- False Memory
When Dusty staggered to his feet, he saw that Eric had already gotten off the floor. The guy looked confused but nonetheless angry and still in a programmed-killer mode.
From the stairs, which she was rapidly descending, Martie said, “Ed Mavole,” even before Dusty could say it, and suddenly this seemed to be the lamest video game Martie had ever concocted:
Housepainter Versus Investment Adviser, one armed with an automatic weapon and the other with furniture and magic names.
It might have been funny, this thought at this moment, if he’d not looked past Martie to the top of the stairs, where Junior stood with a crossbow, cranked to full tension and loaded.
“No!” Dusty shouted.
A crossbow quarrel, shorter and thicker than an ordinary arrow, is far more difficult to see in flight than is an arrow let off by a standard bow, so much faster does it move. Magic, the way this one appeared to pop from Eric Jagger’s chest, as if out of his heart like a rabbit out of a hat: All but two inches of its notchless butt protruded in a small carnation of blood.
Eric dropped to his knees. The homicidal glare cleared from his eyes, and he looked around in bewilderment at the foyer, which apparently was altogether new to him. Then he blinked up at Dusty and seemed astonished as he fell forward, dead.
When Martie tried to stop Dusty from going upstairs, he shook her off, and he climbed two steps at a time, his forehead throbbing where he’d rapped it against the stretcher bar, his vision swimming, but not from the blow on the head, swimming because his body was flooded with whatever brain chemicals induce and sustain rage, his heart pumping as much pure fury as blood, the angelic-looking boy seen now through a dark lens and a red tint, as though Dusty’s eyes were streaming tears of blood.
Junior tried to use the crossbow like a shield, to block the assault. Dusty grabbed the stock at midpoint, the revolving nut of the lock plate digging into the palm of his hand. He wrenched the bow out of the boy’s grasp, threw it on the floor, and kept moving. He drove the boy across the hall, into the space where the sideboard had stood, shoving him against the wall so hard that his head bounced off the plaster with a thock like a tennis ball off a racket.
“You sick, rotten little shit.”
“He had a gun!”
“I’d already taken it away from him,” Dusty screamed, spraying the boy with spittle, but Junior insisted, “I didn’t see!” And they repeated the same useless things to each other, twice, three times, until Dusty accused him with such violence that his damning words boomed along the hail: “You saw, you knew, you did it anyway!”
Then came Claudette, pushing between them, forcing them apart, her back to Junior, confronting Dusty, eyes harder than before, the unyielding gray of flint and flashing as if with sparks. For the first time in her life, her face didn’t astonish with its beauty: instead, such a hideous ferocity. “You leave him alone, leave him alone, you get away from him!”
“He killed Eric.”
“He saved us! We’d all be dead, but he saved us!” Claudette was shrill, as never before, her lips pale and her skin gray, like some stone goddess come alive and raging, a termagant who, by sheer power of will, would alter this bitter reality to suit her, as only gods and goddesses could do. “He had the guts, and he had the brains to act, to save us!”
Lampton appeared, too, pouring out thick streams of soothing words, gouts of platitudes, slathers of anger-management jargon, no less containable than the oil spill from a floundering supertanker. Talking, talking, talking, even as his wife pressed her ceaseless strident defense of Junior, both of them chattering at once: Their words were like paint rollers, laying down obscuring swaths of new color over stains.
At the same time, Lampton was trying to get the machine pistol out of Dusty’s right hand, which at first Dusty didn’t even realize he was still holding. When he understood what Lampton wanted, he let go of the weapon.
“Better call the police,” Lampton said, though surely neighbors had already done so, and he hurried away.
Skeet warily approached, staying well clear of his mother but nonetheless coming around to Dusty’s side of the standoff, and Fig stood farther back down the hall, watching them as though he had, at last, made contact with the aliens he had so long desired to meet.
None of them had fled the house as Dusty had urged them to do—or if they had gotten as far as the roof of the back porch, they had returned. At least Lampton and Claudette must have known that Junior was loading his crossbow with the intention of joining the battle, and apparently neither of them had tried to stop him. Or perhaps they had been afraid to try. Any parents with common sense or a genuine love of their child would have taken the crossbow away from him and dragged him out of this house if necessary. Or maybe the idea of a boy with a primitive weapon defeating a man with a machine pistol—a twisted incarnation of Rousseau’s concept of the noble savage, which set so many hearts aflutter in the academic literary community—had been too delicious to resist. Dusty could no longer pretend to understand the odd thought processes of these people, and he was weary of trying.
