Chapter Twenty-Eight

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Jesse tripped over the skateboard on the way to the kitchen.  Finn and Nubi heard the crash and the swearing, and came running.  They, dog and man, scrimmaged in the doorway.  Nubi tried to run between Finn’s legs and Finn landed on his backside, clipping Nubi as he fell, while the dog yelped and skittered away.  For a few minutes the hall looked like a football pitch after a foul.

Finn got to his feet and glared first at the dog, then at Jesse.

‘You’re not supposed to use it in the house, you know,’ Finn snapped.

Finn had just spent about seventeen sleepless hours in the air, plus long and tedious sessions in airports; he was stiff, tired, hungry, hungover, and in an altogether lousy mood (one of his cases was still circling the globe); and moreover he knew that he shouldn’t have left the skateboard near the staircase.  Jesse untangled his legs from the board and got to his feet.  He rubbed his elbow where he’d cracked it against the floor.

‘Good morning to you, too,’ Jesse said.

They bared their teeth at each other in a way that suddenly reminded Finn of arguments with his own father.  He grinned apologetically.  ‘Sorry, that was supposed to be a surprise for you.’

‘Oh, it was a surprise all right,’ Jesse said.

This time they both grinned, and Finn came over and gave Jesse a huge hug.

‘Welcome back,’ Jesse said.  ‘We’ve missed you.’

‘You can’t imagine how glad I am to be back.’

‘Had any breakfast yet?’

‘No, I’ve just got in.  Meg seems to be at work.’

‘Sarah’s still curled up in bed with that funny early morning let-me-sleep-scowl of hers, so why don’t I get us something to eat while you have a shower?  More like brunch, though.’

‘Sounds great.  Is there any bacon?’ Finn asked.  He stooped, picked up the skateboard, and leaned it against the wall, wheels facing outwards.  He straightened slowly and gave Jesse a searching look, lips pursed.  Jesse coloured up.  ‘I see.  So that’s how the wind blows, does it?’

‘I don’t want to hide anything from you,’ Jesse said.

‘It would be a little hard, wouldn’t it, under the same roof?’

‘Then you mind?’

Finn sighed.  ‘To be honest with you, I don’t know.  I have the feeling I’m supposed to act all fatherly and concerned, but either I’m too damned wrung out or . . .  I like you, Jesse, you know that.  More important, I trust you.  It’s just that she’s so . . . you’re both so . . . ’

‘Young,’ Jesse finished for him.  ‘Yeah, I knew you’d say that.’

Finn and Jesse looked at each other without speaking, neither quite certain how to proceed.  Nubi approached Jesse and licked his hand.  Jesse remembered the way the dog had cowered last night when he and Meg had first let themselves into house.  It had taken a good deal of coaxing, and finally a bone, to get Nubi out from under Meg’s desk.

Finn gestured towards the dog.  ‘You seem to inspire devotion in quite a lot of hearts.  I wonder how you do it.  You’re not even that good-looking.’  A yawn wide enough to crack his jaw, and the last of the tension.  ‘Come on, I’m going to get out of these filthy things.  Go and start the coffee.’

The coffee was hot, the eggs fried, and the bacon crisp by the time Finn came into the kitchen, his beard still dripping a bit.  He had donned a fresh pair of jeans and one of his infamous T-shirts.  In his hands he held a carton of cigarettes, which he tossed down on the table.

‘If you’re going to smoke the damned things, then at least do so at duty-free prices.’

‘Actually, I was thinking of stopping,’ Jesse said.

‘Meg been at you?’

‘Well, she doesn’t say anything . . . ’

‘Tell me about it.  When we first moved in together, she’d go round the flat emptying ashtrays and opening all the windows, even in the dead of winter.  But never a word of reproach.’

While Finn ate, he glanced at Jesse from time to time.  There was something about his eyes—not the colour, changeable though blue could be.  A new intensity, maybe?  Or sadness?  Whatever it was, it was disquieting.  It made him look older, more burdened.

‘You look as if you were somewhere else,’ Finn said.  ‘Somewhere very far away.’

The temptation to tell Finn was very strong, so strong that Jesse needed to press his lips together.  One day, perhaps, when he had a better grasp of what he was dealing with.  But deep down he already knew that he was fooling himself, that this was a road he would walk alone.  There was no point in regretting what he couldn’t change, and futile to ask what had brought him here.  You are what you are.  Live with it, he told himself.  You’re used to being on your own.  You can do it again.  But it hurt.

