2,1 - JAson
It was the year I left everything behind to backpack through Europe. A decision that took everyone by surprise, friends and family both. “I really hope you find yourself,” my dad said on the phone, unable to suppress the sarcasm, though I didn’t think it was about that, about finding myself—I felt okay enough with who I was. I didn't need to go looking for some misplaced sense of self. What I really wanted was almost too banal to talk about. I needed a vacation. That was it.
I had the savings to do alright for a few months, student loans notwithstanding— in France you can live indefinitely on baguettes and cheese every day, plus beer—and beyond that, I quickly found that I didn’t care. The moment I stepped off the plane at Charles de Gaulle, my heart pounding inexplicably, I knew I had done the right thing. This break I had forced into my life, this travel, with its freedom and its separation from everything familiar. This was what I hoped to find, not some truth about myself but the opposite: I wanted to experience the world. All of it. Everything that was outside of my life’s self-imposed limits.
Paris was too busy, too touristy. I stomped through the Louvre and the Musee D’Orsay but the cultural gravity of all the antiquities did nothing for me. I bought a Sartre book in English at Shakespeare and Company and smoked a cigarette next to the Seine with a guy who sold me a poem in French for one Euro. I visited Jim Morrison’s grave in Pere Lachaise Cemetery and realized, while standing there listening to a group of crying Japanese girls play This is the end, beautiful friend on a smartphone, that The Doors were one of the most overrated bands of all time.
It turned out that shedding the stress of the last few years was more of a process than an instant fix. It wasn’t until I was a week or so out from Paris that I began to slow down, to enjoy these days without a schedule. I had to choose to allow myself to unwind into the undivided time. I was at Mont St. Michel. I had climbed the steep stone stairs throughout the walled medieval monastery, up to the very top, where I watched the tide in the bay going out to the Channel, receding across a distant expanse of scalloped gray sand.
I realized that it was a sense of accomplishment that was eluding me. Why wasn’t I proud of what I’d done? In high school I had top marks. Then four years’ undergrad at UCLA in Sociology, full scholarship. Three years’ Law at Berkeley. Always, I worked harder than my friends, harder than anyone I knew, and my work had been rewarded with nothing but success. Yet I couldn’t bring myself to take the bar exam. Nothing about it felt right to me. At 26 years old, I was dead tired.
And so there I was: not in my apartment in Oakland reading case law but in France, walking through the cloistered gardens at the top of Mont St. Michel, the early spring air cold on my face, shocking, like an admonition.
Rachel, who I’d been at Berkeley with, could not get over what I’d done. “Maybe,” she’d said to me, “instead of Europe, you should see a Doctor?” She didn’t understand what I was going through and I couldn’t explain it to her. Our conversation was the closing argument: Rachel didn’t really know me at all. Clearly something had gone wrong with this life of mine in which I was a stranger to my closest friend.
And I could feel it, couldn’t I? Now that I was traveling, far away. All that work I had chosen to accomplish, for myself. I no longer knew why I was doing it.
After France, Spain. At the hostel in Barcelona I met a Danish couple on their honeymoon, Anders and his exceedingly attractive partner, Iben. The three of us hit it off. We were the same age and each of us possessed just the right ratio of museum/gallery tolerance to coffee intake to alcohol/weed consumption. They decided to change their itinerary and travel with me to the French Riviera, then to Italy. Anders was a big guy, kind of an idiot but lovable; Iben was incredible, I thought, and definitely way too good for him. She had an archetypal Scandinavian unattainability—my crush on her was obvious and we brought it up all the time, Anders finding it hilarious, Iben telling me I was sweet. I’d never had much time for relationships—a few girlfriends here and there, nothing lasting—but Iben was changing my mind. I could see myself getting serious with someone like her.
Montpellier. Then Nice. Monaco, Pisa, Florence. Small towns in Tuscany. Finally, Rome.
Our hostel was in Trastevere. Not the cleanest of places to stay but there was a gelateria on one side of it and a Blues bar on the other. Hanging out in Trastevere, with its intersecting streets of clubs and bars and live music everywhere, immediately replaced all of our plans. We didn’t sleep much. It was great.
