Leon was the first to grab me.I was flailing in the corner, punching the bookcase in an insane attempt to kill Lloyd, but he was gone. He’d disappeared the second I lunged for him. Still, I couldn’t stop. I punched and scraped and swung. At nothing. At air. And all of my friends were there to witness it. As was Pacy.
The awkwardness that settled over the room was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. What could I say? What could they say? Leon grabbed me by the shoulders and others moved in to help. They were gentle, but unyielding. Slowly I stopped punching. They turned me around and I faced dozens of terrified faces. I panted and stared back at them, unable to speak.
Across the room, my eyes landed on Pacy. Her right hand covered her mouth; her left arm reached out to me. It was the exact pose she’d struck the day I reappeared in bed, as if she wanted to touch me but was too frightened to approach. Her eyes were so wide that they formed perfect, horrified circles.
I turned, brushed away the arms that restrained me, and walked into the kitchen. I went to the cabinet and took out a glass. At the sink, I filled it with water and drank. I needed a smoke, and somehow I knew where a pack would be: in the drawer next to the silverware, where we keep the long knives. I hadn’t put them there, but I knew they would be there. I grabbed the cigarettes and walked to the back door. When I placed my hand on the doorknob, I paused. Behind me was complete silence. Nobody moved. I whistled one sharp note and Cooper came running through the crowd. I opened the door and he ran outside ahead of me.
For an hour I sat in the lawn chair and smoked. After I calmed down, I snubbed out the butt of my last cigarette and went back inside. Everyone had left but TJ and Pacy. They sat next to each other on the couch. TJ had her arm around Pacy’s shoulder. She looked up at me as I entered and said, “Pacy’s coming with me tonight.” It was not a question.
They stood and moved towards the front door. TJ walked out first and Pacy followed. She started to pull the door closed behind her, then paused. Finally, she turned and looked at me.
“This isn’t over,” she said, repeating the words I had spoken to her all those years ago in her mom’s bar. “But I need some time. I need to be away from you right now.”
I nodded. There was nothing else I could do.
I spent that night and the following day in a trance-like state.
I turned off the lights, lowered the blinds and did my best not to think. But my thoughts ran wild. I was fighting myself. Part of me wanted desperately to face whatever it was that had intruded into my life; another part wanted to hide. I couldn’t sleep. Neither could Cooper.
Eventually I decided that I could no longer tolerate sitting in darkness. I needed to do something. It was just after 11 p.m., more than 24 hours after the abrupt ending to my surprise birthday party and I needed to get out of my house.
“Let’s go for a walk,” I said—my first words since I yelled at Lloyd standing there, uninvited, in the corner. Cooper jumped off the couch. I grabbed the leash and hooked it to his collar.
I wasn’t sure where we were going, but I was confident that if I started, I would end up where I needed to be. We headed up the steep hill to Reserve. At the top of the hill, we turned right onto Pittview. A few steps later, I realized where we were going: Back to the little cemetery.
It was midnight when we arrived. The cemetery was nearly pitch black, but I wasn’t afraid. Perhaps as a teenager the idea of walking into a cemetery at midnight would have spooked me, but not as an adult on the verge of losing my mind. Besides, I could not shake the feeling that something awaited me here, something important. From the street, I scanned the blackened hillside, hoping for a sign. Nothing came.
“Let’s go,” I said, unhooking Cooper from his leash. He scooted ahead a few steps with his nose buried in the tall grass.
I started up the crumbling stairway. Rows of tombstones fanned out on either side. I climbed slowly, methodically, pausing often to read tombstones in the moonlight.
When I reached the top, I turned around, frustrated, and sat down on the top stair, as I had the day before. Leaves rustled in a soft but steady breeze. An occasional twig snapped in the nearby woods, revealing some unseen creature trying to pass undetected. Clouds drifted across the sky, occasionally blocking out the moon and casting the cemetery in a deeper and more complete blackness. Cooper pressed against my leg. I reached down and stroked his neck. For several minutes, we watched over the cemetery in silence.
Cooper suddenly tensed. I looked down to find him staring up at me. He nudged my hand with his nose, then turned silently and walked back down the stairway. Twenty rows down, he stopped and sniffed the air, then lowered his head to sniff the ground. He leapt into the row. Even from a distance, I could hear him pulling in air through his nostrils, as if he’d caught a scent. He rushed forward a few tombstones, then paused to sniff again. He continued in this way for more than a minute. Finally, he stopped in front of one particular headstone, sat and barked once.
