Will imagined silence. The silence of snowfall in the forest. The silence at the top of a crag. But eighty floors below his roof garden, another siren screeched along Central Park West.
Nausea nibbled—a hungry goldfish gumming him to death. Maybe this week’s diet of Zantac and PBR beer was to blame. Or maybe grief was a degenerative disease, destroying him from the inside out. Dissolving his organs. One. By. One.
The screensaver on his MacBook Air, a rainbow of tentacles that had once reminded him to watch for shooting stars, mutated into a kraken: an ancient monster dragging his life beneath the waves. How long since he’d missed his deadline? His agent had been supportive, his editor generous, but patience—even for clients who churned out global bestsellers—expired.
Another day when he’d failed to resuscitate his crap work-in-progress; another day when Agent Dodds continued to dangle from the helicopter; another day without a strategy for his hero of ten years that wasn’t a fatal “Let go, dude. Just let go.”
The old-fashioned ring tone of his iPhone burst into the night as expected. Almost on cue. His dad’s memory might be jouncing around too much for either of them to follow, but it continued to hold both their lives hostage.
Answer, aim for the end of the call, get there.
“Fucking bastards. They’re—”
“Fucking bastards. You told me earlier.” Fifty-seven minutes earlier.
Finally, this vacuous loop of repetition had given them conversation, and always it started with the same two words: fucking bastards.
“Fucking bastards won’t let me sit out and talk to the crows. Took away my bird call. Said I were disturbin’ folks.”
“We talked about this last time you called, Dad.” Will kept his voice flat, even. Calm. Defusing anger was an old skill—the lone positive side effect of his batshit insane childhood. And emotional distance? He had that honed before he’d turned eighteen. “I told you I’d look at the contract in the morning. And you promised to take a temazepam and go to bed.”
There had to be some way to persuade the old man to meet with a psychologist, some way to unpick the damage of Jack Nicholson’s performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
“Fucking bastards. Want to steal my Wild Turkey, too.”
His dad veered off on the usual rant: trash the staff of Hawk’s Ridge Retirement Community—check; pause to exclude the new art teacher with the cute smile—check; ask Will when he last noticed a woman’s smile—check; hurl expletives at ol’ possum face, the director—check. Strange, how the old man failed to drop his g’s with the f word.
A retired gravedigger who’d dropped out of school at sixteen to work in the cotton mill—third shift—Jacob Shepard might refer to himself as dumber than a rock, but he’d read every history book in the Orange County Library before retirement. The old man was an underachiever by choice, devoting himself to the only thing that mattered: loving his Angeline.
His dad was cussing again. One obscenity, two obscenities, three obscenities…four.
All those years in the family shack, neither of them had sworn. Wouldn’t have dared. Four foot ten, magical and mad, Angeline Shepard had ruled the house with more mood swings than a teenage despot. There had been no room for anyone else to flex temper muscles. Raising a voice in his mother’s domain would have been akin to standing in front of the biggest fucking bonfire and pouring on enough gasoline to fuel an airbus. Great, now he was swearing. Will never swore (batshit didn’t count). But since his dad had started calling to unleash rage ten, fifteen times a day, Will’s psyche had slipped into battle fatigue mode.
Will sighed. “There are rules about drinking in your room. You know that.”
“I’m eighty years old, son. I reckon I’m old enough to partake, if I so choose.”
“But you’re a loud drunk, Dad.”
“So I pick my banjo—”
“And tell people they’re dickheads.”
“That’s why I don’t talk to no one ’cept you. Half them folks in here is dickheads, son. Half them is.”
“And the other half?” Will didn’t mean to smile.
“Old-timers who get to complainin’ about bladder control. At least I don’t need no adult diapers, and my health is still good, pretty good. Why you at home of an evenin’, son? You need to be out dancin’ with an angel like your mama.”
“I write at night. You know that, Dad.”
Darkness keeps me alive, keeps me on the edge. Keeps me sharp. There was always a moment, in the middle of the night, when the world hardly breathed. When he could write safe in the knowledge that no one would intrude, that he had nothing to fear. But New York Times bestselling author Will Shepard wasn’t writing. Wasn’t sleeping in his institutional white bedroom, either. These days he catnapped fully clothed on his leather sofa—as if he were a millionaire hobo.
Even when he managed to close his eyes, there was no peace. His favorite dream in which he glided like an owl above the forest had contorted into a nightmare. In his subconscious state, Will didn’t drift on air currents anymore—he stumbled through the woods on Occoneechee Mountain. Searching for, but never finding, escape.
“So when you goin’ to start livin’ that dream of yours, son? Find a woodland property with a driveway that’s impassable after a real heavy snowfall?”
“That was a kid’s fantasy. I’m never moving back to North Carolina, you know that.”
You know that. Why keep bashing his dad over the head with all that he’d forgotten?
