There were six of us in the beginning. Three men and two women, and Dr. Sayer. Jan, though some of us never learned to call her by her first name. She was the psychologist who found us, then persuaded us that a group experience could prove useful in ways that one-on-one counseling could not. After all, one of the issues we had in common was that we each thought we were unique. Not just survivors, but sole survivors. We wore our scars like badges.
Consider Harrison, one of the first of us to arrive at the building for that initial meeting. Once upon a time he’d been the Boy Hero of Dunnsmouth. The Monster Detective. Now he sat behind the wheel of his car, watching the windows of her office, trying to decide whether he would break his promise to her and skip out. The office was in a two-story, Craft-style house on the north side of the city, on a woodsy block that could look sinister or comforting depending on the light. A decade before, this family home had been rezoned and colonized by shrinks; they converted the bedrooms to offices, made the living room into a lobby, and planted a sign out front declaring its name to be “The Elms.” Maybe not the best name, Harrison thought. He would have suggested a species of tree that wasn’t constantly in danger of being wiped out.
Today, the street did not look sinister. It was a sunny spring day, one of the few tolerable days the city would get before the heat and humidity rolled in for the summer. So why ruin it with ninety minutes of self-pity and communal humiliation?
He was suspicious of the very premise of therapy. The idea that people could change themselves, he told Dr. Sayer in their pre-group interview, was a self-serving delusion. She believed that people were captains of their own destiny. He agreed, as long as it was understood that every captain was destined to go down with the ship, and there wasn’t a damned thing you could do about it. If you want to stand there with the wheel in your hand and pretend you were steering, he told her, knock yourself out.
She’d said, “Yet you’re here.”
He shrugged. “I have trouble sleeping. My psychiatrist said he wouldn’t renew my prescriptions unless I tried therapy.”
“Is that all?”
“Also, I might be entertaining the idea of tamping down my nihilism. Just a bit. Not because life is not meaningless—I think that’s inarguable. It’s just that the constant awareness of its pointlessness is exhausting. I wouldn’t mind being oblivious again. I’d love to feel the wind in my face and think, just for minute, that I’m not going to crash into the rocks.”
“You’re saying you’d like to be happy.”
She smiled. He liked that smile. “Promise me you’ll try one meeting,” she said. “Just give me one.”
Now he was having second thoughts. It wasn’t too late to drive away. He could always find a new psychiatrist to fork over the meds.
A blue and white transit van pulled into the handicap parking spot in front of the house. The driver hopped out. He was a hefty white kid, over six feet tall with a scruffy beard, dressed in the half-ass uniform of the retail class: colored polo over Gap khakis. He opened the rearmost door of the van to reveal an old man waiting in a wheelchair.
The driver thumbed a control box, and the lift lowered the chair and occupant to the ground with the robotic slow motion of a space shuttle arm. The old man was already half astronaut, with his breathing mask and plastic tubes and tanks of onboard oxygen. His hands seemed to be covered by mittens.
Was this geezer part of the group, Harrison wondered, or visiting some other shrink in the building? Just how damaged were the people that Dr. Sayer had recruited? He had no desire to spend hours with the last people voted off Victim Island.
The driver seemed to have no patience for his patient. Instead of going the long way around to the ramp, he pushed the old man to the curb, then roughly tilted him back—too far back—and bounced the front wheels down on the sidewalk. The old man pressed his mittened hands to his face, trying to keep the mask in place. Another series of heaves and jerks got the man up the short stairs and into the house.
Then Harrison noticed the girl. Eighteen, maybe nineteen years old, sitting on a bench across from the house, watching the old man and the driver intently. She wore a black, long-sleeved T-shirt, black jeans, black Chuck Taylors: the Standard Goth Burka. Her short white hair looked like it had been not so much styled as attacked. Her hands gripped the edge of the bench and she did not relax even after the pair had gone inside. She was like a feral cat: skinny, glint-eyed, shock-haired. Ready to bolt.
For the next few minutes he watched the girl as she watched the front of the house. A few people passed by on the sidewalk, and then a tall white woman stepped up to the door. Fortyish, with careful hair and a Hillary Clinton pantsuit. She moved with an air of concentration; when she climbed the steps, she placed each foot carefully, as if testing the solidity of each surface.
A black guy in flannels and thick work boots clumped up the stairs behind the woman. She stopped, turned. The guy looked up at the roof of the porch. An odd thing. He carried a backpack and wore thick black sunglasses, and Harrison couldn’t imagine what he saw up there. The white woman said something to him, holding open the door, and he nodded. They went inside together.
It was almost six o’clock, so Harrison assumed that everyone who’d gone in was part of the group. The girl, though, still hadn’t made a move toward the door.
“Fuck it,” Harrison said. He got out of the car before he could change his mind, and then walked toward the house. When he reached the front sidewalk he glanced behind him—casually, casually. The girl noticed him and looked away. He was certain that she’d been invited to the group too. He was willing to bet that she might be the craziest one of all.