“He killed a man,” Dusty reminded his mother, because for him no amount of shrill argument could change this fundamental truth.
“A lunatic, a maniac, a demented man with a gun,” Claudette insisted
“I’d taken the gun away from him.”
“That’s what you say.”
“That’s the truth. I could have handled him.”
“You can’t handle anything. You drop out of school, you drop out of life, you paint houses for a living.”
“If customer satisfaction were the issue,” he said, knowing he shouldn’t say it, unable to restrain himself, “I’d be on the cover of Time, and Derek would be in prison, paying for all the patients’ lives he’s fu**ed up.”
“You ungrateful bastard.”
Distraught, on the verge of tears, Skeet pleaded, “Don’t start this. Don’t start. It’ll never stop if you start now.”
Dusty recognized the truth of what Skeet said. After all these years of keeping his head down, all these years of enduring and being dutiful but distant, so much hurt remained unsalved, so many offenses had never been responded to, that the temptation now would be to redress all wrongs in one terrible venting. He wanted to avoid that dreadful plunge, but he and his mother seemed to be in a barrel on the roaring brink of Niagara, with nowhere to go but down.
“I know what I saw,” Claudette insisted. “And you’re not going to change my mind about that, not you of all people, not you, Dusty.”
He couldn’t let it go and still be sure of who he was: “You weren’t here. You weren’t in a position to see anything.”
Martie had joined them. Taking hold of Dusty’s hand, gripping it tightly, she said, “Claudette, only two people saw what happened. Me and Dusty.”
“I saw,” Claudette declared angrily. “No one can tell me what I saw or didn’t see. Who do you think you are? I’m not a doddering old senile bitch who can be told what to think, what she saw!”
Behind his mother, Junior smiled. He met Dusty’s eyes and was so lacking in shame that he didn’t look away.
“What’s wrong with you?” Claudette demanded of Dusty. “What’s wrong with you that you’d rather see your brother’s life ruined over something as meaningless as this?”
“Murder is meaningless to you?”
Claudette slapped Dusty, slapped him hard, grabbed handfuls of his shirt, tried to push him back, and as she shook him, words shook from her, too, one at a time: “You. Won’t. Do. This. Vicious. Thing. To. Me.”
“I don’t want to ruin his life, Mother. That’s the last thing I want. He needs help. Can’t you see that? He needs help, and somebody better get it for him.”
“Don’t you judge him, Dusty.” Such venom in the emphasis that she gave to his name, such bitterness. “One year of college doesn’t make you a master of psychology, you know. It doesn’t make you any damn thing at all, except a loser.”
Crying now, Skeet said, “Mother, please—”
“Shut up,” Claudette said, rounding on her younger son. “You just shut up, Holden. You didn’t see anything, and you better not pretend you did. No one will believe you, anyway, the mess you are.”
As Martie pulled Skeet aside, out of the fray, Dusty looked past Claudette, to Junior, who was smirking as he watched Skeet.
Dusty almost heard the click as a switch was thrown and insight brightened a previously dark space in his mind. The Japanese called this a satori, a moment of sudden enlightenment: an odd word learned in one year of college.
Satori. Here was Junior, as fair of face as his mother, blessed with her physical grace, as well. And bright. No denying how very bright he was. At her age, he would be her last child, and the only one with the prospect to fulfill her expectations. Here was her last chance to be not merely a woman of ideas, to be not merely the bride to a man of ideas, but to be the mother of a man of ideas. Indeed, in her mind, though not in reality, here was her last chance to be associated with ideas that might move the world, because her first three husbands had proved to be men whose big ideas had no solidity and had popped at the first prick. Even Derek, with all his success, was a chupaflor, not an eagle, and Claudette knew it. Dusty was, in her mind, too pigheaded to fulfill his potential, and Skeet was too fragile. And Dominique, her first child, was long and safely dead. Dusty had never known his half sister, had seen one photo of her, perhaps the only ever taken: her sweet, small, gentle face. Junior was the only hope that remained for Claudette, and she was determined to believe that his mind and his heart were as fair as his face.
