“When she’d first joined Intra she realized the time might come when she’d have to police her own father.”
Peyton walked into the dark hotel room, closed the door behind her, and set her briefcase on the floor. Standing in the shadows, by the bed, was her father.
He sat down and said, “How’s your mother?”
She didn’t like the question, because if he really wanted to know, he’d go visit and see for himself.
She noted the topography of the room. A large television sitting on a wooden desk. A chair. A mirror. The bed was neatly made, and she expected nothing less. Her bed back home was the same. She was a lot more like him than she cared to admit.
She pulled out the chair. “She’s fine,” she said, and sat. “Doesn’t remember you at all.” Alzheimer’s. “Where’s the light?”
There was a large bureau by the closet, a cheap-looking box radio on the floor beside it, maybe a kitchenette around the corner. A pale blue light pulsed from where the wall turned. A light switch. She got up, walked that way, stopped. For a moment, she thought he was reaching out for her hand as she passed. He was reaching for the remote control on the desk. She hit the lights, they were bright, and she turned back to him. He was covering both of his eyes, the remote in his grip. She took it from him, so expert and quick he couldn’t think to stop her. He was startled but didn’t say a word. She set the remote back on the desk.
“You look terrible,” she said.
His hair was white, all white. The last time she’d seen him, she could’ve sworn he was gray. “And not the TV,” she said. “Not yet.”
He pulled his hands down the length of his face.
“Tough morning?” She asked him in a tone that signaled she knew it was a ridiculous question. She sat on the chair.
He stood up. Walked over to the far wall and crossed his arms. “So this is officially official.”
She noticed a beer bottle barely peeking from under the bedspread’s fringes.
He looked at the bottle, and then at her. His face didn’t change. He walked over to where she was sitting, and stood there, looking down on her. “You think it’s mine?” He was clearly stalling, but it was a good strategy. Don’t talk, don’t care, don’t move.
She looked at him standing there. A patient man, cold, imposing, and largely because of that he’d been a more than considerable interrogator in his own day. In fact, it seemed to her that practically every father-daughter exchange they’d ever had until now, at this very moment, had been cast in some kind of interrogatory light.
Now she’d been doing similar work, herself, for almost ten years already.
The room was quiet.
She considered his eyes—she could be patient, too—looking for what else the two of them might share. She saw a quick change there, a shift, a vulnerability: Was he afraid? Was she?
“Sit the fuck down,” she said.
When her mother could still form sentences, she used to say, Your father has just two modes: Stone-Cold Sphinx, and Mr. Know-it-All-Won’t-Shut-Up. Three modes, actually, but Peyton didn’t like to remind herself or her mother of those fierce early days when he was drinking. She used to sometimes think, when she found herself wondering how a degree in Byzantine history, of all things, had brought her here, that the only reason she’d ever joined the Agency to begin with was to break the Sphinx.
By the end, with her mother’s lucidity on a vertical decline, her father sometimes went for weeks without saying a word to either of them. When he was around, that is. And yet when her mother’s final condition seemed all but inevitable, the three of them were encouraged to attend a therapy session. The doctor, a young man who appeared to have never shaved, said they should actively talk about their lives together, that talking could help bridge gaps in the memory for Mrs. Stahl. Her father, entirely serious, raised a hand.
The doctor said, “Please. This is a place for sharing.”
Her father said, “What are we supposed to share here?”
Peyton’s hands began to tremble.
Her father said, “Look, I’m sorry, but this”—he made a gesture between himself and Peyton’s mother. “I’m not sure I’m necessary. If I’m honest, we hardly spoke when she was normal.”
She made a fist, and walked over to her father.
The doctor had to pull her off him, get him ice for is cheek.
Two days later, her father took a yearlong assignment overseas. The divorce was paperwork, signatures through the mail, and Peyton expedited the process, because to leave her mother in her father’s care, at all, even in name, was one more indignity she absolutely would not stand for.
