Chapter 9 The Criminal
I don’t ask any questions after that. I zone out for moments while he tells me of his childhood in downtown Chicago, the fights and his status as runt of the litter. I’m thinking of all the possibilities. Did I just escape to get kidnapped? After we get on the highway, I feel a little safer. I’m hoping that someone finds us and I’m taken away from the guy that stabbed a quarterback in the nose with a spork in his sophomore year. He smiles while telling me about it.
I’m wondering why the teleportation thing isn’t working. I’m in the presence of a guy that I’m finding has deceived everyone around him for the last twenty-five years. I know I should be more freaked out, but as his story finally nears the end of high school I realize I am him, from twenty years ago. I’m the same kind of lost. We’re both the ‘thing that doesn’t belong’ in the picture. He was a genius in the deepest darkest place a child could grow up in. I realize that there is no walking out of those kind of places. You have to crawl out, and sometimes you don’t reach the end with a clean soul.
“I got my record cleaned off by this guy I met at MIT. Brilliant hacker. I think he works for Microsoft now. I got into Princeton, and the rest is history.”
“I think I’d like to know the history.”
“Well, Sharon was a resident when you first ended up here. Her father was a retired military guy, and she came in that way. Me, I was sort of forced in because of the physical resemblance. Not to mention, of all the geeky physicists Sharon found me the most attractive. Lucky me.”
There’s bitterness in his voice, and disgust. I’m guessing he doesn’t find Sharon very attractive at all. He leads the van off the highway and I see that we’re in a town called Tustin. He parks in front of an old apartment building, absolutely normal in every way. We walk up to the second floor and knock. An old woman opens the door, her white hair pulled back into an impossibly tight bun, an apron tied in front of her floral dress.
“I was wondering when I’d see your ugly face again,” she says, turning around and heading into the kitchen of the apartment. The place is neat, a decent size and filled with the smells of cooking.
“The girls and I are going to be playing poker tonight, so if you wanna stay for a few days… you’ll need to make yourself scarce until ten tonight. And the kid too,” she says. “There’s a bar down the street.”
“You’re Mother of the Year, you know that? Telling me to take a kid to a bar? Really, mama?”
“You’re going to do whatever you want anyway. Well, you can have lunch now. I made fried chicken.”
“Should you be eating fried chicken?” Mark asks her.
“Should you be lying to the government?” She asks with a smirk. “Let me eat what I want. When they have to cut a hole in the wall to get me out of this place, then you can tell me what to eat.”
She says grace after we sit around the small four-chaired dining table. It’s old-fashioned Southern cooking, with lots of butter and spices. Mama Morris, as I’ve begun to call her, is not your usual grandma. She asks Mark about Sharon, about my little sister. She knows everything, and casts me a suspicious look once every second.
“So this is the alien,” she comments, leaning back in her chair and assessing me. I take an extra-large bite of fried chicken in response. “He looks like you.”
“No, mom. I look like him, that’s why I was selected, remember?”
“Like I give a pig’s ass about that,” she mumbles as she clears the table. “And it don’t matter now, does it?”
“I’m not going to ask how you know that. But I’ll be fine mom. I’ll be Mark Morris again, take up a job at some garage. I’ve pretty much set us up for life.”
“And what’ll he do? Be Charlie Morris?”
“No, he’ll be Daniel Morris, actually. But I’m pretty sure they’ll pick him up.”
“You know, if you weren’t so smart… I’d have had you committed a long time ago.”
And with that loving motherly sentiment she leaves the room to leave us to talk alone.
Mark clears off the glasses and plates and lands on the sofa unceremoniously. A contrast to everything else in the apartment, the TV is enormous. I wonder if this is the place he snuck off to when he wanted to watch the game without Sharon’s condescending glare.
“I think we’re safe here,” he states, taking a wrapped candy from the tea table and popping it into his mouth.
“How were you able to do it?”
It almost frightens me, how much everything I know about this man, my ‘father’ of sorts, has been destroyed over the course of a few hours. Gone is the perfect rigid posture, the cultured language and general air of superiority. This is the kind of guy that’s normal, except for the fact that he spent the majority of the last twenty years being someone else. I wonder if it’s changed him, if it destroyed parts of him.
