“All knowledge carries burdens.”
Sunday afternoon, 6 October 2007
GM: Without a TV, the past few days have been mind-numbingly slow and dull. Emil’s slept a lot. It’s not long after his meeting with Em that Lucky drives the college student back to his apartment without any explanation as to why he can leave the presumed safehouse now. The NOPD detective doesn’t impose any dates or deadlines, beyond a warning against “pullin’ any more shit.”
He just says Emil will get the letter once he’s moved back to L.A.
Emil: He searches around the bushes around, hoping to find the phone he tracked so long ago.
GM: He finds dirt and shrubbery.
Emil: Someone is gonna be unhappy to find the only number they can dial is 911. That phone was more cracked than Japanese pottery. More obfuscated than the words of a Louisiana senator. Maybe he can get it back. He opens the door and explores inside. He changes the passwords on his desktop almost immediately. They’re about a month out of date. It still smells like his blood.
He opens up the ‘find my phone’ applet on his desktop, stares at the path, and crosschecks it to Google Maps to get an image of its location. He does the same for his laptop.
GM: His phone is located in an NOPD station. His laptop comes up from a used electronics store in Houston.
Emil: Emil makes the walk out to the nearest payphone with the roll and a half of Vermont state quarters he had been collecting and a piece of paper with the number of the used electronics store scribbled on it. He calls Lucky and asks him if he could retrieve his phone and if not asks whether it would be trouble to try and retrieve it himself.
GM: Lucky says he “ain’t your maid,” but will call the NOPD station so Emil can pick it up. Emil does so without issue. It’s been languishing in an evidence room.
Det. Moore, who hands it over, is genuinely surprised to find out the phone was Emil’s.
Emil: Emil inquires as to why, and tells him he had a dream where he was wearing an NOPD officer uniform as an older man.
GM: Moore just gives Emil an odd look at his question, but laughs at the account of his dream. Maybe it’s prophetic.
Emil: Lacking great interest in collecting many more looks at the current moment, odd or not, he thanks the detective and leaves back to his apartment, phone in tow. He looks unhappily at his emergency raided state quarter collection but takes solace in that miniature nightmare being over. He sits in his seat, rests his legs on the stack of ungraded papers on his desk, and calls the electronics store inquiring about whether they would be willing to ship the fort knox of a laptop they have on their hands through Fedex.
GM: They say sure, if he pays for it (and the laptop).
Emil: Not about to make a hubbub about it being stolen, so as to avoid any irregularities, he asks the price and haggles it down as best as he can given its used state and the inaccessibility of it. He doesn’t push his luck past a half-decent price, and asks if they have a deal?
GM: The seller observes how noteworthy it is that Emil is specifically calling about this particular laptop. It’s clearly worth something to him. The seller relents somewhat, though, over the fact of the laptop’s inaccessibility, and sells it at a price that’s closer to three-quarterly-decent.
Emil: Days pass. He gets the laptop, does some work to host most of the information he collects from it externally, given the rate at which he’s been losing his electronics. Can’t lose that key to Andy’s electronic life over a simple robbery, after all.
After his technological reunion, Emil resumes his search into the mystery of his father. He doubts he’ll be able to see his mother again, much less receive the fulfillment of her oath. He brushes away those dark thoughts with the push to work. He looks into the NOLA court records for Robert White, and chuckles over how long it’s taken for him to load this one website. After that, he gets in contact with the St. Louis cemetery groundskeeper, Mr. Lejeune, whom he had planned dinner with but couldn’t on account of getting attacked. He apologizes for skipping out on him with a promise of more free food and booze if he just would sit down and talk to him about what happens in the cemetery when no one’s looking. About grave robbery, about how people use the empty vaults.
GM: Robert White’s online court records disappointingly turn up no results. The website’s disclaimer says posted records may not be accurate or complete. Emil supposes that may be little surprise for the 1972 case, which well precedes the widespread use of online databases. Probably not many court employees jumping to volunteer their afternoons scanning and uploading all those old records.
Mr. Lejune, who’s sour to have been stood up by Emil, takes some coaxing before he agrees in exchange for a flat amount of cash on top of drinks and food. He says grave robbery happens all the time. Tourists grabbing souvenirs. Tour guides and other hucksters grabbing souvenirs to sell to tourists. Gangbangers grabbing morbid trophies. Crazies grabbing mementos for who the fuck knows what reason. He’s even spotted well-dressed men in suits robbing graves. He doesn’t try to stop it, or even report it, unless it’s a famous person’s grave.
“Why fuckin’ bother.”
The groundskeeper doesn’t know who Earl Kane is or remember his specific vault, but says the ones around its location have been robbed countless times since 1992. He’d be surprised if anything was still left. It’s probably one of the most robbed parts of the cemetery. It’s on a lot of tour group routes, fairly close to the cemetery entrance, and just far away enough not to be in view of the public.
Emil: Emil pushes a little further, asking him about those well-dressed men he mentioned earlier. Did he ever overhear conversation or names from those types of people. Did they ever leave anything behind by mistake? Things of an identifying nature.
GM: Mr. Lejune overheard the name ‘University Hospital’ from the men. Maybe they worked there.
Or maybe they didn’t. Hospitals have “plenty bodies already” as the gravedigger well knows.
How many dead people go through a hospital first, after all?
Emil: The name alone sends a shiver down Emil’s spine. He thanks the man for his time and leaves only halfway through finishing his meal. Talk of hospitals stole his appetite.
When he gets back to his apartment he sets out to find as much information on Carter as possible. He starts with the American Medical Center’s doctor finder tool. If he doesn’t find him through that, he looks for his online presence via his AOL address and phone number. He uses this information to try and find relatives of his, his attending physician, and any co-authors on papers he’s published in the past.
GM: Houston has a lot of doctors. Emil finds several Carters who have the name as a given name and surname. But all of their photos look like completely different people. Different features, different ages, different genders. The provided phone number and AOL address both turn up “no results” in Google’s search field.
It’s as if the man doesn’t really exist.
Emil: “You know I’m starting to think he never really wanted to be my friend,” he says to the reflection in his monitor.
GM: The haunted-looking image offers him a thousand-yard stare.
It looks like it’s seen things even it wouldn’t believe.
Emil: He switches to light theme.
Carter may not exist publicly, but that man definitely exists somewhere. You can’t escape your shadow. He starts scouring graduation photos of Texan medical schools in the past years. He looked young, so he shouldn’t have to look too far in the past to find his face if he studied there.
GM: Emil looks and looks and looks, but doesn’t find Carter’s picture anywhere in recent Texan medical graduation photos. Maybe he’s a transplant from somewhere else.
Emil: Given they had a problem with him, or potentially his father, it’s possible he transferred from a Louisianan medical school. He tries those as well.
Emil: Bastard angels skipping school but getting all the qualifications. He wonders if he’s provided medical advice to anyone else. He wonders if he’s a trained physician at all.
He was curiously into linguistics and the occult. Just in case, he looks into various universities in Texas to find out which one’s libraries have the greatest magnitude of hermetic works. He writes a quick script to perform the search, compiling a list of works to check for off the internet. He also factors into his web scraping algorithm a data point of how if at all active are student organizations focused on occult and linguistic study per university. To do that he collects funding and membership statistics from the clubs. He shoves it all into a clean visualization and a less clean spreadsheet.
GM: The library at Rice University appears to have the largest number of Emil’s chosen titles. He cannot find any campus organizations openly dedicated to the occult, although there is a linguistics-related organization called the Rice Linguistics Society. It has some overlap with the university’s Department of Linguistics, but membership is open to undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty members unaffiliated with the Department.
It’s after Emil is about to turn in for bed after several days of such research that one of his automated reminders pops up. His exam in MATH 6300 (Complex Analysis I) with Prof. Freneau is tomorrow.
He pulls up a series of old midterms to cram through and downloads a bootleg copy of the textbook and spends a couple hours memorizing the requisite formulas in his textbook. Shouldn’t be too hard to succeed. Complex Analysis indicates that to evaluate a contour integral, simply analyze its residues. Emil has plenty of residues in the contours of his t-shirts from spilled box ramen dinners.
GM: The deadline for his Service Learning hours in Prof. Delacroix’s class is approaching, too. Unlike his other professors, Delacroix both mandates Service Learning and requires students to periodically complete X number of hours by numerous dates throughout the quarter. “You aren’t going to make a difference in your communities by swooping in for five minutes like Angelina Jolie,” the environmental science professor had glowered at a complaining student.
He could just tell Prof. Freneau he actually means to transfer out of Tulane. On the day of the exam. Could he please not count that towards his grade, and sign the add/drop form?
Emil: Course, that would mean missing out on the rest of the semester, a semester he paid for. He’s not sure how many more he can afford, and now that his parents’ support is up in the air, he needs to be careful how he acts.
He shoots off two emails to arrange meetings with both professors to explain some of his situation. He includes an update in his email to Prof. Delacroix about his Service Learning project. He explains that he’s been working towards his initial goal of learning about the moral and environmental importance of supporting small local farmers and local market. He informs his professor that he has done research both off and online about the effects of industrial farming and the ethical discussion surrounding it and has collected the contact information for a couple of farmers from the Crescent City Farmer’s Market, Randall Pines and Bradley Semer, whom he intends to interview as soon as their schedules align.
GM: Emil goes to Prof. Freneau’s class the next morning and feels like he did okay on the exam. Not great, but okay. Considering the stress he’s been through and the lack of time spent studying, he supposes it’ll be one of the most welcome ’B’s he’s ever gotten.
Both men meet with him within several days, and are willing to grant deadline extensions in return for a signed doctor’s note. They express their condolences for his hospitalization and ask polite questions about related events. They’re not deep, so Emil only has to lie a little.
Prof. Delacroix still tells him off for sending update emails. “How many students you think I got? You think I want to read emails from all of ‘em, saying they’ve done this or that research? Just get me a signed form from your supervisor when you’ve done ’em.”
Dr. Crawford, when Emil calls her, is willing to sign a note that’s valid through the day he was transferred from Tulane to Texas Medical Center. He should see his doctor there for those.
Which leaves all of the days when he was in Lucky’s safehouse and his own apartment unexcused.
Emil: Problem stands that Emil doesn’t think he ever encountered an actual doctor at Texas Medical Center, and he’s pretty darn sure that Bartosz wouldn’t have the authority to sign off on a valid note for a human being.
Luckily, Bartosz isn’t the only doctor in the Touro Synagogue’s congregation. There’s also his wife: Dr. Roz Blascewicz, who runs an independent office. She isn’t part of her husband’s operation and draws the line at actually providing medical treatment to people engaged in criminal acts, but she wouldn’t have married her husband if her morals weren’t a little loose. She’s earned the nickname Dr. “Just This Once” from her tendency to provide extra-special and perhaps extra-legal treatment to non-criminal patients if they promise to pull some strings for her in return.
She gets a call from Emil fairly soon after he decides his ticket out of the hellhole that is being an orphan with student loans is a rock solid, or perhaps solid-ish GPA. He intends to withdraw from Tulane as soon as he can get a note excusing the unexplained time.
