A HORRID PRESENCE THERE
I passed Bradbury without saying a word. His eyes were closed, and he was still slumped in the chair, but I had the feeling that he was watching me.
Crown was definitely watching me as I walked out of the apartment and through the front corridor to the elevator. This time his eyes displayed some slight annoyance. Why can't I, he must have been wondering, just squash this bug and be done with it? Nothing could have stopped him from killing me, but I didn't feel afraid. I wasn't really thinking about him. I could only think about that one kiss and how it might have been the last.
I rode the elevator down to the front foyer. If anybody recognized the young man who had come here with The Actress, no one showed it. Crown must have had a talk with everybody who worked in the building
Diana was waiting for me outside. She had come to 817 Fifth Avenue, guessing correctly that I would be there. I don't know how long she had been standing on the sidewalk, just staring up at the building. I appreciated how calm she was.
"So," she said, "what now?"
"I need you to summon a meeting of the Dwellers," I told her.
"Why do you need a meeting?"
"So I can give them a warning."
"But if they won't speak to you..."
"They don't need to speak. They just have to listen."
"Jacob," Diana sighed, "when are you going to tell me..."
She flinched. I could sense her wondering about not only what had happened to this young man recently, but in the three years she had been gone.
"If you truly care for me," I said in a softer voice, "don't ever ask me. I've done a lot to hurt you and the Tunnels. Please stop me from hurting you more."
You might think that thirty days of silence would be easy to take. As punishment goes, it sounds milder than being locked in a cell with a big guy who wants to make you his 'special friend.'
Try it some time, though. Imagine all of your friends and family members looking away from you when you talk. Imagine hearing only silence in response to every word you say. Imagine not hearing one kind word, one joke, one simple greeting. Trust me -- it sucks.
The meeting was held in Grandfather's chambers. When I approached there, I could hear conversation and murmuring. Then I entered, and it just stopped. Everybody stared at me for a moment, then turned away. The eyes of a few people lingered on me -- Grandfather, Max, Mouse, Jamie. However, just like everyone else, they showed me their backs. Faceless people surrounded me.
I stood at the center of the chambers and looked around me. I couldn't see Father. I could sense his presence in the shadows, though. I could sense Diana near me as well.
"All right," I said. "At least you can hear me. Believe it or not, your silence is just what I need right now. I want the silence to continue. I don't want anyone asking me about what I've been doing over the past few days. I don't want any of you to know what I've learned. I ask this for your own protection."
Not one sound in response. Not even a cough or a whisper.
"I've behaved foolishly. In doing so, I have risked the lives of the people I care for." I paused, then said, "It's been a long time since I've said I care, hasn't it? I haven't made it clear that I do love all of you and the world you have created here. I say this not to get sympathy -- just as a fact. But, for a long time, I've wondered if I want to stay here. I won't go over the reasons why, but I do wish I could have made a clear decision on my own. I would have liked to know where I truly belong. Unfortunately...I've lost control of my situation. I can't stay here for the sake of protecting you. I really don't know where I'll be going. I only know that I won't be here."
Was that a sigh I heard? Or a throat clearing? I don't know.
"Believe me, though, I will continue to protect this community. I've come to understand how important it is. The world needs a shelter based on the idea of love, not fear. I will remember all of you and the love you gave me. Those memories will be enough. And even though I have become an outcast...I have never felt closer to you than right now."
I took one more look at their backs and said, "Good-bye."
I quickly left Grandfather's chambers. I could hear the echoes of voices started anew, but I forced myself not to listen. Instead I went straight to my chambers and started to pack some of my belongings. I had folded up my Ian Curtis poster into a backpack when I heard --
"You may want this."
I turned and saw Father standing at the chamber entrance. He was holding a leather bound book. I recognized it from my youth -- Alice in Wonderland.
I said, "You're violating the ban."
"Screw it. You're my son."
I don't know what surprised me more -- the first part or the second part. I had never heard Father curse like that. And it had been awhile since...well...
I walked over to him and accepted the book from his hand. "Thank you," I said, looking down at the girl and the caterpillar on the cover.
"'We're all mad here,'" Father quoted. "'I'm mad. You're mad.'"
"'How do you know I'm mad?'" I responded.
"'You must be, or you wouldn't have come here.'"
We both chuckled. I lifted my gaze and saw the smile on Father's face. My God, how long had it been since we had shared a laugh?
I cleared my throat. "I appreciate this," I told Father as I returned to my backpack.
"I understand why you have to leave."
I quickly looked back at Father and, yes, he did understand. I could tell from the sympathy in his features. I had forgotten how much tenderness Father could convey with just a look and a few words.
"Have you spoken with Diana?" I asked.
"No. Should I?"
"Yes. But not because of me."
Father slowly nodded. "So you've been telling me. And you have been right. But is there something that I should know?"
"You must have heard my speech. I don't want any of you more involved than you are."
"It might be too late for that."
"Might be. But I still have to leave." I paused, then said, "Do you want me to leave?"
Father walked over to me. He kept his hands crossed in front of himself, but I could tell that he wanted to touch me. "No, son," he said. "I don't. I want you to stay here. And I want to fight at your side against your enemy. But I know that's impossible."
"How do you know it?"
"I'm afraid that must be my secret for the moment."
I didn't get angry. In that moment I trusted him as he trusted me. I couldn't explain this change between the two of us, but I simply...accepted it.