He glanced up to find Finn staring at him.

For a moment Jesse asked himself if he’d been muttering aloud.  He was going to have to be a lot more careful, unless he wanted to end up in the loony bin.  Or behind bars.  He thought about the research facility.  They’d never let him go if they knew what had happened.  Too right, the voice said.  So no fancy shenanigans now.  We’re going to keep a low profile for a long time.  A real long time.  Test the waters, so to speak.  Jesse wondered at the reading habits of the software engineers who had designed the original programs.  A lot of genre stuff, he’d hazard.  Pulp fiction: he’d always liked that old phrase.  Snob, the voice retorted.

He couldn’t keep thinking of it as a voice.  Or even a Voice.  And most definitely not HAL.  So how about Adam?  the voice suggested.  If you must insist on a name.  You can’t be serious, Jesse thought.  Then Deep Red, came the response, along with a snigger.  Jesse gave a mental shrug, too weary to wrangle.

There must be a way to block it off.  It was his head, after all.

Nubi rose from his sprawl under the window, stretched, and moved to Jesse’s side.  He laid his head on Jesse’s knee.  Jesse reached down and stroked the dog blindly, his eyes on a corner of the kitchen.  He didn’t see the sudden change on Finn’s face, bones splintering and floating to the surface.

Finn felt the familiar ache of grief.  And then regret for the not-to-be, for chances lost—they should have met, these two sons of his.

At a reminder from Nubi’s paw Jesse blinked and turned his head, his eyes still remote.

‘What’s wrong, Jesse?’ Finn asked gently.

‘Last night,’ Jesse said, his voice low and strained, ‘there were some strange moments.’

‘What sort of strange?’  Concern, but alarm too.

Already regretting he’d said anything, Jesse shrugged.  ‘Meg can tell you about it.’

‘I’d rather hear it from you.’

‘I don’t want to talk about it.’

Finn’s voice brittled.  ‘You can’t have it both ways, you know.  Live with us but expect to be treated like a guest.  Engage our affections but reject our concern.’  He hesitated before widening the crack.  ‘Sleep with my daughter but—’

Jesse broke in, ‘Yeah, maybe you’re right.  I don’t belong here.’

‘Hold on.  Nobody said anything about leaving.’

‘Isn’t that what you really meant?’

‘Damn it, when I mean something, then I’ll say it straight out.’

‘But it’s true.  I’ve got no business getting involved with Sarah.  She’s only going to get hurt.’

‘Just what is that supposed to mean?’

There was a slight tremor in Jesse’s voice when he repeated, ‘It’s no good.  Too much is happening.  She’s going to get hurt.’

‘And what about you?  You won’t?’

Jesse was quiet for so long that Finn thought he wouldn’t answer.

‘It doesn’t matter about me.  I’m used to it.’

‘Fuck that.  You might be willing to give up on yourself, but I’m not.’

Angrily, Finn rose from the table and went to fill the kettle for a second pot of coffee, more to occupy his hands than from a desire for another dose of caffeine.

‘I’m dead tired,’ he said, sitting down again while the kettle boiled.  ‘You’re not making it easier for either of us.  Now tell me what’s going on.’

Jesse wanted nothing more than to be left alone to sort through his own feelings and impressions, maybe to test himself a little.  Red had been strangely quiet in the last few minutes.  Was it his imagination after all?  He gave it a tentative prod.  Back off, I’m busy, came the swift rejoinder.  OK.  Anyway, what did that prove?

‘Jesse, quit stalling before I lose my temper.’

A surge of irritation flared in Jesse’s gut.  The crown of Finn’s head, deeply bronzed, gleamed in the sunlight streaming through the closed window.  Jesse glared at him.  Leave me alone, he thought, why the fuck don’t you just leave me be, Christ, enough’s ENOUGH.  He shoved at Finn—no, at something, at his frustration, his fate maybe—and felt it resist

then buckle

then give

The window exploded outward with an enormous WHOMP of sound: a set of amped-up monster cymbals booming in their eardrums: a blast of highspeed air.  The glass fell with a deafening crash to the patio outside.  Nubi jumped up, barked, and ran from the room.  The cracking and ratcheting of breaking glass seemed to go on for a long time.