One night for a change Anders suggested we go to a free open-air screening of a movie. This seemed like a good idea and a break from the hard drinking we’d been doing. The screening took place in Piazza Navona which meant we took the bus there, arriving just in time to grab a spot on the cobblestones near the back of a growing crowd. Iben threw a blanket down; Anders opened a bottle of red wine, took a long draw from it, passed it down to me. So much for not drinking.
The movie was Incantation, a horror classic from the late 70s directed by the infamous Amen Auf der Nacht. I’d never seen it before but Anders was a big fan. He gave me some background context: the whole movie had been filmed on-location in Rome, some key scenes right in Piazza Navona where we were about to watch it.
Iben sat next to me, the edge of her bare arm touching the edge of mine. The gathered crowd roared with applause as the movie started up, projected onto the side of one of the historical buildings that bounded the piazza. I was happy. That dizzy feeling of being far from home but right where I needed to be.
The opening shot of Incantation is famous. A sequence that starts high above Rome, the camera swooping down towards the city like a bird of prey or, well, a witch on a broomstick—and the shot keeps going, it drops right down into a courtyard and zooms immediately forward, veering crazily left and right through the streets before slowing down, shifting lower and lower, floating right at street-level, then making one last sudden, sharp turn to come full stop in front of the main actress, not her face or figure but an extreme close-up of her shining, blood-red, high-heel shoes. Later I read about how they did this sequence—no digital effects in 1978—with four separate shots edited together seamlessly: a camera on a helicopter above the city that cuts to a camera on a crane, to a camera on a track through the streets of Rome, to a stationary camera focused on the detail of the red shoes.
Everyone in Piazza Navona cheered when the shot was over. I cheered. Watching it was insane, vertiginous, magical. That someone had thought of this, that this movie existed at all—it was worth a ridiculous cheer.
I recognized the actress. She was young in this movie. Dressed in a tight, short skirt and black stockings, those red shoes, exaggerated bright lipstick, dark eyeliner, huge hair—the effect, for me, was a dissonance, an uncomfortable feeling that adult sexuality had been imposed on someone who was maybe too young for it.
“Here we go,” Anders said. “Barbara Bellamy at her finest.”
“Don’t be an asshole,” Iben hissed at him.
“The whole last hour of the movie,” he said undeterred, “no shirt. Just a bra.” He leaned forward to be sure I could see him, then he made the male gender’s universal crude gesture in appreciation of breasts: two cupped hands heavy with imaginary amplitude.
Iben shook her head. “You guys, she’s only like seventeen years old in this movie.”
“Your point being what… exactly?” Anders said.
We were missing some of the weirdly-overdubbed narration and there were some hisses at us from all around. In the movie, young Barbara Bellamy was walking through Rome, the camera tracking ahead of her. She glanced back over her shoulder. Started walking faster. Glanced back again. Was something following her? Was she was imagining it? Her high heels on the cobblestones was the only sound in the movie, exaggerated staccato explosions. We were laughing—the scene was cheesy and weird—and it just kept going. She would walk a little faster, glance behind her, accelerate again. Somehow what was humorous was shifting into horror. Her movements were erratic, hysterical. There was some kind of shadow behind her, moving to keep pace. The terror in her eyes felt genuine. When she finally fell from a broken heel, sprawling down onto the street, the music crashed in sympathetic crescendo. I wasn’t the only one who jumped.
She looked up. The shadow was in front of her. The camera tilted up. Two evil eyes in a blurred-out face.
My phone was ringing, vibrating. I realized it had been going off again and again for some time now. Cautiously I slipped it out from my pocket to see who the caller was.
My mom. I stared at the phone. Not really her thing, to call me repeatedly like this.
“Sorry,” I said to Iben and Anders. Then, to the crowd behind me, “Scuzi, scuzi, grazie mille,” as I got up from the blanket and made my way to the edge of the piazza. There was a kind of alcove between two buildings where the sound from the movie wasn’t echoing as much. I didn’t avoid stepping in a puddle of water as I went into the narrow space. And then immediately someone else came in behind me, unzipped, and let loose a stream of urine into the lake of obviously-not-water that was now soaked into my sneakers and the bottom of my socks. The guy finished peeing and moved off.
My phone rang again. I answered.
