“No.” Jim frowned, looking around for an empty glass or bottle. Have I? No, that was last night, because I always get horny the morning after a drink and … He remembered sex in the shower, and the taste of Jenny on his tongue.
“So who are Jenny and Holly? Did you have one of your weird dreams again?”
“Okay, that’s enough. I’m tired and cranky and—”
“You’re cranky? The love of my life has left me, my liver’s about to call it quits, and you’re cranky?”
“What are you doing?”
“Jim … this is just weird. I mean … you know what I’m going through here.” He fell silent again for another few seconds, his breathing not as light as before. “Jim, you’re not on drugs, are you?”
“No! You know I’ve never …” Jim closed his eyes and trailed off, rubbing at his head and trying to contain his anger. Then he opened his eyes again, looking at where their wedding photo had once hung.
“What’s happening?” Jim asked. “Where are they? Help me here, Jonathan.”
“Jim, I have no idea who you’re talking about. Jenny? olly?”
“Holly! My daughter, Holly. And Jenny, my wife.”
“Riiight …,” Jonathan drawled. “Okay. Well, considering you’ve never been married—”
Jim snapped the cell phone shut. He’d seen something that thumped at his chest, something not there that he’d only just noticed, because things not there were so much harder to see. He closed his eyes and thought back. The photograph had been there forever. Mummy and Daddy got mallied, Holly would shout, and Jonathan never failed to comment on his superior photography, and how his talent was wasted as Boston’s most successful artistic agent.
He opened his eyes again and walked across the room to where the picture had been removed. There was no square mark where the paint on the wall behind it had faded over the years, no hook, no nail.
It was as if the picture of him and his wife had never hung there at all.
Chapter 2 - Man with No Country
BREATHE, JIM. He squeezed his eyes shut, forced himself to take four long, shuddering breaths, then opened his eyes again and looked around the living room. His hands were clenched into fists—not in anger, but in some subconscious attempt to grab hold of the fabric of the world, as if he could clutch it to himself and it would not slip away.
The wedding photo had been just the beginning. His mind had been muddled by sleep and then by irritation with Jonathan, but that empty place on the wall where the photo should have hung—and the absence of any faded paint, any hook, any evidence of a nail—sparked a barrage of tiny epiphanies that paralyzed him. At first he’d thought the furniture had been rearranged, but that impression lasted only a split second before he realized that the room around him had changed much more than that.
The armchair by the fireplace had been stiff-backed, striped in white and burgundy, but the chair that now occupied that spot was wider and plusher, upholstered in a chalky shade of blue. The end table beside the sofa and the long teak coffee table were the same, if a little more pristine than he remembered, but the lamps were different. When Jenny’s grandfather had died, her mother had sold the house and asked them to take whatever they wanted. The only furnishings Jenny had claimed were a set of antique lamps with glass shades hand-painted with red and pink roses. The lamps had vanished, replaced by more modern lighting, including a brass floor lamp Jim could not imagine ever buying.
“Jenny?” he shouted in the empty apartment. “Holly?”
His voice filled the place, giving it a sense of occupancy that felt entirely wrong. His voice alone shouldn’t be enough to make the apartment seem full. The very life and laughter of the place had gone from it, and it did not yawn with emptiness the way a home ought to when its people were out.
He glanced at the mirror over the fireplace. He had inherited it from his own mother. It remained, but something caught his eye, and Jim finally snapped from his paralysis and rushed over to stare at the mantelpiece. The two small framed photos that had always seemed to attract too much dust were now missing. One had been a baby picture of Holly, the other a snapshot from a Vermont trip a few years ago when Holly had been four or so, the three of them sitting on an old-time toboggan in the snow. But the pictures weren’t there. Neither did he see any sign of the usual detritus that having a daughter provided. Jim and Jenny were constantly picking up small parts of her toys—plastic Barbie shoes, pet bobbleheads, Super Balls, beads from broken bracelets—but the mantel was clear.