The van driver was walking out as Harrison was walking in. Harrison nodded at him—or rather, gave him what he thought of as the bro nod, that upward tip of the chin that American men used to acknowledge each other. The driver frowned as if this were some breach of protocol.
So, Harrison thought, the driver was an asshole to everybody, not just his riders.
Dr. Sayer was standing outside a room on the ground floor of the house, like a teacher welcoming students on their first day. She was dressed like a teacher, too, in a sweater and skirt, though Harrison towered over her. She was barely over five feet tall, with skinny arms and toned legs, but a surprisingly stocky torso. He thought of several unkind comparisons—Mrs. Potato Head, or a cartoon M&M—and was happy she couldn’t read his thoughts.
“Harrison,” she said. “I’m so glad you came. Is everything all right?”
“I’m fine.” What had she seen in his face? His judgment of her? His annoyance with the driver? He’d have to watch himself with the doctor. Maybe with the whole group. “I told you I’d come, so I’m here.”
His tone was still too sharp, but Dr. Sayer let it pass. “Go ahead and take a seat,” she said, indicating the room. When Harrison had met with her before, it was upstairs, in what he took to be her usual office. He supposed she needed a bigger room for the group. “We’ll start in a few minutes,” she said.
He hesitated, and she tilted her head questioningly. He thought about telling her about the girl outside, then thought better of it. “Okay,” he said. “See you on the other side.”
The three people he’d spotted entering the house were seated on one side of the circle. The man in the wheelchair had lowered his mask. Harrison realized with a start that the man had no hands; the arms ended below the elbow and were covered by what looked like white athletic socks.
Harrison raised a hand in greeting—and immediately felt self-conscious. Look, I have hands.
“Hi there,” the old man said. The woman in the pantsuit smiled warmly.
The guy in the sunglasses seemed not to notice him from behind those shades. He was only in his twenties, Harrison realized. Maybe as young as the girl outside.
There were six chairs, including the wheelchair. A notebook and pen sat on one, reserving it for Dr. Sayer. The only two spots remaining had their back to the door, one next to the doctor’s seat, across from Stevie Wonder. The other was next to Ironside—and he couldn’t choose the one not next to the disabled guy without looking like a dick.“I’m Stan,” the old man said.
Before Harrison could answer, the man in the glasses said, “I think we should wait.”
Stan said, “For what?”
“Until everyone gets here.”
Harrison turned to Stan. “I’m Harrison.”
The woman glanced at the man in the sunglasses, hesitated.
“And you are?” Harrison asked the woman.
She seemed embarrassed. “I’m Barbara.”
Harrison extended a hand. “Nice to meet you, Barbara.”
Mr. Sunglasses opened his mouth, then shut it. That silenced everyone for several minutes. The fifth seat—sixth counting Stan’s wheelchair—remained empty.
This room, Harrison guessed, had once been the sunroom of the house, and before that, an open porch. The psychologists had done their best to disguise this, laying down rugs and hiding many of the windows behind Roman shades, but there was still too much naked glass for a private therapy group. Outside was a small back yard walled by arborvitaes. A peeping tom would have no trouble hiding back there. He wondered if the doctors had thought this through. And then he wondered what the collective noun was for psychologists: a shortage of shrinks? A confession of counselors?
Dr. Sayer came into the room. “I think this may be it for today.” She picked up her notebook and sat down.
“Were you waiting for a blonde woman?” Harrison asked. Everyone looked at him. “I saw someone outside.”
Dr. Sayer thought for a moment, then looked at her wrist watch. Harrison thought, Of course she’s a clock watcher. A requisite characteristic for the profession.
“I think we should get started,” she said. “First, call me Jan. Some of you have known me for over a year, but some of you I’ve only recently met. We’ve all talked individually about why you might find this group useful. Each of you has had experiences that have been discounted by other therapists. Sometimes your friends and family don’t believe what happened to you. Many of you have decided, reasonably enough, that it’s not safe talking about your experiences. This group is that safe place. We’ve all agreed that what is said here stays in the strictest confidence.”
No one spoke. Harrison stole a glance at the others, and they were all concentrating on the doctor.
“Think of this place as a lab,” said the doctor—Jan. “You can experiment with honesty, with sharing your feelings, even really negative feelings. If you try that out in the real world—well, watch out. Feelings get hurt, there are misunderstandings—”
“You end up in the loony bin,” Stan said.
Jan smiled. “But here, it’s your job to give real feedback, and to take it. There’s no other place where you can be so honest, yet still have people show up every week.”
“A dinner party for gluttons for punishment,” Harrison said.
No one laughed. Uh oh, he thought.
“Why don’t we go around the room and introduce ourselves,” she said.