With her mother now in a care facility, Peyton had nothing to do but work. She was good, it turned out, really good, and she’d jumped from new recruit to a ranking field operative in less than just two years. In the Philippines, she’d broken the wrist of an interviewee who dared reach across the table and touch her arm. Her peers were impressed. She was never again surprised by her physical instincts. Before long she was blessed with an unusual invitation, to the office of Intra-Intelligence, a sector not so unlike Internal Affairs, but militarily specialized and more arcane. Her job was to investigate agent misconduct in the field, review suspicious agent behavior.
She was promoted above her father.
When she told him, he’d nodded, slow-like. He put out his hand. They shook. Be careful, he said. Lots of agents with gripes against that kind, me included. Nobody likes a narc. They were eating brunch. They’d dined together as adults only five or six times. He had ordered the bottomless pancakes, had just one serving, and said he liked knowing he could empty that whole fucking kitchen of batter and syrup. She smiled at this, because sometimes she did find him funny. He raised his seltzer, a reluctant cheers.
She was smart. She’d always known that, and so did he; she was also competitive, ruthless if she had to be, but it was her conscience, oddly enough, her insistence on “moral justice,” (his phrase) that let her burrow belly-deep in the Agency. She had access to everything. Almost everything. She was supposed to digest and better understand gray information the Agency already had, to review field cases and interrogate field history. The business of Intelligence was making great strides, great humanistic strides. Torture was the big question, and the answer was black or white. The President was watching. The world was watching. Dad was not immune.
She found the DVD in a file called Case Study, 2003 among her father’s things. Well, not her father’s things, exactly, more like things of his day. Iraq, Iran, Central America. His name was everywhere; no surprise, because he’d always been, as far as she knew, a real boon to any task that had him. She combed through pages and pages of interviews, emails, and field reports, and found herself compulsively following his location changes, digging for them, skimming through mounds of materials. She hoped to come to know her father, better know his soul, maybe, maybe even her own. So she dug.
It was a Sunday morning and she’d brought home a large box of files, planned on pairing her reading with coffee and pumpernickel toast. The light was diffuse in the room, the walls sun-splashed, her favorite part of the day. She figured this is probably what it feels like when the kids and the husband are gone for the weekend, and you have the whole world to yourself. But there were no kids. No husband. She dug around the box, scanning lists and interview transcriptions, and her fingernail got caught on something hard. A plastic DVD case: Interview 2003, in black marker. Somewhere in the attic of her mind she made a connection and thought of her mother. She popped it in the player, put the mug to her mouth and watched a slightly younger version of her father walk on-screen and move a chair. She knew the shape of his back, his shoulders, his stature, the back of his head. The room was filled with over-bright white light. The film itself, black and white, was all high contrast. He was talking with someone off-camera. A soldier entered the room at the bottom of the screen, from beneath the camera, probably over a door, she guessed. The volume varied from low to mute. She couldn’t make out much. She fast-forwarded to her father now talking with what appeared to be a woman—Saudi? His back was to the camera, and the woman looked badly beaten. The volume was better now, and Peyton could hear some of the conversation. She fast-forwarded, and watched, fast-forwarded some more. She let it play, stood up, and went to the kitchen to pour some more coffee.
She came back, and looked at the TV.
She put her coffee on the table, but could not sit down.
She pressed pause.
On-screen: a fleshy mass of limbs, gray limbs, three men assaulting the woman. The image resembled an angry Hindu god, or a many-armed monster. They were entangled. It was unrestrained—was it sexual? She couldn’t tell. The footage was blurred, and Peyton was afraid to un-pause and let it play.
She pressed stop. She sat down.
When she’d first joined Intra she realized the time might come when she’d have to police her own father. She’d wondered how it would feel, to catch him at something. Do not let him be one of them.
She rewound, played it from the beginning.
Peyton set her briefcase on her lap. She pressed her hands flat on the case, swishing them across the surface as if trying to clear it of dust.
“You want some coffee,” he said. “Take a minute.”
“May I stand now, ma’am?”
