Chapter 13 (end of part 2)A Chapter by Domenic Luciani
Andrew begins to notice the changes happening around him, particularly those in his wife.
If worst came to worst, he could always find a job a different paper.
Of course this probably was not true, but Zach Manuszewski was comfortable deluding himself for just a little while longer.
It had taken a fairly long telephone conversation to win an extension on his stay. He had called the chairman the following morning after he had found Beck wasting away in his cell. The receptionist answered, and Zach barked at her to put her employer on the line. He tapped his foot in a frantic rhythm and breathed heavily, trying to get into character. It was not a card he had to play often, and so he was unpracticed at it, but the irritable artist ruse had worked for him occasionally in the past. He could only hope it would pay off this time.
When the chairman finally answered, Zach jumped right into his planned speech. He went on about how he had not captured the essence of the city, that it was simply not possible for a writer of his caliber to be expected to rush, and that if they really wanted this article done right they would give him more time. All of this with swift hand gestures to match.
“How much time do you think you’ll need?” the chairman asked. Was it just him, or did the chairman seem unconcerned?
It did not matter. He was golden now. With a passionate and believable sigh of remorse, Zach asked for another week, at least. He made sure to leave the deadline vaguely open ended, just in case.
He could sense that the chairman was occupied with something. This was made certain when the chairman grumbled: “Whatever you need to make it work"no, Jason. We’ll hold off on that for now and let things run their course…For as long as we need to"oh, wait…” The phone went silent.
Zach sighed in relief and fell backwards onto the bed. Step one: finished, he thought. Steps two through a million, still waiting. He groaned, rolled himself up in the covers and then fell asleep.
Andrew Kuch had been released from the MedTech hospital two days after he had staged Beck’s escape plan. For a long time he had laid in bed, wondering when it would be that the chairman would send his lackeys down and throw him in prison. He fully expected an attack of some nature to occur at any moment, and so he spent nearly all of his time mentally preparing for the worst.
It never came. On the evening of the second day, a MedTech agent walked into his room and stood silently next to his bed. This is it, Andrew had thought solemnly. They’re going to take me away, and I’ll never see my wife again. Maybe if I’m lucky, they’ll just pull the plug right here and I’ll die quickly. But the agent merely handed him a release form. Without even a slap on the wrist he was off the hook.
But still, he felt weary and uncomfortable. He walked out of the hospital, and instead of taking the subway like he would have on any normal day, he trekked all the way back to his apartment on foot. After being confined to that bed for so long, he just wanted to stretch his legs. Halfway there, he stopped. The crowd around him moved by, parting like a stream for a stone, and casting him suspicious glares. For him, it was a moment of remarkable revelation, that so many people would single him out simply because he stopped walking. He looked around quickly and continued walking.
When he reached the apartment, another suspicion arose within him: it was just too easy. Setting a bomb had been childishly easy, after all nobody expected someone from the labs to do anything like that. He had been prepared to explain that Beck had held him at gun point (or rather taser-point), but they had not even mentioned the explosion"not once. Now that he thought about it, there must have been security cameras that caught what he had been doing; they could not have just missed it. There must be a reason why they’re letting me off so easily, he thought.
And then there was Beck, an even more elusive question. One that Andrew thought he may never find the answer to. Whether or not he had escaped was only scratching the surface of Andrew’s uncertainty. What he really wanted to know was what had been going through his friend’s mind as he turned himself into a fugitive and ran off. He remembered telling Beck’s son to find him, but he had no idea if they had reunited or not. It had been two days, so it was probable that whatever outcome Beck’s escape might have had had already happened. He could only be in prison, or hiding somewhere in the city.
For some reason, he had a feeling Beck had made it out alive and was keeping a low profile somewhere nearby. Just out of reach. Andrew wished he could talk to him again, and ask him why he had done it.
He stood in the elevator, riding it up to the thirty-second floor. It stopped and he exited, his body moving more from memory than thought. When he walked into the apartment, he almost forgot he had not seen his wife in two days and she must have been worried. He should have called to tell her he was coming.
“Cass, I’m home,” he called out. There was no answer. He removed his shoes and hung his jacket in the closet, then called out again. “Cass?” Still nothing.
His throat went dry and his pulse quickened. He tried one more time, and then moved through the apartment, checking the living room then the kitchen then the bedrooms and the bathroom. His wife was not there.
A tiny amount of relief brushed over him when he remembered that she did not get off of work until six, and would not be home until six-thirty. What time was it? Andrew looked at the clock in the kitchen and the color drained from his face.
It was a quarter-to-nine.