“They already started,” the man in the sunglasses said to the doctor. “Introducing themselves.”
“That’s understandable,” Jan said.
“My name is Stan.” The old man coughed hard and then cleared his throat. “You probably already know who I am—can’t hide these stumps.” He grinned, and his teeth seemed too big and too white. “So . . . yes. I’m the man who survived the Weaver family. ”
Harrison thought the man’s age was about right for that. Barbara, to Stan’s left, nodded. The man in the sunglasses said, “I’m sorry, who?”
Stan twisted in his chair. “The Weavers,” he said, louder. Still Mr. Sunglasses didn’t respond. “The Arkansas Cannibals?”
“Never heard of them.”
Stan looked exasperated. “The Spider Folk?”
“That was a long time ago,” Harrison said. “He may be too young.”
“1974! And you’re as young as he is,” Stan said. Harrison thought, no, actually. The sunglasses man was probably five or ten years younger than Harrison, mid-twenties maybe, though that pudgy body made him look older. Or maybe Stan just couldn’t judge the age of black people.
Stan mumbled something and pushed the oxygen mask to his face.
“I’m sorry,” Mr. Sunglasses said. “I just don’t—”
“It was the biggest story of the year,” Stan said. He’d pulled down the mask again. “I was on Merv Griffin.”
“Maybe you should go next,” Harrison said to the man in the glasses. He still hadn’t taken them off, despite how dark and bulky they looked. They looked more functional than fashionable. Was he blind? Maybe Harrison should be nicer to him. After too long a pause, Harrison added, “If you don’t mind.”
The request seemed to flummox the sunglasses man. “She’s next to him,” he said, indicating Barbara. “It’s not my turn.”
“Oh, I can go,” she said.
Harrison looked at the man in sunglasses and thought, Really? You need to go in order?
Something must have shown on Harrison’s face because the man said, “My name is Martin.”
“Hello, Martin,” Barbara said. She held out her hand, and he took it hesitantly.
“Do you want me to talk about my history?” Martin asked Jan. “Why I’m here?”
“Whatever you’re comfortable with,” the doctor said. “You can—”
Martin jerked in his chair. He was looking over Jan’s shoulder with an expression of shock. The doctor turned.
The blonde girl stood in the doorway. She seemed to feel the group’s gaze like a harsh light. She endured it for a moment, then walked into the room, eyes down and face closed, and took the last seat, between Harrison and Dr. Sayer.
“Thank you for coming in,” the doctor said.
She lifted her eyes from the floor. “I’m Greta.”
Harrison, Barbara, and Stan responded in AA unison: “Hi, Greta.”
They went around the room, introducing themselves again. When it was Martin’s turn, he could barely speak. He seemed unwilling to look at the new girl.
Stan said, “Have you ever heard of the Weavers?”
Greta moved her head a fraction. Nope.
“Jesus Christ,” Stan said.
The next hour was filled with the polite conversation of people tiptoeing around each other. Martin had stopped talking, Greta had never started, and Stan wouldn’t stop. Harrison was entertaining fantasies about turning down his oxygen supply.
Jan said, “We’re almost out of time. I’m wondering if people want to share their impressions. How’s it going for you? What do you think of the others?”
The others? Harrison wasn’t about to touch that one. Jan had said that they were all trauma survivors, with similar experiences. If they’d gone through a fraction of the shit that Harrison had, that had to be Very Special Trauma indeed. It was pretty obvious why Stan was here; he was an old-school victim who’d never gotten tired of showing off his stumps. Barbara had said little about what had happened to her, only that she’d been attacked, and she’d been seeing Dr. Sayer since the ’90s. She seemed to have come to terms with it. She was calm, soothing, a natural nurse. Greta, however, was in no shape to help anyone. She was shell shocked, probably less than a year from whatever supernatural shit went down. And the black kid with the glasses—Martin—Harrison had no idea what to make of him.
And how about the good doctor? He’d only had two sessions with her, after she’d contacted him about joining the group. She’d said she believed his story, which made him think she was lying. He wouldn’t believe his story.
“I think it’s going about like I expected,” Harrison said. Meaning: nowhere.
Barbara said, “I was wondering about Martin. He never seems to look at Greta.”
“Who can tell?” Stan asked. “He’s wearing those damn shades.”
“You do seem to be hiding behind them,” Barbara said gently to the young man. “I’d like to know what you’re thinking, but I can’t tell.”
Harrison suddenly realized what was going on with the glasses. He leaned forward. “Hey. Martin.” The boy didn’t move. “Martin.”
Martin hesitated, then swiveled his bug-eyed face in Harrison’s direction.
Harrison said, “Are you recording this?”
Martin sucked in his lip but did not turn away.
Harrison said, “You’re wearing some new kind of Google glasses.”
“It’s singular,” Martin said.
“Google Glass,” Martin said. “And no, these aren’t them. They’re actually made by a startup company called—”
“Take them the fuck off.”
