It was a miracle they found the cabin at all. Thom had the topographical maps and one compass, Julian another, and Marty an infallible sense of direction. They’d been friends since university, though Marty had left after his second year to start up the social media network that Julian, a lawyer, and Thom, a history teacher, took pains not to envy. Occasionally, over drinks, Julian would mention Marty to his date. If she asked the wrong questions, or pressed him for details, he calmly paid the bill and never rang again. He wrote poetry, a slim volume of which had recently received a minor award.
For one sacrosanct week each January, the three vanished into a region as rugged as it was remote. It was part of their pact to carry no gps devices, no transceivers, no modern technology whatsoever. If it were up to Marty, they wouldn’t have even packed whistles and emergency flares. Last year they’d trekked through rainforest to the Kaieteur Falls in Guyana, but the crocodiles eyeing their canoes from the riverbanks reminded Thom of his deputy department head, and this January they’d gone back to cross-country skiing.
A light snow was falling at the drop-off point and for the first few hours they made excellent time. During a break they squabbled amicably about the route, their face-off as warming — and as familiar — as their hot chocolate. Marty often reminded Julian of a pit bull, albeit a lovable one. Julian favored the pillowy glades for the climb to their cabin, while Marty had studied the satellite photos and was all for striking northeast across a sharp ridge where there would be a couple of decent chutes and a jagged forest run.
“I’m a bit out of shape,” Thom said apologetically. “The new baby and all.”
By the time they huddled for a hurried lunch, no one regretted settling on the soft option, not even Marty. Snow was falling heavily now, the wind corrosive, reducing visibility to instinct. To go back, however, would be foolhardy: back to what? The chopper wouldn’t be returning for another week, and in any case it would be grounded in blizzard conditions. They emptied their flasks and ate a high-energy bar each, then broke out a crevasse rescue rope to secure themselves to one another. They let Marty take the lead. In an hour it would be dark, but they ought to reach shelter by then.
“This isn’t skiing, it’s shuffling in a chain gang,” Marty grumbled. The weather had no earthly right to thwart their plans. If the others decided to spend the next few days holed up in a cramped cabin without even a cross-trainer or set of weights, he, Marty, would ski on his own. Not that he’d desert his mates, of course not, but a good run within a five-mile radius of the cabin wasn’t desertion by any man’s definition. A snowstorm hadn’t defeated him yet. Julian would make his usual dry remarks, and Thom — well, Thom might be getting too middle-aged, too housebroken for this sort of thing.
Thom stopped. The others lurched, nearly fell.
“Watch it!” Marty bellowed.
“What was that?” Thom asked.
“What?” Julian asked.
“Didn’t you hear it? Something was growling.”
They peered about them, only Marty keen to encounter a hungry specimen. Snow was accumulating in the vents of their goggles, and Thom’s were already so fogged up that he pulled them off in frustration, upbraiding himself a moment later when snow coated the inner lens. He squinted against the claw and bite of the storm, its blind frenzy, straining for a glimpse of what was out there, straining for a silent roar, straining.
“It’s just the wind,” Julian said. At home he wrote every morning for two hours before breakfast, his passion for an immensely complicated technical challenge not limited to jurisprudence. Whatever use he might later make of this storm, whatever voices it penned, he was not about to encourage Thom. Last year that fuss about the crocodiles! It had been all he could do to keep Marty from feeding Thom to a somnolent granddaddy.
“I know an animal when I hear one,” Thom said.
They waited for Marty to sheath his hunting knife, then set off again. The wind was at their backs, driving them onward with howls, with icy breath, tracking its quarry in a hunt to sweep the land free of intruders. By the time they stumbled through the cabin door, halfway to snowmen, night had swallowed the white darkness of the storm.
Julian switched on his torch and swept the beam around the log cabin. Warmth their first priority, he was relieved to see the promised wood-burning stove and a neat stack of firewood. The wooden ladder would lead to the sleeping loft, but it didn’t look as though they’d able to stand upright except under the gable, he himself possibly not at all. Aside from trips to the woodpile and outhouse, they’d be spending their waking time downstairs.
After shrugging off his backpack, he clumped across the room, positioned the torch on the floor, and knelt in front of the stove. It was customary to leave crumpled newspaper and kindling on a small bed of ash, ready for newcomers. He stripped off his gloves and reached for the box of matches. In the fraction of a second before the paper caught, his grief flared, the fee for loving too well. He would never forgive his ex-wife: “At least you got a book of poems out of it.”