She didn’t respond. He stood up and disappeared around the corner. She heard shuffling sounds.
After some time, she said, “It’s not officially official. It depends.”
He let out an exaggerated sigh. “Glad to hear it. Milk and sugar?”
The coffeemaker made a burble and sucking noise.
She unlocked the case, but didn’t open it. He came back in and stood there.
“Just another second,” he said.
There was a steamy mechanical wheeze. “There,” he said, “all done.” He disappeared again, and then came back with two paper cups, and handed her one.
She nodded toward the bed. “Please.”
She set her coffee on the desk, took a folder from the briefcase, and held it up for him to see. He nodded. She took out the DVD case.
He watched her set the case on the folder, lock the briefcase, and set it on the floor bedside her.
“Why keep it?” she said.
What?” he said.
She turned on the TV and it blared—the roar of a stadium crowd, screaming. She pressed mute, and looked at him.
Don’t care. Don’t move.
She said it again. “Why. Did. You keep it?”
He watched the TV. “Agency property. Why wouldn’t I?”
She sipped her coffee.
“Have you watched it?” he said. “All of it?”
“Like I said on the phone. It’s blurry.”
“And like I said, I wasn’t in the room.”
She stood up, remote in one hand, sipping coffee from the other. “This is bad.” She raised the cup. “Very, very bad coffee.”
He composed his face. “Why are you here?”
She was genuinely surprised.
“I mean, I’m retired,” he said. “You really want to ruin that?”
She didn’t respond. She took the DVD from the case and set it in the player’s tray. It stayed there, extended above the floor, like a plate in someone’s hand, delicate, vulnerable.
She sat down, and set her cup on the desk. “Why are you here? In this hotel?” She did not look at him.
She took up the file, and opened it. Scanning a page, she said, “This is today’s M.O.? Answer questions with questions?” She looked back up.
He was smiling. “What are you now? Thirty-four? Your birthday was, what, six weeks ago?”
She nodded once.
“I forgot to call.”
“You never call,” she said.
He looked away, and sipped.
“Thirty-five,” she said, and held up a black-and-white photo: a camera still, the young woman from the footage. Her hands were bound. Ankles fettered. Shirtless; her breasts were bared. He didn’t look at it. She set it next to him on the bed.
She read out loud from the original file: “The prisoner had visible sores on her ankles and feet, on the backs of her legs. Her wrists. Abdominal bruises on the right side of her torso. A strong smell of urine. She was not washed. What looked to be a deep encrusted wound on her left temple. Her hair was shaved, cleanly. On the head. Barefoot, wearing only a pair of old trousers. A fresh laceration along the left breast. A conspicuous vertical scar along the stomach.”
“I wasn’t in the room.”
“My job,” she said, “is concerned with culpability. Not geography. You think this is easy for me?”
He said nothing.
“Would you rather I passed it on to someone else? You’d be in front of a judiciary board.”
“You could ignore it.” He looked at the photo peripherally, and pushed it away. “I don’t know what you want. I wasn’t in the room.”
“But you were. Before it happened, certainly. Where’d you go?”
He stood up. “I need more coffee.” He disappeared around the corner, came back with the pot. He poured her more coffee, and went back to the maker.
She looked at the cup, and filled up with a deep urge to pour its contents onto the floor. He came back.
She said, “Tell me about the chair. At the beginning. The chair is perpendicular to the camera’s view, but you move it.”
“I got the lady a chair.”
She stood up from her own chair: “Show me.” She moved to the front of the bed, and faced the TV, the side of the chair. “How far was she from you? How did you move it? Make believe I’m the camera.”
He stood, and stepped three or four feet from the chair. “It was about like this, when she walked in.”
“I’m the camera,” she said. “Right above the door. How’d you move it?”
“She walked in, I don’t know, and I—”
“No, no,” she said. “You moved it before she walked in the room.”
“So I moved it before she walked in. If you’re the door, the camera, whatever, then I moved it like this.” He placed the chair in front of the TV. The chair was facing him, his back to her.