Never, in all their five years of marriage, had Cass ever been late. Still, it was probably nothing. He forced himself to breathe slowly and be patient. If she had not returned by morning, then he would have cause for alarm. If he turned frantic now, he might be stoking a fire that was already an inferno.
He did his best to act normal: heated up a single-serving microwavable meal, slumped down on the couch and turned on the news. He chewed meticulously and his eyes were not even on the television, but off to a dark corner of the room. When he got tired of that, he paced around the apartment, doing laps around the kitchen and the living room, picking at a frayed edge of fingernail.
Dusk had fallen long before Andrew finally decided to get ready for bed. He knew he would not sleep, that much was certain, but he needed to restart his routine regardless of his mental condition. The only other option was to go insane.
He put on his nightclothes, leaving his shirt and pants in a heap on the carpet. Only a moment after settling in, he thought better of it, got out of bed, folded his clothes and placed them neatly in the laundry basket. He was nearly back under the covers when he heard the apartment door open and froze.
Andrew could tell immediately that it was his wife: whatever the difference in the time of her arrival, the sound of her footsteps on the tile floor was a melody that had not changed. For a split second, he felt apprehensive. She was so late, what had she been doing? But these feelings, too, he shoved down. Cass was in the kitchen, he could make out the sound of the refrigerator opening, bottles clinking, and a bright light penetrating the space beneath the bedroom door. He knew he should be walking out to greet her and subtly asking for an explanation, but instead he leapt into bed and pulled the sheets quickly over his body. There were a few indecipherable noises before Cass entered the bedroom. His heart was beating fast, but he slowed his breathing and pretended to be asleep. She drew a sharp breath when she saw him lying there, and Andrew thought about ending the façade and rousing himself, but he remained still. He heard her slowly open a shelf of the armoire beside the bed and deposit something into its depths. Whatever it was, Andrew could tell it was secret. There was a distinct shifting sound as she moved clothes to conceal whatever the object was at the bottom. It was not like Cass to hide things from him.
A moment later she carefully peeled back the bed sheets and crawled in next to him. He could feel her warm body press against his and the familiar feeling brought back happy memories. He was almost inclined to forget about his suspicions, but they hung in his mind like a computer virus that would simply move to a new location every time you cornered it. He was glad he was turned away from her, so that she could not see the worried look on his face.
Andrew was awake for a long time. He could hear Cass snoring softly beside him, but still he did not dare move. At some point, he fell asleep. Despite his anxiety, exhaustion proved more potent.
He awoke to the smell of cooking breakfast and the rosy-red glow of an early morning sunrise. The bed creaked loudly as he stepped tentatively out of it. Cass called to him from the kitchen. “How are you feeling, honey?”
“Fine,” he said nonchalantly. “Better now, I guess.”
“That’s good. Are you going to work today?”
“No, I have one more day off. I go back tomorrow.”
Andrew threw a look over to the armoire where he knew Cass had concealed something within its depths the night before. He thought about looking for it, but decided not to. Cass would leave in an hour or so, and then he would be free to rummage to his heart’s content. For right now at least, he had to play it normal.
He entered the kitchen, feeling as if he were walking into a warzone. Cass gave him a glowing smile that he managed to return. Quickly and silently, he ate the breakfast of eggs, sausage, and a bowl of cereal. She kissed him on the lips and Andrew felt an intimacy that surprised him.
She peeled away from him and walked out the door, leaving him standing in the kitchen dumbstruck. Something remarkable had just occurred, he was sure of it, but he could not put his finger on what it was exactly.
Once he was positive Cass was gone, Andrew slipped back into the bedroom and rummaged around the drawer she had gotten into the previous night. Carefully tucked away inside of a navy blue sweater, there was a folded pamphlet. He studied it cautiously, as if its secrets might jump out and attack him. He stole a quick glance around, though he was obviously alone, and could not shake the feeling that he was doing something terrible.
The inside of the pamphlet was covered in a sort of graffiti design, hand-drawn, of a carnival scene of ink blotches. He made out a pair of elephants and a ring of fire entrenched in a group of clowns that surrounded the image of a beautiful woman. A caption at the bottom read: “For those of you who wish to know, and know of what it is you wish, come find us. Come join us. You are the rat in the maze. Break free.”
Andrew steadied his hand as he read the note, then he folded it back up and replaced it where he had found it. He stood up quickly. Questions were bouncing around the inside of his head, but he knew that he could not ask Cass. Whatever this was, he could sense it did not bode well for his marriage.
