The Memory of My Shadow #17
Chapters 32 & 33
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“We can’t stay out here another day,” I say.
Evan must have been awake for a while because when I step out of the tent into the cool gray morning mist, I can see that he’s resurrected the fire and is feeding it small branches. I’m impressed.
“Good morning to you too,” he says, turning around. “I take it you didn’t sleep well.”
“I’m worried. I have a bad feeling.”
“Why do you say that? Did something happen last night?”
This is the point at which I know I must be honest with Evan if we are ever going to have a real relationship, but I’m scared, and I hedge. He sees through it and sighs, turning back to the fire.
“Not exactly,” I offer. “I’m okay… I mean everything’s okay, but I did speak with Joe last night.”
“What? When? Why the hell didn’t you wake me up?”
“I was afraid to,” I say, squatting down beside him. “I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, and I didn’t want to risk something like before, so I went outside the tent.”
“Maggie, Jesus. What if something happened to you while I was sleeping? That’s not fair.”
“I’m sorry, but it was a calculated risk. And besides, everything’s okay.”
“Apparently not, if we need to rush back. What happened?”
“Nothing happened, we just talked about… about that day and it was very hard but ultimately good I think.”
“So if it was so good, why do you seem freaked out this morning? And why are you insisting on us going back?”
“I don’t know, I can’t say. It’s just a feeling. Maybe I’m wrong. Shit, I’m probably completely wrong and there’s nothing to worry about.”
“Hey,” Evan says, reaching for my hand. “If you say we need to go, then let’s go.”
While Evan is busy making us some coffee, I head out into the woods to relieve my bladder and also to buy some time. A heavy dew set in last night and my hair and shoulders are dampened by leaves from a low-hanging tree branch. I need some clarity and I’m hoping that the conversation from last night will reveal something new in the cold light of day with a few hours of sleep on my side.
As I’m peeing, I replay the conversation and try to analyze it, but it’s no good. I have no objectivity. It struck every emotional chord in me and as a result, completely short-circuited my ability to reason. I’m allowing myself to be manipulated by fiction. Joe, no it, whatever it is, was telling me the version of a story that it didn’t actually witness. It deftly filled in the blanks, triangulating a false reality from what it found from public records, accounts from other killers, what it recalled from its archived memory, and from my own input. It delivered a curated emotional experience for me because that’s what I wanted.
I’m nauseous, and my bare ass has gotten cold because I’ve been squatting here, lost in thought. I pull up my pants and begin to head back but then think better of it and stop where I am.
Meela? Are you there? Meela, will you talk to me? I need you.
There’s nothing, only silence. I don’t feel her presence, even a little bit. I try again and again to summon her, remembering that last night it took some time for Joe to respond. I have so many questions and no ability to get answers. This powerlessness is maddening.
It stands to reason that if Joe could be with me out here off the grid, then so could Meela. So why the hell isn’t she responding? Maybe she can’t respond. I have to assume that’s the case which means there is trouble. There must be.
I turn back toward our camp. We need to go.
The entire hike back, I try to establish contact with Meela. I try everything from letting my mind wander and go empty to stirring up strong emotions by thinking about my mother. I even attempt bargaining, making promises, and concessions, but it’s no good. All these attempts to hack myself prove futile because this whole fucking thing is insane. It’s never been clearer to me that I’ve been operating under the false assumption that the rules we humans have built our lives upon are no longer relevant. Or, I’m just crazy.
Evan has said very little, and I can only imagine what he must be thinking. Luckily, hiking is prohibitive to meaningful conversation, and eye contact is impossible on the trail. I can’t explain this mounting feeling of desperation, and I toy with the idea of trying to summon Joe. As reckless as that would be, at least I would be doing something, gathering more information.
In our last conversation, Meela made it sound as though I were in control, that I had only to assert myself. I know in my heart that this is a lie. Joe spoke to me last night because he chose the time and place.
“We’re close, right?” Evan says as we stop to rest at the end of a steep climb. “I remember that tree, the one with the tumorous-looking lump.”
“Yeah, it’s not far now, another mile, maybe.”
I’m ready to keep moving, but he grabs my arm before I can.
“Hey, what’s your plan here? Do you have a plan? Can you share anything with me?”
Evan’s questions rush out between gasps for air. I realize we hadn’t actually stopped to rest at any point. His expression is tired, pleading.
“No, I don’t have a plan. I’m running on no information but what I feel in my gut and that’s not how I’m used to operating. Something’s wrong. I mean beyond just this crazy shit. I feel something’s really wrong and I need to get back. Leaving was a mistake.”
Evan looks down and shakes his head slowly.
“I don’t expect you to understand or even go along with any of this. When we get back, you can take the car and go straight to the airport…”
Evan looks up, purses his lips in a frowning smile, and shakes his head. He says nothing. He squeezes my hand and just looks at me for a long time before letting go, straightening up, and shifting the weight of the pack on his shoulders. “Let’s go,” he says finally.