“What do you have, Coop?” I said, rising to join him.
He did not look up at me as I approached. Instead, he stared straight ahead at the headstone. I kneeled next to him.
“Someone you know?” I said.
I leaned in and read the faded lettering on the tombstone:
Lloyd Theodore Buckhannon. Born March 30, 1900. Died November 23, 1900.
I jumped up and looked around.
He wasn’t there. But I knew where to find him.
I sprinted to the street. Cooper stuck close to my side. We made it to Rialto in less than 20 minutes. When the house came into view, I saw him sitting on the top step, illuminated by a cone of light cast by the porch light.
I stopped running and Cooper, still off leash, halted by my side. We approached cautiously.
The summer after I graduated from high school, my friends and I found a bar in west Oakland that did not bother to check our obviously fake IDs.
The Fish was a low-ceilinged working-class bar where rough men crowded around chest-high wooden tables, smoked cigarettes and drank steins of steam beer. It was a serious crowd consisting of longshoremen in need of a couple pints before starting 12-hour shifts and city laborers unwinding after a day of repaving sidewalks and fixing potholes. The Fish was open 24 hours a day, and it was always crowded. We fit in by adhering to a simple, tacit understanding: They wouldn’t ask our age if we didn’t give them cause to. This was not the place for obnoxious teens to test their limits; it was a place to get thoughtfully and respectfully drunk. And that’s precisely what we did during many late nights and early mornings that summer.
One night, I left the bar around 2 a.m. and lit a smoke for my walk home. Another man stumbled out after me. He wore a trench coat and old boots. His hair was dirty and thoroughly tangled. He had a long black beard with grey whiskers mixed in that extended past the neckline of his shirt. He was mumbling. He held a rope in his left hand, and at the end of the rope was a large, black Shepherd. I wondered how it was that I hadn’t noticed the bear-sized dog inside the bar.
The man staggered down the street, dangerously close to the curb. The pavement was moist from a light rain and heavy fog, and I watched as his foot slid off the painted curb. He fell forward, slapping his face against the gutter. The dog cowered. The man rose slowly, steadied himself against a parking meter, then reached into a pocket of his trench coat. Swaying on his feet, he brought out a cigarette and placed it in his bloodied mouth.
I was less than 100 feet away, still standing in front of the Fish, confident that the man had not noticed me through his drunkenness. He fumbled through his pockets, apparently searching for a light. He checked his coat and pants, often losing track of which pockets he had searched, causing him to stick his hand back inside the same pocket several times over. Unable to light his cigarette, he became agitated. He turned to the dog, which pressed against the ground as if trying to hide under the concrete. He raised his arm unsteadily above his head, brought it down in a hammering motion, and struck the dog on its back with a closed fist. The dog yelped and tried to move away without rising from the pavement. But the man tightened his grip on the rope, raised his arm and pounded down on the big, submissive dog again.
At first, I was frozen. Then, I started to react.
I could not walk away, so I instead sized him up, factoring in height, weight and intoxication. He was bigger than me, but I was younger and not nearly as drunk. I considered whether the dog would intervene on his cruel master’s behalf and decided I’d have to risk it. I inhaled deeply and took the first step in the man’s direction. The second step was easier. By the third step, I was running.
I barreled into him from behind, leading with my shoulder and hitting him squarely in his lower back just as he raised his hand to strike again. He rolled to the pavement and came to a stop ten feet away, squinting up at me from his back.
“Enough,” I yelled, standing over him with closed fists.
The dog stared at me silently, cowering in the gutter. The man struggled to his feet. He closed an eye to focus with the other. Now sizing me up, he smirked. He bent over and reached towards his ankle. From his boot, he withdrew a long knife. He held it up for me to see and smiled.
It was a moment I will never forget: The moment when I first considered whether I could kill a man.
We stood, face to face, each of us waiting to see what would come next.
He stabbed the air with the knife in an attempt to make himself look menacing. Had he not been so drunk, he would have been, but as it were, I remained confident that I could take him, knife and all. He was so intoxicated that I believed I cold disarm him, beat him into unconsciousness, even death, and rescue the dog.