Finn and Jesse sat frozen in place.

‘Did you do that?’ whispered Finn after his heart finally returned to his chest.

Jesse nodded, a bit sheepishly.

‘Shit.’  Finn expelled the word in a hoarse rush, disbelief and something close to admiration in his voice.

‘Look, I’m sorry.  I’ll replace it.  I really shouldn’t have done that.’

‘Yes.  I mean, no, of course you shouldn’t have, but it’s only glass.  Easy enough to repair.  But how the hell did you break a window without moving a muscle?  And why do I have the feeling that I don’t want to know?’

‘Ayen’s computer.’

‘Ayen’s computer?’ Finn asked.  ‘What in god’s name are you talking about?’

Jesse decided he had no choice but to give Finn an abridged version of the truth.  Very abridged.

‘The prototype seems to have had some lingering effects on me.’

Finn waited for an explanation.  It didn’t come.

‘And that’s it?  That’s all you’re going to say?’

Jesse shrugged.

‘Lingering effects,’ Finn muttered, glancing towards the window.  ‘Talk about understatement.’  He dug at his beard.  ‘Are you absolutely sure there are no other new tricks you’re not mentioning?  That I need to watch out for?’

Jesse held his tongue.

‘Have you heard from Ayen while I was away?’ Finn finally asked.

‘No.’

Jesse drained his coffee, now cold, and went to have a closer look at the damage.  Most of the glass lay in small shards scattered widely across the patio.  The garden table where they often ate looked as if it were dusted with a thick sprinkling of coarse sugar.  He could even see some glass glinting from the herb bed.  The window had shattered with the force of a detonation.  Idly he picked at a sharp splinter still lodged in the frame.  He winced and sucked his forefinger, which he’d nicked.  He stood for a while looking out into the garden, his shoulders slumping.  Finally, he took a deep breath and drew himself up, then spoke, turning round to face Finn.

‘I’m not going back there.’

‘I’ve always said it was up to you.  But will you tell me why?’

‘They’ll try to use me.’

They listened to the sound of the clock for a few seconds, half a minute.  Then Jesse ran his hands through his hair.  The gesture brought back the touch of Sarah’s fingers, the warmth of her skin, the unexpected textures . . .  Skin remembers . . .  She plaits and then unplaits a hank of his hair while she straddles his hips, plaits it again and tugs, none too gently, twists it round her finger, unplaits, plaits, tickles his nose with it, giggles.  He ducked his head, afraid that Finn might be able to read the memories in his eyes.  Memories . . . is that all we become—that, and ashes?  He returned to the table, pulled out his chair, and sat down, suddenly done in.

‘I haven’t asked for any of this,’ Jesse said.

‘I daresay you haven’t, but you’re not condemned to it either.  You can have a whole wonderful rich life, if you choose.’

‘Not with this.’

‘Even with this, or you wouldn’t be alive, wouldn’t be flesh and blood but machine.’  He saw the twist of Jesse’s lips.  ‘No matter what that hyperactive set of circuits may have done, you’re still a man.’

‘Am I?’

Finn grinned.  ‘Then why don’t you ask Sarah?’

Even Jesse had to smile—and blush a bit—at Finn’s words.

‘Jesse, I’m not about to pretend that it’s going to be easy.  Easy is nine-to-five, a wife and 1.7 kids, a cosy little house in the suburbs, a couple of lagers and telly after work, and a fuck on Saturdays.  And even then, I doubt that it’s really easy.’

Jesse was quiet for a moment.  ‘So you believe I can escape what’s happening to me?’

‘I’m not sure escape is the right way to put it.  I think you can either deny it, which means denying yourself, or embrace it.  But either way, you’re not going to change the essence of who you are.’

‘Who I am,’ Jesse said bitterly, ‘Who, I, am.  I who am.  I am who.  Am I who.  Who am I?’  His laugh abraded the air like the teeth of a cheese grater grazing a knuckle.  ‘A name but no past.  Memories but no history.’

‘A person is more than his past.’

‘A person is only his past.  The present lasts for no time at all, and then is gone.’

‘Nonsense.  If anything, we exist only in the present.  And memory is a damn tricky business.  Ask me and my brothers to describe the same event in our family, and you’ll not get one identical memory between us.’

‘There’s quite a big difference between that and what’s happened to me.’

