The first thing that Arthur learns about Alfred Franklin Jones II is that he wears cheap cologne.
Well, not the first thing, exactly. He already knows a lot about Mr. Jones just from his criminal file, which the station gets printed in Braille because Arthur doesn’t like being read to. He knows about Alfred’s home life and his sky-high grades— grades that warranted an acceptance letter to Harvard, where he studied diligently until he decided a month ago to hack into the mainframe of American Bank with a few well-placed lines of computer code, leave a couple smiley faces on the statements of very important people, and then erase his footsteps without stealing even a penny.
Arthur, for the millionth time, drags his fingertips along the raised dots of the file. He has everything organized in such a way that he doesn’t have to flounder every time he looks for something; the whole being blind thing isn’t such a hardship if you know what the fuck you’re doing.
And Dr. Kirkland, the best criminal psychologist in the state, definitely knows what the fuck he is doing (admitted lack of professionalism aside).
Mr. Jones is led in by his assigned security with little ceremony. The smell of his cologne (and Arthur has no idea how he even got his hands on the stuff in jail) is pungent and Arthur wishes he’d take a shower and come back later.
From the description in the file, Arthur creates a mental picture of the man— well, young man, he’s only nineteen. Barely old enough to leave home, never mind hack into the most secret corners of one of the most prominent banks in the country.
Alfred settles himself in the leather chair in front of Arthur’s desk (Francine does all of his decorating, but Arthur knows it’s leather because it has that defining whisper when the boy moves against it); there’s a rattle of handcuffs that Arthur winces at. There has always been, in his opinion, something wrong with the very idea of cuffs, of restraints. He almost asks the security officer to remove them, but he hears the door shut before he can, and the man probably wouldn’t have allowed it, anyway.
Arthur lets the silence gain gravity, lets it settle. To see— well, figuratively— what Jones is made of.
Jones is made of silence and stillness, apparently, because he doesn’t say anything and he sure as hell isn’t moving; Arthur has a sense of hearing that surpasses some trained canines and he’d know if the kid even dared to shift an ass cheek.
There is the soft ticking of a clock sounding from exactly three and a half meters away. Arthur wonders what it looks like.
“You can read Braille?” Alfred says, all of a sudden.
Arthur jumps, against his will. “It’s the only thing I can read,” he says.
“I am indeed.”
The boy shifts slightly. “And how does that make you feel?” he asks.
“It makes me feel so sad that I cry myself to sleep every night,” he shoots back. This is going to be difficult, he gathers. “Tell me, Mr. Jones, do you have your PhD? Because I do, and I’m the one certified to be asking questions. So can I please get on with my analysis?”
God, Arthur can practically hear him blink. “Go ahead, Doctor Doom,” the boy says smugly. If his hands weren’t cuffed, he’d probably have slung his arm across the back of the chair by now. He’s that kind of person. “Tell me how all my problems come from my base, most primal desires to fuck my mother.”
“I’m not a Freudian, Mr. Jones,” Arthur says.
“I know," Jones says. "I Googled you.”
“And when did you have a chance to do this?” He pulls his laptop open and quickly stabs in his password; he had Francine help him memorize the layout and the keyboard, so he knows he opens Word to the right file before Alfred starts talking.
“I’m really harmless, Doc. Sometimes the cops at the jail let me borrow their phones to play Tetris. I’m a likeable guy, after all. But I never told them that I am, A, really terrible at Tetris, and B, incredibly smart.”
Arthur clears his throat and thinks, Yeah, a smart ass, but with all his effort he doesn’t say it.
Arthur types and asks questions. Stuff about his family life, romantic life. It turns out that he’s got neither. His dad hates him and he spends more time with his precious laptop than he ever does with men or women (of which he prefers he will not specify).
In an hour, Arthur has taken these notes:
—World-class twat is more like it
—Why do I always get stuck with the crazies
—Maybe because I’m a shrink
—That was a dumb question, ignore it
—He Googled me!!
—Should I be flattered??
—I wanna punch him. how long has it been? new record?
—ask Francine about frustration record
—have Francine amend frustration record
—he is going to die. At my hands. I want to kill him.
—just kidding (Francine please don’t show these to the police)
—I shou;ld probably delete that
—hell I can’t see where I typed it have Francine delete that
“The thing is, Doctor Doom—” and Arthur wishes he’d stop calling him that— “is that it’s hard to care about much of anything when your head’s on the chopping block.”