But I didn’t.
Instead, I just stood there.
I did not advance and eventually the man lost interest. He grunted, turned and staggered down the sidewalk. The dog followed only after the man tugged violently on the rope. He stumbled into the street, the dog walking low to the ground behind him.
Silently, I followed. I crossed the street and watched him wobble towards the intersection at Peralta Street. I continued after him as he slowly made his way to a bus stop bench. He sat, fished through his pockets again and finally found a book of matches. But now his cigarette was gone—I had knocked it from his mouth when I tackled him. It took him several seconds to realize this and when he did, he began the search for a fresh cigarette. Several minutes passed until finally, he found a smoke, lit it and inhaled.
All the while, the helpless, miserable dog lay at his feet.
Across the street, I stepped on a plastic wrapper. The dog lifted its head and stared in my direction.
It was now or never, I told myself.
And still, I did nothing.
The man rose and yanked on the rope. He cut across a vacant lot and disappeared through a gap in a wooden fence. He was gone. So was the dog.
I walked home. I went to my bedroom, took off my clothes and crawled into bed. But I did not sleep. Instead, I stared at the ceiling for hours, startled that the idea of murdering someone had briefly become a reasonable option, and ashamed at myself for not having the courage to do it.
Lloyd rose from the step.
“I have to apologize for yesterday,” he said. “It was rude of me to show up like that. But it had to be done. I have to get you ready for what is to come.”
“I won’t ever be ready,” I said. “Let me be clear: I don’t want anything to do with you. I want you to leave me alone. I want my life to return to the way it was.”
Lloyd removed his hat and smiled sadly at me.
“Yes, you’ve made that clear,” he said. “But you’re here. And you’re ready to talk, aren’t you? So I’d say that shows one thing, that you’re at least starting to accept what is happening here. No?”
“I’m not accepting anything,” I said. “But I do want answers.”
“And I will provide them,” Lloyd said. He stepped aside, clearing the way so I could walk to the front door. I eyed him closely as I scaled the stairs. When I reached him, I turned and poked his chest. To my mild surprise, and disappointment, my hand did not swipe emptily at air. Lloyd was real. I laid my hand flat against the vest he wore. His heart beat underneath. I could feel it. Lloyd did not flinch or protest. I pulled my hand away and turned to the front door. Cooper went through first, then me, then Lloyd.
“Sit there,” I commanded, motioning Lloyd to the couch. I walked into the kitchen and poured a glass of bourbon. I brought the glass back to the living room, pulled the rocking chair around so it faced the couch and placed the drink on the coffee table between us. Cooper jumped onto the opposite end of the couch from where Lloyd sat and curled into a ball against the armrest. Lloyd reached over and patted his head. Cooper sniffed the air in his direction but did not protest.
I took a long drink.
“Who are you?” I said after swallowing my whiskey. “For real this time. What is your real name?”
“I already told you that, Sam,” Lloyd said. “Nothing I have told you has been a lie. Nothing I ever will tell you will be a lie. That’s a promise and it’s the truth.”
“Then why did I just find a tombstone with your name on it?”
Lloyd nodded. “I suspected you’d find it,” he said. “The short answer is that it’s there because I loved my parents.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“As I told you in Sistersville, Sam, when you join the Unit, it’s a lifetime commitment,” Lloyd said. “It’s also a matter of absolute secrecy. We didn’t get to say goodbye. There was no notice sent to families explaining that their child had been reassigned and could never come back home. We simply disappeared. Officially, we were listed as MIA/POW. That troubled me. For families back home, it’s a terrible burden. The uncertainty, the questions, the sense of hopelessness. Did you know that to this day there are tens of thousands of missing American soldiers? And for every one of them, there’s a family still waiting, hoping that somehow their loved one will come back home, even if they never speak of it. Part of them understands that they are in all likelihood dead, but to give up hope brings a tremendous guilt, like they are abandoning their loved one.” Lloyd shook his head sadly. “I think about families still waiting for news, 40, 50 years after a war has ended. Nobody else in the country cares anymore, but it never leaves them. It is a unique and particularly cruel form of torture. I know if I lost a son that way, I would never be at peace. I’d wake in the middle of the night believing that he was trapped in some secret prison somewhere, calling for me, wondering why I didn’t come. I did not want my parents to endure that, to be mentally tortured for the rest of their lives. I wanted for them to grieve, find closure and move on.”