Julian watched while the tinder went up in flame, the sudden lash of heat a form of flagellation. He always insisted on lighting the fire, on crouching within singeing range. Whoever serviced the cabin was evidently dependable: the firewood proved both seasoned and dry, soon burning with a throaty rumble. He fed the stove a few more pieces, then rose to remove his outerwear before it began to drip, his gaiters especially. There was a drying rack near the stove for just this purpose.
“Thom, why don’t you collect a bucket of snow before taking off your — ” Julian turned to address his friend, who was in charge of the evening meal. “Thom?” He swung round, raising his voice. “Marty? Thom?”
The room was empty except for the small figure of his son.
When Julian was seven, he saw his first ghost. On a rainy Saturday afternoon, he’d been adding Thor’s great hall of Bilskirnir to the Lego kingdom he and his dad were building in the seldom-used sitting room. The black stool made a tall, gleaming, austere portico, behind which stretched the magnificence of the piano. Julian would be allowed to play on it once he began lessons, his mum had promised. She read to him most nights, but it was his dad who had the patience to return again and again to Julian’s beloved volume of Norse myths, whole sections of which he could recite by heart.
Julian was on his belly under the Steinway, constructing a long fire down the middle of the banquet hall, with benches and tables on either side for feasting, when he heard faint strains of music. Alice liked to listen to the radio while she dusted or ironed, but since he was trying to work out whether to dismantle the mountain that hid the three kettles of Sutung’s magic mead for more blocks, it didn’t occur to him that she had the afternoon off. Odin, god of the gods, would find the mead no matter where it was kept. And half a hall was worse than no hall at all; Thor would never countenance a ruin. Julian made up his mind. He’d rebuild the mountain as soon as his mum brought home a new box of Lego. Next week, she’d said. The last few days she’d been too busy at the office. His parents believed in keeping their word, even to a child. Especially to a child.
As he wriggled backwards, intent on not dislodging a single block, he felt the air shiver, and a series of golden arrows darted across his vision like a volley of deft thunderbolts. His fingers began to tingle, his hands and arms, and each breath tasted of honey, the delicious illicit taste of honey on a fingertip. How the music melted on his tongue! He rolled onto his back and opened his mouth wide, not wanting to waste a single drop. Above his head the piano trembled, broke apart, reformed into honeycombs. He reached up and with a forefinger prodded a bulging cell, which burst, drenching his skin with song. Amid the dazzling outpour, the cell widened and continued to widen till it became an opening — a hexagonal window through which he could see a woman seated at the piano. Her scarlet gown reminded him of the sitting room curtains, her hands rippling over the keyboard in spite of the heavy, floppy sleeves.
At some point the music came to an end, but not before the woman stretched out those beautiful hands and slid them into his skull. He spent the next day in bed, curtains drawn, dreading yet another round of vomiting. She’d done this to him — played and played till his head was screaming. Years later he would come to realize it was a gift. “A family affliction,” his mum had said. “Your grandmother always had a migraine after a concert.”
Eyes brimming with tears, Thom stripped off his gloves and balaclava, dropping them where he stood. Hoping Julian would notice, complain, say something. As Thom knelt to fumble with his gaiters, he could hear Julian crossing the room, Marty swearing as usual, and the wind, loudest of all, imperiously demanding admittance. Thom had become adept at distracting Lizzie when her lower lip issued a storm warning, better in fact than Kate — herself a ‘no’ short of a temper tantrum lately — but here he didn’t have the option of walking away till the storm passed. If he weren’t so whacked, there’d be yet another broken night in a long succession of broken nights. They said chronic sleep deprivation made you edgy; luckily he wasn’t the high-strung sort like Marty, who’d be schizo by now.
Thom didn’t fancy being cooped up by this blizzard, not with the way Marty had been acting lately. Success had come a little too fast. And ever since that talk show you’d think he’d already discovered a cure for Alzheimer’s — as if he himself were the lead scientist on the research project he was funding.
Should he talk with Julian about that knife? Marty would blow up if they tried to take it away, but they could “lose” it for him. They could, given Marty’s weird obsession with snow leopards, suggest that there was some truth in the local legends. When Marty lost his temper, he really lost it. No wonder he was still single. Kate couldn’t stand him.
Yeah, well, Kate couldn’t stand a lot of people. She thought Julian was an insensitive bastard. “What sort of person writes poems like that about the death of his own child? And publishes them?” Kate didn’t know Julian the way he did, but even he had to admit it was a touch odd, coming up with those gruesome metaphors. Or was it? Grief was supposed to do wicked things to you.