“You put your head there yourself.”
He hears him shrug. “I never said I didn’t.”
For the first time in a long time, Arthur wishes he could see just so he could get a good look at the petulant bastard, the prisoner, sitting handcuffed in his office with an ego the size of Manhattan and daring to taunt his criminal psychologist.
“Will you tell me something, Mr. Jones?”
“Call me Alfred.”
“Mr. Jones, will you tell me something?”
“Why didn’t you steal anything from that bank?”
And, as it turns out, it’s the only thing he won’t talk about.
“I have this one patient,” Arthur begins.
“Alfred?” she immediately asks.
“You’re not supposed to be looking in my files, Francine.”
“Yet— and this must come as a surprise, Arthur— I do anyway.” His wife sips at her glass of wine (expensive, vintage, and Spanish— a gift from a boyfriend back in Europe), mutes the television.
“Well, I’m not going to confirm or deny anything.”
“So what is it about Alfred you want to talk about?”
God, sometimes it feels like his wife is the psychologist, not him.
Arthur sighs. “He tells me everything, Francine. Unabashedly. And when I say everything…”
She snorts gracefully, somehow, although snorting and grace should not coexist peacefully. “I read your notes, Arthur, dear, like I said. I liked the part about the food fetish.”
“That might have been a tad exaggerated,” he admits.
“He has a particular enthusiasm for McDonald’s. Have you considered a clown fetish as a motive?”
“But that doesn’t even make sense.”
She sips at her wine innocently and un-mutes the television.
Arthur remembers meeting her twelve years ago in Paris, back when he was eighteen and endlessly, English-ly charming and he could see her, strutting down the avenues with rippling chocolate brown hair and a sinfully short skirt.
Francine is watching the news. He can only hear it, and he wonders what his wife looks like now.
Two weeks of psychoanalysis are required by the state before a trial, and by the middle of the first week, Jones is deemed harmless, by both his jailers (“He’s so polite, like, southern polite, the hat-tipping and ‘ma’am’ kind,” one notably said) and Arthur himself, who finds the kid so painfully harmless it’s strange that he is sitting before him being analyzed in preparation for a court case.
It’s amazing, when freed from his handcuffs, how much more expressive the boy becomes. Arthur can’t see it, but he can hear it. It’s almost like when his wrists were trapped, his voice was trapped along with them. He speaks with clearer diction, wider phrases, and he sounds happier. Which is strange, for a man who’s going to get much more time in prison than is healthy for him. (For anybody, really.)
—possible napoleon complex?
—ha ha just like you, Francine
—french and with an inflated sense of self-importance?
—he’s just so goddamn arrogggant Frncine please tell me what this idiot look like nxt time you come into the ofice I needt to envision myself punching him in the face more accuratly
—IN DWETAIL (I think I spelled that wrong but fuck if I can tell. Ddteal?? detail)
“I got into computers when I was little, you know?” Alfred laughs. He laughs at everything, and it’s big and unabashed and hearty. “My dad hated them. I think that’s why I did it.”
“You’ve told me that about nine times already.” He wonders if he’s even looking towards Alfred; he’s always scared that he looks like That Blind Guy who can’t even pinpoint the direction of the person he’s speaking to. “I know how you got into computers. I know why you like them so much, you’ve told me a thousand times. Your dad wanted you to do sports so you did computers instead.” He types gibberish impatiently, wanting to look busy, and he finds the clack of the keys comforting. “Where did you learn to hack?” he asks.
He can hear Alfred’s shirt rumple slightly when he shrugs. “The Internet, I guess? I don’t know.”
“Alfred, how old are you?” (Of course, he already knows, but he rather likes to use the fatherly tone.) He thinks all of a sudden that he wouldn’t mind being a father, but then he remembers his and Francine’s almost absurdly open relationship and decides that a hypothetical Arthur Jr. would not like to see Mommy bringing home a ludicrously young Spaniard every few weeks.
The fucking Spaniard.
The goddamn Spaniard.
“Um, Houston to Doc Ock?”
Arthur snaps out of it with an uncomfortable jolt. Doctor Doom was getting old, he supposes. Is there no super villain named Dr. Kirkland, Mr. Jones?”