A gust of wind whipped through the chocolate mimosa in the huge glazed pot. Buffeted, the delicate leaflets held on and bounced back. You can do this, Will. You can do this.
“The new guy Bernie, who just moved in down the hall, his grandkids took him to that fancy diner on Main Street last Sunday. You know how long it’s been since I’ve had blueberry pancakes?”
When did the old man start caring about pancakes?
“You know what they give us for breakfast? Little boxes of cereal fit for kids. You know how long it’s been since I’ve eaten anywhere real nice? I want blueberry pancakes. And I want to see my grandbaby, goddamn it. When you bringin’ Freddie to visit?”
Time slowed or maybe stopped. Will was at the end of a tunnel, his dad’s voice muffled as it said, over and over, “Willie?”
Will’s arm shot across the wrought iron table, smashing an empty water glass to the concrete. A spill of shards spread.
Unwanted memories multiplied, images tumbled: Frederick and Cassandra in the car moments before it crashed; Will driving through the night to Hawk’s Ridge with news no grandfather should ever have to hear; his dad flailing and screaming before the security men pinned him down, before a nurse sedated him. And in the months that followed, a never-ending cycle of short-term memory loss and anger. The old man vented, forgot, repeated. Alcohol didn’t help.
“Freddie with his mama this week?”
Will ground his knuckle into his temple. “Yeah. He’s with his mama.” A half-truth that kicked him in the chest like a full lie.
Was this his dad’s new reality—living with a mind so broken that it found fault with the breakfast menu and yet erased family trauma? Would Will have to constantly torture his dad with the news that had felled them both? Certain sentences, no matter how brief, should never be repeated. Never. If his dad could forget the crash, could he, one day, forget Freddie?
“You tell Freddie’s mama to have him call his granddaddy.”
“I can’t!” Will didn’t mean to yell, really, really didn’t mean to yell, but he could hear Cassandra taunting him: So, William. You’re a father. She always called him William, pronouncing it Willi-amm, treating his name the way she treated life—with a wild exaggeration that had led only to tragedy. A scene flashed—an illusion. A little boy and his mother caught between realms of life and death. Traveling from the plane of existence to a blank page of nothing. “I can’t because…they’re traveling.”
Shallow, jagged breaths stabbed his throat. Blood thundered around his skull; a frenzy of lights exploded across his vision. Airway closing; heart fluttering; pulse yo-yoing.
Will sucked in oxygen with a whooshing sound, then exhaled quietly. He would reduce everything to the skills that enabled him to scale a rock face with his hands and his feet and his mind. He would focus on nothing but finding balance in this moment in time, on finding a good, solid hold.
“I…I don’t remember, Willie. I…I can’t remember stuff.”
This, too, was part of the daily roller coaster. The realization that his grizzly bear of a dad had become a featherless fledgling fallen from the nest. Will could end the conversation. Make some excuse and get off the phone. But what was the chance his dad would remember any of this? Zero. Tomorrow would bring a fresh memory wipe. Tomorrow, Will’s computer screen would still swirl with patterns, not words. Tomorrow, his five-year-old son would still be dead.
“Where, Willie? Where they travelin’?”
Will stared up at the blinking lights of a jet floating across the black sky, carrying families toward new memories. He’d never taken Freddie on a plane, but he’d planned their first trip in his mind. Europe, they were going to Europe as soon as Freddie was old enough to appreciate the art, the architecture, the history.
“Europe.” Will swallowed. “Listen, I’ve gotta go. Get some sleep and we’ll talk tomorrow.”
“Okay, son. Okay.”
“Good night, Dad,” Will whispered.
But the line was dead.
Will scooped up his laptop and walked back into his empty apartment. Out in the hallway, the elevator dinged. A couple passed his front door, stabbing each other with words. The woman would win the fight. She was the one setting the tempo, as Cassandra had done. He’d never figured out why, eighteen months after their affair fizzled, Cass contacted him to suggest he meet the son he hadn’t known existed. As an heiress she didn’t need child support, and the ground rules were set from the beginning: Freddie’s my son; you’re not listed on the birth certificate; you see him if and when I decide.
He should have fought for his son.
“Munchkin, I’m sorry,” Will said.
Sorry for not keeping you safe. Sorry for being a coward.
His cowardice slid out as easily as the fast and furious plots that had made him a thirty-four-year-old literary powerhouse. Corporation Will Shepard careened from success to success, despite the fact that its CEO had been writing-by-numbers for years. When fans looked at him, they saw nothing but the glitter of achievement, which was the way his staff tweeted and scripted his life. Everything was about creating the cardboard cutout.
Only fatherhood was real.
He’d been a good dad—patient, fun, firm. Although there had been a few too many online purchases from F.A.O. Schwarz. Not that he was trying to buy Freddie’s love. He’d just wanted Freddie to have everything Will himself had never had. But not in the material sense. A young kid should believe that he was the center of his dad’s universe. Because once you realized your happiness mattered to no one but you, life was a slalom ride through loblolly pines—until you crashed into the revelation that all your relationships were severely messed up. Except for fatherhood. From day one, he’d cleared out space physically and psychologically for his son.