His fingers were clumsy and he’d only gotten one boot off when a bloom of light signalled that Julian, ever competent, would soon have a good fire going. Thom dug into a pocket for the clutch of toilet paper each of them carried, only to remember he’d already used up all of his. He wiped his nose with the back of his hand, glancing behind himself guiltily. There were times when Julian was fastidious to the point of absurdity. He —
“Julian?” Thom rose too quickly, dizziness adding to his confusion. “Julian? Marty?”
The stove had been lit, several pieces of wood as well as tinder, but the room was empty except for Gia.
Before he was twelve, Thom had lived in five countries across assorted continents, six if you counted the new name and new status conferred by a war of independence; thereafter he ought consider himself lucky, according to his parents, to spend nearly four years in a city that offered up a decent international school and such amenities as French cheeses, a black market for their dollars, and electricity (most of the time). For a long while it had been assumed he’d do something with languages, since he was the only one of the three kids who retained a good deal of what he’d picked up from nannies and gardeners, cooks and night watchmen, rather than the swarms of local boys his brothers would inevitably search out. The only one, too, who had shivered through dengue fever and amoebic dysentery. He still did more cooking than Kate, who was slowly developing a taste for the aromatic and often fiery dishes from the kitchens of his childhood, though she didn’t understand why he’d go to such lengths to source the right ingredients: “It’ll taste just as good with mint or parsley.” “No, it won’t. It’s got to be daun kesum.”
In Thom’s first year back home, his roommate Marsden had tossed aside the sort of unwanted book that aunts and godmothers tend to choose as birthday gifts, but this one had such a striking black cover that Thom found himself wondering what could possibly be said about salt to fill its four hundred odd pages. He read it late into the night, and the next night as well, not with the page-turning speed of a thriller — Marsden had plenty of those — but with his first real sense of homecoming. “Those who think a fascination with salt is a bizarre obsession have simply never owned a rock like this” (Salt, Mark Kurlansky). Thereafter history became his rock, the salt lick he kept in his bottom drawer, pink-tinged from the battlefields and executioners’ blocks, the gulags and mass graves, taking it out when Marsden got yet another parcel stuffed full of homemade fudge from his mum, or when he, Thom, intercepted a smirk on the football pitch, or when he made the mistake of talking about their lives overseas. “Then go back there if you like it so much.” The past, he’d already learned, is the one place to which you can always go home again.
Kate had been brought up on a farm in southwest Wales, now run by one of her brothers but still the place where Christmas and Easter and family milestones were celebrated, where children, an ever burgeoning number of them, could spend entire holidays free from electronic surveillance, where Lizzie screeched in delight as soon as she caught sight from the car window of her aunt’s herd of alpacas. No matter how often Kate complained about her boisterous and demanding and practically manic family, the bad influence of certain older cousins on Lizzie, it was home. Resentment that your sister-in-law got to cut up your mum’s velvet curtains for a pantomime costume or replace the beautiful old range cooker with a catering monstrosity, all stainless steel and preen, dwindled like so many other of Kate’s grudges into something like a low-grade fever, mostly quiescent but at an unpredictable moment erupting into a blazing row. Theirs was a family that liked to fight. Oddly enough, considering how his own parents would probably murmur a mellifluous, noble, enlightened, and altogether decorous remonstrance as a terrorist raised his machete, Thom felt right at home. He didn’t, however, tell anyone about the farmhouse ghost.
Marty swore at the jammed zipper on his parka. If it broke, he’d sue the bastards with their fucking guarantees — no one toted a spare parka when his backpack was weighed to the nearest gram, and weighed again after discarding a packet of chewing gum. (He’d been minded to leave the condoms behind, but there’d been that time five years ago when three Norwegian girls had arrived at the hut a day early, some sort of booking mixup, so you never knew.) But he worked at the zipper painstakingly, not fool enough to take out his ire on essential gear. Julian could say what he liked — a multibillion-dollar company wasn’t built on temper tantrums. Temper tantrums! If ever he’d needed a camcorder on one of their trips, it had been last year to record the way Thom had acted at the sight of a crocodile.