“Watch the thing,” she said. “Be careful.” The plastic DVD tray was touching the chair.
“What’s different from before?” she said. “There’s something I can’t see anymore.”
“I don’t know.”
“Tell me what I can’t see.”
He put his hands on his hips, whistled, and then he stopped. “My face.”
“You think I moved the chair so the camera couldn’t get my face.”
“You tell me.”
He pushed the chair aside, and the rending crack and pop! of the plastic tray sounded out like a shot. They both looked at it, broken, on the floor.
“An accident,” he said. “I swear.”
The tray was at his feet like a spent cartridge, and the DVD was over by the wall, unharmed. She went over to it, crouched, and picked it up. She went back to the chair and sat, brought her briefcase to her lap. Unlocked it.
“Maybe it’s a sign we should do this later,” he said.
She opened the laptop’s DVD tray, and set the disc there, pressed play. She moved the cursor, fast-forwarding, and pressed play again. They were both looking at him now, a younger version but definitely him. And he was moving the chair.
She pressed pause.
“You think I’m here because I think you’re guilty.” Even as she said it she was surprised by it. “When there’s nothing I want less. I want to believe you.”
On-screen: the white room, the woman in her seat, shirtless, and alone, looking empty of spirit, utterly resigned. A thin scab of a mattress on a metal frame. A window that looks painted over. A bucket for waste, and a scatter of empty Pedialytes and Gatorades. Peyton’s father walks in. He unfetters the woman’s wrists, and hands her the shirt. She puts it on—
Peyton paused the video, making her father’s face and the woman’s face a conjoined blur. Twisting her neck, Peyton cracked it without using her hands.
“Why the shirt?”
“You know why,” he said.
“I didn’t want her shamed in my presence. For a Muslim woman, it would have affected the interview, feeling ashamed and sitting there. Wouldn’t exactly get her talking.”
“So you wanted to gain her trust.
She said, “Tell me what you remember.”
He pointed at the file. “You have the report.”
She did not move.
He took a deep breath, and looked over at the photo on the bed. “She’d been detained for about six months. A known affiliate. Lots of bad friends, al-Qaeda. Taliban stragglers. She had no official name, only pseudonyms. She had intel. My orders were to get it.”
She motioned him to keep going.
“Six months. They had no luck eliciting. Six months, she never said a word. Not one. I don’t have to say how remarkable that is, especially for a woman prisoner. She didn’t need a thing from us. An interrogator’s nightmare. I figured she was most likely protecting a child, probably a daughter. But we couldn’t leave her because she supposedly had bona fides on Khalid Mohammed.”
“And your plan?” she said.
“I was distressed,” he said. “And your mother was ill. I was having trouble focusing.”
“She is ill.”
He looked confused.
“You said she was ill. She is ill. My mother is alive and ill.”
He said nothing.
She lifted the file and read from it: “The prisoner was led into the room by two guards. She was asked to sit. She seemed frightened by the prospect. One of the guards swung back his arm, and slapped her right side with an open hand. She started to fall over. The other guard caught her and led her into the chair. I asked the guard if he knew how chain of command worked, and had I asked him to strike the woman? He said, no, sir. I asked him to please lift his shirt, and to untuck it so that myself, and the other guard, and the prisoner might see his abdomen. I asked him if there was a problem. He said, No, sir, and lifted his shirt. I asked the other guard to please strike his fellow soldier on the side with his bare hand, hard, so I could hear it. Guard number two did. The struck guard winced. I told them to leave us alone. I then told the prisoner I would gladly get her a shirt if she would like me to. She looked at me with disbelief. She nodded. I got her a shirt.”
Peyton look up from the file. “And did you gain her trust?”
“I think so, yes,” he said.
“But she didn’t give you any intel.”
“Those are separate things.”
She thought about this, and said, “You’ve failed before in eliciting information from a prisoner.”
“I have. So have you.”
“And those times I’m guessing didn’t end like this one?”