“Not that I know of, Doctor Who.” He hears the boy put his feet up on his desk and fights the urge to bodily slap him.
“The Doctor. It’s just the Doctor.”
Alfred pulls his feet from the desk’s edge without Arthur having to threaten violence, which is good. “I’m nineteen.”
“Dude. What you asked me earlier. How old I am. Nineteen.”
Arthur clears his throat, remembering what he was supposed to be talking about. “And you basically taught yourself how to become the best hacker on the planet.”
This makes Alfred snort, which, in turn, makes Arthur livid. “I’m not the best,” he demurs. “I’m just the one who had the balls to do it.”
“Then why didn’t you steal anything?” Arthur demands.
Alfred says nothing.
Arthur complains to his wife for the millionth time, running his fingers along Alfred’s file for what must be the millionth time as wel;. “He’s a fucking genius. And they’re going to send him to prison.”
“He broke into a bank and jeopardized the life saving of a good portion of America’s middle class, darling,” Francine reminds him. They sit in Arthur’s office, even at the late hour. because Francine had to “finish up some filing. “ What she’s actually doing is flipping through Arthur’s now-printed notes on Alfred (without Arthur’s knowledge, of course).
“You’re not supposed to know that,” Arthur says wearily.
“You’re also not supposed to let me go through all of your private notes.” She slaps the manila folder back down on top of his desk.
He sighs. “I couldn’t stop you if I tried, Francine.”
“Antonio is coming in a few weeks,” she says. “We’ll be heading up to the mountains for a while.”
Arthur drops his head into his arms. “A while?” he moans.
“An open marriage usually means that it’s open on both sides,” she says pointedly.
(Arthur imagines the venom in her features, but then realizes that the latest memory he has of her face is from ten years ago. Has her venom grown finer with age, like the wine she loves so much?)
“I’m sorry, but blind, thirty-year-old criminal psychologists aren’t exactly prime dating material,” he spits back.
He senses the hurt as she shifts in her chair, and he can’t find it within himself to be sorry.
“Perhaps they’re not marriage material, either,” she snaps.
Arthur raises his head and wonders if he’s looking at her. “Perhaps,” he says quietly.
“What’s wrong?” Alfred asks finally, timidly. He’d walked into Arthur’s office five minutes ago and Arthur had said nothing. Not even hello.
“She had them printed in Braille,” he whispers.
“The divorce papers.” He picks them up halfheartedly, then drops them so they scatter.
“Thank you,” Arthur says.
“I just don’t get why you have to be so secretive,” Arthur says one day. “You’ve told me almost everything about yourself. You committed a federal crime so grievous that you are facing serious jail time no matter what charge you get convicted for— and you are going to be convicted.” He throws his hands into the air, letting them come back down onto his thighs with a resigned pat. “So what’s the point of keeping something from me?” he corrects, stressing the plural.
Alfred sighs. “You’ll hate me if I tell you.”
“Well, I don’t particularly like you, either, so you don’t have much to lose.”
(He can’t see the look of hurt on Alfred’s face.)
“I did it,” the boy says, “because I could.”
Arthur blinks. “What do you mean?”
“Because I could. Because all my life I’ve been the nerd and the loser, alright?” He says quietly, “Because I could.”
Alfred opens up more, after that.
“I already told you my father never liked me,” he tells Arthur. “I don’t know. He wanted me to play sports and shit, I wanted to stay in with my computer. It’s such a cliché, you know? My mother was never really around to stop him. I guess I did it to show him what’s what, the old fuck. And yeah, it was dumb, it was childish, but I fucking did it.” He licks his lips with an obnoxious, wet smack. “I go to Harvard and he still can’t even be proud of me. Says I should have tried out of the lacrosse team, the whatever team. So I show him, you know? I show him what I can fucking do with what he told me to give up.”
“I think I know how you feel,” Arthur says after a while.
Alfred snorts, dubiously. “Yeah?”
“Yeah. When my mother found I was going around kissing boys, she took me over her knee like a nineteenth century housemarm.”
“Dude, who even says ‘housemarm’?” Alfred snorts. “And I thought you had a wife? Past tense intended.”
Arthur wishes he could see Alfred’s face. It’s been happening more and more— he thought he’d learned to tamp down those wishes years and years ago. They only lead to disappointment, after all. “You little shit,” he laughs. “I don’t recall you being the psychiatrist, here.”