While she was still browbeating Skeet, Dusty heard himself say, “Mother, how did Dominique die?”
The question, dangerous in this context, silenced Claudette as nothing else except perhaps another gunshot would have done.
He met her eyes and didn’t turn to stone, as she intended, and shame—rather than a lack of it—kept him from looking away. Shame that he had known the truth, intuitively at first and then through the application of logic and reflection, had known the truth since boyhood and yet had denied it to himself and had never spoken. Shame that he allowed her and Skeet’s pompous father and then Derek Lampton to grind Skeet down, when ferreting out the truth about Dominique might have disarmed them and given Skeet a better life.
“You must have been heartbroken,” Dusty said, “when your first child was born with Down’s syndrome. Such high hopes, and such sad reality.”
“What are you doing?” Her voice was softer now but even more highly charged with anger.
The hallway seemed to grow narrower, and the ceiling seemed to descend slowly, as if this were one of those deadly room-size traps in corny old adventure movies, and as if all of them were in danger of being crushed alive.
“And then another tragedy. Crib death. Sudden infant death syndrome. How difficult to endure it. . . the whispers, the medical inquiry, waiting for a final determination of the cause of death.”
Martie drew a sharp breath with the realization of where this was going, and she said, “Dusty,” meaning Maybe you shouldn’t do this.
He had never spoken up when it might have helped Skeet, however, and now he was determined to do what he could to force her to get treatment for Junior while there might still be time. “One of my clearest early memories, Mother, is a day when I was five, going on six.. . a couple weeks after Skeet was brought home from the hospital. You were born prematurely, Skeet. Did you know that?”
“I guess,” Skeet said shakily.
“They didn’t think you’d survive, but you did. And when they brought you home, they thought you were likely to have suffered some brain damage that would show up sooner or later. But that, of course, proved not to be the case.”
“My learning disability,” Skeet reminded him.
“Maybe that,” Dusty agreed. “Assuming you ever really had one.”
Claudette regarded Dusty as though he were a snake: wanting to stomp him before he coiled and struck, but afraid to make any move against him and thereby precipitate what she feared most.
He said, “That day when I was five, going on six, you were in a mood, Mother. Such a strange mood that even a little boy couldn’t help but sense that something terrible was going to happen. You got out the photograph of Dominique.”
She raised one fist as if to hit him again, but it hung in the air, the blow not struck.
In some respects, this was the hardest thing that Dusty had ever done, and yet in other ways it was so easy that it frightened him, easy in the same sense that jumping off a roof is easy if there are no consequences to the fall. But there would be consequences here. “It was the first time I’d ever seen that photograph, ever known I’d had a sister. You carried it with you around the house that day. You couldn’t stop looking at it. And it was late in the afternoon when I found the photo lying in the hallway outside the nursery.”
Claudette lowered her fist and turned away from Dusty.
His hand seemed to belong to another, bolder man as he watched it reach out and take her by the arm, halting her and forcing her to face him.
Junior stepped forward protectively.
“Better pick up your crossbow and load it,” Dusty warned the boy. “Because you can’t handle me without it.”
Although the violence in his eyes was more fierce even than the hard rage in his mother’s, Junior backed off.
“When I came into the nursery,” Dusty said, “you didn’t hear me. Skeet was in the crib. You were standing over him with a pillow in your hands. You stood over him for the longest time. And then you lowered the pillow toward his face. Slowly. And that’s when I said something. I don’t remember what. But you knew I was there, and you.. . stopped. At the time, I didn’t know what had almost happened. But later. . . years later, I did understand, but wouldn’t face it.,’
“Oh, Jesus,” Skeet said, his voice as weak as that of a child. “Oh, dear sweet Jesus.”
Although Dusty had faith in the power of truth, he didn’t know for sure that this revelation would help Skeet more than harm him. He was so torn by the thought of the wreckage he might be causing that when a quiver of nausea passed briefly through him, he assumed he would throw up blood if he threw up anything at all.
Claudette’s teeth were so tightly clenched that the muscles twitched in her jaws.
“A couple minutes ago, Mother, I asked if murder was meaningless to you, and the question didn’t even give you pause. Which is odd, because that is a big idea. Worth discussion if ever anything was.”