GM: The other, several decades younger Dr. Blazcewicz may not be as “open-minded” regarding what patients she treats as her husband is, but a doctor’s note is a fairly small favor as far as they go. She fills out and signs the note in return for a Ben Franklin.
Emil supposes it’s for the best he’s getting out soon. He’s running out of money.
Emil: He wonders whether Paul has a life insurance policy. Maybe his mom did too. He realizes that he desperately needs some therapy after this, but then decides that’s a terrible idea given the cost. But if he could get a discount. Or maybe he can’t, maybe he can just look up tapes of therapy sessions and gain closure by proxy. That sounds dreadful.
Nevertheless, he shakes the right hands and signs all the requisite papers to withdraw from the university after getting those days excused. He waits for the final confirmation meeting but the wheels are put in motion and the dotted lines have been signed.
GM: Emil shakes a lot of hands between his academic advisor, a case manager at CMVSS, the Dean’s office, and the HCSC clinician who evaluates his condition, but eventually the wheels of bureaucracy grind on. Profs. Freneau, Delacroix, and Emil’s other professors all express their condolences for his hospitalization and their initial hopes that he’ll apply for re-admission once he’s recuperated. They’re sad to hear he won’t be doing so, but can’t blame him for wanting to be closer to his family in L.A. Dr. Delacroix says something about families setting down “deep roots” in this city, but that “home is where family is.”
Emil: Those words don’t especially comfort Emil. Where’s home if your family is in heaven? Emil starts packing nonetheless.
In the meantime, without the burden of classes, Emil focuses his attentions on his investigation. He starts with the event that fueled this mess in the first place. He needs to know what happened to him in the library. He spends time researching the surveillance infrastructure the university uses around the library entrance. He doesn’t think the library will have stored the data properly for that moment, given the electrical issues, but perhaps the buildings surrounding it could have caught a glimpse. Using a spot of social engineering, he finds an employee with access to the cameras and attempts to infect their access key to provide him with access to the records for that night.
GM: Tulane’s security cameras aren’t overly difficult to obtain access to. In fact, the university has a fairly extensive network of them. Big Brother watches everyone as they go about their business on campus.
Emil doesn’t see anything. But there are bumps in the night. Heavy sounds, interspersed by fainter, raggedy, almost stifled ones. Whimpers.
And what sounds like… sobbing.
Emil: “Well that’s upsetting,” Emil says to his reflection. He wonders whether he is the one sobbing, or perhaps someone else is, perhaps because of him.
This has happened before, but why? Where did these whimpers lead to? Emil attempts to find a listing of farms around New Orleans and uses Google Maps to try to match one up visually to the one he found himself in that fateful night.
GM: Yet human memory, as Emil can increasingly attest, is an all-too fallible thing. He recalls one of his professors for a psychology class he took explaining that even people with phenomenal memories can vividly recall events that never happened. Emotionally charged memories are especially fallible, and Emil was terrified beyond almost all rational thought. He looks at farm after farm, jumping in his seat when one seems familiar… but so many do. His mind is hungering to find a pattern, to put a face (or at least place) to what happened to him. And Google’s satellite imagery looks vastly different from a grounds-eye view.
Computers, the comp sci student may finally conclude, transcend human weaknesses in more ways than one.
Emil: He shudders at the realization that if he really wants better answers, he’ll need to leave his ramen cave and speak to his fellow memory-flawed wretches. He intends to go on an exploratory visit to the library to examine its swipe entrance system to figure out who might have witnesses the attack. Before he does that though, Emil looks into Rice University’s linguistics society, trying to find Carter in their past member rosters and group photos. He also looks into the papers they publish to search for Carter’s name. Finally, he phishes the longest leading officer into letting Emil into his email, so that he can see if there are any hints of Carter’s connection recently.
GM: He visits their website. http://rls.rice.edu/
Carter’s name is once again absent from the officers list and mailings lists, as well authorship of the “Wise as as an owl” organization’s papers. Emil does not recognize the young doctor’s (if he wasn’t lying about that) face in any group photos of the smiling linguists under the Texas sun.
Phishing his way into the probable liberal arts major’s email account proves trivially easy, but there is no trace of Carter there either. Emil feels as if he is chasing a ghost.
Emil: “Someone’s gotta know you. You can’t just not exist! I crushed you like a bug. You can’t crush ghosts, for fuck’s sake.”
Emil decides to pause his obsession for a moment. He lies on his bed, his head resting just below the ornate cuckoo clock that takes him closer and closer to the grave with each heart attacking morning screech. His mother gave him that as a housewarming gift. She said it was homemade. It hanged in his Los Angeles home as long as he could remember before traveling down here with him.
He frowns and returns to the cold computer screen, unable to rest. He pulls up his mother’s email account, signs in, and starts browsing her recent messages. He wonders whether her friend ever reached out like she promised.
GM: If Sharon did so, it wasn’t by email. There are no new messages from her. And no new activity by Emil’s mother.
Emil: He just as quickly turns from his computer, might as well check. He dials Sharon’s number and asks her if she’s heard from his mother any.
GM: Sharon makes small talk before answering no, she hasn’t heard anything. It’s been some days since they last talked. Has his mother been out of contact with him for all that time?
Emil: Emil tells some more lies, thanks her, and then hangs up. He thinks back to Dr. Freneau’s interjections about Bayes theorem during class. That man sure did enjoy interjecting statistics facts into his Analysis lectures. The probability an event really occurred increases the more evidence you’re presented with. No visits in the hospital. The visions of her throat cut. The lack of responsiveness. The lack of emails. Not even responding to her closest friend. It’s hard to argue now that she’s anything but gone from this world. And yet he saw her, or perhaps will see her, but not for some time. Maybe she went the way of Carter, up and became a ghost on the wind.
GM: All because of him. Because of the answers he demanded.
Ghosts haunt the people they leave behind. That’s the difference from just being dead and gone.
And yet, according to Lucky, he may be due another visitation by her.
Emil: He throws on a coat and pulls open a drawer and retrieves a cardboard box, now covered in dust, that contains his dad’s boxing gloves.
He jumps in his car, and drives to the boxing gym he used to visit as a kid. He doesn’t remember what his dad looked like, but he remembers the tenacity, the strength, the skill which he demonstrated in the ring. That art of a performance, that clash of red leather drowned out all else in his memory except for the half lift neon sign that stabbed into his eyes before he entered the building. The sign said ’Reginald’s.’
He wonders if anyone is left from those days. Katrina hit hard on small businesses like this. It might not even exist anymore. But if it does, maybe he can find someone who remembered his dad. Lucky couldn’t have been the only one.
GM: Emil drives and drives. He thinks that’s what the sign said. But none of the signs he drives by say ’Reginald’s.’ Maybe the gym has closed down in the two decades since then. He talks to people around the Mid-City neighborhood, gets blank looks from people his own age, and eventually hears from older folks that the gym was called Richie’s. Reginald was Richie’s brother. Richie’s been dead for a while now. Or just since Katrina.
Richie isn’t dead. Though maybe he wishes he was. He’s in a nursing home and looks like a feeble shell of the man who once might have stepped into the ring. He can’t talk since his stroke, the CNA explains, but he can “write a little.” He mostly spends his days watching TV. He gets few visitors. He’s estranged from his brother Reggie.
The mute old man remembers Earl Kane, he slowly taps, but Katrina flooded his house. What photos he had of the “old days” are gone.
Like he’s soon going to be.
A light psss sound fills the air. The old man looks confused that he’s urinated himself, then starts softly crying. He doesn’t want to die. He’s terrified of dying. The only thing that’s worse than being alive is being dead.
That’s what Earl said. That there’s nothing worse than dying. That there’s nothing worse than being alive. That the worst way to die is in bed. That the worst way to die is alone. That people who die in bed deserve to die alone.
Emil doesn’t know what he’s trying to say anymore. His writing’s a mess.
Emil: Emil takes his unblemished hand and steadies the man’s with it. He tells the man that, “Death isn’t something for the dying to fear. Fear is for the pain of losing those you hold dear. The fear of becoming one step closer to complete loneliness. But when we die, we should rejoice. Everyone that matters is thinking of you. Everyone that truly cared, recollects all the best of you, wears the memory like a winter sweater. And all the pain, all the loneliness, it dissipates into sea foam. As long as someone you touched still stands, you never really have died. And if you’re not ready yet, if you need to see to some things, God will open your eyes to see them through.”
“My parents have died, one of them far too recently. But I know they return to me, to protect me, to hear me cherish their memory. I am the child of a Kane and an Abernathy. My daughter is the child of a Kane and a Hall. Our blood remembers, the next generation will remember me, and they will be remembered by the next. I will remember your name, Richie. I will tell my kids about you too. And they, theirs. You are not alone.”
He prays for him, to quash his fears, or perhaps to quash his own. He prays for himself. He prays for the afraid.
GM: Richie stops writing. But he clasps Emil’s hand in his thin, liver-spotted ones, and there’s a look of gratitude in his wet eyes.
Though Emil supposes he might have been fibbing that his family’s current next generation is necessarily going to remember him.
Emil: He’s not sure how he could really face his daughter, or his daughter’s mother. He might never collect enough guts to do so. But there’s more than one way to make a legacy. To make a family. Emil will figure it out. He has to, before he dies. But he has a lot of time until then, he has a long long time.
He visits Richie as many days as he can manage. It’s draining, witnessing the loneliness which permeates nursing homes. But Emil doesn’t, in his mind, have a choice. You can’t abandon the dying until they’ve truly died.
He asks Richie about the name Abernathy, if he’s ever heard it. He asks a lot of people, along the way. On the streets and the stairs and on the porches. The old, and some of the young who have that same scarred look in their eyes that he sees in his reflection. It’d be nice to know his mother’s family, to know he has any family left.
GM: People all seem to want the same thing before they’ll talk. Money. Emil spends what little he has left to find out the Abernathys lived in Central City, one of the poorest and most dangerous areas of the city, and that he should continue his search there. They lived there for a very long time.
He’s interrupted when he goes back to his apartment. Lucky is waiting. The homicide detective looks absolutely livid as he punches Emil in the balls, hard, and then all but throws him into a car. They drive for a while. Outside city limits. Towards the airport.
The older man doesn’t speak a word for the entire trip.
Emil: He’s just barely able to bring what he can grab. A beat up carry-on suitcase with his father’s gloves, a photo of his mother, his archive drive and a few sets of clothes. A backpack with his laptop and its and his phone’s charger and some non-liquid toiletries. He brings his phone and wallet in his pockets. And—wait.
Is that what he thinks it is?
He waits for the pain in his loins to subside a bit before asking, “Why is there blood on my door? I haven’t done anything stupid. What’s going on?”
Maybe that’s why Lucky’s here. Trouble. Or maybe someone got far too excited with their paschal sacrifice.
GM: Lucky just gives Emil a scornful look.
Emil: “No seriously, Lucky. I have no idea what is going on. Did another person get hurt?”
GM: “Just shut the fuck up, you stupid kid,” Lucky snaps.