Over the next few days, Andrew watched Cass with intense scrutiny. He noted every change in her posture, the odd hours that she would return home at night, every deviation from her normal routine. Even the way she looked at him seemed different: there was a warm glint in her eyes. A suspicious as he was of her changes, he had to admit that they were not necessarily for the worse.
He made an appointment with the psychologist two days before the fog descended and Beck Huxley was arrested. By then he had returned to work at the labs. It felt strange going back, as if he were a killer returning to the scene of the crime, but no one seemed even the slightest bit apprehensive of him. He had taken the explosives from Practical Applications, but set them deep in a hardly-used sub level of the building. The damage was cleared and repaired only two days later with hardly any disruption of normal activities. But the incident was from then on referred to as an ‘accident’.
Andrew was able to resume his work, but he felt anxious and often found himself glancing over his shoulder at the slightest sounds. He was jumpy, and a part of him did not trust the faces of the men he had worked with for years.
He finally understood what Beck had felt. Sometimes when he remembered his friend, a pang of guilt struck him, as if Beck’s fate had been partly his fault. It wasn’t, of course, but still…
Andrew went to the psychologist’s office, registered with the secretary, and then took a seat in a plush chair beside the door. For the past few days since he made the appointment, something told him he should not have made it in the first place. His bowels had become reproachful in their duties and he felt an intense pressure in his stomach, almost like a bloating, whenever he sat down. Remembering it now, he shifted a few times in the chair but ultimately gave up.
The psychologist, Christopher Meyer, was a twig of a man. His tall, thin frame was dwarfed by an already oversized leather armchair. The windows behind him let in an inordinate amount of light that cast him, and most other things in the room, in shadow.
Andrew took a seat in the smaller chair opposite the ornate wooden desk. He could feel Meyer’s eyes trained on him. Even though he had been here a few times before, he could not shake the feeling that this was another place entirely.
He had planned to explain everything to Meyer as best he could, but now, with a little more thought, he reserved most of what he had intended to say. A few things needed to be addressed: the disturbing amount of animosity he could swear people felt towards him and his curiosity with Beck’s disappearance. He withheld his concerns about Cass’s behavior and especially avoided his involvement with the MedTech explosion. Those would only get him into trouble.
Meyer sat quietly, breaking his stony posture only once or twice to scribble down something on his notepad. Andrew tried to identify concern or dissatisfaction in his eyes, but Meyer remained, as always, completely impassive.
When he ran out of things to say, Andrew went silent and waited for a response.
“I see,” he said, uninterested. “I would like to ask you a few questions and it’s important that you answer them completely truthfully. Is that alright?”
“Yes, of course,” Andre responded, trying to mimic Meyer’s dispassionate tone.
“Good, good. Alright, have you been having dreams lately?”
“Yeah, you know, images that play out in your head while you sleep. Things of that nature.”
“No, I really can’t say I have.” This was not entirely true. Andrew could remember having a dream the first night he had been sitting in the hospital. A woman in a red dress thanked him for something, but for the life of him, he could not remember what it was.
Meyer wrote something down in his notepad then continued. “Have you recently been involved in any activities that might be considered…irregular?”
“Irregular in what way?”
“As in, have you participated in anything that might be frowned upon in society, like drawing or music? These can be small instances or group activities. If a group activity, please name the individuals involved.”
Andrew shook his head. “Not that I can recall, no. Why? Have there been cases like that before?”
“I’ll ask the questions,” Meyer said coldly. “Have you noticed any suspicious behavior in others? Loved ones, co-workers…”
Meyer sighed almost imperceptibly. “Alright then, if nothing else seems out of the ordinary, I would say you have a minor case of post-traumatic stress: the uneasiness, the anxiety, the nerves"you’ve had a bit of a shock and your body wasn’t suited to handle it. Here, take this.” Meyer handed Andrew a little yellow slip. “Next time you see your doctor, give him this.”
“I thought the psychiatrist was the only one who could write prescriptions,” Andrew said curiously.
He did not mean any offense, but a dark look came over Meyer’s face. “Don’t give me that.”
Andrew left Meyer’s office as quickly as he could, vowing never to return if he could help it. He slunk back to the apartment and waited in bitter silence for Cass to return from work.
An argument, which Andrew had not intended to start, began nearly the moment she entered the door. He had been looking at the pamphlet she had brought home a few days ago, and held it up to her in the light as she entered.
“What is this?” he asked. He did not want to sound angry, but he could not help it. The words kept slipping out with a barely constrained irritation. A certain level of animosity had been developing within him over the past few days, from work, to his anxiety, to Meyer’s abrasive behavior earlier.
Cass stopped in the doorway and the smile fell from her lips. Without a word, she shrugged off her purse and shoes and went into the kitchen.