“How was I able to do what?”
I clarify. “How could you act as someone else for the last twenty years? Didn’t it get… unbearable?”
“I had my fun. I did things that James Handrow would never do. I put sugar in Sharon’s coffee, added itching powder to her shampoo. One time I put leeches in the pool. This was while you were at science camp.”
“You made it through with pranks?”
“I made it through by not letting go of myself. Besides, James was boring, incredibly boring. Do you know how many times I wanted to call you out and play basketball with you or just be a normal dad? I mean, I get that I’m not your dad. I don’t know anything about him, but seeing you, I’m guessing he was great.”
I never expected that a guy so street-smart would be so naïve. I lean back on the sofa and close my eyes.
I reveal, “He was a psychopath. And I was his flipping guinea pig.”
I know Mark’s looking at me, but I don’t open my eyes. If there’s one thing that I can’t take right now, it’s pity. I’m used to disappointment, newly acquainted with persecution and disinterest. But pity, that would be the one sentiment to drive me over the edge. I’m a lot of things, but I refuse to be the helpless victim in this situation. Yes, I feel like a t-shirt stuck in the washing machine of fate, but I’ll come out of it. Right now, I just want to tell someone the entirety of what’s going on. I realize that Mark could be double-crossing me, a unique tool of Sharon and her employers to find out my secrets. Honestly, I couldn’t care less. And I tell him… everything. The room gets less stuffy as the evening air cools everything down. He doesn’t ask questions or interrupt, just listens and absorbs.
“I’m screwed, right?” I ask at the end. He knows everything now, and I dare to hope that he understands. The seventeen years that I’ve been alive has been crammed with two lives, and as I told him it sometimes felt like two too many. I open my eyes and look at him, his face unreadable and unchanged.
“You’re from another planet. You’re gonna have to try harder to alienate me,” he says. “And yes, the pun was intended.”
“I don’t know why I was brought back here,” I admit. “I don’t want to be here. I know that I’ve lived here with you my whole life, but that’s not my real life. My real life is in Eden, with my mom. And Maggie.”
“Maggie? That’s your girlfriend, right?” Mark asks.
“No, that’s my best friend,” I answer. “I finally remember everything and I can’t see her now. She was pissed at me before, because I couldn’t remember her. Whatever is wrong with me, it’s a pretty messed up problem.”
Mark is more understanding than I could have hoped for, and I think of all that those people stole from me. Yes, I’m a freak of both planets. I’m out of place here and clearly unwanted. But they deprived me of anything real. Mark could’ve been my friend, and I sense from his awkward jokes and his hot-cool unsureness that he wanted to be a father.
“What about Joan?” I ask. My little sister probably knows nothing about all this, and I feel bad for her. If there’s one thing worse than being the freak at the center of the shit-fest, it’s being his little sister. Joan knows less than I do, and she’s stuck with those people while they’re going crazy looking for me. I know Sharon’s got a lot of things, but a killer maternal instinct isn’t one of them. She was almost as standoffish with Joan as she was with me. I attributed the difference in treatment to her being the younger child, the daughter. Now I see that I’m the cuckoo, and she’s Sharon’s real kid.
“The modern miracle of IV fertilization. Sharon had some perfect sperm donor lined up, and we did it. By that, I mean we never did it.”
“So you guys were never together?”
“I was crazy about cash and recognition. I wasn’t plain-out crazy.”
As soon as it’s five o’clock his mother shoos us out the door. Mark leads me to a nearby park. It’s dilapidated and broken down, probably not used by kids for at least a decade. But it doesn’t mean it’s empty. Less savory characters have taken up residence. A darkly clothed scrawny man leans against a tree, half-hidden by the shadows, once in a while bargaining with his equally shady customers. A couple, both equally grimy, lie on the grass, enjoying the mind-clouding effects of their most recent purchase. Heroin, I realize. A group of very inappropriately dressed young women are at the swing set, their cackling laughter ruining the peaceful atmosphere. It’s like I’ve stepped into Sin City. However illegal everything around us is, there doesn’t seem to be any danger. It’s sort of a mind-your-own-business kind of place, and Mark sits down on one of the benches as if it’s home sweet home.