Mom’s voice was altered, uncanny. At first I thought it was the distance on the line between Rome and L.A. But then I knew, before she said the words, that something had happened.
“Jason,” she said, “can you hear me?”
“Mom! What’s going on?”
“Jason.” Just my name, then nothing.
“Mom,” I said back, finally.
“Jason. It’s your brother. It’s Zach.” She stopped. Then said it. “He’s gone. Zach’s gone.” In that measured, strange voice, parceling out the practicalities as she had always done for us, she said, “You need to come home. For the funeral.”
I didn’t know what to say. The phone call continued but neither of us spoke. Then we were disconnected.
I started walking. I don’t remember making the decision to do it, just to walk without knowing where I was going. Don’t know what I was thinking; don’t remember which direction I went in.
Rome is what I remember.
Pale white pools of light from city street lamps marked the dusk. Passages, alleys, narrow lanes led into a depth of darkness older than cities, civilizations. Buildings leaned in from either side, their second-story windows shuttered, people out on the balconies: two women talking in a hush; a man smoking a cigarette beyond the ebb and flow of an argument in the room behind him. Many lines of wires measured the space between apartments, above the alleys. Empty clothes were hung to dry there, floating suspended, lit from below. Shirts, pants. A pair of socks.
There were tourists on bikes, veering suddenly towards me then sharply away. Later, I was in an area where bars lined the street and people were out between them drinking, talking—someone gave me a Peroni and I drank it down like water. I went down worn stone steps. I turned to my right, my left; deeper into the city’s bewilderment of unknown avenues. It was like I was tracing a labyrinth backwards from the end, returning in, looking for the center.
Suddenly I thought of Zach. I remembered, when we were kids, how he was obsessed with those mazes in the puzzle books that Mom sometimes picked up at the store. He could work on them for hours at the kitchen table. Or out on the back steps after supper, as the light died out from the top of the sky and my friends were called home one by one, leaving on their bikes—Zach would still be there, working in the book with his pencil. Right turn, left turn—dead end.
The memory brought me to a stop. I was always the last one to come in from the backyard before bed. I was three years older than my sister Beth, eight years older than Zach. On one of those nights, I saw that Zach had left his puzzle book on the steps. I picked it up. Minotaur in the Labyrinth. It was one of my books when I had been Zach’s age. Those were my X-Men doodles in the margins—always Jean Grey, Phoenix Dark or not, I had been kind of fixated—those were my pencil-lines navigating the puzzles’ switchbacks. Zach had traced his own lines on top of mine, following my paths into, then out of, each and every maze.
I stood there, wherever in Rome I was. My little brother was dead. The things that I sometimes missed about him—we had always been stupid together, howling at the worst jokes, making fun of one another mercilessly; when I was studying, working, being serious, I could call him for a laugh, for a break—the things that I admired and loved about him, they were gone from the world. Forever gone. I could not understand how that was possible.
And me: I was lost, literally lost and alone in this endless city. My dad, my mom, Beth, would be together in the house in Brentwood, or they would be wherever Zach was—where his body was—at the morgue, or in a funeral home. What was I doing here? Why was I so far away?
I felt a surge of anger. What had happened to Zach? Why hadn’t I been there to help him?
Another group of people passed by close to me, laughing, drinking. One of the group split away from the others. It was a girl who had noticed me standing there with my head down. Her friends moved on before slowing to a stop when they saw they had left her behind. She came closer, cautiously. Her friends—the group was all guys except for her—called out in Italian, whistling, but she ignored them. She approached me, smiling shyly, with warmth in her eyes, with compassionate curiosity. I stared back at her from within myself, unable to understand her intentions. She spoke softly in Italian, then in French. Then, in heavily accented English, she said, “You are… okay?”
I shook my head. Feeling helpless, as if every part of me was vulnerable to harm.
She reached forward and put her hand on my arm.
“It’s my brother,” I said. “I found out. I just found out that he passed away.”
“I am sorry,” she said.
“I don’t know what to do.”
“Is very sad,” she said. Yet there was an ease to her, an absence of heartache that seemed, just then, like a healing balm, like a gift. “Why not come on…” she said, stumbling over the English, “come also to… also with us?” She laughed at her awkwardness, and gestured to her waiting friends. “Maybe not such bad times? You forget to be sad? We go to a club!”