Andrew waited a moment, allowing her to collect her thoughts. He tried to make up for his irate tone by being patient. Sitting down on the sofa and crossing his arms over his chest, he waited and tried to predict what she sort of explanation she might give him. Would she lie? He didn’t want to think so. Before, he had been inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt, but this was different: he had real, physical proof that she had been up to something, and he would not let her go without knowing what it was. Knowing what he wanted, he tried to steel himself against whatever it was she had to say.
She walked out and stood in front of him, her face contorted in a look of sheer anguish. Andrew had never seen her like this. It was almost as if she were about to cry. In an instant, nearly all of his defenses came crashing down and it took all he had not to comfort her.
“Tomorrow,” she said quietly. “Meet me at the coffee shop on Third Street tomorrow at five.” That was all she said. She made a beeline for the bedroom and closed the door behind her.
Andrew was not sure what this meant. Should he sleep on the couch? No, why should he? It was Cass who was being enigmatic, not him. Still, he stayed up late watching T.V. and eating food until he assumed she was asleep, and then he removed his shirt and crept into bed with her.
In the morning, Cass was gone.
The covers where she had been laying had been made and the pillows delicately arranged. Andrew could sense the empty space where she had been only a few hours ago before even opening his eyes. He stretched out a hand and felt nothing. Feeling worse than he ever had, Andrew curled into a ball under the covers and did his best to cry. Somewhere in his mind, he knew he had lost Cass. He felt a tear roll down his cheek and land with a plop onto the mattress. It felt good. Really good. His lips quivered and his nose began to run. The bed sheets shook as he sobbed.
By the time he managed to hull himself out of bed, he was feeling much better. Red-eyed and sniffling, but better. He looked at the clock and realized he would be late for work. Strangely, he couldn’t bring himself to care. The usual pang of panic that sometimes hit him when he was rushing did not come. Instead, he slowly and diligently worked through his morning routine, showering, dressing, and eating breakfast with an unusual calmness. Actually, he was going even slower today, as if he were making an unconscious effort to be late. He left the apartment and got on the subway train to MedTech, grinning widely even as the morning traffic crowded around him.
The cone goes here, this wire goes here, that metal piece fits into this one. For the most part, Andrew’s work day consisted of these menial labors. It required next to no mental effort to construct the bombs in this manner. The conveyer belt roamed amongst several of his coworkers who completed similar tasks at different stages of the bombs construction. For as long as he had worked at the facility, he had never thought to ask why they made bombs. Certainly they couldn’t be using them on anyone.
Even with all the excuses floating around in his head, Andrew made an effort to misplace a few of the key components each time, though he was careful not to change anything too obvious. In this way, the only way they would know something had gone amiss was if they actually launched the bombs, which they weren’t doing…right?
When it came time for him to go on break, he watched as the others shuffled out of the room then crept slowly down the length of the conveyer belt to the wall it disappeared into. There was a door, and Andrew was not sure if he remembered it being there before. He glanced around then stole into the next room.
It was a very large room, and he found himself on a long metal catwalk the stretched all the way down the middle. Beneath him, row upon row of pointed metal cones poked out from miniature silos. A mechanical arm snatched the missiles from the conveyor belt and dropped them off into empty silos. When one row filled up, all of the silos shifted, and some were pushed into an adjacent room by more machines, making room for more empty ones.
Groping at the odd feeling rising in his chest, Andrew realized that maybe they were using these missiles. Why else make so many? Surely over the years his hands had tinkered with hundreds, if not thousands, of the deadly metal cylinders. Easily enough to fill this room twenty times over.
Feeling nauseous, Andrew fled from the room. It was all he could do to finish working the rest of his shift. The fleeting satisfaction he had been granted from crying had been erased. Now all he felt was guilt and confusion. Guilt, because for the past few years, he had been making weapons of death and had not even had the decency to wonder why. Who were these missiles intended for? Why was he being forced to make them? And then there was confusion because he was finally starting to understand that he knew nothing at all.
When he arrived home that afternoon, he immediately went to the bedroom and collapsed on the mattress. He slowed his breathing, holding it in for a few seconds then letting it out in one enormous sigh. Cass would not be arriving home tonight. Maybe home wasn’t the right word anymore. Now it was just an apartment, a box of concrete and metal, that they both happened to occupy at the same time.
At four o’clock, He roused himself out of a half-sleep, arranged his hair and clothes, and walked out into the chilly spring air.