He was quiet. Then he said, “No, they didn’t.”
She was about to press play, but he started talking. “There was one time,” he said, “I talked to a prisoner in non-sequiturs, total nonsense. Seven hours straight before asking him a sensible question.”
“He thought he was going insane.” He tried sipping at his coffee, but it was empty. “It was taxing. On me, and the prisoner.” He looked at her. “She was remarkable. I could tell as soon as I walked in the room.”
“You respected her.”
She moved the cursor, fast-forwarding until her father was on-screen again and standing in front of the woman. She let the footage play briefly, fast-forwarded, let it play on. She turned the volume high.
On-screen: The woman is sitting in the chair. She appears to be exhausted. Her head falls against her shoulder. There is dirt, oil, grease around her eyes. Peyton’s father says, “I apologize for what happened before, the soldier hitting you. And I’m glad the shirt makes you more comfortable.” The woman says nothing. He says, “I arrived this morning. So whatever trouble they gave you, it wasn’t under my watch. No more of that, while I’m here.” The woman does not respond. “We’re very different, the soldiers and me. But you and I, we’re alike. You know what a monster is? I know you speak English.” The woman looks at him more directly. “I thought so. Now what I find fascinating is how most people answer that question affirmative, like you basically did, but in fact they don’t know at all.” She doesn’t respond. “It comes from the Latin,” he says. “Monstrum. A sign, a portent, means someone who gives you a warning. Take these soldiers,” he says and points behind him. “They’re here for just one reason. To warn you of what’ll happen if you don’t provide information. They are messengers with a great bright warning. Monsters. Now, understand, that doesn’t make them any less human. Because no matter what you think, they do not want to bring death or violence. They mostly want to go home and have supper with their girlfriends.” The harsh contrast of white light appears to burn the soil clean away from the woman’s face. “You probably think I’m a monster. People say Hitler was a monster, but by the Latin definition, that’s not technically true.” The woman does not respond. “My daughter, she used to read monster books when she was younger. Vampire romances. But she’s all grown up now. Why do you suppose she loved vampire books so much? Do you have children? Because you have the look of a mother.” The woman’s face intensifies noticeably. Despite the harsh light, it is clear, unmistakable. “You have a daughter, maybe?” The woman does not like the question.
Peyton paused the video. “What made you think she had a daughter?”
“A scar on her stomach, like your mother’s. C-section. Intuition said she wasn’t dying for a son. So I bluffed.”
Peyton pressed play.
On-screen: her father leaves the room and quickly returns, holding up a file for the woman to see. He shakes it. “Everything I need to know,” he says, “is in here, cards on the table. The who, what, where, why, and how. I know all about the child. But I want to hear you say it. I want to go home. I want you to go home. Let’s just help each other out, so I can keep those young men at bay. I can help the child, if you help me. It’s simple.” The woman’s leg begins to rock. He says, “You ever hear of Dracula? Most famous vampire of all. My daughter used to love that book.” The woman keeps rocking her leg. “Based on a historical figure, the Prince Vlad Dracul.” He’s gesticulating illustratively. “Most people thought this man was a monster, a real one. Vlad the Impaler they called him. Evil son of a bitch. Vlad surrounded his city with thousands of corpses run through with tall pointed sticks. Stuck up from the ground like rotisserie pigs in the sun. They say he was fond of the smell, which always reminded me of Yahweh. You know the Hebrew Bible? At least you’ve skimmed, we’ve all skimmed. Yahweh had an odd predilection for the stink of roasting sacrificial flesh. But,” he crouches now as he speaks with her, “history bears out the hard fact the Prince was just doing his job. Protecting his people. Keeping his city safe. The man had a surplus of bureaucratic and organizational talents. An exceptional leader. Hell, he’s on a postage stamp in Romania.” The woman clears her throat. She looks up at him. She comes suddenly alive and says, “You like to hear yourself talk. You pontificate.” He is quiet, and then he lets out a loud guffaw. “Well, you don’t talk until you got something worth saying, now do you?” The woman says, “And your Prince, he is well known to Muslims. He tortured and murdered one hundred thousand men. But the great Sultan Mehmet of Islam defeated him. Islam took your Prince’s head for a trophy. Your Prince who could not kill enough men to keep away his own death.” She takes what appear to be several dry swallows. “And you can call yourself whatever you wish, but what you are doing is evil. I will gladly look at death, I will embrace him, and I will kiss him when you bring him to me, to protect the ones I love—”
Peyton paused the footage on a still image of her father crouched before the woman.