They reach Louis Armstrong. Lucky drops Emil off and tells a man who looks like a TSA agent to “get him where he needs to be.” In short order, Emil’s boarded a plane for Los Angeles.
Emil: He apologizes to Lucky before he drives off. He tells him that once he scrounges up the money, he’ll send him the professionals, friends of his, to do the work he promised he’d do.
As the plane spurts along the runway and rises into the sky, Emil can almost see the outline of that beautiful tower from his dreams peeking through the clouds, shadowed and hazy. He smiles, but when he places his hand on the window, it reduces to a wet smudge of dirtied condensation.
He takes out the copy of the Tanakh he showed Emmett at his visit. It opens to the creased page he had indicated. Covered in sharpie and sticky notes, with a quote surrounding a verse:
“Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof.”
(“Justice, justice you shall pursue.”)
He flips to the back of the book. Fresh ink smudged on the page, the signature of his teacher, under a curious sigil. The last time he visited his teacher, the first after he’d seen a bit of the truth.
Thursday evening, 11 October 2007
GM: Founded in 1828, Touro is the city’s oldest synagogue (and the oldest in the country outside the original 13 colonies) and bears a slight resemblance to a red-brick Byzantine temple, with squat buttresses and bubbly domes. Emil uncovered during a moment of research that it’s also a near-exact duplicate of the old Bikur Cholim synagogue in Seattle. While it may be his father’s past that drew the young computer science student back to New Orleans, he may take some comfort, or even pride, from the fact that his connection to this part of the city is wholly his own. The name Earl Kane means nothing to anyone here, beyond what it means through Emil.
Emil: The old synagogue never fails to stun Emil. There’s something about the vastness of the interior. The walls seem to rise curled out of the ground like great frozen waves, meeting at the top at a singular point, forming a perfect dome. Walking through the rows and rows of seats and hearing his footsteps echo around the great structure reminds Emil of Jonah sitting in the belly of God’s whale. The stained glass portholes that adorn the walls let a kaleidoscope of colored rays spread and diffract over the audience. The brass organ’s pipes blow a cold wind from behind, staring at Emil as he walks towards the bimah, towards the ark. It begs to be looked at, but doesn’t make an unasked for noise. It simply stares until you inevitably drift your gaze behind. Of course, it can’t judge you all too harshly, because who could ignore the draw of the tall ark. The Ten Commandments are writ in short as the crown to a carved wooden structure that houses the Temple’s many Torah scrolls behind its verdure curtains. These beautiful features have been characteristics of Reform synagogues since the movement’s inception.
Rabbi Shemtov never fails to discourage appreciating such structure, but it comes from a good place. He comes from a Conservative background despite working in the Reform Temple. During the Jewish enlightenment in 1800s Germany, the Haskalah, there was a drive for change in Jewish communities. No more did people wish to stay isolated in shtetls, living private lives in their villages bordered by language, religion, and culture. Assimilation was the solution, and what some called modernization. Small house-sized synagogues with no music and very little variety in the day-to-day services were changed to be more in line with the large cathedrals, special decorum and ritual, and organ music of the Jews’ Christian neighbors.
The Conservative movement was a backlash to what they considered an affront on Jewish tradition and perhaps, God forbid, an advancement towards paganism. What might people think of the kaleidescope lights of the stained glass except that those must be God’s eyes shining through. What else could the massive hall of the Temple be but God’s physical dwelling? What might the booming organ music be but the voice of God himself? God of course is completely ephemeral, and any structure implying the contrary is misleading at best and blasphemy at worst.
Nevertheless, it is beautiful and old, so while he can complain about it all he wants, the poor rabbi can’t change a thing.
GM: Rabbi Shemtov might not be able to change a thing about the sanctuary’s interior, but he can, at least, avoid it. Emil finds the rabbi in the beth midrash off to the side. It’s a plainly functional room with not much there besides chairs, tables, and shelves stacked high with books. Emil can well attest as to the size of the small library’s collection of kabbalistic texts. Copies of the Zohar take up an entire row on the largest shelf, perhaps little surprise given the rabbi’s alleged descent from its author.
Shemtov is a short man in his 60s with receding gray hair and a thick, neck-length beard of the same color. His dark eyes are framed by thick eyebrows that still retai their color. When he’s wearing a tallit and kippah, he looks every inch the proper rabbi. When he’s wearing dark slacks with a tucked-in button-up shirt and just the skullcap like he is now, he feels like he’s out of his element. Emil’s heard a couple (younger) congregants joke he should’ve been an Orthodox rabbi with a beard like the one he has. Emil’s not sure how the rabbi himself would take the joke. He’s laying out Styrofoam cups around a coffee dispenser in anticipation of the weekly Kabbalah class as Emil comes in.
Emil: “Shabbat shalom, Rabbi,” Emil says, smiling in a weak reminisce at his teacher as he grabs a few cups off the stack and aids him. He’s wearing a near carbon copy of the Rabbi’s outfit, something he adopted soon after he joined the congregation. He even shops at the same store.
GM: Rachman’s eyebrows shoot up in surprise as he hears Emil. “Emil. Oh my goodness. People here have been trying to reach you. The hospital said you were in Houston.”
“Shabbat shalom,” he wishes back, clasping a hand over Emil’s shoulder. “You are well?”
Emil: No. No I am most definitely not, he thinks.
He keeps laying out the cups, doesn’t look the rabbi in his eyes as he says, “Of course I am, it’s Simchat Torah. We’re commanded to be happy, aren’t we?”
The one piece of clothing that sticks out from Emil’s copied uniform is a single threadbare glove that covers Emil’s scars.
GM: Rachman doesn’t immediately answer Emil. Instead, he merely says, “The cups are fine. Come, sit down. Tell me about the past few weeks.”
Emil: Emil follows the rabbi’s words and takes a seat at one of the paper-strewn tables across him.
He tries to start a few times, opens his mouth as if he has words to describe the past few weeks, but he just as quickly closes it.
GM: “It sounds like the mitzvah to rejoice is a hard one for you to follow right now,” Rachman patiently fills in.
Emil: He nods slowly, reluctantly.
“It’s a test. I usually know my way through them, or a way around them. But not now. I’m afraid of flunking.”
“How can God test us like this? Calm for some time, smooth sailing over small problems. And then one day the storm hits, and then it’s flat to the deck from then on. Wave after wave. Does he want to see me break?”
GM: “Job likely wondered that very same question,” the rabbi answers. “He’s described as ‘blameless’ and ‘upright.’ Then in one day, he loses everything. His livestock, servants, and ten children all die from invaders and disasters. He prays and is afflicted with sores.”
“Do you think that God wanted to see Job break?”
Emil: “I don’t know what God wanted. Could God want for anything? He is everything.”
“In those verses he always seemed so proud of Job. For his righteousness. For his loyalty. And he did protect him, in a sense. Job was left unscathed in his person. But a family is not something you have, it’s in your blood. Under your skin. It keeps your heart beatin’. They drained him ‘til his bones were dry. Maybe God didn’t want him to break, but anyone less perfect would’ve. That’s what bones do under pressure. They snap.”
GM: “I had a similar conversation to this one with the Rabinowitzes,” Shemtov says. “Their oldest daughter asked the same timeless question you’re asking now. Why is there suffering? Why do bad things happen to good people?”
Emil: “I don’t think it’s a difficult question to answer, Rabbi, but the answer is just hard to accept. Look at Job. Samael is the accuser, the adversary. He has no freedom of choice like we do. He is defined by his need to test, to make us suffer in this world. That’s how God made him. And what kind of cruelty would God be dishing to deny him his very purpose? Bad things happen to good people because we’re not God’s only children. A father can’t in good conscience neglect one child for the sake of another, so neither can God.”
GM: Shemtov actually smiles. “You’re probably the first person I’ve ever discussed the Book of Job with, Emil, to express concern for Samael’s welfare in that way. I applaud your sense of compassion.”
“But one detail we often take for granted as readers is Samael’s role in Job’s suffering. When Ha’shem finally speaks to Job, he asks if Job comprehends the expanse of the earth and suggests people should not discuss divine justice since Ha’shem’s power is so vast that humans can’t possibly justify his ways. Job never actually learns why he suffers.”
Emil: Emil nods at first, processing. “Job never saw the angel who made him suffer, never recognized him. But we are told explicitly. Everyone of his descendants knows why he suffered except for him. Because Samael is a hidden element. Divine justice is knowable, but only in retrospect.”
Then his face screws up tight, his brow folding into an accordion. “But what if Job could have seen the hand of the angel, if Samael didn’t just appear in his rear view mirror? What could Job have done then? Had he seen a sliver of the plan?”
GM: “Against Ha’shem’s will, nothing. It was decreed that he suffer thus. Perhaps the knowledge of why he suffered would have granted him peace. Maybe he would have found it in himself to forgive Samael like you have. Maybe he might not have.”
“There’s an interesting interpretation I’ve heard that the Book of Job actually isn’t a theodicy. Its purpose isn’t to answer why bad things happen to good people.”
“Ha’shem never responds to Job’s questions and accusations because Ha’shem’s purpose in coming to Job is not to justify or defend. Rather, Ha’shem’s purpose, like Job’s friends, is to comfort Job. Ha’shem speaks to Job ‘out of the storm wind’ and silences his voice, but only after Job has had an opportunity to pour out his soul and voice his feelings and complaints, serving as an emotional catharsis and release. There is no hint that Job’s questions and complaints constitute heresy or disrespect. It is only after Job has poured out his soul that Ha’shem silences him because there eventually comes a point when such a release is no longer productive. There comes a point when Job must reconcile himself with the heavens, and with life, in order to continue living.”
“So the central question of the Book of Job then is not the philosophic question as to why Ha’shem allows evil but the psychological question of how to comfort Job, and help him to continue living in the face of such terrible suffering. It is only after Job accepts that he cannot continue to question Ha’shem regarding his own suffering that he can try to go on living. It is at that time that Ha’shem restores his fortune and gives him children to replace those he lost. This is not a compensation in order to defend or justify Ha’shem, but simply a reality that, although no lost child can be replaced, new children continue to be born, and Job must continue living even in the face of such terrible suffering as the loss of his children.”
Shemtov takes Emil’s hand. “Even a man as upright as Job is allowed to say how he really feels, Emil. Tell me what troubles you.”
Emil: He is slow to pick his words. Slower to respond.
“What I tell you here can’t leave this table. For any reason. Would you take an oath, Rabbi?”
He looks his teacher in his eyes, letting the man see how far his own have seen, how his irises still reflect the static seas.
GM: Shemtov rises, retrieves a leather-bound Torah from among the bookshelves, and sits back down. He lays his hand upon the book.
“I swear unto Ha’shem, and all I hold sacred within this book, that I shall not speak of what you tell me without your express permission.”
Emil: Emil nods at the completion of the oath. No bond holds men together stronger than their word.
“You’re a good man, Rabbi. Much better than I am,” he starts.
