyd wiped tears from his eyes. “So?” he said. “What do you think of that?”
“I don’t think anything of that,” I said. “Why should I? I am normal. Why would it surprise me to learn that you call me what I am?”
Lloyd jumped up. “Exactly!” he said. “That’s exactly it, Sam. What you just said—that is exactly why we chose you!”
I needed a cigarette. And a drink.
Lloyd’s expression suddenly turned from one of excitement to concern.
“Forgive me, Sam, forgive me,” Lloyd said. “I have a tendency to get excited and I must confess that it sometimes causes me to neglect the desires of others. Please, have a cigarette. I believe you smoke Camel Lights, right? And how about a beer, too? I have a cold IPA right here for you.”
On the table sat a pack of Camel Lights, an ash tray, matches and a glass filled with an amber-colored beer.
I looked around. We were still alone.
“Please, Sam, just sit down, won’t you?” Lloyd said. “We really do have a lot to talk about, and it would be so much more pleasant if you’d at least sit so we can discuss what is to happen next and how.”
My rage began to subside. I replaced it with as much rational thought as I could find, under the circumstances. Lloyd was decidedly non-threatening, at least physically. I could not yet figure out if he was crazy, but his jolliness and friendly demeanor had at least managed to chip away at my distrust to the point that I no longer felt he was an immediate threat. I decided that there was no reason for me to not sit with him and talk. So, finally, I sat.
Lloyd smiled. “So much better,” he said.
I opened the pack of cigarettes and tapped one out. I lit it, inhaled, then reached for my beer. In seconds, I drank it halfway down.
“You have questions,” Lloyd said.
“Of course I do,” I replied.
Lloyd leaned back in his chair and waved his hand, as if encouraging me to proceed.
“By all means,” he said.