WHEN HE OPENED HIS EYES, John Hawke was immediately aware of two things: His alarm hadn’t gone off. And there was something in the room with him.
Remnants of the dream still clung like shedding skin; something multi-tentacled and metallic wrapped around his son, slipping across his chest and slithering around his throat. It left Hawke shaky and tight, a knot in his neck and an ache near the base of his skull.
The sound came again, a click and hiss like the warning of an animal crouched in the dark.
The sense of danger faded with the dream, and he sat up, rubbing at his neck. An alien creature had not invaded after all. The radiators in the building were part of a forced hot-water, gravity-fed system, ancient and very noisy. They had come on for the first time last night with the cooler fall temperatures, moving trapped air pockets from one place to another. The maintenance company would have to bleed them, but he knew from experience that a system that old would let the air back in again, one bubble at a time.
The feeling that something was wrong remained with him.
Hawke stood and went to the window, cracking the heavy drapes. Early morning sunlight sliced directly through swirling dust motes, burying itself like shards of glass in his skull. A muttered curse came from the bed as his wife turned over within the tangled sheets, away from him, and he closed the drapes again, making his way through the dark to where she lay. The air felt thick enough to push through as he relived every word they had said to each other the night before, every expression on her face. He’d said things he shouldn’t have. It was part of this unsettled feeling, most likely. Part of a much larger, much more terrifying feeling of emptiness, uncertainty and shame.
A fresh pang of regret washed over him. He’d always been too focused, too fanatical in his passion for uncovering secrets. It had gotten him into trouble ever since he was a boy. He could see a vision of the truth so clearly, it tended to cloud over everything else. But the vision of his own success, the other thing he’d cultivated, had veered off track. And he didn’t know exactly how to fix it.
He smelled the musk and sweat of sleep, reached out to touch his wife and hesitated, hand above her hip. Touching her would lead to a rekindling of emotions, both good and bad. He would have to make a choice between apology and furthering the argument. But he was going to be late. He’d never been one to keep traditional hours, but his most recent project was different, and included rising at 6:00 A.M. like any of the other countless thousands who commuted into New York City every day. He’d been going in faithfully for a week now. It was his chance to make things right again and put his life back on track, and he couldn’t screw it up.
He thought of the slight swell of Robin’s belly under the sheet. Almost three months gone. She had another ultrasound scheduled in a few days to update them on the bleeding. They would find out the sex before long, assuming everything went well. She thought it was a girl. As hard as he tried, he couldn’t picture a face.
It was cold in the room, and he pulled the blanket up over Robin’s shoulders, then stood again and walked through the gloom to the bathroom, passing Thomas’s room where the boy still lay sleeping.
* * *
The shower was ice-cold. Hawke gasped through it like a man doing penance, fingers splayed across grout between tiles that had yellowed with age, the stinging spray needling his skin as he cursed the old building and its useless super who was probably still sleeping one off. They had moved into the apartment shortly after Thomas was born. The place reminded Hawke of the ancient, peeling Victorian he’d lived in with his parents until he was fourteen and they’d been forced to move to a smaller place, when his father’s latest book had failed and the man had started drinking more heavily. The Victorian contained some of Hawke’s better memories of childhood, tainted as they were by what followed.
Robin had loved this place at first; she talked about the charm and ambiance and history. But that was before they met Lowry. Their neighbor across the hall was a huge problem. It was like saying, Other than the toxic mold, the place is great. You couldn’t separate the two.
The thought made Hawke’s mood grow even darker. He emerged from the shower pink and shivering. At the sink, his electric razor nicked his chin enough to bleed. By the time he emerged from the bathroom in boxer shorts and T-shirt, wide-awake and buzzing like an angry hornet, he could hear the muted sounds of a nature program from the living room. He took a few deep breaths, caught a glimpse of his son’s head over the top of the couch, reached over and tousled it gently. No good to let the day get to him like this. Thomas glanced up, mouth full of waffle, and returned to the TV program where an African leopard stalked a young antelope through thick stalks of dead grass. In some ways, Thomas seemed younger than his years; in other ways, far older. He didn’t like regular kid shows, insisted on Discovery or National Geographic. He had a stuffed toy lion with a wild mane of fur that he carried everywhere, and it was propped next to Lego big blocks lined up on the coffee table in neat rows, exactly four of the same color to each tower, identically spaced. But he’d rather be playing with his father’s iPad, Hawke thought. Thomas was already a tech guru. He was curious in a detached, slightly clinical way; he seemed to interact better with machines than people.
Robin was in the kitchen in her robe, her dark curls cascading around a pretty face puffy with sleep, a cup of decaf in her hand. She hadn’t made anything for him, a definite sign that she was still angry.
“The coffeemaker’s not working right,” she said. “It’s too bitter.”
The kitchen was nothing more than a narrow aisle, open to the living room and separated by a bar-height counter with stools. “I’ll take a look when I get home,” Hawke said. His bottle and glass from the night before were still sitting out. He slipped past her, took the glass and rinsed it in the sink, then put the empty bottle in the recycling bin and grabbed an energy bar from the cabinet.
“We can’t afford a new one—”
“I know we can’t afford it,” he said. “I said I’ll figure it out.”
Silence hung between them. The overhead lights flickered as if in response. His wife glanced up at them and put her cup on the counter, tightened the belt on her robe and hugged her belly.
“Lowry yelled at Thomas again yesterday in the hallway, when we went to the store,” she said. “He was complaining about something, I don’t know, the TV up too loud, whatever. He’s like one of those little nippy dogs.”
“I’ll talk to him.”
“You know how sensitive Thomas is, John. It hurts him, even if he won’t talk about it.”
Hawke nodded. Thomas rarely spoke at all anymore. Robin had started worrying about an autism spectrum disorder. Give him more time, he’ll be fine, Hawke had kept insisting. But Thomas was almost three, and that argument wasn’t working as well now. Hawke hadn’t said anything to Robin, but lately he had started wondering whether his own father had had a touch of whatever genetic mutation would lead to something like this. It made some sense. The code of who you would become was imprinted in your DNA, the building blocks of life. You couldn’t escape it, no matter how hard you tried.
Hawke’s head was pounding. Parts of the dream came back to him, and he remembered metallic tentacles snaking down from the sky.
He gave Robin a kiss on the cheek, but she remained cool, her muscles tense. He let his lips linger just a moment, breathing her in, a scent of coffee and skin lotion and hair conditioner.
“I’m late. Gotta run. We’ll talk later, okay?”
She nodded, and the look on her face softened for a moment. She was giving him an opening, letting him back in, and the entire world seemed to cave in on him. He was no good at this, never had been. I’m sorry, he thought, but didn’t say it.
It was one of the many things he would regret.
Copyright © 2013 by Macmillan Films