He didn’t understand men like Thom, hadn’t for years. Why settle for teaching with his degrees and his languages and his brains? You wouldn’t know it to look at him, but of the three of them, he was undeniably the smartest. Smarter than pretty much everyone you met, and he, Marty, met a lot of smart people. Hired a lot of them too. After Lizzie was born, he’d offered to make a place for Thom at corporate headquarters — a favor, yes, but not an unsound one, and certainly not as misguided as Thom’s marriage. His friend might lack initiative (he knew for a fact that it was Kate who’d proposed), with “risk averse” threatening to become his epitaph, but you couldn’t buy loyalty like Thom’s no matter how competitive the salary. And Marty’s salaries were always competitive. Throughout his childhood his own mum had been a cleaner — a smart cleaner. “You buy cheap, you get cheap.” Despite more recent acquisitions, she still wore the Chanel suit, black cashmere, she’d saved up for years to buy. (He escorted her once or twice a year just to hear, “May I suggest that Madame consider antique rose? A perfect color for such a lovely, ageless complexion.”) Thom appreciated the offer, or so he’d said. He was still teaching.
Julian was another sort altogether. For all his family money, his reserve, his dainty little finger poems, he was a good man to have on your side in a tight spot. If he’d taken Danny to the zoo instead of Marion, those bastards wouldn’t have gotten near the boy. To do stuff like that to a child, then to torch his small, broken body … Mum was right, what a sick place the world had become. The excuses they came up with! She knew plenty about a hard life, she did, doing it all on her own, but you wouldn’t have heard her whinging like some when, dead tired, she’d come home from work, pry off her tight shoes, and roll up her sleeves to dampen the ironing and get their tea. Not that she was cold — or hid her tears. Nothing wrong with a good cry, she’d tell him. Go on, don’t keep it bottled up, I don’t want to hear that unmanly nonsense. Unmanly is when a man runs off on his responsibilities. Marty had met Julian’s mother a couple of times. She’d been dry-eyed at the funeral.
Since then Julian wouldn’t talk about Danny. That wasn’t how you were supposed to handle grief, was it? And those new poems — no, definitely not dainty. “Phantom Limb” was more like a hideous stump, still raw and weeping. An amputation without anesthetic. He’d been such a beautiful little boy, an angel child really. Those dark curls. You couldn’t help wondering whether he’d have been better off as a misshapen troll with scurf, nose encrusted with snot, slack-jawed, always drooling.
The zipper parted with a truculent kvetch and Marty yanked off his parka in order to dig out their pee bottle from his pack. Despite its size, it was the one item whose necessity they all agreed upon. Over the years they’d developed a certain routine, not rules exactly, but close enough to tempt the odd harmless prank from him. Keep them on their toes: works well in management, too. Whoever imperilled the capacity of the bottle got to empty it outside — Thom, usually, with his weak bladder.
“Hurry up, lad, we haven’t got all day.”
Damn it, my trousers are going to stink.
Not exactly the most sensible thing to worry about when your friends have disappeared, the vestry fire has been lit, and your cock is flapping about in full view of a ghost.
Father Anselm hanged himself when Marty was fifteen. His mother told him about it at tea, serving the news like an extra dollop of whipped cream in his hot chocolate. There were toasted bacon, rocket, and cheese sandwiches stuffed with the thick, free-range rashers they couldn’t afford. The kitchen table was laid with an embroidered cloth and their good china, and she’d even baked a chocolate fudge cake, usually reserved for birthdays. She must have gotten up early just to ice it.
“We’ll go to the funeral mass,” she said.
“Do I have to?”
“We’ll buy you a proper suit to wear instead of your uniform.” She studied him over the rim of her teacup. “The Bishop will preach about forgiveness.”
He tore off a savage piece of bacon with his fingers but she didn’t reprimand him.
“You’ll stand there all solemn and dignified, with just the right measure of sorrow for a priest who has fallen.”
“The others won’t be going.”
“No. Which is why you will.”
“Where do people go when they die?” Thom asked his nanny after learning about Grandpa.
That afternoon she took him past the bamboo thicket to a dip in the land, the red obdurate land of her ancestors, where a shallow pool formed when it rained. He knelt in the rough grasses, her hand on his shoulder. The birds were often talkative; Thom preferred their company, and their conversations, to the contempt of his brothers and the banality of school. Now, in the slurry of heat after a thunderstorm, the birds were telling each other where to find the juiciest worms. He could smell Gia’s strong work smell, but he was used to it, even liked it (though he knew better than to say so to his mother).
“There,” Gia said, “look carefully and you’ll see them.”
He stared into a face that should have been familiar, then nudged the watery skin with a fingertip. The ripples made it easier to tell her he didn’t even see himself. She slapped away a mosquito from her graceful neck, leaving a trace of blood. He thought of the vampire stories Oliver, his oldest brother, whispered at bedtime — stories Thom didn’t quite believe. “Believe them,” Oliver would say. “It’s the stuff you can’t see that matters most.”