These absences hit him faster now, and his gut churned with nausea. A quick glance at the curio cabinet behind the chair revealed awards he had won and small statuettes, knickknacks of a lifetime. Bronze replicas of western-motif sculptures by Frederic Remington were side by side with the carved glass Viking he’d picked up in Sweden and the crystal ball Jonathan had given to Jim after he’d earned his first million—“to see the future,” he’d said.
His face felt flushed, and he leaned against the chair, staring in through the glass doors of the cabinet. His hands were shaking as he reached out to touch the knob. They had built in a magnetic latch to keep Holly from getting into the cabinet, but the door pulled open easily. No latch.
Gone were the Lladró figures that Jenny had so loved: the mermaid, the mother and daughter, the Japanese woman in her kimono, and others he could not recall. Gone were the matryoshka nesting dolls Jenny had brought home from St. Petersburg when she was pregnant with Holly.
Shaking his head, trembling even more, he backed away from the curio cabinet until his legs hit the coffee table. He turned around in circles, a peculiar kind of anger blazing up within him, fueled by fear and confusion. “This. Isn’t. Funny!” he shouted.
You’re being ridiculous. The common-sense voice threw cold water on his panic. It’s a joke. A really horrible, almost unforgivable joke.
He left the living room behind, striding purposefully into the dining room. Something on top of the china cabinet caught his eye. A platter, incredibly detailed, bone china with blue trim. It had sat in the same place in his childhood home in Andover, used only on Thanksgiving, a family heirloom that had come down from his mother’s grandmother, and it would have been his, except that on the first Thanksgiving after he and Jenny had begun dating, she had caught her foot on the carpet and tripped, destroying both a century of family history and Thanksgiving dinner in seconds. Jim’s mother, God rest her, had never forgotten. For the few years she had left of her life, she had tried to make light of it, but Jim had felt the distance the woman had placed between herself and her future daughter-in-law, and he knew Jenny had felt it, too.
In his mind’s eye, he could still see the shattered platter and the ruined bird on the floor of his parents’ dining room, the shards like the rough edges of broken clamshells.
Yet there it was, good as new, on display on top of his china cabinet.
It broke him. He stood on tiptoes, reached up on top of the cabinet, and swept the platter onto the floor. It shattered, smashed as it should have been, and then Jim bolted for the stairs, not pausing to study the kitchen for the thousand inaccuracies it no doubt contained. One picture hung on the stairwell’s wall—him and a gorgeous young woman he did not know, holding hands on a skyscraper balcony somewhere—where there should have been a dozen snaps of him, Jenny, and Holly. He ignored the unknown picture and ran his palm along where the other frames should have been, a cold knot forming in his belly. He passed the door to the guest room, running into his own room. His and Jenny’s.
His eyes began to burn with unshed tears, blurring.
She’d left no trace of herself behind.
“Jenny!” he called, like a medium trying to summon a ghost, looking at the ceiling and at the shadowed corners of the room. “This isn’t funny!”
This isn’t funny. The plaintive wail of a child left alone in the dark by his older siblings.
Slowly he turned to look at the door to the corridor—the one he’d just come through. He took short, sharp breaths and then forced himself to leave his bedroom and walk toward the back of the apartment. If it wasn’t a trick, what was it? Had she left him? Could he have done something terrible to her without even knowing it? Something so awful that it could have driven her to abandon him so thoroughly?
No. He’d seen the love and the sweet mischief in her eyes just this morning. They had made love in the shower, as tenderly and as hungrily as they ever had. And if Jenny had left, that didn’t explain the apartment. Why would she bother to erase all evidence that she had ever been his wife? How the hell could she have done it? It would have been easy enough to drug him this morning, something in his breakfast or his coffee, or in the donuts that Jonathan brought—
Jonathan. He denied even knowing Jenny. And Holly! How could he do that? He had to be involved.
But even with him sedated, could they have changed everything so completely in just six hours? Could he really have been that heavily drugged and not feel any lingering effects now?