“I’ve seen so many things in these past weeks I feel like I’ve aged years. I’ve asked for it too, that’s what pains me. Everything I’ve requested I’ve been granted. But I didn’t think about the consequences of knowing.” The leather glove which covers his hand squeaks as his fingers clench nervously.
“For everything I’ve been shown, something has been taken in turn.” His eyelid begins twitching again, he struggles to calm it.
“What would you hear first? What was taken? Or what was given?”
GM: “All knowledge carries burdens,” the rabbi answers solemnly. “I would hear what was sought, then what was taken, and finally what was given.”
Emil: Emil tells his story to the rabbi. He doesn’t speak eloquently, nor does he follow the chronology of his experience. Instead he highlights the cycles of seeking, losing, and learning. When it comes down to it, all he really wanted was to find his father. In the process of searching, he worries that he may have lost the only people left willing to take on that role. And what else did he lose? His job, his education, his mother, his girlfriend, his safety. He is responsible for the deaths of far too many. And what did he gain from it? He gained power beyond his ken. Eyes that see God’s creation in formation before they finish scaling down the heavenly branches. The strength he never could muster made real with his mind. A voice that refuses to go unheard. He peeked into the world of those who climbed the ladder. He found his Samael and spoke with him face to face. He flew on the wings of Metatron and saw this city for what it truly was. Climbed the tower almost up to heaven and plunged far beneath.
“Though none of this gives me peace, not even knowing my mother will return someday. Because I don’t know who I’ve dealt with. I can’t tell you whether God was there or whether it was something else. Something foul.”
He removes the glove to reveal his blemished hand.
“What do you make of me, Rabbi? Of what’s marked me?”
GM: Shemtov listens to Emil’s story with somber, quiet patience. He doesn’t interrupt or ask questions at first, but simply lets Emil give voice to his experiences in the same manner that Job shouted his own pain to the heavens.
But as the narrative progresses and grows increasingly fantastical, as Emil tells impossible stories about hurling cars with his mind and gripping demonic hands from television screens, he sees a too-familiar look in the rabbi’s eyes.
It’s not the incredulity that must have marked Sharon’s face. It’s still patient. Still sympathetic. Even pained for him. He feels as if the man is seeing his words as further evidence of the depth of his pain and loss.
Shemtov finally lays a hand on Emil’s shoulder.
“I think, Emil,” the rabbi says slowly, “that you have suffered terribly. You have been separated from your loved ones at a time when you most needed their comfort. I think your family has suffered from old pains they have buried deep and allowed to fester rather than heal. I think recent pains have exposed you to those old pains at the worst possible moment. And I am sorry I was not there for you during your time of need.”
Emil: Experience shields Emil from the pain of being disbelieved. His stories never make much sense, no matter how much important truth they might carry. The gentle hand of his teacher floods Emil with warmth. “Bless you, Rabbi.”
Maybe the issue isn’t what Emil is saying. It’s that he’s saying it. He smiles, satisfied.
“If it’s all right, do you think I could make a demonstration at the beginning of today’s class?”
GM: “Hmm. Why don’t you make one right here first, where it’s just us?” Shemtov proposes.
Emil: Emil nods. “Fair enough.”
He gets up from his seat and moves to open a window. It fights back as he shakes it out and up from the windowsill, sputtering old dust onto the floor.
He takes a cold apple out of one of the bowls on the refreshment table and presents it to Rachman. He imagines himself tuxedoed on a flamboyantly lit stage.
“This is a perfectly normal apple, wouldn’t you agree?”
GM: “I would,” the rabbi nods.
Emil: “Of course, we are speaking about the physical world. This apple,” he says, tossing it between his hands, “is not really a perfect specimen of an apple. It’s marked in places, discolored in others. And yet, you agreed with me that it’s perfectly normal. Why is that?”
GM: “Perfection is abnormal,” Shemtov answers.
Emil: “Exactly! I’d go so far as to say perfection is impossible. And yet we know exactly what a perfect apple looks like. We see it our heads clear as day when we think of it. It’s precisely what you taught me when I first stumbled into your class. Our minds think one rung higher up the ladder than our eyes when they see. We see many different sorts of apples, each with their own imperfections and peculiarities, and we consider them different. Deep in our guts, however; we know they are all stemming from the same conceptual branch.”
GM: The rabbi smiles faintly. “Deeper even than our guts, Emil. The foundation of kabbalistic thought is that Ein Sof created an initially perfect universe. Deep within our souls, we know this and yearn for its return.”
Emil: He nods keenly. “As a result, this specific apple’s physical traits are almost completely irrelevant. I could have picked up any apple from that bowl and the exact same could be said about it.”
“We can go further though.” Emil places the apple onto the wooden table before the rabbi. “Pay attention to the apple.” He then picks it up and places it on the dusty windowsill. “Is the apple on the windowsill any different than the apple that was in front of you? Does it fundamentally matter where the apple is?”
GM: “Almost all our problems—our fears, doubts, and negative thoughts—come from the realm of time and space,” Shemtov answers thoughtfully. “We worry about what will or won’t happen tomorrow, or we long for things we don’t have—things that are physically distant from us. But in the realm above time and space, Ein Soft’s initial, perfect creation, there is no negativity. Only Light. A return to this state would mean humanity was no longer bound by laws of physicality. Time and distance would be irrelevant. All would again be part of a perfect, unified whole.”
“On a more immediate level, the apple has picked up dust where you’ve moved it. Its relationship to space has physically and metaphysically made it less perfect.”
Emil: Some of the old gleam of Emil’s childhood sneaks into the house of his head through the windows of his eyes, breaking through the cold darkness that formed foggy glaucoma at the entrances.
“That’s right!” He retrieves the apple, dusts it off, and places it back on the table. “In this physical, imperfect world, the apple responds to being placed elsewhere by picking up dust. In a physical world, everything follows physical laws. But on the spiritual level, just a few steps up the chain, a few rungs climbed closer to the Ein Sof, physical imperfection, physical position, is irrelevant. The only thing that matters is that the apple exists. It’s physical position can vary and Ha’Shem’s will will not have been contradicted.”
“Of course, while we can learn about and intuit aspects of the higher spiritual worlds through Kabbalah, we can’t manipulate the higher worlds like we can our own physical one. Right?”
“And yet it is said that the Kabbalist Rabbi Yehiel of Paris was able to drive a nail into the ground and subsequently cause an ill-intentioned visitor to sink into the ground just like the nail did. Simmer on that for a bit.”
“I want you to focus on the apple, Rabbi. Don’t let it out of your sight. Can you do that for me?”
GM: “There are stories about Kabbalists performing other physically impossible feats and even traveling through time. Some people might hold this as power, but such unity with creation in its purest, most original form is by definition impossible to achieve without strict adherence to Ha’shem’s will. ‘Power’, then, becomes merely the subordination of the self and the realization of one’s true place in creation. I’ve always found it a comforting thought that any Kabbalist to possess such superhuman abilities must have also possess equally extraordinary virtue.”
“But you’ve asked me to concentrate. I can do that for you, Emil,” Shemtov replies, staring at the dusted-off apple.
Emil: Emil closes his eyes and begins to mutter prayers under his breath, not to draw any extra strength, but because the thought of being proven wrong, of having his memories of miracles invalidated, shocks him to his core.
He imagines plucking the apple from the table and flinging it to the windowsill, a place more befitting it spiritually in Emil’s estimation. He strains against the forces of this physical world to make his vision a reality, a grin spreading across his face.
GM: Yet for all the conviction of Emil’s vision, and all the assurance of his rabbi’s words, there is no change.
The apple remains where it is.
Emil: “H-what?” he exclaims, exasperated.
His joy sloughs off his face like debrided rot. He stands there in shock for a moment, before looking into the eyes of his teacher.
GM: Shemtov looks unsurprised.
“Emil,” he says gently, “Job’s wife would have told you to curse Ha’shem now. This has been a very dark time for you. Instead, you have striven to be closer to his will. I am humbled by your example.”
“But there are faster paths, and surer ones, to do this than Kabbalah. Tzedakah is mentioned 157 times in the Masoretic Text. Kabbalah is not mentioned once.”
“You spoke about establishing an academic scholarship for the Rabinowitzes and other needful children. Would you still do this?”
Emil: Dark clouds form on the horizon of his thoughts, hiding awful images and grim portents.
The terrible grip of the demon who scarred his hand presses so firmly into his skull it threatens to crack and burst with intracranial fluid. His mother’s slit throat bleeds out of his own, the wound in his neck pulsates.
Tears stream down his face as he sits down, thoroughly humbled.
GM: “Emil,” Shemtov repeats, laying a hand upon his shoulder, “I have studied Kabbalah for much of my life. I know many better men who have studied Kabbalah for even longer.”
“I have known none who were able to sink men into the ground like nails.”
“Ha’shem does not find them wanting for this. He does not find you wanting for this.”
Emil: “God forgive me.” He wipes the tears away with his shirtsleeves. “I want to help the Rabinowitzes. But I don’t have any money. I have nothing left to give. I was hoping we might collect from the congregation.”
GM: “I think you have a great deal to give. I think the congregation will be very supportive of your idea.”
“Elizabeth was a schoolteacher, if you didn’t know. I couldn’t think of a better way to honor her memory.”
Emil: He smiles, weaker now, but he is still able to smile. “Her children deserve to feel her influence, to empower her legacy. This is good.”
“But Rabbi, I’m leaving the city soon, I’ve already withdrawn from my university. A lot of it we can handle by phone call and email, but I’d like to meet with her kids before I go.”
GM: “Of course. I can give you their contact information or contact them for you.”
Emil: “Thank you, Rabbi. It means a lot to me. I feel their pain in my heart.”
GM: “I am more than sure you do,” the rabbi answers gravely. “Have you reported your mother to the police, Emil, as a missing person?”
Emil: “I haven’t. At least not officially. But I have friends in the force. They know.”
GM: “I think we should take no chances where your mother is concerned. Your friends may know and wish to help, but if finding her is not a case they are assigned to, there may be only so much they can do.”
“Would you like to file the report yourself, or to have me do that?”
Emil: “I’ll do it. They know me.”
Emil doesn’t want to let this little bubble of his merge with the wreck that is the rest of his life.
‘Course, he knows he will see his mother again. The markings on his hand assert that truth. Lucky probably would want him to wait until he’s back in Los Angeles, until he’s received the letter.
GM: “What about your stepfather? Has he not tried to contact you in all this time?” Shemtov asks.
Emil: He shakes his head.
“I don’t know how to contact him. I’ve sent him emails, but his cell phone got destroyed. I don’t trust the hospital.”
GM: “What was the hospital’s name, do you remember?”
Emil: “Texas Medical Center. I don’t want to call them, I can’t do that. But if you did, I don’t think it would hurt. Just don’t mention my name.”
GM: “All right. I will leave out your name.”
“In case it does not help, have you considered filing a police report on your stepfather too?”
Emil: “They couldn’t both be gone, could they?”
GM: “I pray they are not. But if you have not been able to reach him, he has not contacted you, and the hospital is unable to help…”
Emil: “I’ll ready all of the details.” He looks grimly down at the shadow of the chair.