Years later, Thom asked Oliver why his mother hadn’t divorced his dad. “She’s good at not seeing the things she doesn’t want to,” Oliver answered. “A lot like you.”
It was Marty who had asked the helicopter pilot about sightings. “No chance, mate.” Known locally as the grey ghost, a snow leopard is rarely seen by humans. Solitary and elusive, beautiful and mysterious, it hunts at dawn or dusk, when its coloration makes it difficult even for native herders to spot it. Marty had read the legends. Though he no longer attended Mass and laughed sheepishly if he caught himself muttering what might have been the start of a prayer, he still attended in a way that saw color in a shadow. Like many highly successful men, he delighted in a wildcard. Wasn’t he one himself? If there weren’t shapeshifters, there ought to be.
No one complained about Thom’s soup, though it was far too salty. They had one dense loaf between them, the last bread they’d taste till their return, and Marty cut it into thick, chewy slices for dunking. It was admittedly a luxury, but Thom was a terrific baker, and his sourdough rye had taken him years to perfect. Each ate in near silence, the sound of the snowstorm benign in the warmth of the cabin’s interior. No matter how tired, they always spent the first evening in the wild querying the terrain, re-evaluating their plans, arguing cheerfully about their food rations; talking the way old friends will talk — the shorthand, the reminiscences. Even Julian would slip into interrupting the others. Unless it had been a particularly trying haul, no one let himself become irritable. Their resentments would grow along with their beards, itchy, a little grizzled; familiar.
Except tonight. They ate their salty soup, drank their wine (the other first-night luxury), and kept their thoughts to themselves. When they’d finished, Thom rose and set the kettle just outside the door, letting in a draught of darkness. Julian looked up from his mug, the fire a welcome responsibility, and in that moment they all heard it — the thud of something falling, or springing, from the roof. Thom leapt backward, slammed the door, bolted it.
There was a short silence in which each of them pretended not to be listening for sounds of approach. Thom leaned against the door as if to barricade against — against what? He would not put a name to his fear. The more languages he learned, the less willing he became to wield them glibly. Gia had been unforgiving about lies, unlike his thoroughly liberal parents. “Words bespeak the world, Thomas.” She’d had a way of speaking that his mother called quaint (“but delightful of course, she’s so good with the boys”), but he remembered how it had made him feel, smartpuzzled and the world all buzzing. She couldn’t be dead, could she? Back then she’d laughed — though not unkindly — and thanked him when he promised to marry her as soon as he turned eighteen, that very day. Later he’d worked out that she was probably closer in age to him than to his parents.
“A clump of ice,” Julian said.
Thom looked toward Marty, who gave a rueful smile, the sort that made women forgive him, and began to clean his fingernails with the tip of the knife he’d snatched up. Under other circumstances Julian would have complained. He was a bit of a stickler for the social graces, and Marty was not above baiting him, all in good fun of course, but no one was inclined, at the moment, to banter, to say much at all. A friendship can perplex outsiders as much as a marriage: ‘What do they see in each other, they’ve got absolutely nothing in common.’ Marty, the least intellectual of them, found time for a novel or two per week, mostly crime fiction. Father Anselm’s church had taught him to be wary of fancy words — that nonsense about “In the beginning was the Word … ” — so the only poetry he read was Julian’s. He left the highbrow stuff to the others. If there were any exorcism to be done, he’d do it with the blade of his knife, thank you very much. It was mere habit, that stranglehold of Catholic habit, which had pushed his prayer button for a couple of seconds there.
“We need more water for the washing up,” Thom said.
“Let’s leave it for tomorrow.” Julian drained his mug, a disservice to the wine he always supplied from his own small but proud cellar. He collected the enamel dishes and spoons whose handles had been used, at some point, as makeshift tools (or weapons), set them in the zinc basin, and went to see about the stove. “There’s enough water for our hands and teeth, for tea in the morning too.” He added some wood to the fire, remaining crouched in front of it while Thom moved to the cabin’s only window to check the curtain, which in all likelihood had once served as a quilt. Resisting the impulse to press his nose to the pane, thickly bordered in ice, Thom made sure that there were no gaps, then fingered a corner of the hand-embroidered fabric — whimsical animals, their rainbow colours still bright enough in places to appeal to the child in him. No two animals were exactly alike, though unmistakable as hare or wild goat or chukor, as bharal or marmot, a wild profusion of them. It took him a moment to notice the single predator, a snow leopard camouflaged by the grey of its markings in the grey of a rocky outcrop — the work of a fine needlewoman. Quilts were often the tapestries of the poor, a wonderful repository of memory and folktale. He wondered to whom this one had belonged, to which obviously beloved child. The world over, womenfolk looked after their good linens, then passed them on to the next generation till they became treasured and fragile heirlooms. Why hang the quilt here unless some disaster had struck?