"When you do talk with Diana," I said, "tell her that I need to meet Joe."
"I assumed that you did."
"Well, then, we're on the same page. For once."
"I think we've always been on the same page, Jacob." He paused, then said, "I'll leave you to your packing."
He turned and headed for the door, but stopped at the threshold. "We will all miss you," he said. "You will always be a part of this world."
"That's because the world is all the same."
Father didn't seem confused by what I said. Instead he just nodded and left my chambers.
I spent the night in Central Park. Fear of muggers and rape gangs have prevented most New Yorkers from seeing what a peaceful location the Park can be at night. I had no such fear -- at least, not of a man living in a cardboard box and shrieking about aliens. A pair of colorless eyes would have given me more worry.
But I wasn't thinking about Crown that night. I was thinking about the buildings rising behind the trees. I thought about how this would be the last night when I would see their tall structures standing proud; the last time when I would see the pattern of lights I had memorized as precisely as the shape of my bones.
I also thought about my mother. There was a photo of her in my backpack. I had kept the item untouched in a box for years. Now I held it in my hand as I sat on a large rock.
She had risked so much to love my father, but what if she had faced the choice Alexandra and I had to make? Would she had walked away from Vincent? Would he had walked away from her?
What if there were no Tower? Would Alexandra and I still have to hide in the shadows so the world could not see her face?
And what if I had never gone to The Live Letter Office in the first place? Would I still be leaving the Tunnels, but without the regrets and the hints of reconciliation with Father?
Please tell me, mother.
Her image had no answers to give. I literally had to sleep on it.
I woke up to the sight of joggers on their morning runs and homeless folk blinking disagreeably at another day. Nobody paid any attention to me. I probably looked like just another derelict or some slumming hippie.
I picked up my backpack and headed over to a bench. I sat there and waited.
I didn't relay to Joe where we should meet. I didn't have to. The bench was our regular spot for these kinds of meetings. I also knew that he would be there before nine o'clock.
When I saw him coming, I smiled. Joe walked like a born New Yorker -- quick yet cautious, both aggressive and defensive. He was a man who knew his way around town, but also knew the town's capacity for surprise.
He sat down next to me. Then he noted my backpack. He looked at me with a question in his eyes.
"I'm not going to be a bother much longer," I told him.
"Does Vincent know?"
"Everybody Below knows."
"And does this have anythin' to do with Bradbury?"
"I'm doing this to protect those I care about, including you, Joe."
"Well, thanks. But I don't know what you're talkin' about."
"That's the idea. And if you respect me, you'll keep it that way. Stop looking into the Garner case. I don't care how subtle you're being. Forget about it."
Joe scratched his chin. "That's not in my nature, kid."
"Do you want me to beg?"
Joe considered my expression, then said, "So it is a Gabriel situation."
"Trust me -- it's beyond Gabriel. Keep chasing after it and you'll endanger yourself, Diana and the Tunnels."
"A man was killed. You were almost killed. As a District Attorney, it's my job..."
"I never said that it would be an easy choice. But it's the only sane one you can make for now and maybe into the future."
"This comin' from the guy who jumps through windows?"
"If you jump now, it'll be in the wrong direction."
Joe sighed through his nose and spread out his arms on the top of the bench. "You've changed," he said.
"There's somethin' about you. You seem...well, a lot more grown-up."
I grinned. "As opposed to being a young idiot?"
My grin slowly faded. "I screwed up, Joe. Don't make it worse."
Joe looked up at a clear blue sky. "I've been thinkin' about your mother," he said.
"I remember when I first met her. All I saw then was some rich kid goin' through a do-gooder phase. Boy, was I wrong. She believed in doin' what was right. I'm not sure if she would agree with what you're askin' me to do."
"She would if it protected Vincent. And it does."
"If that's the case, yes, she would."
I paused, then asked, "Were you mad when you first found out about my father?"
"Hell, yes. I was mad at Diana, at Mister Wells. I was mad at Catherine for not trustin' me. Then I got mad at myself because I knew she had been right not to trust me. I wasn't ready to know then."
"Because you would have been jealous."
Joe gave me an askance look, then turned back to the sky. "Your mother was a helluva woman," he commented.
I nodded while I thought, I'm beginning to understand why people think that.
Joe continued, "I can't imagine what it was like for Vincent to lose her. Or what it would be like to lose his son." He looked at me. "Where you gonna go?"
"I'll be fine."
"I know you can handle yourself, but...I'm not sure if you're ever comin' back."
"I'm not, either. That's how serious I am." I reached over and squeezed Joe's arm. "Do me this favor. Let it go."
Joe closed his eyes for a few seconds, then nodded. "All right."
He opened his eyes. "Now do me a favor. Let me buy you breakfast before you leave."
"That's not necessary."
I looked at those serious eyes, then shrugged. "Where do you want to go?"
"I don't know about you, but I would like some bacon and eggs. We can go to..."
Joe's brains jumped out of his head. Grey and red chunks spread across the air in a diffuse pattern before landing on the grass. Joe fell on the grass with them. So did I, spinning my body toward the space behind me. I looked from under the bench and saw trees, slithers of a path, birds. I saw no one holding a gun.
I gave Joe a pointless examination, only confirming the blankness of the eyes in that shattered head. As people screamed and ran, I looked back at the trees. I still couldn't see a pair of colorless eyes, but I could feel them watching me under a blue sky.