“Oh, come on!” he begs. “You know I’m not nutty. Answer some questions about yourself for once, eh?”
“You are, a little. Nutty, that is.” Arthur sighs, but he relents. “I do— did. I did have a wife. Doesn’t mean I can’t still go around kissing boys, and my mother is ten years dead, so I don’t have to worry about a spanking anymore. From her, anyway,” he adds quickly.
Alfred gives a faint ew.
Arthur laughs, combing a hand through his thick, tangled hair. It had been blonde, ten years ago. He hopes he hasn’t started to go gray, even at only thirty. “Francine and I, our relationship was so damn open it was like we were barely married,” he says.
“And she was with the Spanish guy,” Alfred says.
“How do you—”
“You mutter sometimes, dude. I didn’t know that people in real life muttered, but you totally do.”
“Well.” He clears his throat. “Yes. The whole open thing wasn’t really working.”
“’Cause you’re blind?”
Arthur nearly chokes. “You little shit!”
He hears Alfred stand. His energy is boundless, and he’s doing it more and more. “Dude, I’m not trying to be a dick, here! I just know that it must kinda be hard to get dates when you’ve got issues, okay?”
“You know?” Arthur spits, feeling like Alfred like he was just a minute ago, rapping his fingers angrily on his desk surface. Alfred is tromping around; the security guards outside are going to come in if he doesn’t quiet down. “You can’t possibly know.” He shouldn’t even let himself be getting worked up by this, but all the shit with Alfred, Francine— he met his divorce lawyer today, Jesus Christ—
“I’ve got a pretty good idea!” he says, and it’s too loud. “You know my brother, Matthew?”
“How could I not?” Arthur cries.
“He’s fucking paraplegic, man. He’s nineteen, like me, and he’s never been on a date. Not ‘cause he’s ugly, not ‘cause he’s stupid, but because he’s in a wheelchair. He’s the best person I know and he’s never been on a date, so yeah, he’s my twin and I got an inkling of how it is!”
Arthur is quiet, and angry that he had even gotten angry in the first place.
“How did you go blind, anyway?” Alfred demands. It’s becoming less of a conversation than an interrogation, with the lamp shining on Arthur.
“Tell me. Tell me, please.”
Arthur’s mouth goes dry. This is what he doesn’t talk about.
He has adjusted to being blind. It has never torn him apart. What he misses about seeing doesn’t even stand up to what he can still do, when he really puts it into perspective, but all of a sudden he would give anything just to really know what Alfred looks like, past a few words in a criminal file…
“Car accident,” he croaks, mouth dry. “My mother died. I lost my sight.”
“Who was driving?”
Why is he saying this? Why is it all coming out so easily? He could never talk this way with Francine. “Her.”
“You probably resent her for it.”
“Yes,” he croaks. What is he even saying? Does he really feel this? But what he just told Alfred serves as an answer. Yes, I do.
Long, tramping footsteps come towards him. Alfred must be tall, so tall, he thinks, and then Alfred is pressing his lips against Arthur’s own and Arthur is too shocked to do anything about it.
Alfred pulls away and runs over to the other end of the room.
“I’m thirty, you’re nineteen, I’m your shrink, you’re going to be a convicted felon within the year.” Arthur rattles off all the reasons why that was a ridiculous thing to do, almost mindlessly, but it doesn’t stop him from thinking: that was the first kiss I’ve had in months and the best in years.
There’s a short silence— Alfred must have nodded in agreement and then realized that Arthur couldn’t see it, because his voice cracks embarrassedly when he says, “I can’t just walk out of here, can I?”
Arthur bets that he’s blushing. Arthur bets that Alfred is blushing and God, why couldn’t the doctors have reattached the nerves, why couldn’t they have? Arthur wants to see him.
“We’re finished for today,” he whispers.
The door opens; Alfred tells the security men the same thing. Arthur calls out a goodbye.
When the door shuts again, Arthur pounds his head on his desk. But then he regrets it, because it hurts like a motherfucker.
Arthur gave his statement to the court two days ago, and now that he has nothing to do, he’s bored. The courtroom is hot and stuffy; he’s sitting with the prosecutor, a man who is beginning to smell increasingly of onions. Arthur imagines him as enormously fat, probably with sweat stains. (The stink is quickly becoming a testament to that fact.)