“No, I don’t think so,” I said.
“Why not come?” She moved her hand down my arm and then, to my surprise, took hold of both of my hands in her own and squeezed, hard. “Come,” she said again. “You will like.”
“I can’t,” I started to say. But then suddenly, with a clarity like foresight, I knew that I would. I didn’t want to be alone and I was already lost. At the very least I could talk to this girl and her friends and find my way back to the hostel.
“Is no problem,” she shrugged at my refusal. “But I like you. Cute boy.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll come.”
And that was that. Soon we were walking together, holding hands like two little kids running away from home. We joined her group of friends long enough to share a flask passed around—I took a generous hit, the fire of a quality whiskey going down—and then we trailed behind them as they moved along the street, raucously.
“What is… you name?” she said in her accented English.
“I am…” she started, but then paused. It was strange. It was like she’d just forgotten who she was.
Suddenly a vertigo came over me. As if I was suddenly extremely drunk. I looked down and I could have sworn I saw the street rippling, a liquid wave that warped through the body of the world. I was about to double over, sick and dizzy. And then it passed. As quickly as it had come, the vertigo left and I was fine again.
“My name,” the girl said, “is Tiphereth.” Her eyes flashed.
A shudder whispered through me. There was a hush around us. Her friends were far ahead, as if we’d been forgotten.
She stopped. Squeezed my hand again. “Let’s go this way,” pointing to our left, toward an unlit laneway.
“What about your friends?” I said.
“They don’t matter.”
She led; I followed. We plunged into the murk of the alley, moving quickly. Then came at once to a door at the back of a building that she opened—it seemed like she moved her hand in the air and it opened—into a long room strewn with garbage, a single naked light bulb flickering above. At the back of the room a corridor penetrated the building’s pitch-black interior. Along the opposite wall, what I thought was a pile of refuse stirred and moved and a man covered in rags and tattered newspapers lifted his head to stare at us as we raced past him, going into the building.
“Where… where are we?” I said, out of breath.
“Someplace nice,” she said.
I knew that something was wrong with what was happening but there was a heaviness in my mind that thickened all thinking. The girl had changed. Her accent had dropped away… and why would she have pretended to have an accent? Who was she exactly? Was I was in trouble here, in danger?
I don’t know if I cared. I wanted to go with her. She was beautiful. Tiphereth. What kind of name was that? Not Italian.
At first the corridor was dark, then we passed beneath overhead fluorescents caged in metal wire that illuminated tiled walls colored institutional sea-green. The floor beneath our feet was an apron of cement inset with drains, smeared with dark material. Was this a hospital? What the hell was going on? There was a pervasive rotten stench. Through door-frames emptied of actual doors, broken hinges hanging, I saw more human detritus, people sleeping on the floor in tumbled heaps or standing directly beneath the overhead lights, staring straight up.
“Don’t worry,” the girl said, “this is just the antechamber. And right there, that’s the way up.”
A spiral staircase floated in front of us, unattached to anything. We climbed it, our footfalls ringing on corrugated, rusted steel steps that radiated out from a central cement column. The ascent and the turning upwards around and around was making me sick again.
I realized, as my vision swam, sweat dripping down my face, that I was under the influence of something. The flask. It was obvious, considering the state I was in. The flask they had given me had had something much stronger than whiskey in it.
We emerged from the stairwell into strobing light and a jostling crowd of people. It was unbearably hot. A dance club. There was a DJ on an elevated platform and a few hundred dancers. The girl pulled me through the throng. Beautiful people, men and women, some of them half-naked. In the corners of the club the pulsing lights revealed couples entangled together on over-sized antique divans and daybeds.
The music was out of place. It was sweeping, powerful, emotional music, like something that would be played at a funeral—yet every single dancer in the club moved wildly, in ecstasy, to a pounding beat I couldn’t hear.
Whatever had been in that flask, I was having a hard time with it. Things weren’t making sense.
We may have climbed another flight of stairs to another upper level. The girl had taken me to a private room where casement windows overlooked the Tiber river embankment. Looking down I saw a few dozen boats, yachts and platforms, tied together, lashed to a mooring. There were more people moving from boat to boat, drinking cocktails, dancing with abandon to the same incongruously slow music I’d heard before, now drifting up from below. Party lights strung across the rails of the boats reflected on the rippling river in streaks of mingling colors, blurred.