Finn tugged his beard while he considered, then exhaled with some force.  ‘Do you want me to see what I can learn about your identity?  There are things we can try—fingerprints, for example, or DNA.’

‘Waste of time.’  Jesse examined his finger.  It had stopped bleeding, but he continued to study the small cut as though it were a gaping wound.

‘Are you sure?  There’s always a trail if you search hard enough.’

Jesse said nothing for a long while.

‘Jesse?’

Jesse lifted his head.  He spoke slowly, as if he had to drag his words one by one from the pit of his stomach.  ‘I don’t think it matters much any more.’

Under the table, Finn clenched a fist, then punched it repeatedly into the cupped palm of his other hand.

‘I’ll do what I can to put Ayen’s lot off,’ he said.


Are you going to tell me how the window broke?’ Sarah asked as she swept the broken glass into the middle of the patio.

‘I lost my temper,’ Jesse said.

‘Is that so?  With what?  A howitzer?’

In yet another routine attempt to do battle with the neighbour’s cat, Nubi raced past them, barking frantically.

‘You should have named him Sisyphus,’ Sarah said.

Normally that would have brought an appreciative smile, but Jesse’s cigarette had left him queasy, and he could feel the sun tolling overhead like a great fiery bell, peal after peal jarring his body to the marrow.

Sarah resumed sweeping while she tried another approach.

‘Finn brought you a skateboard.’

Jesse sat back on his heels and peered up at Sarah.  He was picking shards of glass out of the grass and herbs.

‘Yeah.  Was it your idea?’ he asked.

‘No.  All I did was mention once that you could skate really well.’

‘I’m sure it wasn’t cheap.’

‘Probably not.’

‘Another thing I owe him.’

Sarah filled the dustpan and emptied it into the bin liner with a deft gesture of irritation.  Jesse was beginning to send her up this morning.  What was the matter with him?

‘Rubbish,’ she said.  ‘You don’t owe him for a gift.’

Jesse went back to picking up pieces of glass.  It was easier than talking, easier than trying to sort out the clapper and jostle in his head.

The shards were small and hard to find.  Jesse squinted at the herb bed.  He should have been able to see the sparkle of glass in the bright sunshine, but there seemed to be a film across his eyes.  He blinked several times, wiped his brow with the back of a forearm.  The grass was high, each blade a relentless green sword, sharp as a scythe, bloodthirsty as a guillotine.  He’d better get out the lawnmower in the evening.  A telephone rang in the distance.  Don’t pick it up, he thought, it’s always bad news.  He bent over and parted the foliage with his fingers, first in one place and then in another, like a mother chimp grooming her infant, searching for fleas.  For some reason it was important for him to find every last bit of glass, though he could no longer remember why.

The mingled scents were bewildering.  He crumbled a furry greygreen leaf between his fingers and raised it to his nostrils.  Sage, a robust survivor.  Tears pricked his eyes.  He dropped his head to his chest, arms dangling, unaware that the curve of his spine rendered its own perfume to the morning.

‘Jesse?’

Sarah was standing at his side.  She knelt, angling her body so that her knees just grazed his jeans.  She was reluctant to intrude on his silence.  Then she saw the tears sliding off his face and dripping onto his thighs.  He was making no effort to wipe them away; she wasn’t even certain he was aware of them.  Very gently she brushed her fingers along the nape of his neck.  Without a word, without raising his head, Jesse reached out blindly and pulled her close.  She wrapped her arms around him.  She could feel his body trembling against hers.

When they broke apart, Sarah plucked a spear of lavender, then one of sage.  She held them in the palm of her hand, staring at them for a few minutes, before crushing them together and releasing their pure cruel notes.  She raised her eyes to Jesse.

‘Don’t leave,’ she whispered.

He let her wipe away his tears while she remembered how Finn had wept openly for Peter.

‘Jesse—’

‘No, don’t say it.’  He laid two fingers over her lips.  ‘Leaving makes coming home possible.’ 

She searched his face.  What she found there reassured her.  Across her own, a smile: first tentative, then a ringing crescendo—coming home, coming home, coming home—from a clay mould, a bell now cast in gold.

‘Let’s try out your skateboard tonight,’ she said.  ‘I’ll borrow one for me.’

They finished the clear-up with the sun on their shoulders, Nubi dancing between them, and the sky a jubilant shout of blue overhead.