“That tombstone says you died as a baby,” I said. “That obviously didn’t happen.”
“What happened is not important,” Lloyd said. “What they think happened is all that matters.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means I made them forget,” Lloyd said.
“Impossible,” I said. “You can’t simply make the people who raised you believe that those years never occurred. You can’t convince people who know otherwise that you died as a baby.”
Lloyd leaned back against the couch cushion. “It’s entirely possible,” he said. “And one day soon, you’ll have that choice to make, too. But you already know that, don’t you?”
Somewhere deep within my consciousness, a tiny shred of understanding began to form. Had I allowed it to, the understanding would have spread. But I didn’t. I wasn’t ready. I did not want to face it yet. Not that.
I grabbed the glass of bourbon and finished it in a giant gulp. I rose quickly, trying not to think, and walked back to the kitchen. I poured another glass. When I returned, I tried to focus on something else.
“Where was I when I went missing?” I said. “I assume it was you—where did you take me?”
“Yes, it was me, and others, but we didn’t take you anywhere,” Lloyd said. “You were here the whole time.”
“That can’t be true.”
“But it is,” Lloyd said. “You never left your bed.”
“Then why couldn’t anyone see me?”
“Most everyone could not see you. I could see you. The other members of the Unit could see you. He could see you as well,” he said, motioning to Cooper. “He kept returning to the bed—didn’t your wife tell you? He sat there as we worked. I had no problem with it. He never got in the way. He just wanted to be there, I suppose, in case we did anything that might put you in danger. And, of course, we never did. He knew it. Soon, you will as well.”
Again, a frightening clarity began to form. I understood that I would soon know more than I wanted.
I couldn’t stop it. I had no control.
Unless, I thought—unless I do now what I couldn’t those many years ago outside the Fish.
“Here’s a question,” I said slowly, with purpose. “Are you aware that for only the second time in my life, I am including murder as a viable option? Perhaps, even, as the only option?”
Lloyd closed his eyes and nodded.
“I am aware of the current state of your emotions,” he said calmly. “But threats won’t work here, and you know it. You’re smarter than that. You realize, even through your fear and rage, that it’s not the best option, even if you could do it, and we both know you can’t. More importantly, you understand—though you’re trying desperately to fight it—that what you want more than anything else is knowledge. Am I wrong?”
Lloyd raised his eyebrows and waited for a response. I offered none, so he continued.
“To begin with, you want to know how it’s possible that you and I and others could have been in your room for twenty-four hours without anyone but your dog noticing us, even though they were actively searching for you in that very room,” he said. “Am I correct?”
My mouth was dry. I was going to find out. Now. I felt relief and terror. My heart pounded against my chest and my head hurt.
“That would be a good start,” I said.
“The answer is simple: As I began to explain in Sistersville, we have the ability to make Normals not see us, even when standing right next to them. Usually, we don’t have to do much to conceal ourselves—Normals tend not to acknowledge things they do not understand. But we couldn’t risk it in the bedroom. We needed you for all twenty-four hours. So we made sure that everyone who came into the room could not see you or sense you in any way. To them, you had vanished. But in fact, you never went anywhere. They saw an empty room. In actuality, it was a hive of activity.”
Clarity continued to form. For reasons I could not yet comprehend, the idea that Lloyd could make people not see what was directly in front of them suddenly did not seem implausible.
“Why did you need me?” I said.
Lloyd hesitated. He reached into his jacket and pulled out a flask. He took a sip, leaned forward to place the flask on the coffee table and looked at me with a somber expression.
“It appears we’ve reached that point,” he said. “You have the right to know. But before I tell you, please understand—at first, it’s going to seem terrible. In time, though, you will realize it’s not. In fact, you’ll come to see that not only was it the only option, but it was the best thing that ever could have happened to you.”
There was no way to respond to a statement like that. I sat there waiting, wondering what on earth they could have done to me.
“Very well,” Lloyd said. “I’ll just tell you: We performed a procedure on you.”
“A procedure?” I said. “What does that mean?”
“Sam,” Lloyd said slowly. “You are no longer Normal.”