“It’s funny,” her father said. “Thirty years of this shit. And you know what I remember most? You know what I can’t get out of my head?” He pointed to the box radio sitting on the floor. “You know how all the guards listen to loud music? Heavy metal? Mayhem. Slayer. I even know the names. To scare the prisoners. Blare it on the loudspeakers twenty-four hours a day, right into cell rooms and isolation boxes. Cover their heads with concert T-shirts.
“You know how sometimes you get a song in your head, on repeat like some fucking jingle in a bubble gum commercial? And you gotta hear it just to get rid of the thing? I’ve had a song in my head for I don’t how long, and it’s still right here.” He was poking at his temple. “I went and bought a copy. You should have seen the kid at the counter.”
She waited for him to go on.
“Starts with a scream.” He pointed at the radio. “A long scream. Sadistic fucking high-pitched joy. I hear it in my sleep.” He pointed. “It’s in there.”
She stood and walked over to the radio.
He rubbed his hands together, as if they were under a faucet. “Guards love that shit, bouncing their heads, and screaming along. Playing air guitar. Go ahead. Play it.”
She didn’t want to indulge him, or let him sidetrack the conversation. “Have you listened to it?” she said. “Since you bought it.”
“Yup,” shaking his head.
She bent down to the radio.
“Turn it up,” he said. “First song. ‘Angel of Death.’”
She did and the song came blasting from the speakers: crunching guitars, breakneck drumming, loud, fast, hellish, and then came the scream. Ugly, painful, like the screamer was in pain, or he was causing great pain and he took real pleasure in it.
She shut it off. “Intense.”
“One soldier,” he said, “had just that part, the screaming on a loop. During interrogations, he played it for hours.” He went over to the window. He looked back at her. “Like it’s gonna jump from the rails any second. But it doesn’t. A real display of control. Something I’ve always respected.” He closed the drapes some. “You know, I don’t think the soldiers playing that music has anything to do with violence. I used to think that.” He walked over to her, and stood directly over her in the chair. “I think the song makes death more palatable for them. Like, who knows, maybe death sounds like this.”
That weakness in his eyes again.
“Did you know,” she said, “the torture room in South Vietnam is called the ‘cinema room,’ and ‘the production room’ in the Philippines?” She laughed. “Like it’s an art.”
He said, “The Official Agency Manual says, there is nothing mysterious about interrogation. I disagree.”
She turned back to the computer, and fast-forwarded the footage.
“Your mother scared me,” he said.
She stopped the video, and turned. “Say again.”
“Your mother,” he said. “She scared me.”
“How do you mean?”
“We got married because she was pregnant, it’s no secret. I never knew how to be married, and I was scared. Like a part of me was missing. Then you were born, and I didn’t know how to do that either. So I drank. And then she started getting sick. I knew way before you did. My mother had it too, so I knew what was coming.”
She set her jaw. Cracked her neck in the other direction.
He looked at her. “I’m trying to apologize here.”
She pressed play. “This is you leaving the room.”
On-screen: the woman is sitting, alone. Three men enter the room.
“Here,” Peyton said. “Where are you?”
He said, “I’m not in the room.”
“Where did you go?”
“I wasn’t in the room.”
“Watch all three look at the camera. They’re talking to the camera. They’re talking to someone.” She paused the video, and looked at him. “Is that you watching through the camera?”
She pressed play, stood up, and stepped aside so he could see.