With a sigh, he shifts subjects. “What are you planning on teaching us today, Rabbi?”
GM: “Nothing more important than what we have to discuss now,” Shemtov answers seriously. “Emil… have you thought about money? With both of your parents potentially gone, and wanting to move back to Los Angeles… will you have enough to provide for yourself?”
Emil: “My stepdad is a lawyer. My mom’s an etiquette coach. If they’re gone, and I can manage to have them declared deceased, I bet there’s some insurance or some savings they left over.” He looks less than certain but there’s a tightness in his face which insists that it be true. “I thought about investing most of what I get. But I worry my ignorance will screw me there. Do you know if there’s any finance-savvy or connected individuals in the congregation who might be willing to help me out?”
GM: “Yes, I can think of several who we could approach,” Shemtov nods. “But I would take things one at a time, Emil. Except in cases of imminent peril, it can take many years before a missing person is able to be declared dead. If your parents haven’t already granted you access to their bank accounts, which I would be surprised if they did, it might be a very long time before you are able to inherit anything from them.”
“And we don’t know at this point what has happened to them. Maybe the police will find them. But it is impossible to say how long that might take.”
“You seem like you have been able to support yourself in the city here. You’ve mentioned having a job and an apartment.”
Emil: “Yeah, that’s here. The cost of living in Los Angeles is a lot more severe. Maybe someone from the congregation has some connections to the tech sector in Los Angeles. I’m very capable with software, but it’s all about who you know out there. I might have to move to San Francisco, there could be more opportunity there,” Emil says, shaking his head.
GM: “I cask about any tech sector connections too. But I would also consider, at this point, whether it is truly necessary for you to move. As you say, there may be considerable financial adjustments.”
Emil: He checks behind him, and then leans in towards his teacher. “Those friends of mine in the force won’t stay very friendly unless I get out of the city. And soon. I don’t have a choice here.”
GM: The rabbi frowns deeply. “Why do you believe they want you to leave?”
Emil: “Because they’ve been cleaning up a lot of the messes I’ve gotten into over these past hard weeks. And they’re getting hurt. They have families they need to protect too and they think I’m a magnet for trouble.” He pauses. “I don’t blame them either.”
GM: “There is another thing, Emil. You had mentioned being airlifted by the hospital.”
Emil: “That’s right. At my stepfather’s request.”
GM: “Airlifts are very expensive. Even lifts within the same city can cost $40,000 or more. I’m not sure how much more one to Houston might have cost. And if the lift was not for a medical emergency, your parents’ insurance may be unwilling to pay.”
Emil: “They can’t pin that debt to me, can they?”
GM: “I’m not sure. I don’t know the details of how you were treated or your families’ insurance policies. But in my experience, companies are unconcerned with human welfare and will do all they can to avoid having to pay out.”
Emil: “Maybe I should just drop off the grid like my parents. Fake my death and move to Cuba or something. Can’t bill a corpse,” he jokes, and then gets stone serious. “Right?”
GM: “Bill your corpse, or avoid paying out?” the rabbi deadpans back.
“I am not an insurance expert. But potentially, both.”
Emil: “You know I thought the pain was gonna be over once I left. What a foolish thought that was.”
GM: “Hopeful, I think, more than foolish. You have dealt with more than enough pain already. But by dealing with this now, we may spare you greater pain in the future.”
“Hospitals are notoriously slow in sending out bills. That is one potential advantage we have.”
Emil: “Well in that case I either need to get the cash together or figure out how to nip it in the bud. I know I can put the work in since I need to but I don’t know if there is a client willing to take me on for a project big enough to be worth over forty thousand,” Emil says.
“Maybe if I pray hard enough God will just destroy their billing system,” he continues, sighing.
GM: “I would start by contacting the companies behind your and your parents’ insurance policies to see which one you fell under, and whether they are willing to cover the cost of the airlift. I would presume no, but once you hear as much, you could potentially be able to contest their decision before the hospital bill arrives. Does your family have a lawyer you can consult?”
Emil: “I’m not so sure, my stepdad worked for a law firm, but I doubt I could afford their services. But there is someone I could contact. The dean of Tulane Law School. He’s a busy man, but he worked with my stepdad before and I’ve actually been visiting his office fairly often since I transferred to Tulane. He always has another story to share. Maybe he’d be willing to help me out.”
GM: “I would start there, then. Let me know how it turns out. If the dean can’t help you, I will see what I can do. There are some lawyers in the congregation.”
Emil: Emil nods. “I can make it through this.”
GM: “Ha’shem restored Job’s fortunes and blessed him with twice as much as he had before,” the rabbi concurs. “Life holds many pains, but it will always go on, and bring new blessings with it.”
“As for today’s Kabbalah class, we will be spending that examining the sefirot of the world of Beriya, the world of Creation. The word ‘sefira’ derives from ‘sippur’, the Hebrew word for ‘story.’ A perfect story describes an event clearly and succinctly to the listener, such that he can picture the event in all of its details as if he had seen it himself. We will be discussing how, like the apple whose imperfections you demonstrated, all stories fall short of this perfect ideal. But we may still strive for that state, and begin by acknowledging such phenomena as the Rashomon effect…”
Monday night, 15 October 2007, PM
GM: Emil’s plane touches down at Los Angeles International Airport.
He gets off. Ben and Justin are waiting in the crowds.
So is Paul.
They don’t seem to see him yet.
Emil: He should be dead? Why isn’t he dead!?
A terrible mixture of happiness and fear swirls inside Emil’s gut. He bolts to the nearest bathroom.
There’s too much water around the toilet bowl to be sanitary.
He vomits some more.
Is that blood?
And third times a charm.
“Fuck,” he says as he flushes down the worryingly undigested brick of “Vegan Indian” food. He can’t tell whether its covered in blood or because some tired cook spilled the whole box of curry into it.
He slaps his face with cold water and fruitlessly brushes his teeth with a single finger.
“You. Can. Do this,” he encourages himself, poking his reflection with the very same digit.
He steps out again, his shirt moist and warm in the California heat. He drags his suitcase quietly and keeps his head down as he sneaks around the crowd before bursting out from behind his family and capturing his younger half-brothers with a tight bear hug.
GM: “Emil!” exclaims the shorter, chubbier, and glasses-wearing Ben as he hugs his sibling back. “I, wow, Dad told us all about how…”
“No homo, man,” smirks the year-younger but taller, handsomer, and lighter-skinned Justin. He ducks out after several seconds to clap Emil’s back instead.
Paul, his own arms outstretched, slowly lowers them.
It’s perhaps too expected to even be awkward.
Emil: It all seems normal, back to the way it was. Ben’s warm embrace lifts Emil’s spirits. He’s sure it came from his mom, in Emil’s mind Paul just isn’t capable of that sort of thing.
“I’ve missed y’all.”
He glances up and stares through his stepfather’s thick-lens glasses. He gives him funeral eyes: Warm in a microwaved sort of way. A tucked in lower lip that tells him he feels his pain but he’s glad to be able to share it.
He mouths a one-word question. Mom?
GM: “You only lived in the South for what, two years?” brings up Justin. “Sorry, Cali boy. You don’t get to say y’all.”
Paul either doesn’t seem to notice, or perhaps doesn’t feel inclined to answer after the lukewarm greeting. He looks tired and has a hoarse-sounding voice as he says how he’s “glad to see” Emil. The family pile into their SUV and drive back to their house in the suburbs. Ben and Justin chatter on like everything is fine.
Emil: But everything isn’t fine. Right? Where is Mom? How can they be so happy when they don’t know where mom is? Their happiness is a challenge to Emil, and he pushes down his fears for the ride and just lets himself be enveloped by the youthful glee. Today, he can be a big brother again.
GM: Ben starts to talk about his latest DNA experiments before Justin exaggeratedly groans and cuts him off. He talks about his time spent aboard “Uncle” Coy’s ship this summer and visiting London, though obviously (much to his disappointment) he’s back now for high school. Paul tells someone to use their phone to order take-out. He doesn’t feel like cooking tonight. Ben wants Chinese. Justin wants pizza.
Emil: Emil, having no real preference nor appetite given his recent dependency on watery coffee and ramen packets, establishes himself as the arbiter. He decides on a little bit of a competition; whoever can tell him the most interesting thing they’ve overheard from Mom and Paul about Emil’s trip gets to choose what he orders. The second place winner gets to order sides and appetizers from their choice of establishment.
GM: “Uh, what trip?” asks Justin.
Emil: “What’s a trip, Justin? It’s when you go away to see something meaningful and then you come back home to share it with the ones you love.” He lays a hand on his shoulder and smiles down at him.
“I’m talking about them coming down to New Orleans to visit and me deciding it’s time to come back home.”
Emil then claps him on the back of his head. “Now stop bustin’ my balls about what words I use and try to earn your pizza.”
GM: “Okay, try you actually getting laid,” says Justin. “Still had a girlfriend!”
Ben seems to think. “You going to another college now? One with a really good computer science program? I read New Orleans is the most digitally illiterate major city in the US, with the lowest rates of internet access.”
Emil: Emil rolls his eyes at Justin’s remark. Guess he doesn’t want that pizza.
In response the Ben, he agrees that, “Yeah, it’s practically the dark ages down there. Even an ethernet connection is pretty disappointing speed-wise.”
“But I know y’all have heard about more than that. Has Paul told you when he expects Mom’ll come back?”
Maybe if he acts like things are normal, they will be.
GM: “Few weeks? However long, I guess,” Justin shrugs.
“And what I’d say about you not being a Southern boy? That ’y’all’ sounds so fake.”
“Yeah, I guess a few weeks?” Ben echoes. “She didn’t really know, did she Dad?”
“Few weeks was the estimate,” Paul says.
Emil: How long is he gonna keep this up? What are they gonna think when a couple weeks turns into a couple months?
After digging through a drawer, he pulls out the menu pamphlets for the two restaurants and collects his half-brother’s orders.
He decides that he needs to speak to his stepfather about this, and to warm their interactions, he orders Paul his favorite dish from the restaurant. For himself he gets a box of lo mein.
GM: The car lacks menu pamphlets, but it’s easy enough to call the takeout place and ask for menu items. Justin whines about the item he cited being the more interesting. They drive home.
Cheviot Hills is an affluent residential neighborhood of quietly winding streets, leafy trees, pretty single-family homes, and little else. Architectural styles include single-level ranch homes dating to the 1950s as well as classic stuccoed Spanish and Tudor revivals. It’s sandwiched between Century City (home to Fox Studios) and Culver City (home to Sony Studios), only about 10 minutes away during rush hour, and offers both access to the business and a sort of escape.
Cheviot’s location between film studios and its lack of a central shopping and dining area give it a sense of respite from Los Angeles’s rush. There is nowhere to have a date night, nowhere to go shopping for clothes or electronics, not even an upscale grocery store, unless one includes the small Cheviot Hills Shopping Center (which most teenagers don’t), a Rite Aid, and a few small food outlets. Many residents say that Cheviot reminds them of Leave It to Beaver, because “It’s Los Angeles, but it doesn’t feel like L.A.” If someone wants L.A., it’s only a 30-60 minute drive east to the city’s downtown. The Santa Monica Pier and many beaches can be reached in 15 minutes.