He saw Cass through the window at the front of the shop. Well that’s good, he thought. At least she showed up. For a moment, he spied on her through the letters of the coffee shop sign. She had her hands tightly woven around an empty mug and she seemed to be staring into it intently, as if another round would bubble up from the bottom. He took a deep breath and walked through the front door, feeling as apprehensive as ever. He held his hands slightly apart from his sides, hoping to be ready if any physical confrontation should arise.
Cass did not even give him a chance to sit down. When she noticed him walking toward her, she stood up quickly, grasped his arm and led him out of the shop, her face entirely emotionless. Outside, she took a sharp right turn and marched him off. Andrew wanted to ask where she was taking him, but he had a feeling she wouldn’t have told him anyways.
Andrew was beginning to feel tired"they had broken out into nearly a run"when they finally came to their destination. He looked up and down a narrow alley that he had to turn sideways just to fit through. Cass spotted a door that was the same shade as the concrete around it and paused just before opening it.
She stood still for a long time, long enough for Andrew to work up the nerve to ask her outright what was going on. “I just want to know why you’re doing all this,” he said, hoping the touch of sadness in his voice would work in his favor.
“I just…I just don’t want you to be angry,” she answered, refusing to meet his gaze.
He put a hand on her shoulder and, ignoring the burning questions in his gut, asked, “I won’t. Don’t worry. Just tell me.”
Cass shut her eyes tight as if bracing herself for something and opened the door. Beyond was a stairwell that descended into darkness. She made her way down; pausing every few moments to make sure Andrew was following. He was, but cautiously. One step at a time.
At the bottom of the stairwell was another door. This one was sealed with some sort of combination lock. Without hesitation, Cass swiftly dialed out a long series of numbers. There was a loud clicking sound as the door unlocked and swung open. A gush of air burst through the opening and whipped by them.
They had come to a refurbished cellar beneath the building. The florescent lights above them flickered haphazardly: they must be drawing power from a generator, or maybe jacked into an existing power line. Either way, it was difficult to see in the narrow concrete passageways. Sometimes the power went out for longer than ten seconds. There were people all around who nodded to Cass, but looked at Andrew as if he might lunge out and attack them. Often, when the power went out for an extended period of time, Cass would stop walking and Andrew could hear groans of annoyance all around him. Apparently this was a familiar occurrence.
The lights had gone out again just before Cass pulled Andrew into a darkened room. Even before the lights turned back on, he could sense the enormity of the room, the sound of at least a hundred people breathing quietly. When the light returned, Andrew saw that he had been correct.
They were standing in a long auditorium with about a hundred other people, each one facing forward and eagerly awaiting something. The ceilings were low, only about six feet high, and there were places where it was evident walls had been knocked down to open up the room.
After a short moment, a man appeared on a wooden stage hastily set up at the front of the room. Andrew was too far away to see him clearly, much less hear what he was saying. People applauded and the man waved his arm to calm them down. Once everyone was silent again, Andrew began searching the crowd for familiar faces. He recognized a few, like an older woman who worked at the bakery on the corner of his street. There was also a man wearing a heavy brown jacket who lived just down the hall from his apartment. A few others he vaguely recalled seeing on the street or simply in passing. All of them must be gathered here for a higher purpose, of that he was sure. He only wished he had the foresight as to what his part in it might be.
Cass had been relating some of the man’s words, as Andrew could only catch a few words.
“He says we need to stop letting our government control us. He says that if we are to be truly human, we must break away from that harshest of oppressions. He says, he says, he says…”
Andrew was hardly listening. He wasn’t about to let himself get swept up in some mob. Not when so much was at stake. What he needed wasn’t an eloquent and passionate speech, he just needed the facts. Clear and simple.
But then tapestries unfurled like enormous sails on either side of the man, and he yelled to the crowd loudly enough that Andrew could hear: “Here is our patriarch, the one who will save us all!”
Andrew’s jaw dropped to the floor. The tapestries were large enough that he could see the image emblazoned on them. In a moment, he had his fact: nothing would be clear and simple. The image on the tapestries was a face. A face that Andrew had seen a hundred times before everything had gone to hell. He had no idea how they got their hands on his MedTech keycard, where the image belonged, but there it was for the world to see.
Beck Huxley’s expressionless face, staring through the cheering crowd of hundreds right at Andrew.
Right into his eyes.
“Oh,” Andrew said breathlessly. “Now I get it.”
© 2012 Domenic Luciani
Added on May 20, 2012
Last Updated on May 20, 2012
Forest of Men
AboutThat is my real name, and that is really me in the picture. Like Patrick says, I'm not in the witness protection program. I mostly write books and stories. I like fantasy, or fiction, but if.. more..