excerpt > Adam Braver > The Disappeared
Already Lucy had been growing nervous about being out in public. Following a season of international terror attacks, her daily routine had been thus: get in the car, drive to work, eat lunch inside the building, get in the car and come back home. There was no more gathering in large public spaces. No more train to work. The unseen risks outsized the convenience. She’d even conceded all grocery shopping to Henry, refusing to be a target in the Raley’s parking lot or inside the crowded market. Think about it: at the time, who would have thought twice about sitting in a Parisian café on that warm November night? Or who would have had any apprehension about just waiting for the usual commuter train in the usual station at the usual time in London or Madrid? The cable news shows said we now lived in an era of vigilance. Lucy saw it more as an era of cautious retreat. And cautious retreat wasn’t always so easy. Just when she’d have her routine managed, something else would pop up, and she’d be forced to adjust on the fly, fighting her instinct just to let it go. It was a little like having to change your diet following a sudden health scare—despite knowing what must be done, it still takes total vigilance and will to alter all your habits and desires. Her most recent challenge had been this past weekend’s trip to Southern California. Henry had planned it months ago. He’d had a conference there, and he figured it made a nice excuse for them to be at the beach before he started on Monday. In spite of her cautious retreat, she’d been stuck having to go. There were few reasonable excuses Lucy could conjure up that didn’t convey hysteria. So in the days leading up to the flight, she summoned all her strength. Took deep breaths. Visualized normal days. Avoided the TV news. And she told herself it was only for a weekend. Together they navigated the airport and rented a car, and then took an overnight stay at Newport Beach. Once in motion, the getaway turned out fine. Enough so, that over Saturday night dinner she declared her anxiety as stupid and misguided. She’d told Henry she realized that she’d been held hostage by anticipation. The next evening, she emailed Henry to report that she’d gotten home safely. And maybe she got carried away, distracted from vigilance by the ease and seduction of believing herself safe on the Pacific beach, but in her email she suggested coming back down the following Friday when Henry’s obligations ended. They’d have another weekend there, and together they could come back on Sunday. Statistically, she added, Sundays are the safest days of the week.
But on the morning of the shooting, Lucy is alone, and when she’s alone she moves a little more languidly. Takes her time, even when she knows she shouldn’t. It’s a little cloudy out, making the morning a bit darker than normal. Her telephone rings, and it is a private number, one that she assumes is Dr. Shore, calling to confirm the blood test taken last Thursday.
Although she is at the point where she should be starting the car, Lucy still is in her bathrobe, staring at the ringing phone, debating whether or not she has time to answer it. Her boss, Edith Franks, a career State employee who seems to evade retirement no matter who is the Secretary of State in the current cycle, manages and judges based on adherence to the clock, with little interest in the work itself. It’s a stupid thing to play in to, Lucy knows. But one that still promotes anxiety about being late, as the consequence is a day-long series of undercutting comments about time management and responsibility. But because she and Henry are awaiting the results of the pregnancy test, pins and needles all weekend long, she picks up the phone, already nervous that the news only will make her later, as she’ll have to call Henry, surely at the conference by now for the early breakfast buffet.
But on the morning of the shooting, it is not Dr. Shore on the other end. It is Sarina. Sarina, who sits two offices down, and sometimes works the research desk with her. Sarina, who also has figured out how to have her phone read Private Caller because she says there are too many psychos out there. Sometimes Lucy thinks Sarina secretly worries no one would pick up her calls otherwise. Although she is well-meaning and desperately committed to friendship, Sarina can have an enthusiasm that often finds her mistaken for being an alarmist. More than likely she’s just excited to tell you something that’s popped into her head.
Immediately upon hearing Sarina’s voice, Lucy says, “Sarina, can it wait for a half hour? I’m trying to get out the door.” Usually Mondays are reserved for Sarina to deconstruct a bad date from the weekend, break down her latest goofy adventure, or to prosecute some injustice that found its way to her. But it is rare for it to come before work. Typically, it’s a whisper in the cubicle. Over coffee in the cafeteria. By the elevator in the first floor foyer, where they wait instead of taking the stairs up to the fourth.
Lucy can hear the echo chamber of the speaker phone in the car. It makes Sarina sound as though she is shouting into the entrance of a cave. The radio murmurs and crackles in the background. And a siren wails by, to which Sarina suddenly yells, “Jesus, buddy. You pull over when you hear an ambulance.”Stepping over the threshold of her closet door, a sneaker propped to hold it open, still not sure what she’ll wear today, Lucy tells Sarina she’ll find her first thing when she gets to work. Her eyes scan the built-in shelves, clothes neatly folded and slightly shoved in. She says, “I promise, first thing. I just need to get out the door.” “Well, then turn on the TV. Turn it on while you finish getting ready. It’s just too awful. Really scary. And I know you were just there yesterday. And I know Henry is on business down there. And I know . . . That’s why I’m calling. To check.”
“What are you . . .?”
“You’ll let me know everything is okay when you get to work. You’ll let me know. Promise?”
Lucy hangs up the phone, a little bewildered, a little bit thrown by Sarina’s urgency, and by her having brought Henry’s business trip into it. But then she has to keep in mind what a mixer Sarina is, and how her life reduced down to a mathematical formula would be Day – Drama = Dull. Nevertheless, Sarina’s call has riled her. Trying to rush, she plucks her brown tights and matching dress out of the closet. And even though she knows it will make her late, Lucy lays the garments across her side of the bed, and then grabs the remote off the nightstand.