“Stop being so jumpy,” Marty said.
Thom had intended to point out the leopard, but now he dropped the corner of the curtain, reminded yet again why he’d been right to refuse Marty’s job offer. Telling Kate about it had been a mistake, though.
“Look who’s talking about jumpy.” Julian stood up with a warning click in his right knee, temperamental ever since a tennis injury. It had been an arduous trek. “Put that knife away before you stab yourself with it.” Or before someone else does it for you.
After a moment of disorientation, Marty found himself listening, quick-pulsed, rigid, for a sound he could identify. He was no longer prone to nightmares, he’d outgrown his years ago. Maybe this was what it was like for his mum — its own sort of clotted darkness. Thankfully, her lapses were brief and there was a fair chance, according to the doctors, that with the new drug she’d remain stable for years, long enough at least for the research to catch up with the money he was pouring into it.
It must have been the snowstorm that had awakened him. He found the zipper on his sleeping bag, freed himself enough to turn onto his side, and tried to make out the figures of his friends. The cots were wedged along the walls, the roof so low that sex would present an interesting challenge. A bit like an airplane lavatory. Was the wind really loud enough to mask their breathing? He stared into the darkness, reluctant to grope for his torch. In his mind the narrow beam of light lurched drunkenly as the torch was knocked from his hand. He remembered the smell of whiskey on Father Anselm’s breath. Breathe deeply, he told himself. It’s only a memory. A memory can’t touch you.
As a boy, he had peopled the dark with wickedly dark companions, one of whom — Laila — had been a lissom, grey-eyed catgirl who continued to prowl the dark alleys of his teen years, guarding his secrets, stalking his enemies, sharing his bed. She could be terribly jealous, though. There’d been a number of nasty incidents, diminishing (somewhat) after he’d written her an embarrassing sort of love letter, but her passion could be quiteful too: the church caretaker never understood why a single grave, and no other, served as the neighborhood litter box. In the end, he abandoned the attempt to plant even the hardiest bulbs and left it to the dandelions and catmint.
Marty’s muscles ached, and in the chill of the cabin he wanted nothing better than to nestle back into his sleeping bag and, under cover of the slambang overhead, conjure a few minutes of warmth with Laila. But ghosts are the bullies of the unconscious, and the only way to deal with bullies is to confront them. No one was asleep up here, that much he was sure of. He felt his way first to Thom’s cot, then to Julian’s. He ought to have been relieved to find them empty, his reading having furnished him with plenty of gruesome alternatives, but now he’d have to check the rest of the cabin. He could have called out, of course. This wasn’t a church, where you were meant to speak in whispers. He could have called out. He could have screamed.
The scream, when it came, sounded like something animal. Or something human wounded to animal. Quickened to danger, Marty sprang back from the head of the stairs, from the glimmer of light, and plunged toward his cot for his knife.
Night after night, Julian lay awake trying not to hear Danny’s screams. He’d been a colicky baby, and nothing he and Marion had done seemed to make much difference — except the breast, of course. After Danny was kidnapped, Marion faced Julian across the scarred kitchen table and confessed to once feeding their son a teaspoon of the crème de cassis they kept on hand for her great aunt (the table not the only valuable heirloom she’d passed on to them). “He choked on it,” she said. “If he’d swallowed, I’d have given him more.” Then she recited a lifetime’s worth of offenses, each more sordid (yet petty) than the last. It had been a long time since Julian had bargained with the god of his childhood, and her recital was pathetic, the horror of their situation impossible to match. Or so he thought until obliged to identify Danny’s remains. At what point does a child stop screaming? At what point lose consciousness? Marion chose to believe the doctors’ answers.
Recently he’d gone to see Thom’s new son, timing the visit between court sessions. He’d brought the right gift, said the right words, but Kate was testy and Thom had to give her a look before she dragged herself up from the lumpy sofa and led them to the nursery. Julian knew better than to lay a finger on Tristan. To women like Kate, tragedy was communicable. As he neared the cot, the sharp smell of urine grabbed him and he glanced at her, noting again how exhausted she looked, how sallow her skin, how limp and greasy her hair, and the suspicion of postpartum depression crossed his mind. He’d have to have a word with Thom.