“Isn’t the party wonderful?” Tiphereth said, behind me. “I told you it would be.”
My eyes adjusted to the room’s dim interior. There were only a few lit candles here and there, protruding out of wax mounds that dripped from furniture to floor. I saw that, everywhere, there were potted flowers: on the windowsills, across the floor, on a table in the corner. All of them the same flower, giving out the same sweet smell. I recognized what they were, though I don’t know how I knew. Hyacinths.
“Now we’re alone,” she said. She lifted herself onto the windowsill and opened her legs, pulling me towards her, closing her thighs against my waist.
I was drunk. I was drugged. Aroused.
She said, “Who do you want me to be?” Suddenly she looked like Iben. I hadn’t realized before how alike they were, Iben and this girl.
“No,” Tiphereth said. “She’s unworthy, and you won’t see her again.”
My vision faded. Tiphereth changed.
She was filled with light and it hurt to look at her. She had become everything. I loved her. I remembered her from a long-ago one night’s dream of unfulfilled romance, a dream more real than the next day’s dullness. Impossibly she had become taller than me. Her dark hair swam out into the air, filling the room. She lowered her head. We kissed.
And she pulled away, recoiling as if the kiss had been painful. “That’s…” she hissed, “that’s a pity. You’re already spoken for. What a shame.”
“I don’t understand,” I said weakly.
“Your failed comprehension is of no consequence to me.”
“You gave me something… in the flask…” I tried to say.
“You can believe that, if it helps.”
“It was love at first sight with your sadness.” She laughed, shaking her head. “But love doesn’t last.”
She moved away and I saw three men enter the room. Imposing, dark-suited, heavy-set thugs wearing sunglasses, earpieces. Bodyguards. They came straight for me. One of them put two meaty hands on my shoulders.
“Goodbye Jason,” Tiphereth said. “You’re meant to be with someone else. I hope you don’t let her down. I think you might.” She smiled. It was cruel. “You will be blessed to see me again, one time more. At the Wellness Centre, for the Shadowflood.”
Her hand moved up towards me. I passed out.
And woke up in the hostel in Trastevere.
I shifted over to the side of the narrow cot and tried to get out of bed, immediately throwing up onto the floor. Then just made it to the hostel bathroom in time to vomit everything left of me into the toilet. Though after this total voiding of the stomach, I had to admit I felt better.
Looking at my phone, it was 4 AM. An alert came up. I was booked onto a flight leaving Rome in a few hours. When had I booked this flight?
I had vivid impressions of what had happened, yet all of it seemed like a dream, so surreal. Wandering Rome. Falling in with the girl—she must have been some kind of European 1% wealthy, royalty maybe, Princess of Luxembourg for all I knew—and I’d been drugged, that much was certain. Who knows what I’d imagined and what was real. Maybe I was lucky to have ended up back here.
As I left the hostel I stopped outside Anders and Iben’s private room. I wanted to say goodbye to them, but there wasn’t time for it. I shrugged. Probably I’d lose touch with them. There was a sense of regret, but I moved it aside as I moved past their door.
I was hung over like I’d never been before. The airport bathroom was my departure lounge. And I slept as if I was nearly dead the whole way back to Washington Dulles, again on the connecting flight to LAX.
My parents had postponed Zach’s funeral until I was able to come home. After talking to my dad during the layover in Washington, they arranged it for the day after I landed. My parents and Beth picked me up at LAX, and for a strange long moment we stood slightly apart from each other, there in Arrivals in front of the luggage carousel. It felt like we were isolated, each of us inside our own separate grieving for Zach. But then Beth broke through it, moving in to give me a hug, and my parents finally came in, and we embraced as a family. It was the first time, since my mom had called, that I cried.
When we pulled up in front of the house on Dorothy Street, I couldn’t get out of the car. I couldn’t stay there, in my old room next to Zach’s room. Instead I went with Beth and stayed in her apartment, slept on her couch.