The morning of the shooting, the television turns into the antagonist. It will be impossible to turn off. It will become the realization of those predictions about how it would suck people in, hypnotizing them, turning them catatonic, and possessing them through the power of images and flickering rays and the blue lights that disrupt the body’s natural circadian rhythms by gumming up the melatonin. And on the TV she will see the familiar architecture of the town where Henry is visiting for work. From the perspective of a helicopter she will see a building that bears no relation to the type of work Henry does, but then the newscaster will say that unconfirmed sources say that many public groups and organizations use the building for trainings and conferences, and then give examples of the types that have been there in the past. Who was there today only would be speculation. All she knows is that Henry was conducting a training at a conference, and suddenly she is two-for-two—three-for-three, if you include the town—and she thinks maybe it can go away if she just turns off the TV, and so she pushes the red button on the remote once, but nothing happens, and so she does it again, double-pumping, and finally the TV clicks off, fading into black. Yet just when the remaining light narrows to a little circle in the middle of the screen, she hears a subtle burst of crackling electronics, and the screen opens up again with the sound of the chop-chop-chopping of the helicopter blades and the view of the building that sometimes houses trainings and conferences.
She reaches for the telephone, the receiver still warm from Sarina’s call. Too flustered to remember Henry’s number, Lucy flips through the contacts wildly and randomly, as though trying to find a stranger’s name in a strange city’s phone book.
The morning of the shooting, Henry’s phone will ring endlessly before going to voicemail. And Lucy will leave a message, adopting a tone that is somewhere between concern and terse; and when after four-and-a-half minutes he doesn’t return the call, she again will leave the same basic message. And again when there is no response, she hits redial again, again, again, again, again, and again, not leaving any more messages because there is no time for such a thing.
Lucy has forgotten about going to work. Forgotten about Edith Franks and her allegiance to the schedule. She even has forgotten to get changed. Sitting right atop her dress, one hand on the phone and the other on the remote, she is like one of those shadow outlines left after a blast, the morning’s events exploded all around her.All the news can say is that there has been a mass shooting, and there may be bombs planted, and everything is on lockdown. A terrorism expert joins the broadcast, a former higher-up in the FBI, and with a wide face that fills the screen he emphasizes that he has no information, but if this were the work of foreign terrorists, then we have every right to suspect that there may be simultaneous plots about to be hatched all across the country, because that is the nature of their thinking, to inflict the maximum harm and terror on the most people that they can. Didn’t Paris show that? But still, he adds, and he says he must emphasize this, he only is speaking hypothetically, and the anchor interjects, “Just to be clear, there are no reports, ZERO sources that can tell us what kind of attack this might be.”
The phone rings and she looks down to see Private Caller. Her first instinct is that it is Sarina, trying to figure out what is going on. In all fairness, Sarina probably does care, and by now she certainly has noticed that Lucy is not in the office; Sarina, who is no doubt badgered by Edith Franks, who would have stepped into her cubicle with an announcing cough and said, “I wonder how it is that some people just find it so difficult to be somewhere on time.” And maybe Sarina will shrug and say she doesn’t know any more than you, Edith; or maybe she will say something about the attack that is being reported and that Lucy’s husband Henry is there, and because of that perhaps there are unknowns that Lucy needs to address or confirm, at which point Edith might say, “I’m sure she knows how to use the telephone or how to send me an email.” But right now Lucy doesn’t want to know. Doesn’t care. It seems so unimportant, that part of life.
And it could be Dr. Shore, the other known Private Caller, but that is a call that Lucy also can’t take. She is not sure she wants to know. At least right now. In part because she couldn’t stand getting the news without immediately being able to share it with Henry, but also, because when she first turned on the TV, glued to the chaos and the ongoing confusion, she reached through her robe, rubbed her palm against her belly for some sense of contact, and at that moment instinctively knew that she wasn’t pregnant. But that is not something she wants to discuss with Dr. Shore, whether she lost the baby or if there ever was a baby. It’s better not to know. It’s better not to know anything. In fact, Lucy thinks that maybe she should just go into work, take her lumps from Edith Franks, and research, copy, and prepare whatever requests have been made this morning to the Archives; keep a normal, normal day, because treating it as a normal, normal day will mean it’s a normal, normal day, and at five o’clock, exactly when Edith Franks dismisses her team, Lucy can go home, and she will speak with Henry, just as it was meant to be.
But instead, on this morning of the shooting, she lowers herself back on to the bed, her eyes fixed on the television. It is still the view from the chopper, and at times the camera zooms in wobbly and grainy to the grounds surrounding the building where police and SWAT stand behind open car doors and large black command vehicles, poised and waiting, as though there is more to come. The voiceover says something about the bomb squad, and the shifting tenor of the scene, and how it still is unclear if it is an “active crime scene” or not. Lucy watches and watches and watches, and if it weren’t for the flag flapping in the breeze at the entrance to the grounds, she would swear she was watching a still photo. She has stopped dialing and redialing Henry’s phone, understanding that this may or may not be an “active crime scene,” and that a ringing phone would do him no good if in fact he were there. Also it occurs to her that she should keep the line open. Their calls potentially could cross and cancel each other out.
The phone rings again. Three times over the next hour. Each time it is Private Caller, Private Caller, Private Caller. The first two she ignores. The third she answers, the ringing getting to her, and then immediately hangs up.
She rises, cinches tight her bathrobe, and then, still standing next to the bed, she leans over and first folds her stockings and then her dress at the indentation along the waist. Returning them to the closet, she tries to stack them neatly, even though one of the dress’s arms dangles down.
This is only the morning of the shooting. And, as they keep repeating on the TV, there is so much we do not know. So much that still is unfolding..
Adam Braver is the author of five novels (Mr. Lincoln’s Wars, Divine Sarah, Crows Over The Wheatfield, November 22, 1963, and Misfit). He is on faculty and author-in-residence at Roger Williams University in Bristol, RI. He also teaches at the New York State Summer Writers Institute. Learn more about The Disappeared.
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