That fuck went off like a little bomb. They’d been so polite so far.
Martin didn’t move. No one spoke for a long moment, and then Stan said, “What is he talking about? Who’s recording this?”
“I’m not recording anything,” Martin said.
Harrison had put his hands on his knees, shifting his weight. Everyone in the circle tensed. Greta, next to Harrison, made a small sound too quiet for anyone but him to hear. Dr. Sayer watched him, but made no move to stop him.
Harrison was annoyed. What? Leaning forward was not an act of violence. It signified, if anything, the mere willingness to take action. Or perhaps the first move in a sequence: one, Harrison jumping to his feet; two, reaching for doughy, defenseless Martin; three, ripping the glasses from his fucking face.
Harrison leaned back, closed his eyes, and breathed deep. “I would appreciate it if you took off the glasses, Martin.”
No one spoke. Harrison finally opened his eyes.
Martin was gazing at the floor now. “Dr. Sayer said I could leave them on,” he said in a small voice.
Barbara frowned. “Is that true, Jan?”
“I said that he didn’t have to take them off to attend the group,” Jan said. “He promised me he would not make any recordings, or share what happens here—the same agreement I made with all of you.”
“I gave my word,” Martin said.
“And I took him at his word,” Jan said. “However, I did tell him that the group might want to discuss his wearing of them.”
“I don’t want a camera in here,” Stan said.
Martin made no move to remove the glasses.
Jan said, “Greta, do you have some thoughts on this?”
Harrison watched her without making it obvious that he was watching. She was not a beautiful girl—there was something slightly asymmetrical about her features—but she was striking.
“It doesn’t matter to me,” she said.
“Martin,” Jan said. “How are you feeling about this feedback?”
“I don’t appreciate the hostility,” Martin said. “What about Stan and his mask? Are you going to ask him to get rid of his wheelchair?”
“What does that have to do with anything?” Stan said.
Barbara said, “Do you feel like you need the glasses?”
Stan made a derisive sound in the back of his throat.
“I don’t appreciate the bullying,” Martin said. “From him.”
“Me?” Harrison said.
Barbara smiled thinly at him. “You do seem a bit angry.”
“I’m not angry.” Everyone was looking at him, even Greta. “I’m not!” he said. What the fuck had happened? They were just talking about Martin’s glasses, and now they were turning on him. “Is this about the swearing? I apologize for that.”
“It’s not about the swearing,” Barbara said. “You seem annoyed that you’re in here. With us crazy people.”
“That’s not accurate,” Harrison said. “Jan says we’ve all experienced trauma. I’ll take her at her word.”
“You don’t have to take her word,” Stan said. “Not about me.”
“What’s yours, then?” Martin said to Harrison. “Your trauma. You haven’t said.”
“He’s Jameson Squared,” Greta said.
Shit, Harrison thought. A fan.
“Who?” Stan asked.
“Jameson Jameson,” she said. “From the kids’ books. The boy who kills monsters.”
Barbara looked surprised. She’d heard of him. Martin was more stunned. “I thought those were fiction,” he said.
“They are,” Harrison said.
Greta said, “Except they’re based on a real kid who survived Dunnsmouth. Harrison Harrison.”
They stared at him.
“Fiction,” he said. “Completely made up.” Then: “Almost entirely.”
Greta was the first to flee the room when the time was up. Harrison followed her, but by the time he got outside she was gone, into the night. She couldn’t have gone far, he thought.
The transit van was waiting for Stan. The loading door hung open, and the young driver was working the controls to bring the lift down. The man glanced up as Harrison approached, and Harrison gave him the bro nod again. The driver turned back to the controls.
Harrison walked toward his car, then stopped and turned back. “Excuse me,” he said.
The driver looked over his shoulder.
“I gave you the bro nod,” Harrison said.
“The what?” The lift clunked down, and the driver stepped back from the lever.
“Twice now,” Harrison said. “You’re supposed to nod back.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” the kid asked.
“The rules,” Harrison said. “Cowboys tip their hats at each other. Detectives tap their fedoras. But since we’re hatless these days, all we’ve got is the nod, and returning it isn’t optional.”
“Say ‘crazy’ and I will beat you to death with Stan’s wheelchair.”
The kid blanched.
“I’m kidding.” Harrison showed his teeth. “You’ve got four inches and a hundred pounds on me, nobody’s that crazy. Now let’s practice. Ready?”
Harrison demonstrated. “Tilt the head back, keeping eye contact, but not in a challenging way. Then back level. See? Now you.”
The kid stared at him. Then his head tipped back, ever so slightly.
“We’ll work on it,” Harrison said. He clapped the driver on the shoulder, making him flinch. “But I think we’ve made excellent progress.”