The smell grew stronger and Julian steeled himself to move close enough for the obligatory murmur of admiration when the light began to growl and hiss and he heard, “Yuck, it stinks in here, Daddy. Why haven’t they cleaned the cages?” Tears quick to gather, he jammed his hands into his pockets and turned away. With some boys it was dinosaurs; Danny had loved the big cats, had several books about them, had even saved up to adopt a cub from the Snow Leopard Trust. It had been a favorite outing, just the two of them to the zoo of a Saturday afternoon. If it hadn’t been for one of Thom’s panicky phone calls, he’d also have gone that day instead of Marion. At the funeral she’d given Thom a single stiff glance — not rude precisely, but cold and distant as only Marion could be, and when it was Thom’s turn to add a handful of dirt to the grave, she’d briefly clenched her hands. The next morning, Thom and Kate’s fruit basket had disappeared from the house.
His right hand began to tremble, a familiar sign, and just before the watery light broke into concentric rings, rippling outward from the pain that struck the center of his forehead, he glimpsed through the hellish rift a small body wrapped in a blood-soaked shawl which fluttered and rippled, fluttered and rippled and spread so that, retching, he spun and ran from the room.
“How dare he come here like that, with a tiny baby who might catch God knows what from him.”
“Maybe it was something he ate.”
“Yeah, maybe someone slipped him some pork for lunch,” Kate said viciously. “Good for them.”
“It’s not one of your migraines, is it?”
“Probably just the heat.” Julian handed the wet flannel back to Thom and rinsed his mouth with a handful of cold water from the tap. “Thanks. Will you ring for a taxi? I’m due back in court.”
Thom glanced toward the open bathroom door, then began to apologize. Julian interrupted, his voice curt. “Get her some help — and not just domestic.” He closed his eyes for a moment, lines raying their corners like a child’s crude drawing of the sun. “You’d best keep a close watch on Tristan.”
“Kate may be a bit stressed right now, sleepless nights will do that to you, but she’d never harm Tris.”
Julian regarded his friend with a weariness beyond fatigue; at times like this he thought that the neuroscientists had got it right about free will. “I’ve seen too many things over the years.”
Thom tried to make a joke of it. “Well, I know where to go if we need a good solicitor.”
There was a short silence. How do you make someone understand what losing a child does to you? Hatred was the least of it, though it was difficult to picture Thom feeling anything as strong-minded as hatred. Mild, amiable Thom, who’d apologize to a ghost for disturbing it.
Or summoning it. If Julian could only be sure, for once really sure, that his ghosts weren’t the product of a neurophysiological hiccup. Briefly, he massaged his temples with his fingertips. A hefty dose of caffeine sometimes helped, but he couldn’t bear to watch Thom fiddling with kettle and coffee mill, the bungle and clatter of beans, couldn’t bear to remain a minute longer inside these oozing walls. He’d stop for an espresso. No one wanted to be defended by an advocate whose mental circuitry kept shorting under a barrage of thunderbolts, however dazzling. He swallowed, the taste of honey already cloying. A double espresso.
“Want me to go with you?” Thom asked.
“I’ll be fine. Look after your family.” Thom didn’t know it yet, but their store of friendship was crumbling, eaten away at the heart like grain attacked by weevils. Schadenfreude — leave it to the Germans to come up with that one. Julian disliked himself for the nastiness of his thoughts, but he thought them anyway. Why shouldn’t Thom suffer too, instead of exuding his sticky, sickening, guilt-ridden sympathy? “Have you still got the baby shawl Marion gave you for Lizzie?”
“It must be in the front room. Kate uses it all the time for Tris.” That was another thing about Thom, the way he still blushed like an adolescent. “It’s beautiful…exquisite, she takes very good care of it.” For a while, in his late teens, Julian had considered training for the stage. The courtroom suited him, however, and he was particularly adept at guiding a witness. Thom didn’t even notice the oddity of the question. “I’ll show it to you on the way out. It’s not stained or anything.”
“Don’t go on about it so. It’s only a shawl.”
But Thom was Thom, and insisted on tossing aside the babygro and baby towel and baby rattle and baby wipes and turning over all the cushions, on shifting the massed newspapers and helter-skelter of Lizzie’s drawings — she seemed to fancy fierce, bright blue dragons — while Julian fought down another wave of déjà vu or prescience or sheer bloody brain boggle as though it were nausea. Thom apologized. And apologized and apologized, his excuses ever more demeaning. Julian left; there were worse things than rudeness.