As we make our way down the last stretch of the trail, a breeze blows up from the valley below and urges us forward. It carries with it the smell of home: rosemary, oregano, cedar, and the scent of freshly mowed grass. In spite of the foreboding feeling in my gut, my spirits are lifted as they always are to return home.
At the fence line, I open the gate and let Evan pass through. I follow and close it behind us and then we are making our way across the back lawn toward the house. Everything is as we left it. The two vehicles don’t appear to have moved and the house seems quiet and still. I’m not sure what I was expecting.
On the back patio, we drop our packs and Evan plops down into one of the Adirondack chairs to remove his boots. I walk over to the back door and find it locked as I expected. I touch the fingerprint scanner and look into the iris of the small camera mounted above it. There’s no expected chime of recognition, no flicker from the small green LED. The door remains locked. I try again but it’s no good. Maybe the power went out? No, I can see lights on inside.
“What’s up? Can’t get in?” Evan asks, now standing behind me.
“No, it’s not working.”
“You want me to go into the guest house to get my remote and try?”
“No, something’s wrong here. It’s… it should just… yeah, go get it please.”
While Evan is gone, I try the rest of the doors and even a window around the front, but the house is sealed up tight. There’s no sign of Henri. Evan returns with the small remote in hand. I take it from him and attempt to unlock the backdoor. Nothing. No response. I can’t even control the outside lights. I am doing my best to suppress the rising level of panic I feel.
“Don’t you have a good old-fashioned physical key or something to get in if the computers aren’t working?” Evan asks.
“No, this security system is the best money can buy. It’s all digital, failsafe, and completely redundant. It’s doing its job.”
“So what? Its job is to lock you out.”
“Yeah, it appears so. I told you something was wrong. Come on, we need to find another way in.”
“What about Henri? They should be here right?”
I walk quickly around the right side of the house where I didn’t check on my previous trip. I try every window, but they’re all closed and locked. I stop at my office window and try to look in, but the sun’s glare makes it difficult. Evan is standing behind me now and with his shadow, I can see into the room. I see someone in my work chair. It’s Henri. They’re in the tilt-back position of the chair with the VR headset on.
I bang on the window hoping to get Henri’s attention, but they don’t move. I bang harder.
“What is it? Is it Henri?” Evan asks.
“Yeah, but they’re not hearing me. They’ve got the VR rig on.”
“Here, let me see,” Evan says, moving in front of me and cupping his hands to the glass.
He stands there for a long time looking in.
“Hey, it doesn’t look like they have the headphones on. They should be able to hear us, right?”
I move beside him to look in and my heart sinks. Evan is right. I begin banging with both hands and Evan joins me. We call out Henri’s name but there is no movement at all. Their body is still.
“Something’s wrong. Oh god, oh god, oh god. We’ve got to get in there…”
I’m paralyzed, just staring in through the window of my office. Evan has already moved away and headed back around to the patio. A moment later I hear the horrendous crash of breaking glass. I rush around to the patio and see that Evan has put a large flagstone through one of the glass patio door panels. Shards of glass are still falling from the frame as he uses a rock to knock the biggest ones down. I’m frozen, just staring at it.
“It’s just a fucking window. Let me get my boots back on and we can go inside.”
Standing in the ruins of the window on the floor of my living room, I realize that the alarm should be sounding. There should be a shrill siren but there’s nothing. We make our way through the kitchen and down the hall to the doorway of my office. I stop short, not wanting to go any further. I’m shaking uncontrollably. Evan grips my shoulders and steadies me.
“I’ll go,” he says. “Wait here.”
Before I can stop him, he has gone into the office. I stand outside, my back to the wall, listening. I hear him call Henri’s name a couple of times but there’s no response. I can’t stand it any longer and move to go into the room, but Evan is standing between me and what lies behind him with his hands up.
“No, don’t,” he says. “You don’t want to see…”
But I push around him. Henri’s in my chair. Nothing looks unusual or out of place. I’ve seen them in this same position countless times when they’ve been working. But something is off. The color of the fingernails on Henri’s right hand is purple and the posture of the hand itself is unnatural and rigid. I step closer to them, my own hands out in front of me, reaching and not wanting to reach. I touch their arm and immediately recoil. The flesh is cold. Oh, Henri, Henri, Henri. I reach to pull the VR headset away from their face.
Henri’s eyes are wide like they’re surprised like they’ve made another raunchy joke and are waiting for my reaction. But there is no laughter there. Their empty eyes stare through me as if what is to be feared is actually standing behind me. I feel the damning accusation in their glassy reflection. I see myself, the arrogant, damaged girl who thought she could steal fire from the gods reflected there in stereo.
I feel Evan’s arms around me, tugging me away, but I feel no connection to him or anything. I am falling fast down into the black hole of Henri’s gaze, accelerating into darkness.
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