He noticed Martin standing in the light by the house door. He’d been watching the whole exchange through his black glasses, perhaps even recording it, despite what he’d promised the doctor. Harrison threw him a bro nod, and Martin nodded back.
“See?” Harrison said. “Martin gets it.” He started for his car and turned again to the driver. “One more thing. Use the fucking access ramp. It’s right over there.”
He walked to his leased car—he still could not recall what color it was without concentrating—and had just put the key into the ignition when a face appeared at the window. He startled, then laughed to himself.
It was Greta.
He turned the key to get power, and pushed the button to lower the window.
“Were you really there in Dunnsmouth?”
“It was a long time ago,” he said.
“Ten years,” she said. “That’s not so long.” She looked to the side. She made no move to leave.
He didn’t know what to do with his hands. Starting the car would be rude. Sometimes with crazy people you just had to wait.
After a time she said, “Are you coming back? Next week?”
He hadn’t decided yet. The meeting had gone better than he thought it would. They’d already found out his not-so-secret identity, and here he was, still breathing. “I suppose so,” he said. “Yeah.”
She nodded. She seemed relieved.
He said, “Do you need a ride or something?”
She said, “Do you still kill monsters, Harrison Squared?”
“Look, I don’t know what you’ve read—”
“Yes or no?”
“Sorry,” he said. “I don’t do that anymore.”
“Too bad.” She stepped back from the car, then turned and strode across the street. In a moment he lost her in the dark.
Yep, he thought. Definitely the craziest of us.
The rest of us were not so sure. By the time of the last meeting, five months later, we would still not be able to decide, even though there were fewer of us remaining to compete for the title.
We all returned for the second meeting. And the third.
Barbara was especially grateful that Greta kept coming back. The girl wore the same flesh-covering uniform for each meeting, black on black on black, her thumbs poking through holes in the cuffs of the long T-shirt like lynchpins to hold the armor in place. Barbara felt a twinge of sadness every time she saw the girl check to see if her wrists were exposed.
Greta rarely spoke—but hardly needed to. Stan dominated the discussion in those first meetings, turning each conversational point back to his own distress over being a freak, an outcast. Barbara suspected that the rest of the group was relieved to let the focus stay on him. Harrison didn’t have to be challenged on his anger, and Martin didn’t have to defend his continued use of the glasses; the young man still could not look in Greta’s direction.
Jan didn’t bring up any of these issues, and seemed to be willing to let Stan talk and talk. He was weaving his way backward through this story, starting from his current circumstances (terrible), though his life as famous victim (frightening, then tedious, then depressing), arriving after many digressions at the event that made him “the freak he was today.” Stan’s words. Stan was made of words.
“By then all my friends were dead,” Stan said. “Johnny, Davey, Alison, everyone dead except for me and Laura. Dragged off one by one to the smokehouse. A week later they’d be carried back into the barn, their bodies wrapped in burlap, bound by bailing wire. Like sausages. Like mummies. They hung them in the nets next to us.
“Laura was in bad shape. Feverish, hallucinating. I think she’d forgotten where she was. That was a good thing, yes? She didn’t know who was hung up beside her.”
Stan’s tears had started again. Barbara patted his arm. She knew the man was in pain. But who in the room wasn’t?
“It was the boy who kept us alive,” Stan said. “The youngest of the Weavers, seven, maybe eight years old. They called him Pest. He’d scamper up and down the nets easy as you please, half naked, just a pair of raggedy shorts, wiry as a monkey. He’d bring us water, push bits of food into our mouths. Hose down the ropes when we pissed or shit ourselves. He liked to climb up next to us and jabber in some kinda pidgin English.” Stan smiled and shook his head. “I could barely understand what he was saying. He would stroke Laura’s hair and coo to her. Most nights he would sleep with us, settle into the nets with his arms and legs in between the loops so he could hang there with us, his own vertical hammock. The older Weavers would beat on him sometimes, but I think they had a soft spot for him too. Or maybe they liked that he kept us alive. Maybe that was his job.
“He tried to help us on harvest days. That dinner bell would ring and the brothers would pull one of us down off the ropes and put us on the table. We’d be thrashing and screaming as they tied off above the cut. It wasn’t just Laura who cried and begged, I’m not afraid to admit it. But the Pest—the more we screamed the more he’d whisper and jabber in our ears, trying to soothe us. I remember one harvest—this was so sweet of him—he tried to cover my eyes as they took my left arm. I was so worked up I tried to bite him. I did bite him. Drew blood, too. Oh the Weavers laughed at that, made fun of Pest for getting careless. But he came back to me and pressed his palms over my eyes again. I felt so bad, losing control like that, but he didn’t hold it against me. Not one bit.”
Barbara looked around the room. Greta was staring at her hands. Martin was unreadable as ever behind his glasses. Harrison, however, was frowning at Jan.