Freddie looked at Will—all five-foot-seven-inches of him—and saw a dragon slayer! The invincible hero! A storyteller who could answer the only question that mattered: “What happened next, Daddy?”
Will placed his laptop in the middle of his desk and stared at the drawing on the wall. Two colorful stickmen—one big, one small—held hands in celebration of the day they met. March 30. “Happy Our Day,” Freddie had said, jumping up and down. “Mommy helped me pick out the frame in a huge store. Huuuuuge!”
Not so long ago, Will had believed that if his apartment were on fire, he would risk everything to save his laptop. But now it contained nothing more than a stalled-out, unnamed manuscript, and his only possession worth saving was Freddie’s drawing.
Will flopped onto his leather sofa and covered his eyes with his right arm. Storytelling had always been his escape and his shield. His last line of defense against the truth. And for the first time in his life, he was without a story.
Jacob twisted his hands around the phone. Some thought—just out of reach.
Where you hidin’, thought?
It were warm in his room, too warm. All summer, it been too cold. Most non-Carolina folk didn’t understand how to live, wanted to be sealed up all nice and tight with air-conditionin’. He and Angeline never had no air-conditionin’. No sir. And now it were too hot. Couldn’t even manage his own goddamn heat. But them dickheads, they couldn’t control him. They could take away his bird call and try to take away his Wild Turkey—if they could find it. But they didn’t know what they was in for, ’cos Jacob Shepard, Jr., eighty years old with a mind shot to shit, were gonna fight.
“Ha,” he said, liked the way it sounded and repeated it. “Ha!”
If only he were outside sittin’ by a fire, punchin’ it with a stick. He’d use hickory on that thing, make it nice and toasty. That were his kind of heat.
Jacob threw the phone on his bed, his narrow only-for-one bed, and heaved open his window. No moonlight tonight, no stars. No owl to call to. No trains. When Angeline disappeared into one of her spells, he would listen for the rumblin’ and the whistlin’ of the trains—sounds as soothin’ as real heavy rain on a tin roof.
He inhaled the night. Couldn’t see the forest, but it were out there, waitin’. He could smell cedar. Sweetest smell in the world. You burn that stuff and mmm-hmm, fannnntastic. He made a smudge once that were just plum cedar dust. Willie used to love that. Said it were like Christmas all over again.
A man could suffocate in this shithole of a hotel. Stank of bleach and death. ’Course that could be part of the plan to hurry the inmates along their journey to the spirit world. Death were comin’ faster than it should, thanks to them dickheads.
Freddie were on his mind. Freddie.
Freddie loved all them stories about his gravediggin’ granddaddy. Like the time at the cemetery he’d…what? What had he done? What! He circled his room and concentrated real hard, but that trickster memory kept on hidin’ from him.
He slapped the table. White, round, new, Will had bought it without permission. Why’d he keep buyin’ furniture and payin’ bills as if his daddy couldn’t afford to?
He’d been happy in the shack with his memories of Angeline. The good memories, only the good memories. Why couldn’t he stay in the shack? He reached for the pen next to the phone and gouged a nice scar into the tabletop. There. Now the table was all scratched up, like him. Like his shack, like…
Freddie were travelin’! Lucky little scamp.
He’d wanted to travel, take Angeline places, but they couldn’t afford the gas to cross the state line. Heck of a woman, his Angeline. Loved a good adventure, yes sir. Best smile in Orange County. Woo-wee! Sweet sixteen and she’d had her pick of the menfolk. Day she stood by his side and spoke her marriage vows, he had to pinch hisself into believin’. But no, he weren’t thinkin’ about his Angeline, his angel…Freddie! That’s right, Freddie.
Freddie were travelin’, going places his granddaddy couldn’t imagine.
Jacob grabbed an unopened envelope and scrawled “Ask Will about Freddie’s trip” across the back. Look at that. Goddamn hand had the shakes. Better have another drink to stop them tremors. But first he was gonna stick his note on the fridge. Get to his age and you’d forget half your life if you didn’t write it down.
C.R.S., can’t remember stuff. But this, this, he wanted to remember.
He’d write another note, and another and another. Tape one to the phone on his nightstand, so he could see it at sunrise. And he’d buy a map. Heck, a big world map! Take the shuttle to the Walmart and buy a map. Nail it to the wall! That would annoy them dickheads. And he’d label it My Grandson’s Great European Adventure.
Ha! Take that, Bernie down the hall!
Maybe he’d follow Willie’s advice and get some sleep. Tomorrow were gonna be a real fine day. He had a project and it didn’t involve sittin’ on his ass in the arts and crafts room with tissue paper and a pair of safety scissors.