On-screen: you can’t really see her anymore, only arms flailing. She fights against their hold. The four of them are a gray and shaking thing. The woman is screaming. They are trying to cover her face, her mouth, and her eyes. One guard punches her side. Another puts her bald soiled head in a hold. The other unfetters her ankles. The same guard punches her side again, rips at her shirt until it’s torn and hanging from her torso. Breasts exposed. One guard turns to the camera, looks. The woman bites his fingers. He moves his hand. She screams. Another guard turns to the camera, looks. He raises a baton. She is screaming. The screen goes dark. There is static. The footage lights up again. White light. The room, the chair, the bucket. The woman is gone.
Peyton stopped the video.
“From your report: The prisoner remains recalcitrant.”
She put the file back on the desk. “Rubber-stamped, approved, it dies. You had a bad day and you couldn’t break a prisoner, and then she got beat and sexually assaulted. She’s probably in a pit.”
She stood over him now.
“Please tell me,” she said. “Tell me that wasn’t you they were looking at. Tell me you weren’t watching them through the camera.”
He was sitting on the bed, not looking at her.
“Were they looking at you? It’s pretty simple. Then it means you were complicit.”
He looked up. “I didn’t do anything.” He was starting to lose color, the blood draining from his face. “I wasn’t in the room,” he said. “I didn’t do anything.”
“Were they looking at you?”
He dropped his head.
“I said: were they looking at you?”
He pressed his palms to his knees, as if praying. “Look,” he said.
Her stomach lurched. She felt cold, all things warm emptying out from inside her, not leaving from her stomach, but from her blood, from her heart, whatever it was making her human. She couldn’t control it, and she was horrified by her own body, by his body, by the room, and the walls.
“What could I do?” he said.
She looked at the hall, which probably led to the bathroom. She looked at the radio, and a dark stain on the rug. Coldness slicked up the skin of her back like a quick slug. Her shoulders and chest convulsed.
She looked at the broken disc tray on the floor and saw it was less like the shape of a spent cartridge, as she’d thought, and more in the shape of a gun, a toy gun, what was the name of those small guns, so small they could hide in your palm? Her insides swayed and she thought of the sidearm in her briefcase, another rule broken. The gun should be on her side.
He said, “I’m sorry.”
How small he looked, sitting there on the bed. He was an old man, really. She was struck with the image of leading her father around the wall to a shitty hotel bathroom, to follow whatever past evil had happened back there, heads held under toilet water, attacks in the tub, asphyxiations with a plastic shower curtain. She saw herself returning from the bathroom without him. He was gone.
“Say something, please,” he said. “Let me explain.”
“You did nothing.”
Maybe this was what she’d wanted all along, to be near enough to be able to extend the old man mercy, but choose instead to cause him pain. It filled her up like an electrical charge. She was buzzing, fated, alive. And he could see it—his face gone pale, beyond white, as if he were reflecting some harsh light that was born from her, as if he were seeing something newborn, but familiar, blooming from his daughter.
He dropped from the bed to the floor, on his knees.
He looked up at her. “What are we going to do?”
Nothing, she wanted to say. We do nothing, because you don’t condemn your father, and it seems you’re doing a pretty good job of that, here, all on your own—but she also wanted to say, I am going to do something here. It’s my job.
Look at him, way down there, on the floor. The floor was so far away. Crack his head with your sidearm. Put the barrel in his mouth. Grab the beer bottle and break it on his skull. How he loved to hear himself talk. Who would know? She tried to move, leave, or look away, but she could not. She was drawing on his power. She was draining him dry. And yet the longer she stood there, the more empty she felt of her own self, almost nothing of her left. Where was she going? How strange it was to feel such ugly and savage things, to want to hurt him, end him, erase him, and yet not want to move, or even breathe, for fear that the feeling might stop.
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“Yes, there are still whales, there are still haddock, crabs, seals. Their hearts beat, muscle and sinew unaltered by steel scale or steam-powered fins. For now, anyway.”