“This brings back memories of my childhood,” he says with a sarcastic smile. “My mom hates that this thing sprouted up so close to the apartment. It was pretty normal when she first moved in.”
“Why are we here?” I ask.
Mark answers, “I don’t know. I wanted to show you me. This place is me. Maybe not the hookers, but just about everything else. The illegally earned money, the drugs, and there’ll be some pickpockets coming by later.”
I don’t know why he’s telling me this. This place is unfriendly, and I want to leave. It may look peaceful now while the druggies are still high and the girls still haven’t started scouring for customers, but when things get desperate I imagine it will be pretty ugly.
“I want to say I’m sorry,” he continues, and I look at him. “I did a lot of things that I’m not proud of, but I had some justification for that stuff. I deserved to go to Princeton, I belonged there. It was my dream to be a physicist, and I can validate the methods I took because I’m a good physicist. More good’s come out of it than bad. But what I did to you, I don’t know what I was thinking. Please understand, there was pressure from the university and the government. There was pressure from the university. I had this horrible past that I couldn’t get far enough away from and this opportunity. I thought that we would be like surrogate parents to you, and that it would end soon.”
“Mark, you don’t have to apologize,” I say. “I’m fine. I just want to go home. I can’t even imagine what my mom must be feeling now.”
“That’s another reason why I brought you out here. There’s actually a gang meet-up that’s supposed to happen later tonight. I thought it might trigger whatever’s in your head to take you back home.”
I see the first of the people filter into the park, huddled muscled men in thick hoodies and loose jeans. They look around, take a second glance at us, decide that we couldn’t possibly be cops, and walk around the park. The ones that aren’t wearing thick clothing, I see the bulges of guns at their backs, the violent tattoos on their arms and necks.
“Are you scared?” he asks me.
I nod slightly, scared to make any large movement in front of these obviously volatile people.
“We’ll wait another half an hour and leave,” he answers.
More of them start to pour in. The girls at the swing set have made a discreet exit, and the heroin druggies on the grass wouldn’t have moved or cared if the earth split and swallowed them up. A man wearing a cheap pinstripe suit and disgusting patterned green tie stands at the center of the group, his poor attempt at sophistication making him stand out like a sore thumb.
“Just to be safe, act like you’ve shot up,” Mark whispers. I immediately loll my head up and try to look sedated. It’s the best I can do and I hope it’s passable. I remember the old tales I heard from the junkies at school, the connoisseurs of recreational drugs. Cocaine made them twitchy, active while heroin mellowed them out, like a white powdery super-pot brownie, one of them had said. I don’t know the exact accuracy of his statement, but it’s the only info I have and I’m sticking to it.
I hear the gruff voices of the tanned men, closer and closer. Although the steps are right in front of me, I don’t respond to him. The man draws his gun and points it at us. That’s the trigger. I feel it in my blood, in every part of my body. Something more shocking than electricity runs through my body, lights up my mind so I see a thousand more colors and hear a million more frequencies. I take a look at the man in front of me, with his two day old beard, his cheap hair gel, his pathetic life. He’s not a threat, but the illegal foreign-made revolver in his hand is. The air around us stills, a bubble preventing anything from going in or coming out. I feel the molecules speeding up, the crackles of energy in the air, feel Mark’s hurried heartbeat. He’s coming with me, whether I want it or not.
Things don’t go black. They go a blinding white, and by the time things are real again I see we’re in Eden, on the balcony looking over a sunrise. The door into the building is locked, and Mark pushes me behind him.
He takes out a concealed gun and shoots at the doorknob. He’s smirking when he looks back.
“I thought it was enough for you to think that we weren’t safe,” he explains. “No way in hell I’d actually put us in that kind of bullshit.”
“Good to know,” I say as he forces open the door.