Alfred went on the stand earlier that day, and Arthur knows that the boy is just across the room, which gives him a rather nervous feeling deep in his gut. He’s already antsy; mostly because he hates having to testify (he couldn’t just e-mail them Alfred’s slightly tarnished bill of mental health?), but also because he has had enough of courtrooms in the past few months.
Francine sends him postcards from Spain, and Arthur’s friend Kiku reads them aloud when he’s around. He and Francine could never really stop being friends— in the end, that’s all they ever really were.
The jury, predictably enough, rules guilty on all counts. Arthur doesn’t even listen to the sentence. He doesn’t care.
Arthur allows himself one more fantasy, and he promises himself that it will be the last one for a while. He imagines that he can see the courtroom and its inhabitants. He imagines he can see the wryly smiling judge, the sweaty prosecutor, his fellow experts. He wishes that he could see Alfred beyond the raised dots— blonde hair, blue eyes, glasses, six-foot-one.
Then he realizes that he doesn’t need to. What he’s made up in his head is enough.
There is a rapping on his office door. “Come in,” he calls.
It’s his new secretary, Victoria; he can tell it’s her before she even speaks because of how lightly she steps, in the way that her feet are only whispers on the carpet. “There’s someone here to see you,” she says.
“Well tell that someone to wait an hour because I have a session in—”
“Hey!” a man calls from behind Victoria, who squeals in fright and then slaps him. She does that a lot. He’s tried to tell her to stop, but to no avail.
“I told you to wait!” she cries.
He whines indignantly, “Oh, come on, me and Dr. K go waaay back.”
Arthur chokes. “You are in prison right now,” he hisses. “You are supposed to be in prison!”
Victoria quickly makes her exit, probably to call the police, but Alfred calls back for her, pulls something out of his pocket, shows it to her hurriedly. Arthur grinds his teeth. He can hear it, but he can’t see it.
“How did you get out?” Arthur demands.
“FBI,” Victoria squeaks. “He’s got an FBI badge, Doctor!”
Arthur blanches. “No he doesn’t. He’s in federal prison. He should be. He’s been there for nine months—”
“Until they took me out to track some hacks back to a cyberterrorist in the Ukraine,” Alfred interrupts him. “And some lady who was destroying military personnel files on protected channels. And the Ukraine guy’s friend who was—”
“They pulled a Catch Me If You Can on you?!”
“Never mind. Christ, never mind.” He runs a hand through his hair and wonders what Francine will think about all this. The cost of a long-distance call can go to hell— this will be better than her trashy tabloids. “So you’re out?”
“I’m serving my sentence with the FBI, which was of course my plan all along.” He comes over to Arthur’s desk, but he doesn’t sit down.
Not knowing what else to do, most like, Victoria steps out and shuts the door behind her.
“Oh, sure,” Arthur drawls back, glad Victoria had the brains to leave. Francine had recommended her to him, and she was every bit as smart as his ex-wife had said (he was also told that she was pretty, quite pointedly, as if Arthur could appreciate that). “You pulled a dumbass attention stunt for a government job. Congrats, my genius friend, I do applaud—”
Suddenly there is a hand on his face that is not his own. It’s big, soft and warm, and it’s all Arthur can do to not lean into it and close his eyes.
“I don’t date my patients. Or felons, for that matter,” Arthur says quietly, the hand still on his face. He begs whatever deity is listening to grant him sight for a second. Alfred’s file told him that the boy’s eyes are blue, his hair is blonde, but what color blue, how blonde?
He needs to know.
Arthur would bet everything he has that Alfred is grinning like an idiot (he seems the type) when he says, “I’m not your patient anymore. And I’m not a felon, I’m an agent. Go out to dinner with me.”
“No,” he says, pushing the hand away.
Alfred’s disappointment is palpable.
“I’m eleven years your senior. You were my patient, and now you’re a felon, Alfred. You’re working for the FBI because you were a show-offish fool boy with daddy issues. Live out your sentence with the feds and get some therapy. Then we’ll talk.”
“Arthur,” Alfred whispers.
“In the meantime, though,” Arthur says, “you don’t have to stop visiting me. Now tell me what you look like.”
Alfred does so, with enthusiasm. This, Arthur decides, is even better than seeing him.