That “not L.A.” feature has served the area well. Dozens of films and television shows have been shot on the neighborhood’s handsome streets, and many of its residents have earned day rates for providing their homes to shows including Modern Family and The Goldbergs. But while residents are used to seeing film crews shut down their streets, the area feels isolated from the show business obsession that often grips the rest of Los Angeles’s west side.
The Griffin Club, a members-only pool and tennis club, offers swimming, exercise classes and banquet halls that are popular for social events. Emil and his brothers had their bar mitzvahs there (though Emil had wanted his at the synagogue).
Residents gather for summer block parties, and local moms host monthly wine nights in each others’ homes. At its core, Cheviot Hills is a place to come home to rather than a place to be seen. Neighbors meet up for backyard barbecues, trade baseball statistics, and catch up on gossip while jogging with their strollers to the park. The appeal is that if someone didn’t know they were minutes from Hollywood when they stumbled into Cheviot Hills, they might never realize it.
And that’s precisely what the residents want to hang on to. This is a “good neighborhood.” Emil and Ben have had the police called on them several times, though that never seemed to happen to the lighter-skinned Justin. The neighbors responsible (usually newly moved-in families) apologized profusely afterwards, once they realized the boys lived a few houses down. Then Lucille picked them up and angrily lectured her sons about “looking more presentable” in the car. Cheviot is very welcoming to its residents, but to people who don’t belong, it turns on the flip of a dime. Many residents like to boast they aren’t trust fund kids: they’ve worked hard for what they have.
Emil would know. His mom’s one of them.
Emil: And as he stares out the car window, pressing his hand against the cold glass, he wonders what remains for him here. There’s something to speak in defense of with a place like Cheviot Hills, an eye in the storm of hustle and bustle, of formulated dreams. You can rest here, if you belong, and it’s a nest that Emil never before felt afraid to roost in. If Los Angeles is a city of dreams made manifest, Cheviot Hills is a hamlet of heading to bed. Not in the literal sense, in the sense of the lie that we all tell ourselves. It’s lying in bed without closing your eyes. Or, as it was more often with Emil, sitting at his desktop staring at a monitor filled with words that made less and less sense the longer he stared at them. Once it all spilled over into nonsense, all that’s left to do is to daydream about things that do, things like leaving the city. Things like finding truths, small and large, anywhere but stuck in the house. It’s possibility abound when it’s all in your sleep-deprived mind.
And it’s a comfort too, to be limited to such daydreams. Emil’s imaginations turn his dreams into nightmares, it’s almost a punishment to go to sleep before he’s stepped over the precipice of peeled eyes and exhaustion. Maybe he should have tried, once or twice more than he had. He wonders if maybe he’d have figured out how much danger there was filling in the nonsense gaps in his waking dreams. Maybe all the world needs is for him to just go to damn sleep. To go sleep and not ruin other peoples’ lives.
He wonders if he belongs anymore.
He worries that he doesn’t.
GM: Perhaps in his dreams he still can.
All he needs to do is go to sleep. Back to sleep.
The Jonas family residence is a Mediterranean-style home nestled on a quiet street. The primary breadwinner clearly makes a law partner’s money: not Beverly Hills or Malibu rich, but the rung below that. Close enough to eye it.
Entrants are greeted at the living room with a warm fireplace, chandelier, and French doors with plantation shutters leading you to the balcony. The couches have plastic coverings that come off when guests are entertained (which Emil’s mother loves to do).
The realtor described the kitchen as gourmet, but Lucille had it remodeled with “top of the line Sub-Zero & Viking appliances,” a large center island and custom cabinetry. There’s also a 4-car garage, formal dining room, and bedrooms for each of the Jonas boys plus one for guests.
Guests can be entertained in the “resort-style oasis backyard” with palm trees lining a custom-designed pool, lush greenery, and patio space for lounging and dining al fresco. There’s a Buddha statue. It came when they moved in. Paul and Lucille kept it to show they were “open-minded towards all spiritualities” and “not too Jewish.”
The family sits down to eat around the glass table in the kitchen when the Chinese food arrives. It’s a salty, sugary, but filling dinner. Everyone reads their fortunes from the cookies at the end.
“All right!” Justin exclaims.
“Okay,” Ben says lamely.
Paul gives his fortune a noncommittal look and tosses it.
Emil: Tell me something I don’t know, cookie.
“Hey, how’d you guys know I’d be coming back today anyways,” Emil asks before cracking the brittle treat between his teeth.
GM: “You called,” Paul says with a nonplussed look.
Everyone goes to bed shortly later. Paul looks like that couldn’t come soon enough and makes no move to talk further with his stepson.
Emil: But he didn’t call.
Emil doesn’t push Paul into speaking, instead deciding to go on the website of their landline telephone service provider. Because it’s bundled with the internet which Emil helped set up and route, he knows how to get into the account, from which he explores the call history for any curiosities. He maps the phone numbers to the approximate locations the calls were made from.
GM: He does find something curious.
The call history is pretty long. It might take Emil a little bit to get through.
But the last call is several minutes ago.
It’s to a number in Houston.
Emil: He very quickly switches to his other desktop, types in a few long key patterns with his spindly fingers to unlock a folder of offsite-hosted recorded audio tapped from the phones in the house. It isn’t exactly what the authorities would consider ‘legal,’ so he has kept the information from the rest of his family to spare them any legal consequences like the good son he is.
GM: The conversation is brief.
Paul’s voice warbles to life on the headphone speakers.
“He’s on the second floor. Third door to the right.”
The phone clicks off without a response.
Emil: With the press of a button, Emil runs his house surveillance script, which turns on his webcam, which he directs towards the door, and the cameras outside, turns off his monitor, and sends the feeds to a cloud server where they is livestreamed and saved. It additionally disables the red indicator lights on the cameras.
Emil grabs the still packed backpack, his father’s gloves, a couple of old shirts, and a lighter, turns on the light in his room, bolts downstairs, and scrams out the back screen door towards the cellar.
Once he’s in the cellar he locks the door, bars it with a small barricade, and opens his laptop to watch the live streams and wait.
GM: Emil waits in the basement.
His legs get sore.
He starts to nod off.
Then a shadow falls over the webcam.
The room’s lights die.
There’s a barely audible creek against the floor.
The webcam stares into darkness.
And Emil waits alone in the basement.
Emil: Terrified, he stares at the darkness like it’s death’s cloak covering his room. The angel of death passes over every house marked with a sign of the sacrifice. But this isnt any angel. This is a creature abhorred by the light. A behema of behemot.
He swaps around the views, checking from the other cameras. He looks around for a new car parked outside.
GM: Emil sees no car.
But the house’s interior lights have died.
He strains his eyes.
He doesn’t need to.
The door to Paul’s bedroom creaks open.
Emil: Some years ago, Emil was playing around with the idea of making his parents house a “smart house” so he rigged the place up so that he could control all the electrical systems wirelessly. He wanted to show this off to his parents on Halloween, and because he wanted to make it on America’s Funniest Home Videos, he set a camera and audio setup in his parents’ room alongside a nightvision camera. Then, in the dead of night when they were watching a horror film, he flickered all of the electronics: the lights, the tv set, the radio, the phones. Everything, so as to prank them into thinking their house was haunted.
He makes a conscious effort to avoid checking on the records too often so as to avoid seeing unpleasant things, but hasn’t taken down his setup nor his wireless access to the electrical system.
He switches to viewing and listening into his parents’ room, and readies a button that turns every light in the room to the brightest it can be, potentially damaging the bulbs in the process. At the slightest sign of danger for Paul, he will send the go signal. Until then, he watches and listens through the green tinted lens of the nightvision camera.
GM: Paul’s face twitches as he turns in his and his wife’s bed.
A shadow falls over his sleeping form.
Emil: Button. Pressed.
GM: Cacophony erupts in a blossoming of light. The bedside lamps. The overhead lights. The bedside TV. Both of the radio alarm clocks. Everything blares on, loud and bright as can be. Paul cries out in alarm and jolts from his sleep.
“What the fucking…!?”
Emil’s stepfather dazedly stares at the talking heads on the late-night news for several moments, then grabs the remote and mashes the power button.
He turns and hits the blaring alarm off with more force than may be strictly necessary.
The other one on Lucille’s bedside table keeps blaring.
Paul snarls at it, then yanks out the cord.
Emil: Emil continues switching on every last electrical appliance in the house. Fuck letting any demon get to his brothers on his watch!
GM: The living room TV bursts on. The blender whirs. The microwave beeps and dings. The radios play. The phones ring. The stereo blares. The lights flare up. The garage door opens. All is noise. All is light. All is chaos. Emil’s siblings, jolted from their own sleeps, shout in alarm. Paul swears in Yiddish.
“Ir vet bloud trukn durkh litshiz,
ober genug blut zol zeyn linx
far di bedbagz, lise aun maskitouz tsu esn a gut moltsayt,
mitn g – t ’s viln!”
(“May you be bled dry by leeches,
but enough blood should be left
for the bedbugs, lice, and mosquitoes to have a good meal too,
Emil’s relatives all but leap out from their beds and storm through the house, shutting off errant appliances. They shout and swear at each other, then start wondering where Emil is. They check his room and see it’s empty.
Emil: That’s when he notices the ajar window in Paul’s bedroom. It seems this demon is physically present but unseen.
But it can definitely be heard.
He switches views to the nearest camera to the window from the outside and plays back the footage of the window opening. To make the view clearer, he adjusts the luminosity, contrast of the playback, increases the volume and isolates different parts of the audio.
GM: Emil looks.
He sees himself.
Him, in his parents’ bedroom.
Him, with that sick smile stretched too wide, lips silently twitching like he’s trying to giggle.
Him, creeping towards his stepfather, long-gloved fingers excitedly clenching and unclenching.
Him, as the lights blare to life, eyes full of hate, baring his too-flat teeth in a pained hiss.
Him, looping his too-long arms up and through the window, impossibly supporting his entire bodily weight, like a plastic monkey from that Barrel of Monkeys game he’d play as a kid.
Him, soaring into the night’s hungry embrace as Paul swears and stammers.
Emil: Except for his eyes, the windows to his soul, which stare back at Emil, black as night, in the paused frame.
That thing has no soul. And that is immensely comforting. It may have his body, but it isn’t him.
I’m not a murderer!
All of this hell stemmed from this simulacrum, this thief of faces, this devil of countenances.
He suddenly wonders whether that is why Lucky threw him out of the city. Maybe it killed again and left the blood on his apartment door. To taunt him.
And if it’s at Carter’s beck and call, then that means Carter has been eyeing him for some time. Carter sent it after him. And why? He was looking into Earl. Now how are they connected? And what did they do to Paul?
GM: Answers do not reveal themselves—to Emil or his stepfather. Who, with his brothers, are now searching the again-silent house for Emil with evident alarm.
There’s more than one creature that’s seen too much and lies patiently waiting in the dark, driving the Jonas family to terror.