That night before the funeral, Beth and I stayed up, drinking red wine. It seemed to somehow bring me back to a level, drinking more, drinking too much, as if whatever was in my system could only be negated by alcohol. I didn’t know if I should tell Beth what had happened to me in Rome—being dosed by a high society party girl, finding myself at some insane nightclub… those boats on the Tiber—but our conversation went a different way regardless.
“I don’t know what happened to Zach,” I finally admitted. Beth and I were seated at her kitchen table with the drained wine glasses between us, both of us hunched forward with our sibling’s shared bad posture.
“It was an accident,” she said, “a car accident. In Park Heights.”
“That town up in the hills? What was he doing there?”
“There was a party at the Severand’s mansion. He was on his way there. Very late at night. There was a girl with him, in the car. She was hurt in the crash, but I think she’s okay now.” Beth shook her head. “Dad talked to the police in Park Heights and they told him all of this, but I’m not sure, Jason. If Dad got it right, all the details. He’s… well you know… he’s not doing too well.”
I failed to suppress my anger and I said something cruel. “It’s Dad’s fault that Zach got involved with the Severands in the first place.” Beth and I both believed this; we had talked about it before. Zach had gone to the same middle school that Beth and I went to in Brentwood, but where we’d had uneventful careers throughout the grades, he’d had significant problems with bullies. Dad was Executive Director of an NGO for which Marius Severand the billionaire was a primary stakeholder. Marius had offered to pull some strings at the private academy in Bel Air where Will Severand went. Thus Zach changed schools. Why anyone thought it was a good idea that he should go to a breeding-pit for rich assholes—tuition-free, thanks to the benevolence of the Severands—was beyond me, not that I was consulted.
Beth shook her head. “Please don’t say that to Dad, Jason. He won’t be able to take it.”
“Zach never should have been involved with those people,” I said. “It changed him. You know it. He was heart-broken about the daughter, about Linna.”
“That was a while ago,” Beth returned. “Years ago, Jason. He got over it. The last time I talked to him, he told me he wasn’t even friends with Will Severand anymore.”
I took this in. Then asked the obvious question: “Well who was with him in his car that night?”
“I don’t know,” Beth said.
I passed a hand over my face and into my hair, messing it up. “I’m not sure I understand. Did the police tell Dad how the accident happened?”
“Well, yeah, but this is what I’m not sure about. Dad said that Zach was hit by another car that was leaving the mansion. A stolen car. There had been an intruder at the party and he’d stolen one of the Severand’s limousines.”
“What the hell,” I said.
“I know.” Beth looked at me directly. “Please Jason, don’t bring any of this up with Mom and Dad.”
“But none of it makes sense.”
“Maybe you should talk to the police,” she said. “If you want to. I think it would be a good idea. With your experience in law. Your attention to detail.”
I was nodding. “I will talk to the police. Absolutely I will.”
I slept that night dreamlessly on Beth’s couch. Waking up the next morning still ill.
Zach’s funeral was held in the Presbyterian church on San Vicente Boulevard that my mom had grown up attending and still went to, every Sunday. I hoped it was a comfort to her, to have the service there. When we entered the church together, there was an alcove off to the left where she went in to light a candle, her lips moving in a silent prayer. She glanced at us sternly and we all took the time to light our own candles before entering the nave of the church together, taking our seats at the front.
The casket was closed. In front of it, on an easel, there was a picture of Zach, a recent image. His hair was longer than I remembered it, falling down across his face. I forced myself to look away from the picture, down at my hands. I saw that I’d picked up, at some point, a program for the service.
In Memoriam Zachary Hunt.
Already the church was almost full. Scanning the faces, I thought I recognized a few of Zach’s classmates. Not the Severands. Once, I had met them at their mansion, Arcyn. My family had been invited to dinner. I would never forget how good the filet mignon had been, prepared to perfection. And the rooms of that mansion: rooms opening into further rooms. What was it like for Will, for his sister Linna, to live in that place?
The service had started. I recalled that Zach had still come here with Mom on Sundays, when Beth and I had given it up the moment we had the freedom to do so. The Minister seemed, to me, to be going through the motions of the rituals, which was somehow upsetting. But maybe Zach would have been okay with all of it, for Mom’s sake.