He stood in front of the last door at the end of the hall. No, she wouldn’t have left. Not the woman he had loved all these years. Not the woman who had smiled at him so beautifully, so intimately, that morning. Not his Jenny. But that opened up another possibility. Had his family been taken? If so, by whom? And again, the most troubling, most impossible question—how?
Jim pushed open the door to Holly’s bedroom, a picture in his mind of the soft pink decorations, the princesses, the bookshelf he had built for her, the fairies he had painted on the wall.
The room held only a desk and filing cabinet, an old computer, boxes of books, and an old love seat. On the seat cushion was a dark stain from where he’d spilled grape soda the last day of fourth grade. Thirty years ago.
Jenny had persuaded him to put that love seat out at the curb for trash pickers to cart off when he put his parents’ house up for sale after his mother’s funeral. It had been taken away within an hour, and he hadn’t seen it since.
It couldn’t be there.
Jim sank into the love seat, numb and hollow, this impossible piece of furniture that had been left—along with his great-grandmother’s platter—in the place of his wife and his little girl.
Minutes passed—he didn’t know how many—before he blinked and looked around, as though waking from a trance. He wiped away tears with the back of his hand as he stared first at the boxes and then at the old computer. “What the fuck is this?” he whispered to himself.
Then he was up and moving, because he knew what he had to do.
Jim’s building stood on a corner across from Union Square in Boston’s trendy South End. The six-story bowfront brick row house was the last on the block. Its upper five stories were split between two apartments, with the Banks family taking the top three, including the dormered attic where Jim had his studio. The ground floor housed Tallulah’s, a restaurant and café that specialized in European fare and damn fine coffee. The apartment in between was occupied by a fiftyish travel writer named Carole Levitt and her latest boyfriend, Oliver Chin.
Jim knocked so hard the door shook. He waited only seconds before knocking again, standing in the dim light of the stairwell landing.
“All right, all right!” Carole called from inside. Jim heard the lock slide back, and then she opened the door, irritation creasing her brow. “You don’t look like you’re on fire. What’s the—”
“Have you seen Jenny and Holly today?” he demanded, jaw set, daring her to say no.
A bemused smile lit Carole’s eyes, and she leaned against the door frame. “Are those the two college girls you had up there a while back? If so, then no, and I’m sure Ollie hasn’t seen them, either, because he would definitely have noticed. He sure noticed them the night you brought them home.”
Of all possible responses, this was one Jim had not considered. It struck him dumb for a moment, then he shook his head, trying to clear it. “Listen, Carole—”
“Did they steal something? I’ve warned you about letting these girls you barely know into your place, Jimmy. They see something shiny, and that’s—”
“Damn it, will you listen?” he shouted at her.
Carole scowled, stepping back from the door, about to close it. “Why don’t you come back when you figure out what the hell your problem is?”
Jim slammed a palm against the door, preventing her from closing it. Alarm flared in her eyes, and he could see her trying to decide if he was secretly a psychopath or a rapist or both.
“Please, just …,” he started, forcing himself to calm down, to take even breaths. “You really don’t know who I’m talking about? When I say ‘Jenny and Holly,’ you don’t know who I mean?”
Carole seemed to sense his genuine distress at last and take pity on him. “Look, Jimmy, I liked that one girl last year, the one who works in the mayor’s office? But it’s not like I invite all your flings in for tea. If you want me to try to remember these girls, you could at least describe them. But short answer is no, I haven’t seen or heard anyone on the stairs today except for you and Oliver.”
A dreadful chill had begun to settle into his bones, and he felt weariness and surrender waiting for him at the edges of his consciousness like thieves lurking in shadows. “Thank you,” he said. “Thanks. I’m sorry I …”
But he didn’t finish. Instead he backed through the door, turned, and ran down the stairs toward their shared exit out onto the street. What could he possibly have said?
Tallulah’s thrummed with clinking plates and glasses and the buzz of conversation. The aroma of coffee hung like a thick, warm cloud inside the restaurant; Jenny had always claimed to get a caffeine high just from walking into the place.