The doctor was upset. She was sitting very still, but her eyes gleamed from unshed tears. Not for the first time Barbara wondered why any normal person would choose to listen to these stories day after day. Who would make this their job? And why was Harrison looking so disapproving over the doctor showing emotion?
“I only saw the boy cry once,” Stan said. “The day they came that last time for Laura. She was in a bad way—the infection was probably in her bloodstream by then, and there wasn’t much left of her. I knew what happened next, seen it with the others. Off to the smokehouse. To see her.”
Stan stopped talking. It was such a surprise that even Greta looked up.
Martin said, “Who?”
Harrison moved his head, a tiny gesture of disappointment. The message was clear: They’d almost gotten someone else to speak! Barbara suppressed a smile, and immediately she felt guilty.
But Stan, surprisingly, did not take the bait. He lifted the oxygen mask to his face and breathed deep. The group waited.
“I don’t know what happened to the boy,” Stan said finally. “When they rescued me, they killed the older Weavers—I saw two of the brothers die in front of me—and they killed the thing in the smokehouse. But nobody would talk about a child. They kept all mention of the kid out of the trial, probably to protect him. I used to think about him finding a foster home. Getting adopted. Growing up with real parents . . .”
Stan looked up. “I was glad that they never mentioned the child. Never said a name. Once you get branded a freak . . . that hangs on you.”
“Is that what you feel like?” Jan asked. She’d recovered her composure, and her voice was steady. “A freak?”
“Of course,” Stan said. “No one can look at me without recoiling.”
Jan asked, “Is there anyone in the room that you think is recoiling now?”
Stan glanced at Greta.
“You know, it’s not so uncommon to see amputees, since Iraq,” Martin said. “Plus you’re old.”
“What does that have to do with it?” Stan asked.
“I’m just saying. In the seventies or whatever, you were probably more shocking.” Martin shrugged. “Now you just look like a diabetic.”
“I was in the mall last week,” Stan said. “A child looked at me and screamed.”
“Really?” Harrison asked. “Screamed?”
Stan looked offended that he could be doubted. “The mother pulled him away from me. And everyone around us noticed what was going on, and then . . .”
And then and then and then. The words rolled out of him.
Barbara listened, but not patiently, as Stan detailed the other times he’d been humiliated or embarrassed in public. He seemed to have catalogued every frown of disgust, every averted gaze. And now no one in the circle would look at him, but not for the reasons he supposed.
When he paused to take a breath from his mask, Barbara said, “We all have scars, Stan.” Across the circle from her, Greta toyed with the hole in her sleeve. “Some aren’t as on display.”
“Amen to that,” Harrison said.
“None of you understand,” Stan said. “I spend every day in a chair waving stumps—”
Barbara stood and Stan abruptly shut up. She hadn’t planned on standing. When she realized what she was going to do next, she almost sank back into her seat. The group’s eyes were on her.
Greta’s eyes were on her.
Barbara took a breath, and then removed her black jacket. She folded it over the chair back and stood for a moment, looking at no one. She was wearing a linen long-sleeved shirt. She owned nothing but long-sleeved shirts.
“Does anyone know what scrimshaw is?” she asked.
“Fuck,” Harrison said.
She looked over at him and smiled shyly. She unbuttoned a cuff and began rolling back the sleeve.
“Etchings on whale bone,” Stan said. “Old timey sailor stuff.”
“A person who creates scrimshaw is called a scrimshander,” Barbara said. “But the Scrimshander . . . he doesn’t work on whale bones.”
She pushed the sleeve up to her bicep. A long, puckered scar ran from the inside of her elbow up past where the sleeve covered it.
“You’re from Dunnsmouth?” Harrison asked.
“I visited there,” she said. “Just once. I was nineteen.” But she wasn’t interested in telling her story right now. Stan had already exhausted them, and there’d be plenty of opportunities later. This was for Greta.
Barbara revealed a matching scar on her upper arm. Then she sat down and pulled up her skirt a few inches. Two other scars, starting at each knee. The Scrimshander had made five incisions in all, peeling back her skin to get at large bones. The largest scar was at her sternum, but she decided she’d made her point.
She looked around the room. “So.”
The group stared at her. The silence was unbearable.
Harrison grunted. The attention of the group swung to him. He stood up, tugged at his shirt, and lifted it to expose the ribs on his right side. An old, jagged scar puckered the skin. “The Scrimshander’s knife got me here,” he said. He unbuttoned the top buttons of his shirt and pulled open the collar to show them three round welts, each as big as a half dollar, that looked like old burns. “These were from the suckers of a monster called the Abysmal. And then there’s my first one . . .”
He sat and tugged up his right pants leg. The plastic leg started a few inches below his knee. “See, Stan? You’re not the only one.”
Dr. Sayer put up a hand. “None of you should feel any pressure about sharing before you’re ready. This is not a competition.”