Emil: He still has one last thing he needs to do before he lets them rest.
With the blaring alarms, televisions, and radios muted, there’s an uncomfortable silence resting over the well-lit house.
He opens a bookmarked webpage. Its orange text stabs into his eyes. He activates a voice changer on his microphone, it gnarls speech, runs it through a woodchipper and spits it right back out until it’s unidentifiable.
The Telespoof website asks Emil for two numbers: the phone number he’d like to call and the number he wants to pretend to call from.
The silence in the house is broken as the landline shrieks.
Its caller ID reads HOUSTON.
Its phone number the very same logged earlier that night.
GM: Emil’s family continues to look through the house on the cameras. Their faces look all-too worried. Paul says something to his brothers, who ask some iteration of who the hell is calling now. Emil’s stepfather picks up the phone and gives a strained-sounding, “Hello?”
Emil: Static over the line.
Then an awful, broken-sounding,
Emil zooms the camera in on his stepfather’s face, so he can look him in the eyes.
GM: “What!?” Paul exclaims bewilderedly.
Emil: And that’s enough to prove that he hadn’t. He doesn’t remember what he did. Whom he called. What he let into his house.
He hangs up.
GM: Emil’s brothers ask who called. Paul says it “had to be a prank,” and repeats the bizarre call. Ben remarks on this happening the same time as everything went haywire. Justin asks where the fuck Emil is. Ben says he’s going to check the basement. Justin asks what the fuck Emil would be doing in the basement. Paul says it can’t hurt to check.
Emil: He shoves his laptop back in the backpack, pushes open the door, and uses his head start to try and arrive at the entrance opposite the one they looked like they were approaching.
Once they make it back inside they find Emil droopy-eyed, munching on a candy bar, and screwing in a replacement bulb for one of the casualties of his defense measures.
He deals with their confusion by telling them he couldn’t sleep. He thought he heard some commotion and wanted to go check. Once he was outside, he decided to go on a walk until he achieved some somnolence. He feigns ignorance about either of the weird occurrences, suggests that maybe there’s a problem with the circuit breaker, and apologizes for the scare he caused by his absence.
GM: They’re relieved to see he’s all right. Paul sighs and says he’ll call someone in the morning to “come take a look.” Emil’s comment again on “how fucking weird that was.” Everyone goes back to bed.
Emil: Having locked the front door before they arrived, Emil heads upstairs first and closes and locks shut Paul’s bedroom window. When Paul steps in, he apologizes to him for his poor behavior at the airport, he was just tired then is all. He gives him a hug and says he’s thankful that he came to pick him up.
GM: Paul returns the embrace lukewarmly. He has deep bags under his eyes and a tightness to his jaw. He looks very tired.
“Go to bed, Emil. It’s been too long a day,” he finally says.
Emil: “G’night,” Emil responds, wondering whether this will be a one-time occurrence.
Once he’s back in his room, he makes several copies and screenshots of the footage and audio recordings and stores it both on and off site under the lock and key of encryption.
He locks the door to his room, pulls down the shades, and before he goes to sleep, keeps his lights on, and sets up a script to bring the light back to life if it ever goes off while he’s asleep. He wears a sleep mask to bed.
GM: He finds a letter in his backpack when he unpacks his things.
A very long letter. It goes on for pages and pages.
Emil: Emil collects all the pages and brings them with him into his bed, where he begins to read, his heart racing much faster than he expected it to. He knows he will see his mother again, but the thought of reading the last words his mom thought he needed to hear before she disappeared puts a lump in his throat.
GM: The letter begins with “Dear Emil,” and is a deeply sentimental piece full of nostalgic recollections about Emil’s childhood and his mother’s hopes for his future. It doesn’t say anything about her present circumstances or the past she promised to explain. It’s also terribly written. Besides being exceedingly verbose and full of purple prose, even making allowances given the subject matter (Emil can see any English teacher underlining “TRIM THE FAT” in annoyed red ink), the actual writing itself is downright bizarre. Run-on and fragmented sentences are everywhere. There’s a number of misspelled words too, and even more simply off-kilter word choices. Sections of the letter barely feel written by a native English speaker. Others do. Emil can see his mother cringing at the thought of any of her clients actually mailing something like this.
That’s also probably because, as Emil deduces after his third reading, the real letter is written in Vigenère cipher. Thicker emphasis is placed on the characters actually used in the overly verbose text, whose unusual wording now makes a great deal more sense.
Cryptography was never a significant interest of his mother’s, but in Justin’s words “you nerds just wouldn’t shut up” during the period Ben was into it. By the time that interest phase was over, everyone in the house had listened to Emil explain the particulars of the once-unbreakable cipher at exhaustive length.
His mother’s cipher isn’t even a particularly inventive one. Emil supposes anyone would notice the consistency to the thicker letters after a close enough read-through.
Emil: Even so, the work she put into this warms his heart. He jumps out of bed and off to his desk where he considers scanning the document and simply passing it through a deciphering algorithm, but this is an Old World style ciphered document, and one painstakingly written by hand, no less. It would be a shame to miss out on the opportunity to slowly tease out the meaning behind the words.
GM: Emil, it begins,
I don’t know how long I have to write this or when I’ll see you again. I’ll cut to the point.
Ironic words to say in cipher, but his mom isn’t an etiquette coach for nothing.
I’ve provided you and your brothers with a good life. You were never truly grateful for that. I didn’t want you to be. I didn’t want you to have any basis for comparison like I did.
I was born in a place I hate and never wanted to think about again. My mother died of a heroin overdose. My uncle sexually abused me before my father killed him. Half the family I’d known was dead or in prison by the time I was 18. The other half were on drugs, welfare, or both.
I worked hard in school because I knew it was my only way out. But I couldn’t work hard enough to get into a good college. I managed to get a job as a secretary for NOPD and thought I was lucky. That’s where I met your father.
He was a detective who’d been on the force for a long time. He was much older than me. He was the kind of man you looked up to and wanted to impress. It felt like he was impossible to and that you were never good enough.
I never thought I was anything to him, but after an office Christmas party I woke up next to him the following morning. When I asked if I could move in, he said he could use ‘a bedwarmer.’
I was young, impressionable, and knew he made good money. It’s what I was used to.
I was also used to it when he started hitting me.
He made very good money. I soon learned why. He had a circle of cop friends who followed his every word. In an already corrupt department, they were the worst of the worst. They did not merely take bribes or look the other way towards crimes. They perpetrated them and used their positions to get away with it. They sold drugs on the streets and murdered gangs who infringed on their territory. They shot children who were lookouts for rival gangs. They forced girls into prostitution. They shot up businesses and murdered the families of owners who wouldn’t pay them protection money not to. They performed contract killings for the mob. They stole social security checks from old ladies. They raped daughters in front of their parents. They shot people for simply getting on their nerves. They raped and killed and satisfied their base urges without conscience or restraint. They were animals.
Like any animals, they followed a pack. Your father was their alpha. Some of his friends followed him because they wanted to make money or have women. Some of them were psychopaths who just wanted to hurt people. They followed your father because they knew they’d get away with anything, because people were so terrified of him. Some of his friends were just young and impressionable and got sucked into his orbit. He had a way of doing that to people—sucking them in and getting them to forget who they were. They were always the worst ones. Some part of them at least knew better.
Emil: Emil stares in horror at each new word he decodes. Each letter he scratches on the page is a heavy footstep getting closer and closer, threatening to stamp out all that matters.
This is wrong. All wrong. No. Lucky said his father rooted out corruption, not created it.
She’s keeping something from me!
This is to protect me.
It has to be. There’s something deeper.
Maybe she just doesn’t know… he didn’t tell her. That has to be it, right?
GM: Lucky was the worst of them. He had a conscience, but when your father said jump, he’d ask how high. There was nothing he wouldn’t do. Your father once asked him to gun down a toddler in front of her mother, then to take her while her child’s brains were still plastered over them both. He didn’t even pause. When he asked why afterwards, your father said he simply wanted to see if he’d do it. If he was ‘loyal.’
Emil: What have I done?
He knows there’s truth there, truth corroborated by the weathered look inside Lucky’s eyes, his awful guilt.
This is the Sodom she saw. The reason why God tore down Babel. Because when man can do anything he wants, take anything he wants, he makes people suffer.
GM: Your father wasn’t any kinder to me. He would disappear for days at a time and come back drunk or high at all hours of the night to scream at me and beat me. He raped me repeatedly and cheated on me when he was tired of me. He brought other women into our home and had me wait hand and foot on them while they did it in our bed. He beat me for any reason. He made me eat my own vomit when I threw up. He burned his initials into me with a cigarette lighter to mark me as ‘his.’ He called me a dog, a whore, a ‘thing,’ and names so foul I won’t repeat them. He sent me to the hospital repeatedly and said he’d kill me if I told doctors the truth, as well as the doctors that I told. When I asked him once why he didn’t kill me, he said because I hadn’t produced a son yet. Like any animal, his highest urge was to procreate.
Your father wanted a son more than anything. When the ultrasound said our child was a girl, he threw me down a flight of stairs and murdered your sister before she could be born. Her name was Holly.
Emil: Holly. I could’ve had a sister. That… monster.
My dad was a monster. Why, God? Why?
GM: I don’t know why your father was so fixated with having a son with me. I’m sure he left behind plenty of children, boys and girls, from the other women he violated. He never used protection.
Your birth was the only time I think I’d ever seen him happy. He was kind to me for a while, because I’d ‘given him a legacy.’ It was like old times again. I was so proud to have made him happy. So happy to have won his approval.
Then he wrote you off as a disappointment. You cried too much, so he’d hit you to make you quiet. You weren’t any good at sports, so he called you a sissy and a faggot. He didn’t care that you wanted to read. He wasn’t proud of how fast or early you learned. I had to steal books from stores when I went out shopping, because he controlled our money and made me account for every cent. He’d beat me if I couldn’t produce a receipt.
We had no books at home. He didn’t care about reading. I don’t know if he was even functionally literate. He was a high school dropout who never wanted to educate or better himself.
He never read to you. He wouldn’t even stay in the room when I did. His idea of a ‘bedtime story’ was to tell you about how he ‘sent bad guys to jail’ or ‘killed bad guys’ at work.
Emil: How could he forget that pain? That neglect? That’s impossible. He remembers looking up to him. They shared their marked skin.
GM: I was so scared he was going to hurt you like he’d hurt me. But he didn’t, because of your fugues. He believed they were visions. I encouraged him. I still don’t know if that was the right thing to do. He stopped hitting you at home, but he’d take you on his ‘investigations.’ He’d do unspeakable things to people and say it was because you’d led him there.
But your father and his friends couldn’t get away with the things they were doing forever. They’d dealt with Internal Affairs investigations before, in their usual way. He thought that was the end of it. He thought he was invincible. Then the FBI launched an investigation into his activities. They approached me. They offered to place my son and I in the federal witness protection program in return for my help.
I was too terrified of your father to ever betray him myself. But after you went missing for days and turned up in that farmhouse, I was even more terrified for you. I said yes and turned state’s evidence. I helped the FBI bring your father and his friends to justice.