I started to turn to my left, thinking of a joke—in that moment, even at his funeral, it was such a routine thing for me to do when our family was together, to turn to Zach and say some idiotic thing that would make him laugh. I had nearly forgotten that he wasn’t there. He’d never be there.
How was I supposed to deal with this?
The front door of the church opened and some people came in, exceedingly late to the service. Shamelessly I swung around to see who it was, even after my mom hit me on the arm with a bible from the pew.
Marius Severand led his family into the church. He looked exactly the way I remembered him, like a benevolent dictator, the ruler of a future dystopia. And then Will and Linna, his children. Linna seemed much older, but then I hadn’t seen her in years. She was a stunning young woman now. Yet there was something about her. There were dark circles under her eyes. She was too thin, almost gaunt, as if her attractiveness had been sharpened into something more like hunger.
Will met my gaze as I turned to him. My indignation felt punctured. He was struggling, I could see it. He wiped at some tears and I did too. While I nurtured blame and rage towards this billionaire family who had interfered with my little brother’s life, in truth Will had been Zach’s best friend for a long time. His pain was clearly real.
Then I saw there was someone else with the Severands, walking slightly behind them. She was tall. Her long black hair was tied back in a ponytail. The Severands took the empty space in the last pew in the church, and she sat down next to Linna.
I turned back around to face the front. My heart was hammering.
She looked exactly like Barbara Bellamy.
“You okay?” Beth whispered to me.
I nodded. Cleared my throat. In my mind's eye I could see that opening shot of Incantation playing on the screen in Piazza Navona. Barbara Bellamy’s bad acting, and then the fear on her face. Stumbling, falling onto the cobblestones. Looking up.
This girl that came in with the Severands—who was she?
Zach’s funeral service went on for longer than I liked. I tried not to think about it—that a young Barbara Bellamy from the 70s was sitting in the church behind me—but the whole time I felt a pressure to turn around, as if I was missing something that was about to be revealed.
Then the service had finally ended. We were filing out of the church. I was a pallbearer, so I waited inside with some of my Uncles whom I hadn’t seen in a few years, Mom’s brothers, while everyone exited. In a few minutes we would take the casket down the front steps, out to the parked hearse.
People hung about on the lawn in front. There were the Severands, talking to my parents. Will and Linna with my mom, and Marius standing apart with my father in their own circle of privacy, Marius speaking while my father nodded his head slowly, sadly. For all the world it looked like a master instructing his servant. And I felt that anger again, at my father, at these rich people. I couldn’t get over the feeling they had something to do with what had happened.
I turned to my right. Someone had been waiting for me in the alcove by the entrance where we had all lit candles. It was the girl who had come in with the Severands.
“You’re Jason,” she said. “I’m… I’m Tess.”
“Tess,” I said.
She held back tears. “I’m so sorry about Zach.”
“You knew Zach,” I said.
“A little bit. I’d just met him. But… we were friends right away.”
Then I noticed she had a cut on her forehead, a thin line of red running up into her black hair. On her right cheek there was the shadow of something, the darker impression of a bruise. “You were with him, weren’t you?” I said, my voice rising. “In the car, that night.”
She blinked rapidly. “I was. Yes.”
“Can you tell me what happened.” It sounded more like a command than a question.
“I don’t remember it very well,” she said. Her voice was shaking. She held my gaze, almost defiantly, as if daring me to ask more. Her eyes were profoundly blue.
“Is that…” I started, stopped. I had almost asked Is that true—but why was I being so harsh? This girl, Tess, she was visibly upset, her hands were trembling. Obviously it took some strength for her to talk to me. “I’m sorry,” I said instead. “I wasn’t thinking. You went through something terrible.”
She took in a deep breath, steadying herself. “It’s okay.”
I watched her for a moment. What was going on here? I felt like she wanted to tell me something but wasn’t ready yet. I somehow understood it wouldn’t help to put any pressure on her. “Are you…” I asked, “are you okay? After what happened?”
“Getting there,” she said with a sudden smile that transformed her. “Thank you.”
I gestured to a bench in the alcove. “Do you want to sit down for a second?”
“Definitely,” she said. All the candles that burned in the background framed her in a flickering glow like an inconstant aura, or a halo.