Stan had already lifted his arm to his mouth. He pulled off the sock with his teeth and let it drop to his lap. The end of the arm looked like a rotted peach. “You can still see the line where the bailing wire cut into the skin—right above the cut.”
Barbara watched Greta. Her face had gone pale, and her eyes were fixed on the middle distance. Mentally she’d already fled the room.
I’ve made a mistake, Barbara thought. Instead of helping the girl, she’d swung the spotlight toward her.
Greta pushed up her sleeve.
Barbara’s first impression was of twine: white string that had been wound around her pale arm, arranged into swirls and blocky mazes and jagged bolts. These were not the pale, old scars of Barbara’s skin, or Stan’s gnarly keloids. The scars were precise markings, intricate as circuit boards, dense as text. They clearly continued up her arm.
“Okay,” Stan said to Greta. “You win.”
After the meeting, the image of Greta’s scars would not leave Barbara’s mind. She drove home picturing them, imagining the unseen territory of her skin beneath those dark clothes, guessing at how much of it must be covered with those ridges and swirls. Greta didn’t say who had inscribed them on her, or for what purpose, or at what age it had started. Barbara was heartsick at the idea of the girl being subjected to branding. She knew from personal experience the risk of infection, the pain of healing.
But the shapes were so beautiful. And they’d been carved with such artistry.
Her husband’s car was already in the garage; they were home from soccer practice then. Usually she would have had supper on the table by now, but on group meeting nights that was impossible. She found Stephen and the boys not in the kitchen but in the living room, a pizza box open on the coffee table. The three were sitting side by side on the couch, eyes locked on whatever shiny loudness emanated from the TV. Ten-year-old Ryan, shirt off and already tan after a week of sun. Toby, two years younger, still wearing his shin guards and cleats.
“Hey hon,” Stephen said without looking up. The boys didn’t seem to notice her at all.
She’d known for some time that her husband and sons didn’t need her. Oh, perhaps they loved her, but need? They would miss the lunches she packed, the appointments she scheduled, the forms she signed. She kept the calendar and sent out the dry cleaning, tracked the boys’ ever-changing shoe sizes, cut up the carrots and refilled the water bottles, combed the denim-blue lint from the dryer trap. But these were maintenance activities, easily outsourced. For everything essential, the males of the house had each other. They were a unit, a wolf pack.
She was not sad about this; just the opposite. She’d spent the past few years engineering their independence. They leaned against each other now like three poles. A fourth could only destabilize them.
She made herself a salad and ate it at the breakfast nook. She did not eat alone; the dark outside and the bright kitchen lights made a three-sided mirror of the bay windows so that she was surrounded by Barbaras. She stared at the twin doors of the hall closet, and the seam of light between them from the closet light that one of the boys had left on. She thought about Greta pushing up her sleeve; Harrison, their angry young man, lifting his shirt. She wondered what they thought of her scars. Did they understand what they represented, what they hid?
Stephen came into the kitchen and refilled his glass from the Brita pitcher.
“Oh, you had your therapy thing today. How did it go?”
“It was good. Interesting.”
“Yeah?” His politeness was reflexive. Kindness was baked into Stephen on the cellular level. “Any breakthroughs?”
The boys burst into laughter at something on the TV. His head turned automatically.
“Go finish,” she said.
Once Stephen had been her rescuer. He’d seen the girl in the wheelchair parked at the end of the row—the lecture class, on art history, was held in an auditorium—and dared to flirt with her. They were fellow artists, yes? Kindred souls? When she graduated to a cane, he’d asked her to dance. When she threw away the cane, he asked her to marry him. She turned him down. She said, only half joking, that he would leave her if she didn’t progress beyond canes to decathlons.
But Stephen was the man who stayed. When she told him she’d lied about the car accident, he did not blink. When she told him some of the things the Scrimshander had done to her (no one knew the whole story), he did not run.
For fifteen years, they were content. He stopped painting but discovered a talent for data analysis, making other kinds of pictures from vast streams of data. There was no financial need for her to work, though she did, taking a series of uninspiring jobs. Finally he said, Why don’t you just paint? He knew she needed it, just as he knew, and accepted, her need for privacy, for multiple locks on the door, for sleeping with the bathroom light on. He never asked her why she couldn’t say “I love you.” They made a life. Sometimes an entire day went by when she didn’t think of the Scrimshander.
Then, in their late thirties, a surprise. Not an unwanted pregnancy, but an unwanted desire for a child that appeared without warning and took up residence in her body. She felt ridiculous, as if she were reneging on a contract she’d made with Stephen. But when she finally admitted it to him—“Stephen, I have some news”—he responded with an enthusiasm that frightened her. Had this desire for fatherhood always been in him, but hidden from her because of her craziness? Or was it possible that they could both be so unknown to themselves?
They pursued pregnancy with scientific rigor and religious fervor. They read What to Expect When You’re Expecting until they were sick with fear. It was the worst kind of horror story, a child endangered on every page, but they absorbed the moral in every chapter.