Emil: But it didn’t work, did it? Lucky is still employed. His father died on the job. His funeral was paid for by the force. He worries what that means for his mother.
He worries that that’s why his mother is gone.
GM: They got us out from New Orleans and as the noose tightened around your father. They gave us new names, new identities, and new lives in Los Angeles. This was also when I met Paul. He’d recently graduated from Tulane Law and had worked as a lawyer for the FBI. He showed me tenderness and compassion like I hadn’t believed men were capable of. We decided we wanted to build a new life together.
I never had to testify against your father in court. When federal agents attempted to arrest him, he killed three in a shootout before they put him down. His last gift to the world.
The FBI reached some kind of deal with the police to cover up the public details. I don’t know what they offered in exchange, but your father would go down as a hero instead of a criminal. Lucky also seemed to luck out. I don’t know how, but that was par for course with him.
Emil: And all of that evil, that vileness, it would get to stay untouched.
Emil shakes his head but is unable to refuse the truth. And yet it still pricks him in the back of his head that Lucky said he tried to fix things. What could he have meant?
GM: I didn’t care. I was just thankful to get away from it all. Paul was everything I could have wanted from a husband and father. He bought you books. He read to you. He bought you computers. He never hit you. He got you the help you needed for your fugues. He never called you a sissy or faggot. He accepted you as you were and he accepted you as his own. With his help, I went to community college. I got good grades. I transferred to a good university. I took etiquette classes so I could fit in with my new community, and found I wanted to teach other people how to do that too. I worked hard and I made something of myself, and I’d never have done it without Paul. Paul was supportive. Paul was gentle. Paul was decent.
And Paul brought us into his faith. You’ve always shamed him for not calling himself Saul, for not being ‘Jewish enough’, but you would never have set foot inside a synagogue if it weren’t for him.
Emil: “Oh my heart… I’m a monster… I thought all my life that I was never like Earl, could never be like him. But I just never knew the awful truth. I inherited his worst trait. I hurt people. It’s my natural state. I might apologize more, but when I get a chance to satisfy my curiosity, I’ve never cared enough about the consequences to stop myself,” he cries. Hot tears flow down his cheeks.
He rocks in the chair, back and forth, sniffling sporadically, forcing himself to swallow the rest of this awful pill.
“I’m judgmental. I’m a bully, and to think I thought myself better than anyone else. To think,” he sobs, “to think I thought myself worthy of God’s gifts.”
GM: The rest of the letter does little to assuage his guilt.
At first I converted because of him. Because there had to be something to the faith if it was practiced by a man who’d been as good to me as he had been. But I was overwhelmed by how supportive our rabbi and community was of my desire to attend college and better myself. This was a faith that held Earl to account for not having books in our house. I don’t even want to imagine what kind of life you might have led with him. You wouldn’t be a programmer or going to college now if he had anything to say about it.
Our life with Paul and your brothers was good. Then you started prying. You couldn’t leave the past alone.
Emil: Emil tries to control his breathing, slow and deep, like the swaying of a boat on old, sleeping oceans. Sobs break through, but the breathing helps.
He needs to repent, desperately. He can’t live with this raw guilt.
GM: I made a mistake calling Earl your father. He was a sperm donor. It was Paul who raised you, loved you, sacrificed for you. Every time you refused to call him ‘Dad,’ it was a cut to his spirit. When you took the name Kane, it was a dagger to his heart. He showed you a father’s love and you threw it back in his face.
Earl Kane, yimach shemo, was a monster. When I learned he was dead, I prayed to God in thanks. I spit upon his grave. His soul will not leave Sheol until the Messiah. If I were God, I’d throw it out so it doesn’t soil the other souls.
But God still blessed you with a father. The father you always thought was missing. Family is more than blood. But you spurned that blessing.
I don’t know when, or if, I am going to see you and the rest of our family again. I will not say why. You will only use that knowledge to cause them more pain. I only gave my word I would tell you about the man who abused us—who I will no longer call your father.
I didn’t mention this earlier, but it is necessary if I am to keep the shevu’ah. The man who abused us had an adult daughter, who he fathered upon a woman he raped. He murdered them both, and believed he did it with your help. God alone knows why.
Your real father is a good man. But he is a man and has a man’s limits. I don’t know that he is going to forgive you for taking me from him, and from your brothers, after you have gone to such lengths to reject him as your father. I don’t know that he will still want to be your father.
This is what you have wrought. Through your curiosity. Through your desire to re-open old wounds. Through your refusal to leave the past alone. Because you could not trust me. Because you did not care about my pain, or your father’s pain. Because you could not love him as he loved you.
I want you to remember that. I want you remember it in your bones. I want you to LEAVE THE PAST ALONE.
I want you and your brothers to finish college. I want you to have good lives in Los Angeles, or wherever your paths in your life take you. I want you to have the good life I sacrificed so much for.
I love you.
Emil: Every word is a dagger into his heart, but he’s the one who pushed them in.
An errant voice in the cavern of his skull asks why his mother never told him anything of the truth, why she let him stay so deluded when it caused them so much pain. He pushes that down, it was never her responsibility to bring that pain back to the fore.
She never made him reject Paul, he did that himself.
It was all him.
But it doesn’t have to be him, not in the future. Not anymore.
That spirit of destruction that visited him tonight.
That wears Emil’s skin but lacks a soul.
That hides in the darkness in his cowardice.
That tried to snuff out the life of the only man who ever cared enough to earn the right to be called “Dad.”
That whispered “Daddy’s proud” into his ear as he abused him one last time.
That stole Emil once again to the place of his life’s undoing, to the farmhouse that gave his wife the courage to fight his evil.
…is Earl. A man who, no matter his intentions, blackened his soul so far into oblivion that the angels of Ha’shem couldn’t make his soul out against the night sky when they came to drag him down to Sheol.
His own body was left riddled with bloody tunnels by leaden insects, even before the earthworms got a go at him. That’s why his shadowy presence has to cling to Emil’s weak form. And how?
Before he even knew what it meant to die, when he was jus’ a kid, Earl forced him to murder his own sibling. The first murder reenacted, he forced Emil to make the earth drink the blood of his kin.
Just as Cain slew Abel in ignorance and was marked and cursed to wander forever, so too is Emil’s soul marked, and Emil’s body cursed with eternal wandering in the name of Kane, his family’s abuser. Of course, Emil’s body is still in use, despite his recent brushes with death. How might Earl take up that role he forced onto his son?
Emil looks himself in the black mirror of his computer screen. The tears obfuscate his view, and an awful weed of shame uproots his ego as it consumes him from the inside. In the darkness, he can’t see much but outlines. In the pitch his brain blindly fills in the details: he sees the faces of the sisters he never knew, the father he never had, the mother he might never see again, all melding into and swallowed by the too-wide smile of his golem. And in the center of his forehead, he sees red scars, stitched together but slowly coming apart, leaking yellow pus and dark ichor, spelling out the letters K A N E.
Tuesday night, 16 October 2007, AM
Emil: Emil stands outside in front of the cellar door, flicking his Bic lighter open and closed while his eye twitches so hard it makes it difficult to see. But he does, in the darkness.
There’s a cardboard box sitting on kindling in the cold steel of the metal firepit he dragged out of the basement. It holds a pair of gloves, a wallet, and a torn picture of Emil and the man he never knew. He never questioned why he never remembered what Earl looked like, nor why Earl’s head was cropped out. In thick sharpie, the name of Kane is written over the top.
The fire opens and extinguishes in Emil’s hand, wasting gas while he stands there unsure.
In truth, he never did need Earl like he needed him. All Emil needed was a hero to look up to. All the young boy could wish for was that the superhero in uniform that he clung to by the leg would deem it right one day to lower his head down from beyond the heavens of the border and tell him that he was proud of him.
Earl could never do that. The heat of the intermittent flame licks at his knuckles as it feasts on the butane.
All that is left that connects Emil with Kane sits as to yet unscorched in the cardboard box. The symbol of his past, the mark of his golem. That weed of shame pulls at him, sprouting a thorny need to repent for his sins. For hurting his mother. For hurting his father. His sins were made over years, so he hardly expects to rid himself of it in a night. But he can take a step. Fulfill one of his mother’s ardent wishes.
He remembers what Lucky told him about those creatures which do nothing but lie. The Earl he knew wasn’t just a liar, he was a lie. Luckily, he learned how you deal with such creatures. You burn them.
The lighter’s metal cap covers the instrument of his piecewise redemption. He flicks it open and holds the flame close to his ear. He wonders what whispers it might have to share. Does fire speak like darkness? He remembers being like fire, on top of the world. On top of the tower. But he couldn’t speak, for his words were suffocated by raw hate and violence.
No words are needed to fix this though. He closes his eyes and tosses the lighter at the box. But he doesn’t hear the crackle of its tongues spreading, differentiating like human tongues did after God visited Babel. The air put it out. He tries to relight it but only hears an empty click.
“Get out of me,” he whispers to the name on the box. “I am not you—,” he says, as he sees the tip of the ‘A’ darken and begin to blur from a teardrop that falls off his chin. And then another. And another. And then he feels teardrops fall on his back, and on his head, and on the grass, and they pitter patter onto the box much faster than one pair of eyes could provide. Emil isn’t alone anymore, there’s a house behind him full of love. He wipes away the tears. The world cries for him. Without flame, without violence, the name of Kane is washed away from the waterlogged box top. Just like Mom wanted:
(“Erase his name.”)
He’s free. Free of the cursed surname he insisted he keep. Free from the soulless golem empowered by it. Now he can be himself. And if Paul is willing, he can finally be a father’s son.
Emil pushes a letter under Paul’s door that night. He writes it from his heart. It holds a piece of him in each word. Not a copy, but the original. And should Paul deny the investment, Emil will be left pockmarked and porous like a raw sponge.
He apologizes to Paul, a hundred ways over. He’s not an especially creative writer, his notebook share of the English lexicon isn’t especially varied. But that doesn’t matter. Anyone can write well if they have enough time and something to say that matters. Fortunately, Emil’s been wondering what he’d say to his real father for sixteen years. He thanks Paul for what he’s become, thanks him for what he gave him and his family. He gave Emil faith, he nurtured his dreams, protected his mother, gave him siblings to love. He is everything Emil needed and that he never appreciated him, that he actively hurt him for what he does, is a shame he’ll have to bear for the rest of his life. He tells Paul that he is ridding himself of his assumed name, and that if he can ever forgive him, he’d like to take on the name Jonas. Until then he’s just Emil now.
I thought I resented you because you could never live up to Earl, but the truth is I resented you because he could never be you. I’m sorry, Dad.
He tosses the box to the back of the cellar and the door slams behind him, letting those memories stay memories. Leaving the past in the past.
From now on, Emil looks to the future.
Previous, by Narrative: Story Eight, Emil VIII, Emmett XI
Next, by Narrative: Story Eight, Emmett Epilogue
Previous, by Character: Story Eight, Emil VIII, Emmett XI
Next, by Character: Story Nine, Emil I