I decided at once to be honest with her. “This is going to sound weird,” I started, “but I do have to tell you something. I was in Rome when I heard about Zach—I was in a piazza in Rome, watching a movie. It was Incantation…”
Tess had been watching me trying to talk about this. “Well,” she said, “that explains a lot. My mom is in that movie.”
I laughed. “Your mom. You’re talking about Barbara Bellamy.”
“That’s my mom.”
“Oh, man,” I said, genuinely taken aback. “I just… you looked so familiar when you came in here…”
“Yeah, you were staring at me pretty intensely.”
“But why are you here with them? The Severands.”
“I’ve been staying there. After the accident.”
“At their mansion.”
“Yes.” She spoke quietly. “I’m recovering.”
For some reason I tried to make a joke, and I knew I sounded bitter. “Hard to get used to the maids changing the sheets, chefs cooking the dinners….”
“It’s not something I have much choice about,” she snapped.
I took in a breath. “What does that mean?”
Marius Severand was suddenly there. He had come into the church’s alcove. “Tess,” he said. It’s time for us to go.”
Tess and I stood up from the bench.
“I’m sorry about Zach,” she said. Then, simply, “Bye.” And before I could respond, she left the church, brushing past Marius Severand, who remained impassive, standing there like a sentinel. When she was past him, at the church’s entrance threshold, she paused. She looked back at me.
“Please accept my condolences, Jason,” Marius said in a voice rich with layers, like a narrator in a voice-over at the beginning of an Oscar-winning movie.
I shook my head. “Thank you. But I have to say something.”
“I don’t understand what happened.”
“I’m not sure I know what you mean.”
“That night. At your mansion. Zach and… and Tess… were in his car, and someone hit them, someone who had stolen one of your chauffeur’s cars. Is that right?”
Marius did not answer immediately. It was unnerving to meet his eyes. I looked down. Then he said, “We are only just beginning to understand what took place. If you like, I can refer you to the Park Heights Sheriff’s office. But yes, that seems to be what happened. Tess had a stalker. He followed her to Arcyn on the night of a fundraiser we were hosting. This man was killed in the crash but the police recovered many photographs of Tess from his apartment in L.A. Perhaps he was intending, that night, to confront Tess in some fashion; however the opportunity never arose. He must have lost his mind. He attacked our poor driver, Hank, who did not deserve such rough treatment, knocking him unconscious. Then he drove Hank’s car at high speed, instigating a head-on collision with Zach.”
I shook my head. “Tess and Zach were coming back to your mansion. When the accident happened.”
“You’re right. She left the party abruptly. She drove her car out into the mountains and the car broke down, or it seems, ran out of gas. Then she called Zach, who came to pick her up, to drive her back to us.”
“Why did she leave and then want to come back?”
Marius’ tone was even. “You’re troubled by the logic of these events?”
Tess. She had looked back at me, just before leaving the church. Her gaze had fixed me in place. A flood of emotions alive in her eyes. She struggled to keep them in check. And there was something else, something I didn’t understand.
“Yes I am troubled,” I said to Marius. “Troubled is the perfect word. I don’t like any of it.”
“I understand,” Marius said. “And I offer my compassion. I offer my time. In whatever way I can, I would like to help you come to terms with Zach’s death. I give you my word that I will do so. But Jason, you must understand that now is not the time or place.” I held my tongue. Marius continued. “Please come to Arcyn when it suits you—if you wish, Sheriff Dove can be there, you’ll like her—and we can discuss this at length, and do our best to work toward an understanding.” He moved in, looming close up to me suddenly. “I only want the best for you, Jason. For your family. Whatever that may take.”
And then I knew what I had seen in Tess’s eyes as she had left me alone with Marius Severand.
She was terrified.
Marius needed an answer. “Is this something we can agree upon?”
I nodded. “Yes,” I said. “I’ll come to Arcyn.”
“Thank you,” I said. I felt like it would have been proper to bow. Like I was part of some sort of medieval fealty ceremony: Lord Severand, I am your vassal.
Except that I was burning, inside. Caught on fire in a way I had never felt before.
There was something terrible going on here and it was being covered up. I was sure Zach’s death was part of it.
I needed to know the truth.
I would have to find a way to talk to Tess, alone.
© 2020 by CD Miller