And it worked. The babies were born with a minimum of drugs and drama. The infants escaped SIDS and survived croup. The adults weathered sleep dep and stress. They were determined to become what Stephen called The World’s Greatest Parenting Team, Non-Asian Division.
When the show ended and the pizza was consumed, Barbara and Stephen expertly separated and funneled the boys into phase 1 of the nighttime routine: homework, dishes, tomorrow’s lunches, the charging of devices. They did not have to speak. An hour and a half later, her husband was shooing the boys upstairs to showers and bed. He stopped at the turn of the stairs.
“You’re going out?” he asked. He did not add, again? Good, polite Stephen.
“I need to get some work done,” she said. “I’ll be back before breakfast, don’t worry.”
He started to say something, then changed his mind. A long time ago he’d stopped asking what she was working on, whether it was a new piece or something she’d been painting for weeks. He’d stopped asking when she would show them to him.
“Drive safe,” he said.
Drive safe, dress safe, live safe. Retreat to the safest place of all.
She opened the two locks on the apartment door, slipped inside, and immediately flipped the light switch. She stood there for a moment, breathing in the familiar tang of paint thinner, reassuring herself that she was alone.
Every inch of the apartment was visible from this spot at the front door. The main room was just over fifteen feet square with a tiny kitchenette set into the corner. The bathroom was open to her left; she’d removed the door and set it across two metal filing cabinets, making a work table. There were only a few other pieces of furniture: a pair of floor lamps, a wooden easel, a metal folding chair, and a futon with its blue mattress opened flat. A long, wood-framed mirror leaned in the corner. Nothing was wide or high enough to hide an intruder.
The pair of skinny windows at the end of the room were draped, but behind them were sturdy bars. She could feel that the windows had not been opened; the air was as warm and still as when she’d left. She twisted the locks shut behind her, then clacked home the deadbolt like a horizontal exclamation mark.
A half-dozen canvases leaned against the walls, stretched and primed. They’d been waiting for months. On the easel was the work in progress, if one could say that an ongoing failure could progress. She walked past it without looking at it. She drew aside the drapes of one window, then pushed it up a few inches, allowing a feeble draft of cool air. She was on the second floor, so there was little chance someone could see through the window.
The painting on the easel waited for her. She sat on the futon and looked up at it. As she’d done many times before, she’d painted a set of double doors, pale as her skin, and a seam between them glowing with golden light.
I left you a message.
She had not touched the canvas in weeks. There was nothing wrong with the painting, except that it was the wrong painting entirely. The doors should be open, revealing . . . something. A person, an object, a promised land. Or perhaps an abstract design, too difficult to translate into words. She would know it when she saw it, but she could not paint it until she saw it. Every time she’d attempted to force her way past those doors—and she’d tried a dozen times—she created a lie. An offense. The results were good only for burning.
She stood and removed her jacket, then blouse and skirt and underwear, and set them on the bed. How scandalized would Dr. Sayer have been if she’d gone this far during the meeting? She might have stopped Stan’s heart.
She went into the bathroom. The apartment’s open layout and clear sightlines were requirements, but what decided her on this place was the giant prewar bathtub. It was a cast-iron clawfoot tub, high-backed and swooping, that took up most of the narrow bathroom like a plump aristocrat. The porcelain interior shone like cold milk.
She turned the taps (which were not the original hardware, but stubby, characterless replacements), and waited while the water warmed. She was and was not thinking about the mirror. Months ago she’d driven screws into the bathroom wall and strung long loops of hanging wire. She’d hung the big frame there, then, embarrassed, took it down, even though no one ever came into the apartment.
After a long moment she went into the other room and brought back the mirror. It did not feel like a decision. It was something her body was doing, an action she was merely failing to veto. Perhaps, she thought—in the part of her brain that was noticing what was happening—this is the absence the recovering alcoholic feels as the glass fills. The blankness of the compulsive gambler as the next twenty slides into the slot machine.
She attached the mirror to the wall. The top wire was much longer than the bottom, so that the mirror leaned out across the tub. She got into the water, concentrating to make her nerve-damaged limbs move correctly, and when she looked up it was at a second tub, a second Barbara, suspended from above. The woman’s skin gleamed, and the scars were like silver trails.
The Scrimshander first made a filet of her limbs. He peeled back the skin of her arms to get at each humerus, keeping her half-sedated with strong alcohol as he worked. He moved carefully around the major arteries, preventing her from bleeding out. Over the course of a day and night he moved on to each femur, then finally the long crease at her sternum. He told her she had beautiful bones, and that he had made her even more beautiful.
I left you a message.
She never got to see what he had drawn. The police found her, unconscious, and by the time she awoke the doctors had stitched her closed.
Greta was so lucky, Barbara thought. What had been done to her was right there, written where anyone could see.