It was peculiar, the way people had come to speak of love: either they rattled on about loving everything from asparagus to chocolate to oysters, from Anna Karenina to Middlemarch, or they mentioned love furtively, defensively, as though admitting to impotence or a small prick. Thom had been married long enough to love his children with a passion Kate could no longer arouse in him. Could she ever? was a question Julian might have asked. And now, he, Thom, had gone and said exactly the wrong thing. You only had to read Julian’s poetry to understand the cut of the man, his intelligence and torment and obsessions; his severe persona. Suited in cynicism, impeccably tailored in the talismans of his age and class. But tenderness, far more than love, couldn’t be faked.
“Don’t be a fool,” Julian said brusquely. He moved back, tucking himself away.
Thom hated that he still blushed like a teenager. Maybe he ought to apologize. But for what? Saying what he felt? Or feeling it in the first place?
“We’ll talk about it when you’re older,” Gia had said. “I promise.”
Julian opened the stove and shoved a couple of pieces of wood into the embers. There was no bellows, so he bent close and blew short, angry puffs till the flames caught at the bark, the roughened, exposed heart of the split logs. Anything will burn if the temperature is hot enough. Marion had wanted to cremate Danny and Julian refused, but tradition had merely been his excuse. He knew he wouldn’t have been able to keep from opening the urn. Teeth were left, they said, sometimes fragments of bone.
He heard a small cry behind him.
“Gia,” he heard.
When he turned to look, Danny was holding out his arms. Julian heard himself groan, and his son ran toward him.
Marty descended the first two steps, then crouched and tried to make out the figures silhouetted in the firelight. There was a thickness to the air, a slight murkiness which suggested that the stove wasn’t drawing properly. They’d have to see about better ventilation. No wonder he was lightheaded.
The taller shape could easily be either Thom or Julian, but the smaller? They were standing too close together for him to distinguish them properly, and he could only catch the murmur of their voices, the vague sense of pleading or cajoling. He swallowed a few times, his ears full, and he prodded each in turn with a fingertip without any relief from the feeling of pressure or the tinnitus. His ears used to punish him for quite a while after a heavy metal concert. Come to think of it, he’d often been dizzy then, too.
He eased himself down another step, his knife in his right hand. Could the scream have come from outside? Briefly, he closed his eyes, but that only made the vertigo worse. He was in good shape — he was in great shape — so his heart shouldn’t be doing this to him, and he was beginning to sweat.
Marty, you’re at it again. The tingling of his skin, and the way his pulse was racing, his scrotum tightening — he knew what was happening. It was the smell of whiskey, a smell he’d recognize no matter how faint, and there was no way that Julian or Thom would pack any. With some people it was spiders, with others snakes, with still others heights or crowds. Breathe deeply, his phobia coach had told him. Override the physical reactions to the trigger. It’s only a learned response; it can be unlearned. They’d practiced first with photos, then with an unopened bottle. A naked glass across the room had been tougher, but the therapist had talked him through it. “Marty,” she’d said, “a few more sessions and you’ll be ready to taste a sip,” and at the last party he’d been fine till that fat clown had approached him. He’d already scheduled an appointment with a hypnotherapist.
A high-pitched cry penetrated the buzzing in his ears. His heart squeezed in his chest, his grip tightened on the knife. The cry came again, so much like a young boy’s (his own voice had broken early, though not early enough) that time was wound back and the smell was upon him, choking him, taking him, and gagging, he dropped into a half-crouch and raised his arm and saw — he saw, and screamed, and threw the knife.
Julian died while Thom tried to quell the bleeding.
“It was him,” Marty said again and again. “It was him.”
For once, Thom took charge. Eventually they carried the body outdoors into the storm, despite the risk of Julian serving as carrion. No scavengers came, however. Marty explained to the police and, later, to the media that it was because a snow leopard had kept watch. The local police believed him; the media loved it. After the brief trial, Thom and Marty never saw each other again, though Marty wrote upon receiving an anonymous notice, envelope crudely addressed and postmark illegible, of Tristan’s funeral. Only after Thom’s death nearly twenty years later did Lizzie find the record of his annual, and surprisingly substantial, donations to the Snow Leopard Trust. When contacted, the Trust gratefully acknowledged that at least half a dozen cubs had been reared and released into the wild due to her father’s generosity. They expressed their condolences; they would send a plaque and add a commemorative page to their website.